Today, April 12th 2010, is Joe Pop-O-Pie's 51st birthday. And to celebrate the occasion, the key figure behind the legendary SF punk outfit The Pop-O-Pies, who formed in 1981 and disbanded sixteen years ago, decided to reform the group and perform on a bill at the Warfield in San Francisco tonight (they play tomorrow & Wednesday also), along with another recently reformed SF group -- Faith No More. Coincidentally, Joe was an original member of Faith No More!
Besides being a unique way to celebrate his birthday, another reason Joe chose this time to reform the group was that he recently found himself with a lot of free time on his hands and needed to fill that void. "This is what recessions are good for. If you get laid off and you've got nothing to do, you gotta do something," laughed the long time San Francisco resident, speaking by phone a few days ago from his new home in Reno, Nevada.
After living in the deep and gritty heart of San Francisco for three decades, including having spent the past eighteen years in the Tenderloin, the New Jersey born and raised Joe Pop-O-Pie has embraced his recent move to Nevada. "One of the things that is so fantastic about Reno, NV is that cockroaches can't live up here. Yeah, the Tenderloin is just rife with cockroaches. It was such an amazing thing. Cockroaches can survive a nuclear war but they won't follow you up the mountains to Nevada," he said. Shortly after finishing college in NJ Joe packed up and moved west to the city by the Bay, where, in September of 1981, he formed The Pop-O-Pies. Labeled 'punk,' the Pop-O-Pies, which essentially consisted of Joe and an ever rotating list of musicians, were really a concept band. For the first two years of their existence at their live performances the band played only one song for their entire set, the Grateful Dead's "Truckin.'"
I asked Joe why! "It was because band members would come and go. And because 'Truckin' was the most popular song of the songs that I had in my pack at the time," he replied. "And I only had time to teach new members one song. And if we had time after that I might teach the members more songs but we never got around to it. That was all I had time for. And I figured the PAs in clubs were so bad that no one would notice. But they did notice." As someone who attended those always memorable early Pop-O-Pies gigs at SF punk venues like the long gone Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway, I can attest to the fact that people did notice but most didn't mind. It was part of the whole attraction of the Pop-O-Pies. The act of doing this one song, a punk rock version of the hippie anthem, was equal parts punk and performance art in the vein of Andy Kaufman. In fact, as with Kaufman's Tony Clifton character, some punk fans at shows would get frustrated with this so-called punk band doing a 45 minute version of a Dead song, of all things. Of course the vocal objections of such unhappy concert goers were ignored by the mischievously brilliant Mr. Pop-O-Pie.
The Pop-O-Pies "Truckin'"By playing a full concert set version of "Truckin" (extended to ten times its original time) Joe and the band would wander off into various improvisational tangents, something that was staying true to Dead's own live freeform jam style of performance. Ultimately the punk rock version of the classic rock Dead song worked on two levels. The punks liked it and after a time so too did the Grateful Dead's dedicated fans. "I think that what was the most ironic thing is that a lot of Deadheads actually liked it and as time went by they started to show up at Pop-O-Pies shows," recalled Joe. Not only did the Deadheads dig it but the Grateful Dead themselves were fans from early on. "Jerry [Garcia] posed for Rolling Stone magazine with me and the gang, the Pop-O-Pies, back in 1983," noted Joe. "So Jerry Garcia was actually kind of helpful to the Pop-O-Pies. And I hung out with him a couple of times and we got along great. We were best of friends, ironically. He actually appreciated the send up. He found it kind of refreshing."
Similarly, the late LSD guru Timothy Leary became first a fan and then a pal of Joe Pop-O-Pie after learning of the group's 1983 song "Timothy Leary Lives" off The White EP. "Timothy Leary actually used that song in his stand up philosopher routine when he was talking about, 'I can expand your mind with electrons.' This was like late 1989, early nineties, when he used that song and I didn't know that. Somebody sent me a news clipping from LA and it had that in it," said Joe. "And another thing is that I actually met him before he died, very late in his life...and I got along great with him. He thought it [the song about him] was very funny. I was poking a lot of fun at him."
Other fans of the Pies were the members of Nirvana. In fact, in Kurt Cobain's posthumously published Diaries he mentions the Pop-O-Pies as one of his favorite bands, citing their cover of the Beatles' "I Am The Walrus" (on Joe's Third Album, in which Joe switches up the line about been stuck in "the English rain" to being "standing in the Seattle rain" and also sings about seeing the Sex Pistols in 78) as one of his favorites songs by the group. Coincidentally, Joe considers the Pies' sound part of the post-punk wave that directly influenced Seattle's grunge sound. "I call it prehistoric grunge...a lot of the grunge bands modeled their sound off the post punk that was slower, although some of it could be really fast, but the stuff that was often slower and dirge-ier."
Another Cobain related coincidence was that Cobain's widow Courtney Love had (years before she met Kurt) been Joe's housemate in the packed musical household he and the other musicians shared for some years on Shotwell Street in San Francisco. And the vibe of that Mission District household with Love as a housemate? "It was uncontrolled chaos," laughed Joe, adding that Love also had been the singer with Faith No More for a brief period. "She was the next Faith No More singer after me and [with her] they covered Van Halen's 'Jump' and it was something to see. Very entertaining."
Faith No More, who had gone through some early incarnations with such band names as Faith No Man and the Sharp Young Men, officially formed as Faith No More in late 1983 with Joe as their original vocalist. But even beyond that, the relationship between Faith No More and the Pop-O-Pies ran deep, with the two bands overlapping for about two years. "Up until '85 Faith No More and the Pop-O-Pies were pretty much the same band. In fact, on Joe's Second Record Faith No More were the instrumentalists on it," said Joe. Other bands whose members (some the same) have cross-polinated the Pop-O-Pies include Mr Bungle, The Cars, Ozzy Osbourne, and the Dead Kennedys as Joe boldly outlines on the cover of the recently released Pop-O-Pies: Joe's Greatest Disasters 1983-2009.
Joe's Greatest Disasters includes new and old songs, including the dark lounge styled "Christmas Time In Frisco," recorded last year, and live tracks from a great 1985 Seattle Pop-O-Pies' show. Another somewhat recent Pop-O-Pies retrospective is the Pop-O-Anthology which includes a lot (but not all) of the classic Pop-O-Pies 1980's material. Noticeably absent are tracks such as the anti-police "Fascists Eat Donuts" and the controversial "The Catholics Are Attacking" (banned by the Jesuit-run KUSF) off the band's The White EP on 415 Records, which unfortunately, due to Columbia Records owning all the rights to the music, Joe has no legal access to, something he finds "extremely frustrating," especially since the record, long out of print, has not been available for aeons. "That record sold out a million years ago," he said, "But one day I am sure they will put it out [again]."
The line-up for the reformed Pop-O-Pies shows at the Warfield this week includes drummer Nino Moschella, Kurt Heydt, who played on Joe's Third Record, on guitar, and another former collaborator, Klaus Flouride (of Dead Kennedys fame), on bass. Originally intended as a single concert, tonight's Warfield show with FNM and the Pies sold out so quickly that a second, and then a third, show were added for the next two nights. All three are sold out but some tickets can be found online for resale.
So far Joe said there are no concrete plans for additional Pop-O-Pies dates after the Warfield shows this week but that he is hoping that bookers will contact him for more. He also said he is working on some upcoming Pop-O-Pies Unplugged events. Of course, the one question on many peoples' minds is might this reformed Pop-O-Pies at the Warfield fall into the band's old habit of doing one long extended version of Truckin? "No. Actually, we are going to play a full set," laughed Joe.