Pimps of polka

Don Hedeker, a vintage clothing connoisseur and biostatistics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, acquired a taste for polka when he ran out of closet space.

"I started looking at the old polka records and the people looked so happy," said the 47-year-old avid thrift shopper. "I was in a mid-life crisis so, I thought, 'Wow, it would be great to play music that's just fun.'"

With no prior polka experience and only a recently acquired appreciation, Hedeker formed the Polkaholics, a flashy beer-guzzling trio of non-Polish, middle-aged, rock 'n' roll musicians with day jobs. But the group's unexpected synergy of polka and punk rock have made them more than just a spectacle.

The Polkaholics' wacky antics appeal to the city's young, free-spirited beer drinkers, and their growing fan base earns respect from former skeptics who now admire polka's newest advocates. But in a city dominated by Polish polka traditionalists, it isn't surprising that the group remains a suspicious and perhaps misinterpreted outsider.

Using only drums, bass and guitar to cover polka classics and original compositions, the group, which will play at Jeff Fest on June 24, has chosen to nix the standard polka instrumentation, most notably the accordion, in their quest to emphasize rock 'n' roll.

And there's a mutual understanding: No unrealistic expectations of stardom and no serious agendas. Fun is the only motive. Sing-along songs like "Pimps of Polka," "Beer, Broads, and Brats" and "Beer (Breakfast of Champions)" are energetic, humorous and seem to please bar stars of all ages.

Every year in early May, the Polkaholics cruise, via float, the Annual Polish Constitution Day Parade. They are hired by Stawski Imports, a local liquor and beer distributor, to play (and drink) their way down Columbus Drive in Grant Park.

The group arrives in full uniform, a Vegas lounge act ensemble of white polyester pants, ruffled shirts, patent leather shoes, red sequin vests, matching bow ties, wide-rimmed glasses and an excessive amount of Old Spice. Before the parade starts moving, the Polkaholics are already working the crowd "Hallelujah, I'm a drunk. Hallelujah, drunk again..."

An older woman carrying a life-size photo of the Pope is quick to complain, "You're too loud," she says covering her ears.

When the float picks up speed, Hedeker loses his balance and falls off the platform. "It happened so fast," he said. "Luckily my guitar was OK." That's not the first time Hedeker has hit the pavement: last year, eager to enthuse the crowd, he attempted to jump off the moving float. Bad idea.

After many years in a stagnant rock scene, Hedeker was quickly hooked by polka's positive energy. He formed the original Polkaholics in 1997 with bassist George Kraynak and drummer Mike Werner.

"When I first started the band, it was really just to see if we could pull it off -- play polka music in our punk rock way," Hedeker said. "Our first show was at Phyllis' Musical Inn. The reaction was great and it was much more fun than the bands we were playing with at the time."

Today's Polkaholics are Dandy Don Hedeker (guitar and vocals), Jolly James Wallace (bass and vocals), a 37-year-old production coordinator for Ambrosi advertising agency, and Action Jackson Wilson (drums and vocals), a 39-year-old electronic engineer for Rehkemper Invention and Design.

Both Wallace and Wilson joined in 2001 after Hedeker's original band mates moved from the Chicago area. Since 1997, the Polkaholics have released four records, two with Wallace and Wilson and the most recent in January, 2006.

Of course the Polkaholics are a far cry from traditional polka music. Ann Gunkel, professor of cultural studies at Columbia College, classifies them as post-modern polka, a genre is characterized by a range in ethnicity and instrumentation, and the incorporation of polka's traditionally positive, playful attitude.

Gunkel, who specializes in Polish-American studies and polka music, said it's important to recognize that "the Polkaholics are respectful of polka traditions, they are well-versed in important figures and they know a lot about the music's history."

But despite the group's best efforts, Hedeker said that many traditionalists still think the band's genre-bending music is poking fun at polka.

"That's not our intention," he said. "We're trying to have fun with the music and present it in a comedic light."

The division between traditionalists and those who appreciate the band's modern take is most apparent at traditional venues like the Baby Doll Polka Club.

"Half the people go, 'We're getting the hell out of here, this sucks' and the other half go, 'OK, I get what they did with our old favorites and I enjoy it,'" said Tony Fernald, a fan better known as Hedeker's human teleprompter (he knows every word to every song). "Some people understand what is being done here, and others simply can't break from their idea of what polka is."

Although there are a wide variety of polka styles, Polish polka is dominant in Chicago. It has the 2/4 polka beat and is broken into two categories. Honky style features, drums, bass, accordion, concertina, clarinet and occasionally a horn. The more common push style, which features drums, bass, accordion, concertina and two trumpets.

The undisputed leader of Chicago-style polka music, Grammy winner Ed Blazonczyk Jr., said that Hedeker wisely avoids gigs where his music would be unappreciated and offensive.

"He knows when it's too traditional and purist, places where he would be tarred, feathered and not respected," Blazonczyk said. "He's not going to shove the Polkaholics down their throat."

As a polka DJ for more than half of a century and the owner of the Chicago Polkas record label, 84-year-old Chet Schafer said he has seen it all and there has never been anything like the Polkaholics.

"They are not reproducing it the way we like it reproduced," Schafer said. "It's wild and it's rough."

Schafer acknowledges the group's ability to attract an audience but added that younger generations prefer the Polkaholics because they don't have an appreciation for the history.

Jan Lorys, director of the Polish Museum of America, doesn't care for the group's inattention to pitch. "Screaming songs is not music," he said. "They are not a good band."

Gunkel counters, "I saw one of their shows and the audience was jam-packed, many not familiar with polka or the Polkaholics, but the crowd went crazy. It's boisterous, it's energetic, not cynical and people respond to that."

Gunkel, a polka traditionalist who was raised on the music and is a scholar of the genre, enjoys the Polkaholics.

"If they were engaging with the music in a way that mocked the history, it would be a completely different story," she said. "They are not poking fun; they are having fun, and there's a big difference."

Traditional polka music is typically played in pockets on the South Side of Chicago. But according to Blazonczyk, the Polkaholics have managed to spearhead a rebirth on the North Side.

"They may not fit in, but look at what they are doing for the music," Blazonczyk said. "They should be applauded for their efforts."

Keith Stras, a polka DJ and promoter, was a little skeptical at first, but he now gives the Polkaholics the credit they deserve.

"The bottom line is they are promoting polka, a hipper style, today's generation's style," Stras said. "I wouldn't like a steady diet of it, but I'm a hard-core Chicago Polish polka fan. A lot of people have tunnel vision. If you don't play Chicago style, they don't like you. But you have to approach it with an open mind."

Breaking the barrier between the audience and the band, the Polkaholics shows are an interactive experience. Within the first minute of the first song, Hedeker is on the bar, revving up a dancing crowd that has already covered itself with the band's bumper stickers. There's usually a Hula-Hoop contest, a chicken dance, requests for traditional polka jams and maybe the happy birthday song.

"I've seen so many bands over the years and it's like they feel the audience is there for them," Hedeker said. "I think that's really twisted. It's like, wait a minute, they paid to see you. You're there to get them to have a good time."

The Polkaholics average about two gigs per month, playing at both rock and polka venues. They also do weddings, parades, festivals, bowling alleys, private parties and really, any weird gig they can get their hands on.

"I think it's important to expose your music to the broadest possible audience," Hedeker said. "It's easy to play in the same clubs over and over; we want to play weird places."

In 2002 the Polkaholics were asked to play at Camp Gumby, an on-going private Memorial Day weekend camping event in Wisconsin.

The group of campers set up an RV with a 100-foot radio antenna. On top of the antenna they attached a cable that extended down into a fire pit. After the Polkaholics played, the campers placed a Big Wheel covered in kerosene on top of the cable then dropped it into the fire.

It was a pinnacle moment.

There was a huge explosion and, like wild animals, everyone danced around the flaming Big Wheel and jumped through the fire.

"That had to be the No. 1 craziest, insane, I'm-going-to-die moment," Wallace said. "You've got fire, alcohol, polyester and Old Spice -- not a good combination."

In 2003 the group was asked to participate in the Marshall Field's Day of Music, an indoor music festival at the Symphony Center.

"Here we are this crazy extreme polka band playing at one of the most prestigious venues in the city," Wallace said. "Just to hear the Polkaholics and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the same sentence is amazing; we would have never dreamed of it."

But despite the venue's status, the group didn't abandon their brewskis.

"Jackson brought a cooler of Old Style and when we got on stage the first thing we said was: 'Hey we're at the CSO, does anyone want a beer?' And people did," he said. "When was the last time they had Old Style at the Symphony Center? We figured this will never happen again, so let's make the most of it."

Although the Polkaholics do not take themselves seriously, this is the most successful band that any of the members have been in.

They practice once a week for three hours in an alley garage that has been converted into a small rehearsal space. Portions of the walls are lined with different colored carpet, tacked onto 2 x 4s. Plumbing is exposed and the floor is littered with wood chips, beer caps, used pieces of duct tape, strings and scraps of paper.

Equipped with nearly 60 Old Style beers, Wallace jokes, "We play music in between our drinking."

The group is perfectly matched.

Not only are they friends with similar interests, Wallace said, but they are also the same astrological sign (Aquarius) and most important, fans of same kind of beer (Old Style).

"I would be extremely happy to keep doing this for the next 25 years," Wilson said. "I'm so happy to be in a band that works like this, I wouldn't tinker with it at all."

Wallace acknowledged that he's never had this much fun in his life, ever.

"When I put on the sequin vest and douse myself with Old Spice, I feel like Superman stepping out of the phone booth. I am ready to polka your ass off."

Although the Polkaholics have chosen to keep their day jobs, they wish the best of luck to bands who are trying to make it.

"But there may come a point when you realize you're not going to make it and you choose to play music simply because you like to play music," Wallace said. "You realize you're not going to be a rock star, sell a million records or be featured in Rolling Stone -- a crushing blow to any artist who puts his blood and tears into work that is misunderstood and unappreciated."

"At different points in our careers," Wallace added, "we all finally said, 'fuck this, this isn't fun.'"

And that's really the point.