Rich Wilhelm

The Dead Milkmen! At Laurel Hill!

In Uncategorized on September 7, 2014 at 3:44 am

The Dead Milkmen wrapped up their Laurel Hill Cemetery concert just 24 hours ago. I have spent a good part of today contemplating what a profound experience last night turned out to be.

Yes, I just used the words “profound” and “Dead Milkmen” in relation to each other. Not a shred of irony was used in the construction of those sentences.

The Dead Milkmen concert at Laurel Hill Cemetery last evening was a profound experience for me. But, I’m thinking, not just me.

When the show was first announced in July, I very briefly thought that I might be the sole inhabitant of the center of a Venn Diagram showing fans of Philadelphia’s favorite satirical punks and the city’s most celebrated cemetery, where I happen to be a volunteer tour guide. How undeniably, blissfully wrong I was about that! Best thing I’ve been wrong about ever.

I realized the error of my thinking within minutes of sharing Laurel Hill’s Facebook post that the Dead Milkmen would be playing. Ecstatic comments popped up immediately from Dead Milkmen fans who also happen to love Laurel Hill in the way that I do. It was semi-jokingly suggested that I ought to do an LHC tour the afternoon of the show. But that particular joke was, in fact, an excellent idea and within an hour I had announced through my Facebook page, that I’d be doing a pre-show tour.

Let me stop for a moment to describe my history with both the Dead Milkmen and Laurel Hill Cemetery. Way back in 1985, Dean Clean, Joe Jack Talcum, Dave Blood and Rodney Anonymous released their first Dead Milkmen album, Big Lizard in My Back Yard. Soon thereafter, I journeyed from my dorm room at Temple University, via the Broad Street Subway, to one of the now-legendary Sounds of Market record stores in Center City Philadelphia. There, as the clerks exhorted customers not to go to mall record stores, I purchased my own personal vinyl copy of Big Lizard. It would spend many happy hours on my turntable in Room 232, Johnson Hall, blaring once- and future-classics like “Bitchin’ Camaro,” “Tiny Town” and “Serrated Edge”–the best song about Charles Nelson Reilly ever–for my friends and me. Good times. No, great times.

I followed the Dead Milkmen through their next few albums and their classic “Punk Rock Girl” but never managed to see the band live. Until last night.

Which brings me to Laurel Hill Cemetery. Founded in 1836, LHC is a National Historic Landmark, one of the few cemeteries in the country to have that distinction. It covers well over 70 acres in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia and is filled with unique memorials to both well-remembered and little-known Philadelphians. Though I have been a cemetery tourist for years, I managed to not visit LHC until 2012, but I’ve made up for that by becoming one of the cemetery’s approximately two dozen volunteer tour guides. I’ve since given several tours, showing the cemetery to first-time and repeat visitors alike.

I flat out love Laurel Hill and the staff and volunteers associated with it.

Laurel Hill also happens to be the perfect venue for a Dead Milkmen concert. The guys in the band certainly knew that. They love the place as much as the LHC staff and volunteers do.

Now you’re up to speed and I can tell you about the tour and the show and just how profound the whole thing was. My tour ran from about 4:20 until the fairly intense heat and humidity melted us and we fled back to the air conditioned gatehouse before heading down to the show. I had a total of eight people on the tour. My wife Donna and our Phoenixville-area friends Jennifer, Tina, Laura and Laura were there. In addition, we had three serious Dead Milkmen fans from out of town–husband and wife Ed and Grace from York, Pennsylvania; and Sean, who had taken the train down from Boston.

The tour was great fun–yes, cemetery tours can be fun! Thanks to something I had learned from another LHC guide, Kerry Bryan, I was able to show the tour group a milkmen-relevant gravesite–that of Mary Engle Pennington, “the mother of refrigerated transportation.” Pennington, who is in halls of fame devoted to both women and chemists, invented technology that made refrigerated boxcars, and thus the transportation of milk and beer over great distances, possible.

Everyone got to talking during the tour. The Phoenixville friends had a new experience to share and the very obvious shared interests-the Dead Milkmen and old cemeteries-made for easy conversation that led to new friendships.

All of this was reinforced by the concert itself. More than 900 fans came to see the Dead Milkmen and opening act S.T.A.R.W.O.O.D. Just walking among the crowd, I got the feeling that, while everyone was just there to have a good time listening to the music, there was also this sense of what a cool and unique experience seeing the Dead Milkmen among the tombs and mausoleums was.

And, while this isn’t necessarily meant to be a music review, I can assure you that the Dead Milkmen rocked, playing many beloved classics, along with a few very promising tunes from their upcoming album, Pretty Music for Pretty People.

I think what will linger with me about last night is how the venue, the audience, the bands, and even the spirits of Laurel Hill’s permanent residents all merged into an experience that we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives. And, though some people might find the idea of a punk rock concert in a cemetery to be disrespectful, I beg to differ. The founders of Laurel Hill built it for the living, as well as the dead. Those of us at the show were simply extensions of our weird Victorian ancestors, who would bring picnics to Laurel Hill and other cemeteries. In the end, both the tour I gave and the concert were celebrations of life in all its odd glory, as well as an opportunity to build on a community that revels in the eccentricities of life.

Plus, it was all just plain cool, in the best sense of the word.

The Dead Milkmen concert at Laurel Hill Cemetery was a profound experience for me. But, I’m thinking, not just for me.

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Patrick F. O'Donnell

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