ST. PETERSBURG — His name was Richard Konwinski, but most people knew him as Stiff. Hard-core punk music fans have likely seen the founder of Stiff Pole Records at local venues like Jannus Landing, the State Theatre or the Emerald Bar — a tall man dressed in black, smoking a cigarette and holding a bottle of Natural Light, with dyed blond hair that stood straight up.
Taking in the scene, evaluating the bands, looking for the ones that, as he put it, "didn't suck," Stiff was at home where the music was loudest, the spirit most edgy.
Stiff was more than a fan. Through his record label, he introduced dozens of local bands to wider audiences — two of which, Pink Lincolns and the Gotohells, went on to top national billings. He had recently put his label back in circulation after a 10-year hiatus.
In the larger sense, Stiff defied labels. He was a vegetarian who owned four cars and loved drag racing, who projected defiance but had held the same job for 22 years, whose only brush with the law was a handful of speeding tickets.
A news junkie and registered independent, he railed against the government and big corporations on his website, issuing profanity-laced tirades like this one from June 27:
I'm really getting p----- about this oil gusher that all the experts in private industry can't seem to stop. Now these supposed free market/enterprise f------ are screaming for the government to fix the spill. News flash: the government didn't cause the gusher, Halliburton and British Petroleum did.
Stiff died Monday, at home, apparently of natural causes. He was 49.
"This guy never took advantage of anybody in town," said David Hundley, an owner of the State Theatre. "You might not like the type of music he put out, you might not like his politics. But he was a straight arrow."
Stiff grew up in Michigan, and got an associate's business degree from Alpena Community College. In 1981, according to friends, he stuck a pin in a map of Florida. Wherever it landed was where they would move, he and two buddies decided. The pin stuck Tampa, but they overshot that city and wound up in Largo.
He and Tim Hubbard, a roommate who later became his business partner at Stiff Pole, spent their money going to concerts, traveling to South Florida to see bands like the Ramones, Black Flag and Bad Religion. He sought out the few local clubs where punk bands played. It felt like the start of something special, something uniquely theirs.
"You own this little scene," Hubbard recalled. "Nobody else likes it, and everybody else in the world is missing out on the best music that was ever made. Every sound, every note was true to our feeling."
With Hubbard, he founded Stiff Pole Records, signing the Venice band No Fraud to the label's first album. The label grew for 10 years.
By day, Stiff worked in sales and purchasing for Atlantic Drilling Supply in Largo. Beneath his shirt with the company logo, he wore a punk rock T-shirt. A baseball cap, worn backward, jammed down his vertical hair.
"His hair kind of squished out the sides," said co-worker Todd Miller.
In the 1990s, the Internet nearly killed Stiff Pole, which had operated through mail order. But a couple of years ago, Stiff and Hubbard realized that their label was already being promoted on the Internet, via the online biographies of bands that posted their histories.
Just as Stiff prepared to promote two bands, Doll Parts and Last Great Hope, his health appeared to decline. He had a history of high blood pressure, and told friends last weekend that he was not feeling well.
Early Monday, fiance Deborah Hope found his body on the kitchen floor. An autopsy will not be performed.
Friends, musicians and former customers at his job are struggling to accept his absence. They figure Stiff would not have wanted them to mourn him, as the oddly incongruous title of his oil-spill rant suggests. Written three weeks before his death, it reads, "That's just the way she goes sometimes."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]