Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Kinbotes

"I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator..." --Nabokov, Pale Fire

In a sea of mundane trendy over-hyped local 80s new wave LPs, a truly rare gem came to my attention last winter thanks to a glowing review by Mike Ascherman (“The greatest sub-garage band ever!”) and a cheap copy that fell into my hands from an online listing. I didn’t know much about the band or the scene (if any) it came out of and its mysterious packaging gave a variety of strange clues that pointed all different directions. The wrap-around paste-on featured hand drawn portraitures of three men in varying degrees of artistic accuracy. A guy who looked like he should be working for IBM circa 1980 was the foremost cartoon; bespectacled with a lumpy tie and a looming crop of black hair – his expression an air of resignation and introspective thought. Lurching sideways in the background to his right, we find a slightly more perfunctory drawing of a Neanderthal-ish man with a piercing glare, almost suspicious yet somehow dignified. And finally on the left was a mere sketch of a ghost-like figure with scribbled out eyes and virtually indistinguishable features… I had to ask myself: was this even the band? Flipping the record over there was a funny rant about the merits of popular songwriting in this day and age of avant-garde artistic pre-occupations, signed by the one and only “Chas” Kinbote, who our more literary listeners will note is none other than the narrator of Nabokov’s seminal novel ‘Pale Fire’! My curiosity was truly piqued.

After this lengthy examination I finally sliced open the wrap-around paste-on that covered jacket opening and put the damn thing on the box. The contents of the LP were nothing less than jaw-dropping: a wild lo-fi mish-mash of Velvetsy clatter, Devo flashing on Neil Young, new-wave sentiments subverted in utter personality subterfuge, ancient drum-machine burps, sing-along anthems about Rock’n’roll, zombie girls, the ennui of dorm life, marginal utility, teenage crushes, dead rock star satire… An overwhelmingly youthful glee permeated the music, and the songs were bonafide pop gems. Inept, reckless playing brought the material a lovably sincere quality, and I was immediately hooked. I had to know more.

My search began in New York City, the purported locale listed on the back jacket, and I wound up calling several guys named Nat Hirsh - none of whom responded or were the guy in question. The same went for Tim Ireland. A round about search for David Cateforis led me to the right guy, now a Professor of Art History at the University of Kansas. Returning my call with shock and delight a few days later we had a long conversation about the band and how the record came to be. The story lived up to the music, and we both agreed it should be shared.

As the story goes Dave met Nat at Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts school, outside of Philadelphia as a freshman. Connecting over music and living on the same hall they decided to form a band. Dave was actually a musician - something Nat, an economics major, had very little experience with - and he had played in garage bands since Jr. High. Dave described Nat as having a strange vision for the whole project, however, and as someone who would not let his limited musical talent hold him back. Their partnership involved Nat writing lyrics and basic melodies for which Dave would make up guitar parts and develop further musically. Nat’s lyrics had a truly nutty air and reflected a wide array of influences and obtuse references. Nat was something of a labyrinthine guy, and according to Dave, loved to spin riddles into everything he did and let you form your own conclusions. The songs therefore offer a dry deadpan sense of humor that was allowed plenty of room to air on the LP. The song “King of Comedy” was a reference to Scorcese’s classic 80s film starring Robert De Niro, but turned into a satirical piece about the suicide of Ian Curtis of Joy Division, whose music Nat found deplorable but which Dave earnestly enjoyed! Their musical credos split in funny ways and Dave described Nat having an unimpeachable canon of influences that had their own internal order but was less oriented to “new wave” which Dave would have described as his “sound” at the time. Nat loved Neil Young and the Velvet Underground and with an equal verve preferred ABC (especially their arch-dramatic hit “Poison Arrow”) and Roxy Music to earthier new wave picks like Jonathan Richman (a common comparison to the Kinbotes LP)!

Once they had a solid roster of material the boys set about recording the LP, almost entirely done in Nat’s dorm room, even though Dave thought they should get some studio time and have a little more professional approach. Dave took music seriously, and while I think Nat did as well - in his own way - there is a sense that Dave is just completely letting go on these tracks and playing sloppy for the hell of it, partially because he thought it would go no farther than being strictly a demo tape! Unbeknownst to Dave, Nat took the material after their 1986 graduation and had it pressed as an LP without telling him… taken aback at the time, Dave remarked that nowadays he sees what is special about the LP, and that buried in there are some truly great pop songs - indeed, “Like a Movie” for example is screaming to be dusted off for cover!
Allegedly an artistic rendering of Nix proprietor, Mark Satlof.

The LP was done on the mysterious “Nix Records” which I later found out was not really a label at all. Mark Satlof, a childhood friend of Nat’s only released one other record on the label, a 7” by a group called the Bureaucrats produced by Wayne Kramer of the MC5! Bringing his tapes to Mark, a student at Columbia, Nat would allow them to be mixed and just have a few background vocals added before going to press. Rumor had it that they only issued 50 copies of the Kinbotes LP, but Mark assured me this was not the case - just that after making its way to family and a few friends most of the run wound up in the dump, despite one copy winding up in Richie Unterberger’s hands and receiving a mixed review! The cover art was a bit of hoax too; after taking a picture of themselves in an old-fashioned photo booth, Nat carefully copied the image, including dorm hall mate Tim Ireland who was not even in the band, but completely obscured his own features. Dave remarked that it was typical for Nat to hide behind characters and masks. I think, however, that despite this tendency, the music speaks for itself. And what I hear is a wide-open heart, a voice too strong for his youth, and a fragility that had to be contained lest it be harmful. It’s a really special thing, and 1,000 other pompous dorks that strut around in rock clothes don’t come close to this kind of alchemy, ever.

The band was a big deal for Nat, and after college ended Dave remarked on feeling bad about leaving the duo - that it really had meant something to Nat that he couldn’t grasp. Dave went on to grad school at Stanford for Art History, and Nat took work as a bank examiner in New England, which Dave remarked as being curious and seemingly out of character - but again aligned with a kind of bread-crumbs trail he laid everywhere. Nat wanted to keep playing music and would continue to record into the 90s. He sent Dave some of the tapes after the latter visited New England in 1995 to see family and catch up with his old friend. Nat was living by himself in a crowded messy house, albeit one he had paid in full for after having turned a modest graduation gift from his parents into a sizable bankroll in the stock market, and the music on the tapes had gotten stranger, more maniacal. Dave was worried about Nat, and thought he might be losing it. The truth is, as I would later find out, that Nat had recently suffered a traumatic car accident, part of which was an injury to the head among other more curable ailments. While his body healed, he sunk into a deep depression which his family believes was due to the head injury, and tragically, a few years later Nat took his own life.

There is a heart-breakingly ironic twist, when you learn this and listen to a song like “King of Comedy” or read ‘Pale Fire’ and find out the narrator, one Charles Kinbote himself meets his end by his own hand. I picked up the book after talking with Dave and found it a spellbinding read. The penultimate “puzzle-novel,” a work some critics describe as “meta-fiction”, it presents the reader with a story that yields a multitude of interpretations: Kinbote is at once perhaps the Zemblan prince he recounts paradoxically in tales of times before, and also may be Shade, the poet he worships and ferociously edits after his death. The story weaves a tapestry of first-person narrative, epic poetry, and hilarious flashbacks that leave you wondering where you were the last time the page turned, but strangely aware of the book’s own internal geography. It can be read, on the one hand, as a fairly straight-forward novel, and a very easily entertaining one at that, but it masks a much darker, more rewarding “deep” reading to those willing to go further into its minutiae. I could see Nat all over it… hair-mussed, gears wildly spinning away, pencil scratching, and finally figuring his own way through the maze. In turn, he created his own: the LP by the Kinbotes on the one hand offers a pleasant lo-fi garage pop experience that is easy to initially get hooked on - but the further you go with it, the more subtleties and hidden agendas come out of the woodwork; every time I come back I hear something new creeping around the perimeter. I don’t know if I’m right about all of them, but then again, maybe no one is! When asked about the book, Nabokov would talk about “plums” waiting to be plucked from the tree that was ‘Pale Fire’ if only the right reader could find them, and I think the Kinbotes LP has plums galore, ripe ones, for fans of independent DIY musical releases from any era.

Final meeting, Nat (left) and Dave (right)

I wrote this article to offer the music of the Kinbotes to a wider audience, and to also say rest in peace. Every time I go off on a wild goose chase to find the creator of an LP I’ve come to love, I can’t wait to meet the man himself, and in this case it proved impossible - not because they were dodging taxes in El Salvador, or wouldn’t return my messages because they hated their funny little record from 1971, but because he had taken his own life. It truly saddened me, and I wanted to offer this piece, and say thanks to Dave and Mark for sharing Nat’s story - which I have taken to heart. The music more than speaks for itself, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. I’m convinced it deserves a reissue and if someone out there is listening with that thought, please drop me a line.

Hang Around

Julie Don't Care

Gingerbread Boy


  1. Dog I have been looking for this album for way too long now. Thank you so much. Also that Danny Espy 45 is unbelievable. You rule.

  2. got the album from a friend recently but he nor i have the tracklisting. . . any chance you could post it here?

  3. Great record that deserves more notice. Hopefully indeed it'll get reissued. Here are the tracks, for anyone so inclined: A: I Love Rock N Roll / Hang Around / We Fall Down / Julie Don't Care / My Lucky Day / So Far to Go / My Baby / Gets so Hard / The King of Comedy / B: Maybe She Thinks / I Don't Know / Zombie Girl / Could You Tell Her for Me / Gingerbread Boy / Like a Movie / Sweet Adelaide

  4. Really great. I'd do anything for a copy..

  5. Any word on reissues? Would love to finally hear the whole thing.

  6. For years I wondered what would have happened if Nat could actually play drums, or bass, or piano? Then I listen to these songs again and remember that it doesn't matter because the main thing he cared about was the creative part and having the ability to work with a complementary friend that could help with the performance. And as you have captured so well, the essence of the performance is so honest and true without any pretense.

    Yesterday was 14 years since Nat left us. Thank you for keeping this beautiful and respectful review online. Also thanks to Mark Satloff for making me aware of your excellent work.

    Nat's brother,


  7. David -- Thanx for the kind note. Glad we could make a place for Nat's vision here... I have had more positive response to the LP than almost anything else featured here! Amazing...

    All the best, Jack

  8. i really love your blog. i wish you were here!