The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: People have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.
When I was in high school in the late ’80s, my friend Frank and I had an argument. Elvis Costello, I asserted, was punk. Frank scoffed at this. He liked Elvis Costello for the same reasons I did: his sharp wit, his catchy songs, his nerdy angst. Frank just preferred a purer definition of the term. I could see his point. But I was of the opinion that punk was more of an attitude than an aesthetic. Even back then, though, we realized that nothing—not even punk—was black and white, and that splitting hairs about Elvis Costello wasn’t half as fun as sitting down and listening to Elvis Costello.
I don’t even know why I was arguing with Frank about punk. He was the one of us with the foot-high mohawk.
At the time, Frank and I drew much of our knowledge of alternative music, of all kinds, from the same source: Teletunes. Unless you grew up in the Denver area, the name Teletunes means nothing to you. Chances are, even if you did grow up in the Denver area, the name means nothing to you. Teletunes was a locally produced video show that aired KBDI, one of Denver’s PBS affiliates, every Sunday morning. It had evolved from a similar show called FMTV, which launched in 1981 and predated MTV by six months. The Teletunes VJs played an ear-stretching, mind-expanding selection of bands, everything from Black Flag and Skinny Puppy to R.E.M. and Elvis Costello. It was kind of like 120 Minutes—only Teletunes played stuff you’d never, ever hear on MTV. I mean, could you imagine Dave Kendall introducing videos by The Residents or Spacemen 3?
That wide, weird, weekly smorgasbord of music helped turn Frank and me into music nerds a little prematurely. One of the best videos that Teletunes regularly rotated, though, sat squarely in the middle of the punk/not-punk debate: The Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl.”
Like Elvis Costello’s somehow dorkier little brothers, The Dead Milkmen infuse “Punk Rock Girl” with a sharp wit and a nerdy angst all their own. “One Saturday I took a walk to Zipperhead,” sings guitarist Joe Genaro through his nostrils over an itchy, jangly, jumpy riff. Zipperhead was a popular counterculture store on Philly’s South Street, where portions of the video were filmed. Likewise, the Philly Pizza Company referenced in the song was one of the band’s South Street hangouts—the joint where Genaro and his reprobate girlfriend “order some hot tea,” only to have the waitress sneer, “We only have it iced.” Which, naturally, incites the lovestruck misanthropes to “jump up on the table and shout anarchy.” But Genaro's acidity cuts both ways; he’s lampooning the punks and the squares with equal venom.
The song sounds simple—even corny—but it’s rife with smart, subversive flourishes. The asthmatic accordion. Genaro’s strangulated un-solo. And some sly, mischievous runs from founding bassist Dave “Blood” Schulthise. Then again, Schulthise openly confessed his admiration of R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, one of the masters of that bass style. In a way, “Punk Rock Girl” resembles a gleefully brain-damaged version of an R.E.M. song that had been released a few months prior and was still in heavy rotation on Teletunes (and inside my brain) at the time: “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” But where R.E.M. crafted a Pollock-like canvas of pop-culture expressionism, The Dead Milkmen hocked a loogie on it.
“Someone played a Beach Boys song on the jukebox,” sings Genaro in his best boomer-bashing whine, “It was ‘California Dreamin’’ / So we started screamin’ / ‘On such a winter’s day.’” The Beach Boys, of course, didn’t sing “California Dreamin,’” at least not the most famous version —The Mamas And The Papas did. And therein lies the slam: The Dead Milkmen do not fucking care who sang “California Dreamin’.” Take that, boomers. (Uncannily enough, the daughters of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and The Mamas And The Papas’ John and Michelle Phillips were still a year away from teaming up to form Wilson Phillips. Genaro was prophet as well as poet.) The video’s parting shot—of Genaro and his punk-rock girl, whose mohawk rivaled Frank’s at the time, driving off into the sunset in a beat-up station wagon—even echoes the band’s real-life mode of transportation; at one point, The Milkmen toured in a converted ambulance they called the “jambulance.”
Released on the Philadelphia group’s 1988 album Beelzebubba, “Punk Rock Girl” wasn’t The Dead Milkmen’s first enduring classic. That distinction belongs to “Bitchin’ Camaro,” a goofy, jazz-meets-hardcore sendup of white-trash culture (and The Doors, and AIDS) that appears on The Milkmen’s 1985 debut, Big Lizard In My Backyard. The album established the band’s durable formula, from which it would never veer: a hyperactive, stream-of-consciousness splatter of snotty vocals, jangling guitars, and wiry irreverence that was as much a comedy skit as it was a punk parody.
In fact, The Milkmen started out as a joke. Before it actually existed, the group was the subject of a series of homemade comedy tapes—and a satirical fan publication called The Dead Milkmen Newzletter—created by Rodney Linderman and Joe Genaro, two teen misfits from Wagontown, Pennsylvania. Before long, the fictional band had morphed into a flesh-and-blood one, with singer Linderman taking the name Rodney Anonymous and guitarist Genaro going by Joe Jack Talcum. There must have been something in Pennsylvania’s water supply; a couple of years later, two kids named Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo started recording surreal comedy-rock tapes in the tiny borough of New Hope, just an hour and half from Wagontown. They, too, ended up starting a band and adopted silly pseudonyms: Gene and Dean Ween. (Perhaps not coincidentally, The Milkmen’s drummer, Dean Sabatino, had already taken the name Dean Clean.)
With “Punk Rock Girl,” though, the unlikeliest thing happened to The Milkmen: They became a really real band. They weren’t just a vessel for making fun of shit. Sure, they were still doing that—but their songs had become more than just funny. They were good—Camper-Van-Beethoven-and-They-Might-Be-Giants-good (to name a couple of their closest contemporaries). “Punk Rock Girl” is a classic pop song: well crafted, well played, well produced, and impeccably infectious. They were taking the piss out of The Beach Boys, but suddenly they were starting to have a lot in common with them.
I didn’t see The Dead Milkmen in concert until the early ’90s. By then, the mainstream had caught up with them, and vice versa. Alternative rock had become huge—so huge that it carried The Milkmen along with it. They’d signed to a major label, gotten even poppier, and grown more popular. It made sense that they would resonate: At the height of alt-rock, kids really were dressing up like Minnie Pearl—or some grungified version thereof—to go slam-dancing. Only they were doing it to Weezer. “You’ll dance to anything,” deadpans Linderman in 1987’s “Instant Club Hit.” A decade later, kids were slam-dancing to anything. The geeks had inherited the earth, and they’d started reshaping it in their own image. All the Elvis Costellos became punks. Irony smothered parody. How can you mock anything in an age where everything mocks itself? Without an answer to that question, The Milkmen found themselves suddenly past their expiration date.
The concert I saw was proof. The band played at a big venue outside of Denver called the Gothic Theatre, where I’ve seen everyone from Nirvana to GWAR to The Cramps to The Subhumans. Perhaps the crowd thought The Dead Milkmen were cut from a similar cloth. As if The Milkmen were the most vicious badasses on the planet, the kids in attendance started slam-dancing and stage-diving at the start of every song—“Punk Rock Girl” being, of course, the rowdiest. Halfway through the set, though, the situation turned tragic. A stage-diver leaped head-first off the Gothic’s high stage. Only no one caught him. The show stopped. An ambulance—not the jambulance, but a real one—showed up. The guy was carried out on a stretcher by paramedics, his head immobilized by a giant collar, his neck broken. The band resumed playing. They were visibly upset, and they pleaded between songs for everyone to stop dancing so savagely. Some in the crowd laughed and kept right on going. It was all part of the joke, right?
Not long after that concert, The Milkmen announced their retirement, citing fatigue with the industry and the tendinitis that had begun to affect Schulthise’s ability to play all those busy, twangy basslines, like the one in “Punk Rock Girl.” They did one last tour, vowing in The Dead Milkmen Newzletter—which, like the group itself, had grown from a prank to a legitimate entity—that the band would get back together “only for funerals and rare TV appearances.” Again, the band was prophetic—but this time, tragically so. In 2004, at the age of 47, Schulthise committed suicide after having retired from the music scene. Six months later, The Dead Milkmen played their first reunion show, a memorial for Schulthise, at the legendary Trocadero in Philadelphia—not far from the stretch of South Street immortalized in “Punk Rock Girl.”
And they’re still playing. I haven’t had the chance to see them since they reunited, but I think I should correct that the next time they roll through Denver. Maybe I’ll call up Frank. He can put his gray hair up into a Mohawk, just for old times’ sake. We can hang out and watch the Dead Milkmen play a slightly less snotty, slightly less frustrated rendition of “Punk Rock Girl.” And we can jump up on stage and shout “anarchy” (careful of that drop, of course). Then after the show we can get drunk and argue about how punk The Dead Milkmen are. Or aren’t.
Or maybe we’ll just order some hot tea.