#301: The Rockers

March 31st, 2014

The lead guitarist leaped off the stage, continuing his thrashing among the crowd. Aiming his electric guitar like a machine gun emerging from his crotch, he strafed the crowd with imaginary bullets.

He pumped a fist in the air to the beat. The crowd packed in the deliberately divey Rogers Park bar screamed in approval, pumping their own fists in time.

This. Is. Polka.

“Where oh where is my blue-haired lady? She drives me crazy! She makes me lazy!” Polkaholics lead singer “Dandy” Don Hedeker, screamed into the mic once back on stage.

They play up the dive aspects at the Red Line Tap, from the drink specials ($8 for an “Ike Turner,” described as a shot of Hennessy and a slap in the face) to the never-covered bathroom graffiti (a female friend photographed a delightful cartoon of two rabbits fucking in the ladies room. Both rabbits looked disappointed with what was happening.)

A polka band doesn’t look like it would fit there. Neither does Dandy Don.

Hedeker, a biostatistics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has massive muttonchops, a decided comb-over and thick-framed glasses. At that bar made for metal, he was wearing lederhosen, a polka-dotted vest, an Alpine hat covered with buttons and long socks that said BEER on the sides.

The socks went to his knees. The lederhosen didn’t.

But when Dandy Don, bassist Blitz Linster and drummer Stylin’ Steve Glover take the stage in their lederhosen and dotted vests, the crowd screeched. They are rock stars and this divey bar their perfect venue.

“If you think this is a joke-a, hey! We search. And destroy. And POLKA!” Hedeker screamed to the mic.

Thrashing, wailing, screaming, fist pumping and never ever ever losing the beat, the “Pimps of Polka” got the crowd moving as headliner of the Red Line Tap’s “Halfway to Oktoberfest” bash. The band has been around for 16 years with slight changes to the cast. They shock not by being polka, but by being good.

Their musicianship is excellent, their joy contagious. There’s a gimmicky aspect there, sure. But people nod and smile at gimmicks and then move on. They don’t come back, not for 16 years, not to dive bars and Oktoberfest unbirthdays and the yearly New Year’s show at the German cultural center on Western.

A gimmick isn’t what keeps this fringe audience of tattooed punks and mustache-clad old-timers tracking down odd appearances by a statistician’s polka band.

I traded a few words with Hedeker before the show. I asked when they were going on. We talked about the New Year’s show. He told me how many drummers and bass players there have been over the years. And then we talked about biostatistics, about his work studying mortality rates and smoking complications and the other numbers behind our health.

“What’s great about statistics is it touches on so many other sciences,” the rocker in lederhosen said, a small excitement burning behind the thick-framed glasses, a smile between the muttonchops.

That’s where I want to leave it. Not as a story of rock, or even one of polka. I want to leave this as the story of a man who loves what he loves, no matter what others think of it. He loves polka. And he loves biostatistics. He takes the nerdiest, least awesome things in the world and polishes them until they shine. Until they rock.

That’s what keeps us coming back.

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