"Har Mar is my younger brother, Harold Martin," Sean Tillman told me back in 2000, not long after the release of Har Mar Superstar's eponymous debut on the Kill Rock Stars record label.
Har Mar's official press bio towed the sibling line, but I knew the story was as believable as 800-pound hermaphrodites birthing alien babies.
A few months prior, I'd met Sean Tillman when he rolled through San Diego with his band, Sean Na-Na. A fellow rock critic insisted I check out the show, promising an evening of "cock-rock glory."
In the geek-chic indie-rock world, most guys in bands sound like their balls are shriveled and tucked between their spindly legs. Cock rock sounded good to me.
At first glimpse of Tillman, I was sure that his sexuality must require collaboration from the audience-that Jagermeister shots and beer goggles were necessary to comprehend how this short, pudgy, balding white guy running sound checks on the front mic was gonna bring me sex and swagger. That guy couldn't get me wet if he spilled Schlitz on my crotch.
All that changed when he began to sing. It was as if Stevie Wonder woke up one morning and decided to play sardonic indie rock (as well as ditching his melatonin, getting an even worse haircut and developing a beer gut). And then came Sean Na Na's R. Kelly cover-Tillman sounded eerily like the R&B perv himself.
In addition-breaking every conceivable law of genetics-Tillman could dance. He showed no trace of the typical white-boy-overbite groove, throwing down tight spins and knee drops that would impress James Brown himself. Tillman unbuttoned his shirt, swung it above his head and jumped off the stage.
The girls went nuts. As he passed by with his come-hither-and-fuck-me look, I ran my finger down his sweaty chest and emitted a half-serious squeal of delight. Why the hell not? A guy with that much confidence deserves a little somethin'-somethin'.
Which brings me back to Har Mar Superstar. The first time I heard Har Mar's cocky debut, Tillman's R. Kelly cover immediately sprang to mind. And the publicity photo proved that unless Sean and "Harold Martin" were identical twins, they were one and the same.
Why the fake identity?
During interviews, Tillman was as shifty as a been-around-towner recounting his sexual history to his new virgin girlfriend. I concluded that Tillman wanted to keep the semi-serious Sean Na-Na totally separate from the novelty circus.
Har Mar's music is Casio-cheese-wizardry, sexed-up stories of player-haters and secret vasectomies over pre-programmed tracks on a pawnshop keyboard. If Bel Biv Devoe mated with Weird Al Yankovic, Har Mar Superstar would be their Ron Jeremy-resembling offspring.
Har Mar's first San Diego show was at the Che Café on April 30, 2001. I was there, along with a handful of unsuspecting punk kids. I watched as expressions of shock and doubt gave way to glee as Har Mar stripped down to his skivvies and shook his porky ass. It was, in a word, magnificent.
I chatted with Tillman afterwards (Sean, not "Harold Martin"). He gave me a poster and a handful of stickers and thanked me for coming. I told him how much I dug the show and wished him luck.
Fast-forward to 2003 and it's pretty damn obvious that luck is on Har Mar's side.
Last year, he toured with "It"-band the Strokes. At the sold-out 4th & B gig, his in-your-face performance inspired equal parts hostility and joy, especially when he dropped trou. It was utterly hilarious. Later in the evening, he filled in on lead vocals for the Strokes as a very wasted Julian Casblancas stumbled around stage incoherently.
His trip to rock stardom didn't end there. Late last year Har Mar released his second album, the polished R&B gem You Can Feel Me, on a subdivision of Warner Bros. He also penned songs for J.Lo and Kelly Osbourne, whom he accompanied to the MTV Music Awards.
Then came the rumors of mountains of coke, gorgeous models begging to hook up with him, the "New Faces of 2002" shout-out in Rolling Stone, the full-page story in Spin and an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. The pudgy guy with the pencil-thin mustache and hideous mullet has done the impossible: he's transcended from joker to genuine.
Last Friday (Feb. 21), Har Mar Superstar opened for Trans Am at the Casbah. The place was packed, and not just with pallid music geeks. Hot girls swooned and pushed toward the stage to stuff dollar bills into his Paul Frank undies. Boys laughed and cheered him on. And even though his act is really just glorified karaoke-he sings to pre-recorded beats-he got the crowd worked up like few in Casbah history. He was sweatin', they were sweatin' and everybody wanted to fuck.
These days, Tillman doesn't talk much about his alleged little brother. He simply answers to "Har Mar." After Friday's show, I saw him loading up his van and called out, "Hey Sean, great job!"
I wish I'd said "Hey Harold," just to see if he'd answer.