I Wanna Be Curated: Can You Really Put Punk in a Museum?

Fat Mike likes to be on time — to “put the punk in punctual,” as he says. So he was mildly distressed to be a few minutes late meeting me at the new Punk Rock Museum in Las Vegas, of which he is a founder and the public face. I had pleasantly cooled my heels at the museum’s bar, the Triple Down. At the Triple Down, you can order a Fletcher, a double rum and Coke served in an emptied Pringles can, named for Fletcher Dragge, guitarist for the band Pennywise and a member of the museum’s governing “Punk Collective.” (You get the chips on the side.) Or you might choose a Double Fatty, honoring Fat Mike himself: a double shot of Tito’s vodka, served with lime-flavored Liquid Death sparkling water and also a shot of Jameson. Fat Mike, as he told me within five minutes of his arrival, was a first-round investor in Liquid Death.

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Fat Mike, né Mike Burkett, is, among other things, the frontman and bassist for the band NOFX. He was wearing a black T-shirt and blue plaid shorts that reached almost to the tops of his black socks. At 56, Fat Mike has thick white hair and sideburns, except where they’ve been dyed the blue of plastic sharks or cotton candy. He wore a padlock on a chain around his neck. He looked like what network executives may have imagined punks looked like when they were a staple category of bad guy on 1980s cop shows, the punk of a Spirit Halloween “punk” costume.

To be fair, he had a hand in shaping that image. NOFX formed in Southern California in 1983, long before punk was a viable career path or, by their own admission, the band’s members knew how to play their instruments. By the mid-1990s, they had migrated to the Bay Area and improved enough to be part of a wave of groups — most famously Green Day, the Offspring and Blink-182 — that found improbable fame and commercial success. The pop-punk sound of the ensuing era remains so pervasive that, listening to an episode of Slate’s “Hit Parade” podcast about it, I could not quite tell where the Fall Out Boy ended and a bank commercial began.

At the Triple Down, the bartender had a shot of vodka already poured. Fat Mike drank it and began what appeared to be a familiar ritual of haggling over whether the bartender wanted his tip in cash or in ownership shares in the museum. Fat Mike has $3 million in shares, he told me later, and he is giving a portion of them out to museum employees — “At least the good ones.”

“If you believe in the museum and think we’re going to kill it — which we are — maybe you take the shares,” Fat Mike said.

“I don’t really understand the shares thing, Mike,” the bartender said, shaking his head. “I’ve never worked in a museum before.” He poured another shot. Fat Mike downed it, pulled a roll of cash from his pocket and plunked down a $100 bill.

At the Triple Down bar, double rum and Cokes are served in emptied Pringles cans, with the chips on the side.Credit…Jamie Lee Taete for The New York Times

About three years ago, Fat Mike came to Vegas with the idea of opening a punk rock store. He asked for help from Lisa Brownlee, a longtime veteran of the Warped Tour, the skate- and pop-punk juggernaut; she suggested filling the store with punk memorabilia. From there, it was a small step to a museum. The Punk Rock Museum opened on April Fools’ Day, in a 12,000-square-foot onetime antiques market decidedly off the Strip. Its closest neighbor is an enormous pink gentlemen’s club that advertises “1000’s of Beautiful Girls and 3 Ugly Ones.”

All around the country, there are institutions devoted to commemorating and celebrating what was once fringe, rebellious or underground. Rock has its hall of fame and museum in Cleveland; hip-hop’s long-gestating counterpart is supposedly nearing an opening date in Harlem. The pipeline from pop-culture transgression to academic enshrinement has been wide open at least since the 1990s, when Madonna studies made news. If the Who survived “hope I die before I get old” to become elder statesmen, you might think the matter of how binding such promises are would be settled. Still, punk, born specifically in reaction to rock’s decadent self-regard, presents a uniquely hard case.

There is something self-evidently absurd about an institution devoted to a movement which, to the extent that anybody can agree on a definition, is specifically about resisting institutions. Nostalgia, hierarchy, hero worship, the establishment of a canon, the separation between audience and artist — all of these are both the natural tendencies of museums and the things that punk was invented to smash. A few years ago, some aging members of a long-running utopian punk scene in Pensacola, Fla., set out to preserve the house in which the scene had flourished by establishing something called the 309 Punk Museum. That last word caused such consternation that it was dropped, in favor of “project.”

To Fat Mike, this resistance looks like a hole in the market. “There’s no Billboard chart for punk, although there’s one for bluegrass,” he says. “There’s no Grammy for punks. There’s no award show anywhere for punk. We needed a place where any punk rocker can go and celebrate our heritage.”

Fat Mike leading a special midnight tour group in October during the When We Were Young festival.Credit…Jamie Lee Taete for The New York Times
An exhibit of paraphernalia from the horror-punk band the Misfits, including a bass broken by Jerry Only. (He breaks a lot of basses.)Credit…Jamie Lee Taete for The New York Times

There is a culturewide urge to catalog, commemorate and nostalgify punk as it enters its fifth decade. Museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian and the Victoria and Albert have hosted punk-related exhibitions. Universities across the country offer courses with titles like “Punk Culture: The Aesthetics and Politics of Refusal.” The nonprofit label Trust Records, founded by the longtime music publisher Matt Pincus and the band merchandiser Joe Nelson, has been rereleasing classic out-of-print records — starting with Circle Jerks’ “Group Sex” — digitally and in deluxe vinyl editions. Pincus believes that punk’s D.I.Y. ethic has made it a folk tradition as fragile and vulnerable to disappearing as, say, early-20th-century blues once was. Fliers get pulped; storage units filled with self-released E.P.s get liquidated; parents die with their children’s hardcore masters moldering in their attics; independent labels disappear.

What you might call the dissenting view was offered in 2016 by Joe Corré, son of the Sex Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, and the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood: He loaded his personal collection of memorabilia — worth, he said, five million pounds — into a boat on the Thames and set it aflame. It was, he said, a protest against Punk London, an officially sanctioned series of exhibitions and events commemorating the 40 years of British punk. To Corré, this was an unacceptable act of appropriation. “Do not tolerate hypocrisy,” he told the assembled crowd. “Investigate the truth for yourself.” One truth is that Punk London added Corré’s event to its own official website as soon as it was announced.

Agatha Slagatha, an employee of the Punk Rock Museum, assisting a customer in the museum’s gift shop.Credit…Jamie Lee Taete for The New York Times
The museum’s artifacts, like these customized jackets, are generally allowed to speak for themselves, without much text or explanation.Credit…Jamie Lee Taete for The New York Times

At the Punk Rock Museum, you both enter and exit through the gift shop, where you can buy T-shirts, patches, shot glasses, coffee table books and padlocks. Passing through on our way to tour the collection, Fat Mike and I ran into a father and son visiting from Ohio. The man was wearing a Descendents T-shirt, the teenager a NOFX one; Mom was in the tattoo parlor upstairs, getting her leg inked with an image of a Doc Marten and an anarchy symbol.

“I’m famous,” Fat Mike blurted out. They did not need to be told. This was like spotting Mickey Mouse at Disney World.

Like many things in Las Vegas, the elements of the Punk Rock Museum that are vulgar, cynical and/or tasteless are fairly easy to spot. So let me say quickly that a lot of the museum is also very cool. It is, to a large extent, a photography museum — filled with beautifully reproduced images from chroniclers of the scene both famous and obscure. One room is a recreation of a wood-paneled suburban basement, iconic breeding ground for frustrated middle-class punk energy; another contains Pennywise’s carpet-and-graffiti-covered rehearsal studio, airlifted wholesale from Hermosa Beach, Calif. There’s also the Jam Room, where you can actually play instruments like Joan Jett’s guitar and Fat Mike’s bass in a soundproof space like something at Guitar Center.

One challenge to any project like the museum is how many different things punk has come to mean to different people. “Punk has many houses,” Vivien Goldman, an adjunct professor of punk and reggae at N.Y.U., told me, ticking off a few of them: the political, the artistic, the bacchanalian. Of course, some houses have more pee in them than others. It is hard to overstate the role of urine in “NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories,” a group memoir by the band, which is light on situationist theory and heavy on bodily fluids being expelled onto, or into, whatever happens to be nearby, including cats, vans, silverware drawers, ice trays and strangers passed out on the floor. Fat Mike has brought this preoccupation with him to the Punk Rock Museum. The reconstruction of Pennywise’s garage, he told me, was made all the more exact by Fletcher Dragge relieving himself on the floor, a kind of benediction before the museum opened its doors. The top tier of patronage during pre-opening fund-raising was a $25,000 package of perks that included having your name on a plaque over one of the museum’s urinals or toilet stalls.

Fat Mike performing with Sum 41 in Pennywise’s rehearsal studio, which was relocated to the museum.Credit…Jamie Lee Taete for The New York Times

The museum is not big on written text or other forms of contextualization, content instead to let its cases filled with artifacts and memorabilia speak for themselves. Many of these are of a morbid cast, relics in the saintly sense. Fat Mike pointed out “Joe Strummer’s last bag of weed,” a stash supposedly found with the co-founder of the Clash when he died, and the key to the New Orleans hotel room where Johnny Thunders was found dead under mysterious circumstances in 1991. He showed me a black leather couch that once sat in Razor’s Edge Recording, a studio in San Francisco, beneath a photo of Kurt Cobain lying on it unconscious. Fat Mike sat on the couch and posed for a photo, slumped in the same position.

A foyer outside the bathrooms attempts a partial answer to the question of why a punk rock museum should be located in Las Vegas, which has never had a punk scene of any significant repute. The walls are covered in fliers from a brief period of exception, when a scene sprung up around shows played at a water-retention basin off a desert highway called Losee Road. Generally, though, the museum is upfront about the fact that it is in Las Vegas because it’s a place millions of people visit every year. It also makes sense because the Punk Rock Museum’s definition of museum falls somewhere on the spectrum occupied by neighbors like the Mob Museum, the Neon Museum and the Harry Mohney Erotic Heritage Museum (current home of the 1990s sensation “Puppetry of the Penis”). A consultant from the Smithsonian visited before opening, Fat Mike told me, but his ideas for multimedia displays and other pedagogical this and that didn’t make the cut.

Fat Mike’s record label, Fat Wreck Chords, is one example of a capitalist streak that might cause consternation for punk purists. “Just because something is capitalist doesn’t mean it’s bad,” he says.Credit…Jamie Lee Taete for The New York Times

Inevitably, the museum is heavy on varieties of white, male, very often shirtless aggression. But care has been taken to be inclusive, and Fat Mike took care to point this out. The first gallery you encounter contains 10 portraits of canonical punk acts. Fat Mike told me that it is one of the rooms he insisted on curating himself, and he directed my attention to portraits of Alice Bag, the Latina lead singer of the seminal Los Angeles punk band the Bags; Poly Styrene, the mixed-race frontwoman of X-Ray Spex; and Laura Jane Grace, the transgender singer of the band Against Me! That month, there was a temporary exhibit devoted to the photographer Angela Boatwright’s work chronicling the largely Latino backyard punk scene that flourished in East and South Central Los Angeles in the 2010s; it was followed, in October, by one titled “Black Punk Now.” There is also an exhibit case simply marked “Diverse,” which highlights queer bands like Pansy Division and Toilet Böys.

For all that, it’s the pop, skate and emo punk of NOFX’s generation that predominates. This is a function of Fat Mike’s sensibility (there are few scholars who would grant Pennywise such a central place in the music’s history) but also of which artists have chosen to contribute and which have declined. As Fat Mike will be the first to tell you, not everybody in the punk community loves him. Fairly or not, NOFX and its Warped Tour compatriots are easily written off as empty-headed, obnoxious, adolescent bros. Fat Mike’s capitalist streak rubs many purists the wrong way. Among other ventures, he has created the label Fat Wreck Chords, the punk rock/craft beer festival Punk in Drublic and a line of panties for men. The zine writer Aaron Cometbus once wrote that he was “Trump in a mohawk.”

And Fat Mike is consistently, gleefully offensive in a way that suggests both a compulsion and a sense of professional obligation. The wedding chapel at the Punk Rock Museum is decorated with photos of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. One of the few disagreements he has had with the rest of the museum’s management, he told me in all seeming earnestness, was over his idea of playing “Yakety Sax” whenever the wheelchair lift to the second floor made its ascent.

The newlyweds Nadia Pérez and Pablo Cabutti kissing in the museum’s wedding chapel, which is decorated with pictures of one of punk’s most famous couples, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen.Credit…Jamie Lee Taete for The New York Times

Still, Fat Mike believes his reputation is unfair. “It destroys me,” he says. NOFX, he pointed out, remains the one band of its cohort to never sign to a major label. In a world of independent labels with lofty rhetoric and a bad habit of not paying their musicians, Fat Wreck Chords has an honorable reputation. In the early 2000s, Fat Mike spearheaded Rock Against Bush — two compilations and a tour — which he says raised over $1 million to campaign against George W. Bush, and, which he says registered over 200,000 young voters. He identifies as queer and has spoken emotionally about the difficulty of coming out publicly as a cross-dresser and a devotee of B.D.S.M., but he says the L.G.B.T.Q. community has failed to embrace him.

“I’m always just the California bro,” he lamented.

Ultimately, Fat Mike says he knows why he’s not better liked: “Why do people hate Tom Brady? Why do people hate the Dallas Cowboys? Why do they hate Machine Gun Kelly? Because they hate success. And they hate when that successful person is stoked. I do what the [expletive] I want. I don’t follow society’s rules, and people hate that: How come he gets to do everything he wants to?” he says, before answering the question himself, not inaccurately. “Because I’m punk.”

While you can explore the Punk Rock Museum by yourself, one of its unique selling points is that, for an extra fee, you can get a tour given by a punk celebrity. Among the musicians who have given tours are members of the Germs, Circle Jerks, Fishbone and Suicidal Tendencies, as well as Fat Mike himself, who pointed out that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame “doesn’t have B.B. King giving tours.” (King died in 2015.)

The day after my visit with Fat Mike, I returned and ran into Marko DeSantis waiting for his afternoon tour group in the gift shop. DeSantis was the lead guitarist for a Santa Barbara band named Sugarcult, which had a couple of pop-punk hits in the 2000s. The museum had flown him in and put him up at a hotel for a three-day stint giving two tours a day. He received a cheat sheet of highlights to make sure to hit but otherwise was free to tell his own story.

That afternoon, his tour turned out to be a group of one: a 42-year-old in the LED industry named Tristan who lives in Los Angeles and had been excitedly following the museum’s opening since it was announced. Tristan had blown off the day at a lighting convention to attend because, as it happens, he is a huge fan of Sugarcult.

“Dude, I am very excited!” he told DeSantis.

“So, am I!” DeSantis said.

They beamed at each other and repaired to the Triple Down for a quick beer before beginning.

Their joy trailed after me as I drifted through the museum alone. Goldman, the professor of punk, had given me an assignment of what to look for: “Let’s be real, I’d want to know if there’s anything political, really,” she said. There wasn’t much that explicitly qualified, unless you counted the simple weight of the compounded evidence: generation after generation of youth and energy and creativity and community. Which, to be honest, I was more and more inclined to do. Watching a video of Indonesian teenagers whirling and clashing in an enormous mosh pit, I found myself a little choked up.

The museum’s recreation of a suburban basement, the iconic wellspring of middle-class punk energy.Credit…Jamie Lee Taete for The New York Times
Jeff Gross, who came from Miami to attend the When We Were Young punk music festival, was eager to visit the museum, where he got a tattoo of the Blink-182 logo.Credit…Jamie Lee Taete for The New York Times

“It looks like they get it,” came a heavy English accent behind me. I turned to see Morat, the museum’s mononymous, tattoo-covered, maroon-mohawked talent coordinator. Morat runs the visiting-tour-guide program, a battlefield promotion he received after working in the gift shop for a few weeks. He told me that he heard the Sex Pistols’ “Did You No Wrong” in a London schoolyard, not long after it came out in 1977, and thought, “Right, that’s my life, messed up.” He formed a band, Soldiers of Destruction, but they were too busy being soldiers of destruction to get around to recording their own album until 2021. He has stayed in the scene ever since.

“This is not just about fun,” he said. “It’s about staying alive.”

As far as the museum was concerned, there were some exhibits and some featured bands that he could do without, but that was life. Morat has little time for arguments about what punk is and isn’t.

“That’s the thing. Nobody knows,” he said. “I’ve been at it since 1977, and I don’t know.” He looked around, as if to be sure we were alone, then leaned in. “I mean, it was all just made up to begin with.”

Brett Martin is a writer in New Orleans and the author of “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution.” Jamie Lee Taete is a British photographer who is currently based in Los Angeles. His work mainly focuses on reality and perceived realities in the United States.

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