Rockabilly queen Kim Lenz moves ahead by looking backward
By Robert Wilonsky
Kim Lenz takes no offense at the suggestion that she is like a page torn from a history book. Quite the contrary, she finds it a flattering remark, testimony to the years she has spent looking backward while moving forward. Her '50s fetishism runs skin-deep and beyond: At this moment, she sports her red hair in a Bettie Page point over her forehead, wears an aqua-blue dress bought in vintage-clothing stores, wraps a silk scarf around her pale neck, covers her eyes in pointed sunglasses that are midnight-dark.
For the past decade, she has purchased everything she owns down to dishes at secondhand shops where people go to sell off their pasts. Lenz buys their yesterday things as she builds a monument to the 1950s in the Hall Street apartment she and her husband share near downtown. She's a 29-year-old woman out of time and out of place, a living artifact.
"Some people think it's weird," she says, giggling, "but what's weird anymore?"
That is why, she explains in a roundabout way, she plays rockabilly for a living because it's music that has been discarded and left on the trash heap, like a rusted-out Edsel or a rayon shirt with a small hole in the sleeve. For her, it's pure, perfect music done right only by a handful of faithful worshipers who mike the drums just so, who record all the instruments and vocals at the same time, who would rather the music was in your pants than in your face. She plays rockabilly, sings rockabilly, and writes rockabilly because no one else does.
"It's complicated why I like rockabilly," she says, sipping a white Russian during a happy hour growing a little happier with each sip. "I love rockabilly. To me, rockabilly is rock and roll at its most pure. It's the beginning of rock and roll. It's very passionate music to me. It's simple, yet it really gets a lot of feeling across. I'm one of those people, and this will look stupid in print, but I think I tend to be one of those people that doesn't like things that are popular, so rockabilly not being popular makes it appealing to me. Rockabilly right now is what punk used to be. You get made fun of for the way you dress. I mean, do I look weird to you?"
Not at all at least, not for a woman who moved from Los Angeles to Dallas and decided one day she wanted to become a rockabilly sweetheart. Lenz off-stage looks just like the woman onstage or on the cover of her just-released CD, Kim Lenz and Her Jaguars, released on the home-to-roots-rock HighTone label. She looks like any other female rockabilly gal from the 1950s; she's a black-and-white photograph rendered in brilliant red and, at the moment, faded blue. Even the disc's cover is a pose-for-pose replica of an old Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps album sleeve, so perfect is Lenz's love for the golden age of rock and roll.
You get made fun of for the way you dress. I mean, do I look weird to you?
And on the disc, her voice recalls the echoes of Wanda Jackson or Barbara Pittman or any of the handful of other women who traveled knee-deep in rockabilly testosterone 40 years ago indeed, it takes a strong woman to play to the leather-and-greased-back crowds even now. She has a voice as pretty as sharp steel, and if it's a bit more tame than Jackson's orgasmic yelp Jackson was an Okie who sang country as though she was a blues belter Lenz is no less convincing when she's screaming about rockin' and rollin' till she rips her dress or loving her kiss-and-tell baby or scratchin' that itch with a brand-new man.
Lenz is more revivalist than revisionist (unlike, say, Reverend Horton Heat or even Ronnie Dawson, whose swing has always been more blues than country). Her album was recorded with her band live to one track using nothing but vintage equipment, and the result is like listening to music made in a tin cup. It's too sturdy to be considered novelty but too then to sound now. When Cowhide Cole spins a tune from the record on his KNON rockabilly show, between a couple of oldies from Mac Curtis and Johnny Carroll, you can hardly notice the difference they all sound like they were made on the same day in the same studio with the same band. Which is precisely what she's going for.
Yet there's something to be admired, and something intrinsically appealing, about a woman who so defiantly refuses to move into the...1960s. You can count on two fingers the number of women who perform rockabilly these days, Lenz and New York-to-Los Angeles transplant Josie Kreuzer, the latter of whom doesn't really dress the part, but has a voice like a Gene Vincent 45 sped up to 48 rpm. And it's not as though Lenz is riding a trend; she's 40 years late to the party but ready to rock nonetheless, part of a subculture that refuses to die long after Vincent and Eddie Cochran and Carl Perkins cashed in their drink tickets. She adores the "butterheads" and "greasers" who show up to the rockabilly conventions and dances (such as the San Francisco Greaseball) and party like it's 1959. She's drawn to the music not just because of how it sounds, but for what it once meant.
"I'm stuck in the 1950s," she says, smiling. "In the '50s, especially the mid- to late '50s, there was a sense of hope in America. I mean, it's like, there was all that rocket-age stuff. People thought we were gonna be living on the moon in 20 years, ya know? Myself and a lot of people, we think romantically about that time period, because the time period we live in now doesn't have a lot of hope, and everybody is so jaded and Grinchy. Nobody cares about their surroundings. Nobody cares about how they look. I mean, I do have a microwave and a brand-new TV, and I wear modern underwear. I don't like the vintage underwear thing. That goes a little too far for me."
Lenz grew up in San Diego, the daughter of a rodeo queen who grew up on an Oregon ranch and a Kansas boy who was a 1950s greaser whose radio was always tuned to Wolfman Jack broadcasts Lord, how does that sound for a storybook beginning? She only recently began remembering that rockabilly and old country were very much the music of her past, and the very sound she rebelled against during her teenage years. Indeed, in the 1980s, she fashioned herself something of a Mod, listening to the Jam and the English Beat as she and her pals rode their Vespa scooters around San Diego, looking to pick fights with the very rockers she'd come to adore only a few years later. Her life was Quadrophenia bathed in Southern California sunlight. Twelve years ago, her idea of rockabilly was the Stray Cats, and she absolutely hated it.
When she was 20, she moved to Los Angeles and got a job in the music business, working for a management firm. She didn't even consider getting on a stage herself, but she was drawn to the big-band sound she heard played every afternoon on a local public radio station; soon enough, she was enamored of the Gershwins and Cole Porter and Frank Loesser and the other Tin Pan Alley greats who created American pop music.
"I listened to that music every day for six years, and I think that reawakened my love for traditional American music," she says. "I know every word to every standard ever written. I love the old style of songwriting where songs really had feeling."
And it was in Los Angeles that Lenz discovered her love for swing music, not just rockabilly but the music of Louis Jordan and Nat Cole. If swing is a trend now, in L.A. back then it was an underground movement, played in dark clubs after hours. Lenz began hooking up with musicians, trekking to places such as the King King or the Palomino to see the Paladins, Royal Crown Revue, Dave & Deke Combo, or Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, all of whom were just beginning to play around L.A. at the beginning of the decade. For them, retro wasn't a fad; it was a lifestyle, and Lenz embraced it to the point where she wanted to participate in the scene, not simply observe it.
"I used to listen to all kinds of music when I was growing up, but I never thought of myself as a creative person," she says. "I had a guitar, and I'd strum a few chords on it, and I played piano, but I don't think I was encouraged by my family. It seems like the people I hung around with as a teenager and the people I dated and ended up living and being involved with were artistic or musical, so I always felt kind of insecure. I never felt like I could explore it, because they were all so much better than me."
Meeting and marrying a mathematician (four years now) with a like-minded love for rockabilly helped her get over her fear of trying; she no longer had to compete with someone else's abilities. So when Lenz and her husband, Charlie, moved to Dallas in 1994, she ended up at the University of North Texas and discovered she was probably the only person in Denton who didn't have a band. "So we had a house, and I just figured, well, I'll start a band," she says, recalling the Andy Hardy beginnings of her first group, Rocket Rocket, which featured members of the Grown-Ups, Slobberbone, and Wayward Girl.
The band performed no more than five shows around Denton, and it was indeed one of those kinds of bands that happens only in Denton: Everybody sang, they played at the Karma Cafe, and the repertoire consisted of vintage 1950s and '60s tunes. Lenz, of course, sang Wanda Jackson songs.
"The first time I got up on stage, I got hooked on it, like heroin," she says. "I didn't know. It was like the first time you have sex. You don't know how great it's going to be, and then when it's over with, you're like, Let's do this again tomorrow night! I think for the first time in my life I discovered what my passion was." But Rocket Rocket would disband in short order, and Lenz moved back to Dallas, where she decided she didn't want to share the microphone with anyone else.
It would take her several stop-and-start efforts to form her first band; she had a hard time finding musicians who could play straight rockabilly, who didn't want to fuck it up with some fast-and-loud punk riffing or laid-back country shuffles. She had become a purist in short order and demanded the same out of her band. In the end, she would go through a handful of drummers, guitarists, and bassists before settling on the lineup that would record Kim Lenz and Her Jaguars. (Indeed, only drummer Robert Hamilton is a Texas boy; guitarist Mike Lester hails from Memphis, while bassist Jake Erwin comes from Oklahoma.)
Cynics will say that Lenz isn't too unlike a Joey Ramone look-alike making music out of three chords or a woman in a faded peasant dress singing Dust Bowl laments. But she's a purist, a fanatic, unabashed about her passions and unashamed of the results. And in the end, Kim Lenz and Her Jaguars and the single she released last year (featuring two tracks from the record and the never-before-heard "Bop City," originally performed by Sherry Davis at the Big D Jamboree in the 1950s) are swinging, thrilling exercises in forward-looking nostalgia, recreations of a past ignored so often, it might as well be the present.
"Writing rockabilly is like writing haiku," Lenz says. "There are boundaries, what some people might consider limitations, but there's so much you can do inside of that. I think there's so much new stuff that can be done. It's not for everyone, but for me, a good rockabilly song gives me goose bumps, makes me want to dance. It makes me feel good."