Ahead of the Dead Milkmen’s spooky Sept. 5 show at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Joe Genaro, founder of the beloved Philly-based satirical punk-rock band, took some time to revisit his Chester County roots with Main Line Today. Along with Coatesville Area High School classmate and Caln native Rodney Linderman, Genaro revived the band in 2008 after a 13-year hiatus. Some 20 years earlier, the Milkmen enjoyed their fair share of success with a string of ’80s releases and MTV’s championing of “Punk Rock Girl,” off 1988’s Beelzebubba. The group’s 10th studio album, Pretty Music for Pretty People, is due out in early October.
MLT: For starters, you’re not exactly typical content for the average MLT reader.
JG: I’m not usually content anyone provides.
MLT: A punk rocker from Wagontown? What was it like coming of age on the western edge of Chester County?
JG: It was a great place to grow up. We had some Amish; we had a man who came door-to-door with eggs he delivered by horse and buggy. We had a milkman, too—up until the early ’70s. The milkman thing never evolved into a song; it became more of a whole-band concept.
MLT: What can you share about the Milkmen’s early history?
JG: In those pre-Internet days, it was pretty much the result of mutual boredom in a kind of convoluted, tight-knit neighborhood where we made up games and role-played in those games. I made up one with a friend—a sort of spoof on the Billboard Top 100 chart. You’d have to create these songs, then promote them. It was a combination board, dice and card game. We never actually wrote the songs; they were imaginary. But the game cards covered all the things—good and bad—that could happen on the way to getting the songs on the charts. One of my concepts was Jack Talcum, a character loosely based on [Bob] Dylan. Being the narcissistic, self-contained person I was back then, I formed a fan club and produced a newsletter—even mailing it to people we knew. It was a fan club that didn’t exist. Rodney wanted to be part of the project.
MLT: How did you come up with the name?
JG: It was inspired by the Dead Boys, a band we learned about through a magazine called CREEM. Growing up in Wagontown, the only way we could find out about punk music was to get to the drugstore and buy magazines. Before that, I was pretty much buying anything that had the Beatles on the cover.
I liked the name: “Dead” sounded like punk. Music on commercial radio had become so homogenized—another “milk” thing—and every city station was playing the same hit list. Then I started listening to punk from across the ocean, and I moved out at 17 and into Philly.
MLT: So the “Milkmen” part wasn’t a tribute to your childhood?
JG: It was kind of a rural, folksy thing. Wagontown was rural, and still is in some ways. There are some remnants of the way it was when we grew up—still some patches of woods. Now, every time I visit (his parents still live in the same house), it seems like there’s a new development going up. I slowly saw Wawa and Turkey Hill kill off the milkman.
MLT: Isn’t punk dead?
JG: No, punk is not dead—and I can say that even as we get ready to play a cemetery. There’s the underground element—the one that refuses to be mainstream, the one that develops (and sometimes stays) in the basement or the garage. But it still has appeal. Then there’s the commercialized version of punk; we saw its influence in the ’90s with Green Day. There’s also a punk attitude, but it’s nebulous. Sometimes we made fun of the serious side. We used lots of elements of parody. But we definitely loved—and still love—the live punk scene, especially in Philly. We embraced it, and to some extent, it embraced us back.
MLT: Do you get more or less out of performing than you used to?
JG: We do a lot more practicing, but we’re also recording more efficiently now and spending our money better. I’m a lot more confident in our live shows now. I’m more confident in the way I’m playing guitar. Somehow I got better, so sometimes I wish I could go back and do some things over with my current ability. Still, we hear how people like hearing our older stuff—how it’s so low-fi, scrappy and of an uninhibited quality.
MLT: The Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash were all influences. Why did they have a greater impact than you guys did?
JG: I don’t know … their originality, the timing, their better abilities and marketing. They were ahead of us. I remain surprised at how far we got. Our goal was to put out an album and tour the U.S. Within two years, between 1983 and 1985, we’d done that. We didn’t think we’d have a college-radio hit, and there’s no way we thought we’d be on MTV, let alone have a song in heavy rotation.
MLT: So how do you want to be known these days?
JG: I don’t want to be “Punk Rock Boy,” but you can call me “Punk Rock Man” if you want—I don’t care. It’s really about the creative process—that and putting on a show. Originally, I was stage shy. Now, I love to entertain an audience; we have to keep it going, going and going. I appreciate my [full-time computer] job, but it’s definitely not as much fun.
MLT: What were your strongest Chester County influences?
JG: The school system was a huge one; in high school, there was a lot to provoke me. But it was also the community, the church and youth group, the atmosphere growing up. I was lucky my parents settled where they did. My imagination was piqued by all of that, but don’t ask me exactly how. It was all mixed in a big urn.
MLT: What does Wagontown think of you now?
JG: I’m afraid to think what they might think. I’m still amazed at what my parents put up with, and all my shenanigans. I usually waited until they went out to go shopping. Though I was appreciative of where I grew up and loved it, I always wanted to get away. I never fit in—even in a high school I loved. I don’t know if Rodney felt the same way. He loved being the center of attention, and that’s where he fit in with the band. He’s quick-witted. If you were interviewing him, you’d already have 100 quotables.
The Dead Milkmen perform at 7 p.m. Sept. 5 at Laurel Hill Cemetery, 3822 Ridge Ave., Philadelphia. Tickets are $15; all-ages show. Call (215) 228-8200 or visit www.deadmilkmen.com.