Biscuit Turner's Legacy Still Resonates in Texas Punk — Loudly
The Texas Biscuit Bombs in 2005
Ken Hoge/All artwork courtesy of David Ensminger
Bona fide maverick Randy “Biscuit” Turner was a man of a million faces. As an openly gay, seminal Texas singer for the Big Boys, Cargo Cult, Swine King and Texas Biscuit Bombs/Biscuit’s Texas Bombs, spanning the era from Presidents Carter to George W. Bush, he was a beacon — a fierce light amid queer fear. Plus, as an obsessive-compulsive, self-taught artist in the DIY punk vein, as well as actor and prop decorator, his life inspired Mayor Will Wynn of Austin to declare October 8 in his honor.
As a living avatar for “Keep Austin Weird,” he easily slipped on garish cowboy boots as much as he would careen in pink tutus in front of buzzed-hair masses, or shake some action with Christmas lights strapped to his gyrating body, or dodge brownies amid a Rocky Horror anniversary food fight, or buzz and whoop in a billowing white gown that cocooned him as if he was the star of a C-grade horror movie. His career was a vortex of assembled and collaged art mayhem, rock and roll fun, and raucous ribaldry.
As I argued in my book Visual Vitriol, along the hectic ride Biscuit’s art took visual cues from volatile art punks like Exene Cervenka of X, various avant-garde art movements that permanently disrupted conventions and norms, like Dadaism and Surrealism, and the keen mishmash style of local poster makers. In doing so, he forged a genuine, homegrown East Texas uniqueness that spoke volumes about being a true outsider, for he never fit the frustrating, hollow clichés that tend to brand homosexuality, punk rock, and the Lone Star state.
Meanwhile, his fertile singing style was equally bombastic and beautiful, an often fluid layering of hoarse punk barks, metallic venom and demented howls, soul music's satin smoothness, skate-rock exhortations, and go-go funkiness. In his mixed-genre forays, he married worlds together – black and white, Motown and hardcore, art-infested New Wave and faded Levis with holes, Led Zeppelin (whose chops could be heard in Cargo Cult demos), even noise/musique and Tina Turner. Few singers came even within strides of such ambition, style and freedom. He was a kaleidoscope, a seeker of the wild side, a true mutant.
This month marks 11 years since Biscuit's demise, so David Ensminger (his former editor and drummer) has gathered a series of voices for the Houston Press. These comments are culled from those who knew him, in ways small and momentous, but nonetheless were indelibly impacted by his larger-than-life tendencies, even during the last months of his life.
Static House Studios (where the Biscuit Bombs recorded)
When I was a teenage skate rocker in the suburbs of Houston, we didn't have access to Big Boys records, but we knew their symbol — the anarchy sign with an upside down skateboard cross piece. They were legends. The most time I spent with Biscuit was in the studio. He was like a kid, he brought a bag full of toy noisemakers, and we had a fun. It was a really laid back session, and after that it was like we'd been friends for years. He was such a really nice person.
The Biscuit Bombs at Rudyard's
JOHN SLATE (CONTROL RAT X)
Editor, Xiphoid Process [zine]
I met Randy Turner sometime in 1979 through my friends the Gates family. He skated with them and had a bushy moustache that was shaved off a few months later. Little did I know that the oldest Gates brother, Chris, would form a band with him as lead singer. My only existing knowledge of punk rock was through television and news reports about the Sex Pistols, so I figured, “Biscuit? Why not?”
His charisma and energy helped propel the Big Boys to regional and national fame as the “fun” face of Punk Rock, embracing everything arty about the new wave scene with the focused anger of punk. The Big Boys’ music was quirky, inclusive, and unapologetic about its songs, which addressed violence, authoritarianism, religion, and the pursuit of pleasure. Later on their sound was leavened with the staccato beats of hardcore, but they were never ever above having a good time and spreading that feeling of fun and unity. I think Biscuit was a big influence on that.
Biscuit’s charm was a mixture of Southern gentleman, dyed-in-the-wool hippie, and inspired self-taught artist, all wrapped up in a bear of a frame that was hard not to instantly love. His capacity for humor and pranks was bottomless, and his love of good food and music and skateboarding made him even easier to enjoy. He was a truly outsized character.
With an underdog’s zeal, he always encouraged people to be themselves and to exploit their talents, no matter what those talents were. His love for humanity was genuine, and he usually brought out the best in people. His crazy collage art, poster art, songwriting, and theatrical flair showed us all that if he could do it, you could, too. My wife called me long-distance while I was at a conference in New Orleans to tell me that Biscuit died. It was days before Katrina, so everything from that time period remains weird and surreal — a friend I had met in high school through a mutual acquaintance now gone forever after 26 years of friendship. I’d never get to visit with him again.
Owner, Saustex Records; singer, Hickoids/Gay Sportscasters
The first time I saw Biscuit play was at an outdoor show in San Antonio in 1981. I was 17 or 18 at the time. His energy was infectious, and he immediately became one of my local heroes. I would meet him and become friends with him pretty shortly thereafter when I moved to Austin in mid-’82. We were never real tight, but he knew that I looked up to him, and he always had kind and encouraging words for me or anyone else who was doing their art or music. I was even inspired to write a song loosely based on him called “Loveclothes” — the lyrics might seem slightly homophobic in retrospect, but they came from a place of admiration for his unabashed freakdom at a time and in a place where his sexuality and his art flew in the face of not only the prevailing mores of Texas but the punk scene itself as hardcore became folded into the punk side of the punk/New Wave equation. He was a big man with guts. He was 100% artist, 100% showman, and always 100 percent sweetheart to me.
The Big Boys at Houston's Island, 1980
Singer, the Dicks/Sister Double Happiness/Black Kali Ma
Biscuit was family to me — we were from the old pre-punk hippie days. The bored out of our fucking mind days. Death can be heavy as a mountain or light as a feather...Biscuit’s death was like three mountains. I'll always miss him.
Bassist, Doomsday Massacre; guitarist, Screech of Death
I loved the early days when it was the Big Boys and the Dicks at the Island — it was like the yin and yang of punk. The Big Boys were like positive skate punk with great “think for yourself” DIY messages. The Dicks were like gritty, stuck in a motel room, urban city life with lots of unrest, love, angst and despair. I loved them both so much. Even after the Big Boys, when he had Cargo Cult, the Slurpees, and Biscuit Bombs, Biscuit’s spirited messages never stopped. I miss that big boy.
Producer, Skate & Rock free concert series at Jamail Skate Park
I saw the Big Boys play a show at the UT student union in 1984, and I saw them at Liberty Lunch in South Austin, but my best memory of Biscuit is from Let’s Go skateshop just off campus. He was always super nice and just dug the skateboard scene and bullshitting with customers like me. He was soooo cool about me just hanging out and not buying anything. Tim Kerr worked in the UT library audio section. I would check out music to listen to via the headphone station. Hence, the actual Big Boys were about two blocks apart at UT, but 99.9% of campus didn't know who they were.
Singer, Punkaroos; singer/bassist, Swine King
So, the early '80s were a special time in Austin. The scene was in full swing, we were all part of an incredibly diverse and influential part of punk rock history, and all we did was support each other, look for the next show or party, make art and music and have as much fun as humanly possible as many hours of the day and night as our jobs and the law would allow. I was 18 when arrived here in the summer of '83 and was overwhelmed with joy at how cool and unique Austin was. I didn't know anybody, and in hindsight, Randy was the first person I met who was instantly my friend.
Between working together for a decade, performing in local theater productions, being co-conspirators in art and fun, and performing in bands together, that friendship grew and solidified over the years into something truly amazing. Losing him still breaks my heart every day...I miss his laugh and that devilish look in his eye!!! I know that everyone who knew him does too. Randy was pure joy to be around. He was like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, coming out of nowhere, reaching into his pocket and presenting you with super-cool devil-head handmade earrings or a homemade fanzine, like it was your birthday everyday. He was omnipresent in the '80s and he was the glue that held the scene together.
He was a master showman too, with a voice so full of power, spirit and soul that he could've easily recorded at Muscle Shoals or Stax. Onstage, he was mesmerizing — whether in a giant white '50s prom dress, pin curled blonde wig and whiteface doll make up, or jeans and a Scooter Trash T-shirt. His voice went from raspy velvet to a heart- wrenching wail to a bloodcurdling scream in zero to sixty. And he was FUNKY!!! He was absolutely mesmerizing onstage, a born performer who took his greatest pleasure from watching the faces of his audience light up with joy. He made it impossible to even pretend to be bored or sit still.
He was a brilliant poet too, with an amazing gift of being able to put all of our fears and sadness into words we could never possibly express and give us hope that everything would turn out OK in the end. He also sang songs of hope, art, anger, imagination and action that have empowered future generations to go forward and “Go Start Your Own Band!!!” Playing onstage with him was always a laugh riot! He had a wicked sense of humor, and when the stage lights went up, he was a veritable fountain of hilarious psychobabble and Dada performance art. Wherever he went and whatever he did, all eyes were on Biscuit.
He was absurd and was happiest when he was “confusing the normals” by wearing six kinds of plaid at once or rolling his hand over his head and instantly looking like a Troll Doll. He was also a queer pioneer — Out, Loud and Proud from the get-go. He was also one of the most incredibly talented and prolific artists I have ever had the pleasure meet. I know that if he were still with us, he would encourage each and everyone out there to make the world a weirder and more fun place every day. Here are some lyrics to “Shiny Lime,” a Swine King song that sums Randy up nicely...
My world becomes a carnival midway
With cotton candy colors and papier mache
And have you ridden the mighty, The Mighty Color Wheel?
Shake hands with art my friend, to meet you is such a thrill!
Drummer, Really Red/Anarchitex
I can say that Biscuit and the Big Boys were our/Really Red's main link to the Austin scene from '79 on. I think they got us the first gig there at Raul's. So, we played shows with them in Austin, and they played shows with us here in Houston. Biscuit was a big boy, but not at all intimidating. He was fun and friendly and outrageous. He had a bit of a raspy voice, which just made it all that much more disjointed when he was performing in a lacy party dress and make-up. There was also the outfit he wore at the Old Texas Opry House on Richmond one night. How to describe it? Picture a giant hoop skirt without fabric, but a long string of flashing Xmas lights, maybe even glitter! … a small hoop at his neck getting bigger down to a seven-foot hoop at the floor. Watching him jump around in that was enough to make a drunk cowboy run for the bathroom.
The Big Boys at Raul's in Austin, 1979
Punk didn’t happen in a vacuum. The late '70s was a time when the cosmic cowboy ruled Austin and hippy psychedelia was still popular. Mullets, puffy hair, and glam rock ruled the arenas, and everyone was learning to dance the hustle at the disco. Androgyny and outrageousness were the new “hip.” Although there had been a few rumblings before it, the Sex Pistols show in January 1978, in San Antonio launched the Austin punk scene single-handedly and overnight. It was a revelation. So NOT hip, it was hip! Let’s start a band! However, soon punk was in a battle to define itself as distinct from New Wave and the result of all these influences was bizarre and often acrimonious.
The Big Boys were the poster kids for starting your own band and bizarre. You didn’t have to be a musician or able to sing, but attitude and looks mattered. But what looks? That was being invented too. At the first show I saw (their second show) in November 1979 at Raul’s Club, we were all there to see what Biscuit, a popular scenester, would do on stage. He didn’t disappoint. While the rest of the band showed up in nondescript outfits typical of juvenile delinquency, Biscuit showed up in tight pink pants, a leopard jacket, blue eye shadow and a funny mustache we never saw again. Basically, he raided his Halloween closet and came up with French dandy. Outrageous! Punk? Who cared? The attitude — snarling, abusive and cloying — carried the night. What an in-your-face show! Later shows allowed him to reinvent himself over and over, including a run through his famous collection of house dresses onstage, some of which he shared with his friend Gary Floyd, who started the Dicks.
Regardless of outfit, the “punk” ethos initially inspired their music and faux rejectionist attitude. Biscuit, the sweetest man I knew, always ended the show with the exhortation to the audience to do just what he had done, “Go out and start your own band!”
Cargo Cult in Houston, 1986
Singer, Articles of Faith/Jones Very/Alloy/etc.
I slept on Biscuit's floor, and he slept on mine. They put on our shows in Austin, and we put on theirs in Chicago. That was the punk rock way in '82. My floor was in a busted up retrofitted 1970’s disco monstrosity in Wrigleyville that we called Big Blue. His was a charming bungalow, filled with pop culture kitsch from most 20th century decades: rubber toy Japanese monsters glued to the walls; motorcycle movie posters; 50’s space modern furniture. His house was like the man: wild, open, iconoclastic, rebellious, and most of all, fun. Randy Turner was a real original, a big funhouse of a man who could synthesize the most disparate bits of art and culture into something new. He was an enormous blast of a guy, and it was wonderful to have known him.
Care package from Biscuit to Graham Sleightholme
British punk organizer
I`d been driving bands for years, touring and doing all the punk things in Europe and the U.S., thought I had seen almost everything. Crazy drunks, straight-edge puritans … Boom, in comes Biscuit for his UK tour. His truly, and I mean truly, unique personality and take on life knocked me for six. He had time for everyone, always positive, encouraging, and gracious. He never milked his status and took all comers into his world. Big Boys — Fun Fun Fun wasn`t just a title for a record, Biscuit was living it. Driving the dreary motorways of the U.K., talking about drag racing, watching DRI in `82, and how much he loved his mom. This blew me away, and I loved the time spent with Biscuit.
We traded parcels of thrift-store oddness back and forth upon his return to the USA (shoes, marbles, Hot Wheels cars, a coat...endless Big Boys flyers) and amazing letters written on the back of cereal boxes inviting me to stay at his house and how he`d cook me the best food in Texas. A truly wonderful framed picture signed off, “All love always, Randall J. Turner” on the back not long before his death still blows me away. I don`t have all the rare Big Boys records, but that picture is worth a million Frat Cars EPs. I was in tour again in Prague when I heard Biscuit had died, I rushed to an Internet café and checked my email, and as if by some cruel fate, R.E.M.'s “Everybody Hurts” played out from the bar. I sat there crying, numb...I just played that song again and welled up once again. All love always, Biscuit.
Randy Biscuit is an American legend. Think John Waters meets David Byrne — a sweet, sweet Southern gentleman. I miss Randy in the punk world very, very much.
Punk organizer, Ape City collective; editor, Gadgie [fanzine]
“… no, don’t go!” My four year old daughter is running down our road, clad only in her Finding Nemo pyjamas and slippers chasing a mini bus full of punk rockers … In all my days being part of the crazy world of punk rock, I never thought that I would ever have the chance to see Randy “Biscuit” Turner in action, never mind in the Indian Queen, a tiny pub in the middle of the Lincolnshire market town of Boston. I never once imagined that the front man of the Big Boys would stay at my house and sit all afternoon captivating us with tales of Texan punk debauchery, and that I’d own a Big Boys tape that he gave me in exchange for the hospitality we offered him and his merry troupe.
I’ll tell you what, though, I never ever would have believed you if you told me that my most treasured memory of Biscuit, the one that will stay with me and my family for evermore, is that I awoke the day after the riotous Biscuit’s Texas Bombs gig with memories of Big Boys classics alongside ZZ Top and Tina Turner covers(!) fighting off an apocalyptic hangover. Well, I could believe the hangover bit, but not that I would come downstairs to find that my little girl Charlie and Biscuit were now best friends and they had spent all morning drawing all manner of pictures with her big box of crayons. Charlie cried all afternoon when he left.
Editor, Artcore [fanzine]; singer, Four Letter Word/Violent Arrest
“Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1858. Randy ‘Biscuit’ Turner wasn’t one of those poor souls, but someone who seemingly poured his soul out onto every blank sheet of paper and into every microphone that crossed his path. I met Biscuit in 2004. I was fortunate to be involved in bringing his last band, Biscuit’s Texas Bombs, to the U.K. for a tour. I could barely believe it when David Ensminger had even suggested it (we built a punk flyer exhibition and toured both our bands), but in the spirit of D.I.Y. I set about making it happen. Next thing I knew, there he was, the legendary vocalist for the Big Boys, standing jet-lagged on my driveway.
He proceeded to give gifts of his music, T-shirts, art, and whatever else he had, to just about everyone he met. And when he ran out of gifts, he made them art, including the children of people he met along the way, including my own. Biscuit was a man who seemed to be acutely aware that every path he crossed was a life that he touched, and he set about making sure everyone he met remembered him. After the tour, he kept in touch, and sent me a box, with a separate envelope for each of our band and friends he’d met on the tour, stuffed with gifts, his art and thoughts. He let me know that I’d helped fulfill one of his ambitions by arranging his ‘British Tour,' and he’d loved every minute of it. So when, a year later, I learned of his death, the initial sadness was later tempered by the knowledge that I’d somehow helped this gentle man see and do something he’d always wanted.
Broken Needle [band]
The album cover art and set of flyers Randy Turner made for Broken Needle were something I had asked him to do — no stipulations or direction, I simply said, "Do your thing," and he surely did. At the time, I was employed by Chaser Merchandising, and we contacted Randy to get a license to legitimately make merch for Big Boys. When I called Biscuit that first time, he had the TV blaring and said, "Wait, wait...hold on here. Now what are you tryin' to sell me?" I said, "My name is Jeff and I'd like to do a merch deal with you for Big Boys tees," which created an instant bond. We discussed several ideas, and he sent loads and loads of flyers and art, literally a poster tube stuffed with giant photocopies of decades of artwork that he created.
One day while discussing what Broken Needle wanted to do for our album art, I suggested asking Randy if he'd work something up for us. I called him, or maybe he called me, as he would frequently call just to chat. I asked him if he'd be interested in creating an album cover for us, and he accepted with much excitement. The defining moment was when I asked how much he wanted for it. His reply was classic Biscuit: "No, No, anything for fun!" The deal was done!
A few weeks later, we had a show in Santa Cruz and during the long, lonely drive, I called Randy to chat. That’s when I asked him about making some flyers, and again, he graciously agreed. During this time, he was frantically getting ready for an art show that sadly was to be his last. He found the time to do our cover as well as the series of flyers and sent them out with the letter that is shown along with all the BN art he did for us on our LP. He died a few weeks later. We definitely were the last band to get original art from him, and I believe it was some of the last art he did before he passed. It was a pleasure and an honor to work with him and his legendary attitude of FUN.
Cactus Music (2110 Portsmouth) and David Ensminger will host "Mutant Rock Got Soul," a celebration of Biscuit's life, from 3-5 p.m. Saturday. Rare Big Boys tracks & other Biscuit projects, giveaways, refreshments provided by Saint Arnold Brewing and more.
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