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American Voices: Remembering Tony Kinman, Rock 'n' Roll Soldier

by Denise Sullivan

Tony and Chip Kinman (photo by Marcus Leatherdale)

Tony and Chip Kinman (photo by Marcus Leatherdale)

 

There was an anti-authoritarian pulse that coursed through Tony Kinman’s work until the end: When Kinman lost his lost his life to pancreatic cancer in May, rock ’n’ roll lost one of its greatest champions.

Working side by side for decades with his brother Chip Kinman, whether it was in their first wave political punk band The Dils, or producing his brother’s new rock ’n’ blues band, Ford Madox Ford, Kinman left his own unique imprint on rock ‘n’ roll:  Working upstream and against trends, he carried a torch for all that was holy and good about the music, always questing for the possibility that it would manifest its original intention to upset and forever change things like it did in its formational 1950s. When that promise didn’t deliver, he dug deeper toward the source, searching for rock’s proverbial lost chord.

The Dils, originally from Carlsbad, California, were at home on the West Coast’s early punk rock scenes in LA, Vancouver and San Francisco; their songs “Class War” and “I Hate The Rich” are considered classics of punk’s original era. Lyrically direct with the speed and agility associated with the form, the Dils and bands like them upended the music of the ‘70s, meaning they changed its direction, its sound, its look and the whole culture around it. Without putting too fine of a point on what punk was up against and what it came to do, the music succeeded by returning directionless rock to its root while simultaneously reinventing it; it shocked straights and parents — a job well done.

But by the time hardcore infiltrated the scenes to become punk rock’s singular look and sound, Tony Kinman was ready to pack it in for something new.  He told archivist David Ensminger that punk’s insistence on conformity was not his understanding of what the music was ever meant to be.  “That’s why I walked, even ran away from it as fast as I could,” said Kinman.  “It was an ugly scene.”

Coming up through the art school-inspired San Francisco scene and a similarly weird, theatrical one in LA, for Kinman and other freethinkers, punk translated into an attitude, a do it your own way or die aesthetic. When the Dils traded in punk’s rules and regulations to pursue rock’s hillbilly music origins with their new country-inspired band, Rank and File, Kinman recalled (again, to Ensminger in the book, Left of the Dial), “When we started doing it, people thought we were crazy,” he said. “We heard a lot from alternative rockers, punkers, or new-wavers, ‘I don’t want to hear this shit. This is what my parents listen to.’  This was way before the No Depression country-is-cool days,” he said, referring to the digest of contemporary alt-country.

Here’s a live clip of Rank and File performing “Amanda Ruth,” also recorded in the ‘80s by rock ‘n’ roll’s original brotherly duo, the Everly Brothers.
 


 

Rank and File recorded two more albums for the punk-identified Slash label before they left the so-called cow-punk scene they virtually invented to pursue yet another, generally unpopular idea:  A two-man guitar, bass and and drum machine combo, Blackbird.

As with each start-up, there were those who thought the Kinmans had lost their minds: But Blackbird with its stylized double B logo, was simply a way for their songwriting and unique brotherly harmonies to shine (it was also a chance to reclaim monies lost through the wretched business of music). I remembering hearing through the pre-Internet rock ‘n’ roll grapevine the brothers had conceived Blackbird as a way into the movie business (that only turned out to be part true when they cut a version of “Jersey Girl” for the film of the same name).  Here’s Blackbird’s, “Big Train.”
 


 

Back on the range, the Kinmans returned to western music for inspiration with “Cowboy Nation.”   This short documentary will tell you what you need to know about the return to roots project, that distinguished country from western sounds. Perhaps each new band reflected the music the brothers were personally excited about, doing the research for the listener to  further explore. But they were also really pissing off those who insisted on safety, structure, consistency and other things that art is not: Again, Cowboy Nation confounded record labels that had no idea what kind of gold they held in their hands or what to do with it.

More recently, the brothers worked together on Ford Madox Ford, a rock band that combines blues and roots sounds, pop songwriting sensibilities and real rock ’n’roll powerdrive,  the kind of thing that if you’ve lost your faith in the form just might turn your head around.

Tony produced the set of eleven songs for the band’s debut, This American Blues (Porterhouse Records) with the guitar out front, plenty of feedback and a groove — pretty much everything you want on a rock ’n roll record and best demonstrated on “Dark American Night,” a sonically delightful whirlpool of sound that also looks unflinchingly at our country’s current reality.
 


 

With Dewey Peak on lead guitar, Matt Little on bass, S. Scott Aguero on drums and Chip on guitar and vocals, Ford Madox Ford is named after the author best known for his novel The Good Soldier, an unsung hero of 20th Century literature: His contributions as a collaborator, publisher and editor of Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, Jean Rhys, Henry James, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, among others, are not always remembered or credited.

As a performing musician and producer, Tony Kinman’s name is not as instantly recognizable as his rock ’n’ roll heroes and its originators like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard. And yet by most accounts, that seemed to be just fine by him. When music insiders talk of Rank and File, Blackbird, and Cowboy Nation they might be tempted to lose themselves in the blackhole of backhand compliments, using labels like “under-appreciated,” “a well-kept secret” or  “cult bands” to contain them.  But history will eventually tell the tale of the Kinman’s insistence on quality and innovation: Consider the status of the now-legendary Dils who weren’t exactly appreciated in their short-lived life as a band…

On the occasion of Tony’s passing, former Rank and File bandmate Alejandro Escovedo remembered him in The Austin Chronicle:  “He was such a great musician – a great bass player, a great arranger. He just had this really instinctive musical knowledge.” Escovedo continued, ”Everything I do today was influenced by the things I learned from being around him – how to put a band together, how to tour.”

In San Francisco where I lived during Rank and File’s formative times, the band were like a shot of bright light onto a scene that was growing dim and as Tony said, ugly at times. In 1982 Chip told Susie Leon with KUSF’s WaveSector, “We’re separate from everything, we’re just Rank and File and no band sounds like us, and we don’t belong to any scene.”  Susie and I were giant Rank and File fans. As college radio DJs, Sue Sponge and Marie London, we played their demo tapes of the songs that would become the album Sundown on our radio shows. All of the DJs loved them, whether the punk rockers who remembered the Kinmans as the Dils and their guitarist, Alejandro from his band, The Nuns, or girls like us, who felt like we’d discovered Rank and File on our own. The songwriting was undeniable and better yet, for this listener, there was content, as on “Coyote,” concerning the still topical tragedy of border crossing. When I recently revisited Sundown, I was surprised to find I knew the record front to back, every a track a living and breathing, joyful and uncomplicated memory for me, stored in the same recess that holds a strong memory of a very different time, a different city, a different me.

The Kinman’s aural and visual history is currently being curated for future generations of listeners.  Chip is preparing for a gallery show of his and Tony’s flyer art through the decades. There is a boxed set of music in the works and next month he’s heading into the studio to cut the Dils’ “It’s Not Worth It” with Mack MacKenzie, Zippy Pinhead and Mary Celeste from the Modernettes with “an all-star ’77-era Vancouver punk rock chorus,” produced by Bob Rock who recorded the song the first time in ’79. The flip side is “Lucky Day” by Mack Mackenzie backed by Ford Madox Ford, the last record Tony produced. Proceeds from sales of the single will benefit his widow, Kristie.

Ford Madox Ford (courtesy of Chip Kinman)

Ford Maddox Ford (courtesy of Chip Kinman)


 

Before he passed, Tony and Chip also co-wrote a chapter on the Dils and Rank and File for More Fun In The New World, the follow-up to John Doe’s LA punk history, Under The Big Black Sun. And after a brief hiatus, Ford Madox Ford will be up and running again soon: Check for tour updates at the Porterhouse website.

Chip is staying busy in the face of the loss of his artistic collaborator. I asked him by email if there was anything he wanted to add to the story of his and Tony’s work.

“I miss and love my brother very much,” he said.
 


 

In this clip from 1983, Tony speaks candidly with Alan Thicke about where Rank and File fit into the scheme of the music business on the ‘80s late night TV show, “Thicke of the Night.”  The series was short-lived but notable to rock fans for its musical guests, many of whom made their first network television appearances on it.
 

Denise_Sullivan_70Denise Sullivan is a California-based author of books on music including Keep on Pushing:  Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, The White Stripes:  Sweethearts of the Blues and Shaman’s Blues:  The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors. Follow her @4DeniseSullivan and at her blog.



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