DON’T CRUSH THAT DWARF Chris Knox

Sidelined by a recent
stroke, the Tall Dwarfs frontman still casts a huge shadow, as evidenced by a
tribute album released next week.

 

BY
JUD COST

 

Chris
Knox, a man whose outrageous onstage antics and insatiable lust for life are
almost as legendary in his New
Zealand homeland as the music he’s created
during a fertile 30-year career, is currently recuperating in a rehabilitation
hospital after suffering a stroke on June 11 of last year.

 

As
is the case with most stroke victims, no one can predict how complete the
recovery will be. Barbara Ward, Knox’s longtime domestic partner, was upbeat
two months after the stroke, speaking from the couple’s Auckland home: “As they say, every day is
a new day. So, yeah, we’re hopeful.” Old friend Martin Phillipps of
Kiwi-rock icons the Chills adds, “If anyone can recover from a thing like
that it will be Chris because he’s just so determined.”

 

By
that point work had already begun on a Chris Knox tribute album to help defray
medical expenses. Called, cheekily and fittingly enough, Stroke, the record features contributions from David Kilgour of the
Clean, the Bats, the Chills, Graeme Downes of the Verlaines, Portastatic, Yo La
Tengo, Will Oldham, Jeff Mangum, Lou Barlow, the Mountain Goats, Jay Reatard
and Bill Callahan, as well as Alec Bathgate, Knox’s co-conspirator in revered
Kiwi-rock duo the Tall Dwarfs – and a track from the Dwarfs themselves. (Knox,
left, and Bathgate are pictured in the photo at the top of the page.)

 

The
album came out last year in New Zealand
and will be issued in slightly expanded format (36 songs across two discs) next
week in the U.S.
by Merge Records.

 

Although
he’d been writing songs since he was a pimply teenager, screaming them out at
the top of his lungs while seated at a piano, Chris Knox didn’t actually join a
rock band until 1977, when he was already an old geezer of 25.  That’s when Bathgate and Mike Dooley, two
18-year-old kids thinking about forming a band, entered the Dunedin record shop
where Knox had just created a display case for the first punk single to invade
New Zealand, “Neat, Neat, Neat” by the Damned. “I could write
songs, so by definition I became the singer for the Enemy,” Knox told this
writer, during a 2005 interview.

 

The
Enemy became New Zealand’s
Ramones, its Sex Pistols, the band other kids used as a template to create
their own punk/new wave outfits. Inspired by the shocking onstage behavior of
Iggy Pop, Knox went to great lengths to keep a night with the Enemy burning
like a hot wire imbedded in the brain.

 

“Shaving
cream, rolls of tape, plastic sacks, old tin foil, I’d put on anything that was
handy, just for a bit of attention,” Knox said. “The Enemy had a song
called ‘Iggy Told Me,’ and one day it occurred to me to have a hack at myself
with broken glass. Blood was produced and it made a big impression. Hygiene
wasn’t really big in the late ’70s.”

 

Knox
got a rabid crowd reaction from such antics, especially the first night the
Enemy played a pub in Auckland.
“There was a table of Pacific Islanders up front,” he said.
“When I sliced myself right under their noses, one of them grabbed me and
sucked the blood right off my arm, just gobbled it up. I thought that was
great: ‘These people understand me.'”

 

Robert
Scott, who went on to play bass for the Clean and start his own combo, the
Bats, received his live-music baptism courtesy of the Enemy. “That was a
real eye-opener,” says Scott. “I remember thinking, ‘Ooo, is this what live music’s supposed to
be like?'” Scott recalls Knox hiding behind a curtain at a Clean show,
pulling away drummer Hamish Kilgour’s kick pedal. Then there was the time when
Knox was touring with the Clean as a solo act. “He was being silly on the
plane,” says Scott, “trying to make us all laugh, and it turned into
him having an epileptic fit.”

 

Martin
Phillipps saw the Enemy twice. “I thought Chris was quite frightening, and
he didn’t even cut himself up when I saw him,” says Phillipps. “He
looked like some sort of mental patient who’d got out for the weekend.”
Phillipps also witnessed Knox’s fragile side when they were both guest artists
on a 1982 session with the Clean. While the band was recording “Getting
Older” in Auckland,
Knox had an epileptic seizure. “That’s why he sings on the first two
choruses of that song and not the third,” says Phillipps.

 

Too
young to have seen the Enemy, Graeme Downes, who later fronted the Verlaines in
Dunedin, did experience Knox’s second band, Toy Love, a group heavily
influenced by Howard DeVoto’s tenure in both the early Buzzcocks and Magazine.
“Chris was very animated, demonic as hell with eyes bulging and a blank
stare,” says Downes. It’s unanimous among his musical peers, however, that
Knox, though at times frankly critical of their work, was always there with a
helpful word. “I had tried to play the guitar before,” recalls the
Clean’s David Kilgour. “He certainly encouraged me, convinced me that I
could do this.”

 

Fast
becoming a hot item in New Zealand,
and recently signed to a management deal with Michael Browning who’d helped
turn AC/DC into big stars, Toy Love made an abortive attempt to conquer Australia in
1980. “We expected we’d be hugely popular there too, and of course we
weren’t,” said Knox. “We got pretty bitter and twisted about
it.” Toy Love’s goodbye raspberry to the land down under was Bathgate’s
gig poster depicting a spread-eagled sheep being fucked from behind by an
Aussie stockman.

 

Back
in their homeland in late 1980, Toy Love decided to call it a day. Knox and
Bathgate, still good friends through all the ups and downs of the Enemy and Toy
Love, stripped their music to the bone and paired up as Tall Dwarfs. “It
wasn’t really that much of a conscious effort,” said Knox. “My
grandmother died and left me some money.” He used the cash to buy a TEAC
4-track tape recorder and began cutting material with Bathgate which turned
into Three Songs, Tall Dwarfs’ 1981
debut EP.

 

“We’d
always loved that 1965-68 period of pop and rock where everybody was just
exploding with weird ideas, using different instruments and getting away with
it,” said Knox. They were well on their way to becoming, as he put it,
“two aging punks with guitars.” During their almost three-decade
career, Tall Dwarfs would cast a lo-fi spell over U.S. indie-rockers from Yo La
Tengo and Pavement to  Smog and Neutral
Milk Hotel; perversely, had it not been for the intervention of Knox’s stroke,
the Dwarfs might have been exposed to an entire new generation, as they’d been
tapped to open for a series of shows for MGMT in June. (During periods of
Dwarfs inactivity, Knox has also kept busy, most recently forming Chris Knox
& the Nothing.)

 

In
all the time they’ve played together, Knox and Bathgate have crossed swords
only once, right after their band’s drummer was arrested for stealing a
watermelon from a market on Christmas Eve, 1978. “We’d been drinking quite
a bit, driving around in our black van with ‘The Enemy’ painted on the
side,” says Bathgate. “Chris and I stumbled back to our place, argued
about something and ended up rolling around on the footpath, punching each
other. I woke up on Christmas day with a graze down the side of my face and a
black eye.”

 

Both
Knox and Bathgate have developed an unusually clear vision of the future of
their working arrangement, unlike most aggregations that aren’t too sure what
they’re having for lunch. “When we see old fucks like the Stooges and the
Monks getting back together, and doing it properly, why shouldn’t we keep on
going?” said Knox. “We’re still going to like each other when we’re
in our seventies and eighties. I see no reason to stop inflicting ourselves on
our diminishing audience.”

 

In
2005, Bathgate said he once thought Tall Dwarfs would be “a short-term
relationship.” But, he added, “I remember Chris saying to somebody that we’ll
keep doing this until one of us dies, and thinking, ‘Hmmm.’ But now I can see
it’s probably the truth.”

 

***

 

Hard Knox & Durty Sox: A Chris Knox
Sampler

 

The music of
Chris Knox is a return to those days when you walked into the dorm room of the
class joker, never knowing whether he had a pail of water suspended above the
door jamb to give you a thorough dousing. The added bonus to every record Knox
has done is the wonderfully scatological band artwork, from Tall Dwarfs
depicted as a two-headed, George Romero-worthy zombie to the Toy Love logo that
consisted of a severed penis and scrotum. Here’s a splattering of Knox’s best.

 

Toy Love Cuts (Flying Nun, 2005 2CD posthumous compilation): After a couple of aspirin and a
bloody Mary, Toy Love turned the throbbing punk hangover of the Enemy into a
Howard DeVoto love fest that found common ground between the Buzzcocks’
“Breakdown” and Magazine’s “Shot By Both Sides.”

 

Tall Dwarfs Hello
Cruel World
(Flying Nun, 1988): For years the Kiwi record industry
conspired to prevent the Dwarfs from recording an album, employing the
rarely-used “EPs Only” statute. This is a catch-all of those brill
early shorties: Three Songs, Louis Takes His Daily Dip, Canned Music and Slugbucketthairybreathmonster.

 

Chris Knox Songs
Of You & Me
(Flying Nun, 1995): From Knox as a Sinatra-style crooner
with a dishpan and a spoon in place of Nelson Riddle’s arrangements to
vest-pocket reggae fueled by speed instead of ganja, the square dartboard on
the cover tells you plenty.

 

Tall Dwarfs Fork
Songs
(Flying Nun, 1987): From jangling R.E.M.-like folk-rock to menacing,
Appalachian murder ballads predating the Violent Femmes and perfumed love
elegies that might have influenced the cemetery-rock of Green Pajamas’ Jeff
Kelly.

 

Chris Knox & the Nothing Same (Amajooo, 2005): One of Knox’s most recent efforts is the least lo-fi record of
his career (can that really be stereo?). CK&N begins with a backing passage
that brandishes both “A Day In The Life” strings and “Penny Lane”-style
baroque trumpet. [JC]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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