The scene at downtown Fort Lauderdale's Poor House on any given Friday or Saturday night is familiar. Young men and women pile into the club's close quarters to hear the band and unwind. People sit at the bar and swap stories while a handful of tipsy patrons spills out into the street, oncoming cars be damned. A man in a soiled apron wipes his forehead as he drags to the curb a trash can heavy with empty beer bottles and watches the garbage water leak out onto the street. The air is an intoxicating mix of sweat, smoke, and pizza. The usual suspects are all here -- hanging out at this bar has been the equivalent to cruising the ol' high school parking lot for well over a decade.
On the corner south of the Poor House, Bobby Johnston (ex-singer for '90s sludge rockers Load) sits with friend and bandmate Dan Ceratelli, romanticizing his well-known vices. "You know me, man," he laughs. "I snuck a flask into Barfly and laughed at all the girls who thought Mickey Rourke was ugly."
The lanky, denim-clad Johnston has contagious energy. He'll bounce up and down when he's telling you a story, his wispy, shoulder-length blond hair bouncing with him, punctuating his sentences. Beneath his effusive exterior lies a hint of Southern charm, making Bobby's front-man persona a natural. "I used to be a drummer," he says, "and I just got sick of all these Jim Morrison types, and I figured, you know, if Circle Jerks and Black Flag could do it -- I could do it!"
Fort Lauderdale Saloon, 626 S. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale
Saturday, July 3. Doors open at 8 p.m. Call 954-832-9344. To help get them out of Florida for a night, you can still vote for them to win the Dunkin' Donuts-sponsored garage rock contest at www.littlestevensundergroundgarage.com
Together with bassist Pat Joyce, guitarist Ceratelli, and drummer Jeff Contaldo, they make up Southern Flaw -- a band of veteran SoFla musicians who have enough history together for their own Behind the Music. Joyce says the name choice was easy: "Bobby was talking about some girl with a Southern drawl, and we thought, 'How about Southern Flaw?'"
"We're flawed, and we're from Florida," the 33-year-old Johnston explains. "We're a bunch of fuck-ups. I've got a Florida tattoo on my forearm. I've tried to move away, but I didn't see anything that was better than down here."
Their sound is as sleazy and Southern as Anna Nicole Smith when she still worked at Wal-Mart. Joyce sums them up as a "dirty, drunk, loud, and loose band" whose influences stretch back to their junior high AC/DC and Rolling Stones records.
The group's résumé is a laundry list of old local bands: Los Diablos, the Hell's Anglers, Load, R.H. Johnston (Bobby's acoustic one-man show), Boffa, the Holy Rolling Hellfires, and the Nikki Taylors (until they got a Fed-Ex package from her management to cease and desist). Now in their 30s, the members have known one another since they were teenagers and were in several less-inspired bands. Thirty-four-year-old Joyce's first band was a glam romp called Trix. "It was like Kiss with colors," he says. "It was totally stupid as hell, but I was 15."
When the band formed two years ago without a singer, Johnston, like a stray cat, led himself to the mic. "I tried to fight it, but he kept showing up at the damn warehouse," Joyce says. "He sang on one of the songs, and it was awesome, so we said, 'You're in. '"
"I was a punk kid who secretly liked bands like Hanoi Rocks or Joan Jett, and they're glam guys that were secretly into punk rock," Johnston explains. "We kinda met each other in the middle."
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To complement the band's heavy blend of punk and Southern-fried rock, Johnston's lyrics are covered with a layer of autobiographical grit. On "Weak Constitution," he sings, "Your mom kicked you out of the house/Now I can't pay the rent/Might as well take the rest of the rent/And get fuckin' bent." It's no secret that Johnston's legend in the local scene hinges heavily on his on-again/off-again relationship with the bottle. It seems every scene veteran has a story about him, and many still refer to him as "Bobby Load." You could almost see him as Rourke's character in Barfly; he exudes an unpredictable intensity and embodies the down-and-out poet shrouded in cigarette smoke, always asking the bartender for another round.
Their gritty, Budweiser-splattered live shows are unpredictable too, whether Johnston's screaming wildly in an audience member's face or just too tired to finish -- the latter of which actually happened at a Poor House show. "The last two songs I sang, and [Johnston] ended up falling asleep on the side of the stage while we were playing," Joyce recalls. "I wish someone had a picture of that."
You can catch Joyce saying "these kids" a lot, but the band's youthful fan base and bombastic shows help ease the aging process. "All these kids [in local bands] are like ten years younger than us," Joyce says. "I remember seeing older guys at the Button South and being like, 'God, you're 30 -- give it up! Get a normal job, and get married!' You know, 'cause we were kids, so we'd rag on 'em. But now, me and Dan just rag on each other."
Being the grownups in a scene of younger bands isn't all bad, though. After ten years as the throat-straining front man of Load and battles with various vices, Johnston says, "I'm just happy I've made it this far. When I was younger and partied, I thought, 'Please just let me make it to 21.' When I was younger, I couldn't wait until I got to this age so people would respect me a little more. But you know what they say -- 'Don't trust anyone over 30. '"