Live show tracks

Old camaraderie bonds Distemper

By Bob Mehr (for the Commercial Appeal)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Long before he earned a reputation as a strangely visionary Southern filmmaker, Mike McCarthy played guitar with a local punk band called Distemper. The short-lived group -- which performed roughly a half-dozen gigs in 1986 before breaking up -- was mostly a footnote in the Memphis hardcore scene centered on Midtown's Antenna club.

George Cole and Mike McCarthy at the 2010 Antenna Club reunion. foto by Live From Memphis

McCarthy -- notoriously a creative whirlwind -- soon moved on to other bands and to a lasting career as a movie maven. But there was something about Distemper that lingered. "There were a lot of memories there," says McCarthy.

"For me, I didn't feel like a man until I played in a punk-rock band. It was a manhood ritual. There's something about punk rock that verified what I was going to do with my life, thank God."

"The thing is, if you live in Memphis long enough, you'll have lots of unfinished business if you're in the arts," says McCarthy of his decision to reunite Distemper this summer. "Getting older, you realize you had camaraderie with certain people, and you want to go back and find that."

In July, Distemper got together to perform at the Antenna reunion festival, marking its first show in 24 years. "It was the '86 Comeback," says McCarthy, laughing. "It's a good thing our songs were so simple; they were easy to remember."

The Wild Emotions: Rockin' Ruby Rogers, Chrissy Valentine, and Daphny Nabors (not pictured: Mary Elizabeth Cochran, and Ashley McKay) foto by Marty Perez

Distemper returns for another concert Friday at Nocturnal as part of a pre-holiday concert bill that includes Jackson, Miss., all-female outfit Wild Emotions ("Southern fried she-freaks," as McCarthy's poster trumpets), local trash-rock ensemble The Ross Johnson Problem, and an early set from cabaret act Babes in Toyland.

For McCarthy, who has continued to make music with groups like Fingers Like Saturn and Nehilistics, the return to his teenage band Distemper has proven a bittersweet experience. "When the Antenna reunion came up, I reached out to the original lineup: Some of them weren't living in the area, and then we soon found out that our bassist Jeff Shelton wasn't living anymore. Which was sort of the prediction the last we saw of him," says McCarthy.

"It really made me realize that everybody gets older and people have problems, and people who gravitate towards punk, especially, have problems. And sometimes they don't last very long. So what we've been doing (with Distemper) is really dedicated to Jeff."

Jonathan Pekar, 2010 Antenna Club reunion. foto by Live From Memphis

The reunited incarnation of Distemper, which includes replacement bassist Buddy Gray and original members Jonathan Pekar on vocals, Mike Schiffer on drums and George Cole and McCarthy on guitars, plan to use the show as a springboard to finally release a batch of recordings they made with Shelton nearly a quarter-century ago.

"We recorded a demo in '86 at Crosstown Recorders, but we never put out the record," says McCarthy, who hopes to release the tracks, along with some live material, as part of a CD package next year.

McCarthy saw glimmers of the Distemper story this past summer when he worked on the locally shot indie feature film "Losers Take All." "The film is about a punk rock band in '86 in a Memphis-like town that worships (indie-rock legends) the Replacements. And that basically was Distemper," says McCarthy.

"Some of the locations were even the same. The band in the movie records at the same Crosstown Recorders studio that we did. So it was pretty uncanny."

McCarthy served as a production artist on the film and littered the backgrounds of scenes with different concert flyers from the period. "When I first moved here (from Mississippi), it was easier to be a musician and get a point across than it was being a visual artist, which came a bit later," says McCarthy, "or a filmmaker, which came much later. So it's interesting how all that has come full circle."

Rockin' Ruby and JMM at Gonerfest 2010. foto by Marty Perez

While the Distemper reunion may not last much past the coming Nocturnal show, McCarthy says the experience has already proven a success. "This is something that seems to have legs," says McCarthy. "I don't know what the reason for that is. Mostly, I think it has to do with friendships that we had."

Distemper, Wild Emotions, The Ross Johnson Problem, Babes in Toyland

8 p.m. Friday at Nocturnal, 1588 Madison. Cover is $10 for the concert, $15 for the early cabaret show plus concert. For more information, call 726-1548.

Silkscreens by Michael and Alice Andrews at VINI/FIVE-IN-ONE GALLERY


A History of the Memphis hard core band DISTEMPER.

"Moving to Memphis in 1984 was the awakening. 1985 was the blending, and 1986 was the culmination." George Cole

DISTEMPER was a Memphis hardcore band who met and organized in 1985 but recorded and played live in 1986.


GEORGE COLE and I had met in 1982 in design class at Northeast Mississippi Junior College. I was soon enlisted as the newest member of George's post-Booneville High School band THE ROCKROACHES. However, this power pop band (with fellow players JOHN PRESCOTT joining the Navy and BILL EAKER going to Mississippi State) fell into hiatus as George and I prepared to move to Memphis in the summer of 1984, re-form the band and play the ANTENNA CLUB, Memphis' oldest alternative music venue (and quite possibly the oldest in America.) After several trips to the Antenna (a swill-scented, black lit, tv-laded den), this was our shared obsession.

What happened instead was a little more realistic, and a little more noisy.


"Several weeks ago, I was looking at a painting in the regional gallery of Memphis Brooks Museum of Art when I heard a burst of thigh-slapping behind me. Three young men who had apparently never been in a museum before were whooping it up as they surveyed the gallery walls. They were at least responding, although they were not relating. They were angry."

"Something Alien In The Park"
Donald LaBadie, Memphis Fanfare, August 26, 1984

On the eve of our moving to Memphis, we had been written about by local Memphis art critic DONALD LaBADIE. from his safe vantage point, he went on to say, "The fact that they couldnt relate to what they saw was like a slap in the face, a personal insult. ...The majority of humanity is disturbed by the appearance of something alien on their everyday horizon."

Touché. For us, this was a one forgetful afternoon of blissful sarcasm in the Brooks Museum of Art, for the art critic it was a sign of the apocalypse. George and I were referenced, along with our friend John, as virtual barbarians at the gate. That glorious gate, in hindsight, was the Mississippi-Tennessee state line.

I've read as much as I can into this defining moment. This timid but objective voice, a so-called 'intellectual' had called us "angry" but had been afraid to ask us why. The fourth wall had kept him from approaching us. Were we that intimidating? Did we reek of the Antenna Club after only two visits? How was LaBadie to know that we were Steve McGhee's mohawk come back to roost. ... read more.