Joseph Genaro has recorded under many aliases, including Jasper Thread, Butterfly Joe and Joe Jack Talcum. He founded the seminal Philly punk folk antagonists The Dead Milkmen, first as a fictional band, then a real one with three college friends. Together they would create some of the funniest, most bizarre and unique sounds of 80’s punk like the Descendents high on Zappa, taking the piss out of American pop music, with a tremendous musical aptitude. Genaro, on guitar as well as providing the shy, thin voice behind Rodney “Anonymous” Lindeman’s more traditional frontman, steps out for a few lead vocals on each record, often some of the most heart wrenching and poignant moments in the band’s discography, like the stream of consciousness “Dean’s Dream”, environmentalist ballad “Watching Scotty Die” and the bittersweet “Dollar Signs In Her Eyes.” Throughout the career of the Milkmen and during their hiatus (they reunited in the recent years to a warm welcome), Genaro has been a prolific songwriter, working with many groups such as Low Budgets, Touch Me Zoo and The Headaches, as well as a solo acoustic performer. He has been making home recordings for the past 30 years, and the aptly named Valiant Death label has released his second set, this one from 1993-1999, years when the Milkmen were mostly inactive.
My first exposure to Joe’s solo music happened when I was in college and I had heard he’d been performing at local punk shows. I had been a fan of the Milkmen for some time, and decide to send him a MySpace message, asking him if he’d like to play with my band, the newly formed The Brooklyn What in the basement of the original Freddy’s Bar (now leveled to become the Barclay Center) and if he’d like to perform some Milkmen material with us. To my surprise, he agreed to both, and some weeks later, showed up at my mom’s basement to teach us Dead Milkmen songs and eat some 3 items for $5 chinese food. Later at Freddy’s Bar, he treated us to a set of both solo and Milkmen material that mad the audience laugh and cry in a very cathartic experience. There was not a dry eye left in the room, and I had never seen that type of command in a solo performer before. The night ended with The BKW, Talcum and a room packed with some of my best friends all sang and thrashed to “Punk Rock Girl”, “I Walk The Thinnest Line” and the classic “Life Is Shit.” It was one of the best nights of my life, and we would do it again a few times. Later, when the Milkmen returned to the stage, he gave me the gift of the actual best night of my life, opening for my punk rock heroes at the Bowery Ballroom. It is Genaro’s generosity and empathy that make him one of the greatest and most underrated American songwriters.
His solo tunes evoke the naivete and imagination of his peer Daniel Johnston, as well as the sweet and sour whimsy of predecessor Jonathan Richman, with melody and chord progressions worthy of Neil Young and Lennon/McCartney. Just as the extroverted and challenging Milkmen attack everything from bad parties to bad politics with great fervor, Talcum’s introverted side describes a fairly negative and morbid worldview with a great deal of beauty. “One False Move” opens the set, a funeral dirge about drinking, a topic that will appear many times in his songwriting (Genaro is, to my knowledge, currently sober), check the heavy ballad “Alcohol” from 2008 split with Mischief Brew. “Madonna’s Weep” is the type of acoustic balladry that tickles the eye socket, with strange but beautiful, Dylan-esque lyrics “I have a peaceful feeling that when this war is done/we’ll find a bottle lodged up in the sun/and in it is a message for all about the land/love is a weapon you can’t hold in your hand.”
An apt multi-instrumentalist, Talcum plays organ and piano on the psychedelic “Go” and provides himself his own punk rock rhythm section on a few of the tunes offered up, including the raucous instrument “Sweet and Sour.” “Call Me A Fool” is a bonafide bummer, sharing genetics with Weezer’s “Butterfly”, possibly written around the same time in different areas of the country, except this song explodes into aural psychosis in the middle with some synth and pedal type action before resolving gently back into acoustic guitar. The sweet pity party “Sense Of Humor” is a direct and personal jaunt, with a melody echoing early Kinks or The Monkees, with the hook “I’ve lost my sense of humor/somewhere behind the couch.” “The Sun Shines Out Of My Asshole” is the type of absurd humor that made the Milkmen stand out against their more rigid peers. A cousin of “You’ll Dance To Anything”, the set closes out with “Another Disgusting Pop Punk Song”, obviously targeting the Warped Tour generation that would come to commerical set after his more talented generation spent a decade in relative obscurity.
In the art and craft of songwriting, there are many intangibles. Some songs rock and some songs suck. Some songs are catchy and some songs are forgettable. Some songs make you think and some songs make you drink. As a songwriter, Talcum’s paramount quality is his songs move you. Weather working in the platform of the surreal, silly or dead serious, Talcum has an emotional and childlike quality that appeal to the most vulnerable moments as a listener. Stripped of his loud band, and with his distinctive high register, the home recordings of Joe Jack Talcum bring us up close and personal to a songwriter that deserves such investigation and then some.