erasing clouds

Walking The Thinnest Line: The Late Dave Blood and The Dead Milkmen

by paul jaissle

While their name may not conjure the same passion or respect as the Ramones or Dead Kennedys, the Dead Milkmen will always be special to me. And I know I can't be alone; there must be a ton of kids whose first glimpse into the nihilistic, slam dancing world of punk came courtesy of Philadelphia's stupidest band. For a 13-year-old kid, the Milkmen were the perfect gateway band for transitioning from classic rock to its edgier cousin punk. They were able to mix incredibly low-brow humor with highly melodic pop-punk that obviously got them pegged as a sort of potty mouthed version of They Might Be Giants. But the Dead Milkmen always sounded a lot more earnest than TMBG or even the Blink 182/Sum 41 types which followed in their wake. There was a level of sadness to the band because they were always the underdogs: never quite able to shake the fact that they were a punk band that frat boys liked or that their particular brand of punk attitude could never fully be taken seriously.

Regardless of how much time has passed since my first introduction to the band or how much dust has settled on their records, it was still sad hearing that bassist Dave Blood killed himself this past week. I dug the Milkmen before I ever heard the Ramones or Black Flag or the Misfits. They were the first 'dangerous' band I really got into: they swore, sang about hating everyone and everything and even about taking retards to the zoo. I even liked their stupid stage names like H.P. Hovercraft and Dean Clean. I remember feeling a strong sense of connection with the band the first time I heard Beelzebubba's closing tune "Life is Shit," as if finally my adolescent frustration had been given a voice it never had before. They also looked like the sort of people I could relate to: nerdy, slightly neurotic, gruff but loveable. And they hated hippies just like I did. Songs about big lizards, atomic ferns, and beach parties in Vietnam were just stupid enough to be funny, yet clever (sometimes) enough to be memorable, especially at the same age when reciting Kids in the Hall routines and Monty Python movies were the highest form of entertainment.

Obviously the Milkmen's infantile humor lost most of its appeal as I grew up, but I always felt a sort of attraction to the band because under all the third-grade level jokes there were some great catchy tunes that I found irresistible. While their college radio hits like 'Bitchin Camero' and 'Punk Rock Girl' may be their most popular, the Milkmen were often able to transcend their humor and make some surprisingly moving music (not that I don't love 'Punk Rock Girl': I still think it's one of my all-time favorite songs ever written). For example, there is a sort of idiot savant beauty to songs like 'Dean's Dream,' 'Watching Scotty Die,' 'Big Deal' and 'I Hear Your Name.' In fact, any song guitarist Joe Jack Talcum sings in that sort of fey, Robert Smith-like voice should garner the band more respect than they usually get. I would still highly recommend that any serious music connoisseur consider their Bucky Fellini and Beelzebubba albums for examples of the Milkmen doing what they did best. The band's high water mark for me, however, really are their two, out-of-print albums for Hollywood records, Not Richard, But Dick and Soul Revolution, which feature almost no stupid humor and showcase the band's strongest songwritting.

As I sit here and re-listen to all of their stuff, I am struck by two thoughts. The first is all the pop culture and musical references I missed as a teenager, like the Sweet nod at the start of Buck Fellini or who that Daniel Johnston fellow whose song "Rocketship" they covered was. Also, now I can really hear that the melodic basis for most of these songs is the bass: they all sort of sound like they were written by a bass player due to their bouncy feel. I could be wrong about that, but that's just how it sounds to me; especially the early stuff.

Apparently, while the other Milkmen found various musical projects to work on, Dave Blood was haunted by a near crippling case of tendonitis which finally got the better of him and drove him into a deep depression. I had always wondered if the Milkmen would give it another go after their final (and also quite good) album Stony's Extra Stout, and now it looks like that will never happen. The Dead Milkmen may never garner the same level of respect as other punk bands of the era, but they have left a number of records they should be proud of. Their reputation and legacy seems to be a lot like their persona: the geeky outcasts who scowl and keeping to themselves while everyone mingles and looks the other way. Well, I am proud to say I'd probably be right there along side them laughing at Charles Nelson Reilly and other horribly unfunny things.

Goodbye, Dave.

Issue 21, March 2004

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