March 16, 2014

The Inescapability of Norb


A few weeks back I did something I’ve been doing every six months or so for years now. I got online and checked to see if anyone had yet reissued Suburban Mutilation’s one and only album, The Opera Ain’t Over Til the Fat Lady Sings, on CD. I needed that record, and knew one of these days someone would have the clean common sense to put it out.

            Suburban Mutilation (or S.U.M.) was Green Bay’s very first hardcore band—maybe the first in all of Wisconsin—and the band responsible for dragging so many of us into the loud, fast wasteland of punk rock. S.U.M. was formed in 1980 by two high school students, Gary Farrell and Norb Rozek, who’d been friends of mine since grade school. They went through a number of incarnations and name changes (they were The Rat Eaters, The Rippers, and Public Nuisance before settling on S.U.M.), and their drummer, Perry Perrault, who was another friend, died in a car accident just as they were taking hold.

            I think they were still The Rat Eaters when they headlined a high school talent show. They had a different singer at the time, but he didn’t last long. It was the first time I’d seen them play (and, I learned later, the first time they’d ever played in public). I was backstage working the curtains, and seconds after they broke into their first song the school principal appeared backstage in a wild sweat, demanding the power be cut off. He didn’t seem so worried about the two metal bands who’d played earlier in the evening, but Norb, Gary, Perry, and whoever that singer was back then scared the shit out of him. I think that’s when I decided Norb and Gary might be on to something.

            Don’t know how many times I went to see them play above the bowling alley at Northside Lanes or in a rented hall at the Spot supper Club. There weren’t many hardcore shows in Green Bay back in the early eighties, but S.U.M. headlined most of them. Locally they were huge, and hugely influential. They let me sit in on a couple of practices in their respective basements, and I even made it into a video they shot at the Spot for the song “El Salvador Stomp” (ah, where would punk rock be without Ronald Reagan?). Don’t think the video exists anymore, but if you find it, I’m the moron off to the right who gets knocked to the floor and scrambles off camera, which pretty much sums up my punk rock career.

            Norb, who was Norby and Orbit in grade school and who was coming to be known as Rev. Norb in high school thanks to the band and his twisted and hilarious little ‘zine, Sick Teen, has snuck his way into a number of stories over the years. Even when we were in cub scouts together, he was frighteningly smart, a hypersonic talker, and a bottomless well of pop culture trivia. He later became a bit of an international punk rock celebrity thanks to a column in Maximumrocknroll magazine, his post-S.U.M. band Boris the Sprinkler, and by sheer force of personality.

            I remember a moment. This was in junior high. Now, Norb had been listening to punk long before the band was formed. I think he was the first one in town who was even aware of it apart from panicky news stories about the Sex Pistols. He started adopting the style, and I recall sitting on the bus outside school waiting to go home when I saw Norb leave the building and head for his own bus. His hair was cropped short, he was wearing new tinted horn-rimmed glasses, and he’d donned a long gray coat. He’d always stood out, even in grade school he’d made a point of dressing differently, but this was new. I’m not sure what it was that clicked in my head, but I remember thinking, “That’s the future.”

            But I’m rambling. Okay, so about a month ago, right? A month ago I was online checking on the status of that S.U.M. album. That’s where all this started. I have the vinyl but no turntable, and so I needed the CD. I still couldn’t find any evidence of a reissue out there in the world, but did see Norb had self-published a book called The Annotated Boris. Even though I’d never be able to read it (and there was no audio version) I ordered a copy. It arrived a couple of days later with a nice inscription (“I will always be taller than you”) and a note in which he recalled a schoolyard fight I’d had with the school fat kid when we were in third grade. I’d actually written about that fight ten or fifteen years back, but he remembered more accurately what exactly it was I called the fat kid when the fight was over.

            Norb and I hadn’t been in any kind of contact in over twenty-five years. (The last time was when I was in Philly and heard he’d been fired from a job as a deejay at a Green Bay radio station for cursing on the air.) Nevertheless I sat down and wrote him a note. In the days that followed I found myself listening to a couple of his Boris the Sprinkler albums, which I hadn’t heard in some time.

            Then this morning my mom called and we were comparing notes about the weather (another storm here, still fourteen below there). “Oh,” she said. “I meant to tell you there’s a big interview with Norby in this morning’s paper.”

            “What?” I asked. “You mean Norby Rozek?”

            “Well, yeah.” It was a dumb question. We didn’t know any other Norbys.

            Weird thing was, I hadn’t said a word to her about Norb in a very long time. She just remembered him from back when I was in school. She always lets me know when someone I used to know makes the local papers, but usually it’s because they’ve been arrested for child molestation or shot to death by a relative.

            “He says his old, um, Suburban Mutilation record just came out on CD.”

            “You’re kidding.”

            “No, he says here they were so punk rock they didn’t even tune their instruments.”

            My mom never had a problem with punk rock, and in fact watched S.U.M. perform on a public access show and didn’t think they were all that bad (though she might’ve been prejudiced, having known both Gary and Norb since they were in grade school.)

            After getting off the phone with her I got online and ordered a copy of the album at long last. Then two hours later I received an email from a complete stranger, a professor from somewhere in Pennsylvania. It opened:

“As happens so often in the internet age, I was looking for one thing and stumbled across another. In this case, it was your mention of Rev. Norb. Somewhere, I still have several issues of Sick Teen . . . ”

            Okay, that’s when I started thinking things were getting a little weird. This wasn’t simply noticing an odd word everywhere, or seeing a lot of unrelated stories about sea monsters in the papers. This was people appearing seemingly out of nowhere and at random to tell me pointed things about someone I’d been out of touch with until a week or two earlier. It was clearly a portent of something, or if not a portent exactly it obviously meant something, but I had no idea what. Whatever it was, it unnerved me. To make things weirder still, this professor also mentioned in passing that her best friend when she was a kid would later become a founding member of the Russian Meat Squats. But that’s a whole other kettle of worms. Or something.


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