Music by VICE

From Gilman Street to Broadway: NOFX’s Fat Mike Is Selling Punk Rock to Your Mom

How do you make middle America see a musical about blowjobs and street punks?

by Dan Ozzi
Mar 18 2015, 3:40pm


Photos by the author

It’s just after 11 PM on a sleepy Connecticut street that overlooks a lighthouse and most of the neighbors have already gone to bed. But here in the living room of his rental house, the TV is blaring and Fat Mike is cracking himself up.

“See that guy, the one getting Eiffel Towered?” From his chair, the 48-year-old NOFX frontman points to a boyish naked man on the screen taking it in both ends from two strap-on-clad women, as if he could be missed. “That guy introduced us,” he says, gesturing towards his fiancée Soma Snakeoil, who is tidying up the room around us. She also happens to be one of the women doing the double-teaming.

Tonight’s impromptu entertainment is Rubber Bordello, a 70-minute fetish porn set during the prostitution boom of the early 1900s, its style meant to mimic that of a silent-era film. Soma directed and stars in it and released it under her production company. Mike wrote the music and makes a brief cameo as a brothel-frequenting pervert. It won three AVN Awards, including one for best soundtrack, a fact which Mike occasionally breaks the silence to brag about.

“Aaaaaand there’s the ATM,” Mike says with a laugh. ATM is ass-to-mouth, for the pornographically challenged. He folds his arms just under where a lock hangs from the metal chain around his neck. Red strands from his day-worn mohawk flop between his eyes and his crooked smirk brings out flecks of grey in his long sideburns. His eyes survey my face, daring me to feel awkward by the situation.

And it is awkward. In the same line of sight, Soma Snakeoil, dominatrix entrepreneuse, and Soma Snakeoil, everyday human being, mirror one another. One in a leather corset and one in a baggy NOFX hoodie. All while her fiancée lounges in a room decked out in pastel nautical décor, gauging my reaction. That is, by all accounts, fucking awkward. But you just can’t give Mike that sort of satisfaction.

“See, he’s supposed to be Butch Cassidy, but we renamed him Bitch Cassidy.” He reacts to the sepia-tinted bond-com acts the way a Bill Murray fan would revel in the experience of showing someone Caddyshack for the first time.

“Some people aren’t used to it because it’s not like regular porn,” he shrugs as the credits finally roll. “I don’t know. It’s not for everybody, I guess.”

He stands up and reaches into the left pocket of his plaid shorts—it is 34 degrees out. From its depths, he pulls out a credit card and some folded twenties to give to his assistant, Rhonda. She’s making the 100-mile trip to Manhattan in the morning to pick up his essentials—some coke and chopped liver from Katz’s Deli.

But this story is not about Fat Mike, lover of all things snortable and anally inserted. His outspoken fondness for which has already been well-documented. Nor is it a story about his penchant for dick jokes and sodomy puns. Reach your hand into a bag of NOFX’s 100-plus songs recorded over the last 30 years and anything you pull out will be evidence of that.

This is a story about Michael Burkett, businessman. And right now, he’s on the verge of closing the biggest deal of his life.

***

Nine months ago, Mike was in the back of a church on 46th Street in Manhattan, pacing. As each of his black combat boots struck the carpet, his bare thighs were slapped by the leather of his kilt—it was 24 degrees out.

The invitation was clear: “Feel free to bring a partner, slave, or lover. Please do not invite other people. Seating is limited.”

The night’s entertainment was Home Street Home, a musical that Mike had been working on with Soma, off and on, for almost a decade. It was finally nearing completion. For most in attendance, this private reading was the first time seeing it. For many, it was the first time even hearing about it.

Mike paced himself over to his seat next to Soma in the back row of St. Clement’s small theater, where he sat among friends. In the front row, Pete Steinkopf, the guitarist of The Bouncing Souls, sat and crossed a leg over his knee. A few rows back, Against Me! guitarist James Bowman read through the show’s Xeroxed program. Dominatrixes and punk rockers sat shoulder to shoulder, unsure what to expect.

Within the first few minutes, there was a graphic incestuous rape scene where a girl screams as she gets fucked behind from her father—as good an introduction to Home Street Home as any. The longer the scene went on—the seconds equaling hours—the more the room tensed up. Brian slinked into his seat slightly and James clenched his program a bit tighter. But wait, there was more!

The next couple of hours were filled with cock-sucking, heroin-shooting, ass-flogging, and pretty much anything else you’d expect from a musical borne from the minds of Mike and Soma. The story followed a teenager named Sue, who runs away from her sexually abusive father and falls in with a group of street punks, who take her under their lice-infested wing. They give her a gutter punk makeover, a new name for her new life (“Suicide”), and introduce her to the wonderful world of drugs and hooking.

There were characters with names like Special Ed, Trashley, and P.D.—short for Poop Dick. Another character named Mom served as a protective street mother for the cast of runaway punks.

The songs—although more theatrical and dramatic than your standard NOFX songs—were still distinctly Mike’s. Simple rhyme structures highlighted the humor of living in squats and blowing randos for drug money. Of the dozen-plus musical numbers, the biggest crowd-pleaser was a duet between a male prostitute and his shy, overweight John.

“Maybe I could learn to like drug use and punk rock.”
“Maybe I could learn to like your small, uncircumcised cock.”
“If my size is a problem, I’m sure it won’t persist,
I’ll just have to satisfy you with some K-Y and my fist.”

Eventually, the laughs died down and the story climaxed to a scene where a cop gets violently blown away with a gun.

The end.

The crowd sat in silence for a moment, maybe a moment too long. Then the applause gradually filled the room.

***

RENT sucks, Mike tells me.

The problem with RENT and most musicals, he says, is that there aren’t many good songs in them. On top of that, none of them represent real life. Nothing seems to compare to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which he taped off of television with a cassette recorder when he was eight, and which ignited his early fondness for theater.

He only seems to have positive words for Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Avenue Q. Everything else nowadays has become Disney-fied. The Lion King sucks, he says. The Spider-Man musical sucks. People want to see something they haven’t seen before.

What about American Idiot?

American Idiot sucks, too.

What people might not realize about Mike because he often plays the role of punk jester—very literally as evidenced by his cocaine circus alter-ego, Cokie the Clown—is that he is quite smart, and he keeps his irons in a lot of different fires. In addition to his long-running and well-marketed band which for decades has served as the go-to gateway act for millions of punk newcomers, Mike owns a San Francisco-based record label, Fat Wreck Chords, a trendy restaurant in an upscale neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, and several real estate properties throughout the country, including a Las Vegas punk house-themed luxury mansion with its own mini-golf course that he rents out to tourists. Not bad for a guy who once named an album after bestiality.

But he is still learning the ropes of the theater world. He knows what he likes though and, more specifically, what he doesn’t like.

One thing he’s learned since the New York reading is that while it’s all well and good for his punk peers to like Home Street Home, if he wants a shot at the big time and mainstream success with this project he’s worked so hard on, he would need to cater to an audience broader than his loyal army of plaid print dum dums who have lapped up everything he’s shit out over the last three decades. He has taken this thing as far as he could on his own dime.

To get to the next step, he would need investors and capital and resources. It’s not enough to prove that kids with green mohawks and tattoos like Home Street Home. Moms in the Midwest would have to like it. Grannies and teens and middle-age dads would need to fall in love with the ideas of self-cutting and bondage.

Suddenly, Fat Mike, a man who has made a lucrative career out of deliberately pissing people off and not giving much of a shit what anyone thought of him, finds himself in an interesting situation: he is at the mercy of public opinion. Now, here in the middle of Connecticut, he’s trying to figure out how to sell punk rock and BDSM to the masses.

When asked what he sees for the future of Home Street Home, he is quick with an answer. “Ultimately, I want to see it on Broadway and—”

Michael.” Soma shoots him a zip-it stare.

“Oh, right. Our publicist says we’re not supposed to talk about Broadway yet.” She goes into the bedroom and once out of sight, he softens his voice, “But yeah, obviously, I want to bring the fucking thing to Broadway. That’s the goal.”

And with that, he goes to bed.

The next morning, the two wake in a pale yellow bedroom surrounded by suitcases full of various sex toys, the kind that elicit questions like, “Wait, where does this one go?” and “what is this part for?”

They head straight to the Eugene O’Neill Theater campus, where they have another 16-hour day waiting for them. Today’s itinerary includes over five hours of rehearsal in the converted barn that serves as a performance space, song rewrites, and a 7 PM performance, which is free and open to the public—the second of three during the musical’s two-week residency.

A lot has changed about Home Street Home since the New York reading. Much of its over-the-top punk-meets-BDSM elements remain, they’ve just become more palatable. “We’ve come into some problems with the director where he says, ‘No one’s gonna believe this,’” Mike says. “And we say, well we’re not gonna change this scene, so what we have to do is make it so people understand it.” The rape scene is still in there, for example, but it’s been moved further back to ease viewers into idea. The ending has been reworked and the cop no longer gets shot to death.

There are some new faces in the lineup as well. One particularly notable addition sits at the end of the cast’s row of chairs—Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba, who is trying out for the part of the villain cop.

On the floor beneath him is a cluttered pile of assorted shit. Two cups of coffee, three half-empty water bottles, an unopened one, a pair of sunglasses, an iPhone, various pens and highlighters, and a copy of Dark Places. It’s his line but he’s frantically flipping through the script in his thick binder. “Sorry, I lost my spot,” he admits to the director, and they start the scene over. He has never acted before.

When the director tells the cast to take ten, Skiba comes over to give me a hug. He plants a kiss on my cheek and his breath smells like alcohol. "I was out with the cast until four last night," he tells me.

The cast members have taken a shining to Skiba despite the fact that he has no prior experience, sings like a punk singer in a theatrical play, and was handed an opportunity by a friend that they all had to work their whole careers for. But no one has a bad word to say about him. I checked. What he lacks in experience, he makes up for in camaraderie and work ethic. And the fact that like the rest of the cast, if the director thinks he’s not good enough, friend of Mike or not, he’s cut.

Despite the fact that he is the resident nice guy, Skiba is playing the musical’s most despicable role, a sexually abusive cop—short fuse and a top to blow. And he’s convincing, too. As convincing of a cop as a person can be with a scorpion neck tattoo poking out from his collar and “BRAAAAP!” inked across his index finger. “Coming on to the project, I was mildly… I was…” he lets out a sigh and tries to find the right words. “I was fucking terrified. But I really do study and put in the work,” he swears.

Meanwhile, in a nearby Victorian mansion on the theater’s campus named after one of its award-winning founders, Mike and Soma are having a heated debate about pussies. They have rewritten this song nearly countless times at this point.

“No. I’ve tried to do that before and you cannot wax your own fuckin’ pussy! It hurts so bad,” Soma shakes her head in her hand and puts her foot down on this line change. “You don’t wax your own fucking cunt.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” laughs Jeff Marx, Mike and Soma’s co-writer, a theater veteran and Tony Award-winning creator of Avenue Q. Marx got involved with Home Street Home after Mike had seen Avenue Q four times. If Mike is fucked up enough, he might even act out the musical’s song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” at the end of a NOFX set.

“Mike thinks I’m a punk because of that song. He says I think like a punk,” Marx tells me. He had never heard of Mike or NOFX prior to signing on.

Realizing it’s grown dark and the three have been arguing about pussies and cunts for the better part of an hour, they wrap things up because they still have to rehearse the song with the actors, and have it ready for the evening’s performance, which begins shortly.

***

There’s no alcohol allowed in the Eugene O’Neill Theater but Mike is drinking a Stella Artois and has another tucked underneath his seat. You can tell where he’s been by a trail of empty bottles. There’s one outside the men’s room where a dangerous mix of coffee and hemorrhoids has kept him for a good portion of the day.

He slouches in his chair, the last one in the front row, his hair spiked up for the occasion. He sips and watches the theater’s 80 seats fill up. The crowd is a weird mix.

There’s a near-even split of two types of attendees: punks with ripped denim jackets held together by Conflict patches and grey-haired Connecticut residents—Gerrys, as Mike calls them—with nothing better to do on a Thursday night.

The punks tell me they’ve never seen a musical before and came to see Mike. The Gerrys tell me they’ve never heard of NOFX before and came to see a musical. Both get what they came for as they are treated to two hours of new and improved scenes of prostitute-fucking, incest, and erotic asphyxiation. The room has that same tense air as when you’re watching a movie with your parents and there’s an unexpected graphic sex scene.

With his arms folded, Mike’s eyes gloss over the crowd with the same look he gave me while we were watching Rubber Bordello. It’s hard to gauge exactly what the Gerrys make of it all, but no one leaves during intermission, a fact which Mike considers a huge success. In fact, not only does no one leave at intermission, everyone sticks around for an hour of Q and A after the performance.

For the first 15 minutes, the feedback Mike, Soma, and Jeff are getting from the audience is glowing. The Gerrys liked the prostitution, they liked the characters, they liked the songs. God help us, they loved the blowjobs. Some of the comments are extremely personal in their positivity. And then things go awry.

A hand raises from the corner of the room where a group of punks—who look a lot crustier than the ones in costumes—has claimed a few rows. “You didn’t really sell it to me,” one of them says about the portrayal of life on the streets.

“Yeah, and the whole mom thing was kinda weird,” another piles on.

Soma’s face drops like she just saw her puppy get drowned. “I’m sorry, did you say it wasn’t realistic to have a street mom?”

“Well yeah,” the voice responds from the crowd.

“Really? Really? Because I was a street mom,” Soma taps her pen against the tattoo across on her cleavage. “And I did live on the streets and I did live in squats.”

Mike chimes in: “So you didn’t think it was realistic?”

“Not really.”

“How come?” he asks, furrowing his brow hard, ready to go to war.

The punks shout out things they didn’t identify with—the prostitution, the drug use, the bondage. The portrayal of punk was all off, they say, which sparks an animated debate about what punk houses were like in the 80s and 90s.

“We had people from Leftöver Crack telling us it seemed fine!” Mike is almost bouncing out of his seat. “Sturgeon! That’s your fucking guy!”

“No, not my guy,” the punk says.

“Well, he’s been living in a squat for many, many years. And he was like, ‘I’m surprised at how realistic this is.’ …It exists, you just haven’t seen it.”

The room has grown tense and the moderator cannot take a new question fast enough. Luckily, the middle-age woman who follows has some more positive feedback. “You treated the cutting scene with such sensitivity,” she starts. And just like that, Mike’s arms unfold and he is back in his comfort zone.

Afterwards, some folks stick around to talk to the cast and crew, though the punks have already left.

“You can’t please the punks," Mike tells me. "Punk rockers want to hate people. That’s part of our culture—to hate sellouts and something that’s successful. We had a hundred people here. The only people who were like, ‘This isn’t real!’ were the fuckin’ four punk rockers.”

An older woman corners Mike, grabbing him at the tattoo on his forearm. “I’m a teacher of dance and I’ve seen a lot of the cutting,” she tells him. “And you have made me feel tonight like I have honestly done something for these kids.” Her cheeks are damp with tears and she rests her glasses on her head to wipe them away.” Mike hugs her.

“I don’t know you, but I love you already,” she says, muffled into the shoulder of his old Bad Religion shirt. She pulls away and motions up towards his mohawk. “And I love this.”

Dan Ozzi is on Twitter - @danozzi