In Heaven There Is No Beer

Polkacide is San Francisco's longest-running musical in-joke

When Polkacide plays live, punks, hippie chicks, and grandparents alike drink way too much beer, polka terribly, and go home with mad grins stamped on their faces. The band -- a San Francisco institution for 13 years -- bastardizes both the classic polka wurst and the thin broth that Lawrence Welk served. Think beefsteak, beer, and kielbasa. Think sexual predator types in lederhosen inciting a thrashing audience to holler: "I like to hear the people shout/ Polka, beer, and sauerkraut!"

After years without releasing a single song, the group supposedly has a new album in the works. Polkacide is not a proud band. They'll play anywhere, for anybody: The weirder the gig, the happier the four-piece and its assorted hangers-on. They've played the hallways of Laguna Honda Hospital, the Miss Nude America pageant at the Civic Center, and two gigs at Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert. Several weeks ago Polkacide joined an accordion festival in Cotati. And even now, especially in the German beer-friendly month of October, the gigs are still consistently odd -- including several Oktoberfest shows at Gordon Biersch, Berkeley's Jupiter, and Walnut Creek's Faultline.

At punk shows, weddings, and the occasional old folks home, Polkacide is serious fun in a town that tends to take music and scenestering way too seriously. Here, Polkacide is a tradition, drunkenly lurching on ever since their first gig at the legendary Mabuhay Gardens in 1985. When lead polkateer Ward Abronski started the band, he bought a stack of old polka favorites from a local sheet music store. But the musicians in the group -- a loose configuration of jazz players, punkers, and flat-out rockers -- tweaked the traditional sound into something both more aggressive and more musically free: The saxophones honk; the guitars and drums grind and pound faster, louder, harder. It's true cacophony, with a beat.

Abronski -- a tall, lanky, pop-eyed individual with a gray halo of Einstein hair -- leads the pack with sax and vocals. Clarinetist Neil Kaitner (aka the Basa when he's in lederhosen), bassist Alistair Shanks, and drummer Johnny Jack round out the core of the band. A revolving cast of five to 10 assorted delinquents helps out at live shows. Together, they make tubas blat, accordions wheeze, and saxophone squeals crash into off-melody trombone. "If you threw a polka band off the Empire State Building and they hit the ground and got up laughing -- that's what we sound like," says Shanks.

Nineteenth-century Bohemian beer-hall music and abrasive, energetic noise might not seem like an obvious match. But the combination works mostly because punk and polka share three important goals: getting people drunk, getting people dancing, and getting people drunker. Everywhere the band goes -- the defunct Chi Chi Club, the expired I-Beam, Oktoberfests, and not a few of their friends' funerals -- the audience dances, first the punks, then the clubbers, and recently a whole new crew of barely post-pubescent polka fans. The whole mess -- bodies flailing and flying -- looks like something went wrong on the Muppets' set.

Several weeks ago, the band did a Sunday night benefit for "Whorechurch" -- a semiregular evening of fucked-up art, performance oddities, and sex workers -- at the almost swank Embassy Club. Located uncomfortably close to the DEA's Federal Building offices, the Embassy Club provided the kind of space where Polkacide's shtick works best. Amid casual nakedness, queer activists baking pot brownies, and a bizarre lesson in flower arranging for buttholes (don't ask), the Polkacide crew looked almost normal in their lederhosen and boots. Abronski surveyed the scene and launched into "The Duck (Chicken) Dance." As the beat rose to a frenetic pace, the audience members suddenly, almost involuntarily, mimicked Abronski's awkward movements. Yes, they were flapping their arms and wiggling their butts, and no, they didn't care who was watching. When the beer-sodden polka stampede charged the floor, anyone who wasn't dancing had two choices: flap or fly.

Abronski swears the whole thing started as a joke. In the mid-'80s, the Deaf Club -- a late S.F. venue for hearing-impaired people -- asked a friend of Abronski's to put together a musical act for the club's 50th anniversary. The band had to be loud enough to produce vibrations that the deaf folks could dance to, but the club wouldn't tolerate a punk group. Abronski's girlfriend, Heyak, jokingly suggested a polka band. "The light bulb [went] off!" says Abronski and, "Heyak goes, 'Oh, no.' "

Abronski rounded up a bizarre troupe of musicians for the gig. Members of punk bands of the time -- the Sluglords, the Geeks, Tragic Mulatto -- as well as players from acts like the Rova Saxophone Quartet and the San Francisco Boys Choir all contributed talent. The incipient group practiced for three months for the show. Then, barely a week before the gig the Deaf Club canceled, opting for a more respectable, polkaless picnic. But Polkacide was having too much fun to let one mishap get in the way. They scheduled a date at the Fab Mab and were an instant smash with that club's punk contingency.

The polkateers were soon all over town, and within a few gigs they'd picked up a gaggle of fans that would follow them to every show. A couple of petticoated punkettes called themselves the Polka Sluts and cancanned onstage. Somehow the group ended up on national TV, if only for five seconds of a short feature on the oddity of San Francisco punk rock on the CBS nightly news. They even appeared on the Playboy Channel.

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