Everything old

Rockabilly queen Kim Lenz moves ahead by looking backward

Kim Lenz takes no offense at the suggestion that she is like a page torn from a history book. Quite the contrary, she finds it a flattering remark, testimony to the years she has spent looking backward while moving forward. Her '50s fetishism runs skin-deep and beyond: At this moment, she sports her red hair in a Bettie Page point over her forehead, wears an aqua-blue dress bought in vintage-clothing stores, wraps a silk scarf around her pale neck, covers her eyes in pointed sunglasses that are midnight-dark.

For the past decade, she has purchased everything she owns--down to dishes--at secondhand shops where people go to sell off their pasts. Lenz buys their yesterday things as she builds a monument to the 1950s in the Hall Street apartment she and her husband share near downtown. She's a 29-year-old woman out of time and out of place, a living artifact.

"Some people think it's weird," she says, giggling, "but what's weird anymore?"

That is why, she explains in a roundabout way, she plays rockabilly for a living--because it's music that has been discarded and left on the trash heap, like a rusted-out Edsel or a rayon shirt with a small hole in the sleeve. For her, it's pure, perfect music done right only by a handful of faithful worshipers who mike the drums just so, who record all the instruments and vocals at the same time, who would rather the music was in your pants than in your face. She plays rockabilly, sings rockabilly, and writes rockabilly because no one else does.

"It's complicated why I like rockabilly," she says, sipping a white Russian during a happy hour growing a little happier with each sip. "I love rockabilly. To me, rockabilly is rock and roll at its most pure. It's the beginning of rock and roll. It's very passionate music to me. It's simple, yet it really gets a lot of feeling across. I'm one of those people, and this will look stupid in print, but I think I tend to be one of those people that doesn't like things that are popular, so rockabilly not being popular makes it appealing to me. Rockabilly right now is what punk used to be. You get made fun of for the way you dress. I mean, do I look weird to you?"

Not at all--at least, not for a woman who moved from Los Angeles to Dallas and decided one day she wanted to become a rockabilly sweetheart. Lenz off-stage looks just like the woman onstage or on the cover of her just-released CD, Kim Lenz and Her Jaguars, released on the home-to-roots-rock HighTone label. She looks like any other female rockabilly gal from the 1950s; she's a black-and-white photograph rendered in brilliant red and, at the moment, faded blue. Even the disc's cover is a pose-for-pose replica of an old Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps album sleeve, so perfect is Lenz's love for the golden age of rock and roll.

And on the disc, her voice recalls the echoes of Wanda Jackson or Barbara Pittman or any of the handful of other women who traveled knee-deep in rockabilly testosterone 40 years ago--indeed, it takes a strong woman to play to the leather-and-greased-back crowds even now. She has a voice as pretty as sharp steel, and if it's a bit more tame than Jackson's orgasmic yelp--Jackson was an Okie who sang country as though she was a blues belter--Lenz is no less convincing when she's screaming about rockin' and rollin' till she rips her dress or loving her kiss-and-tell baby or scratchin' that itch with a brand-new man.

Lenz is more revivalist than revisionist (unlike, say, Reverend Horton Heat or even Ronnie Dawson, whose swing has always been more blues than country). Her album was recorded with her band live to one track using nothing but vintage equipment, and the result is like listening to music made in a tin cup. It's too sturdy to be considered novelty but too then to sound now. When Cowhide Cole spins a tune from the record on his KNON rockabilly show, between a couple of oldies from Mac Curtis and Johnny Carroll, you can hardly notice the difference--they all sound like they were made on the same day in the same studio with the same band. Which is precisely what she's going for.

Yet there's something to be admired, and something intrinsically appealing, about a woman who so defiantly refuses to move into the...1960s. You can count on two fingers the number of women who perform rockabilly these days, Lenz and New York-to-Los Angeles transplant Josie Kreuzer, the latter of whom doesn't really dress the part, but has a voice like a Gene Vincent 45 sped up to 48 rpm. And it's not as though Lenz is riding a trend; she's 40 years late to the party but ready to rock nonetheless, part of a subculture that refuses to die long after Vincent and Eddie Cochran and Carl Perkins cashed in their drink tickets. She adores the "butterheads" and "greasers" who show up to the rockabilly conventions and dances (such as the San Francisco Greaseball) and party like it's 1959. She's drawn to the music not just because of how it sounds, but for what it once meant.

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