Escape from Allentown
Well we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the ?factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re ?killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line
— Billy Joel, “Allentown”
The first time I met this character called Beardo, he was on the couch of a Hollywood Hills mansion, puffing a joint the size of a kaiser roll. Skinny, with a huge Afro and an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed across his chest, he resembled a member of The Warriors or a dude Charles Bronson would shoot in Death Wish. The only thing I knew about him at the time was that he played lead guitar in Whitestarr — a self-styled Southern rock band from Malibu Beach whose lead singer, Cisco Adler, had achieved a certain degree of fame by dating young actresses and baring his pendulous testicles to the paparazzi. The band had also starred in a short-lived reality show, but then, who hasn’t?
Beardo’s new batch of songs, collected for now on an (untitled) EP that he is currently giving away free online and at shows, is both idiotic and genius. They are an attempt at the kind of fist-pumping, beer-chugging, antisocial teen anthems sorely missing from the current musical landscape. The sound is a blend of the Ramones’ comic-book punk merged with Run DMC/Fatboys rap and sing-along choruses about getting high and feeling like a freak. Not likely to win over many critics, but with some fine tuning, they could well end up on heavy rotation in unsupervised tract homes and druggie parks throughout suburbia.
When I show up to meet Beardo at his modest Van Nuys apartment on a recent Monday, a nude, 60-something man with a small towel draped over his genitalia opens the door. His smile fades and he tells me I’m looking for the unit next door (am I?), and moments later I am greeted by a fully clothed Beardo looking far more coherent than when I saw him backstage at the Roxy last December, cradling a half-empty bottle of tequila. He seems to have, at least temporarily, curtailed his well-documented hedonism in favor of some intense productivity. Besides writing and recording an ever-expanding catalog of music, he also makes music videos for each song and posts them on YouTube and his MySpace page. “The Internet definitely seems like the future of music,” Beardo says. “I’ve been getting nearly a thousand plays a day and I’ve sold a few hundred shirts in the last couple of weeks, which is pretty amazing since I have no one behind me. It’s just me.”
Beardo recently returned from a cross-country tour opening for his friend, Los Angeles glam rapper Mickey Avalon, and he seems genuinely buoyed by the positive response. “I was nervous,” he says. “It was my first tour as a front person and nobody even knew who the hell I was. I thought they would just boo me. But the kids were so cool. There were 300 to 800 people a night. The places were packed. And I was giving away my CDs. I gave away over a thousand of them. And a lot of those kids have sent me e-mails. They’re fans now.”
But for all this newfound optimism, Beardo readily admits to moments of anxiety about finances and his future. Like so many seeking stardom, he arrived in Los Angeles from somewhere else, bolstered by a near-certain belief in the inevitability of his success. That was seven years ago. Since then, he has experienced the typical roller coaster of near successes and dashed hopes. “I thought joining Whitestarr was going to be my ticket out of poverty,” he says. “I was up in Malibu and we were on TV with a record deal.”
He says the Beardo project actually started as a kind of joke, songs composed for enjoyment to counteract his mounting frustrations. “People would tell me, ‘You can’t say that in a song, it will never get on the radio,’?” he says. “And I would say, ‘I’m never gonna be on the radio, homie. I’ve already been here seven years and nothing’s happening. I was on a TV show and the money’s all gone. I don’t even know where it went, maybe for the tour buses.’?”
Not that being poor is anything new for Beardo. He was born to teenage parents in Harlem and grew up in a ghetto of the grim, postindustrial burg of Allentown, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. “It was one of the worst places you would ever want to grow up,” he says matter-of-factly. “There were shootings everywhere. At night I would just go home and practice my guitar and study music.”
After he briefly ran afoul of the law with a botched guitar-store heist, Beardo’s love of music provided a ticket out of the ghetto in the way of a scholarship to study guitar at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. And while the notion of a guitar prodigy versed in music theory and modern jazz may not jibe with the more primordial rock anthems he’s been recording lately, it’s not as odd as it may seem. Beardo’s first exposure to music was the hip-hop that rocked his predominantly black neighborhood, mixed with his stepfather’s old Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith albums. And when he was finally old enough to drive, Beardo says he began heading to punk clubs in nearby Bethlehem, where he fell under the sway of bands like the Misfits and Slayer.
“All these songs I’m writing now are things that are totally in me,” Beardo explains. “Partying and getting wasted has been a big influence on me, punk rock was a huge influence. I feel like this is music for kids just like I was — with no money, alienated, doing drugs and listening to rock & roll because that’s the only way they know how to escape.”
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