Gonzoid Trash Punk: The Meatmen Story

by Greg Prato

How can you not admire a band that has offered the world such soft and cuddly song titles as "We're the Meatmen and You Suck!," "Pissed Hot for Weed," and "Big Bloody Booger on the Bathroom Wall"? Of course, we're talking about everybody's favorite gonzoid trash punk band, the Meatmen, who in 2014, issued their eighth full-length studio set overall, Savage Sagas, via Self Destructo Records.
Originally formed in 1980, many a band member has come and gone over the years, but you can always count on the band's frontman, good ol' Tesco Vee (real name: Robert Vermeulen), to be in attendance, as he has remained with the band throughout it all. Having shared the stage with the likes of the Bad Brains and Black Flag back in the day (and also co-founding Touch and Go Records, as well as a popular punk fanzine of the same name), Vee has many a good story to tell. Including why it took the Meatmen 20 years to put out a new studio album.

"Well, that's a short question that probably could have a real long answer. But basically I've gone through some, I don't want to say ups and downs, but the band has always been a hobby for me. I put it down, I pick it up, I thought I was done back in the mid '90s, and then as fate would have it, I'm back at it again. And we did a cover CD back in '08 [Cover the Earth], but you know what, I've got at least one more platter of originals bouncing around in my cranium."

"Actually, one of the songs on the album I wrote in 1996 and we actually practiced it,' he continues. 'That's 'Dinosaur.' And it fortunately stuck with me and is on the new album. And I just had too much going on my brain, too many ideas, too many - it's a target rich environment up there. I had to lower the blunderbuss of my semantic arsenal, as it were, onto an unsuspecting populace and let them have it at least one more time."

"I'm not saying this is the last album, certainly. But I'm having a blast, 58 years old, and I don't think a man my age should be allowed to have this much fun. I do some of my best songwriting in the shower and I'm sure I'm not the first person who has said that. And I also notice that taking long walks is also cathartic. It frees the brain of the encumbrances of the day to day tedium and allows me to be creative. And I wrote several of the songs on the new album while walking around the lake, for what it's worth. The process is different for everyone, I know."

Vee was also willing to give some examples of Meatmen songs that he wrote while going on "long walks." "I got an idea - well, actually, my son was talking to me about a guy he works with. He works at a very weed intolerant business here in Lansing. And they give you random drug tests. He's been there for four years and he's had six of them. So he and a gentleman that he worked with that was 46 and hadn't smoked pot in two years, he just had a moment of weakness on a weekend. And I said, 'What happened to that guy?' He said, 'Well, they fired him.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'He pissed hot for weed.' And I'm like, wow, I like the sound of that. Pissed hot for weed. I've got to write a song about that."

"So I was bouncing that around in my head and I kind of wanted to do a cheesy, I don't know, kind of an LA rock, cheesy thing. Well, that's not really in my wheelhouse, because a lot of my music is parodies of other styles of music. Then I took a long walk and the riff came to me, the lyrics started to come to me."

"Based on an event that happened in the title - sometimes you start with a title and end up with a song. Sometimes you write a song and you end up with a title. But it sort of all came together for me on one 45 minute walk."

"And then of course you're frantically typing notes onto your - as I said previous, to get away from your phone - but frantically typing it in my notes on my iPhone to try to get the words down. Because sometimes I have those epiphanies and think of an awesome lyric. And then since I'm 58, I forget it, and get really pissed off at myself."

"So yeah, that's how that one came together. It's kind of a 'legalize it now' kind of a song. But of course it has the typical Tesco lyrics about the dalliance with a beautiful young girl who, over a pitcher of Mountain Dew, decides to pull out a blunt of high test booze. And the rest is history."

And it also turns out that Vee was able to write a song... in his sleep! "I had a dream and the song came to me in a dream. I mean, words and - not all the words, but a lot of the words and the music. And this happened to me before and I wake up and turn on the light and jot it down. And the next morning you get up and it's like, you know, 'That's stupid.' Well, the next morning I got up and I went, 'That's kind of cool'."

"And I was afraid for months to show it to the guys at practice, because I thought, well, even Tesco Vee is a little fraught with insecurity on occasion. After, I wrote it in my sleep. Well, it's a song called 'They Just Don't Make 'Em Anymore.' And it's basically an homage to all of the hardcore bands that have come before and sort of paved the way, paved that road of ruin for everyone, as I said in the song. And it's on the album. The guys loved it and so, yeah, that was a weird one."

"Actually wrote it in my sleep and it became a song on the album. So if that's your least favorite song on the album, that would explain it."

And out of the entire Meatmen song catalog, when asked what is the all-time classic tune from his band, Vee whittled it down to one. "You know, it would be really easy to say 'Meatmen Stomp' or 'Tooling for Anus,' or '1 Down, 3 to Go.' But I think I have to go with 'Rock & Roll Juggernaut.' Because that's a lot of people's favorite album. And I think that song 'Rock & Roll Juggernaut' kind of sums up - in the '80s we were kind of making fun of rock when we were playing rock, but we were kind of doing a parody of rock."

"I think that song kind of sums the Meatmen mantra 'Testosterone and funny bones, Meatboy Showband Revue,' and 'We drink bong water and bourbon cocktails, A righteous manly brew.' Just sort of encapsulates everything that the Meatmen are and stand for. So yeah, I'll go with 'Rock & Roll Juggernaut'."

The song 'Rock & Roll Juggernaut' comes off the album of the same name. Originally issued in 1986 via Caroline Records (with the vinyl version including a one-sided seven-inch flexi-disc), Rock & Roll Juggernaut was produced by Jim Crenca, who would also work with the band on several other releases, including War of the Superbikes and War of the Superbikes II.
Looking back to the beginning of the Meatmen, the band originally hailed from not exactly rock n' roll hotbed town of Lansing, Michigan. But to this day, Vee has good memories of the local punk scene. "It was interesting, because we sort of started it, but I wasn't alone. I had that band the Fix and they were sort of operating already. And the Meatmen started off, it was like around '79, and the Necros were sort of an inspiration from Ohio, became friends with them. The Pagans from Cleveland were certainly an inspiration and they predated all the hardcore stuff."

"But, yeah, we just kind of just built it up and started my Touch & Go magazine and Touch & Go Records to try to put out some of these bands. And we sort of just created a scene, and then bands started to come here and play. Black Flag played at Club Doobie and DOA, and the Bad Brains played two nights at a little cafe in East Lansing. And one night my other band Blight warmed them up, and the next night the Meatmen did. And they stayed with Steve Miller from the Fix for a week and played ping pong and smoked weed and just kind of hung out with him. So it was pretty cool times to be into music."

"And the fanzine was really the catalyst for me in calling that many people over the country and got some friendships and lost some friendships and it was just an amazing time to be a fan of the music. There was so much going on. I mean, I was making less than $10 grand a year being a schoolteacher and I was getting the New Musical Express and the Melody Maker every week to my house from England to try to keep up with what was going on over there."

"And then when American hardcore hit, it was, like, it changed everything. That was really what we tried to focus on. Not just hardcore, it was just everything. There was so much independent music. Everything from industrial to rockabilly, all the revivals, like ska."

"And a lot of stuff went down right here in little old Lansing. And then of course, Detroit and the surrounding areas. I'm not going to say I built the scene, but I was certainly there and helped it grow and prosper."

And something that is all but forgotten in today's modern punk scene was the importance of fanzines back in the '80s - which in a way, was punk fans' "Internet" years before there was an Internet.

"Yeah, they were pretty crucial. It was the Pony Express. It was like you were writing letters to your heroes, you're sending $2 - like, two one dollar bills to an address in LA for the new Fear 7 inch or the first Fear 7 inch, that was a leap of faith. And by God if it didn't come in the mail. And the first Black Flag record came and we just had to write about it."

"If you're passionate about music, like Dave [Stimson] and I were, the guys - we did the magazine, you wanted to sing it to the heavens and write about it. And at Michigan State that was my major, so I was already into writing. So, yeah, it just became a natural thing. And you'd mail these off to Dischord Records or the Minutemen, or Slash Magazine in LA, that was pretty much my inspiration. And they responded and said, 'Great, keep it coming. We'll send you Slash, you send us Touch & Go'."

"It was like you just started trading and then records started to flow in and you would review other fanzines, you review records. And it was really how people got their information and some of the press runs are miniscule. Like, 200 copies of Touch & Go, until later on I got up to, like, 1,000. I think I may have done 2,000 of some of the last issues. But, I mean, this first issue was, like, 100 copies. So it's amazing that any of them still survive."

"But people have told me, 'I read it. I gave it to my brother, he read it.' I mean, those 'zines would go to 10 different people. They just got passed around that's kind of how - like you said, that's how information got shared and how people started to realize [what was going on]."

"I mean, Ian MacKaye told me a story when we did an interview for the book that he was in the Record & Tape Exchange in Arlington, and there was Touch & Go with Penelope [Houston] from the Avengers on the cover. And he opened it up and it's, like, Lansing. He had no idea. He thought it was just a coastal phenomenon, this punk rock stuff. And then he saw that there was actually somebody in Lansing that knew what time it was. So, yeah, that was how all the dots got connected, really, was due to fanzines and trading of records and so on."

And in case you were wondering which book Vee just mentioned, it was Touch and Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine '79-'83, which was published in 2010 via Bazillion Points. "Touch and Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine '79-'83 - the compendium of all my fanzines that came out a few years go. It's on Bazillion Points Publishers. But it's on its third or fourth printing. It sold way better than I thought. It took us, like, five years to sell it. I think there were some fairly high profile publishers that were interested, but when they saw some of the content they backed off. But Bazillion Points has been - they give you the included flyers and letters that I sent Ian that he has somehow saved and all this fun stuff. So it's, like, 576 pages long. And it's just kind of a snapshot of four years of my life, basically."

I mentioned that I had penned a book several years ago called Grunge is Dead, which I interviewed a lot of the early Seattle bands (Green River, the U Men, etc.), in which many of those members discussed tours in which they became stranded in towns for days or weeks and pretty much starved. Also, many were the victim of traveling all the way to a show and the promoter telling them that the show was canceled. Luckily, the Meatmen didn't experience many of these calamities during the same era.

"No, not really. You always have those kind of bad things that happen. We had a gun pulled on us in Detroit by a promoter who called himself Scary, and he is now in prison for bank robbery or something. I don't know, whatever - some kind of gun violence. But you get all sorts of weird crap. But I never really had those."

"I didn't go on any real long tours. Like, we did that Mudd Club show that was on We're The Meatmen...and You Suck!! on side b, that's live. I remember the Beastie Boys were there and they were just little kids, and they were like, 'Tesco, could we get in free?' 'Get away from me, kid, you're bothering me.' One of those deals. Good career move!"

"But we didn't really tour much until later in I'd say '85 with War of the Superbikes, and by then, we were starting to get some play and some reviews and starting to get some pretty good shows. So I never did the starvation, I never did the Black Flag [thing]. But it was a huge leap of faith for bands when they were touring back then."

"Because, think about it, you were stopping at the payphone and calling the promoter and hoping that shows go on. And, yeah, I hear those stories. And fortunately I never really had to - you know, like DOA, the I, Shithead book [by Joey Keithley] that is full of stories. I remember the one where their guitars were on that train. And they got thrown off a train in the winter with their guitars in some - inside the train, and there's all this water sloshing back and forth across the floor, this nightmarish stuff. But I'm not sad to say I never dealt with all that."

One of the more underrated rock documentaries was 1984's Another State of Mind, which chronicled a tour of the US and Canada during the summer of 1982, featuring Social Distortion and Youth Brigade (as well as cameos by the Circle Jerks' Keith Morris and Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye). The doc perfectly captures a warts and all view of what it was like to be a young and struggling punk band of the era, and the constant uphill battle these acts faced.
I also couldn't help but bring up the classic documentary, Another State of Mind, which faithfully captures the trials and tribulations of punk bands touring back in the early '80s. And as I suspected, Vee was quite familiar with the doc. "Yep. Absolutely. I remember. I was there at Dischord House when all those guys were there about that time. And Mike Ness and the Stern brothers and everything. God, it seems like four lifetimes ago. But it's funny that this music has legs. It resonates. These bands are still functioning after all those years, as I am. It's quite amazing. I guess because there's an outsider movement, you know, and there'll always be a new generation of kids that relate to it."

Vee also broke down the differences between the Lansing scene and the the Washington, DC scenes. "Lansing kind of drew from a lot of areas. And so did Washington. I mean, but you drew from Maryland and Virginia. But neither scene was very big. When there were shows in Detroit at the Freezer Theater, there might be 100, 150 kids."

"And same thing in DC, there wasn't a huge - both those locales got a ton of press for being as small as it was. And there really wasn't - you'd think Washington, DC, is such a huge area. But really it was a core group of kids. I'd say 100 or 200 kids that were the core scene. And then there was everybody else."

"But Lansing's scene in and of itself wasn't that great. We had to sort of combine forces with Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Flynn and the surrounding areas to draw to a show, and Grand Rapids, I suppose, and Kalamazoo."

"And the DC scene was really made me want to live up there. I went out there and saw a show and it just, like, 'Oh, my God.' I saw Minor Threat. And I skipped the last day of school. I told my superintendents that my best friend was getting married in DC and he didn't want to let me go. And I finally talked him into it."

"There's an infamous show where it was Minor Threat and the Circle Jerks at the old 9:30 Club, and Ian blew out his voice at sound check because he was so amped up. And he still did the show, but the charismatic presence that he was, he basically did the whole show through interpretive dance and the crowd sang all the lyrics. It was so epic. And I'm, like, this is pretty cool. I think I want to live out there."

"In Michigan, the unemployment rate at the time was, like, 16 or 18 percent. So I just told my girlfriend at the time, 'We're outta here. We're going to DC and we're getting married.' And she's, like, 'Okay.' And I'm still married to her 32 years later."

And lastly, with Touch & Go Records going on to become one of the most renowned indie labels of the '80s and '90s (having issued now-classic recordings by the likes of the Butthole Surfers, Big Black, and the Jesus Lizard, among others), does Vee ever regret leaving the label in 1983?

"No. As a businessman, I'm not so great. I'm sort of the creative guy. I'm not really a great businessman. A lot of my contemporaries have gone onto fame and fortune. Corey Rusk, he had the bankroll behind him to make the label what it was. I really had no interest in running a record label. I did it out of necessity, because my friends needed someone to put their records out."

"In retrospect, yeah, I suppose I could have kept a percentage or something. But who thought about that back then? Everything was real seat of the pants. 1,000 records here, 100 records there."

"But who knows what I would have done with the label? I would not have gone in the direction that Corey did on a lot of stuff. But it was his label, he could do what he wants."

August 20, 2014
Photos by Joe Gall

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Comments: 1

  • Tom Davis from St.louis Mo.Great read, thanks!
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