Margate sits just a bit north and west of Fort Lauderdale. Population: 53,909. There are mostly single-family homes and condominiums. There is also a large senior population and a city-run senior center that offers an enviable variety of programs and services. Margate provides one of the most sophisticated shuttle bus services in South Florida. Its fire department was named EMS Provider of the Year in 1996.
The old Swap Shop Drive-In on State Road 441 has been closed for years and looks like a ghost town, with white tarps thrown over the speakers. The drive-in screen was recently torn down. Passing the plethora of restaurants and plazas that pepper the landscape, dizziness sets in as eyes scan for signs of life.
In Margate, the sound of car alarms lulls you to sleep, cops seem to outnumber citizens, and minimarts are the places to see and be seen. Down a dimly lit pothole-filled street are two gas stations and rows of warehouses. This street leads to the trifecta of Margate music: the Slants, Malt Liquor Riot, and the Shakers. Theirs is an incestuous relationship, to say the least. These three bands compose the soundtrack for Margate. It's been said you write what you know, and they provide the antidote for the angst, the confusion, the boredom, and the sprawling normality.
The Slants are singer/guitarist Kevin Crook, bassist Adam Kostrzecha, guitarist Jeremy Nielsen, and drummer Joey Belknap. Adam and Jeremy are also both in Malt Liquor Riot, and Jeremy and Joey play in the Shakers. Since their formative teenage years, when they all first met, they've also played briefly in infamous bands such as the Iron Fist of Margate, Boy Sets Table, and 9mm Headlock.
With its skyrocketing elderly population, neatly manicured lawns, and plentiful shopping plazas, Margate seems like a regular All-American city. It has staples like Shoney's, Cumberland Farms, Long John Silver's, and -- great Jupiter's thunder! -- good ol' Clock Restaurant. But beneath the shiny, happy, consumer-friendly façade, there must be something that was driving this group of friends to make music. And it wasn't just the buffet at Shoney's.
"Growing up, pretty much all there was to do was hang out, drink, and run shit over," Kostrzecha explains as we sit on the hood of a Volkswagen in front of their warehouse. Inside is a mini-skate ramp. The walls are covered with graffiti, and the fridge is stocked with Natural Ice. A giant oscillating fan rustles up a unique scent of dead animal and sweat. The warehouse a few bays down plays host to a gathering of souped-up cars with overclocked subwoofers. The smell of weed wafts over to us.
"We had to make our own entertainment," he continues. "Slants' songs are autobiographical. They're about skateboarding, cars, life experiences. We just love playing music all the time and playing as many styles of music as we can. That's why we're in different bands. We're not the popular people, and we're not about kissing people's ass. We're just friends who like to hang out and play music. I would die for any of these guys, and I know they'd do the same for me."
And to represent that solidarity, three of the guys from the Slants have had themselves inked with identical tattoos.
"Pat Stahl [singer from the Shakers who also has the tattoo] bought an old transistor radio book, and we were all hanging out and just happened to see the same image at the same time," Kostrzecha recalls. "It doesn't have a specific meaning, but it kind of represents we're all going down together or we're all going to make it together. Pat's mom also has the tattoo, because she was always there to help any of us out if we needed it. There are about 12 of us altogether who have it."
Nate Diaz, the tattoo artist who inked all the guys and Pat's mom, doesn't have the tattoo but confirms their camaraderie. "Anyone who has that tattoo will go out of their way to make sure that the other person is OK," he says. "It's not a status symbol; it's not a joke. It's just about people who are real."
A few months ago, the Slants and Malt Liquor Riot sonically demolished Tavern 213 as they played to a sweaty rowdy crowd packed into the Fort Lauderdale joint. Curious onlookers trying to squeeze into the club witnessed a pit full of arms, legs, and various flying objects. The majority of that crowd was there to represent the hometown boys with frenzied shouts of "Margaaate!"
"When we play a show, everyone in our crew always shows up to support us," Crook says. "It's like anyone from any town. You have your followers who support you and show up to have a good time. I'm really excited, as I think we all are, about how far we've come as a band and as friends. To be able to play the type of music you want with people you love is great. I'm at the warehouse five nights a week, even if we're not practicing, just hanging out with these guys. Yeah, we hang out and drink, but something productive always comes out of it. I came back down here from Gainesville [where Crook played in the Beltones] just to be with these guys, because I know we can create something positive together."
Listening to the guys list their influences is an Attention Deficit Disorder sufferer's wet dream: MC5, Eric B and Rakim, AC/DC, Poison, Slayer, Chuck Berry, Deicide, Dimmu Borgir, Jimi Hendrix, the Ghetto Boys, and Credence Clearwater Revival all figure into the mix. The Slants' music is straightforward rock 'n' roll. No frills, no flowery lyrics, no masturbatory guitar solos.
The same can be said about Malt Liquor Riot, a band whose frenetic sets embody the what-the-fuck attitude of Margate. "We set out to be old-school hardcore with new-school-style vocals," explains Nielsen, who plays guitar in this band as well. "We're just influenced by the music we grew up skating on, like 7 Seconds and old New York hardcore. We actually started the band as a joke and would book shows and show up and just make noise for an hour. Like, we would just start playing and try to follow each other. Then, we actually started writing songs. We already knew Kevin [Grau, lead screamer] and Joe [Marino, drummer]."
Across the street from the Slants' warehouse is where the Shakers practice. Bassist John Stahl and his younger brother Pat, the guitarist and singer, have been in the changing lineup since 1994. Ever the multitaskers, Nielsen (third time's a charm) and Belknap joined within the last year, on guitar and drums respectively. They play poppy punk as the perfect complement to the Slants' anthemic rock and Malt Liquor Riot's minute blasts of hardcore.
"Margate's all right," says John Stahl, 29. "It's a lot of old people, convenience stores, the Swap Shop. That's Margate for you. I work for the city --"
"John's born to be mild," Belknap interjects as everyone laughs.
"Well, I'm just a little more settled than the rest of these guys," John says in response. "I'm happily married, and I own a house. I plan on living in Margate for awhile, and eventually I plan on running for office here. There's a lot of redevelopment going on. As long as it doesn't end up like Coral Springs, I'll be happy."
"I'll tell you what immediately comes to mind when I think of Margate," says 27-year-old Pat Stahl. "Thrift stores, mechanics, pawn shops, and these warehouses. Shit, we got reliable mechanics sitting right here [pointing to Kevin, Adam, and Jeremy, who all work on cars in one form or another]. We've all been grease monkeys over the years. We've all owned an old Volkswagen at some time. Everything that's happened to us in the last ten years has happened along this stretch of road [441 between Atlantic Boulevard and Copans Road]. Margate is straight-up working class, no frills. You can get a 99-cent quart and four tallboys for less than $3. On any night, you can go to a bar and get a $1.50 pint."
Hmmm. Is Margate really an All-American city, or is it surreptitiously contributing to the delinquency and alcoholic tendencies of its youth? I wanted to see the hookers, the corruption, the seedy underbelly of Margate. So I asked the guys to take me on a tour of their city. We piled into the back of their friend Twan's flatbed truck and proceeded north on U.S. 441. The first stop was the abandoned Albertson's where they used to skate. In the same plaza is Dad's Donuts, a converted fast-food place that was also recently torn down. As I try to ignore the exhaust filling my nostrils, I envision bands thrashing around in front of cases of donuts, the intoxicating scent of fresh-baked dough mixing with sweat. "There was a two-donut minimum here," Pat says with a smile. "You get to eat donuts, you get to see a show, and the place makes money. Everyone was happy." Once upon a time, current Hot Topic poster boys New Found Glory played with the Shakers here.
We continue north to Mother's Pub, an unassuming storefront with blacked-out windows and wood paneling slapped on the outside.
"This is totally a Margate bar," Pat laughs. "A total dive."
The rest of the establishments flanking the pub are medical supply companies or church-related. If you ever need hazardous materials or want to be saved from eternal hellfire after a few brews, this is the place to be.
As we chug south on this desolate strip of 441, Kevin goes on to tell me the story of "Cowboy," a local bum who has been MIA since he got out of rehab for the fourth time. "Cowboy used to live in the meter room behind our warehouse," he says. "He's been around for years. He'll always come by, hang out, ask for a cigarette, drink with us. He was in detox for a while, but hanging out with us isn't going to do him any good."
The guys point out the various gas stations that would sell underage beer and cigarettes, the motel where hookers are known to live, streets where they've broken bones skating -- and the restaurant where Cowboy fell on the curb, threatened to sue, and got free food every day. We drive through a neighborhood of neatly groomed lawns and square houses with identical carports. I ask where the downtown area is, and they swing me past another equally nondescript plaza with a liquor store, a pub, and an Ace Hardware. This is their downtown. Margate really is a series of plazas punctuated by gas stations and auto mechanics.
In the span of about 15 minutes, the Margate kids showed me the landscape for the adolescence of their tight-knit group; it is the impetus for them to pick up instruments and create a soundtrack they call their own. Listening to them reminisce happily puts this all in perspective. The Slants, Malt Liquor Riot, and the Shakers are not simply from Margate: They are Margate's working-class answer to rock 'n' roll.