Turner Van Blarcum is perhaps the most easily recognized figure seen stalking Deep Ellum's streets. With his shaved and mohawked head, he is a lumbering rail of tattoos and energy--a punk-rocker, to be certain, but no punk. When he speaks, his voice rattles around in his throat as if being pummeled by small pebbles; when he laughs, he roars. He is street-tough and intimidating to those who do not know him, kind and friendly toward those who do; he's very much like a magnet when he walks into clubs, attracting the pale punks as much as the straights in their Gapwear.
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 clichs.
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").
The songs deal with the everyday absurdities of life in Dallas and this country, and they tread that fragile line separating the outraged from the enraged. If Van Blarcum were to take his tongue out of his cheek when singing his paranoid rantings, the meaning would be depressing and off-putting and outright ridiculous: "Safe Sex," for instance, starts slowly as a mock "we-are-the-world" rock anthem before it explodes into a frenzied rant that includes the line, "The government invented AIDS."
Still, the band insists they try to stay away from politics as much as possible. "Too Punk to Fuck," the band's most recent song, is sublime in its silliness and inspired by the Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk to Fuck." And then there's "Corporate Money," a slapshot at Lollapalooza that begins with the lines, "You spent 30 bucks to see a hard-core show/And the rest of your daddy's allowance/You snort it up your nose."
"I just don't wanna write about killing, raping, pillaging, blah blah blah," Van Blarcum says in a sing-song voice. "I can see all that in the street. I wanna forget about that for at least an hour in the evening and have some fun. We still touch on the subject of things we believe in. We're not a political band, but we have certain views all of us feel--like our rights being stepped on, the Constitution is a piece of paper you can wipe your ass with, and so on."
When Van Blarcum talks about politics, he does so with the sort of indignant rage of a man who's convinced the government's out to get him (and, of course, you) and who believes his enemies surround him at all times: Van Blarcum's are the politics of oppression and paranoia, fear and retaliation. But his sneer is easily twisted into a smile, as Van Blarcum embraces one of punk's oldest and most viable tenets: laughing in the face of the enemy is a more powerful weapon than screaming. It was an idea to which the Sex Pistols (listen to "Holidays in the Sun") and the Dead Kennedys ("Holiday in Cambodia") adhered.
"I think punk rock is coming back and it's gonna be bigger, meaner, and harder than it ever was," Van Blarcum insists. "I talked to some people from England and they say the economy in America now is like the economy was in Europe in the late '70s. The same poverty crash is hitting here; the middle class is being deleted, the poor are getting poorer, and the rich richer. It's gonna hit people in their wallets, and then they'll realize that it's not a race war, it's a class war.
"The city of Dallas tries to tell us that Dallas is separated in white, black, Mexican sectors. That's bullshit. We're not separated, we're all poor, and our common enemy is the United States government. I don't mean to sound like a White Panther or Wayne Kramer of MC5, but that's what it boils down to.
"But, here we go again. Enough about politics. We're not a political band. Sorry! X that," Van Blarcum says sarcastically. "We make music for the working class, dance music for the poor."
To hear Van Blarcum tell it, there exists a huge underground punk scene in town consisting of teenagers who play--and live--punk. They're the subculture that is hardly welcome in Deep Ellum anymore, the mohawk-and-leather kids who wander the streets during the day but are forced into their own world come night. They're kids, Van Blarcum says, who continually move from one place of residence to another.
"I'm not talking about suburban punks," Van Blarcum says, referring to the weekenders who live with Mom and Dad and play Sega all day. "This is the real thing. These kids have the attitude. There is a squatterhouse called the Glasshouse where these young punks live and they have all kinds of shows there. I'm so happy to see all these kids doing it."
And they are kids who have their own hard-core bands, groups like Terminal Disgust and Bad Hair Day who are stuck in a perpetual 1978; they rant and scream and pound on their instruments, their lifestyle and wardrobe and sound taken as much from Decline of Western Civilization as from the pages of last month's issue of Flipside.
But they "have nowhere to play," Van Blarcum explains. As such, he is trying to convince the owners of the Major Theatre on Samuell Boulevard to turn the movie-house into a sort of punk-rock refuge. Ethyl Merman has, in fact, performed there on a few occassions, most notably during the recent showing of Spike and Mike's Twisted Animation Festival.
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And true to the do-it-yourself ethic, Ethyl Merman's immediate plans include establishing their own record and distribution company. The record company's name (under which they currently release their self-produced cassettes) is Thrift Towne Records, while the publishing-distribution label is Momma Don't Take My Doc's Away--a self-effacing reference to the shoe-of-choice for today's young would-be rebel.
Behind the confusion and contradictions that define Ethyl Merman--political songs by a band that claims to be anti-political, pissed-off music performed with a laugh, a frontman who's frightening until he says "hello"--lurks a band that is as punk as punk can be. Van Blarcum recounts two definitive moments that underline how easily misunderstood the band can really be.
"When we were doing a photo shoot, this photographer said 'I got a concept--we'll take your pictures in a graveyard,'" he recalls. "He thought we were about death, or something stupid. We're about life, man. Live and have fun...
"You know what's funny, man? When we opened for Fear, of all the songs we played, Nazi skinheads picked 'We Got The Beat' by the Go-Go's as their white power anthem. Imagine that.