“First you shock them, then they put you in a museum.”
—Mick Jagger, paraphrasing Jean Cocteau
Fat Mike Burkett—blue-haired, self-described submissive cross-dressing queer, lead singer of the punk-rock band NOFX, and co-author of the best-selling memoir The Hepatitis Bathtub—just added another title to his résumé: founder of the Punk Rock Museum, in Las Vegas.
Located right next to the Little Darlings strip club on the Vegas Strip—where else?—the two-story, 12,000-square-foot temple to noise was named one of the “most anticipated” museum openings of 2023 by Smithsonian magazine. Equipped with instruments donated by punk rockers that guests are free to play in the Jam Room, a bar that serves warm beer, and bathrooms that strive to rival CBGB’s for degradation, the Punk Rock Museum might return Las Vegas to the infamy it so richly deserves.
“I was going to open a punk-rock record shop in Vegas with my friend Lisa Brownlee,” Fat Mike tells me. “So we started looking at small storefronts. Then Lisa said, ‘We should really put some artifacts in here, some cool punk stuff.’ And the idea just grew.”
Fat Mike credits Brownlee—previously the production manager for the Vans Warped Tour for more than 20 years—for pulling the museum together. “She knew every band, so she was perfect for this,” he says. “But what we found out after we contacted so many bands is that the bands themselves don’t have a lot of their own stuff. It’s the collectors!
“When we found all the collectors, that’s where we got everything—like [Minor Threat and Fugazi front man] Ian MacKaye’s Greyhound bus ticket from Washington, D.C., to L.A. to play one show with his first band, the Teen Idols … I just got handwritten lyrics to ‘Bella Lugosi’s Dead,’ by Bauhaus.”
“I paid $2.2 million for the building at 1422 Western Avenue in Vegas,” Fat Mike continues, “which was a really good price because buildings five blocks away—the same size, in the Arts District—are going for $4 million. And the building was already perfect for a museum because there are little rooms everywhere. So the whole first floor is pre-punk, or proto-punk, like the Stooges, the MC5, and the New York Dolls, but as far as I’m concerned, punk rock really started in 1974 with the Ramones—that’s who did it.”
I couldn’t agree more. And speaking of the Ramones, the Punk Rock Museum is the final resting place for Joey Ramone’s fingerless glove and Dee Dee Ramone’s Superman T-shirt and diamond ring, as well as Arturo Vega’s original 1975 Ramones poster. I’m also happy to say that an issue of Punk magazine, which I named and co-founded with John Holmstrom in 1975, is also on display.
But I had another, and trickier, question to ask Fat Mike. Was putting the Punk Rock Museum in Las Vegas his revenge on the city for banning NOFX from playing there in 2018?
“Yeah, it was,” Fat Mike says with a laugh, before becoming deadly serious. Eight months after the 2017 mass shooting that left 59 dead, Fat Mike made what he later described as an “insensitive” joke between songs at the Punk Rock Bowling & Music Festival. “I mean, that sucked, but at least they were country fans and not punk-rock fans,” he had said.
The onstage banter cost NOFX dearly. Good Morning America ran a story headlined Punk band NOFX Apologizes for their ‘Shameful’ Las Vegas Massacre Joke. Stone Brewing, the brewery that had partnered with NOFX on the beer Punk in Drublic, named for its 1994 album, dropped the band. The rest of NOFX’s 2018 U.S. tour was canceled, and they were banned from Las Vegas, as well as cities across the country.
“It was the worst thing that ever happened to us,” Fat Mike says. “We had death threats, our tour was canceled. It was a terrible time. It was just us being insensitive. But what’s the big deal? We didn’t shoot anybody!”
Fat Mike’s $100 guided tours of the museum—which is located just 20 blocks from the Punk Rock Bowling & Music Festival—are selling out fast, suggesting he’s been forgiven for his 2018 comment.
“It’s not really a tour of a museum as much as it’s like hanging out after a show,” he says. “It’s got to be fun—otherwise, why bother?”
Legs McNeil is the co-author of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk and The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry