With my music, I’ve always vacillated between the comfortable autocracy of my self-played studio work and the desire to form a more traditional performing unit. I’ve written before about my early collaborations, but those partnerships passed as the purposefully ephemeral by-product of suburban teenage boredom. Also, my high school was tiny, and I burned through all the available peers and potential collaborators fairly quickly, so I began looking elsewhere in earnest.
By 1993, my youthful obsession with They Might Be Giants had waned, and I began digging into the roots of their music to see if I could discover even better stuff lurking in the margins. I was listening to all kinds of acts they’d name-checked over the years: Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Pere Ubu, Captain Beefheart, and so forth. As a fat kid, I was always quietly looking for role models who could show me that I had the potential to be cool. Just that year, Black Francis of the Pixies had mutated into his solo persona, Frank Black, and his self-titled debut album sheared off the top of my head. I had also become particularly attached to Pere Ubu and their visionary founder/leader, David Thomas. Fat Frontman Vibes were stirring deep within me, so I put up an ad at my local indie record store looking for bandmates.
The sole respondent to that flyer was a guy named Lenn. Lenn was six years my senior, tall and husky, with a shock of thinning blond hair. He called me one afternoon and said he was particularly excited by my mention of Ubu and Beefheart. I had always styled myself as a pretty artsy kid, whereas Lenn was more of a rocker. He professed an undying love for the NYC band Pussy Galore, and his own music traded in a similarly dissonant, chaotic, and unhinged noise. It was clear that Lenn’s musical vision was simpler and more sharply defined than mine, so rather than joining my new band, he cajoled me into sitting in on drums for his. (Plus, he already had a second guitarist, so I was outnumbered.)
His group was to be named Tac Lenn Ahc and the 20 Second Tigers. (The name alludes to a self-deprecating gag Lenn made about his sexual prowess, i.e., being a tiger for 20 seconds.) As the vocalist/ringleader, Lenn “sang” in a strangled shout and played artlessly thick-fingered guitar. His right-hand man (whose name I’ve lost to the mists of time) cast off explosive shards of piercing noise using a steel slide on the highest guitar frets. Behind the kit, I embodied the noise-rock primitive to the highest degree, leaning heavily on the floor tom and kick drum. In stark opposition to my studious and crafted solo work, this was total mouth-breather music, played with no pretensions toward being anything but brutal thumping trash. It was great fun, and I’m pretty sure I laughed my way through the entire history of the band.
I recorded the 20 Second Tigers’ rehearsal demos on my cassette four-track with the trims cranked deep into the red, pushing the tape to its maximum saturation point. This music had to sound like the proudly tone-deaf garbage it was. Our set consisted mostly of covers chosen entirely by Lenn. He had a few obvious choices, like “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “Paint It, Black,” but we also did GG Allin and Henry Rollins and — my absolute favorite — a hilariously blown-out and almost satirical take on Heart’s “Barracuda”, which I’m sharing here as the apotheosis of our art. (Warning, obviously: LOUD.)
The 20 Second Tigers only played two gigs during our brief tenure. All I recall about the first is that I explosively kicked my kit away from me and threw my sticks at the audience at the end. The second gig was in the upstairs lounge of a pizza joint called Cannova’s in Loves Park, IL, which had a refreshingly anything-goes attitude … most of the time, anyway. A few songs into our set, the beleaguered owner came racing upstairs, arms akimbo, screaming in a thick Italian accent about the “boom-boom-boom” pounding through the floor during peak dinner time. We were asked to pack up and leave immediately. Perhaps due to the forgetfulness of their booking guy (why did he keep letting me into the building?), Cannova’s became the hapless target of several prank shows I instigated that year. (More on those another day, perhaps.)
I don’t exactly recall why the Tigers didn’t continue, but it was only a matter of time. My ego was bruised by being relegated to the drummer’s throne (again) when I really wanted to be the bandleader. Perhaps I also worried that the limitations of the band’s format would wear on me sooner than later. And I knew we would run out of performance venues in short order if we continued to leave them in smoldering ruins. So, after our next rehearsal, I dropped Lenn off at home and wordlessly disappeared back into my safe and controlled studio life. If you’re reading this, Lenn, I’m sorry for the teenage ghosting. But if there’s an upshot, I’ll always have a GG Allin song to break out at punk karaoke.