“Some guy came up to Amy, a local musician, and asked her, 'Why isn't your bass in tune?'” laughs Gail Elise Clifton, dunking a pastry into a cup of coffee at the Austin, Texas, outpost of hipster chain Voodoo Donuts.
“She told him, 'I like it like this!'”
From 1978 to 1981, Clifton had been keyboardist and vocalist for Memphis, Tennessee's 2nd punk band, The KLiTZ, under the name “Kandy KLiTZ.” In 1977, she'd been in the city's first punk band, The Malverns.
Last night, all four members – Clifton, now playing guitar; her sister Marcia Clifton Faulhaber (“Darla KLiTZ") on drums and vocals; the aforementioned Amy, surname Gassner, on bass guitar (“Envy KLiTZ”); and leader Lesa Aldridge (“Kerry KLiTZ”), originally singer/guitarist, now playing keyboards, as well – reunited for a SXSW showcase at BD Riley's, one of those faux Irish pubs happy to serve suburban tourists a pint of Guinness and possibly a plate of fish & chips. They'd lost none of their ramshackle charm.
“Lesa didn't really tune,” Elise continues. “We usually had a guy around who would do that, mainly Alex. But if he wasn't around, it probably didn't get tuned! Unless somebody offered.”
“Alex” is Alex Chilton, one of their mentors. In the late Sixties, he was the teenage vocalist for white soul sensations The Box Tops, singing on huge hits like The Letter and Cry Like A Baby. Producer Dan Penn controlled the band's studio work, and Chilton barely saw a dime from the string of smash records on which he was forced to mimic Ray Charles. In the early Seventies, he helmed Memphis' attempt at a new Beatles, OG (Original Gangster) power-poppers Big Star. Come the late Seventies, he was embroiled in a ‘complicated’ romance with Aldridge that inspired some of his greatest tunes; and in teaching The KLiTZ how not to follow the normal rules of music. (Meanwhile, here in 2019, I am amused to hear guys were tuning Aldridge's Fender Mustang in the day. She snarled at me when I offered to help her carry her equipment last night!)
“That's Lesa,” grins Marcia. “She was the real punk of the group,” she continues, before adding, “Jim and Alex taught us not to care...”
“Jim wanted us to be in tune,” corrects Elise. “It was us, and Alex and Tav Falco (of Memphis rockabilly-deconstructionist punks Panther Burns) who didn't want it.”
“Jim” is Jim Dickinson, the second of The KLiTZ's mentors. Memphis music's Guardian Angel, Dickinson had been amongst a core of the mythic blues town's few beatniks. His teenage garage band, The Jesters, was among the last to record for rock 'n' roll architect Sam Phillips at Sun Records. He played piano on Wild Horses for the Rolling Stones at Muscle Shoals; contributed to the Flamin' Groovies' 1971 garage tour de force Teenage Head and Bob Dylan's Time Out Of Mind; and also collaborated with The Cramps.
Dickinson produced masterpiece records from Big Star's downbeat, chaotic 3rd to Alex Chilton's wild 'n' loose solo debut, Like Flies On Sherbert; to The Replacements' Pleased To Meet Me. He sired a pair of nuclear blues musicians, Luther and Cody Dickinson, of the wholly organic North Mississippi Allstars. He also seemingly appeared in every book written on rock 'n' roll. (Reading all these volumes, you got the sense his day job was as a grinning, drawling, Greek chorus; existing solely to announce at a certain point in every rock text, “Well, now. Y'see? That's where the boy went wrong....”)
Dickinson died August 15, 2009, almost 32 years to the day after Memphis' other favorite son, Elvis Presley. Yet oddly, just 25 minutes before, Dickinson's doppelganger had hustled past me on the Congress Ave. Bridge: A portly middle-aged man with a trim goatee, scraggly salt-and-pepper hippie hair and a trickster grin, locking knowing eyes with me, from behind round, cobalt psychedelic shades, seemingly mocking me for trying to make sense of The KLiTZ. Hey - stranger things have happened; Dickinson did insist his epitaph be, “I'm just dead. I'm not gone.”
Beauty In The Mistakes
Led by Aldridge, who appears to have been at the heart of everything significant in the '70s Memphis underground, The KLiTZ deconstructed rock 'n' roll roots with a bratty glee. Under the combined tutelage of Chilton and Dickinson both, progress beyond amateur crudeness was heartily discouraged. Theirs wasn't the power-drive rock 'n' roll normally considered punk. This was the Velvet Underground side of punk, more The Shaggs than Sham 69.
Thirty nine years past The KLiTZ's initial breakup, the Velvets, Shaggs and Sham are all long gone. Yet The KliTZ reemerged in Austin during SXSW 2019, at BD Riley's. They look their age, down to Aldridge's horn-rims and granny dress. But they've retained their crude and primal teenage sound and aesthetic, right down to Faulhaber's three-piece, nearly-cymbal-less kit and the tiny solid state practice amps powering their clean, minimalist strumming.
Kids who'd likely prefer being at Austin hipster hotspot Hotel Vegas, but who'd heard The KliTZ' legend at their local obscure garage-punk coffee klatch, pour in as Faulhaber belts out The Cramps' TV Set. They don't stay. Their loss.
Chilton and Iggy Pop tunes get joyfully dissected. Clifton lets loose a Wanda Jackson wail on the near-rockabilly Hard Up. Two Chords is a minimalist anthem. Three quarters into the set, Aldridge jumps offstage to demonstrate an odd line dance. Let's see John Lydon do that!
Fourteen hours later, the Clifton sisters pour their history into my recorder, as they devour donuts and coffee.
“Jim would tell us, 'There's beauty in the mistakes,'” adds Marcia.
The KLiTZ had no fucks to give. This was their art. Yet they were hardly raised to be so careless. The Clifton sisters, for one, grew up in Frayser, a fairly-nice-yet-working-class Memphis neighbourhood.
“OMG!” Elise texted two months after our interview. “Frayser made national news with riots last week! Used tear gas. It is sad. When we grew up there, it was mostly blue collar, but there was a big Italian community there too. Very mid-century, ranch-style houses.”
The family physician was George Nichopoulos, AKA “Dr Nick,” whose infamous inability to refuse Elvis Presley's requests for sedatives, narcotics and amphetamines likely fuelled the rock 'n' roll icon's 1977 death. (Gail: "I saw Jerry Lee (Lewis) one time, when I went to see Dr Nichopoulos. He got to go in the back door!")
Bill Black, Elvis' bassist through the Fifties, lived across the street. Their next door neighbour was Sun Records session guitarist Roland Janes, responsible for the stinging, economical lead work on Jerry Lee Lewis records. On the other side lived Domingo Samudio. As the be-turbaned singer of Sam The Sham & The Pharoahs, Samudio had sold three million copies of Wooly Bully in 1964. (The sisters were unaware of this until years later.)
Marcia Clifton first met Alex Chilton on 21 September, 1973. He was on his way to Ellis Auditorium South Hall, to see the New York Dolls and Iggy And The Stooges invent punk rock. A riot broke out after a gay boy Marcia knew broke through a police cordon to plant a kiss on Dolls singer David Johansen. For trying to defend the lad as Memphis cops bounced their batons off his skull, Johansen was led off in handcuffs for inciting a riot.
“I said to the police, 'You wouldn't do this to Elvis Presley,'” Johansen later recalled to Dolls biographer Nina Antonia. “They said, 'We'd love to get him.'”
Dawn Of The KLiTZ
“Alex was with Karen Chatham that night,” Marcia says. “She is the other girl in William Eggleston's photo of Lesa (aka Untitled [Two Girls, Memphis, Tennessee], and taken the night before Aldridge departed to attend Sarah Lawrence).”
“Lesa is a muse, unquestionably,” Dickinson told Chilton biographer Holly George Warren. “Nearly every song on Big Star 3rd (aka Sister Lovers) is about her. The world will never know the extent to which Lesa was responsible for that record.” Her tempestuous relationship with Chilton fueled morose classics like Kanga Roo and Holocaust, all of which sound like what they are: Soundtracks for a barbiturate hangover. She was also Eggleston's cousin.
The daughter of a Presbyterian minister who'd marched alongside Martin Luther King days before he was shot, Aldridge used a $60 babysitting fee to buy a Yamaha acoustic guitar.
“I wrote my first song,” she recalled to George-Warren. “Because I studied piano, I actually knew notes, and I wrote it out with the little musical notes across the clef. I still have it. I really liked early Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, but when we moved back to Memphis (from Princeton, New Jersey, where her father had taken a temporary assignment), I went from that folk thing to Velvet Underground and Lou Reed - what a shift.”
Elise, meantime, was one of the September Gurls Chilton wrote about in his best-known Big Star tune. She met him a different night in the same month as her younger sister, working as a cocktail waitress at Godfather's, a downtown bar inspired by Francis Ford-Coppola's then-hot, Marlon Brando-starring mafia epic.
Circa 1975, Marcia began making a crude racket with Chilton and her best friend Aldridge, banging on pots and pans as the couple – by now a prominent presence on the Midtown art scene – strummed guitars and sang into a mono cassette recorder. The results resembled the 1978 apartment recording of Rev. Gary Davis' Cocaine Blues found on Mono-Tone Records' KLiTZ anthology, Rocking The Memphis Underground 1978-1980: Raw, proudly amateurish dismantlements of folk, blues, and rock 'n' roll archetypes.
Gail hung out with Big Star's power pop heirs, The Scruffs, then formed Memphis' first punk band with Ross Johnson, Eric Hill and Matt Diana – The Malverns. Aldridge moved back to Memphis, resuming her stormy contretemps with Chilton and renting an apartment across the street from Ardent Studios; The Cramps conveniently crashed there when recording debut record Songs The Lord Taught Us at Ardent with Alex.
The Cliftons and Aldridge could not escape the rush of punk, even as Elvis lay dying in Graceland. Around the time the Sex Pistols scandalized Memphis at the Taliesyn Ballroom on their notorious January 1978 death march across the US, the three began assembling their take on punk rock in a boathouse. Marcia named them one alcohol-drenched evening.
“We were drinking at Zinnie's, going over band names for 45 minutes,” Elise told Ryan Leach, who posthumously released KLiTZ records via his Spacecase Records imprint.
“Finally, Marcia said, 'Let's just name ourselves 'The Clits.' Alex got that grin – 'Klits with a “K”.' And I said, 'Yeah. And let's end it with a 'Z.''” It was only later they'd learn of that similarly ramshackle quartet of London girls with an equally similar name/look/attitude/sound, The Slits. The major differences: Locale, a reggae influence, and a letter S residing in the letter K's slot. Otherwise, the two bands could've been spiritual cousins.
The KLiTZ Destroy Memphis
You can't turn a corner in Memphis without being assaulted with its rich musical history: Elvis and Sam Phillips gettin' real, real GONE down at Sun Records; Booker T. and the MGs choppin' up some green onions behind Otis Redding at Stax; Al Green taking you to the river a few blocks away; the blues setting stall on Beale Street before it became a tourist trap drinking hole. The KLiTZ responded like juvenile delinquents wrecking the teacher's jazz records in Blackboard Jungle. Gail manned a keyboard and sang when Lesa or Marcia didn't.
Aldridge got busy with that Fender Mustang and her huge Twin Reverb amplifier. When not destroying garage classics like Hanky Panky or 96 Tears or Beatles and Stones evergreens, they essayed a clutch of strong original anthems like Two Chords or Hard Up, asserting a sort of organic, untutored feminism. Basically, they neither gave a shit, nor would take shit off anyone. Especially if you were male.
Marcia lays the attitude at the feet of the band's Real Punk, Aldridge: “She would wear combat boots with mini-skirts, and had this short, bleached hair.”
"It was a racey time, but I think The Klitz fit right in," Aldridge told punk journalist Andrea Lisle in 2007.
"I don't think we thought about it in those days, outside of the sheer joy of expressing ourselves. I'd played piano since I was eight and guitar since I was 13. I'd also travelled a lot, and although I think I knew Memphis was provincial, I felt like we were the hub, because all these bands like the Cramps were coming here to be with us."
They debuted at Midtown Saloon in April 1978, before gate-crashing a gig Sex Pistols-style at the Ritz by power-popper Tommy Hoehn. In June, Amy Gassner joined on bass, after she'd spent time at NYC's CBGB, then at art school in San Francisco, where she'd become chummy with Penelope Houston and Jimmy Wilsey of The Avengers. After her father's death and a friend's overdose, she was back in Memphis.
“I was sort of a wreck myself,” Gassner told Leach. “I was over the punk scene completely.” Running into the Clifton sisters at a party, they insisted she take up bass for the cause. “I had to learn bass. I already knew how to play guitar. Tommy Hoehn loaned me one of his basses. It was a real struggle. I had stage fright.”
Chilton arranged the band's first proper recording session that summer, via local music lawyer Irvin Salky, who represented prominent Memphis musicians like Phineas Newborn and Furry Lewis. When pulling into Sounds Of Memphis studios at 10am on a Wednesday morning, they discovered the house engineer was the Cliftons' childhood neighbour, Sam The Sham. Neither these sessions nor the 1979 Dickinson-helmed sessions from BR Toad Studios - recorded after Chilton's interest drifted towards playing in Tav Falco's Panther Burns - saw release then save for one track appearing on a Lesa Aldridge solo EP.
The KLiTZ could not have cared less. They were having a blast: Touring as The Cramps' hand-picked opening act, getting written up in Rolling Stone and New York Rocker, getting scouted by Miles Copeland for his IRS Records before he realized they'd never be tamed (and pursuing The Go Gos more successfully). To be fair, The KLiTZ were hardly getting the best advice for Copeland to see any commercial potential.
“Dickinson's philosophy of musical brilliance,” Aldridge told Leach, “was built upon the idea that mistakes were the very thing that made music original and beautiful and exceptional and worthy. The worst words you could hear from Jim were 'too rehearsed.'”
Shortly after opening for The Cramps at Irving Plaza, Gassner was no longer a KLiT. “Lesa and Amy had a falling out,” says Elise. “Some say Amy quit, some say she was fired.”
“I had a lot of problems with the name of the band,” Gassner explained to Leach, adding she'd lobbied for a name-change to the “more marketable” Kilts: “Nobody wanted to put us on the radio here in Memphis. We couldn't get our name printed in the newspaper. After about a year and a half, I'd had enough. I wanted to do more singing. I didn't want to play bass as much. And I was into different types of music.” Indeed, an atmospheric torch song arrangement of the Stones' Brown Sugar - that old racist rape fantasy yet to be eviscerated by the #MeToo generation – featuring Gassner's chanteuse-like croon is a highlight of the Dickinson sessions. Irony again abounds, considering Dickinson was at the Muscle Shoals sessions for the original.
The KLiTZ returned to NYC to play a premiere party for SNL creator Lorne Michaels' bizarre parody of the Sixties' “mondo” films, Mondo Video. Marcia attended the screening, as Elise and Lesa got hammered on Stolichnaya at the hotel bar. At the after party, at a strip club called the Tango Palace, The KLiTZ faced a crowd that reportedly included Andy Warhol and John Lennon, but only managed seven songs before being pulled offstage. “Rolling Stone did a review of our performance,” said Elise, “and said we were the low point of the evening, clearing the room of a quarter of the audience.”
Let's Just Stop Pretending And Be Grownups Now
Meanwhile, as the Eighties dawned in Memphis, the band gigged a number of times at The Well, a few times with a bassist named Sarah Fulcher who'd reportedly toured with The Grateful Dead, and once with Dickinson performing under the name “Captain Memphis.” The core original trio – Aldridge and the Clifton sisters – played a few times on their own. Their last show was at a hotel called The Downtowner.
“I guess we just thought, 'Okay, we've done the band for three years now,'” shrugs Marcia. “'Let's just stop pretending and be grownups now.'”
All settled into domesticity and careers, though each still played music in some way. Aldridge married Tommy Hoehn and moved to New Jersey, playing for a time with a band there called Missy & the Men. She ultimately moved to Nashville, raised three children, and taught public school English. She later claimed her “sole reason for leaving leaving The KLiTZ was restoration of health – rock 'n' roll takes its toll!”
Elise, meantime, studied art history and print-making at the University Of Memphis, raising two kids of her own, and played in a number of bands through the Eighties. Marcia got a college degree, as well, and worked in public relations for Memphis' art and historic museums. She, too, married and started a family, and works to this day as a school librarian.
And for all the recording and fun The KLiTZ had in their lifetime, they forgot one crucial step: They never released a record!
"Lesa got her solo EP out back then, on Barbarian Records,” says Marcia. “But we never released anything until 2014, when Spacecase Records - Ryan Leach's label - released Sounds Of Memphis '78 and Live At The Well. Then Gail got contacted by the French label (Mono-Tone Records) to put together all the tapes (as Rocking The Memphis Underground 1976-1980)."
But with no records ever released, The KLiTZ still created the sound of Memphis punk rock. Listen to Tav Falco's Panther Burns - that's the sound of The KLiTZ, being emulated by male musicians. Clearly The Oblivians, The Reatards, Jay Reatard - hell, anyone on Goner Records - had heard The KLiTZ. For Memphis punk, they're Robert Johnson – the secret texts handed down from generation to generation, Grandma's southern fried recipes of How To Play Punk Rock.
"To me, it just shows that we left a bigger footprint than we even imagined,” says Marcia. “We were just kinda passing through this moment in time and being around all these great people. We're more acceptable now. Before it was a throwaway: 'Who was that band?'"
Now, they get included in local museums' histories of Memphis music, right alongside the greats at whom they'd once lobbed hand grenades. The KLiTZ went from a footnote in Robert Gordon's It Came From Memphis to major characters in both Rob Jovnovic's Big Star: The Story Of Rock's Forgotten Band and Holly George-Warren's A Man Called Destruction: The Life And Music Of Alex Chilton.
A documentary is in the works. You can see them, and Jim Dickinson, in the day on YouTube, in the mini-documentary Captain Memphis Meets The KLiTZ, produced for local television in 1979. Aldridge and Elise had played KLiTZ shows through the millennium's first ten years with various other musicians. Now the original classic quartet – Kerry, Darla, Candy and Envy KLiTZ – are back in action (though Elise insists she is now “Crystal KLiTZ”).
They do not pretend to be the sexy young ingenues with hearts full of napalm they were in late Seventies Memphis. And this is fine – it's actually inspiring, seeing these older KLiTZ rocking in the same innocent-yet-destructive manner they did in their heyday, unchanged musically. Gail, for one, feels they are more skilled than in the day, though the sound remains as raw and naïve. She would like to record a new KLiTZ record, with new songs.
Lesa Aldridge to Ryan Leach: “Music is a gift I treasure, savor, enjoy. At the time, I had no idea we were creating a piece of legendary history in the Memphis music scene. We were simply having lots of fun. And Memphis adored us!”
Now the whole planet can.
Tim Stegall still writes for The Austin Chronicle and Louder Than War, among others. He still leads The Hormones, soon to release their first studio recordings since 1999 and hosts RADIO NAPALM, a pirate radio station of the mind, playing punk and garage hits. He's working on his first book, a history of the Austin punk scene from 1975 to the present, to be titled You Never Understand What We're Trying To Say.