My best friend in the world is a punk rock aficionado. Ok, aficionado is kind of a stretch, but he was the guy that really introduced me to the genre back in my high school days. When we were younger, rowdier men we would travel all over New England taking in punk rock shows. We basically became best friends on a trip back to my house one evening listening to Keasbey Nights by Catch22 when I was in high school. I grew up mostly on my parents’ music as a child, so I knew very little about punk but through the years our tastes would eventually rub off on one another. We went to a ton of shows together during that time and we moshed, crowd surfed, and I think my friend even did a stage dive at Lupo’s in Providence.
As teenagers, we were letting out a lot of pent up inner-aggression with some lyrics involving violence and morose outlooks. However, a lot of the people we met in these places were nice, peaceful people looking to channel their various troubles. I remember specifically talking to my friend after my first experience with moshing how it was such a different experience than what the news had villainized into as a sort of raging, onslaught of fists and boots. My friend told me there were unwritten rules: if you fell down, the pit paused, and you helped the person back up, but if you were any kind of a dick the crowd banded together against you which usually meant getting someone tossed from a venue.
Though I had seen some accidents (I even heard about one band at the Warped Tour I attended fighting people in the crowd), I had never seen anything radically charged or hate-filled at any of these events not even in a musically snobbish sense especially being that I leaned more towards indie, folk, and rock. I never felt out of place or unwelcomed, my reminiscence and occasional foray to punk shows have always been one of community and not division. I even find myself looking for albums by the likes of The Bouncing Souls, Bad Religion, and NOFX on vinyl from time to time.
Thirty-five minutes into The El Duce Tapes, I was so angry I sent a text saying how repulsed I was by the actions of the subject of this documentary and I didn’t know that I wanted to continue it. El Duce and his executioner mask wearing bandmates were generally getting to me because there was no one looking at this guy and telling him, “no, this isn’t right.” The Mentors’ audience may have been in on the joke, but I wasn’t laughing. I spent a lot of the film trying to figure out if The Mentors’ act was satirical for El Duce or not. A question that I think will continue to plague me because of the manic nature of El Duce and his struggle with the person under his hood, Eldon Hoke.
My reaction is the exact intention of directors Rodney Ascher and David Lawrence as they navigate Ryan Sexton’s early 90s footage of El Duce’s self-proclaimed “Rape Rock” band The Mentors. In the early portion of the film, El Duce can be found promoting rape, white supremacy, misogyny, and every other issue that can get under your skin. As a masked man on stage, El Duce appears anonymous like a troll on internet platforms and he will say any offensive thing he can think of with little regard for who it hurts or fear of being punished. His words are so explicitly extreme, however, that when he’s invited to appear on Jerry Springer with the demon-dressed shock rocker’s GWAR who don’t shy away from calling him an a**hole for the ideology he promotes.
GWAR have always promoted a showmanship campaign of over-the-top blood, gore, and other bodily fluids always without question from an audience that can tell their act is a performance—if only based on the costuming and stage dressing that is made to look like you’re attending a performance in the bowels of Hell. This is where the El Duce act falls short. If the act is ultimately all a gag the sheer absence of showmanship resonates otherwise. Appearing on stage shirtless with a beer gut hanging out, El Duce dons a hood while shouting Nazi salutes at the audience and for me, it’s just a bit too on the nose for satire.
Through GWAR (particularly bassist Michael Bishop), the viewer gets that first perspective of El Duce while bandmates and relatives offer another. Mentors bass player Steve Broy describes El Duce as a “genius” at one point because he can’t see a way that El Duce could ever believe the type of rhetoric he spews on stage. Though Broy’s remarks are genuine and lovingly articulated, his apathy towards the band’s message is what stands out. That sentiment is echoed in interviews with The Mentor’s stage dancer, Palace, who likens The Mentors’ act to N.W.A., further citing that N.W.A aren’t actually going out “gang banging” and that it’s all just a joke. My eyes kind of lit up as if to say, “I’m sorry what?” when I heard that. The thought of comparing a white supremacist soundtrack to the scores of systemic racism and oppression in N.W.A.’s records in an encapsulated “gang banging” quote really starts to show you the kind of cultural removal of some of the individuals involved.
When the film focuses on the enigma of Eldon Hoke and his El Duce persona, what we really see is his conflicted personality. On the one hand, he seems like Mr Happy-go-lucky, or at the very least a burnout looking for a party, but as Sexton presses him on his views on particular Mentors themes, usually while Hoke is guzzling 40 ounces of Schlitz or Old English, his views alternate between the sincerity of Eldon and the vile persona of El Duce. Eldon says something sweet about the diversity of the people he’s played with through the years, particularly Rick Lomas, and those he considers friends in the wake of being asked to play a “white power show.” Then like a light switch going off, starts advocating for “white rights,” how he would make the greatest dictator by building a wall in Mexico, and how “all liberals must die.” This is how the whole movie shifts into become something far more deeply concerning.
The old saying “every lie is based on truth” really echoes throughout the documentary for me. Through having a platform El Duce has become the supervillain character he set out to create and the most troubling part is that he is just charming enough to come off as harmless. For Instance, with a story about trying to start The Mentors tour by selling the band as the world’s best Kiss cover band and conning club owners by sending them cassette tapes of recorded Kiss songs as The Mentors’ press kit. There are many obvious connections to a certain businessman’s 2016 political campaign that many never thought had a chance in hell, but here we are on the cusp of a new election with that outspoken candidate battling for position in his reelection.
As the directors angle their film for the final act, their last focus appeals to the audience in empathizing with El Duce as the fame of The Mentors subsides forcing him to go on welfare, sleep on couches, and beg on the street for booze money. The problem for me is that, to some extent, it works and so damn well that I resent them for it. Eldon “El Duce” Hoke gets a lot of what he deserves but because the directors have presented a wonderfully complete experience in their presentation of the footage, this absolute disgusting purveyor of “male chauvinism rock” who “believe[s] in peaceful rape” gets just a sliver of my empathy due to his obviously ignored addictions and potential mental illness. Do not misunderstand me here, El Duce is a completely disgusting human being to me, but Ascher, Lawrence and Sexton are shedding a light on a real issue that desperately needed addressing 30 years ago and continues to be drastically under-addressed today: mental health.
The El Duce Tapes is one hell of a ride through the eyes of a truly evocative and divisive personality. While I still feel the same contempt for this individual as I did at the start, the filmmakers have crafted a stunning parallel to cultural insensitivity with the rise of a blunt, opinionated person that struggles with severe addiction and elude to troubling issues that have gone undiagnosed. As the film reaches its climax, the notorious Kurt & Courtney scandal El Duce is most known for is nothing more than a momentary blip on the radar. El Duce admitted on camera that Courtney Love paid him 50,000 to kill Kurt Cobain in the 1998 documentary, but The El Duce Tapes never gravitates toward the controversy and only ends up using the event to bring awareness to the troubles of Eldon Hoke. It ends up being a very punk rock note to end on if people came looking for a lewd conspiracy theory and wound up getting social perspective instead.
If you would like to check out The El Duce Tapes, It will be premiering on Arrow’s all new streaming service on November 2nd.