June 7, 2015

Keep On A-Rockin’! Take Two


In the late summer of 1986, Grinch and I played our last show as The Pain Amplifiers. It took place at Madison’s most notorious and therefore best punk rock club, O’Cayz Corral. It was a cramped, dark, and sweaty place, with a tiny rickety stage set up just inside the front window. At one time or another most of the biggest hardcore acts in the country had played there. That night, we’d been the opening act on a three-band bill headlined by our musical heroes, an hilariously offensive metal band called The Mentors, whose members performed in executioner hoods and whose songs tended to concentrate on drug use, anal sex, and homophobia.

            It had been a good and wild show with a particularly raucous and drunken audience, and when it was over we felt good and stoned and drunk ourselves. I was a little bruised up and sore from an encounter with a massive skinhead in the middle of our set, but that was all part of the game. It was a fine send-off to our brief and wooly rock’n’roll career.

            The Mentors ended their set about three a.m. and the club started to clear out. It was warm and humid outside, but it still felt a helluva lot better out there than it did in O’Cayz. I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the club having a smoke as Grinch was trying to wrangle the rest of our equipment back together inside. There were a few others out there, a couple of lingering punks and the members of the third band who’d played that night. Then we were joined by El Duce, the squat, obese, bald, bearded and frog-faced idiot savant who fronted The Mentors. He was a legend in certain circles (well, Grinch and me anyway) for having penned hits like “Free Fix for a Fuck,” “Heterosexuals Have the Right to Rock,” and “Herpes Two,” which contained the immortal couplet, “She went to the store to buy some Slurpees/Two weeks later she came home—with HERPES!”

            Anyway, we chatted a bit, El Duce and me, but then he had to get on his way. They had a long drive to the next night’s show ahead of them. Before he split, though, he shook my hand, told me I was a real American, and instructed me to “Keep on a-rockin’!” Then he walked off into the darkness, arm in arm with a shockingly statuesque blond.

            I was twenty-one at the time, and no one had ever told me to keep on a-rockin’ before. It was a real milestone moment for me, and would remain one of my proudest memories for the rest of my life. Sad as that is, sometimes we take what we can get.

            Now jump ahead nearly three decades to April of 2015. I confess in that stretch I had not always kept on a-rockin’ quite as hard as perhaps I might have, but damn it I did what I could.

            I was working on a small profile of Milwaukee-based musician, songwriter, and composer Sigmund Snopek III for an online magazine. To be honest, I’d been a little shocked after I pitched a story about Snopek, and they actually went for it. I’d been a huge fan of his off-kilter and unclassifiable mix of pop, progressive rock, jazz, comedy, avant-garde and classical music for decades now. And for all the melted styles, his songs remain maddeningly catchy, six or seven having been wedged in my head for the last several years. He was a brilliant and eclectic composer who never hesitated to sprinkle his lyrics with endless Wisconsin references and in-jokes, which only made things that much more attractive to me. He’d released countless solo albums since the late sixties, had premiered over a hundred classical pieces, had written everything from Christmas carols to rock operas to real operas to symphonies and commercial jingles. His music had presaged everything from avant-pop outfits like The Residents to eighties top 40 to alternative rock to the upcoming polka revival, but no one else seemed to have the slightest clue who he was. No one outside of Wisconsin, anyway, where he’s a legend in the local music scene. Or if they had heard of him, it was from his time as a sideman playing keyboards, horn, flute and sax for fellow Milwaukeeans The Violent Femmes in the eighties and nineties.

            That’s why I wanted to write something about him. He’s in his sixties, is as busy as he’s ever been, working on two new albums, gearing up to premiere a new oratorio, writing a commissioned string quartet, and producing a new CD for a local country blues singer. He was about to be inducted into the Wisconsin Music Hall of Fame, but I felt he deserved more attention than he’s received. But you pitch enough stories about enough obscurities over the years, and you come to understand why they remain obscurities—namely because no one wants to hear about anything they don’t already know. I could rewrite the Wikipedia entry on fucking Steven Spielberg and it would be snapped up like that, but try to sell a story about someone who’s been doing important work under the radar for half a century? Might as well stick your hand in a blender.

            But I digress. Anyway, that’s why I was so shocked these people, who had likewise never heard of Sigmund Snopek III, went for it and gave me the go ahead to do the story.

            So I got in touch with Snopek in Milwaukee, and as expected he was a very nice, low-key, and unassuming guy. I asked a few questions which he answered directly, we traded a few more emails, I ordered a couple of albums I didn’t already have, and that was that and all was well.

            Point of all this, though, was that he closed his final note by telling me to, yes, “keep on a-rockin’.”

            Just a couple of weeks before my fiftieth birthday, and for only the second time in my life, a musician I admired a great deal had told me to keep on a-rockin’. That they were two musicians, two human beings even, who couldn’t be any more unlike one another if they tried, only made it that much more significant and profound. Morgan told me I should take it as a sign, and I think she’s right. A sign of what, exactly, though, I have no fucking clue. Perhaps if I do a little more rockin’, I’ll find out.

            Well, here I go.


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