Then the headliners took the stage. At first gander, Oakland's Fleshies didn't look any different from your run-of- the-mill punk band -- members sported the usual tattered T-shirts, scissor-impaired haircuts, and scuffed sneakers. The first loud chords emitted from the quartet's instruments sounded equally nondescript, as old as the phlegm in Johnny Rotten's throat. But by the end of the show it was apparent that Fleshies are not your ordinary punk band and Johnny Pseudonym is not your average lead singer.
Pseudonym (who has used several other last names, including Geek, Mink, No Moniker, and Shenanigans) rarely stayed onstage for more than a minute at a time, choosing instead to sing while hurtling into the audience. Soon he rolled across the floor with his arms tucked up to his chest and the mike pressed to his lips. Next he stripped off his shirt ("Beef kid" was written in marker across his chest) and his pants, revealing an exclamation point duct-taped to his tighty-whities. Then, as the band careened through "The Sexiest Man Alive," he sent his undies flying.
Stark raving naked, he continued to sing, leaping and gesticulating at the audience. When a watcher thrust his bicycle at Pseudonym appreciatively, he strutted up to the bike and spun the top wheel, trying to stop it with his genitalia. Then he fled back to the stage, where he broke a beer bottle and jumped around on the pieces. The show ended with the singer apologizing sincerely for breaking the bottle and offering to clean it up. "I don't know why I did that," he muttered.
Afterward, Pseudonym sat by the merchandise table, tenderly touching a cut on his hand. When I told him I liked the show, he looked apologetic. "We're really nice guys, all of us are nice guys," he said. "It's just something that happens onstage."
That particular brand of onstage energy inspired one of San Francisco's punk taste-makers to sit up and take notice of Fleshies.
"They are definitely the sort of kick-ass live band drenched in sickness that belongs on Alternative Tentacles," says AT label head Jello Biafra, who just signed the group.
Biafra witnessed the band's live power for the first time at a Gilman show last December. "I saw them and I was amazed," he says via phone from his home in San Francisco. "With Fleshies the main attraction is John, of course. Nowadays most frontmen don't bother to work very hard onstage at all, so John is a throwback to a much more intense, hardcore era. Especially at Gilman, where everyone's supposed to be so correct about everything, he was spazzing out all over the stage, all over the floor. He wound up nude by the end of the set, and I thought, "Aha, this is what punk rock was supposed to be.'"
Like many punk bands, Fleshies ("No the, Just Fleshies," as one song title explains) come from working-class suburbia. Pseudonym grew up in El Sobrante, bassist Vonny Bon Bons split time between San Francisco and Palo Alto, guitarist Mattowar lived in Castro Valley, and drummer Brian Hamiltron was raised in Benicia. All of them felt the crushing boredom of life in the sticks. "There's nothing to do so you get annoyed with rampant consumerism and other "isms,'" Pseudonym explains during an interview at Connolly's bar in Oakland.
In order to escape their boredom, the boys turned to punk rock. "The band that made me want to be in a band was [teenage Gilman Street act] Blatz," Pseudonym says. "Before Blatz I was into Metallica and other Hessian thrash bands. Blatz had three singers onstage going totally apeshit, saying good things, making a mess, getting naked."
For Mattowar life changed when he heard Texas/S.F. punk-metal act DRI. "They wrote short songs that said all they needed to say," he explains. "The lyrics were so deliberate. DRI were kids and they said what was important to them at the time."
What's important to Fleshies? Well, all four did vote for Nader, although Pseudonym hastens to add that each had "different reasons." During shows, Pseudonym often passes out lefty literature with a sarcastic edge. (One recent handout warned against the threat of "19th century-styled direct action anarchism.") While Fleshies shows feature some silly numbers like "Meatball" and "Asshole" ("I'm gonna drink all your alcohol/ And then I'll kick you in your asshole"), there are also paeans to the former radical wing of the Democratic Party ("Locofoco Motherfucker") and "My Lane," an empathetic view of the homeless life ("I got a bush and a place to pee/ Once that guy finishes jacking off in the Porta-potty").
Perhaps a discussion of one of the quartet's odd tour mannerisms will shed some light on this lyrical schizophrenia.
"We've gotten into this thing where we've been pissing into bottles for so long that we don't realize how anti-social it is," Pseudonym says.
"Every town we pull up to on tour, we'll open the door and all the piss bottles will roll out," Bon Bons laughs.
"It's how we mark our territory -- we leave a bottle," Mattowar says.
"If I can just find a leftist slant to piss bottles," Pseudonym ponders as the rest of the band cracks up. "Aha! Plumbing is definitely a bourgeois concept."
Lest you think the band is a bunch of piss-happy layabouts, let it be known that several members are involved in two of the East Bay's most diligent collectives, Geekfest and S.P.A.M. Records. Geekfest began in 1996 as a one-day outdoor event for bands that couldn't play Gilman. It was organized by Pseudonym (then John Geek) and held at a toxic waste dump by the Richmond Bridge. The event proved so popular that it has expanded over the years to a whole week. (The next one takes place June 13-17.) Drummer Hamiltron met bassist Bon Bons at a Geekfest in Benicia, and Bon Bons and Pseudonym played together in several Geekfest bands.
Pseudonym also co-founded S.P.A.M., which stands for Smarmy Post Angst Musicians. The label has issued releases by Bobby Joe Ebola & the Children MacNuggits, the Pilgrims, and the Blast Rocks!!!, as well as Fleshies' self-titled "demo CD" and two split singles. (The band goes into the studio to record its Alternative Tentacles debut later this month.) Although Corbett Redford and Dylan McPuke run the label day-to-day, Pseudonym still pens the e-mail newsletter and helps out. And when he's not busy, he performs with Jenny Raven at the "Mr. O Show," a punk rock variety event that was recently banned from the Stork Club for rowdiness.
"All the shows are math-oriented and feature me wearing provocative underwear and Jenny abusing me," Pseudonym says. "One time she hit me with pi pies to [synth disco artist] Klaus Nomi. Then she smashed 45 45s on me to Sisqó's "Thong Song.' And last time, she stuffed 17 Seventeen magazines in my diapers to ['60s French pop star] France Gall's "Baby Pop.'"
It's easy to see why the rest of the band can be overshadowed by Pseudonym's antics. But if the players weren't so drunkenly accomplished -- splattering out a high-speed mix of Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and Turbonegro -- Pseudonym wouldn't be able to take off into the netherzone. Both Bon Bons and Mattowar sing backup on many songs, and all four members play with an intensity that belies their offstage, nice-guy selves.
"I think I've got a chip on my shoulder, and when I'm onstage it comes out," Hamiltron says. "We all do."
"It's like scream therapy," Bon Bons says.
"I feel like if someone exhausts themselves enough, leaves vomit and shit everywhere, and ends up crumpled on the floor, [he] probably won't have much anger left," Pseudonym explains. "If I didn't have this band, I'd probably lose whatever tenuous grasp I have on reality."
Which would be a shame -- and would probably make for a damn good show.