Wisconsin Punks: Rev. Norb and the Onions

Wisconsin Punks: Rev. Norb and the Onions

By Jim Knipfel

A microphone and speakers.
SourceBrandon Voight/Corbis


Because there’s more to Wisconsin than cheddar cheese.

By Jim Knipfel

Growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in the 1970s, Norb Rozek didn’t think like other kids, didn’t talk like other kids, didn’t even dress like other kids, opting for a wardrobe of deliberately mismatched and outlandishly tacky clothes, sometimes accentuated with a Tweety Bird pendant. His speech was a clipped, rapid-fire barrage of outmoded slang, puns, absurdisms and references to ’60s cartoons, bubblegum pop, superhero comics, breakfast cereal mascots and science fiction. It was as if by the age of 11 he’d modeled himself into a living, breathing cartoon character, albeit a frighteningly intelligent one whose brain acted like a sponge when it came to lowbrow pop culture minutiae.

So it was little surprise when around 1980 he adopted the moniker Rev. Norb and, long before anyone in Green Bay had even heard of punk rock, formed the town’s first and still greatest hard-core band, Suburban Mutilation. Amid a cacophony of hyperkinetic drums and shrieking guitars, they trod screaming over the standard hard-core themes of politics, religion, consumerism, parents, girls and high school but with the added spark (so lacking in too many punk bands of the era) of wacky humor.

Inspired as much by the Archies and Mad magazine as the Ramones … the band made a splash among ’90s punks.

rev norb

Rev. Norb with Spam in Green Bay, Wisconsin, 1992.

Source J.Shimon & J.Lindemann/CC

At the same time, Rev. Norb also began publishing Green Bay’s first punk rock fanzine, a pocket-size photocopied jobbie he called Sick Teen. The pages of Sick Teen were densely crammed with a supersonic tornado of jokes, stories, cartoons, rants, ridiculous obscenities, reviews, found photos and other assorted whatnot. It was outrageous and hilarious and smart and mind-numbing all at once, and a perfect expression of Norb’s personality. Even more so than the band, the zine established Rev. Norb as a legendary figure in punk circles. While Black Flag’s Henry Rollins was known for his brooding angst and the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra for his strident politics, Rev. Norb was King of the Geeks.

Suburban Mutilation released one album, in 1983, then dissolved. A decade later, after briefly fronting Depo Provera and a stretch as a columnist at Maximum Rocknroll magazine, Norb formed Boris the Sprinkler, a bubblegum nerd-core outfit that became the embodiment of his full aesthetic. Inspired as much by the Archies and Mad magazine as the Ramones, and marked among other things by Norb’s increasingly elaborate homemade costumes, the band made a splash among ’90s punks the world over with their frenetic live shows, Norb’s overcaffeinated-superball monologues, and songs like “Screamin’ Demon Martians Ridin’ Go-Karts in My Head” and “Icky Shazam,” as well as lots of songs about Taco Bell. Boris the Sprinklers CDs came complete with Norb’s machine-gun radio DJ commentaries and a secret last track on each album (designed specifically for jukebox use) consisting of, well, the entire album all over again. Boris the Sprinkler lasted some eight years and released eight full-length albums before disbanding in the early 2000s.

Still living in Green Bay some 15 years after Boris the Sprinkler called it a day, 35 years after Suburban Mutilation was formed, and after releasing a couple of solo records and publishing a hefty and hilarious annotated guide to his lyrics (maybe realizing not everyone would catch references to Christopher Pike), Norb is fronting Rev. Norb and the Onions. “Well, the Onions were a band for years before I was thrust upon the scene,” Norb says. “For reason unclear, they knew a number of songs performed by some of my old bands and recorded a few of them for their album.” Wisconsin punk rock veteran Brad X asked if Norb “wanted to croon” on their covers from the Norb back catalog, and he said yes. “That led to Brad asking me if I wanted to sing with the band on a set of Dickies covers they were learning for Halloween,” Norb says. “Being a glutton for such capers, I agreed to that as well. That was fun enough that we decided it’d be fun to do it full time, so I signed on.”

This time around the music is far less pop-y than it had been with Boris the Sprinkler or on his solo releases, a kind of harking back to the harder-edged garage punk of yore. “Everything I write comes out kinda sounding like the Ramones in some way,” Norb says. “So the sound of whatever band I’m in is usually largely determined by the guitar player’s leanings. We didn’t plan anything out or discuss anything.” Brad X writes music and Norb puts words to it. “This is the first band I’ve been in that has no real collective influences, or archetype in mind of what we’d like to sound like,” he says. “Maybe we’re too old for that shit.”

Still, all these years later, it’s comforting to know Norb abides, bopping around onstage in a duct-tape tuxedo singing songs like “Eating Quisp From Someone Else’s Bowl.”