Growing Up's For Suckers
The panorama, from right to left: A Frosty the Snowman impersonator announcing "Happy birthday!" from inside a basketball-size head outfitted with a corncob pipe and a button nose; four audience members playing "Hands on a Headless Fox," a taxidermied version of Hands on a Hardbody with prizes that include a butt plug, a porn tape and, for the winner, $20; and two elves that grunt like monkeys, clamoring away in their cage in a futile attempt to produce Furbies. In front of the three-ring circus are its creators, Keith Reynolds and Cathy Power, dressed as Santa and a gogo-booted Mrs. Claus.
With Keith squeezing an accordion and Cathy strumming a couple of chords on the guitar, they launch into a set of songs about women, men, drugs, divorce, yeast infections, a leprechaun who hates Louis Farrakhan and a slacker who's okay with the fact that his girlfriend left him for a beer because he's now free to pee in the sink. Cathy sings an anti-anal-sex ballad that rhymes anus with heinous, and proclaims, "I'm not your three-holer, baby / I'm not your bowling ball." Keith poses as a stalker who asks sweetly, "Why does The Man have to stand between a man and a woman?" They both approximate the sound of birds boo-hooing for a cover of Prince's "When Doves Cry."
Keith thrashes around violently. Cathy sucks suggestively on a big candy cane. A deadpan elf strips to his saggy underwear. Audience plants break out into WCW-style wrestling. And the twenty- to thirtysomethings packed into the upstairs of Rudyard's sing along like drunken sailors and line up to pay $2 for a Polaroid pose on Santa's lap.
Part band, part anti-band, part absurdist theater, part vaudeville, part improvisational comedy, part childish tantrum, all obscenity, together Keith and Cathy are Slump, and this is the Slump Christmas Show. "I ate Jesus on a wafer," twangs Cathy in honor of the upcoming holiday, "and then I washed him down with a cup of his blood."
The uninitiated titter nervously. Is it okay to laugh at this stuff? Slump's message is a loud yes, and this message is much appreciated by the scruffy underground art-scene types who constitute the bulk of the band's cult following. These two misfits have managed to tap into the collective unconscious of the artsy intelligentsia, the part of this crowd that celebrates the disgusting rather than the divine, the silly rather than the serious. They play to the 13-year-old inside the 30-year-old, who secretly still likes to tell dick jokes and light farts. And they do it without pretense or irony or sarcasm or satire. For the audience, the freedom that comes with reveling in imperfection, impropriety and an overall lack of importance is intoxicating. Slump is playtime for grown-ups.
Keith Reynolds has always looked at the world a little bit cockeyed. As soon as he learned to tie his shoes in the conventional manner, he preferred to tie them under the soles instead. In elementary school, his clay sculptures included penises, no matter what their gender. And for his high school yearbook picture, he painted his sport coat with pictures of sperm disguised as paisley. His parents just laughed and praised his ingenuity.
"He doesn't take himself seriously at all, and he has very few, if any, inhibitions, and he loves to break taboos," says Keith's father, George. "If it's forbidden or inappropriate, he will always challenge it and test the limits."
Donna Reynolds, Keith's mother, ran a day care out of their Connecticut home when Keith was growing up. Keith knew how to keep it clean around the children; he shocks only people who can take it. "He's one of the warmest, most generous kids you're ever going to find, so whenever he does something shocking, it's not to hurt people or cause harm," says George. "It's just to wake people up to a different way of looking at the world."
Instead of shocking the kids, Keith was their pied piper, leading them around the house singing songs and playing child-size drums and symbols. "The little kids loved Keith because he was just full of fun," says his father. "He could relate to them at their level, yet he was tested early on at a genius IQ."
The fact that Keith's genius is expressed even today in rather juvenile form is perhaps the result of old-fashioned sibling rivalry: Keith's older brother, Graham, is also creative and musically talented, but in every other way, the brothers are opposites. Keith weighs 290 pounds, has messy strawberry-blond hair and looks a little like Chris Farley. Graham is rail-thin, vegan and doesn't drink. Graham writes symphonies and leads the acclaimed Austin avant-garde jazz band Golden Arm Trio. Reviewing Graham's performance on the band's second CD, the Austin Chronicle gushed, "Is there anything this man can't do?" Friends say that Keith has similar musical chops, particularly on the piano, yet chooses to perform simplistic songs that go, "Sucka, fucka, sucka, fuck my cock-a-doodle-doo."
Their parents chalk it up to genetics: Keith takes after his father, who says he's been "kind of wacko a good portion of my life." Graham takes after his mother's side of the family, which is "more pragmatic and determined and perseverant." The Reynoldses took great pains to support their sons equally over the years, attending both Slump shows and Golden Arm Trio shows and buying them each the exact same number of Christmas presents. "I'm really proud of them both," says George. "They're both really happy."
While Keith's brother went to the more conservative, honor-coded Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut, Keith went to the very liberal, gradeless Bennington in Vermont. It was a good fit. Keith took a modern dance class, studied classical composition, wrote his own musicals and partied hard. Bennington music professor Allen Shawn, brother of playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, remembers a Keith composition called "Up All Night on Pharmaceutical Speed," in which he screamed text at the top of his lungs. "I really did believe his honesty and his very interesting sensibility were very special," says Shawn.
But nothing could compare to Keith's fully produced musicals. First there was Penishead, a show performed at midnight that involved aliens, a guy going to the store to buy cigarettes and the pièce de résistance, a stage lift covered to look like a penis. The climax, so to speak, came when the penile stagecraft grew to a whopping 40-foot erection, complete with dancing blue balls, and ejaculated tissue paper all over the audience of acid-tripping college kids. Needless to say, Penishead was a great success, and so it was followed by Penishead 2: Judgment Day. The Bennington students arrived expecting another party, but Keith never lived up to expectations. At the end of the sequel, before images of abortion, disease and the holocaust, Penishead was judged by God as just another spoiled brat. It was a buzz-kill.
Keith's senior thesis was Pickle, a musical about a living turd created long before South Park popularized the "Christmas Poo." In Pickle, a woman with an abusive boyfriend produced the living turd and raised it as if it were her child. As the shit grew from a sock puppet to a big brown mound on the stage, she fell in love with it. She killed her boyfriend and the cops who came to arrest her. The turd added insult to injury by urinating on the cops. "Shit can piss," confirms Keith. "How many people would feel empathetic towards excrement?" asks his impressed father.
Shawn says that Keith was not influenced by anything in particular in his college days; he was just himself. "He was born into a very straight, rather predictable world compared to the late '50s or the '60s or the early '70s even," says Shawn. "I think his context is that he doesn't really care. He's not going to adapt to that. He actually is perhaps a bit of a throwback to a wilder type of person, who's trying to maybe a little bit offend people or remind them that life is rather crazy."
But even Bennington couldn't handle all of Keith's antics. He was kicked out of school three times: once for starting a fire in his room, once for "pretending" to mug somebody at a party, and once for getting into a scuffle with a security guard during a one-man protest. When contacted by the Houston Press, Shawn seemed relieved that Keith hadn't been involved in some tragedy. "You can see someone who's a potential artist like Keith and worry that they won't be able to hold it together to do their interesting work," he says.
There was a time when Keith didn't exactly hold it together. After graduating from Bennington, he lived in his van. When the van broke down, he left it on the side of the road and hitched a ride that eventually took him to Portland, Oregon, where he made his home under a tree in a park. He hung out with Vietnam vets, ate at soup kitchens, smoked the tobacco he found in the butts of cigarettes and washed in the sink at the bus station. Apparently he didn't do a very good job at washing: He had a painful rash all over his body. After four months, Keith tired of the homeless life and moved back in with his parents, who were then living in Florida. He ended up in Houston when his father got transferred here shortly thereafter.
"I needed my mom," Keith says. "I wasn't very good at living."
Keith's parents have since moved to Atlanta to open a bed-and-breakfast. But Keith isn't likely to lose it again in their absence. He's gotten better at living, and he's met Cathy.
Cathy Power grew up a goody-goody. She succeeded in conventional endeavors, like school and learning to play the flute. But she also had a wild streak, and in high school in the mid-'80s it was fed by punk rock. She dated an older boy who wore Polo shirts and cowboy boots -- until she got ahold of him, that is. A little taste of punk and he dyed his hair, moved into an apartment with six other guys and joined a band. Cathy tried to stay good: She enrolled at St. Thomas after high school and played percussion and sang in the choir. She thought about majoring in music but wondered how she'd ever make a living. Instead, she planned to become a teacher. It seemed more practical.
But at 19, against her parents' wishes, she married the punk rock newcomer and dropped out of college. They lived in a house with a skunk, a rabbit, an iguana, a cat, a rat, three parrots and a parakeet. The skunk, the iguana, the cat and the rat ran free. Cathy worked three jobs to support them all. The punk rocker contributed by counterfeiting money.
One of Cathy's three jobs was in a Montessori preschool. She may not have finished college, but she had become a teacher after all. She says she liked the Montessori style better than modern teaching methods anyway. She would stick with Montessori for the next 13 years, but her punk rock husband would last only three. He was beating Cathy up.
Her second husband would prove to be an equally bad choice. She met him through a friend one night at Emo's, then in its heyday as a hipster pickup bar. The guy was just a few days out of a mental hospital, where he had spent three months for severe depression -- a danger to himself and others. In particular, says Cathy, he had wanted to kill his ex-girlfriend. But Cathy took pity on the stranger and asked him to move in with her. "He was really cute," she says, by way of explanation.
Two years later they got married in vintage clothes on a 1929 motor yacht. Two years after that, he left her for a bartender. Cathy didn't know it, but they were in financial trouble. Her husband had declared bankruptcy and left Cathy with all the debt. A "good samaritan" who had offered to help with her leaky roof ended up taking more shingles off than he put on, and her house was condemned. Cathy had lost everything: her money, her house, two husbands. She didn't know where to turn until she heard that TemplO, a Heights art compound where she had done some volunteer work, was renting rooms for the bargain price of $200 a month. In 1997 Cathy moved in and began a new life.
She had never really thought about pursuing any sort of art; even her music had fallen away from her. But now she was living in a hotbed of anything-goes, free-form expression. When a friend told her that Infernal Bridegroom Productions was looking for whores to fill out its production of The Threepenny Opera, she thought, "I could do that."
Keith had been cast as an extra as well. They were both newcomers to the IBP crowd, and Cathy says Keith didn't talk much to anyone, except for an occasional mumbled "Hey, lady." In one scene, the cast had to crawl around the stage. Cathy crawled behind Keith, figuring that his butt would make hers look smaller. That was the extent of their relationship until a St. Patrick's Day cabaret in 1988 at the Atomic Cafe.
Acting in Threepenny Opera had given Cathy the nerve to try a performance-art piece for the cabaret. She wore a wedding dress, her second husband was represented by a Ken doll, and the bartending mistress was Barbie. Cathy burned her real marriage license on stage, then took an ax to the Ken doll filled with stage blood. "Going to the Chapel" was playing in the background, but the recording ended before Cathy could perform her finale. Keith and some friends were next up on the bill, and Cathy asked if she could continue her act while they played music. Keith pounded on the keyboard with a puppet and did a falling-down dance piece while Cathy ate an entire bouquet of flowers in her bloodied wedding dress.
"When I did that piece on stage it was so great. It was just a great moment for me," says Cathy. "It was such a catharsis of the horrific things I had just been through, and everybody was laughing at it, which I thought was great. The opportunity for somebody else to be working with me, to inspire me to keep doing stuff like that, I was all into that." Keith was, too. And Slump was born.
Slump's irregular rehearsal sessions are more like play than practice. Keith and Cathy lounge around and talk and crack each other up and put weird effects on their voices with the computer and play a little music. Sometimes, though, there is a rush of activity and inspiration: Their Christmas CD was recorded in just 30 minutes with the help of Keith's computer microphone and some borrowed carols. One track is just Keith making bodily noises while Cathy begs for toilet paper in an Indian accent.
On this day in January, they are working at Keith's apartment, which he claims he cleaned for the occasion, although you couldn't tell it. Cathy explains that before Keith moved in with his girlfriend, Lisa, you couldn't even get into his place. "It was like a pile from the door back," she says, "sometimes waist-deep." Now just his slapdash paintings are scattered all over the floor -- orders from his art Web site that have been filled but may never be mailed. "I take care of him in certain ways," says Cathy. "We'd never get a gig unless I booked it. We'd never get any press unless I called somebody. It would never happen."
The plan for the afternoon is to show a reporter how Slump writes its songs. "First, you need three chords," says Cathy, who didn't even play the guitar before she met Keith. "Actually, that's not even true. A lot of our songs only have two chords." You can also borrow music from pre-existing Slump songs and change the words. "Yeast Infection" and "Eat Me," for instance, are one and the same. If you space them out in the set, Cathy says, nobody notices.
Second, you need an idea, any idea at all. As Cathy settles into a blues riff, Keith brainstorms. It doesn't take him long. With a reporter looking on, the obvious thing to do is to turn the tables and sing about her underwear. The song doesn't really have much to do with undergarments; one line wonders, "That little blond bitch / when's she ever gonna get hitched?" Cathy is struck with the entrepreneurial possibilities of such an idea: They could write songs about people and charge them $25.
Keith continues to spew rambling, narrative, occasionally rhyming lyrics -- this time about Cathy and her secret lover, who happens to be, you guessed it, the reporter. Cathy's songs take some planning, but Keith's are almost all improvisational. Cathy usually writes down his lyrics and teaches them back to him. But today, thankfully, everyone is laughing too much to write anything down.
"I'm kind of hard to work with," Keith admits.
"Yeah," says Cathy, "but I work with children."
Kids say what's on their mind. Kids are spontaneous and open and clever and creative. Kids are also naughty. "It all comes from the same place," says Cathy. "We're just like them. We say 'poop' and then we laugh."
The preschool teacher and the kid who wouldn't grow up started saying "poop" at open mike nights around town, crawling all over each other and making weird noises. At the Westheimer Street Festival, Cathy sold opportunities to touch her G-spot, a giant "G" with a spot on it. Keith sold his five-minute paintings (with a lifetime guarantee) until he ran out of them; then he peddled "magic" pennies for $1. They planned an Andy Kaufman tribute and then forgot about it until a preview of the show came out in the Press. They had to scramble to find women for Keith to wrestle.
But they also continued to perform with Infernal Bridegroom Productions, and some of their biggest crowds were at postplay parties. "We got our start playing for other artists and musicians, playing for 'the scene,' " says Keith. "People who do art now are their own patrons." He thinks this makes the work less marketable but more honest. This honesty may turn out to be the most marketable thing about Slump. Keith and Cathy are getting real gigs now at real bars like Rudyard's, Mary Jane's and the Mausoleum. And Slump's audience is expanding beyond art scene insiders to the general band-watching public.
"Yeah, they sing about a lot of nasty stuff, but there's just a generosity of spirit oozing out of both of them," says IBP artistic director Jason Nodler. "It's supposed to be awful, and instead it's just really pleasing."
This relative success has let Slump dare to dream. If he gets rich and famous, Keith wants to start his own "transgenic corporation," supplying the world with fuzzy plants, tiny elephants and friendly monkeys. Cathy is, as usual, a bit more realistic: Maybe they'll get to be on Saturday Night Live.
Keith says they call themselves Slump because "We're in a slump, and we're celebrating it." But it's not true. Since Keith and Cathy found Slump, their slumps seem to be behind them.
The Slump Christmas Show has come to a rare quiet moment, and Cathy announces in the singsong voice of a Montessori teacher that it's time for Santa to tell a story. Keith pulls out a big picture book and holds it up so the crowd can see its crude, childlike drawings. The story concerns a Santa born with an affliction, a "giant red boner." Keith pokes a long fabric-covered finger through a hole in the book that happens to line up with baby Santa's crotch.
Santa was a friendly guy and everything, but that boner was just more than most folks could handle, and St. Nick spent most of his life being chased out of various countries. Germans, Canadians and Mexicans alike didn't want him around. But Jesus, seeing Santa's plight, came down from heaven and suggested that Santa try the North Pole. After all, the North Pole is the coldest place on earth. Perhaps Santa's boner would shrink there. It did, until he met Mrs. Claus, already an inhabitant of the pole. Then Santa's boner grew and grew. Fortunately Mrs. Claus liked it, and they lived happily ever after. To thank Jesus for his help, Santa gave presents to all the children of the world.
That Keith himself is dressed as Santa is no coincidence. The Slump Christmas story is a bit autobiographical. Keith's affliction is not a giant red boner, but something even more difficult to conceal: a larger-than-life personality and a sense of humor that some villagers would rather run out of town. But in Houston he has found his North Pole, a Mrs. Claus named Cathy and a crowd of over-21 children to entertain.
Slump performs on Saturday, February 3, at Rudyard's, 2010 Waugh Drive. For more information, call (713)521-0521. To get on the band's mailing list, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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