So you wanna be a rock 'n' roll star

Raw talent: Vinnie and the Stardüsters' John Perkins, Nick Hook, and Eric Dregni

It's been a year and a half since Vinnie and the Stardüsters' last gig, but the mock-rock trio somehow sticks in the local music consciousness, like a drunk party-guest hiding in the closet. Known for the rock-god arrogance of their fanzine of vandalized Archie comics, the band raised its sights a bit last fall. At the height of the Twins/stadium controversy, the Stardüsters issued a general press release announcing their intention to leave Minnesota unless the government built them a 100,000-seat rock arena.

Vintage Vinnie, this, on a satiric level kindred PR pranksters only imagine. Yet unlike Dylan Hicks or the Sandwiches, the Stardüsters are all about prank--live and on their self-released records, they cover only other people's songs, substituting their own butt-joke lyrics for the originals. Tonight they play their "Farewell Show" at Bryant-Lake Bowl, to be followed by their "Reunion Show" Friday at Lee's. And after 10 annual farewells and reunions, the band is releasing its first-ever CD, Novelty Music for Casual Sex.

The album doesn't exactly find the thirtysomething Düsters shifting thematic gears: It opens with a power-punk version of the Sesame Street theme, complete with references to crack and prostitutes (e.g., "on my way to where the skies are black"), segueing into various smutted-up nursery rhymes screamed Muppet-style. That said, for a band that never plays, the record's sound is surprisingly tight.

When I caught up with the trio during a recent "practice," I found them hanging around guitarist Eric Dregni's damp basement memorizing their version of Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping." The new words? "I get knocked up/But I get out of it/At the clinic where they give abortions."

Taking a break while waiting for guest trombonist Peter deVries, the band indulged me with an overview of their politically and musically incorrect career. Dregni met singer John Perkins in the ninth grade when the two were in Bible camp, and they started playing together in a new-wave band called Anything That Moves. "Eric played keyboard and dressed up like Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran," says Perkins. The two formed Vinnie and the Stardüsters in the late '80s as a lounge send-up (well before the trend hit) and christened the group after an alcoholic Vietnam veteran they met at the Stardust Bowling Lanes. The upstart duo befriended their umpteenth and final drummer Nick Hook at Macalester College, and, after graduation, the trio began gigging in earnest. "We used to try to write songs," laughs Hook. "That lasted about a year."

Dregni had studied music at school, and for a brief "phase," he led his fellows through rock instrumental covers of classical favorites such as the William Tell Overture. The resulting 1992 cassette Baroque Wind Session (get it?) must be heard to be believed, and remains a collector's item pending reissue. (Their version of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" was recently picked up for a public-television pilot called Food Freaks.)

When that idea train ran out of steam, the Düsters moved on to a musical version of a stunt Dregni and others were pulling in the infamous local fanzine Fascist. Cribbing the French Situationist practice of detournment--altering comics and advertisements to subvert their meanings--Fascist cut Archie comics-style satires, writing new words in old thought balloons. The best known of these is the Keillor-killing Fascist Home Companion. (In a similar local spirit, Dregni created the memorable re-dub video Mary Tyler Marx). Vinnie began covering show tunes, kids' songs, and pop hits, substituting enough vulgar nonsense to make Weird Al seem highbrow. "For a while, we were performing this 31-song medley with all butt-jokes," says Perkins. "The audience just stared at us."

Though they kept up the Bart Simpson wordplay, the Stardüsters gradually became more conceptual and aggressive. "We'd perform songs in pantomime, just making the motions," remembers Dregni, laughing. "Then we tried playing them in still silence, just sitting there looking at each other without moving. We actually practiced this in the basement, sitting in a triangle." Did they finish the song in sync? "I came in a bar late," admits Hook.

Reactions ranged from intrigue to open hostility. "The goal of Vinnie was to amuse ourselves at the expense of everyone else around us," explains Perkins. "We'd play these parties and just clear the room. We used to do one note for 45 minutes. Not one chord, mind you, one note." The band had the plug pulled on them more than once--twice at the punk playground Speedboat Gallery, once at the Uptown Bar, and once at the Loring, where management thought they were so bad they were told never to set foot in the bar again.

The Düsters' habit of calling the cops to break up their own shows didn't exactly endear them to the clubs, either (or so they claim). And to piss off other local bands, they took to covering the local alt-standards of the day, and thanked the bands in the liner notes of their releases. One list thanks Cities 97, "for nearly constant airplay."

The mystery at the heart of the band is why three obviously talented and creative thirtysomething guys--Hook plays in Deformo, Dregni writes books about scooters, Perkins is a fine singer--don't just hünker down and create something, you know, good. "My wife often asks me the same question," says Perkins. "The thing is, I do have this backlog of original songs. But I'm so embarrassed to play them that no one has ever heard them other than myself. I'll play one for these guys--"

"And we'll laugh and point," interrupts Dregni.

Perkins posits that becoming a rock star--a process the Düsters satirize to the point of obsession--is something that requires real soul-baring. "You have to reveal your innermost emotions to people and take yourself seriously," he explains. "It's much easier to make fun of people with that ability." Say, by taking Semisonic's "Singing in My Sleep" and combining it with both Pachelbel's "Canon in D" and "Freebird."

Despite Novelty Music, a new issue of the fanzine, and an upcoming documentary about the band (being prepped by an Italian filmmaker named Giovanni Erba), the would-never-be stars in Vinnie and the Stardüsters seem happy to crack themselves up in anonymity. "I don't remember who said it," says Perkins, "but it was true: Nobody loves Vinnie and the Stardüsters more than Vinnie and the Stardüsters. Even if no one comes to the show, at our rehearsals we laugh until we can't breathe."

Vinnie and the Stardüsters perform an all-ages "Farewell Show" tonight at Bryant-Lake Bowl; 825-3737. They perform a "Reunion Show" with Lily Liver Friday at Lee's Liquor Lounge; 338-9491.

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