The Big Lebowski: Punk Rock Bowling on the Las Vegas Strip

NoFX/Photo: Ron McIntyre

SANTA CRUZ, June 11, 2014— Few contemporary social events compare to Punk Rock Bowling, the yearly music and bowling festival which takes place on the southern end of the Las Vegas strip each May. It is a spectacle everybody ought to witness at least once in their lifetime.

The casinos on and around Fremont street are, for one weekend, absolutely inundated and invaded by dirty, tattooed punk rockers. Like a scene from a science fiction film, it is the human equivalent of oil and water, striking in its appearance, while relatively harmless in its action.

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Traditionally, the lower end of the Las Vegas strip has been the domain of seniors, larger families, and those without a massive disposable income. The casinos are a little more run down, signposts of a bygone era of gaudiness and flash. There is the odd vacant building or business, and rooms at many of the casinos are ridiculously cheap, an incentive to attract prospective visitors away from the sexier, more contemporary destinations further up Las Vegas boulevard.

This part of Las Vegas is generally more tame, mellow, and patently middle American, and then, each May, the punks come marching in, to the collective and visible horror of the vacationing straights.

Music festivals are fun. For one price, concertgoers are treated to a weekend of bands performing endlessly, one after another. Many are bands that rarely play out, giving fans a rare, sometimes once in a lifetime chance to see them. Throw in the merchandise, iconic Las Vegas backdrop, and a bowling tournament to boot, and Punk Rock Bowling, or PRB as it is called, has quickly become a fixture on the calendars of punks worldwide.

Throw thousands of likeminded people together in a single location for a weekend, add the unfortunately copious and gratuitous amounts of alcohol, and you have the stuff of memories.

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While PRB, and its ilk, show that punk music retains an ability to mobilize and unite, the question of what they are amalgamating for remains unanswered. Looking around Fremont street at all the tattoos, mohawks, and leather jackets emblazoned with patches of political punk bands, one wonders where the social discourse has gone. Here are thousands of punk rockers, from all over the world, all with dozens of favorite bands in common, bands who sing about changing the world through political action.

The scene is set for a legitimate social movement, or, at the very least, for a spectacle which could draw attention to the various causes (racism, inequality, corporate malfeasance, sexism, war, etc.) which punk bands have been singing about since the 1970s.

Instead, the most prevalent and common scene throughout the weekend at PRB is drinking, and not just drinking, but drinking to disgusting excess. It becomes much more difficult to change the world and press those in power to your agenda if you are face down in your own puke. What a waste of an event, from the standpoint of sheer social possibilities.

Is it not viable for this gathering of the tribes to tackle the world’s more pressing issues, to march, to protest, to force an audience with those in power? Could these people still enjoy some good music and perhaps an adult beverage or two while participating? Unfortunately, PRB wastes this impressive mobilization by making alcohol consumption the primary activity. Everywhere you look throughout he weekend, you will see tattooed punk rockers consuming copious amounts of booze, often beginning before noon, and lasting until the early, pre-dawn hours.

One can only imagine the real, more lasting affect such a gathering could achieve if everyone was not so busy getting wasted.

Maybe it is unrealistic to expect much. Perhaps punk’s political bark will always be a little worse than it’s bite. Underneath the tattoos and brightly colored hair we are all just human beings, replete with all the fears, uncertainties and frailties which come along with it. There is a sense of loss, of what might have been.

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To see so many people who have all sung along to the same anti-establishment lyrics so easily succumb to slot machines and liquor is a bit defeating to the more idealistic among us. Maybe this is how the hippies felt as the sixties were awkwardly wrenched into the seventies, and those whose hearts were not really ever into the struggle tucked their tails and ran for a more reasonable, middle class existence.

Either way, it was a great weekend of music, unity, commercialism, and missed opportunities for substantive social change.


Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.

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