HOUSTON, TEXAS — “This isn’t punk at all,” Goretooth said from behind the bar at White Swan Live, as he listened to Beto O’Rourke’s old punk band’s song “Rise,” off their EP The El Paso Pussycats. “It’s the Cranberries with punk vocals, sanitized with a napkin.” Then I played him another song by Foss, O’Rourke’s short-lived punk band from the early 1990s, called “Al Sobrante, Snowzone In His Pants, Got The Chutzpah Rolling.” “This song here is punk,” he proclaimed, giving it a solid two thumbs up.
It was the Saturday before election day, and I was drinking a Tecate at the dive bar in Houston’s Second Ward neighborhood; a slew of local punk bands were slated to go on stage. I was there to get some answers to questions that, if not exactly critical to the outcome of the election, had been nagging me ever since O’Rourke’s time as a punk had become a talking point in his race against Ted Cruz: Just how punk is Beto O’Rourke?
I asked Goretooth (whose government name is John Kingston, “but everyone knows me as Gore,” he told me) if he planned on voting this year. He gave me an emphatic no—he has never voted, nor is he registered to vote. We were hanging out around the bar with Miguel Soto, a regular whose heavy metal band Diamondback Mad had performed at White Swan Live earlier in the month. “I live so low in life that no matter who’s elected to do what, none of it’s gonna trickle down to me,” Goretooth said.
“A lot of people feel that,” Soto said sympathetically.
“I work at my shitty job, I drink lots of beer, and I love doing drugs,” Goretooth said, a statement that had the ring of a manifesto. Goretooth sings in a couple of death metal bands, Orchiectomy and Beaten and Butchered. (Out of curiosity, I looked up the lyrics to one of Orchiectomy’s songs, which features the phrase “monthly sewage rectal flow;” there’s not much more that I can share without offending the sensibilities of 99.99 percent of everyone who’s reading this.)
I turned my attention to Soto. “We don’t usually get people like you in here!” he said, possibly referring to my trench coat and Nike sneakers. When I pointed out that he wasn’t who I expected to meet either—Soto is middle-aged, and was dressed more like an accountant out for the weekend in dad jeans and a button-up—he laughed.
I asked Soto to give Foss a listen, and he obliged. “This ain’t bad, I’d listen to this one. There’s actual distortion in the guitar,” he said approvingly of O’Rourke’s bass playing. “That sounds like punk to me. I like it.”
Another vote for O’Rourke’s music—punk! But what did he think of his politics? Soto described the Senate candidate as a “typical liberal.” Unlike Goretooth, Soto was a regular voter. He had voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, calling it his “protest vote.” “I didn’t like Al Gore at all,” he said, adding that he was especially opposed to Gore’s wife Tipper for her crusade to get “parental advisory” warnings for music she deemed sexually explicit and violent.
This year, he plans on casting a protest vote as well. “I had my mind made up five days ago, I was gonna vote straight Republican,” Soto said. He had voted for Trump in 2016. “But then he started this nonsense about ending birthright citizenship.”
“This made me flip,” he said. “Now I’m gonna vote straight Democrat as a protest,” a move he described as “sticking it to the man.”
The show hadn’t started yet, so I wandered outside to the large outdoor patio in the back, where I found Derek Huddleston and Greg Brown smoking cigarettes and drinking a couple of beers. Brown’s band Broke Off was set to perform later in the evening. Huddleston and Brown, both stalwarts in Houston’s punk scene, play together in another band called Ballistics.
Is O’Rourke punk? I asked them.
They considered the question. “I like him. I like him as a politician. I’m not really a supporter of the left side or the right side per se, but right now I view the right side as being super dangerous. I’ll kind of do anything to balance that out,” Brown said. “Sadly, that’s the best we can do in politics right now, is to not vote for something super great, but vote for something that’s going to balance out the bullshit now.”
Huddleston chimed in. “I like his hustle. I like that he’s been out, not taking money from PACs, that he’s not corporate funded, or at least right off the cuff he’s not going to sell things away,” he said.
His refusal to take PAC money—isn’t that the most punk thing about O’Rourke? I asked.
“I thought it was the skateboarding at Whataburger thing,” Brown said.
“That helped,” Huddleston said. “A lot of people I know were like, ‘Oh he can skateboard? I’ll vote for him.’”
Huddleston, who tonight was wearing a shirt for the band Dissection that read “Be exploited or be exterminated” on the back, described his own politics as “closer to the anarchist side of things.” But he admired O’Rourke’s campaign. “I have a lot of respect for anyone who’s willing to go from town to town and actually talk to their constituents,” he said. “I mean, we haven’t seen someone go to every county in the state, since before I was born. The last person to do anything like that would be LBJ.”
“And he’s doing all of that without the PAC money,” Brown noted.
“The fact he’s livestreaming all of it, and he’s behind the wheel, is really cool,” Huddleston said.
“I respect that more than anything, and that’s the most punk rock thing,” Brown said. “That’s him just being basically on tour. He’s putting in the work, he’s doing it.”
Cruz, on the other hand, was “completely bitchslapped by Trump,” he said, before referencing Cruz’s much-maligned campaign slogan. “Texas tough?”
“Oh man,” Huddleston said.
“There’s nothing tough about Cruz,” Brown said.
“‘Texas tough’ is such a sham,” Huddleston said, pointing out that Cruz grew up in Katy, a small city outside of Houston. “He’s a suburb kid. I mean, talk about privilege. That’s probably one of the most privileged people in politics, that grew up in big money, and has a long history of taking money from pharmaceutical companies.”
O’Rourke the politician, totally punk. But what did they think of Foss? By now, Brown’s bandmate Bobby Flores, a fresh-faced 25-year-old, had joined us. I played the three of them the two tracks from the band’s EP.
“It reminds me a lot of the indie punk scene from the late ’90s,” Huddleston said after giving it a listen. “The raspy yelling. There’s a lot of emotion in that. The bass line, he goes to a lot of highs. You wouldn’t call it soloing, but he’s got those ring outs, like Alkaline Trio.”
“I don’t know how anyone could say that’s not punk rock,” Flores said. At one point while listening, he had whispered, Nice.
Brown demurred. “I’m gonna cap off my opinion as, I’d vote for his politics more than I’d vote for his band,” he said.
Huddleston offered his own decidedly lukewarm assessment: “I don’t know if I’d buy their CD, but I wouldn’t walk off if I saw them playing.”
All three had already voted early, and for O’Rourke. “He got me back to the polls, because to be honest, I haven’t voted in the last two elections. I lost a lot of faith,” Flores said. (The previous time he had voted was in 2012.) “We kind of need someone like that right now,” he said of O’Rourke, whom he described as a moderate who “appeals to a lot of people.”
“There are so many other things we can do other than voting,” Huddleston said. “But at the end of the day, [not voting] is the same as pleading no contest, the same as a guilty plea.”
Back inside, the first band Ese took the stage. More people had straggled in, the crowd one expects to see at a punk show—skater kids and your more classic punks with studded leather and neon hair.
As they reached the end of their set, Ese’s lead singer Carlos Valdez announced they were going to sing some new songs. While their other songs, as far as I could make out, had focused on topics like, for example, drinking and fucking in the back of a car, their new song had more of a political bent. “Fuck Democrats, fuck Republicans, and fuck Trump!” Valdez shouted into the mic. “It’s called ‘Fuck That Puto!’” (Spoiler: the puto is Donald Trump.)
People began moshing as Ese thrashed on stage, and Valdez screamed out:
We are fed up
Enough is enough
I want America
You want America
We want America
But fuck that puto!