A ‘Family’ Mourns a Punk Rocker Who Defied His Age: 80
December 27, 2006
In his 80 years, Joseph Bernard Zak served in the Navy during World War II, studied to be a Franciscan priest and worked as a teacher and a doorman. He also wrote tens of thousands of lyrics, moving to Nashville at one point to try to sell his songs.
He never made it in country music, but Mr. Zak had an unlikely second career in song — after his 70th birthday, he became a lyricist and occasional singer for a punk rock band on the Lower East Side called Team Spider.
Mr. Zak became a minor icon to fans a fraction of his age. They called him the oldest punk rocker in history. So after he died, on Dec. 13, local punk bands like the Blackout Shoppers and Tricks of the Tradeless posted memorial messages on the Web. He had no known family, so Team Spider members will scatter his ashes in the Atlantic.
And his band mates honored him in a way they knew he would have appreciated. They performed a half-hour mini-concert at a boisterous memorial last Wednesday broadcast from the West 59th Street studios of the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a local-access cable television station.
“He engineered his life around writing,” said Chad Strohmayer, the band’s drummer. “He took jobs that gave him the time and the solitude he needed to work on his poetry.”
In front of the drum set was a chair draped with a red velvet jacket that Mr. Zak had worn onstage. A photo of him rested on the chair along with a small blue box containing two fake teeth that Mr. Zak had used as a prop in a concert when the band performed “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.”
Chris Ryan and Les Eckhart, members of Team Spider, met Mr. Zak by chance about a decade ago at a copy shop near Columbus Circle. A few weeks later, he showed up at a Team Spider show with lyrics in hand and was invited to declaim from the stage.
After a while, Mr. Zak became a regular and was made a part of the group. He recorded hundreds of songs with the band members, although not all were released. He traveled with them by van or jet to perform in places like Stewartstown, Pa., and Park City, Utah.
His lyrics were terse and declarative, sometimes resembling beat haikus. They ranged from the elegiac (“No matter that all lyrics stall / Know that this is true / Matters that love’s epic is true / Know that I love you, know that I love you,” from the song “Know That I Love You”) to the bombastic (“Bush, Bush, Bush / Bum, bum, bum / Bombed, bombed, bombed / The Constitution,” from the song “Bush, Bush, Bush”).
Many of his words have yet to be heard, or even read. Mr. Zak left behind 40 cardboard boxes filled with lyric sheets. Mr. Ryan estimated that the boxes contained words for 30,000 to 40,000 songs.
“We’ll be scoring these lyrics until we’re dead,” he said.
There were lyrics with titles like “Don’t Trash the Band,” and “Oh, Joey Ramone.” They were typed or handwritten on pieces of plain white paper, and on old menus, church bulletins and, in one case, an escort-service ad ripped from a Chinese-language newspaper.
Over the years, Mr. Ryan said, the band members and their friends regularly called Mr. Zak and invited him on outings, essentially becoming Mr. Zak’s substitute family.
As the broadcast began at 10:30 p.m., Mr. Ryan told viewers that it was a sad Christmas because of Mr. Zak’s demise. The band then launched into “Grandpa Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” a loud punk twist on the holiday novelty song.
About a dozen audience members joined the band in front of the cameras. Some sat cross-legged in front of the musicians and clapped. One young man tapped a tambourine as the band roared through the songs. Another man wrapped himself in a long blue cape and bobbed around behind the band. It looked like a cross between the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus and a hard-core matinee at CBGB.
A viewer named Samantha called in to the broadcast with a fond remembrance of Mr. Zak. The band played a few traditional Christmas songs amplified to a nontraditional volume. They finished with a version of “Know That I Love You,” with Mr. Ryan singing the words instead of Mr. Zak. The audience howled along.
Afterward, Mr. Ryan said that Mr. Zak would have relished the show.
“He liked it when everybody sang together,” he said. “And he would’ve liked it that the teeth were on the stage.”