Chucking It All
This story begins with an escape.
It was 1979 in Middletown, New Jersey, and nothing was happening. Probably nothing was ever going to happen. And Bryn Tustin knew it. He was 21 and was working as an electrician and park ranger, being forced to bust other people for smoking pot. Which was stupid, he thought, since he smoked pot. In fact, that's kind of all there was to do in Middletown, New Jersey: smoke pot and crash parties and sometimes go into New York City and shop for records. Things were just fine. But things were not exciting.
He had to get the hell out of Jersey, he figured. So did Lynda, his girlfriend. So this is what they did: They got in Bryn's red '68 Volvo with the mismatched fenders and a good-sized stash of pot hidden inside one of the car's door frames. They had very little money and some tickets for a couple of Grateful Dead shows. So they left. They went to Vermont and upstate New York; they went down to Atlanta. They lived on $6 a day, eating beans and sneaking into parks to sleep for free. They celebrated Christmas in a campground in Mississippi. Maybe they'd go to California, they thought. But they ended up in Houston, because they had no more money. Bryn got work as an electrician again, and the two of them stuck around. At first Bryn hated it. Everything seemed slow. Maybe they'd leave again. But they didn't.
"If I hadn't left New Jersey, I'd probably still be working in that park," he says. But he did leave. And if he had stayed here doing electrician work, Houston probably would have ended up just like Middletown, only in Texas. But it didn't. Because Bryn did not change one place for the other. He started changing himself. He started getting more into music than he'd ever been. He started organizing punk shows, and people in the Houston music scene started getting to know who he was. Then he started to change the Houston music scene by volunteering at Pacifica Radio, where he had a very popular show. Most kids loved it, and some people despised it, and he kept on doing it. After that, he figured it would be cool to open his own record store, so he did, and it became one of the most respected independent music stores in town. He also thought it would be neat to change his name, so he did that, too. And soon, almost everyone who knew Bryn Tustin called him Chuck Roast. Because Bryn Tustin is a guy who did electrical work in a park in New Jersey. Chuck Roast is someone else entirely.
"I'm sick and twisted Chuck Roast, and I don't think I'm ever going to be an old fart," he says. "I'm always going to be sick and twisted Chuck Roast."
Chuck Roast is sick and twisted, but Chuck Roast is not sick and twisted. He is 40 years old and knows more about punk and avant-garde music than your average 21-year-old pierced hipster. He owns his own business, lives in the suburbs and has three cats. He collects flattened frogs and turtles, and he sees beauty in things that make others retch. He has been married to Lynda, who still calls him by his real name, for nearly 20 years.
Whatever side of the twisted fence you think Chuck should fall on, it is impossible to argue that he hasn't been influential in the Houston music scene. Since he moved here in 1979, Chuck has been trying to make people aware that there's more out there than what's found at Blockbuster Music or heard on the Top 40 stations. Ever since he showed up at Houston punk shows in the early '80s, selling records out of the back of his Volkswagen van, Chuck has been a proponent of music on the fringe. He has helped bring bands as big as the Dead Kennedys to town, taking care of the flyers and the money and booking the venues. His notorious KPFT/90.1 FM Funhouse show went out like a lifeboat to local kids trapped in the suburbs, and when he opened Vinal Edge Records on Veteran's Memorial Drive in October 1985, those kids finally had an outlet where they could go to buy what he was playing.
"He's certainly not your everyday person, but he's a real nice guy when you get right down to it," says 40-year-old Austin Caustic, who deejayed Funhouse with Chuck during the show's reign in the '80s. Vinal Edge, Austin says, carries the really new and different, not just the stuff that has been carefully packaged as new and different by a big corporation. "If it wasn't for stores like Vinal Edge," says Austin. "We'd all be listening to Shania Twain."
While it's true that it is easier to find rare, experimental music than mainstream country at Vinal Edge, Chuck Roast is not the Yberhip record store owner dressed in black who stares at people funny when they don't request the most obscure band possible. He comes off mostly as your everyday sort of guy, albeit slightly wittier. His voice still gives away New Jersey. His hair is short, he tucks in his shirts, and he often wears Converse sneakers, better known as 'chucks.' He looks like someone's quirky uncle. And he can't really say what it is about music that dragged him into the business. He can talk about only sound.
"I love sound," he says. "Be it frogs croaking, trains clacking on the tracks, metal scraping, women speaking French. The juxtaposition of different sounds and atypical sounds draws me in."
And it was the atypical sound Chuck generated during his years on KPFT that made him a punk-daddy figurehead to kids all over Houston. And they were drawn to him.
Chuck settles himself down behind the board at KTRU/91.7 FM and gets ready for a few hours of avant-garde music on Genetic Memory, the Rice radio show he shares with several other local DJs. It's a familiar place, as Chuck has been doing Houston radio since the early '80s, when he started off answering phones and clipping stories at KPFT. He moved on to producing a few shows, including a news talk show and an environmental issues show. Then he started deejaying a few late-night music programs such as The Chuck Roast Show and Bryn's Blues.
But what made him more than just another late-night DJ was the Funhouse show, which he shared with Austin Caustic. Funhouse, which ripped punk through the speakers on Sundays, Mondays and sometimes Friday nights, truly began to define Chuck.
"Funhouse, that's what made Chuck Roast, Chuck Roast," Chuck says. It's also what gave him the name. After a few tries at a new moniker (Pete Moss, for example), Chuck noticed a package of meat while doing electrical work at a Kroger store. It caught his eye, and the name stuck.
The early days of late-night KPFT were wild, as Chuck tells it. He and Austin, as well as other DJs, were famous for packing more than the allowed number of guests into the studio, breaking various FCC regulations and putting out the 'zines The Shred List and The United Underground. Sometimes they'd all drop acid, do a show and go outside and play Frisbee for a few hours. They gave away escort services as premiums for pledges. But mainly they played music. Finnish punk songs that lasted just 45 seconds. Deliciously dirty tunes by The Angry Samoans. Sometimes they'd play two things at once, just to see what it sounded like.
This was, as Chuck and others tell it, when KPFT was pushing the limits and priding itself on niche programming. This was when there was an Irish music show and a Native American music show and the station broadcast live from gay-pride parades. This was when there was a local focus to the programming and the station held music celebrations and parties in the back of the building.
"It was like a 24-hour open coffeehouse, almost," says Duane Bradley, who volunteered and worked at KPFT from 1974 until 1991. While there, he was program director for Funhouse from '87 until '89. "There was always the smell of rank coffee and stale cigarettes, and there were couches in the lobby. This was where the action was; it was a political focal point."
And it was a musical focal point, too.
"[Funhouse] was monstrously influential at a time when the Houston music scene was really moribund," says Austin. "There was just this time when nobody would go to shows -- 20 people would show up. Yet through it all, Funhouse kept cranking out the music." The show had a double effect. It not only opened up the ears of local youths to punk, but it also made them aware of different kinds of music in general. And it captured the attention of bored kids in the suburbs.
"I lived out in Clear Lake City in the '80s," says Carlos Pozo, 32, who has guest deejayed on Genetic Memory and sells an avant-garde music 'zine, Angbase, at Vinal Edge. "In those days Houston was more of a country-type town, and these guys were from another planet. I remember I was 12, 13, just tuning through the stations, when I heard these two guys playing two different records at once and at different speeds. It was just mind-blowing."
Carlos isn't the only one who remembers. During his most recent Genetic Memory show, several people called in to make sure the Chuck Roast they were listening to is the Chuck Roast. The same one who brought them The Hour of Thrash, full of the most brutal punk available. The same one who introduced them to Minor Threat and Suicidal Tendencies and the Nip Drivers. The same one who called Nancy Reagan a dickhead on the air.
"Man, the kids just ate that up," he remembers. "The kids loved Chuck Roast. Chuck Roast broke all the rules. Chuck Roast said 'fuck' on the radio."
In fact, Chuck Roast probably said fuck on the radio one too many times. And that caused friction and ultimately his voluntary departure from KPFT. He says he was sick of being held to rules he found ridiculous and pointless. He was tired of watching fellow DJs be fired for what he considered trivial infractions. He still has the letters sent to him from station management ("Your program on 1/8 was put together well and handled responsibly, with the exception of the song you played early in the program, 'Posh Boy Cock.' Lyrically, it is unacceptable. Please keep in mind the obscenity policy.").
As program director, Duane was supposed to keep Chuck and Austin's crew reined in, because there was serious concern that Funhouse might cost the station its license.
"He was always pushing the envelope, and you never knew what four-letter bomb was going to come out of what they were going to play next," he says.
The bombs kept coming, and management didn't seem to care for Chuck's rationale that it was the era of Reagan and somebody had to do something. The problem was KPFT was changing. Under orders from headquarters in Berkeley, California, Duane says, the station was attempting to gain a whiter, wealthier market to increase revenue and reach more listeners. But that didn't include Funhouse listeners.
"[Headquarters] completely forgot the fact that we were broadcasting in 16 different languages to fringe groups who didn't have anyone broadcasting to them," Duane says. "Pacifica used to be a voice for the voiceless, but when you look at what Pacifica was meant to be and what it once was compared to what it is today, it's like two different worlds."
Once, while Chuck was on vacation, Austin got canned for playing Bongwater's "The Power of Pussy."
Funhouse was over, and although Chuck stayed on with the station until '94 doing the avant-garde Xenofile show, he left KPFT half grateful and half bitter. KPFT might have made Chuck Roast, but it also made him angry.
"After 15 years I was just sick of watching people get shit on," he says.
If KPFT made Chuck Roast, it was the back of a beat-up, cream-colored VW microbus that truly made his store, Vinal Edge. Chuck drove the van, stacked with records, to punk shows at the three Cabaret Voltaire venues (now closed) around the same time he was doing Funhouse, and sold music after shows. He worked like this: If he heard a band he thought he liked, that others would like, he bought a couple of its records after the show. Then he'd sell them for a profit at the next show and buy a couple more. Soon he had so many that he would keep them in the back of the bus, park outside the venue, open the door and hang up a light inside. And the kids would come.
"Kids would start asking me for things, and then I found a bunch of used [records], and I started selling those," Chuck says. "But hauling them to the shows was getting to be so much work." The idea came to him to create a permanent space to sell his records. "I was an electrician at the time, but that wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," he says.
So the van became a store, and the store grew up so much that its current addition of an on-line Web site was mentioned in The Washington Post and was named by music magazine Magnet as one of the best mom-and-pop on-line stores in the country (even Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore shops there).
"It's absolutely an excellent store; he certainly knows what he's doing," says Kevin Bakos, co-owner of Sound Exchange, who helped with some basic painting and hammering when Vinal Edge first opened 13 years ago. "Chuck's very involved in fringe music and the local scene in general, and he's extremely knowledgeable. Whenever anyone asks us, 'Is there another store like this around here?' we refer them to Vinal Edge."
However, the store's not exactly "around here." It's quite a hike to the northern outskirts of Houston from inside the Loop. But Chuck knew that just because people lived outside the Loop didn't mean they didn't want something different.
"There were a lot of kids out here, and I just noticed I had to drive into town every time I wanted to shop for records, and a lot of other kids were doing the same thing," he says. Plus, it's cheaper to have a store out there, and it's closer to home for Chuck and Lynda, who is co-owner of the store. However, Chuck's flair for the unusual didn't click at first with some of his neighbors.
"When we first opened up, this place, mentally, wasn't ready for us," he says, referring to the nearby communities. Religious conservatives were convinced Chuck was a Satan worshiper and often dropped by with Bibles to try to win him over. For one of the store's first Christmases, Chuck thought it would be fun to put up a 'Satanta Claus' display, complete with jolly old St. Nick in horns and a tail. A Christmas tree was proudly displayed upside down.
"There were flames licking at the windows, and it said, 'Have a Hell of a Holiday!' " Chuck says. "Man, that was legendary."
Some area residents didn't agree, and they freaked out and called the strip center's landlord, demanding that Chuck and his den of iniquity be closed down. They tried to get other stores in the mall to gang up on Chuck, which didn't work. But when Vinal Edge countered with its own petition and a refusal to change the display, the protesters eventually gave up.
"It seemed so sweet and innocent; we were just having fun," Chuck says, sounding almost in awe that anyone would ever doubt his intentions. Then he grins the Chuck Roast grin. "But I guess we were pushing some buttons."
Chuck is at the store, on his knees, flipping through several crates of used albums that a prospective seller has just dropped off.
"Well, the turd put his name on every album," Chuck says cheerfully, as he picks up a Bee Gees record.
Despite the unpleasant task of shuffling through someone's labeled bad taste, Chuck loves his job. And that's a good thing, considering owning his own retail operation rarely allows him and Lynda to have but a few days off at a time. Although he doesn't have children, Chuck thinks of the store and his customers as his kids, he says. He has watched customers grow up and come back on college breaks and sometimes even start working at the store. And he figures he's one of the lucky ones who has made a living out of what he enjoys.
"I'm never going to become rich at this, but I've worked for myself so long I'm spoiled," Chuck says. "I always figured every kid's dream is to work in a record store, and my dream was to own my own record store."
It makes sense, because music was around him ever since his father insisted on playing Sammy Davis Jr. in the house all the time. Chuck bought records even as a small child, mostly Soupy Sales and Alvin & The Chipmunks. One of his favorite memories is the dusty, musty aroma of tube amps.
Chuck's New Jersey nostalgia falls along normal lines. He delivered the Red Bank Register newspaper and pedaled his bike to the local Howard Johnson to wash dishes for extra cash. He cut class like most kids and slept in a basement bedroom, where, as he grew up and grew more interested in music, he holed himself up and listened to his older brother's Led Zeppelin and Iron Butterfly and Frank Zappa records.
"Zappa was my first introduction into something really weird, and I immediately liked it," Chuck says, pausing to sing a few lines from Zappa's classic "Brown Shoes Don't Make It."
Despite a dad who was a government photographer for a living, despite a homemaker mom, despite the typical adolescence of crashing parties and smoking pot, weird things sometimes happened to Chuck. Such as the time his older sister did too much acid and had too many breaks from reality and freaked out. Chuck was around ten when she started thinking her hand was Jim Morrison from the Doors and that the bogeyman was going to get her in the shower.
"She was a real sweet girl, with a high IQ, and she was in the honor society," he remembers. "But she got all freaky, and we had to put her in this big mental place, a sleazy one, where the girls are given birth control because the staff would take advantage of them. We wanted to keep her at home, but she just got too freaky."
Chuck found himself interested in death and decay as a child. No reason he can name, in particular. He still likes to take pictures of graves for fun and because they're beautiful to him. During a recent trip to New Orleans, Chuck busied himself with snapping shots mostly of the headless statues.
"I'm really into the whole morbid death thing," says Chuck, as casually as if he were talking about golf. After a good rainstorm he enjoys going out in his Dodge Caravan with its Vinal Edge "Censor My Ass" bumper sticker and stopping to peel flattened frogs off the sides of the roads. If he's really lucky, he finds a turtle. He likes to save their translucent, green bodies in an old shoe box.
Chuck thinks there is beauty in dead bugs and critters, which he also collects and keeps in a plastic container. One of his favorite treasures is a dried-up blue-gray lizard the size of a pinkie finger, all warped, with its mouth gaping open.
For a while, Chuck's No. 1 project was gutting the pink, plastic baby dolls he found at yard sales and replacing their insides with macaroni noodle guts. He also enjoyed adding fake blood, fangs and chicken bones for legs. He strung their necks together with electrical cord.
Chuck's pride and joy is a set of two books entitled Atlas of Therapeutic Proctology and Photographic Anatomy of the Human Body. He figures there isn't anything more gorgeous than the human body, even when it's sliced up. In fact, sliced up is how he likes it. Sliced up and stained vibrant colors, as in his favorite anatomy book. He gets almost giddy, flipping through pictures of bright pink bladders and yellow peripheral nerves and blue lymphatic nodes and vessels.
When he shows off this collection, he doesn't seem like a freak at all. He seems like a small, geeky boy asking someone to look at his stamp collection.
"When they're at the Hobby Lobby and they're painting sweatshirts and stitching teddy bears onto things, to me, that's gross, and I just don't get it," Chuck says. "And to them, they probably think this is gross, and they just don't get it. But for me, this just makes the most sense."
And for Chuck, it also makes the best art. The dilapidated dolls were decorations for shows put on by Turmoil in the Toybox, an avant-garde noise band he used to play with. The pictures of headless graves are used for a project in a computer-design class he is taking at North Harris Montgomery Community College. The flattened frogs have been transformed into gifts for his wife. For Chuck, the dark, falling-apart, dusty world of death equals beauty and often art. Not something to be afraid of but rather something to be almost celebrated. It's not some apparent choice he's made. It's just how he is. And always has been.
In the third grade, when it was time to read a poem in front of the class, Chuck chose one entitled Epitaph. In the sixth grade, when the students had to pick a photograph and then choose a word to describe it, Chuck found a picture of a broken-down beach chair left to drown in the ocean surf.
"I like death and decay and strangeness, of course," Chuck says, explaining why he chose the photograph. "And this chair, it had broken strips; it was the kind you have to go and buy a roll of strip to redo when the strips break. And I chose the word 'bequeath,' because to me it meant you will it. You leave it behind. The teacher was all down on me, but in my mind it worked. But I think we were supposed to use a thesaurus, I think was the thing."
Chuck shrugs his shoulders at the memory, as if he is used to people not quite understanding his love of embracing the detours.
It's Friday night at the trendy Tribeca Lofts on West Clay, where Chuck's latest band, A Different Kind of Monkey, is setting up to play a private birthday party. The theme of the gathering is "The 1960s," although the chichi place gives the impression that this is how Ronald Reagan would have celebrated the decade, if he'd bothered. The beverage is Budweiser, and the decor is sanitized hippie, full of glow-in-the-dark, psychedelic doodads probably bought at upscale resale shops. Everyone in attendance looks like they showered right before the event, and no one seems to think the walls are melting. It's the '60s, very un-Chuck Roast-style. But the gig pays, the food is free, and Chuck and his band members are up for the event, dressed in beatnik black and sunglasses. Chuck has even attached fake sideburns to his face and sports a beret on his head.
"This isn't our regular kind of show," Chuck comments. But they play for about two hours, producing an ethereal, mellow sound heavy on percussion. Chuck plays the bongos and the theramin, a metal-and-wood contraption that creates a warped noise controlled by the proximity of Chuck's hands. Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko prints flash on the screen behind them as they play, and two local poets deliver their work as the dressed-up crowd gobbles the finger food.
Sitting on the floor near the band is Chuck's wife, Lynda. She is not an aging punked-out rock chick but a sweet-faced woman with a great smile, who could almost pass for a preschool teacher in her blue jeans and simple print sweater, short hair and glasses.
"I'm their groupie," Lynda jokes, sipping a beer. Lynda and Chuck have been together since they used to go watch then-still-local Bruce Springsteen play at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park.
In fact, their life together could almost pass for the lyrics to a Springsteen song. The two met at a high school graduation party, and they used to take the train into the city to mess around and have adventures.
"Every day's a rose garden," she says, laughing, about her marriage to Chuck. "He's never been too traditional. When he used to get up early, to work on those dolls, I started getting a little worried."
Midway through the performance, Chuck gets down on his knees and, as the sound of drumbeats floats gently in the background, reads from Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.
"The cancer of time is eating us away," Chuck half sings, half speaks. "Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves ... we must get in step, a lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape. The weather will not change."
The yuppified hippies clap and keep eating.
"Well, that was an upbeat little diddy," Lynda remarks with a grin.
Perhaps it is Lynda's obvious good nature that allows her to shrug off the questions she gets about Chuck's last Valentine's Day gift to her: one of his flattened frogs. Chuck thought the creature looked like it was dancing, its arms and legs bent as if about to jump into a jig. He dressed up the amphibian in a top hat and attached a little plastic heart to its chest. Then he made a red-and-white, heart-covered stage for it, complete with gold-painted seashells that light up inside. Happy Valentine's Day, Lynda.
Lynda knows others might think her husband is odd. Colorful, if you want to be polite about it. But she doesn't mind it. In fact, she's got it all figured out.
"You know that Howard Stern movie, Private Parts, when the wife says, 'He's not really like that'? That's how I feel sometimes," says Lynda. "There's a Chuck Roast side, and there's a Bryn Tustin side, and they're very distinguishable, I think."
Even Chuck acknowledges that the Chuck side might "insulate" a more subdued, sweeter Bryn. But the two must bleed into each other. After all, Lynda keeps the dancing frog on her desk for anyone to see. And she thinks it's lucky that her husband has been able to make a living out of what he loves.
"He's like a sponge with music," Lynda says. She looks at Chuck and smiles. "I married the boy I knew when I was 17," she says suddenly, almost in awe of herself. Then she wonders out loud if that means she's in trouble. But the way she says it, with a little laugh, suggests she doesn't think so. And even if she does, hell, a little trouble never hurt anyone.
It's late, almost 2 a.m., and the KTRU radio show is over. Chuck won't let anyone leave the studio alone, because it's dark and empty out. When he gets to the lot, though, he can't resist showing off the revamped KSBJ bumper sticker on his car. Letters from two bumper stickers have been cut and shuffled to transform the religious station's "God Listens" motto into "Dogs Listen," and he has replaced the KSBJ call letters with stickers that spell out KTRU. Chuck tells of how he had to write to KSBJ twice to get enough bumper stickers to complete his project, each time taking on the persona of a religious listener who had been moved by the programming. As he talks about it, he smiles the Cheshire cat grin of a small child after he is discovered doing something very naughty. And it's hard not to grin along with him.
And that's how it is with Chuck Roast. Just as he shows you something kind of oddball, he does something very sweet, such as watching to make sure you get to your car all right. Just as soon as he's finished telling about the time he and Lynda played music from a black mass to scare off angry religious zealots at the store, he fondly remembers the road trips out West that his family used to make each summer. The two sides, seemingly so different, actually blend quite nicely. Yes, Chuck Roast is sick and twisted, but Chuck Roast is not sick and twisted. And that is exactly what makes him so very Chuck Roast.
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