Jimmy West is going to die. And when he does, he may even write his own death knell.
No, Jimmy West isn't going to die now. But when somebody has been engaging in something so primordial and volatile for the last 26 years - you wonder. And no, this isn't about some calculated and grandiose self-collapse. This isn't about falling apart on stage in the eyes of admirers. No, this is about something more primal: This is about that place where the adrenaline rush of joy meets pure terror. And this is the exact place where Jimmy West lives.
Some neatly package it into two words: punk rock. Then others market it as a particular sound and dress. But there are others who forget the packaging and just live. Work. Rock.
And if you know anything about Denver's punk scene, especially its roots, then you know about two entities: Jimmy West and the Rok Tots. Shrouded in mystery, legend and misconception, Jimmy West lead a cultural charge that few live to tell about.
1978. The New York punk sound had spread out into every corner of America. And the world. And in one little corner of the American West, on 13th Avenue in Denver, there was a club called Malfunction Junction. In between the walls where The Snake Pit now resides, Denver experienced a rush of music, culture and community like it had never experienced before.
With a dearth of suitable venues in Denver, the burgeoning punk scene had to make its own waves in booking shows. And more than that - none of the halls in town had a suitable PA - suitable to Jimmy West's ear-piercing standards. And suitable for the sound of this new hard, fast, heavy rock. So Jimmy West built his own. And thus, the Rok Tots were born.
In conjunction with other bands like the Broadcasters, Denver's punk scene - with its high-octane fuel, went into overdrive. Along with the original Rok Tot line-up of Jif Jiper, Ron Kitchens, Toby Rat Tit and West, Jimmy took the lead. And after playing in the scene for a couple of years, in 1980 West helped coordinate and produce the legendary Assassination Ball.
When the posters went up, announcing the line-up and date of the Ball, some people weren't too thrilled with the artwork. Really, it was more than that. The posters donned faces of Reagan and Carter, the presidential candidates for that year. This caught the attention of the government, and before the date of the Ball, the Secret Service arrived in Denver to question West and others about where the proceeds for the show were going. The thought in Washington was, that the monies from were going towards efforts to assassinate one or both of the presidential candidates.
Despite the attention, The Assassination Ball went off - on schedule and in true punk fashion. The draw was tremendous and the response created a hefty buzz in town. If it wasn't apparent before 1980, punk now had a firm presence in Denver. Shows in the scene became more frequent - The Lawrence Warehouse at 2250 Lawrence frequently hosted bands in conjunction with The Pirate Gallery. Kennedy's Warehouse. Longhorn Saloon. Walabi's began to book punk acts. And the Rok Tots played the first punk show ever at the Aztlan Theater.
And it was wild. But there were problems. There was a shooting at Malfunction Junction when the Rok Tots were playing. And it seemed that the band took the brunt of the public's misconceptions. Club owners pointed the finger at the band, and in conjunction with some of the violence surrounding many of the punk shows, the prejudice against the scene, and the Rok Tots in particular, escalated for a period.
Soon cops started raiding shows at the Lawrence Warehouse, and slowly their effects began to have an impact. This attention, coupled with all the attention from the Assassination Ball, made it obvious that the general public in Denver was scared of the scene. And the Rok Tots garnered a particularly scary reputation in the eyes of the mainstream locals.
But that wasn't it. No, there was the whole Temple Theater (at 16th and Gaylord) fiasco, where a Capitol Hill neighbor group got together to protest the show. Apparently they couldn't handle the punk scene in their neighborhood, even for one night. As with the Assassination Ball, it was the flyers: This time it was an image of Manson and a beefsteak. So, the venue moved to the Federal Theater where some nut (apparently in protest) tried to pull the power box off the back of the building.
Through the eighties, the Rok Tots held solid, for awhile. Then came changes: Jiper moved on, so did Kitchens. There were new drummers and bassists. And there were a variety of shows, all loaded full with the same powerful turnout. But the one constant was West. Even when he lost Jiper - his vocalist, he took-up the slack and has been at the helm ever since.
With a litany of shows throughout the years, there are stories and misconceptions and legends that have sprung-up around West and the Rok Tots. These are the kind of stories that a person could capitalize on, with the chance of commercial success following close behind. But that hasn't been the Rok Tots flavor. With the release of their 1991 album, Thirty Ill Moons, the response was positive, but West shied away from the major labels. He'd been around enough to see the trouble they can cause a band.
And if you are looking to understand West's disposition - watch him under the lights, with his guitar strapped to his chest like a firearm. West's stage presence is monstrous and steadfast. His rhythm hand sweeps clear across the stage when he winds-up before his drilling runs. He casts vehement grimaces down, onto the crowd. He snarls. He grips the neck of his guitar with a heated fury. And he drives his vocals right down on you. It is all too apparent that West is not just playing music for the masses. Watching West with his guitar is more like witnessing a man struggle with the most potent and volatile elements in the cosmos. It's as if he's gripping the nuclear furnace of the sun as he swings around it and heads for aphelion.
The common conception is that punk rock is a particular sound. The Ramones. New York Dolls. The Stooges. But it isn't. For West, punk is a whole myriad of things: of sounds, looks and most importantly - sensations. Listening to the Rok Tots, you wouldn't necessarily classify them as the prototypical New York punk sound. Instead, they are dark, spooky and what West terms jackhammer and chainsaw rock. For West, classifications aren't important. Punk, hard rock, Rock n'roll. It's the same, if the intention is the same. The intent? For West it's all about a gut punch - where you walk away at the end of the night, with that feeling still gnarling at you.
With the current line-up of Commander Adama on bass and Scott Free on drums - the Rok Tots are as strong and vicious as ever. With West's direction, they are a striking example of a group of players paying the utmost attention to detail. With Adama and Free, the Rok Tots are tight - nearly bone-crushing. They move in and out of songs with military precision. And as a result, you won't get much down time at a Rok Tots show.
For the last 26 years, Jimmy West has lived in a space where few dare to remain. It's a space that is ultimately capable of evoking a sense of holy dread. Of joyous terror. The Rok Tots are not about silly commercialism. Instead, it's about the music - the same as it was 26 years ago. It's about that manifestation of a primordial energy. Like when you drill a nuclear reactor into your chest. For West there is no other indulgence like rock n' roll. For him, anything less is simply unacceptable.
And the Rok Tots are going to keep coming at you. West's vision is as strong and resilient as ever. He and his band mates have no plans to slow down. A new album is slated for 2005, as well as a healthy batch of local shows and hopefully some national exposure. So, if you're looking to witness something much more primordial, something more volatile than your ordinary sermon - take a night out with the Rok Tots.