The last album Joe Genaro, a.k.a. Joe Jack Talcum, bought was Blackstar by David Bowie, who’s been a huge influence on the Dead Milkmen founder. As a teen, he bought Changesonebowie, a compilation of hits released in 1976 and Genaro’s only Bowie record until after high school. “I really got into Bowie because of my first roommate in college — it was the one thing we could agree on,” says the vocalist-guitarist. “I had Beatles and Dylan, and he hated all that retro stuff, but he liked Peter Gabriel and Genesis and Gentle Giant and Grateful Dead — and we intersected at David Bowie. It was the one thing that I could play and he could play that we both tolerated, so I started investigating his back catalogue.”
Genaro’s college years were also when he started his first band. Playing melodic, satirical punk rock to anyone who would listen, vocalist-keyboardist Rodney Linderman, a.k.a. Rodney Anonymous, guitarist and vocalist bassist Dave Schulthise, a.k.a. Dave Blood, drummer Dean Sabatino, a.k.a. Dean Clean, and Genaro joined forces in 1983 and became the Dead Milkmen, the illustrious punk band from Philly that quickly earned a cult following for their lyrical wit and uncensored rock. Titles like “Bitchin’ Camaro” and “Plum Dumb” were part of the initial collection — 1985’s Big Lizard in My Back Yard — that led the way.
Genaro is partly to thank for the band’s hilariously cynical personality. He started writing funny folk songs with a punk-rock edge in high school and desperately wanted to get a band going as well. However, nothing quite clicked in those days. “I jammed with people, but I couldn’t get on their wavelength,” he says. “I wasn’t into the hard rock as much yet.”
Genaro’s early musical influence dates back to long before his love of everything from Bowie to the Ramones took over. It was in junior high that his musical sensibilities surfaced, when he bought the Byrds’ biography. “The reason I ordered it is because it came with a record, and I loved records — and here I could get a book that I could read, but I could also listen to the record at home,” he says. “And it was four songs by the Byrds on a little seven-inch EP, and the book was pretty fascinating. I still remember reading it, and that really got me interested in the whole concept of songwriting.”
But Genaro eventually did find punk, first with the Ramones. He also found Linderman, high school buddy and future Deadmen bandmate. “Although I didn’t really think of Rodney as a punk, he liked the music that I wrote,” Genaro says of the Milkmen’s future co-vocalist. Genaro made a cassette at his house in 1979 and called it the Dead Milkmen. “Rodney got a hold of that cassette, and it had funny music — the whole idea was a joke, a joke band,” Genaro remembers. “But he wanted to be involved in the next recording session I had, so I said, ‘OK, how ’bout next weekend? Bring your banjo.’ And that’s how we became songwriting partners.”
By the time the Milkmen became official, they’d remarkably increased their repertoire. Four or five years of furiously writing new tracks increased their chances of getting gigs, and that’s basically what the boys cared about, really. “All we wanted to do was get shows so we could play,” Genaro says. By that time, they’d also entered the East Coast’s burgeoning punk scene. “We did think of ourselves as a punk band — we didn’t really think of ourselves as a hardcore band, and that was a new thing that was starting around then,” Genaro explains. “But there were a lot of shows that were hardcore punk-rock shows — it was like punk rock on speed. Some of the melody that was left by the wayside, and it was just fast and furious and energetic, and people just went crazy and danced and formed mosh pits. And that was a hardcore punk-rock show.”
But despite the fact that the Dead Milkmen identified more as punk, they made themselves fit into that wild, new scene by speeding up their songs, blending in but without ever adding distortion. That’s the one thing that separated the punk-rock four-piece from the hardcore groups. “We tried to keep it clean, you know?” says Genaro.
Staying true to themselves definitely worked, but if the Milkmen ever went a few months without a gig, they did what so many bands still do today. “We put on our own shows,” Genaro says. “We’d just hire a hall or a community center, take the risk ourselves, get some friends’ bands, and do the show — DIY. To me, that’s my memory of the early days.”
From night clubs to antique festivals, the Milkmen didn’t care. And it’s that ethic during such an explosive time in the punk-rock world that has helped the band forge a continuous path for four decades. Sure, they’ve been apart for a spell here and there, including during the time surrounding the sudden death of Schulthise in 2004. But the Milkmen are like family — they always regroup and return to each other eventually.
Implementing bassist Dan Stevens in 2008, the group reunited and released their first studio effort in 16 years with The King in Yellow. Most recently, 2014’s Pretty Music for Pretty People sees the Milkmen as fantastically energetic as ever — and they’ve stayed true to the band’s humor with titles like “Hipster Beard,” “Now I Wanna Hold Your Dog,” and “The Great Boston Molasses Flood.”
And even though Genaro has embarked on many other projects — like Butterfly Joe, the Cheesies, and the Low Budgets — the Dead Milkmen will probably remain his very first and last band. The Milkmen are all constantly working on new music and will certainly make their way to the studio again. “Our intention is to keep making Milkmen records,” he says.
In the meantime, Genaro is on an acoustic solo tour, so there’s plenty for Milkmen diehards to look forward to. He says of the Tin Roof show this weekend, “The set should be half Milkmen songs people may be familiar with and half of the songs they maybe haven’t heard before, plus songs from the Butterfly Joe album, songs by the Cheesies, maybe some new, never-recorded songs, and maybe some covers.”
Stay cool. Support City Paper.