THE REVENGE OF SAM KINNISON

by Joel Jenkins


The Seattle grunge music scene was in full boom, and I spent many an evening hanging around in smoky bars, waiting for my half-hour to forty-five minutes in the spotlight. As lead vocalist for the band Red Die #5, I was anxious to see our band make a name for itself, and we played a series of dives ranging from the ColourBox in downtown Pioneer Square Seattle, to the Detour in way-off Renton. However, life often has a way of throwing unexpected curves, and years of practice were about to be rendered obsolete in one small upheaval of the musical landscape.

Ten years before, fresh out of high school, I had joined my first band and begun the arduous path of vocal improvement. With a vibrato that resembled that of a sheep’s bleating, I was more in the company of Belinda Carlysle or Erasure, than that of rock gods like Robert Plant, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, or Geoff Tate of QueensRyche. I had a long way to go, but how was I to know that I would learn my craft too well?

Gradually my vocal control grew. My vibrato grew into a throaty bellow that shamed pop band pretenders, and my range grew by octaves. I could lay intricate melodies across the grinding or wail of the electric guitar- and pull a hook out of almost any song. Bands came and bands went, and then they came again. Chris Cornell’s own brother came to a show and praised my singing voice (while hurling insults at the inept man who ran the mixing board). If anyone knew a good voice it ought to be him, right?

With condescending eyes I studied the many bands who shared the bill with us. Their vocalists were untutored savages who belched into the microphone, screaming out melodiless phrases with six-pack a day, three bottle of tequila, I-gargle-with-razor-blades voices.

My fellow band mates were all very talented individuals, and I was confident that with my voice we would easily be distinguished from the packs of dreck that masqueraded as bands in the Seattle night clubs.

However, such was not to be. I first began to notice the seeds of discontent in small suggestions that my fellow band mates made during practices. "Can you growl a little bit more there?" or when they talked about other bands whose vocalist’s stylings reminded me of hollering comedian, Sam Kinnison, on a bad-voice day. "I love this guy’s voice."

The event had been foreshadowed, and when we sat down for a band meeting one evening, I knew the axe was falling.

"We want to try something different with the vocals," said the bass player. "We want someone who screams."

I shook my head in disbelief.

"You’re a great vocalist," continued the bass player. "Most bands would love to have you. Any band would kill to have you, but…"

My mind filtered out the rest as I contemplated ten years of vocal study down the tube. Maybe I had emulated the wrong performers, maybe I should have been studying Sam Kinnison all along.


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