BY ELIZABETH L. KINKEAD
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism,” writes Vaclav Havel, playwright and president of the Czech Republic, in the October 1993 issue of Esquire. “It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
Paul K, songwriter and leader of Paul K and the Weathermen, would agree. People who know or have met Paul would definitely not characterize him as optimistic. The multi-shades of gray that he customarily wears seem outward manifestations of the worry and doubt that fill his mind. Yet it is his conviction that life unfolds according to a meaningful design that has kept his eyes unwaveringly fixed upon his music for the past ten years. Unlike some of the rest of us, he knows without question where he fits into the vast design.
Paul approaches his art like a soldier enlisted into battle. The dissemination of his music through “the organs of information transfer” (the media) can be thought of as a direct attack on the opposing forces, whom Paul has referred to as “the scribes, the Pharisees, the politicians, the generals, the engineers, the evil magicians.” When he is not in the thick of this battle, when he is not on the road or in the studio, he watches the footage at home. CNN, Montel, Nightline, and others broadcast a grim picture. Widespread violence, abuse, political corruption, deviant sex, moral and financial bankruptcy and natural disaster are some of the forms the enemy takes, and the reason why Paul sings, “Sometimes even in total silent darkness, still I can’t sleep.”
But these realities only reinforce the exigencies of Paul’s work. In fact, it would not be too fantastic to say Paul considers himself one of the good guys working to divest a grand-scale conspiracy of evil. The perception that his music somehow serves as a formidable weapon against these conspirators is the reason why he writes the liner notes of his albums in the form of “progress reports.” In that each new collection of songs reaffirms his continued commitment to, and faith in, the value of his music, each release inches him closer to victory.
His attitude may strike some as pompous, self-important, delusional, or possibly symptomatic of an overexposure to John LeCarre novels and mafia movies. But te obstacle-course-like topography of his life puts his outlook disconcertingly into perspective. Despite numerous setbacks, disappointments and losses, Paul K keeps moving forward.
The roller-coaster ride began in 1980, when Paul came from his home in Detroit to UK as a debate scholarship student. Two years later, he quit school and moved to New York. “I was bored with college,” he explains, “and wanted to move there ever since I saw it on a debate trip.” Paul spent three years in New York City working odd jobs, living on subways, and even playing some with the late bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius. Having groomed himself for the role, Paul moved back to Lexington “to get out of trouble,” and form the band that was then known as The Johnsons.
During the next nine years, he traveled over a long stretch of bumpy and unpredictable terrain. He has alternately risen to the crests of record contracts, European tours, CD releases, a Rolling Stone article, and publication advances — and plummeted into the depths of drug addiction, illness, legal troubles, and poverty. I could fill in the details surrounding these events, but the details always seem to divert attention away from his art to heroin and petty crime. That he has survived all of his experiences with his health and his band intact is the most remarkable part of his story and is what lends credibility to his seemingly outlandish world view.
When I first learned of Paul’s conspiracy theories, I must admit I was dubious. But after witnessing a sequence of events and their aftermath in New York City, what once seemed like figments of Paul’s imagination became real. Last November, I drove in a rental band with him and his band – solid bass player Steve Poulton and drummer Eric Tunison, member of Touch-n-Go punk band Die Kruzen — to the new CMJ (College Music Journal) convention in New York. there, the band was to meet its newest member, British harmonica player Luke Wurmli, who was making his first trip to the States.
Dutifully, New York lived up to its reputation, and all of the band’s equipment was stolen out of the van soon after we arrived. Not only were thousands of dollars lost, but the critical moment of national exposure was at stake. This was more than bad luck; it was as if the band were being sabotaged by some unknown force. Nevertheless, they mustered all their defenses, borrowed instruments, and played what music columnist Ira Robbins enthusiastically described as “overpoweringly loud, aggressive music that rarely lost its articulate focus.” Furthermore, everyone in the band later got new equipment, largely funded by Silenz, their record company. What could have been a devastating loss turned into a lucrative windfall. In Paul’s terms, it is an example of good triumphing over evil.
Paul K and the Weathermen are still riding high. The band just returned from an 18-city tour with a Cincinnati group, The Afghan Whigs, who have recently landed a contract with Elektra, and appeared in such mainstream magazines as Newsweek and Spin.
What’s more, the third Weathermen CD (fifth Paul K major release) entitled The Garden of Forking Paths, came out in January. The new album, which takes its title from the Jorge Luis Borges short story, epitomizes the diversity of Paul K’s music. Often hard to describe, the band’s style is somehow akin to the mixed tapes that Paul constantly dubs and redubs according to what he likes during any given week. On a single side, he compiles such unlikely artists as Madonna, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Townes Van Zandt, Gutterball, Liz Phair, Primal Scream, Gram Parsons, Jim Carroll, and The Beach Boys. Like Paul K’s records, it is the very disparity of these selections that makes them equally cohesive and listenable.
These substantial achievements, however, do not seem enough to rouse the attention of the Lexington public. The Herald-Leader has chosen to virtually ignore Paul, and people around here do not stampede to Weathermen shows like they do to see other Lexington mainstays like Groovezilla or 10-Foot Pole. Paul cannot account for the paper’s apathy, but he believes his band doesn’t bring in sell-out crowds because “we’re an art-rock band, not a party band.”
“For lack of a better term,” he explains, “art-rock is music appeals to the brains rather than the gonads.” Even though Lexington has not heartily embraced his music, he stays because “it’s cheap, relaxing, and a nice place to live.” He admits that he wouldn’t mind living in Austin or Minneapolis but adds, “I don’t prefer one place over another, so long as it’s not New York.” Lexington’s verdant countryside, easy lifestyle, and Southern friendliness seem utopic compared to the jungle-like environs of other cities.
When at home, Paul rarely leaves the house. If he is not on the phone (his phone bill often exceeds the rent), he is either watching CNN or obsessively reading from cover to cover one of the many news or music magazines that he stockpiles. He also pores over all sorts of books, including the Bible and abstruse mathematical texts, but he favors the writing of Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy and, most recently, Carl Hiassen. All of this reading and media consumption makes Paul, to borrow a phrase from poet/novelist Jim Harrison, “an absolute living, fucking bookcase,” not to mention a top-notch Jeopardy player.
Aside from his music and a flair for trivia, Paul K possesses many other improbable talents. He is both a homemaker and an athlete. He can make “smokin'” omelettes and pesto; he is an excellent ice skater and a competent tennis player (in spite of the fact that he does not own a pair of tennis shoes). He does flawless impressions of SNL’s Linda Richman, Joe Pesci, George Bush, and assorted people about town, most notably Tony Briggs, of former Lexington band Vale of Tears, and Jimmy Cummins, former Weathermen drummer, currently doing time with the Nancy Druids.
Contrary to what his gaunt physique, shadowy attire and doleful lyrics might suggest, Paul K is not all doom and gloom. Yes, he would say, the world is in a state of crisis, burt fortunately we don’t have to fool with that monstrosity; we only need to work with what is more wieldy — state of mind. The problem with the world is not economic or political mismanagement says Paul. “It is fundamentally a lack of love — love supplanted by naked greed.”
The creative force behind his music derives from the hope that, in its transmission through the media channels, it can lift enough people’s hearts to begin to reverse this pattern. That Paul writes songs more often than you and I write grocery lists and that he never questions their quality or worth is evidence of his unflagging hope. Paul will never abandon his music because it is a labor of love. Even in the face of war-like conditions, Paul K, like Vaclav Havel, knows that “life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and finally without hope.”
Elizabeth L. Kinkead is a freelance writer living in Versailles.
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