Denver musician Eric Bard's goals are humble. "Basically, what I'm after," he says candidly, "is a cheap laugh."
The means by which Bard achieves his ends are certainly novel: He uses drums and a saxophone, often played at the same time, to complement his wry brand of beat poetry. This may not be a recipe for superstardom, but thanks to his unique approach and staunch, do-it-yourself attitude, he's carved a strange niche for himself on the fringes of the local music scene.
Bard, an articulate, soft-spoken 41-year-old, became a solo act in the spring of 1996 under appropriately unusual circumstances. "I started out in a trio," he recalls, "but one guy got kidney failure, one guy got sort of religious, then another guy came in and started drinking heavily." His personnel problems reached their apex prior to a talent-show appearance at the Unitarian church Bard attends; moments before they were due to appear, his troublesome bandmates quit. But instead of canceling the date, Bard went on stage by himself. "I just said, 'Heck with it,'" he notes. "When it went over so well, I started doing solo shows."
While Bard's current style is new for him, music is not. He grew up in a musical family--his father led a Front Range Dixieland group in the Seventies, and his sister makes a living as a percussionist in New York City. For his part, he was a member of several punk bands that never made it past the basement-rehearsal stage during the early Eighties--and when he wasn't playing, he was attending live gigs. "I was the punk geophysicist," he divulges, making reference to his day job of the last seventeen years.
Punk, however, is not the only driving force behind Bard's current musical project. The death of Robert Kennedy, which took place shortly before the Bard family moved to Fort Collins in 1968, also continues to inspire him. Bard, who'd gotten the opportunity to shake the outspoken senator's hand a few years earlier, says that the assassination "left an indelible impression on me. It let me know that you have to say what you feel when you feel it about what's right and what's wrong."
The off-kilter performance format Bard has developed gives him a chance to do just that. An example of his humorous but pointed compositions is "Zippy the Pinhead," an ode to the cartoon hydrocephalic and self-confessed "confused consumerist." The song's goofy yet biting lyrics take a stab at America's "marketing mania" and "mall madness"--just two of the topics that Bard believes are ripe for satire. Others include politics, corporate greed, materialism and even romance, which is skewered in "Your Love," a speedy, obtuse number about a character who's "feeling like a toddler after too much pop and candy/Like a hypochondriac at Kaiser Permanente."
"I want to make fun of the Nineties," Bard declares. "It's the most exciting decade of my life, but it certainly is fun to make fun of the things that people take so seriously."
Bard is just as willing to take potshots at lighter subjects, however. For instance, "Indoor Plague" was penned after a recent Boulder concert where, he says, "the audience reeked." So noxious was the aroma in the room that "I kept hoping someone would light up a smoke" in violation of the city's well-known no-smoking policy. His lyrics sport a chorus of "B.O., sweat and farts" and encourage nightlifers to "use a cheap aftershave, light up a cig."
As Bard concedes, such verbal punches are aimed at a target somewhat south of the cerebellum. With little prompting, he describes his sense of humor as "juvenile." He adds, "I try to keep it fairly simple. I'll throw in a few polysyllabic words now and then, but most of the time it's pretty base."
The music that accompanies these deceptively entertaining ditties is what Bard calls "beat acid jazz--a mixture of urban beat and beatnik." Live, Bard has ample time to display his respectable bebop drum chops, and he occasionally embellishes the rhythm with sax noodlings. "It took a while to juggle the sax and drums," Bard says, "but I realized this is what I'm going to have to do to express myself." While Bard's horn skills may not dazzle jazz fiends--"I need a little work," he admits--it's not technical expertise he's after. "I'm a minstrel, I'm a bard. If I can get a cheap laugh out of every few lines of my poetry--well, that's perfect. I'd prefer to have them chuckling here and there and getting a few laughs at themselves or their neighbors or families."
At a recent performance at Rebis Galleries, a South Broadway bookstore/art house where Bard plays every six weeks or so, his own family was on hand to lend support and encouragement. Wife Celia filmed the presentation, and son Nicky, age five, joined his dad for "Mommy Help Me," a song about getting your penis caught in your zipper that was inspired by the youngest Bard. As Eric lays down a bebop beat and waxes poetic about this gender-specific dilemma, Nicky scratches away on violin, keeping solid time while watching himself on the video monitor at the back of the room.
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The small crowd that has braved the elements on this chilly winter night listens attentively. "Nobody has ever walked out while I'm performing," Bard claims. "Most people walk out before I play. I think they think I'm going to be loud."
The art aficionados in attendance on this night, most of whom are in their twenties and thirties, seem pleased to have stayed. So, too, is Rebis co-owner Ken Debacker. "The people here appreciate what Eric does," he says. "He's kind of like the house band now."
Such a designation isn't making Bard rich; in fact, he doesn't even charge for his Rebis appearances. But that's not why he enjoys taking the stage. In his view, playing "gets me on edge with that 'fight or flight' response. It makes me feel exhilarated...kind of young.
"It's given me a chance to say 'I can have fun, too,'" he concludes. "And I don't have to pay someone else to do it.