By Michael Corcoran
Louis Black of the Austin Chronicle likes to think he discovered novice me working in a t-shirt shop and that the Chron made me what I am today. What follows are over 4,000 words that prove the first part wrong. But he’s completely right that my column for the Austin Chronicle from 1985- 1988 put me on the map. That’s how Spin and Rolling Stone found out about me. That’s how I got the contributing editor gig with National Lampoon in ’87. Austin fit me in every way as a writer. I’ve always admired musicians and here was a town where the culture was built around them. This scene of the 1980s was so closeknit, but there was also a lot of competition, so my style of butchering sacred cows was much loved and hated. But everyone read it.
With the proliferation of blogs, the food trucks of journalism, people are getting their information from all sorts of different sources on hand held devices, so I don’t think its possible for a writer to have Austin by the balls like I did. From 1984-88, I was social media in Austin, a snarky know-it-all before they were fucking everywhere. But rereading that stuff, I’ve gotta admit some of the writing makes me cringe. I’ve finally come to realize that I’m not as good as I thought I was. But no one can deny that I came to town guns blazing.
And here’s where I came from.
I didn’t know that my mother kept everything I wrote since I started in 1963 at age 7. I first got attention for my writing in the fourth grade in Mountain Home, Idaho, when I penned a poem that included the names of all my classmates. It was pretty crude stuff- “Victor Franz went to the dance and forgot to wear pants/ Manuela Carr should learn the guitar if she wants to go far.” The teacher, Mr. Howard, read it to the class and my face burned, but the kids all laughed, teaching me a couple things. 1) People love attention and 2) Keep it local for most direct response.
My mother died of cancer in 1974, when I was 18. Twenty-five years later, my father’s second wife was cleaning out the storage and sent me a shoebox full of all my stuff- report
cards, church announcements, a clipping from the 12-0 shutout I pitched in Little League baseball and everything I ever wrote, including my very first poem “The Year I Learned Baseball 1963.”
I started writing for the school paper in seventh grade, when I moved over to Air Base Junior High. Poems again, mostly with socially conscious themes (“The Ghetto,” “The Rumble,” “The Death of a Criminal.”) I had an admirer in Carla Dyvad, an eighth grader, who I considered my first girlfriend, though we didn’t really do anything but ride bikes together and talk about books we read.
Went to four different schools for high school. Ninth grade at ABJH, tenth grade at Mountain Home High in town, then the move to Hawaii for Aiea High in eleventh grade and Radford High in senior year, 1973. In Idaho, I was known as the kid who writes, working as the sports editor of “Tiger Tales” in the 10th grade, plus I also wrote a Top Ten parody. Basically, I took the hits of the day and had them describe an aspect of the high school. For instance “Close To You” by the P.E. Locker Room and “Ball of Confusion” by the Drill Team were on the charts one month. That latter joke hurt some feelings and I got called into the adviser’s office for a lesson in compassion. Next month the “Top Ten” idea was retired when I submitted a first draft that credited “Magic Carpet Ride” to a teacher whose ancestors were from Saudi Arabia.
I went from being something of a star writer, a bad boy, in Idaho to completely invisible in Aiea, which is near Pearl Harbor. I signed up for the school paper and since they already had a sports editor and writers, I was assigned to the editorial section. Didn’t get a byline all year. A sample assignment was to write about how North Vietnam should do a better job seeing that POWs received letters that were sent from home. My lead was something like “It’s got to be a strange time to be a Hanoi mailman.”
The last day of school in Oahu was designated “Kill Haole Day,” where white students attended under the threat of getting beat up. My parents insisted I go to school that day and even drove me. But as soon as the car disappeared, I headed off-campus to the Aiea Shopping Center, where I would hang out until school was over and I would run home. There was a shop named Mabel’s Crackseed, which sold those horrible, sour local snacks, but they carried all sorts of magazines and I spent the day reading many of them. It was my first exposure to National Lampoon, Creem and Rolling Stone- three magazines that would pretty much rule my life the next few years. Eventually I would write for all three, though in the cases of the Lampoon and Creem, my contributions were after the glory years.
Being a new student senior year is awkward enough, but my last year of high school was wholly unremarkable because 1) Thanks to hardcore schooling in Idaho, I had to go only half day to meet my grad requirements and 2) There was a teacher’s strike that closed schools for about two months. So while my graduating class is planning the 40 year reunion, one of the only people I remember was Linnea Garcia and that’s mainly because she married football star Mosi Tatupu and gave birth to Lofa Tatupu. I’m pretty sure no one remembers me.
Then we got the news that our mother had terminal cancer- that was about two months before graduation. She died my freshman- and only- year of college. I became a virtual orphan when my father kicked me out of the house because I was 18 and he’d married a woman with two kids of her own. I did a lot of writing during this time.
There was a hippie rag called Sunbums that I’d pick up at Records Hawaii or D.J.’s Sound City at Ala Moana Center. I sent them something I wrote called “Preparing For Piercehood.” It was a humor piece about getting my ear pierced. About a week later I got a
call from a woman named Kathy Hellenbrand, the new editor of Sunbums. She said her and her old man, tattoo artist Michael Malone, had laughed out loud reading my piece together in bed. I came into the office at 525 Cummins Street in Kakaako, a seedy neighborhood of auto body shops and Korean dry hustle joints, and I met Kathy, who now goes by Shanghai Kate. She assigned me a concert review- Arlo Guthrie at Andrews Amphitheater, which was moved to the HIC exhibition hall when Andrews rained out. That was the first music review I’d ever written and I loved doing it.
Basically, Hellenbrand and Malone became my new parents, though I was much tighter with Kate. My time as Rollo’s protege
would come a few years later. Sunbums had quite a cast of characters, lead by Kate with her boho fro. There was P.F. Bentley, an up-and-coming photographer who had a pronounced stutter, and Blue Johnson, a black cat from L.A. who looked like Jimi Hendrix. Upstairs was Hank McMonigle, who wrote so many reviews he needed a couple pseudonyms.
Hank was the right hand man of concert promoter John Leonard, whose JFL Concerts owned Sunbums. At first it was a vehicle to promote JFL shows. Well, actually, it always was, but we put a bunch of other cool stuff in there. You look at issues of Sunbums, which came out from about 1974- 1978, and they’re so primitive. Everything had to be done by
hand, every word typeset and cut out and glued, and we were always pulling allnighters when the issues were due at the printers. I basically lived at Sunbums. That was home for me in 1975.
The idea to try to be a rock critic, like my hero Lester Bangs, was solidified more by the scene than the writing or the music. I don’t have adventurous musical tastes: I camped out not one night, but two for Elton John’s “Yellow Brick Road” tour. And I’m not intellectual. But I felt that I would always try to have a humorous slant to what I wrote and that it would be as much about the experience as the music.
The first time I ever bought drugs, at age 19, it was half a gram of coke. Kate told me to order coffee at McDonald’s and it came with a tiny spoon/stirrer that was a perfect coke spoon. (Mr. Ever-so-cool, I used to wear a McDonald’s coffee stirrer around my neck on a silver chain.) I got it on the way to review Earth, Wind & Fire at the Waikiki Shell around June 1975. I was surprised to get a backstage pass with my ticket, so I walked back there to see how far it would get me. At each checkpoint they waved me through until I was all the way backstage, in the same area as the band. I went into the bathroom, sitting inside a stall and trying to snort the cocaine when all of a sudden all these people charged into the restroom, slamming the door. “You’re wired, man, I can tell!” one of them was yelling to another. They had a short, passionate band meeting right there, then went out and blew everybody away. And I was hooked. Man, this is what I wanna do, as I stood at the side of the stage. I wanted to be a part of this fucking circus.
My Sunbums glory year was over by 1976. There were a couple bad years after that. I wrote for a really bad tourist rag called “Hotlines Hawaii” and had my first real fling with the art director Pam Baxter, who had lots of cool stories about living with photographer ex-junkie Bob Gruen. (Another namedrop: Pam started seeing Neil Abercrombie, now the governor of Hawaii, after me.)
One night, about five or six months after we broke up, Pam showed up at my front door with someone she introduced as a friend from her years as an anti-war demonstrator. He was a Canadian who, instead of renting a car, bought a Corvette upon arrival. He had a problem, Pam explained. The Canadian’s brother was a marijuana wholesaler who’d been popped overseas for some reason or other, and he had pounds of weed to sell, but he didn’t know anybody. Could I help him out?
We spent an entire night snipping buds from pot plants that were hanging upside down to dry in one of two timeshares his brother owned. Pam and the Canadian lived in the other one. He gave me two pounds to try to move and I saw dollar signs. I did some math and figured that, at the rock bottom prices he was selling to me, if I sold all the weed I’d walk away with about $2,000. I’d never had more than $200 in my bank account my whole life.
But the dope wasn’t very high calibre. The guys I was counting on turned it down and I ended up giving the paper bag back to Pam’s new boyfriend. Then she called. The weight was light and the Canadian was livid. “He said you owe him a couple hundred dollars,” she said. Then she told me something else. He wasn’t an old friend, in fact they’d just met a few days before she brought him to my place. He had just gotten out of prison and was in the Canadian mob. I tried to explain to her that I hadn’t stolen any weed or kept any money after sales. He bagged up the pot when it was damp and I returned it dry. The weight must’ve been water weight.
So, anyway, I had just gotten a financial aid check for $200 after re-enrolling at the University of Hawaii, but instead of going to school, I bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. I didn’t want to give that psycho a shot at me. When we were airborne, I felt a great deal of relief.
Kate Hellenbrand, then a tattooist at Tattooland in East L.A., picked me up at the airport and took me to her studio apartment in Pico Rivera. I was all up in the L.A. punk scene, taking the two-hour bus ride to Hollywood three or four times a week, it seemed. The last bus to Pico was at midnight from Sixth and Hill Streets, so when I saw punk shows I’d stay out all night and take the 5:30 a.m. bus home. I needed a punk rock name. One morning Kate threw open the curtains and the sun was so bright she just yelled “Yikes!” And I said, ‘that’s it, Yikes! Crawford. That’s my new writing name.'”
L.A.’s Slash magazine and all the fanzines, like Youth Party and No Mag were really influential, so when I moved back to Honolulu after the coast was clear, about five months later, I decided to put out my own fanzine. Jim Wood, the singer for the Honolulu Doggs, a great blues band, had the same idea, so we joined forces for what was originally going to be called the Oahu Lie. Jim did the cover- a close-up of a military man sweating profusely- but then left town for San Francisco, leaving me to finish it. I never liked that title, so I changed it to Honolulu Babylon. Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon” was my favorite reading material on those long bus rides from Pico.
I slid the first issue, 12 xeroed pages, under the door of Mike Malone’s China Seas Tattoo on Smith Street. I was always around Chinatown, so I ran into Malone a few days later and he was raving and ready to take the Babylon to higher creative ground. The first issue didn’t have any visual sense, but Malone loved the attitude of stories like “The Ten Biggest Dildos in Hawaii.”
He went to work on the second issue, which he always referred to as the debut issue, right away and drew that beautiful cover of a hula dancer in bondage. I went over Rollo and his girlfriend Kandi Everett’s house one day and we pretty much cranked it out then and there. There was some heavily libelous stuff in there so Malone went by Rollo Banks. We made up a punk band called Moke Bait and wrote a big article about ourselves and our first single “The Karen Quinlan Shuffle.” Kandi was hesitant to be part of it at first, but it turned out that her cartoon strip was one of the best things in the issue. We did a third (or second) issue pretty soon after that and then I was off to New York City with the first absolute love of my life, Donna Belchou. It was 1979. I was 23 and thought I was going to really set NYC ablaze as I had done with Rollo in Honolulu.
Donna was from Mount Vernon, New York, near the city. I stayed with my aunts and uncles in Suffolk County on Long Island. Our plan was to save up enough money to get an apartment together in Manhattan. This was 1979. There was no Brooklyn or Queens. Rents in Manhattan were outrageous, even then, about $700 for a studio.
In order to be together we took a bus to Albany to visit Donna’s cousin Tony. I looked around and it looked like New York City to me, especially the area around Lark Street. We looked at rents and found one right on Lark for $190 a month. I was living off unemployment checks of $79 a week, from when I was laid off from my job as apartment complex custodian in Hawaii.
One thing about the Babylon that was really strange was that it was really big with the gay crowd around Kuhio Boulevard. Jack at Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand and Jerry from Hamburger Mary’s were two of our full-page advertisers. For “Terminal Issue” of the Babylon, we decided that we didn’t want anyone to like us, even gays, so we went all out. We took their ad money, but then the issue had all sorts of gross gay stuff, like one of the events of our mock Gay Olympics was the three-legged race, which was a guy running with another guy’s foot in his ass. Fucking gays loved it even more. Jerry (or Trixie, as he liked to be called) had a secret bar in back called Dirty Mary’s, where straight people were not allowed. At all. No fruit flies. That was our best-selling location. I’d stop by to pick up money and they recognized me from my picture and they insisted on buying me drinks. I was the only straight guy they’d let in. I’d hear so many funny things, like one time a guy was trying to get his friend Randy’s ear and he kept being ignored, so he finally started screaming “Randy eats pussy!” and he got his attention.
Being accepted as a honorary queer in Waikiki didn’t exactly travel to the capital city of New York. I decided to start an Albany version of the Babylon and I called it the Albany Lark after the street we lived on, which was suddenly starting to become hip. Lots of bars and shops as prospective advertisers so I went around and got everyone excited about this new community newspaper for the Capitol Hill area. About 75% of the first issue was geared towards the community. There was a nice photo essay, a story on the crisis hotline center where Donna volunteered, some man on the street stuff. But I just couldn’t help myself. I had a couple of playful gay slaps and when the first issue came out there was total outrage. That material was a mistake in that context and, boy, did I pay for it. Me and Donna were banned from our favorite restaurant when the waitress Gigi (who would later become a good friend) fingered me as the guy who delivered the Lark and collected money for the ad. “I can’t believe it’s you!” she kept saying over and over. I was called a Nazi at a record store and had a drink thrown in my face. Without a doubt the worst period of my writing career. But, fuck it, I was in love and happy. And eventually I was able to wear down the Albany scenesters just by showing up at every crappy gig. I was from Hawaii, where there was one band a night and they played three or four sets, mostly covers. I wasn’t in the suburbs, I was right on Lark Street, and I just soaked it up.
Things started turning around in the second issue. (Yes, I was fearless.) I got an Albany artist named Raoul Vezina to design a new logo and he did a take-off of LOOK magazine that was just stunning. On the cover, were three notorious Lark Street drunks. Unburdened by ads, the copy flowed cohesively and knowing the town a little better I was able to poke with authority. Unfortunately, I went after J.B. Scott’s notorious co-owner Vinnie Birbiglia a little too hard, nicknaming him “Little Caesar” and hammering the unfriendly doormen, so Vinnie had me banned from the best club Albany’s ever seen. I mean, it was a shithole, but the lineup was amazing. U2 played the 600-capacity club on their first U.S. tour and loved it so much they came back a few months later. The Jam played a rare U.S. club gig there, as did the Pretenders. Before the ban, I saw B-52’s, the Specials, Captain Beefheart, NRBQ, the Ramones and on and on. Later I banned myself from 288 Lark when it was the happening club because they stopped payment on a check for an ad when they didn’t like something I wrote. I ended up taking them to small claims court and winning, but I never stepped inside again until about 10 years later when I went up there with the Wild Seeds and Doctors Mob from Austin.
A group of snobby artists approached me about buying the Albany Lark and turning it into their own thing, but they really wanted the logo and didn’t want to pay Raoul extra for it.
I ended up doing five issues of the Lark, while working fulltime at Daybreak Antique Clothing on Central Avenue. David and Maureen of Daybreak were the only advertisers who didn’t flee after the first issue. I found an artist named Brad Whiting who drew great cartoons, giving the paper some needed visual deftness. Unfortunately, I drew poor, unsuspecting Brad into a visit from the Secret Service when I used his drawing of Ronald Reagan to make a crude- and highly illegal assasination joke. Besides getting me in trubbs with the feds, the last issue of the Lark also introduced me to the miracle of speed. I made a little money writing for a paper called Metroland, but I made a lot more money delivering it all over the Tri-City area. My partner owned a pharmacy downstate and after awhile he realized that if he gave me a black beauty (the real ones), he could head home a few hours early because I’d be delivering that shit around the clock and loving every second of it. When I delivered alone, on speed, I would constantly pull over and write whenever I had an idea. Half of that last issue was written on the side of the road with my mind racing.
I also did a smaller sized publication called “Mind Camp,” which was basically me writing about what was wrong with Albany and the world. I sent a copy to R. Crumb, whose address was published in Weirdo magazine, and he sent back a nice postcard. He liked the writing, but said I needed to find someone to do graphics. I wrote back, told him about Rollo and gave him some copies of Honolulu Babylon. Crumb shot back another postcard. “Tell Rollo Banks that I’m a big fan of his work.” Well, when I sent Rollo the postcard from his idol, he was completely recharged about the idea of us working together on another issue of the Babylon. “Posterity will love it,” Crumb wrote.
Buoyed by Crumb’s accolades for Honolulu Babylon, Rollo Invited me to come back to Hawaii and stay with him to make another Babylon. Winter in Albany, New York or Oahu? I didn’t have enough money to fly all the way back, so I bought a one-way Greyhound bus ticket from New York City to San Francisco, then flew from S.F. to Hawaii. It was one of those fares that was good as long you you were continuing away from your destination so it took me a week because I got off in Chicago for a day, then spent a couple in Salt Lake City with Hellenbrand.
I left the day after distributing the final issue of the Albany Lark, the one with a cartoon of a bullseye over President-elect Reagan’s face and the X-mas spoofing “Only 43 more assasination days until the inauguration.” The Secret Service was all over that in a couple days, but I was out of pocket like a motherfucker. It was big news back in Albany, especially since the feds couldn’t find me for a week. But my dad just had to take me to the Secret Service office in Honolulu when I got home and they questioned me for a couple hours and that was the last I’d heard about it.
The third issue went okay and I was back in Albany in March ’81. In the meantime, Rollo had started a t-shirt and tattoo flash business, but couldn’t find anyone to run it with any energy, so he offered me the job. My first assignment was manning the booth at the Tattoo ’82 Expo on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. This was to be a landmark gathering, with Ed Hardy and his two business partners, presenting tattooing as an art form first and a cash business second. They brought in the Japanese tattoo master Kazuo Oguri and programmed lectures and films. Rollo’s shirts and flash kept me busy all weekend.
I had an idea to do a spoof of those religious magazines like the Watchtower. We’d call it “Witness” and give it kind of a straight look for the cover, but then it would get into pretty debauched Babylon-type stuff. No longer Yikes! and Rollo, we were Fred and Stan. The set-up was all very flat. But after he designed the cover, Rollo kinda lost interest. He was into pushing the t-shirt business, which was starting to take off nationally through advertising in biker magazines. Harley Davidson dropped any kind of skulls or cool biker imagery from their t-shirts and started going for more All-American themes of freedom and family, but Rollo went all the way in the other direction. He was throwing out the meanest, badass designs, based on popular tattoo motifs like the Grim Reaper and readers of Easyriders and Iron Horse were ordering shirts like crazy.
I’d spent over an hour a day going to the Chinatown post office and waiting in line and sending each shirt first class. In Hawaii, bulk mail sits on the dock until the ship is full, which could take weeks, so we had to ship each one individually, which was a pain. We were getting bored with Hawaii anyway. Rollo had bought and fixed up a 1958 Chevy and wanted to drive that baby more than 15 minutes, which is a long drive in Hawaii. One day I got a postcard from my old Hollywood friend Andrella, who went off with Bryan Gregory of the Cramps and did lights on the tour. She raved about a show they’d just played at a club in Austin, Texas. of all places, called Raul’s. The same day, Rollo got something in the mail from his friend from New York, the drummer Travis Holland, who was then living in Austin. Boom! That’s it, let’s move to the middle of the country for our t-shirt business and let’s see what trouble we can get into in the capital of Texas.
I was 28 when we arrived in Austin in April 1984.