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In Heaven There Is No Beer 

Polkacide is San Francisco's longest-running musical in-joke

Wednesday, Oct 7 1998
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When Polkacide plays live, punks, hippie chicks, and grandparents alike drink way too much beer, polka terribly, and go home with mad grins stamped on their faces. The band -- a San Francisco institution for 13 years -- bastardizes both the classic polka wurst and the thin broth that Lawrence Welk served. Think beefsteak, beer, and kielbasa. Think sexual predator types in lederhosen inciting a thrashing audience to holler: "I like to hear the people shout/ Polka, beer, and sauerkraut!"

After years without releasing a single song, the group supposedly has a new album in the works. Polkacide is not a proud band. They'll play anywhere, for anybody: The weirder the gig, the happier the four-piece and its assorted hangers-on. They've played the hallways of Laguna Honda Hospital, the Miss Nude America pageant at the Civic Center, and two gigs at Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert. Several weeks ago Polkacide joined an accordion festival in Cotati. And even now, especially in the German beer-friendly month of October, the gigs are still consistently odd -- including several Oktoberfest shows at Gordon Biersch, Berkeley's Jupiter, and Walnut Creek's Faultline.

At punk shows, weddings, and the occasional old folks home, Polkacide is serious fun in a town that tends to take music and scenestering way too seriously. Here, Polkacide is a tradition, drunkenly lurching on ever since their first gig at the legendary Mabuhay Gardens in 1985. When lead polkateer Ward Abronski started the band, he bought a stack of old polka favorites from a local sheet music store. But the musicians in the group -- a loose configuration of jazz players, punkers, and flat-out rockers -- tweaked the traditional sound into something both more aggressive and more musically free: The saxophones honk; the guitars and drums grind and pound faster, louder, harder. It's true cacophony, with a beat.

Abronski -- a tall, lanky, pop-eyed individual with a gray halo of Einstein hair -- leads the pack with sax and vocals. Clarinetist Neil Kaitner (aka the Basa when he's in lederhosen), bassist Alistair Shanks, and drummer Johnny Jack round out the core of the band. A revolving cast of five to 10 assorted delinquents helps out at live shows. Together, they make tubas blat, accordions wheeze, and saxophone squeals crash into off-melody trombone. "If you threw a polka band off the Empire State Building and they hit the ground and got up laughing -- that's what we sound like," says Shanks.

Nineteenth-century Bohemian beer-hall music and abrasive, energetic noise might not seem like an obvious match. But the combination works mostly because punk and polka share three important goals: getting people drunk, getting people dancing, and getting people drunker. Everywhere the band goes -- the defunct Chi Chi Club, the expired I-Beam, Oktoberfests, and not a few of their friends' funerals -- the audience dances, first the punks, then the clubbers, and recently a whole new crew of barely post-pubescent polka fans. The whole mess -- bodies flailing and flying -- looks like something went wrong on the Muppets' set.

Several weeks ago, the band did a Sunday night benefit for "Whorechurch" -- a semiregular evening of fucked-up art, performance oddities, and sex workers -- at the almost swank Embassy Club. Located uncomfortably close to the DEA's Federal Building offices, the Embassy Club provided the kind of space where Polkacide's shtick works best. Amid casual nakedness, queer activists baking pot brownies, and a bizarre lesson in flower arranging for buttholes (don't ask), the Polkacide crew looked almost normal in their lederhosen and boots. Abronski surveyed the scene and launched into "The Duck (Chicken) Dance." As the beat rose to a frenetic pace, the audience members suddenly, almost involuntarily, mimicked Abronski's awkward movements. Yes, they were flapping their arms and wiggling their butts, and no, they didn't care who was watching. When the beer-sodden polka stampede charged the floor, anyone who wasn't dancing had two choices: flap or fly.

Abronski swears the whole thing started as a joke. In the mid-'80s, the Deaf Club -- a late S.F. venue for hearing-impaired people -- asked a friend of Abronski's to put together a musical act for the club's 50th anniversary. The band had to be loud enough to produce vibrations that the deaf folks could dance to, but the club wouldn't tolerate a punk group. Abronski's girlfriend, Heyak, jokingly suggested a polka band. "The light bulb [went] off!" says Abronski and, "Heyak goes, 'Oh, no.' "

Abronski rounded up a bizarre troupe of musicians for the gig. Members of punk bands of the time -- the Sluglords, the Geeks, Tragic Mulatto -- as well as players from acts like the Rova Saxophone Quartet and the San Francisco Boys Choir all contributed talent. The incipient group practiced for three months for the show. Then, barely a week before the gig the Deaf Club canceled, opting for a more respectable, polkaless picnic. But Polkacide was having too much fun to let one mishap get in the way. They scheduled a date at the Fab Mab and were an instant smash with that club's punk contingency.

The polkateers were soon all over town, and within a few gigs they'd picked up a gaggle of fans that would follow them to every show. A couple of petticoated punkettes called themselves the Polka Sluts and cancanned onstage. Somehow the group ended up on national TV, if only for five seconds of a short feature on the oddity of San Francisco punk rock on the CBS nightly news. They even appeared on the Playboy Channel.

Polkacide finally got around to cutting a record in 1986. The self-titled album -- stamped with a grinning skull and crossed sausages -- is a 13-song slice of weirdness featuring most of the band's favorite anthems: "Who Stole the Keeshka?," "Baruska," and, of course, "In Heaven There Is No Beer!" While the studio album hints at the silliness of the band's live show, it only captures a fraction of the real experience. Nonetheless, a Japanese label, Eva, released the disc on CD well after Polkacide's frantic schedule had slowed down substantially.

In 1989, Abronski and Heyak -- who was playing drums for the band -- broke up and Abronski quit, leaving what was left of the group to fend for itself. "It was, 'Let's do the classic rock band fuck-up and break up after the first record,' " says Kaitner. "It was a classic situation: Someone is screwing around with the Polka Sluts. ... The tuba player is a junkie. All this sounds like you are talking about some heavy metal band. Except [we were] playing polka."

But Abronski couldn't stay away for long. Two or three years later, after finding a new drummer, he rounded up the rest of the miscreants. Around the same time, Restless Records released a polka compilation featuring three Polkacide cuts, Brave Combo, the Romaniacs, MoJo Nixon, and Skid Roper, among others.

Now, after recording an 11-song demo -- and picking up an oddly youthful fresh crowd -- a new album is supposedly on the way. But the Polkacide guys are renowned procrastinators. Even if the record finally gets mastered, there's no guarantee that it will ever be released: It's unclear that anyone besides a few hundred die-hard Polkacide fans wants to buy the album. But then again, no one in the band expects to get rich off the proceeds. "We are hoping to hit the alternative markets and the mom-and-pop stores in Milwaukee and do that polka crossover thing," jokes a sarcastic Jack.

Not everyone can laugh about it. "Unfortunately I don't think it has evolved as much as it could have," says former trumpeter John Lieb, who played with the band for four years and got fed up with the outfit's unwillingness to write new material and tour full time. "They have their niche -- they're doing it well -- but I think some are frustrated they did not go for bigger shows instead of staying in this insular little club scene and preaching to the confronted."

In the interest of avoiding a family quarrel, no one in Polkacide wanted to talk about Lieb's criticism. But he's partially right: Polkacide will never be the, say, Kiss of polka. There will probably never be arena concerts or a thrash polka specialty show on MTV. Polkacide was never meant to be taken seriously. It's a running in-joke, funny to those closest to the band and the music. As long as the oompahs crank, the beer flows freely, and the freaks in the audience cover the dance floor, it seems like no one in the band is bothered that larger-scale opportunity has wilted like so much sauerkraut.

Shanks, for one, is clear about what motivates him and the band. "Laziness, beer, and the lack of anything better to do with our lives," he says, "and the idea that someday we will be playing at some hotel in Vegas as the house band for blue-haired ladies.

About The Author

Tim Kingston

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