Friday, August 19, 2005

No, Not Biscuit!

The other day, the Prof Dr Dr called from Switzerland to tell me he had been experiencing crushing chest pains for over 24 hours. I yelled at him until he agreed to go to the hospital. The next morning, a friend of his called me to pass on his thanks for talking him into it: tests showed he'd had a heart attack. This was sobering news; he may be a Prof Dr Dr, but he's a good ten years younger than me.

But it got worse this morning, with the news that Randy "Biscuit" Turner had been found dead in his house. According to the obit in the Austin daily, it's not being investigated as a suspicious death. What's really awful is that he was found by Marc Savlov, the writer who'd just profiled him for the Austin Chronicle, who called the cops from his cell phone and then had to undergo questioning. I have to say, the Chronicle did a great job with the cover shot.

I last saw Biscuit in March as I was going back to my hotel from the Austin Convention Center during SXSW. A skinny, tall guy in a duster, complete with leather helmet and goggles had just started a scooter (which matched the duster's color), and he said "Hey, Ed!" I didn't recognize him, but he said "It's Biscuit!" We talked for a while, and he told me about an art show that was going on that he was in, up by my hotel. For some reason I didn't get to see it, which is a shame, not only for the obvious sentimental reasons, but because the illustrations in the Chronicle story are so delightful. I hadn't seen any of his visual art in a while, and I really like this stuff.

The reason I didn't recognize him in March was that he was emaciated, drawn out, and his skin was blotchy, with lighter and darker patches. This worried me at the time, because I found myself wondering if he might be HIV-positive and had contracted some secondary infection. What I didn't know was that he had adult-onset diabetes, and, according to some friends of his, one of whom also has the condition, he clammed up recently when asked what medication he was taking.

The Biscuit I remember was the roly-poly, effervescent man about town. I wasn't really into the hardcore scene that came on in Austin after the first stirrings of punk died down, but it was hard not to be into Biscuit if you talked to him for five minutes. He was one of those genuine Texas eccentrics, who was born out in the middle of nowhere, doted on by a mother who, by all accounts, is just as weird as he was, and who hightailed it to Austin in the '70s just as fast as he could, on the blind faith that there were others like him there. There weren't, of course, but there were other weirdos, and that was just fine by him. The Big Boys were just another art project for him, at first, and I'm sure he never intended to be a revolutionary.

But the band toured, and thanks to Tim Kerr, they got interested in funk, and that's what set them apart from all the other three-chord wonders out there. They recorded sporadically, but their live shows were legendary -- and influential: they inspired loads of other bands. But Biscuit quit the band after a bad night at Liberty Lunch, the sadly-vanished club in downtown Austin. Some young nazis had shown up -- there are bunches of them in some of the outlying towns near Austin, and they have their own punk bands -- and they'd started a fight. Biscuit yelled from the stage to have them thrown out, and it happened. "I was horrified," he told me afterwards. "I'd become an authority figure, something I swore I'd never do." He retired to his house to make art.

My own favorite memory of him comes from the weekend before I moved here to Germany. A woman I knew from SXSW was marrying her long-time boyfriend, and they wanted a ceremony, but hated the idea of getting a minister. I mentioned that I was a Universal Life minister, thanks to the quick application of a couple of bucks and a letter to California after I'd read about the church in the underground press sometime in the '60s, and that I was, therefore, allowed to preside over a legal wedding. I'd done it once before, in fact. They thought this was a brilliant solution, because they wanted Biscuit to do the ceremony, but he wasn't legal. So I signed the paperwork, said a few words, and then Biscuit got up and delivered a speech that put tears in everyone's eyes. He said it must be scary for the parents and their friends to come to this warehouse space where all these punk kids played, and to mingle with these cultural oddballs, but the reason they'd come was that two of these punk-rockers had actually fallen in love and decided to get married to each other -- how square! How beautiful! How normal! So maybe we all had more in common than we thought! It was a virtuoso performance, made all the better after he cornered me afterwards and said "Man, I was wingin' it up there!" But he'd taken flight anyway.

Of course, you couldn't keep him off the stage, and he had a succession of other bands in recent years. Apparently he'd just come back from a tour of Japan with one of them, which is an intriguing image: Biscuit in front of a Japanese audience. He also had an art show opening in Austin this weekend at a gallery, which is probably what kick-started the Chron story. That and the fact that it's mid-August.

Right now, his friends are wondering what will become of his art. He never sold anything, preferring to stash it in his house in South Austin. Nobody knows if he had a will, and nobody wants his siblings getting at the stuff. In fact, that's another point of tension: apparently Biscuit was the only one of the kids who took any care of his mother, and his friends are also worried about her. I'm reading the e-mails as they come in, and hoping this all turns out okay. Bad enough to lose Biscuit, but for his legacy to disappear would be horrifying.

Randy "Biscuit" Turner, 1946-2005. R.I.P.

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