Playing the Violin
Jerm Pollet's Rock Show
"You were a punk. You were the first to get me drunk. There was no math class you couldn't flunk. And from your mom you shrunk ..."
-- "Helicopter Hands," Jerm Pollet
For lack of a better term, I've been calling Jeremy "Jerm" Pollet a Renaissance punk ever since first meeting him more than a decade ago standing outside of what was then the Varsity Theater and what's now Tower Records at the corner of Guadalupe and 24th streets.
That was during the winter of 1990. I don't remember which month, exactly, but I do recall that it was cold out, or at least cold enough for me to be wearing my regulation punk rock leathers and for him to be sporting a black eye patch, like a pirate washed up on unfamiliar shores, gangly and tall(er than me), with a prominent schnoz and a general air of good-natured hooliganism. He looked like he could have been one of Meyer Lansky's old Jewish mob crew.
He was with his first band at the time, the rap group Brother's Cup, fliering the Drag, getting the word out about some upcoming show, and chances are he'd only been in Austin a couple of months at the time. The band, made up of the ex-New Yorker Jerm and his pals Lefty, Laughing Boy, and local friends Lurp and Buzz, were at that point the only white-boy hip-hop group in Austin. In short order, they virtually took over both the Cavity and Cannibal clubs, and then collared the "Best Rap Group" award in the Chronicle's annual Best of Austin issues three years running.
Since then, Pollet has taken over little bits of the Austin music community as if he were devouring Krispy Kreme doughnuts, one sugary musical morsel at a time. For the record, there was his stunningly successful turn as the guitarist and chief songwriter in the now-legendary local ska outfit Gal's Panic, which Spoon's Britt Daniel, writing for the Chronicle in 1993, called "tasty and hip" (their debut single, anyway).
That was followed by the somewhat less successful, somewhat more punk-rawk Missile Command toward the tail end of the Nineties. I called the band's Sexy, Sexy Confidence album "Some of the best stuff since Operation Ivy hung it up," which was all the recommendation an indie hipster needs, although various family members were left scratching their heads.
Pollet also teamed up with Timothy "Speed" Levitch, a childhood friend from da Bronx, who was later the subject of Bennett Miller's terrific cult documentary The Cruise. That pairing, the Ongoing Wow, lives up to its name: The two performers gig and record whenever Pollet makes his not-infrequent trips back East, their raucous, often atonal noodlings overlaid with Levitch's adenoidal poetry, which incites as many stunned "Wow"s as "What the hell!?"s.
Pollet's millennial outfit, the solo Tall, Dark, & Lonesome took his music in a much more personal direction -- pretty much just him and his guitar on the Electric Lounge's Tuesday night stage. TD&L's "punk rock campfire music" had a lot in common with Pollet's beloved emo-rock triumvirate of Billy Bragg, Jonathan Richman, and Daniel Johnston. His lyrics, now straightforward tales of his romantic debacles, childhood traumas, and assorted other song fodder, were set against a cool, oddball background of his cool, oddball guitar work, and a fashion sense some knowledgeable Austinites have described as "glaringly unique."
Which brings us to Pollet's newest incarnation -- himself. His new CD, Every Song Is a Mating Call, hit shelves two weeks ago and was feted by a show at Emo's. There, he tossed out candy to a grateful, gender/age-mixed audience, got them to sing along to songs they'd never heard before, and somehow managed to garner post-show apologies from a pair of skinheads that had taken to heckling him during the performance. A thing of beauty, it was. A real Austin moment, by way of the Bronx.
Did I mention he's also a substitute teacher at a hifalutin West Austin high school not to be named here? Now there's a class to have been subjected to. And it almost goes without saying that his bad-film parody group Mr. Sinus Theater 3000 is selling out nearly every show at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (see Screens). Musician, artist, writer, performer, poet, teacher. You can see why I tagged him a "Renaissance punk," yes?
"I met Jerm through a friend around 1990," recalls former Gal's Panic frontman Lance "Fever" Myers. "When I found out he was in this rap band from New York City with these guys from the Bronx, I didn't know what to think. I remember they seemed so exotic to me. I mean, they all had these nicknames -- 'Shorty,' 'Laughing Boy,' 'Bazooka Jerm' -- and they used them! There was this kind of street-smart effect to them. I thought it was cool as hell."
Long before Myers and Pollet started selling out shows across the country during Gal's Panic's reign o' ska, the latter kicked off his musical career with a high school outfit called Time to Make the Donuts, whose best feature may have been their logo -- a doughnut with a clock face in the center. Growing up the son of Manhattan lawyers, Pollet was soon ditching classes at the progressive Horace Mann high school in the Bronx and wandering off with his own little punk rock posse to goof off. Speed Levitch describes the duo's old stomping grounds.
"There were renegades and gangsters, right across the street from Van Cortland Park where there were track meets and gang duels, often simultaneously," he remembers. "It was a great life. There was this terrific juxtaposition of living in a sanctified, sacrosanct zone -- very plush, very collegiate atmosphere -- that just happened to be right in the middle of, you know, the Bronx. KRS-One had the Southeast Bronx, and we had the Northwest side."
In truth, Pollet's "formative years" were spent hanging out at CBGB Saturday afternoon hardcore matinees and coming up with songs for Time to Make the Donuts while Speed scratched out lyrics.
"The first lyrics I brought him," says Levitch, "were for a song called 'Fuck You James Dean,' which was a very earnest composition from an angry 16-year-old. I don't even think we were upset with James Dean as much as we were upset with the credit that James Dean was getting from the girls. The fact that James Dean was parked on so many girls' walls in so many girls' bedrooms bothered us. 'Fuck You James Dean' was an underground hit in certain corners of our high school cafeteria, let me tell you."
After a short post-high school stint at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Pollet arrived in Austin hot on the heels of NYC pal and Brother's Cupper Lefty, who was wearing down No. 2 pencils at the University of Texas.
"When I first got here," says Pollet, "I saw Nomeansno at the Cannibal Club, and there were 300 or 400 people there. I thought, 'Wait a minute! I just saw them in Madison a couple of weeks ago and only three people showed up.' It was obvious that Austin was where I needed to be. And there were so many freaks!
"Guadalupe didn't look like it does now. Remember when GM Steakhouse was there? And the porno shop next door? And Vicki's Retreat? I was like, 'There's a whorehouse right on the street! Yeah!' That name sounds like the most delicious sundae, like, 'Oh, I'd like the Vicki's Retreat, please,' and they'd serve it to you in a metal dish or something. I wanted that Vicki's Retreat, whatever it was. I was smitten with Austin immediately."
The Cup, as they were known, eventually dominated Austin's nascent hip-hop scene, but it wasn't until Pollet and Myers hooked up with drummer Steve Austin and bassist Cardinal Connor to form the ska-and-Devo-influenced Gal's Panic that things took off. The group regularly sold out the Liberty Lunch (capacity about 1,000) with their heady mix of Myers' hyperactive toasting and Pollet's virgin-tight guitar. At one point their CD I Think We Need Helicopters topped out in the lucky No. 13 position at Tower Records' May, 1995, national sales chart, handily putting the scrub to such lesser acts as P.J. Harvey, New Order, and the lowly but suddenly insignificant Bush. As a local seller, it was No. 1 with a bagel.
Despite the success -- or perhaps because of it -- Gal's Panic called it quits in the wake of their lengthy June-October 1996 tour. Pollet followed that up by recruiting Impossibles bassist Rory Phillips and drummer Kelly Kusumoto for pop-punk trio Missile Command, which, thanks to contacts made on the Gal's Panic tour, came within thin-sliced-Nova Scotia-smoked-salmon slapping distance of a deal with punk rock superlabel Epitaph Records.
Between his work with Missile Command and the current Tall, Dark, & Lonesome/Jerm Pollet incarnation came Pollet's collaborations with Levitch for the Ongoing Wow.
"We formed that in the spring of '98," says Levitch. "Jerm had been living in Austin for about five years at that point, and we always went out of our way to jam together whenever he came back to New York. The Ongoing Wow has been an ongoing rehearsal, which is to say the songs are as rehearsed as our lives are. And I do think the world would be a better place if people lived the way the Ongoing Wow jams." The free-form jazziness of the Wow project was a further step away from Pollet's hip-hoppy and punk rock musical roots, but still expressive and unique enough to fall squarely within the Pollet musical pantheon. Shows are rare these days, but still happen when one or the other shows up in either NYC or Austin.
When asked to give a description of Pollet's music, Levitch calls him "a comedian of earnestness, a jovial spirit in a serious world, a world that takes itself too seriously."
He pauses for a nanosecond.
"His songs are brave outcries of frivolity."
They call him Speed, you see.
These days "Bazooka" Pollet divides his time between his substitute teaching gig, his role as chief provocateur for improv comedy group the National Comedy Theater (owner and artistic director Les McGeehee calls Pollet's work "highly interactive, accessible, funny, and warm"), Mr. Sinus Theater 3000, and an eponymous offshoot of his Tall, Dark, & Lonesome persona backed by Round Rock punk rock group Skate or Die.
Musically, this side project is a whole different ballgame than the emo-core of Missile Command or Gal's Panic's goofy ska vibe -- more mature, more emotional, but still shot through with Pollet's clever wordplay. And when it comes to wordplay, Pollet's talent for between-song patter rivals the cunning, comic patter of Robyn Hitchcock and Jonathan Richman.
"I like to write personal, narrative lyrics," says Pollet. "I mean, they're not that poetic, they're not cryptic. It's more, 'When I was this age, I did this. I met this person, they said this. I told them this.' There's not a lot to decipher there."
Make no mistake, though, just "telling what happened" is a skill not all singer-songwriters master amidst rhyming couplets, daring wordplay, and pinwheeling right arms.
"You probably wouldn't think it," chuckles Pollet, "but you know who I really like? Slayer. I don't know if I care so much for the lyrics, but I love the music. And that's the thing. Music is such a comfort for the nerds and the outsiders when you're growing up, when your parents make you learn the violin for your grandmother and grandfather.
"We're all violin players metaphorically. Just because you hold the violin down here, and it's called a guitar, and you plug it in and turn the volume up loud, and maybe put on some scary clothes, you're still just a nerdy musician.
"Music is what, in some ways, madrigals were, with those puffy pants and whatnot. Those rock & roll costumes are just disguising the nerd inside, I think. It's actually pretty difficult to make scary music. And Slayer can do it. Turn off the lights, put on Seasons in the Abyss, get really into it, and you'll be like, 'Fuck, what's goin' on?'
"That's an accomplishment. That's not so different from what I do, really. Maybe a little louder."
Gal's Panic reunites at Emo's, October 6.