Jail Guitar Doors

Apr 15, 2009 at 12:00 am

Some old punks are getting together this weekend to appeal for clemency for one of the Detroit punk scene's storied promoters. "Scary" Cary Safarian is currently in jail in Muskegon County and has spent the last 19 years in prison on charges related to an armed robbery.

The proposed "Graystone Hall Reunion" fundraiser has a certain cachet to it. Few Detroit clubs have lived lives as brief and explosive as the Graystone. An old Michigan Avenue social hall sharing the block with the Cas Bar, punk promoters rented it for such seminal early '80s shows as the Necros, Negative Approach, the Circle Jerks, the Big Boys and even the Misfits' final show in October 1983. Given the hall's reputation, it made sense that Touch and Go label head Corey Rusk agreed to manage the place on an ongoing basis, bringing to its stage the Descendents, the Meat Puppets and Big Black.

Similarly, it also made sense when Rusk moved on and Safarian moved in. Widely known by the nickname "Scary," Safarian was a Bluto-like fireplug of a man with a deep, booming voice, a melting glare and obvious command of every situation. And Detroit's rough-and-tumble punk scene needed a strong personality. Rusk had to have his jaw wired shut after the local skinhead gang broke it. Safarian was tough enough to chase the unruly skinheads out — toting a shotgun if necessary.

More than a mere tough, Safarian was a pretty smart promoter, working out deals that brought in Die Kreuzen, MDC, DRI, the Crucifucks, Bad Brains, Corrosion of Conformity, Dr. No, the Cro-Mags and many more, for all-ages shows with low ticket prices. But even for Safarian, it was tough going. He had to guarantee vegan meals for fussy national punk acts while trying to keep the hall under control, protecting it from the cops, the neighbors, the patrons — and sometimes the band. Once, Safarian even leaped into action to stop Black Flag's Henry Rollins from tagging local lout Bob Madigan, who had been nagging him from the audience all night to "read poetry!"

And Safarian was always firm about protecting his interests. After a Graystone gig one night, he shorted the Meatmen a few hundred bucks because of some equipment they had ruined. Unbeknownst to their singer, the band packed up some of the hall's equipment as revenge. Frontman Tesco Vee remembers, "He walks up to me and puts a gun in my face in the alley behind the club. We had to haul all our gear out to get his mics out. I had never had a gun in my face before."

But Safarian would go the extra mile for bands who treated him right. Then a member of Safarian's inner circle, Jose Mondragon, recalls, "When Corrosion of Conformity played, Reed Mullin left his glasses. Now, Reed can't see. He wore really thick glasses. Cary found them sweeping up the next day and said, 'Let's go to Chicago and give Reed his glasses.' And we drove the glasses all the way to Chicago. That's the kind of guy he was. ... He kept doing it. He was the guy who put up with all the bullshit, the neighbors, the cops."

Nate Buker, the frontman of '80s punk act Forced Anger, which will play at the fundraiser, adds, "He could have run it tighter, but it wouldn't have become what it did. He was willing to take a chance on weird stuff."

And weird stuff abounded at the Graystone. The reckless crowd cheered on things that would leave East Cost straight-edge acts bummed out, such as throwing hot dogs at the audience, putting M-80s in cow heads, or hurling meat on the hoof at concertgoers.

But the fun didn't last. Safarian's inner circle of friends knew that he was on the way down, getting deeper into narcotics and illicit deals. By 1988, the club was falling apart and mismanaged. Not long after an angry drunk smashed the front doors of the hall in with his car, Safarian left the club and eked out a living as a promoter for a while longer, but it was increasingly clear that he was hooked on drugs and headed for trouble. In 1990, he found himself facing 54 years in jail for robbing a pharmacy in rural Calhoun County. The country prosecutor made an example of this urban marauder, piling on the charges and even holding up Safarian's biker jacket in court in a bid for a more severe sentence.

Safarian has already done 19 years, and his supporters argue he's paid his debt to society for a crime in which nobody was killed and no gun was fired. His sentence dictates another eight or nine years before he's eligible for parole, and with his ill health (Safarian has Crohn's Disease and other health problems) and his aging father near death, organizer Greg Schmidt will proffer his petition for Safarian's pardon or commutation. At the very least, they hope he could be sent to a prison closer to his ailing, 90-year-old father. And, during his imprisonment, according to his clemency plea, Safarian has become an accomplished prison artist, earned a degree in psychology, and even helped prison staff during a disease outbreak in which seven died.

Jose says, "Whatever crime he did, he's been in there 18 years. He's gone through the same system everyone else goes through. He's done his time. Let him go."

Whatever your feelings about Safarian, the cause has rallied those who remember him from his Graystone Hall days, and stalwarts of the old scene will be flying in from all over the country. The music will include They Never Sleep, the State (of Ann Arbor's infamous "State House"), homegrown thrash-metalheads Ugly But Proud, the gorebillies of Country Bob and the Bloodfarmers and, of course, the return of Forced Anger. Buker even says John Brannon has agreed to join the band onstage and perform Negative Approach's classic "Nothing."

At 8 p.m. Saturday, April 18, at the Old Miami, 3930 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-831-3830; $5 minimum donation.

Interview with Cary Safarian, circa 1986.

Black Flag at Graystone Hall, early 1980s.

The Circle Jerks at Graystone Hall, early 1980s.

The Meatmen at Graystone Hall, circa 1987.

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]