By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
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When Wetlands closed in 2001, two years after Szufnarowski became its talent buyer, he moved downtown five blocks to the Knitting Factory. Quickly, he was chastised for booking a tribute act. "It's not what we do," the still-pretending-to-be-a-jazz-club's management told him, despite a nearly sold-out gig and an $8,000 bar take for the third-ever performance by the Guns N' Roses tribute band Mr. Brownstone. A lightbulb went off; the promoter made up his mind to quit. In 2003, he founded Rocks Off. His "Tribute Wars" at B.B. King'sa loose clearinghouse/ brand name promising awesome cover bandsare now up to their 19th installment and have spawned a host of imitators, including a company called Rock On in Boston. One recent Rocks Offpromoted evening included Unchained ("David Lee Rothera songs ONLY!!"), Beatallica (a Beatles/Metallica mash-up featuring drummer "Ringo Larz"), and the city's only rentable mechanical bull, rechristened Sancho, which Rocks Off employees spent months tracking down for an employee's birthday party.
Szufnarowski has continued to perform since his MC Jake dayshe occasionally graces the Wetlands stage in an elaborate helmet fashioned from Pabst Blue Ribbon cases. Bill Stites, who has worked at Rocks Off since just after its founding, first encountered his future boss at a 1999 Disco Biscuits show in Las Vegas, when Szufnarowskiclad in a Mexican wrestling maskstepped onto the stage with a torch of flaming newspaper and prepared to blow a fireball, something he'd done with the band before.
"I guess he used 151 as his, uh, medium," States recalls. "And some of it dribbled out of his mouth and down his chin. It was actually his shirt that caught fire, which is why he has those scars on his neck. His hands fly to his face; he jumps offstage and starts running blindly through the crowd with visible flames licking his face, shedding flaming bits of mask." Szufnarowski received skin grafts, spending several weeks in a Nevada burn ward. He has not blown fireballs since.
Last year, Szufnarowski joined Tragedy, a heavy-metal Bee Gees tribute, playing cowbell and tambourine while acting as lead hype-man. When Tragedy leader Phil Costello discovered Szufnarowski's newest tattooa unicorn fucking a dolphin in front of a rainbow, which serves as the Rocks Off logohe invited the promoter to join his already-named all-originals outfit, Children of the Unicorn, who are something like a heavy-metal Bee Gees tribute without the Bee Gees songs. At a Mercury Lounge gig in January marking the release of the Unicorns' self-titled debut, Szufnarowski appeared first in a shirt that read "My other ride is a unicorn." Stripping, he revealed successive layers of clothing with slogans that included "I [Heart] Dick" and "Dolphins are gay sharks." During the 40-minute set, he humped the stage, a floor tom, a tambourine, andafter he ripped his pants offhis cowbell.
If Szufnarowski is a completely capable promoter behind the scenes, his public persona is to be a drunken douchebag. He does it stunningly well, though, making both of his bands quantifiably more entertaining through his presence. Even more impressively, he still manages to be likeable. This impulse is perhaps central to his work, the mission he first learned at Wetlands: Cause a scene. Literally.