Remembering the time the Sex Pistols cruised through Tulsa for their penultimate performance

The Filth and the Fury

by John Wooley & Brett D. Bingham

12/03/2015

Although Tulsa’s Cain’s Ballroom later became famous for catching future superstars like U2, The Police, and Van Halen on their ways up, perhaps the single best-known show of Larry Shaeffer’s 24 years of ownership came not long after he’d assumed full control of the place. On the night of Wednesday, January 11, 1978, a crowd estimated at between 700 and 800 braved snowy weather to catch the notorious—and trailblazing—British punk-rockers the Sex Pistols at the Cain’s. It would turn out to be one of only seven shows the band played on its American tour, which had its beginning in Atlanta and wound through the South and Southwest until the group’s final stop at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. The Cain’s show was the next-to-last concert the band would ever perform. The Sex Pistols broke up a few days after the Winterland engagement.

 

Interestingly, the infamous punk group had performed the previous night at Dewey Groom’s Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas, which had formerly been the Bob Wills Ranch House, a later headquarters of the man who’d made the Cain’s famous back in the 1930s. The Sex Pistols members, said Shaeffer, had “shown up on my doorstep at 10am the day of the show, ready to get off the bus,” after having ridden all night instead of staying in Dallas. The reason, according to Shaeffer, was that they were trying to avoid a fight with some Texas boys over a camera lead singer Johnny Rotten had smashed. (Other sources indicate that bass guitarist Sid Vicious had kicked a female photographer and picked a fight with a security guard at the Longhorn, so there was no shortage of possible reasons for the lads to hightail it out of Texas.)

“Their manager, Malcolm McLaren, was brilliant,” Shaeffer noted. “He put them on tour in America after they’re huge in London as the bad boys of rock. Smartly, he doesn’t play them in New York, Detroit, Chicago, or L.A. He puts them down South where there’s probably going to be some redneck and Southern Baptist resistance.”

Cain’s indeed saw a bit of that resistance, according to the TulsaWorld’s Vern Stefanic. In his January 12 review of the show, Stefanic mentioned that the “vomiting on stage, spitting and violence” that had marked other Sex Pistols concerts seemed to be absent at the band’s Cain’s appearance. “In fact,” he added, “the most intense emotional display came from about 30 ‘Jesus People’ outside Cain’s before the show. The youngsters greeted Cain’s customers with sermonettes, reading material and a ten-foot long sign which read ‘Jesus Loves You.’ ”

“I had every undercover cop in Tulsa County in there,” Shaeffer said, “with their trench coats and their white socks and loafers. They were thinking they were going to arrest these guys for doing something crazy onstage. There were dozens and dozens of people with cameras. Maybe 30 or 40 percent were people from Tulsa, most of whom didn’t know who the Sex Pistols were, but they were curious.

“You had to be a person somewhat informed to know who they were,” he added. “There wasn’t a single bit of airplay [in Tulsa]. You had to be reading Rolling Stone or something.”

Two young men who fit Shaeffer’s latter description were a pair of roommates from the University of Oklahoma named Johnny Ray Vanderveer and Chris Tyler. After articles about the band in Rolling Stone had piqued their curiosity, the two had gone out and bought a cassette tape of the band’s debut release, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. “We both got a kick out of ‘em,” the late Tyler recalled in a 2010 interview. “We thought they were real irreverent. We played their music everywhere we went.”

So, when Tyler and Vanderveer found out the Sex Pistols were stopping off at the Cain’s, they knew they had to make that scene. At the time of the concert, they were both in their shared hometown of Chelsea, about 50 miles northeast of Tulsa, waiting for OU’s spring semester to start. “Before the show, it was snowing quite a bit, as I recall,” said Tyler. “Johnny had a pickup truck, and we had a bottle of vodka and a couple of plastic cups. We’d stop every few miles, scrape some snow out of the bed of the pickup, and make us kind of a little vodka slushie—so we’d be ready for the concert,” he added with a laugh.

Thus fortified, they arrived at the Cain’s, only to find “three or four news trucks and klieg lights and reporters and stuff out there,” Tyler remembered. “I thought, ‘Is something else happening here? Are they opening for somebody else?’ But it was all for the Sex Pistols.”

Once they’d gotten through the door, the two decided that nothing would do but for them to get as close as possible to the stage—so, said Tyler, they decided on a bit of subterfuge: “When we got in, we pulled out all our various forms of University of Oklahoma student ID, chemistry department voucher slips, whatever we had. Johnny had a little Instamatic camera, and I think I was pretending my checkbook was a notebook or something, and we convinced ‘em we were with the student newspaper. They got us right up front.”

Following the opening set by a Bartlesville, Oklahoma-based hard-rock band called Bliss, which Shaeffer was managing at the time, the Sex Pistols came out, beginning their set with the anthemic “God Save the Queen.”

“Then,” remembered Tyler, “they had an electronics problem, or one of the guys walked offstage. There was some kind of a pause or break, and people started yelling stuff out. Somebody yelled to Johnny Rotten, ‘How do you like Oklahoma?’ and he shouted back, “I effin’—expletive deleted—hate it!’ And then Johnny Ray shouted, ‘Well, I hate England!’ ”

Vanderveer, who died in 2004, had been born a Thalidomide baby. Each of his arms was truncated, ending in two fingers—a physical imperfection Rotten immediately seized upon.

“Johnny Rotten looked down at Johnny and said, ‘You don’t even have any effin’ arms!” and Johnny Ray said, ‘You don’t have any effin’ talent!’ Then Vanderveer tore his shirt off. I don’t know if it was Johnny Rotten or Sid Vicious, but one of ‘em was shirtless, and he’d painted something on his chest. So Johnny started spitting beer at him. And Johnny Rotten started spitting beer at him. These guys made fun of each others’ physical infirmities throughout the evening.”

Added Tyler:

We were sitting down there so close that we were all lit up. There was a lot of light on us, from the backlighting behind the guys, and I can just see those punks looking down and seeing Vanderveer swigging beer with no hands and thinking, “This is great. Who is this freak?”

I don’t care who it was—if someone started popping off, Vanderveer was going to pop right back. Johnny Rotten called him a crippled American and a freak, and Johnny called him a dopehead and a British fag. And the people around us were going, “This is interesting. Here’s a guy on stage making fun of a guy with no arms. That’s not something you see all the time.”

According to Ellis Widner’s Tulsa Tribune review, which ran (under the headline “Pistols’ music mostly noise”) the same day as Stefanic’s Tulsa World story, about 15 minutes after the Sex Pistols set began, “a steady flow of people began filing out until Cain’s was more than half empty by the time the group completed its performance.” They also both reported that the Tulsa police got a call about a bomb in the women’s restroom, which proved to be a hoax. Each reviewer dismissed the show and the notion of punk-rock in general, with Widner writing that “American rock ‘n’ roll fans are the subjects of an attempted seduction by overblown media hype.” For his part, Stefanic called the band “simply a novelty, not a trend-setting act,” and added his belief that “it’s doubtful punk rock is here to stay.”

“I’ve read reviews where people said [the show] was sloppy and it wasn’t much,” said Tyler, who went on to become a well-regarded financial advisor in Tulsa. “But I remember the music being very much like what I thought it would be like. And the sense I had was, ‘These guys are truly rebellious.” I was thinking, ‘Is this what another generation saw in the Beatles, or the Stones, or Jim Morrison?’ We knew this could be something special.”

Oddly enough, he added, the band apparently had no merchandise table. “Every concert I’d ever been to, they were selling music or shirts or something—but not these guys. So when it was over, we went out to the truck, and Johnny turned on [the Sex Pistols tape]. We ended up with a crowd of about 30 or 35 people, standing around that truck, bopping and banging into each other, sipping vodka and snowballs and listening to the Sex Pistols, because they didn’t get a chance to buy their music inside.”

Shaeffer paid the band $1,000 for their appearance. “For most of the super-legendary shows that happened at the Cain’s, the tickets were under $10,” he explained. “I think the Sex Pistols’ were $2.50. Then I marked
them up to $3.50 because they didn’t have enough money for the road and needed an extra $500 bucks. I’ve got some of those tickets still. I sell ‘em on eBay for $300 to $500 apiece.”

He also donated one to the Rodgers family, the ballroom’s current owners, so it could be displayed in the office with a shattered board from the north wall of the Cain’s’ former dressing room. As legend has it, that piece of lumber was splintered by the fist of none other than Sid Vicious, in the only venue on that 1978 Sex Pistols tour that’s still standing today.

 


Published inThis Land: Fall 2015From the upcoming book No Place Like the Cain’s by John Wooley and Brett D. Bingham. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sid Vicious played lead guitar for the Sex Pistols.