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HOUSE OF DUES: How Greensboro rock meshes with the legitimate and underground transshipment economy

by Jordan Green

The churning sound of hard-edged guitars emanates from the concrete and corrugated metal units that slope downward in six long rows from West Wendover Avenue next door to the vast, luminous Ford dealership and across the busy thoroughfare from the US Postal Service’s massive Bulk Mail Center.

In pithy elegant words composed from movable letters on the sign outside Secure Care Self Storage the business advertises its services, in order of importance: ‘“STORING IS THE/ ART OF MAKING ROOM/ AUCTION 0331 AT 1100/ BANDS WELCOME.’”

The sound comes from Unit 179, a 10 by 25 foot box lined with carpet and hung with Christmas lights that serves as practice space for the Five Ls, a Triad area metal-hip hop unit that has been building a loyal following in the past few years with its positive attitude and cathartic aural assault.

The band’s bass player, a guy named Bo Richards who’s clad in a University of Kentucky sweatshirt, stands in the open garage doorway deftly pulling a series of notes from the strings with his fingertips. A boy, five years old, bounces around the room, stopping to jab the leg of the bass player, who nods but keeps playing. The boy holds a short bungee cord that he fashions into a set of handcuffs, which he places around the wrist of a young lady seated between the musicians. As the song ends he begins to wrap the cord around his neck.

‘“Hey quit,’” says Richards, the boy’s father. The boy runs out of the room and climbs into the cab of a white Nissan pickup parked outside, proceeding to wiggle through the sliding window into the vehicle’s wagon.

Then the band ventures into a new song, as yet untitled. James Hilton, the band’s long-haired lead guitar player starts it out with an atmospheric run of notes vibrating with uncertainty. Then he and rhythm guitar player Mike Miller slam into a rush of powerhouse chords. Singer Brian Baldwin, whose voice up to now has maintained an edgy but thoughtful cast, stretches his vocal chords into a shriek.

Aside from the Christmas lights, a single bulb lights the room. A poster of Jagermeister, the band’s sponsor, hangs on the wall. Brown sacks from Sheetz full of drink bottles and fast-food wrappers clutter the floor.

‘“As you can see, the practice space gets full of cigarette butts and whatnot,’” Baldwin says, setting up a playful rhetorical jab at Richards. ‘“If Bo’s in the band it’s best not to have the practice in your home.’”

The warm night air of the freakishly mild late winter seems to swaddle the circle of musicians and family as a stiff breeze whips up the asphalt lane between the storage units. Another band, Takedown, is a hundred feet or so down the lane enacting the same ritual, except with their door closed. They play straight-edge hardcore, a more ascetic and focused version of the Five L’s art. While the Five Ls establish an open and communal feeling, Takedown evokes a kind of containerized fury through the combination of a thwap-thwap-thwap percussion style and machine-gunning rhythm guitar.

As members of the Triad’s under-utilized army of musicians they come here for the same reason: cheap real estate engendered by suburban sprawl. These units rent for about $150 per month, an amount sometimes divided between two or three bands. There are no spouses or neighbors around to complain about the noise, whether it’s the late afternoon or the early a.m. The units also serve as they were originally intended: as a place to store gear.

Secure Care, like many self-storage businesses in Greensboro, lies in close proximity to the interstate. Specifically, Secure Care is a mile from I-40. From there, it’s 22 minutes to High Point, 24 minutes over to Winston-Salem, an hour and a half down to Charlotte or over to Raleigh, two hours to Boone and only an hour up to Danville.

Greensboro musicians ‘— a vast and deep talent pool hobbled by the limitations of playing in a relatively small and risk-averse band of live music venues, struggling for recognition against the more nationally known brand that is Chapel Hill rock, and operating in a town in which few labels or studios have demonstrated much longevity ‘— make the most of one of their primary assets.

In a town built around the confluence of railroads as the Gate City has been, that is space.

With the era dominated by the closed world of the textile mills nailed shut a couple years ago with the bankruptcy and acquisition of Cone and Burlington Mills, the Greensboro Economic Development Partnership now lists ‘“transportation and logistics’” as first among equals in a handful of industry clusters that are supposed to carry the city into the 21st century. With major corporate distribution centers, package sorting hubs and self-storage businesses serving smaller firms thriving along the major thoroughfares, musicians have exploited this unintended benefit of a much larger economy of scale.

The downside is toiling in wilting heat in the summer and bone-numbing cold in the winter (‘“Sometimes you never get warmed up and your fingers stay cold; sometimes that’s the best way to practice,’” says Leadingtone guitarist Lucas Ray) and putting up with shoddy acoustics. The advantage is keeping overhead low while maintaining one’s chops during the periods of rest between forays on the swell of the East Coast stream in search of hard-won audiences.

The stylistic result, whether it’s the Five Ls, Takedown, the Southern-inflected metal of Steelwolf, the classical-inspired virtuosity of Leadingtone, or the cacophonous art rock of Manamid ‘— all Greensboro bands that use storage units as rehearsal space ‘— is music that’s played with the volume cranked up. In contrast to places like New York City, where psychedelic folk music and electronic music have risen to prominence in a claustrophobic urban landscape where rehearsing with a drum set has become practically impossible, flamboyant rock and roll anchored by a thundering drum beat still rules the South.

In a word, North Carolina bands rock.

As Steelwolf guitarist Warren Deatherage puts it: ‘“We don’t condone loud music; that’s just the way we were raised. It’s part of the animal. We attack our audience with our instruments and our volume. If we do not get the crowd involved we did not do our job.’”

Deatherage, when not in performance drag, is likely to have his long, curly brown hair tucked underneath a Washington Redskins ball cap with wire rim glasses framing his gentle eyes. He settles onto a stool and surveys the unit, which boasts the extra amenity of fiberglass insulation stuffed into the ceiling girders.

‘“This has been home base since 2000,’” he says.

The room is filled with clusters of amps and a drum set belonging to band member Johnny Tesh, along with a Power McIntosh computer the band has been using to mix recordings. A 1977 Lynyrd Skynyrd ‘“Street Survivor’” tour poster tastefully decorates the wall, a proud reminder of Steelwolf’s opening-act duties for the exemplar of Southern rock, along with other giants of the genre like Molly Hatchet and Blackfoot. Along with a solid collection of original songs, Steelwolf covers Judas Priest’s ‘“Breakin’ the Law’” and Quiet Riot’s ‘“Metal Health.’”

‘“I get to hear them bang and clang,’” says Krista Caviness of the bands. Secure Care’s 32-year-old store manager’s residence is attached to a locksmith shop within the gates of the facility.

‘“They’re required to sound-proof their studios,’” she continues. ‘“Everyone has a 120 volts and a light. The band units get 220 volts just so they don’t blow a fuse. They get a lovely port-a-john in the back and there’s a drink machine in the front. I tell the other tenants they have music as part of the deal.’”

The members of Steelwolf marvel at the fact that they never receive any noise complaints at Secure Care.

‘“This is the only place we don’t have to worry about noise and we don’t have to worry about the police knocking on our door,’” Deatherage says.

Tesh picks up the thread.

‘“We had a practice space in Davidson County for awhile,’” he says. ‘“We heard a knock at the door and the next thing, we see this black glove. The police officer told Warren, ‘I can hear you three miles away.’ We didn’t even know there was a house three miles away.’”

Secure Care lies along West Wendover Avenue in a strip of light industrial zoned between Norwalk Street and Tri-City Boulevard. The roughly 700 US Postal Service employees who work at the heavily-industrial-zoned Bulk Mail Center across Wendover are unlikely to hear or mind the racket.

Just north of Secure Care is a little, isolated block formed by Railway Avenue and Swift Street and zoned to allow five single-family residences per acre. Beyond that lies the westward line of the Norfolk-Southern Railroad pointing towards Winston-Salem. Still further lies West Market Street where West Market Self Storage butts up against the railroad due north of Secure Care.

Mapquest.com shows a neighborhood identified as Terra Cotta just a short distance to the northeast of Secure Care, but it is hardly a landmark among Greensboro’s residential communities. The closest thing to a traditionally conceived residential neighborhood with contiguous blocks of houses and a hub of small stores might be Pomona, about 10 blocks to the east.

American Flag Self Storage at 1102 Merritt Drive, where the band Manamid practices, is also located near the railroad tracks. Also zoned light industrial, American Flag’s property is bracketed by residential areas to the north and south with heavy industrial zoning across the street where the Norfolk Southern Railroad’s south-going track towards High Point veers from the Winston-bound line.

While Steelwolf’s origins spring from the Black Sabbath era, Manamid’s might be closer to the no-wave pummel of Pere Ubu, but their manifestos are not dissimilar. Steelwolf defines itself as ‘“where nature meets hi tech’” while Manamid declares on its Myspace.com page, ‘“our skill set limits us to fast and distorted rock music,’” and lists its influences as ‘“our completely toxic 24-hour news culture of fear, math, delicious meals, sex and the results.’”

To some degree, the styles of these bands ‘— Steelwolf, Manamid, the Five Ls, Takedown and Leadingtone ‘— as well as their prospects for success, are shaped by a physical landscape created by the railroads, which in turn set the stage a century and a half later for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the decentralized global supply chain.

‘“The arrival and departure of 60 trains a day gave Greensboro its nickname the Gate City in 1891,’” writes Gayle Hicks-Fripp in ‘“A Brief History of Greensboro,’” a 1997 article written for the Greensboro Historical Museum. Even as the city grew around textiles with the arrival of Cone family and around insurance with the growth of Jefferson-Standard and Pilot-Life, the Gate City continued to develop its logistics infrastructure when the federal government selected it as a regional mail hub in the 1940s.

According to the Greensboro Economic Development Partnership ‘— which claims as its mission facilitating the creation of high quality jobs, attracting new capital investment and retaining and expanding existing businesses, among other goals ‘— transportation and warehousing along with wholesale trade makes up 14.0 percent of employment in Guilford County. Packages, household goods, mail, clothing, food and narcotics all pulse through the Gate City in significant quantities on their pathways to points of destination throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. After the death of textiles, the new economic engine is by nature a machine of diffusion tied to the interstates and the airport.

Perhaps the most significant distribution hub is United Parcel Service’s western North Carolina terminal in south Greensboro, which employs more than 1,800 people as sorters, automotive mechanics, long-bed truck drivers, sales personnel and human resources specialists. That doesn’t even count the hundreds of employees who drive local delivery routes.

Packages are trucked into Greensboro from the company’s largest US air hub in Louisville, Ky. and a smaller one in Columbia, SC, says Greg Shull, a spokesman for Atlanta-based UPS.

‘“It’s a very significant scan: if you’re a customer tracking a package it’s likely it will go through Greensboro,’” he says. ‘“Packages that come through Greensboro will go as far east as Mebane, sometimes up into Virginia if it’s a place like Danville, all the way to the Tennessee line and down to Rock Hill, South Carolina. That would be the largest hub in our district. Thirty-eight percent of the employees in the district are based out of that facility.’”

The Kmart Distribution Center, a company that emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2003 and reformed under the umbrella of Sears Holdings, employs 800 at its facility in east Greensboro, according to the economic development partnership.

New York-based Polo Ralph Lauren ships adult men and women’s clothing from its global suppliers primarily to its 15,000 square foot Greensboro distribution hub for inspection, sorting, packing and shipment to retail outlets across the United States, according to the company’s most recent annual report. The economic development partnership lists the company’s Greensboro employee base at upwards of 700.

The Matthews-based Harris Teeter grocery store chain has its largest distribution center in Greensboro ‘— 913,000 square feet of warehouse that includes refrigerated storage for perishable goods, and space for dry goods and health and beauty supplies. The warehouse at 200 Distribution Drive employs 541 people, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Panetta.

Old Dominion Freight Line, a non-union trucking company based in Thomasville that specializes in less-than-load deliveries, has one of its nine inter-regional hubs in Greensboro, with 500 people employed at the facility, according to a company spokeswoman. Birmingham, Ala. serves as Old Dominion’s southeastern regional hub, with other spokes in Atlanta, Dallas, Memphis and Morristown, Tenn.

Transportation and logistics bears the hallmarks of a growth industry in Greensboro. Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble moved into a 500,000 square foot warehouse in Browns Summit last year after previously relying on rented storage buildings. Crest toothpaste, antiperspirants such as Sure and Old Spice, Fixodent denture adhesive cream, Nyquil cold medicine and Pepto-Bismol are all P&G products that stop over in the Greensboro area in transit between manufacturer and retailer.

And Greensboro-based DSC Logistics, a third-party shipping company expects to complete a new 137,000 square foot warehouse by July, almost doubling its capacity, according to the economic development partnership.

But the crown jewel of the Gate City’s claim to regional logistics preeminence will be the Federal Express Mid-Atlantic Hub, currently under construction at Piedmont Triad International airport. Met with controversy because of its responsibility for displacing airport-area residents and creating relatively low-wage promised jobs, the facility is scheduled to open in June 2009 and is poised to become the Memphis-based company’s fifth major US air cargo hub.

Self-storage facilities, of which Switchboard.com lists about 60 for Greensboro, often serve as distribution centers for smaller companies.

‘“There’s basically three categories of renters,’” says Andy Hudson, marketing director for American Flag Self Storage. ‘“There are businesses that use it as a distribution center. Tenants that use it for office supplies: [for example,] doctor’s offices will keep supplies there. Then there’s the homeowner that’s using it as storage during a move. They’re all pretty much small businesses, but tenants will rent ten or so units at a time.’”

And it should come as no surprise that illicit goods often follow pathways carved by the commodities of legitimate commerce.

A US Drug Enforcement Administration brief for 2006 reports: ‘“North Carolina is a destination state for cocaine, as well as a staging and transshipment point to the more northern states along the Eastern Seaboard and in the Midwest, including Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.’”

Similar to textile and clothing produced in Central American and shipped northward to US and Canadian consumers, much of the cocaine supply comes through Mexico, then to states like California, Arizona and Texas before reaching transshipment areas such as North Carolina, according to the DEA.

The role of trade globalization and immigration in the contemporary illegal drug supply chain is apparent. When the North American Free Trade Act was approved by Congress in 1994 it accelerated overland shipping between Mexico, the United States and Canada, also facilitating increased drug shipments.

Activists in the fair trade camp also argue that NAFTA and the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which was approved last year, are displacing rural Mexicans and Central Americans from their land, causing them to flee to the United States to support their families. North Carolina had the fastest growing Hispanic population during the 1990s, quadrupling from 1990 to 2000, according to the US Census.

The 2003 North Carolina Drug Threat Assessment published by the US National Drug Intelligence Center notes that ‘“North Carolina’s vast stretches of rural terrain, particularly in the west, provide opportunities for criminal groups to conceal drug-related activities.’”

‘“Criminal groups often store cocaine in rural and urban areas in North Carolina on a temporary basis before transporting it into other areas,’” the report continues.

Again, not surprisingly, drug traffickers have been known to use self-storage units as staging areas for their trade.

Federal court documents describe how federal agents established that convicted drug dealer Elton Turnbull used a storage unit at an American Flag Self Storage location near the intersection of US Highway 29 and 16th Street in northeast Greensboro before he was arrested in 2002.

The National Drug Intelligence Center reports that 533,742 tons of legitimate goods were shipped from Mexico to the United States by tractor-trailer in 2000. Along with appliances, electronics and apparel, tractor-trailers are often used by Mexican criminal groups to transport cocaine into North Carolina from Mexico, California and Texas.

‘“According to law enforcement officials throughout North Carolina,’” the report continues, ‘“Mexican criminal groups in southwestern states and Mexican drug trafficking organizations routinely use Mexican illegal immigrants in North Carolina as couriers to transport cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and, to a lesser extent, heroin into and through the state. These criminal groups exploit a growing Mexican population to facilitate their illegal activities.’”

To a lesser extent, outlaw motorcycle gangs such as the Outlaws, Hell’s Angels and Pagans transport drugs into and through North Carolina, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center.

Once cocaine shipments arrive in Greensboro for local consumption, most of the supply is converted to crack. To quote the National Drug Intelligence Center, ‘“cocaine, particularly crack, poses an extreme drug threat to North Carolina,’” causing ‘“violent crime.’”

The Greensboro Police Department reported to federal authorities that approximately 85 percent of homicides in the city were related to the distribution and abuse of crack cocaine, and that ‘“abusers often commit property crimes, such as burglaries and robberies, to support their habits.’”

Back at Secure Care the dudes of Steelwolf are indulging in less destructive vices. For starters, they have a rule about all the members being drug and alcohol free. And they have a specific order of priorities; as Johnny Tesh says, ‘“First Warren, we’ve got to thank Jesus Christ and our families.’”

For about an hour a group of kids outside have been bouncing a basketball off the corrugated metal roofs and doors. At one point, the bouncing stops after a violent clang just above Steelwolf’s practice space. It becomes apparent that one of the kids has climbed up on the roof to retrieve the ball.

‘“This is the first time this has happened,’” Warren Deatherage says, with a look of mild embarrassment.

Make no mistake though ‘— the guitarist and drummer maintain a fiendish devotion to their music.

‘“I’m sweating by the time we’re in here an hour, even if there’s two foot of snow on the ground,’” Deatherage says. ‘“I’m notorious for staying here half the night just to get something right.’”

Then he mentions Tesh’s propensity for cracking his cymbals by the sheer velocity of his playing.

‘“You could cut an artery with one of those cymbals,’” Deatherage says. ‘“He can’t play soft; he’s just an animal.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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