Tonio K was one of those names. The new wave era, and not the New Romantic era, but the smart sharp new wave of barbed observation by angry young men too talented and not laddish enough to fully go punk, was full of these names. A young Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Ian Dury were these men, and so was the mercurial Tonio K.
Born Steve Krikorian, he first emerged in the post Buddy Holly configuration of the Crickets, leaving that to pursue his own peculiar solo career swiping his name from Thomas Mann novella "Tonio Kroger". He shot out on the scene both barrels going, but that initial push was not enough to keep him in the sky forever.
Life in the Foodchain (1978
Most discussions of Tonio K begin and end with this record, heralded as a triumph upon its release by Rolling Stone and Stereo review. This opens with the insouciant title track about the politics of wealth and impersonal nature of supply and demand, with e-Street Shuffle horns and a Richard Hell sneer. The classic Tonio K track here is the cheeky dance sensation send-up "The Funky Western Civilization" with this brilliant couplet
They put Jesus on a cross
They put a hole in JFK
They put Hitler in the driver's seat
And looked the other way
They got poison in the water
And the whole world in a trance
But just because we're hypnotised
It don't mean we can't dance
"Willie and the Pigman" owes some stylistic debt to fellow cultural extremist Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" but comes off with more of a true underground feel - telling the tales of real low-life nobodies rather than the same ones name checked in the tabloids. The whole of the album reminds me of a cross between the two most important lyrical albums of that time: Hell's "Blank Generation" and Elvis Costello's "My Aim is True" where the rage against the machine takes the form of convulsive rock, where the skinny guy behind the mic can no longer stand being bullied by the shit going on around him. The best outcropping on this iceberg to me is the hilarious country stomp "How Come Can't I See You In My Mirror" placing the evils of the world into a vampire girlfriend. "A Lover's Plea" is like a great Springsteen rave-up (it's hard to imagine now, but The Boss was once in with the punk community) and the closer "h-a-t-r-e-D" starts out as a Dylan esque dust-bowl complaint that quickly plummets into a delicious Voidoid explosion of passion and disappointment. Just brilliant.
The production is cleaner on his second release two years later, and the spirit is angrier but somewhat less pointed. The hounds are released with the vengeful "One Big (Happy) Family" only to veer into the painfully dated 80's R&B swagger of "Say Goodbye." There are some great tracks like the Stonesy "Go Away," the car alarm punk jump of "Trouble" (where the complaint about "Muslims and warmongering Texans trying to ruin my life" seems eerily current) and "The Night Fast Rodney Went Crazy." Capping off this good but uneven album is the frenetic Dada homage "Merzsuite: Let Us Join Together/Umore/Futt Futt Futt" underscoring the oft forgotten fact that Dada's nonsense was not for mere spectacle's sake, but as a reaction to the real nonsense being enacted by an ever oppressive government.
La Bomba (1980)
Why is it that so many angry intelligent people that rail against the bars of society eventually give into religion? To me, religion seems too easy an intellectual way out for these truth seekers, but that is a discussion for a different and well-worn thread. La Bomba was the first release after K's conversion to Christianity but much like Dylan's own take on the Lord, it , according to the reviews I read, still offers a platform for wit and inquiry. I would be trepedacous over the title track (get it? "La BOMb-ba?") but supposedly its excellently done, and sung in Spanish even. This album was not available to me, so no soup for you.
Romeo Unchained (1986)
Here we see K adopting the synthed-up Happy Days rock-n-roll rehash of many a crap act of the 80's musically, and his wit seems to be being filtered through corny phrases like "danger zone" and "twisted" a lot. Honestly, this one can stay at the thrift store if you have been inspired to go on the hunt. For the intrepid of heart, though, the final track "You Will Go Free" abandons the Freeway Of Love goopiness for a jangly percussion and Spanish guitar understated production. Had he gone with this style instead throughout the album, there would be some good to be had with this album.
Notes From the Lost Civilization (1988)
Tonio must've gotten the hint, in that this record eschews the slick wank of its predecessor for a lite version of the "jangly rock" of the Alternative supastars. His voice is more full throated and closer to the country roots he held dear (he went on to become a much sought after songwriter among the likes of border straddlers like Bonnie Raitt). While the sound of the thing is definitely more palatable to these ears, his sword appears to be still beaten into a ploughshare.
This one has much more promise to it just on the merits of K's supporting cast, a late 90's supergroup of The Replacements' Paul Westerberg, Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, Booker T. (as in and the MG's) on organ, Peter Case and then it-boy Charlie Sexton. Here you can see some of the flutters of the younger, hungrier K being surrounded by an all-star cadre who felt his influence, especially in the frantic shuffle of "Stuck" and the somewhat corny but effectively empathetic take on homelessness "That Could Have Been Me." "Hey Lady" shows Tonio K's hardened soft side the best in its admonition of a parent ruining her kids with abuse. Its a bit ham-fisted with Tonio adopting all the subtly of Neil Diamond, but the sentiment is real and relateable. "What a Way to Live" shows a touch of the old biting wit still burns in this relentless dressing down of an old flame. "Pardon me For Living" feels like a Replacements outtake and while Westerberg plays on the track, K is credited as writing it. Overall, its a maudlin but good record, one that ages about as well as the Golden Palominos all-star round-ups of the same era.
Finally comes this collection of demos and scraps to close out the 20th century, detailing Tonio's take on the rough road that got him here. The informal quality of a number of songs fits his weary voice, bringing to mind the later stuff by Warren Zevon. I find myself eerily drawn to the schmaltzy "I Know a Place" and the Los Lobos-esque "Murder My Heart", both written for Tina Turner, and the PBs-ready spoken collaboration with Peter Case "Indians and Aliens" is really good. "I'm Here"'s piano honky-tonk will appeal to those with a thing for Randy Newman, as much of the album would with those who are still into Bruce Springsteen. I don't mean this in a disparaging way, this is well-written AOR, but it doesn't have the bite to transcend it like that of say, Greg Brown. A best title of his career comes the "Student Interview (With the Third Richest Man in the World)" but his overwrought vocals have that Neil Diamond thing ruining it. "Sure as Gravity", penned for and recorded by Emmylou Harris is a sweet somber ballad that would fit as the end title music to a movie about firefighters. Overall, its a corny but listenable affair, one that would appeal to that older relative that goes for "grown-up music" like Joan Armatrading and Bruce Cockburn.
Still, with the unevenness that comes with any career, its an interesting trek Tonio takes from snotty insurgent twerp to wizened fokie stargazer. For the money, I'd have to agree with the majority and say invest in his first album, it's an undersung classic, and if the rest sounds good to you, his collection Rodent Weekend 1976-1996 might fit the bill. Plus it contains the upstart minor hit "Too Cool To Be Christian" a swear word infected rant that details the internal dilemma of his own religious conversion.
Thanks to the kind folks at CDBaby for providing a wealth of sample material and the people behind his fansite, without who this kind of knowledge would be lost forever. If you are harboring affections for an obscurity, as some readers were for poor dear Tonio, and you wish some learned hispter culture gurus like our humble selves would unearth it in its glory, showing all those that mocked you that your devotion is not in vain, drop us a note in the comments, we actually read them.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com