Kenny Kleist, Then and Now
This is a test, Kenny. Don’t worry, it gets worse.
An old friend and fellow Evergreen Blueshoes member and I have been pepper-spraying each other with emails for the past years, and it’s time to try to fuck him up with a post.
Kenny Kleist, organist, trumpet and sax player, guitar picker, singer and general Renaissance-man musician, was my favorite band-member when I had my folk-rockish group 45 years ago. I can’t say he was the most important to me; that had to be Skip Batten, my bassist-lead singing charismatic co-leader, because Skip provided what I didn’t have and never had: a good voice, stage leadership and sex appeal.
But Kenny and I hit it off in many other ways: we were the most “serious” musicians in the band, aside from the procession of drummers that passed thru Skip’s garage doors in the two years we were all together. I always felt that his organ playing and strategic trumpet licks, and my folky-country-picking style and songwriting ability had the most to do with what made the ‘Shoes unique, and, for a hot minute, one of the most watched bands in the LA Underground scene in 1968. This was the time when the underground scene in general was what was happening, as we used to say.
Kenny, photo-opped above doing his one-man band thing, is a seasoned, all-round musician, who understands and approaches the craft in a meat-and-potatoes way: you learn the song the best you can and play it in front of people as soon as you think you can get away with it.
When we started Evergreen Blueshoes (not my choice for a name, btw, but Kim Fowley’s) we got gigs right away, but that meant having to have a repertoire big enough to fill up five sets a night without repeating. We hadn’t been together as a fivesome long enough to have rehearsed very much, so we were often playing tunes for the first or second time in front of people who were paying to see us. Kenny was very calm about that, even if he didn’t like it, and as he was set up next to me on stage, kept me from flipping out with confusion and guilt more than once. Btw, this was where Skip was at his best: leading a five-piece band in a song they’d never played before in front of a crowd, and pulling it off. As I said, we got gigs right away.
Pictured here is part of our 1968 album cover. You see Kenny playing recorder from the trees above while the rest of us cavort with some lovelies for an early nude album cover. He does this because his wife, Carole, is afraid someone in Shiocton, Wi, may see him. We should have been so lucky. (Btw, that’s Chet McCracken, later drummer with the Dooby Brothers in the middle with his girl friend, Deborah Walley, of Gidget fame. Skip Batten, hidden here, later played bass with the Byrds).
Kenny and I had a whole life together apart from the band. He helped my run my father’s property rentals when Dad got a heart attack, which included, but was not limited to repairing roofs, replacing windows and patrolling, with me, one of the less savory locations with shotguns and thermoses full of coffee laced with Southern Comfort. Were we smart, or what?
He also fixed my car and showed me how to do all sorts of things he’d learned on the farm: use a block and tackle, fix electrical connections. In return I helped him as much as I could move his organ from gig to gig, because unlike the rest of us, his instrument was more than one person could handle. I also dipped into my part of whatever we made to help him and his family out. After all, I had only one mouth to feed; he had four.
Spiritually, we seemed to have been kindred souls for some reason or other, tho we came from radically different backgrounds, me from an over-protecting Jewish household, him from a fend-for-yourself farm family. But we both saw life as an ongoing adventure, a procession of wonder-moments that always sparkled if you knew how to look at them and always had some new lesson or entertainment or woman or you-tell-me whatever to present. Kenny was great looking, and could have gotten all the tail he ever wanted, especially since Skip often introduced him as beloved by the women because he had a foot-long tongue and couldn’t smell. (The last part was true; for some reason, Kenny had no olfactory function whatsoever). But he was loyal to Carole, and tried hard to avoid many encounters with “something strange,” as he called non-curricular tail.
Here we are, as pictured on our album liner. We’re the bottom two in the middle (my name was Rosenberg then).
The shot at the beginning of this post, of Kenny on stage with all his instruments and other equipment, is vinatge in every way: lots of axes and amps, his own P.A. system and a jar for tips which is behind him. The very fact that he’s doing his thing in his seventies, is probably the most illustrative statement of who he is. Although when he gets off-stage he might very well pack into the woods, convert a tractor-trailer rig into a an automatic guitar string winder or make love to an Eskimo. He’s that kind of guy, I kid you not, as he would say.