In the mid to late 90s, I took a day trip from the suburbs with two guy friends into downtown Toronto. Since they were your typical aspiring rock musicians, the guys wanted to make a stop into Steve's Music on Queen West. I lost interest after five minutes and went outside to smoke. Staring blankly into space and at the slowly falling snow, a fellow sidewalk smoker sought my attention.
My guard immediately went up. This was the kind of "hey" that teenage girls quickly learn to become suspicious of particularly when, as in this case, the hey-er was a somewhat sketchy-looking older man (older than I was at the time, at least). But this interaction took a different turn:
We make eye contact.
"Got a tape player?"
"Do you like......music?"
Man looks around furtively.
And with that he handed over a cassette. There was no case, from what I recall, but the cassette itself was professionally printed with the pertinent information:
Artist name: JohNNy SiZZle
Album title: This One's for the KidzZz
And then the per-side track info, which I didn't really take in at the time.
"Make sure you listen to it."
Exactly what happened after that is blurry. If we spoke any further, I don't remember what was said. All I know for sure is that myself and the mysterious tape-distributing stranger parted ways and the rest of the day trip wrapped up uneventfully.
Later that night and back in the 'burbs, different two friends came over to my house. I tell them the story of tape, almost forgotten from earlier in the day. We put it on and confused, even gobsmacked, looks ensue, interspersed with riotous laughter. What the hell was this? Caterwaulling, weird voices, deranged lyrics, spazzy guitar playing...jesus, cacophony didn't begin to describe it. The final track sent us over the edge, absolute laugh-until-you-cry-and-your-sides-ache hysteria. It was a cover of "I Fought the Law," which Mr. Sizzle had re-styled as "I Fucked the Law (and the Law Cummed)." And fucking he most certainly did in that song. If that guitar sounded like it was being subjected to a touch of perverse treatment in the previous songs, this one consummated the experience.
But this is only how I remember it at 15-or-so years distance. I kept that tape for a long time, but I've lost track of it now. It would be amazing if I could dig up and hear it again. How would it measure up to my recollection? Was Johnny Sizzle a paragon of outsider art? A misunderstood artist whose craft was lost on a bunch of punk-ass teenagers? Maybe he was a gifted, if unconventional, songwriter.
Of course, with the Internet, everything resurfaces, especially when a musician has persisted, even with a hiatus or two, like Johnny. Indeed, with the not small amount of information I could find today, it would seem that Johnny IS a paragon of outsider art, even, I would say, a link in the chain of explicitly sexual rock music, somewhere between Peaches and Karen Finley in just how far he'll go in addressing taboo subjects. Yet there's often a tongue-in-cheek element, too. Or at least I'm imagining audiences laughing along with the joke at performances like this, even if some might be a little weirded out too:
He launched into a self-penned tune about beastiality – the crowning line which has glued itself into the passages of my brain – “I want to cum on a turtle.” Johnny sang with incredible passion, swivelling his bright bald head on his neck, screeching and bellowing from the depths of his soul about each subsequent topic of abnormality. He preceeded [sic] each song with a five minute story and then would lash into his nylon strings with such ferocity, conjuring otherwordly sounds with his voice that sounded halfway between the creature in a monster movie and the stuff you might hear in the darkest pockets of your own nightmares. (Source)
His song titles indicate that, when not exploring topics of sexual perversion, Sizzle plays around with other absurd themes ("Hitler's Hair Really Sucks"; "Drunk Drunk Stink Love") or he simply ruminates on the punk rock/street lifestyle ("Oh Happy Happy Hardcore", "Welfare Wednesday"; he's been homeless off and on and lived in various cities across North America; read more biographical info here and here).
But what does he sound like now, what he calls "nerd rock" or "acoustic hardcore"? Listening to the tracks available on his Myspace page, he sounds a lot better than I remember -- influences of Johnny Rotten (Sex Pistols) mixed with Pete Shelley (Buzzcocks) and the guitar playing is more controlled. There's still the caterwaulling, and some heavy-handed guitar thrashing, but it works -- the different vocal affectations both heighten the comedy, deflect from the taboo matter, and add complexity to otherwise simple songs. However, it doesn't look like any of the Myspace songs were on This One's for the Kidz. They're mostly from later albums. A little YouTube digging, though, and - viola! - "I Fucked the Law"!!:
A live version over a decade later isn't the same as hearing the original recording (I remember the tape version being far more nasal), but close enough!
Other random stuff/links about Johnny Sizzle:
His Facebook page.
"I'm a Nerd", Johnny's biggest hit (read what he said about it in this interview):
And, finally, a video of Johnny talking about his sperm art and pissing in his mother's fridge:
You know that Brian Eno saying about the Velvet Underground? The paraphrasing varies a little, but it more or less goes: 'hardly anyone bought the Velvet Underground's records, but everyone who did formed a band.' The VU were to the 1960s what the Pixies were to the 1980s: anathema and ignored, their effect was felt only in the respective following decades and their significance recognised slightly thereafter, Or, put another way, they're two classic examples of unpopular popular music until hindsight (and a few celebrity endorsements) salvaged them.
It might be possible to see Peaches in the same way: a lesser known artist in her own time, one of those 'difficult' 'musician's musician' who doesn't even have to wait for the next generation for her influence to be felt – her effect on her contemporaries and collaborators has already taken some of them to far greater heights of fame (M.I.A., Feist – not so much musically but Feist credits Peaches with teaching her the valuable lesson of strong stage presence; I've even known some to say they think Peaches' arranging style of backing beats and sequencing can be heard in several mainstream artists, including Britney Spears and Pink).
However, Peaches is hardly a relative unknown like the Velvet Underground or the Pixies were in their time. She's got a strong core audience, regularly tours, and has an international reputation which can attract attention from a number of media outlets when, say, the copyright holders of Jesus Christ Superstar don't want to grant her permission for a one-woman performance of the musical (which she of course then got). Not to mention that she has several celebrity fans of her own (Pink, Iggy Pop, Madonna, Bjork). While her non-standard sexual themes and expletive laden lyrics have prevented much of her work from entering mainstream broadcasting channels, she may have found a sufficient reach-around to a wider audience with numerous song snippet placements in hit TV shows and films such as 30 Rock, Mean Girls, and Lost in Translation.
So, alright, Peaches is a well-established either as an alternative cult figure or a boundary-pushing provocateur, but what about what came before her? A lot, obviously, but I'm thinking specifically of Karen Finley in the late 80s and early 90s.
An American performance artist, Finley is perhaps most (in)famous for a snafu surrounding the National Endowments for the Arts' (NEA) grants. In 1990, she and three other artists had their funding vetoed based on decency grounds which were eventually upheld by the Supreme Court. Consequently, the NEA was gutted financially since, according to Newt Gingrich, it was 'the right of the American people to not pay for art that offends their sensibilities.'
I'll admit, Finley's probably better known than I realise, at least among people who were paying attention to such things as arts funding scandals in the 1990s (I was too busy watching British sitcoms). But when I first heard Finley's few forays into music, I was genuinely surprised that there hasn't been a tonne already written about the similarities between her and Peaches' work. All I found were some passing references to the connections: Jim Farber of the NY Daily News has described Peaches as 'the Karen Finley of rap' and 'Iggy Pop meets Karen Finley.' Various bloggers and commenters have said Peaches is 'the Karen Finley of the 2000s' or simply noted the resemblance.
Let's put the lack of lengthier consideration another way: if you google 'karen finley peaches' you'll get more hits about Finley inserting actual peaches into her body cavities than you will hits making comparisons between the two artists. (I should mention at this point that a lot of Finley's stage performances involved various food items.)
As well, Peaches is not just a mere musician – her stage shows have their own important extra-musical performance elements. And certainly on an ideological, thematic, and tactical level there's a lot of similarities; the use of shock effects is paramount in exploring themes of sexuality, gender, social mores and taboos. But the music itself has a lot in common, at least if we're comparing Peaches first album The Teaches of Peaches with Finley's main musical work, The Truth Is Hard to Swallow (which also contains some spoken performance pieces): electro/disco beats, lyrics that are delivered in anything but a singing style, and subversion/disruption of the standard pop song verse/chorus/bridge structure (especially in Finley's case, less so with Peaches). The best examples of these are Finley's 'Tales of Taboo'
and Peaches' 'Fuck the Pain Away.'
I've yet to find a source that decisively shows that Peaches was influenced by Finley, and short of somehow asking her myself, I doubt I'll find out. In the end, I'm not sure if a definitive answer really matters. Given that Finley's extensive performance art career has only contained a handful of musical works, her influence on popular music has likely been limited to non-existent. Further still, Finley's music has little variation as the focus is on the text (see this interview, where she talks about deliberately using standard disco to create a sense of alienation or disconnect between the music, lyrics, and the dance club-going audience hearing her work).
Peaches, on the other hand, even if she used Finley as a starting point for The Teaches of Peaches, has gone in various directions as she plays around with the familiar genres of rock, rap, punk, dance, and metal and such experimentation has of course led to critics to indulge their much-loved hobby of trying to coin a new genre label (electroclash). Viewed cynically, this genre invention is another example of music journalists trying to look prophetic in their descriptions of current music and its trajectories. On the other hand, while I think genre coining is usually taken on far too eagerly, perhaps in Peaches' case it's a way to grant her a greater significance or generic space that she is otherwise denied by the musical mainstream. And, like Finley, she's much more effective on the outside than in.