(This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Fly Magazine.)
In the years before he found the soul of punk rock, Joe Jack Talcum was a Bob Dylan aficionado.
Talcum got his first guitar for his 15th birthday – a “piece of crap” he could barely play because the strings were so far off the fret board. But he wanted to capture the spirit of Dylan standing alone on stage playing powerful folk songs.
It took him nearly a year to learn how to make a bar chord, but Talcum was hooked. He didn’t have a big amplifier or distortion pedals to make loud sounds, but within a few years, his passion for music would lead him to help form one of the seminal punk bands of the ’80s – The Dead Milkmen.
“I realized that the guitar doesn’t even matter – it’s the attitude of the way you play it,” Talcum says.
Born Joe Genaro, Talcum grew up in Wagontown in Chester County. With the Dead Milkmen, he harnessed the energy and humor of the punk scene in Philadelphia through songs like “Punk Rock Girl,” “Bitchin’ Camaro” and “The Thing That Only Eats Hippies.” He still lives in West Philly to this day.
On a recent Friday night, Talcum sat down for a cup of joe at Square One Coffee in Lancaster to discuss his music career and the state of punk today. We decided to meet at a coffee shop instead of going out for Friday night libations because he says his “wild partying days” are behind him and he doesn’t drink alcohol anymore.
In fact, Talcum was resting up to help a friend – Lancaster musician Marshall Fischer – move to Marietta the next day. Talcum says the two became friends after Fischer sent him a letter in 1995 while still in high school. Now the two of them are headed out on the road together for Talcum’s latest tour, which extends as far as Springfield, Illinois. Dan Butler – known as The Bassturd – rounds out the tour.
Talcum is no stranger to performing shows large and small in Central PA in the past. He’s played at venues as varied as the Chameleon Club, Quips Pub and Senorita Burrita. He has even played a couple shows before Dutchland Rollers roller derby bouts.
Talcum’s latest solo album, Live in the Studio, was recorded at Blue Lake Studio in Lancaster. His low-fi sound with acoustic slide guitar, harmonica and humorous lyrics shines on songs like “Methodist Coloring Book” and “Jellyfish Heaven.”
Today, Talcum is working on a soundtrack for a movie being filmed in Philadelphia called Detonator. He says he has never attempted such a project and is still trying to figure out the best way to tackle the soundtrack.
The songwriting process has always been a little mysterious for him, Talcum says, with bursts of creative energy followed by long efforts to pen lyrics. He says it is almost always a struggle for him to write a song.
One recent song that proved not to be a struggle, however, was “Sex Sting,” a track on Live in the Studio. Talcum says he was reading the paper one morning and saw two stories – one about a Homeland Security agent busted in a sex sting by the FBI and another about a man in Maine that was killing sex offenders listed on an online database.
“I thought this was a song waiting to happen, and everything just came pouring out,” Talcum says. “That usually doesn’t happen for me.”
Talcum says he started writing songs when he was 16 years old – as many as three songs a night. He says he was “enamored” with early Dylan recordings and sought to find the essence of the music through his own writing and playing.
However, it was the energy and excitement of punk music that would ultimately lead Talcum down his own musical path. He says he remembers being intrigued by the Sex Pistols on a TV news show, but the final lynchpin was when he heard the Ramones album Rocket to Russia, which totally changed his outlook on music.
“This was a new music I could connect to because I always thought I was out of my time,” Talcum says. “This was everything I liked about ’60s music, but it was fresh with the Ramones.”
Talcum says he tried to get his friends in high school to listen to the Ramones, but most of his friends were more interested in bands like Steely Dan and Pink Floyd.
One friend that did listen and like it was Rodney “Anonymous” Linderman, another founding member of The Dead Milkmen and the band’s co-lead vocalist.
When Talcum created the concept of The Dead Milkmen and his “Talcum” character, he says he imagined the group as a “punk/folk band” and started using the title in fake promotions he would write up.
“I was combining my love of folk like Bob Dylan and connecting it to punk music thinking that was a funny thing to do,” Talcum says. “Now there is actually a punk/folk term, which I never would have thought would be real. I was just making a joke.”
Talcum says living in Philadelphia had a major influence on The Dead Milkmen and their music. They were four suburban kids (Talcum and Linderman, plus Dave “Blood” Schulthise and Dean “Clean” Sabatino) that had moved to the city, living together in a small house. Talcum says they didn’t have jobs and didn’t have much money, but it was a time of great productivity because they were constantly around each other.
“Living there, you just absorb the culture of the city,” Talcum says.
As for the state of punk rock today, Talcum sees punk as a “battered word” that means a lot of different things to people with both positive and negative connotations. He says punk music has become commercialized and makes a lot of money – a “full circle” from the early days. But he says he still thinks of punk in a positive light.
“I think punk’s a spirit, it’s a way of thinking,” he says. “It’s not taking shit from authority and thinking for yourself – finding new ways to accomplish things.”