The keyboard players in my band were spacier than Sun Ra, more abstract than John Coltrane and brought more sheer, squalid anarchy to the stage than GG Allin and the Sex Pistols combined. When they weren’t playing music they were either feeding, fighting, or shitting on the floor – and they managed to do a lot of that onstage, too. But they didn’t just act like barnyard animals, they were barnyard animals: the keyboard players in my band were two chickens named Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline.
I played percussion on a modified vintage typewriter miked up loud enough to sound like the thunder of an angry God. At that volume, the space bar and shift keys rumbled like a kick drum, and the letter keys snapped like a tight snare. My friend Tim Gordon (the band’s other human being) played the guitar and bass semi-simultaneously, wearing the guitar up by his collarbone and the bass slung low at his hips – he’d loop the bass notes through a pedal and play rhythm guitar against himself while I thumped and cracked the typewriter. Once we hit a stride of sorts, we’d pull a blanket off the top of the cage where Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline sat with two little Casio Keyboards.
We’d glue chicken feed to the keys we wanted them to hit the most, the ones in tune with Tim. But really, whatever the chickens played was up to them – we just tried to follow along as best we could. We told ourselves that we were influenced by classic country, John Cage, dub reggae and Gonzo the Great. But really, we just tried to create listenable backing rhythms while two birds with brains the size of your pinkie nail took center stage.
A lot of people over the years have asked me “but why? Why’d you even DO this in the first place?” Sometimes you fall in love with an idea and it just grips you tight and won’t let you go until you give birth to it.Thomas Edison, it was the light bulb. For George Mallory, it was Mount Everest. For us, it was chickens playing keyboards. And really, the only answer is because.
But you know, as fascinating as all of this may sound, it was IMPOSSIBLE to get shows. Everyone loved hearing about the band, but nobody wanted to book us. We’d been handing tapes out all over town, but couldn’t get any traction anywhere. People would listen, and say “yeah, you guys are alright, man …” then just trail off.
It’s true. Richmond, VA is a rock and roll town through and through – home to Lamb of God, GWAR, Avail, and a disproportionate number of shitty punk bands. It was the capitol of the Confederacy and it’s doing the same thing with punk rock that it does with the Confederacy: sits around its carcass on life support just drinking and talking about the good old days, waiting for it to rise again.
No matter how funny or cool people said our idea was, when came down to it, none of the chain-wallet Mafia that ran that town wanted to let us open for them – we were, admittedly, a tough act to follow. And I mean, as cool as the idea is, we weren’t exactly top-billing material, either. Bars and restaurants were right out as venues, too. Although it is fine for them to serve chicken piece-by-piece in a basket, two live ones on stage violate all manner of food and alcohol restrictions.
We started looking for farms to take Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline to, farms that probably wouldn’t butcher them.
Then one day, a show came through. We met these guys who were huge Sun Ra fans and totally got what we did – and invited us to open for them at an art gallery in town a month later.
We kicked into gear, big time. Me and Tim and the chickens started practicing twice a day. When you’re in a band with superstars like those two ladies, you kinda have to work around their schedule – feeding times, in this case. Chickens are basically feather-coated solar-powered robots, and they wake up with the sun, crowing for food. When it’s dark for a few minutes, they power down.
Me and Tim got up every morning about an hour before sunrise and set up our amps, practiced a little together as the sun crept toward the ladies’ cage. They’d wake up and crow, we’d pop two keyboards and mikes in there, drop some feed on the keys and have a full band rehearsal until the chickens got full. Then we’d go off to work, come home, make some dinner, and have a sundown rehearsal.
The thing is, that wasn’t enough for me. I have far more ideas than actual skills, and I needed all the practice I could get. We were already getting up at 5 am to practice and doing it again at night, but I was still panicking. I was giving this thing everything I had and it just wasn’t enough.
We were supposed to perform onstage with live chickens in a few weeks’ time and I was terrified that we were going to look ridiculous.
Then Tim hit on it: we started putting the chickens to sleep. If you put a chicken’s head under your armpit and stroke it softly, it will think it’s nighttime and go right to sleep. We’d done this when they got to fighting too much, and we started doing it during breakfast and dinner rehearsals. It worked a treat, too: The armpit trick performed a ctrl-alt-delete on the chickens’ brains, and they woke up every time thinking it was a brand-new day. They also forgot they’d eaten, and came to with the breakfast instinct each time. We stopped it once they started moving kinda slow, but we could eke out another 30-45 minutes each practice that way.
Practices were grueling. It was hot in our little apartment, and the chickens had pecked each other up pretty good. All they did was fight. Tim and I were fighting too, exhausted from all the early rising. Just because something is funny doesn’t mean it’s not serious, and we were exhausted and freaking out.
The day before the show, the gallery manager called me and tried to cancel it altogether. She said the board had heard we were bringing barnyard animals in to perform and freaked out. They were afraid the chickens would get loose and fly around and claw up the artwork or peck the sculptures or something. So, sorry, better luck next time, she said, like we could just up and go play somewhere else.
I lost it a little bit.
I said “Listen. I have been keeping two chickens in a 2 bedroom apartment for over a month. I have gotten up at 5 am for a month to rehearse with my bandmate and some chickens. I am exhausted, and literally henpecked, and furthermore CHICKENS CAN’T FLY, THAT’S WHY WE ARE ABLE TO CATCH AND EAT THEM SO EASILY.”
I can’t remember what all else I said, but I just kept hammering away at her until we were both silent, panting from a battle of wills.
She let us go on.
There’s not but one or two cool things to do a month in Richmond, and that night we were IT. The gallery was packed, and small towns being what they are, everybody had heard all about the drama already. Folks showed up all gossipy and excited, just looking for a fight.
We came out in matching red, white, and blue tuxedoes with the chicken’s cage wrapped in an American flag. This was before 9/11, when you weren’t such an asshole for doing that. We warmed up and hit our stride, and when we saw the crowd look like they were grooving a little, I whipped that flag away and the chickens woke up and started crowing and pecking. Tim threw some chicken feed in there and they went nuts – we’d skipped morning rehearsal so the birds would be nice and hungry, and they played like hell.
Then, the crowd got the fight they were looking for. Kitty Wells was standing with one foot on her keys, making this steady drone, all Velvet Underground style, pecking away at a piece of corn on one of the high notes. And Patsy Cline decided she wanted that very same piece of corn. They both pecked at it for a while, making this amazing drone, punctuated with staccato notes – then they just went for each other’s eyes.
They crowed and puffed up, flapping their wings and howling as they jumped up and down on the piano keys. It was like fucking Jerry Springer. The crowd leapt to their feet and was like “OOOOOooo!” and started chanting and whistling. We kept playing until we saw a little chicken blood hit the keyboards, at which point we each grabbed a bird and jammed her head under our armpit and took a bow.
This may have been the crowning achievement of my musical career, and I wasn’t even the star. Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells stole the show, took their paychecks and vanished. Like so many anonymous session musicians, they spent the remainder of their short, wretched lives scratching for food, having babies they’d never meet and dying in the tremendous shadow of their own legend.
Now I’m here in New York – and every year or so me and Tim talk about getting the band back together and playing on the subway platforms.
The following recording is ripped from a tape of our first live performance, back in 1998. We refined some stuff — a LOT of stuff — before the story above took place. You’ll hear Tim playing the bass, me speaking and manipulating the vocals and drum machine, and Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline playing the keyboards. We hadn’t yet figured out that feeding time needed to be showtime, so their involvement’s a little more spare than in later performances. I can remember being enamored with Ministry, Sun Ra, King Tubby and Nation of Ulysses at the time, and I think those influences are pretty clear here. I can also remember being fairly full of myself as an art student, and that’s more than apparent.
To the best of my knowledge, this is our only existing recording, though I would really, really like to be wrong. It’s nothing you’re going to pump in the club or listen to on your iPod while you’re training for a marathon, but ten years later, I still find this to be a pretty interesting piece. Here it is:
Some years later, my friend Eric Browne and I were rehearsing to rehydrate the long-dead Royal Quiet Deluxe. It never happened. But we did get this track out of all our hard work — something you may find much more listenable. I am playing percussion and manipulating the whooping sounds. I have NO idea how we did this, and we could probably never do it again.