Randy 'Biscuit' Turner: the final interview
People assume I'd known Randy "Biscuit" Turner for years, that we'd been friends since Austin's punk rock heyday. I'd caught the last five or so Big Boys shows after arriving in town to attend the University of Texas in 1984, but I'd never actually met the man until a little over a month ago, when Jim "Prince" Hughes at Atomic City informed me that the legendary Big Boys frontman was preparing an art installation at the Space on Airport Boulevard.
That show fell through, but the idea to do a story on Biscuit in the Chronicle didn't (it had been on the planner for years, I'm told). I suggested that the eclectic Pedazo Chunk Video store on South First might be just the place to restage his aborted art opening. Biscuit agreed, and over the next few weeks he very kindly welcomed me in his home for the series of interviews that resulted in last week's cover story.
Enthroned in his overstuffed living room, nearly every inch of wall space covered with kaleidoscopic artwork, Biscuit spoke at length and with great warmth and evident pride about his wild life and wilder art in Austin, his adopted home since leaving Gladewater, Texas, in 1970. Over cans of soda pop, he treated me not like an intrusive journalist, but as though he'd known me for ages, reminiscing about the past and speculating about the future with a genuine twinkle in his eye. His enthusiasm was palpable and infectious.
Biscuit was thrilled about his upcoming art show he told Prince that he'd been working around the clock so I thought it strange when he didn't return a phone call from me on Tuesday, Aug. 16, four days after local photographer Todd Wolfson and I spent an afternoon shooting pictures of his work in his back yard. He didn't own a cell phone, but he'd returned my previous calls right away. When Dannie Ramirez at Pedazo Chunk mentioned the following day that Biscuit hadn't shown up to install his art as promised, I began to worry.
So did lots of other people, because when I stopped in at Atomic City Thursday morning to ask Prince if he'd seen Biscuit's mad-clown mug gracing the cover of the spanking-new Chronicle, he mentioned that he, too, hadn't been able to get hold of his friend all week and suggested I swing by Biscuit's home just to be on the safe side. I pulled up in front of Biscuit's house around 2:30pm on Thursday, Aug. 18, and knocked on the front door. No answer. I tried the knob. Locked. A FedEx package was sitting on his screened-in porch. Both his cars were in the driveway. His laundry dangled forlornly from a side-yard clothesline.
It was sweltering out, and legions of neighborhood mosquitoes were eating me alive as I walked around to the back of Biscuit's home. The back door was closed but unlocked. I opened it and tentatively poked my head in, calling out his name. It was dark in there, and hot, and far too silent. For a moment, I thought about going in, but the rising hairs on the back of my neck said call the police. So I did. He was dead, the Medical Examiner ascribing the cause to "gastrointestinal hemorrhag[ing]" the next morning. As I write this, no one knows for sure, but the assumption is he'd probably been dead since Monday. He was supposed to have gone to Atomic City to chat with Prince that day, but he never showed up.
The art show became a wake, and like the wild opening it should have been, it was a boisterous celebration of all things Biscuit. He would have loved it. What follows is the rest of the Chronicle's Randy "Biscuit" Turner interview, the parts that didn't make it into last week's issue. Barring some Big Boys break-up stories he expressly designated off-the-record and a few tangential side-trips about cars and other conversational ephemera, these are the final musings of one of Austin's most celebrated residents. Rest in peace, Biscuit.
Austin Chronicle: You moved to Austin from Gladewater in 1970.
Biscuit: I moved here in the summer of 1970 after meeting my friend Swivel at the Atlanta Pop Festival. I hitchhiked up from Gladewater, Texas, to Macon, Georgia, standing on the side of the road in Selma, Alabama, hoping not to get killed by the rednecks that kept driving by shooting us the finger. We were totally flying our freak flags at that point, but luckily we managed to catch a ride in a station wagon that had originated in Austin with nine others. So it was Texas people who picked us up in Alabama and saved our lives.
AC: What were you doing back then?
B: All through the Seventies I just was having fun, hitchhiking out to Lake Travis to go skinny dipping in between working regular jobs. I worked at Taco Bell for a while. I worked at a sand-casting iron foundry for a little bit. I worked at a florist. After that, I was just floating.
Back then I shared a house with a friend and my half of the rent came to $27.50. In 1976 I met Steve Saugey and Noel Alford, who went on to help form Esther's Follies early on. We did a big Bicentennial musical parody called Microwaves, which got me back on stage for a while. In high school and college I'd been in dramatic and comedy shows, and in fact, our high school play, Don Marquis' Archie & Mehitabel, went to state and won state. That's where I got my love of performing. That made me feel real good about who I was, so when Esther's started up shortly after I met Steve and Noel, they would call me in and I'd do a couple of songs.
AC: How did the whole Big Boys/skateboarding thing come along?
B: I'd always been into skateboarding and all that really hit back in '77. That was my big thing back then, getting with my bros and going skateboarding. We had the central Austin crew, and after the Big Boys formed, we became the first band in the world to have our own signature skate deck from [Dallas-based skateboard company] Zorlac. They're pretty rare now. If you have an original one in pretty good shape it can be worth anywhere from $700 to $1,000. As for the Big Boys, I met up with Chris [Gates], who had been in a high school band that played soul covers and did some original soul-type things, and Tim [Kerr], who had only played folk guitar before. When we formed the Big Boys, they literally flipped a coin to see who would play guitar and who would play bass, and Tim won guitar, which in the end was probably a good thing because Tim's ability to do various genres of music made us even more quirky, whereas Chris was more of a rock & roller. And it just clicked. We were really fortunate.
We presented something different. So many of the songs on the Big Boys records are vastly off-the-wall from everything else that was going on at the time, and I think our attitude had a lot to do with it. One of the main things that really pushed the Big Boys and I'll be giving them credit for this for the rest of my life is [skateboard periodical] Thrasher Magazine. They really took us under their wing. The Big Boys were the first band in America that came out and announced that we formed because we were skateboarders and we already had songs about skating within the first three sets that we ever played in our lives.
When we would go to California, when we were at the revered Whiskey a Go-Go opening for X, I'd be wearing a plain white jumpsuit which I'd pull off a few songs in to reveal a huge ballerina outfit on underneath. And all these people in L.A would be going, "What the fuck?" But, you know, they'd like us because of the attitude. The barriers were completely broken down between audience and performer. I expect you to be as goofy as I am and the whole entire event would happen to the max of our ability to have fun. We had such magic moments getting involved with all the Thrasher people, and JFA, and Ill Repute, and Drunk Injuns all those guys. That was the most hardcore, craziest crowd in America at that time, the hardcore skaters, and man, we were right in there.
We would go to San Francisco and they would come out in droves and just flock to us. I've always equated that sort of fan base to just being really lucky. I also worked my ass off, but I wasn't anything special like the golden cheese or anything. I was just trying to have fun, and it showed in the fact that we had a bit of natural, innate ability like a lot of musicians do. We just put it in a combination that spelled F-U-N.
AC: The Big Boys had a great sense of humor.
B: Right, we didn't take ourselves so pretentiously that we couldn't laugh at ourselves, either. I think that helped out a lot. When Tim used to say from the stage, "Now go start your own band," he meant that! And he still means that so much to this day. I've had hundreds of kids come up to me and testify and say, "Man, on that album [1982's Fun, Fun, Fun] it says, 'Now go start your own band,' and I did go start my own band!" When I hear that I'm like, "Can I die now? My life has been completed," you know? I am complete! So I'm very honored by the fact that as the Big Boys we got to do something and the public recognized it. What I was doing was only what I really liked to do. It wasn't a planned existence. It was just me having fun.
AC: The other amazing thing about the Big Boys was how you could get all those young punk rockers skanking to songs like Kool & the Gang's "Hollywood Swinging." You really created that whole funk/punk subgenre.
B: Well, we could play just as fast as the fastest band out there, but then we'd turn right around and play funk stuff and I'd watch those same crazy mohawks that were so hardcore start boogalooing! And I thought, "Wow, I changed your attitude for a moment, we're dancing, we're having fun, nobody's being hurt, and your looking at your friends grooving around you with the biggest smiles on their little punk rock faces." I think that kind of love is universal. It comes out of the band and goes into the audience and, you know, what you put out is going to come back to you a thousandfold.
AC: The whole Austin punk rock scene was a lot more centralized and inclusive back then, too, right? Less regimented and more free-form ...
B: Sure, but by the time the Big Boys were winding down things were beginning to change. It wasn't like punk and Oi anymore. It was that weird time in the mid-Eighties when people were going to the Beach [now the Crown & Anchor Pub] and hanging out there. And that may have been a good thing, since it seemed to be going back to where the Austin punk scene had been originally, which like you say was a much more diversified and inclusive type of scene without the Doc Martens punk rock dress code. Sometimes we embraced some of that, too, though, because we'd go out to L.A. on tour and absorb some of the punk scene out there and come back to Austin with the studded belts and handkerchiefs tied around our boots and all that. But we still continued to write more funk music and more odd rock & roll and never accepted that hardcore norm of just having unintelligible lyrics and playing as fast as you can over that same repetitive beat, because, you know, Austin didn't start out that way.
It started out with so many diversified acts and only later did the idea emerge that you had to be this type of "punk" to be cool or whatever. Between me and Chris and Tim's different personalities we won a tremendous amount of people over. Those guys were great as far as making friends with everyone immediately, from one end of this continent to the other. Wherever we went, we'd go skate the ditches with people like Minor Threat, the rocket hills and parking garages of San Francisco, and we gained unbelievable notoriety through that as well as the music. I've kept in touch with so many of the people we met back in those days, too. It's neat that I still have all those people that care about my life. For years I didn't care about my life, and that was really sad because now I know I have so much to offer. I went into a frightful depression for a while and then I pulled myself up and said, "Well, Randy, it's only you that's gonna save your life. You can sit and mope the rest of your days, or you can make something happen that entertains you and makes the joy in your heart be as great as it can be." I think that's what life is supposed to be, an open communal thing to share.
AC: Do you think that's attributable to the whole "Keep Austin Weird" artistic vibe we have here?
B: Well, Austin's been a great home to me. I really think once I got to Austin I suddenly realized that I wasn't alone in this vast sea of normalcy. There are other people like me who are artists, who have weird houses, who think different, who dress different, who say it's okay to be different. Whereas before I'd gone, "Oh, I've got to hide. I can't wear anything weird so I don't become stigmatized or something."
I couldn't care less now. I am the man that I am and I am proud of who I am. I'll wear a cowboy outfit and look like Roy Rogers in a second, but I'll slip a nice little muu-muu over that and wear it downtown. I'm not scared of the world. I'm not scared of me anymore, and I'm happy as a lark to be alive and to be still producing and to have a mind that cares to still produce. And the fact that I've got such an incredible circle of friends that challenge me, first off, by their prowess, and then the many, many who encourage me. The ones who challenge me I admire the most because sometimes I just pale in comparison to the abilities of some of my peers. I am so proud of them.
Austin has that incredible fortune to have all those people here in the middle of Texas. It wasn't always the way it is now with all the kids wearing hip-hop clothes and the advent of MTV and dying their hair. Kids nowadays have no idea how easy it is to be weird now. I'll tell you what, your fathers and mothers and people like myself, we rode that fine line of being beat the hell out of because we chose to be different. And it's so accepted now to just be odd. You don't see the frats fighting the punks these days. You can go buy the most wigged-out plaid pants at the mall now. I give credit to those kids who are buying it and are wearing it as a statement to say, "I am somebody different." I'm so proud of all the goth kids and all the industrial punks. I'm so proud of those people because they choose to step outside of the normal lines even their own peers' normal lines at age 16 to 22 and that takes a lot of guts and a lot of fortitude to say, "I am somebody and you will not tear me down. I am beautiful."
AC: Your artwork is unlike anyone else's.
B: I feel like my stuff has merit. It's more of a cartoon slant as is my life and yes, it is junk, but it's intricately put-together junk. It's all subjective. I don't expect everybody to walk up to it and say it's really cool, because a lot of people may just not like that style of art the same way there's some things I just can't stand. Whatever. I don't direct people's lives nor their minds, and if they don't like it, I'm sorry, but I'm sure trying hard. At least have an opinion on it. Don't be a Tater Tot. Even if you don't like my art, at least have an opinion and be thinking about it. I always hope everyone does like what I do, because I try so hard to make people happy, along with myself. And I hope the artwork I make, the colorfulness of it, the assemblages that they are, brings a smile to people when they see it. A lot of people do tell me that, so in some degree I'm winning.
AC: Is there an official Biscuit Philosophy of Life?
B: Get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say "I love myself." Look your friends in the eye and say "I love you." Do it this very moment. Just say "I love you." That's all you can do, just reassure each other that we are somebody and that if we are to leave today then you've left a goodness about you. We have to think something positive every waking moment of our lives. I'm nobody other than someone who just got lucky for a moment. I've gotten to do some fun things and I've worked really hard, but I've also been very, very lucky. And had the spirit inside myself to get up there and put myself on the line.
I've made a wonderful career out of my absurdity, and so many people in this city know me as being somebody that's off-the-wall. I hope I've been off-the-wall in a good way. We all slip into negativity sometimes and I do, too, but I know I must control that and try to be as pure in my heart as I can to my friends and my peers and those who've never met me. Because I may meet today for the first time in my life the person that's the most golden person that I've been looking for forever. You just have to accept that. That's fate. And hopefully those people come along every once in a while that change you and change your outlook for life.
AC: Any final thoughts?
B: I'd just like to tell everybody to believe in yourself. I know that's so clichéd, but just do something that you're proud of inside so that when you think about your life you know you're doing something good to help yourself and to help other people. That's so little to have to worry about. And it all just stems from being a good person inside and realizing that other people's emotions are steered by your thoughts and mannerisms. Don't dwell on things of the past.
A great friend of mine, Dixon Coulbourn [of online Austin punk archive Idle Time, ccwf.cc.utexas.edu/~edge/idle_time/index.php], died recently, and losing friends makes it all so true: You've got to go on, and you've got to be happy. It's sad, though, I'll guarantee you. I want to die by shitting my pants while sitting on a rocker at the old folks home at the age of 92. I'll give a grunt and just go out. Or I'd like to die in my sleep having just skateboarded a cool ramp or just got to see Minor Threat get back together. Something positive like that. I hope to get to continue making wonderful music 'til the day I breathe my last breath.
I have a joy and a fever to make things happen. And it's all so simple. Just get up and go: I'll be true today. I'll do what I'm supposed to do and not take the easy way out. Do what you're supposed to do. We've got a magic place here, so use Austin for the wonderful place that it is. And go start your own band.
A memorial service is scheduled for Randy Turner in his home town of Gladewater, Texas, this Saturday. All who wish to attend in support of his mother Nellie Turner and his family are welcome. The family wishes to express their heartfelt thanks to all his friends for their support.
The service will be held:
Saturday, Aug. 27, at 7pm
Grace Baptist Church
212 E. George Richey Rd. (FM 2275)
Gladewater, TX 75647
Arrangements are made through:
Croley Funeral Home
401 N. Center St.
Gladewater, TX 75647