After the last audience member stop laughing and the bartender pours the night's last beer, Pat McCurdy goes home, rolls up his sleeves and get serious. Milwaukee's funniest songwriter and singer is planning to surprise the Patheads---those folks who sing along from the bar stools to his sharply-barbed, topical lyrics---with his next CD, a serious album.
"It's gotten to the point where I'll work for another two hours after the shows on it," McCurdy says. He'll retreat to his home studio, with it's keyboards, guitars and tape decks, and go to work. The concept is that each track will be directly inspired by McCurdy's favorite tracks. "It may be the arrangements that will inspire me or some production trick, even though my songs may have nothing to do with the songs on those records."
The disc, a full-band effort from a musician best known for the last decade as a soloist, should be out in the early months of '98, but McCurdy isn't taking any chances. "I'm going to do another live album next year just in case the serious one stiffs," McCurdy says. "I'm hedging my bets."
Attentive Patheads already know that his solo disc, this year's The Big Bright Beautiful World of Pat McCurdy, and its self-released predecessors, Memorial Day, Pat McCurdy and the Sound of Music, Pat in Person and Showtunes, have often included serious songs. At least songs that could be taken seriously, if you listen between the lines. Patheads long-in-tooth will recall the material he sang with his locally popular '80s bands, the Confidentials and the Men About Town, tended to be as reflective as they were funny. Humor helped fuel McCurdy's one stab at stardom, the late '70s new-wave band Yipes, but even then he knew how to be serious.
"Once I get a crowd's attention, they'll usually listen to whatever I do," he says of his live shows, the oven in which the leaven of his inspiration rises or falls. "Humor certainly has been the way to get people to notice me. The funny thing is that I don't find some of my lyrics that funny. I'm serious with some of these things."
The Big Bright Beautiful World turned a profit a month-and-a-half after its release early this summer, according to McCurdy. "It's the fastest seller yet," he says. Some Patheads have even produced bootleg CDs of McCurdy's two long-out-of-print albums and of songs recorded by the Confidentials. "I don't think they're making any money at it," he says, "but it did get me to put a couple of Confidentials songs back in my show."
Like Ani DiFranco, McCurdy knows that it can be more profitable to put out his own records than to mess around with ponytailed A&R jerks and all the thieving hustlers and tone-deaf accountants who staff the big labels. McCurdy was stung early in life by a bad experience with the record industry. Yipes was signed by the long-since-defunct Millennium subsidiary of RCA. The label hoped to ride the new-wave band to the bank, but lacking any clue about their music, increasingly dictated to Yipes in the studio and on the road. Hopelessly compromised by Millennium's interference, Yipes was dumped for not selling enough records quickly enough.
Throughout the '80s, deals of one sort or another kept floating almost within McCurdy's grasp. By the time the Confidentials broke up in 1989, McCurdy was sick and tired of leaping through hoops for the industry. He decided to try his fortune alone, to find his niche and market himself.
Initially, the idea of playing solo was thrust at McCurdy by the owner of the Celebrity Club, a popular East Side bar in those years. "I was terrified," he recalls. "There I was with an electric guitar and an amp, facing an audience. I gradually put my solo act together using band frontman tricks to keep the audience interested.
Back as far as Yipes, McCurdy was a dynamo on stage, ready with witty remarks between songs and evincing a sense of humor and the absurdity of modern life in his lyrics. There were other sides to McCurdy, to be sure, but the lovelorn, sensitive McCurdy was increasingly drowned out by the McCurdy competing single-handedly against the din of the bar crowd. He decided to concentrate on his funny side.
"Some songs were written while I was playing live," he says of the material on The Big Bright Beautiful World of Pat McCurdy. "There so much interaction between me and the audience. I'll come up with the ideas while I'm performing."
"It Doesn't Matter," the disc's opener, skewers the unthinking egotism of today's typical American. "You might thing that you're the center of the universe," he teases. "It doesn't matter!"
"Goofy Town" lampoons Americans "without a memory," with no history and no future but only a cruddy present where compassion is out of fashion and destruction the only solution. The lyrics play out against a deceptively placid melody.
McCurdy, who plays as often as six nights a week, continues to travel an upper Midwest circuit encompassing Minneapolis, Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. He's played Atlanta recently, as well as Kansas, Florida, North and South Carolina.
"Most of the time they like the show," he says of his tours beyond the Midwest. "I played an all-women's college once, and made the mistake of calling it an all-girl's school! Boy, they let me know!"