It’s not known whether the big fish was named Mack the Knife, but (as the song goes, kind of) the shark did bite with his teeth, babe. The target was New Hope resident Timm Mulhern. It happened during one sunny day off the coast of Malibu, California, many years ago.
A rock singer/guitarist/songwriter since his early teens, Mulhern lost his left hand and saw his life change.
Fitted with a lifelike prosthetic hand after the accident, he resumed performing, with mixed success. Mulhern was self-conscious however, and camouflaged that hand as much as possible on stage.
Many years later, though, the missing hand would be replaced by something spectacular, which would help launch Mulhern, who now fronts the New Hope-based band Cowbell Superstar, into a rejuvenated era of performing, creating a new, glam-punk stage persona.
About 20 years ago, when he laid eyes on a custom bejeweled hook for his left hand, it was like being hit with a bolt of silver lightning.
“When I first saw it, it was just beautiful, and made out of solid USA steel,” Mulhern says, chuckling.
The quartet, which has a retro glam look, sporting lots of animal print, hats, and feather boas, bell bottoms, and platform-soled shoes, boasts a performance style worthy of a big stage.
As far as music, the group has a no-nonsense sound somewhere between the New York Dolls and AC/DC, and is rounded out by bassist Vivian Pacheco, guitarist Denny Gracey, and drummer Grant Morrison.
Cowbell Superstar will bring its glam-punk-rock sound and singular stage show to Randy Now’s Man Cave on Farnsworth Avenue in Bordentown, Saturday, May 5, with Jenny & the Felines opening.
The concert will no doubt rock the rafters of the Man Cave, and bring extra fizz to the bacon-flavored soda in the store’s fridge. As area music and pop culture lovers have discovered, the Man Cave is not just a concert venue, but a haven for vintage vinyl, retro food and drink, and rock, pop and punk memorabilia galore.
Owner Randy (Ellis) Now, is celebrating the Man Cave’s fifth year in business. In addition to Cowbell Superstar, this spring and summer he has some fine musical talent lined up:
Princeton native Chris Barron (formerly of the Spin Doctors), Friday, May 11; Chris Harford, another Princetonian, Saturday, May 12; One Man Orchestra Lipbone Redding, Wednesday, May 16; Jeffrey Gaines, Friday, May 18; Paul Collins, Saturday, May 19; Lisa Bouchelle, Saturday, June 16; Terry Sylvester )formerly of the Hollies), Friday and Saturday, July 20 and 21.
For Mulhern and Cowbell Superstar, the Man Cave will be the smallest venue the group has played so far. “I have played in some other tiny places,” he says. “I’m pretty coordinated, though. Agility is my middle name.”
Compact and lithe, front man Mulhern has some great stage moves and wears those rocks and roll togs like he was born in them.
Founded just a couple of years ago, Cowbell Superstar came together slowly since Mulhern had a precise idea of what he wanted in a band.
“The ad I put on Craigslist was very specific,” he says. “This area is not conducive to putting a glam rock band together. In L.A. or New York it would have been much easier, and I had almost given up when Denny (Gracey) called and said, ‘Let’s get together.’”
“I’d known him for a long time. He’s a very proficient guitarist, knew what I wanted to do, and was willing to do it, so he was the first onboard,” Mulhern says.
Pacheco, who works at Johnson & Johnson in Raritan as global strategic marketing leader in oncology (and is now also Mulhern’s lady friend), answered the ad on Craigslist, too.
“We got along so well on the phone, talked for hours in fact, so I knew she would be a total perfect fit,” Mulhern says. “I fell for her hook, line, and sinker. The whole reason Cowbell Superstar is anywhere is because of her perseverance and dedication. Nobody can do what she does, as far as getting contacts, booking gigs, etc. She has a map in her head of our future, a very strong outlook for us.”
The final piece of the puzzle is Grant Morrison, the group’s new drummer who is, “absolutely fantastic,” Mulhern says. “Everyone in the band is extremely dedicated. Like us or not, if you come out to see us, you can be assured you’ll get your money’s worth. I believe in sweat in rock and roll, and I give it everything. We all do.”
Over the past few months Cowbell Superstar has played at the Mill Hill Basement in Trenton, John & Peter’s in New Hope, Connie’s Ric Rac, and Ortlieb’s in Philadelphia, the Saint in Asbury Park, as well as other venues at the Jersey Shore, North Jersey, New York City, and Delaware.
The group is on the verge of recording and releasing an EP of originals and will make a pair of videos for the songs “Bad Feelin’” and “Slut,” which they hope will really help get the word out.
The name Cowbell Superstar pays homage to that humble percussion instrument, the cowbell, which has become a pop culture punchline since a 2000 “Saturday Night Live” skit featuring Christopher Walken.
Mulhern says the cowbell was maligned long before the SNL skit, however.
“The cowbell has been notoriously taboo for the longest time, a standing joke, considered tacky,” Mulhern says. “I always loved the cowbell, though — I always loved that deep clucking sound. They’re fun, and we’re all about fun.”
As for “Superstar?”
“It’s kind of like ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’” Mulhern says. “Vivian and I came up with it together, and I just smiled when I heard ‘cowbell superstar’ because of its quirkiness.”
Mulhern grew up on his family’s 296-acre vegetable farm in Yardley, Pennsylvania, where they grew string beans and spinach, but also had an array of animals — horses, guinea hens, a peacock, exotic fish, and even a monkey.
“My mother was the secretary for the farm, which made it possible for me to grow up there,” Mulhern says, noting that it was a little lonely for a child since the nearest kids to play with were a couple of miles away. “On the other hand, I was always able to entertain myself, and my mom said I was never bored. I suppose I’ve always had a strong, independent character, and even now I cherish my alone time.”
In addition to running the farm, his father possessed a fine voice and loved to sing and entertain. Mulhern’s aunt was a professional singer, performing on the radio during the 1930s. His older brothers were professional actors involved in theater and television, and music from classic Broadway original cast recordings resounded through the family home.
Mulhern remembers playing records all the time, as well as experimenting with his father’s reel-to-reel tape player, even mixing music between it and his own cassette player.
“Then I got a four-track, and that was the beginning of my life’s interest in recording and producing music,” says Mulhern. “I’ve always recorded my own bands rather than going into someone else’s studio; it’s just easier. I’ve always been eloquent at recording.”
Mulhern’s Left Hook Studio in New Hope has, for years, been a destination for regional musicians in search of recording expertise.
It seems like he always wanted to be a rock star and had been playing in bands and writing songs almost since elementary school. It was Mulhern’s first live rock concert extravaganza at the Philly Spectrum, though, that really put the hook in (no pun intended).
“My older brother took me to see Alice Cooper at the Spectrum in Philadelphia,” he says. “Talk about camp and theater! It was mind-blowing, and there was no turning back for me after that. I had to do whatever I could when I was onstage, I really pushed the limits.”
“My father was also pushing me to do whatever I could possibly do onstage,” he adds. “He used to say, ‘It’s better than doing nothing onstage — people want to see something.’”
“So much of what I do now was inspired by Alice Cooper,” Mulhern says. “That first concert was so very theatrical, just the shock and awe of the visual aspects stayed with me for a while. To this day, I haven’t forgotten a second of that show.”
“Of course, there was also David Bowie, and he influenced me tremendously,” he adds. “Cowbell Superstar wouldn’t exist without Bowie. In fact, we would not be the society we are today without Bowie.”
Mulhern also became immediately captivated by proto-punk rockers the New York Dolls.
“Punk was a nice segue from glam. The punks accepted the glam rockers,” he says. “Glam is all about being theatrical, lots of feelings and emotion. I engulf myself in emotion: I really embrace the words when I’m singing, and it comes out sincerely.”
He spent high school at the private Solebury School in New Hope, a big relief from the public schools that had misunderstood Mulhern’s precocious creativity and intelligence.
From there, Mulhern hit the road, crisscrossing the United States, playing in bands while doing some college courses but never graduating.
“I went to Bucks County Community College for a while, then when I was out west. I went to Los Angeles Community College and the California College of Arts and Crafts,” he says. “I also took some night time acting classes at Hollywood High School.”
“I didn’t study to get a degree, but for my own interests,” Mulhern says. “I just always had it in mind that I was going to make it in the music business.”
Mulhern was, indeed, on the verge of making it, as part of a “space rock” band in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, this was when the shark took a bite out of his life.
“I was sleeping on my surfboard, with my arms dangling in the water, when I felt a shark nibbling on my arm,” he muses about that rude awakening. “I like to say after that, I swam around in circles for a while (it’s a joke — one arm, you know).”
“But I found my way back to shore, got up to the Pacific Coast Highway, all bloody, trying to flag down one of the expensive cars going by, but nobody would pick me up,” he continues.
Mulhern realized he had his own car and drove in a state of shock toward Cedars-Sinai Hospital, but on the way got into a terrible accident, breaking his collarbone and ribs, as well as sustaining other serious injuries.
“I was unconscious for a month,” he says. “It was hell.”
Perhaps some of that strength and independence he forged in his solitary childhood assisted in his recovery. Mulhern says he never went to formal rehabilitation, but taught himself to re-learn tasks, even those requiring fine motor skills. He also re-learned the guitar.
Joni Mitchell, whose left hand was weakened by childhood polio, had to adopt her own style of non-standard guitar tuning. Similarly, Mulhern has mastered his own method of playing and tuning, which he says works quite well for him.
If Cowbell Superstar’s unique look, sound, presentation, and considerable rock chops aren’t beguiling enough, come see Mulhern’s custom hook — the epitome of glam-punk. He revels in it.
“A jewelry maker named Eric Merkle crafted it, and he was the one who said, ‘This would be a great stage prop,’ and he was right,” Mulhern says. “I realized I didn’t have to camouflage the fact that I was missing a hand. It took me a long time, but it was a freeing experience.”
Cowbell Superstar, Randy Now’s Man Cave, 134 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Jenny & the Felines open. Saturday, May 5, 8 p.m. $10. 609-424-3766. www.mancavenj.com
Cowbell Superstar on the web: www.facebook.com/CowbellSuperstar