Kenne "Gizmo" Highland, the original Gizmo, was in Boston for a 36 day leave from the Marine Corps so we sat down for an interview to try and learn about his confusing and infamous Gizmo, O. Rex, Afrika Korps, Marine Corps and rock writing careers. Here's what The Kenne had to say…..
Paul- So let's start with O. Rex.
KH- Solomon Greuberger & I met through the mail in Circus Magazine in 1971. People used to send things in saying, "I am into this or that band. Please write to me." In my town I only had about 2 friends who were into the music I was into so I wrote out a list of my 3 favorite bands…oh, acid type rock, weird Zappa type stuff and rockabilly.
P- Then you met somewhere along the line?
KH- Yeah, June 1973. Alice Cooper played at Madison Square Garden. We had been exchanging tapes of each other playing guitar so I knew what he sounded like…
P & ML- UGH!! UGH!!
KH- I'll be kind and say he sounded like Lou Reed singing like Keith Ralph. Now Keith Ralph is dead and Lou Reed should be, so Solomon had these very dead sounding vocals. He said this would be a great time for us to meet and jam. This was a historic day! The first thing we played was "Louie Louie". I had only been playing guitar for about 2 ½ years by then and only learned "Louie Louie" about 6 months before. I was 17, Solomon was 21 and his brother Jan was 12. So we got together and Solomon played guitar, Jay was on bass and I played drums.
It was the first time I had ever been behind a drum set and this set was so decrepit it made Jeff Wilkinson look like he's got Ludwig! It was a little snare and this little high-hat that didn't go up and down and one symbol was cracked. So I was doing the only beat I knew which was The Stooges beat and they stopped in the middle and said "Do a solo!" so I did! It was about 30 seconds. Anyway, that was O. Rex.
P- So what's on the O. Rex record?
KH- That comes 3 years later! See in high school I used to travel down state to Brooklyn after saving up all my money and we had this band: O. Rex.
P- OK! Let's stop right here! No one can ever figure out where the hell you're coming from or where the hell you're going and why!
KH- OK, my father was in the Marines so I was born in Quantico, VA. I lived in the south on military installations in Virginia and North Carolina 'til I was 8 years old then my parents got divorced and my mother's from Upper State NY near Buffalo and Rochester so I lived up there, in Brockport, NY for 10 years. That's where I call home 'cause I grew up there, December '64 to May '75. Then I went out to Bloomington, IN and joined the Marine Corps a year later and got sent to Fort Meade, MD which is right near Washington, D.C.
P- Now back to the O. Rex thing. Yes or no; the O. Rex single came out before The Gizmos' first record?
KH- No. The Gizmos' "Muff Divin" record was recorded on March 20th in a 12 hour session. The Eddy Flowers and I did our Kerouac-ian excursion across the Northeast U.S.. One of the people we visited was Solomon. This was the version of O. Rex with Eddy Flowers on drums, me on lead, Solomon on rhythm and Jay on bass.
ML- What does that have to do with the record?
KH- Because it was then that Solomon said we were gonna make the record. He was gonna record it but the tape fucked up so he didn't. Then I went to boot camp in Paris Island, S.C., then Infantry Training School out in California…on leave before reporting to Maryland I went to N.Y. and finally in September of 76 the O. Rex record was done. Solomon set up on this reel to reel in his living room. Me, him and Jay each took turns on drums..still the same decrepit drum set! We did "My Head's in 73", "California Gurls" and "Suzy".
ML- But you were in The Gizmos before you went to Boot Camp.
K- Yeah I was in O. Rex in high school, then in early '75 I was in a band in Brockport called Dr. Yow, then I moved to Bloomington, In. to start the next Creem or something.
ML-So why Indiana? Why not California where all the magazines are?
K- That's where we decided was gonna be the next fanzine capital of the world. Me, Eddy and Bear, the prime Gizmos before they started.
L- You met Eddy through the mail too?
K- I knew Eddy since early '73 through fanzine writing. I knew Bear from fanzine writing too. See in Brockport I had a fanzine called "Rock On" . So we were all fanzine editors getting together. Bear was out there working in the I.U.S. Tip Sheet which was the Indiana University thing and he wanted the format to go punk for one issue. Eddie & me went out there and Bear had quit the Tip Sheet so we started 'Gulcher'. Eddy was a big Meltzer freak and Meltzer wrote a book called Gulcher so…
P- Wait a minute! Meltzer wrote a book and called it Gulcher?!
K- Yeah, you have to be a fanatic to know these things. So our first issue had MC5 on the cover and Eddy and I did a thing on The Dictators so we started thinking about having a band because The Dictators, former fanzine writers!, had a band. We were gonna do real rock and roll! Also I had been writing to this girl up in Highland, IN and she kept saying I should come up and jam with her boyfriend, Rich Coffee. So finally I did in Oct '75 and I'll tell ya man, it was the greatest jam of my life! The first thing we did was "Wild Thing". He was in a band called Cerberus and they ended up supplying half of the Gizmos.
Then Ted Neimic was a freshman in I.U. and had gone to do an interview with Kiss that I didn't want to go to because I was mad at Gene Simmons 'cause he told me to eat shit even though we never met. Anyway Ted came over to the apartment to work on the Kiss article, so I brought out my guitar and started doing Kiss songs. He started singing and he sounded exactly like Lou Reed! I thought "Man! If I had a band with this guy we'd sound like The Velvets!"
So also I had in my possession lots of tapes Solomon Greuberger had sent me of me and him up in my bedroom when I was 16. I played them for Bear and he said "I really like your voice. You have a swamp sound."
K- Swamp! Southern delta or as my mother used to say "Kenneth why must you and your brother sing like Negroes?" So Bear decided we should put a band together. We had to have Eddy in on it and I said I HAD to have Rich Coffee in the band. The whole thing came together when Bear said we'd have a band with Ted and Dave, this kid from down there . He said "I think we should call it the Gizmos." I didn't want that as a name because that was what they called me to make fun of me. All these hippie guys I knew called me that 'cause a gizmo was a clod, a nerd, a jerk.
P-So who started the record label?
P- You had 20 people..no…ALL of Indiana in the band?
K- No, just 8. We did 6 songs. Four were released and two are out takes. They were "Pumpin' to Playboy" and "We're Gonna Rumble" which were both re-recorded and released on another record. Both of those I wrote in '72.
P_ OK! HOLD IT!!
K- Alright, I've released six records with a 7th on the way. The 3 Gizmos EPs, the "Muff Divin'" one, "Amerika First" and "Gizmos' World Tour" then there is the O.Rex record, The Afrika Korps album, the Ken Kaiser solo single and the new album The Korps's "Hello World". Now I only play on 6 out of 15 songs on The Gizmos EPs but I wrote about 80% of them.
P- "Muff Divin'" was a group effort?
K- No, but I'll tell ya the story of it. Ted Neimic had a kid in his dorm named Cliff Wolf. They would get together and talk about 'muff diving'. I didn't even know what they were talking about because back home we called it 'eating pussy'. Ted was playing Chicago's 'Saturday in the Park' and I was singing "muff divin' …USA". I went home and started jamming on my guitar. I had been listening to the Kiss LP Dressed to Kill and I always had a bit of The Dolls in me so I made up this chorus 'Muff Divin' in Wilkie South, spread her legs and open your mouth'.
I had to go to work that night so I called Ted before I went and gave him the chords and the chorus and said "I want a song from you in 24 hours!" 'Cause of the lyrics, man, you can tell that Ted and Cliff must have never been laid! That was one of my great tri-religious collaborations which have resulted in genius; a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew. The other one was The Afrika Korps with a devout catholic; Marty Kane, Solomon Greuberger, Jewish and me a WASP.
P- Religious rock! You believe that? Let's get back to The Gizmos thing. You're doing a record with songs like 'Muff Divin'' and 'Chicken Queen'. What did you think was gonna happen?
K- Well I'll admit it…when I was a teenager I was a real pervert. Like the very first song I wrote was a take off on Woody Guthrie and it was so obscene my mother tore it up! She said "I don't want you putting that stuff in your notebook! What if your brother sees that?!" It was all about sex. You know, I wasn't getting any so that's all that was on my mind! I was also very influenced by The Beatles during their Sergeant Pepper era, too. I would have loved something like "Fuck your fucking superman." backwards on my records. But there were also a lot of personality clashes in the studio and I didn't give a shit 'cause I was already signed up to go into The Marine Corps.
I was gonna retire from Rock'n'Roll and stay in the Marines and maybe end up like my father - dead at 33. I had a very Johnny Angel attitude then. Basically I was tired of living on two hundred and ten dollars a month as a paperboy at the age of 19. I just wanted to clean myself out. Like in '75 I was really into a lot of drugs and drinking, I was even smoking cigarettes and I had hair like Billy Borgioli. I just wanted to become clean cut. Can't get much more clean cut than the USMC!