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Clip: A ‘Family’ Mourns a Punk Rocker Who Defied His Age: 80

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  • Carl Z.
    A Family Mourns a Punk Rocker Who Defied His Age: 80 By COLIN MOYNIHAN Published: December 27, 2006
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 28, 2006
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      A 'Family' Mourns a Punk Rocker Who Defied His Age: 80

      Published: 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

      "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,

      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."
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