Jack Rabid pays homage to a friend and essential figure in Chicago punk
Like thousands around the world, I’m sad that Naked Raygun bassist Pierre Kezdy has died, aged 58.
Of course, the dead seem to get eulogized even if they kicked puppies for a living. But Pierre was just a terrific guy, so the things I scribble now I often said to his Midwestern mug for 35 years—and I’d’ve gladly spent another 35 laying it on his gruff expression just to see that “you must not mean that” lips-bending, face-scrunching grin of his. For a guy who usually bore such a no-nonsense face mixed with a shade of befuddlement at signs of rank stupidity or incompetence, he had a first-rate laugh, which typically accompanied his hilarious stories and wisecracks. He also had a deep admiration for good punk rock and post-punk. I recall he also really loved fly fishing—he delighted in designing his own lures, he showed me one day—and would talk about his pay-the-bills gig as a plumber with some amusement if you asked him, and his kids–three girls and a boy.
And for more public purposes, he could grind the living daylights out of a bass guitar, aiming for a sound as harshly beautiful as The Strangers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel, as fast but precise as The Buzzcocks’ Steve Garvey and Segs Jennings of The Ruts, and as nimble as The Jam’s Bruce Foxton—groups we spent a good deal of time talking about. And like only a few dozen people such as his older brother John (singer of the Effigies, one of America’s 20 greatest punk and post-punk bands, ever; both Kezdy brothers were super smart without pushing brains on you, and really drolly funny), he was a pioneer of original Chicago punk rock, a teenager present at its late ’70s creation, throwing himself on the fire with the seminal band Strike Under before he even learned how to play. His inclusion in the 2008 documentary about that scene, You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk 1979-1984, was clinched right there, with that unflinching “just do it and get it done” attitude he always had.
VIDEO: You Weren’t There: A History of Chicago Punk 1979-1984 (full movie)
But today, right now, I am thinking of all the times I got to hear that laugh, especially the big ones he let out from time to time for the funniest stuff. It’s something I’ve imitated over the decades, because I liked it. It was a bit like Muttley Hound, the snickering sidekick dog to the doomed Dick Dastardly on the late-‘60s cartoon show The Wacky Races, a program Pierre knew, so he took no offense to the comparison, (He and his brother John had a dog in the ‘80s called Muttley.) It would start slow and rumbly, then convert into spasms of “she she she she shes” until he was almost spitting, his dough eyes twinkling. It made whatever we were all laughing at five times more funny.
He was kind of a quiet, no nonsense big lug that kept to himself. The guy wouldn’t suffer fools much, though he’d usually just make excuses and extricate himself if a fan or someone else was being a dummkopf—but such encounters, too, would usually lend themselves to one of his funny anecdotes. His wide-eyed wryness and self-deprecating cracks would just come out; then we’d all be laughing, too. I remember when I put Naked Raygun on the cover of my/our magazine, The Big Takeover’s issue 20 in 1986, I gave him one and he said, “What, you couldn’t find an uglier band?” (More guffaws.)
I didn’t get to meet Pierre ’til around then, when he first came East with Raygun circa their 1986 second LP All Rise, their zenith, in large part thanks to the thicker sound they attained when Pierre joined. I remember the three things I said to him upon being introduced to him by singer Jeff Pezzati, who’d I’d met at Raygun’s New York gigs pre-Pierre going back to 1983 at Gildersleeves, plus an early Big Black gig at Danceteria when Pezzati was serving as their bassist. I said to Pierre, “I know your brother John, and he’s a hell of a human. If you’re anything like him we’re bound to be friends.” (I wasn’t wrong.) I also said, “This band was already pretty great; they’re even better with you,” and “Tell me some Strike Under stories!” Those last two things just made him chuckle.
Most critics other than superlative ex-Chicago Tribune music editor Greg Kot couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the history of Chicago punk, back when it was occurring, or really since. Even those of us who were on the constant, excited lookout beyond the New York / Cleveland / London / Manchester breakouts critics keyed on were in the dark for a couple years when it first got going, until the eye-opening 1981 live compilation Busted at Oz.
And while the pre-Pierre, artier Raygun and John’s Effigies were two of the three most exciting acts on that landmark document, the third was Strike Under. They were every bit as fierce and fearsome, with a gnashing singer in Steve Bjorklund that sounded like he might rip your head off—and yep, the young Pierre on bass, aged 18-19. The quartet only released one EP before splitting up—the historic first Wax Trax record!—in 1981’s Immediate Action, which was not quite as hot as the Oz recordings, yet still stellar. Bjorklund would go on to front the equally menacing Breaking Circus, while the other three members, guitarist/brother Chris Bjorklund, Pierre, and drummer Bob Furem, would form a new, proto-hardcore band from 1981-1982 called Trial By Fire. I remember reading about them in Flipside scene reports, but they didn’t release anything back then. (Years later, Pierre would play me their demo—only when I insisted—and three years ago that demo and an unreleased album were released together as a retrospective, 1982.
Pierre probably thought that exhumation was pretty funny.) After Trial By Fire also ceased, Chris Bjorklund would form Bloodsport with Joe Haggerty, brother of Raygun guitarist John Haggerty—Chris and Joe would also double-duty join a later ’80s Effigies lineup I caught at Chicago’s fabled Dreamerz club in 1988—and eventually Pierre would move on to Raygun and belated international recognition.
AUDIO: Strike Under Immediate Action (full album)
He sure helped earn that acclaim, because Raygun were pretty awesome, especially after he arrived. For years I have heard testimonials from people younger than I about how their lives were changed or their minds blown by seeing that band while still in high school or college. Raygun were kind of Pied Piper punks; despite rather smart and clever lyrics, they attracted a younger crowd that got off on their undeniable zany energy. And, it must be noted, Pierre was also a pretty accomplished songwriter in the group, on the rare occasions he deigned to try his hand at it. Usually he composed just a few songs per album, like the underrated “Bughouse” on 1989’s Understand?. But I think many Raygun fans would join me in thinking that Pierre’s finest song, the 1987 non-LP 7” single “Vanilla Blue,” was the band’s finest as well. Since its release, it’s been my go-to, if I had just one track to play for someone who’d never heard them—and it always worked. It’s a stone cold later-punk classic, with a distinctive intro held over from one of Pierre’s lost-LP Trial By Fire songs, “Cross Reaction.” 28 years later, it warmed my heart to see on YouTube the reunited Raygun, with Pierre ensconced on bass, play that song in front of 40,000 people at Wrigley Field, August 29, 2015—just across the street from the spacious Cabaret Metro theater they’d filled so many times in the Reagan/Bush era. They were opening for the sort of fan I was just talking about whose mind had been blown by Raygun as a kid, back then in his pre-Scream/Nirvana days: David Grohl’s Foo Fighters. Pezzati voiced the song so well as ever, in that piercing melodic smart growl of his, and I thought the same thing I always did: “Wow, what a song.” (Thanks Pierre!)
VIDEO: Naked Raygun “Vanilla Blue”
Likewise, even after Raygun broke up around 1992, Pierre joined up with another Windy City fixture I enjoyed with obvious ties to his and Chicago’s past, reuniting with old bandmate John Haggerty and John’s brother Joe in Pegboy. Like Raygun, they also toured a ton and released well-received records. My favorite gig of theirs was at CBGB, where they were totally one with a boisterous crowd. The point, as ever, was made: The members and the crowd alike dug the music, the camaraderie, and the cultural alternative community. (Also, a few years before that, Pierre teamed up with guitarist Santiago Durango in Durango’s post Big Black project, Arsenal; you can hear the two together on the sardonically-titled 1990 EP, Factory Smog is a Sign of Progress on Touch and Go.)
From my selfish vantage point, aside from the inspired music that all these bands made on record and on stage—and again, I’d argue that Raygun proved to be one of the most influential bands of that era, far beyond the records they sold at the time, though they always drew a big crowd in New York’s halls—the second great thing about Pierre’s tenure in Raygun and Pegboy was that I got to see him so often. Both bands played New York continually; and Pierre knew he had a standing invitation to crash at our apartment on the Lower East Side/East Village border, which he fortunately usually took us up on. And so some marathon music listening, drinking, and chatting sessions would commence when we all should have gone to bed earlier. And that’s how my late roommate Richard Katz ended up wearing a half dozen different color Naked Raygun t-shirts the rest of his life. (They were pretty much his favorite band, so he never missed a show, either. I miss him, too.)
Likewise, the reverse was on offer. Each time I went to Chicago from 1986-2004, about a half dozen times to see Effigies reunion gigs (once even with Pegboy at Double Door, a Kezdy brothers spectacular!), twice for Buzzcocks reunions tours in ’89 and ’91, once when I was on tour drumming with The Leaving Trains in 1986 (Pierre and the boys came down to the West End club, and hearing us play some Saints covers, requested Radio Birdman tunes Falling James Moreland and Eric Stringer didn’t know; if I had to do it again, I would have told them to come up to show them and join in!), and three times with my own band Springhouse on tour 1991-1993, I’d stay with John and Pierre up in Evanston, for the pleasure of their company. And my favorite memory of hanging out with Pierre was probably in London in 1988, when I was on vacation there and brought his/their hero, Buzzcocks guitarist/singer Steve Diggle, to see Raygun at the University of London—because, I told Diggle, “They’re a fantastic band and superb guys, and they worship your band like you’re a religion!” (I wasn’t kidding. I was also guilty as charged.) It was something else to see the Chi-town boys clapping him on his back, sharing their backstage booze with him, and getting him to sing about a half dozen Buzzcocks songs with them on stage a few hours later. The crowd ate it up, of course, but I just loved watching Raygun’s faces. They were in such happy awe.
You can get so jaded if you’re in the music business, by the capricious ego-fed inanities of rock musicians, that you can forget the abject love and devotion one band can inspire in another. It was moving, and I think a good moment in their history as part of this great rock ’n’ roll continuum, like if Diggle hung out with Pete Townshend. (Think of the pre-fame Beatles playing with Little Richard in Liverpool in 1962, nobody Tom Jones giving his hero Jerry Lee Lewis a lift into London when his taxi broke down, or teenaged Graham Nash and Allen Clarke, cornering The Everly Brothers outside a Manchester hotel and being encouraged in their own ambitions. It’s always nice when it’s sincere, and then it leads to such ripened fruit!) In fact, thereafter, I saw this same thing happen many times with Raygun instead: they’d be approached by younger support bands or musicians with stars in their eyes. (I wasn’t there when it happened with Grohl, but again, that’s another example.) The reverence was likewise touching. Music that’s real can really inspire, and Pierre was a part of a great deal of that for so many. (Of course, I’d say things like that to Pierre, and he’d just shrug. No big deal. But it was.)
After Pegboy stopped touring regularly in the ’90s, I didn’t get to see him as often, alas. My wife and I did get to sit next to him at his brother’s wedding in New Jersey, which, along with our sincere happiness for John, just made that wedding for us. Dining with Pierre was always a gas, even if this is the only time we ever did it is suits! He looked pretty natty, if you ask me! He said, “Don’t get used to it.” I told him the same. (More grinning guffaws.)
Of course, Raygun did come back for good, staring in 2006—but not as the giant road warriors they’d been. That said, I did catch them out in San Francisco at the Elbo Room, December 4, 2007. He and I and my other longtime Raygun pal, drummer Eric Spicer (salute!), had dinner after sound check with my SF friend Jerry “Smart Guy” Connolly, eating Thai Food down Valencia St. from their show. The food was great, the company even better—off the charts. It was the same Pierre as ever—that same droll wit, sardonic cracks, and mock-frown faces, and yes, that volcanic belly laugh that left him and us almost short of breath, his face busting out in merriment.( It was something Eric said. I wish I could remember what! But it was classic.) Two years later, I saw Raygun for the last time, at their triumphant New York comeback, September 12, 2009 at Music Hall of Williamsburg, their first appearance here in about 20 years—taking a well deserved bow to people who had largely missed them the first time around. I stopped having reasons to go to Chicago for the most part after the final Effigies Chicago reunion gig I saw, at Empty Bottle in 2004, though I saw his brother a few times there and back East. I didn’t know I’d never see Pierre again.
Though I did speak to him once, after that Brooklyn show. I’d heard about his stroke in 2011, so I made contact by phone. I’m especially glad, now, that we did that. Just a few months ago, not knowing he was dying, I was thinking of that San Francisco dinner, wondering when I might see him again.
I never did, because he died of the dreaded, cursed, no-good cancer on October 9. Damn cancer! But I myself can’t complain. I had my share of time with him, like so many others whose testimonies I read this week on Facebook. I am grateful I knew him—because he was just plain a good guy who was good to know. And I so greatly enjoyed the music and live evenings he was a big part of. Just about the last thing I said to him on the phone after that stroke, was “Thank you again, Pierre, for ‘Vanilla Blue.’” I know a lot of people think the same. (Sing along with me in tribute: “You’re something special/Yeah that’s for sure/You are my electric/Got a black jag for you/And that’s why I call you/My sweet vanilla blue/Lost control again today/Lost control again today.”)
My condolences to his wife Heather, who I only met a couple times but liked, his kids, and most of all, his brother John, who lives on in reality and I hope makes it to 100; cause, like Pierre, while he was ours, the world is a better place if he’s in it.
And to the many grieving Raygun devotees to whom this is a bad kick, let us perhaps together memorialize him online: A private service, given Covid, will take place Thursday, Oct. 29th, 4:30pm, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Evanston. But all others are invited to join via Zoom.
Hail friend, and farewell!