My Rock ‘n’ Roll Barber

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First appeared in Guerilla Magazine

It all starts with the equipment. Barber Patrick Shank uses what was used on him when he was a kid. Wahl clippers, an Andis trimmer, Supercut scissors. Pinaud talc to clean off the collar, dry the skin, and prevent post-cut itching. Pinaud is French. The company was founded in 1810. The gel he uses is Lucky Tiger butch wax. The soft leather-and-steel chair that many of his customers fall asleep in is made by the venerable Theo A Koch of Chicago.

And then there are his guitars. As rock and roll performer, Patrick Shank goes for Ekos, made in the sixties by the same Italian company that made Vox guitars—the ones the Stones used. Brian Jones’s Teardrop was a Vox. Shank loves the authentic sound of the Eko. That’s the reason he also likes Paul amps, made in the ‘50s out of Montreal. Jimmy Hendrix allegedly used one prior to his big afro, big rock God phase with Little Richard.

It starts with equipment, but it’s all really about tradition.

At age twenty I went to London. Among other things I was looking for a crisp, conservative British haircut. And a shave too, with a straight-edged razor.

I went to Jermyn Street — famed for its fashionable menswear shops — figuring that if the duds were there, the tonsorial artists would be too. I was right. The barber chairs were lined against the wall downstairs at Geo. F. Trumper Gentleman’s Perfumer. Despite a sharp blade at my throat I sat here for one of the most relaxing 45 minutes of my life. I’ll never forget the feel of that post-shave breeze. My cheeks and chin were as smooth as a possum’s testicle.

Walking away I felt like a million quid. Why? Quite apart from the sensual pleasure, it was the connection with powerful male tradition that made the visit so memorable.

Since then, I’ve had plenty of stylists work the pate. One or two did a decent enough job, but mostly I wasted time traipsing through a string of purportedly unisex, decidedly feminine decors, seeking unsuccessfully to recapture the relaxed, masculine calm I’d experienced in London.

I simply needed a barber to deliver good, consistent, no nonsense, symmetrical haircuts; because hair is one aspect of your appearance you really don’t want to leave to chance. Eventually, a friend told me about the Victoria Barber shop on O’Connor, near Wellington. Against the coiffed desert, the contrast was profound. No water trickling over pebbles, no tall foamy macchiatos percolating in tune with pan flutes. Just the sound of scissor blades meeting, hair hitting the floor, and, only when solicited, the voice of Patrick Shank.

An easy bond formed between us; here was a man clearly proud of his trade, at the top of his profession. He was respectful, courteous and well informed. His job was to make me look and feel good. And he succeeeded. He, the bearer of mutton-chop sideburns and a quiet demeanor, delivered a great feeling and a great cut, just as he has continued to every time I’ve visited him over the better part of the past decade now. I can trust him. Thanks to Patrick, I’ve reconnected with tradition.

His robust faith in things time-honoured is something I’ve come to admire. And I refer here to more than his dedication to the barbering trade and how he very much looks the part, often wearing a black waistcoat over a white shirt on the job; there’s also his love of professional baseball, that most storied of sports (he’s been a devoted season ticket holder since the first minor league team came to town) and perhaps most important, his active worship of rock and roll. Patrick plays guitar and fronts a two-piece band called Shanker and Romps.

While he wears the barber’s outfit during the day, on stage in the evening he dons shirts you can button down, and trusty red Chuck Taylor All-Star hi-tops. Not that this constitutes dressing up: Patrick’s been outfitted like this since he was a kid. No fad chaser, he’s always loved rock and roll style, regardless of where it sits on the fashion scale.

Much as he took a boyhood liking to his barber (Leo, a friend of the family) and soon devoted himself to the profession, so Patrick’s appetite for ‘50s and ‘60s rock and ‘70s punk developed early, and grew into a life-long love, and the desire to form a band. He listened to the Ramones constantly, studying their chord progressions. Little Richard, the Stones, the Beatles, and most of all Chuck Berry with his Great 28 album, also had a profound impact on Shank the musician. He not only plays their music, he follows their lead by delivering good ol’ traditional entertainment complete with costumes, spectacle, and Fun. For example, one of the tunes he and Romps recently composed mentions ice-cream sandwiches in it. So, during their last appearance at Irene’s Pub on Bank street in July, out came the cool licks for lucky members of the audience.

By closely following the practices that have impressed him and proven successful for those he admires, Patrick has achieved, both as barber and musician, a supreme art: a rarity which, as the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats had it, consists of a traditional statement of truth, passed on from age to age, modified by individual genius, but never abandoned.

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