Wednesday, January 20, 2010

KENNE HIGHLAND: Rock’n’Roll Superstar?

Original text by Tom Bingham, 1980
New introduction by Robert Barry Francos, 2010
© 2010 FFanzeen
Live photos © Robert Barry Francos (to come); album Images from the Internet


The word “cult artist” was created for people like “Krazee” Kenne Highland. He’s been in – or created – more groups than I can remember, such as the seminal Gizmos, the Kenne Highland Klan, the Afrika Korps (and its follow-up, the Korps), the Hopelessly Obscure, Kenne Highland and His Vatican Sex Kittens, Johnny and the Jumper Cables, the Exploding Pidgins, and Thee Psych-O-Daisies. I had the opportunity to hang out with Kenne a number of times during the early ‘80s up in Boston, and had a blast. He helped me understand what it means to thrive on I-IV-V.

These days, he’s sobered up, found religion of some sorts, and goes by Kenneth. But he has not lost his coolness, for sure, and he is back to performing and hopefully recording. And now here is the Tom Bingham interview, which appeared in the Number 4, May-June issue of
FFanzeen. Obviously, Web sites were added later on.

Ken Highland is a unique figure in rock’n’roll fandom.

His dedication to the music and to his concept of fan-as-contributor to the music has remained unswerving since the first golden era of fanzines in the early ‘70s. In an era when fanzines were devoted on one hand to documenting rock’n’roll from the ‘50s and ‘60s, on the other to serious analysis of then-contemporary rock, Ken’s Rock On was one of the first fanzines totally committed to the idea of rock’n’roll as fun.

But it was as co-founder, writer, singer, guitarist, and guiding spirit of the original Gizmos that Ken Highland made his most enduring mark on fandom. The Gizmos first EP on the Gulcher label (gulcher.gemm.com) both foreshadowed and transcended the then-developing New Wave.

Yet at the height of the Gizmo’s fame, Ken Highland was both physically and musically removed from the band – for the most part, tending to his duties as one of Uncle Sam’s “few good men,” yet leaving time to perform and record as a key member of the Afrika Korps, and more recently a duo (with Ken Kaiser) called the Korps.

While a lot of people know Krazee Kenne as a writer, as a Gizmo, as a Marine, as a Korpsman, as an image, little has been written about the real L/Cpl. Kenneth E. Highland; who he is, what he’s trying to do, how he got “that way,” whatever “that way” may be. The interview which follows, are his responses to my typed questionnaire.

We begin, logically enough, at the beginning:

Kenne Highland: I was born on a Monday, a day like any other day, April 2, 1956; same day Chuck Berry released “Roll Over Beethoven.” In December ’64, my parents got a D-I-V-O-R-C-E. My family atmosphere then was pretty WASP-y.

FFanzeen: As you look back, did moving about affect your eventual musical/lyrical outlook? For instance, did it expose you to different kinds of music, different sorts of people and experiences, etc.? I guess what I’m looking for is an “explanation” of how Ken Highland developed into Krazee Ken / Kenne “Gizmo” Highland.

Kenne: Yeah, moving about had one major influence on me and did kinda cause a chapter in my life. See, down south, I was exposed to what my parents listened to, which was typical Republican MOR like Ray Conniff, my homie Mitch Miller (from Rochester!), et al., plus my father liked Ray Charles and they also got into the early ‘60s clean-cut folk revival (heavy on the Peter, Paul and Mary, and Brothers Four LPs). Plus, my mother likes pre-Beatles ‘60s schlock a lot, which is why she grooves to all Kenny Kaiser’s tunes in that genre.

When I moved up north [to Brockport, NY, which is near Rochester], all I knew of the Beatles was that my mother and brother had heard “She Loves You” on the car radio one morning after they’d dropped me to school; plus Halloween, my neighbor gave me a Beatles bubblegum-with-card. So here it is, December ’64, and all my girl cousins are Beatlemaniacs; and even though I was a bookish Elvis Costello clone who hated music, it did affect me. In other words, this was my first real exposure to rock’n’roll.

FF: Were you a “punk” from the start, musically speaking, or did you try a little bit of this and that before you settled on your particular vision of crazy teenage rock’n’roll?

Kenne: Nah, I wouldn’t have labeled myself a punk in the ’60s. All the true punks hung out at Ida’s Soda Shop in downtown Brockport and went to the Panther’s Den. They were the school bullies, and I was too afraid of them to even walk on the same side of the street! I didn’t really get into music till 5th grade (’66-’67 school year) when this kid Carl Tagliabue transferred to our school from New Jersey. Since we were both outcasts, we became friends (ditto John Speary and Alan Baase, who played in primeval Highland bands in high school). Carl was a true record fanatic / Beatles freak.

Come ’68 and 6th grade, I sorta became a hippy, or at least had a more liberal outlook on life and music than did the jocks and greasers in my town.

I got a paper route summer ’68, and from then on became a full-fledged record fanatic, spending all my dough on vinyl, even belonging to three record clubs at one time. The ’69 “Back to Roots” fad started, so I became an archaeologist of sorts, discovering who did the originals to all those oldies the Beatles covered, then buying ‘em. ‘Seventy was my most eclectic year – I was into the “underground” sound: oldies, jazz (care of [Jack Kerouac’s] On the Road), folkies, Blues, even classical (Stravinsky, coz Zappa named him as an influence). As for becoming a “punk,” that came about due to 1) reading Nik Cohn’s Rock From the Beginning, which at first pissed me off, but later became my bible. I quoted from it when my sophomore English teacher praised all them folkies, who I dug as a hippie, but now scorned, coz I was wanting rock’n’roll; 2) buying Stooges’ Funhouse October ’71 (along with Go Bo Diddley) – at first I thought, “Are these guys serious?”, but I later loved it to death; and 3) reading the fanzine Flash #2, which again preached rock’n’roll, and to hell with heavy-metal, folkies, and all other hyphenated rock.

FF: Who would you name as the important influences in your music?

Kenne: Well, the Beatles for one; especially John Lennon – reading Hunter Davis’ biography on them [The Beatles] and how Lennon didn’t give a fuck and was just plain raunchy motivated me; that plus the Stones’ biography by, I think, David Dalton [Rolling Stones: An Unauthorized Biography in Words and Pictures - RBF], coz Jagger and the rest hated gym class as much as me and didn’t give a fuck. I’d also cite Bob Dylan in his speedfreak stage, coz of his bizarro lyrics, and Chuck Berry, and later on, MC5 / Stooges / Velvets / Dolls.

FF: Have your influences been drastically changed by the recent New Wave explosion?

Kenne: My influences weren’t drastically changed by the New Wave really. In fact, I resented the fuckers coz they were doing exactly what I was doing; only I was in boot camp and unaware.

FF: Do you feel the Gizmos in some way influenced the New Wave, since they were in it practically before anyone else?

Kenne: Naaah. Half the fuckers were heavy-metal dope-smoking hippies and coulda cared less! We were really too isolated to copy anyone, except maybe the Dictators and Patti Smith, coz they said anyone could be a rock star and make an album, so fuck it, we made a record.

FF: The world’s first exposure to Ken Highland was as a fanzine writer / publisher. How did you come to make the transition from rock’n’roll writer to rock’n’roll performer? Was this something you’d planned to do all the while, or did your move to Bloomington, Indiana, and your linking with Bob “Bear” Richert and Eddie Flowers somehow set things into motion?

Kenne: First things first, here. First off, I was a fucking musician before I was a writer! In ’69, I played guitar twice – my cousin had a Japasonic which I attempted to play the Sgt. Pepper’s theme on; goddam thing was so outta tune, it worked with open strings! That summer, my neighbor from India had an acoustic, and since I’d picked up The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan for $1.88 in a Grant’s bargain-bin in Brockport, I was attempting to do a Guthrie-ish talkin’ Blues that was on the LP (and failed!). Instead, fall of ’69, I wrote a dozen tunes in 8th grade, all Dylan / Pepper’s obscuro stuff. Memorial Day ’70, I went to John Speary’s house and his sister had a Japasonic with amp and made my first recordings; a Bo Diddley-calypso version of “Old MacDonald” (I was on piano and maracas), plus John and I co-wrote one called “Sign Collector” (covered in ’74 by O. Rex; it sounds like “Sister Ray”). I was guitar-mad now; kept bugging my mother for a guitar and she finally relented by Xmas (I’d already bought a harp summer of ’70, which I blew Dylanesquely, till the next year I learned the Blues off a Canned Heat record).

Xmas ’70, I brought my brand-new acoustic to John’s place and we made some Godz-like tapes and officially had a band we were gonna form called The Squeeze, on Orange Records (coz Les Beatles had Apple). That cellar / bedroom band lasted most of ’71, till John became a jock and we drifted apart. Instead. In 10th grade (’71-’72), Alan Baase and I played around a lot. I’d bought my first electric August ’71, and got lessons from a punk-cum-hippie (after he discovered drugs). Big Al and I had a pseudo-band, Big Dick and the Penis Erections, sorta inspired by John Mendelsohn’s Christopher Milk essay in Rolling Stone. I envisioned this band as rockandroll, doing Stones / Kinks / Bo Diddley / Chuck Berry tunes and just going mental; sort of an Iggy / Jagger lead singer, a Chuck Berry / Keith Richards lead, the all important rhythm guitar, and a Stones-ish rhythm section. All this and more led Alan and I into fanzines, inspired by Bomp and the New Haven Rock Press. I got my style of writing from R. Meltzer and co.’s “fuck-it” style and the serious critique of the hippie papers. I didn’t even wanna do a fucking fanzine, but Alan, who was pretty tall, pretty much told me I was, so we mimeo’d off Rock On on a mimeo at work, using stolen supplies. Our junior year, Alan talked me into taking lithography and we put out two offset issues of Rock On in ’73, which lead to many fanzine connections, among them Flowers and Bear [Gulcher fanzine - RBF].

I’d been pen-pals with Solomon Gruberger since fall ’71; we met and jammed June ’73 (that’s me, him and his brother Jay, who already were O. Rex). I told everyone that when I graduated, I was gonna move to NYC and become famous (never did), and instead wound up moving to Bloomington to become a rock writer, coz, as usual, I’d quit playing guitar that summer, saying “Ill never get anywhere,” etc.

FF: After the first [self-titled] EP, your participation in Gizmos’ recording sessions was severely hampered by your enlistment in the Marines. Still, your songs appeared on the next two Gizmos EPs [Amerika First, Gizmos World Tour – RBF] and your personality seems to dominate them. What’s your opinion of those two EPs? Do you feel the rest of the band did a capable job translating your intentions to vinyl?

Kenne: I think it’s pretty obvious I didn’t give a fuck about them really, coz I was officially a member of the Afrika Korps, though I'd use the Gizmo fame to further my name. It was a weird trip going through my head – I’m supposed to be in an East Coast band with old high school friends, yet the Midwest band is doing good in print (not one bad review in ’76). Anyway, I met my wife-to-be [Linda a/k/a Miss Lyn of Boston Groupie News fame: bostongroupienews.com], so I wanted to spend time with her, instead of going into the studio. I said, “Fuck it. Rich Coffee’s a better guitarist than me, [Ted] Niemiec and Flowers sang better on that first EP than me; they don’t need me.” I finally showed up though, and sang two songs, one appearing on one EP, the other on the other. I’m not too proud of the singing.

As for the other Gizmos’ performance of my tunes, at the time I thought it was better, but my fans / friends / girlfriend didn’t. I dunno, I’m still a bit insecure about myself as a performer in the musical sense. I know I can perform, but technically I can’t sing on-key, despite what Martha Hull says, and I can’t tune a guitar worth a fuck. But again, Dylan and Lou Reed are idols to some clowns (myself included), so if they get over, so can I.

With the second [formation of] the Gizmos, Bear gave me the option of being a silent partner and I didn’t give a fuck; this is essentially his trip and he kept me informed of what was happening. But again, since all I knew was Ted Niemiec, it was hard for me to relate to faceless names. Besides, my closest friends in the Gizmos were Flowers and Coffee, so wit them out, I knew what we’d envisioned as a band (to be the Stooges / MC5 / Velvets / Dolls) wasn’t gonna happen that way, coz, well, Bear ain’t that way. [It is important to note at this point that Bob “Bear” Richert has been releasing much of the early works of Kenne on CD – both Gizmos and Afrika Korps/Korps – with his Gulcher imprint, so he must appreciate what Kenne was doing back then – RBF, 2010].

Let me define Gizmo here: I met a punk-cum-hippie kid who taught me guitar, while harassing me at other times. Digger said there was this spastic kid in school, had cerebral palsy or something – legs and hands all bent – and Digger and some other punk-cum-hippies were in study hall and we usta trip [him] all the time and the other [guy] said to Digger or visa-versa, “Hey…” and he pointed to said spaz – “Gizmo.” So this individual was the original Gizmos and, mostly to harass me, I got labeled with it, coz, well…I’m left handed and have 20/200 vision and can’t play sports worth a fuck, so I am pretty spastic, but then again, I concentrated on music so’s to make these nerds eat crow! I mean, man, they’re all working factory jobs, deserted guitar playing almost altogether, still carrying that San Francisco look and being 23-24, and still living in Brockport!

FF: How did you link up with Ken Kaiser, the Grubergers, and Kim Kane to form the Afrika Korps? How did the Ken Highland songs on the Music to Kill By album come to be recorded by the Afrika Korps, instead of the Gizmos?

Kenne: I linked up with Kenny Kaiser February ’77, via a Ft. Lee, NJ, Marine named Don Buckley, who was stationed at Ft. Meade, MN, with me. Buckley’d told me about Kaiser and visa-versa, and Kaiser had read about the Gizmos in Creem. I met the Grubergers through a pen-pal correspondence in Circus mag beginning fall ’71, and, like I said, we first jammed June ’73, again doing real rock’n’roll. Covering “Louie, Louie,” Alice Cooper, Yardbirds, Who, and a Grand Funk-ish “Gimme Shelter.” We thought we were good then (I should say Solomon did – I knew we sucked), but it went along with the punk aesthetic of “so bad it’s good”), and Solomon kept saying, “We’re gonna cut a record.” So Flowers and I were in Brooklyn the month after the Gizmos, and Solomon wanted to do a record, mostly coz he was jealous, but the tape fucked up, so instead, me, him, and Jay did the O. Rex maxi-45, which is an embarrassment to me, but the Kinks second record sold 127 copies and so did this, so we were happy with our failure.

After the O. Rex fiasco (I never did like the name), we hit upon Afrika Korps in an insomniac night of KISS Alive and neo-fascism. Solomon this time said, “We’re recording an LP”: I hoped to hell it didn’t sound like O. Rex. I met Kim Kane of the Slickee Boys one night at a Ramones concert in Georgetown. Kim and I talked all night, after being introduced as mutual fans. I told Kim / Marty of our plans to record an LP and we both agreed it’ll be neat to have a “supersession” of DC peeps on the LP, and the rest is history.

We recorded the session on my off-duty weekends at Ft. Meade. See, that duty station was the greatest and it was midway ‘tween Baltimore and DC, and only four hours from NYC, so I was closer to the Grubergers than when I lived in Brockport! Solomon and I originally envisioned the LP as one side his tunes, recorded in NY and one side my tunes, recorded in DC with assorted Slickee Boys. Didn’t quite work out that way, but we did record the LP in some very violent sessions from January-May ’77.

We originally recorded in NY in January, then February-May in DC, though there was an April ’77 session in NJ, which I didn’t attend coz I was either Gizmo-ing, dating Linda, on duty, or didn’t give a fuck; and it was there we got the best sound. The other engineers were clowns who didn’t even like what we were doing; unsympathetic.

I wrote quite a few three-chord numbers as a teen (recorded both by O. Rex and Gizmos), but once I went in the Marines, I started getting more complex, more melodic, and stole quite a few heavy-metal licks, too. I went on a spree of writing fall of ’76, while stationed at Quantico, VA – I was on guard duty late at night walking in circles, so my ever-active mind just made up songs, which I’d put to music at the Kane house my next off-day.

FF: How did the Afrika Korps become a duo called The Korps? Does the Korps exist outside the studio? Will it exist past the Hello World LP?

Kenne: The Afrika Korps officially became the Korps in December ’77, when the Grubergers split from us, or us from them. I don’t like to air dirty laundry, but suffice it to say the Afrika Korps had too many egos, and like Cream and the Beatles, were too good to last. Solomon and Jay are still together and they’re planning on doing other records. I stuck with Kaiser for some unknown reason – a great loyalty battle here, coz here’s my friends not getting along, as usual, and I had to rob Peter to pay Paul, but I stuck with Kenny, much to various ex-members’ chagrin. Sure, he’s a dictator, but when you’re as irresponsible as I am…

So after the Grubergers left, we auditioned nerds from NJ for bass and rhythm guitar, and that sucked, so I had Kenny move up to guitar and share vocals, coz as Afrika Korps’ drummer, he was the best guitarist in the band. Through ads in the Aquarian, we got a drunk Puerto Rican / Italian bassist from Jersey City and an 18-year-old pothead on drums, and played one gig Easter ’78 in Kenny’s basement and that Korps went kaput that night, for other fucked-up reasons. Kenny and I toyed with various names, like the Rabbis, Eddie and the Enemas, but stuck with the Korps for commercial reasons.

The way I see it, when I get out of the Marines, he and I will reunite in Boston, get a rhythm section and do what we can. He wants to record an EP as a follow-up to Hello World, and has talked of Album #3; and Album #4 has to be Korps Alive, so…

Hello World was recorded with just the two of us (stole the idea from White Boy) doing rhythm guitar and drums, then Kenny, technical genius that he is, overdubbed most all the instruments, and me singing a lot, plus gotta add those Slickee Boys (Kim Kane pays for a third of our records, so it’s pretty obvious…)! Since I had only two off-duty weekends a month, it’s like Kenny and I would do sessions every couple of Saturdays and I’d leave all the other bullshit to him to do while I was guarding our country’s defense. I’m still not all that keen on recording; the stage is my forte.

FF: Do you feel Hello World, or at least the Highland-sung tunes, accurately reflects Ken Highland as he is today, what you’re thinking, what you want to do musically, what you’re capable of doing? And how does Martha Hull always get to sing the best cut on any Highland-Kaiser album?

Kenne: Oh, hell, yeah! Even though all the Highland tunes on World, except “Lark” (which is ’72 circa “[Pumpin’ to] Playboy,” “[We’re Gonna] Rumble,” et al.), were 1977 composed, it’s still where I’m at more than the old Giz-Korps stuff. I’m especially proud of the “Do the Touch” / “Designs on You” / “Mad at the World” / “Gotta Be Pretty” sequence, coz I wrote all of them inspired by a week straight of watching the Slickee Boys, when they had Howard Wuelfing. I’d say it’s how I am today – I write a lot of Mersey-Beaters now, inspired by “Heart On,” Graham Gouldman [10cc], and Lennon-McCartney; only I’ll always have that Iggy / Dolls rasp to my voice. What I’m thinking… Well, these Mersey-Beaters are love songs full of pronouns, like the early Beatles, so peeps can’t accuse me of too many inside jokes. My main theme is love now, mostly coz I’ve been six months separated from my wife, and it motivates her to hear love songs inspired by her, though she’s not mentioned by name. What I want to do musically? Well, I’d like to improve the sound, clean it up, but keep the balls. Kaiser and I are like Lennon-McCartney – I have the rough diamond, he polishes it, and we keep the other in check, so as not to out-wimp the other.

As for what I’m capable of doing – well, you can hear the difference (Michael Miller, who co-authored “Amerika First” says Hello World sounds like Sgt. Pepper’s compared to the last LP [Music to Kill By]), but it can still get better, though a lot of it’s Kaiser’s doing. And the reasons Martha Hull always gets to sing the best songs on any Highland-Kaiser LP is because she makes it the best song on the LP; that chick can sing! [youtube.com/watch?v=mRy9BPn3au8]

FF: What’s your next musical step? Do you have any plans to do any more recordings during the rest of your Marine hitch? Do you think you’ll be making a career out of rock’n’roll when you get out, or will it remain an all-consuming hobby?

Kenne: I plan to get the fuck out of the Marines, and again, don’t look back; get with Kaiser, get with a band, and get famous! Linda is behind me 100 percent for a musical career.

FF: Now that you’re a married man, do you think that after you’re out of the Marines you’ll settle down to a nice cozy, middle-class existence like a “normal person?” If so, will Krazee Ken still be krazee; will you still be doing songs like “Gimme Back My Foreskin” and “Nobody’s Girl,” or will you vegetate into a prematurely middle-aged mellow FMer?

Kenne: Now, goddammit, too many think that coz you’re married, you gotta get a job, have a million baby Kennes with big smiles and big heads…bullshit! Muthafucka, I’ll be rockin’ like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee and Link Wray when I’m fifty. Course, I won’t be doing “[Gimme Back My] Foreskin” / “Girl” type tunes – that was ’76; this is ’80! Naw, I see myself being like the AM stars of now, who were FM stars when I started. Like Bob Seeger – he commercialized just enough to get famous, but still screams and goes wild. Ditto KISS. When Bill Rowe and I saw Black Sheep our senior year, he said, “Ken, I like what Black Sheep is doing – that’s what we should do.” I said, “You’re fuckin’ crazy! We gotta be like Iggy and Alice and the Dolls and go wild and shit.” Guess I was wrong, huh?

3 comments:

  1. I actually met Ms Lethal one of the first times I went to Chateau Highland (aka his apt). For that alone, I am grateful to Kenneth, and that meeting was just a beginning to the many treasures that remain from that period, which also includes the Beach Boys Live and Mitch Ryder Live albums...but that's another and long story for another time.

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  2. Great piece! Kenneth (I'm still used to calling him Kenne) is the Real Deal. I have the greatest memories of us playing with him & the Vatican Sex Kittens.

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