There is a disclaimer behind the doughnuts and coffee, a large card with small print positioned in the one place that everybody in the drab waiting room is likely to go, as if consuming breakfast is to waive certain legal rights. But perhaps this is what it means to put one’s fate in the hands of Judge Maria Lopez and her hyper-real television courtroom, nestled ceilingless in a Spanish Harlem soundstage, at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in November.
There is a mild gasp from the gallery as Rocks Off promoter Jake Szufnarowski is sworn in, his raised hand revealing black-painted fingernails. There is something wrong with the camera, but nobody gasps on the second take. Szufnarowski is tall and skinny, with smart glasses and a baby face that likely often prevents his ass from being kicked—a useful attribute during his semi-intentional forays into performance art. The latest is a stupid bar bet about growing one’s beard nonstop for a year in return for a year’s rent, knocked off from Knocked Up, drafted with in-joke legalese on company stationary, and taken to its most American extreme: reality TV.
Bucky, now an ex-employee, is the guy with the beard. Former Rocks Off intern Little Nicky stands behind him, an uncalled witness later edited out of existence by Judge Maria’s people. The details are just as stupid. In September, three months after making the bet, Szufnarowski fired Bucky for being “a shiftless hippie more concerned with getting hopped up on the pot-weed every day at 4:20 and playing with our Zoundz machine than he actually was at doing his work” (as he told Judge Maria). The two remained good friends. But after giving Bucky $1,000 in severance, Szufnarowski started smack-talking about how he wasn’t going to pay the rest even if Bucky’s beard made it the full year. Which is when they decided it was a good idea to settle this on court TV. Bailiff Pete looks like a “hot cop” stripper and isn’t that much more menacing when the show airs on the CW three months later. (Conveniently, you can see it now at rocksoff.com.)
Judge Maria laughs at Szufnarowski
as she dismisses the case as an “anticipatory suit,” telling them to come back in
June when one of them has actually violated the terms of the contract. “This is
a stupid bet,” she says. “How old are you
guys?” She peers over her glasses at the
shag-mulleted Szufnarowski and his woolly former employee.
“Thirty-four,” Szufnarowski answers
brightly. “How old are you?”
“I’m timeless—ageless,” Da Judge says, speaking on behalf of the doughnut-abetted
law, but the force she’s up against is just as classical: the New York impresario.
In garish contrast to DIY scene-builders like Todd P and Rubulad, Szufnarowski and his promotions company, Rocks Off, favor more old-fashioned entertainments: boats with bands (say, Motley Crue covers and a cruise to Shea), Coney Island Fun Packs (with tickets to the Cyclone, the go-karts, and a scuzzy bar called Cha-Cha’s), and straight novelty acts (for example, a wicked accordionist who can double as an Axl Rose impersonator—Corn Mo, whom Szufnarowski once managed—or Captured! By Robots, actual robots who play death metal). Also jam bands, tribute acts, and children. Mostly, Rocks Off puts on rock shows at top-tier Manhattan venues, like the Knitting Factory, the Gramercy Theater, and the Highline Ballroom. With an old-school showbiz address at 44th Street, Szufnarowski, his three full-time employees, and several interns occupy a back office at the School of Rock, where they build evenings from a veritable menagerie of local talent and national acts (the Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes will front the School of Rock All-Stars at the Highline Ballroom on February 17). Glossy flyers compete for shelf space with Mexican wrestling masks, displayed on mannequin heads.
The goal, Szufnarowski says of his five-year-old company, is “fun and money. If I love a band, it’s great. If I don’t, I can at least stand there and say, ‘All these people are having a good time because of an event I put together.’ We don’t do much indie rock, consciously, because those people don’t seem to have fun at shows.” Indie jams or no, the Rocks Off Boat Cruises— featuring everyone from Brazilian DJ Amon Tobin
to New Orleans’ Dirty Dozen Brass Band—are one of the city’s supreme summer treats, a perfect evening escape from the sweltering grid. Cruising under the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges
and past the Statue of Liberty with a gin-and-tonic in hand is so pleasant, in fact,
that the bands playing are sometimes just
A teenage hip-hop promoter (and nascent rapper: MC Jake) in Lowell, Massachusetts, Szufnarowski’s feel-goodery likely stems from the first job he had upon his 1994 emigration to Manhattan: working for the fiercely idealistic Larry Bloch at the Wetlands Preserve, Tribeca’s departed utopian club. Szufnarowski learned from Bloch that “the concert experience was not about coming to see the band who was headlining,” he recalls. “It was all about coming to a club where there was a scene going on, and you knew you could show up at 8 p.m.—even though the headliner wasn’t going on until midnight—and have an amazing time.”
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’s—a loose clearinghouse/ brand name promising awesome cover bands—are now up to their 19th installment and have spawned a host of imitators, including a company called Rock On in Boston. One recent Rocks Off–promoted evening included Unchained (“David Lee Roth–era 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 days—he 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 Szufnarowski—clad in a Mexican wrestling mask—stepped 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 tattoo—a unicorn fucking a dolphin in front of a rainbow, which serves as the Rocks Off logo—he 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, and—after he ripped his pants off—his 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.