There are traditional metrics for measuring pop-music success: Record sales, label interest, concert attendance. While these things do matter to Steve Bodner, it would be silly to say they're his prime motivators; the Reserve resident, who's celebrating his 25th year performing under the name Damaged Pies, has other reasons for pursuing his passion these days. Like what he calls "the Kevin Bacon aspect" of touring.
"I'll try to play places that have some sort of historical significance, to me or to music history," he explains. "And I always did it with one degree of separation: Love The Beatles, play the Cavern. Love Elvis and Roy Orbison, record at Sun. And it just kept going that way. Love The Doors, play at the Whisky."
It's a sort of hands-on musical tourism he pursues -- kind of like rock ‘n' roll fantasy camp, but more real. And it's led to an impressive résumé: How many other local rockers can boast of having played Liverpool's Cavern Club, New York City's CBGB's and the Rathskeller in Boston, and having sung the national anthem at Wrigley Field before a Cubs game?
Bodner, an affable 46-year-old, toes the line between looking understatedly hip and "like a guy at a PTA meeting," as he puts it. He started Damaged Pies in 1987; the band established itself in the late '80s and early '90s while the rock scene in Pittsburgh was experiencing a growth spurt.
"We'd done a few gigs with Rusted Root, bands like that," he recalls. "You kinda felt, being in Pittsburgh when they took off, like things were really going to get going here. They and The Gathering Field are two that actually did. Everybody else was hanging out hoping it was gonna be like Liverpool in the late '60s, when Herman's Hermits finally got signed."
Damaged Pies -- the band has had numerous lineup changes, with Bodner the constant, and sometimes only, member -- identified most with the alternative scene at the time. The Left, Planet Leo and Ubermensch are all bands he fondly recalls sharing a stage with.
Life, of course, was about more than just music even as a young Bodner led Damaged Pies to what he hoped would be some level of traditional success. He spent time at Pitt and CMU, studying art, and worked a few jobs, then "did one ill-fated year in law school."
He married wife Debbie, and together they're raising a daughter, 9-year-old Stephanie. He works full time as a paralegal at a Downtown firm. But while the married-with-children phase is what sets some musicians back from pursuing their art, Bodner hasn't found it possible to shelve music.
"I've tried to limit it to -- I don't go out afterwards and drink," he says. "I've always kept it to, I rehearse, I come home. We have a gig, I come home. I figure that's the only way to do it and still maintain a marriage.
"I think it's something that isn't firing correctly in the brain," he continues, clearly only half-kidding. "That's why we keep being musicians against all odds." And he says that large-scale success is still a goal somewhere in his mind: "I don't like to admit it, because people look at you like, ‘OK, get on with your life.'"
But some people seem to think that what Bodner's been doing with his life has been worthwhile: Take Cindy Chambers, a legal secretary at the firm where Bodner works. Earlier this year, she nominated him for a Jefferson Award, an honor that recognizes individuals for their charitable work. Bodner has been active with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank for years -- first as a volunteer with the Pittsburgh Blues Festival, and more recently as a committee member for the annual Empty Bowls dinner.
Chambers says she got an email early in the year from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a local media sponsor of the awards, asking for nominations.
"I thought of him immediately," she says, noting that he regularly organizes benefit shows for the food bank, and put together Nickstock, a benefit for a boy with neuroblastoma, in 2009. "A lot of people do volunteer work, but I don't know anybody who goes all-out like that."
The nomination was accepted; Bodner will be one of this year's local Jefferson honorees.
Anne Hawkins, chief development officer at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, recalls the first time she encountered Bodner (whose work with the organization actually predates her time there).
"My first day at the Blues Festival, when I was a young, green employee here, Steve was working the second stage, and I was volunteer coordinator. I was new, and a little overwhelmed, and he came out of nowhere -- he's such a methodical, slow mover, it calmed me immediately. He never gets ruffled.
"He's just so good," Hawkins adds. "It comes out of his pores."
In 25 years, Damaged Pies have released 10 albums, many of which feature song cycles or what Bodner calls operettas. He's a professed student of The Beatles and Elton John, but his music has ranged far and wide, including what he calls a "heavy metal phase" a few years back. His latest, Popalectric, consists of four narratives: "You and I," "Popalectric" (about an AM radio station), "All God's Children Got Guns," and the ingeniously titled "Rock and/or Roll is Dead Yet Again." Some of the tunes are acoustic, heartfelt and literary; others are lo-fi, electric and garage-y.
Fri., Aug. 26, he celebrates Damaged Pies' 25th anniversary show at Club Café. He'll be joined by a Damaged Pies lineup that brings together a number of past members: drummer Mark Pintea, singers Billy Laspin and Margie Michel Pintea, bassist Jim "Shag" McCabe, and guitarist Dave Warren. The show, you might not be surprised to hear, is a benefit: Proceeds go to the Family Farm Disaster Fund.
DAMAGED PIES with Heidi Jacobs. 7 p.m. Fri., Aug. 26. Club Café, 56 S. 12th St., South Side. $8. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com