It's in Akron, Ohio, where Chris was part of the formidable music scene that included Devo, Chrissie Hynde, Jane Aire & The Belvederes, and The Bizarros (the latest big-name act out of Akron: The Black Keys - and also, LeBron James). His band Tin Huey remain local legends, but as the British music magazine NME wrote about them in 1978, "mainstream potential is definitely limited." Indeed, this punchy progressive rock was never embraced by the masses, which was much more receptive to one of Chris' offshoot projects: a saxy, similarly irreverent group with a female singer who spoke/sung the lyrics.
That group was The Waitresses. Fronted by the non-singer Patty Donahue, they scored with "I Know What Boys Like," and also brought us the seasonal classic, "Christmas Wrapping." By this point, Chris had moved operations to New York City, where hip-hop was gestating.
Here, Chris takes us through his strange musical journey, which includes a stop at Kent State University, where his friend was killed in the shootings.
Chris Butler: I do. In fact, I'm talking to you from the front porch right now.
Songfacts: Is that the Dahmer house?
Butler: Yes, it is.
Songfacts: Oh, my gosh. That's the craziest thing. It's so hard to tell with you, Chris, because so many of your stories are so fantastical, it's really hard to know when you're exaggerating or when you're telling the flat-out, honest truth.
Butler: I don't have to lie. My life is ridiculously interesting. And some of it is of my own doing, but a lot of it isn't. In fact, I've gotten to the point where I can predict something. How about this one: I am going to go to England on the 14th of September through the 21st, and I'm going to play guitar with a singer songwriter friend I know from New York called Elizabeth McCullough. And Elizabeth has booked us in a wonderful place I've played before called the 12 Bar Club, which is on Denmark Street, which is like England's Tin Pan Alley.
But here's the thing: Our gig is on September 18th, Thursday. September 18th is the referendum as to whether or not Scotland is going to secede from the United Kingdom. So we're probably not going to get anybody, because everybody's going to be at home watching the telly to see if there will be a United Kingdom. But I'm going to be there for that historical thing. So how about that for being at the right place at the wrong time, or the wrong place at the right time.
I've had a pretty interesting run. I don't have to lie.
Songfacts: I don't doubt that, but part of your job as a songwriter is to make little embellishments to make the story more interesting.
Butler: Well, I'm pretty good with words, I guess. Good question: Where does fiction start? I guess, as a drama queen it's kind of built in to be a little florid. But a lot of it is really honest-to-God just the truth, and I just have a way, I guess, of putting it in words that are a little more dramatic. It's not journalism. Okay? [Laughing] How about that. It's not "just the facts, ma'am." It's maybe new journalism where you inject your emotional state and personality into the story. I'll definitely cop to that.
Songfacts: What is the story about what ended up becoming your hit with The Waitresses, "I Know What Boys Like"?
Some of them fit the Tin Huey aesthetic, which was smart and jazzy and angular. It had to be as good as The Move or something Brian Eno would do for them to even listen to it.
We had a band house. You could do that in Akron: we had a whole house where a recording studio and two or three of us were living for I think $100 a month rent for a mansion. Well, I went to the local watering hole after rehearsal one night, which is up at a place called the Bucket Shop in Highland Square. It's a jumping night, and there's beautiful women and cool guys. And towards the end hour, it became obvious that the women were all being attracted to the lawyers, because the lawyers had money, and probably, cocaine. I was with Stuart [Austin], the drummer, and we were looking at each other. He says, "Wait a minute, we got a record contract. How come no one's talking to us?"
I got into this mindset, and it wasn't a pretty one. It was about women in a bar situation wheeling and dealing their wares, so to speak, for the highest bidder. And I was definitely the lowest bidder.
So I went back and I began to fool around with the tape recorder and I came up with two demo versions of "I Know What Boys Like." One is totally crap - I'm plugged directly into the input of the tape recorder. I had this cheap crystal microphone, and I'm tapping out a beat on a phone book to give myself a sense of time. The second version I came with the "nyah, nyah, nyahs." And I thought, Oh, that's kind of interesting. And I was also working on another song on the same tape called "Wise Up," which became both a Waitresses song and a Tin Huey song.
In Tin Huey, we had six people and everybody wrote. So before rehearsal, whatever somebody was working on, you'd bring in the tape, or you would bring in whatever you had. We had one of those days a few days before the recording, and I presented "I Know What Boys Like" as my current contribution. I thought it was a goof, because it was me singing the vocal.
I got the hairiest of hairy eyeballs from our very sophisticated musical group, and I was humbled, humbled, humbled by their silent sarcasm and steely stares. It went back in the trunk until later, when I began to fool around with it.
By then I had reconnected with Patty Donahue from Kent, and she was game to sing on it. I wanted to do something with it, because I didn't have a whole lot of songs. Anything that came out of me was kind of precious, and I wanted to take it as far as it could go.
I did another demo at Mark Price's house and brought it to my friend Rick Dailey, who was an engineer in town. It didn't matter that we had completely different tape formats: we'd just swap tapes back and forth to the 8-track tapes, half-inch tape, even though technically we were not allowed to do that. Two different kinds of noise reduction. Whatever. We didn't care. He had great Neumann microphones and were game for anything.
So I did some of the recording at Mark Price's house and some at Rick Dailey's, and it was done. Again, I presented it to the Tin Huey guys and said, "This is for a fake band I came up with called The Waitresses." I got even more of a hairier eyeball, except I was able to sell them on it as an encore at the Tin Huey shows: How about we put on these T-shirts that say "Waitresses Unite" that some waitresses were wearing at a local diner called Jerry's Diner in Kent. We asked Patty, and suddenly we turned ourselves into this Waitresses group and let her do a couple of songs. That became one of the standard ways for us to close a show locally.
I had written a few other songs that were kind of Waitress-y or that were not up to Tin Huey's very high standards. And that's kind of how the whole thing came about. It was a joke idea to begin with, to have a non-existent band, because you could tell a big whopper of lies and you didn't actually have to do anything because it was totally a fiction. But it gradually became real, and "Boys Like" became the keystone song of the idea. Tin Huey was gracious enough to lend their services to put up a show, at least as an encore.
It was a lot of fun to slip on another identity, and the crowd reacted well to "Boys Like" and another song called "The Comb." So it stayed in regular rotation for a while.
Songfacts: So Tin Huey was The Waitresses, except with Patty on vocals?
Butler: Yeah. She would come up and we would transform ourselves into The Waitresses for a couple of songs and an encore.
Songfacts: I'm thinking about who else would come up with such a wild idea like this, and the band that comes to mind is Devo. Something must have been going on in Akron that led to these bizarre ideas.
Butler: My friend, that is not an interview question, that is a Ph.D. dissertation. And we certainly don't have time for it now. The dirty little secret is the petri dish for all this stuff was Kent, Ohio. That's where people really got started. There were really no clubs in Akron, so that's where you went if you wanted a gig. I ran into Tin Huey because I was playing in a band called 15 60 75 The Numbers Band in this club that had two stages: upstairs and downstairs. Tin Huey would play the other stage, and during our breaks I'd come up and watch them.
It's Kent that was the petri dish for Devo and, frankly, Chrissie Hynde, and certainly for Tin Huey, because there were eight bars on this strip. Each bar had original music, and the audiences demanded original music. You were supposed to write your own songs. They expected you to come up with something different and not just play the hits of the day.
There were other clubs in Kent, because it was this big college town where you would go to hear cover bands. But if you were on this Water Street strip with these eight bars, each one with a different band, you went there specifically to hear new stuff. This is where the James Gang would play, this is where a band called Glass Harp would play. Devo played a couple of times, but they were Akron-bound and got to the point where they were able to instigate their own little club called The Crypt in Akron, and that was their lab for trying things out onstage.
But the place to play was Kent. In fact, 15 60 75, I played bass in it, Jerry Casale of Devo played bass and drums in it. It was the best gig in town, because they worked a lot and you could earn a living. This is the beauty of this deal and the impossibility of this statement: You could earn a living in northeastern Ohio as a musician playing original music.
That protest that day where everybody got shot was a protest against the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. It was a secret expansion, Nixon had done it the night before and we found out about it the next day, the whole nation did. They did it without an act of congress, without passing any new law or having any meetings. It was completely unconstitutional. So we're out there at noon, about 3,500 students at Kent State were out there. The governor, who certainly was a pro-war kind of guy, Governor Rhodes, he had placed the National Guard inside the heating plant of the school the night before anticipating what would happen when the students found out about Cambodia. Not only did he do that, but he waited until about 9 a.m. on May 4th to declare martial law, which suspends all first amendment rights of the Constitution, meaning that any assembly is automatically illegal, you're automatically committing a crime.
These National Guardsmen poured out of the heating plant, surrounded the protesters, and with a bullhorn announced that martial law had been declared and that we were all going to jail. Everybody starts chanting and screaming and they start shooting tear gas. Some of the more ballsy protesters, while they're coughing and choking and puking are trying to throw it back, but most of the kids were anywhere from 50 to 100 yards away from these lines of National Guardsmen with guns. Nobody believed that the guns were actually loaded with live ammo.
They suddenly formed a row. The first one knelt and the second one stood, and they just shot right into the crowd, shot at all of us. Down the hill at all of us. The worst thing about it is that two of the four students killed weren't part of the demonstration, weren't part of an antiwar group. They'd just come out of class from the journalism building at that time and come out on their way to their next class and were looking at the protest, just seeing what the hell's going on, and they got killed.
The bullets just went everywhere, it was like a scattergun approach, like shooting geese. A lot of the bullets went over the heads of the protesters and kept going straight down the hill. One of the kids that's paralyzed for life was getting into his car to leave campus after his class, and they shot him in the back. He was at least 200 yards away and wanted nothing to do with what was going on. It was shocking. It pretty much knocked any hippie that I had left in me right out of me that day.
Chris channeled his thoughts and feelings into an audio project called Easy Life, where he explains in words and music what his life at Kent State was like leading up to the shootings; it's kind of an origin story that puts this ineffable story into some kind of context.
Butler: Absolutely true. And absolutely true for me, as well. I had just finished a project called Easy Life, which I had been working on for decades. It is my Kent State story. I am unbelievably influenced by events of that day. It sent me off into a completely unique, unknown, and uncharted territory as a person.
Jerry and I have talked a lot about it. We were neighbors. He lived in the apartment next door. A new record would come out and we'd trade it and he would talk theory and I would listen in awe, because he was unbelievably brilliant.
But Kent is completely what influenced my whole life and career. I was there. The guy I was with, Jeffrey Miller, was killed. It's a long story, but when you have that kind of event happen to you, it spins you off in a direction where you can't abide by the existing system, because it tried to fucking kill you. And you're going to have to make your own way if you're at all true to any of the creative parts of yourself. Those parts were reinforced by a very, very interesting college - it was a shitty college, but they had a great, great film department, great English department, brilliant art department. We had Black Mountain poets. We had incredible music concerts, world class artists.
Songfacts: Did Patty go to Kent State with you?
Butler: Yes. She was in and out. She would go for a quarter, then maybe take off, work somewhere, she would go to Galveston, Texas, whatever. I don't think she graduated. I could be wrong. [Patty Donahue died of lung cancer in 1996 at age 40]
Songfacts: Akron, of course, was a musical hotbed. But it was not known for being an innovative place in terms of hip-hop or rap. Yet you were maybe inadvertently an innovator in this rap style. Can you talk about how that came about?
Butler: Well, I think you give me more credit for it than I certainly deserve. I have R&B roots. British Invasion was wonderful. But the first concert I ever saw was James Brown. Hip-hop was an extension of black music in general. I love funk and outsider jazz.
I have to credit Bob Kidney from The Numbers Band for teaching me that lyrics matter. If you're going to say something, say something, and it had better be sharp and it had better be funny, and it had better be rich lyrically. Because if you were trying to do something as an art, you weren't going to do "moon, June, spoon, baby, I love you, baby I need you, world/girl" kind of rhyme schemes.
All of my songs have so many words, and Patty was a trooper to try to wedge them in. And although there are melodies to my songs, believe it or not, they had to be simple because, to be blunt, Patty was a great actress and not an R&B-style belter. So a style came out that was along the lines of some of the other great talkers of music and storytellers, like Sophie Tucker, or where a person might have naughty things to say. It was more of a spoken word, "I'm telling you a story here," versus, "I'm going to knock you out with my vocal chops."
I think it was kind of endearing, it was very one-on-one. It gave me the opportunity to come up with a writing style where it's a one-sided conversation where you assume that the other person is listening and contributing. I didn't know it at the time, but we definitely came into an interesting technique that I think other singers have used.
The fact that it was rhythmical - I certainly can't take credit for anything to do with rap other than being in New York when hip-hop was being established. It was all around us, that and Latin music and outside jazz and ska from England.
As a contemporary songwriter at the time, I was open to anything, and I remember hearing "The Message," and I thought, This is the shit. It's just great. It's just drums and a voice, it's beautiful. So I certainly listened to all that.
"Christmas Wrapping" is rhythmical, somebody reading a short story in tempo. Maybe technically it's a rap, but it was meant as a joke and a pun. I think it was hipper than "Rapture." But "Rapture" on its own is very groundbreaking for a white girl to do.
I don't see any real association with hip-hop other than it being one of the burgeoning styles in our New York scene. My antenna was up seeking inspiration, so that was certainly a part of it.
Songfacts: Did you write "I Know What Boys Like" in that style?
Butler: No. It's a precursor. I think 1977 it was copywritten. It was the other way around.
I had read somewhere in one of my textbooks that every culture has a children's chant of "nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah," that every culture had some equivalent of that based on those notes. And I thought, Well, if I'm a songwriter and all the little books tell you you've got to write about something universal, well, how about caging a melody that is supposedly in every culture? Maybe that'll work its way into people's lizard brains easier, because it's already there.
So I absolutely can say that, no, "Boys Like" had nothing to do with any kind of hip-hop or rap. It was much more of a socio-psychological experiment to see if I could take what I read was universal and turn it into a pop song.
Songfacts: You mentioned "Rapture." There was also around that time a song called "Wordy Rappinghood" that the Tom Tom Club did. So you had a couple of these songs with white girls doing this kind of spoken rap thing.
Butler: I love Tom Tom Club. I'm not sure of the chronology. They were probably before us.
Songfacts: They were both released before yours. And I didn't know if you were aware of them, if that was an influence on what you did.
Butler: An influence, I'm not sure, other than I love it, because I love Talking Heads. Talking Heads is another huge influence on me in terms of what to write about. It's not going to be moon, June, spoon, and love. It's going to be writing about a therapy session or writing about the frustrations of being a creative person. Or as we began to build our character, the Patty person was kind of a working girl. A working girl who had big dreams and aspirations. A lot of David Byrne's writing, it's very human, but on a very intimate level. It's almost transcription from a therapy session or girl talk - dialogue between women talking about their lives.
I wish I could come up with something as amazing as "Genius of Love" by Tom Tom Club. I loved it, just loved it. I remember getting a 12" 45 and putting it on my turntable and whistling and dancing around my crappy apartment. It was just so fabulous. So, I would like to think I was in the same creative stream that was coming out of New York then.
By the way, are you familiar with Will Hermes' book, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire? It chronicles the birth of hip-hop and CBGB's/punk/new wave and Latin music at the same time. Wonderful book.
I moved to New York to be a songwriter, but I was drawn there not just by the wonderful CBGB stuff and Max's and all that, but by the loft jazz scene. That was fabulous: pay five bucks and see all these incredible people at someone's loft.
Music was everywhere. Yes, the hip-hop and dance stuff was super strong, but there was Latin music everywhere. And the amazing nightclubs like Hurrah were bringing over the English ska bands like Madness and English Beat and The Specials. And then the cats from Jamaica would come up and do a show, so all that was incredibly inspirational. After seeing Madness, I ran out and got all the club Ska records I could, because I thought, This is something new. This is fabulous. I'm a shitkicker from Ohio. What do I know from ska?
I found that to be incredibly inspirational. What a great beat feel: it's fast, it's not reggae. It's more dance music than reggae's tempo. It was more uptempo and party, and that suited what I liked.
So New York was wonderful. It was drenched in all kinds of new musics. And luckily I came there with all my orifices open to soak it all in.
Songfacts: Chris, one thing that strikes me about your career is a lack of ego. And I say that because you are in the background most of the time, your name doesn't appear hardly anywhere, you seem to be comfortable with letting someone else be in the spotlight and you being a behind-the-scenes guy. Can you talk about that?
But that is one of the few times where I am out front. You're right, I've always been in the rhythm section. I played drums and bass before I played guitar. I'm used to trying to put a groove together and letting the front singer do what the front singer's going to do. In fact, the whole Waitresses thing was a learning curve for that, especially since Patty was limited as a singer. But as an actress, she was excellent.
So my writing became more about good lines delivered by a Lauren Bacall or Veronica Lake type, reaching way back here, Myrna Loy in The Thin Man. If there was ever a parallel between Patty and I in my fantasy, it would be Myrna Loy and William Powell.
Anyway, I'm a worker bee. I'm lower middle class. It's all about the work for me. I don't really have time or an inclination to get the big head. Maybe I should treat myself one day or one year to just say, Okay, I'm going to be an obnoxious rock star right now. I'm going to have a really, really good drug habit and I'm not going to do anything. I'm going to be very abusive to my girlfriend, and I will go to rehab.
Songfacts: So you never developed a drug habit?
Butler: No. Worst thing I have done is cigarettes, and I still can't kick them. No, there's too much to do. Remember, when all this happened to us, we were older. We weren't 19-year-olds. We were in our late 20s. And especially for the guys and women in The Waitresses, we were serious musicians. We were not a bunch of kids. In fact, all that bullshit, we would rather set up our own gear. Someone sends a limo from the record company, "Thanks, we'll walk."
I also wanted to pick people from the Midwest as much as I could. Tracy [Wormworth, bass] was the only native New Yorker. Mars [Williams, saxophone] was from Chicago, Billy [Ficca, drums] is from Delaware. Everybody else was from Ohio. All middle class people with a work ethic.
Songfacts: Were you and Patty a couple?
Butler: No. Never.
Songfacts: See, you're blowing up every rock cliché there is here. You're supposed to develop a drug habit and have a relationship with your lead singer.
Butler: I know. I've really fucked up. I'm sorry.
Songfacts: Another thing I thought was interesting was when you talked about how the lawyers got all the chicks. I've never heard a musician say that being a musician is detrimental to getting girls.
Butler: We were older, and the women were smart. In Akron, women are smart. They know how to use jumper cables. They're used to disappointment around here in Ohio. That makes them smart. They know better than to hang out with some dumb, unreliable musician.
Songfacts: You talked about Patty being an actress type and being able to really convey the message, and that seemed fairly important when video came around. You had a video for "Boys Like." Can you talk about your experience with music videos and MTV?
Later, I made friends with a lot of folks who graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art who were at the right place at the right time and did the bumpers and the TV commercials for MTV. It was wild and woolly, inventing this network as you go. A lot of us were Cleveland people, which is very interesting to me.
We did try to have some kind of visual sense to look like a band, which thankfully looked semi-decent on camera. For musicians in America, it was a very new experience. In America you were musicians first and pop stars later. In England you're pop stars first and musicians second. I mean, if you look good in England you can have a career. There's that great quote from Phil Oakey from Human League. Someone said, "When do you have the time to practice?" He replied, "I don't know how to play an instrument. I'm not trying to play an instrument. I'm a pop star." Which is true and brilliant. He's right.
It was fun to do, and it was so new that a video was part of the advertising budget and therefore non-recoupable, so we didn't have to pay for those. They were considered part of the advertising department, and therefore something that the record company had to pay for until they wised up.
It was a chance to be actress/actor, but also woe to he or she who were the true musicians, that did not have any star quality on camera. Because, yeah, video did kill the radio star. Honest to God. And it did change the game. It was as much of a shock as sound coming into film. Holy mackerel, if your voice sounded funny in 1929, you were out of a job, no matter what you did for the previous 10 years.
It was also a nuisance because it wasn't the main thing that you did. It did make you very self-conscious in terms of how you look and how you deport yourself as a band. Remember, this was very much the time, '70s and '80s, when the mainstream of American pop music was flannel shirts and long hair. A lot of black. This whole new wave thing was all nice and crisp and neatly dressed, and all of that was novel and new. And thankfully, it did look good on camera. Bright colors, high saturation colors, very good. Good idea.
I don't know how many records were sold because we had a video clip, but it probably contributed quite a lot, because it was new and novel. And I do know personally that it saved my ass when I went back for Thanksgiving to meet the parents of my soon-to-be wife. This is a Boston family, nice Presbyterian folks. He's an investment banker and she's kind of a grande dame, and they weren't happy with their daughter dating a musician. They were waiting for me to pick up the food with my fingers or excuse myself from the table to go shoot up, I don't know. But we were in the kitchen, I'm helping chop onions or something. They had a kitchen TV on, and the youngest sib was watching either MTV or some music program, and our video comes on. I go, "Oh, look, it's me." Now, for the rest of the world, being on TV is a huge, huge deal. It is absolutely definitive proof that it isn't a hobby. It's so legitimizing. They all looked at me, like, "Holy, shit, he's not just fucking around."
MTV might have killed the radio star, but video saved Chris Butler's ass on Thanksgiving.
Butler: I have a list. I'm half done on about three or four of these. I know that I have to tell the story of how our band got to do Square Pegs, and I know I have to do something about the Who, "My Generation." I have to do something by XTC, and a whole bunch of other stuff.
But it does have to tie into the whole concept, which has got to be somewhat autobiographical. There's fanboy stuff, but it's got to have some resonance. I really want to do "Street Fighting Man" by the Stones, because there's May 4th again, Kent being the thing I always go back to for inspiration. On Sunday night, May 3rd, the Guard charged with six bayonets at demonstrators, which sent many to the clinic with bayonet wounds, which is why on Monday May 4th, people were pissed and didn't disperse.
But that Sunday evening, my friend Bob Webb took the stereo speakers, and from campus, with helicopters and tear gas and armored troop carriers and charging Guard and screaming kids, he turns up "Street Fighting Man" on 11, and it's ricocheting around the buildings in this scene. The cops went up and dragged him down the outside stairs by his hair. They threw the speakers out the window, and the song just kept playing - Bob had put it on repeat. It played two or three times before they pulled them away.
There's an autobiographical sketch tied to a song that's got to be said.
Songfacts: Yeah, I see where you're going with this. In your stories, you are not necessarily the main character. They're all about everything that you've been around.
Butler: Yes. This is, like, damn important. Some of them will be personal, sure. But I'm not sure. I don't know yet. I've sketched out 12 to 15 of these things and I'll get to them when I can.
It's my book. A lot of my friends have written books. I'm going, Wait a minute, you're writing books? I love books, but our medium was audio. How come you're not doing audio? How come you're not doing Moth-type stories or something about your life? You're performers, how come you're not performing your life story as opposed to writing a book?
Songfacts: I like what you're doing. It's very good audio storytelling and the way it works with your voice and with the sound clips is tremendous.
Butler: Thank you very much. Out of everything that you've said, that really makes me feel fabulous. I'm glad somebody got it. It's great fun to do and it's amazing how long they take to do - I'm a production house of one. But watch that space, because there are going to be more.
To get back to your ego thing, sure, I have some ego. But in general there's just too much else to do. I'm not going to go quietly, I swear.
November 6, 2014. Chris also told us the "Christmas Wrapping" story. Get more from Chris at his website.
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