Tuesday, March 24, 2009
The X-Streams - A Story of Sex, Drugs and 2-Tone Ska in early 80's Arizona
In my continuing quest to document and chronicle the thriving ska bands and ska scenes that existed in the U.S. during the late 70's and early 80, my journey has taken me someplace completely unexpected: Arizona.
I've been to Phoenix, Arizona once before. What I remember was the searing desert heat and suburban sprawl. The only other thing I know about Arizona was its ongoing reluctance to ratify Martin Luther King Jr's birthday as a U.S. national holiday throughout the 1980's and 1990's. Its a fairly conservative place and home to Senator John McCain. Truth be told, Arizona was the last place I expected to discover a very talented and popular multi-racial ska band who were central to an early 80's Arizona-based ska scene. The X-Streams played 2-Tone era tinged reggae and ska. Sadly, the band's moniker said more about them than they might have intended.
The story of The X-Streams is a difficult one to tell. The band never achieved the kind of broad popularity or success that they deserved. Sadly, the band was plagued by infighting, drug addiction, a nasty love triangle involving the singer and the band's two guitarists and a penchant for self-destruction that seemed to keep them from ever reaching their full musical potential. Nevertheless, they made a mark for themselves in Arizona and L.A. and are best remembered for their raw and edgy take on new wave styled ska that was very reminiscent of The Selecter.
In the early 80's there were four local reggae/ska bands in the Phoenix area: Driftwood (strictly reggae), The Effects (reggae/ska), Tropic Shock (mostly ska)and The X-Streams (mostly ska). Bob Steinhilber (drums) co-founded the X-Streams with Peter Tessensohn (guitar), Steve Kriol (bass) and Lorraine Springer, a young black woman from Trinidad on lead vocals. Springer had met Kriol in California and travelled with him to Arizona to start the band. The addition of local guitarist Kurt Mayberry was the final ingredient that made things take off for the band, but also complicated its future. According to a 1995 interview that Steinhilber did with The Phoenix New Times, "We had Kurt come along, and from the git-go, it was just great. I've played in a lot of bands, and for some reason, this just clicked right away. . . . I didn't know him to be a heavy drug user; all of that was hidden from me. I guess he had a side of him that he was loath to reveal. He was so talented, he had a style, he played guitar like nobody ever did."
According to Greg Noiz, a Phoenix-based musician I contacted who played in Tropic Shock, The X-Streams were among the best bands he ever saw. "I saw the X-Streams in their original incarnation at a club in nearby Scottsdale called the Razberry Rhinoceros. These folks had a somewhat sinister reputation for drug use and onstage quarrelling. What I experienced that night was some really raw, edgy, rockin' ska and reggae. Lorraine had a great voice and incredible stage presence. I still remember her flashing eyes. Kurt Mayberry could just shred, he had a very unique and distinctive style of guitar playing. Peter seemed to be a most solid and pro player. If I remember correctly, Steve, the bass player was a bit patched up from a previous run in with Lorraine. He later came to one of our own gigs at the Razberry Rhinoceros to fill in on bass but never made it inside, spending the night nodded out in his car in the parking lot. Bob, the drummer, was playing a minimal and mismatched set, a bit on the nod, but never missing the beat. He was up there with snot running out of his nose but just chugging through. I once met him at a percussionist friend's house where he showed me this great gold plated snare he had. A nice guy and a very good drummer."
Yet for all the band's immediate success--the X-Streams were a huge draw in Phoenix and Los Angeles (see the picture of an LA show flyer from the top of this post) --its story is wracked by misfortune. From The Phoenix New Times: "I hesitate to use the word 'curse,' but it's like that," offers Steinhilber. "It just broke my heart over and over again." On the group's first trip to perform in L.A., rock luminaries like Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones and members of the Jackson family turned out to catch the set. The show was great, says Steinhilber, but things got ugly later. "We had just finished the gig, and Kurt and Steve were fighting over Lorraine," says Steinhilber. "It was just a jealousy thing, but they went behind the car, and when they got back in, Steve's head was kinda crushed in. It was pretty bad. The next day, I was at someone's house and our manager called up and said, 'Hey, Bob, Steve's in the hospital, he's not going to live. Kurt's in jail and he's charged with second-degree murder. And I quit as your manager.' Click." The gods were smiling this time; charges were dropped. "It turned out that Steve lived and he started playing with us again," Steinhilber says. "Here was this guy in a wheelchair onstage with his head all bandaged up, looking like he just got out of Auschwitz or something. But it was just one thing after another. As soon as things started going good--we'd be looking at a record contract or whatever--something terrible would happen."
But the problem didn't always involve Mayberry. From an early 80's Phoenix New Times column describing a Tucson performance by the band: "All went swell until the second set, when guitarist Steve Kriol started playing like he never had a guitar in his hands before. Not that that stopped him, but it did stop the rest of the band, who were so embarrassed they unplugged their instruments, left the stage and watched as he continued to bang away for another half-hour. . . . Kriol later chalked up his erratic behavior to an old cow-milking injury. Sources close to the band provide a more pharmaceutical explanation. Later that night at a post-show party in a record store, Kriol and Springer got into a bloody melee with a broken perfume bottle in a locked rest room." Steinhilber recalls, "We broke down the door, and there was blood all over the place; it was a big mess. It was always just stuff like that. We recorded an album in '85; I jumped ship then."
Amazingly, as I was researching this post, I was able to track down Lorraine Khan (formerly Lorraine Springer), the original vocalist for the band and she shared her recollections of the early days of The X-Streams with me.
Can you tell me about your introduction to music and ska music in particular?
Music is and always has been a part of my life growing up, at home in school, church and in our carnival/calypso culture in Trinidad.
What brought you to Arizona from Trinidad?
I went to Arizona to be with Steve, the man that put the band together, after meeting him in Beverly Hills, California.
How did the X-Streams get started? Did you know the other members of the band beforehand? Why did you decide to call the band The X-Streams?
Steve put the band together. It was him and Bob the drummer and myself. Bob brought in Kurt who came with Peter. In trying to decide on a name for the band I came up with the name The X-Streams and the guys liked it.
What was your first show at the ON Klub in LA like? How important were your early shows at the ON Klub to the success of the band?
Our first show at the ON Klub was a blast we were instantly booked to play quite a few more shows so we were like regulars at the club and that did wonders for us getting great reviews and more bookings.
Would you describe The X-Streams as a ska band, a reggae band or a mix of both?
We were more of a ska band.
Tell me a bit about the early song writing process. Who wrote the songs on your first two singles?
Kurt and I did the bulk of the song writing. With me as the lead singer I wrote my songs, and to be truthful I can't remember the songs we had on the first single.
What was it like to be in a racially mixed band in Arizona in the early 80's? This was a state that would not make Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday for some time.
Our band in Arizona was great I don't know if anyone noticed that I was black except for Kurt's mom because I was with her son.
Why did you leave the band?
It was time for me to move on. My vision of what I wanted had changed.
Are you still in touch with any of your band mates?
I only recently found Peter on the net and we pow-wow a bit.
What are you doing these days?
I just finished recording a calypso record to be released in August at the beginning of the calypso season and I am remixing it to be released as a R&B Rap version. I have also completed the video for the calypso record and about to begin the one for the rap.
The departure of Springer and drummer Steinhilber was not the end of The X-Streams. They continued to soldier on playing a a more rock and reggae mix of songs and bringing Mayberry's wife into the band. From the 1995 Phoenix New Times story: Mayberry and Tessensohn continued to play together over the years, most recently as Cloud 10. The duo released a self-titled CD on their own Skintone label, but, as soon as the ball once again started rolling, tragedy on an almost unbelievable level reared its head. "I hadn't seen the guys in about ten years, and then, Kurt and Peter approached me with a new CD they wanted me to do the artwork for," says Steinhilber. "Then when Kurt and Peter were flying up to San Francisco to this independent record company convention looking for a distribution deal, Peter's wife OD'd on heroin on the plane, in the rest room with her little boy on her lap [Kathy Tessensohn was declared dead of acute heroin toxicity by a Nevada medical examiner]. Then about two or three weeks ago, Peter called me and said that Kurt had flipped out and attacked him, and he had to have him put in jail. I called Kurt and he didn't want to talk about it. I'd never seen any of this crazy behavior from him; he'd always been a perfect gentleman."
GregNoiz also remembered the bands later years: Fast forward a few years and I am playing in a ska/punk band called Skaface (a band I started with Jim Sauter, original rhythm guitarist for The Effects) and also filling in on drums and percussion with reggae band The Sons Of The Captivity (a band headed up by Rudy Chavez, original guitarist for Driftwood). Kurt and Peter are still playing but with a new crew behind them. I caught them at a Tempe club called Edcel's Attic and they were great. They played a ripping version of Delroy Wilson's 'Trying to Conquer Me'. I remember talking with Kurt's wife Debbie a bit that night. A nice lady, very pretty. Somewhere around this time I met with Peter and Kurt at his home to play some drums and practice with them a bit. I was a huge fan and I was so weirded out to find myself playing with these guys I could hardly hold on to my sticks. Because of complications in my personal life I couldn't take them up on their invitation to work with them further. A huge regret now of course. My final run in with Kurt was at the Sun Club. This was a notorious dive in Tempe that for a while was the Valley hot spot for edgy music. He had recently bought the club and I asked him if my current band, ToolBox (an alt rock trio where I played live drums along with a computer drum track), could play there. He of course said yes. Kurt was just a really good guy.
Sadly Mayberry's demons caught up with him in June of 1995. According to a story that appeared in the Arizona Republic's obituaries section, "Man Collapses in Struggle With Police" The "Man" was Mayberry, who had stopped breathing at a local hospital after an apparent cocaine overdose. The article said that Mayberry had been walking down the street, naked. He followed two boys home and broke into their apartment. Inside, he found a teenager and two other children; he told them to call the police. The police arrived to find Mayberry hiding in a bedroom, "acting incoherent, delusional and paranoid," according to an officer at the scene. Mayberry attacked the officers, who--the piece notes--did not use excessive force. During the struggle, he collapsed, and was taken to the hospital where he died.
Here is audio of a live performance of The X-Streams song 'Appeared To Me' in Tempe, Arizona in July,1986
Luckily, I have been able to track down the only single that The X-Streams recorded in 1980 with Lorraine Springer on vocals. It was part of a split 7" single with a new wave band called The Nervous and each band had two songs on each side of the single. The two songs are both fantastic slices of reggaefied ska and its clear that Springer is a vocal talent. Yet again I'm amazed at how the collective unconscious provided inspiration for so many talented musicians around the UK and the US in the late 70's and early 80's to create some great music. Many thanks to Tone and Wave blog for sharing the link
The X-Streams - Soldering/Rhythm Of Life 7"