Punk disgust for hippies has rarely been expressed as viscerally as it is by the Dead Milkmen in the song “The Thing That Only Eats Hippies.” But speaking by phone from his home in south Philadelphia, Milkmen frontman Rodney Anonymous muses that hippies might not be so bad after all.
“I’d rather have hippies than rednecks,” he says, laughing. “Hippies aren’t gonna burn a cross, but they might throw some shade your way because the feng shui of your house causes disharmony in their drum circle. It’s like hobbits: If you were living in the Tolkien universe, the hobbits would annoy the shit out of you. They’re smoking their leaves, they’re eating their ’shrooms, they’re drinking. It’s like hippie behavior. I think Tolkien predicted hippies. I’d much rather have hobbits than the frickin’ armies of Mordor.”
Anonymous, born Rodney Linderman, has spent most of his life in the Philadelphia area, where the Dead Milkmen formed in 1983. From “Tiny Town,” the first song off the band’s 1985 debut album, Big Lizard in My Backyard, to 2017’s Welcome to the End of the World, the act has used its music to rabble-rouse.
“Tiny Town” and “Stuart” — just two of many Dead Milkmen tunes that punk-rock geeks know word for word — tend to induce both moshing and gut-busting laughter, but they’re also deeply depressing. As Anonymous tells it, closed-minded Americans really do drive around beating up punks and minorities while worrying about a homosexual apocalypse, as detailed on the band’s 1988 breakout, Beelzebubba.
“The sad thing is, those [bigots] are everywhere, and they’re absolutely serious,” Anonymous laments. For example, the song “Stuart” is based on a fan who “started talking to me about ‘The queers are coming to do things to the soil’ and all that.
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“Most of what I write is just something somebody said to me. I’ve developed that skill,” he explains. “People say clever things, and they tend not to remember what they said. I do, and I just take that and make it into songs.”
He’s always shared songwriting duties with bandmate Joe Genaro. The two have known each other for nearly four decades, having bonded in school over being quirky short kids with similar interests.
“I used to eat at a lunch table with him, and he wouldn’t speak, which I thought was interesting,” Anonymous recalls. “He would invent these games to amuse himself. They were just weird. At one point, Joe invented a game based on the music industry, like a payola game, where you paid money to race songs up and down the charts. He was playing the game with a neighbor and needed band names; he was really good at world-building and backstories, and he had a band in the game called the Milkmen who went punk and became the Dead Milkmen.
“To this day, Joe bends the truth about where the name came from. I know he took it from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon [and the character Milkman Dead],” Anonymous says. “There are a lot of really dumb musicians, like Sting, who are not intellectuals but pretend to be intellectuals. Joe actually does the opposite, like he’s ashamed of being an intellectual.”
After decades of writing and performing together, Anonymous and Genaro are like brothers, for better and worse.
“I’ve known him forever, and any relationship that long, you either want to sing the person’s praises or you wanna strangle ’em,” Anonymous says. “We can argue as only best friends do. As long as he doesn’t try to play any music on the van radio, I tend to be okay with him. He probably thinks the same thing about me.”
Anonymous — who is proud of his thick Philly accent — finds himself firmly committed to the City of Brotherly Love and also regularly irked by it. In years past, he says, the music scene there helped inspire oddball but infectious groups like Ween and Dr. Dog, because if you didn’t have something musically unique, the Philly attitude was, “We’ll kill you.”
“That’s why the shows were great,” he adds. “We didn’t have that cookie-cutter thing, so the next band would get up and be weird. And we had tons of female-fronted bands at a time when no one else did. Maybe it was that whole bubble thing: You had a vacuum, because nobody was coming down here telling bands how to shape their sound. We also had an actual underground scene with rough edges. It was just a weirdo-centric thing. We don’t have much of that left anymore.”
The Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl” got some airplay on MTV in the late ’80s and again on Beavis and Butt-Head, and all of the band’s early albums (recorded with now-deceased bassist Dave Blood between 1985 and 1995) were on the relatively major labels Restless and Hollywood. Still, Anonymous describes the Dead Milkmen as a fringe act that “didn’t have that much of an impact.”
“Years ago, my friend MC Lars said he always liked us because we never sold out, so I spend pretty much every waking hour of my life trying to protect the legacy, trying to say, ‘Let’s not do that,’” he says, referring to cash-ins like corporate endorsements and certain festivals.
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The Dead Milkmen’s history is filled with colorful lore — including a story about fans in Colorado Springs tearing apart the Fine Arts Center back in the day.
“The crowd got really riled up and started ripping the stuffing out of the seats and threw it up on stage,” Anonymous remembers. “It wound up being a news story, like ‘Riot at Punk Rock Show.’ This woman actually said, ‘They weren’t musicians — they were hooligans.’
“The best thing about it is that we were the dullest group of people,” he says. “The only time we ever got close to a fight on that tour was when a small argument broke out after a show over some passages in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I’m not kidding. And I was like, ‘Oh! This is everything I thought rock and roll would be: guys sitting around reading books.’”