Namedropper: The Forgotten Story of Johnny Seesaw, The Dallas Lounge Punk Golf Pro
I bought the remaining archives from the Starck Club at an estate sale by its former manager, Nick Hamblen.
Dallas is a town that has no ground set aside for the burial of ghosts, local legends and has-beens. There are no memorial statues for the ’80s cult figures, the ’60s underground garage bands that might’ve cut 45s or the ’70s lounge acts whose LPs still fill the boxes at your local Goodwill outlet. Remember Jerry Hitt? Larry Randall? I do.
It’s a shame, really, as some of these Dallasites were fascinating characters for a brief few moments, weeks or years. Do you remember the Toys, the punk band that never made a record? Did you ever see Bobby Soxx and the Teenage Queers, a straight punk band that briefly played Oak Lawn clubs before Bobby started Stickmen With Rayguns?
Did you attend the mythical world premiere of the Rocky Palmer Story, written by and starring Palmer Rocky? Or buy the soundtrack LP he recorded and issued on his own label? Both the album and the movie were such flops that he supposedly destroyed their master tapes. The LP surfaces now and then, but no one I know has ever seen the movie. But many say that Rocky rented the old NorthPark movie theater to stage the world premiere. Nobody came.
Did you ever watch Kimberly Boyce dance at a nightclub and catch her when she was in the legendary Lithium Xmas, the best-named band of all time, led by Dallas DJ Mark Ridlen? We should really have a monument in Dallas to our local forgotten heroes who, unlike Stevie Ray, never made it out of town. Some of them barely made it in town. But they linger in varying collections of memories, inside the skulls of those of us who still remain.
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It was Ridlen who invited me to the unadvertised living estate sale hosted by Nick Hamblen, who for three years managed the legendary Starck Club. Ridlen served as DJ at the sale, and a lot of music fans and old punk rockers showed up to buy vintage ties, LPs and framed prints.
It will forever be the best estate sale of my life. The people-watching alone was incredible, like a John Waters Pink Flamingos cast reunion. If Andy Warhol would’ve been from Dallas and had his Factory here, we would have black and white test screen footage of all these people. But he wasn’t from here, so we gab and mingle at diners and sales as Dallas moves on to the next generation of Whoever.
At this sale, I purchased two signed copies of the Warhol photo book America, which the artist was promoting when he made his last visit to Dallas in late 1985 — when I met him and gave him a check for $1,000,000. I bought a few LPs and magazines. But most important, I bought the remaining archives from the Starck Club that Hamblen was finally letting go of — about 500 pieces of amazing 1980s Starck relics that I will resell in batches sometime on eBay and in my record store.
In the large box of Starck goodies, I found blue and yellow prize ribbons, letters from club regulars, party invitations, gig posters and fliers. I now own 15 mini-posters promoting the debut live performance of MC 900 Ft. Jesus with DJ Zero. MC is making a very nice comeback these days.
Fate gave him a laminate to the rest of the world, and it’s still good. The MC posters are amazing; you can feel the history when you touch one. But another flier, just a poorly designed, crap Xerox, stopped me in my tracks. It was him: Johnny Seesaw. The only gig I know of where he played live with his band the Lipstick Swingers. All of a sudden, I was 17 again.
Just after I graduated high school in 1977, my parents divorced and my dad moved out of our townhouse condominium on Red Bird Lane near the Oak Cliff Country Club. My mom talked me into taking tennis lessons, which didn’t last long because I hated the country club.
But one day I walked into the small sports shop looking for a soda machine. I was greeted by a very nice guy with blond hair who reached into a vintage red Coke cooler, popped open a bottle and scooted it toward me across the counter.
“The first one’s free,” he said, in a welcoming voice. “I’m John Lee. John Lee Thomas. I’m the golf pro if you ever want to take lessons.”
I told him I wasn’t so good with sports, so he asked what I liked and I told him about my part-time job at Sound Town in Red Bird Mall. He brightened up and said, “Come in next week and I’ll give you my record.” Sure enough, at the next lesson, I went into the shop and Thomas handed me a yellow label 45 on Seesaw Records.
“The song is 'Reflect Her,' but the band is called the Reflectors,” he said.
Starck Club had long, flowing curtains and huge, elegant bathrooms — yes, people were doing coke and making out in them.
He was beaming with pride, and I told him I wanted to make a record someday. He smiled and said, “Do it yourself like I did!” It was a decent little piece of catchy generic pop but not very memorable, and it went to Half Price Books at some point with a lot of other stuff. I wish I had kept it.
Years later, in 1986, Ridlen invited me to see him DJ at the new Starck Club everyone was raving about.
“I’m deejaying between sets by this kind of good, kind of bad punk lounge singer named Johnny Seesaw and the Lipstick Swingers." Punk lounge? This I had to see.
I went and, for the only time in my life, saw the inside of the Starck. Long, flowing curtains; huge, elegant bathrooms — yes, people were doing coke and making out in them — and a small stage. Mark was pumping out one obscure song after the other, as he still does, and about 50 people were milling around as a small flock of elegant older women stood near the stage. Finally, Mark announced, “Ladies and gentlemen and others, please welcome to the Starck Club: Johnny Seesaw and the Lipstick Swingers."
Out came the band and Johnny Seesaw, striding up to the mic looking like a glam version of Gary Busey with better teeth. He was half Warhol, half Englebert Humperdink, in a pink fringe leather jacket with yellow pants.
“Hello, Dallasites and Dallas scenesters," he said. "I’m Johnny Seesaw and remember, if you paid cover, the first song is free!”
He launched into a weird stance and sang a song I thought sounded familiar. It was “Reflect Her,” the song on
the 45. I felt a mild shock as I realized I was looking at an older version of Thomas, the golf pro from the Oak Cliff Country Club. How weird can it get? Sure enough, after each chorus, he would pretend to be swinging a golf club and watch the ball fly off into infinity. He kept doing that in every song. It was totally bizarre and alluring. Who the hell was this guy?
After the show, I saw him in the parking lot about to get into a white Oldsmobile with a couple of older women.
“Johnny!” I yelled. “John Lee!” With that, he stopped and stared at me. I ran over to his car and said, “I just wanted to say hi. I knew you at the country club, and you gave me your 45. He smiled and shook my hand and said, “Cool!” Same grin.
I said, “I still wanna make a record.” He replied as he slipped into the Olds, “Well remember, you can always do it yourself.” The power window went up and he pulled out of the lot. I told Ridlen the story a few minutes later, and he laughed and said, “Seesaw is a trip. Nobody knows what to make of him. Lithium Xmas is gonna open for him next month at a private party.”
That gig never happened. It was a Johnny SeeSaw birthday party, which I later found out was a pretty wild recurring event at his Oak Lawn townhouse. Johnny left for Hollywood, intent on making it big as a punk lounge singer so he could get into acting. His exit from Dallas got a paragraph in Buddy Magazine, and that was the last I ever heard of him.
So when I found the flier for the Starck Club, it was like my early adulthood and my late teens collided in a weird mix of golf pro punk Kool-Aid. There was something interesting about the whole Johnny Seesaw trip, a tiny star in a constellation of nothing important.
The Starck Club fans have a Facebook page, MC 900 is getting tall again and Mark Ridlen still deejays under the name DJ Rid. But nobody cares about the Johnny Seesaws of this world. I didn’t think I did, either, until last week.
I was leaving for my car after grabbing a bite at Lucky’s on Oak Lawn Avenue, and walking toward me on the sidewalk was a quiet guy who somehow looked familiar. All of a sudden, I realized it was a 65-year-old version of someone I’d forgotten.
“Hey, Seesaw, how’s it going?” I said. He stopped and looked at me and smiled a bit. “Cool enough for summer,” he said, and that was it. I watched him go into Lucky’s. He didn’t remember me, of course.
He was never anybody important to me. But that’s why he matters. He’s kind of the Unknown Soldier of forgotten Dallas entertainers to me. He still had a bit of the half-ass charisma and goof-butt charm I saw onstage at the Starck that night as he swung invisible golf clubs for middle-aged groupies. What the hell is his story?
Probably this story because I don’t think he ever got any press. I hope I see him again. I might interview him.
I had lunch with Hamblen yesterday. I made so much money reselling his signed Warhol books that I wanted to buy him lunch and give him a cut. While we dined and gabbed in The Bucks Booth at the Goldrush Cafe (yes, there is one), I asked him if he remembered Johnny Seesaw playing the Starck. He paused.
“Seesaw? Hmmm.” He looked up at the ceiling. “Yes. I didn’t see the gig, but I remember cutting the check and mailing it to him the next day. I guess you don’t forget writing a check to Johnny Seesaw. Wasn’t he hitting golfballs into the audience or something? I seem to remember hearing about that.”
“In his mind, he was. I think they were all hole-in-ones,” I said. We laughed, and Nick remembered something. “We were spending money like crazy back then. I paid him $500, which was a lot of money in the ’80s. He never cashed the check.”
Seesaw. I’ve gotta find him now. I have to know more. I want the whole Seesaw saga. I want to know if he’s still singing and swinging. I want my Reflectors record back. None on eBay. I’ve checked.
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