- I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org). As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia! Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton. I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times. I also wrote the liner notes for the three THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me? My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored. Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.
Friday, July 1, 2016
Tom Kenny, My Daughter, And Me
My daughter Meghan is very much looking forward to meeting Tom Kenny.
For Millennials like Meghan, Tom Kenny was a huge, huge part of growing up, whether they were aware of his name or not. As the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, Kenny has been a constant and welcome presence in the lives of millions of kids born in the '90s and '00s, as familiar as Adam West and Davy Jones were to me as a child of the '60s. Meghan wasn't really a SpongeBob fan, but she was (and remains) a devoted fan of The Powerpuff Girls, which featured Tom Kenny in the voice roles of The Narrator and The Mayor of Townsville. Meghan and I often watched The Powerpuff Girls together when she was younger--I enjoyed the show as much as she did--and I made certain that she knew Tom Kenny's name. That was important to me.
Why important? Because, long before he was your SpongeBob Squarepants, your Mayor or your Narrator, before he became The Penguin or Plastic Man or any one of the many, many other voice roles he made his own, he was our Tomcat, the lead singer of The Tearjerkers. Back in the '70s and early '80s, Tom was a kid from Central New York, a budding star that everyone liked, that everyone rooted for, and whose success today is a boundless source of pride and content for anyone who ever encountered him. Syracuse's favorite son? Yeah. Oh yeah. Without question.
I can't say that I ever actually knew Tom, but I certainly knew of him. I missed his first stint, as one-half (with Bobcat Goldthwait) of The Generic Comics, a comedy combo that played bars like, y'know, rock 'n' roll bands played bars. Tomcat and Bobcat's career paths diverged; by the early '80s, Tom Kenny was the new lead singer with The Tearjerkers, a great local band that had already gone through a zillion line-ups (and released one classic single, "Syracuse Summer") by the time Tom joined up. I always liked The Tearjerkers anyway, but this incarnation of the group just zoomed, with Tom Kenny zipping around the stage like an amiable, manic pixie possessed: bouncing, singing, jumping up 'n' down, attempting to mate with the legendary on-stage pole at The Lost Horizon, and singing unforgettable (and still-unreleased) Tearjerkers essentials like "Ronnie Can't Wait," "I'm Gonna Hate Myself In The Morning," and "Don't Quit Your Day Job." If you didn't have a good time at a Tearjerkers show, I would be forced to question your possession of a pulse.
And, from what I could tell, Tom was both an entirely different guy off-stage, and yet exactly the same guy off-stage. Impossible, but true. He wasn't always as (excuse the expression) animated in normal, daily discourse--perhaps not exactly shy, but also not as immediately brash and cocky as his Tearjerker persona. I remember hearing Tom tell a story about when he first met The Flashcubes; Tom, like many of us in that scene, idolized The Flashcubes as if they were The Beatles or The Ramones, so he was too intimidated by their fame and reputation to actually...well, speak to them. "They were punk rockers!," Tom said, recalling that meeting many years later. Of course, over the span of ensuing decades. Tom became good friends with The Flashcubes, and has even joined them on stage many, many times. He may still be shy, but he hides it well.
So how was this shy kid also just like that whirling dervish that fronted The Tearjerkers? Oh man...! To answer that question, all you had to do was watch Tom when he was enjoying another band's performance. Tom would be at the front of the crowd, dancing, exulting, singin' along, flat-out rocking, just as if he and his own band of merrymakers were still on stage themselves. There was no separation. There couldn't be separation. That was just Tom.
As the '80s became the '90s and so on, I followed Tom's career from afar. He was in an ensemble sketch comedy TV series called The Edge, he was in some movies (including some where he worked with ol' pal Bobcat), and he and Goldthwait returned to Syracuse to host the SAMMYs (The Syracuse Music Awards). Tom also returned here to the 315 for occasional music gigs, fronting his R & B group Tom Kenny and the Pushballs (which, if I have the chronology right, also spawned L'il Georgie and the Shufflin' Hungarians, George Rossi's extremely successful Syracuse-based New Orleans-style funky blues combo).
(And, as I followed Tom's career arc, I was also hawking the virtues of the late '70s/early '80s Syracuse new wave scene to anyone and everyone I encountered. My early '90s mixtapes didn't include any of Tom Kenny's Tearjerkers performances--I didn't own copies of anything like that--but they did include material from The Flashcubes, Screen Test, Tom's former Tearjerkers cohort Charlie Robbins, and The Tearjerkers' "Syracuse Summer," all accompanied by my own breathless reminiscences of the scene and its performers, including Mr. Kenny. One of my mixtape buddies, a California cool cat named Greg Ogarrio, actually met Tom at a party around this time. and started talking to Tom about Syracuse music, even serenading Tom with a snippet of "Syracuse Summer." A stunned Tom could only respond, "How do you know this stuff...?!")
I've spoken to Tom in passing a handful of times--I don't think he actually knows who I am, but he never lets that slip, bless 'im. The only (short) conversation we ever had--and he did know who I was this time--was after The Flashcubes' anthology CD Bright Lights was released in the late '90s. My liner notes for that package, Bright Lights, Small City, gave me an opportunity to recall, in explicit, emotional detail, just how much that whole scene and era meant to me. At a subsequent Flashcubes show at Styleen's in Syracuse, someone pointed me out to Tom. Tom came over to me, and he told me about when he read my Flashcubes liners for the first time. He was sitting in his home in California, reading, reminiscing, letting my memories cast him back in time to the scene he remembered as well, and he felt a tear in his eye. He got up, went to his wife Jill in the next room, pointed to the CD booklet, and told her, "This is my life." It is the nicest, most important compliment I've ever received about something I've written. And I'm grateful I had a chance to give something back to Tom Kenny, considering how much he's given me over the years.
My daughter Meghan is 21 now, and has just completed her junior year in college. She spent her spring semester in London, and, as I write this, she's off on a trip with her boyfriend, Austin. Somewhere, somehow, the passing of time prompted my little girl to grow into an exceptional young woman. I am so, so proud of her. Last night, Meghan, her Mom, and I were looking at old photographs. Nostalgia is both a warm glow and a dull ache. As we look back, we delight in the cherished moments spent together, and speak in giddy tones of our recollections of those times; we feel the bittersweet tang of loved ones long gone, and we wonder aloud where the time has gone. Why is it, Sir, as Lulu once sang, Children grow up to be people one day? And no one has yet come up with a better answer than Walter Cronkite's famous sign-off: That's the way it is.
I think that Meghan and I have a pretty good father-daughter relationship. God knows we don't agree on everything (especially music!), but we have shared reference points, mutual respect, and even the occasional common interest. She has often said, "I'm nothing like my Dad! I'm into my music, my art, writing--nothing at all like my Dad!" I think she's being sarcastic. She does not think I'm funny--the eye-roll was specifically invented for her use when I try to tell a joke--but she seems to approve of me as a Dad in general. When she gets married--an event I fervently hope is still off several years into the future--we have an informal agreement that our father-daughter dance will be "Bad Reputation" by Joan Jett. That's my girl.
I remember all those times watching The Powerpuff Girls with Meghan. We watched the show in real time on Cartoon Network, we watched time-shifted recordings, we watched DVDs, and we went to see The Powerpuff Girls Movie in the theater. She loved the show. I loved the show. And, while we watched Bubbles, Blossom, and Buttercup vanquish the evil schemes of Mojo Jojo, I told her about this talented kid from Syracuse, who used to sing in bands, and who grew up to be a voice actor, and whose voice we hear at the end of every Powerpuff Girls adventure, telling us that, "Once again, the day is saved, thanks to THE POWERPUFF GIRLS!" From an early age, Tom Kenny provided Meghan with empirical evidence that someone from Syracuse could make it. It's a lesson that never gets old.
This Sunday night at our BRIGHT LIGHTS! show, Meghan will have a chance to thank him for a huge part of her childhood, and for the ongoing inspiration those fond memories inspire. Once again, the day is saved, thanks to Tom Kenny.
BRIGHT LIGHTS! The Syracuse New Wave Rock 'n' Roll Reunion is Sunday, July 3rd at Funk 'N Waffles, 307-313 South Clinton Street in Syracuse. The show starts promptly at 7 pm, with live performances by Tom Kenny, The Flashcubes, Screen Test, The Trend, The Dead Ducks, Maura and the Bright Lights, and a tribute to Norm Mattice performed by The Richards. Your hosts are Dana & Carl, and tickets are available here. Hope to see you there!