I still have the ticket somewhere: The Dead Milkmen. Dec. 7, 1990. Cattle Club. Sacramento, Calif. Supporting acts: Mojo Nixon, The Cave Dogs. All ages. $10. The promoter had squeezed all the details into a rectangle in some horrible screaming serif font, replicated eight times on a standard 8.5×11 page, and photocopied maybe 40 pages, fanzine-style, on Kermit-green card stock. The Cattle Club couldn’t likely hold many more ticketholders than that. Not that everyone that night 22 years ago would have a ticket, but I had mine — my first show attending parentless.
My parents didn’t like the idea at first. They probably would have been fine with a top-40 act at Arco Arena, or one of the irregular rock shows staged at the Sacramento Community Center Theater. Something supervised. The Cattle Club seemed practically a no-go from the start. I can’t blame them. I wasn’t exactly tough growing up. The idea of a chubby, dorky cornball 14-year-old boy and his big metal-frame spectacles at a punk show in some dingy black hole on Folsom Blvd. that operated as a gay bar Monday-Thursday couldn’t legitimately appeal to any parent, unless maybe John Waters had a kid. But I had my friends Patrick and Eric aboard for the show as well, and it’s not like any of the Milkmen songs that our parents had heard us listening to on repeat for most of the last few months since discovering them had advocated Satan worship or human sacrifice or anything much more intellectually threatening than the cheeky nihilism of a song like "Life is Shit" (which, let’s face it, wasn’t anything we hadn’t already concluded in high school and the daily torment of adolescence), so finally they acquiesced.
This was a big deal. A big, big deal. The Dead Milkmen were my band. Their 1988 hit "Punk Rock Girl" got me at an age and sensibility where the first thing that I found and appreciated on my own would pretty much set the cornerstone of my musical tastes for the rest of my life. My parents would never let me watch Blue Velvet, but hearing "In Dreams" on a soundtrack recording somewhere got me into Roy Orbison. Another friend’s father, appalled one day by my exposure of the Milkmen to his son, dug an LP out of his closet. "Here; you wanna hear something fucked up?" He killed the cassette player and slung White Light/White Heat on the turntable, and so the Velvet Underground joined the rotation.
The Milkmen, however, enjoyed the natural advantage of still being alive and/or active, and their 1990 album Metaphysical Graffiti was just beyond. Their preceding record, Beelzebubba, initiated a commercial crossover that had yet to fully take hold. Graffiti, both spiritually consistent enough for their cult following and tuneful enough for newcomers, was the album that should have sprung them into superstardom. It never happened — but not because the Milkmen weren’t George Michael. The quartet’s gonzo-punk edge had long overshadowed their simmering sophistication as songwriters; they’d done it to themselves, really, burying sensational hooks and rhythm lines in numbers like "Watching Scotty Die," "Sri Lanka Sex Hotel" or "The Puking Song." They laid down a singularly loose, garage-y funk in a song extolling the virtues of smoking banana peels.
But whatever. The dissonance was their art, and that art kept improving through the end of the decade. It just got more complicated, though, when Metaphysical Graffiti came along. With its track list of songs including "In Praise of Sha Na Na," "If You Love Somebody Set Them on Fire," and "Anderson, Walkman, Buttholes and How!", it was received as a joke — drug-struck children of the ’70s reflexively goofing on the cultural abjection of the ’80s. But Metaphysical Graffiti is so not a joke. It is a tremulous bang of genius and alienation that opens with a loopy children’s choir ("Beige Sunshine") and concludes with the apocalyptic, arrhythmic disarray of its untitled final track. The 52 minutes in between run the gamut of its own self-contained civilization: the pestilence of desire ("Do the Brown Nose," "I Hate You, I Love You"); the curses of time, space and consciousness ("Now Everybody’s Me," "The Big Sleazy"); the fraud of conformity ("Methodist Coloring Book"); the myth of free will ("I Tripped Over the Ottoman"); the potency of secrets ("Part 3″); and a range of other visions that lead to the civilization’s own wild, clattering demise.
Its zenith, "Dollar Signs in Her Eyes," explores the consequences of striving — a dilemma central to the fierce, possibly futile worldview of a band like the Dead Milkmen:
"Dollar Signs in Her Eyes" was a lot of the reason I wanted to arrive so early on Dec. 7, 1990 — 8 p.m. doors, I think, for a 9 p.m. start. The closer and sooner I could get to that song, the better. The Cattle Club’s black interior and uninhabited dance floor looked huge to me. Some French doors led to a bar in the rear, I believe, but I could be wrong about that. I do vividly remember a corridor leading to some outdoor pen — maybe a smoking area, maybe just a triage area for some overheated casualties to come. I wrote the spaces off as useless and went back to waiting for the show.
The club filled in, followed soon by our apprehensions. I’m fairly sure Patrick and Eric and I were the youngest attendees on hand. After a while, the Cave Dogs’ set began, entitling us to other preoccupations. To wit: They were terrible. Twenty-two years later, the memory of their sound exists to me as neutrally mashed as the sound of rush-hour traffic slowed by 1/3 and played through a bullhorn. The frontman, a hirsute and modestly talented lad, bleated a lot and occasionally launched into a cool-ish rock-star jig — a leaping cannonball contortion that brought his knees even with his guitar while keeping his shaggy head in place. It was an admittedly creative means of boosting stage presence without fracturing his skull on the low ceiling above the stage.
Mojo Nixon followed. I never really got into him the way I got into the Milkmen, Nixon’s labelmates at Enigma Records. He had stirred the punk and psychobilly shit with his collaborator Skid Roper for years — most notoriously with the song "Debbie Gibson is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child," the video for which featured Winona Ryder yet was nevertheless banned by MTV. But Nixon and Roper had recently parted ways, and by 1990, with the release of Nixon’s solo album Otis, it just seemed to me like he was trying too hard. Whereas the worst label you could really apply to the Dead Milkmen after the success of "Punk Rock Girl" was one-hit novelty-song wonders, Nixon resorted to trolling with titles like "Don Henley Must Die" and, later, "Bring Me the Head of David Geffen." Maybe I wasn’t old enough to get it? It just wasn’t interesting.
Still, Nixon was terrific live. He and his new band the Toadliquors ripsnorted through "I Wanna Race Bigfoot Trucks" and "Destroy All Lawyers" and most of the rest from Otis, interrupted by at least two sexually charged interludes with an inflatable pig and an inflatable sheep. I guess I take bittersweet pleasure in "Fuck the pig!" as the first crowd chant I ever joined at a rock show — just puerile enough to crack up a 14-year-old, just transgressive enough to be exhilarating. It was kind of downhill from there; "Fuck the sheep!" packed only a fraction of the catharsis, and I couldn’t match my friend Patrick’s enthusiasm for Nixon’s jammy, rockin’, troglodyte fervor. Eric, meanwhile, stood on a ledge near stage right, fighting with a cracked contact lens.
Never having been to a club show before, I was surprised to see the Dead Milkmen themselves setting up instruments and equipment before their set. This seemed beneath them. Lead singer Rodney Anonymous plugged in his keyboard; guitarist/vocalist Joe Jack Talcum tuned his instrument. They looked short. Or maybe I felt tall. Bassist Dave Blood and drummer Dean Clean came and went. The stage cleared. Meanwhile, the space before it — which hours ago had looked as vast and unnavigable as the universe — bulged with seemingly all the musical adventuregoers of Sacramento. I recognized some from my high school; others, swaddled in a spectrum of faded concert merchandise from years past, gazed back at the fat kid through stringy hair and veils of skepticism.
I returned my attention to the stage, where the Milkmen had again materialized. I joined the clapping, screaming throng as the band tore into "Beige Sunshine." They sounded amazing — tighter than even their records, expansive yet spare and muscular, with a kind of energy most often encountered in airplanes climbing to cruising altitude. Someone passed a joint around, a tiny nothing of which I instinctively tried and failed to partake. My glasses flew off at some point during "Bitchin’ Camaro," landing in the middle of the highly charged mosh pit. Seeing this, another, older attendee waded to the pit’s edge. He stuck out his arms like Moses, somehow — quite literally amazingly — stopped the thrashing just long enough during one of the Milkmen’s most beloved songs for me to scour the floor and locate the wayward spectacles. Returning them to my face, with the Samaritan in crisp focus, I nodded in effusive thanks. I never saw him again.
Soon afterward, Talcum finally strummed into "Dollar Signs in Her Eyes." I’d sung along to all the songs up to that point, but this time, for some reason, I didn’t. Nobody did, really. I’d like to think it was a kind of rapture, but to everyone else, it was likelier a lull. They played it just like on the record: Vocal and guitar intro for four bars, with Clean and Blood tiptoeing in two bars apart on drums and bass. I did mouth along with Talcum’s line, "The sky is a highway for metal birds, and land is real estate" — always my favorite in the Milkmen canon, but just one of the hundreds from that night that cemented the show’s indelibility and the band’s legend for a fat 14-year-old in Sacramento.
I left the Cattle Club drenched in sweat and ecstasy and with adrenaline’s flow quickly ebbing into fatigue. I led my friends across Folsom Blvd., where my parents awaited to drive us home. They asked how we liked it. I don’t remember my reply, but I don’t really have to: I remember my first show. I remember the Dead Milkmen. And after 22 years, I love them both to this day.