“Smash It”: The demented, the dangerous and the disgusting Deacon Dark

By on February 28, 2016

Vintage TV sitcoms like “The Love Boat” don’t often offer up memorable one-off characters who live on for decades past their show’s original airdate, but that’s exactly what happened with heavy metal rocker Deacon Dark.

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Deacon Dark, of course, was a fictional character played by Sonny Bono, who appeared on a total of five episodes of seafaring showcase for celebrities during the ABC TV show’s ten season run, airing from 1977 to 1987 (they also had a forgettable 1990 TV movie called The Love Boat: A Valentine Voyage).

We’re guessing that no one remembers any of the other characters he played (raise your hand if you can tell us the storylines of Bono’s “Harold Nash” or “Steve Bloom” without checking IMDb).

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During Season 2, Bono actually played two roles for episode 25 (for the segment — one of three stories — called “The Sound of Silence”), which aired on a Saturday night, March 17th, 1979.

One of those was a guy named “Phil Backstrom,” who looks just like Sonny Bono and it’s this character who gets to sits beside Captain Stubing at the captain’s table in the Acapulco Lounge. During the episode we learn Backstrom, a singer-songwriter, secretly desires to write and perform soft rock ballads and actually hates performing as the other character Bono embodies: an outrageous alter-ego rock n’ roller named “Deacon Dark.”

That’s because deep down Backstrom is actually a gentle and sensitive soul, and particularly so during this episode’s boat trip because he’s fallen in love with a deaf girl named “Sara” (perhaps it was spelled “Sarah”) who can actually “feel” his saccharine-soaked piano ballads (hence the name of the episode).

Sara/Sarah, by the way, is played by an actress named Sheila Lenham, who apparently never acted again (she has no other IMDb credits, anyway). Dark’s manager is played by “Laugh-In” comedic actor Artie Johnson, and he wants Backstrom to keep the Deacon Dark act going because that’s what is putting the ticket-buying asses in the seats, so to speak.

It should come as no surprise that Backstrom eventually breaks down and plays a love song for the deaf girl called “Now That I’ve Found Sara,” which isn’t likely to make Backstrom famous or even popular, but it might bring him love, and that’s all that really matters aboard “The Love Boat,” right? (Watch the clip below).

There’s not a lot of originality to be found here, of course — seems to us like the writers Joyce Armor and Judie Neer wanted to parody both 70s-era sensitive schlocky singer-songwriters and satanic heavy metal rock singers — and the costume and makeup people didn’t have to work too hard to come up with Dark’s garish demonic look either because they pretty much just ripped off KISS bassist Gene Simmons’s full face makeup. The writers also apparently threw in a little bit of Alice Cooper’s stage theatrics too, particularly because it involves fire (Arthur Brown could have been mentioned here too, we suppose).

Today, the demonic Deacon’s face makeup seems like it may have inspired or at least prefigured the black and white corpse face makeup favored by Danish black metal bands, or perhaps even the Insane Clown Posse’s Juggalo clown face.

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We hear Backstrom’s alter ego being introduced as the “the demented, the dangerous, the disgusting Deacon Dark!,” then see him taking the stage to sing his hit song “Smash It!,” which you can watch at the clip at the top (we also learn during the episode that Dark is also known for two other songs: “Screaming Voodoo Devil Boogie Woman” and “Step, Step, Step On Toads”).

After the performance, Captain Stubing still appears unimpressed: “He’s no Jerry Vale.” (We should point out here that “The Love Boat” was one of the only hour-long American-made TV shows that consistently used a laugh track).

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Bono’s Backstrom doesn’t ham it up too much offstage in this quirky episode but Bono certainly had a sense of humor about the roles he played, appearing in movies like Airplane II: The Sequel, Troll and Hairspray (just a few among the nearly thirty roles listed on IMDb), but this has to be pretty much the most outrageous TV part Bono ever played.

During the 70s, there were quite a few TV shows that parodied KISS — including “CHiPs,” “The Incredible Hulk,” the “Scooby Doo” cartoon and others showing characters in  black-and-white face makeup — but there’s something about schlock merchant’s Aaron Spelling’s TV shows that stand apart, particularly because Spelling himself didn’t think TV should be too thoughtful. He even told one interviewer (around the time of his show “Charlie’s Angels”) that he thought “People have enough to worry about. I don’t think television has to preach so much. What’s wrong with sheer escapism entertainment… cotton candy for the mind?”

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The amazing thing about all of this, however, is the fact that all these years later Deacon Dark lives on — there’s even a fan page on Facebook!

There’s also quite a few blogs online where clever writers have created entire backstories about Deacon Dark, including this one, which we’re going to excerpt here (click on the link and read the entire thing, though, it’s pretty great):

Rolling Stone magazine provided what was probably the most detailed account of Deacon Dark’s early end. As Rolling Stone columnist Hunter S. Thompson (who had been traveling on and off with Deacon Dark since 1973) wrote, Deacon agreed to appear on the first ‘70,000 Tons of Metal’ cruise in November 1975.

Somehow, during that cruise, the Christian Coalition and Family Foundation managed to infiltrate Deacon’s camp with a morally correct (and, admittedly, anatomically interesting) young evangelist known only as ‘Sarah.’ Thompson said ‘Sarah’ was certainly a knockout, but had no personality whatsoever.

Thompson was sure she was an android, or, as he called her, a ‘Fembot.’ Promising disease-free, conversation-free (‘Sarah’ was allegedly deaf) bosomy bliss, ‘Sarah’ cornered Deacon Dark in his cabin and brainwashed him with her endless Bible verses and teary-eyed disapproval of Deacon’s life and music.

Hunter Thompson tried to intervene with an emergency airlift of drugs, but the SarahBot was also a martial arts expert; she broke both of Thompson’s collar bones and threw him into the sea (it was only with the help of some friendly dolphins that Thompson survived, but that’s another story).”

In the caption provided with this Youtube clip, we learn what happened to Phil Backstrom’s solo career: “Phil has written this love song for his new woman, a deaf passenger aboard the Pacific Princess Cruise lines. She convinces him that his loud rock n’ roll music was no good, thus prompting this sappy, maudlin tune. This marked the beginning of the end for Deacon’s musical career. The public by large, rejected the ‘serious’ Deacon Dark. After only one LP, his contract was canceled and Sarah left him and filed a palimony suit for half of his entire life-time earnings.”

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.