On May 13 Peter Ventantonio, better known as Jack Terricloth, frontman of the World/Inferno Friendship Society, passed away at the age of 50. Few others in the history of the genre so seamlessly and sincerely combined the poetry, aesthetics, innovation, and politics beating in the amphetamine-fueled heart of punk.
The World/Inferno Friendship Society was notorious in the northeast throughout the aughts, especially among suburban misfits like me, for their drunken, chaotic, violent, and other-wordly spectacles. Jack resembled Cabaret’s sleazeball Master of Ceremonies, welcoming us into a vital urban terrain where youth was permitted to be fast and dangerous. Songs romanticizing drugs, booze, petty crime, running from cops, and intense short-lived romances are common in punk. What set World/Inferno apart was they kept their promise.
Like many of his fans, Ventantonio hailed from a dull middle-class sprawl: Bridgewater, New Jersey. In high school he formed Stick and Stones which, like so many other Jersey hardcore bands, pushed the confines of the genre towards the small-town poetry of Springsteen crooned dark as Danzig. World/Inferno burst from these limitations with their 1997 release The Bridgewater Astral League (1997), a punk opera transforming the sleepy suburb into an expressionist set piece populated by a secret society of witchy punks reciting their backwards incantations of political chaos. None could listen to the album without wondering who they were, how they came up with their bizarre sound, and if their threats against the town’s power structure were in some way serious. The enigmatic debut is perhaps only comparable to another by their regional predecessors: the Misfits’ premier EP Cough/Cool. Once again, the violent fantasies and inside jokes of bored suburban youth had organized themselves in garages and basements into that new type of cadre mobilized against society: the punk band.
Around the release of East Coast Super Sound Punk of Today! (2000) this early, lean version of the band began playing regular shows in the East Village at ABC No Rio and Brownies, on eclectic bills mixing bands like Choking Victim (crust-punk), Saetia (screamo), and My Favorite (indie). Also like the Misfits, the band diligently subscribed new fans to a mailing list, regularly sending them personalized postcards announcing upcoming shows.
It wasn’t long before one of the cultiest cult-followings developed. Composed of theater nerds, art-school degenerates, goths, riot grrls, aging hardcore toughs, anarchists, circus punks, and swing dancers, their fans preferred cheap red wine to malt liquor, speed to weed, suits and fedoras to studs. Were these Infernites the hippiest crowd in the Village and Williamsburg nightlife? Absolutely not. Perhaps taking a page from Detroit rappers ICP, Jack always loved the following for what it was, nonetheless, often comparing their shows to the circus, and, in the song “All the World is a Stage (Dive!)”, the Infernites to clowns: When a clown goes straight all clowns are hurt/When a clown abandons his passionall his friends end up with egg on the face/Clowns must stand!
It wasn’t long before any show with World/Inferno on the bill became a World/Inferno show— announced by the perennial opener “Tattoos Fade,” a polemic against any trace of spectatorship or fandom:
What you’re sure you’re carving in stone
On your flesh
You’d do better living more and commemorating less
There’s much I don’t want to remember
There’s not a thing I’d wish last forever
Your tattoos are gonna fade!
Jack stretched out the last word of fade along with a threatening gesture, a claw, to which all the Infernites swarmed to the front of the stage, responding in kind. Other songs that developed unique theatrics included spectacularly dangerous fire-breathing (pre-Great White), the kickline/wall-of-death during “Only Anarchists are Pretty,” and “Heart Attack ‘64,” a jumpy waltz for which Jack encouraged fans to ask someone cute into a slow-dance mosh. For countless clueless pubescents this offered a first chance at physical intimacy, as Jack crooned: The dope and the wine and the stage/They gave back to me what I gave.
Over time the band ballooned to nearly a dozen members, including a horn section, second percussionist/vocalist Semra Erçin, bassist Yula Beeri, and virtuoso metal guitarist Lucky Strano, the only member of the band to eschew formal wear on stage for an A-shirt. In interviews, they would straight-facedly refer to an ever-expanding satirical backstory adapted from Bulgakov’s Master and the Margarita. Some of their tall-tales were widely believed. When a bout of appendicitis sidelined Jack from a 2006 tour with Leftover Crack and Mischief Brew, he punched-up the story to say LoC singer Scott Sturgeon had stabbed him in the appendix during a duel on the roof of C-Squat.
Like many greats before them, World/Inferno never quite received the recognition they deserved. Tin-eared snobs saw their horn section and fedora’d fans and wrote them off as a ska band, reducing their ethnomusicological sophistication. A tpyical Inferno set combined elements of hardcore, northern soul (a British genre popular with Motown b-side-obsessed mods and skinheads), Klezmer, classical and dissonant composition, opera, and musical scores.. At times it appeared the band sought to achieve some higher level success, but any failure on this front never slowed their creative progress.
Their third LP, Just the Best Party (2002) hailed their new scene of school-skippers and cheapskates who sneak into shows (often assisted by the band) and snatch liquor bottles from the bar in its opening track “Zen and the Art of Breaking Everything in this Room.” The song identified both their friends and their enemies: the police, shit-talkers, moralists, and most of all, yuppies already taking over downtown Manhattan and Williamsburg. If a show wasn’t going well, because the venue had fucked them over or simply wasn’t punk enough, the pounding opening of Zen became a signal to fans, like Black Flag’s cover of “Louie Louie,” to mercilessly rip the place apart.
Unsurprisingly these antics eventually gave Inferno something of bad reputation. The latter half of the decade saw the terminal decline of squats, DIY spaces, and lawless dive bars. They were often banned from many of the venues that remained, along with their crusty sibling-band, the gangster-rap-inspired ska-punk outfit Leftover Crack. But by then the scene had taken on a life of its own, with fans who had met at Inferno shows forming collective houses and their own bands. The best among these, and the closest to Inferno in sound and spirit, was the instrumental Westchester outfit Whack, who became a mainstay at anarchist fundraisers and parties in Brooklyn between 2007-2010.
Around this time fairweather fans (like me) drifted away along with the band’s star members Lucky, Semra, accordionist/keyboardist Franz Nicolay (also of the Hold Steady), and drummer Brian Viglione (also of Dresden Dolls). I wondered if Jack would give up the character, move on to something else, or just become Pete from Bridgewater again. Instead, Jack remained the only constant, always replenishing the band roster with new musicians for new albums and new fans.
Even when the shows became sparse in between line-ups, Infernites could always count on their annual October 31st bacchanal Hallowmas. It was another tradition borrowed from the Misfits—the elevation of Halloween to the most sacred day on any punk’s calendar. Not only did these shows serve as a point of gravity to keep the band active, and reunite the Infernites, but a pseudo-religious summoning of World/Inferno’s Schulz-inspired deity, The Great Pumpkin. Here Jack tried on another character, a southern evangelist of this messianic, perhaps satanic redeemer, who emerges from the pumpkin patch each Day of the Dead to heal the years’ moshpit wounds, hangovers, and broken hearts.
Even in 2020 Hallowmas occurred, although lacking much of the danger perhaps necessary for the invocation. Jack helped organize a city-wide scavenger hunt leading fans to a socially-distanced roof-top show. It would turn out to be his farewell performance.
The name World/Inferno referred to the bond between the living and the dead. Jack often sang of kindred tragic figures, kindred spirits, whose art and life were inseparable: Gustav Klimt, Peter Lorre, Phillip K. Dick, and Leni Riefenstahl. Two particular inspirations were the color-barrier pushing communist singer and activist Paul Robeson, of whom Jack wrote: Joy beats oppression/But oppression will make you pay/Speak up, black out, black listed, full bodied red, and Gun Club singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce—a blues-preacher beatnik punk poet who lived fast and died young: The Devil don’t let you age gracefully/But the angels never even spoke to me.
In “Ich erinnere mich an die Weimarer” Jack fully embodied his persona inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories to welcome the audience with burlesque humor to his intercenturial seedy nightclub, temporarily liberated from everyday misery of economic depression, boring socialists, and fascist takeover. I’m a fag, I’m a Jew, how do you do? That’s Mr. Anarchist to you! Jack announced before turning the mirror to the audience, You think your scene’s dead but mine got killed by some dimwit’s triumph of the will.
Unlike those perpetually unsatisfied cynics and nostalgists, Jack was a true believer that shows, house parties, and riots were transhistorical moments of creative and communal catharsis, always struggling to break from the drudgerous repetition of an everyday life maintained by bosses, bouncers, and cops. This was a second meaning of the World/Inferno convergence: the explosive meeting of everyday life and the demonic, dionysian forces of youth, intoxication, violence, lust, and love. It is some consolation that Jack, who had commanded in his tribute to Robeson to never “make a man fight all alone again,” lived long enough to see this demonstrated when thousands emerged from the horrific paralysis
of the pandemic one year ago to joyfully smash, steal, drink, and outmaneuver the police through the neighborhoods World/Inferno once raged. The most iconic image from the week was when an empty police vehicle parked at Fort Greene Park was burned again and again by fearless rebels, dancing in the light of its flames beneath rising black smoke signalling to the five boroughs that it was time to swarm the stage so-long denied to us.
The image reminded me of one of World/Inferno’s best-selling shirts from the aughts, an illustration of an NYPD van in flames beneath the words: These are the Best Moments.