Full of Schtick!
Say what you will about the Peenbeets, but no one can doubt their fealty for Denny's "Moons Over My Hammy" ham-and-egg sandwich. Immediately after four of these breakfast platters arrive at our booth, the local quartet airs a collective, faux orgasmic sigh of contentment and the clowning begins as they caress the warm sandwiches like girlfriends they never had. Several mouthfuls later, they're revealing their hidden passions and secret desires to me with no regard for how stupid it makes them look. Who woulda thought a comped meal at Denny's was all it took to gain admittance to the dank inner circle of these Austin-based pretenders to the sitcom rock throne? Although it's nearly 3am on a post-gig Tuesday evening, the four Peenbeets are wide awake. They have just played in the first (and for them, the last) round of the 1999 Pall Mall "Rock to Riches" talent search at Sporto's Pizza on UT's West Campus. Their upbeat, fun-loving noise drew the tentative attention of a handful of curious collegians, but the fun came to an ignominious end after the event's judges cut the sound after just two songs. When the band objected, one of the judges flicked a lit cigarette into the face of singer Greg Beets.
"And they call this the "Live Music Capital of the World,'" groused Beets, running a finger over his singed eyebrow.
This was supposed to be a milestone night for the Peenbeets. Still reveling in the buzz generated by the recent release of their debut, The Peenbeets Get Beet Up, the band was looking forward to playing a "free show for our fans," according to bassist Jimmy Burdine. The group's label, Starco (a division of General Structures Inc.), agreed to pay the $25 "Rock to Riches" entry fee as part of the fledgling indie label's grassroots campaign to promote the band's still-in-development TV sitcom.
"You always have reservations when a corporate entity is looming," Burdine concedes. "In this day and age, it's hard to escape that. But I was excited when they asked me. Opportunities to do shows like this are few and far between."
An armada of Starco A&R cognoscenti, including president Gerard Rectose Jr., were scheduled to drive in from the label's home base of Rockford, Ill., to check out the free show. They even brought along Doug Neiman, cousin of famous sports artist Leroy Neiman, to sketch the Peenbeets in action. Unfortunately, the night before the show, Rectose and Neiman got into a shoving match with some high school football players at a Sonic Drive-in in Joplin, Missouri. The altercation got them both thrown in jail on drunk and disorderly charges, causing the whole Starco entourage to miss the show.
"What happened in Joplin last night only made me more nervous," says singer Greg Beets. "The concert was already a challenge that brings a lot of pressure. Live, there's no overdubbing, no second chance. What I do onstage goes directly out there. Since I've known about this thing, I've had a constant twinge of nausea, but that could be the chili dogs talking."
The red-eyed repast at Denny's seems to calm the Peenbeets' ire somewhat, but they insist on dissecting what went wrong at "Rock to Riches" even as I plead with them to just discuss their musical influences. They are quick to compare the cigarette-flicking incident to this summer's Woodstock '99 riot.
"I didn't expect that mood," says guitarist Chepo Peña of the unruly throng. "A large part of the audience fell into a mob mentality, so we were fortunate that only 15 people showed up. From the stage, you internalize it to mean it's about you. I don't think the having the sound shut off had anything to do with us, however. Those judges were in a vitriolic mindset.
"Much like Woodstock, our show just brought out the worst in people. They were booing us, throwing stuff, just crazy behavior. As a punk rock musician, I found such actions incomprehensible. For the first time in my life, I really felt I was no longer a part of the youth of America. I was no longer speaking for any generation."
If the Peenbeets ever did speak for a generation, it's doubtful anyone was listening. Nevertheless, the quartet continues to chomp at the bit for any evidence that might confirm the validity of their life's work. And in this case, the term "life's work" is far from hyperbole. The roots of the Peenbeets stretch all the way back to 1984, when 15-year-old Beets formed a teen rock combo called the Deadbeets with some high school chums in Houston.
"I'd read in a pamphlet that being in a rock band was a good way to meet girls," says Beets. "We started recording songs, but I was afraid to play them for anyone. Then I discovered wine coolers. After that, I came out of my shell and forced people to acknowledge my art. Maybe younger musicians can learn from my example."
Although the Deadbeets kept plugging away until 1991, Beets moved to Austin in 1987 to attend UT. Naturally, the move curtailed the band's already limited scope of activity, but Beets stayed active by auditioning for several local musicals. After years of "we'll keep you in mind for the next one," he was cast as a backup singer in the 1992 Buda Summer Players' production of Timmer O'Dooley's Everything's Coming Up Irish. The politics and backbiting Beets witnessed behind the scenes forced him to re-evaluate his somewhat dubious choice of careers.
"I was really naive," he admits. "I believed that if you worked hard and stayed on course, great things would come along. I lost touch with that after seeing things in that musical that told me making it was about buying it or selling out or doing things that didn't line up with your integrity. It was a crash course in a particular side of the entertainment and leisure industry. I wasn't sure I wanted to stay in music, because it seemed like such a crummy business."
In early 1993, just as Beets was about to abandon music altogether, he met guitarist cum drummer Buzz Moran. The two began writing songs together, and Peña came aboard shortly thereafter. A French exchange student named Henrí rounded out the lineup on bass. At first, the plan was to call themselves the New Deadbeets, but Moran quickly put the kibosh on that idea.
"He said calling ourselves the New Deadbeets would go over like a limp biscuit," laughs Peña, "so we decided to be the Peenbeets instead."
Before the newly christened band played a single note in public, however, a young TV producer with a development deal at Fox, Steve DeFalco, approached the Peenbeets and offered them a sitcom deal based on the group's wacky Saturday morning television program premise. Six years later, the quartet claims to have several "killer" episodes in the can, but no one would speculate as to when, or if, any of them might air. Although they still dream of shoring up an ABC TGIF-style lineup, negotiations with the networks are virtually nonexistent after all this time.
"Every deal with the networks seems to fall through at the last minute," laments Peña. "It's like a bad sitcom."
Shrugging off this profound lack of interest, the Peenbeets next set their sights on a stage debut, which happened November 20, 1993, at Austin's prestigious Kilimanjaro nightclub. An all-star crowd of 15-20 turned out for the gala 10-minute performance, and from '93 through 1997, the band existed sporadically in various permutations that saw stints from Brit Jones on bass and Kevin Allen Drummer on drums. Then Moran's chronic wrist pain made it impossible for him to continue playing with the band.
"I got a little higgledy-piggledy when Buzz left," confesses Beets. "I tried like hell to forget by joining a gay bowling league, which I didn't know was a gay bowling league -- I thought it would be a good way to meet women -- but it was to no avail. After that, I went down to South Padre to become a ski instructor. It wasn't until I got there that I realized I only owned one ski, and that was a snow ski. Only one person showed up for my class, but that person was none other than bassist Jimmy Burdine."
Now all the Peenbeets needed was a new drummer. Auditions were held, and actor-musician Joel Fried got the call after wowing the band with his ventriloquism routine. A former regular on the summer replacement series Dana Carvey's All-Star Drum Jam, Fried wanted to join the Peenbeets because of their affirmative, nonthreatening approach to rock music.
"It's important that bands with positive messages try to get those messages on our nation's airwaves," says Fried. "Unfortunately, a lot of what's really happening now is angry, young, white rap music, and a lot of it's misogynistic. A monstrous mindset is prevalent."
Of course, the Peenbeets' mindset isn't exactly a bastion of moral purity, either. An apparent preoccupation with their misspent youth finds them lusting in several of their songs after girls they're now almost old enough to have fathered. Not only do they focus almost exclusively on life events that occurred during the Reagan administration, they often behave as though Sid & Marty Kroft has sentenced them to a lifetime of remedial puberty.
As we dine, the band's table manners summon not one but two stern warnings from the beleaguered Denny's assistant manager. The latter warning comes after Fried clasps his hands firmly over his mouth and emulates the sound of highly distressed flatulence. As the boys fall all over each other in fits of histrionic laughter, a quick glance at the restaurant's other patrons reveals disdain instead of the unbridled shock the Peenbeets were no doubt looking for.
One can't help but wonder what on earth makes the Peenbeets think such antics constitute cleverness. What exactly is their attention-starved behavior designed to prove? When a 32-year-old guy sticks a french fry up his nose and farmer-blows it into my coffee cup, is this the action of an unabashed moron or one of those densely veiled "cries for help"?
"Sorry, dude," offers Burdine. "I don't know what was up with the fry thing. I guess it's because we don't believe in coloring our growing-pains years with nostalgic revisionism. So-called adult behavior is really nothing more than a defense mechanism for people attempting to avoid grieving over the deaths of their childhood dreams. Anyone who claims entry into adulthood risks losing touch with the confounding yet comedic memories of those dead dreams, and that's something the Peenbeets will never do. Just think of all the money we'd lose."
Although this flaccid mea culpa didn't rectify the situation, it did cast enough of a pall over the table to get the boys talking about their plans for the immediate future. Fried, for one, will be taking a sabbatical from the Peenbeets in order to audition for an upcoming made-for-TV movie, The Wildcatter's Mistress.
"I'm really eager to showcase my actoring chops," relates Fried. "Taking leave from the band was a tough decision, but this is a big movie -- a big opportunity. Imagine getting a catered lunch -- every day!"
Standing in Fried's percussive stead will be aspiring motivational guru "Mr. Positive," whom the band met in a public speaking class at the Learning Annex. A few one-on-one sessions later, and the Peenbeets are no strangers to Mr. Positive's patented "attitudinal adjustment" techniques. Mr. P. even appears in a speaking role on The Peenbeets Get Beet Up.
"More than anything else, Mr. Positive has shown the band how to let meanspirited criticism just pass through us like the wind, never impeding our lifelong journey toward happy town," notes Peña. "That's especially good now, because we expect reaction to his drumming to be extremely negative."
Okaaay, sure. Whatever. Making heads or tails of the Peenbeets is like trying to decide just which sex Sigmund's sea monster really was. And it's not like these four locals really care whether anyone "gets it" or not. In the end, it's going to take a lot more than one flicked cigarette to mar their good time.
After years of nonstop struggle, the band is planning to ease into the slow lane, relishing the passing billboards and keeping their eyes averted from the fleeting promise of fame and fortune. They're not exactly tormented that their album has thus far gone ignored by everyone except close friends. You might even call it an attitude of gratitude.
"I for one am back to believing that if you work hard and contribute to the universe and your spirit is seeking a higher communion and blah, blah, blah, then good things will come," says Beets, who without missing a beat then turns towards the waitress station and yells.
"Hey, Flo! Whose grits do I have to kiss to get another round of "Moons Over My Hammy?'"