Classic Reprint: Train songs, washboards, and snot
The following was my first published piece of writing. I submitted it to the Illinois Times in November of 1987, at age 20, and it led to my unofficial position as go-to rock music writer for the paper over the next three years. More than two decades on, it still seems almost inconceivable that the Dead Milkmen and Mojo Nixon actually did a show at the PCCC. But it happened. I was there. And here’s what I wrote about it:The doors open, and the crowd, what there is of it, pushes forward, only to be immediately bombarded by the deafening, prerecorded sound of ZZ Top, at what has to be top volume. Conversation is impossible, unthinkable. As I look around, I realize that I am probably the oldest person in the room, and last year I was a teenager. Tonight, the Prairie Capitol Convention Center has been transformed into a late-night day care center for spikey-haired, inebriated thirteen-year-olds.
Okay. I exaggerate. There are the occasional curious middle-aged passersby, a few thirty-year-olds in Ramones T-shirts, and, of course, a number of college students. The key word tonight, though, is Kids. Kids and Hormones. And Denim.
After the lights have dimmed, I make my way through the throng of miniskirts, hoops, and Mohawks to get a glimpse of Baltek, the opening act. What can you say about a band that comes across as a hybrid of all the worst aspects of Iggy Pop and Johnny Cash? Heavy metal train songs must’ve looked good on paper, but Baltek doesn’t have an original bone in its body. No one seems to mind. No one seems to listen, either: the girls compare eye makeup, the T-shirt stand does a booming business, and everyone waits for something interesting to happen. Soon the lights are on again.
I patiently await the arrival of the first of the two headliners. Watching the teen rituals going on around me, I have to resist the impulse to join in; they all seem to be having so much fun that it’s hard not to be jealous of them. I get the sense that these kids realize what a rare treat this is, and that this town will probably never play host to another “New Music Concert.” The kids are squeezing it for all the deviate pleasure it’s worth. Before I can affect my own transformation into a teenybopper, though, Mojo Nixon appears from the wings. His partner, virtuoso washboardist Skid Roper, has been standing nonchalantly onstage for around ten minutes, awaiting his partner and, like me, enjoying the view. Here’s where the real fun begins.
Mojo Nixon turns out to be a powderkeg, an insane foot-stompin’ pissed-off intellectual hillbilly with a dirty mouth and a crude, perceptive sense of humor. It’s not so much that he’s an original: he unapologetically steals riffs and lyrics from people as far apart as John Lee Hooker and Jonathan Richman, and his satirical targets (MTV, Elvis-worshippers, urine testing, yuppies in European cars, Tammy Bakker, etc.), while fresh as the day’s headlines, are also grist for the mill of every standup comic working today. No, it’s the simple vision of a little man in a flannel shirt having one heck of a good time raving about what he believes in that makes Mojo great. Backed only by the sound of his own electric guitar and his pal Skid’s washboard, Mojo’s hedonistic indignation is the committed reaction of a man stuck in a world that he sees going straight to hell.
Which isn’t to say that’s how the audience sees him tonight. There are some Mojo devotees, but it’s mainly kids waiting for an excuse to slamdance.
A slamdance is not a pretty sight once it revs up. Even standing on the periphery, I receive a few bruises and seven crushed toes. Close to where I’m standing, a pretty girl who can’t be any older than fourteen does her best to avoid the melee. Suddenly, though, in one of her valiant attempts to see the band over the crowd, she is swept up by a wave of flailing bodies and into the heart of the slamming sea at the foot of the stage. All that’s left is the lingering smell of her perfume, as I watch in horror and Mojo Nixon keeps banging away.
The lights come up again, and I’m getting a little tired. To be quite honest, I’ve never been a big Dead Milkmen fan up to this point, and personal suspense is not high. However, the crowd is energized and ready for some snot-rock (that’s what the Milkmen play; they’re too innocuous to be accurately labeled “punk,” but they are very snotty). It’s not long before the band emerges, and it makes me wonder: how come low-budget outfits are so much more reliable than big money acts? Count on a three-hour wait for Starship, but the Dead Milkmen, heck, they’re punctual.
Lead by non-singer Rodney Anonymous and non-guitarist Joe Jack Talcum, the Milkmen put on a predictably wacky and frenetic show, punctuated by bracing but harmless obscenity. The Dead Milkmen are imps. Rodney Anonymous looks like Tom Hulce did in Amadeus, a little kid who can’t believe that all eyes are actually on him. Not that anyone’s going to compare the Dead Milkmen’s music to Mozart. They specialize in silly ditties like “The Laundromat Song,” “Nutrition” (“at least I give a shit about the stuff I eat…”), and the classic “Bitchin’ Camaro.” They play fake country, fake funk, fake heavy metal, fake reggae, and more, effortlessly switching from one inept style-approximation to the next.
But the audience is having a great time, and so am I. More than once I find myself non-singing along with the loopy, catchy choruses; again and again I catch myself laughing. The slamdance crowd has gone bongo, and the security guys are sweating buckets, their steroid-injection tracks glistening in the half-light as they toss the more zealous of the dancers out the door. When the band actually gets called back for an encore (Rodney A.: “Thanks, I didn’t think we were that good tonight.”) they play the best music of the evening, climaxing with the (real) funk of “Swordfish” combined with their satirical club hit “You’ll Dance To Anything.” Joe Jack Talcum plays some hilariously great guitar on this one, using an empty liquor bottle for a slide. When the Dead Milkmen leave the stage, everyone’s appetite for snot-rock has been sated.
It’s distressing that in the current state of rock ‘n’ roll, everything that’s popular seems to consist of utterly inconsequential fluff (Madonna, Poison), or deadly serious “statements” (U2, Springsteen). That’s why a vulgar, funny shot-in-the-arm like Mojo Nixon is important every once in a while; and that’s why a lovably inept group of professional adolescents like the Dead Milkmen are more than a welcome change. It helps to see that someone can just go onstage without a fabulous light show and million dollar equipment and just have some good, adolescent fun. Actually, I thought that was what rock ‘n’ roll was about to begin with. Hats off to the performers at Springfield’s “New Music Concert.” The Prairie Capitol Convention Center may never see their like again.
Originally published in Illinois Times, vol. 13, No. 14, December 3-9, 1987