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Gimme a K
We're All Kasualties
Like most of you, I didn't really know Kevin Cart who died from an accidental fall at the age of 35 on September 23rd this year. And if you knew him at all, it was probably as I did, by his now all too ironic stage-name Kevyn Kasualty, leader of Kevyn and the Kasualties. Though it would ultimately please me if his music meant something to you, in a funny way I really don't care, though I really do believe the Kasualties were a very good and greatly under appreciated rock band. "Punk-rock," if you insist on a hyphen in your brand of rock, though not especially. In a way I would prefer that if you care at all, you care only because he was, as he liked to say, a "loser." By which I believe he actually meant a true, fallible human being who, just like any truly human being, never cared about being cool, and never tried too hard to ingratiate himself to anybody in the name of popularity.
But unlike most of us, Kevyn wasn't afraid to admit or accept that to be human means ultimately to be damned, to be, metaphorically at least, a loser. A casualty. "Losers going nowhere" and "Once a Kasualty, a drunk for life" were just two examples of quintessential Kasualty-speak that were sprinkled throughout the liner notes of Kevyn's records. But he wasn't so much down on himself as much as he was on the scene as you can see from the final statement printed on the back of his second album, Disgusted: "Bite it u scum: the crowd at Mama's, Columbus in general,...and cool people everywhere." And this wasn't mere swagger. Kevyn had a reason for such contempt. I mean, people just didn't go to his shows. Certainly not many. I, myself, might not have known or cared about Kevyn's music if it weren't for the fact that he was friends with (and, for a time, roommates with) my brother, Byron, who not only played bass in the Kasualties for four years, but also played with Kevyn in what can only be deemed the ultimate punk rock absurdity: a GG Allin "tribute" band called GG's Kids (Word is, some of these guys still don't know how the songs go).
Listen, I know the last thing the world needs is another dead rock musician, and I believe Kevyn felt the same way. His music refused to glamorize rock 'n' roll, choosing instead to acknowledge -- and maybe even celebrate -- its inherent ridiculousness (as well as expose the bogus hype-generating network by which rock is made popular and sold). You get a good taste of this attitude on his first album before needle hits groove. The heavier, so-called "Punk???" side is labeled with statements like "Kevyn Kasualty's Generic?" and "Rot-n-Roll." The first song is called "Let's Kill Rock 'n' Roll" with a chorus that matter of factly states "It deserves to die/Rock 'n' roll bye-bye.") And in case you still weren't clear where Kevyn stood, the second song is called "Screw FM." Then you have the melodic "Pop???" side of the album labeled with "Kevyn Kasualty's College Radio Sell-Out." Kevyn wasn't about to pander to the listeners ego with the kind of cheap, phony hipster poses that rock musicians have used for decades to assure their listeners that they are cool just for liking the music. And yet, despite his cynicism, you could tell Kevyn truly loved rock 'n' roll when you heard him play guitar. To this day I still can't get over the riff on his song "New Language" from the first album which brilliantly and elegantly connects the dots between the Troggs, Hendrix, and the Stooges. It simply has to be heard.
I realize everybody tends to feel affection for an underdog, but I don't wish to romanticize the ethos of losing anymore than I want to romanticize Kevyn after his death. I think it's nothing but stupid and tragic to limit your ambitions to something less than your capabilities. What I liked about Kevyn was that in his own ass backwards way he kept trying despite the odds. The band began sometime in 1984 or thereabouts. Can you imagine performing in the same group for over twelve years with very little attention or reward? I don't want to suggest that Kevyn was great simply because he was driven anymore than I wish to suggest we can measure the quality of his music by the degree of indifference it received. But I do tend to think the greatest art is made in a vacuum, one that is apathetic to, maybe even oblivious or hostile to the taste and sensibilities of the outside world. Art that is ultimately unconcerned about being accepted by the outside world and indifferent to being made public. This is an extreme position, but it's part of the reason I admire the Electric Eels. That's also why I like to think the greatest music that has ever been made was never recorded, was never heard by anybody besides its creator. Though you could never claim Kevyn was trying to keep his music secret, you could tell his ego never required it to be heard by more than a select few.
The surprising and amazing thing is that Kevyn did, over the years, acquire a few friends and admirers of the calibre that have inspired young but otherwise sensible musicians to form, in what amounts to the ultimate act of absurdity, Ron "blow up the rock 'n' roll hall of fame" House cover bands. Local female punk legend, the late Arlus Stitch was a friend and fan. Jim Shepard went to Kevyn's shows through out the years -- V-3's original rhythm section (bassist Nudge Squidfish and drummer Rudy K. Smith) were Kasualties for a time. This line up was immortalized on Kevyn's first self-produced album. Ron House, who has been known to lovingly call the Kasualties his favorite loser band, helped produced their second album, Disgusted, with the help of fellow Great Plains man Matt Wyatt. One time Gibson Brother Dan Dow released the album on his Okra label. And if all this name dropping actually means anything to you, I might as well add that my brother, Byron, went on to play in the relatively more popular Pet UFO.
However, as I've already made clear, despite the impressive roster of fans, their cult somehow never as grew much. It's ultimately unknowable the reasons for this, but it certainly didn't help that on stage Kevyn never failed to toss out frank and funny barbs about his band, the audience, or both. And thank God, because truthfully I can't imagine anything more boring than the kind of band that treats itself and its audience too seriously. I mean when was the last time you saw a big punk rock show where the band didn't act like self-important rock gods and the audience didn't act like blindly faithful followers? It's like stadium rock all over. Wasn't punk supposed to make this obsolete? It's as though people have forgotten that what was significant about Iggy's stage antics was how they broke down the artificial barrier of respect between the band and the audience. Kevyn was, as he liked to say, old school.
But I think Kevyn's attitude on stage was just half the story. Sometimes you really had to wonder whether he didn't care about selling his band or whether he simply didn't know how to. The band gigged infrequently, usually on bad nights (Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays), too often at cheesy venues no "cool" person liked to go to (Ruby Tuesdays, Alrosa Villa), and it steadfastly continued to book shows with the same set of fellow "loser" bands (Snooky Puss Experience, Screaming Urge) out of, I suppose, some sense of camaraderie. Kevyn just would not social climb his way to the top of the scene by courting with popular, accepted bands. I once asked my brother sometime after he quit the band why Kevyn didn't play out more often. Byron's response was that Kevyn was playing out enough, just not on campus. Apparently the Kasualties were opening for some metal bands at the Alrosa. "Why on earth is he doing that?" I asked. It was then that my brother revealed one of Kevyn's typically sharp insights about the music scene: "Campus people need to be told what's cool; people into metal just want to rock." Still, the band managed to get a few lucky breaks. A Staches show opening for Dinosaur Jr (Lou Barlow edition) comes to mind. And a few years back they were invited to open for the Great Plains reunion. I think it is to that group's eternal credit that they made this gracious offer to the Kasualties. I mean, I'm sure a popular band like the New Bomb Turks or Gaunt would have jumped at the chance to play. It was clearly a gesture of appreciation to the musicians and friends who were actually there in the trenches with them well before Columbus was even thought of as a "scene."
Perhaps the ultimate reason Kevin was never accepted was his music wasn't one dimensional enough to easily summarize. Nor was it safely aesthetically correct enough to conform to any obvious trends. It was too crunchy and metallic to be punk or pop, and too punky, too garagey to be classic rock or heavy metal. Plus Kevyn wrote some slow melodic songs. Today, of course, indie rock is full of bands that straddle these genres. Prisonshake has made a similar combination sell respectably, but they've had the benefit of better timing, better marketing savvy, better hipster credentials, and sexier (albeit, in my opinion, overbearingly macho) lyrics. Kevyn started sometime around 1984 at the cusp between the demise of hardcore punk and the first flowerings of indie rock, before much of this aesthetic became more safely codified. And Kevyn continued past the age most rock musicians can expect to receive any attention. I mean, despite the recent acceptance of "older" indie rock musicians like those in GBV, Strapping Fieldhands, or the aforementioned Prisonshake, Kevyn and his band mates probably just didn't have the right sort of charisma, cuteness, or sex appeal to sell records. When Kevyn and band mates cavorted around stage, to the eyes of the average twenty year old, they probably just looked goofy. And when Kevyn sang about sexual attraction and relationships it was too honest, too gawky to be erotic. I mean, it was as if Kevyn believed sexual relationships are by their very nature tainted by class conflict or brute social conditions. On "Girl Without Furniture" from Disgusted you get a sense of this: "She was a was girl without furniture/Lost in a shipless village/She didn't have much/She didn't have much/She knew how to rape and pillage/I was a ghetto boy/Lookin' for some luck/I looked into her eyes/I looked into her eyes/Man, I got stuck/....She looked at me/It something like death."
I don't wish to turn Kevyn Kasualty into a martyr. Nor do I wish to turn him into a neglected genius (which would only be an insult to his memory). God knows the world ultimately doesn't need anymore great, ignored rock musicians. "The world," as conceptual artist Sherrie Levine once remarked, "is filled to suffocation." There are days when you have to wonder it is nothing but sin and folly to even aspire to increase the world's ever growing cultural burden with anymore ephemeral garbage (whether it be art, rock 'n' roll, or even, rock writing). The bottom line is I liked Kevyn's music a lot, and though, as I've already stated, I'm not going to attempt to convince you it will change your life, I want you to know Kevyn did write what I believe to be one of the most unusual and movingly human songs ever performed by a local rock band, punk or otherwise: the six minute epic "Will O' The Wisp" which closes out the "Pop???" side of his first album. You'd have to go back to punk's origins, to bands that hardly even sound like what we now think of as punk to hear anything quite as strange or powerful: Patti Smith's "Piss Factory," Television's "Marquee Moon," and the Velvet's "Heroin" come to mind as songs that might compare, at least in terms of visceral emotional impact. Like "Marquee Moon," "Wisp," is an ambitiously structured song with elliptical lyrics that ultimately defy precise interpretation. But it seems to be a series of small vignettes in the lives of people both rich and poor, struggling for fulfillment and dignity that you sense will never happen. Beginning with a few abstract images of urban violence and decay ("guts in the alley/....guts on the highway") our protagonist slowly begins to tell us about the individuals he knows living amid the ugliness. In one part, he tells us of his friend Janet, who's "been working at the Biltmar Hotel/She does her job very well/[I] call her on the phone/She says, 'I feel so all alone/Oh, I think that I'm losing my mind.'" This is juxtaposed with the story of a well-to-do acquaintance who "had it all/A kitchen maid/A sweaty servant/Why was he depressed?" In the songs climax we find our narrator either contemplating suicide, or, a shooting spree: "With a gun in my hands/....I've been waiting, waiting to explode/With a gun in my hands/I would feel like a man/I would make somebody understand." Though Kevin's lyrics use a kind of plain-speech that won't get him remembered as a rock poet, here, in this tale of people of ordinary abilities with longings and needs far larger than their capacity for comprehension and expression, the lyrics work. And the music which alternates between passages of hopeful bright melody and passages of slow, langourous guitar strumming is articulate and expressive enough to say far more than any words. It is the one time on record that Kevyn may have exceeded his own limitations as a songwriter.
In a way I really hope no trendy asshole will ever give Kevyn's music a chance. It would have probably only sickened and disgusted him. Especially now when it seems the music scene has become so rigidly correct that even the limits of bad taste is carefully mandated. It's reached the point where I sincerely hope to never have to hear another word about the Carpenters, Kiss, Burt Bacharach or ABBA. Kevyn was a loser, but he was cooler than most. So if you see any of his records, you should buy them -- especially the first one. I understand Used Kids may still have a few. Also look for the forthcoming posthumous collection that Jim Shepard is putting together. Kevyn's music won't alter your DNA, but maybe, just maybe, by giving him a little more respect than he ever got in his life, we'll all become better people -- losers and casualties in the best sense.
- Nathan Weaver (Dec 14, 1997)
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Updated: Friday, 16-Jan-1998 17:43:33 EST