Faux Strummer, Bogus Buzzcocks and Phony Ramones
It's an incongruous sight -- a jittery, clean-shaven twentysomething guy with a conservative haircut is on the Rudyard's stage with a punk quartet called the Rashomon Effect. There are no tattoos in evidence on his body, no unusual piercings to be seen. He's wearing a gaudy tie-dye T-shirt and a fanny pack. Yes, a fanny pack. He kind of looks like the sort of vaguely hep bank employee who might spend his off-hours at the Last Concert Cafe, not a guy who should be anywhere near anything punk.
"Back in the day, we used to hunt guys like him for sport," reminisces Rudyard's sound man Joe Omelchuck as he twiddles the knobs on the soundboard. But hey, this is punk karaoke night. If Donald Rumsfeld took the stage and told the band to rip into "Orgasm Addict," that would be his right. You don't have to look punk to be punk unless you're actually in a band.
Meanwhile, back on the stage, the tuning's done and the band kicks in. Tie-dye guy has morphed into Johnny Even Rottener. "Right! Now!" he snarls, a demented look in his eye, veins bulging in his neck nearly to the point of terminal aneurysm. "Ha ha ha ha ha ha / I am an antichrist / I am an anarchist " As this unlikely looking punk continues ripping through the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." with Henry Rollins's intensity and Andrew WK's (to coin a word) spasmocity, a friend turns to Racket and says, "Look at the decades of catharsis this guy is unleashing."
Catharsis -- that's why the Japanese salarymen invented karaoke. After a buttoned-down, well-mannered 80-hour week down at Mitsubishi, what better way to unwind than to knock back a sake or ten and pretend to be Frank Sinatra for four minutes?
And while Rudyard's live-band punk karaoke night doesn't offer much in the way of rice wine or Ol' Blue Eyes, catharsis reigns, along with Shiner Bock and the ghosts of Joey Ramone and Johnny Thunders. There's tie-dye guy, who went on to sing Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" and the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop." Perhaps he's singing for much the same reason the Japanese businessmen do. Then there's Greg Ellis, a onetime punk bandleader who has spent the last 20 years on the other side of the lights as a record store manager, record label exec and project manager at Southwest Wholesale. His performance of the Modern Lovers' "Road Runner" won him the only standing ovation of the night. For him, it was something akin to a bath in the fountain of youth.
Others take the stage just for the hell of it. Rusted Shut drummer Dom Benczedi -- mike, cocktail and cigarette in hand à la Shane MacGowan -- turned the Heartbreakers' "Chinese Rocks" into a nine-minute epic. He left the stage once, the band continued playing, and Benczedi returned to the stage minutes later and hollered something about looking for "Third Ward rocks," "Fourth Ward rocks" and "Fifth Ward rocks." He also knocked over a mike stand, grabbed the guitar of the Rashomon Effect's Johnny Rojas and, for a second, looked like he was going to smash it to bits. Bassist Rob Wilharm wrestled it away before hustling Benczedi off the stage. Punk as fuck, my friends, punk as fuck
In fact, it was a little too punk for Wilharm and company. "He treated it like an open-mike night," says Wilharm. The punk karaoke night was his idea -- he adapted it from similar nights in New York and San Francisco -- and he doesn't want his show turning into a punk guitar pull. "Some latitude toward that is fine, but when he started going Pete Townshend with my friend's guitar, it wasn't funny anymore. If you're a musician, having someone mess with your guitar is like being violated."
And so Benczedi will likely be barred from the stage at future punk karaoke nights. "We're talking about banning him and the other guys from Rusted Shut," Wilharm says. "If we don't, it'll always be an open-mike night. Open-mike nights are great, but there are already plenty of those around, and I think they would get banned from those, too. Dom is totally not welcome on this stage. It's really sad for something like punk rock karaoke to have to have rules like that, but he's gonna find a way to make you have that limit. He's a bad boy."
Wilharm's protectiveness is understandable -- the 37-year-old has worked long and hard to put this together. After dropping out of college, the native of Charleston, South Carolina, moved to Osaka, Japan, where he put together an all-original punk band with two fellow expats, and also fell in love with karaoke. At first, he was an English teacher, but then he became the only American construction worker in Osaka, and stayed in Japan for three years.
Back in America, he continued playing punk. After hearing about the punk karaoke nights in other cities, a light bulb went off over his head. "I play originals, but I'm always learning covers just for kicks," he says. "At some point I realized I knew so many that I figured if I could just get a couple of guitar players we could do this."
After enlisting guitarists Rojas and Greg Lasley, and drummer Hudson Berry (the son of local rock legend Herschel), the Rashomon Effect was born. Wilharm says the name is tentative. "Everyone speaks and tells different stories," he says. "But it's also like a chemical that you can put into water that turns a tadpole into Godzilla." (Exhibit A: tie-dye guy.)
Currently the band has a repertoire of 45 songs to choose from. Right now, the band will perform only songs from before 1982. "I think it would kill us to just go wide open," Wilharm says. "If we learned a bunch of Green Day and Good Charlotte, we would gain that crowd and lose our crowd. There was a girl playing with us for a little while and she sort of lost interest because she was into newer stuff. I told her to start her own band -- I was being serious, but I think she thought I was being a smart-ass. This is not open-mike night, it's not Le Tigre. There are some limits."
Rudyard's bartender Brad Moore has been enjoying watching these metamorphoses so far, with a minor quibble. "The only problem is that the singers are too good," he says. "Karaoke is supposed to kind of suck, but a lot of these guys are in bands."
Moore's beef aside, punk and karaoke are as much natural companions as your chocolate and my peanut butter. Both are, ahem, "democratic" art forms, meaning it doesn't take much, if any, talent to perform either one badly. All you need is attitude and courage. Putting the two forms together is such a simple idea that you would have thought that punk-karaoke bars would be in every town by now. Who would have thought that it would take until 1982 (or thereabouts, karaoke's origins are hazy) for someone to come up with the idea of letting drunken bar patrons sing over taped tracks, or in this case, in front of a cover band? Karaoke's also democratic in the more traditional sense -- there's none of the "I'm the star and this is my stage" dynamic of traditional shows. The stars come from the audience, and to the audience they return -- there's a giddy anything-can-happen feeling at these gigs few real bands can touch.
And by the way, a literal translation of the word karaoke into English is "empty orchestra." There's something perfect about the empty orchestra concept being adapted to Richard Hell's blank generation.
Rudyard's next punk karaoke night will be Tuesday, July 1. The club is located at 2010 Waugh Drive. For more information, call 713-521-0521. If you buy Racket enough tequila, he just might grace an unworthy public with his version of "Janie Jones."
For a Houston club, Numbers is one of the rare exceptions to the here-today, gone-tomorrow rule. Staying open here for five years can earn you "venerable" status, so that must make 25-year-old Numbers downright august. For a little perspective, around the time Numbers opened, Jimmy Carter was in the White House, Jim Jones was busy down in Guyana inspiring the Judy's biggest hit, the charts were dominated with stuff like "You're the One that I Want" and "Shadow Dancing," and Earl Campbell signed with the Oilers, churned for 1,450 yards and touched off the Luv Ya Blue boom. Over the next three weeks and change, the club will celebrate its quarter-century on Lower Westheimer with 25 events in 25 days. If you're reading this extremely early, you can make it to the club's 25th anniversary party on June 25. The next night, DJ Hideous hosts Special Underworld, while June 27 will find DJ Wes Wallace spinning Numbers' top 25 most requested songs of all time. Guest DJs Curtis Morton and Michael DeGrace will spin on June 28 from 4 p.m. till God knows when. There's a wind-down party skedded for Sunday, while on Monday, Black Eyed Peas take the stage at a club that is a wee bit older than rap itself. Watch these pages for further developments over the next month.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.