True Grit

Mar 19, 2008 at 12:00 am

How does a former Lansing-area elementary school teacher start a music revolution? Hell, if that sounds like a gag, how does the same guy, almost 30 years later, a father of two and husband of 25 years, stage a punk rock comeback? On the phone with Metro Times, the fiftysomething godfather of Midwestern hardcore punk, the fur-clad frontman of the Meatmen, Tesco Vee (aka Bob Vermeulen), sounds almost baffled by his own comeback after a 10-year hiatus.

"I swore to God it was done. ... I hung up the fake fur forever. But then this last spring, right about this time of year, [Negative Approach shouter] John Brannon called me and said they were doing their first show in 24 years, and he asked me, 'Can you introduce us?' And then, the next thing you know, it was, 'Can you play a song?' Next it was a half-hour set. So, I went out and did it. I thought, 'I can do this shit again!' ... I felt the crowd. It sounds like a cliché, but you feel the roar of the crowd and it does something to you!"

Opening the Negative Approach show last spring at St. Andrew's Hall in Detroit convinced Tesco to re-form the Meatmen, recruiting a band that's roughly half his age, young enough to have bought his albums as teenagers.

But hanging out with younger people was what got Tesco started. Back in the late 1970s, the grade school teacher and burnout son of a school superintendent was so taken with kick-ass music and slash-and-burn writers like Lester Bangs, he started his own fanzine, Touch and Go (which sired the Chicago record label), and adopted the pen name that would become his stage name, Tesco Vee.

Detroit hardcore

A recent 7,000-word article in Swindle magazine titled "The Detroit Hardcore Scene" chronicled the rise of the early '80s punk scene centered here, foregrounding Tesco's role as co-editor of the punk fanzine Touch and Go. The article revealed how Tesco's inveterate fandom helped connect the dots in the Midwest punk scene. Before the Internet, getting ahold of the next wave of edgy music required diligent searching. Tesco, who spent the '70s soaking up everything from glitter to glam, says, "When punk hit, I just dove into it and started picking up Slash magazine and Search and Destroy, NME, Melody Maker." Inspired by this glut of punk criticism, while hanging with his friend one night in 1979, Tesco said, "Let's do a fanzine." Touch and Go was born.

Through the zine, the duo wound up corresponding with the loose-knit, far-flung U.S. punk scene. They soon met the Necros, a punk band composed of suburban Toledo kids, because Necros screamer Barry Henssler, drummer Todd Swalla and bassist Corey Rusk edited their own zine, Smegma Journal. Touch and Go zine also put Tesco in touch with pre-Minor Threat Ian MacKaye, pre-Black Flag Henry Rollins, and some guy from New Jersey named Glenn Danzig.

Nurturing the fledgling hardcore community came naturally to Tesco, who palled with not just the Necros but Negative Approach frontman John Brannon. "I would be like 28 and John was 18 and Barry was 20. ... I was the father figure in that bunch. ... It was like, 'Tesco! Go get us some brew, you old fucker!'"

We're the Meatmen ...

Now the head of the Touch and Go and Quarterstick labels in Chicago, then-Necros bassist Rusk got permission to use the Touch and Go name for a record label. Rusk and his chums started releasing early 7-inch recordings of Necros and Negative Approach on the Touch and Go label. Watching the teen punks form bands and release records inspired Tesco to finally assemble his own band in the early '80s. Over the years, the band would include such punk heavies as Swalla of the Necros, Brian Baker and Lyle Preslar of Minor Threat, and Graham McCullough of Negative Approach.

Using the DIY ethic, early Meatmen tracks were recorded in Rusk's family's upscale suburban Ohio home when the folks were out. Tesco recalls "Crippled Children Suck" was recorded in Rusk's basement. "But, to do the vocals, I was up in the kitchen screaming my lungs out." Tesco says. "The cleaning lady came walking in with a bag of groceries just as I was in the middle, and she just about dropped the bag all over the floor."

Always a fan of comedy recordings and bands that used humor, like Frank Zappa and the Fugs — a band Tesco describes as "geniuses" — the 6-foot, 5-inch Tesco fronted what was easily the Midwest's most over-the-top punk band, the Meatmen. Their early sound was mostly four-four hardcore, with guttural screaming, occasional falsetto whoops and good-natured but foul-mouthed banter with the crowd between songs. But what set the group apart was Tesco's and company's affinity for adolescent sexual banter.

In Detroit, the band's shows were exceptionally wild. At the Freezer Theater in the Cass Corridor, Tesco's stage antics included smacking people in the audience with a large dildo. In his onstage zeal, Tesco accidentally smacked an audience member unconscious. Tesco recalls, "The guy was laid out on the ground — a Wayne State professor. He was knocked out cold. ... Oops."

Once they released some EPs and hit the road, the Meatmen were already known out East. When recording an infamous live show at New York City's Mudd Club, the Beastie Boys, then in their mid-teens, were all outside, asking Tesco, "Can we get in free?" (Tesco said no.) He recalls a show at Irving Plaza where a drunken Kory Clarke, whom the Meatmen made fun of on an early album, screamed at Tesco out of a third-story window.

... and you suck

Clarke, the object of fun in "Tooling for Anus," like many, have protested against how the Meatmen are Tesco's vehicle for his nothing-is-sacred sense of humor. Over the years, Meatmen track have made fun of masturbation ("Orgy of One"), deformity ("Crippled Children Suck"), Lennon's assassination ("One Down, Three to Go"), white trash ("True Grit"), hedonism ("Come on Over to Mah Crib"), and society at large ("We're the Meatmen and You Suck!").

Perhaps the band's most infamous song is the Detroit-centric homophobic anthem "Tooling for Anus," which grew not out of homophobia, but from an unusual Detroit phenomenon: Punk bands playing gay nightclubs. Such music venues as Bookie's and Nunzio's were strictly gay bars most of the time.

"But on weekends," Tesco says, "they'd have a punk show. And that's what prompted 'Tooling for Anus.' You know, some of the regulars would hang out and, um, it was a 'worlds-collide' kind of thing."

Of course, not everybody gets the joke. "People say I'm racist or homophobic, but I'm not," Tesco protests, "You have to understand me to understand the shtick, but I'll say words like 'jig' and 'Negro' and shit like that just because I refuse to play the PC game. But I'm not a racist in any way, shape or form."

But the elder Midwest punk concedes that some things just won't do for today's audiences. The Meatmen will not play their rasta-teasing song, "Blow Me Jah." In fact, when hearing the song on XM radio recently, Tesco was a little bummed. "It wouldn't be my choice," he says. These days, flirting with race humor is something he tries to avoid. "It's hard to believe anything's off limits for Tesco Vee, but, yeah."

At least when it comes to Caucasians, Tesco has home-court privileges, hence the jack-and-coke anti-heroics of "True Grit." "To me, white trash is America's gross national product, and I love making fun of white trash!"

Maybe, in the case of the Meatmen's most acclaimed album, the audience cannot truly appreciate the intended irony. Tesco says, "I'm shocked at how many people love Rock and Roll Juggernaut. We were making fun of '80s metal!"

And does Tesco feel slighted, as godfather of the Midwest hardcore scene, that the Rust Belt scene he helped create has gotten such short shrift in recent punk overviews, especially the recent American Hardcore? Does he ever! "I understand that it could never encompass every scene, but the guy [Steve Blush] that did American Hardcore worked with this crappy D.C. noise band No Trend. So that's why it has the whole D.C. focus. You know: 'The Bad Brains are the greatest punk band ever.' If you did that documentary based in L.A., it would have been totally different. The Pagans in Cleveland weren't mentioned, the Necros only briefly, no mention of me! But, Zero Boys? Maybe I'm out of the loop, but the Zero Boys were not a Division 1 punk band. Flawed, incomplete, way too much Ian Mackaye. Please! The Effigies weren't even mentioned! There were a whole lot of bands in the Midwest that weren't included."

The kids are alright

It may be that sort of indigniant gumption that has spurred Tesco back onto the stage. But unlike last spring's show at St. Andrew's Hall, it won't be a seat-of-the-pants gig. He says, "this is more like a real lineup. We've done a hell of a lot of practice." In fact, the Meatmen just played last week's South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, where Tesco was backed by his all-27-year-old band, which includes the Paybacks' Dave "Malarsh"Malosh on guitar. In May, the Meatmen will do 10 days out East, hitting the West Coast in October, plus quick weekend tours that'll have him "rockin' on the weekends, just like the old days." Now a family man, Tesco quips that his son, Dane, 21, and nephew will be manning the tour van on these outings.

"No more two-month tours like I used to do."

After finishing up out West, Tesco promises to record an all-cover LP of his favorite songs, with help from the Electric 6, including songs by the Fugs, ABBA, Slade, Thin Lizzy and "a rompin'-stompin' cover of Jimmy Dean's 'Big Bad John.'"

Tesco reflects, "Next year, it'll be 30 years since started up with this stuff! That's pretty frightening. Thirty frickin' years! I still look OK. I don't look like a wrinkled-up prune like David Johansen or Iggy Pop."

But, more important than how Tesco has aged, how has the music aged? Will the millennial, PC generation get that it's satire? "I think people will get it," Tesco says. "Anybody with half a brain gets it, and the other people take it at face value. I like to think that the next generation can handle me. I've got some haters out there, and they never want to see me again — and that's why I should go out there and annoy the shit out of them!

"I want people to react, get mad, punch a wall, whatever — just react! Music is way too complacent today. That's why I'm coming back — just to shake things up." Perhaps with trademark irony, he adds, "I think the world needs me more now than ever."

The Meatmen play March 22, at Small's Bar, 10339 Conant St., Hamtramck; 313-873-1117;

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]