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New documentary shines light on the city’s punk rock history

Hunt & Commorato down in the groove and looking over a day's work
Courtesy/Darren Dag Hunt
Hunt & Commorato down in the groove and looking over a day's work

While Fort Wayne has a reputation for its richly varied musical heritage, one of the lesser-known chapters in that volume contains a hard-edged genre rooted in the “misfit subculture” of the 1980’s and 90’s.

And thanks to multimedia creative Darren Dag Hunt, the story of that particular music scene comes to life in his new full-length documentary, This Town Rocked!: Fort Wayne Punk and Hardcore.

For a sneak peek at the evolution of the movement, WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses its scope and impact with Hunt and his Associate Creative Producer, Johnny Commorato, as well as the people, places and bands that were born out of that gritty D.I.Y. determination.

Event Information:

Premier of This Town Rocked!: Fort Wayne Punk and Harcore
Indiana Tech’s Magee O’Connor Theater, Fort Wayne
Friday, Jan. 26 and Saturday, Jan. 27
7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

The song at the end of this conversation is Human Race, by Mark Ruvulo.
Find out more about the making of the production and purchase tickets in advance at the film’s Facebook page.

Here is a transcript of our conversation:
Julia Meek: Darren Hunt, Johnny Commorato, welcome.

Darren Hunt: Hi, Julia.

Johnny Commorato: Hello, Julia.

Julia Meek: So this being a full length documentary about the late 80s, early 90s punk scene in Fort Wayne. Darren, why here, why now, does this story need to be told?

Darren Hunt: I think the main thing was that I realized number one I hadn't been told yet. And I also realized that a lot of these people were getting considerably older.

And I was concerned that the memories would be lost and some of the individuals who could tell the story would go away. So like there was a definite urgency to it from the get go.

Julia Meek: Right now.

Darren Hunt: Yeah, absolutely.

Julia Meek: And Johnny, as the creative producer, why did Darren need to tell the story exactly how we did?

Johnny Commorato: The aesthetic that Darren chose reflects the aesthetic of the movement itself.

Julia Meek: A strong movement. Was it common general musical knowledge?

Darren Hunt : Well, Johnny was certainly a part of it. I got here in '90 and you know, I was young father didn't really know actually what was happening. Lived on the northeast side of town, came downtown to work, but honestly didn't know this was going on.

Started writing for What's Up in '96, covered a very different beat. Knew about the Chronics, knew about Tri State Killing Spree, in fact, I saw the Chronics at Henry's in '94-'95, I believe, but I was covering a very different be writing up alternative bands, blues bands here in town. So I didn't know the full scope of it, to be honest, it was a huge discovery.

Johnny Commorato: My experience was vastly different than Darren. I started skateboarding in 1978. And so by the time 1985 rolled around, Freimann Square was like a second home.

Julia Meek: Okay, let's look at that setting, the city around the punk rock movement. As we hear in the film, there's a prevailing sense of family. How would you say everybody was related? Why did everybody feel related?

Darren Hunt: Well, I think if you look at Freimann, it became, you know, a central hub, basically, where as a lot of the interviewees described it, they would see one another from across the way and literally notice they were dressed alternatively, or had purple hair, or were wearing leather.

And they would just approach one another like, Hey, who are you? You know, what do you do what kind of music you into? So they discovered each other from and literally became, I think, a ground zero for a lot of these, what they call themselves really misfits, discovering each other and building a family and a scene from that starting point, in a lot of ways.

Julia Meek: Another big part of the conversation always centered around, "there was nothing else downtown." John, speak to that?

Johnny Commorato: Yeah, downtown was a wasteland of crackheads and drunks after dark and then throw away kids, skateboarders, punk rockers, mods, whatever fashion tribe, you are part of.

Julia Meek: And very little to do to attract other people, that was kind of a low point for places to eat, drink, be merry. That's part of it, too?

Johnny Commorato: Well, you couldn't sell a $20 hamburger back then. (chuckles)

Julia Meek: It was different. And gentrification is a big part of what we're talking about that has, well brought a lot of people back to the cities and back to the urban centers. We're still talking about a time where the misfits had the space and we're taking the space over.

Now, both of you two are multimedia creatives. And this film is absolutely bulging with great footage and stills from then and amazing conversation from now, and animation, music. Was your source material, actually, that plentiful? You have the memories, you have the recollections but what about sources?

Darren Hunt: Yeah, I mean, that was the first thing that I knew I had to get checked off was, is there any footage out there? And if there is how much is there? I knew there would be pictures. I knew there were probably some flyers. It was an archeological endeavor. I had to actually call a lot of people and ask them and so early on, it wasn't very promising, to be honest, on the video aspect. People just didn't walk around with cameras at that time.

Julia Meek: Hmmm, or phones.

Darren Hunt: Or phones, certainly. But slowly, I started to unearth more and more footage from pre '90 and into the early '90s. I knew there would be plenty in the mid to late '90s. Or there would be more I should say. But for the early stuff that took some time for sure.

But yeah, it started to turn up and there was just a matter of digging through it and sifting through it and to see what all these videos tell, what stories do they tell? Where were the video shot? Venues--Sunset, I'd find some early Freimann footage, which was a huge, huge find.

But you know, there wasn't a ton of the really early stuff. And then as you got into later 90s, there was definitely more to choose from.

Julia Meek: Really well represented. And that's a clever part of the film to be sure. Now once you dove into the project, what was the reaction? Of course from your own creative producer--Johnny gave you a lot on both sides of the camera being a performer as well as being creative with all of this process. But how did you keep going with it? How did you make sense of it? 

Darren Hunt: I only made sense of it once I talked to enough people and gotten the go from them that, yes, they were willing to talk. Once I had enough people who were willing to talk and tell the story on camera, which is really important, that was one of the first question I asked them.

Many people would like to talk on the phone, but it's like, do you want to talk about this in front of the camera? And so once that I gathered enough footage, started to compile enough photos, found out that there was flyers out there that people were willing to share. Then it was truly go time at that point.

And then it was a matter of piecing it together chronologically, piecing it together in terms of what would the main focus is be, what was the themes be that emerged? The themes of the entire film in a lot of ways I let occur naturally just from talking to people. I didn't have any preset ideas like, okay, this is going to be the theme. I think the film is uniquely Fort Wayne.

And Fort Wayne is uniquely Midwest. I wasn't trying to make it an L.A. thing or a D.C. thing, because that's not what it was. I wanted it to be a truly Fort Wayne thing. And I think that comes through mostly obviously, from people themselves.

Julia Meek: Wonderfully Fort Wayne thing; most curious is to some people that the punk rock was in Fort Wayne thing. And Johnny, you were part of that movement? Was it natural to you, because you're plunked right in the middle of it, you were making it happen?

Johnny Commorato: Yeah, for me, it was like revisiting a time in my life where I was really productive, having a great social milieu, and it was like a trip down memory lane that was quite pleasant.

 Julia Meek: And fair and square. You were the tour guide, I guess for some of that trip with your own artcentric activities.

Johnny Commorato: Yeah, I mean, I was, you know, doing spoken word at these punk rock venues, they were some of my favorite shows. I'd be on with punk rockers setting up behind me or going before me. And I was right in the mix, literally in the mix with it.

Julia Meek: Mmhhmm. And you helped bring the whole slam poetry concept into Fort Wayne about those same times. And that all is part of this show. And as a matter of fact, once you all were rolling on this film, as you did know the whole playing field and the players, what was the coolest uncover or reveal that you just didn't know it was there until it happened?

Darren Hunt: Yeah, I mean, for me, almost all of it was a big reveal. Been here, since '90 just did not know all this was going on. So to find out about all of the venues that they created from the ground level, just out of pure grit, and a desire to have a place to play shows. A bunch of these venues, the Short Bus, the Back Door, the Loft, the numerous basement house shows that they put on and created was a huge revelation.

 Julia Meek: The atypical venue, often an abandoned or empty building is almost a metaphor for the movement itself. (chuckles) Was that part of the thrill as well?

Johnny Commorato: Oh yeah, we always felt particularly with Art Attack that the building should reflect the type of work that was going to be hung and performed. And that's why it wasn't just art shows, but there was always a punk rock music element to those shows.

Julia Meek: And those were your shows that you were putting on by then, or being a big part of.

Johnny Commorato: Yeah, yeah, that was definitely straight out of this movement.

Julia Meek: And the more rugged or the more atypical, the better.

Johnny Commorato: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. We love to abandon tool and die shops. (all laugh)

Julia Meek: Yes, that's a great point. Now your subject so lovingly tell the story, it unfolds as a family memoir, a beautiful one. Were you counting on that? Could you imagine you'd get that degree of intimate dialogue once you did get folks to be on that camera and on that mic?

Darren Hunt: Actually one of the earliest conversations I had was with one of the women in the scene when she was quite young, 15-16, she crossed paths with another girl her age, and they became, you know, friends down at Freimann Square. And so she told me this story of a friendship that centered in the early scene emerging.

And honestly, that's when the kind of light bulb went off. And I realized the family aspect of this, this misfit aspect of the entire story, which was just people finding one another. And so yeah, people's willingness to open up and share what it was like to be in that moment. A lot of them talk about now, all these years later, not knowing what it was like at that time.

As one of the interviewees said. I didn't know it was important at the time, I just knew that it felt good. And so it was really interesting to see them think back and recall 35 years later, what it was then and what it feels like now, and the family aspect of it was, was huge, from '87 to 2003.

You know, these interviews span anywhere from you know, about 43 year old to 57 year old individuals, so you're talking about a pretty good gap. And so there was quite a diverse range of experiences with a common thread, which was family, and a willingness to just dig from the dirt to make this happen.

Johnny Commorato: And to that point, you got to remember that a lot of these people, I should say a lot of us didn't necessarily have the most copacetic relationships with our biological families. So the idea of family of choice was really important.

Julia Meek: And that was maybe a salvation for a lot of people back in that day, first time they could talk about it. You were all part of that movement as well. An empowerment, the fact that you had the family of your dreams, how did it feel?

Johnny Commorato: Oh, it was great to have this whole world that was your own that you were creating minute by minute.

Julia Meek: And then, guys, there was the music. Besides that music being yours and for you and about you, what made it really evocative of everything you stood for?

Johnny Commorato: The music was everything. I mean, when you heard those bass chords come roaring through, you just got to feeling like you could take on the world. And you did, or you tried to!

Darren Hunt: And in interviewing the band members that are involved in the story, I mean, all these years later they say for them as well, that it's still, you know, the music in some of them aren't actively playing the songs anymore.

But all these years later, you know, they can put on that CD and listen to the songs that came from '89-'90, '93 or whatever. And they're still just as powerful for them now, as they were then even though the world's changed so drastically.

Julia Meek: As they have too, but it's in their veins.

Darren Hunt: Yeah. As they have to for sure. Absolutely.

Julia Meek: As strong as the whole movement and that musical genre was back then. This is now; where do we see that genre here in Fort Wayne?

Darren Hunt: The scene is definitely not as big now as it was then. There's just no way you could make that argument. There are still killer punk bands in Fort Wayne, Flamingo Nosebleed, you know, they've been going strong for 20 years now. It is not as big as it was.

But the DIY ground level spirit? Greg Gordon ran the bughouse up until just a few months ago, been doing a new basement venue here in town. John "Big Juan" Kosowski ran The Muse on Main for a few years, unfortunately, kind of coincided with COVID and he had to shut down, but he's still doing it now and putting on shows at Piere's Room.

But there's no way you know that you could say it's as big as it was, then it just, it just isn't, volume wise and intensity wise and just the number of bands the spirit definitely lives on. But I don't think that it could be duplicated.

 Julia Meek: What's your thought, John?

Julia Meek: Now you both have filmmaking experience, as well as the alt music on alt art projects under your belts. How has this project expanded, well, really everything from your points of view and skill sets to your appreciation of this scene that you documented and you always enjoyed. What's it done?

Johnny Commorato: In terms of specifically punk with the exception of Flamingo Nosebleed, I don't think that we have a lot going on in terms of punk rock with a capital P.

That being said, I think anytime a kid loads an amplifier into a van and drives down a rainy street and unloads it in place for $10, that's punk rock in spirit. So I think that's still going on. There's plenty of bands, as you well know. (chuckles)

Darren Hunt: Well, for me, I made a film a few years ago that I wrote and produced and directed, a fictional short, The Paper Angel. This is quite different. In the first film, I had to, you know, cast all the lead roles and find the settings and all that. For this one, the actors were already there and that was the people who lived it.

The setting was for Wayne all over. I shot everywhere, from local venues to outside, to going back to the places like Freimann and whatnot. So it was a very different experience all around, a really great experience, piecing together a story out of other people's stories. Whereas in the first film I was trying to bring to life something I'd actually written.

I didn't write this one per se, you know, I pieced together the multitude of stories that these people told me, and I interviewed 61 people, that's a lot of stories.

Julia Meek: A lot of stories, and John, as part of Darren's story and being quite a prolific storyteller your own self within this story and apart from this story, what's it done for your own storytelling skills?

Johnny Commorato: You know, what it's done is it's honed them up a little bit. I hadn't really been doing much in film in the last decade or so. And when Darren approached me with this originally, I said, nah, don't try to do it. It's too big a story. So then he made me an associate producer. (all laugh)

And it's been a great collaborative process. He'll get a rough cut of something and they'll give me a call literally and be like, Hey, you got time to come by the house and look at some stuff. It hasn't been this intense Werner Hertzog, Klaus Kinski crazy madness. (laughs) It's just been looking at interesting stuff. And it's allowed me the opportunity to revisit with my friends, some of whom are dead, literally.

Julia Meek: We're talking about a pretty young era, and was a harsh era for a lot of people. So yes, I'm sorry for all of that. But what a rich legacy that you have preserved, you have told the stories, you're part of the stories. And that, of course, brings me to the question, the music and the poetry of that day. Can you explain the rush of that experience? Being in it?

 Johnny Commorato: Yeah, being a participant in the scene, there was nothing more exciting than having a killer band go on in front of you. And knowing that you're just going to be standing up there with a piece of paper and a microphone, and you got to hold the attention to the same audience that's throwing beer bottles and jumping up and down.

And can you keep their attention? That rush for me never got old.

Julia Meek: No, it seems like it's in your right now when you're recalling it, and it will always be there?

Johnny Commorato: Oh, absolutely.

Julia Meek: That is remarkable in itself. And so now that you are readying to launch this film, Darren, who do you expect to see in the audience, here when it premieres, there and everywhere?

Darren Hunt: Well I think primarily, it's going to be a lot of the old punks that lived it in. you know, still around, from Fort Wayne. And I've got people wanting to fly in from Florida and Arizona, who are all you know, in it, who have moved away. But yeah, I think primarily, it's going to be a lot of the folks who actually were there, but I hope anybody from Fort Wayne.

One of the main things that I realized getting into this was how many people didn't know and don't know that this actually even happened. I've talked to people who are 30, 40, 50 and even older about this project and who lived here their entire lives. So like, what? What Fort Wayne punk? What? When? Where were they? Oh, here? No, no way!

Yeah, no, this happened. And they can't believe it. Because again, it was way before social media, way before the internet, so people didn't know, if you just lived here and you drove past all these places, you wouldn't have known that you're driving past the house where some bands are in the basement right now just absolutely, you know, rocking out. You wouldn't have known, you know, unless maybe your windows rolled down.

But even then you would have had to have the curiosity to stop and go, Man, what's going on? And you might stumble up on the porch, to talk to some people that are like, oh, yeah, there's three bands in the basement right now just you know, rocking out. And they're all from Fort Wayne.

Or they're from Seattle, you know, or they're from Indy, or they're from Chicago, because bands from all over the nation came through for way too, as well.

This is definitely a very Fort Wayne centered documentary, though. Didn't go real deep on all the bands that came through town per se, because there was a lot of them. But I really decided to focus squarely on the Fort Wayne bands pretty much.

Julia Meek: And the family?

Darren Hunt: Yeah, the family aspect, the DIY aspect, and just the music itself are without a doubt the centerpieces.

Johnny Commorato: I mean, we could have done a documentary on just the brand name acts that came through. And can you believe these guys were here? It was incredible, but we didn't want to focus on that.

Darren Hunt: Yeah.

Julia Meek: Now historically, Fort Wayne has an above average, strong and really eclectic music heritage of all genres. How unique do you reckon our own past punk rock scene we're talking about right now is, compared to other music cities?

Darren Hunt: You know, it certainly wasn't as big as DC or LA. But you know, I think it was in talking to a lot of people from Indy and touching base with some people up in Detroit, Chicago, here and there.

And talking to people from here who will go into Detroit and Chicago in Indy, and Cincinnati and Dayton, you know, our scene was big. You know, for its size, it was, relative to its size, it was comparable to some of those scenes for sure. But I think, you know, more importantly, it was its own thing. Nobody was trying to be Indy or Chicago or certainly L.A.

They didn't want to be anything other than Fort Wayne. Like one interviewee said, you know, there was just a sense of people doing whatever the hell they wanted to do, really with no care on trying to emulate the west coast or the east coast. Not some of those bands didn't draw inspiration from some of those larger national bands.

They did for sure. But it was uniquely for Wayne, without a doubt. And for the size of the city at that time. It was big, it really was.

Julia Meek: We're still punching above our weight a lot of people say and certainly the whole punk rock scene would be a big part of that.

Johnny Commorato: It was.

Julia Meek: So, and you should know, John, as you were part of it, did it ever dawn on you that you were on a cutting edge? Historically, you've often been, with your art. And it's a natural, organic thing that you are right out there. But were you aware of that impact?

Johnny Commorato: You know, in the middle of this, especially the early days that we're talking about, I wasn't thinking about being on any kind of cutting edge or anything. I was just really having a really good time with some people I really liked.

Julia Meek: Which is family, which is everything. 

Johnny Commorato: Yeah. 

Julia Meek: You're proving the whole point. So bottom line, guys, what do the two of you, the eclectic creatives that you are, want everyone to take away with them once they see just how this town rocked?

Johnny Commorato: What I'd like people to take away from this film is that there was a whole movement that spanned a couple of decades that they probably weren't aware of, and that when they're watching documentaries on the East Bay scene on the Washington D.C. scene on the New York scene, they might as well watch one on the Fort Wayne scene because we had the same thing going on.

Julia Meek: Darren? 

Darren Hunt: I hope they take away from it, number one just that they're finally aware that this actually happened. And I hope that they see how much heart and soul these people had and determination and you know, love for the music, for the moment and for all the places that they occupied to bring their music to people here in town and anybody else that was around.

 Julia Meek: Darren Dag Hunt is director and Johnny Colorado associate creative producer of This Town Rocked. Thanks for telling the story. Have a great launch. Guys do rock on.

Johnny Commorato: Thanks, Julia.

Darren Hunt: Thank you.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.