Satire, if done well, knocks its target down a notch. Since some musicians will always interpret their music as Shakespearean drama, humor is direly needed to lighten the emotional load. The Dead Milkmen, the band Joe Jack Talcum formed with friends in Philadelphia, did that for punk rock: On Funky Farm, their self-released, 1983 cassette debut, songs came with off-color titles like "Taking Retards to the Zoo," "Rastabilly" and "Girl Hunt," a desperate ode to the pursuit of a mate.
Indeed, though punk rock often reflected the world in pure protest or blind rebellion, the Milkmen refused to take themselves or their scene too seriously. Whether they were singing about their "Bitchin' Camaro" or (in their most public, MTV-aired moment) a "Punk Rock Girl," Talcum, a twitching ectomorph, blurted out in nasally stabs at the world around him. A romantic for sure, he lamented the pizza joint that wouldn't let him and his girl get hot tea: "So we jumped up on the table, and shouted 'Anarchy!'/ And someone played a Beach Boys song on the jukebox/ It was 'California Dreamin'/ So we started screamin'/ 'On such a winter's day!'" (The song is really by the Mamas and Papas.) It was as if Jonathan Richman had given up on the philosophy of love and affectation and gone for absurdity completely.
Talcum, busy as a solo artist now, still embodies that bit of silliness and naiveté, but the Milkmen's level of corn is somewhat misleading when it comes to his own material. These songs are charming and observational, Talcum simply talking about everyday life and its foibles. If love is unrequited, Talcum can joke about it as good as the next punk huckster, but he has a heart deeply expressing itself in his songs.
In that early song, "Girl Hunt," a quivering speaker announces, want ad style, his requirements for this very personalized, quirky version of love: "I'm looking for a girl who acts like a man/ A girl who wants to hold my hand/ A girl who loves fish and eggs/ A girl who never shaves her legs." Joe Jack Talcum may still have some yuks in him, and that satire lends itself to knocking the teeth out of overwrought punk and music biz bluster even still. But just as he did in his old band more than 20 years ago, a light of truth and belief—innocent belief, the kind we should all have—still glows in his music.
Joe Jack Talcum plays Blend Thursday, Aug. 9, with SNMNMNM and Doug Cheatwood. The show starts at 9 p.m. and costs $5.