More Bitchen Than Bitchin Camaro
History has not been kind to the Dead Milkmen. Tarred unfairly as a novelty band and even more unfairly as college-radio darlings (and if that isn't the kiss of death: anyone remember King Missile and their detachable penis?), the Milkmen have disappeared into the murky, reeking chasm between "serious" punk rock and alterna-buzz-bin fame. Now they're basically fucked: you're never gonna see that X-eyed cow grinning out at you from some scuffed-up leather jacket (and if you do, please get me that person's phone number so we can hang out), and you're never gonna see their videos on MTV because the too-hot-for-120 Minutes "Methodist Coloring Book" got them banned for life. They're going to spend eternity in BMG-Music-Club hell, filed next to They Might Be Giants and Weird Al in the music collections of paunchy late-twentysomethings doomed to dub "Bitchin' Camaro" onto mix tape after mix tape ad projectile nauseam, and someone needs to save them.
Maybe the Superpickle Music Arts tribute compilation Flogging a Dead Cow (painfully appropriate title, that) will help. It's respectably fortified with appearances by OC bands like the Von Steins and Joe and the Chicken Heads ("I didn't want to take a song and make it worse," worries singer Carrot Topp) and testimonialed by no less than Milkman Joe Jack Talcum himself: "I must say I really like it—I was surprised." It's got all the hits. Even better: it's also got the songs that only the terminally obsessed would know, retooled for a new generation of geeks who until now have never heard the plaintive mooings of their spiritual forefathers. Because if there was ever a band that really belonged to the functionally weird and the endearingly geeky—and that was a joke more elaborate than most understood—it was the Dead Milkmen.
See, I, too, used to think the Dead Milkmen were born and died with "Bitchin' Camaro," back when I was stupid and in college. Within 48 hours of staggering out of my dad's car shouldering a sagging duffel bag full of typically stupid college-kid T-shirts—"Control Yourself! I'm Equipped!"—and largely ineffectual acne medication, I was performing at the freshman talent show with a dude!-we're-totally-a-band! band promptly christened the Dead Soy Milkmen. And of course we played a horrendously deformed version of "Bitchin' Camaro" ("When it gets to the fast part, just make noise," the singer told me helpfully, "and I'll yell a lot!") and thought we were ever so clever. But really we were insufferable know-it-all twits ineptly pissing all over something already oversaturated with twit piss. I'll explain.
For every "Bitchin' Camaro" novelty song, the Dead Milkmen probably had, say, two or three other hit-or-miss numbers (c'mon, kids, you know as well as I do that some of those jokes were so labored you'd need an epidural to sit through them without stabbing yourself repeatedly in the face) and one explosive flash of warped genius: "Instant Club Hit (You'll Dance to Anything)," maybe, or "Stuart," which attains such heady spirals of dangerously detached Dada insanity that you'll need someone to talk you down afterward.
So, yeah, if you're just skimming for cheap laughs, they were definitely one-stop shopping. But just because they wore their senses of humor on their sleeves doesn't mean they weren't objectively good ("Surfin' Cow" just drips with sterling musicianship, at least by my deflated punk standards). And they were never better than on those camouflaged never-hits in which they were trying to be, well, serious—even if that was usually when people stopped paying attention.
"We are serious," singer Rodney Anonymous (later to brilliantly change his pseudonym to H.P. Hovercraft) explained years ago. "But we try to hide it. The point is if you come right out and clobber people over the head with it, they're not impressed. But if you have a song about toilets backing up, people understand."
So, yeah, they were your favorite band when you were, like, 15, and you snorted at "Taking Retards to the Zoo." But it's the tender moments of the Milkmen that get to me now. I grew up down the dirt road from Stuart's trailer park, I spent years looking for a punk rock girl, and I'll dance to anything by Public Image Ltd. But now I've got a new sing-along song: "Life is shit/life is shit/the world is shit/the world is shit/and this is life as I know it." It ain't "Bitchin' Camaro," and they're never gonna play it on college radio, but it's funny because—of course—it's true. And I like to think I understand.
The Dead Milkmen tribute-CD release party with Joe and the Chicken Heads, the Von Steins, Hot Waffles and gst Mugwump at Chain Reaction, 1652 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 635-6067; www.allages.com. Sun., 7:30 p.m. $6. All ages.
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