Founder and co-lead vocalist of Bay Area legends the
Hot Knives – who were recently profiled at BLURT – succumbed to cancer at the
end of 2011.
By Jud Cost
About a week or so into 2012, I got a message from Michael
Houpt’s wife Ellen that Michael had
died on December 29, after a battle with cancer. Anyone with a shred of
intelligence knows that life is basically unfair. But this seemed an extremely
cruel blow to a sweet guy who was so excited that his cherished baby, the Hot
Knives, was about to get some long-delayed recognition with the release of the
band’s only album. It’s a brilliant work that now sounds so right, almost like
a long-delayed, full-stop punctuation mark to the San Francisco scene of so long ago.
While putting together the liner notes that accompanied this labor of love for
longtime pal Dave Laing of Australia’s
Grown Up Wrong! label, I had the chance to meet the entire band in person at
co-lead vocalist Michael Houpt’s San
Francisco home. We lounged around the basement – Michael, his wife Ellen,
drummer Danny Mihm, guitarist Timmy Lynch, bassist Ed Wilson and I, while
Michael hooked up his sister Debra, now living in Washington, D.C., by Skype.
The great anecdotes flowed like the cheap beer and wine that accompanied it. I
shot questions at the guys, while they did the same with Deb.
The backbone of the notes, however, would come weeks later when I spent another
hour on the phone with the man who assembled the group, one piece at a time,
Michael Houpt. I had purchased both
the Hot Knives’ singles as they were released during the first blush of S.F.’s
punk revolution in the mid-’70s. It was easy to see, even then as a longtime
Flamin’ Groovies fanatic, that here was a band trying to get some traction in
the wrong time slot. The Hot Knives were pretty obviously too late for the
hippie trip and too hippie for the current crash ‘n’ burn rebels. At a time
when I saw almost everybody who played San
Francisco, I never caught the Hot Knives live. Michael
insisted we would rectify that by having the entire band – including his sister
and co-lead vocalist, Debbie, flown out from the east coast – play a
record-release party when the album came out, possibly at the Cedar Alley
coffee house it once called home base, if it still existed.
Of course, the gigs, great as they are at the time, don’t last. What will
outlive us all is the Hot Knives’ brilliant album. The simple description is that it’s an alchemical blend of the folk-rock
of the pre-Grace Slick Jefferson Airplane and the “mow ’em down,”
Rolling Stones-influenced, hi-octane rock of the Roy Loney-led Flamin’
Groovies. But it’s more than that. It also has its garage-rock and country-rock
If I can’t ever again experience Michael Houpt’s
unique laughter, coming from the bottom of his shoes, I can still spin the
life’s work of the Hot Knives. And that should be enough.
September of 2010, Jud Cost also
reported on a contemporary outfit helmed by Houpt,
Keymonium. Read his review here.