Wisconsin Death Trip: A Long Overdue Obituary of Killdozer
I saw Killdozer once at the Black Cat. The club was nearly empty, and I took advantage of this fact to stand right up against the stage. I thought I’d pulled off a coup until Killdozer started playing. And boy were they loud. They were easily the loudest band I’d ever heard. It was sheer ear sodomy is what it was, and I soon found myself being driven slowly and inexorably backwards, inch by inch, until, no kidding, I was pinned and mounted to the club’s rear wall like a butterfly. And my ears still hurt. Here I loved them more than any band in the world, and even I couldn’t stand them.
But I’m not here to praise the late Killdozer’s unbearable volumes, or their great but unbearable music. I’m here to call them the greatest protest band ever. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking he’s nuts. But it’s a fact. Forget Phil Ochs, who was as boring as a symposium on civil service reform. And forget Bruce Springsteen, who is too hopeful to ever be taken seriously except by other hopeful people who live in magical bubbles of utter delusion. Forget Rage Against the Machine, which writes bona fide protest songs that I would sooner eat an Ebola eclair than listen to. Forget the late, great Minutemen, who wrote brilliant protest songs but who were also too hopeful. And don’t even bring up Bob Dylan, whose protest career was, in my opinion, a brilliant shuck.
No, all of these guys’ protest songs pale in the face of Killdozer’s scathing indictments of everything from Walmart (“Enemy of the People”), the first Iraq War (“Turkey Shoot”), capitalism as a failed system (“Das Kapital” and “Final Market”), rapacious bankers and real estate developers (“Richard” and “Porky’s Dad”), even shitty customer service (“Hamburger Martyr” and “Ted Key Beefs”).
Oddly enough, Killdozer had nothing but good things to say about the late automobile paint and collision repair king Earl Schieb (“Our friend, Earl Schieb/Friend of man, helped so many/Did so much for so little in return”), but I’m relatively certain their salute to Earl was a left-handed one.
Madison, Wisconsin’s Killdozer is long gone, having said goodbye in 1996 with a final “Fuck You, We Quit!” tour after releasing nine great albums, and buckshot-voiced lead singer/storyteller Michael Gerald is now an attorney specializing in maritime law. But to some of us, Killdozer lives on as the best noise rock band ever, and not just because it produced a loveable but hardscrabble hybrid of scunge and country blues that sounded like a combine harvester running up your spine. It’s because Killdozer wrote some of the funniest yet most subversive songs ever.
Killdozer’s deranged sense of humor–see “Hamburger Martyr”–led plenty of people to write it off as a joke band, but these nattering nabobs are nothing but Stalinists (Gerald is a Trotskyite) jealous of his superior interpretation of the Marxist dialectic, which he spelled out in such LPs/communist tracts as Intellectuals Are the Shoeshine Boys of the Ruling Elite and Uncompromising War on Art Under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Killdozer is great because while it was joking, it wasn’t. As Gerald once said, “If America wasn’t a cesspool we couldn’t write songs. At least not the songs we write.” There was an honest-to-God thread of social criticism (generally in the form of savage Swiftian satire) running through Killdozer’s work, and alas, too few people heard it. Look for Killdozer’s songs on any web listing of protest music, I dare you. You won’t find them. America’s truest heroes of social protest are acknowledged by nobody, except lonesome me.
Everywhere Killdozer looked they saw crass stupidity, wanton cruelty, and monstrous indifference to human suffering. In addition to the ills mentioned above they specialized in small-town horrors, itemizing them in what you might call a sort of Northern Gothic ala Wisconsin Death Trip. Gerald once told me, “They say write about what you know. What I knew about is idiots.” The result was songs like “The Puppy,” a horrific tale about dog neutering (“My old lady’s name is Lois/I love it when she sucks my dick/When I set Sonny’s balls on fire/She didn’t even blink”).
Gerald told me how the song came about: “There was a biker gang outside of Madison, WI, called Satan’s Dragons, that didn’t even own motorcycles. They were in the news because one of their initiates had been found dead and naked in a field, castrated and with his dick stuffed into his mouth. They were caught when one of them reported to the police the theft of his Harley Davidson ring, which had been found underneath the head of the dead initiate. The dudes referred to their initiates as “puppies.” I naturally imagined them being the type who would set a dog’s balls on fire…”
“The Puppy” may be Killdozer’s most savage treatment of small town grotesquerie, but it was far from alone. Gerald also wrote songs about a man with a 3/4″-inch drill bit forever implanted in his skull, a railroad man who gets cut in half when two trains collide, a guy who goes on a killing spree because his diner hamburger and coffee aren’t up to par (“You call this cup of shit coffee?/Well I’d rather drink from the dick of a goat”), a man who shoots his own penis off because he thinks it’s a “little man of meat,” another man who “shoots his own fucking guts out with his own fucking gun,” a man who survives a grain elevator explosion only to end up with a face “like chewed bubble gum” which he hides by wearing a bag over his head, and a man who tries to kill his mother (“Just because a man throws his own mother down a flight of stairs/Well, does that necessarily imply that he’s insane?”) because he’s convinced her dog is out to kill him. Why, Killdozer even wrote a tune about Wisconsin’s most infamous son, killer and ghoul Ed Gein.
But Killdozer–they were Bill Hobson on guitar, Dan Hobson on bass, and Gerald on vocals and bass, with Paul Zagoras later taking over guitar duties–would have left even me terminally bummed had they not leavened their music with humor, much of it tasteless but still.
They are, after all, the guys who gave us the great “Knuckles the Dog Who Helps People,” a hilarious parody of the East German children’s song, “Unser kleiner Trompeter.” Knuckles, a failed racing dog saved from the glue factory by a “blind and palsied” boy, is so gentle he “Won’t hunt/He respects all forms of life” and dies tragically after taking an assassin’s bullet intended for the handicapped boy. Then there’s “Man vs. Nature,” Killdozer’s salute to such disaster movies by Irwin “the Master of Realism” Allen as “The Poseidon Adventure” (“Of course Shelly Winters she was on the ship/She was good too/But she died”) and “The Towering Inferno” (“O.J. Simpson led the cast/In a man against nature fight for survival/It was awesome!”)
And let us never forget “The Pig Was Cool,” a heartwarming tale about friendly law enforcement officers. “We were at the Journey show/The first three songs we were hanging low/Then the band started playing ‘Wheel in the Sky’/And me and my babe started getting high,” sings Gerald. Then the guy next to them asks for a hit, only to turn out to be a cop. But rather than bust them he says, “Man, this is good shit!” Then there’s “Free Love in Amsterdam,” a paean to the city of sex and canals (“There’s free love in Amsterdam/It’s the place where the swingers go”), that gut-bustingly raunchy pair of salutes to the male libido, “Space: 1999” and “King of Sex,” and last but not least “New Pants and Shirt,” which has to be the foulest, most loathsome, and funniest song ever written on the subject of sex.
Killdozer was a band of many talents, and in addition to being the funniest and the most serious of bands, Killdozer was the undisputed king of covers. In addition to its renditions of such songs as “I’m Not Lisa,” “I Am, I Said” (it’s utterly brilliant), “Hot’n’Nasty” (long live Black Oak Arkansas!) “Cinnamon Girl,” and “Run Through the Jungle” on individual albums, Killdozer released the scintillatingly romantic “For Ladies Only,” an entire album of covers intended to put that “special lady” in the mood for romance.
Unfortunately it included such songs as “Good Lovin’ Gone Bad,” “One Tin Soldier,” “American Pie,” and “Take the Money and Run,” none of which are known for their aphrodisiacal qualities. Although every single one of the covers on the album make the originals sound like dreck. Oh, and let us not forget the 7″ “Michael Gerald’s Party Machine Presents!,” a fortuitous collaboration between Killdozer and Alice Donut (aka Killdonut) on “Aquarius: Let The Sunshine In,” which is fantastic but will also not get you laid.
Even Killdozer’s mistakes were funny. For instance, they dedicated their album Burl to the memory of Burl Ives, only to find out later he was still alive. That’s the kind of thing that could only have happened to Killdozer, and one of the reasons I love them. Speaking of Burl, one college radio station debated whether it should be played at 45 or 33 rpm until one wag concluded, “It doesn’t matter.” That’s another reason to love Killdozer, as is the web site I found that described their sound as “melodique rock,” which befuddled me (“unmelodique rock” is more like it) until I realized they were talking about a French band with the same name. Finally, Gerald told one interviewer, “Above all, the songs were meant to make my friends laugh,” and I can’t think of a nobler or more important reason for making music, or for honoring Killdozer’s memory.
Look, I’m not saying Killdozer wrote the greatest protest song ever. That honor goes to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” which is inexplicably a protest against itself. Or to Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park,” which is a protest against the idiot who left the cake out in the rain, even though it took so long to bake it and we’ll never have the recipe again. Or to the aforementioned “I Am, I Said,” Neil Diamond’s impassioned protest against the fact that even his chair won’t listen to him. Or to “Suggestion,” Fugazi’s protest against that life-or-death issue, ogling. Or, if I have to be honest, to Don McLean’s “American Pie.” I’m not sure what it’s a protest against, but it sure is catchy.
As is the phrase Killdozer used to close their shows: “We’re Killdozer. You’re not. Fuck off!”