To most Penn students, Kenn Kweder is known as the familiar guitar player who performs at Smokes’ every Tuesday night. Yet he is as much of a staple of the Smokes’ experience as he has been of the Philadelphia music scene at large over the past three–plus decades. Kenn Kweder’s legendary rock star life was captured in Adventures of a Secret Kidd: The Mass Hallucination of Kenn Kweder, a feature length documentary about his life story and influence on Philadelphia music culture.
The film was presented last Friday at the International House on 37th and Chestnut Streets, just blocks away from the heart of Penn’s campus. The audience alone was telling of Kweder’s relatively large fanbase—the theater was packed by the show’s start for the 3 p.m. matinee, the 7 p.m. show only promising bigger crowds. Minutes after the documentary began, the theater started to feel like a live Kweder show. Audience members were laughing, cheering at their favorite songs, applauding as each song came to an end and singing every word.
Throughout the duration of the two–hour film, Kweder’s persona was vividly portrayed. All of the stereotypes and clichés that surround the rock star personality are true for Kweder—always drinking, always on drugs, always cursing, always chasing a dream. When asked about his mother’s failure to break into the music business, Kweder replied, “She sounds like she missed out on something. I’m gonna follow through on that.” But what separates Kweder from other famous musicians of his generation is his relationship with his fans. His own “star quality” was characterized as one that prioritizes a constant running dialogue with the crowd.
Kweder’s impact on Philadelphia was not just apparent in the size of the audience, but evident in the story of the
documentary as well. Described
in the film as the “quintessential Philadelphia musician,”
Kweder has been playing at
bars throughout Philly for the entirety of his career. Though Smokes’ is the gig Penn students know best, Kweder can be found playing his guitar at any of a number of bars four nights out of each week. Kweder’s older fans view his shows as an escape from life, where they can go after work to enjoy a cold drink and good music. Interspersed between interviews were shots of all of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods set to Kweder music.
Even more heartwarming than stories of Kweder’s impact on Philadelphia were stories of his impact on Penn. Though subtle, the film highlighted one of the most interesting aspects of the dynamic between Kweder and Penn: While most Philadelphians view Kweder as a local celebrity just out of reach, Penn students view him as their weekly entertainment and friend, often sharing drinks with him and always standing within arm’s length at his shows. The documentary included footage of Smokes’ Tuesday nights, with seniors standing close to one another and to Kweder, jumping around and singing with the same intention of letting go that his older fans carry.
Kweder joked in the film about how frequently he parties with Penn students. He mentioned how college kids like to chest bump and bemoaned the experience of doing so with student athletes at the bar. “When an athlete who is four decades younger than you jumps into your back, it hurts,” he laughed. He even discussed speaking at Wharton and relaying the message that success comes in the form of happiness, not wealth.
Kweder’s reputation is complex—famous to some, friend to others, loved by all. Perhaps his legacy is best described by how he views himself: “I’m like the most unknown guy in the city, but everybody knows me.”