25 August 2011

Tonio K. addendum

The good wife still doesn't like Tonio K., by the way. "Maybe I'm just listening to him too late," she says.

Or maybe I should've gone crazy-go-nuts with the song selection instead of middle-of-the-road. In any case, I still like the mix disc.

20 August 2011

The Strange Case of Tonio K.'s 'Best-Of' Disc

The first Tonio K. I knew was the kinder, gentler one. The one who was singing keyboard-infused love-song pop. NOT the one who once semi-famously sung, to Jackson Browne, "'Fountain of Sorrow,' my ass, motherfucker, I hope you wind up in the ground."

AllMusic.com calls the Tonio K. I was listening to the "post-conversion" version. As in, conversion to Christianity. But if you look at his early stuff ("Dear John," is a rather endearing letter to John the Baptist), it's clear he was always a believer. Just one who didn't mind spitting curse-infused venom to purge his demons.

So who the hell is he? He's a former member of Buddy Holly's Crickets — well after that plane crash, when the band was a tribute act. But his proper career began in the late '70s when he released a

couple of raucous, angry major-label records. These were big, loud songs, with K.'s husky, car-mechanic voice espousing bits of philosophy and arts criticism atop music that was punk rock as filtered through both Mellencamp and Meat Loaf. Stereo Review magazine called one of these records, or maybe both of them, "the greatest album ever recorded." But that didn't equal hit songs. In the '80s he tried again, this allegedly post-conversion K., with two records on Christian music's What? label. If you were gonna be raucous in Contemporary Christian Music, What? was the place to be. But it may not have really mattered. They were good records, but the energy, anger and glee seemed gone. The humor, too. Where were the songs about vampires, the songs about the angst of choosing who to kill — himself or his "philandering bitch"? Sigh. In the '90s, while K. was busy co-writing with T. Bone Burnett and Charlie Sexton, Gadfly started reissuing his early stuff and coaxing out demos and a full album (the fine "Olé," wherein some of the anger, at last, returned) that had never seen the light of day. The "new" stuff was quite a mixed bag.

So what's this story about, anyway, Brad?

Well, the good wife has never listened to Tonio K. Despite — or maybe because of — my insistence that he's a genius. So this week I grabbed my comprehensive collection of his discs (I'm only missing the "La Bomba" EP. I should track it down, as the title track is a reworking of "La Bamba," as an allegory about the "comico atomico," completely in Español) and set out to create a custom "best of" disc for her.

And that's where it got surprising.

I'm now debating if a song is good if its only merit is being, well, memorable. I found myself cutting out some of the songs I loved best — "Living Doll," a call-and-response bit of synth cheese, and the dadaist "Merzsuite" amalgam, with a refrain that actually goes, "futt futt futt, I am stupid!" — because I couldn't imagine a positive reaction to them by virgin ears. The stuff that holds up is the mid-tempo rootsy stuff. But it's also his less interesting work. I've begun wrestling with the very concept of relevance. Is relevance even important? Is a body of work the criteria by which we judge a man — god help us — or do we see how far he has pushed back the frontline using only his anger and his rapier wit?

In the end, with this disc, I tried to please the audience. An artist might, should, call that pandering. But if my goal was to have my wife listen to and enjoy this music, it was the only way.

The leadoff track will surprise K.'s fans. "Another Day in Limbo," is a song he didn't write. Mark Heard did. Tonio recorded it for a tribute album after Heard's untimely death. The song's production is so sparse as to be almost not there. Macho guitar strumming and a jugular-pulsing vocal turn make it a good show-starter without misrepresenting what is to follow.

The final surprise for me was the song I now identify as my favorite: "We Walk On," from "Olé." It's not a character study, or a folk tale, or a love song, all of which he does so well. It's not bitter and bleak. It's not wry and funny. It begins:

like my father before me, i consider a past
i can't understand
as i grasp at a moment that slips through my hands

and i stumble toward a future concealed in a haze
half faith and half fear
and my innocent vision's no longer so clear

i walk on

It's a rare glimpse at the grownup Tonio K., who's been beaten up by the world, but not beaten down by it. It feels post-apocalyptic, and by the end of the song it's as if he's standing at the throne of judgment, and boy is that light bright.

It was tempting to place the song as the closer. But it also felt disingenuous to that full body of work I've been blathering on about. Instead, I nestled it square in the middle, between "H-A-T-R-E-D," with its Jackson Browne shout-out, and "American Love Affair." Those two songs represent better the anger and the cynic of the man. And I ended instead with a little pick-me-up called "Everything, Including You, Disgusts Me."

With apologies to ABBA, thank you for the music, Tonio.

Here's the full track listing for my custom "best of," for the curious. And no, I'm not posting the mp3s. Get you over to Amazon.com and buy 'em, or check a few out on his MySpace:

01. Another Day in Limbo
02. Practically Invisible
03. How Come I Can't See You in My Mirror?
04. The Executioner's Song
05. I'm Here
06. What a Way to Live
07. Girl Crazy
08. Indians and Aliens
09. H-A-T-R-E-D
10. We Walk On
11. American Love Affair
12. You Don't Belong Here
13. The Night Fast Rodney Went Crazy
14. You Will Go Free
15. Pardon Me for Living
16. Children's Crusade
17. Everything, Including You, Disgusts Me