Reviews > Music

Special K

Music | Caustic social critic turns away from H-A-T-R-E-D to 1 Corinthians 13--but still has a long way to go

Issue: "Drawing the Line," Feb. 22, 1997

In 1978 a one-man, rock-and-roll wrecking crew named Tonio K. (nee Steve Krikorian) exploded upon a popular music scene rife with disco hedonism, rock-and-roll drug abuse, and singer-songwriter sensitivity. He called his debut album Life in the Foodchain--a title that listeners of the time heard as a parodic allusion to the Eagles' hit &quotLife in the Fast Lane&quot--and in each song declared himself an archenemy of the only people who can make Generation X look good: the &quotMe Generation."

That critics loved the album was no surprise. The frenzy of the music complemented the frenzy of Mr. K.'s misanthropic ravings perfectly, and the presence in one song (&quotH-A-T-R-E-D") of lyrics that would keep the album out of Wal-Mart today guaranteed its notoriety. That college and high-school kids liked it, too, however, was a surprise. The broadness of the album's appeal suggested that people were coming to it for more than the then forbidden thrill of hearing dirty words (directed, by the way, at that paragon of '70s dope-smoking, no-nuke sensitivity, Jackson Browne).

Since Gadfly Records reissued Foodchain two years ago, one reason for its appeal has become clear: Tonio K. was a prophet. In songs such as &quotThe Funky Western Civilization" and &quotThe Ballad of the Night the Clocks All Quit (and the Government Failed)," he anticipated our present cultural chaos and danced on the graves such chaos would create. His 1980 sequel, Amerika, which Gadfly will reissue this month, is even bitterer, but better in some ways than its predecessor.

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But what really makes the Tonio K. saga interesting is that, by the time he released his 1986 album Romeo Unchained, he'd become a Christian. To some extent, his faith focused his bile. When he kicked off Romeo by singing, &quotIt's a jungle out there/It used to be a garden," he established a framework within which his subsequent references to 1 Corinthians 13, prayer, rebirth, forgiveness, freedom, and even snake handling took on a heightened significance.

Still, both Romeo Unchained and its follow-up, 1987's Notes from the Lost Civilization (both of which Gadfly reissued last year), come off as something less than full-bodied. One reason is that, as someone who had once titled a love song &quotGo Away," Mr. K. needed more than a spoonful of catchy melodies to make his transformation into a 1 Corinthians 13 man go down. Another reason is that the group of Christians with whom he collaborated most closely was the T Bone Burnett claque, a loose collective of sincere and articulate but nevertheless irritatingly left-wing believers whose music seems to have mysteriously declined over the years as their opposition to the Religious Right has increased.

But Notes from the Lost Civilization does contain one of his best songs, the bracingly honest &quotWhat Women Want." Over whiplash rhythms, Mr. K. barks out more truths about the battle of the sexes than an entire section of &quotpsychology/self-help" books, Christian or non-.

Because one of the many things that Mr. K. says women want is sex, the version of the album produced specifically for the Christian market deletes the song. But the song goes so much deeper, concluding that what women really want is what the Bible requires of godly husbands: love.

Ironically, those who bought the album from a Christian bookstore have never heard the song. Now, however, thanks to Gadfly, they can.

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