Monday, March 21, 2005


[I've written a few pieces on the Norwegian Deathpunk hellions over the years, as my aching liver can attest. This one ran in Kerrang! in late 2003, and is my favourite: a weekend with a bunch of faux-homosexuals in San Francisco.]

“No Blood, No Fun… No Blood, No Fun… No Blood, No Fun…”

This isn’t the eerie chanted soundtrack to some riotous backstage Bacchanal, but the murmured mantra of a sulkily pouting Pal Pot Pamparius, slouched in a plush taupe armchair in the foyer of the towering glass’n’marble phallus that is San Francisco’s Parc 55 Hotel. He’s reeling from the information the band’s dour Scouse tour manager Dean just delivered: that that evening’s venue, The Great American Music Hall (a shack every bit as grandiose as its name suggests) has firmly vetoed the fake-blood and tarred-feathers usually in their stage-show. When your rapidly-skyrocketing career depends so entirely on the extravagant Rocky Horror Punk-Rock Show you deliver every single night, such frustration is entirely understandable.

“We had to play two shows in one night at the Troubadour in LA and Emo’s in Texas, because demand was so high. The two big newspapers in San Francisco interviewed us, and both said a lot of people are calling our band the saviours of rock’n’roll. It’s like a rock’n’roll coronation; this is our victory lap!”

So speaks Happy Tom of Norway’s infamous Turbonegro’s first solo sortie across the US since imploding messily towards the end of the 1990s (they spent the summer as support to Queens Of The Stoneage, playing a couple of headline shows at key cities). The bassist and founder member is usually so acerbic and wicked a wit that he speaks in perfect sarcastic soundbytes. Only, when talking about this latest twist in his band’s unlikely Fall & Rise – an acclaim and acceptance they never before enjoyed, and certainly never expected – his words aren’t so much pithy as proud. Given the grisly twists of fate his band have suffered throughout their career, we’ll forgive him the crowing. This is a band that’s spilt plenty of blood over the years, and who seem grateful that it’s more likely to be the fake variety nowadays.

“I love San Francisco, even the copssssss are GAY!” bellows Hank Von Helvete, sweaty and be-caped, from the lip of the Music Hall stage. It’s a momentary lull in the denim-clad circus of ramalama that is Turbonegro Live; seconds earlier, the stage shook with razorbladed powerchords, keyboard-player Pal Pot preening in drag like some disturbing Nazi Geisha, guitarist Rune Rebellion strumming in dungarees like a hayseed homo, lipstick’n’mirror-sunglassed drummer Chris Summers and sailor hat-wearing Tom holding down the groove, and elfin lead-guitarist Euroboy soloing ecstatically as the crowd hold him aloft the moshpit.

But while each member of Turbo swans with similarly-iconic swagger onstage, Hank easily wins the lion’s share of the fans’ affections; it’s his black teary make-up that the Turbojugend copy and tattoo on their arms, and it is upon his tenuous mental and chemical health that this reunited Turbonegro depend.

“Lasssst night, a laaaaadyboy walked up to Happy Tom,” he brays, theatrically hissing each sibilant sound like the snake from the Jungle Book, as his adoring crowd cheer him on. “And he ssssaid, I vant to take your anal virrrrrgi-ni-ty! But Happy Tom said, no! You cannot haffff my anal cherry! I am ssssssaving if for the S! F! P! D!”

As Hank slurs the good name of the San Francisco police force, the audience erupts, a capacity crowd of cool SF scenesters, tattooed-and-mohicanned punk kids, dressed-down weekend-rockers and, of course, the Turbojugend in their signature Turbo denim jackets, a motley sea of heads moshing in reverence towards this most perverse but deserving subject of rock’n’roll worship.

“There’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ Turbonegro fan,” declares Tom backstage later, having showered away the sweat and spit. “Anyone from street-punks to college professors, anyone who’s ever had a relationship with rock’n’roll can relate to us.”

“Rock’n’roll in Norway was full of closed communities, it was all pretty exclusive stuff,” rasps Hank, sweat-drenched and still wrapped in his leather cape. “After being kicked out of every subculture there, we were never gonna exclude anybody.”

“We seem to strike a chord with sex-workers,” adds Tom, noting that porno industry bible Adult Video News has interviewed them. “We’ve seen strippers dance to ‘Sell Your Body (To The Night)’. I guess they can relate to us, being whores onstage.”

“It’s like a family feeling at our shows,” he adds. “A Manson family feeling.”

For all that Tom jokes, few bands are so generous and grateful to their fans as Turbonegro; but then, few bands owe their fans quite so much. Through the fallow period that followed Hank’s heroin-induced breakdown, it was the Turbojugend, and celebrity fans like QOTSA, Dwarves, Therapy? And Him (who all appeared on 2001’s Alpha Motherfuckers tribute album) who kept their memory alive, kept them the coolest cult band you never heard. The “voiceless fuckers and system-suckers” hailed in ‘Ride With Us’ off Turbonegro’s pulverising comeback LP, Scandinavian Leather, these rock’n’roll fans have a hunger for noise immunising them from what Tom disdainfully defines as ‘The Hype Machine’.

“We aren’t obvious flag-bearers for the ‘New Rock Revolution’ bullshit, the people, the grass roots, have declared us the saviours of rock.” he swaggers. But their ranks have recently swollen thanks to some pretty stellar new members…

“Steve Jones from Sex Pistols has started up his own chapter in Shepherds Bush, and is trying to get the reformed Pistols to cover a Turbo song,” beams Tom. “Ian Astbury turned up to the LA shows in his Turbojugend jacket! All our heroes are now Turbo-fans!”

“James Hetfield said Apocalypse Dudes [Turbo’s 1999 classic] is his favourite album of recent years,” adds Hank. “Bam Margera loves our band so much that he invited us out to his home to film us playing and shooting guns at cars full of petrol. And Alice Cooper is a big fan, he couldn’t believe we were Norwegian! That was the headline, when he was interviewed by the Norwegian Daily, ‘Alice Cooper: Loves Golf & Turbonegro’!”

He smiles, but then sighs. A near manic-depressive seesaw of joy and melancholy seems uniform for the men in Turbonegro, perhaps a result of their tumultuous career, perhaps just par for the course for so theatrical a band. Whatever, a cloud seems to loom over Hank, as he muses,

“Time will show how far this goes, whether it’s just a novelty. People always chastise us for our pessimism, putting ourselves down as much as possible.”

“But at the same time, we have egos the size of the average aircraft carrier,” deadpans Tom.

“You call it pessimism, we call it realism,” broods Hank.

“You call it paranoia, we also call that realism,” adds Tom.

Castro Street is the legendary hub of San Francisco’s gay community, block after block of bars like Dirty Dick’s, The Rear End, The Purple Pickle and Little Orphan Andy’s peopled by the leather-clad and the handlebar-mustachioed. Forget ‘Out & Proud’ – Castro Street is like you woke up one morning and all the ignorant bullshit that stigmatises and closets homosexual lifestyles just disappeared. Where better than here to hang out with these reigning queens of homosexual-flavoured death-punk, the authors of such timeless anthems as ‘Rendezvous With Anus’ and ‘I Got Erection’ and ‘Screwed And Tattooed’, as their tourbus rolls into town?

Only we aren’t on Castro Street, but rather a stretch limo driven by a sleep deprived crazy from the Russian mafia, speeding towards the Golden Gate Bridge for a photo session. And Turbonegro aren’t gay, despite what their lyric sheet might pretend. It’s an open-secret that almost all of the band are married or have girlfriends; that their gay-posture is just that – an affectionate pose assumed by the band both as an unforgettable onstage persona, and also to piss off and intimidate humourless punks and murderous death-metallers at home in Norway.

“We wanted to get that sense of homosexual flamboyance into rock’n’roll again,” reminisces the majestic Hank in the limo, as Euroboy scans the radiowaves searching for a classic-rock station. “Rock’n’roll is very close to transvestism, we’re just coming out and saying it.”

“We’ve had youth workers tell us that heterosexual punk kids who could be hassling the gay kids don’t now, because they like us, and we’ve made the ‘gay thing’ cool,” adds Tom, somewhat implausibly.

Of course, even the most cursory sampling of Turbonegro suggests their gay façade is little more than a tongue-in-(ass)cheek prank, fetishising homosexuality as some lurid carnival of puckering assholes and randy sailor-boys. They’re more camp than anything, a brash and hilarious caricature of rock’n’roll’s ridiculousness, painted so much larger-than-life, anyone with a taste for sinful fun is gonna want to buy in.

“We’re a cartoon band,” admits Hank gladly, as the band pose before the glorious bridge. “A cartoon illustration of the ultimate rock’n’roll show.”

“We’re a glorious cascade of negativity!” declares Tom, with an actorly flourish.

“When you see us onstage,” adds Euroboy, “You get a taste of something that says, let’s fucking party! I feel like a total rock God.”

“We allow the idea of idolisation back into rock’n’roll,” continues Tom. “It’s a mutual game, the audience feigns submission to us rock’n’roll Gods. We let people be fans again.”

“The message those shoegazey indie-rock bands proclaimed, that they were the same as their audiences, was a necessary reaction to a lot of rock’n’roll bullshit in the late ‘80s. But rock’n’roll is very much about the rock star, he’s like a nobleman, a God to worship. That’s what feeds the rock star, and what feeds the rock fan.”

“Motorhead did so much damage with that song, ‘We Are The Road Crew’,” sighs Euroboy, the band’s resident classic-rawk scholar. “We need to write a song, ‘We Are The Artistes’!”

“We’ve been through so much shit, we’ve seen through all the hypocrisy of the ‘underground’; ‘4 Real’ is just a pose, and the only way to actually be For Real is to pose,” reasons Hank, of their gaudy and exhilarating rock’n’roll alter-egos which are still more convincing, more honest than a million humourless, factory-produced ‘punk’ bands.

At that moment, a little kid standing watching the shoot, fascinated by these painted, flamboyant rock stars, breaks from his mum’s hand and runs up to the band, jumping up and down excitedly. The band grin and pose with the boy, who can’t be more than 4 years old, as his mum takes photos. Then she pulls a candy bar out of her pocket and hands it to Happy Tom, urging the make-up-wearing sailor to pose offering the candy to the kid in the classic child-molestor style, giggling while she took more photos. Even the band themselves admitted feeling a little freaked out by the experience, afterwards.

If there’s any sense of real and disquieting darkness at the heart of Turbonegro’s painted punk-rock pageant, then it lies with Hank Von Helvete. It was Hank who paid the most severe consequences for the excesses of the 1990s, hallucinating and suicidal and hooked on heroin, effectively killing the band just as they released their masterpiece album, 1998’s Apocalypse Dudes. But in a very real sense, Hank is the heart and soul of Turbonegro, even though he wasn’t a founder member.

“The first singer got too old and got cancer, so I joined,” he says, blackly. “I used to live with him and this blind dope dealer in a squat in Oslo, hanging out with these feminist girls. It was the perfect setup for the blind dude, we’d cut up the hash for him and count the money. We ran a radio station there, as cover. We’d drink beer and get high on our own supply while on air. We became legendary, feminists and drug-pushers and fucked-up punks trying to piss everyone off! My show was called the Nihilistic One Man Front. Cops raided a local Nazi hideout and found weapons and a murder list there, and my name was on it…”

Did you truly believe in nihilism?

“I tended towards it,” says Hank, of the philosophy that rejects any moral distinctions in favour of an extreme scepticism. “I have a much stronger belief system now. But all Nihilist philosophers come to the same ultimate conclusion, that once you’ve dispatched with everything you believe in, all you have left is love, the one thing you can’t reject. And then you can rebuild your life.”

There are times when you worry for Hank, when he seems so truly troubled. In the limo earlier, as the boys discussed their earlier ‘insanity’, Hank silently and privately genuflected at that word. Interviewing him backstage at Slim’s, venue for their second San Francisco date, I switch off the fan so it doesn’t drown out our voices on my dictafone. The make-up smeared into his beard and painted under his eyelids begins to run in the heat, black ‘tears’ staining his cheeks, so he looks like some Goth inversion of the Pierrot clown.

“People think being in a band made me a junkie, because that’s where all the temptations are,” he says. “But I never took drugs with the band. Turbonegro was keeping me alive, away from the drugs.

“I was involved in this very intense project of killing myself, you see? When the band split up, it was like shedding a heavy weight off my back, so I could continue killing myself. And then I turned my back on the whole urban life. I moved to a quiet rural fishing village, worked in a library. I needed the peace and quiet. But after a while that got boring, especially as I got my strength back. I went several rounds with myself, trying to find out who I was. And I realised being a rock singer was such a huge part of my identity, and I had to start playing in the band again. Or I could give up on the whole rehab and get back to killing myself again.”

“We are the uncircumcised Ramonessss!!!”

The Slim’s show rocks even harder than the previous night, a riot from the lit-touchpaper ignition-riff of ‘Wipe It Till It Bleeds’. Towards the end of the set, comedian/actor Dave Sheridan (supporting the tour with his comedy-metal troupe Van Stone) walks onstage, as their ‘manager’. He barks into his cellphone, then urges a gleeful Hank to chuck several buckets of fake blood over front row, and the band plough into a glorious call-and-response version of ‘I Got Erection’. The moshpit just utterly explodes, slamming and skidding lustily but considerately. Turbo, meanwhile, rock out like the utter fucking rock’n’roll Gods they are whenever they daub on the make-up, assuming their role in this glam-rock S&M

They call it death-punk, but this pageant is so utterly life-affirming. The blood’s fake, but the fun is very, very real.


shinanos said...

Mmm...look a bit difficult to translate into Japanese, but seem nice and interesting :) And uh, I think I'm turbo-type translator to finish the work - CONCENTRATE on it. Hah~, from now I'll launch some pieces of translation...wish me luck スティーヴィー。(I hope I'm NOT lost in translation, though)

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I misunderstood your introduction of Turbonegro or not, but you mentioned that they are Swedish?? That is incorrect!!
All members of the band are norwegian, and they are indeed a norwegian band, so you might think about changing that ;-)

Stevie Chick said...

i'm a clod, thank you!