Tony Kinman and the Secret History of Rock ’n’ Roll

The country punk pioneer recently died at 63 after an extended battle with cancer.

May 8, 2018 5:00 am
Tony Kinman of The Dils performs on stage in Los Angeles, California, United States circa 1979. (Donna Santisi/Redferns)
Tony Kinman of The Dils performs on stage in Los Angeles, California, United States circa 1979. (Donna Santisi/Redferns)

There is a secret history of rock ’n’ roll.

It has been written by the road dogs, the roadies and red-eyed tour managers, white knuckled from gripping a steering wheel for 16 hours straight; it has been written, on battered basses scarred with decals and precious, chipped acoustic guitars, by the masters of odd tunings and no tunings at all; it has been written by those who sleep on the hard benches of old vans and sh-t in doorless toilets of low ceilinged nightclubs, the un-bathed who invent genres and find new starlight in old pop; it has been written by the women and men whose Chuck Taylors were bruised and broken and who lived on Grilled Cheese and crackers and the worst Bourbon, and who came alive like God’s Children for forty-four minutes every night under the blue lights and leaking roofs of Cradles and Milestones; it has been written by unhealthy adult children who played angels’ music because they had no choice in hopeless rooms they filled with hope.

But most of all, it has been written by the pioneers of invention and conviction, creating the future not on the springy stages of enormodomes but at 1:18 AM in that corner of the bar to the left of the jukebox and in front of the big window; it has been written by those who looked through the cedar-colored glass of whiskey and the blue haze of Camel smoke and insisted rock and pop move forward by honoring a sound they heard in their head and their heart, while not chasing the radio or the charts; it has been written by those who were not humble in their heads but were humble in the hearts; it has been written by those who understand that America was the Waffle House, not West Hollywood; it has been written by those whose inventions were echoed months, years, or even decades later in the mainstream, where we would hear a harmony that sounded just like them, or an E Minor suspended between heaven and the bus-stop that we first heard on a 45 that they pasted together themselves.

The future is always written by those desperate to make noise, swallowed by those who desperately need it. We were invented by pioneers, we write because we read the unwritten history.

You know some of their names, but do you know they breathed petrol so others could sip champagne? Peter Holsapple, R Stevie Moore, Amy Rigby, Dayna Kurtz, Mitch Easter, Steve Wynn, Paul Sanchez, and on and on…I cannot begin to create an adequate list of the giants who crawled through the diners and Motel 6’s of this land so you could feel that there was one musician out there who understood you, who was talking to you, who made that one 45 you rushed home to hear, the anticipation that made the heat of the packed Path train invisible.

I honor the people who made that 45, who built the future, who write our secret history.

And today, please honor Tony Kinman, of The Dils, Rank & File and Blackbird, bassist and bass singer of sepia songs and revolutionary rocking. Tony has departed this incarnation, perhaps for another or perhaps for the simple nowhere at all; but the work, soul, and heart he left with us will continue to ring with art, energy, guts, and harmony, so his long jaw and Lincoln eyes will remain with us.

Tony Kinman has a major role in our secret history.

Tony and his brother Chip sang every song as if their life, their art, and their country depended on it.  The music they wrote and recorded sounded as if it was made because it had to have been made because the men behind the guitar and bass had no choice. Even at it’s most romantic, even when it was lifted with the sighs and twangs of another era, it resonated with a passion and anger that we heard in Johnny Cash and CRASS, in Mekons and Faron Young, because who knew that we needed a cross between the Mekons and Faron Young? Tony and Chip Kinman knew.

I first became aware of Tony and Chip Kinman from The Dils, who, along with D.O.A. and the Bad Brains, were almost certainly the best (non-Ramones) punk rock band North America ever produced.

The Dils anticipated the short, sharp shock of hardcore while also predicting the teeth-gnashed atonality of no wave. Emerging from California circa 1977, they somehow mixed the alienation of Southern California with the earnest beat artistry and of the Bay Area, resulting in a brusque but emotional sound of great conviction, the sound of angry but life-loving young men attempting to turn guitar strings into feelings with as little distance as possible between electricity and emotion.

Not only are The Dils one of our best punk bands (in fact, when I first heard them, they were so very good and real that I assumed they had to be from Vancouver, because they had a reality to them that I had only seen in bands like D.O.A., the Subhumans, and the Pointed Sticks), their 1977 45 “Class War” is one of the best punk rock singles of all time: “Class War” is a 100 second-long two-chord (plus modulation) call to arms that is both feral and catchy, melodic, memorable and urgent. Sung with an almost folkish, western lilt over thrashing, raw chords, it’s damn close to being the missing link between Phil Ochs and the MC5.

Honestly, The Dils should have been our Clash, because the Clash merely pretended to be what The Dils came to honestly and completely: the love letter from Woody Guthrie to Wire. Their music was tough, spare and honest, eliminating all the bloated remains of Ronson-ism and cock-rock sub-Springsteen-ism that the Clash virtually rolled around in. The Dils sang and snarled every song like they meant it, like they wouldn’t turn in Gerry Hannah, no matter how big a record contract they were offered.

And, spectacularly, the Kinman brothers moved on, like all great artists, they were not afraid to grow: The second stage of The Dils life saw them integrating a ringing, country-influenced 12-string and harmony-based palate to their powerful sound, anticipating the jangle of early R.E.M. and the deep, roots-loving sincerity of alternative and underground country artists. Fueled by a conviction and credibility that seemed to be in their blood and DNA, material like “Red Rockers” and “Sound of the Rain” jangle and roar as so very, very few records of the time do.

By the early 1980s, the Kinman brothers had relocated in Austin, joined forces with another future roots-rock hero, Alejandro Escovedo, and re-formatted as Rank & File. Rank & File were to country punk what Gram Parsons or Mike Nesmith had been to country rock in the late 1960s; that is, they were a blueprint for so much that was to follow. Rank & File played their proto-Americana with an engaging effortlessness, and a still palatable sense of their punk origin; their sound was shocking yet smooth, their sweet harmonies full of question marks and skepticism. As they had during the latter days of The Dils, they played with absolutely unique but very audible mixture of desperation and joy, blending C&W-era Byrds with Rickenbacker-era Byrds with the Everlys with the Dream Syndicate; the result was something as pure and light as a West Virginia mountain stream and as rich and muddy as South Carolina barrier island marsh, something that felt like college radio and Ryman Auditorium.

There was more to the Kinman’s musical life – after Rank & File, they continued to move forward, refusing to replicate the sound of either of their earlier bands, emerging with Blackbird, who applied those western, folkie, deeply affecting melodies to a more contemporary, lean, rhythm-driven musical palette.

I am sure there was more after that, too, but I am not a completist, and the shadows cast by these pioneers, The Dils and Rank & File, is more than enough.

You and I, we have lived our life in the shadow and sunlight of song. We have been on this voyage with a thousand and eight bands, and each of them stole a piece of our heart. These musicians who write the secret history, they looked in their record collection and couldn’t find what they wanted to hear, so they had to make it themselves. Alternative Saints like Tony Kinman are not only the authors of the secret history, but also the authors of a history only they could write.

Thank you, Tony Kinman, and have a safe and fascinating voyage.

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