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Van Blarcum is as enigmatic as the music he and his band, Ethyl Merman, perform--a hybrid of the hard-core and the hilarious, infused with an intangible anger that's more than offset by the smile through which it's screamed. He's as much a Deep Ellum mainstay as Elm Street itself: He has been a stagehand for the past dozen years, and during that time he has performed with myriad bands--the most well-known of which was the speed-metal Sedition, of which Van Blarcum will only say it has left him with few fond memories.
It speaks volumes about him that he is still best-known as the man who kicked Kurt Cobain's scrawny butt during a brief on-and- offstage tussle during Nirvana's 1991 trip to Trees. Courtney Love-Cobain certainly has not forgotten the incident: during her most recent trip to town, she was said to be looking for Van Blarcum, seeking a little payback.
If it has become harder and harder to tell the pretend-punks from the Real Things now that "punk rock" has (again) become a catchphrase used freely by MTV and other merchandisers of rebellious goodies, Van Blarcum and the rest of Ethyl Merman are the honest-to-gawd incarnation. Which means that with the exception of Van Blarcum, these boys don't look much like your vague and vacant stereotype: two of the guys look more like refugees from Ted Nugent's Hair Club for Men, while the drummer evokes Tor Johnson, the hulking Swedish wrestler who often appeared in the films of Ed Wood. These men are all in their 30s and adhere to the belief punk rock is about attitude and individuality; about rebellion in the mind, not the wardrobe; about free thinking and speaking, not repeating regurgitated clichés.
As an example of this ideology, Van Blarcum enjoys telling of his one and only run-in with Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong at last year's Lollapalooza. For Van Blarcum, the moment forever separated those who are punk rockers and those who only pretend to be what they will never understand.
"I went to [Armstrong] and asked him why does he sing with an English accent, solely hoping that I will get a negative reaction from him," Van Blarcum recalls of the backstage incident. "I was praying he'd look at me, give me the finger and say, 'Fuck you, man. I did it because I wanted to.'"
But instead, Armstrong just shrugged and mumbled something about doing it, like, just because. "I said, 'This is pathetic,' and walked away," Van Blarcum continues. "I mean he looked so snotty. I wouldn't believe it. I wanted him to say, 'Fuck you.' I would have kissed his shoes if he had said that. I would go 'Yeah, that's the attitude!' I was so disappointed."
Ethyl Mer-man, then, is a band so purist in its approach and so musically competent that calling them just a good punk band sounds almost an understatement (and even an oxymoron). Van Blarcum wails away like Jello Biafra, and the musicians spit a sonic attack equivalent to the Dead Kennedys at their best. And during those moments when the band lightens up and remembers that besides musical and political anarchy, punk was a paganistic celebration of life, they bring a chuckle to your face by reminding you of The Anti-Nowhere League.
When the band takes the stage at places like Bar of Soap, they blur that line separating homage and parody, rock and roll exaltation and loathing, the profound and the profane. It's such a damn good show that if you make the mistake of taking it at face value, you probably miss half its impact; it's the deliberate ambiguity that makes Ethyl Merman so delightfully catchy.
"We want that in our music," says guitarist Hank Tolliver. "Most of our themes are serious, but we play our songs in a way that it's fun. We want people to know what we're thinking, but we don't want them to come to our shows and walk away bummed out."
A typical Ethyl Merman show features such selections as "Guns for Nuns," "Betty Ford Clinic," "Safe Sex," and a hilarious and unexpected take on the Go-Go's classic "We Got The Beat." At a recent show at Bar of Soap, Van Blarcum was all over the audience, moshing and spraying beer at a crowd that was more than happy to take it. Behind him, Tolliver, bassist Mark Shaefer, and drummer Phil Lee alternated between a set list that included the not-so-serious ("Love American Style," "Thank God I'm Livin in the USA") and the downright goofy ("Prozac," "Goin' To Hell").