Albums of Our Lives: Dory Tourette and the Skirtheads’ Rock Immortal

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Go home, back to my parents’ house; open the closet door; find the three boxes buried in the corner; dig them out; drag them out; peal off the duct tape and take out their contents: notebooks, photo albums, mix tapes, zines—what’s left of my youth. Spread it out in front of me and search for evidence, artifacts. Find: two show flyers, a sheet of stickers, a demo cassette, a few crumbled photographs.

One CD. Rock Immortal.

That’s it.

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Rock Immortal was the only full-length album produced by the end-of-the-millennium East Bay band Dory Tourette and the Skirtheads. Part of the lesser-known Geekfest scene, the band derived its name from the local slang for meth, “skirt,” and the punk name of its frontman, who did in fact have Tourette’s Syndrome.

The 1999 album was recorded in a reported drug-fueled two-day frenzy, when all three of the band’s members were under age 21. Produced by late Hickey frontman and San Francisco Mission legend Matty Luv, Rock Immortal was released on the now-defunct DIY co-op label Smarmy Post-Angst Musicians (SPAM) Records.

Mission artist Chubby did the cover art, an apocalyptic cartoon scene of burning buildings; a sun with a line-snorting straw in its nose; a spread-eagle pigtailed girl licking a lollipop and pinching the thigh of a character twice her size; and a tattooed tranny eating a bowl of cereal, with a quote bubble that reads, “Told you dat shit will kill you.”

At the center of the scene, a hairy man with a horse cock and penis arms is a nailed to a crucifix.

He is looking straight at me.

*

When I first met Dory Tourette at the Berkeley BART station, he was hunched over an acoustic guitar that looked twice his size, his head jerking and his fingers running up the frets. A black guitar case lay open in front of him and every few minutes, a commuter would deposit some coins. I was 15, he 19.

That summer, ostensibly selling zines out of my backpack, I began to sit with him. Really I just wanted to be near him, to soak in every burst of electric energy that shot off him and through the station.

I thought I was in love, but really it was just a typical teenage obsession exacerbated by depression, speed psychosis, and confessional poetry. I started following him around the East Bay, waiting around the corner while he bought 40s with his brother’s ID; crouching between the cars in a parking lot, chopping lines on the mirror of a Revlon compact; smoking weed in public parks, our hoodies pulled over our heads to block the wind; crashing college parties and drinking all their beer.

Nose&BagWhen I picture him now, I see him moving, always in the progressive tense. He is leaning against a brick wall, strumming; crouching down on one knee, fingerpicking; standing between the planks of a half-built patio, howling. Masturbating in the middle of the street outside Gilman. Jumping out of a car window. Falling to his knees on the stage at Burnt Ramen. Playing a guerilla show at Ocean Beach, taking a swig of whiskey, the burn of it rippling across his face as it hit his ulcered insides. Collapsing on Leile’s living room floor, piss spreading out in the carpet beneath him. Curling up on the porch, burying his head in his hands and sobbing, “My mom kicked me out,” over and over, and not moving away when I put my arm around his back. Leaning towards me the morning after I’d tried to hook with him, the morning after he’d refused to take advantage of me—touching my shoulder and asking me if I was cool, dude, you cool?

Reaching in his backpack and pulling out a CD, saying, “So like, some guy at a label could see this and be like, ‘Yeah, those dudes party and get fucked-up at their shows but they could still make this, they could still do this.’ Like, this is what we’re capable of, dude, what we could do: we could make this album.”

The florescent BART station lights glinting off the case.

*

Rock Immortal opens with “Sex With Junkies,” a thrashy-punk-meets-bubble-gum-pop song composed of two verses, one chorus, a catchy melody and just-seedy-enough lyrics. If they’d left it at that, if they’d made that into a formula and followed it, the album might have been a hit.

By the second track, Rock Immortal drives deep into The Skirtheads’ genre-busting subversion: dirty Mission punk mixing with country twang, Buddy Holly hiccups and a Johnny Cash story-telling sensibility. Frenetic sounds are anchored in basic chords and a simple song structure, then topped off with lyrics about snorting meth, killing white people, getting raped by cops, dating nine-year-olds, and crying, always crying: “Make me cry tonight,” “I’m gonna cry,” “If you fuck with my head and make me cry”—a vulnerability that complicates any shock-value appeal.

The driving force of the album is the character Dory Tourette, part invented alter ego, part self-mythologized caricature of frontman Dory Ben-Shalom—a tragi-comedy anti-hero who acts out our darkest and most taboo impulses in an ill-fated search for love. The album sends listeners careening into the world of that character, though in its vulnerable moments, you can’t help but get whiffs of the other, the person inside. You get closer and closer to that center, until at last the album ends with two solo tracks.

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With its vulgar lyrics and genre bending, Rock Immortal was one of the best manifestations of the Geekfest sensibility, a fringe subsect more concerned with challenging paradigms and championing outsiders than donning bullet belts and pounding out power chords. The Geekfest scene grew in response to what many regarded as an increasing commodification and reductive aestheticizing of punk. Underage bands were told they didn’t sound “punk enough” to play Gilman or receive Maximum Rock N Roll coverage—a case of weirdos rejecting the weirder-os. There was nothing left to do except go weirder, grosser, more offensive and unmarketable. Bands formed their own free all-ages shows and in turn, their own label: SPAM Records, reachable at (510) BAD-SMUT.

immortalstickersWhile releasing Rock Immortal, SPAM Records co-founder John Mink “got a lot of flack” from people who “didn’t get it.” “I’m not even sure I got it,” Mink later wrote on a now-deleted Myspace blog post. He just knew there’d be lasting power in releasing a truly idiosyncratic piece of art. But the broader punk scene didn’t agree. They largely rejected the album, and the most enraged denizens demanded Dory Ben-Shalom be jailed for the supposed sex crimes of Dory Tourette. It goes without saying that there wasn’t a place for the album in the mainstream. Too strange, too grotesque, too unclassifiable and perverse, Rock Immortal slowly sank into the static of the thousand DIY albums of the thousand indie bands of that era.

And though Rock Immortal immediately became one of my all-time favorite and most-listened-to albums, I was 16, so that isn’t saying a whole lot. It probably had more to do with the scene and the era; with being young and fucked-up and killing myself; with my unrequited crush on Dory and the way I turned the album into an emblem for all those things.

At least that’s what I told myself. The album followed me as I drifted away from the punk scene: got clean, went to college, worked two jobs, muddled through a life that felt like a bombed-out battlefield. I wrote off that person I’d been and all the things she’d felt as teenage drama, theatrics. None of it was real. I threw my old zines and mix tapes and my copy of Rock Immortal into a box that I taped shut and stored at my parents’ house.

But I couldn’t quite get away from it. Before I locked it away, I imported Rock Immortal into my iTunes. It’d come on shuffle every now and then, and a few times a year I’d listen to the album all the way through. I’d hear those old songs and a wave of nostalgia would slam into me: cigarettes on foggy nights, distortion through toilet-paper earplugs, smeared ink stamps on my wrists, the taste of cheap speed dripping down my throat.

Images would rise from that buried place in me: Dory on the pavement outside Gilman, Dory on the corner in front of the liquor store, Dory on the floor between the ticket machines.

Dory in the parking lot between the cars, telling me which nostril to use when I snorted, telling me to use a hollowed-out Bic pen instead of a rolled-up dollar because it was cleaner, it was safer, I had to think about my health.

Dory crouched on one knee, strumming his guitar while I made us a straw.

Eventually SPAM Records went under and Rock Immortal became even harder to find. Everyone got older. The Geekfest scene disintegrated. Dory cleaned up a bit, got a regular job, got a girlfriend, put a damper on the self-destruction he’d performed all over the East Bay in the previous millennium.

Then sometime in the mid-2000s Rock Immortal reemerged. A wave of Geekfest nostalgia swept through the Bay, and the album gained a modest cult following among a younger generation of punks who weren’t so disturbed by its vile lyrics and genre twisting.

Skirtheads, 2000 copyThe Skirtheads played a few shows during those years, the last of which was in June 2007 at Gilman Street. The show was recorded and clips were later uploaded to YouTube. In the footage Dory has put on weight. His hair is shaggy and his signature pervert moustache is buried beneath a stubbly beard. The crowd is bigger than it ever was at any of their earlier shows, filled with kids locking arms and swaying and singing along, “The Saint, The Saint, The Saint St. Ides.”

I am in that crowd. I am one of those kids.

That was the last time I saw Dory. On October 22, 2007, Dory Tourette Ben-Shalom died in his sleep. He was 28.

*

You can still find Rock Immortal, which is somewhat impressive given the album’s release occurred before the advent of social media, before the end of the last millennium, before the curtain dropped on an era when things could still get lost, buried, distorted, and forgotten.

You can Google Rock Immortal and get led to a couple of sites that offer free downloads. Someone uploaded the whole album to YouTube. You can even still get the physical thing: Thrillhouse Records offers an LP version for $9, with the description “The best album you’ve never heard! Seriously!”

You can find blogs and Tumblrs that describe the album as “disgustingly overlooked,” and “criminally underrated.” You can find tributes written by old friends, usually stark and restrained, some of which note the scarcity of what has survived: “Rock Immortal remains Dory’s sole statement to those of us who weren’t there for the whole Geekfest scene.”

But you can also find write-ups by people who only knew Dory tangentially—from shows or parties, people he met on MUNI buses—who haven’t been able to shake the album either. They find themselves still humming the songs, they say. You can even find comments from people who never met Dory and never saw The Skirtheads play. You can read how the album found its way to the Tulsa suburbs “via a crusty with a home-made Crass tattoo on his neck,” and developed fans there. You can read about how Dory became “kind of a legend” in upstate New York.

You can see the rings of reverberation the album has made, the way in which I am not alone—how there’s a little group of us who’ve been followed by this bizarre, obscure album by one of the most bizarre, obscure bands of a scene and an era that are gone.

*

Near the center of Rock Immortal, buried between “The Lord Said Ejaculate” and “I’m Too Young To Be a Pedophile,” sits the oddball track “Build Me a Straw.” Stylistically, its execution is heavier, grinding-er, closer to the Hickey style of punk that so influenced the band. Gone are the country or rockabilly twists; gone also is the stripped-down despair present the first time I heard the song, acoustic and solo on the BART station floor.

Here the drums are relentless and the vocals come in one headphone like a far-away thing. There’s no chorus, just one verse that repeats itself before the song splits apart and a scrambling guitar solo takes over, driving you deeper towards something, though all it ends up being is a fade-out.

The lyrics are a diversion, a shift away from the over-the-top absurdity that characterizes the album. In this song, the character of Dory Tourette is not pseudo-celebrating drugs or inappropriately pining for the affections of an underage girl. Both of those elements are present but what occurs instead is a break in the character. Something else is glimpsed: the loneliness that underpins those longings, the desperation and futility that perhaps underpin the whole album and give it its gravity, its center, its thing that lingers.

When I hear it now I always see the same thing: this one moment in the parking lot when we’re crouched down between the cars. I am chopping lines and cutting a Bic pen, and Dory is sitting next to me, and I’m filled with so much longing—for him, for the high, for anything to make it all stop hurting—that it feels like my chest might explode. I want to give it all to him then, every ugly painful thing, all the shame I carry, and I want him to take me away, I want to run away, I want to go anywhere and be anything, as long as it’s with him.

And then it all sinks back. The static melts and the chasing fades, and there comes this funny little moment where it’s just us, sitting between the cars—two adjacent islands with his song reverberating between us.

“Little girl build me a straw / Stupid burning to my tongue / I can’t make her understand / I’m not violent enough / I’m not violent enough”

*

You could probably still do it: find someone with an original copy of Rock Immortal. If you asked around enough, I’m sure someone could dig one up.

You could follow them to their parents’ house, open the closet door, pull out the boxes, and sift through the refuse. You could find the CD. You could crack open the case, see the track list and the credits, and the sketch of another crying man with penis arms. You could see the montage of the promo stickers, snippets of lyrics written in cursive alongside simple hand-drawn images. You could see the CD itself, pressed with the image of a nose clutching a straw and chasing a bag of powder across a cityscape.

You could see that I’m not making this up, that it’s not all static and myth—that there was something tangible at the center, and that it survived.


Lauren Quinn is a writer, teacher, and contributing editor for Vela. Her work has appeared in The Believer, Guernica, The Toast and Best Women's Travel Writing, among others. She recently returned to California after three years in Asia to pursue a Masters of Education at UCLA. She will always be an Oakland girl at heart. More from this author →