In fall 2014, Evanston-based playwright Brett Neveu was watching the first episode of the Foo Fighters’ HBO miniseries, Sonic Highways, when he was surprised to see a new acquaintance interviewed onscreen. Neveu had met musician Jason Narducy a couple months earlier at Narducy’s Evanston home; their children went to the same elementary school, and Neveu had volunteered to work with Narducy’s wife, Emily Steadman, on a PTA fund-raiser.
“He just came walking up the stairs from his practice space,” Neveu says. “I’d been in bands for 20 years, and if a guy has a practice space in his basement, I think it’s pretty awesome.” When Neveu went home after that visit, he listened to Split Single, a power-pop solo project Narducy launched in 2012 and whose recordings have been filled out by the likes of Wilco bassist John Stirratt, Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, and Spoon front man Britt Daniel. He was impressed by the music, not just by the star-studded roster, and when he saw Narducy again on TV, he had an idea: within a week, he’d asked his new friend for permission to write a musical about him.
Narducy, 48, has built a remarkable rock pedigree over the past 25 years. In the early 90s, he teamed up with cellist Alison Chesley (who now performs as Helen Money) to form the acoustic indie-rock duo Jason & Alison. After releasing 1994’s Woodshed on local label Whitehouse, they turned their duo into a four-piece, christened it Verbow, and signed to Epic. Their 1997 major-label debut, Chronicles, was produced by punk elder Bob Mould. Verbow broke up in 2003, and two years later Mould invited Narducy to play bass in his band, which also includes Wurster on drums—a gig that’s lasted almost 15 years so far. When Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance announced in 2013 that she could no longer play live because she suffered from a hearing disorder called hyperacusis, the band hired Narducy as their touring bassist. He’s a rocker’s rocker, respected for his sharp songwriting skills and expert musicianship.
But none of that is why Dave Grohl interviewed Narducy for Sonic Highways. The series documents the Foo Fighters recording eight songs in eight different cities for their eighth album, also titled Sonic Highways. In a voice-over that opens the series, Grohl says that this conceit provided the band with a creative challenge—they hoped to make music that spoke to the history of each city, taking inspiration at every stop from artists important to their members or to the culture at large (if not both). Grohl also interviewed musicians, producers, and other experts about the musical DNA of the eight cities, which often meant digging into his own past. In Chicago, for instance, where the series starts, Grohl went to his first concert in summer 1982. A teenage cousin, Tracey Bradford, took him to the Cubby Bear to see Rights of the Accused and Naked Raygun. Bradford also introduced Grohl to a punk band she’d started earlier that year with a few friends: they were called Verböten, and their youngest member was 11-year-old guitarist Jason Narducy.
Verböten opened Grohl’s eyes to the reality that he could create his own kind of music, and he’s talked about them publicly at least as far back as a 1996 Tribune interview with Greg Kot. But Sonic Highways brought the teen punk band to a whole new audience—including Neveu. He’d grown up a half hour outside Des Moines in Newton, Iowa, and moved to Chicago in his 20s, where he broke into the theater scene in the mid-90s with crass, fringy puppet shows. By the time he moved to Los Angeles in 2007, he’d become a prolific and successful playwright, known for dark stage shows underscored with quick wit—he’d already been hired by London’s Royal Court Theatre, New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club, and Chicago’s Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters. Neveu moved back here in 2012 to take a teaching position at Northwestern, which he juggles with stage plays and TV screenplays at various stages of development. For the past five years or so, one of those scripts has been for Verböten, inspired by the footage he’d seen on HBO of a preteen Narducy playing in a short-lived punk band.
As Neveu developed a story about four kids navigating their messy lives while preparing for their big show at the Cubby Bear, Narducy got involved writing the music, giving Verböten an early-80s punk edge (something that could improve a lot of musicals). The script is heavily fictionalized, but the real Verböten were also using the band to work though the hardships of growing up. “My ability to play guitar and write songs gave me power and self-worth,” Narducy says. “I was proud of my band. I think we all were, and we all found a sense of identity by being in our little gang. Beyond the confidence gained from creating songs and playing them, thanks to Tracey, we were also accepted into a community. It felt good to be welcomed by teenage punk musicians and fans.”
Narducy’s dad was big into music, but not into his music. “Rock was a huge part of our household and our world, but punk rock was mine,” he says. “That was something that he didn’t understand, and every kid wants to find that thing that their parents don’t understand. Punk rock was that for us.”
1/16-3/8: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, 773-769-3832, thehousetheatre.com, $20-$50, 12+
Verböten debuts at the Chopin Theatre on Thursday, January 16, and runs through early March. The show has also awakened the real-life Verböten: though the band didn’t put out any music before breaking up in 1983, they did make a few professional recordings, and this week they’re finally releasing them as their self-titled debut EP. They’ll have seven-inches for sale at the Chopin on opening night.
- The trailer for the Verböten musical
To understand what made Verböten unique requires a little knowledge of early Chicago punk history. In the late 70s, when London, New York, and Los Angeles seemed to be generating definitive punk bands faster than Malcolm McLaren generated bullshit, Chicago supposedly had no scene to speak of—though the people who say that tend to be the same people who eventually gave it one, as small and isolated as it was.
The first nucleus for Chicago’s scene was north-side gay bar La Mere Vipere, which in spring 1977 started hosting punk dance parties where DJs spun imported seven-inches. After La Mere mysteriously burned down the following year, the scene dispersed to several clubs, including O’Banions, Oz, and later Club C.O.D. and the Cubby Bear. They played host to a growing but still tiny network of Chicago bands, among them stupid-like-a-fox smart-asses Tutu & the Pirates, prickly antagonists Silver Abuse, and dark postpunks Da. Outside the clubs they had a champion in Terry Nelson, who broadcast their music on Northeastern Illinois University’s free-form radio station, WZRD. He also managed Da and co-owned Autumn Records, which in 1981 put out definitive early Chicago punk compilation Busted at Oz—it’s the first release to feature music by the era’s most celebrated band, Naked Raygun.
Even in the early 80s, punk only barely existed in Chicago, with bands struggling to find even a couple regular venues. But the scene’s signal did reach the north suburbs. Verböten bassist Chris Kean got a taste for punk from the LPs that came into Evanston shop Record Exchange, then managed by future Shake, Rattle & Read proprietor Ric Addy. To find punk shows, he’d consult the Reader. “That was local for us—there was Maximum RocknRoll and Flipside, there was other things, but the Reader was the first place where we found out about all the stuff,” Kean says.
To find bandmates, Kean didn’t have to look far. He lived in the same Evanston apartment building as drummer Zack Kantor. Shortly before Verböten formed in early 1982, Kean met Narducy on a nearby basketball court. They lived a couple blocks apart, and after Narducy told Kean he was learning to play guitar, Kean invited him to his apartment to check out his brother’s gear. Kean also extended an invitation to Kantor, who was just picking up the drums. “I remember some of the first times I started playing with Zack, he would set up cardboard boxes and just play cardboard,” Narducy says. As a trio, the youngsters didn’t go further than playing short sets for parties that Kean and Kantor’s parents threw—until they met Bradford.
Narducy’s father had gotten him a scholarship to an Evanston college preparatory called Roycemore School, which his family wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford (his parents had divorced when he was four). There he met Bradford, four years his senior. “When I was 11 years old, you could walk into a schoolroom and find your people based on their clothing—like, ‘Oh, there’s the goth kids, there’s the punk-rock kids,'” Narducy says. “It was easy to find your people, and Tracey was that. She dressed the part and was all in.” So were Narducy, Kean, and Kantor, once Bradford joined the band. Narducy doesn’t remember if they’d even had a name before, but when they became a four-piece, they became Verböten.
Bradford had already made crucial connections in the Chicago punk scene, which gave the group opportunities that weren’t available to any other local band with a preteen guitarist. In January 1983, Verböten opened for Rights of the Accused and Naked Raygun at the Cubby Bear. Narducy’s dad was there to capture it on his camcorder.
“How does something like that happen? Well, it’s Tracey,” Narducy says. “Everybody fell in love with Tracey. She was just this lightning bolt, and opened a lot of doors for us.”
- Verböten at the Cubby Bear in January 1983
Verböten also played basement parties, a dance at Roycemore, and a battle of the bands at New Trier overloaded with Rush cover bands. “I know there was one gig where I was grounded, and Jay [Yuenger] from Rights of the Accused, who went on to be in White Zombie, sat in for me,” Narducy says. Their highest-profile gig was in May 1983, when they appeared on a local Saturday morning children’s TV show called Kidding Around.
Kantor’s dad wanted to get his son’s band on the show, so he booked a two-hour session for them at Evanston’s Studiomedia Recording Company—Verböten needed something presentable on tape to submit to the program’s producers. “He told us, ‘You can record four songs,'” Narducy says. “We combined two songs so that we sort of recorded five. There’s a song called ‘Work’ and a song called ‘Let It Out,’ and we called it ‘Work to Let It Out.’ It’s hilarious, ’cause it just totally stops in the middle and starts another song.”
Unfortunately, Verböten broke up early in 1983, even before they appeared on Kidding Around. The band members and their families had gathered at Kantor’s apartment to talk about Verböten’s future. “Tracey, at this point, was 16—she was like, ‘We need to release a 45 with the songs we have recorded, get in a van, and tour,'” Narducy says. “I was 12. And my dad said, ‘No. Jason’s gonna finish sixth grade.'” The band didn’t practice again, and only regrouped for the TV performance. “The interviewer asked me, ‘So are you guys gonna do more gigs?’ And I think I said, ‘Yeah, if things turn out right,'” Narducy says. “It just kind of fell apart, but there were no hard feelings.”
- Verböten appear on the TV show Kidding Around in May 1983, shortly after they broke up.
In the musical Verböten, fictionalized versions of Kantor, Kean, Bradford, and Narducy deal with teen angst, alcoholism, domestic violence, youthful insecurity, divorce, and clueless parents, all while trying to hold it together in band practice and make it to their gig. It’s similar to the direction that Narducy initially proposed when Neveu asked to make a musical about Verböten.
“I suggested to him not trying to tell an audience what punk rock was like in 1983—so many TV commercials try to do that and fail, and it’s been co-opted,” Narducy says. “I felt like there was a better story in ‘Why did these kids from Evanston form a band, and why did they play punk rock?’ Our friends didn’t understand punk rock—we weren’t impressing our friends with this. People didn’t get famous playing punk rock in 1983. What drew these four people together, who are still great friends?”
Kean and Kantor still live in Evanston—Kean’s house is close to Neveu’s—which meant that once Narducy gave his approval, it was easy for all three to meet with Neveu at Prairie Moon (Bradford lives in Florida). Once Neveu got the band members’ stories and secured their life rights, he set off to write the script—and while revising drafts and workshopping the story, he ended up considering his own past. “It’s a little bit of a ‘going back in time’ fantasy for me—that I could be there for the incubation of something dynamic that I wish I could’ve been a part of when I was Jason’s age at the time,” Neveu says. “That’s the great thing about creating these sort of pieces—the ‘what if’ factor. I can insert myself that way, and that helps too.”
In 2011, House Theatre of Chicago had staged a play of Neveu’s called Odradek at the Chopin, and he figured the same company and venue would work well with his punk musical. “The characters all need to play instruments, and I’d seen a lot of shows where that had happened over there,” Neveu says. “The Chopin, it looks like some place you might go see a punk show back in the day.” Neveu also has two decades of history with House artistic director Nathan Allen—who not only said yes to the show but also came on to direct.
Neveu had known Narducy could write great songs for a musical from the first time he listened to Split Single. “He does something that works so well with a musical,” Neveu says. “That clarity of intention when it comes to his lyrics, clarity of emotion—getting on the inside of the character he’s playing when he’s singing. And also his heart’s on his sleeve when he’s writing.” In his first draft, Neveu left space for Narducy to insert his music, and suggested bands whose work could provide the tone for a scene. The rest he left to Narducy.
“My goal was to have the songs the kids play be punk-rock songs that are influenced by ’83,” Narducy says. “Anybody who’s familiar with that music will be like, ‘OK, that sounds like Articles of Faith, that one’s Naked Raygun, that one’s the Ramones, Circle Jerks.’ People who are familiar with that era will hear my points of reference with those songs.” The melodic, brooding ripper “I’m Not Coming Home” not only taps into the punk era’s sound and energy but also achieves the kind of larger-than-life expression that’s baked into musical theater. When writing music for the band members’ parents and siblings, Narducy drew on 60s and 70s rock, which he says balances out the punk fury.
When it came time to cast the show, House Theatre chose an actor named Kieran McCabe to play Narducy. “The audition was basically, like, ‘Come in and show us how you rock and how you lose yourself in the music,'” McCabe says. He played the Against Me! song “Black Me Out.” While working on Verböten, McCabe talked to Narducy about what he’d been through and tapped into his own experience figuring out music and friendship in his high school band. The two of them have become friends, and when Superchunk played SPACE in Evanston this past summer, Narducy put McCabe on the guest list.
Narducy and Neveu have gotten close as well. Neveu says the musical nearly fell apart four times, but working with Narducy helped him see Verböten through to the stage. “It’s for Jason,” Neveu says. “And the rest of the band too. But the guy is a hero of mine. As a young kid, and also as a friend.”
The Verböten cast began learning the music this past fall, with Narducy guiding them through the tougher passages. Once they had a handle on the material, the actors decided they wanted to play a concert of the songs from the musical. Narducy got them a gig at SPACE on Monday, December 9, and played with the band-slash-cast throughout the night. “That made me feel so much more confident in myself,” McCabe says. “That was the first time I played electric guitar in front of people. And to share the stage with Jason, that was awesome. We didn’t shred back-to-back, but it felt that way.”
Bradford flew in for the occasion, and she and Kean joined Narducy onstage for a partial Verböten reunion. They played three songs, which took less than five minutes. “I was nervous—it’s been a long time since I performed in front of people,” Kean says. “I screwed up the first song, but Jason saved the day.” Kean regularly takes his two sons to see Nora O’Connor perform—she’s a member of the Flat Five as well as a close collaborator with the Decemberists, Iron & Wine, and Neko Case, and she’s his wife and the kids’ mother. At SPACE the tables were turned: O’Connor brought their sons to see Kean. “They had never known me to be a performer,” he says. “They got a kick out of watching me thrash the bass for a few minutes. It’s quite clear who the talented musician in the family is—quite clear.”
For Kean, the renewed interest in Verböten and the mounting of a musical inspired by their story have felt surreal. When he started the band, it meant nothing to anyone outside the small Chicago punk scene, despite the lasting, life-changing effect it had on all four members. “I’ve always been proud of what we did in Verböten,” Kean says. “I still have my bass, I still have our recordings, and I have a couple gig flyers. It was the highlight of my musical career, which is kind of funny—that I peaked when I was 12. That’s very cool. I’m very comfortable with that.” v