SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
July 14, 2019

Way Too Many Killdozer Side Notes and Parentheticals

 

One recent Thursday afternoon, I received a brief but pleasant note from a Los Angeles-based attorney named Michael. At the end of the note, he asked if I was still living in Brooklyn, and still writing.

            Well, that took me by surprise, I must say. I couldn’t believe he’d remember me. More than that, I couldn’t even imagine why he’d remember me. I think the last time we spoke—and then it was only briefly—was in a dank and perfect punk rock club in Philly called The Khyber Pass. That must have been in the early Nineties sometime. Michael was a short fellow with reddish brown hair and wide eyes who spoke with a deadpan Wisconsin accent. In conversation, most of what came out of his mouth seemed to be a non-sequitur. I think we’d spoken, again briefly, at that same bar at some point around 1988 or ’89. But he wasn’t an attorney back then.

            Okay, so here’s the point where we have to back up yet another several years, and things get no less vague.

            I’ve complained about this before, but music historians who’ve chronicled the American punk scene of the Eighties always seem convinced hardcore bands were coming out of Washington D.C. and Los Angeles exclusively. Even if they did acknowledge a few rare renegade bands out of San Francisco or New York, they inevitably ignore the Midwest completely. For my money, though, that’s where the real interesting shit was taking place. Isolated from the scenes on the coasts, Midwestern bands were also isolated from the militant (and eventually self-destructive) rules that dominated the scenes on the coasts. The big overarching rule was, if you want to be hardcore, you must play no more than three chords, and play them as fast as you possibly can while screaming about Ronald Reagan. There were also rules about proper attire and hair length. Ignoring those silly and boring rules, Midwestern bands were free to create their own sounds and identities, and more often than not had a sense of humor about the whole goofy punk rock business, which was something few hardcore bands of the day could claim. Of all the bands to come out of the Midwest in the mid-Eighties, none of them could top Killdozer, which makes them, for me anyway, the Greatest Punk Band of All Time.

            Instead of blistering, earnest, minute-long songs about Reagan and the Moral Majority, Killdozer slowed things way down, playing ear-splitting bluesy swamp dirges recounting (often in the first person) farm accidents, rural murder, assholes, drunkards, suicides, and general tales of the daily existential horrors of blue collar life in small town America. And they were hilarious. They were a Midwestern Gothic band dredging up the deep truths of Wisconsin’s dark side. Having formed right around the time I was becoming obsessed with Wisconsin’s dark side myself, they were pretty much exactly what I was looking for. Along with the tales of rural misery, they’d pepper their songs with references to Seventies pop hits, B films, and commercial jingles. They also became known for their grungy and strangled but sincere covers of everything from “Cinnamon Girl” and “I Am...I Said” to “I’m Not Lisa” and “American Pie.”

            (To this day I cannot hear Don McLean’s original “American Pie” without hearing Killdozer’s version in my head.)

            Killdozer (named after the 1974 TV movie about a bulldozer possessed by an alien demon) formed in Madison in 1983 with brothers Bill and Dan Hobson on guitar and drums respectively, and future attorney Michael Gerald on bass and vocals. I don’t think anyone who’s heard them would deny that Killdozer simply wouldn’t have been Killdozer without Gerald’s vocals. As soft-spoken and deadpan as he could be when you talked to him, once he stepped in front of the microphone a demon of some sort—maybe the same one that possessed that bulldozer—seemed to take control. For being such a small fellow, it’s hard to imagine how he could generate a sound like that without some kind of demonic assistance or physical injury. Here’s how my friend Derek Davis described it in his own recent piece on Killdozer:

“Michael Gerald’s voice crawls up the side of a refuse pit, deep and dank and unrelenting, snarling as it hitches itself over the edge to bite your ankles before you can retreat.”

[Note: Derek’s a much more eloquent writer than I am, and his own Killdozer essay, “The Dark Side of Joy,” appeared in The Chiseler and is well worth a read.]

[Another Note: If you have never heard Killdozer, please go do so now. I’ll wait. It’ll make you very happy for reasons you can’t fully explain.]

            Offstage, nothing about them screamed “punk rock.” They didn’t dress punk rock and they didn’t have punk rock hairdos. They were just three schlubby guys with no pretensions and a knack for noting absurdity in a homespun, Cracker Barrel, straightforward manner. Best of all, they weren’t overtly political. In fact I think they got a bit of a kick from taking the piss out of Madison’s dominant Leftist scene, but in a way no one could really get all that mad about. While they might have played naive, maybe even a little dumb both onstage and off, it took a helluva lot more smarts and talent to compose these sonic portraits of the misbegotten than it did to scratch out another “Fuck You Ronnie” song.

            Having been cloistered away in Chicago while Killdozer released their first two albums, I was still unaware of them by the time I arrived in Madison in late 1984. But after noting their albums in every record store window and their flyers all over the kiosks and lamp posts (they had the best flyers ever), it soon became evident that, like Little Willy, they were kings around town.

            I think the first time I saw them was at a little club whose name I forget now. It was a record release party for their 1985 EP, Burl, which featured a picture of Burl Ives on the cover. They were playing with The Appliances-SFB, and the tiny club was so packed and overheated I could barely breathe or see the stage.

            By that point I’d been to a few shows in Madison, but this was different. In between songs, instead of giving lectures about U.S. policy in Central America or the general Evilness of the Reagan administration, Gerald asked trivia questions about Burl Ives, all of which, I’m sorry to say, I answered correctly, if only to myself.

            The show was a revelation, if a sweaty one. Apart from the volume, Killdozer ran headlong into everything Maximumrocknroll righteously insisted punk rock was supposed to be, which immediately put them at the top of my list. I had a new favorite band.

            As we were leaving the club afterwards, Grinch told me some cute little blond had been desperately trying to get my attention all through the show, but I’d completely ignored her. I felt bad about that for any number of reasons, but I wasn’t consciously ignoring her. I just didn’t notice, too consumed as I was by Killdozer’s set.

            Never did run into that little blonde again.

            The next day I picked up my own copy of Burl, and quickly discovered studio Killdozer was even more magnificent than live Killdozer. Burl remains among my favorites of their releases, right up there with Snakeboy and 12-Point Buck. After opening with Gerald’s now classic rant “Hamburger Martyr” (”And you call this cuppa shit COFFEE? Why, I’d rather drink from the dick of a goat!”), the disc also featured the sinister hiss of “Cranberries”—more a Surrealist invocation than anything else—and “Slackjaw,” the monologue that may well have inspired the nickname that’s been following me for three and a half decades now, and will likely be inscribed on my tombstone.

            That’s how it started for me. So here are a few random Killdozer-related stories from the subsequent decades.

*   *   *

Drummer Dan Hobson was in a film theory class with me at Madison. Well, he was there the first day anyway. Or the first half of the first day. The class was focused on violent American cinema, so we were going to be studying the likes of Taxi Driver, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, Scarface and A Clockwork Orange. But then the professor, a fey and funny German character named Martin, made it perfectly clear the class would be rigorous and require a good deal of work, not just, as he put it “Ja, guys, let’s go to ze movies!?” Upon hearing this, Hobson got up and walked out. He never returned.

*   *   *

When I ended up in the madhouse in Minneapolis for six months in late ’86, I had a small cassette player with me, and two tapes. I forget now what all was on the first one. The other was the Killdozer’s second album, Snakeboy. I listened to the latter two or three times a day for those six months. Great fucking album. You’d think after six months in the bin with only those two tapes I’d never want to hear them ever again. Well, for the record I listened to Snakeboy this afternoon, and to this day it brings back fond memories.

*   *   *

This must have been around 1989, and I was living in Philly. I don’t know what landed me back in Madison, but I was there for some reason. I suspect my future ex-wife and I were driving from Chicago to Green Bay to see my folks, and decided to stop there for a spell. I also don’t know what inspired me to pop into the weird little record store across the street from the apartment building I’d briefly called home. While I was living there I’d only been in that store once or twice, but I suddenly had a burning desire to go back. As I was looking around, I noted that in a display case by the checkout they had what I was told was the very last new copy anywhere of the first edition of Killdozer’s For Ladies Only.

            Let me describe this. For Ladies only was a cover album, featuring Killdozer’s renditions of hits by Deep Purple, Conway Twitty, Elvis and the James Gang. They did “One Tin Soldier,” “Take the Money and Run,” and “American Pie.” It would later come out as an LP and a CD. But originally it was released as a gorgeous gatefold package with five seven-inch singles, each on different colored vinyl. The included liner notes and photos were pitch-perfect and funny as hell. There were soft-focus teen heartthrob head shots of Gerald and the Hobson brothers, leaving them looking like Bread or The Bay City Rollers. And each head shot was accompanied by a short bio which parodied the pop star bios you’d find in Tiger Beat.

            Well, I’d heard rumors this was coming out, but no store in Philly was carrying it. And this here, I was told, was the last one anywhere. I mean, Killdozer doing “One Tin Soldier”? Had to have it, right?

            But at the time I had no credit card and didn’t have the cash on me. So I begged with the store’s owner, pleaded with him to set it aside until I got back to Philly. If he did that, I’d send him a check for twice the asking price. He agreed.

            Not thinking for a minute this would ever pan out, I got back to Philly three days later and wrote the promised check. And sure enough two weeks later For Ladies only arrived in the mail. It immediately became the most prized gem of my record collection.

            Jump ahead to New York, circa 1993. My first wife had just moved out, I had no money, and my friend Larry came over to hang out for a few hours. Half in bitterness and half in celebration, We split a rare four-hundred dollar bottle of cognac which had been a wedding gift. Just sat at the kitchen table and traded shots until it was gone. In my euphoric state, I began wandering around the apartment, plucking things off the shelves and giving them to Larry as gifts. Nice things too, not just crap. Among the things I gave him was that original For Ladies only, what with Larry being a big Killdozer fan himself.

            As soon as he left, I realized what an egregious and horrific drunken mistake I’d made, but I couldn’t exactly chase him down the street and ask for it back, could I? I wasn’t that big an asshole. Shit almighty, what had I done? I’m an idiot.

            Well, I never saw Larry again, but do wonder whatever happened to that set. He probably lost it, or gave it to some homeless guy who ended up selling it on eBay for $5000.

*   *   *

In 1988, a punk mag out of Jersey gave me the go-ahead to interview Killdozer. Not the greatest magazine in the world and they didn’t pay anything, but it was something, and the only place I wrote for at the time that would let me run a Killdozer interview. When I made the arrangements with someone at Killdozer’s label, Touch and Go Records, I was given Michael Gerald’s home number and warned that I couldn’t call him after seven a.m.

            So on the agreed morning I call the Madison number about six-thirty. A very groggy sounding young woman picked up the phone, and I explained why I was calling. She handed the phone to Gerald, who had clearly been asleep.

            “It’s, ah, kinda early,” he said. Then when I explained what I’d been told by the guy at Touch and Go, he said, “Yeah, he’s a card.”

            I apologized profusely, and we agreed that I’d call back a few hours later.

            Well, when I called back a few hours later Gerald had been joined by Bill Hobson, and I was at work. In fact I was the only one at work, standing at the checkout counter of a little open-air bookstore and newsstand in the Reading Terminal Market. The joint was jumping that afternoon. I had the phone squeezed between my shoulder and ear as I tried to deal with customers, make change and keep handwritten records of what was sold. At the same time I was trying to jot down accurate notes as I attempted to interview my Favorite Band in the World. I don’t multi-task well, and several customers ended up calling me filthy names.

            I can no longer say whether the resulting interview was worth anything, let alone coherent, but I do remember two lines that made me laugh.

            The band had recently returned from playing a few shows in Illinois, and Gerald told me about the trip back.

            “You can’t go half a mile in any direction in Illinois without seeing a historical marker along the side of the road. I think most of the presidents were born in Illinois,” he deadpanned. “And ALL the inventors.”

            Later, I brought up a New York band which also, coincidentally, went by the name “Killdozer.” I’d made the mistake of picking up their one and only album thinking it was a real Killdozer album, only to be sorely disappointed.

            “They wanted to duke it out to see who got to keep the name by having a Battle of the Bands,” Bill Hobson said. “But our idea of duking it out was, um, duking it out.”

            In the end the NYC band changed its name to Sharky’s Machine. A few years after the mini fracas, one of the members of Sharky’s Machine stopped by the New York Press offices for some reason or another, and told me he’d been in that other Killdozer.

            “Right band got to keep the name,” was all I said.

*   *   *

At the same time I was working at that bookstore-newsstand, I was also writing for an alternative weekly in Philly. Not surprisingly, I’d mentioned the band a few times in the music section. A couple of regular readers were in the habit of stopping by the stand to chat now and again, and several of them had taken the tip and picked up some Killdozer records. Interesting thing is, few of these people looked the type to go into one of the punk shops on South Street to pick up some Killdozer. They were in their thirties and forties, wore suits and ties and had respectable jobs. They were all straight and upstanding citizens who secretly loved Killdozer. Chatting with them, we all agreed on one thing: Killdozer, without fail and unlike any other band I can think of, drives domestic cats absolutely BERSERK. I’ve seen my own cats literally bounce off walls whenever I put on a Killdozer record. Talking to these other people, this seems to be a universal reaction. I don’t know if it implies cats really, really hate Killdozer, or really really love them. One of the two, I figure.

*   *   *

The inner sleeve of their 1988 album 12 Point Buck not only included the winning entry from the band’s recent recipe contest (the winner was Watermelon Pie!), it also announced their next contest. They invited fans to write lyrics to their own Killdozer song, the winner of which would be recorded for the next album. At the bottom of the announcement they counseled, “Don’t be afraid to try a rock opera!”

            That challenge was hard to resist. So that afternoon I sat down and wrote a short rock opera based, copyright infringement issues be damned, on Michael Lesy’s book, Wisconsin Death Trip. In the 1973 book, Lesy used news clippings and historical photos to argue that in the late nineteenth century, everyone who lived in Black River Falls, Wisconsin was completely insane. That was pretty much Killdozer in a nutshell, so seemed the perfect choice.

            It took me about two hours to compose the lyrics for seven or eight songs based on news stories I found in the book. It was a lark, something I likely would have thrown away if I’d given it another five minutes’ thought, but I mailed it off anyway.

            (For all the hundreds of stories I’ve lost over the years, I’m embarrassed to admit I still have the text to my WSD-Killdozer rock opera. I discovered this yesterday. Reading through them again for the first time in thirty years, some of these songs  make me cringe, but not all of them. A couple were not bad, I gotta say. Sadder still, as I read through them I was thinking of how I could rework and expand it, give it a little more structure and a through-story. It had real potential to become the next Tommy! But then I came to my senses and closed the file.)

            (And no, I will NOT publish any of those songs here, so just shut up about it.)

            Well, I no longer remember how I found this out—these memories are pretty jumbled—but I was told I’d come THIS CLOSE to winning the contest. In fact they’d recorded a few of the songs, but then abandoned the project. I kick myself to this day for not asking to hear those couple they did record. I’m an idiot.

*   *   *

Around the same time that was taking place, Killdozer was touring with their 12 Point Buck album. When they played The Khyber Pass in Philly, I brought along my first edition of Lesy’s book and asked them all to sign it, which they did. True to form, Dan Hobson inscribed, “Enjoy this nice picture book”.

            Again I’m kicking myself, because several years later I traded that first edition of Wisconsin Death Trip signed by all the original members of Killdozer for a new computer. Worse, a new computer for my first wife.

*   *   *

The next time Killdozer played Philly—I was living in Brooklyn by then—it was in support of their Uncompromising War on Art Under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat album. The cover art featured a Soviet-era propaganda poster, and communist aesthetics ran throughout the package. So this time I brought along a copy of The Communist Manifesto to get signed. Gerald obliged, writing, “To Jim—you almost won our song contest.”

*   *   *

Those Killdozer shows in Philly were always the best. If you went to see Black Flag, say, or The Crucifucks or any of the other standard hardcore acts of the day, the audiences were out for blood. Extremely violent shows. Had the shit kicked out of me any number of times by humorless lunkheads in combat boots. But that was to be expected, as it was all part of the game. Killdozer audiences, on the flip, while no less energetic, were at least a bit more good-natured about the goings-on.

            Part of what made those Philly Killdozer shows fun was that I brought my editor Derek along. Derek was twenty-five years older than anyone else in the club, and he loved Killdozer as much as I did. We always had a grand time, both of us getting drunk as lords. Thinking back now, it was that last show that sticks with me most. Someone brought along a three feet tall plush Opus, which was tossed and batted around the teeming crowd until the air was full of stuffing. A black kid with a Mohawk spent much of the show dangling upside down from the rafters. And when the band did “Knuckles The Dog Who (Helps People),” I stood behind Derek, helping him clap his hands over his head in time with the music, rocking him back and forth in proper stadium show fashion.

            As we were leaving the Khyber that night around two or three, a young punk chick patted Derek on his balding head and asked, “You like punk rock, eh?”

            At least that’s what we think she said.

*   *   *

“Ballad of My Old Man,” a song from their 1987 album Little Baby Buntin’, contains the line, “With a sack on this head, he’s still a sexual beast.”

            Well, my old pal Grinch, who deals with a lot of notable people nowadays, took it upon himself to begin collecting autographed photos for me. The only stipulation was that the celebrity in question had to sign it, “For Jim—With a sack on your head, you’re still a sexual beast.”

            I still have my hopes up for Ed Ames, but to date the only one who came through was Miss Illinois of 1996. I still have that one.

*   *   *

One afternoon in 2001 when I was still a staff writer at the New York Press, a young copy editor stopped me in the hall and told me she really enjoyed the fact that I tended, without warning and with no real purpose, to drop random Killdozer lyrics into my stories. I had no idea I was doing this.

*   *   *

Although the band went through several lineup changes for their last few releases, in 2009, the original three members reformed to do a show marking Touch and Go Records’ twenty-fifth anniversary. The show was in Chicago, and Grinch was in attendance. You can see video of the performance on YouTube, and if you do, keep an eye on the audience. At one point you can see Grinch viciously sucker punch a guy in the back of the head. The victim was Timebomb Tom. Now I’d known Timebomb since high school. He was a fixture of the Green Bay punk scene, and a very nice fellow. Even my folks liked Tom. Later when I explained this to Grinch and asked why he would do such a dastardly thing to such a very nice fellow, all he said was, “I dunno. Just seemed the thing to do at the time.”

            Well, I could go on, but figure this is way too much as it is. My apologies, but once I got started it was hard to stop. In the end, and for it all, I still have no clue how or why Michael Gerald would remember who I was after at least a quarter century since our last brief encounter. Maybe because I’m the one who woke him up at six-thirty in the morning, asking for an interview. I’m such an idiot.

 

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