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Luke Schmaltz is standing in the middle of Bender's Tavern at 2 p.m., a shot of Jägermeister in his fist and his T-shirt hitched up around his armpits. A jagged, eleven-year-old scar snakes across the left side of his back. As Schmaltz moves around to give a better view, the pale tissue twists and ripples beneath his shoulder blade.
"There's where he stabbed me," says Schmaltz, Bender's general manager and the frontman of Denver punk mainstay King Rat. "At first I thought someone threw a beer on my back. I thought beer was running down my pants and into my shoes. Then I realized what happened. It wasn't beer. My shoes were filling up with blood."
In 1999, during an attempt to keep six Hell's Angels from kicking in the head of a friend who had committed the apparent crime of handing out fliers for an upcoming AIDS benefit, Schmaltz stopped an oncoming knife. With his rib cage. The scene of the fight was the now-shuttered Cricket on the Hill, a bar never known for its gentility. While Schmaltz's drinking buddy, Modern Drunkard publisher Frank Rich, threw himself at four of the Angels, Schmaltz concentrated on their leader. And he was making quick work of the guy — that is, until a new gang pledge thought he'd get on the fast track to membership by shivving Schmaltz in the back.
"The knife punctured my lung," Schmaltz explains. "When I got to the hospital, they said, 'We're going to have to operate on you.' I didn't pass out or anything, though. My girlfriend at the time, she freaked out. She took it harder than I did. I only had half a beer before the fight, but I was so charged."
Even back then, Schmaltz was used to taking abuse and feeding on it. A diehard kickboxer in his teens — with the crooked nose to show for it, he gleefully points out — he was headed toward professional competition when an epiphany at the age of twenty set him on a new path.
"I published a book of poetry," he remembers. "At the time, kickboxing was my thing; that's how I defined myself. But I always had this literary side, which probably came from my mom, who's a crazy English professor. And I was kind of sick of getting my nose broken, so I decided to quit fighting and let this literary gene express itself.
"But poetry wasn't physical. And I needed something physical."
Luckily, Schmaltz was able to find something that combined poetry and physicality: punk rock. Armed with an electric guitar and a half-stack instead of the requisite acoustic, he started playing solo sets at the Cricket's rowdy open-mike nights in 1994. Influenced by the gruff anthems of one of his heroes, Social Distortion's Mike Ness, as well as the bar-stool grit of Charles Bukowksi, Schmaltz soon wound up gathering a band around him. Dubbed King Rat, the group unleashed a crude, potent mix of hardcore and hard rock at a time when pop punk ruled the scene.
"I dream songs," Schmaltz says. "And when you make them real, those are the songs that really kick people in the balls. The ones that you dream are the ones other people connect to on a subconscious level. And those songs are always easy as fucking pie. Sometimes they're not even three chords. They're two chords. I'm not the greatest singer. I don't fucking know shit. But when you really mean what you sing, you reach out and touch people."
Schmaltz will, however, 'fess up to a selfish motive behind playing in a band. "When I play music, I just feel better," he says and then laughs. "Better than when I'm mopping the floor at Bender's. Here I don't call myself the general manager. I call myself the general janitor."
With that backbreaking work ethic and a growing fan base, King Rat kept hammering away at any beer-soaked stage that would have it. Despite numerous lineup changes — Schmaltz estimates around fourteen members have served time in the group during its fifteen-year history — the unhip, ramshackle outfit began making albums, playing raucous live shows and building a name for itself (not to mention coming within an inch of losing its frontman on the sticky floor of the Cricket in '99). By the time King Rat's ass-kicking fifth album, Duct Tape and Dreams, was released in 2005, Schmaltz and guitarist Mike Makkay, bassist Anthony Delilli and drummer Doug Hopper found themselves deserving of a hard-won title: punk-rock survivors.
Schmaltz's thick skin, though, was about to be punctured again. In 2006, both of his parents were sent to prison for attempting to influence a judge in an eminent-domain case; in the ensuing turmoil, his wife walked out on him. It was King Rat that kept him alive. Literally.
"Those guys held it together. Those guys held me together," Schmaltz recalls. "When I got divorced, I fucking unraveled. It was like taking a ball of string and holding the end of it and watching it drop. I couldn't do anything but watch gravity work. I didn't know shit about how vulnerable I was. I didn't know shit about how close to death I was. I was gonna Cobain it, dude. My parents were in prison. My wife left me. I had the fucking gun in my mouth, and I wanted to blow my brains out. But they talked me down. Those guys in the band saved me.