Kids in Philly
A little change of pace today….a long almost magazine-like article on one of my favorite bands, and one of the driving forces behind it. These days I’m lucky to call Serge Bielanko a friend, and we recently sat down together, pandemically zoom/speaking, for a wide ranging discussion on his band and his life in general.
Meeting the guys who make the music you love is tricky. I’ve frequently been disappointed when they turn out to be assholes. But Serge is, to use a Springsteen-ian term, a cool rockin’ Daddy. An all around good dude.
The article is free. Please pass it around. And by all means listen to this music. Marah is one of the best American rock and roll bands to emerge in the 21st century. And Serge one of our best writers.
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"We were able to hit a small amount of people very hard"
A while ago Facebook had one of those things that people were asked to do. Ten records that changed your life. Or something like that. You were challenged to post the album cover....nothing else.....and to list one a day. You also were supposed to tag all your friends to do the same. You know the drill.
Pretty soon my feed was filled with this stuff. Much of it was routine. The deadheads would list 9 Grateful Dead albums and some obscure Jerry solo record. Metal guys would go all in on Priest and Maiden. The classic rock guys would be Beatles / Stones.....or Stones / Beatles. Pink Floyd and AC/DC were listed about as many times as they are played on the radio, which means constantly. It was all pretty routine and harmless, and at least we weren't arguing over politics.
And then I got tagged.
This is my wheelhouse, bro. I ain't gonna just slough this one off. I had to deep-dive....and I agonized over this, in retrospect way more than I should have because nobody really gives a shit what gibberish you post on Facebook, but still. If I could just change ONE LIFE!
I was determined to be both honest and weird...and to once and for all show the world that as much as I love "Back in Black" or "Dark Side of the Moon", all these records make me want to do now is stab myself in the eye with knitting needles. If they changed my life at all, it's because they were so overplayed they forced me to turn off the fucking radio.
I was in trouble from the start, because my first 2 choices were Who records.
"Quadrophenia" and "Who's Next". Not exactly unknown to classic rock radio programmers. "Behind Blue Eyes" is probably played more than "Wish You Were Here" and "Sweet Home Alabama" combined.
But that's not my problem. Pete Townshend has been my idol and muse since I was 16 and if you don't like it you can piss off. These records were and remain the Bible to my religion, and their places on my list was secure.
Woody Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Ballads" and Richard and Linda Thompson's "Shoot Out the Lights" and "The Band" (the brown album). I was flexing my muscles here for sure, but still. These were groundbreaking records, made by groundbreaking artists.
Here it comes.
And then it was "Kids in Philly" by Marah.
"We had no idea what we were doing"
"Kids in Philly" was the 2nd record by a band born in Conshohocken and raised in Philadelphia. Marah was led by 2 dynamic frontmen brothers, Dave and Serge Bielanko. Latchkey neighborhood weirdos raised by a single mother, they weren't aware of the rules so they broke the shit out of them. The record was recorded on an 8 track machine above an auto garage in South Philadelphia in 2000, and somehow sounded like absolutely nothing I'd ever heard before, and managed to encompass my entire record collection at the same time. It was half Mummers parade, half wild redemptive Sunday church service. "We had no idea what we were doing", remembers Serge. Asked if they would have listened if anybody tried to tell them, he laughed. "No".
Everybody who heard the record had their minds blown, including heavyweights like Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, author Nick Hornby, and Stephen King, who called them "the best band in America that nobody knows". And therein lies the rub. Because if a record falls in the forest and only a few famous white guys hear it...well....you know how that goes.
Marah later went on to feature Springteen on one of their records, and joined him onstage at Giant's Stadium for a wild version of "Raise Your Hand". Bruce joined them onstage numerous times as well....and between this and that Stephen King quote you'd think these guys were on the cusp of.....and then Serge interrupted me on our zoom call and said "I never thought we were on the cusp of shit.....Bruce could have cut a Marah infomercial and we would have sold 9 records...we were in that last wave rolling in from the old school.....albums......that stuff....and then it all stopped."
But where did it start?
"I'm not sure if somebody from there can love it the way I did"
--Serge Bielanko on Philadelphia
"My brother was the vessel", Serge says today. "I was in the band because he was. I'd never be in another band. I'd never make a solo record. I can't remember the last time I wrote a song. But I was definitely hitched to Dave's wagon." He smiles. "'Cause I was thinking that I ain't gonna let my fucking little brother do this without me...."
Dave Bielanko was the guitarist in a trio...the rhythm section already had the name Marah. He coaxed his big brother Serge into joining. At the time Serge was delivering auto-parts for $6 an hour, so he didn't exactly agonize over the decision. "We discovered that we were really good at riffing and making songs up", Serge says.
And so they were off.
Philadelphia was barely a dozen miles from home, but when Serge moved there it felt like another world. He "instantly fell in love with everything about the city. The good and the bad. It was inspiring in every possible way. I listen back to our first few records and they are basically all love songs to the city."
And when they brought those songs to the stage, all hell broke loose. Well, sometimes.
"We had great nights but you can't forget the Tuesday nights in Green Bay where we played to 3 people, and just shrugged and came out and played so hard you could see them get nervous....backing up when I jumped off the stage to sing in their faces....and they'd come up to us after the show and go "what the fuck was that? That was the most incredible thing I've ever seen..."
"We were able to hit a small amount of people very hard", Serge says. "Over and over", he says, people would say to us "I can't believe you're not bigger" and it used to annoy me sometimes because I'd say "dude I can't believe YOU'RE here. Don't think we have any regrets."
He went on. "Just because we met Bruce Springsteen doesn't mean I wanted to BE Bruce Springsteen. I was the fat kid who wouldn't show up to the Little League game and nobody would say 'shit, he's not here..',you know what I mean?"
In other words, he felt like he needed to prove it all night.
The band would take the stage with the "Rocky" theme song blaring over the PA, open a vein, and play until all the blood had run out. Sweat-drenched and beer-soaked, and at a volume so high that even Springsteen's ears were ringing when he played a few songs with them one night in Monmouth NJ ("your amps are so LOUD!"). Serge would sing from the crowd.....standing on chairs. Dave would hover above it all on top of the speaker cabinet. It was finely tuned chaos, and frequently would end with an unreleased song called "Reservation Girl", a song Serge wrote “…probably stoned….in high school on the back of a math test". This was how good this band was. One of their most beloved songs was never officially released on a record. The song Bruce jammed on when he joined them onstage in Monmouth? "Reservation Girl".
"The harder I worked the more people would say 'we love you'. You get this release. So in the end I took more than I ever gave. For 1001 nights we affected the lay of the land.....performing almost a patriotic service. Making 10 people or 100 people or 1000 people happy. That sounds all high and mighty but you can apply the same thing to a teacher or an auto mechanic. I mean.....you do good, and you make people happy."
"I can't miss something I'm so happy happened"
Marah were artistically hunkering down for the long haul. As good as 'Kids in Philly' was, 2005's "If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry" and 2008's "Angels of Destruction" were at the same level. Despite numerous personnel changes (their Wikipedia page lists 16 "former" members) and a collective move to Brooklyn, the brothers remained out front and the band delivered, night after night. King's “best band” quote dates from this time period.
But you can't live out of a van forever. Serge wanted to focus on family. Sleep in his own bed. He was married in 2004, and in 2009 he became a father. He wanted to explore other forms of writing. He got a paid gig writing for various parenting websites. There were other possibilities out there, and he was eager to take them on.
Dave carried on the Marah name, releasing 2 records with other musicians.
When 2015 rolled around, the band released an anniversary edition of "Kids in Philly", featuring bonus tracks (including, finally, a devastating "Reservation Girl"). The brothers reunited for an anniversary show in October, in Philly. Serge remembers it being "incredible….the band was so incendiary and unbelievably tight….the songs held up so well and felt so good. So we just kept going."
They played a few shows a month over the next 4 years, up and down the east coast. “On the scene and very active”, Serge says. “Our fanbase came along with us.” Their last live gig was a Philly Christmas show in 2019. They planned to take the winter off and then reconvene. Maybe write some new songs. Maybe make another record.
And then the pandemic hit. "Life suddenly felt different", Serge says now. "So without really talking about it, we collectively decided to walk away from the band. I wanted to write what I'm writing now, and to putz around in my yard with my kids instead of traveling to NYC or Asbury Park for the weekends away from my life and my world."
I asked him about his relationship with his brother, who lives close by. "When he drives past the house he beeps and waves", Serge said.
Rock and rollers at 50.
I asked Serge if he missed it. "I can't miss something I'm so happy happened", he said.
"I never again want to live in a place where I can't stop my car in the middle of the road to take a picture"
Serge now calls Millheim, PA home, a quiet place of about 1000 souls out near State College.....as far removed from the hustle and bustle of Philly's South Street bars as one can get. He's divorced and happily re-married to his wife Arle.
"I can live inside my head anyplace (he's also called Utah and London home in the past), but it can't be in a city anymore. I'm a pretty weird dude....I can be driving and be transfixed by the mountains and wonder what all the squirrels are doing.....so I never again want to live in a place where I can't stop my car in the middle of that road to take that picture.."
We connected on social media. I loved his blog and his online articles as much as his songs. I'd comment on a few of his posts. He'd do the same to mine. And we both decided, unknown to each other and at the exact same time, to start paid newsletters, which is where you're reading this right now. (Serge's is here....and is highly recommended.) We commiserated on where to host them, and how to attract readers. I subscribe to his. He to mine.
"Butch and Sundance" Serge called us.
"Let's just hope we don't end up in Bolivia", I responded.
I asked him if he'd be willing to sit for a Zoom call. I told him I had a notion to write about him.
He said he'd love to.
And here we are.
"The idea of social distancing did not phase me at all", he says as we discussed the pandemic. “Currently I work outside….alone, and that suits me fine.” His weekly "Throat Punch Essays" are attracting the kind of attention his songs once did. His writing is wild and untethered to the rules the nuns used to smash my knuckles with a ruler for breaking, funny and heartbreaking with some sentences you have to read slow to keep from getting dizzy. His evocations of childhood are especially touching. He has also promised....well.....sort of, a Marah memoir. The first 2 installments are available already. But he warns, "If I feel like I have to do it then I'm not gonna do it".
The stubborn male at the other end of the Zoom call just nods. We’ve got lots in common.
"A lifetime messin' with the rabbit ears"
--Serge Bielanko "Poor People"
In the car. On my interminable pandemic walks. The music of Marah is always close-by. As I took my daughter back to college the other night I played "Catfisherman" so many times in a row she asked if there was anything wrong with me.
But there are 2 songs.....one by each brother.....that sum up my love for this band.
In Serge's "Poor People", he cuts straight to the humanity. "They smile and dream and dance in the living room lamplight, most of them doomed to never know another kind of living. Not because they want to be poor. But because a lot of people who aren't poor don't give a fuck about them at all...."
In the morning the TV cheers
As daytime soaps become our careers
A lifetime messin' with the rabbit ears
And we're tuning into nothing
This ain't life like this
We should not be livin' this life like this
The mice are crazy from paint chip crumbs
As the iron lung of the icebox hums
There's cool ranch dust on our lunchtime thumbs
And we treat each other rotten
This ain't life like this
We're poor people
We're poor, we're poor
We walk down to the corner store
We walk across the sticky floor
We're poor people
We're poor, we're poor
And finally, Dave brings it all home with the gorgeous "So What if We're Out Of Tune (w/The Rest Of The World)" "If songs were galaxies", Serge said, "I'd live in this one in a heartbeat.."
We're humming in circles
Cleaning our plates
Dreaming out our choruses
And slow sad middle eights
A tenner between us
And nothing to lose
By leaving everyone behind us
Silent and confused
But oooh lover
They ain't me and you
So what if we're outta tune
With the rest of the world
There's never been a finer song written about rock and roll brothers. Or being in a band.
"You never ever know"
So what about that band?
The best rock and roll has always been visceral. The better it is the harder it is to explain.
"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." So said comedian Martin Mull. For years I've been trying to explain the music of Marah to friends, and I just suck ass at it. But I'm Irish which means I never learn from my mistakes so here goes.
I'm gonna get all cliche-ish now, and I don't give a shit. Marah sounds like friends and family. Marah sounds like a loud Thanksgiving dinner table....or a backyard beer bash. They're the singers around the barrel fire in the Rocky movie. It's not perfect. Dave sounds like Dave and Serge sounds like Serge and if one of 'em flats a note they just crack open a can and fucking carry on. Individually, they are special. Together, they are damn near invincible. If the Band came out of Philly, they'd sound like Marah.
Serge says....."If you're a certain type of person, you can find yourself lost pretty easily. I had the band, and now, with the encouragement of Arle, I have my writing. So I've been pretty lucky."
He continues, "Marah didn't burn out. We didn't fade away. That isn't who we are. We could still be a motherfucking force of nature. All it would take is a phone call or two. You never ever know."
I didn't ask who would make the call.
In a bit…