The Screamers' Tomata du Plenty
By Jack Rabid
Reading time 89 Minutes
Interview: The Screamers' Tomata du Plenty (1948-2000), Part 1
His last words, and a truly fascinating life in music, art and performance
byNWR is proud to present the final interview from The Screamers’ Tomata du Plenty. The Q&A session was conducted by Jack Rabid (with Greg Sahagian), on May 3, 2000, at a coffee café called The Café Royale at Post and Leavenworth in Nob Hill, San Francisco near where he was staying. He died August 22, before it the piece was originally published in issues 47 and 48 of Big Takeover, in November 2000 and May 2001.
I little considered, when I began swapping emails with Tomata du Plenty to arrange this in-person interview, how sad it would become to write this. I had no idea that he’d been HIV-positive for 17 years, nor that he was now dangerously sick. In fact, a few years ago, someone had told me they thought him dead (they’d probably heard he had HIV), and I was disappointed that I would never fulfill a 20-year desire to interview him. I only learned du Plenty was still alive when I read a eulogy he penned for the great Slash writer Claude Bessy in the L.A. Weekly last year. He’d listed his home as “New Orleans,” and I set about making inquiries to track him down. It turned out he had a web site and an email address at [email protected] When I contacted him and asked for an interview, he responded a week later, just when I’d thought he had no interest: “Thanks for E, forgive my late replay, my health took a real nose-dive after my opening here in S.F., but it's nothing they can’t fix and I hope to be on the mend soon. Sure. What do you need to know?”
I told him I was going to L.A. for a family reunion (a happier occasion, my grandparents’ 70th anniversary party), and was coming up to San Francisco to see and interview the band Wire. He agreed to meet in a coffee shop/bar on the corner of Post and Leavenworth Streets called The Cafe Royale, perhaps the same one of the American Music Club song of that name.
When we found that place closed at noontime, we ambled up to another coffee joint a block north, and the results are printed below. However, he died only three months after I finally got my wish, right where it seemed like he and I were going to keep in touch for a long time, via email. I was just starting to really get to know him, but just like that, he was gone.
Of course, as hinted by his original email, and as you’ll read below, it wasn’t the biggest shock to hear of his passing. Despite the unbridled assurance he expressed then (“But I’m very optimistic — I’m not an old jalopy”), I’d been given a chilling warning: As he walked away from our chat in San Francisco’s North Beach with a pronounced limp, my longtime friend and fellow Screamers fan Greg Sahagian — who’d had accompanied me on the interview — turned and told me, mournfully and distressed, “You know that he probably won’t make it, don’t you? HIV sufferers who get that sick are in big trouble.” Greg is a brain surgeon in San Diego, and, as a medical friend I’ve often consulted, he was the first one to tell me the straight dope that my late father was not likely to survive his cancer in 1999. I could only hope that du Plenty’s faith could help him overcome his mortal afflictions, but alas, it was not.
But beyond mere sympathy for any doomed human, why should music fans care especially about this man? Just who were The Screamers, and why do some remain obsessed with them, so many years after their demise, and despite having never officially released a record in their lifetime?
And the funny thing is that so much of their value is how well they defied description. The Screamers left behind memories as the most visual group in punk history, due mostly, if not entirely, to the absolute white-hot thrill/shock of seeing du Plenty himself front this band. The man was like one primal scream of a sinister character: His stark-white hair spiked straight up like a bed of nails; his eyes bulging with menace; his death grip on the microphone; his guttural, rumbling-low, screaming hiss of a voice (without effects, he sounded like a cross between a barking dog and a knife-sharpener); the demonic thrust of his chest, as he stood straight up, mic straight out, and hurled more than sung lyrics about fear, obsession, depravity, and lewdness with a delicious, malicious delight, as if he couldn’t tell which appealed to him the most. The Batman movies and Sherlock Holmes mysteries couldn’t devise a shrewder, more cunning, smarter arch-fiend commentator/mad dog — all brute animalism meeting a total embrace and celebration of released, pent-up energy.
And behind du Plenty was a wall-of-synth sound from Tommy Gear and later with Paul Roessler, as fuzzed out as it was piledriving. Anchoring it all was K.K. Barrett who hit the drums like he was swinging clubs instead of sticks, playing a primitive tribal smash-beat that could raise the hairs on your head as high as his singer’s. There was no guitars or bass, and yet, along with The Weirdos, they were the top draw in L.A., selling out entire weekends at the Whiskey A Go Go and Roxy, gracing the cover of Slash magazine, and being interviewed just as regularly by Search and Destroy. Their gigs weren’t just concerts, they were theatrical events, primal performance art and music rammed down one’s throat with all the ferocity of the best punk, and with some of its most enduring, subversive confrontationalism.
When du Plenty died August 20, 2000, he left behind a legacy that only his contemporaries and fans who caught the band live decades ago could truly appreciate.
In person, he turned out to be candid, funny, still full of humor and zest for the darker side of life and lust, and most of all smart as a whip. The word “fascinating” is overused, but our encounter, in what was his last interview, was that, hands down. Let us be clear: This is the sort of thinking-man’s creative and interesting person that punk and underground music in general used to attract, before it became so rote as formulas, marketing, niches, and genres. Punk rock was once a siren call for the most sharp, artistic misfits to get involved, and we’ll never see their like again picking up microphones and instruments instead of working in less restrictive mediums for smarter audiences. R.I.P. Tomata; I hardly knew you, but we always knew you as an artistic genius on stage. That your career had already been so well survived by the Gary Panter drawing of you, seen on so many t-shirts worn by people who didn’t even know who you were or why you were drawn, is fitting tribute to your lasting impact beyond this mortal coil.
Now, as a complete perspective and biography on Du Plenty’s life, this introduction cannot improve on the e-mail statement former Masque booker Brendan Mullen, who often presented The Screamers at the club, sent out two days after du Plenty’s death. It covers so much of what we only began to touch on in our two hours with him:
“Goodbye, Tomata du Plenty. David Xavier Harrigan…the dynamic lead vocalist for The Screamers (‘77-’81), died in San Francisco on August 20, apparently from cancer. He was 52. Born on Coney Island, Tomata was the son of Irish immigrants. He is survived by two sisters.
“One of L.A.’s all-time biggest club bands, The Screamers were also its most mysterious. They are renowned as the original punk underground’s most popular band, who vanished into thin air without ever releasing a single record, who never officially toured, and who were so far ahead of their time in doing away with electric guitars in aggressive rock that they were called ‘techno-punk’ by local scene scribe Kristine McKenna as early as February of ’78.
“Style and theater were also so much a part of the Screamers that nobody ever called them out for being a punk band with a full-time stylist. Later on, under the direction of Austrian filmmaker Rene Daalder, the band made a series of video clips and short promotional films, nearly two years before MTV went on the air. Gary Panter’s screaming, hair-raising skull caricature of Tomata has become one of the few recognizable ‘official unofficial’ emblems of the great L.A. underground rock band rebirth of the late ’70s.
“No one with any management or business skills understood the Screamers or their lo-fi psycho-Kraftwerk-meets-The Night Porter as performance art, yet the band (one ARP Odyssey synth, one Fender Rhodes with fuzzbox, and one minimal drum kit, plus Tomata) was still regularly selling out multiple consecutive nights at the Whisky and the Roxy, two shows a night with their meticulously polished productions. Any unsigned band able to rack up ticket sales even half that amount today would stir up a major knock-down bloodied bidding war among several multi-national mega-corporations. Tomata’s riveting stage moves were blatantly copped by both Jello Biafra and Danny Elfman-goes-New-Wave-with-Oingo-Boingo.
“After the final break-up of the Screamers in ’81, Tomata embarked on a new career as a painter, and after his first show at the Zero One Gallery in ‘83, he gradually evolved into a revered folk artist who worked the storefront gallery circuit in Seattle, L.A., Miami, New Orleans and San Francisco. (He always said he’d sooner sell 100 of his trademark instant paintings of his favorite artists and other plain folks at $25 each rather than one at $25,000.)
“Before moving to L.A. in early ’77, Tomata was a beneficiary of Seattle’s ‘one-percent-for-the-arts’ policy at a time when there were more than a dozen funded live theaters in the city — mostly featuring farcical musical comedies that brought out droves of actors, designers, costumers, and performers like Tomata who were enticed to artist-friendly Seattle looking for low-wage work in the arts.
“Tomata was a big hit on the thriving Seattle off-theater circuit of the early ’70s as a member of Ze Whiz Kidz, a lip-sync troupe he originally formed with the late Gorilla Rose (RIP, Michael Farris) in 1969. After opening for Alice Cooper at Seattle’s Paramount in ’72 with a ’50s-theme musical, “Puttin’ Out In Dreamsville,” the vitality around Ze Whiz Kidz god-fathered major re-births of local scenes in modern dance, performance art, punk, and the gay underground in Seattle. Ze Kidz staged nearly 100 mini-musical/revues with a cast whose stage names included Satin Sheets, Co Co Ritz, Dilay Flo, Benny Whiplash, Michael Hautepants.
“After bailing on Ze Kidz circa ’74, Tomata formed the Tupperwares, an all-drag vocal trio with Melba Toast who later reinvented herself as Tommy Gear (the utterly enigmatic musician-writer who wrote most of The Screamers’ classic songs and then seemed to disappear) and Rio De Janiero (David Gulbransen). Frequently billed together on what came to be known as ‘TMT’ shows, three Seattle bands — The Tupperwares, The Meyce, The Telepaths — basically midwifed Seattle’s version of the late ’70s punk/new wave scene.
“There was also a brief period in New York with Gorilla Rose and Fayette Hauser, who performed comedy at CBGBs with The Stilettos (featuring a pre-Blondie Debbie Harry) and The Ramones as opening acts. After moving to L.A. in early ’77, The Tupperwares quickly changed their name to The Screamers after meeting keyboardist David Brown and transplanted Oklahoman multi-media artist-musician K.K. Barrett.
“‘With style, grace and humor,’ Tomata once said, ‘everybody must be made to feel important sometime...’”
My thanks to Mr. Mullen for his usual eloquence and info, and to Pebo Voss, who lost her own husband to illness last year yet volunteered for this transcription, to Laura Watt and Ed Wakabayashi for putting me up so I could do this face to face instead of over the phone, and to Dr. Greg Sahagian, for sitting in on this interview. A bittersweet one to read now, but an awfully good one, and a funny one, too.
JR: We talked a little about you when I interviewed Penelope [Houston of The Avengers]; she was telling me how she had met you in Seattle before The Screamers.
TOMATA: Yeah, I met her when she was... maybe 15, at an all-night coffee shop, and we just talked till the sun came up. She was 15, and I was... [laughs] She was jailbait! But she was great. She knew exactly what she wanted out of the future, even then.
JR: She was really into art back then.
TOMATA: Yeah. Well, she said her future was San Francisco. This town loves her. She’s like their best... I know that when I think of San Francisco, I think of her and Jello [Biafra]. They’re good representatives for this town.
JR: She said you used to have a band in Seattle.
TOMATA: Yeah, The Tupperwares. They were like a bubble gum band.
JR: Really? You mean like The Archies or something?
TOMATA: Oh, well, we did really silly songs like “I’m Going Steady with Twiggy.” We made these little rhymes of like... well, I don’t remember how it went. Oh, “I had a face full of Marianne Faithful.” “Penelope Tree don’t do nothing for me.” They were just like cute little bubblegum rhymes, you know?
JR: Penelope Tree?
TOMATA: Tree, she was a model, ’65. And of course there was “I’m going steady with Twiggy,” which was funny because we later turned it into a Screamers song, and in the song there was a letter where I said, “Dear Twiggy, I look at your picture everyday, I love you,” but when we turned it into a Screamers song, it became “I look at your picture everyday, Twiggy, I want to stab it!” [laughter]
GREG: A little bit of a change!
TOMATA: And the song, you know, it played on. We got a lot of life out of it.
JR: I’d love to hear tapes of that. Tell us some more about growing up in New York, because this is something I didn’t know anything about. What part of Queens are you from?
TOMATA: Broad Channel.
JR: Broad Channel? Really, South Queens, out by JFK [Airport]?
TOMATA: Yeah, right there — where the subway goes over the water.
JR: That’s only barely New York City.
TOMATA: That’s my childhood.
JR: What the hell were you doing out there?
TOMATA: Just being a little Irish Catholic boy. I grew up there and then when I turned 10, we moved to Hollywood. So all my first 10 years were out in Broad Channel, and then when I was a hippie, god, I hitchhiked all over the states, and I wound up back on the Lower East Side in the early ’70s, just around the time CBGBs was beginning.
JR: You were across from the men’s shelter on Third Street, you were saying, right? It’s still there. Right around the corner from CBs.
TOMATA: Yeah. I had a great view of the de-licing room. [more laughter] There’s a little old woman, Ramona Sota, she’s the manager of the building — she’s still there, a little Puerto Rican woman, she’s about four feet... almost four-feet-five or something... she carries a big butcher knife. But you’ll see her. Look for her, just say, “Ramona, I know Tomata.” She’s a great lady.
GREG: She’s still there, eh, 25 years later?
JR: She’ll be easy to spot with a butcher knife!
TOMATA: Nobody fucked with Ramona Sota. [laughter]
JR: That’s near the block where Johnny Blitz got attacked.
TOMATA: Yeah, lot of history there.
JR: So it seems. It’s just slightly before my time. I get there [CBGBs scene] around the time that you guys played in New York three years later.
TOMATA: By that time I was living in L.A. That’s about the time we played CBGBs, and Hurrah’s. and somebody’s elevator at a party, somewhere in Soho, I don’t know where it was.
JR: [amazed] Somebody’s elevator? What?
TOMATA: We set up in the elevator because there was nowhere else to set up.
GREG: Did you play on every floor? A song on every floor?
TOMATA: Yeah. It was fun.
JR: You did? What? The elevator was actually moving? That I’ve definitely never heard of.
GREG: Must have been kind of a big elevator.
TOMATA: Oh yeah, it was huge, a big freight elevator, and then there were like parties on every floor. It was this big old warehouse. Some French guy had it. He was a friend of Deborah Harry, she was the one who helped us get the thing.
JR: How did she know about you?
TOMATA: We’d been old friends from the early days of CBGBs.
JR: That makes sense.
TOMATA: I’ve been friends with her and Chris [Stein] for a long... well, back then I used to do stand-up comedy at CBGBs, you know.
JR: You were like an opening act? Like The Unknown Comic?
TOMATA: No, oddly enough no, the bands were the opening act.
JR: For you? How bizarre! This gets weirder by the minute, this mid-’70s scene I just missed out on.
TOMATA: This was when [CBGB owner] Hilly [Krystal] was turning it over from a bluegrass club [CBGB originally started in 1973, the letters standing for, funny enough, “Country, Bluegrass, and Blues”], then a comedy club, and then he finally let... like The Ramones, I think, were the first band I remember playing there.
JR: It was Television that was actually the first one. They talked him into it. He didn’t want to do it. I’ve talked to Hilly a million times about this, it’s a great story.
TOMATA: He’s a hoot, ain’t he?
JR: Yeah, he’s finally learned my name after 22 years of seeing him fairly regularly. He always used to stare at me like, “I know you, but... ” I didn’t mind. You meet as many people as him, you’re not obligated!
TOMATA: His wife was a character, too: Karen — I wonder if she’s... you ever talk to her? She was a real character. Oh yeah, tough. But, she used to come up to me, she goes, “I don’t know how to make this place look good... ” She’d bring swatches of material and stuff like that to the club. She goes to me, “You’re gay, you could tell me how I can decorate my house.”
GREG: Out of the blue?
TOMATA: Yeah, just out of the blue. “Does this fit here?” she said “You gay guys know this.” [much laughter]
JR: Everything associated with CBGBs is bizarre. Do you remember the giant bouncer, Merv?
TOMATA: Yeah, nice guy. I have only really good memories of that place. Really good. ’Cause when I went there was only like 20 people, you know. I used to hang with Tish and Snooky, I loved those girls. They were like my pals.
JR: I used to buy posters from them on St. Marks Place, when they had that store Manic Panic in the late ’70s. They had cool stuff. They make lots of money now selling unusual hair colors now that that are so common.
TOMATA: Excellent. Really excellent, but you know, a lot of... most of the time I was really ripped!
JR: You were drinking a lot back then, huh.
TOMATA: Oh yeah, those little miniature bottles of Pernod. You could buy like flask-sized bottles of Pernod, I don’t think you can buy them anymore, but they were great, ’cause they never called you a stinking drunk — because your breath always smelled great.
GREG: Just plain drunk, you were?
TOMATA: Yeah, just laying out there on the Bowery, and you know, you just smelled like Bryan Ferry, which is great!
JR: Of all the places in the world, why did you end up on the Lower East Side? I mean, some people went there because they knew about the CBGBs scene, but you predated it. So it was just an unholy hellhole back then. You would have just missed the Mercer Arts Center scene...
TOMATA: Oh, well, I was in the theater. See, I was in a couple of gender-fuck theater groups; The Cockettes here in San Francisco, they were... I don’t know if you know who they were, but they started in 1970. They were like guys who dressed in drag from the waist up, and they were naked from the waist down. And girls who dressed in just... it was like a glitter-theater group. Guys and girls, who would just, like, try to confuse the public, they not only dressed in drag, they dressed as furniture. And it was just like, great.
GREG: They started here?
TOMATA: At the Palace Theater, yeah, in North Beach. And then, they influenced a lot of other people, like Bette Midler, people like that.
GREG: And you’d said Divine was...?
TOMATA: Yeah, Divine — yeah, Divine did a lot of shows with The Cockettes. A genius. I hitchhiked with Divine once on Eighth Street, it was hilarious. He would not hitchhike, like put his finger out — he would jump in front of a car and pound, like this [pounds on table], on the hood. He did this! Really! He pounded on the hood of this car, and this old lady’s in the front of the car. He said, “Tomata, get in, get in!” I get in and the woman would be terrified, and he’s like, “We’re going to the top of the hill.” [laughter]
GREG: Just up the hill?
TOMATA: All the time. Divine just terrified people. He was really a... He was a great guy.
GREG: I never heard a bad work spoken about him.
TOMATA: U-nique. U-nique.
JR: Sure seemed like that. Anyway, after you were active out here with the alternative theater, then you found yourself near CBGBs and just kind of stumbled on these bands playing a block from you?
TOMATA: Right, yeah.
JR: You just walked by it one day or something?
TOMATA: Ah... I knew Arturo [Vega], from San Francisco, when he came up from Chihuahua. Arturo was like—I don’t know what you could say about The Ramones, he sort of like was like their helper, he helped them from the very beginning...
JR: He was like the fifth Ramone.
TOMATA: Yeah, he helped them with their image, everything, you know. And I knew him when he first came from Chihuahua, Mexico. I met him here in San Francisco.
JR: So he was telling you about this band he was helping out? Nice going!
TOMATA: I think that’s how I ran it. I don’t know, I think the first time was just, I saw Dee Dee running down the street yelling — he was singing “Volare.” Yeah. [laughter]
JR: Of course! That’s what everybody does.
TOMATA: Yeah, he was singing “Volare” [the 1958 #1 crooner hit for Domenico Modugno and later Dean Martin and Al Martino]. I can’t remember exactly how things fall into place here. This is a long time ago. This is really a long time ago.
JR: It must be; I was 11 when CBGB started.
TOMATA: I remember Dee Dee was always singing “Volare.”
JR: Back in his male prostitute days.
TOMATA: Yeah, well, he was a hairdresser. At Bloomingdale’s.
JR: You should see him now; he looks like he needs one. He still has it live with his band, The Remains.
TOMATA: He’s on tour again. You know, I want to see him, I heard he came through here.
JR: He plays all Ramones songs, and he sings it in that scratchy voice that he used in like “53rd and 3rd.”
TOMATA: Oh, I can’t wait to see it.
JR: Well, he wrote them, so he might as well play them.
TOMATA: He should reap. He should definitely reap.
TOMATA: I don’t know. If you knew... after a while I just couldn’t see another Ramones’ show. I’d seen so many, and you know, I thought, it’s going to be the same... but I could see that.
JR: It’s really kind of fun. It's very endearing to see Dee Dee singing every song in that sandpaper voice. It’s really quite funny. And his missus the bassist sings like...
TOMATA: ...Oh, really? Is she a New Yorker, or is she European?
JR: She’s a New Yorker, yeah.
TOMATA: He always had crazy women, ooh yeah.
JR: Crazy men, too.
TOMATA: Oh yeah.
JR: He lets her sing. They cover The Velvet Undergroun’s “Sunday Morning,” and she sings it.
TOMATA: Beautiful song. Oh, that must be so touching. [laughs]
JR: It’s good fun. So anyway, I can’t imagine why you would leave New York if so much were going on! There was nothing happening out here, out West, yet, really. Until you helped get it started, anyway.
TOMATA: I don’t know why I did.
JR: You just kind of got tired of it?
TOMATA: No, no, it was very exciting. I really have no idea why I did. I was a young guy.
JR: It was time to move on?
TOMATA: Yeah, I really am not a guy who contemplates much. Like I was telling your friend [Greg], I just got really sick for the first time in my lifetime.
TOMATA: Right now. So my life has really changed — so maybe now is the time for me to think about things. But up to this point, I never thought about anything; I just did it. You know, I remember when I was like 15, I was at the beach in my baggies, and I got in a car and we drove all the way to New York in the winter. I’ve never thought about things ahead of time.
JR: I like doing a lot things, being extremely impulsive like that. I don’t do it as often as I used to, and I never did anything that extreme!
TOMATA: Well, I guess maybe I’m... I’ll be 52 at the end of the month, so maybe... I mean, I hope to be back on my skateboard soon, I’m not predicting too major a change here, but...
JR: You said in your e-mail that you’d been sick. Is it worth talking about?
TOMATA: Oh, well, I’ve had HIV for a long time. And they changed my meds, and I got a weird reaction, so I’m working with it. And, in New Orleans, I was working with a doctor there, but they seem to know a whole lot more here in San Francisco. This is where it all began; they’ve got the best care in the world here. So, that’s my decision, to hang here for a while. But I’m very optimistic — I’m not an old jalopy.
JR: I had noticed in your brief obituary for Claude Bessy in the L.A. Times that you’d listed your address as New Orleans.
TOMATA: Yeah, I hope to always keep my studio there; I want to be bicoastal. The Pacific Ocean, and the Mississippi.
GREG: Bicoastal? [laughing]
JR: Hey now, it’s the Gulf of Mexico. That’s as much the coast of anything.
TOMATA: I always want to be part of New Orleans. Those people have been damn good to me.
JR: What have you been doing for 20 years? Mostly art projects?
TOMATA: Whatever I can get into three suitcases, I get on a train or a bus, and I go to L.A., San Francisco, Miami; I do art shows. I’ve been doing them mostly like in bars, restaurants, laundromats — wherever I could sell the stuff. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 20 years.
JR: I’m surprised you don’t try doing something in New York, given your roots there.
TOMATA: Yeah, I’d like to. Now that I’ve met you guys… No, I was thinking about it. I would very much like to.
JR: I don’t have a great deal of connections in the art world, but I could see what I could do.
TOMATA: Oh no, I would like to do it just on the street. I’m really not interested in the art world. I’ve never... I don’t cotton to it. I know how to do it myself.
JR: You don’t need the galleries.
TOMATA: Ah, no. I don’t. I don’t think I belong there anyway.
JR: It’s a little too sedate for my tastes. Wine and cheese....
TOMATA: I don’t know, I’m not going to make an opinion. It’s just not Tomata. Just not me. I like places where the people can get boozed up, anyway. It’s easier for me to, you know, sell the art. If they’re stewed, I do really well.
GREG: It flies off the walls.
TOMATA: It does. ’Cause I like... I sell my stuff really cheap. I do some big pieces that are expensive, but I always have lots of $20 pieces in the show, because I think people should have art, I really do.
JR: I agree. How would you describe your art, if it were possible?
TOMATA: Aaaahhh, I don’t know. I brought you some samples you could take with you.
JR: Oh, excellent, thank you.
TOMATA: At first it was just cartoon stick figures of my friends, but now that I’ve been doing it for 20 years, it’s changing. I don’t know, I guess I’m a folk artist — I guess that would be the closest there is to it. I’ve never taken an art lesson. And I don’t intend to, because I like where it’s going on its own.
JR: It’s like taking singing lessons. Why bother if you have your own voice [and you’re not getting sore throats].
TOMATA: Oh yeah, it could ruin you.
JR: You can develop your own style. How is it then, if you were doing comedy shows, things of that sort, how did you end up deciding that you wanted to do music?
TOMATA: As I said before, I’ve never made.. I’ve never had to make the decision.
JR: You just fell into it.
TOMATA: Yeah, I fell into it, or I... a really good friend of mine who I did comedy with in CBGBs, Gorilla Rose — he’s now gone — he lived by this expression, “Let’s do things,” and that’s how I live my life, by being active. Do things.
JR: So you were originally doing music in New York? Or after you moved to the Northwest?
TOMATA: No, not until I was in Seattle for a while. I wound up in Seattle after I left New York. I went to Seattle in ’75. And I got involved in doing The Tupperwares. And it was a lark — it was just like, there was only three bands in the whole town. Or three bands that you wanted to listen to.
JR: Who were the other two?
TOMATA: Heart. [laughs]
JR: [sarcastically] Heart. [a few more laughs]
TOMATA: I love those girls. There’s a lot to love there.
GREG: Oh, let’s be nice now.
TOMATA: No, there is.
JR: That’s a nice way to put it.
TOMATA: And that was just to, you know, to keep me out of trouble. And then, well, The Screamers actually was planned. The Tupperwares was just a little joke band I was in, and then my friend Tommy Gear said, “Let’s go to L.A. and see how far we can take this.” You know, so we took it... somewhere. We toured around the country, that was about it — but I mean, it was worked on. The Screamers was planned.
JR: I didn’t know that you’d ever played anywhere but California and New York. Where else did you play?
TOMATA: We played Montreal, Toronto, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh — all beautiful places.
JR: How did you get gigs there?!?!
TOMATA: Aahh, just got on the blower.
JR: I mean, I’ve done a few interviews with Chip and Tony Kinman [of The Dils] over the years, and we talked a lot about their one abortive tour — you know, where they got like a grand total of three gigs going from L.A. to New York [where they played three nights at Hurrah, two with D.O.A. opening, and one opening for Link Wray]. One of the gigs they managed to get was only a cowboy bar in Chicago, and if you can’t do any better than a cowboy bar in Chicago... you know what I mean? What are you going to do in Pittsburgh? No other punk bands from L.A. really tried to tour the whole of the U.S. between the coast in the ’70s, it seemed, because there was so little audience, so little awareness of punk there, outside of maybe Ohio, Toronto...
TOMATA: Pittsburgh actually was the best. It was a little town called Swissvale, right next to Pittsburgh. Our van broke down; they put us up in a hotel for a whole week. Fed us pizza every night. That’s when you get to meet the real people, places like that.
JR: But you didn’t even have any records! At least The Dils had two singles at the time, as puny as that now seems. [That was actually rather substantial back then!]
TOMATA: No, we never had any records.
JR: And there was no punk rock circuit that you could call up and expect to turn out, or even art rock or underground garage circuit!
TOMATA: No, we had to jive. We had to jive out way in.
JR: What sort of clubs would book a group like yours sight unseen? With no records!
TOMATA: It was a disco — it was totally a disco. I remember, I was right under the bar. But they seemed to dig it. Pittsburgh was ready for it. This was 1978; most of these little towns were really waiting for it. I think we got better receptions in these little places than we got in New York — although CBGBs was really good.
JR: Again, it’s kind of amazing that you would make it all the way here and play without having released a single record to let people know about you. Why didn’t The Screamers make records? What I had heard is that you’d thought that it was a dead medium. That video was on its way in, and that records were on the way out. Still, it seems so odd!
TOMATA: Well, I don’t know. Tommy Gear and I were The Screamers. And K.K. [Barrett]. And then Paul [Roessler]. There were four different people, and whatever you hear came from one person’s opinion, you know what I mean? And I have a feeling that was something that Tommy Gear might have said.
JR: These are hazy 16-year-old kid memories of mine. I remember very shadily things from so long ago.
TOMATA: The reason we didn’t make records is because the record companies weren’t interested in us at all. At all. I mean, first of all, The Screamers was a highly theatrical thing; how could you put that on record? What I did, what I went out and did, it was a controlled nervous breakdown every night. I was exhausted by the end of every set.
GREG: It looked exhausting.
TOMATA: It was.
JR: It was exhausting for the audience, too. Best part of it.
TOMATA: It was theater. And much of it was theater of cruelty. Not necessarily towards the audience, but much of it towards myself. It was a lot of very, very hard work. I’m really glad I did it. As far as seeing that translated to a record, I don’t know. I get e-mails all the time: “Somebody wants to put out a Screamers record.” I know there are bootlegs out there.
JR: I reviewed one once — I brought it with me, the review I wrote [shows it to him].
TOMATA: That’s good, that’s right. I’ve had kids come up... in fact, just at my art show the other night, a kid had me autograph a bunch.
JR: ...of bootlegs? You signed those?
TOMATA: Oh, I do it all the time. I’ll do it. I mean, I’m not mad at them [the fans], I’m mad at the people ripping me off. But I can’t... a kid comes up to me, and, “Oh sure.” I don’t know how many times I’ve done that.
GREG: There’s a whole album, a bootleg, out now.
JR: They should buy you a copy of it! [all laugh]
TOMATA: Supposedly there are three that somebody told me of.
JR: The one I have and reviewed is the double seven-inch. I have the rest on tape.
TOMATA: I don’t... I haven’t wanted to be around any of that for a long time. I kind of put it behind me. But now I’ve been forced to face it. I did an art show on punk rock in L.A.; Exene [Cervenka of X] and her partner Jen Racher talked me into it. I said, “Punk rock, oh no, fuck, I don’t want to do an art show on punk rock.” But I did, and then I saw all these people I hadn’t seen in 25 years. Tony and Chip, I hadn’t seen them since ’78! I ran into them at this art show, so it was like, it was amazing to see all these people. So I guess now is the time to think about these things. It is part of my past.
JR: When I interviewed John Denney [of The Weirdos] in 1990, I had asked him if he had seen you, and he said, “You know what, I haven’t seen him in 12 years, except for fairly recently, we were in the car and we passed him on the street. He was waiting for a bus or something, and we were like, ‘Hey, there’s Tomata!... oh, there he goes...’” — like they never even stopped. It is funny how people just fall out of touch. So you just had no contact with any of those people all these years, then.
TOMATA: No, in fact, I didn’t even know Exene back then! Barely. I heard she opened a shop in Silver Lake [L.A.] so I wrote her a letter, “Do you think I could do an art show there?” And she wound up giving me four shows there. You know, this woman I barely knew, and now I know her. She’s one terrific woman. But I don’t think... the L.A. punk scene wasn’t that close. I mean, there was a lot of competition. And The Screamers were considered very snobbish. We did not exactly have the friendliest reputation. I thought I was friendly, but...
GREG: You mean individually, or as a band?
TOMATA: Individually, individually. We were a little hard to deal with sometimes.
JR: Well, you put on a pretty unusual show, considering the rest of those bands pretty much just got up there and played. You were a much bigger realm of presentation.
TOMATA: Right. But a lot of those bands were absolutely terrific.
JR: Yeah, they sure were. You sort of predated them all, too, if I recall correctly. I mean, you didn’t walk into a ready-made scene like some of them did. Am I correct?
TOMATA: Right. The Weirdos played first, and then we played a couple of weeks after them. Maybe The Germs played somewhere in between. It all happened like that one, two months...
JR: Summer of ’76 in L.A. When did you actually move there? Do you remember?
TOMATA: Around ’76. It all just sort of happened.
JR: My conception is that you predated almost every single band in town from that scene in that era. The Weirdos existed, but without a drummer, or something like that…
TOMATA: Um, I don’t know.
JR: …That you were sort of instrumental in paving the way for it all. You wouldn’t recall that much about it, I’d imagine.
TOMATA: No, I don’t know that.
GREG: Were The Screamers actually formed in Seattle, and you moved down? Did we hear you right?
TOMATA: No, no. We had this idea like that in Seattle, that we’d do something completely different. We started reading... I knew this girl in England that kept sending me fanzines about The Sex Pistols, and I said, “Geez, why are we doing this stupid bubblegum music?” You know, I had this bowl haircut — I looked like Peter Noone. So we decided then to go to L.A. and start a punk rock band, even though we didn’t know what one was. Oh, and the best thing in L.A. then was The Runaways, you know, I idolized them. Oh my god, I was so in love with Cherie Currie of The Runaways, I had her picture on my mailbox. To me, that was punk rock, The Runaways, and then The Sex Pistols. There was a whole line. It went from The Ramones, which I had seen so often in New York, to The Runaways — in my mind, it totally made sense, and we should be right in there somewhere. Right next to Cherie Currie. And I was thrilled. [Runaways’ guitarist] Joan Jett, she came to Screamers shows, and once she took my shoes off and I had to walk home barefooted. She was terrific! Terrific lady. She was going to record a Screamers song, but her record company wouldn’t let her do it.
JR: Which one?
TOMATA: “I Wanna Hurt.” [laughter]
JR: I have that on a tape one of my readers made for me, from your demos.
TOMATA: It’s a happy S&M song. [more laughter]
JR: The ones I love best are like “122 Hours of Fear,” “Vertigo,” “Magazine Love”...
TOMATA: Oh, those are the happier songs.
JR: There’s one video from Target Video of a live show of yours I have; I remember your introduction to one song was, “Some of you have tasted fear. Did you find it delicious?”
TOMATA: God, I was hokey.
JR: I don’t know. The way that you said it, with your eyes kind of bugged out, glaring menacingly at people... It was pretty menacing! Your voice seemed scratchier, like darker than the one that you speak with now. Is that just the way your voice sounded then, or is that deliberate?
TOMATA: That was my voice. You mean, how much of it was an affectation?
JR: That’s an unfair way to put it. I mean how much was deliberately scratchier than your normal voice?
TOMATA: That was my voice. I didn’t know how to sing. I just yelled! I certainly don’t know how to carry a tune. I’m tone deaf. I took a voice lesson once and they threw me out. [loud laughter]
JR: Like I was saying earlier, right? Who needs voice lessons? One of the things I always found interesting about your group is, having only read about you before you played in New York, it seemed unreal that you didn’t have a guitar or bass in the band. Is that from having come from New York and seeing Suicide or something? Since they were just a synth and rough vocals. You guys added pounding drums and screeching, seething vocal...
TOMATA: No. Although, I had seen Suicide — they were brilliant. But no, that was just because we didn’t... we had a bass player in The Tupperwares, and he came to L.A. with us, and then he wanted The Screamers to become an instrumental band. And I thought, “Well that’s interesting. I’m the singer; what is he trying to tell me?” [uproarious laughter] So there went the bass player! And we didn’t have any guitars. And we met a guy at a party who was shoving people. This was in ’76. And by that time it was The Eagles’ music. People were so happy and loving, and to see somebody out at a party with that kind of behavior, we thought we should start a band with this guy.
JR: And that was K.K.?
TOMATA: Yeah, K.K. You know, he was this rowdy from Oklahoma who learned how to play drums from listening to Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.” That was his all-time favorite song — I don’t know how many times I heard him drum to that. Anyway, we started playing, and by that time we just didn’t think we needed a guitar. It wasn’t a political thing, it wasn’t a thing that was inspired — oddly enough, it just evolved. And then all the writers made something else out of it.
JR: How so?
TOMATA: Oh, that we were anti-guitar because it was a phallic symbol, and absurd Freudian things like that. Or that we were the sons and daughters of Kraftwerk, and all this bullshit, you know.
JR: So anybody with a keyboard was a son of Kraftwerk?
TOMATA: Right, you know. And then the weirdest people started hanging around, you know, like Devo, oh geez.
GREG: Devo followers, you mean, or Devo themselves?
TOMATA: Oh, Devo themselves.
JR: That’s interesting! I remember reading a really long interview with them in Search and Destroyback then. They spent a lot of time out here before they ended up moving here [L.A.] later. But they certainly weren’t a precedent for you.
TOMATA: No, it just happened. But, see, I’m not a musician, so I can’t answer some of the questions you may want to know. You know, I was just the jerk in the front.
GREG: So what did Devo have to say about you guys?
TOMATA: Oh, they were really nice. In fact, they offered us a tour to play with them in Paris, and for some stupid reason we turned it down! [laughter] I could tell you all the stupid things we didn’t do. But I remember one: Robert Fripp [of King Crimson] asked me to sing on his album, and I had to turn that down... oh please! I mean, these are just things... I was not in my right mind... but I was working damn hard, so it’s not that I have regrets. People say, “Well, you should have done a record or something like that,” and I don’t have regrets about that. Maybe a record will come out. I don’t own the music, Tommy Gear wrote the music. It’s up to him.
JR: Wait a minute! He wrote the lyrics, too?
TOMATA: I wrote a lot of the lyrics.
JR: That’s right, well, you are at least half songwriter, then. The compositions would be “du Plenty/Gear,” not “Gear.”
TOMATA: Yeah, but I haven’t seen him in over 20 years. And I don’t foresee seeing him in the next 20 years, so... it’s just not a part of my life anymore.
GREG: One of the bootlegs was actually demos.
TOMATA: Geza X produced those demos.
JR: That’s what I would have asked about.
GREG: Were there any hopes for those demos? Was there any plan behind doing that? Was it just fun in the studio one day? Or were you looking for a deal somehow?
TOMATA: No, no, no — I’m sure it was so we could get played on Rodney [Bingenheimer,DJ on Rodney on the ROQ on KROQ, and former proprietor of mid-’70s L.A. nightclub Rodney’s English Disco], and Rodney was always a great... No, I do remember actually performing for Mercury Records one day — there was some kind of stupid audition, really nerve-wracking, I do remember that.
JR: Around the time they had Pere Ubu, then?
TOMATA: I don’t know. But I remember they stayed under four minutes! [laughter]
JR: You were extreme, even for that time, so that’s not surprising. You were pretty far from some polite new wave band the majors could market and get you to go out and glad-hand radio programmers! Anyway, what I had heard at the time, which I’ve never known if it is true or not, was that you guys were like this close to signing with Sire Records — the only label of the time with major distribution that had a track record of marketing such extreme acts of that time in the late ’70s.
TOMATA: No, I don’t know anything about that.
JR: You never heard any such thing? In fact, the story which I had heard — which I’m sure, if you hadn’t heard that, then I’m certain you haven’t heard this one — is that the deal was basically done, but your manager just forgot to call them back or something dumb like that.
TOMATA: I find that suspect. But I wouldn’t know.
GREG: Were you continuing your art all during the time?
TOMATA: No, no, I didn’t become an artist until after The Screamers. I was in a hit-and-run car accident.
TOMATA: Yeah, well, what happened was The Screamers turned into a movie, Population One, which Penelope is in. It showed at a few film festivals, and then disappeared. I was the star and K.K. did the sets, Tommy is in it, a few Screamers songs are in there, but the band doesn’t play. It’s a story about the last person left on the planet after a nuclear holocaust. El Duce is in it.
JR: The late El Duce [a central character in the controversial documentary Kurt & Courtney, who appeared just before his mysterious death and dubiously, drunkenly claimed he’d been hired by Courtney Love to kill Kurt Cobain].
TOMATA: I miss him so much. By the way, he is one of the most wonderful persons I have ever met in my life. I saw him, I don’t know, a couple of years ago, he’s like “Tomata, if you’re ever out on the street, whatever, you just come right to my house.” You know, he was like... the biggest heart.
JR: Well, he’s dead now, so there goes that.
TOMATA: I know. It depresses me greatly that he’s gone. A train ran him over.
GREG: Strange circumstances.
TOMATA: But he was a brilliant, brilliant man.
JR: I didn’t really like his band. I thought they were occasionally funny, but I found them for the most part hard to take, even if I didn’t take all that patently offensive sexism humor all that seriously.
TOMATA: No, they were terrible. The Mentors? Give me a break. But as a person... He was much more interesting out on the street. Same as Darby Crash. I never liked The Germs, but he was fascinating in a parking lot. I think that’s where he was really a star. Watching his behavior in a parking lot, that’s what made Darby Crash, that’s what made him a legend — certainly not his performances! Oh, they were so boring! I mean, this is in my mind: I couldn’t sit through a Germs set, please. Torture! But I could certainly sit on the curb with a 40-ounce and listen to him for hours. He was an interesting, interesting person.
JR: You weren’t throwing food at them while they were playing, like everyone else was in the early days? That doesn’t sound so boring.
TOMATA: Lorna [Doom] was too beautiful. I would never throw food at Lorna. She was beautiful.
JR: Yeah, The Dickies wrote a song about her, didn’t they? Remember that song, it was “Poodle Party,” because she used to have the Poodle haircut. [They mock-insult her, affectionately, with the line “Oh Lorna Doom/You’re the easiest.”]
TOMATA: Exene wrote a song about her, too: “White Girl.”
JR: That’s right! X was kind of a little after you guys, too. Maybe that’s why you didn’t know her that well.
TOMATA: No, they were at the same time. I knew Exene and John [Doe, Exene’s ex, also of X] when they were poets, before there was an X, before The Screamers. I took a bus to Venice [California] to see her read from the back of an envelope. She was great!
JR: From the back of an envelope?
TOMATA: It was all about street people. And John was a roadie for The Screamers, for a while, in the early days.
JR: I didn’t know that. You know he just put out a new album, and he’s touring as well. A lot of those people you came up with are still active doing something or other. I think it’s the enduring mark of that scene, that all of you were so creative that you were bound to do interesting things, and keeping “doing,” as you said, long after your scene was history. Like you’re still doing art. And Vale is still doing books. In fact X is playing in L.A. next week, a benefit for that guy from Social Distortion who died. It’s for his wife and kids.
TOMATA: What was the guy’s name from Social Distortion?
JR: Dennis Dannell, he was an original member. He and Mike Ness were the two originals, still, and he just dropped dead from an aneurysm a couple of months ago. He had a baby and a three-year old, I think, that he left behind.
[As is Tomata’s sad death, a little over three months after this interview. We are greatly saddened by this, of course, as were just beginning to know him, Greg and I. Thanks for the memories you shared with us this day, though, so candidly.]
Interview: The Screamers Tomata du Plenty (1948-2000), Part 2
His last words, and a truly fascinating life in music, art and performance
Part two of our interview with Tomata du Plenty begins in the aftermath of discussing Exene from X calling him one day and offering him and his artwork a gallery show in L.A., thus reacquainting him with all his old punk fans from two decades ago after having no contact with them all those years.
JR: X is playing the benefit for the family of [late Social Distortion guitarist]
Dennis Danell, which I think is really good. You wonder what state of life insurance he left for his family. Anyway, the reason I bring up X is that Exene, fairly recently, put out three separate CDs' worth of an anthology of the recordings from the Masque benefit show, Live at the Masque. I don’t know if you were aware of that.
JR: Its like X, The Weirdos, Germs, Dickies, Black Randy & the Metrosquad, Alleycats, Zeros, Eyes, Randoms, Bags, and Skulls [and F-Word].
TOMATA: We were in that show...right.
JR: You were. I mean these CDs include pretty much every single band on the bill, a total who’s who of the L.A. scene of that time, except for yours and The Controllers, Dils, and Plugz!
TOMATA: Yeah, well, I wasn’t asked about it. It’s odd that I wasn’t asked. Maybe she went right to Tommy Gear and he said no. He has been saying no for years. So, there’s nothing I could do.
JR: Either that or else the tapes weren’t up to scratch. You remember being recorded that night? [yes] I thought that might be your best chance to have an official release [prior to the semi-official double CD that came out after this interview]. I mean, in a sense that everybody else who played those nights was on the damn thing, it just doesn’t seem to make any sense to leave you out.
TOMATA: Well, I’m sure she worked with Brendan [Mullen, Masque booker] to pull that together since it was his show, and he knows how to get a hold of Tommy, and as I was saying, Tommy, as brilliant as he is, is not easy to get along with at all.
JR: Is that how you two parted company?
TOMATA: Yes, to put it that simply!
JR: Did the band just kind of peter out, or did you stop...
TOMATA: No, the band turned into a film, and he no longer was interested. It wasn’t a falling out; it just turned. Seasons changed, what can I tell you? My whole life’s been like that.
JR: It just seems funny that you would emigrate all the way from Seattle to L.A. with him like that and play in a band with him another four years and then not have anything to do with him for 20 years. It seems kind of odd.
TOMATA: I’m a cold son of a bitch. [much laughter]
GREG: Maybe it’s the other way around.
JR: This interview is one of the first I have ever done where I can’t write an introduction saying, “Well, this band was really great, I suggest you buy one of their records or search for this or that record..." You don’t have any!!!
TOMATA: Well, they could buy the bootlegs, and Target’s been ripping us off for years with that video.
JR: That’s true, I like that video, but they don’t pay you for that, eh?
TOMATA: No. And they advertise in Thrasher, kids.
JR: Why don’t you go over and demand payment now that you are here in San Francisco? They’re right around the corner!
TOMATA: No, you’ve just got to put things behind you.
JR: Do they still exist?
TOMATA: Actually, I had to call them because I was interviewed by CNN; this was when I was doing the punk rock show with Exene. And I said, “Gee, I think I’ll edit this art.” I did paintings of all punk rockers, [the late] El Duce [Mentors], you know everybody. The Sex Pistols...everybody. And I thought it would be great to throw in a little early Screamers footage for CNN, and CNN said, “You can’t use this. You’ve got to get their permission.” So I found the guy, Target’s phone number, and I called Joe Rees, and he gave me permission. So I thought about saying, “Well, Joe, how come you’ve been ripping me off all these years?” And I thought, “Fucking forget it. Get the permission, let it go.”
JR: He should at least give you a dozen free copies of the video, right?
TOMATA: I don’t like to...I don’t collect things. I don’t have a single scrap of Screamers memorabilia. I gave Brendan [Mullen] everything I had because he’s like a historian. He’ll put it to good use; it’s going to go to use in the archives. I don’t sit around and listen to those old recordings.
JR: When was the last time you did?
TOMATA: Ah, when I was watching the video, editing this thing for CNN that was the last time I heard it.
JR: Which video was it? “122 Hours of Fear?”
TOMATA: No, it was “Vertigo.”
JR: From the live part of the Target Video. Too bad, the studio video is absolutely incredible, perhaps the only truly amazing video I have ever seen [and five years before MTV came along to entice bands to make the stupid buggers].
TOMATA: And the other one was from Live at the Masque, and I can’t remember what song it was.
JR: It’s fortunate actually that there is that Target video if for no other reason than people can see since you’ve said that you guys partially didn’t release records since you thought it didn’t capture the visual impact of what you did.
TOMATA: Oh, yeah!
JR: You were saying how you didn’t think a record would have done you justice.
TOMATA: Oh no, no. People are very mad at me for not putting out...product. Oh, please. Why do you think I left L.A.? People were very mad at me that I left The Screamers. You know, people make it very hard on you if you want to do something else, especially if you made a big noise. You made a big noise and then you decide you don’t want to do that anymore, “Ohhh, you can’t do that.” Please. Look what they did to David Johansen. I mean, I really respect him. They said, “Oh, how could he do Buster Poindexter? He should be doing New York Dolls." They don’t want to let people grow, move on.
JR: Well, at least The New York Dolls left behind a couple of albums. I mean, I never saw them play but at least can hear their music!
TOMATA: Oh, I saw them play. They were fantastic! But it’s, like, everything should be in its time and place. People get overly sentimental, especially about rock ’n’ roll. Oh my god, you hear the violins...it’s...I don’t know...punk rock fans...they’re the hokiest!
JR: I don’t know if I feel that I am enormously sentimental, but I collect a lot of recordings by people who were dead before I was born. Music, once it’s recorded, if you can hear it, is always new. I’ve got records from the ’20s and ’30s, and those people were dead by 1937. Doesn’t it bother you that no one can hear what you spent so much hard work on for four or five years?
TOMATA: No, I think it’s important to preserve and to save this for the future, of course. I’m not putting that down.
JR: I think a group like your…as unique as you were, I mean, you seem unprecedented then and now as well...It doesn’t seem like anybody’s done anything like it since, even, which is really unusual for a group as popular as yours at the time. Maybe you were doing something so unique that it couldn’t be copied.
TOMATA: Well...I’ll say this humbly. Nobody can be me, and I was fucking great back then! [all laugh] Well, that’s aside from the point.
JR: I used to see your T-shirt everywhere.
TOMATA: [Slash illustrator] Gary Panter designed that, the guy who did the sets on Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Brilliant. They fucking named a street for him in Japan. Illustrators are stars in Tokyo. That is what is considered talent. They have a “Gary Panter Way” in Tokyo.
JR: I still saw that T-shirt of your screaming face up until a couple of years ago.
TOMATA: Oh, they use it all the time...I see it on Insult Line, 976-INSULT. It’s a phone number you can call to be insulted, and they used my face. [more laughter] 976-INSULT. You know what’s really neat is that ACT-UP was using it for a while, which I thought was great. That really pleased me.
GREG: They used the Scream face?
TOMATA: Right. It’s a portrait of me that Gary did. It was terrific.
JR: In some strange way, it seems almost as ubiquitous as the Edward Munch painting called “The Scream” — you know, like it has come to symbolize something far beyond...
TOMATA: Oh, that’s neat.
JR: People don’t even know who you are, but they know that image.
TOMATA: Oh, and when I called the INSULT line, I said, “Please stop using this.” I said, “That’s a portrait of me.” And he says, “Oh no, that’s our boss, Irving. That’s Irving’s picture. Irving.” And so I figured, you know...
GREG: This is a lost cause...
TOMATA: Forget it. It is Irving. He talked me into believing it was Irving. 976-INSULT.
JR: That’s an insult in and of itself. They think it’s their boss instead of you. What about the video for “122 Hours of Fear?”
TOMATA: That was a Target Video, yeah.
JR: Do you remember much about that?
TOMATA: I remember it was great doing it. I thought those people were great. I had no idea they were ripping us off. They were really nice people at the time. We had a blast.
JR: Well, aside from the nonpayment of royalties, again, it’s basically the only way that anybody can buy your stuff without resorting to bootlegs. And the thing that kills me about it is that obviously MTV was several years away. I mean, it did seem like a futuristic thing to do, making videos instead of records. You didn’t make the video to promote a record, for example. You didn’t have one!
TOMATA: Yes, as you were saying, we probably did have a mind to the future about videos being the thing, and they certainly captured us more.
JR: One would almost be surprised that you didn’t attempt to release those as your record. Like, there’s no record to buy, but here, buy this video. But then one remembers that in 1978, VHS or Beta really wasn’t really here, yet? There was no home market for this stuff at all back then.
TOMATA: No, there wasn’t.
JR: Yeah, seems strange to recall, doesn’t it? So there really wasn’t anyway you could release a video back then?
TOMATA: Late ’70s? No. The band was over by 1980, I think, ’81.
JR: Let’s talk a little more about what you are doing these days, I know you did a show of your paintings here in town fairly recently, all the ones where you did your take on folks you liked, such as Jack Kerouac. [“Black Leather Kerouac, new works by Tomata du Plenty at the Legendary Cafe Vesuvio, 255 Columbus Ave, San Francisco March 1-15, 2000, Artist reception on March 12th, ‘Jack’s birthday.’”]
TOMATA: They bought the main piece; they got it hanging in the bar, that Kerouac. Me and Jello [Biafra, Tomata’s acquaintance from Biafra’s Dead Kennedys days] and Penelope [Houston, another friend of Tomata’s, not only from her Avengers days but before that when they both lived in Seattle; Tomata described her kiddingly as “jail bait” in part one] read that night.
JR: So this happened six weeks ago, on March 12 ?
TOMATA: Yeah, it’s all down now. I have to get ready for the next show. But it was great. I wish I had more stuff to show you, but you can have all this. [gives him artwork]
JR: What did Jello read?
TOMATA: He read the story that Kerouac wrote when he was 17; it was beautiful. Really beautiful.
JR: And Penelope?
TOMATA: Another piece of Kerouac’s from one of his books.
JR: Kerouac had a pretty big connection to San Francisco. Those are my favorite scenes in On the Road, when he’s coming to the jazz clubs here. His descriptions of seeing some of the old jazz cats, I think Charlie Parker, it all made it sound like the punk rock of the late ’40s, the way that people were just going so crazy and were so into the music and so into the social aspect, the whole vibrant culture thing. It sounded exactly how I felt going to see The Ramones or Iggy Pop or Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers in 1979. The overwhelming excitement mixes with the feeling that you were in the best place on the entire planet you could be.
TOMATA: It must have been incredible! I get a thrill just walking around the neighborhood he was writing about, just seeing the places he’s been to. City Lights — I love that bookstore.
JR: For me, I think it is not being sentimental but like thinking, “Wow, there was a time, a moment, when incredible things happened, and if there’s any way to hear them now...it comes back.” The way I listen to a Little Richard record, you know, I just think, “Wow, in 1956 this wasn’t a golden oldie. This was a guy just making music and what a moment!”
TOMATA: Did you ever listen to Slim and Slam? That was Kerouac’s favorite. Slim Gaillard.
JR: I’ve heard the name, from the earlier jazz era, right?
TOMATA: Yes, he created his own language. He wrote “Flat Foot Floogie with the Floy Floy,” But his other songs were really way out there in his own language. You’ve got to hear his stuff.
JR: Oh yeah, I have Louis Armstrong’s recording of that, singing with The Mills Brothers.
TOMATA: Oh, yeah. Nice. That early Mills Brothers stuff is nice.
JR: Yeah, it’s got to be about 1937. That’s what I’m talking about, though. You see, I’m born in the ’60s. There’s no reason for me to be able to hear The Mills Brothers except that somebody documented it and released it. Who knows what other amazing folks existed back then that were never recorded and released? That’s what I fear is going to happen with The Screamers.
TOMATA: Oh, they were so...god...The Mills Brothers inspired everybody. There would be no Ella Fitzgerald if it weren’t for The Mills Brothers.
JR: I have a recording of her singing with them, too, “Dedicated to You.” She was so, so young then, again, 1930s, really pretty stuff.
TOMATA: I do too. That’s her best stuff, I think. Just beautiful.
JR: Truly. I love writing about stuff like that in The Big Takeover because you figure some of the people reading it are 22, 23, they’re likely not aware of it...
TOMATA: And it all draws a line right to everything now, even hip-hop music. You could hear that in The Mills Brothers.
JR: Yeah, because they used to do their own horn parts with just their voices. Instead of hiring a trumpet player, they do the trumpet parts just by singing them, and all the other horns as well. This is great stuff.
TOMATA: You’ve got to go to New Orleans to hear the brass bands. I don’t know why that music doesn’t travel. It doesn’t leave New Orleans. I’ve never seen brass bands anywhere else, and it’s like, six guys, four trumpets, two horns... I can listen to that music all night. And a lot of the time, you can just sit on the curb. It’s just there on the street. You can sit on the curb with a Dixie beer.
JR: Penelope [Houston] said something interesting when I interviewed her last year about record labels and punk rock — that there was a brief moment there where it seemed like the record companies could be kind of interested in some of the underground bands. And then when the whole Sid Vicious murder charge thing went down, suddenly it was like the door shut in everyone’s face. Do you remember anything like that?
TOMATA: Oh, no. I can’t help you there.
JR: You wouldn’t have been aware of something like that?
TOMATA: I was so involved in the stage act. You know, every show was so much work. It was my only focus, the performance, really it was. I didn’t do very much of the business, and I have to give credit to Tommy Gear, he did most of that work. I was free of that responsibility so that I could devote all of my time to going out there and making a total fool of myself, which was a lot, a lot of hard work.
JR: I wouldn’t say you made a fool of yourself. I thought you were one of the most frightening things I’d ever seen! There was a giant buzz around New York after your gigs; people were saying, “You wouldn’t believe what we just saw.” I mean, again, New York was a scene that had seen a lot of great underground music going back to The Velvet Underground, you know, and The New York Dolls and Stooges...I mean, to be put in that pantheon was very impressive. New Yorkers were amazed by what they saw live from you!
TOMATA: We played Iggy Pop’s home in L.A. He hired us for a party. It was hilarious.
JR: Where there?
TOMATA: In Malibu. His fan club called us and said Iggy would love for you to come out and play. I think it was two hundred bucks or something. So we drive out to this home, and this guy I had known in his fan club said, “Oh, Jimmy wants to meet you.” And at this time I didn’t realize that Jim [Ostenberg] was his real name. So I walked down this long hallway, and there’s an absolutely naked Iggy Pop at his room. And he comes right up to me, he hugs me, shakes me, shakes my hand, and says, “I’m so glad you guys could come today. Whatever you want to eat, whatever you want to drink, drugs...” he says, “I’m just so happy you’re here. Oh, oh, oh...girls, or boys, whatever you want.” He was wonderful. He was just, like, so charming. And at that time, he was painting, and he did this incredible painting on butcher paper that he had stapled all over this beautiful home in Malibu. He had done these incredible abstract red and black paintings all over the place.
JR: This is probably in between the recordings of Lust for Life in Berlin [done in 1977] and New Values.
TOMATA: That’s right, it was during Lust for Life because he played us some of the recordings just before it came out.
JR: Must have been in 1977, then. That LP and the one before it, The Idiot, were both issued in ’77.
TOMATA: I’m not sure. “The Passenger” was on what?
JR: Lust for Life.
TOMATA: I’m sure I heard “The Passenger” before it came out.
JR: So it must have been ’77, when you first started out. I think TV Eye comes out in ’78, and then New Values in ’79.
TOMATA: Anyway it was a very scary gig, because there was like, it was his living room, and there were about 14 people there, Tony [Sales, TV’s Soupy Sales’s son, then in Iggy’s band], Flo & Eddie...
JR: From The Turtles? Weird!
TOMATA: And then just a bunch of girls, and you know they were just sitting around like this. And we had to perform, do our show, and the only one who got up to dance was Iggy! He danced in front of us. And then he ran back, he ran into this other room, came out with this marking pen, and started writing on this white placard, and he held it up and danced in front of me, and it said “Tomorrow’s Leaders.” It was just...he was wonderful...so fucking wonderful. [Tomata’s friend Nora added this tidbit, one of her favorite Tomata stories, as told my later Screamers second-keyboardist Paul Roessler some years ago: “Tomata was in an airport in the late ’70s waiting for a flight. He sees David Bowie standing there across the waiting area. Tomata is thinking, ‘Wow! Gee, should I go over there and say hi?’ As he is trying to think of something clever to say, looks up and notices the Thin White Duke headed straight for him. He thinks to himself, ‘I’ll say something when he walks by.’ But Bowie walks right up to him and says, ‘Hey, aren’t you Tomata du Plenty from The Screamers??? I love your band!’” Such was The Screamers' respect and influence at the time! Probably Bowie heard of them through Iggy since they were working together at that time, or vice versa!]
JR: It does seem like everyone who came across you was like an immediate convert. You were doing something so far out from what everybody else was doing, and it would be like that still if you were just starting out right now. But thinking back to then, that’s actually something I’ve talked about in some other interviews, that people’s concept of punk rock now is enormously narrow. It’s a formula, like three chords and an attitude. It’s so sad to watch that happen! Your band would never be recognized by today’s so-called punk bands; you didn’t even have any guitars or a bass!
TOMATA: Right, and they think it’s like the Orange County bands. That did a lot to destroy the independent idea; like, Sue Tissue, people don’t even remember her. From Suburban Lawns. I mean that woman was totally unique. I hear she’s in an institution now.
JR: I didn’t know that.
TOMATA: She was just an incredible voice and just like a unique...What you ware saying about us, you couldn’t say what she was, but she came out of a punk rock band, you know? I was totally enamored by her and that girl Jennifer Miro in The Nuns.
JR: Jennifer Miro, yeah. I live in The Nuns’ old apartment in New York! They lived there just before me, in 1980.
TOMATA: Oh, [Nuns co-singer] Richie Dietrich was in The Ramones, you know, when they were just starting out.
JR: No, I didn’t know that.
TOMATA: Yes, he was...when they were a garage band.
JR: Until my friend Dave Burokas [of Last Burning Embers] personally broke it in 100 pieces with a crowbar [on my request], I had his [Dietrich’s] original bed board. He left it behind. I used to sleep on it. I met him years later and he said it was OK, it was mine. I got to know Alejandro [Escovedo, also of the Nuns] a little when he was in Rank and File, and I told him I had the Nuns’ “Live at Max’s” 7-inch single, and he got really pissed because he said he broke a string early in the song, and they released it anyway. A band that released only three singles in their classic late-’70s era, and on one of them, he’s playing with a broken string the whole song! It’s too bad that you don’t keep in touch with some of those people. It was such a vibrantly interesting scene to me!
TOMATA: Well, now I’m meeting them all again, after 20 years of being out of touch. Like after that reunion in L.A., [X’s] Billy Zoom came up and hugged me, I was just awed. He’s a, you know, a Jesus person. He runs a Jesus guitar shop in Orange County. And he was just so warm and wonderful, and I don’t remember him being warm and wonderful back then! So people change over the years. Maybe I’ve changed for the better, too.
JR: The way I look at it now is that being that I was just a teenager at the time, I thought I was just tapping into the latest new scene in rock history. I thought there would be an endless procession and progression of these throughout history and that what I was seeing was not really an especially unique moment in time in that sense, it was just my time. And what I’ve noticed since, without being sentimental, I follow all the current scenes, since this is my living now...
TOMATA: That’s a nice part.
JR: It is now; it was a hobby for 17 years! But I’m always on the lookout for what’s going on now and have been all along, and it strikes me as how little I knew back then, how little a lot of us knew, that there was this was such an extraordinarily unique and creative scene, and it might have been one of the last ones to have that great freedom and leeway to sort of develop on its own. We didn’t know MTV was around the corner to kill that forever after 80 years of it happening naturally. As you said, it was very unpopular. There weren’t that many people at the gigs. The way people talk now is like you guys and all your L.A. friends’ bands were selling out the Santa Monica Civic center every night, you know? Nowadays there are 50 books on punk rock, and yet it was all little clubs here for the most part, in only half a dozen cities!
TOMATA: Well, we did sell out the Roxy.
JR: And you’d sell out the Whisky whole weekends...
TOMATA: But you’re right, those were little teeny clubs.
JR: I think it's even amazing that you could sell out a whole weekend like that without even having...
TOMATA: Without having a recording, yeah.
JR: Just on the strength of reputation. A band couldn’t really do that anymore! Nowadays, bands put out albums before they’ve even done a gig; that’s how far the pendulum has swung since your day. Bands have three LPs out and can’t draw flies, and you never even put out a single! And the scene is a lot less creative and interesting because the rules have been so badly changed in this way of how a band goes about building a following.
GREG: The focus has changed.
JR: People won’t accept anything that strays from a very confined...
TOMATA: You’re right. That’s sad. That’s really sad.
JR: Ah, so this is something that you’ve noticed as well? From what little you’ve paid attention?
TOMATA: Well, now that you say that, I definitely agree with you. People can’t accept what’s different right now. It’s sad.
JR: In the same way they can’t accept bands growing and moving on as you were saying earlier. They want you to make the same record over and over and over. Or do the same kind of band over and over and over.
TOMATA: There’s a lot of that thinking. For a while, that’s why I thought I had to leave L.A.
GREG: After L.A., where did you move?
TOMATA: Florida! Miami Beach! They sent me a ticket. I was in a book called, Inside the L.A. Artist and these kids saw me, and they sent me a plane ticket, and it was like an answer to a prayer. Incredible.
GREG: That is bizarre. How long were you in Miami Beach?
TOMATA: Six years. I loved it. Little Haiti. I love the Haitian people.
GREG: So, through the ’80s pretty much...
TOMATA: Right, up until...well, I’ve only been in New Orleans the last two years. It was completely different. It was wonderful, all that Latin culture. Cuban. It was a really nice change.
JR: I’ve been to Little Cuba there [where the Churchills club was] but not Little Haiti.
TOMATA: Oh, the Haitian people are wonderful! They have their secret little bars there in the back of their homes. Totally illegal. Totally illegal. They’re wonderful. And their music is the most bizarre. It’s like...I don’t know if it’s really bad, or I’m not getting it. I went to this one bar, and I recognized the song; it was “Autumn Leaves,” but it was played so fast, like these guys were on meth.
GREG: Maybe they were.
TOMATA: It was a meth version of “Autumn Leaves,” and then they sing it half in English and half in Haitian and French, and then they dance to it...really bizarre! I really want to go to Haiti. I want to go to Haiti, Havana...all those places. I’m making plans. [sadly not to be.]
GREG: When did the art pick up strong for you?
TOMATA: I was a bartender in Miami for a couple of years and started making a living as an artist the last three years. I said, “If I don’t do it now, if I don’t just quit everything...” And that’s when I decided on the three-suitcase idea. Whatever I can get into three suitcases, I call up anybody, I say, “I’m coming. Let me hang them in your place,” and it’s been working. I’m making a living. I mean I’m no richer, but I’m sure happy.
JR: It beats being a bartender, right?
TOMATA: Yeah. Oh, when you write this would you put my Web site on there?
JR: Go ahead and give the URL.
TOMATA: www.tomataduplenty.com [still in operation despite his passing]. I did a show on country-western legends. I did a whole thing on rhythm & blues, a jazz show. I’m booked for a show a year from now on opera, which I know diddly-wop about, but it’s exciting because I’ll figure it out. So far I see Aida and Carmen as waitresses at a Denny’s. [much laughter] I’ll come up with something, you know?
JR: It’s important to stay creative, I think.
TOMATA: It keeps me traveling, and I love traveling.
GREG: So have the art shows you’ve done all been literature or rock ’n’ roll or music-based?
TOMATA: No. I did a whole show called Tipsy with Tallulah, just people I wanted to get smashed with.
GREG: It didn’t have to be anything in particular?
TOMATA: No, people living and dead...mostly people or animals. I like folks.
GREG: But prior to starting being a working artist, did you have to do a lot of art?
TOMATA: No. No, I broke my leg in that accident in L.A., and I was really bored. I was at home, and I think I listened to all my Merle Haggard records, which made me even more depressed.
JR: I can imagine.
TOMATA: And I found this kids’ little paint kit in an alley off Hollywood Boulevard, I lived off Hollywood Boulevard, and I just started drawing. First, I drew a picture of my cat, then my boyfriend, then my landlady, just people, you know. Then Bob Forrest of Thelonius Monster said, “You should show this stuff.” And he was great. He brought me to the Zero Gallery, which is also on Hollywood Boulevard, and they let me hang all my little $10 watercolors all over the place. And David Lee Roth [of all people] mentioned it on The Tonight Show and it sort of spiraled.
GREG: What year was that?
TOMATA: That was 1983, which is neat because it was the year I also found out I was HIV-positive, which made it even better for me I think. It was like, maybe there’s some reason...there’s something going on here...
GREG: Some kind of connection.
JR: It’s amazing that you’ve been able to survive; some people do obviously, but that was the same year that my old friend Patrick Mack from The Stimulators died of HIV, before any of us had really ever heard of the disease. That was so sad.
TOMATA: I used to write letters to him. I didn’t know him that well, but we were pen pals.
JR: No kidding! He had been a really good friend of mine from ’79 to ’81. He used to give me copies of his poetry he wrote at his library job, and he would regale me with his tales of seeing Iggy & the Stooges over and over, for hours.
TOMATA: Oh, really? I should...these are funny letters, I think I still have them. I met him briefly out here.
JR: Not when you came to New York and played those two different times?
TOMATA: No, even before that. He knew the people in the Iggy Pop fan club.
JR: Yeah, he was a gigantic Iggy head like me back then. They [The Stimulators] used to cover “I Got a Right” in their sets, when that was a really obscure single.
TOMATA: I read some thing of an artist or a writer...oh, the guy who wrote Naked Lunch...
TOMATA: ...Burroughs talks about Patrick in some article I read recently. He said he didn’t know too much about punk rock but he really liked Patrick’s band, The Stimulators, and that they were friends.
JR: The Big Takeover’s first two issues were devoted entirely to them; they and The Mad were the focus of the later New York punk rock scene in ’78 and ’79, when everyone else was stupidly saying it was over. I got to be close friends with them. Their manager and their guitarist Denise Mercedes lived in Allen Ginsberg’s apartment, so I got to know Allen and his old lover Peter Oslovsky, who’d also previously gone out with Denise. Later my best friend then, Dave Stein, and I sublet that apartment from Denise, my first-ever place of my own, 437 E. 12th Street near Avenue A, so I got to know Allen even better. That was undoubtedly Burroughs’s connection to the Stimulators, through Allen since they were friends, obviously.
TOMATA: He [Ginsberg] chased me once when I was in The Cockettes. He was a dirty old man, likable, but oh, what a letch. We all had to run!
JR: For some reason, he never chased me. I used to go over to his side of the apartment for ice cream. I think he just knew I was straight, and that was that. Never even an intimation.
TOMATA: He was such a letch, a real letch!
JR: Mostly we just talked about books. He was always lending me some of his in his library, and I would take them back to New Jersey and read him. And he would sometimes listen to The Clash on my stereo, because they were such big fans of him, and I had the records. He didn’t have a record player.
TOMATA: He was a brilliant man. Oh, Howl is one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever read in my life. I would have given anything to hear him read that.
JR: He’d read me things from time to time, but not that. I didn’t know that much of his work, so he liked me. At the time, he was away about half the year. He was in Colorado or Yugoslavia all the time, one or the other, he and Oslovsky, who was sharing the apartment with him. In fact, the rule was that if you went into Peter’s room, you had to take your shoes off. And so one day, I got in there and somebody said, “You didn’t take your shoes off!” So I started stomping, “Take this, and that, and that,” like it was voodoo. About three or four years ago, I met somebody who knew Peter, and I said, “I always wondered, why did you have to take you shoes off in Peter’s room?” And they said “Oh, because he was a Buddhist.” “Oh no!”
TOMATA: I hate that kind of stuff. I know a girl in Miami that way too, it drives me nuts.
JR: “I’ve defiled his religion. I stomped all over his floor.” Whoops. Sorry! Anyway, again, Allen probably introduced Burroughs to The Stimulators since he liked them and The Clash. He ended up getting into it.
TOMATA: So that’s how that happened.
JR: Is there anything we didn’t talk about that you’d really like to?
TOMATA: No, I mean, I’ve said way too much. [laughs] I’m out of here.
JR: Would you sit for a photograph?
TOMATA: Sure. You’re going to see Wire tonight?
JR: Yeah. Saw them last night too. Were you into them much?
TOMATA: No, I kind of...but it’s so hard for me to place them. They’ve been around a long time.
JR: Well, they haven’t been around continuously. They were gone from ’80 to ’86, and from around ’89 till recently.
TOMATA: They were at the Fillmore? Somebody got me tickets to go to see The Bloodhound Gang there. I love them. They do that song, they dress up as monkeys... You haven’t seen it? Oh, their video’s great. It goes, “You and me baby, ain’t nothing but mammals/Let’s do it like they do it on Discovery channel.” [much laughter] Oh, they’re fucking brilliant. They’re number five on the video airplay.
JR: You know that’s one of the other great lost arts about punk rock; if I am sentimental, it’s that you were expected to write interesting lyrics, either funny, penetrating, or angry, or something. Lyrics were a great opportunity. Now I get around 500 CDs a month in the mail, and nobody says anything it seems. The lyrics you just quoted are more like what I am looking for! It sounds like something The Dickies would write!
TOMATA: Oh, you got to hear The Bloodhound Gang. They’re a hoot. They got another song that goes, “I wanna be queer so the girls will like me.” [more laughter] Oh, they’re really hilarious.
JR: That’s really a throwback, isn’t it?
GREG: You guys want to get a picture here or what?
JR: Oh, you can take one of him without me.
GREG: Let’s see...how should we do this...say cheese...all right...thanks.
TOMATA: Cheers. So can I have this copy of your magazine?
JR: Yes, I’ll give you this older issue, too. This is from 1989, the magazine was a little smaller back then, I actually reviewed the Screamers double 7-inch bootleg.
TOMATA: Oh, wow! [reads it]
JR: I have your email address too, so I’ll make sure I send you a copy of this interview as soon as it is transcribed... [Again, alas, we didn’t know he would go so soon.]
TOMATA: That’d be swell.
JR: I hope you make a full recovery.
GREG: Yes, I wish you the same. [They toast their drinks.]
TOMATA: Oh, yeah, I’m sure I will.
[How sad to think he was mistaken. But he went down swinging ’til the end, did Tomata du Plenty. Long may his memory inspire us all to take that different path...]