Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series revisiting Sioux City’s punk rock scene, a subculture that embraced live music, distinct fashion and specific sets of ideologies. These stories are told from the perspective of those who lived and breathed the long-lost punk scene, and are forever molded by its existence.
Like many other greaser punks in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Ben Ely had himself a leather jacket.
It was fashioned with thick metal zippers and hand-painted band logos, and the lapel studded with short spikes. It was something Ely had regularly worn to punk rock shows around Sioux City when he was just a teenager. He still has the leather jacket . It may be slightly worn down and stiff and wrinkled around the sleeves and cuffs, but it’s still in fair condition given how much use it likely had.
"It's one of those things I never really wanted to let go of," said Ely.
Memories of that long-lost time in Sioux City's history are interwoven into the jacket's fibers and preserved forever, so long as Ely still carries it with him. It's a reminder of what life was like for the young, teen-aged punk back then, and what it was like discovering new music, attending energetic concerts and being around like-minded people. They were outcasts, rejects and misfits, and the reveled in being different -- or what they perceived as different -- from their peers.
"It was a place for people who didn't fit in elsewhere because of the way we looked or just by being musicians," said Ely. "It wasn't cool to be like that then. It wasn't that cool to be into punk rock or be musicians back then."
When the rest of Ely's classmates at Bishop Heelan Catholic School were abiding by the rules, Ely was busy getting into trouble with school officials by dyeing his hair blue, red or purple -- or any other color that wasn't "natural." As a result, he ended up bleaching his hair instead, which didn't seem to bother teachers and staff. But outside of school, any bizarre hairstyle was fair game.
"I used to spike my hair a lot," he said. "After I got out of high school, I had a Mohawk for a while. Richie [Vomit] used to do it for me. It took two of us just to do it basically."
His Mohawks would stand a foot tall and looked like big, fold-up fans. Without any access to fancy hair gels, Ely would have to resort to using egg whites and a hair dryer to properly style his Mohawk. It proved to be quite difficult, as using the dryer too close to his hair would cause the egg whites to cook.
"But when they dried, that sh** would never fall down," said Ely. "When you're young and don't have the money it's an easy, simple solution. That's what street punks did."
At 13, Ely began attending live music concerts around town before eventually playing in bands at neighborhood garage shows. Once he was old enough to drive, he made regular appearances at places like the Cattle Club.
But how was this Catholic School kid introduced to all this punk music? And how did he come to adopt the look and ideologies that came along with the culture? Ely said places like Uncle John Records helped tremendously.
"The only way we were exposed to that stuff was going to record stores and seeing flyers," he said. "That's how I found out about shows by seeing flyers at the old Uncle John's on West Third. After I first started going to shows, I pretty much fell in love with punk rock.
"It's been in my blood ever since."
Which is clearly evidenced by his greaser hairdo and home decor full of guitars and vinyl records from bands like the Ramones, T.S.O.L. and Rancid. Ely is also the frontman of the Sioux City-based Social Distortion tribute band Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell.
Ely remembered that everybody had their own reasons for engrossing themselves in the punk culture.
"Some people loved the music and some people loved it because it was a scene where they could socialize with others and not be shamed for their beliefs and what they were into," he said.
For Ely, he had always been a musician. He wanted to see the bands play and be apart of "that energy." The erratic energy of the punk rock shows were unmatched, especially when they were playing in cramped venues on a six-inc-tall stage with three feet of smoke hovering above the heads of the crowd.
"And they'd be full of kids watching Supernova and The Humpers play," said Ely. "It would be really hot and musty and you could barely breathe. I think for a lot of kids, it was somewhere they could smoke and hang out with their friends and not get in trouble."
The punk scene formed friendships and lasting bonds. Ely said he met a lot of his best friends during that time. The scene molded them "in a lot of ways." It was a time and place where Ely and his peers could stand up against societal norms and be different. A "subculture of misfits and delinquents" with a love for fast and aggressive music and no desire to fit in. The true meaning of punk continued to evolve as that generation of kids affected by the scene reached adulthood.
"As I got older, I think it also took on more ideals and beliefs," said Ely. "You didn't have to follow that norm or conform to the standards that society set for people [...], proving that you could do things your way, live your life your way."
And Ely did just that. He has the coat to prove it.