First, please excuse that fact that I still have to wrap my head around the fact that Mark Shurilla is dead. I knew I was going to need to write about it, but as anybody else who knew him (closer or more distant than me), the "where to begin" question was equally difficult. Just because I had to get something off my chest, I posted the above picture to my facebook wall earlier today, and told the following snippet of a story:
[This photo was taken at] the Sheboygan Civic Center, and its one of his annual treks up there to play the "Winter Dance Party" -- a tribute to Buddy Holly and the other bands on that ill-fated tour that ended in tradgedy. In this photo, he's singing to a woman who was celebrating her 103rd birthday that night. The look on her face was one of pure joy as she danced to music Mark recreated for her. She was in her late 50s when that music was recorded, and watching her joy was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw.
And actually, that's when I realized what it was about Shurilla that we're all really going to miss. If you looked into the audience at any Shurilla show (and that might be anything from the punk polka of the Blackholes, the pure punk of the Electric Assholes, the Irish mayhem of McTavish, to the loving tribute of the Buddy Holly Review) there were smiles. Nods of recognition. Laughs. The audience was as varied and as universal as the range of music he put out. And always the feeling that the guy up there, with the Buddy Holly glasses but with a deeper voice) was the same way you were about the music: he knew it. He loved it. He could speak with authority about it. And he made it his life. And those of us who love the music loved him for it.
He started a few music-centered publications, and when they were old enough, sold them off to walk on their own. He started more than a few bands, and he gave even more than a few people their start in the industry, if not as a musician participating in it, then as a writer documenting it. Countless music professionals in this town owe him big time for the start, the push, the promotion he gave them. Many of them learned a lot about the business side of the business from him. And somehow (even though it pissed us off sometimes) he managed to keep the fiscal side of things viable, so that he could continue on with that dream that so many have: making rock and roll his full-time job.
But you could say this about a lot of people in Milwaukee. What was it about Shurilla that made him such an iconoclast? Was it those glasses? Was it the nicknames he slammed upon his associates that stuck? You heard a Shurilla-name and you then called the person (or that thing) that for the rest of eternity -- in his voice.. Say it with me: Marlavous! Pagelshinski! Mr Cotter! Animal! Davis! Bobasaurus! Are you loving it? Gotta have the figures! Quarters - it's the Palace, it's a Gold Mine!
Was it his unpredictability? Back on stage, you never knew what would happen. Frankly, neither did his band. They'd have rehearsed the songs, but they always had to be on their toes for those songs where he'd go off into some story or rant or such, with no deference to political correctness or even taste. Remember, this is a man who wrote "Blitzkrieg Over Kenosha" and performed it with a band called The Electric Assholes. After a while, you didn't hear any more gasps of "I can't believe he's doing this" because we'd come to expect it. We looked forward to it. And because of this, you had to admire anybody who played with him -- you had to be a true pro in order to keep up. As such, he rewarded his players not necessarily with huge paychecks, but constant ones.
It seemed he was always on stage. You'd be at a party, and somebody would hand him a guitar, and like magic, he'd start playing some song that all could join into and sing along, because he knew his way around everybody from Buddy Holly to the Velvet Underground to Bruce Springsteen to the Pogues to Jonathan Richman to Neil Young to the Beatles to, well, everybody. As "cheap" as he could be accused of being, he was also incredibly generous: when somebody's gear got ripped off, or somebody needed money for medical issues, he was at the ready, not only to play a benefit, but often would organize and promote that benefit. And that man could organize and promote a show like nobody's business.
This is admittedly a rambling obituary, but Shurilla was a ramblin' man. There's that side of him that was obsessed with fossils and antiquity. There's the side of him that always ordered Girl Scout cookies from my daughter. There's the part of him that sweetly made up a song for my son on the spot at Christmastime. Unlike Larry Kennedy, I don't have one definitive story about him. I have dozens. I could write a whole blog of just Shurilla stories. (Type "Shurilla" in that little "search this blog" box in the upper left-hand-corner here -- you'll see there's a whole blogs worth of Shurilla stories right here.) And I'd never come close to scratching the surface of the Mark Shurilla story. Mine isn't the only obituary of him that will be written this week, because we all have pieces of his story to tell. And that's why he's one of those guys who, in a sense will live forever. That's what makes him such an iconoclast.
I'll end here with one of a hundred Shurilla stories I could tell: the time I had to borrow his amp because mind had crapped out an hour before I had to play a show. I needed to check it out and make sure I could get the right tone from it, so I plugged my guitar into it, and switched it on. Before I knew it, not only was I playing through it, but I had assumed a Shurilla-like stance: legs straight but spread apart wider than my shoulders, chin cocked forward, eyes bugging out, shit-eating grin, strumming my ax on a forceful downstroke. I wasn't even trying to imitate him or parody him or even tribute him -- it just happened and I didn't realize it until Pagelshinski pointed it out. Just playing through his amp imparted his Shurilla-ness upon me. And it was one of the most rock and roll moments I ever felt, downstairs in that dingy practice space. At the show that night, I told the audience at the Circle A that story, just as The Big Dog himself walked in. Everybody laughed: at me and with him, and I'm pretty damn sure it was because everybody knew that if they plugged into his amp, or picked up his guitar, the exact same thing would have happened.
Because there isn't a music person (player, writer, photog or fan) in this town who hasn't been somehow touched or influenced by Mark Shurilla, and if they say otherwise they're either lying or clueless. Mark Shurilla's music didn't die today and for that matter, neither did he. Rest in peace, Dog. Like Buddy Holly, you'll continue to live through the music and stories you left.