The folks at Kinko’s must have thought she was crazy, Chrysi Forton tells me. Back in the early 2000s — tattooed, pierced and deliberate, qualities very much still in her possession — she bent over scanner glass arranging the tips of her bullet belt just right to frame the jagged fonts of band names like Stinking Lizaveta, Frigg A Go Go or Chainsaw Sex Viking. Making punk rock show flyers was a painstaking art. Like homegrown graphic artists in the American underground before her and since, Forton spent hours crafting dozens if not scores of them to promote shows, papering them to electrical poles and coffee shop bulletin boards the town over.
It’s an art not quite dead, but one she’s working to preserve before it’s lost, or at least digitized into the ether. To do that Forton is teaming up with folklorist John Sharp at the Center for Louisiana Studies at UL Lafayette to capture a record of a community often overlooked by cultural historians and the local press, but nevertheless worthy of archiving.
“This is a history of communication in small groups,” Sharp says, “it’s a documentation of folk music.”
Called Up Against the Wall, the project is still in its infancy, kickstarted by Forton’s personal collection from a decade of house shows on the DIY punk circuit and her time running an anonymous Facebook page, Lafayette Show Flyers. (It was eventually overrun by digital ads for bands promoting new shows.) Larry Trombatore, a godfather of the Acadiana punk scene who booked and promoted seminal American hardcore bands like Black Flag, has joined Sharp and Forton to cast a wider net into history.
Last weekend, the group put up a display at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, courting the public-at-large — with handmade handbills, of course — to help document a crucial history of the weirdos and creatives that made Lafayette what it is. Fittingly, the kiosk was paired with back-to-back showcases of “non-traditional music” from Louisiana, featuring artists like avant garde saxophonist and pecan farmer Dickie Landry, who played with Talking Heads and Philip Glass, and Sarah Lipstate, who composes solitary symphonies of guitar noise under the moniker Noveller.
“If you lay it all out, you’re telling a story of how this town came to be,” Forton tells me of the poster collection in progress. She has a soft tape measure slung around her neck, a tool of her trade as an upholsterer. She does graphic design and crossgrain woodwork, too, working out of a studio on West Simcoe. Forton arrived in Lafayette in the early 2000s, hopping trains around the country until she landed here and fell in love with the community. At a house on Lamar Street in Freetown, she and a mix of punks, metalheads, reggae bros and proto-hipsters threw house shows and festivals, sometimes stumbling the revelry down the street to a club on the strip when the cops showed up on noise complaints. Like many small and mid-sized cities, Lafayette has never had the population to fully segregate rock and roll subgenres.
The mixed bag makes it difficult to define the scope of the project. Sharp and Forton know that parameters need to be set. Calling it “alternative” or “outsider” or “underground” can be too exclusive and not quite representative of what went on. For the time being, they’ve cut off the collection at 2010, but “nontraditional” music in the area has zigged and zagged by definition over the 70 years of the rock and roll era. Hippie-Americana act Rufus Jagneaux and Coteau, a pre-Beausoleil, rock-inflected foray of Michael Doucet’s, both fixtures of the regional music scene in the 1970s, don’t conjure an image of the “underground.” But their distance from the core vernacular Cajun and Creole music of the area puts them squarely in the purview of Up Against the Wall.
It’s really not as easy as ‘there’s Cajun Music and there’s non-Cajun’ music,” Sharp points out. The genre-bending tendencies of Acadiana’s music scene is what attracted and kept Sharp and Forton in Lafayette. Sharp first visited the area on tour with his Alabama-based garage outfit The Quadrajets. They’d stack on to bills with acts like Frigg A Go Go, the cult-favorite retro-60s act, and party with skater kids and metalheads. The motley scene reminded Sharp of Auburn, the college town he called home until he followed his wife to Lafayette in 2000 on her way to graduate school.
In a sense, the project aims to wrap around an expansive idea of musical identity more complex than the traditional offerings that make Lafayette culturally important. The exchange happened not just among scattered subcultures in the contemporary rock scene, but between that patchwork of musicians and the traditional scene itself. Without it, you don’t get acts like Lost Bayou Ramblers, a Grammy-winning Cajun band that’s had a rotating cast of players first working in Lafayette indie bands.
But because every town in America has its fill of anonymous rock bands and flirted at some point with a rash of local numetal, that legacy is somewhat lost, or at least muted against the significance and distinction of Acadiana’s deeply rooted musical tradition.
“These bands were not spoken for,” Forton says.
Ultimately, Forton wants the project to serve as a platform for gathering. She’s long dreamed of holding an installed flyer gallery show, a vision that was nearly derailed last year when her house burned down. A tupperware full of flyers, many now yellowed from the smoke, survived the blaze. Others didn’t, although for the most part she had duplicates. The tragedy spurred her to get serious about her dream and get to work on preserving a fragile and hidden story.
For the time being, Sharp and Forton are in an outreach stage, calling out to the public to contribute flyers and other scene ephemera. (Sharp’s on the lookout for a poster documenting Blag Flag’s performance at The Triangle Club in Scott back in the 1980s, if you know of one.) What they gather, digitally and otherwise, will be cataloged and preserved at the CLS. The pair have more than 300 pieces in their possession.
Capturing a more complex story of Acadiana music has personal and historical value for both Sharp and Forton — all the more so because of their own musical careers, and those of the countless artists from generations past who are still kicking around. Their voices crackle with nostalgia as they look back on now two decades on the scene, the wild shows, the oddball bills, the dust-ups with the cops, the hours spent hunched over the photocopiers at Kinkos. It all meant something.
“It’s how every single person who has a hand in this feels,” Forton says. “It’s validating.”