A night on the road with Pat McCurdy
by Drew Olson
Pat McCurdy is playing a show tonight.
In other news, the sun will set in the west, the Packers' regular-season opener is sold out and the long-range forecast for Milwaukee in January calls for freezing temperatures with a chance of snow flurries.
McCurdy is playing a show tonight -- at a place called Carvetti's in Lake Geneva -- because that's what he does. You can argue about whether he's the best-known musician in Wisconsin, but there is little debate that he is among the busiest. Accompanied by Jim Schafelburger, his roadie/sound man/partner in crime, McCurdy plays about 25 shows per month, a schedule he has maintained for more than a decade as he traverses the Milwaukee-Chicago-Madison-Green Bay corridor and beyond.
Unlike many of the people he plays for, McCurdy genuinely loves his job. "I just try to put on a good show every night, no matter where it is or how many people are watching," he says. "I couldn't go out there and fake it. People could tell."
His show, which he once described as falling into "the gray area between music and comedy," appeals to a wide range of ages, but the biggest chunk is comprised of those in college or just out ... the people who go to bars at night. In a time of endless entertainment options and short attention spans, McCurdy connects with this fickle demographic on a level that multinational marketing experts dream about but never realize.
Much like a sports franchise, McCurdy has a fan base that consists of a small group of rabidly loyal and devoted fans, a gigantic group of casual fans and a small cadre of detractors who consider him overexposed, overrated and much too "mainstream" to be relevant. That's part of the deal in the entertainment world: one fan's consistency is another's predictability. While some 20-something fans eagerly attend shows with their parents, others reflexively turn away precisely because it's something their parents enjoy.
I first met McCurdy late in the winter of 1993, when he was working to establish his solo act and I was trying to establish myself as a writer. I did a profile that ran in Wisconsin Magazine, which was a staple of the Sunday Milwaukee Journal. In the years since, while watching McCurdy's show blossom from cult favorite to a kind of statewide institution, I also came to consider Pat and Pipe Jim to be two of the more intelligent, loyal engaging and flat-out funny friends in my personal rolodex.
In preparation for writing that story, I climbed in the back of their van and rode to a few shows with the duo. Last month, we recreated that scene for a show at Carvetti's in Lake Geneva. What follows is an itinerary of our evening, or, if you will, "A Night on the Road with Pat and Pipe."
5:09 p.m. -- A 2005 Ford E-150 van pulls into our rendezvous spot -- the parking lot outside the Pettit National Ice Center. Pipe Jim is driving, Pat sits in the passenger seat (they usually reverse roles after the show) and I climb onto a makeshift backseat made of foam.
Pat and Pipe travel between 4,000 and 4,500 miles a month in this van ("We get about 18 to 20 miles a gallon on the highway," Pipe says) and buy a new one about every 18 months.
5:11 -- The radio in the van is tuned to the Brewers' game against the San Francisco Giants. Pat and Pipe Jim are huge fans, and Bob Uecker and Jim Powell are their travel companions throughout the summer. "I want to be positive about this team this year," McCurdy says. "But, I don't know." The Brewers are leading the game, 6-5, heading into the bottom of the ninth and all-star closer Derrick Turnbow is entering the game to face pinch-hitter Barry Bonds. "I'm nervous," McCurdy says.
5:15 -- McCurdy's fears are realized. Turnbow gives up a single to Bonds. After striking out Omar Vizquel, he gives up a double to Steve Finley and an intentional walk to Moises Alou. Suddenly, the bases are loaded.
5:20 -- Ray Durham hits a ball that caroms off Turnbow's glove and into right field. Two runs score. The Giants win, 7-6. "Now, I'm depressed," McCurdy says, shutting off the radio.
5:29 -- The bar that McCurdy is playing is Carvetti's, a name which makes me think of "Carvelli," a secondary character from "Welcome Back, Kotter."
He was a curly-haired tough guy from a different school and he was a rival of the Sweathogs. Pat and Pipe Jim know immediately who I am talking about. "That guy (who played Carvelli) is a comedian," McCurdy says. "I saw him once, but I can't think of his name." Pipe Jim recalls a favorite "Kotter" episode, when Gabe Kaplan's title character and assistant principal Woodman dress as thugs to intimidate Carvelli and his gang. "Remember Woodman in the leather jacket with his hair slicked back?" Pipe Jim asks. "Carvelli said 'Man, this is a tough school.'" Nobody can think of the actor's name and it's driving us crazy. "We'll think of it," McCurdy says.
5:33 -- I ask the guys about Summerfest, which was a bit of a touchy subject for McCurdy and his fans. For years, McCurdy closed the comedy stage at night and generally packed 3,000 to 4,000 fans into the tent. When festival officials transformed the spot into a martini lounge, McCurdy was replaced by piano players and prerecorded music. Though he did well at a handful of slots on various stages this year, McCurdy's presence at the festival was diminished.
"It's not my festival," McCurdy says. "I don't run it. I kind of had the misfortune to play at it a lot of times."
Wait a minute -- misfortune? Many local bands would kill for a Summerfest slot. McCurdy isn't being jaded or ungrateful, but he is coming to the realization that in addition to providing a huge boost for business, his regular appearances over the years set the stage for a backlash when his schedule was reduced by about two-thirds.
"Our shows this year were great," he said. "We had huge crowds at almost every show, especially on the Classic Rock Stage. But what happened was that our fans got used to being able to see us all the time (at the comedy stage). This year, they cut my sets to 30 minutes and people were coming up to me saying "We came from Minneapolis and you only did a half-hour?" They were mad about it. I got complaints."
So, how is McCurdy's relationship with Summerfest today?
"I think they're trying to ease me out," he says. "It's like I'm more of a problem to them now, but they set the precedent. I don't know what's going to happen. I still like playing there a lot and we'll do whatever they ask. But, we lost out on some stuff because we had some open dates the second week. Next year, we may try to book a few shows at some of the other festivals that we've passed up over the years."
5:41 -- Dark clouds are on the horizon and the forecast is calling for rain. "If it rains, they might move us inside again," Pipe Jim says. "We'd play up in front. It wouldn't be the worst thing."
As he pulls off the interstate and begins the trek into Lake Geneva, Pipe Jim says, "Man, this is a bleak exit."
6:01 p.m. -- We pull in front of Carvelli's, er, Carvetti's, and Pipe Jim quickly begins to set up the mixing board, monitors, lights and guitar cases. "It usually takes about a half-hour," he says. "But, if I have to do it quickly I can get the stuff from the van to the stage in about 20 minutes. If I'm really in a hurry, I'll have the bouncers help. They're usually cool about it." Showtime is slated for 7 p.m., and the stage setup tonight will indeed be inside and close to the front door, so Pipe Jim has plenty of time.
6:05 -- It's the dinner hour, and Pat generally doesn't like to eat at the venue he is playing so we take a walk toward the lake in search of a suitable restaurant. We peer in a few places, which are surprisingly empty. "I used to do a lot of shows at Hogs and Kisses," McCurdy says, pointing to a popular bar/restaurant. "Some of the people who used to come see me 10 years ago will be at the show tonight. And I did a private party in the Riviera, which is a cool place. It got pretty crazy that night."
6:16 -- We head back toward Main St. and grab a booth in Lake Aire Restaurant. Pat orders a club sandwich and we spend the next 30 minutes catching up and talking about his two sons, religion, politics and the stock market. Pat tells me that his manager's wife was recently a pickpocket victim while vacationing in Paris, which leads to a discussion about vacations. McCurdy doesn't take many. He never has, but the motivation has changed. He used to think, "If I don't work, I won't get work." Now, it's different. "I don't enjoy being waited on hand and foot," he says. "I've become a curmudgeon. That's what Bethany (his wife) calls me now. I couldn't enjoy Mexico, knowing that people are waiting on me and making servant's wages. It's almost like I've been predestined to be middle class. I like eating in nice restaurants, but no matter how much money I have I don't think I'll ever be a 'rich guy.' I think rich people have this sense of ease and confidence and I'll never have that."
6:57 -- We leave the restaurant and Pat makes a phone call during the three blocks back. Once inside Carvetti's, he mingles with fans for a bit. "All these years, I don't think anybody has ever yelled at us for starting late or quitting early," Pipe Jim says.
7:15 pm. -- Pipe Jim plays the "1812 Overture" as the introductory music and Pat straps on one of his two Alvarez acoustic guitar and begins the show. Because it's an adults-only crowd guarantees that the songs and stage patter will be rated R. The third song of the night is "F---buddy Song."
7:18 -- With the area in front of the stage filling up, I take a spot near the front entry door, which is like watching the show from the wings. On a mirror behind me is the message "We have Country Thunder tickets!" A group of about five or six women have set up shop about 10 feet away, right in front of the ladies' restroom.
7:22 -- Pat welcomes the audience and talks about how the name of the bar "Carvetti's" reminds him of Carvelli from "Welcome Back, Kotter." Most of the people in the audience are old enough to have seen the show, but he gets blank stares. "Does anybody know who that actor was?" he asks. More blank stares.
7:30 -- Pat tells a story about a "life-changing" moment at a bar in Watertown, which he calls "H2O Town." "I was at Andy's Uptown -- like there is an uptown and a downtown in Watertown -- and I heard a band play. It was a bunch of old guys. There was a trumpet player, an accordion player, a drummer, a guitar player and another guy I couldn't see and they were playing the worst version of "Hang on, Sloopy," I've ever heard. That's not what changed my life. What changed my life was the 65- or 70-year-old woman holding the bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon and wearing a denim skirt cut up to her ass cheeks that was doing this dance." Pipe hits a cassette of the song and Pat does a crazy dance and asks the audience to participate. It's still early, so there aren't many takers other than a tipsy woman named "Goldy," who is celebrating a birthday.
7:32 -- Pat notices a male fan at the bar who looks a lot like Michael MacDonald from the Doobie Brothers. He breaks into an impromptu version of "Takin' it to the Streets," followed by "What a Fool Believes."
7:38 -- The crowd is starting to loosen up a bit now. Applause breaks after songs are intensifying, which is not unrelated to the fact that the bartenders and wait staff are working at warp speed. As he rolls into the country-tinged song, "Imagine a Picture," Pat rolls into an audience participation segment of his program.
"Raise your hands if you feel you are way more attractive than the people around you," he says. (Virtually every hand goes up.)
"Raise your hand if you're an egomaniac." (Two hands go up, but most people don't get the joke).
"Raise your hand if you're a maniac, a maniac on the floor and you're dancing like you've never danced before." (Most women raise their hands and giggle. The men sit silent.)
"Raise your hand if you're cute as a bug's ear." (Most women raise their hands again.) Raise your hand if you're horny as an old goat." (Most men hoot and holler and raise their hands).
The fun continues with a "Hang on, Sloopy" line dance and a version of the Hokey Pokey, which takes prompting from the stage to catch on. "I never thought I'd see the day that people in Lake Geneva were to (f---ing) cool to do the Hokey Pokey," Pat says.
7:42 -- Longtime Pat fans Greg and Colleen are celebrating their 19th anniversary tonight, so Pat tosses in a special verse:
"Greg and Colleen, Greg and Colleen.
"The most romantic couple that you've ever seen.
"You see 'em bask, in the anniversary glow.
"If there so much in love, what the hell are they doing at my show?"
7:44 - -I notice that a group of about five women to my left have been watching me jot down notes throughout the show. Finally, an emissary from the group approaches. "I have some nosey friends who are wondering what you're doing," one woman says. "Are you a journalist?"
When I answer in the affirmative and tell her I'm doing a story on Pat, she seems relieved: "I thought you were just a loser taking notes of every song," she says.
7:47 -- Pat makes makes another reference to the Carvetti/Carvelli situation, asking if anyone can think of the actor's name. With my cellular signal limited inside, I walk out the front door to send a text message to my friend, Jason Wilde, who is the Packers beat writer for the Wisconsin State Journal, a blogger for OnMilwaukee.com and a McCurdy fan. Wilde has one of those fancy Windows-based computer/phones, so I know he can find me an answer. The following exchange takes place:
Text to Wilde: "Who played Carvelli on Welcome Back, Kotter?"
Text from Wilde: "Why?"
Text to Wilde: Pat, Pipe and I are stumped and it's driving us nuts.
Text from Wilde: Hang on a sec.
7:52 -- While waiting for Wilde to serve as our Ready Reference desk, I see a 50-ish man in a leather biker's vest walk up to the front door with a date, whom he is telling about McCurdy.
"The day I got my divorce papers, about 12 years ago, I went to have a drink at a bar downtown and saw Pat setting up," the man says. "The first song he played was "Going out, having fun, Screw you!" I mention something about good timing and the man says "I've like Pat ever since."
7:55 -- Between songs, Pat makes another Carvetti/Carvelli reference. "Has anyone here ever even seen an episode of "Welcome Back, Kotter?" he asks.
7:56 -- I head outside to see if Wilde has come through yet and find two guys in their early 20s with a woman of about the same age at the door. It's obvious that they're trying to decide whether to pay the $5 cover or go somewhere else and spend the cash on drinks. "Is this guy worth it?" one guy asks. "I think so," his friend says.
8:01 -- The text from Wilde comes through. "Charles Fleischer." That's the guy. Eureka. I go in to tell Pat and Pipe and find Pat in the middle of a story.
"Did you know that Lake Geneva was actually founded by two lesbian women? It's true. Their names were Jen and Eva. They came here at the turn of the century and said "This is a beautiful place, with a beautiful lake. What we need now is a really big arcade with fudge stores and ice cream parlors."
The story is vintage Pat.
8:03 -- As a song ends, I get Pipe Jim's attention and yell "Charles Fleischer." He smiles, laughs and yells at Pat, "Charles Fleischer." Victory at last! Pat tells the audience the answer to our trivial pursuit. Nobody cares.
8:12 -- The first set ends with "Hey, Patty," an Irish-tinged drinking song with the chorus:
play your songs for me.
I played $5 cover charge
it's highway robbery."
8:13. -- Pat bounds off the stage, which isn't really a stage, and mingles with fans, I head out for some fresh air and see the divorced guy in the vest leaving with his girlfriend. "The best song Pat has got is "Disaster Girl," the man tells me.
8:37 -- While tuning guitars, Pipe Jim remembers the early days in the land of fudge and ice cream parlors. "We've been playing here on and off since '91 or '92," he says. "We used to do Hogs and Kisses a lot. We've had nights there where it was a total hootenanny. Some people here tonight have been coming to shows since then."
8:41 -- A fan named Karen approaches. "What's the holdup?" she asks Pipe Jim. Karen is a longtime fan whose father, a doctor, is also at the show. As she talks to Pipe Jim, Pat works his way to the front of the room.
8:42 -- The second set begins with Pat singing "Tonight, I Want to Ruin My Life."
8:49 -- Goldy, the birthday girl, is tipsily swaying back and forth in front of the stage and Pat dedicates a song to her, a gentle number about a marital aid called "Your Electronic Friend."
"I could practice and never be perfect
I could struggle and toil to no end
I could walk on thin air
But, I could never compare
To your electronic friend."
As laughter fills the room, Goldy drifts back to join the friends at her table. When the song ends, Pat growls "Here's one for the boys," and launches into an arena-rock tinged song called "Sports and Porn."
8:56 -- Pat plays the song "Monkey Paw," which has become a cult favorite since he played it on the "Dave and Carole Morning Show" on WKLH in Milwaukee. "This song actually cured a migraine," he said.
8:59 -- It's time for "Tribute to the '90s." Though he probably has about 500 original songs at his disposal, Pat always gets a good response to his cover medleys. This one features a Lake Geneva fireman dancing next to Pat and pretending to sign language to a Spice Girls song.
9:13 -- Pat launches into his song "Toast," an uptempo number that I'm pretty sure he considers one of his favorites.
9:18 -- During "Our Song of Love," Pat implores fans to "kiss the cheek of the person next to you," then details how that command almost started a brawl one night in Saukville.
9:23 -- Pat cranks into "Screw You!" Too bad the guy in the vest left.
9:35 -- "See you next month," Pat says. As Chuck Berry's song "You Never Can Tell" blasts from the PA, Pipe Jim cases the guitars and starts the loadout.
9:37 -- Just as Pipe is about to take down the microphone, the bar manager asks Pat to conduct a nightly raffle. He gives away a Jose Cuervo neon bottle, a pasta party for six and "other assorted crap that the bar gets for free."
9:40 -- A fan wants to buy a CD and asks Pipe Jim for a recommendation. The CDs are $15 apiece and three for $40.
9:41 -- Goldy wins two tickets to Country Thunder.
9:50 -- Pat poses for pictures with fans, then heads out to hit one of the ice cream shops he mentioned during his show.
10:06 -- The fan asking about the CDs couldn't make up his mind, so he buys three CDs.
10:10 -- Pat returns to the bar and orders an ice water. Pipe is almost done packing the gear into the van, which is now parked right outside.
10:17 -- We're back on the road, with Pat behind the wheel. We stop at a convenience store for some bottled water. Pipe buys some ice cream flavored skittles.
10:29 - The rain that threatened all night arrives, with a vengeance. As we hit the interstate, I ask Pat abut the physical demands of his show and whether he is still bothered by the tendonitis that hampered him a few summers ago.
"That was the year I was convinced I had MS (multiple sclerosis) or some other disease," he said. "My legs were always sore, my back was sore. It was like I had mono, because I was tired all the time. I figured out that part of the problem was that I was doing a lot of shows and I was wearing Chuck Taylor's, which don't have much support.
"Now, I always wear shoes with support on stage."
What about the arm? "I have to strum softer now," he said. "I got tendonitis so bad, it would just shoot up my arm. I remember Bob Uecker saying when you have tendonitis, it makes you feel like your arms are weak. That's how they felt. I completely re-learned the way I play guitar. Every night, I had to consciously say "Don't strum so hard."
"That's the way I played my whole life. The guitar itself has no tone. Now, I have a nice tone in the monitor. Even when I'm playing soft, I can hear some of the notes. It really took me about a year to change the way I play guitar."
We get into a discussion of good acoustic guitar players and Pat mentions one of his idols, Paul McCartney. "The tone he gets is incredible," Pat says. "It's a unique way he pulls the strings. It's different."
10:40 -- The music discussion gives way to sports, movies and upcoming gigs. Just before 11 p.m., we arrive at the Pettit Center and hit the road. On some nights, Pat and Pipe will unwind after a show by hitting the casino or stopping for a drink at a friend's bar. There are no extras tonight, though. Tomorrow is a rare day off in the schedule, but there are 11 shows in the 12 days after that.