14. Romeo Unchained – Tonio K.
ROMEO UNCHAINED (1986)
It’s a jungle out there
It used to be a garden
So begins the “greatest album of all time!”
For the uninitiated the above quote is a paraphrase from the opening line from every review Tonio K ever received in “Stereo Review” magazine. There are many of fans and critics that believe the above statement is not that far from the truth. Steve Krikorian (Tonio K) may not have been the greatest songwriter of the 1980′s but he was the very best “pop” songwriter of that decade and beyond.
Krikorian also crafted the finest pop record of the decade and one of the two or three best album during that time…period! “Romeo Unchained” is sheer brilliance, class, guts and wit rolled into the very best “relationship” album any Christian has ever produced. There are measures of grace displayed between women and men that is a subject rarely tread upon.
But for those familiar with Toni K, that is a far distance from his songwriting and performance roots.
After years of bands that “almost made it” and a stint with the “post Holly” version of the Crickets as well as gaining a top shelf reputation as songwriter and performer, Steven Krikorian stuck out on his own and took on the moniker Tonio K, which is an homage to the writing of Thomas Mann and Kafka. He was immediately dubbed the “next big thing” and America’s answer to Elvis Costello. One reviewer called him the “funniest serious songwriter” for his penchant to write serious and heavy songs with wit, charm, sarcasm and caustic bite.
That first solo album, “Life in the Foodchain” is a classic in punk rock standards. This is not the punk of Dead Kennedy’s, Circle Jerks or Iggy Pop, but the music of high energy rock with the mindset of punk. It is rebellious and caustic, angry and smart. The songs seemed to stem from the ego of man who had been bruised and beaten by the opposite sex and he was going to take it out on half of the human population.
Songs like “H-A-T-R-E-D” take all the venom of every man who has been hurt or rejected and in a quick 4 minutes releases that pent-up resentment in a vomitous display of retribution. This one is real punk replete with expletives. He even admits in the lyrics that he is acting like a child and throwing a temper tantrum on vinyl. But there is always something behind the smirk that makes you think the obvious is not the point.
Most of the songs are a little direct in their venom than the previous like the hysterical “How Come I Can’t See You in My Mirror.”
Just think about it for a minute.
how come i can’t see you in my mirror?
how come you never come around here ‘cept at night?
how come you won’t say where your family lives
and you always look so pale?
how come you’ve got that crazy look there in your eyes?
Other songs like “Better Late Than Never” is less caustic and more just a sad expression of selfish love. In the midst of this “break up” song the conflicted singer struggles with selfish desires and what is best both parties.
put up the flag and lay down your weapon
this perpetual battle royal here
is a long way from heaven
call it a mistake or call it whatever
let’s just call it off
better late than never
When not examining the frailties of human relationships he pokes a poison pen at the human condition. The title track expresses the futility in like, not unlike a certain writing by King Solomon, where everyone eventually just becomes part of the foodchain, whether literally or metaphorically. To quote Norm from Cheers: “It’s a dog eat dog world, and I’m wearing milkbone underwear.”
The one semi-hit I remember hearing in 1978 on the world-famous KROQ and the Rodney Bingenheimer show was “The Funky Western Civilization.” I conducted on interview (read: hung out and had a beer) with Krikorian in which he expressed that he had always had a knowledge of God, Christ and believed the Bible in some respects even during this time period, he had just never understood the “grace” of God. I say that to note that like Dylan and Kerry Livgren there were also songs in which there is a search for truth or desire to find some sanity in a crazy world. “Funky Western Civilization” is that kind of song.
well there’s a riot in the courthouse, there’s a fire in the street
there’s a sinner bein’ trampled by a thousand pious feet
there’s a baby every minute bein’ born without a chance
now don’t that make you want to jump right up and start to dance?
let’s do the funky
the funky western civilization
it’s really spunky
it’s just like summertime vacation
you just grab your partner by the hair
throw her down and leave her there
they put jesus on a cross, they put a hole in j.f.k.
they put hitler in the driver’s seat and looked the other way
now they’ve got poison in the water and the whole world in a trance
but just because we’re hypnotized, that don’t mean we can’t dance
Despite an overwhelming critical response and a loyal and growing fan base the album would be considered just a moderate success. That would continue to follow Krikorian for most of his solo career. His follow-up, 1980′s “Amerika,” continued in the same impressive punk rock fashion. More political but just as angry, this album was hailed as “punk rock for academics.” Stereo Review would once again proclaim it the greatest album ever! It’s lack of commercial success – again a crime against humanity – would cause Krikorian to joke (?) that it was the first time he committed suicide.
There are some amazing songs on this record that have lost to obscurity and it is just a shame. “Say Goodbye” is a song Springsteen wishes he could have written while “Cinderella’s Baby” is simply strikingly beautiful and someone needs to rediscover this gem and cover it.
The highlight of “Amerika” is the “should have been” punk classic “Trouble.” This must be the best anti-war punk song as no one is safe from Krikorian’s view finder.
i wake up every morning
i go to sleep each night
the communists, moslems
and warmonger texans
are still tryin’ to ruin’ my life
’cause all the king’s horses and all the
and all the king’s idiot sons
ain’t never in all of their glorious battles
solved anything with a gun
(you just can’t do it)
you’re just askin’ for
trouble it’s in every single headline
trouble i can’t believe it
trouble every day another hard time
trouble i don’t need it
Finally, someone has to explain to me how the song “Girl Crazy” was never a hit…crazy! If it had been recorded by Springsteen, Mellencamp or even Willie Nelson it would be called a classic.
Two years later things were looking up as Krikorian signed a deal with a major label, Capitol Records, and recorded and released an EP called La Bomba. Hopes were high. Recorded live in the studio with his touring band. Though the commercial success never materialized the EP did include a song that would remain a live concert favorite for years, “Mars Needs Women.” It may rank as the greatest break up song in history next to Ben Fold’s “Song for the Dumped.”
Fans of The Swirling Eddies, DA or The 77′s should really try to track down some of Tonio K’s early music. Just know going in what the content is like be prepared.
Then there was four years of recorded silence. Krikorian continued to write sonmgs for others and had begun building friendships with many of the “disenfranchised” Christian artists who did not fit the mold of popular CCM like Leslie Phillips, T-Bone Burnett and Mark Heard. He had songs placed on mainstream Christian artists albums like Benny Hester and Burnett and Heard recorded some of his music.
In 1985 some close friends of these artist that were working at the Myrrh Los Angeles offices started a sub-label in connection with A&M Records called What? Records. The label’s purpose was to be a home to artist who did not fit the CCM mold and would be a haven for more commercial, mainstream oriented artists with spiritual messages. The label was short-lived but released four of the greatest albums in Christian music including two from Tonio K, Mark Heard’s iDEoLa and Dave Perkins’ “The Innocence.”
Some albums on this list are here because of their impact on the industry while others for its intrinsic and lasting value. “Romeo Unchained” is present quite frankly because it is simply one of the greatest records of all time and a true artistic achievement. There is not one misplaced note, not one word too few or too many. There are not too many perfect albums, but this one comes as close as possible.
The theme of loves lost and found is not new as the above reviews of earlier projects can attest to. But in those silent four years a change took place in Krikorian. The beliefs he had for years became faith. According to the interview I had with him right after of the release of “Romeo Unchained” he had discovered grace for the first time in his life. He had also found love. The real kind. And rather than songs of frustration, anger and revenge, there are songs of grace, commitment and hope.
That does not mean that he pushed aside the caustic wit and smart and stinging lyrics. Here the pen is pointed against a world that wants to tear down and destroy the love God has provided. The victim of Tonio K’s previous work are now the ones he defends. The whole album appears to be a picture of the juxtaposition of true love and the facade the world offers.
I should also note that “Romeo Unchained” may have one of the best album covers ever. The images of half a man as mannequin, the made up attractive woman and iron display the struggles of modern women and the battle for the real and eternal they seek. All with K-9 (Tonio K.) observing this turmoil. There is a little story about K-9 I will mention later.
The album was highly praised in both secular and Christian circles. Rolling Stone Magazine would even rave that it was the best Bob Dylan album since Bob Dylan lost interest in pop music. T-Bone Burnett handled much of the production and cast of LA heavyweights lent their talents in the studio including David Mansfield (Dylan) and David Miner (T-Bone Burnett) and David Raven and Tim Chandler of DA/Swirling Eddies.
“True Confessions” kicks off the album with pounding drums and bass and interspersed guitars. The song bemoans the lost loves and the those seeking real love and only finding love for the “fallen.” The song attacks the way a twisted and depraved world promotes a false and fading love while the true “lovers” have to stand against that tide.
it’s a jungle out there
used to be a garden
but the times got tough
and now all those innocent hearts have hardened
you’ve got cain and abel
you’ve got jack and jill
they’re out looking for love
on a saturday night in a coupe de ville
But the spark of hope is found in a committed and non-self driven love. The song also points to need for couples to be a team and fight the pressures and attacks of the world together.
it’s just you and me baby
in the danger zone
we’re out looking for permanent love
in the middle of a city full of broken homes
where all the boys want to use you
and all the girls want to cry
and nothing works like it used to
and you can’t remember your lines
The first single, “Perfect World” went on to be covered by two other artist with one charting with the single. This beautiful ballad has one of the most memorable choruses. But it is, in fact, a break up song. But rather than the angry and bitter misogynist of “H-A-T-R-E-D” here we have a man struggling to come to grips with a love that has faded yet wanting to hold on the person. These are real emotions, not sanitized for CCM consumption.
we’re dying for love but we’re afraid to drop our guard
we’re lost in a world gone crazy
where the men won’t grow up and the women get so hard
i don’t know if we’ll wind up friends
i don’t know if we’ll wind up strangers
cause i’ve never had to walk away from anybody
i wanted as much as you
If there is a title track for the album it would be “Romeo and Jane.” This humorous exposition on star-crossed lovers and the wake they leave behind. Two famous couple in literary lore are used by Krikorian to describe the situation. Romeo and Jane hook up leaving Tarzan and Juliet on the outs. This picture of unfaithfulness and self-absorbed obsession needs the humor to inflict the right amount of poignancy.
now in a world full of hurt how can anybody blame them
and in the heat of wild love how can anybody tame them
they have fallen east of eden now
good love gone bad
bad love gone wild
wild love gone mad
mad love out of control
Rather than lost love “You Belong To Me” deals with new love and the conflicting emotions attached to the process of building a relationship. Again it is important to compare the grace and protective nature of Krikorian here against the previous positions he expressed. He is not looking to dominate and own but love and cherish.
now i can tell
you’re so afraid
you’ve been lied to and taken for granted
and treated like some kind of slave
i’m not after your freedom, i’m after your heart
and i know it’s gonna happen
and i knew it right from the start
what happens to people in love is some kind of mystery
yeah but what passes for love on the streets these days is a joke
so when people like us finally stumble into each other
we’ve got to hold on tight, gotta never, never let go
“Impressed” is simply brilliant songwriting. Taking the earlier theme of famous couples in history, Krikorian expresses how their great loves pale in comparison to the love he has for his woman. The ultimate point being that they have nothing to live up to and that the fantasy of the great couples in history is no true standard to hold up and strive to compare to. Guitars on this song were performed by prodigy Charlie Sexton who would also cover the song.
romeo and juliet
louis and ms. antoinette
napoleon and josephine
mickey and the rodent queen
antony and cleopatra
nicholas and alexandra
ken and barbie, dick and jane
superman and lois lane
i am not impressed
i love you the best
i am not impressed
it’s a bunch of losers
a lot of fools
a list of victims
not all that cool
and we’ve got nothing in this world
to live up to
Taking a brief rabbit trail from human relationship Krikorian looks at the foolishness man will do in order to perceive a relationship with God. The song is not “out-of-place” as some have stated, but rather a look at a different kind of relationship and foolish and unneeded. Plus “I Handle Snakes” is just a darn great song! This may be where Krikorians wit and caustic humor shine the best.
the lord of hosts
has got to like me
else this thing here
(this one right here)
would surely strike me
the one man lays down 10 percent
another man trembles and quakes
i save my money
i handle snakes (y’all)
Note in the opening line above how the singer believes he will find love from God. This is a sad indictment not just on the silly practice of “snake handling” but on the lengths men and women will go to believe they can achieve some sort greater love from God by “doing” things. It misses the point of grace.
By the way, the song has a killer guitar solo!
Returning to the more human aspect of love, Krikorian describes the results of fear from past failed relationships in “Emotional War Games.” Earning the transparent heart of another is the most difficult part of any relationship. Keeping ourselves closed off to others leaves us lonely and loveless. So we begin playing with others emotions in order to not have our own feelings put in jeopardy.
she says she loves me
but she’s feelin’ so bad
she can’t seem to trust me
she’s been hurt so bad in the past
so she tries to control me
keep me in chains
cause she’s so afraid
i won’t come back again
these emotional war games
in the name of love
before everybody loses
But more here than on any other song on the album Krikorian recognizes the need for a supernatural intervention.
lord teach me patience
show me the way
teach us forgiveness
before it’s too late
because i want my baby
and she wants me too
but if we don’t stop fighting
lord we’re all through
I know I have pointed this out several times already, but for those familiar with his earlier works, to see this change is really miraculous. The power of the Gospel is not just in “saving” a soul, but in changing a person. A man who fought to be the emotional game victor here is humble, patient and loving. The impact of the Gospel through song does not always have to come through the number of time Jesus is mentioned and through an altar call in three and a half minutes, but through the presence of witnessing a transformation of one impacted by the Gospel.
“Living Doll” describes the facade a beautiful girl will place before the adoring throng. though impressed by her beauty people do not see the hurt and loneliness this living doll hides. He describes the games played to keep the truth away from anyone and steps one will take to even experience something resembling love. This woman is not real, but simply a “doll.” But hope spring eternal when true love is found.
it was a miracle when she came to life
when true love cut through the pain like a knife
now when the coast is clear and the past is buried
who knows, she might even get married, cause
1. she kinda met this guy
2. he ain’t perfect but he’s all right
3. now she can’t wait for him to call
4. he kinda likes her too
5. she ain’t perfect but he says she’ll do
6. he keeps her picture on the wall
’cause he thinks she’s a living doll
“You Don’t Belong Here” is one of Tonio K’s strongest story songs and contains some of the most obvious “Gospel” messages. Fixed within the albums theme of love lost and found, here true love is an honest conversation about someone’s eternal plight. Lost in a world that hates the creator and a war rages on between this world and the Lord that loves it.
ain’t this some congregation
ain’t this some kind of crowd
they spit in the eye of creation
they’re so educated and proud
their plans are outrageous
and the tales are so tall
the conversation’s contagious
but the talk is so small
the sidewalks and the streets are overflowing with dread
and every night down here’s the night of the living dead
But hope is not lost. Despite our sinful nature declares us “king of the world” as self-serving sinners…
she told him who the king of the world really was
she told him to pack his bags
The album closes with “You Will Go Free.” Some Christian radio stations with enough vision played the song despite its length (the album version lasting over 6 minutes while the single version lasted just about 5 minutes). This beautiful acoustic ballad supported by T-Bone Burnett sounds the most like Dylan both musically and lyrically.
you’ve been a prisoner
been a prisoner all your life
held captive in an alien world
where they hold your need for love to your throat like a knife
and they make you jump
and they make you do tricks
they take what started off such an innocent heart
and they break it and break it and break it
until it almost can’t be fixed
well i don’t know when
and i don’t know how
i don’t know how long it’s gonna take
i don’t know how hard it will be
but i know
you will go free
Here Krikorian recognizes the frailty of the human condition and their captivity to sin and their ultimate need to be released from the shackles that hold them down.
now you can call it the devil
call it the big lie
call it a fallen world
whatever it is, it ruins almost everything we try
it’s the sins of the fathers
it’s the choices we make
it’s people screaming without making a sound
from these prison cells in paradise
where we’re chained to our mistakes
The hope though is not found in self but in the One who can release man from his shackles…
but in the midst of all this darkness
in the middle of this night
i see the truth cut through this curtain like a laser
like a pure and holy light
and i know i can’t touch you now
and i don’t want to speak too soon
but when we get sprung
from out of these cages baby
god knows what we might do…
i know the truth will set you free
That truth finishes this amazing album. Musically creative and memorable, lyrically captivating and honest. Very few records reach this level. One of the great crimes is that Tonio K never received the attention and recognition so richly deserved.
I learned a lesson in grace within a relationship myself directly because of this record. After interviewing Steven right after the release of “Romeo Unchained” he for some reason took a liking to this 20 year old college kid and invited me to a concert and gave me one of the 25 K-9 ceramic dogs that were were handmade one at a time by his wife. K-( is the dog on the cover of the album and was used as a prop in all marketing and on stage during the concert.
I had the gift for several years before I got married. Soon after I was married I came home to find K-9 missing. My new bride loved the little gift as well as a very rare and cool piece of memorabilia. But as the story unfolded the cord from the vacuum cleaner got twisted aound the feet of the statue and…
A very quick lesson in grace…