Milwaukee Journal March 27, 1994
The Dean of the Scene
by Andy Olson
It's a little past midnight at Sherman's Celebrity Club on Milwaukee's East Side, and the weekly Nude Party is in full swing. It isn't what you think. Everybody in the bar is fully clothed
On a small stage just to the right of the front door, singer Pat McCurdy is wrapping up yet another show with a rollicking version of his song "Nude Party." The song, one of about 250 originals in McCurdy's catalog, features a call-and-response vocal near the end.
McCurdy: I'll call you babe. You'll call me dude. What kind of party is it?"
Crowd: It's nude."
Most of the audience, dominated by people in their early to mid-20s is singing and swaying with raised beer glasses. Within the next half-hour, most of them will file out onto Prospect Ave. and head home to catch a few hours' sleep before going to the office or a college lecture hall. Right now, they are enjoying the impromptu dance party that nearly always caps McCurdy's three-hour solo show.
"I always think it's hilarious to watch people dance to one guy with an acoustic guitar," McCurdy says later. "Absolutely no rhythmic instruments at all, and people are still dancing. I just love that.
"It's the highlight of my night."
When the show ends, McCurdy bounces off the stage and mingles with friends, fans, waitresses and bartenders. He doesn't chat long. He and roadie/sound man/lighting technician/confidant Jim Schafelburger, whom everyone calls Pipe Jim, must load their equipment into a van and get ready for tomorrow.
Another night. Another show. Another highlight.
About six nights a week, sometimes seven, Pat and Pipe Jim fill their van with a pair of Alvarez acoustic guitars, amplifiers, monitors, a sound board, lights, a box of t-shirts and other knickknacks, and hit the highway.
It's a road that leads them to bars, nightclubs and colleges throughout the Midwest and across the country. Along the way are festivals such as Summerfest and occasionally weddings and private parties.
No matter where he goes, McCurdy intertwines his catchy clever songs with humorous anecdotes.
"We'll play anywhere," says McCurdy, interviewed in his van on the road to Chicago for a gig last September. This 39-year-old Brookfield native has spent more than 20 years playing music in bands and, for the last several years, as a solo act. "I'll play for anybody, any time. I'm too old to be afraid of anything anymore."
There was a time, shortly after he decided to work solo, that club and promoters were afraid to book McCurdy because his show didn't fit any of the standard entertainment categories.
"Pat would rather have himself classified as an entertainer than as a musician or a comedian," says Bill Pachner, who has worked as McCurdy's manager along with co-manager Pam Kobielus for several years. "It doesn't fit in a neat little category. One thing is for sure, though: The show is addictive. People who come and see it once tend to come back again and again.
McCurdy has a favorite term for what he does: "It's a cabaret. It's an entertainment extravaganza."
Jokes aside, it's tough to categorize McCurdy's shows. Imagine a combination of David Letterman and Seinfeld, "American Bandstand," "Jeopardy," "Truth of Consequences," "60 Minutes," "Fantasy Island," "Wheel of Fortune," a 10-year class reunion and the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" (without the burnt toast).
"When you see a guy with a guitar who is funny, you think of a comedian doing imitations," McCurdy says. "When you see a guy with a guitar who's not funny, you think of a folk singer. There is no edge there. No snottiness. And me? I like to do a high-energy, upbeat show. I don't think there are many people who get up and do what I do."
Besides his songs, which are witty enough, he does what might be called a running monolog throughout the show, with references to commercials, current events and popular culture. The program changes nightly based on the reaction--and requests--of his audience. Often the stage patter involves rapid and twisted word associations, as in this excerpt from a show at the Celebrity Club:
"Is anybody else bothered that there is only one Judd now?" he asks, in reference to the former mother-daughter country-singing duo, now reduced to daughter Wynonna. "It's kind of sad that there is only one Judd left. Well, I guess there's still Judd Nelson -- and Judd Hirsch from 'Taxi'"
On another night, he plays the game with help from the crowd: Elroy (Crazylegs) Hirsch?...Gov. Tommy Thompson from Elroy?
There are three venues that have formed the core of McCurdy's act for the last three years.
On Monday nights, he plays at Lounge Ax, a bar on Chicago's yuppified Lincoln Ave. On Tuesdays, he travels to Madison--where he earned a communications degree from the University of Wisconsin--for a show at the Funny Business Comedy Club. Wednesday nights, he's on Milwaukee's East Side to play Sherman's Celebrity Club on Prospect Ave. and Kenilworth Pl. The rest of the shows are potluck: a Thursday show at Hoghead McDunna's neighborhood bar in Chicago's Lincoln Park area, maybe a weekend show at Celebrity Club or a trip to Doc's Comedy Club in Green Bay.
"That's my work week---Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday," he says. "The rest is extra. If I do well on Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday, it's excellent for me. I think there are enough people in all those places to sustain those shows."
He plays more than 300 shows a year, generally booking his schedule about three months in advance. There have been times when he has played three shows on the same day: a college cafeteria at lunch time, a late afternoon show at another school and a bar gig at night.
McCurdy has produced three compact discs, and a fourth is in the works. The CDs, which are available in Milwaukee and Chicago record stores, are: a studio release entitled "Pat McCurdy in the Sound of Music," a live CD entitled "Pat in Person," and a compilation that combined two previously released tape cassettes, "Memorial Day" and "The Good Life." The compilation CD was released on McCurdy's own label, Instant Records. "Pat in Person," which features a self-portrait of the artist on the cover, was recorded live at the shows at Celebrity Club and UW-Madison's Memorial Union.
Though the music is almost always sunny and upbeat, some of McCurdy's lyrics have dark undertones. The guy in his songs doesn't always get the girl, but he sometimes gets revenge. The singer often looks in the mirror and doesn't like what he sees.
"I'm not always Pat-the-happy-guy," McCurdy explains. "I'm generally a positive person, but everybody goes through times when their depressed. Mine don't last too long, though. I'm too forward-thinking to get hung up on the past."
McCurdy is intelligent, articulate and quick with a laugh. He's tall, more that six feet, and his unruly brown hair, which he usually ties into a ponytail, makes him seem taller. His face and physique have filled out considerably from the skinny-tie days of the late 1970s and early 80s.
He has a keen eye for detail and can expound on subjects ranging from his favorite movie, "The Crying Game," or the latest novel by Larry McMurty (author of Lonesome Dove) to an always popular topic: late night TV commercials.
Entering one of McCurdy's shows can be a daunting experience for first timers. For $3 at the door, you can walk into one of his regular haunts and infiltrate a crowd--primarily white twentysomethings--who seem to be sharing some kind of hilarious inside joke. Fans sing along with every song and pepper the singer with requests during breaks.
McCurdy goes out of his way to get everyone involved. When two fraternity types show their IDs to a bouncer on a Wednesday night last summer at the Celebrity Club, McCurdy stops in mid-story.
"Hello, boys in shorts," he calls from the stage, dressed in his standard working clothes: a black t-shirt and jeans.
"Welcome to the show. My name is Pete."
The crowd breaks up. The frat boys exchange puzzled looks. Everyone else in the club knows that Pete is a guy in the third row whom McCurdy has been joking with since he first bounced on stage at the start of the evening.
On another night, a young couple try to slip in unnoticed during the middle of the set.
"How was the movie?" McCurdy asks from the stage. segueing into a bit about a movie he has seen recently and then into the song "Movie Stars," an ode to Hollywood giants who "come from heaven in Italian cars" and whose "thoughts are so much more profound than ours."
McCurdy's lyrics contain numerous literary and artistic allusions to people like Chekov, Chaucer, Van Gogh. At times, the effect is like flipping the channel from a "Brady Bunch" rerun to "Masterpiece Theater."
"I don't pander to my audience," McCurdy says. "I try my best to get them involved without being stupid, like a country band."
"A lot of what I do is--I hate to say--intellectually different. But you do have to know certain things to understand my material, I think."
"Then again, there are certain things that I do that are completely stupid and anybody can get them."
Several of McCurdy's songs contain references that reveal his liberal political views. The song "God" contains the tongue-in-cheek line, "God votes Republican, the only way to get things done"--which is often misinterpreted by high-living young conservatives.
"People take what they want out of the songs," McCurdy says. "I don't do diatribes. I have definite political feelings, but that's not my show. My show is more for amusement, but it makes you think."
Though his schedule can grueling, McCurdy is well-rewarded for his efforts. Word in the local music community is that he is the highest paid performer in Milwaukee, with gross revenues approaching nearly $200,000 a year.
"I bill like a lawyer," says McCurdy, whose father Robert, a retired accountant who lives in Brookfield with wife Muriel, keeps track of his finances.
"I think what I do has value. I should be paid for it," continues the singer. "That's one of my biggest complaints with musicians. They put up with a lot of crap because people dangle these things in front of them. They say, 'if you open for this guy for nothing, you'll get exposure and you'll be able to do this.' It hardly ever works out that way.
After fronting several bands that flirted with big-time success, McCurdy looks at the music industry through the eyes of a seasoned veteran.
"I don't take anything for granted," he says. "I just can't, because I've been through too many ups and downs. I've seen how you can change the name of a band and go from a lot of people going to see you to nobody.
"It's like, I've been up, I've been slammed. I've had critics say I'm crap and critics say I'm great. I've had huge crowds. I've had no crowds.
"I prefer it this way to the no-crowd way."
McCurdy's solo shows draw big crowds. But that wasn't always the case. Until recently, he was ignored by organizers of major events such as Summerfest and Rainbow Summer. "They didn't know who I was," he says.
They do now. McCurdy played to packed houses at both events last summer. His success closing the Summerfest Comedy Cabaret led to a Winterfest booking before a Milwaukee Admirals game at the Bradley Center.
"I think Pat is wonderful," says Summerfest music director Bob Babisch, who confesses to having a copy of "Pat McCurdy in the Sound of Music" in his car. "He brings in a lot of people and he's an easy setup for us."
Other signs of McCurdy's success: he has won seven Wisconsin Area Music Industry Awards and a certificate of merit for two songs in the Top 100 of a songwriting contest sponsored by Billboard Magazine. And he has become a regular guest on radio station WKLH's (96.5 FM) morning show.
Dave Luczak, who hosts the show along with Carole Caine, says, "He's so charismatic and brings so much to his live performances. He's one of those guys that you see and you wonder, 'Why is he not on a major concert stage somewhere?'"
It was a summer night in 1987 when McCurdy began his solo career with an unheralded weeknight gig at the Celebrity Club.
"They asked me to play one night, to fill in for somebody," he recalls. "It might have been Sigmund Snopek. I played and I really liked it. I liked the control."
At the time, McCurdy was the lead singer for the Confidentials, the band with whom he recorded "The Good Life." This was his third try at fronting a band (after Yipes! and The Men About Town), and while the group was popular in Milwaukee clubs, it didn't catch on outside of the region. By then, McCurdy was considered one of the deans of the Wisconsin music scene. He had experienced the fringe of success with Yipes!, which signed a national contract and released two albums on the RCA-Millennium label before disbanding in the early 1980s.
After Yipes! broke up, McCurdy formed The Men About Town, which enjoyed regional success but again missed the big time. The group, which included keyboardist Bob Pachner (brother of McCurdy manager Bill Pachner) and former Yipes! guitarist Mike Hoffman, now can be considered a pioneering act. It was one of the first bands signed to the Miller Rock Network, a nationwide collection of bands supported by Miller Brewing Co. on various tours. Today most rock tours are underwritten by corporate sponsors. McCurdy's manager at the time, Gary Reynolds, produced the Miller Rock Network and also got a chance to compete for prizes on the national TV show "Star Search with Ed McMahon."
On "Star Search" McCurdy's band finished second to country act Sawyer Brown, which went on to be the show's most successful alumnus.
Was McCurdy crushed about winning? No, he says. "We had a lot of fun on that trip."
"I kind of got the idea we weren't going to win when, during a break in the taping, we saw the guys from Sawyer Brown having dinner with the producers."
When McCurdy, who was going through a divorce in 1987, got an offer to appear as a solo act, he didn't hesitate. Besides money and creative control, playing solo came with other advantages: "Things like being places on time, for starters," he says, and "not having to worry about somebody else's attitude on stage."
And the best thing?
"For three hours a day, that I can put on that Pat McCurdy face. I can put on that Pat McCurdy costume. No matter how crabby I've been, I can have the worst day on Earth, the show gets me out of that mood."
McCurdy's fans--the most devoted call themselves Pat-heads (after the Grateful Dead's deadhead fans)--are seldom in a bad mood.
"My audience, as a whole, is pretty nice," he says. "It's different every city I play in, but the bulk of my audience is between 21 and 25 or 26 years old. They're either educated or being educated, either being informed or misinformed. They have some breeding."
Though his audiences are sometimes raucous, they usually are good-natured. "I don't have very many hecklers or hostile guys. They're easy to ignore."
What's hard to ignore at McCurdy shows is the fact that the audience knows nearly every lyric of every song in his staggering repertoire.
"They absorb my material way too fast," he says. "It's scary. I wrote a song "Love/Hate" and the second time I played it they were singing along."
Though he knows "just about every song ever played on the radio," McCurdy seldom plays other musicians' songs on stage. And although it is gratifying to hear the audience sing his songs back to him, McCurdy admits that the adulation can be a problem.
"There are times that it's a pain, when they come to the shows and I have to do songs they want to hear or else they'll get mad at me."
Three songs most requested at one winter show:
--"Vacation," a long narrative about traveling to hell and back in the family station wagon.
--"Elvis/Elvis," a medley in which McCurdy mixes songs from Elvis Presley and British rocker Elvis Costello.
--"Rich Young Pretty and Tan," in which the singer pines for the good life--"Why can't it be like on TV? Rich young pretty and tan."
One song, a rocking, up-tempo number, is a McCurdy crowd favorite. It's an unofficial theme song for the members of "Generation X"--many of whom are struggling with the transition from college to the work world. The chorus is simple:
"Wake up! Go to work! Get drunk! Go to sleep!"
(McCurdy himself doesn't drink much. "I've seen too many drunk people in my life," he says. "I don't want to be one of them.")
Midway through the song, McCurdy asks the audience to indicate--by applause--what time they have to wake up. He starts out at 9 a.m. and works his way backward in half-hour increments until he finds one sorry individual who has to wake up in four hours and go to work.
"Let's give him a hand," Pat says, "for being the dumbest guy here."
The crowd cheers wildly, but McCurdy decides applause isn't enough.
"Come on up here," he says. "Anybody that stupid deserves a T-shirt."
The singer admits that the last "regular job" he held was as a temporary office worker in the early 1980s. "I was doing filing, answering phones...nothing too tough."
Could he see himself doing a regular job today?
"Not really. I want to do this as long as I can. This is the best job I could have."
McCurdy, who lives in a rented flat on Milwaukee's East Side, says: "I usually come home after a show and channel surf until I get tired, around 3:30 in the morning." That explains why reference to the Clapper, Ginsu knives and Ronco products abound in his shows.
"Then I sleep until about 11:30 or noon. I have to get eight hours of sleep to keep up this grind. When I get up, I make some calls and take care of whatever business I have to do that day. Then I might read a little. It's actually a lot more boring than people might think."
Some of his days off are spent writing songs, he says but adds: "I do most of that in the van on the way home from shows: lyrics, melodies, the whole shot. I write songs in my head while I'm driving. I feel like Mozart."
Other time is spent with his girlfriend, Beth, who is a social worker in Milwaukee. Then there are his hobbies: drawing, reading and making furniture. He did the cover artwork on his "Pat in Person" compact disc and also has designed a line of t-shirts, which he distributes at the shows.
Exercise--bicycling or working on a Nordic Track--is also part of his routine since he quit smoking in November 1992. "I try to do that an hour a day. That's my time...I try to get some exercise every day. You have to do that in order to keep up this schedule.
"After my workout, I just get ready to go to the next show."
Pat and Pipe Jim arrive at their shows in a relatively new, nondescript van that already has some heavy miles on it.
"We turn them over about every year and a half. They're always in great shape, but we put so many miles on them that we have to get new ones," says Pipe Jim, who has been working with McCurdy for about three years and whom manager Pachner refers to as "the backbone of the outfit."
"He is THE MAN," Pachner says. "Pat couldn't do the show without him. He doesn't get a lot of credit, but he deserves it."
At regular gigs, Pipe Jim is almost as big a star as McCurdy. In new markets, McCurdy often works Jim into the set during his song introductions and monologues, kind of like Davis Letterman uses his bandleader as a foil. It's a Pat-and-Pipe-against-the-world situation.
"We usually win," says Pipe, who earned his nickname because of the pipe that he smokes during the show.
When possible, McCurdy returns to Milwaukee after each show, even if he has two shows scheduled for consecutive days as far away as Green Bay.
Somewhere in his schedule McCurdy has to find time to read. His stage patter, which may seem like stream-of-conscious rambling, often is inspired by magazines. "I get more magazines than a person should be allowed to read," he says.
How many is that? "I get Premire, but I'm thinking of getting Movieline now because that's the gossipy one. I get Time, US News & World Report, Liberal Opinion, New Republic, Smithsonian, Rolling Stone, Musician, New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Sassy, Entertainment Weekly.
"Oh, and every week I pick up the Star and the National Enquirer."
National Enquirer references are big among Pat-heads:
"I love Pat," says Jennifer, a Marquette University student interviewed last winter at the Celebrity Club, where she's a frequent spectator. "I want to be the mother of his two-headed love child."
Kate, a regular at Chicago's Lounge Ax, talked about his following: "I think it's a cult. He's probably building a compound somewhere in Iowa."
As if to confirm his cultlike charisma, McCurdy, at one Lounge Ax show, invites every man in the club to join him on stage for the final verse of the song "Naked Women." As Pipe looks on in horror, watching out for the amps, about 80 men eagerly comply and begin singing and dancing. Though Lounge Ax is known as a hangout for aspiring actors, most of the men are quit clumsy and can't carry a tune in a gym bag.
"Isn't it sick?" asks a woman fan. "They'll do anything he says. It has to be a cult."
Like many people in his profession, McCurdy decided he wanted to be a musician after watching the Beatles' first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on the floor during his "very excellent childhood" in Brookfield.
"That's a very crystallized moment for me," he says, "like some people have with JFK. I remember everything about it....You've gotta be about my age--I was very impressionable at that time--to understand the phenomenon and how different it was than anything that's ever been since. They were it."
About a year later, McCurdy bought his first guitar, a plastic job that barely stayed in tune. He already was taking piano lessons and writing songs.
"The big turning point was I had a brother-in-law who had to go to Vietnam. He had a Yamaha gut-string classical guitar and gave it to me. It was better than anything I had up till then....That's when I really started to teach myself....I'd just sit and experiment.
"When I got to be about 13 or 14, I was with my father one night [at a shopping mall] and he said, 'You're getting pretty good with the guitar. Why don't we go look at electric ones?' I went 'Whoa.' I used some of my savings and we bought a really nice electric guitar, a Gibson ES-335, for $320, which was a fortune at that time. It was a good guitar. I had it for a long time."
In high school, McCurdy began playing in a '50s band at dances, school functions, just about anywhere he could.
Today, because of his age, McCurdy has been dubbed by some as "The Godfather" of the Milwaukee music scene, a title that doesn't bother him. "I guess it's because I've tasted a little of everything in the business, except for a huge hit," he says.
Advertisements for his shows run in the alternative press next to ads for bands made up of people for half his age.
He says, "Supporting local music is fine, but a lot of it sucks. When I used to go out and see bands, there is nothing more disappointing than going to see somebody who is totally hyped then realizing they stink. Or come on an hour late. Or they can't play. Or they have 40 minutes of material. Or their sound isn't good. I can't tell you how many times that's happened. That's why I won't have opening acts."
An interesting sidelight is that one of the opening acts for McCurdy's band The Men About Town during the early 1980s was a folk-type duo whom band members had seen singing at a Waukesha establishment. As it turns out, the duo was Kurt Neumann and Sam Llanas, now known as the BoDeans.
McCurdy has been able to carve out a niche for his solo career without the support of a major record label. The promotion/advertising part of his enterprise consists of about 600 schedules, which he prints up monthly and distributes at gigs, and The Pat Line, a taped message he leaves for fans at 224-7767.
He also receives E-mail messages from fans who subscribe to a computer service.
I'm not a tireless self-promoter. I feel kind of ashamed, actually. I'm more of a 'Well, I'm kind of sucky, but I have a lot of enthusiasm.' I feel comfortable in that role.
"I know it's kind of a weird attitude to have for a performer, but I approach every show like this is my last one. Some nights, I sit and I look and I say, 'All my clubs could close tomorrow. What do I do then?' knowing, realistically, that I can find work anywhere now because enough people know me.
"But I still have that fear."
Midway through a Wednesday night set at Celebrity Club, McCurdy answers a request from a longtime fan for the song "Nobody In My Neighborhood."
"Nobody in my neighborhood wants to know that I'm alive. They see me standing on the corner and walk on by."
The song is sung from the point of view of society's outcasts: the homeless, friendless and disaffected. The song ends with a verse from the classic hit by the Shirelles:
Tonight you're mine, completely. You give your love, so sweetly.
The audience is transfixed.
Good-time Pat, the party guy with a "Ph.D." in pop music and popular culture, suddenly is nowhere to be found. He has been replaced by a quieter Pat, the Brookfield kid who grew up in awe of the Beatles, the guy who is making a living doing what he loves.
McCurdy simply lets the music ooze from his body. The final line float from the stage and drift around the room:
Tonight, the light of love is in your eyes. But will you love me tomorrow?
The music fades. There is a moment of silence before the applause begins. It's as if the Pat-heads have to snap out of a trance before they can clap.
McCurdy, who has walked towards the back of the darkened stage, knows he must seize the one elusive moment between the end of the applause and the inevitable onslaught of shouted requests. He strides to the microphone, bashing at his guitar as Pipe Jim hits the lights.
"WAKE UP! GO TO WORK! GET DRUNK! GO TO SLEEP!"
The Nude Party is back in swing, with Pat McCurdy as the gracious, gregarious host.
"It's the best job in the world," he says.