Jerry Davich: Kidnapped dreams? Captain Ambivalent to the rescue
Jerry Davich firstname.lastname@example.org October 28, 2012 11:54PM
Dan Biemer of Valparaiso performs as Captain Ambivalent. | Sun-Times Media
Meet the Captain
To contact the Captain, or to hire him for a gig of most any kind, call 763-6456, visit his website at
ambivalent.com, or find him on Facebook.His next gig is 7 p.m. Nov. 30 at Cornucopia Coffee Co., 210 E. Lincolnway in downtown Valparaiso (cover charge of $5). I’ll be there, and I hope you are, too.
Updated: November 30, 2012 6:11AM
Captain Ambivalent hustled into Billy Jack’s Cafe and Bar hauling his beloved but bulky “accordion of sparkly gold.”
It was open mic night on this Wednesday evening at the Valparaiso watering hole and the Captain, aka Dan Biemer, wanted to be the first musician to perform.
No worries there; he was the only musician to perform on this slow night. Plus, with game one of the World Series playing on a TV over the bar, he was just about the only person in the joint.
A handful (minus a finger or two) of customers sat at the bar oblivious to the Captain as he set up shop in the darkened corner. He was flanked by two portable speakers, a neon beer sign and yet an aura of super-hero invincibility.
“Good evening, I’m Captain Ambivalent, your host, emcee and probably the only performer here tonight,” he told the, ahem, crowd, via his microphone headset.
Then he ripped into a rollicking version of his hit song “Pizza Girl” about a group of nerdy guys who regularly order pizza and pretend to enjoy NFL games in order to get a glimpse of an attractive pizza delivery girl.
“She’s cute, she brings pizza,” he sings loudly, cutting through the silence. “That makes her the woman of our dreams. Oh, pizza girl!”
As I watched the Captain sing his heart out to, essentially, no one, that last line of “Pizza Girl” hit home for me, and maybe it will for you, too. Today’s column is about dreams. Lost dreams. Failed dreams. Wayward dreams. Realized dreams. Silly dreams. Youthful dreams. Resurrected dreams.
Did you once have a dream for your life? Do you still? If not, why not?
The Captain, who’s 47 and lives in Valparaiso, had a dream several years ago of quitting his day job and playing accordion on the road. For 20 years, he worked in litigation support and electronic discovery at the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block, trying to pursue a musical moonlighting gig on the side. In the demanding 24/7 business culture, something had to go.
“I decided music was more important, and I resigned at the end of 2010,” he told me.
Yes, that’s right. He quit his high-paying day job in the middle of a scary economy to play his accordion and finish his only CD, “Fear the Accordion.” (You can’t make up this stuff, I tell you.) He figures he has maybe another year or so to find a music-compatible way to make a daily buck again. In other words, to live his dream.
“My day job failed the Amish test. Ah, but playing the accordion is really what I like best,” he sings in one of his catchy, homespun songs.
The Captain is a self-described “nerd rock singer-songwriter” whose music is influenced by the style of They Might Be Giants, Weird Al Yankovic, and Jonathan Coulton. While listening to him perform, I’m immediately reminded of They Might Be Giants, whose wacky and whimsical music burrows its way into your ears and memory.
Captain Ambivalent’s music has the same effect.
Halloween love song?
For his CD, he enlisted long-time collaborator Mark Frey (of the 1990s Buffalo band Riley) to join him in a virtual studio, creating the lively accordion, drum and tuba-based sound they labeled as “oom-punk.” (Imagine adding a little punk to a polka’s “oom-pah.”)
The result is a “whimsical journey through romantic, commercial, corporate, and pop cultural ambivalence, inspired by real life conversations, dreams, and email exchanges, appealing to fans ages 4 to 74,” its liner note says.
“I’m haunted by Waffle Houses at night in my dreams,” he sings in one infectious song. (Notice another “dreams” reference.)
In another song, he sings: “She loved me, now she’s gone, and now I’m on my own. Her heart was hard and cold, like a frozen burrito,” from the aptly named song “Frozen Burrito.”
At Billy Jack’s, with sweat dripping down his face from having to manhandle his 35-pound, 70-year-old accordion, the Captain introduced his next ditty as “a Halloween love song.”
“If I were a pirate ninja zombie, you would love me, and I’d love you. If I was a zombie, I’d refuse to eat your heart,” he sung happily, pulling and twisting his old squeeze box like stubborn old taffy.
Although he has developed an Internet following across the country, the Captain mostly enjoys his ongoing “I-65 Tour” from Northwest Indiana to Louisville.
He also launched the “Accordion Ray,“ a music video and website allowing users to paste his iconic “Accordion of Gold” onto any unsuspecting photo of friends or public figures.
Even his musical back story is amusing, dubbed, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Accordion.”
It all began with late 1960s movie musicals he sang as a kid on road trips before making up his own songs. Later, his two first album purchases influenced him — Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” and The Cars’ “The Cars.” He loved the words of the former and the sound of the latter.
The young Captain took classical piano lessons but never learned to read chords, or perform well enough to play and sing at the same time. When a beloved great-aunt died, he wound up with her accordion and some cassette tapes.
“I thought Frank Yankovic was OK but I couldn’t take the Lawrence Welk stuff,” he says.
His musical career has taken a lot of twists and turns since then, including performing on small electronic toy instruments and other makeshift instruments. But how could he perform his songs live? If only there were some sort of keyboard-like instrument he could play and sing at the same time. Exactly, the accordion.
He ditched his aunt’s accordion and made the “fateful pilgrimage” to the Italo-American Accordion Co. where he found his Accordion of Gold. With Frey’s tuba playing, the new genre of Oom-Punk was born. And his dream resurrected.
Maybe his wacky, funny, insightful and, of course, ambivalent music will rekindle your own dream, whatever it may be.
As the Captain himself sings in “You Can’t Sing, You’re Ugly, and the Sixties are Over,” “I may not have money but at least I’ve got a dream.”