Tales of Bessman: Alex Meixner and the Future of Polka

I saw polka future, and its name is Alex Meixner.

I say this, of course, with apologies to Jon Landau and Bruce Springsteen. And a nod to Wayne Toups and Zachary Richard and especially Doug Kershaw, who brought a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility to Cajun/country music, not without some degree of crossover breakout.

I’d heard of Alex Meixner—and he’d heard of me. When he heard I was coming to see him Thursday night at  Reichenbach Hall, a German beer hall-like joint near the Empire State Building, the name rang a cowbell.

As he told me after the show, he went back to the comprehensive Billboard cover story I did on polka maybe 15 years ago and saw that I wrote it. That I’d mentioned his name in it was a career highlight, as it was for everyone I noted in the article, polka then and now being an outsider music genre ignored–so very wrongly–by both mainstream and alternative music media.

I walked into Reichenbach and went back in my mind to a place in Madison, Wisconsin, a block or two northeast, I think, of Capitol Square. It was just after I started writing, sometime in the late 1980s. I think it was called Buck’s place, but it was definitely some kind of play on Bucky Badger. Every few minutes one of bartenders would ring a bell and then they’d all pour themselves a shot and down it together while the packed place cheered.

Even then I was too old for the place, and this was some 35 years ago. It was a college frat crowd, or just older. I remember hearing “Emotional Rescue” on the jukebox.

Reichenbach was just as raucous, though mixed age. Yuppie types at play on a Thursday night after work and stretching it out with some suits and a few older people by the bandstand to the side of the door wearing red “Alex Meixner—Polka On”  t-shirts. The door itself was open, and you could hear the loud music coming out of it halfway down the block. A black bouncer in a black suit was standing outside, out of place and never smiling.

Alex was playing “Sweet Child o’ Mine” when I walked in, making me forget, for the time being, how much I hated the song and Guns N’ Roses. He was playing piano accordion and singing, and like the rest of the band, was wearing lederhosen-like shorts. Sometimes he played trumpet and accordion together; other times he played bass guitar parts on the accordion.

The other guys were Ed Klancnik on drums, who’s been with Alex for nine years and also leads Klancnik & Friends and has played with everyone from the late King of Polka Frank Yankovic to Canadian polka legend Walter Ostanek; three-year Meixner band veteran Hank Guzevich on trumpet, sax, clarinet, guitar and vocals—and a member of the International Polka Association Hall of Fame as leader of the Polka Family Band; and newcomer Nick Tiberi on concertina, guitar, keyboards and vocals.

In fact, it was Nick’s first tour with Alex, and a baptism of fire of sorts. One of the waitresses—and they were all young and drop-dead gorgeous—handed Alex a small but solid wooden paddle, and a piece of paper from which he announced an addition to the night’s festivities.

“Anyone who drinks a shot will be paddled three times by one of the waitresses!” he proclaimed. “But you have to sign a release in the event that you can’t sit down for the next four days.”

Being that it was Nick’s first gig with the band, Alex volunteered him, then directed the waitress to whack him harder.

I just stood there dumbfounded until the bouncer came over to me and said, “You’re next.”

“Fuck, no!” I told him. The idea was embarrassing enough, especially since the girls really were stunning and not old enough to be my granddaughter. Besides, I hadn’t signed a release, and was starting to sense a heart attack coming on.

The bouncer smiled.

“Are you ready to polka?” Alex said, as a long line of men—and one heavily-tattooed woman—got in line for their paddling, to the oddly appropriate polka strains of “Hava Nagila.”

“All these places have some kind of gimmick,” Alex said, after closing the night with a non-denominational “Amazing Grace,” amazingly graced by his simultaneous play of accordion and hoseaphone—a horn-sounding homemade instrument made up of long hose and large plastic funnel, held up by Hank.

“Shot skis are pretty common,” he said. “Masskrugstemmen—stein-holding contests–polka dance-offs, a myriad of figure dances.”

The future of polka.