It’s always nice when a man gets a second lease on life. Ex-cons are
happy about it. Middle-aged divorcees are too, sometimes extremely. I
would expect it’s the same for songwriters and musicians. That’s where
Tonio K. comes in.
I first ran across Tonio K.’s music when I was sorting through a pile
of LPs and CDs at a rummage sale around 1992. There, among all the
scratched vinyl and broken jewel cases, I found a disc titled, “Notes
from the lost Civilization,” issued by What?/A&M Records in 1989. The
album was packed with intelligent political and social commentary (rare
for pop music) and even clever satire. Who was this guy? Never heard
of him before — didn’t seem likely that I’d hear of him again later.
At the time, I figured he was just of many one-album wonders.
I was wrong.
After an incredible bout of fame in the late ’70s and early ’80s —
during which he received praise from Rolling Stone for two albums Stereo
Review called the greatest recordings ever — Tonio K. slipped
off the musical radar screen, popping his head up only here and there
and never for very long. He had his core fans, but by and large the
mainstream paid about as much attention to him as any other guy you
never heard of.
After making the rounds, record label to record label, and becoming
the victim of the music industry’s version of corporate downsizing (one
of his albums got canned because his previous one didn’t sell enough
“units”), Tonio K. reclused almost exclusively to songwriting. Pity.
While he was writing music for, and with the likes of, Wynonna Judd,
Charlie Sexton, Bonnie Raitt, Al Green, T-Bone Burnett, Aaron Neville,
Tanya Tucker and Vanessa Williams, it was still a shame. Sure, he was
finally getting decent pay, but what’s money when you’re one of the most
caustic, cynical, satirical, wry-witted, scathing social critics and
solo artists alive?
That’s of course who Tonio K. really is. One music critic described
him as “a one-man, rock-and-roll wrecking crew.” Another, writing for
Stereo Review claimed he was “twice as angry as Elvis Costello, and six
times as funny.”
And thanks to Mitch Cantor and Gadfly
Records, you can now get nearly all of
Tonio K.’s music catalogue, including smash hits like “The Night Fast
Rodney Went Crazy,” “One Big (Happy) Family,” “Where is That Place?” and
the classic, “What Women Want.” Also available are long lost favorites
like, “New Dark Ages,” “Mars Needs Women,” and “Everything, Including
You, Disgusts Me.” You can even get the epic saga, “The Ballad of the
Night the Clocks all Quit (and the Government Failed).”
Christened with the very unlikely handle of Antonio Vladimer Stephen
Michael Krikorian, Tonio K. (for short, I imagine) was born in central
California in 1950 into the home of two lovely parents who kept him
properly incubated until he could be released upon a world of
feather-headed disco fiends, introspective drug-addled hippies, and
singer-songwriters amply demonstrating that they could neither sing nor
As an angry retort to the Love Generation, musically, K.’s a cross
between Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa, and one steady theme
runs through every album he’s ever cut: humanity has generally run amok
and gone completely bazoo. The song, “Indians and Aliens,” from his
just-released “Yugoslavia” album, gives a pretty clear picture of this.
The scene is a wedding taking place on a front lawn. From out of the
blue a spaceship lands and an alien steps out and says,
- There is a rumor circling deep space
About a planet, about a race
Of whackos and losers, weasels and jerks
They say this planet was once called the earth
I think we’ve found it.
You can also hear it in “The Funky Western Civilization,” a cut
from the “Life in the Foodchain” album, and which might be the only
dance tune ever recorded that bothers to address the general decline of
societal values in the Western World:
- 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
Now they’ve got poison in the water
And the whole world in a trance
But just because we’re hypnotized
That don’t mean we can’t dance
We’ve got the funky
The funky Western Civilization …
Somewhere in passing I had read that Weird Al Yankovic was a fan
of K. I couldn’t figure out why. “Notes” was, overall, a serious album
— even the humor was dark, satire noir. The rumor, however, made
terrific sense after hearing “Foodchain.” Along with dance songs about
societal decline and a ballad about a bad union deal, the second half of
the album is a collection of bizarre love songs, including one — “How
Come I Can’t See You In My Mirror?” — about a vampire and her ignorant
As the song goes, at some point in their relationship the guy gets a
little puzzled about certain habits of his gal — picking her teeth in
public, wearing only black and red, staring at his neck — and decides
to ask her some questions:
- How come I can’t see you in my mirror?
How come you never come around here in the day?
How come you start to hiss when I say my prayers
And you wear those stupid capes
And every time you see a cross you run away?
You never get an answer in the song, but in the context of K.’s
general spin on love and relationships, the guy probably gets bitten.
Most folks would say after hearing a few of K.’s love ditties that
he’s a bit cynical about male/female relationships. Some folks even
call him a misogynist. I don’t think so. I think he’s just doing what
social critics do — bringing up things that irritate us and make us
realize that we’re jerks.
In “Student Interview (With The Third Richest Man In The World),”
another track off “Yugoslavia,” the rich man notes that just having a
car Ferrari-red is enough for women to “practically fall into bed.” The
sentiment echoes K.’s earlier hit from the late ’80s, “I’m Supposed to
Have Sex With You,” in which he satirizes the low rung sex occupies on
the relational ladder. A guy dances with a girl at a party, doesn’t
even know her, and then says, “I’m supposed to have sex with you.”
Forget love, forget relationship — forget marriage. Anyone
wonder why men and women are so messed up?
“The hippie ethos of ‘Have sex with everyone you want to; it will be
OK as long as you’re not hurting anyone’ is utter jive,” K. told Harvest
Rock Syndicate in a 1988 interview.
“I think the ideal of peace and love, without defining terms, was
bound to fail.” Why? “Because what peace and love in the ’60s meant
and continues to mean, under other guises these days, is completely
self-indulgent and selfish grasping and greediness. What was meant by a
lot of that hippie ideology and philosophy was, ‘I’ll do what I want to
do, when I want to do it, and with whom I want to do it, and screw you
if you don’t like it.'”
What “defining terms” should we use? “I think the only ideals that
are worth holding to and will stand a chance of working are Christian
He echoes the same theme when he comments on his negative attitude
about government: “And the sociological-political theme that pretty
much runs all the way through all of it is that government doesn’t work
finally,” a statement which K. qualifies by adding, “It’s much bigger
and much smaller than that, all at the same time. It gets down to the
individual heart, and goes up to something as big as a universal,
ethical, moral law that finally gets back to the Ten Commandments.
Without that stuff being absolutely and rigidly applied, government
won’t work. Never has, never will.”
Despite his outlook, Tonio K. comes across as an unlikely member of
the faithful. He’s not terribly kind. He cusses here and there. He
spends more time making fun of problems than proposing fixes. On his
album, “Rodent Weekend,” a collection of obscure demos from the past 20
years, he’s even got a song entitled, “Too Cool to Be a Christian.”
The song starts off tracking the usual suspects buggering things up:
“idiots in office … animals in power … TV preachers busily giving
religion a bad name … vain philosophers with Martian s— for
brains.” K. says he’s not worried, however, because he’s “cool.” The
song continues to track the decline of the society around him, and his
fears mount as it continues to get worse. Being cool doesn’t cut it
anymore. With the world going to hell, he muses, “I don’t want to swim
no Lake of Fire, not me. I can’t afford no asbestos swimming attire”
and then confesses,
- All this talk about Jesus is making me nervous
All these people smiling at the sky so politely
Yeah I sleep too late to make no Sunday service,
But, I don’t know, what if these people are right?
“Too Cool” has the unique quality of being both more clear and
more confusing than most theology. Twenty-some years later K. writes
about the song, “Too Cool was too rude and too likely to be
misunderstood at the time. …” When placed in the context of the rest
of his work, however, the song seems to fit in nicely — or close
“The fact is,” he told Goldmine magazine in May this year, “from the
beginning I’ve felt my albums contained fundamentally moral themes, even
though I do use naughty words and so forth. As I got into my 20s, I
became a little more philosophical about life in general, and more
conscious of spiritual matters. I’ve always believed that the universe
isn’t just some accident; it’s a little too finely tuned for that. And
I’ve always believed Jesus was probably who he said he was. Beyond that,
though, I hesitate to say, ‘Yes, I’m a Christian,’ because people tend
to immediately connect you with those imbeciles on television.”
While the standards of Christian faith go a bit beyond “probably”
believing in Christ, it is clear that K. has a better understanding of
the comprehensive nature of the gospel and what it means to daily life
than many Christians. “If you wanted to just reduce it down to what it
really is,” he said in the HRS interview, “the Creator of the universe
and his Christ have told us and shown us what will and won’t work in
life. And that’s on a psychological level, a sexual level, a social
level, an economic level, a familial level.”
God speaks to every aspect of our civilization, and the reason ours
is so “funky” and wrong, according to K., is that we’re not listening.
And he has hope that we will. He concluded a 1979 Rolling Stone
interview by saying, “If I was totally convinced of the hopelessness of
the situation, I would have shot myself long ago.”
At least one fan is very thankful he didn’t.
A couple related items:
The unofficial Tonio K.
website. The best and most complete site for K. material.
The record company
reissuing seven of K.’s albums. Includes MP3 sound clips and online
ordering of K. CDs.
Joel Miller is Assistant
Editor of WorldNetDaily.