Anarchy in Amarillo

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Some time ago, Julie Hollifield got a car stereo lobbed at her head while she was walking down the street. The guys who threw it missed, but barely.

Intimidation had become such a fixture in Brian Deneke's life that he'd earned the nicknames "Punch," as in human punching bag, and "Fist Magnet."

"He took a lot of verbal and physical abuse from people," says his dad, 48-year-old Mike Deneke, who sells cookware for a living. "We tried to explain to him that if you dress that way, have your hair that way, people are gonna act negative toward you, and that's just the way it is.

"And he said it's not right; they shouldn't. And he's right -- they shouldn't. But people do."

Brian wasn't one to bow down to campus cliques. He began acquiring his unusual tastes in music and dress as a young skateboarder, zinging down homemade ramps in his parents' back yard with his older brother Jason, even vaulting over cars.

His love of skateboarding led to a clash with his scoutmaster, who once took Brian's most beloved possession and kicked it out the door. The boy picked it up and seemed poised to hit back, but didn't. Camp's attorney would dig up that incident in the trial as an early example of Deneke's "antisocial behavior."

Along with skateboarding came punk music. And as Brian grew older, the music would eclipse his hobby.

Subhumans, Naked Aggression, Blanks 77, Logical Nonsense -- Deneke's buddies list the names of his favorite bands, several of which he lured to Amarillo for live performances. "He'd write 'em and ask them to play here, as many times as it took for them finally to agree," says John King, one of Deneke's closest friends. "He'd take money out of his own pocket and rent a place for them to play."

Deneke couldn't play any instruments himself, but his passion for music got him singing in a local band. The name, White Slave Traders, had the requisite dose of outrage. But if he got overly bored at home, he'd hitchhike cross-country, meeting up with punk "squatters" in other towns, getting drunk, watching bands, surviving by "spanging" -- as in "spare-changing."

In Amarillo, Deneke was gainfully employed. He painted whimsical road signs for local entrepreneur and pop-art enthusiast Stanley Marsh III, the force behind the city's famed roadside sculpture, Cadillac Ranch. He often used his paycheck to cover the bills at a series of communal homes the punks shared, which sometimes doubled as underground clubs.

Like many of his friends, Deneke would shave, bob, and spike his hair in odd configurations and apply lurid hues that eventually faded to the default color of all homemade dye jobs, a certain sickly green. He wore a black leather jacket, camouflage trousers, spiked belts, and dog collars -- all trademarks of a look that reached its peak in Britain in the late '70s. It survives today, thousands of prairie miles from its historical context, in places where kids know little about "Break Free From Oppression" and "Smash Government Corruption," two of the vaguely punk slogans Deneke stenciled onto his thermal underwear.

Wardrobe aside, Deneke possessed a personal magnetism that separated him from his peers. "He was real cute. He was," says Jennifer Hix, Deneke's onetime girlfriend. "He had a really positive, outgoing personality. Instead of sitting on his ass, he'd rather do something. He was real fun."

That energy and charm fit perfectly with his role as Amarillo's 19-year-old punk impresario. He lured bands from as far away as L.A., put on his own shows, and got to know just about everyone whose musical tastes ventured into the margins. At gathering places such as The Egg and a sprawling communal home for punks on 8th Street, kids would assemble for shows, dancing and downing pints of bottled Guinness, their preferred drink.

The punks repeatedly talk about Deneke's ability to generate excitement out of nothing. And Amarillo, they remind you, is pretty close to nothing on the thrills spectrum. Daniel Kelso, who worked with Deneke, identifies him as the chief figure behind Amarillo's punk scene and explains his unusual charisma: "Brian was probably the most self-aware, self-realized, and happy-go-lucky 19-year-old I've ever run into. He was always in a good mood, always smiling, even when bad shit happened."

Rumbling with the jocks probably never fit into Deneke's idea of a good time. But punks saw confrontation and provocation as regular features of their lives and were prepared to deal with it. "You don't have to go looking for trouble in this town," King says. "If you look different, it will come to you."

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Julie Lyons
Contact: Julie Lyons