People hate Florida, and I know why, but I really do not understand why. Perhaps liberals harbor some type of pent-up resentment over the crooked procedures that ultimately threw the presidency into George W. Bush’s lap in 2000, or internet-shackled millennials still implore their twitter followers to #FF Florida Man to a religious degree. Being fair (and realistic), Florida is not only saddled with one of the most interesting iconographies of any American state (palm trees, oranges, Gloria Estefan, EPCOT center, gators, The Gators, ‘Noles, early Spanish landscapes, the Everglades, and for some reason, Hulk Hogan), but also carries singular contradictions, a place where, as Travis Fristoe writes, “[people] get misty eyed at shuttle launches and wave foreign-made American flags as plutonium is launched into orbit.”
On a personal note, it is easily the state that I have spent the most time in among those in which I’ve never lived. Florida, more than most US States, as far as this site is concerned, lies at a solid intersection of emotional and imagined geographies. I say emotional geographies because I will always have a soft spot for my once-annual visits to see my Bubbe in North Miami Beach, frequent jaunts to see Goofy and ride Space Mountain, and the places I experienced over the course of a handful of highly meaningful trips I have taken as an adult. This is not much different for hundreds of thousands (potentially millions) of other Americans and international visitors.
I evoke imagined geographies because this aforementioned iconography of Florida generates a substantial series of mental landscapes reflective of Tim Cresswell’s treatise on how “even a totally imaginary place has an imaginary form in order to make it place-like.” Florida is a state of contradictions, split heavily between the isolated peninsula and the not-just-South but “Florida-South” (as a friend who grew up on the Gulf Coast puts it) panhandle. Bubbling somewhere in the midst is the University town of Gainesville.
To someone who may not be as fascinated with punk on both a musical, subcultural, post-structural, or visceral level as myself, Gainesville is a modest college town that lies at the crossroads and functions as a gateway between the “Florida-South” and stereotypically Jewish / Cuban Southern Florida. The University of Florida Gators are known for not messing around when it comes to several Division-1 sports, nor are they known for mincing words when it comes to their friends at Florida State University up the road in Tallahassee. But what Gainesville has becoming increasingly mythologized over is punk rock. No Idea Records started (initially as a fanzine) in the town in the mid-1980’s, but grew, over the following decade, into a powerhouse of sun-soaked, working-class punk rock in the form of bands like Hot Water Music, Against Me!, and Rumbleseat.
In March 2010, I took advantage of a filming trip to northern Florida and paid a brief visit to Gainesville simply to see or get a mere impression of what this fuss was all about. I drove into a sleepy city (U of F happened to be on spring break… poor planning on my part I suppose) and eventually found Hyde and Zeke records, which was one of No Idea’s scattered storefront presences at the time. I had a nice conversation with the owner, bought an original pressing of the Operation Ivy “Hectic” 7-inch, and made my out of town. I was not so naive to assume that I would stumble upon Radon (or a modern facsimile) playing a bar or house show somewhere; I knew I was about fifteen years too late (that, and I was not able to make it down for the annual Fest). But the Gainesville I discovered myself was a far cry from the legend it had built up through years of punk rock lore.
That is not to say at all that Gainesville is not worthy of such a reputation. When it comes to reminders of why the city has such a place in punk rock’s collective, self-centered heart, no band better encapsulates the spirit to both outsiders (and, as the story goes, to insiders) than Radon.
Let’s talk about this band, and why despite their deep obscurity and a relatively slender catalog of officially released music, they are virtually unmatched* in musically and aesthetically projecting all of their town and states’ personality quirks onto an ever-expanding canvas. First of all, I would like to thank Mitch Clem for introducing me to this band through his punk comic strip Nothing Nice to Say. His character Blake’s lamenting not having a girlfriend whom to dedicate “Rehab Barbie” implored me to look the band up, and before long, I could not stop listening. Even without considering the geographic ramifications of the band and their town, the music itself is rock-solid. A vast majority of Radon’s limited discography (augmented by a 2006 reunion album, which I love despite the title) is as catchy, well-played, and timeless as anything that emanated from that strata of rock music in its time. Dave Rohm (guitar/vocals), Brent Wilson (bass/vocals), and Bill Clower (skins) were not good vocalists by any means, but they still managed to convey messages ranging from cryptic to explicit with the concision and intelligence of musicians twice their age and thousands of times as popular.
Radon are well-regarded enough to garner this level of niche attention and praise, though still willfully obscure enough so that only a small handful of their songs have made it onto embed-able media (“Lying to You,” the opening track off 28, is the only song of the album’s ten that I could find on any video site). Given how much attention the post-modern age has bestowed upon overlooked artists like these, seemingly shoving them into the spotlight around manufactured legend (see: Rodriguez), it is no surprise that Radon are not a (blatant) exception. Granted, while the album 28 (or as certain authors imply, self-titled…even the record’s name is open to interpretation) and the assorted, iconic single releases are not going to land serialized reissues with accompanying coffee table books (that I know of), it does bring a smile to my face that the former is gradually dripping through the lattice onto a slowly rising pedestal of consideration as one of the great pieces of American rock music of the 1990’s.
I spent some time trying to convince the great music writer/fan Hendrik to let me whip together a series of posts about Radon for his One Week, One Band site, but there hasn’t been an opportunity yet. So, imagine how my eyes nearly jumped out of my head when I passed by a bookshelf in Columbus recently to discover that Travis Fristoe and Aaron Cometbus had beaten me to the punch. Oh well.
This collection of two contrasting essays on Radon (in light of their LP “28”) is a parody (of sorts) of, and tribute to, the indispensable 33 1/3 series.** Being a quintessential yet still “willfully obfuscated” cult band (with a tightly wound niche of a cult at that), there is no way any major publishing house would take a chance on these three brilliant rednecks.
Aaron Cometbus approaches the band Radon in a highly post-structural sense. He avoids dealing with them directly (his actual meetings with the members in the past had been awkward), but he hits the nail on the head when explaining why; even they have less ownership of this music than members of the Gainesville diaspora do now. Radon reminds even the pedestrian Florida punk fan of what makes the city such a lynch pin the narrative balance between punk rock’s music and cultural mores. They strike an emblematic balance between punk-as-lifestyle and punk-as-critical-art. Their decidedly acapitalist (not explicitly anti-capitalist) approach to making and performing music still gives outsiders like myself an unfettered window into how music and performance dictates the spatialities of human emotion, especially of a specific somewhat middle-American place. It reminds me of how Nichola Wood and Susan J. Smith wrote in 2004:
We might not wish to privilege music as an emotional relation above all other means of social elaboration; but equally there is a good argument for using musical performance as a starting point in charting when, where, why and how a range of emotions infuse the spatialities of everyday life.
Both Cometbus and Travis Fristoe approach the band as individual fans taking the legacy of both the trio and their scene into account. Their collaboration does not include any quotes from the band, outside of scattershot far-past conversation nuggets here and there, but it hardly matters. Radon were about more than what Dave, Brent, and Bill had to say about their songs. The writers, especially Fristoe, evaluate the gravity of Radon upon Gainesville and Gainesville upon Radon. This often expands to the trio’s ostensible home-state, too. I don’t know if all of three of the members grew up in the Sunshine State, but the band as an entity did, which is what counts. They recorded their pair of 7″ records in a living room in Tallahassee^ and scraped together the motivation to release a full-length several years after the ten songs that compose it were at their peak of relevance to those who experienced them the first time around. Cometbus ties the band and their music together with place-based geography quite impressively when taking the songs on “28” into account (emphases mine):
Radon come from a really weird state, and one of their strongest qualities is their ability to evoke a sense of place. Other bands might just as well be from anywhere; there’s no scenery in their songs, or if there is it’s of some faraway metropolis where they once played a gig. They offer a tourist’s point of view while overlooking home, the strangest place of all.
Rap is site-specific, but very few punk groups really paint with the local colors or weigh in on the local issues. Radon’s LP (and I’m not here of their later, reunion release) has not one but four Florida-specific songs.
The first is a tribute to the mysterious Rastafarian jogger who moved like Pac-Man through their town; it conveys the slightly askew atmosphere and humor of Gainesville’s kudzu-covered “student-ghetto.” The second is an impassioned plea for justice for Haitian refugees – a political anthem that inflames and informs without resorting to hackneyed slogans. The third views Florida through the lens of science fiction: the alien landscapes and mines where “one million tons of phosphogypsum tailings rise to the sky.” The devastation and corruption behind the Tropicana bottle’s “unlimited sunshine.”
Last but not least, Grandma’s Cootie, one of the most heartbreaking songs ever written, ending with a rollercoaster climb at Disney World and a view of the beach.
That’s what made Radon unique: their ability to be personal and political, direct and evasive, local and universal. They were willing to tackle complicated subjects and also embrace life’s simpler pleasures and absurdities. They broke your heart and made you laugh at the same time. What a band!
The song about Haitian refugees that Cometbus refers to, “Haiti,” shuns pop songwriting convention to call attention to hypocrisies of the Florida government; they barely rhyme any of the lyrics, prodding the establishment with the line (repeating at the end) “If we all came over on a boat, how come you act like you walked here on the water?” The sentiments that Fristoe highlights about his own time living and breathing (the chemical radon?) in and around Gainesville are no less impassioned:
Florida will always be a science fiction place, no fables or coded songs needed. The Everglades sit irreparably dredged and drained for Big Sugar. Disney’s obscene and autonomous nation-state stands dead center, tax-free. Invasive animals (Burmese pythons, Nile monitor lizards, Cuban tree frogs) run rampant. Sinkholes open up without warning and swallow homes whole… The picture Radon painted may seem fantastical, but it’s not far-fetched.
Is it impossible to discuss Radon without evoking their home state and its laundry list of contradictions and obtuse (sur)realities? Clearly, the band was writing and performing songs with absolutely no responsibility to anybody but themselves, their friends, and the place that made them. It follows somewhat naturally how the story of Radon is a story of Florida. As Blake Gumprecht writes, “less commercially successful performers are less bound to market demands [and] are the ones who have, historically, presented the highest percentage of themes tied to specific places.” This is perhaps one of the tightest theoretical parallels between classic blues and punk. Just as the story of Blind Lemon Jefferson is the story of rural Texas, the story of the Ramones is the story of Queens, New York. Once a band no longer tells the story of a/their place, do they lose relevance or quality? Not necessarily, but the gauge of their music-as-anthropological barometer is cloudier.^^
Radon’s most unwitting accomplishment, then, was something that the trio had no fair method of recognizing at the time. They were the simple pleasures of listening to a band singing and playing to what they knew, which was, essentially a tiny world of dive bars and nearly-condemned houses. Increasing that scale seemed impossible, which was why their early songs reflected that mob mentality so well, and why it fascinates those of us on the periphery of that expanded bubble two decades on. Like Baudrillard wrote on the time and place of an object’s creation, the moments and places-in-time that generated Radon’s music cannot be recreated, yet we still attempt to as best our minds can. As Fristoe goes on, “Music history is useful, so are facts, but each lonely person in their bedroom in their bedroom listening to records is an equal, valid force. Let us instead champion the precariousness of memory, mondegreens, and true believers.” Despite Radon’s intentions (whatever they were), their legacy is intact, and so is Gainesville’s. Bow down.
* Please don’t let this take anything away from artists like Load, Tom Petty, Torche, or even Blowfly (long stories there). If I expanded the focus of this piece beyond Gainesville at a very specific era in time, I would never finish a single entry. I imagine that nerds all over the internet have proffered their lists of most hopelessly brilliantly innovative music states, and Florida deserves to be near the top of every one. “Artistic flourishing in pre-internet isolation” could easily formulate a series of dissertations.
** One of my highest accomplishments was making it onto the 33 1/3 shortlist for publication last year for a proposal I wrote on The Dismemberment Plan’s classic album “Emergency & I.” This is still technically a project in the works, but the blanket of emotional geographies I folded that record and the city of Washington DC into in the proposal make it a perfect item for this site. I’ll get to it eventually, I’m sure.
^ This is what I remember from the “In Your Home” liner notes, at least. If anyone wants to fact check me on this, go ahead. Warning, I may call you a nerd for it. Unless you were in Radon, in which case I’ll be ecstatic that this made it that far.
^^ Whenever I make or articulate this argument, I often hear the Bruce Springsteen (Joisey), Beach Boys (SoCal), Beatles (Liverpool), etc. argument. In all three of those cases, one could return the argument that they represented their locations while at their younger and most iconic periods, or that these locations were represented for commercial aptitude during the bands’ rising phases. The Beach Boys’ cartoonishly dumb later output (e.g. “Kokomo”) disproves much of that prior argument almost single-handed, and I would be the millionth person to point out that they were not really surfers.
- Baudrillard J. 1968. The System of Objects. Trans. James Benedict. 2006 Edition. London: Verso. Radical Thinkers.
- Cresswell, Tim. Place: A short introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
- Gumprecht, Blake. “Lubbock on Everything: The Evocation of Place in Popular Music (a West Texas Example).” Journal of Cultural Geography 18.1 (1998): 61-81.
- Wood, Nichola, and Susan Smith. 2004: Instrumental routes to emotional geographies. Social and Cultural Geography, Vol. 5, 533-548.
Great post, great music!
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