"I kinda scare people," he says. "I'm a loudmouth showoff."
To hear Nardini tell it, he is also the unrecognized founder of the original rock scene in Pittsburgh. He played his first gig in 1965, when he was 15. His bands Diamond Reo and the Tigers caused minor stirs in the '70s and '80s. Today, he's 48, still playing, and feeling ornery. "Every time I've tried to establish my supremacy, I've been denied."
"The radio. They've played everybody but me."
Nardini is so dissatisfied with rock radio he's turned his dial to the country station. A fan of hardscrabble troubadours like Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson, he also listens to Nashville's pop confections. Yes, the sound is overly homogenized, but Nardini appreciates the country music establishment's discrimination of artists who don't meet its standards. "In rock and roll, what happened was somebody opened the gates and said, 'Okay, we'll let you play.' You didn't have to earn your way. There's a whole lot to be said for learning your history and your craft."
Alternative music, in other words, was the worst thing that happened to Norman Nardini. He refers to the rise of bands like Depeche Mode and R.E.M. as like waking up in "Bizarro world." Strutting was out, moping was in. Nardini, though, isn't buying the cardigan sweater-as-sincerity pap. He thinks Michael Stipe is as big a poseur as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in their bloated heyday. "You have a whole country full of geeks imitating that half a sissy."
Making music is just too easy today, he complains. Any punk with a guitar, some attitude, and a few bucks can put out a record. Can't play? Bury it in distortion. Can't sing? Growl or rap. "Everybody has an album out today, but they don't put any soul into the rock and roll," he says.
His music recalls the days when whistles blew and Friday night meant something. You showed up at the bar in your lucky loafers and played your heart out. If you didn't think you were the best, you didn't belong on stage. "I have more material than anyone I've ever met," he says. "As an entertainer, I'm pretty special. I know I make people feel special when they come out. I'm kind of magic."
Nardini's latest, There Was a Time . . ., is the sound of a man wavering between curmudgeonly and nostalgic, the soulful and the redneck. He's preserved the rough but hopeful barroom sound that ruled the rusty air between the Jersey Shore and Lake Erie in the '70s and early '80s. Nearing 50 and the end of a century, Nardini wanted to look back; he writes about his mother, Pirate hero Roberto Clemente, and his hometown. "Here in Pittsburgh, P-A," he laments, "you could work your whole life and wind up down on your knees." He's singing about his stature in the local music scene, but you can bet steelworkers are tapping their cans of Iron City.
Clearly, he is proud of the record. But you get the feeling Nardini is proud of the way he butters his bread. "What can I say? People like me dictate what's going on, but if I'm not allowed to be on the radio, how can I assume my place?"
He's not one for change. Born in Pittsburgh, Nardini imagines he'll die there, despite his treatment by the intelligentsia. He's been with the same woman for 23 years and his drummer almost as long. He refuses to get a straight job. "I've tried to make my own system and failed miserably. But I've never turned around and stopped doing what I wanted to do ... I'm a lifer. I've never considered stopping."
After tending to his ill father and suffering real-estate headaches for the last year and a half, Nardini plans to play more often. As always, no compromises, no ass-kissing. "Hopefully, one day people will realize who I am and what I've been, and realize I'm a serious motherfucker."
Norman Nardini. 10 p.m. Saturday, December 19, Wilbert's Bar & Grille, 1360 West 9th Street, 216-771-2583, $5, Ticketmaster. 216-241-5555.