Tampa's punk roots traced in documentary 'We Can't Help It If We're From Tampa'

Patino saw a violent and vibrant scene.
Patino saw a violent and vibrant scene.
Published Dec. 20, 2012

Though he now lives in Lexington, Ky., with his family, Tony Patino has found an odd niche for himself as a scholar of Tampa punk.

He's written a novel about growing up as a punk in Tampa called Life and Times, and a collection of tour stories called The Road that includes bay area bands like Clairmel and the Pink Lincolns.

Now he's made a documentary about the '80s Tampa punk scene called We Can't Help It If We're From Tampa — a take-off on the influential record We Can't Help It If We're From Florida. The film includes interviews with bands both local (Rat Cafeteria) and national (Dead Milkmen, Circle Jerks).

Patino returns to Tampa on Friday to premiere the documentary at the Orpheum, along with a show featuring bands in the film like Berkeley, Calif., hardcore act Fang and Venice group No Fraud. The film screens at 8:30 p.m.; the music starts at 10.

So what makes the Tampa scene so ripe for revisiting to Patino? For one, he said, there were some exceptional groups such as Rat Cafeteria, which he calls arguably the area's very first punk band.

Then there was the violence. The way Patino describes it, going to a Ybor City punk show in the '80s sounds almost like a Charlie Wall era of lawlessness — "a tough scene with no rules and somehow not much law either."

"So many things were happening that you would think a lot of people would've gone to jail for, but they weren't," Patino said. "With that in mind, everybody pushed it and pushed it until it was just so crazy you could just do anything you wanted to, no matter what — because you were gonna get away with it."

This sort of unruliness certainly wasn't unheard of in '80s punk, so Patino said he just assumed everywhere was equally as raucous until he started talking to people from other cities.

"Even the bands felt it," he said. "Bands were warning each other in other states, 'When you go to Tampa, be careful. Be careful what you say, play your songs, keep your mouth shut.' "

For instance, Patino recalls a Butthole Surfers concert at the Clearwater Armory in 1987 that erupted in violence when the crowd started harassing the band's nude dancer, Kathleen Lynch.

"(They) basically smashed their guitar over a kid's head in the audience, kicked a girl in the face that was in the front row, broke her nose," he said. "Because the skinheads were on the stage getting all over this dancer they had, this female topless dancer. That show ended quick."

At another show, Black Flag played the Cuban Club after moving from straight-up hardcore to a more experimental sound. That combined with a number of other elements, including Tampa's general rowdiness, led to a particularly riled-up crowd.

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Their sound guy attempted to intervene by walking into the crowd with a claw hammer — perhaps to intimidate them.

"His hammer had gotten taken away from him and he got hit in the head with it," Patino said. "Broke his head open."

Still, Patino said the area had more to offer than violence. There were underappreciated bands like No Fraud, which hailed from Venice, but played Tampa so often the city "claimed them," he said.

No Fraud vocalist Dan Destructo, who was at the same Black Flag show, started to play in Tampa around 1984 or 1985. He characterizes the Tampa scene as both unusually violent and unusually close-knit.

"Even though the bands were all very different in style to some degree, the community was abnormally tight for how large the population of the city was," he said.

Perhaps because of that closeness, very few bands toured out of the state, Patino said. Add in the fact that not many records were being put out, and there's a reason no Tampa bands entered the hallowed names of hardcore like Black Flag.

"None of those bands really made their way out of Florida," Patino said. "And they were all good enough that had they done that, I think they could've really gone places."

Now those bands will have their moment to shine at the Orpheum show — even if they couldn't help it they were from Tampa.