Saturday, September 6, 2014

he took one look at me and he began to squeal

Last night, my worlds collided.

Cooking hot dogs with napalm
In 1982, I was a student at Philadelphia's Hussian School of Art, a small, but respected vocational institute. In order to earn tuition funds, I was employed scooping ice cream at a place on the hip and trendy South Street (where, apparently, "all the hippies meet," as the popular Orlons' song so eloquently states). One day, as I made my way to my after-school employ, I spotted a hand-drawn flyer tacked to a wall that was resplendent with colorful concert announcements. This one, however, was small and plain and attention-grabbing in its simplicity. It charmingly touted a band intriguingly named The Dead Milkmen. A close approximation of a smiling cow adorned the handbill, rendered in the shaky, unsure strokes of a novice illustrator. I ripped the leaflet down and jammed it in the large, faux leather portfolio I carried to transport my own artwork and supplies. Later, during a break from piling whipped cream high on sundaes and creating double-decker cones, I examined the Dead Milkmen's ad more closely. There was an offer at the bottom, to obtain a homemade cassette of songs by the band. The next day, I got my Mom to write a check and sent it off to the Philadelphia address at the bottom of the flyer. Soon, the tape — Death Rides A Pale Cow — arrived. Upon first listen, I was floored. I played that tape over and over and over, until its magnetic particles were stretched thin. The songs were infectious, funny and instantly endearing. The lyrics reflected a sardonic, skewed assessment of the world, with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.The music was hooky and poppy and irresistible. Within a day or two, I knew every word, every chord change and every drum beat. I was soon turning my art school colleagues onto my secret discovery. I even took to corresponding (via actual written letters in the days predating the Internet) with the fledgling band. It was an uncomplicated period in my life. It was a veritable lifetime before my first corporate job, before my mortgage, before I passed a kidney stone and before I began my daily dose of high-blood pressure pills and Lipitor®. However, despite being a veteran of hundreds of concerts and musical performances, I have never had the opportunity to see The Dead Milkmen live.

I got married within two months of my graduation from art school. Soon my wife and I bought a house and not long after that, our son was born. Then there was work and vacations and taking out the trash and parent-teacher conferences and funerals and family get-togethers and... you know... life. I continued to listen to music, both old favorites and keeping up with new releases. I also continued to go to concerts, first with my wife and then with my son, as our tastes in music began to parallel. But still, Dead Milkmen shows were never on the bill. Then, the band broke up in 1995.

Readers of my blogs (this one and my illustration blog) know about my unusual hobby. Not one to collect stamps or participate in strenuous sports, I latched onto visiting cemeteries. Creepiness aside, it is a pretty cool diversion. Cemeteries are quiet, peaceful sanctuaries, with some of the older, historical ones boasting magnificent landscaping and breathtaking sculpture. To date, I have spanned the country and visited over two dozen graveyards, sometimes accompanied (not always willingly) by my wife, sometimes going solo.

At the end of August, the reassembled Dead Milkmen announced an outdoor show at — of all places — historically-certified and recognized Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. I chuckled to myself at the combination of performance and venue and how it smacked of the typical absurdity for which the Dead Milkmen were famous. Surprisingly, my wife suggested that we go. "Jeez!," I responded to the invitation, "I didn't know that would be something you'd be interested in." For thirty years, that woman has kept me on my toes! Next thing I knew, I was purchasing tickets. It was going to be two great things that go great together — like a punk rock/funereal Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

When I arrived home from work, I was greeted by a cooler that my wife had prepared and packed with bottled water, sandwiches and snacks. I quickly changed my shirt and we headed out for the show. Mrs. P, a tie-dyed-in-the-wool Dead Head, seemed genuinely excited. We picked up our tickets at a make-shift "Will Call" table and started off, along with other patrons, on the winding path through the grand burial ground to the predetermined stage area set up just outside the ominously named "receiving vault." We chose a suitable piece of grass, just a few feet in front of a headstone inscribed with the birth and death dates of Ralph and Mildred Young, who, sadly, would be missing the show by 30 years. I began the task of setting up our chairs, as the stage crew made last minute adjustments to lighting and other rigging.

When the crypt goes creak
As the sky grew dark and a bright moon shone through foreboding clouds (how apropos!), the crowd — a mixed bag of aging punks and their younger counterparts — moved in and surrounded the stage. With no announcement or fanfare of any kind, the Dead Milkmen, now in their early 50s, looking a little gray around the temples and presumably not as spry as they once were — took the stage and launched into a fitting cover of the Bauhaus classic "Bela Lugosi's Dead." Within seconds, they had the crowd eating out of their hands. When they reached the final few notes of the tune, the recognizable opening beats of their hit "Punk Rock Girl" drove the faithful over the edge. I felt an involuntary smile stretch across my face. I was immediately transported back to 1982. I knew every lyric to every song, even though I hadn't heard most of these tunes since my hair was its natural color. "Tiny Town" "V.F.W," "Beach Party Viet Nam," — all of 'em rang out like they did from the headphones of my Walkman (when the aforementioned Mr. and Mrs. Young still walked the earth). Plus frontman Rodney Anonymous prowled the stage with the energy and fervor of a man half his age. He engaged the crowd with a series of quips and banter that evoked laughter, even if some of the references went over the heads of the younger audience members. The crowd was great. The music was great. The setting was great. It was an experience like no other and it was killing two birds with one stone.

Even if it took thirty years.


  1. I also loved the show. I turned my younger sister (11 years my junior) onto The Ramones and Laurie Anderson when she was about 12. From there it was the Minutemen and eventually Dead Milkmen. She actually saw DM in Athens Georgia years ago when a band named Lenny lead off for them. I am so glad to finally have seen these guys since I never got the chance before. Great show and I was so fortunate to have gotten my two boys (24 and 20 years old) to see it with me. What a wonderful evening and a fantastic Set of music. Thank you so much for all your efforts to share your talents.

  2. Thanks Josh! Glad you finally made it to one of our shows! I also chuckled at your mention of Hussian. I was attending the Art Institute of Philadelphia at the same time. I graduated in 82. -- Dean (Clean)

    1. I graduated from U of Illinois (Champaign/Urbana) in 84 and did not move to Philly until late 85. I was fortunate enough to work at The White Dog Cafe in 86 with some people who were hip to the local music scene which is when I heard about you guys. Shortly after that I was married with a child on the way so my show going became rather limited. A million meals and millions of pieces of cake later I find that I now have time to see some shows again. Yours was wonderful. Great idea for the opening song btw.

  3. I think you married the right woman :) Glad you got to see the band in person, in a setting that you especially enjoyed. Thanks for the link to Danny Kaye's grave, though why anyone would want a bench with his ashes is beyond me!