Editor's note: Throughout the summer, Sentinel reporter Dusty W. Sipes has written weekly features on local artists who perform various genres of music. This week's feature is next to last in the series and digs through the memories of Mount Union's own "man in black," John "Skull" Parys.
He answers to "Skull." He dresses in black daily, chain smokes and he looks vaguely like WWE's Undertaker.
His main form of transportation for more than 15 years was a black hearse and he says it's the best $1,000 he ever spent on a used car. His trailer is filled with skulls, swords, knives, guns and other primitive weaponry. It is perhaps the riskiest place to attempt a burglary of in Newton Hamilton. He shares his abode with two jet black kittens, Lily (named after Lily Munster,) and Morticia (after Morticia Addams).
Sentinel photo by D.W. Sipes
John ‘Skull’ Parys and his weapon of choice, a B.C. Rich Beast.
He's also one of the most friendly, smart and caring people you will ever meet. And, he's one of Newton Hamilton's legendary bass guitar musicians.
John "Skull" Parys was raised in the 1970s on a healthy dose of Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath and early Van Halen. He owned and regularly wore a "Disco Sucks" t-shirt. Unlike many musicians, Parys didn't give playing and performing a chance until he was well past the average starting age.
"I bought my first bass when I was 29 from (Lewistown musician) Harry Bleyer. It was a Westone longneck," Parys said. "I took it home and plugged it into a Pioneer receiver and I popped on the Guns N' Roses song 'Used to Love Her (But I Had to Kill Her.)' The bass was playing out of one speaker and the music was coming from the other one and I sat and picked around and found it. I had messed around on keyboards for a few years and always tried to pick out the bass lines on there, but I was never great at it. I think that a lot of keyboard players make great drummers because they are doing so many things at once. I can barely walk and smoke."
Parys did dabble with music at an early age, though. When he was young, he took lessons from a local instructor,
"I tried guitar lessons eons ago on a Fender my old man had," Parys said. "The action was about a foot and a half high, so you basically had to have vise-grips to push the strings down. The lady was a good teacher at showing you how to read music and whatnot, but I was not the one to sit down and learn "Row Row Row Your Boat." It was like, 'OK, this is already boring me.' I wasn't really much into songs like "Jimmy Cracked Corn." Then I'd get home and as soon as my old man heard the click of the amp come on he'd go, 'turn that thing down!' And I was there going, 'I haven't played nothing yet!' After a while, you just go this isn't worth the hassle."
After taking a 15-year hiatus, Parys began playing bass with local musicians Steve Todaro, Tom Sheeder and Paul Veitch in an outfit called Kinipshun. Parys credits Sheeder with helping him to develop his playing and understanding of the instrument in addition to Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister and KISS bassist Gene Simmons. But it wasn't a perfect fit.
"It was one of those things where we'd practice for six months then go out and play one gig and then practice for another six months. It just wasn't working out," Parys said.
It was around this time that Parys purchased his legendary hearse,
"That hearse was probably as well-known as I was. It was originally white, but my brother and I went and painted it black. Who wants a white hearse? It definitely creeped some people out, but you have to remember that nobody ever died in a hearse; It's an ambulance you should be concerned about," Parys said.
More importantly, it was after the disbandment of Kinipshun that Parys began playing with one of Mount Union's early 90s party bands: Roadkill.
"Before I joined the group, I would always go to see them live. They were my favorite guys in the world. They were definitely the most fun band I've played with up to this day. Greg Majewski (the singer of Roadkill) was nuts. Our theme song, and original aptly called "Roadkill" was a set list staple. At one show, Greg had a stuffed deer on the floor and was riding around in front of the crowd with this little plastic car and during the hook of the song he would run over the deer screaming 'Roadkill!' That band was like having a party at your house with a bunch of idiots. It was a lot of fun. Those were the good old days," Parys said.
Roadkill played together for roughly three years in biker bars, roadhouses, saloons and every variety of smokey dungeon imaginable. Each show was an exciting display of absurdity, partying, rock and roll and uncertainty.
"One time we were playing in a bar that we had never been to before. We walk in and there are about 50 old-timers sitting there. We thought it would be pointless setting up because we were going to get thrown off stage for the music we were going to play. But I walked over to the jukebox and thought, 'Hmmm, there's some heavy jams on here. It might be alright here.' So, we set up and are just walking around waiting for our time to star and it was like someone blew a whistle: first shift out, second shift in. That's exactly what it looked like. The old timers got up and out and the new crowd came in and is was like, 'Is this the same bar?" It ended up being a great night. We played there a lot after that," Parys said.
After Roadkill called it quits, Parys joined the group that he would spend the next 19 years with: Blackout. Like Roadkill, Blackout played a series of southern rock, classic rock and then-modern music. His band always adhere to a formula that doesn't ostracize audience members,
"During the first set, you tend to have older folks and younger folks so you play classic rock and they all like it. For the second set, you drop-D your instruments and you get harder and pick up the momentum after the older crowd has said their good-byes. As for the third set, you drop-C your guitars and tear the heads off everybody that's left. You can't just start off like a rocket because people will stare at you. It's like getting into a hot bathtub; you got to dip your toe in first," Parys.
Parys considers Blackout to be a more serious band than his previous efforts and the group recoded an EP in the mid 90s. It was also with this band Parys performed in the most notorious show of his career.
"We booked a show at Al's Bar in Saxton. I don't believe it's there anymore. It was infamous and everyone in Saxton knew how the place was. You want to talk about a big melee. We're in the middle of playing and then all of the sudden people are flying, chairs are flying, and it was going in and outside the bar. I've never seen anything like it. We were standing up there protecting our instruments and then eventually a guy comes around and said, 'You might as well shut it down cause this isn't going to stop anytime soon,'" Parys said.
It is also with Blackout that Parys has his fondest moment on stage.
"We were playing a benefit show held by a group of bikers at The Sandbar in Huntingdon and they had (dancers) there that night. Normally, my parents never come to my shows. Well, on this particular night I saw them walking down the ramp to the dance floor with my aunt and uncle and they all looked around and I saw three heads turn right around and go back up the ramp. They must have been horrified. My old man, on the other hand, just walked up to the stage and started telling us how great we sounded. They didn't come to anymore shows after that," Parys said.
Since the breakup of Blackout, Parys has kept a low profile, playing in an assortment of local bands for brief periods of time. He has been moving into his new trailer in Newton Hamilton and plans to take the stage again once he gets settled.
If you walk through the streets of the Newton Campgrounds, you can sometimes hear the rumbling thunder of bass coming from the bedroom of a man of myth and local performing legend. Tread lightly.
Sentinel reporter Dusty W. Sipes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.