'Thees Ees Zee Reel Shit!' - Remembering Claude Bessy, a.k.a. Kickboy Face

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Niccolo and Donkey
'Thees Ees Zee Reel Shit!'

LA Weekly

Brendan Mullen

October 22-28, 1999


THERE WASN'T MUCH HAPPENING IN UNDERGROUND publishing in L.A. around the mid-'70s. The post­Art Kunkin L.A. Free Press was making its final descent into absolute irrelevance. The only thing worth a damn in the Freep was Charles Bukowski's hilarious column "Notes of a Dirty Old Man" and the occasional poem by Tom Waits. In music, there was only the odd local garage-rock/power-pop fanzine, like Bomp! and Back Door Man, with scant circulation and minimal coverage of a virtually nonexistent local music scene. The art-scene media circa 1976 was epitomized by Leonard Koren's whimsically silly WET magazine, which covered the promiscuously schwingin' Venice-rooted Plato's Retreat coterie of hot-tub "new wave" artists like Bob & Bob. It was a very strange period of nowheresville before the arrival of the Weekly and the Reader in late 1978.

It was through this wide-open French window that Claude Bessy merrily skipped on the tip of his brothel-creepered toes, clutching a drink and an unfiltered Camel, and cussing loudly about anarchy, class war, complacency and the utterly boring rock & roll music of the time. He launched his famous call to arms, "So This Is War, Eh?," in Slash, the monthly magazine he founded in May 1977 with graphic artist Steve Samiof (and assisted by Claude's longtime love, animation artist Philomena Winstanley, photographer Melanie Nissen and graphic designer David Allen). Claude's editorial seemed to mobilize every sleepy misfit music creep and art wanker in the county into writing letters or starting bands. Although the initial context was the exploding punk scene in London, under Claude's guidance as chief reporter, L.A.'s version quickly came into focus with its own unique take. He once said that Slash was a dream opportunity for him to go to his typewriter on Monday morning "to make the friends I'd spent the weekend with even more interesting than they already were . . ." Every small village has its own newspaper and tavern, and the early Hollywood punk scene of 1977 was a hamlet of sorts. I ran the local tavern (the Masque) and Claude hung out there, classic-barroom-poet-style, winding up all the customers. One of the most passionately irreverent characters I've ever met, Claude spared no one his wheezy wit -- not the record companies, which might find their ads placed right next to a review trashing the record being promoted, and certainly not me. I lost count of the times I was libeled in Slash, but that was part of what it was all about. If I tried to complain about the latest outrage, Claude would just tell me to fuck off, or come over and have a drink by way of settlement! So I'd go and argue into some drunken netherworld all night and be too hung over to call a lawyer the next day.

Claude came to the U.S. from his native France in 1973 (reportedly by way of the Mexican border) and founded L.A.'s first reggae fanzine, Angeleno Dread. He adopted the pen name "Kickboy" from some Jamaican dub artist and then added the "Face." After Slash finally folded in 1980, he announced: "The scene was not fun anymore, so I bailed on L.A. and the USA never to return the day Ronald Reagan was elected."

He and Philomena moved to England, where they spent seven years in London and Manchester. Claude worked as a VJ at the Hacienda Club in Manchester and for Rough Trade in London, writing sleeve notes and producing videos for the Virgin Prunes and the Fall. He also did some promotional work for Nick Cave and Sonic Youth, and made a film from some vintage Burroughs footage combined with newly shot readings in Manchester.

In 1987, the couple moved to Barcelona, where Claude took to drawing and painting, and teaching English: "The English weather was a big incentive as far as getting out. At first it was gonna be Italy, working for some Italian TV program that didn't come through (it never does with the Italians), so it was down to Barcelona, the pearl of the Mediterranean, the city which thinks it's the center of the universe; this narrow-minded provincial town with delusions of grandeur, this lovely fucked-up polluted modernistic village with a million scooters ignoring the traffic signals is definitely our home and we love it . . ."

Claude died fighting the effects of lung cancer at his home in Barcelona on October 2, with Philly by his side. He was 54. The Weekly asked a number of Claude's friends and colleagues to remember Kickboy Face:


"Anyone who says they've stopped drinking hasn't even really started," Claude screamed into my right ear as he ordered another Pernod. It was a dusty night; even the flies were exhausted as they slowly circled the dried sausages that flanked the head of the old fascist who lined 'em up behind the dirty old man's bar on the outskirts of Barcelona. It was the last time I'd see him. We reminisced about my still-pending assault-and-battery charge. He had harbored me from the law in England, circa the early '80s. He was playing DJ in some shithole there; I was the main act. Someone got out of line; I bottled them. It broke. Blood splattered everywhere. He stuffed me in the back of a black cab and hid me out in the guest room. We waited for the Filth to arrive. Within minutes they did. "Fuckin' PIGS!!!! . . . Now let's smoke a joint." For as long as I knew Claude, I was always haranguing: Write the book, WRITE THE GODDAMN BOOK ALREADY. But the words on paper started to fall off. He couldn't commit them to stick. I'd beg his wife, Philly, to just tape the bastard. Stick a mike in front of his mush and let him go off. That's where the beauty was. In his rhythm. The poetry and magic in his conversations. The madness of his genius. Passionate. Irreverent. Beautiful. As handsome as a faded matinee idol, whose star will always bring a twinkle to the eyes of those who knew him.


I remember how he used to sit, kind of hunched over, hair tangled, face stubbled. When he spoke in that gravelly French accent, he would draw out the last word of each sentence, his mouth hanging open to expose bad teeth, his eyes rolled toward the ceiling in an expression of constant amazement. He was a huge reggae fan and used to talk about the Rastafarians. "Other religions are always bragging about how powerful and mysterious their god is, but the Rastafarians have it knocked." He pointed to a picture of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, the Rastas' then-living divine representative, on an album cover. "They've got their fucking god on their postage stamps." Another time I was complaining about how he only covered the most hardcore punk. He admitted that he didn't like a lot of it himself. "But you've always got to act more extreme than you are. That way, when you have to compromise, you'll end up closer to what you really want."


He was a quintessential beatnik when that species had become the emasculated darling of academia. It was an honor to have him write the riotous stream-of-consciousness sleeve notes for Throbbing Gristle's Greatest Hits, and to be a regular dinner guest of Claude and Philomena at their home in London, for he chose his friends with as much precision as he ridiculed pomposity and hypocrisy.


Claude Bessy entered my life like a tornado, disrupting everything in his path and hurtling French avant-garde culture in all directions. Claude was quick to be sure I was familiar with Rimbaud, Artaud and Celine. He said the best contemporary art was the found -- or ready-made -- work in the spirit of Duchamp. He loved the English language, particularly when pushed to distortion by the likes of Burroughs, the Kipper Kids or the evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman. When I met Claude in 1975, he had just dedicated his singular body of poetic essays Hallelujah, the Madness Is Spreading: "To Philomena, who understands me, and to the Rastas, who don't." The writings were composed entirely in English and read like an amalgamated translation of the radical French literature he insisted I be familiar with. This last year, Claude had been reading Henri Michaux, and when I told him that I had been reading some recent translations of a few French Surrealist writers, Claude barked back that he hated the French.


Claude, Philly and I had coattailed a birthday party for some TV casting heavyweight. It was all Brooks Brothers guys, faux Marlboro Men in long Western dusters with $2,000 Tony Lama cowboy boots, or beige linen Armani dudes from William Morris cruising for new SAG whores. When the candles were lit on the cake and everyone sang "Happy Birthday," somebody handed an uncorked bottle of '65 D.P. to the birthday boy. Claude walked over, grabbed it right out of the guy's hand and started chugging on it like a baby that was late for its feeding. The room went dead silent, and we ran for it and went off to see the Germs, laughing all the way. Come Monday morning, birthday boy and his partner at William Morris wanted to do lunch with Claude. With verbal assurance there would be no violence, Claude went to read for a part in some remake of the Hardy Boys. With no previous acting experience whatsoever, Claude got a contract for six episodes and a SAG card to play "Frenchy," a transient bohemian rock star. The agents just loved the whole bad-boy thing, his inimitable dark, dangerous beauty, his catlike grace and, of course, the lurid cussing in that heavy accent.


Before Slash, Claude's notoriety derived mostly from being a terrible waiter at Al's Kitchen on Santa Monica Pier circa 1973, cigarette hanging from his lips, ashes flicking into your food. He was semivigilant, grabbing the empty plate in front of you, even though you were just taking the first bite of your burger. Of course, because it was Claude, it all seemed like great fun. That was the best thing about hanging out with Claude and Philomena -- everything became great fun. He was never boring and he never got bored, which made it easier to overlook the ashes in your food.


When the Zeros played Barcelona in '95, we had dinner with Claude and Philomena, and at the end of our show we got him up on "Pushin' Too Hard." He was so ripped it came out like "PUSSIN Too Hard"! "Pussin too hard" became our battle cry for the rest of the tour. I had a feeling that he wasn't into old punk bands getting back together, but he seemed to have a blast that night anyway.


I took David Johansen to a Hollywood punk rock party in 1978, and Kickboy gave him shit because his solo Blue Sky records weren't as punk as the Dolls' records. That was Kickboy Face. He didn't care if the musicians were inept or not, as long as their message was honest. "Thees ees zee reel shit!"



It's amazing to realize that Claude Bessy hadn't set foot in L.A. for 19 years yet he remained so vividly alive to all of us who knew him here; but then Claude wasn't the sort of person you forget. Claude was hungry for the entire spectacle of life, the ugly parts, too, and he demanded that the truth be told loud and clear for all to hear. He demanded anything else that might be available, too, and free beer was always welcome. Claude was trustworthy because he cheerfully declared himself to be untrustworthy the moment you met him. He was brilliant because he was able to transmute the excitement he felt into text on the page and make you excited, too. He was, of course, funny -- Claude's wit was the key to his charm. I doubt he knew how much I admired him, or how much he'll be missed. I hope he knew.


Venice, California, at the corner of Thornton Avenue and the Pacific Ocean, was where Kickboy made his home with the lovely Philomena. Philly was sweet, demure and considerate, everything that Kickboy wasn't. They were the perfect match. Kickboy Face was loud, rude and bombastic, French accent included, and I wouldn't have wanted him any other way. The late '70s were drowning in a sea of mellowness and complacency. Kickboy was "the Voice of Beautiful Rage!" crying out of the wilderness. I'm damned lucky to have known him.


Claude always had something to say no matter what the subject was. Whether it was talking about the fins on classic American cars, or anything about car culture, rock culture, pop culture, whatever, nobody could make it seem as poetic. I never, ever had to worry about being short of copy when I took over from Samiof as publisher of Slash. It was impossible to have a conversation with him without disagreeing. We clashed because he was so purist about everything, but his innate comedic sense made it so you couldn't stay upset for long.


After Claude moved on from doing odd jobs on the Santa Monica Pier (he particularly liked the bumper cars -- thank god he never drove on the streets!) to being the hilarious, rubber-faced madman and scribe of the L.A. punk scene, a critic in New York said that Claude, and his equally insane East Coast counterpart Lester Bangs, had revolutionized rock journalism.


It's really unbelievable it wasn't his liver that quit him. Unbelievable. He taught me how to drink with abandon; he was my guru. He taught me red wine, and he taught me brandy. And when we'd get loaded, we'd lament all the assholes in the world, wishing they'd fuck off and die. And while I hadn't seen him in 15 years, it broke my heart to hear the news: The asshole, he fucked off and died.


Kickboy was a decent enough hellion, and a decent enough human for a hellion. A sentimental old slob, even (I saw him cry once). It is sad, sad, sad that he's dust. I found this poem I wrote for him, after he'd already split L.A.:

Niccolo and Donkey
Niccolo and Donkey

I've read that this guy was heavy into dub, which reminded me that many people into the early punk rock "scene" weren't necessarily into the music, it was just the closest equivalent to what they were looking for - or often the only place they fit in.

Niccolo and Donkey
He openly stated that he hated hardcore punk but that it was necessary to promote it because it would clear the way for non-hardcore to become accepted.
Which makes sense - I guess he came to LA in the early '70s, well before hardcore, and I'm always a little puzzled when I meet anyone who developed a taste for hardcore after their teens. I like many of the original bands, but then it's nostalgia for me; if I came across Black Flag or Minor Threat at the age of 22 I probably wouldn't be interested.
Niccolo and Donkey

First I ever heard of this guy. I think there were a lot of interesting groups that came out of LA in the late 70's and early 80's that were overshadowed by the LA hardcore scene. Specifically the neo-psych groups like Dream Syndicate, Opal, and this band:

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/embed/konoLrWMGuY

There was a show on cable in the early 80's that hosted a lot of bands and hardcore groups from the LA area. It was hosted by Peter Ivers, who is quite an interesting character himself:

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hwfj2IufUks

He was eventually murdered, and to this day it remains unsolved... I have his biography which I haven't got around to reading yet.

Niccolo and Donkey

The interest in Kickboy Face is not his brief time fronting Catholic Discipline, but rather his outrageous personality and Gallic dismissiveness. Have you seen "The Decline of Western Civilization"?