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Winston-Salem's Heavy Rebel Weekender celebrates Kustom car culture and classic American music, not to mention the greaser lifestyle

Winston-Salem is a town of dramatic contrasts, its present-day identity traceable to the days when such family dynasties as the Reynolds and Hanes attracted poor, mostly mountain-bred folks from outlying counties and West Virginia to work their tobacco plants and mills. For decades, when the wind was right, residents could pick up the sweet smell of N.C. tobacco from R.J. Reynolds' downtown plant and the smell of tobacco money still lingers. And you can still stock up on cheap socks and underwear at one of the Hanes mill outlets in town. Winston-Salem is also the birthplace of Texas Pete Hot Sauce, BC fried pies, Goody's Headache Powders and Piedmont Airlines.

Now add to that list the Heavy Rebel Weekender (HRW), an event that celebrates the defining elements of the hot-rod/greaser lifestyle. The fest, which debuted last year, offers a car show, on-site tattooing and greaser music galore--over 50 bands representing every genre from psychobilly to punk, primal rock 'n' roll to pure ass-kickin' honky-tonk.

Just a stone's throw from the landmark R.J. Reynolds "skyscraper"--a 20-story Art Deco gem built as a prototype of the Empire State Building--is Rocket Automotive, a repair/Kustom car garage run by Mike Martin. It was Martin, along with Chapel Hill musician and scene-motivator Dave Quick, who came up with the idea of combining cars, roots music and greaser culture and, in effect, take possession of downtown Winston-Salem over the Fourth of July weekend. "Hell, we're the only ones in town," Martin says with a short laugh.

Martin's a cheerful guy in his mid-20s with an immaculate, heavily pomaded ducktail complete with a spit curl. There's grease on his sleeveless white T-shirt (aka "wifebeater") and a sturdy wallet chain hangs from the belt loop of his worn straight-legged denims. On his right upper arm he sports a tattoo of "our lady of the working man," a curvy '40s babe in overalls done up in a sort of "Virgin of Guadalupe" tattoo style.

"This is the first one I got," he says proudly. "It's from an old war poster and I liked it, blue collar. I thought, 'That's pretty fitting for me ... '''

Martin's car, taking center position in the garage, is a '55 Olds "mild custom" that he's currently fixing up; its rounded curves echo the curvy ideal of '50s female beauty seen in pinups of the time. (It's no wonder greaser gals often opt for a Betty Page/Marilyn Monroe look.) The car's been painted with flat green-tinted primer--sort of a minty sage--that matches the original factory interior; the back brake lights look like rocket nose cones. An ice blue '66 Chevy Impala is parked in the bay to the left. The hood is open and the engine is so shiny, so clean, you could set up a picnic on it.

"It's got a hopped-up 350 in it," he says with a grin. "It's bored over 60, flat-top pistons, 480 cam, Corvette head. Let's see, what else. We just cranked her up today," he says, easing behind the wheel and turning the key. The engine seems to explode; you can feel the power under your rib cage and the sound satisfies in the way a guitar through a good, overdriven Marshall amp does; you're seduced.

Personal tastes aside, however, Martin's no car snob. "There's no real principle for cars," he says. "I mean; I don't give a damn. If you like a Honda, great, go drive it."

The same goes for music.

"We [greasers] like anything with a good beat, don't care what it is," he explains. "I love garage, rockabilly, rock 'n' roll, old-school punk, honky-tonk--anything from Waylon Jennings to Lords of the Highway to The Last Vegas. Hell, I like bluegrass. But it's funny because you get pigeonholed. People are like, 'Oh, he's a greaser.' But that doesn't mean that all I like to listen to is rockabilly. God, I'd get sick of it."

Along with vintage rides, Martin's other passion is music. He first tried his hand at promoting rock shows at the Millennium Center Underground, a club located in the basement of Winston-Salem's spacious Millennium Center. It turned out that his landlord--Gregory Carlisle, a local hairdresser--owned the Millennium Center and was open to fostering the local music scene.

Martin had a space to put bands, but he'd never organized a big event. That's where Quick came into the picture. Martin was introduced to Quick after a show he'd booked at the Underground with Triangle groups Jimmy and the Teasers and The Straight Eights. Quick's wife, Charity, plays bass in the Teasers and had known Martin for years. Martin was only too happy to vent his frustrations with the Winston music scene with a fellow music fan. "Only one out of four of the shows were worth a damn," Martin says of his promoting experiences, referring to how hard it was to get the Winston scenesters out to see live music.

"Mike was saying, 'I want people to show up to something ... and I think I can get this place [the Millennium Center], but I don't know how to throw an event,'" Quick recalls.

"Well I do," Quick responded, and the two shook hands on the spot, agreeing to go 50/50 on the project whether it made or lost money (last year, they lost $1,000), and thus was the idea of a music fest born. They agreed that the event shouldn't cater exclusively to greasers and rockabillies, and christened the proposed fest the Heavy Rebel Weekender (a goof on "heavy metal").

Settling on the Fourth of July weekend, Quick went to work calling bands he'd met back in his NYC days when he'd spent five years on the road as guitarist/frontman for the balls-out punk/greaser trio Jack Black (note: The band was once managed by former Clash manager Cosmo Vinyl). In no time, Quick had rounded up 50 bands including a large number of touring acts.

While there are a few other greaser fests nationwide, notably Viva Las Vegas (every April) and Lead East up in Jersey (FYI, the term "lead sled" refers to the pre-Bondo practice of packing dents with lead), the HRW attempts to incorporate all the elements of the subculture's lifestyle: rods, tatts and rock 'n' roll. HRW, Quick says, is mainly all about the bands, "and then we added a car show, vendors, [tattoo] artists and pudd'n wrestling."

Wha? After last year's Jell-O wrestling experiment failed to gel ("It was more like Kool-Aid wrestling," Martin quips), visitors to the HRW Web site were allowed to vote on what they'd most like to see folks wrestle in: Jello, pudding, mud, or creamed corn. Pudding won hands down. So Martin lined up a restaurant employee pal to hook them up with industrial-sized bags of powdered pudding mix, chocolate and banana, which they'll mix up in "clean trash cans," he promises. As the wrestlers grapple, mixing up the pud', there'll also be vanilla wafers on hand to lob into the ring.

Martin's milieu is the car show, where car owners angle park their customized rides on downtown Winston's Trade Street. For the car show finale, there's a "burnout" contest: After backing up to the starting point, the driver nails the gas pedal to the floor while keeping his other foot on the brake, laying a patch of tire rubber on the pavement. "You win by causing the biggest, baddest burnout; you cause the most stink," says Quick, laughing.

Other special events include the "Crossroads Guitar Contest" where guitar players get to demo their licks--with a backing band--to try and sway the crowd to proclaim them the most ripping soloist. Gals can purchase their own greaser dream date at the "Greaser Auction," with some of the money going to charity, some toward the cost of wining and dining the bidder.

There's a vendor coming hauling a trailer full of early Ford hotrod parts, and clothes, and accessories vendors So Very Cherry (who make hip shirts, belt buckles and accessories), Denno's duds, Sourpuss Clothing and more have all confirmed.

This year, the city was playing hardball about having out-of-town tattoo artists take part in the festivities. "We had tattooing last year, which seems to, as of yesterday, have taken a shit in the toilet," says Martin dejectedly. While last year's HRW had regional and national artists in attendance, this year Winston imposed a $1,000 bond and $1,000 business license fee on would-be HRW tattoo artists. If the city doesn't relent, Martin plans to get local, already-bonded tattoo artists to play their trade during the event, thus keeping on-site tattooing a part of the event.

With the buzz building from last year's fest--Quick says that word of mouth between bands was so great that acts were calling him for 2002 slots starting after last year's HRW--this year 60 acts will perform on the Millennium Center's three stages throughout the weekend, staggered so that people can check out at least 15 minutes of each band. Performers include Jack Black (playing a reunion show on Friday), Dexter Romweber, The Cigar Store Indians and honky-tonk artists the Two Dollar Pistols and The Unholy Trio. National acts Billy Joe Winghead, The Babyshakers, Rocket 350, 7 Shot Screamers and dozens more also will be descending on this sleepy Southern town.

Along with all the bands in attendance, Martin and Quick expect a thousand or more attendees at this year's weekender, including at least 15 Californians and a German fan who scheduled his vacation around the event. And judging from the responses he's gotten, Martin expects 100 to 150 vintage auto owners to enter the car show.

Now if only RJ Reynolds would let them use their huge corporate parking lot, located nearly across the street from the goings-on. "What bummed me out is that here we are in their backyard and they didn't want to hear about it," says Quick. "I mean, everybody there uses their fuckin' products." EndBlock

For more information, band schedules or tickets, go to www.heavyrebel.net or call (336) 287-1134.

More by Angie Carlson

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