Photo by ALEX PATERSON-JONES
The Dead Milkmen are the band that invariably comes to mind when we think of Philly punk rock. To me, their sound has always stood out against their contemporary punk rockers: no screaming, no harsh distortion or feedback – instead, punk attitude and punk rock song structures accented by surf and funk influence, with no shortage of comedy. Since their humble cassette beginnings in ’83 as a band of fictional characters in the minds of guitarist/vocalist Joe Genaro and his high school friends, Rodney Linderman (vocalist/keyboardist), and Garth (who joined the Air Force), to the full back patch on your dad’s denim vest, The Dead Milkmen have always stuck to their roots, jesting in their iconic thick Philly accents both in their on-stage banter and in their songs. Although Genaro technically conceived the band in Chester County, it wasn’t until he moved to Temple University that he met Schulthise and drummer Dean Sabatino, at which point The Dead Milkmen became a real band. They maintained their original four-man lineup until Schulthise’s suicidal drug overdose in 2004. Since then, their bassist has been Dan Stevens, with whom Genaro played in another Philly punk band called The Low Budgets in the early to mid-2000s.
Friday night, The Dead Milkmen played a sold-out show at the Laurel Hill Cemetery. I tried to come up with a joke to put here, but I think the reality of the situation speaks for itself. They played on the front porch of a mausoleum, Linderman making a public service announcement to respect the graves on this side of the cemetery, at the bottom of the hill where the poor folk reside. He devoted a good portion of his banter time ridiculing the rich – even the dead ones at the top of Laurel Hill. During this time, Stevens thumped a walking bass line, so I knew what was coming – they always begin this song with a dragged-out improvised dialogue, although tonight it was more of a monologue. Linderman finally mentioned that at one point he lived in his car – “Aw, you had a car?” asked Genaro. “What kinda car did you have?” And so, Linderman replied with one of the earliest and most beloved lines in the band’s discography, “I’ve got a Bitchin’… Camaro!” The bass stopped walking, Sabatino clacked his drumsticks over his head in a quick 1-2-3-4, and “Bitchin’ Camaro” ensued in all its juvenile delinquent glory. The crowd was dense by the stage, with a tight and relatively mellow mosh pit. It was a party nonetheless, as there was a constant traffic of crowd surfers dressed in cow costumes (a la “Surfin’ Cow”) crossing overhead.
The hour-long set was full of fan favorites, like “Big Lizard In My Back Yard,” “Stuart,” “Punk Rock Girl,” and, what seemed to be the theme of the night, “Life is Shit,” which they played toward the end of the set, then transitioned into a couple other songs, including “Milkmen Stomp” and “Swordfish,” during which Genaro played his guitar by sliding a Tabasco bottle along the strings. They exited the stage briefly, but were coerced back out in a matter of seconds by the adoring crowd. Linderman rationalized their reappearance onto the stage by explaining that they were legally obligated to finish any songs they started. So, they jumped right back into “Life is Shit.”
The Dead Milkmen did not play their crudest song, “Takin’ Retards to the Zoo,” to the largely Millennial audience, although I don’t think the devoted fans would have had any qualms. They played it in 2004 at the Trocadero during one of their tribute shows for Dave, and they were already in their forties then; can old dogs learn new politics, or was it a less conscious decision to leave the song out of last night’s set? In any case, the old punks still sound young and can still deliver a party that’ll raise the dead. — KYLE WEINSTEIN