Punk Monk

When you talk to Gavan Wieser, the warmth of his personality and his thoughtful manner make it unsurprising that he used to be a Franciscan monk.

But listening to his music makes it equally unsurprising that he quit before being ordained as a Catholic priest. The Catholic church probably doesn't have much demand for aging punk rockers in the priesthood.

A bar in north Phoenix. Wieser comes onstage, and from his looks you expect him to play Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger songs. In his mid-50s, bespectacled, balding, his hair and beard a snowy white, the only youthful thing about him is his tall, athletic body.

Then he starts to thump his acoustic guitar as he goes into his first song. The chorus is, "She was ugly, coyote ugly. . . . My apologies to the coyote, whose appearance can be rough--but I believe I'd chew my arm off before I'd wake her up."

His next song, which he introduces as "a love song," is another folky thrash. Each chorus ends with the line, "Loving you's the dumbest fucking thing I've ever done. . . ."

Both songs are performed with straight-faced sincerity, and when he finishes, he thanks the audience with the solemnity of James Taylor. As he saunters back to his seat, the bar's patrons look at him in bemusement.

The next night is different. Wieser shows up at the Biltmore Coffee Plantation, where his friend David Grossman is playing. Grossman is something of a local legend, a brilliant performer and songwriter who plays almost every night in the Valley. Tonight Wieser sits in as Grossman's sideman, and his performance is absolutely straight, playing bass on Grossman's songs and sometimes contributing a harmony or backing vocal. There's no trace of a punkish demeanor.

And then the next night Wieser's at Fatso's Pizza on North 32nd Street. He does a bunch of songs, his own and other people's. None has the punk sensibility he displayed two nights ago, and none has the seriousness he showed in accompanying Grossman. They're just bizarre.

So who is Gavan Wieser?
A wayward monk? A punk? A folk singer? A comedian? A tragedian? The man who wrote the geriatric punk anthem "Sun City Rocks"?

All of the above.
He's best-known for his work with One Foot in the Grave, the coffin-dodging punk group. The band has two quasi-classic albums out. But Wieser, the youngest member, is in the process of making an album of his own, and God (and possibly Wieser, too, but don't bet on it) only knows what that's going to sound like.

It's been a strange road, with an even stranger destination, for a Catholic kid from Pittsburgh who went from seminary school to a monastery in D.C., where he stayed from 1962 to 1968. He was two months away from being ordained as a Catholic priest when he quit.

What happened?
"Things were changing in the church--using English instead of Latin, for example--and I was at the forefront of that revolution. I was on civil rights marches while a monk, I was an antiwar protester. I met Martin Luther King. . . .

"As to how I left . . . I was working seven days in a camp for kids. I got back to the monastery, and they were having a ceremony for incoming monks. My robes were in my room on the fourth floor, and I was tired after working so much. I didn't want to go up there and get my robes, so I didn't. I was wearing shorts. Because of that, about 20 older members got up a petition to get me out. The father superior told me, shape up or ship out. I said, 'If that's the way you guys feel, I'm splitting.'"

He was 25.
How did it feel to go to secular life for the first time as an adult, after six years of monkhood?

"It was very hard. I spent a couple of years in terror. I didn't know what to do. I'd never known anything else. I didn't lose my virginity until I was 26 or 27."

Having started late, was it easy to pick things up?
He smiles. "Oh, yes. What I found out from the monastery was that it wasn't what I wanted."

After leaving, he fell away from Catholic and Christian beliefs, and his spirituality now inclines toward Zen.

What does a monastic dropout do for a job? "I went back to Pittsburgh and stumbled into a TV news job, just reading the news. I did that for a few years. I got married in 1970, and my wife got a job in North Carolina, so we moved there in 1976. She encouraged me to play music, which turned out to be the downfall of the marriage. But she gave me the kick in the ass to get myself going as a musician."

He got a band and took off on the road. From then until 1984 he was in four different bands, none too successful. "But I was on the road for 10 or 11 months of the year. It pretty much ended my marriage, that and the drinking and running around that went with what I was doing. When I wasn't on the road, I worked in a tire shop."

He moved to Phoenix in 1984, and met his second wife almost immediately. He went to work in her accounting business. He still works there.

In 1987, he started playing with bands around the Valley. He met JoDina, One Foot in the Grave's lead singer, and that led to his career as a punker.

"JoDina came in looking for a bass player. She just wanted to get some old people to be in a punk band. I had never played a lick of punk in my life, but I started listening to it. First I heard was 'Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child (He's a Bigfoot Baby All Covered With Fur),' and I loved it. Then I got into the classics--Ramones, Sex Pistols, Clash, all of that. I have a pretty extensive punk-rock collection now. One of my favorites is a German band called Totenhosen. It means 'dead pants.'"

JoDina recalls her punk initiation.
"My son's a standup comedian, and I saw all the fun he had onstage. But I'm shy. At Halloween, though, I wasn't shy, and I'd go punk dancing. I told my son, 'I want to be onstage, but I can't sing for shit, I can't act, I can't dance.' He said, 'Mom, you can be a punk rocker.' I wanted to get a band full of pissed-off women to sing nasty songs about our ex-husbands, but all the women I thought were fun weren't fun. . . .

"So I put an ad in the paper, and these old men answered it. But when I said the words 'punk rock,' 11 out of 12 ran away. The one who stayed was Gino, our drummer. (He's just left to pursue an acting career at the age of 80.) So I kept looking for others. If I saw an old guy in the supermarket, I'd go up to him and ask him if he could play an instrument. They all thought I was fucking nuts."

Why does she do it?
"My son says it's just so I can meet young guys. I date guys 28 years younger than me, so he's probably right. Actually, I am looking for a new boyfriend right now, and you can quote me on that."

She complains that, although she stage-dives regularly, the only time she's been groped was by a girl.

For four years, One Foot in the Grave simply practiced, once or twice every week. There were no gigs. JoDina was the second youngest member, being three years older than Wieser. The drummer, Gino Costa, and guitar player, Danny Walters, were both 74.

Finally, in 1991, Wieser was at an independent music conference in L.A., and he let people hear a tape the band had made. That got them a gig at the Arizona All-State Jam in the Phoenix warehouse district that was razed to make way for Bank One Ballpark.

"We played outdoors, out back of a produce warehouse. It was June, so you know it was hot. Dead Hot Workshop and Zig Zag Black played, too. It was amazing. Kids came up to touch Gino's hand like he was the pope or something. We were interviewed on all the news shows. We were in papers all over the country. Inside Edition featured us. So did Hard Copy. Gino got on Montel Williams, JoDina got on Sally Jessy. . . ."

They also appeared on Entertainment Tonight, which led to their first album, Lookin' Good! Who's Your Embalmer?, being released on Triple X records. Their second album, Old Farts, was put out by a German label which promptly went bankrupt.

Both of these albums, and the band that made them, have often been dismissed as a novelty entertainment, a joke that's funny once. Such condemnation is shallow. What makes One Foot in the Grave funny is that it's a genuinely good punk band. If you listened to the albums without knowing anything about them, you'd think you were listening to a bunch of East Coast kids. Their sound is somewhere between the Velvet Underground and the Violent Femmes, the band playing with laconic fury behind JoDina's flat, tuneless, Nicoesque vocals.

It's only when you listen to the lyrics that you realize that something's up. The Violent Femmes didn't write songs about golf carts, menopause or being old and cheating death. Imagine what might have been if the Sex Pistols had been fronted by Loudon Wainwright III instead of Johnny Rotten, and you have an idea of what Wieser and his cohorts sound like.

For the past four years, they've toured Germany, Holland and Austria. The band hasn't toured the United States. "We tried, but couldn't have made any money," Wieser explains. "Even in Europe, our money doesn't come from the door, but from selling tee shirts and CDs. Locally, we haven't given up. We're going to try another push this fall and see what happens."

They haven't played much in Arizona. "It's hard to make money here," Wieser says. "Everybody knows us and likes us, but around here if you charge at the door nobody comes."

He laughs.
"A prophet is without honor in his own land."

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: bgraham@newtimes.com

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