Tyson Meade is a Rock God

Tyson Meade is a rock god. Write it down: do it 15 or 500 times if necessary, whatever it takes to get it through your head. Buy his albums — everything from the rare Defenestration stuff to his rarer solo album to the almost-entirely out-of-print Chainsaw Kittens back catalog. Listen to those records till your ears bleed, and then flip them over and listen to them some more. Be prepared: the music only occasionally lives up to its singer. But that singer, with his Jeff Lynne-meets-Janis Joplin, two-octave warble, may be the best of his generation. You haven’t heard him? Get to work already. Read this first.

Oozing charisma and layers upon sticky layers of grace, wit and style, Tyson Meade was probably born to be a flamboyant rock star, just the same as John Wayne was meant to be a sexist, homophobic actor and George W. Bush was bound to be President Forrest Gump. If he’d arrived earlier, he may have been the David Bowie or Freddie Mercury, only American and with better taste, minus the bright red mullet of the former or the uni-tard of the later. Instead, he landed smack dab between a generation that got only the spandex part of the New York Dolls (totally missing the alienation and social commentary), and one that eschewed the flamboyant for what it falsely perceived to be as the flannel-clad ugly truth. Grunge indeed.

Meade was the real ugly truth. During the sixties and seventies he grew up gay in the nowhere north Oklahoma oil outpost of Bartlesville, where football and Our Lord Jesus Christ rule the roost and homosexuality is considered unnatural and satanic. Music was his only salvation, the only place he could find people who thought like he did and dressed like he would like to. Meade ate it all up and spat it out at the world like it was his singular reason for existence. And perhaps it was.

With the possible exception of Perry Farrell, who cruelly pulled the plug on his band just as it was reaching its popular and creative zenith, Meade was the last of the great rock front men: everyone after him would be too embarrassed by stardom (Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder) or annoying (Billy Corgan) or pious (Scott Stapp), or flat-out uninteresting (most everyone else). But it wasn’t enough to spare him from a career straight out of a Kafka novel, defeat after defeat snatched from the closing jaws of precious victory, with seemingly every road leading to his own personal Waterloo.

Out the Window, Take One

For Tyson Meade, childhood was set to a beat. “[Music] was the only thing I was into”, says Meade. “It consumed me”. His sister Connie — 16 when he was born in 1962 — would yank him out of the crib when the Beatles came on the radio. His mom would do the same with groups like the Supremes. “She really loved ‘Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart,'” says Meade. His first two rock shows were Elvis at the Tulsa Assembly Center in 1972 and a night with Alice Cooper’s harrowing Welcome to My Nightmare tour in 1975. He loved everything from the-better-than-they-get-credit-for-being Electric Light Orchestra to the singer-songwriter toss of Melanie, but as the ’70s wore on, he developed a tendency to listen to more authentic, relatively esoteric stuff like the New York Dolls and Patti Smith.

“The summer I graduated from high school [in 1980], I started hanging out with a bunch of skaters that lived in Bartlesville,” Meade says. “We were all listening to the same stuff — punk, new wave, and fringe bands like Bowie, early Who and T-Rex. My brother Gentry sold me a Gibson Marauder. My cousin Duane showed me three chords, and said I could learn from there. One of the skaters was Todd Walker, who started writing songs with me.”

Defenestration (a truly wonderful name, that) was born. It was a family affair. Todd’s brother Clark played bass, and a BMX champion friend of his, Page Royse, manned drums. Not long after the band moved operations to the Oklahoma University town of Norman, Clark split for a film career in L.A. and, later, Austin, where he would blossom into a successful screenwriter, cameraman and producer (the indie masterpiece Slacker being among his more notable achievements). Page’s little brother Chris replaced him. The lineup evolved further before the group cut its self-titled debut with a $400 loan from Meade’s mom, and released it on their own Slow Iguana Records label. With song titles like “Cut Your Soul in Half” and “Feminism on Television”, sprawling piano flourishes, Meade’s miraculous voice, and a set of lyrics right out a surrealist Ôseventies B-movie, the EP succeed in sounding like nothing that had come before it. People took notice.

“I think there was a sort of magic to Defenestration because at that time there was corporate rock like Mötley Crüe and bad euro-’80s Howard Jones and Thompson Twins and hardcore punk,” Meade says. “There weren’t many bands playing original stuff at clubs. We mainly played huge, incredible house parties where 400 people would be rocking the floor.”

The success of the debut attracted L.A. indie Relativity. After yet another lineup change, Defenestration released Dali Does Windows in 1987. The album was recorded by Real Rock Producer Randy Burns and sounds like it, coming off a bit half-baked and middle-of-the-road despite a huge effort to the contrary on the part of Meade, who turned in another great batch of lyrics and song titles, most notably “Tripping Drag Queens”, “Cars in Trees” and “Watch the Hearts Break”.

At the end of that album’s tour, the remnants of the broken band found itself without a next move in Oregon, of all places. So, like that famous soccer team hopelessly marooned in the Andes, they started feeding on each other.

“Todd Walker and I had the usual power struggle, and the other guys and I kicked him out,” Meade says. “When we got another guitarist, things were just awful. We started working at an algae farm because we were so broke. It was basically slave labor with 12-hour workdays at $5.00 an hour no overtime. I started to have a breakdown.”

With no access to real therapy, Meade took to writing songs, but it became apparent that the new incarnation of Defenestration was lacking in even the underwhelming spirit of its predecessors. Frustrated and demoralized, Meade packed it in and returned to Norman, where he took a job at indie shop Shadowplay Records. The eerily fresh-faced Trent Bell was a regular customer and loiterer.

“Trent told me about these guys that had a band in high school that were about to kick out their singer and said they’d be perfect for my songs,” Meade says. “I thought it was ridiculous, but I didn’t have any other options I could think of, so I decided to play the kids my songs.” After a few practices, Chainsaw Kittens were born, their name a nod to their trashy punk guitar sound and baby faces. That summer, they’d graduate.

Ratty Eighties Prom Dresses & Devastation

Meade lifted much of the Chainsaw Kittens’ blueprint directly from his former band, which was more or less his intellectual property, anyway. Lyrically, he had developed a weird little fascination with the disparate subjects of religion and camp; physically, he appeared mighty feminine reclining in a quasi-Man-Who-Sold-the-World way on the back of Dali Does Windows. Vocally, his unmistakable style had reached maturity, manifesting itself in three distinct levels: a razorblades-and-marmalade scream; a high-register, but-far-throatier-than-Michael Quercio-of-the-Three-O’Clock tenor; and a deep, smoky croon.

But whereas in Defenestration it was all tempered with a vaguely mainstream rock sensibility, Walker’s main contribution to the band — the Chainsaw Kittens dove enthusiastically off the deep end, into the extreme waters of glam-pop-punk, full-on transvestitism, and for the first time, openly gay lyrics. And while it had a lot do with creative statement, it was also the work of a man with an increased understanding of his chosen industry.

“I had a definite [idea] of what I wanted the Kittens to be,” Meade says. “I wanted to have a band that was signed and made records. A month [after getting together], we made our first demo, and a month after that we were in negotiations with Mammoth Records.”

It all came to a head with the group’s debut, the deliciously trashy, religion-and-sex-obsessed Violent Religion, which sounded like nothing more than a late ’80s, American reworking of Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, with Meade front and center as a drag queen, and the heterosexual, middle-American garage band doing its best to keep up. The lyrics were bolder than ever, reaching their zenith with the manic, foreboding title track and its Christ-baiting: “This is his end / Oh holy martyr. / We hate you, / And you hate us, too / In this violent religion.”

“Obviously that went over some people’s heads,” says Meade. “I put all the make-up on to cover myself so I wasn’t as bare as the songs. I had a lot of religious bullying as a teen and after. Violent Religion may be me rebelling against that. Somehow, it was cheaper than a therapist.”

There’s certainly a precedent for homoerotic imagery being lost on a heterosexual, often homophobic crowd — the Village People, Judas Priest’s “Hell Bent for Leather” Rob Halford, Freddy Mercury’s gay-pride “We Are the Champions”, of all things adopted as a sports anthem — and the Chainsaw Kittens benefited from its audience’s blissful ignorance early on.

“By the time we made the record, the college kids — especially the frat kids — really latched on to us, and that was definitely a paradox,” says Meade. “There was something about our craziness that attracted the ultra straight and narrow.” But it wasn’t always a totally safe line to walk. At one party, things got out of hand and Meade became the target of a drunken redneck and took a beating. The ever-present Bell whisked his idol off to the hospital, where he was stitched up and signed autographs.

“Some frat boys there had scuffled with each other in their house and got a little too rowdy,” Meade says. “Something having to do with a half-nelson and a coffee table.”

One rhythm section replaced another and the group spat out the tight, consistent Flipped Out in Singapore, produced by one Butch Vig, who was at the height of his powers at the time. Lyrical subjects this time out included a love song set in the site of a car crash (“Never to Be Found”), La Dolce Vita (“Shannon’s Favorite Fellini Movie”), and (what else?) Sodom & Gomorrah (“Ezekiel Walks Through Sodom & Gomorrah”). The album even had name support — it was produced by Butch Vig, featured a video done by rookie director Spike Jonez, and even got a write-up in Rolling Stone — but it failed to make it past the friendly, open-minded confines of college radio. Like clockwork, the rhythm section was summarily jettisoned after the tour (with bassist Clint McBay and drummer Aaron Preston landing on the lineup of straight-and-narrow alt-rockers For Love Not Lisa, who scored a song on the 1994 soundtrack for The Crow and released the unfortunately titled Information Superdriveway the next year).

Meade installed Kittens-obsessed Chicagoan Matt Johnson on bass and Eric Harmon on drums, promoted Trent Bell to lead guitarist, and with the Alternative Nation fire burning hotter than ever, set off again. The new members brought along an increased sense of work ethic and loyalty to Meade, who was growing as a songwriter and lyricist and, confident in himself and his ability, not wearing dresses anymore. Mammoth and Atlantic inked a deal, with access to the Kittens and Juliana Hatfield the main prize. The Kittens set to work on their new album, Pop Heiress, with A-list producer John Agnello. Hopes were high.

“We practiced those songs a ton, so once we put them to tape, they were burning,” Meade says. “We were having a fabulous time. We were on Atlantic Records making a big budget record in L.A. At one point [John] came to a session dressed as a pink bunny.”

The album itself — the huge-sounding epitome of a statement record — featured a color-treated shot of TV-movie-subject Patty Hearst in her SLA, bank-robbing glory days; a gong; a glowing, alt-rock anthem in “Pop Heiress Dies”; a strutting, T-Rex-tribute in the form of “I Ride Free”; a triumphant power balled in “Dive Into the Sea”; and not a sixteenth note of filler.

In the spring of 1994, the promos and press kits went out, and “Pop Heiress” was released as a single, and everyone crossed their fingers. But radio, which by that time had discovered Collective Soul, totally ignored the group, and the album began its rapid decent into bargain bins around the country. “Mammoth always wanted the best for us,” says Meade. “Atlantic and Mammoth had strained relations, and Mammoth cut us loose.”

Tomorrow Is Not Brighter

Around 1995, the Smashing Pumpkins were fast becoming alternative music’s answer to Styx, both in terms of record sales and pure, unabashed ambition. Having shared a producer and toured together in the early part of the decade, the Pumpkins and the Kittens had become friends and allies, with the obligatory mentions in one another’s album sleeves and the Kittens frequently turning up on Pumpkins’ members’ favorite band lists (along with those most mid-’90s of choices Cheap Trick and My Bloody Valentine). So it was when freshly minted rock stars James Iha and D’Arcy Wretzky decided they wanted to start their own independent label, the available Kittens seemed the perfect place to start.

Jeremy Freeman, who managed the day-to-day operations of the fledgling Scratchie records, got on the phone with Meade. The label’s website picks up the story from there.

“Meade laid out a framework to record a song or two with Scratchie,” the site says. “We made plans and contractual ideas which included absolutely no hookers, no ribs and only a single candy dish of Quaaludes and a case of Jameson Whiskey.”

Thus, the clattering wheels were in motion for the Kittens to record a 7″, an EP, and four full-length albums with Scratchie Records. The warped, compulsively poppy “Grandaddy’s Candy” b/w “Bones in My Teeth” was the first scrap of product to hit the street, with a neon pink flyer featuring Hello Kitty armed with a chainsaw proclaiming, “WE’RE BACK!” The lyrics were not getting any more straightforward, with the first song about a child molesting old man: “Now another Granddaddy man / Said I’ll give you a dollar and / You can hide it in my pants / You can even use your hands.”

Around the same time, Meade was putting the wraps on his solo album, which he intended to be a complete removal of whatever figurative makeup remained on his face or in his soul. This would be a solo album in the truest sense of the word — of him, by him and for him. “It was the first time that I had complete control over the whole process,” Meade says. “I wanted record something really basic that still had a great sound.”

The resulting album, Motorcycle Childhood, is disarmingly spare and open and even naked, mostly just Meade and a guitar with overdubbed slide playing, leaving the listener face-to-face with Meade and his hopes and dreams, his homosexuality, and his rural Oklahoma upbringing. It sounds fabulously like it was recorded in a kitchen, and it’s self-indulgent as fuck, but in the very best sense of the word. This is Meade’s soul put to a beat, harrowing and positively stunning.

In “Pleased Girlfriend’s Remorse”, the powerful closer, Meade mourns, “She said I can see you kissing him, like you meant to kiss me/ I’m very pleased, I’m so relieved / You would think that of me / And I can save you, I can save you, or at least try to/ And I can make you a man.”

The album, released on new Seattle indie Echostatic, did about as well as anyone could have hoped — it sold to well-informed Kittens fans, won over a few converts, and that was about it. But things were looking up for Scratchie, which had just signed a deal with Mercury records to release the Kittens’ new full-length album in the US and UK. Intent on being an artist-friendly label, Scratchie took the almost unheard-of step of giving the band complete creative control. They holed up in Trent Bell’s new, backyard Bell Labs Studios and made the album of their dreams, the appropriately titled Chainsaw Kittens.

Released in October 1996, the record abandoned the bombast of past Kittens’ efforts in favor of straight, if quirky and frequently melancholic, pop. While not all of the album’s 14 songs were uniformly well developed, the manic sprawl of the thing, alternately slinking and rocking and mournful, verged on being epic. Several songs, including the perfect pop of “HeartCatchThump”, the rolling “Waltz Across Debris” and the languid, autobiographical “Speedway Oklahoma” easily matched the group’s best work.

But even before the reviewers could finish gushing, the bottom dropped out of guitar pop, with the sounds of the electronic Prodigy and the pre-teen-appeal Spice Girls and Hanson the new trend du jour. Mercury suddenly didn’t care about its Scratchie artists. The Kittens, who had plans to tour the UK with labelmates Counting Crows, fell once again under the axe.

“They lied to us,” Meade told babysue magazine in 1997. “I mean just totally lied. We were getting all ready for the record to come out [in England] and then out of nowhere Mercury goes, ‘Oh by the way, we’re not putting your record in England and so you can’t go over and tour there’.”

Suddenly without a contract again, Meade completed his studies at Oklahoma University, started on a career in writing, and relocated to Atlanta. The Kittens settled into day jobs, playing occasional, well-attended shows at Oklahoma City venues, but mostly going on with their lives. From the ashes of Scratchie, which was reorganized and moved to New York, came Four Alarm Records, founded in part by former Scratchie employees. The Kittens were saved again, but on a far more scaled-back basis. A shot at pop-stardom wasn’t ever a real possibility or even a goal: this had everything to do with getting another record out, covering costs, and hopefully making something extra. It was all set to happen in July 1999. In June, Meade’s mother died.

“We started writing the second week of July, and I buried myself in it,” Meade says. “Somehow, it helped me deal with my grief. Trent would track for 36 hours at a time. Most of the time, he would do at least 24 hours. He was a machine.” The resulting work, The All American, was more mature and better realized than its predecessor, even if it did lack its appealing ambitiousness. It’s the Kittens being the Kittens: Harmon and Johnson laying down tight, slinky rhythms, Bell weaving a web of interesting guitar and keyboard parts, Meade all over everything, kicking the album off in his usual style with the deadpan “Abortion clinic bombed. / Another mother calmed/ By the light.”

“In a way I am proudest of that record because it’s the clearest I have written,” Meade says.

By October of 2001, the dream was over. Four Alarm had gone on hiatus, and Meade was living in New York City, grudgingly holding a day job, thinking often of better times. “I think of my dad who worked for thirty years at the same place and I wonder how he didn’t shoot the family,” Meade says. “I miss the craziness of the Kittens. It was the experience of a lifetime. I love the guys in the band. We had so many fantastic times!”

Meade acknowledges he hasn’t always had karma or luck on his side. But as he makes plans to relocate to Los Angeles and maybe record another solo album; as he tries to locate where, exactly he is right now, he is by no means bitter.

“I never thought I would leave Bartlesville,” Meade says. “It is a real townie place. Most of my relatives still live there and are happy. I just wanted to have a band that was signed and made records. I never realized there were so many disenchanted people. I’m proud of where I’ve been when I stop to think about it. I’m proud of our releases. We may have more in the future.”

Meade said it better, or at least more eloquently, on his solo album: “Now that we’re older, we thought we’d be smarter. / We thought it’d get better, but it’s only gotten harder. / And you know I’ve tried, and I’ve nearly lost my mind.”