This was my most flamboyant pal, Root Boy Slim--aka Foster McKenzie III-- aka just Ken, (as I knew him in the days before he adopted the moniker and cultivated the outrageous stage persona). Few people, apart from a large and very loyal fan base along the East coast and in some musical circles, ever had the opportunity to see him. Mention his name today, and most people will wonder if you mean Fatboy Slim. He was a local, D.C. area guy and my old, familiar group therapy cohort. We met in about 1970 or so, both of us patients of the old Group Therapy Center at 21st and M streets, NW. I think the place is now an embassy of some sort. He was there because of a court order, actually. More on this, below... Boy, do I remember him..!
He described in great detail one afternoon how he'd become demoralized by losing a staring contest with a cockroach on the floor of his kitchen... He also laid claim to absolutely the most brilliantly inventive piece of paranoia I've ever-- EVER-- heard: He was absolutely convinced that there was a nationwide conspiracy of people who had banded together to cause him to experience deja vu. Uh-huh. Really. How do the logistics of that work...?
"I dunno what it is, man, but there always seems to be a blue Buick makin' a turn up ahead of me. I KNOW that car, man... And when I'm on line at the Safeway, gettin' my food and my smokes and shit, there's always some little old lady with... damn blue hair in front of me. She puts her wedge of cheese down, you know, and gets real fuckin' territorial about her groceries... Think I'm makin' it up? You should see this shit like I see it, all the time, man! They've got a hell of an organization; I'll give 'em that..."
Here he is, above, uncharacteristically upright, during a show. Sometimes his shows ended with him flailing about on the floor, too incapacitated to stand, or simply passed out over some amplifier or drum kit or some piece of furniture in the bar or club. This pic was taken fairly early in his set, I think. Note the powdery-looking nose... The outfit he's wearing is either a pair of overalls or a sun dress-- I forget which. He sometimes wore a red devil costume or a straight jacket. His stage shows were legendary. The "714" drawn on his head --for those too young to know-- is the imprint which appeared on pharmaceutical-grade Quaaludes (aka Mandrax overseas) , a much-favored sedative, similar in effect to barbiturates and hugely popular in... um... certain circles in the 1970's. I spun through many such circles, and managed to land upright, with my balance and most of my faculties more or less intact.
Ken (I never called him "Root Boy") and I didn't spend that much time together-- who could keep up with him, for openers...? -- but we shared many a very strange and intense evening at a certain table under the stairs at P.T. Barnum's bar on Pennsylvania Avenue. Nobody passing by en route to the pay phones or the bathrooms was safe from our scrutiny and his commentary. He was unique; a real force of nature. Eccentric, gifted, weird, talented, obnoxious, daring, fearless and frightening are adjectives that applied to him in equal measure.
If you hung with him you had to either strap in and go along for the ride or simply get the hell out of the way. He endured a lot of incredibly debilitating mental and physical hardships-- largely brought on by what he once referred to as his own "excessive-compulsive" personality. He was in and out of several mental institutions and was jailed in Florida and in Jamaica. What would you expect from a guy whose most famous song was called "Boogie 'Til You Puke"? He also recorded what may well be the most frightening indictment of mental illness and institutionalization I have ever heard; funny on one level and absolutely devastating and horrifying on another, "Dozin' And Droolin' " is a chronicle of his miserable confinement in psych wards. If you've spent any time at all in such circumstances, it'll hit you squarely between the eyes. His last words on the song are scary as all hell.
Having also survived the 60's and 70's and sundry psychiatric facilities--as well as all the crap I inflicted on myself-- hell, I'm just glad to be anywhere these days. I wish he was still around. I wonder what he'd be thinking about this week's news, and what form his commentary would take...
He and the various incarnations of his band (he always surrounded himself with brilliant musicians-- this was no thrash metal, atonal, power-chord, punk crap) cranked out six albums. Their titles-- to give you just a taste of his sensibilities-- were their Warner Bros. debut album, ROOT BOY SLIM AND THE SEX CHANGE BAND W/THE ROOTETTES (Warners had absolutely no idea how the hell to market him and dumped him in a hot minute when sales were poor...) Miles Copeland discovered the band, and their sophomore effort, ZOOM was recorded on his I.R.S. label in the US, and on the Illegal label in the UK. Despite their mighty marketing arm, the LP sold about as well as its predecessor, and Root and the boys (and girls) found themselves labelless once again.
After this, Root Boy Slim And The Sex Change Band (with and without The Rootettes) continued playing the Atlantic Seaboard and did four more LPs: DOG SECRETS on Congressional Records, and DON'T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU and LEFT FOR DEAD for Kingsnake Records, and the last album, ROOT SIX for Naked Language Records. They're all hard to find these days, and are real collector's items among fans and aficionados.
Footage of him is scarce, though there are quite a few odd-lot quality clips to be found on YOUTUBE. Aside from the links I've provided, you can also see him perform "Boogie 'Til You Puke" in Mr. MIKE'S MONDO VIDEO, a bizarre film conceived, produced and directed by former Saturday Night Live writer Michael O'Donoghue. It was originally produced on videotape as an NBC television special that would have aired during one of SNL's breaks. NBC declared the show "inappropriate" , though, and cancelled it. Too gamy for late night TV, apparently. A YOUTUBE clip is here.
The cast included Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner, as well as people who have previously hosted or would go on to host or perform on the show-- Carrie Fisher, Margot Kidder, Debbie Harry, Wendie Malick, Klaus Nomi, Paul Shaffer and Sid Vicious among them. In it, Root performs in a dingy nightclub that--as the shot finally widens out-- we see is populated entirely with inflatable love dolls. It's one of the weirder films ever made, and it's still available on DVD. Get it...!
Well, hell-- don't take my word for any of this. Read on....
With Richard Harrington of D.C.'s old Unicorn Times newspaper.
Excerpts from various web sources concerning Root Boy Slim:
"... an intelligent yet incorrigible youth who was invited to leave several private DC-area prep schools such as Sidwell Friends, whose alums include Chelsea Clinton. He finally found his niche at Saint James School in Hagerstown, MD., a boarding school..."
"...He went on to Yale, where he majored in Black Studies, graduating in 1967. He and George W. Bush belonged to the same fraternity (DKE, "the Dekes"), although Bush was one year behind him. Root Boy was the frat's social director, and he would later tell people that the future president showed up at all the parties. Root Boy said that he went back to visit one year and Bush, now president of the fraternity, threw him off the premises for smoking a joint on the frat house's front steps.
(Root described Bush in a radio interview: "... oh, yeah; what a stuffed shirt he was. Is 'asshole' one of the words you can't say on the radio?")
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEZi5Z1ZbaY will take you to the footage.
"...One day he took a lot of LSD and went to the White House and climbed the fence. (He later explained that he "was looking for the center of the universe.") He was apprehended by the Secret Service as he ran up the lawn toward the White House. He was the first intruder since the War of 1812 to get completely over the fence.
"Following his arrest, he was sent to St. Elizabeth's Psychiatric Hospital. This was the first of many visits that he would make in the coming years. The large dose of LSD he had consumed caused a psychotic break that led to schizophrenia that he would be medicated for during the rest of his life..."
Excerpt from an interview w/ friend and former manager--
"... you mean the notorious affair in Florida where he jumped up on a bulldozer and drove it into a municipal building?"
" I didn’t hear about that."
" He did that and he went for another stay in a mental institution. He used to tell us about these menus for all the mental institutions up and down the east coast. He could tell you what was served in each one. How about that? I don’t know what that kind of knowledge will do for you, but I guess it served him well."
"...the band was called Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band, and the combination of excellent musicians, clever and unusual hook-ridden songs, along with Root Boy's charismatic, outlandish persona propelled it to huge local success in the late 1970s and 1980s. His subjects included substance abuse, mental instability and politics, with song titles such as "Too Sick To Reggae," "Dozin' and Droolin,"...
[Personal note: While it is amusing on one level, this is also one of the most frightening depictions of enforced sedation and institutional routine that you will ever hear.]
... " I'm Not Too Old for You," and "Boogie Til You Puke." His performances at venues such as The Psychedelly in Bethesda, the Cellar Door and Bayou in Georgetown, and the Varsity Grill in College Park were always packed, and staffers from the Carter White House were among his following. He was even invited to visit the White House by Carter's appointment secretary. Root Boy approved of the Carter administration, but when President Reagan was elected, he wrote "Cowboy in the Sun Too Long" and "Rich, White, Republican."
"... (he and his band) filled rooms with freaks and hippies; lots of hippie chicks and freaky women."
"...he got a gig playing in the (high school) gym in 1972... The gym was dark and the floor was soaked with beer.... He had graduated (this school) years before and now he was going to leave his mark. The Sex Change Band was playing their fingers to the bone, Slim was wearing his straitjacket. He was out of control, the students were totally out of control... The music was so loud, the police came. The teachers tried to shut him down, but the students had paid their money and the band played on ...until a cop pulled the plug. Slim tried to plug it back up, the faculty stopped him. Slim pulled out a bag of dried dog food and started throwing it... The students loved Slim and started throwing their beers and the shiny floor which just hosted a basketball game was a slick mess... The police returned and an agreement was struck: (the band could do) one more set. The officer handed the microphone to Slim and the crowd roared as the band started. Women were rushing the stage and stripping and now the gym was being transformed into a drunken sex fest. Slim continued... until the policeman grabbed the microphone and this time it was over..."
"...In 1978, the band played a date at The Varsity Grill's Back Room in College Park, Maryland (home of the University of Maryland). A riot ensued and the College Park City Council later banned Root Boy Slim & The Sex Change Band from the city..."
"Although he made fun of his vices, Root Boy used drugs and alcohol to excess. His shows were sometimes erratic, but they were always funny and outrageous. Root Boy would wear flowing capes, leopard outfits and his trademark ROOT glasses, and he would order his backup singers, the Rootettes, to get down on the filthy stage floor with him and thrash around doing the accompanying dance he invented, as he sang "Do the Gator."
"...I remember the Root Boy show. By the end, the floor was covered with beer, everything that had been on the tables was on the floor and of course Root Boy was wearing nothing but the tablecloths."
"...the uniqueness of the Root's voice, which resonates like an emphysema victim vomiting inside the Goodyear blimp..."
"His last production was a moving video of his song "Hey Mr. President", a call to help the homeless, released during the Presidential campaign in 1992.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KSLJm7psEs&mode=related&search= will take you to the footage.
Root Boy Slim, Animal Lover
The Sex Change Band reunited in 1993 for an East coast tour. Worn down by his inner demons and declining health, Root Boy died in his sleep just four days after the band's kickoff show at The Junkyard in Orlando-- and just a month before his 48th birthday.
He's been described in various quarters as: "...a musical genius... an obnoxious fat guy... a brilliant satirist with his finger on the pulse of absurdist pop culture... one scary motherfucker... the poster boy for Bad Living... (and) ...the Lenny Bruce of the Blues..."
Outdoor Festival; venue and date unknown
Here's one of my favorite songs from his first LP for you to enjoy...
CLICK the jukebox. It'll open a new window and play the song -- lyrics are below.
MY WIG FELL OFF
(by Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band, featuring the Rootettes)
Hey wait a minute! Don’t step on it!
My toupee’s out on the floor!
Watch out for my mood ring, my 18-button shirt in all the latest designs!
My all 12 astrological signs!
What’s worse, you know… lemme tell you about it—
Tryin’ to pass for 18 is a tough thing to do
You can’t make it in the disco when you’re 42.
I’m lookin’ for love in every disco in town.
My wig’s getting’ shaky; my truss is slippin’ down…
My wig fell off! Don’t step on it out on the floor!
My pacemaker’s busted; Poli-Grip won’t hold no more!
These girls laugh at my fishnet shirt.
When they call me “Grandpa”, that really hurt.
Looked in the mirror; didn’t look 42.
All that shakin’ and sweatin’, it must’ve come unglued.
My wig fell off! Hand my toupee to me.
I’m quittin’ the disco; I’m almost 43.
Hey look out, buddy—get off my wig!
Oops—I didn’t realize you was quite so big.
Go ahead and keep it; keep my mood ring, too.
But give me back my dentures or I’ll have to use Kung Fu! Uh! Oh!
My wig fell off! Hand my toupee to me.
I’m quittin’ the disco; I’m almost 43.
My elevator shoes; my hip jewelry… I’ll sell ‘em at a yard sale somewhere.
Anybody wanna buy all 12 astrological signs?
Anybody wanna buy an 18-button shirt in all the latest designs?
Anybody wanna buy a wig? You can have my wig for next to nothin’…
I’m quittin’ the disco; I’m quittin’ the disco, y’all.
I can’t take it no more. Too much heartbreak; too much pain…
Too much heartbreak; too much pain…
Say; I didn’t… I didn’t see you in the place before…!
R.I.P. Root Boy Slim; Foster "Ken" McKenzie III-- 1945-1993
O.K.-- enough indulgence and reminiscence. I sure do miss you, old pal Ken. I hold onto many vivid and happy, funny memories of passing the time with you. Those were heady days. How could we ever have been that young and impervious?
If this made you laugh, go find more of his stuff. Do a Google or YOUTUBE search. You'll like it.
Drop me a note with any questions,
comments, criticism, cogent thoughts,
cease-and-desist orders, etc., etc...