Okay, look, I know I promised all you faithful Crawling Ear readers my long-awaited “Adventures In Meeting (And Not Meeting) Various Ramones” piece today, but I must postpone that pile of gabba gabba hoeey until next week. I know, I’m awful, a real son of a horse farmer, but today truly belongs to another American musician who’s just as interesting and almost as influential as Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, Curly, Cheetah, Woogums, and Snuggles. You see, my friends, today would have been the sixty-third birthday of famed underground rocker Root Boy Slim. Root Boy Slim first came to my attention via Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, the controversial 1979 NBC television special created by “Saturday Night Live” writer Michael O’Donoghue that never actually aired. The seventy-five minute production, which included scenes of cats being thrown into a swimming pool and Dan Aykroyd’s disgusting webbed toes, ended up finding an audience on home video years later. A copy sat collecting dust on the shelves of the video store I worked at in college. I knew who Mr. Mike was and thought he was pretty funny, so one day I took Mondo Video home to check the damn thing out.
Amidst the general weirdness was Root Boy, a pudgy, stringy-haired rocker in spandex, cape, and giant novelty glasses that spelled out the word “STONED.” His raspy performance of the generic bar rocker “Boogie ‘Til You Puke” (complete with all-too-real hacking near the end) seemed like some kind of joke with no real punch line. Still, there was determination in this strange fat man’s eyes. He was convinced that he was some kind of rock star. The way he looked into the camera and dragged his finger across the bottom of those stupid glasses to highlight the fact that he was in fact most likely stoned…it was hilariously arrogant. Root Boy became something of an obsession for me and my friends that year (1998). Who was he? Where did he come from? Was there more Root Boy to be had?
The answer to those questions in order: Root Boy Slim was born Foster MacKenzie III in Asheville, North Carolina, on July 9, 1945. He went to Yale, where he majored in African American Studies and belonged to the same fraternity as George W. Bush. Some time in the late seventies, MacKenzie adopted the name Root Boy Slim and formed the Sex Change Band with various D.C. area musicians. Their raucous 1978 self-titled debut boasted a hard blues sound and the self-deprecating humor of Root Boy himself. Songs like “My Wig Fell Off,” “I’m Not Too Old For You,” and “Heartbreak of Psoriasis” painted the picture of a drunken, bumbling fool who just happened to stumble in front of a rock band. Root Boy was also responsible for the hilarious Yuletide hit “Christmas at Kmart” (“That lingerie counter was grab and go/shoplifter’s bags on overflow!”).
The precursor to 80s cult hillbilly Mojo Nixon, Root Boy Slim never managed to get his sleazy act over on the public here or anywhere else. Still, he had a loyal and rabid fan base who kept his delightful creep shtick going in clubs and bars around America for years to come. Root recorded a few more albums (including 1983’s strangely named Dog Secrets and 1987’s Don’t Let This Happen To You) and continued to generally act a musical fool (save his 1992 plea to help the homeless, “Hey Mr. President”). Sadly, the silliness of Slim could not go on forever. On June 8, 1993, four days after the start of an east coast tour with the Sex Change Band and one month before his forty-eighth birthday, Root Boy Slim died in his sleep in his Orlando, FL, apartment. The culprit? Hard livin’, pure and simple.
The last year I lived in Orlando, I was convinced I inhabited the apartment where Root Boy died. I never saw his ghost or anything and there was never any strange phenomenon, but how else can you explain the overwhelming desire I woke up with every day to put on a cape and dance around the living room with a harmonica and a bottle of cheap whiskey? Numerous trips to the Orange County Hall of Records yielded no conclusive proof. I didn’t need no fancy papers, though. My gut told me Root Boy’s wild spirit was all over the walls of that roach infested hellhole. Foster MacKenize was all up in my synapses, commanding me to shirk responsibility and not bathe for weeks on end.
The freak musician who hopped the White House fence in 1969 while tripping balls on LSD (Root explained to Secret Service agents that he was “looking for the center of the universe”) lives on in cyberspace, too, at the official Root Boy Slim website. There you can buy the digitally remastered CD of Root’s second album Zoom (featuring “Do the Gator” and “Dare to be Fat”). You can also pick up the “Christmas at Kmart” single, which has been out of print for years (attention vinyl geeks: it’s a picture sleeve).
Here’s to you, Root, and all the wackiness you served up over the years. Wish you’d made it to sixty-three. The world needs your yuks now more than ever. Your frat brother George has really done a number on all of us.
Do yourself a favor, kids – click this shit right here, turn your speakers up, and boogie ‘til you puke.
James writes his Crawling Ear column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.