Brad Galer plants his feet firmly apart like a linebacker anticipating the snap of the football, grabs the stage mike with his right hand and launches into a punk rock version of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” as the chopping, pulsating beat of his band kicks in behind him. It’s immediately apparent that this is not your classic Creedence version, as Galer spits out a bad-boy style, growling out the lyrics.
This is not the Dr. Bradley Galer that most of his medical research colleagues would recognize when he gives conference-room presentations on the pharmacological pathways of a new pain medication or the statistical relevance of side effects noted in an ongoing clinical study.
“I’m losing my voice,” Galer, 49, clad in work shoes, black Tee and jeans, says as he takes a sip of Rolling Rock (“the band’s beer”) between songs at a practice session in the pool house of his Pocopson estate. But in a couple of minutes he is—to quote classic rocker Bob Seeger—”playing star again.” He attacks The Kinks” classic “All Day and All of the Night” as frontman for the Pharmers, a pure punk group made up of a male lead guitarist, male drummer, and female bass guitarist, all of whom work in the pharmaceutical industry and who are all careening toward middle age.
The Pharmers are not alone.
Long after any adolescent dreams of signing record contracts or playing Yankee Stadium have faded into graying temples, there are dozens of local, shall we say, “old boy bands” who rehearse in residential basements and rec rooms getting ready for gigs at neighborhood beer bashes, friends’ birthday parties, or for minimal-pay weekend dates at local wineries and social clubs.
“I always wanted to play the guitar,” says 47-year-old Marcus Wilson, “and five years ago my wife put a 6-string acoustic guitar under the Christmas tree. A year and a half later, I bought a Taylor and started taking lessons.” Today Wilson, CEO of the Wilmington-based HealthCore subsidiary of WellPoint, rocks out, covering Tom Petty, the Cranberries, and Carrie Underwood at company parties as part of a revolving set of musicians collectively known as the Usual Suspects.
Of course, some bands have members who long ago lost their amateur status, though never really making the big bucks. “All of us have played ‘professionally’ at one point or another,” says Rick Ziesing, 59, who handles keyboards for a band that sometimes practices in the basement of a small building near Kennett Square where his Red Oak Press is located.
“I think the driving force is that, once you have played in an ensemble, the sheer rush of that intimacy and interaction in real time is hard to give up,” he says.
Most old boy—and girl—bands pick up parts like amoebas joining, and members often play with several different groups.
A couple of months before their pool house rehearsal, three of the four Pharmers sit around over dinner at Bistro on the Brandywine and reminisce about how the band “coalesced” in 2002.
“I’ve been in bands since college,” Galer says. Although he makes a great punk singer, he has no musical training and can barely bang a tambourine.
“When I was a student, I always had this rosy view of what it would be like to be in a punk band.” It says something about Galer’s leadership skills that he convinced real student musicians to form a band with him as their lead singer. But he became a player without a band when he moved to this area as a top Endo Pharmaceuticals exec, hired to lead what became the company’s wildly successful commercialization of “pain patch” medication.
“I got this call to go to Brad’s office one day,” says Darren Dorman, the band’s drummer and at that time a mid-level employee at Endo. “I thought, what have I done wrong? Am I going to be fired?” Dorman recalls between bites. “Brad closed the door of his office, got that gleam in his eyes, and said, ‘People tell me you play in a band.'”
Across the table, Laurie Bailey, a neighbor of the Galers, smiles. She had some musical training and occasionally sat in as the band began to form, gaining and losing its musicians as quickly as a baseball team during free agency. “They had lost a player, and they needed a bass. I said, ‘How hard can that be?'” and the Pharmers had a rising bass guitarist.
The Pharmers’ coming-out party was during an Endo drug launch meeting (Galer now works at another firm), so he had some major clout in the company. “I convinced [them] to let us play at the party,” he says. More than a few employees, including the company CEO, watched in surprise, perhaps even shock, as the exec they had known only as their research guru turned into a growling punk rocker. The Pharmers have played a lot of gigs since then, but their apex was probably a date at the House of Blues in Boston a few years back when Galer was presenting a medical paper at the American Pain Society.
These days things are a bit more sedate. Peter O’Neill, an accomplished musician who plays lead guitar and takes mellow songs like “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and twists them into punk anthems, couldn’t make the dinner because he was at home on “baby duty” with his first child.
While the Pharmers all work in the same industry, Ziesing’s no-name band is a more eclectic brew. In recent years, Ziesing has become involved with artisan printing and communications, but his priors include a stint as financial services consultant and owner/frontman for the long-ago Wilmington restaurant and bar, Oscar’s. (He also takes social event photos for this magazine.)
Other members of his band include a farrier, psychologist, contractor, retiree, computer consultant, and building supplier.
“We all grew up about the same time,” Ziesing says, so the band plays a lot of classic rock and R&B. “We also do some newer stuff, like Lyle Lovett, because he’s a genius, and Steely Dan, because it’s so difficult to play. But anyone can bring in a song, and, if it’s pretty familiar, we just play it. Sometimes it’s horrid, and sometimes sublime.”
Not long after Wilson got his Christmas 6-string, he was asked to join the band of one of his employees. Early on, they sat around on kitchen chairs and just played, but at this summer’s annual HealthCore pool party, at Wilson’s Hockessin home, the Usual Suspects had a bandstand with more gleaming electronic instruments and gear than used by some of the artists whose songs they cover. On the other side of the pool, a tent covered the huge electronic board of their soundman. Yes, their soundman.
One of Wilson’s employees, Chris Hetrick, 49, came up the more-traditional route. “I had a partial music scholarship at the University of Miami,” he says, “but there were so many great players, many former students, hanging around campus and struggling to make a living.” So Hetrick eventually switched to a healthcare career and now does lead vocals and plays keyboards and occasional bass with the Usual Suspects.
Meanwhile, back at the Galer pool house, Brad Galer stomps around the stage as he ends a practice set with “Psycho Killer.” “I broke my pick on that,” O’Neill laughs. Everyone goes on break, and the pool house is quiet.