Local impresario Flabby Hoffman champions the unknown and unheard.
The anxious drummer for rap-rockers Misguided Youth doesn’t notice the frigid Chicago air as he sleevelessly paces the Wrigleyville sidewalk while waiting for the show’s slightly tardy organizer, videographer and ringmaster. Soon a large man sporting a clown-makeup mustache turns the corner, and all is well in the world.
In fact, as Flabby Hoffman sets up his camera, the mood at the Underground Lounge is surprisingly festive. Despite being a midweek unknown-band showcase in a tiny room in front of a modest audience, there is no hint of desperation in the air. A beautiful goth boy pores over sheet music, girls near the bar engage in short bursts of dancing and contestants screech with genuine excitement when Hoffman’s emcee, John “Sloop” Biederman, gives out dollar-store prizes in an ersatz game-show warm-up act.
The young, motivated and surprisingly good bands are upbeat, in part because they know they are not being ripped off. Hoffman does not charge bands to play the cabarets he mounts six times a month at clubs like Subterranean, Brody’s and, starting this month, on alternating Mondays at Reggie’s Rock Club. He gets them into clubs, puts them on his long-running cable-access show and treats them with respect. And he does this not for personal gain, but for a grander purpose.“By fostering creativity I’m a modern-day revolutionary,” explains Hoffman, who by day becomes mild-mannered fortyish accountant Todd Berns. “Any challenge to the indoctrination process that creates robotic, complacent apathy is a revolution of the mind.”
Berns originally launched his TV show Songsation on a low-powered broadcast channel in 1987 as a showcase for his own songwriting (by his count, 2,500 tunes to date). When he revived the show in 1995 on CAN-TV, he featured other musicians in addition to his own songs, as well as nonanimated “cartoons.” These skits featured marker drawings with Berns’s comedic voiceovers, and included such gems as “Michael Jacks’in the Box,” about a drive-through plastic-surgery chain; “The Grinch Who Stole Kwanzaa”; and the Judaic polysexual adventures of “Rab-Bi.”
But despite these forays into comedy, Berns is a fundamentally serious man. When he talks about Bush pulling the trigger on September 11, or Everybody Loves Raymond being a plot to indoctrinate toward conservative socialization, he is not joking a bit. He found no humor in being tricked into appearing on an episode of the Jenny Jones Show called “I Hate Your Cable Access Show.” More significant was his retaliation against CAN-TV and its executive director, Barbara Popovic, for moving his show from prime-time Sunday to Thursday 11:30pm slot because of adult content. For the next year it was retitled Fuck You, Barbara.
“I was going through a family crisis at the time, the world was in crisis and it was my time to be angry,” Berns reflects. “When I eventually lost the family member, it was life-transforming. I had to figure out what I could do to reconnect to myself.”
His solution was to create Flabby Hoffman, his new public persona, the new title for his show and, most significantly, his new musical identity. Considering Hoffman’s Zorro mask and greasepaint facial hair, and the no-budget nature of his video work, the most surprising hurdle he faces these days is that his music may be too good. Anyone looking for kooky, lo-fi outsider music will be shocked by the production values and sophistication of Berns’s new release, Flabby Road. The double CD combines the bombast of the best classic stadium rock, the edgy dynamics of slicker strains of alternative rock, and the powerful ranting outrage of the best punk and hardcore.
Ultimately the musical showcases he stages around town have helped him become a better artist, not only because he’s surrounded by creativity, but because he meets and recruits gifted musicians. This includes Glover Washington, who plays on Flabby Road and also drums for African-American boogie-metal rockers Dragonfly Red, who tore up the Underground Lounge during the recent Hoffman showcase. The tiny room not only became packed sardine-tight with barhoppers, but was also, thanks to Hoffman’s nurturing, filled with a joyful, optimistic vibe usually alien to a bar-rock venue. Modest as it may be, his revolution of creativity is under way.
The Flabby Hoffman Trio plays an album-release show at Double Door Saturday 19. Hoffman also hosts a band showcase at Red Line Tap Friday 18.