Remaining Original And True To Yourself In A Stuffy, Small Town – You’re Never Too Young Or Too Old To Raise A Little Hell
There really aren’t a lot of options for a kid growing up in a small town in southern New Jersey. Especially one of those small towns wherein people are born because their families have lived there for decades; wherein these people grow up there, go to school there, meet their future spouse there, go to a local college—if any, start a family there, grow old there, and die there. Just like their parents. Just like their grandparents. Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s bleak, to say the least. Especially for a kid who doesn’t fit into this mold. Hello.
Growing up and coming into yourself is incredibly tough when nothing within you reflects your surroundings. Hillbillies don’t know shit about rock ‘n’ roll. I was fortunately blessed with cool(ish…) parents, who transplanted themselves into this town from New York City for God only knows what reason and let me explore music and fashion with little to no real concern or opposition—although a nose ring was completely out of the question at 14. The local library had a crappy selection of “alternative” (see also: anything that can neither be classified as classic rock, country or pop) music, and I would check out new CDs every week. It was through this process that I ended up finding The Muffs and Hole, two bands that really shaped my life. Walking into Trash And Vaudeville for the first time on a family trip to Manhattan was a religious experience. And of course there was Hot Topic, when someone would drive me to the mall, and the local thrift stores for the very rare good find as far as clothes and style went, but it was tough. I wanted my style choices to reflect how I felt on the inside, but I also had to be careful not to get too weird, lest I get bullied at school. As I have grown up, though, I have noticed that the snickering and side-eyeing carry on way after graduation. I just don’t give a shit anymore.
I started expanding my horizons when I got my driver’s license and started spending a lot of time in Smithville. I found it quiet, for the most part, and relaxing. It’s a pretty, historical town, and there’s good pizza. And ducks. And little boutique-y stores everywhere. Every shop fit into the cutesy little cookie cutter aesthetic of what you’d expect a tourist trap middle-of-nowhere town to be. Every shop except for one.
I can’t remember exactly what was playing—loudly—the first time I ever walked into Underground, but it was probably Operation Ivy. Possibly the Ramones. Whatever it was, it felt like home. I was greeted by a “Hey, how are ya?” by both Mike and Lucy, who own the shop, and there was a lot of cool shit to look through. A vintage section, crates full of old records, jewelry and a lot of local art. I hadn’t known places like this existed near me. And right next to a tea shoppe, no less.
Years and years later, I still go to Underground regularly. I have become friendly with Mike and Lucy, and their pit bull pup Spam. I have also been able to introduce friends’ work to the good ol’ South, thanks to the Spagnolas graciously allowing them to stock records and art among their shelves. It seems they are always willing to help local bands and artists—something that is super important in a tiny, nearly microscopic “scene” such as the one provided here. And I am grateful to them for this. When I approached them about lending some insight to this column, Mike was immediately glad to help. And it seems, for him and his wife, it’s been rock ‘n’ roll since day one, and there is no other way.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve always felt a sense of satisfaction from the disdain of others,” Mike says. “There’s an empowerment and validation to be found in the looks of disgust of those you have no respect for. Now that I’m older—I won’t kid myself; old—very little has changed. I own an obnoxious, irreverent, anti-establishment type of store in a town that is best known for being quaint and conservative. Our battle cry from our very first year has been, ‘We kick quaint in the taint!’”
Despite opposition from other shop owners and tourists and residents of the town, Underground is still a landmark for us misfits, and a place of community in its own way. The Spagnolas are heavily involved in this community, whether the myopic viewpoints of people who don’t understand see it this way or not. Despite complaints, threats and other such bullshit, they continue to provide a safe haven for misfits and kids who are trying to find their way in this world and a platform from which people can share their art and tell their stories. They have been labeled as “hostile” by people in boat shoes and fanny packs—people who fail to notice that in turning their noses up or outright saying rude things, they are being quite hostile themselves. People too skewed to realize that, if they only approached the shop with respect, they’d be greeted with respect in return. Ah, I love the smell of small-town irony. It smells like dollar-off Marlboro’s and peaking in high school.
But they cope. They turn the music up, they get sarcastic. They even went so far as to create the Underground Golden Douche Award. And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. I have seen photos. It is glorious.
“The resistance we encounter on a daily basis is never seen as a struggle,” he states. “We see it more like playing a great prank on someone you really dislike. Underground is like a six-year-long practical joke on the Martha Stewart Mafia Of Quaint that regularly visits Smithville. Every time our door opens and we’re met with a sneer or a gasp, we feel like it’s a personal victory against our society’s American Idol damaged aesthetic.”
There is a lot to be said for standing tall when you already stick out like a sore thumb. But what about getting out there and making your own waves? What about contributing, instead of complaining? Whining with both middle fingers up? Chances are you are not the only living punk in your immediate area. Two towns over, there’s someone listening to records in their basement alone just like you. So get the hell up. Network. Meet people. Bond over shared interests and get to work.
“Coming from the early punk scene, I’ve always had a DIY philosophy,” Mike says. “I have tremendous respect for people that are doers as opposed to watchers. We incorporate that attitude into our business. There were no cool events happening in Smithville—so we made our own. Twice each year we run a lowbrow art festival. April’s Artwalk consisted of 75 artists, live drawing and a benefit raffle for Pinups For Pitbulls. There’s absolutely nothing quite like it in South Jersey. We also run a Zombie Walk and next year we’re going to try to bring a rockabilly event to Smithville.”
If you gather enough interest and enough dedicated people, they will travel to bring culture and music and fun to you, to your shithole town. So get involved and get to inspiring. Change the life of an 11-year-old kid who gets dragged out to one of your events by his parents because they’re concerned about the amount of time he’s spending alone, in his room, listening to the same two rock records over and over. Show the shy girl that she can cut her hair any way she wants and dye it whatever color she chooses and still be taken seriously by someone. Give people something to cling to, something to save their lives. A reason to create and express. Purpose. Bring the old rockers together in one place over beers and tunes from some youngsters in bands that desperately needed to see something other than their basement, shit, I don’t know. Just do something.
Underground is a stand-alone punk shop located in lovely, historic Smithville in South Jersey. It’s a bit of a trek, from northern NJ and the Tri-State Area, but it’s a really shiny, albeit well-hidden gem. If you’re willing to stop in or have ideas for events or have records or t-shirts or art you’d love to get more exposure for—or anything, really—they would love to hear from you, I’m sure. Plus, as an added incentive—in case you needed one, but really though?—their Facebook page updates are always hilarious (facebook.com/UndergroundNJ). And speaking of Facebook, feel free to chime in on the MEDIOxCORE page (facebook.com/medioxcore). The success of this column is largely based on community/personal involvement, so get involved! I want to hear from you!