(I was the singer/ songwriter for a band called the Chainsaw Kittens which began in 1989 after my band Defenestration had imploded. These posts are about that time and the times after when I worked in advertising in NYC and then later still when I ran a boarding school in Shanghai. In many ways, because of everything I ingested as a youth, I am lucky to be alive and I know that. Enjoy the read. My latest single is available at jettplasticrecordings.com.)
In the late spring of 1994, a miracle worthy of the saints, Mother Mary and Jean Genet, came to be. The rock and roll guardian angel overseeing my band Chainsaw Kittens’ destiny pulled some electric harp strings in heaven.
Iggy Pop invited the Kittens on a short tour, which was to crisscross America. Some of the places we were to play were where Iggy’s concerts had been banned and the ban was now lifted. As we know, there was a time when Iggy loved to pull out his iguana (or trouser lizard) on stage and wave it in the crowd’s faces or go beyond that and strip down to nothing but a microphone. This promptly got him banned from many cities across the continental USA. These upcoming ban-lifted shows were to be the hot ticket of the season.
As anyone in the music industry knows, Iggy is famous for inviting young bands on the verge of stardom on tour. Jane’s Addiction is the most famous band that comes to mind that once shared the touring stage with the Ig before their ‘Addiction’ packed concert halls.
At this point, Pop Heiress, the Kittens’ bombastic pop masterstroke, was newly released on Mammoth through Atlantic. Mammoth hired publicity powerhouse Susan Blond Inc., the publicity company founded, of course, by Susan Blond, who is said to be the inspiration behind the New Yawk publicist in This Is Spinal Tap.
“Tyson, I love your band,” Susan told me on the phone when she called my ramshackle cannabis cave in Norman. “I see big things for you. I have been playing your record for everyone. I just love it. You are going to be a star. I will make sure of that.”
One of the people for whom Susan played our record and gushed was industry magnate Lisa Robinson, with whom I was familiar from her days as the editor – and co-creator – of Rock Scene Magazine, the magazine that forever changed my life the summer before my 7th grade year.
Rock Scene Magazine – produced on a wee budget attested to by the newsprint on which it was printed – was a somewhat playfully subversive rock and roll culture magazine out of NYC with an advice column written by Wayne County.
Wayne advised boys to wear make-up; advised party throwers to throw underwear-only parties in which everyone traded underwear during the course of the party; advised starving musicians to beg, steal or borrow music equipment, anything to get that rock and roll band started. To say this magazine and this view of New York culture in some way had an effect on me in my later years is an understatement. Of course, Wayne County later became Jayne County and later still became a friend of mine but then of course, that is another story, the story of Sweet Saint Jayne who saved me from an advertising conglomerate which you can read about in an earlier post.
Lisa Robinson, who introduced the Ramones to Howie Stein at Sire and his (then) wife Linda, was now in our corner. She was a rock and roll heavyweight. Among other things, she had a high profile column in the New York Post in which she gushed about the Kittens. This is the woman who was the first to do major stories on mega-rockers Aerosmith. She imagined them as big stars when Clive Davies first signed them on at Max’s Kansas City in NYC, back when they were still surviving on peanut butter and smack.
She was now a major fan of the Kittens. There was a whirlwind of rock and roll activity swirling around us. We were in the eye of the rock and roll hurricane that had just swept up our friends the Smashing Pumpkins. We were about to set sail into that hurricane of candy apple excess.
We had been in the New Faces section of Rolling Stone after releasing our previous record, the Butch Vig produced Flipped Out in Singapore. Now, we had our picture in the New York Times, an article in the New York Post. I was profiled in Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine; when this came out, family members actually asked me for autographs.
Finally, after years of struggling and shuttling across the country in dilapidated vans, the Kittens had finally arrived—or at least we were in the parking lot, getting out of the car and heading into the party. We were getting closer and closer to stardom. Everyone around us were telling us we were the next big thing.
On top of all of this, we were touring with Iggy Pop, whom I had discovered when I bought my first Rock Scene Magazine at Bill’s Supermarket in Bartlesville while grocery shopping with my mom back in the early days of summer 1974. One of my favorite things to do as a kid was go grocery shopping with my mom, just her and me. My brothers had their motorcycles at this point, so they never accompanied my mom and me to town. They saw it as lame. They were independent.
Sabbath was their soundtrack. Mine was still undetermined. This was the summer that I would discover – with the help of Rock Scene – the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Sparks, Queen, White Witch and a slew of others.
When I went grocery shopping with my mom, she would spoil me somewhat and let me buy a rock magazine (usually Hit Parader until I discovered Rock Scene) and any sorts of snacks that I wanted. As a kid, I was anemically skinny, though I had a hearty appetite. My mom let me eat anything just to try to put some weight on me. She and I roamed the aisles of the grocery store putting anything new and improved in the basket. This is after I had picked out my magazine, which I carried. I never put it in the basket lest milk or something sticky might leak on it. At the checkout while the groceries were being tallied, I would look at the Friday and Saturday night listings in the TV Guide, specifically I would look to see who was going to be on In Concert, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and Midnight Special. With any luck, one of the aforementioned bands would be the guests.
In Rock Scene, there was always some little tidbit or other about Iggy. He was always in party shots with Alice Cooper, Groucho Marx, or John Lennon. Raw Power had just been released. He was set to take over the world.
With apple picking money, I bought Raw Power at Larceny Whipsnake’s Music Parlour in downtown Bartlesville. My family lived on ten acres in Osage County seven miles from Bartlesville. On our acreage, my dad – before I was born – had planted an apple orchard. To make extra money in the summer, I would pick apples for people from town who drove out to our farm for freshly picked apples. I received $5 a bushel. Sometimes, I would make $20 or $30 in a weekend, which allowed me to buy four, five or six records.
Larceny Whipsnake’s was in business for less than a year but the place burned an impression on my brain that has stayed with me vividly my whole life. In an old brick storefront with a small balcony on Main Street in downtown Bartlesville, this was a magical place for me.
Inside were wood floors and always the smell of sandalwood incense, coming from an incense stick burning propped in the mouth of a funny little ceramic old man’s head on big wooden counter, the counter that was the center of the Larceny Whipsnake world, that housed the wonderfully loud hi-fi. This was in the front of the store and the first thing you saw when you walked in or if you were out on Main Street passing by the store. Looking back, I cannot imagine what people thought that walked by or even stopped in who had just been shopping down the street at Otasco or Kinney’s Shoes or the Woolworth. This place reeked of counter culture though I had no idea of that at the time.
Beyond the counter, in rows, were floor to ceiling two by four columns with long carpenter nails driven partly through them. The albums sat in rows from floor to ceiling on these nails as if this was an art gallery and the record jackets were the art.
Larceny Whipsnake carried no Osmonds or David Cassidy records. Atomic Rooster, Lucifer’s Friend, White Witch, UFO, the Groundhogs, and Roxy Music records lined the walls. Since you could find Beatles records at Montgomery Ward, he did not carry them. Instead, he carried the Who catalogue and the older more obscure Stones’ records. Larceny Whipsnake had only one copy of each album. I meandered back and forth down the rows of this aural library as if I had been given special permission to invade the alchemist’s secret, highly magical, lair where there was a wonder around every corner.
While I spent my time looking at Jobriath, Eno, Bo Hansen, John Martyn, and David Werner albums, my mother would do her downtown shopping at JC Penney’s or Martin’s or Anthony’s shopping for clothes. Since most of my shopping at Larceny’s took place in the summer – the summer before my seventh grade year — Mom would usually buy herself a summer clothing item or two, like culottes or gauchos. She could leave me at Larceny’s all afternoon to go shopping, but when she came back to get me, I would still feel rushed. I could never make up my mind. Should I buy Bowie’s Pin-ups or UFO’s Phenomenon or even Groundhogs’ Split?
Early on, I knew I did not fit into a cookie cutter, ‘Go Team’ world. Any extra money, I spent on rock and roll, which made my dad grumble severely to my mom and me. At one point, Larceny Whipsnake’s girlfriend asked me:
“Where do you get all of your money? Do you rob banks?”
This made me smile. I suppose it was a bit odd for an 11 – nearly 12 – year old to come and buy three or four underground rock and roll records. As I said earlier, I picked apples for cash. One bushel of apples equaled one record.
That day, I would buy only one, and that was Iggy Pop’s Raw Power. The album looked as if there were magic inside ready to break forth and conquer the minds of the willing. The magi on the cover, Iggy, had the look of a distant shaman surveying, ready to educate the sadly schooled misfits abused by a puritanical system of paranoia and fear. He was not one of the sheep. He was looking for others who were ready to shed their sheep’s skin. I was ready and willing.
Yes, I was quite sure, Saint Iggy, the performer of miracles with broken glass and peanut butter, was ready to rescue me, if only for 35 or 40 minutes at a time, from the tedium of youth and from football players and Baptist preachers’ scowling daughters. Iggy would come on his rock and roll spaceship and take me to some strung out glam rock netherworld.
Now, many years later, my band, which I had built on sweat and vomit, were about to tour with Iggy, the mythical. He personally chose us. We drove from Norman, Oklahoma to Seattle, Washington for our first show with this figure that loomed larger than life in my mind. Although the Kittens had toured with Johnny Rotten at this point (which was an earlier post), Iggy was a much bigger part of my rock and roll misfit psyche.
Finally, I was meeting this mythic character, this shamen, Bowie’s muse, the original punk. Of course, I was intimidated and the 12 year old me shook like a leaf but at the same time was vindicated. I was now proud that I was the misfit that stood out in junior high school.
“Hi Iggy! I’m Tyson,” I introduced myself to the shaman of shamans in the dressing room after Iggy’s set. Needless to say, I was nervous.
“I know you, Tyson!” he said, and shook my hand and smiled that cat with a canary in his stomach smile.
“I saw you many years ago near my hometown in Oklahoma,” I continued.
“Oh, they won’t let me come back to Oklahoma,” he said a little sheepishly. I had seen him in 1980 at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. This did not end pretty.
“Oh, we love you there!” I assured him, which was all I could think to say.
“Ya’ know, I getta lot of nice letters from people in Oklahoma,” he told me in a sort of guttersnipe fatherly way, “with names like Spike.”
“Oh, this is my friend, by the way.” At that point, Iggy introduced me to a cute guy with short hair who looked like a boy scout. He looked completely out of place in the backstage atmosphere of sweaty, greasy, long-haired rock and rollers, and I wondered how he knew Iggy. At that point, a photographer was there; we were getting our picture taken for Rolling Stone’s Random Notes.
“Hey Evan,” Iggy called to his friend, “get in the picture with us.”
There the three of us posed for Rolling Stone. It was not until the next day when I talked to our publicist at Susan Blond, Inc, that I realized that Iggy’s friend was singer-songwriter Evan Dando, the main dude in the Lemonheads. Up until that time, Evan had always had long, straight rocker hair. With his shorn locks, he’d looked totally different. He no longer looked like the rocker allegedly banned from Paramount Hotel in NYC for using his feces to paint the wall of his suite. Now, he looked like the leader of the pep squad or the star of a high school tennis team.
The next night, in Vancouver, the guys and I were sitting at a table, stoned, in the balcony of the large ballroom and club. Up until that point, the moment-to-moment happenings had not really hit me as anything special. However, that night, watching Iggy (and you must remember that this was a few years before Trainspotting made the 1977 underground classic “Lust For Life” an aboveground hit which reignited Iggy’s career) and sitting in the balcony, I realized how perfect it was, how cool life could be sometimes.
Here I was this farm boy who grew up listening to Iggy out on a farm in Oklahoma and now I was opening shows for him. Though I had not yet arrived, I was really starting to enjoy the ride to the stardom party. Back at that time, I had so many people around me, including Billy Corgan, telling me how big the Kittens were going to be and I naturally assumed we would be rock and roll lifers making platinum records like some of my friends but that was not to be.
And, you know, that’s okay. After I quit rocking, I sobered up. I started teaching in NYC, which led to a position in a boarding school in China and then running a boarding school in China. All of the people I’ve met and the things I have done since my rock and roll years I would not have had the chance to do if I was a career rocker. Life plays funny cool tricks on us sometimes. We should be thankful for those tricks. And, we should be thankful that Iggy Pop exists.