Houston Music

He Died Immersed In Music: The Tale of Tom Tarbox Kiersted

Photo by Trish Herrera

To casual observers and critics alike, punk was considered a flash-in-the-pan genre, just another degenerate subculture that would fade quicker than a searing, loud-as-hell album after turning off the electricity. Unfortunately for them, punk was more permanent and corrosive, like rust gnawing on the chrome empire of music. Thomas Tarbox Kiersted, known to wear his signature flannel shirts and pink converse, was at the forefront of that genre in Houston in the early 1980s. His sudden unexpected death has left the community reeling.

Punk produced a dizzying array of styles and manufactured output, whether amateur fanzines chock-a-block with interviews and scribbles spewed out of Xerox machines or homemade tapes unleashing an endless barrage of noise across the world. But the most preferred transmission, the weapon of choice, was the 45 rpm 7-inch single. And the Degenerates, who first emerged in 1979, created an epic slice of that early punk output in town. Releasing their self-titled platter in 1981 (later re-issued as part of a larger LP by the Italian label Rave Up Records), they were buzzsaw punks primed for total action, though still financed by the drummer/vocalist Wade Driver’s father.

“I remember my dad paid for the 7-inch,” recalls Driver. “I was mad at him because he wouldn’t let me say ‘fucking.’ He did it for me, or us, because it was part of my birthday or Christmas gift.” Behind the mixing board sat Andy Bradley, first known for being the live sound engineer for Australian proto-punkers Radio Birdman (whose guitarist Deniz Tek still uses him for production) and the person who crafted the local sounds of Mydolls and Really Red. Plus, he has readily worked with non-punks galore, like Tab Benoit, the Louisianan blues musician.

“I loved working with Andy Bradley,” Wade fondly remembers. “He was so patient. I’d been in the studio playing drums on one of my father’s square dance records. He’s a caller, like his own father. He’s famous in the square dancing world. The rest of the band had never been in the studio.” Somehow, though, the Degenerates made an indelible imprint on the genre with their brand of smart, bracing, hi-energy teenage kicks.

“Radio Anarchy,” premiers with a World War II speech snippet about Pearl Harbor spoken by President Roosevelt, then bursts with careening drums, perhaps partly influenced by Driver’s early days in marching and jazz band. As a fast-clipped punk rager akin to the early work of Toxic Reasons, when Ed Pitman was on the mic, it deplores the state of musical affairs, in which the alternative sounds of emerging bands are shunned by those controlling the airwaves.

Courtesy of Ozone City Outrage: Houston's Punk History

In fact, singer and guitarist Kenny Coffman declares: “I’m gonna to blow up the radio/ I’m gonna light the fuse/ It should be an instrument/We all can use.” The drumming smashes and pummels with intended scorching intensity as the bass, plucked by Kiersted, and guitar crash together sonically for less than a minute and a half. The taut tune is short, sharp, and brimming with tenacity and protest.

Ironically, the bandmates had different tastes of their own. “Me and Tom dug Industrial,” insists Wade, “like SPK, Savage Republic, Throbbing Gristle, and Einsturzende Neubaten.” Scant traces, though, of those are enmeshed in the single’s grooves.

In fact, “Skid Row Kid” resembles the snotty, slightly surf-infused, Southern California mood and aesthetics of bands like the Adolescents. And true to form, the Degenerates mock America’s prestige and power — money and high-rise living — that supposedly make things great. The drumming borders on fantastic for the form (dizzying breaks and snaps, rolls galore, and churning power) as the band combines snide commentary with prescient class war vibes.

Though “Scungy Girl” at first may seem unkind to women who are down’n’out, it professes to loving unwashed girls. And the tune is also one of the few songs to reference the Island (“She likes to eat her food/With her hands/And goes down to the Island/To hear the bands”), one of the crucial meeting places for the punk underbelly here. Formerly known as Paradise Island and Rock Island, it was a formidable cultural interzone for the city, where bands like Degenerates could not just rub shoulders but gig alongside bands like Mydolls, Really Red, and Culturcide.
Courtesy of Ozone City Outrage: Houston's Punk History

“One night, the police raided the Island,” Wade vividly recollects the melee. “They were hitting everybody with nightsticks. Me and a few people found a door. We’d never seen it before, but we escaped. The cops outside were surrounded by punks. Bottles got thrown. I forget how it ended.”

That is not to say the band didn’t sweep through other venues too, especially the Omni (with bands like Annal-Sects, Beatless, and Doomsday Massacre) run by Joe Starr. “Joe would always pay us with a case of beer. One time, someone in the audience swallowed the giant bass pick Tom used! I was just a kid then. I loved the Island and the Omni … They were cooler than Disney World.”

The Island was so fundamental to the core of the scene that Kiersted played two reunion gigs to commemorate the legacy, first at Showbar in the 1990s, then Walter’s in the 2000s. I organized the latter, when the Degenerates headlined the event and were joined by singer Jerry Anomie, a fiery figurehead and singer for Legionaire’s Disease (first-wave punk pioneers in Houston), for a rendition of a Stooges’s song to catapult the night into living memory.

Hundreds attended the gig. In turn, I was smitten by all the participants that proved their potency lasted well beyond the 1980s.

Kiersted embraced life and times well beyond such early, dank, and tumult-filled nights. He became a noted writer and assistant editor for the Houston Press (1990-1993), covering releases for local bands like the strange and art-infused Happy Fingers Institute. In another press piece titled “They Got the Power,” perhaps a sly allusion to Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” he bemoaned how the school administration of Rice University was muffling its radio station KTRU and worried that the content would become flattened and monocultural: “safe, sterile, and boring.”

Later, in 2019, he wrote a tribute, not unlike this, for one-of-a-kind rapper Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys. The infamous producer and one-time dancer once suffered a gunshot wound to the eye and was noted for late-night adventures at punk clubs like Emo’s. More importantly, he helped create some of the South Coast’s most enduring and controversial music, and as Kiersted noted, exhibited “the mind of lunatic” that was tethered to comedic sensibilities. Most surprising, Kiersted observed, Bill was keen on the whitebread “Andy Griffith Show,” especially its town drunk Otis.

Kiersted’s intuitive knack for detail made the text feel rippling, noteworthy, and eventful, not another trail of obituary crumbs.

Over the years, Kiersted traveled abroad, found love, fathered children, and remained committed to the underground community.

His death was sudden and unexpected, but not COVID-related, and the hurt has been intense and unfolding.

“I have been reeling in pain and loss and remembrance of a sacred masculine man who was whip smart and funny,” emphasizes Trish Herrera, guitarist and singer for Mydolls. “The Degenerates were a teen band that was pretty groundbreaking for Houston. When he passed, on a treadmill … he was listening to tunes. He was just such a great human being. I miss him already.”

Her bandmate Dianna Ray, a unique bassist with percolating rhythms that sings back-up and provides their practice space, lovingly remarked, directly to his spirit, “You held me in your lap on the restaurant patio, not the least bit embarrassed or taken aback, let me sob three weeks after the death of my wife Kathy Johnston. You had the wisdom and heart not to try to fix me, but only to bear witness and comfort me. If only for that moment alone, I will always love you.”

On his last day, Kiersted posted a quote from the popular avant-garde performer Laurie Anderson on Facebook that read, “Paradise is exactly like where you are right now … only much better.”

And that was not lost on Linda Younger, fellow guitarist and singer for Mydolls. “I found this incredibly prophetic,” she wrote me. “It somehow left me reassured that all is well for Tarbox,” who died while immersed in music.

His death has a carved a hole in the hearts of the community, as she tells, yet his presence
also remains palpable and undoubted.

Or, to put it another way, as Ray argues, “He was absolute grace.” The kind that feels tattooed on the people he knew.