It's on Tuesday nights, on stage at the High Noon Saloon, that Richard Marsh becomes the truest, most exalted version of himself. He ceases to be Richard Marsh, janitor at Meriter Hospital, and, to the accompaniment of a living, breathing backing band, is transformed into Swampy D, churning urn of burning funk, rock star nonpareil.
In the past, Marsh has performed the music of Pink Floyd, but tonight there are jams to be kicked out, a roof to be raised, socks to be knocked off, a correspondent from a local weekly newspaper to be wowed. Tonight, nothing less than Steppenwolf's manifesto of irrepressible testosteronosity "Born to Be Wild" will do.
As he growls the song's invitation to get your motors runnin', Marsh leers at a young woman whom the opening riff has drawn dancing, flame-and-moth style, to the edge of the stage. Rock star that he is at this moment, he could have her - could have a dozen like her! - just by winking, but Swampy only leers. Snarling the line "I like smoke and lightning," his sly pantomime leaves little question about the kind of smoke to which he's referring. Wild, wild stuff!
Before the instrumental break, possessed by the spirit of Jim Morrison, Marsh lets out a scream that curdles the blood of even those lining up shots on the pool tables in the back of the club. But he is saving the best for last. As the song reaches its closing bars, he hurls himself heavenward.
And lands awkwardly, staggers backward, and winds up on his wallet.
Welcome to Rock Star Gomeroke, usually the best show in Madison on a Tuesday night.
Halfway through the Reagan presidency, the young local musicians Biff Blumfumgagnge and Stephen G. Burke enrolled in improvisational comedy workshops offered in Madison by one of the founders of Kentucky Fried Theatre. Dave Adler was already the house keyboard guy, playing Billy Preston's "Outta Space" and Deep Purple's "Space Trucking" between scenes. Disdaining from the jump the notion of trying to become The Next Big Thing, they joined forces as a mock rock band called the Gomers, named after Jim Nabors' title character in the sub-lowbrow television sitcom Gomer Pyle.
"Given a choice between having more fun or less," the group's occasional percussionist Andy Wallman remembers, "the Gomers chose more, fun being a lot more easily nailed than high art."
Live-band karaoke is by no means unique to Madison; it can actually be found across the country these days. The Gomers got the idea from an old chum, the lead writer of the Onion, who advised them that Anita's Kitchen in Manhattan was presenting live punk karaoke. "That's it!" various key members of the group are thought to have exclaimed in unison. "We're fucking doing that!"
Serendipitously, High Noon Saloon owner Cathy Dethmers was looking at the same time for a regular Tuesday night event. "Back in the late '80s," Biff remembers, "we did a weekly show, the Rock-o-Rama Rock Jam at the Club de Wash. Props to Cathy for rekindling those community-filled weekly concert events!"
At the High Noon on a glacial Tuesday evening this spring, Jimmy (you're no more likely to hear a surname here than at an AA meeting), in a baseball cap that obscures his eyes, starts the evening off with what at first appears to be a promising version of "A Whiter Shade of Pale." But then, perhaps daunted by the prospect of having to soar Percy Sledge-ishly to the top of his range, he goes into deer-in-the-headlights mode at the chorus. As he blinks helplessly at his lyric sheet, various Gomers try to pick up the vocal slack. They are wildly off-key.
Michael, who, with his bushy beard, looks like he just arrived from the cover of the second Band album, elects for reasons known only to him to perform Paper Lace's 1974 kitsch-fest "The Night Chicago Died." He has a sense of neither pitch nor musical time, and a train wreck ensues. The carnage is no less awful for bass player Gordon Ranney's impromptu vocal harmonies in the key of H.
Braying the Doors' "L.A. Woman" with considerable brio, Matt, with the tail of his shirt protruding from beneath his sweater like a big white tongue, hops up and down exultantly, evoking Wisconsin's biggest 4-year-old. The mop-topped, fresh-faced Casey, dapper for Madison in a sports jacket bearing a neat row of badges in the mod mode, does a nice job of the Moody Blues' "Ride My Seesaw," which the band plays around 20% faster than the recorded version. The temperature in the High Noon is risin'.
When the Gomers are asked for one of the trickier or more obscure of the 2,000-plus songs they purport to be able to play, "it's like jumping off a cliff without a safety net," Biff marvels. "But even when we miss, I like to think we do it with energy, gusto and humor."
"If people expected Gomeroke to be about musical perfection, with lifelike stereophonic sound just like the record," Wallman muses pointedly, "we'd have been out of business a few hundred shows ago."
Often only one of the group, whose membership differs considerably from night to night, with Ranney and Burke being the most regular, will have a clear memory of a particular requested song - and often said memory may include the verse and chorus, but not the bridge. On such occasions, Blumfumgagnge sighs, "We have to be used-car salesmen, and sell what we've got." If occasionally the singer involved is indignant that the band has failed to play the song exactly as on record, well, in every life a little rain must fall, okay?
"Sometimes," Wallman acknowledges, "the guy who thinks he knows the song best discovers that he knows it worst. On those occasions, the train doesn't get to the station, but goes down the side of a cliff. But there've been precious few train wrecks, and only a handful of times when somebody got really pissed."
With his gray hair, wire-rim glasses and leather jacket, Bill looks like a high school vice principal embracing his wild side, and sings an obscure Zeppelin song with great panache, leaping Plant-ishly between registers, even throwing in a bit of vibrato. Justifiably proud of his performance, he seems to want to high-five each of his accompanists in triumph before departing the stage, but guitarist Burke alone notices him. The rest, whose interest in any given singer seems to end at exactly the moment his or her song ends, are busy fiddling with their equipment and sipping drinks.
Mr. Showbiz, otherwise known as Frazier, has a shaved head and a smooth manner, and addresses the High Noon audience as Madison, as in, "How you doing, Madison?" Not for our Frazier mere singing; he warms us up with a quip about Brett Favre's retirement and, as the band begins to play Bad Company's "Shooting Star," dons wraparound sunglasses. He's a bit...much, obviously, but a good, gritty singer - a lucky thing in view of the song seeming to last around six months.
A lot of the Gomers' income comes from weddings and corporate parties. In advance, they will typically be given a list of songs the happy couple and their guests will want to perform. Just as at the High Noon Saloon, the group will commonly wing it, but have been known, since mauling a Beach Boys favorite requested by a recent new bride, to do a bit of homework in the face of a request as tricky as, for instance, Rush's catchy "By-tor and the Snow Dog."
"Older folks will often get up to sing at weddings," Biff notes, as dewy-eyedly as one can via email. "Great Uncle Larry will perform a Johnny Cash or Hank Williams favorite. When the response is overwhelming - 'I can't believe Uncle Larry just rocked that tune with the band!' - it's definitely a melding of rock with the social and familial, and a real highlight."
The here-and-now gets better as the slim, pretty Rachel, who'd look good on a CD cover, or in a music video with atmospheric lighting, or on your arm entering a chic restaurant, sings "Ain't No Sunshine," strangely retaining Bill Withers' original pronouns (ain't no sunshine when she's gone) even though she is, heartbreakingly, clearly in the company of her boyfriend.
"Every night," agrees Wallman, "at least one singer really lights it up, and you go, 'Holy shit, this is really special!'" But the Gomers thus far have resisted the temptation to recruit any of their more notable momentary frontpersons to join full-time for purposes of trying to parlay their charisma into international superstardom.
"I think the Gomers are past trying to grab the gold ring," Wallman confides. "That would change what the band means. We're a band of and for the people."
There is only one way to follow Rachel's performance, and Mike, who looks like - and in fact is - assistant dean of admissions at the University of Wisconsin's law school, wisely chooses to yelp the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," which of course gets the house jumping and jiving.
A monthly participant in Rock Star Gomeroke and an unabashed fan of Swampy D, Mike will later speak for many when he exults, "What a treat to be on stage with these incredible musicians!" Who then have to keep smiling while Aaron, a rosy-cheeked young hippie, and his giggly female partner-in-crime Bronwyn, lay waste to the Zombies' "Time of the Season," with Bronwyn screeching on the high parts so as to make many onlookers eye deafness longingly.
"If somebody sucks," Wallman assures us, "that's okay. We figure the audience can endure three excruciating minutes, and maybe even revel in the pleasure the person on stage is getting."
"Gomeroke isn't really about us as a band," the sweet-natured Biff Unpronounceable says. "It's less about us than about the patrons who jump off the cliff with us. We're simply enablers of those who, for a shining, albeit brief, moment are the stars (or anti-stars) of the show. We try our best to enable everyone to hit a home run of rock 'n' roll."
Up next, Iesha hits a stand-up triple with Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me," to which the lissome Rachel, a first-year law student, jitterbugs with infectious vivacity. If only Iesha had some of Frazier's confidence, and didn't hide behind the music stand on which her lyrics rest!
Singers from nine to 800 have Gomeroke'd. "On Halloween on State Street one year," Wallman reminisces, "an 800-year-old gentleman who seemed high or out of his mind, obviously either coming from or heading for a homeless shelter, got up and sang an old blues with us - and nailed it, and then immediately disappeared," apparently as though in one of those movies intended to display Nicolas Cage's soulfulness.
But the results aren't always so salubrious. On another occasion, a woman on crutches, with one leg in a cast and two sheets to the wind, became so taken with the whole experience of singing with the Gomers that she began spinning wildly, knocking over music and mike and cymbal stands in profusion before someone could placate her.
Ian, a skinny white boy said to be in a band of his own, closes out the first set with Van Halen's "Jump," by the end of which everyone in sight is beaming delightedly, their souls having been rocked. Ian isn't much of a singer, and is a better singer than David Lee Roth, but so are you.
After a long break and then Swampy D, young Scott and two friends, one of each sex, come up to try their luck at "Sweet Caroline" together. Their luck is very bad indeed; none of them can sing. Raising their voices as one, they evoke feline torture. Worse, they apparently regard their ineptitude as winsome, as at the worst traditional karaoke. Holding his hands over his ears, the correspondent for the local weekly newspaper flees into the frigid night.
But oh, the memories.