One of the more ear&eye popping transformations I’ve been keeping tabs on over the past couple decades is the evolution of Tim Hensley – one-time purveyor of some of the most peculiar, unsettling pop music written in the ’80s/’90s under the guise of VICTOR BANANA – into an equally peculiar, no less unsettling modern-day comic artist. It’s been a heady trip, indeed.
Now I’m no comic buff, but I have been listening to music for a few good years now. And I can say that the first VICTOR BANANA Split LP came outta faaar left field, even within the wideopen terrain that was the late 80’s LA underground. Sonically speaking, it’s probably Tim’s most accessible & light-hearted collection; nary a rockin’ bone in sight on the thing. This is acoustic chamberpop played on gtr, viola, accordion, upright bass and drums, swinging through a hodgepodge of ambitiously arranged, tinpan alley/’60s jazzpop/eurofolk inspired melodies. Dan Clowes did the cover art – the first of many he’d draw for Tim’s projects – and LA’s KXLU radio DJ Splatwinger put it out on his own San Pedro based Splat-Co. label (who, for the record, also curated the Taste Test #1 Brain Cookies Live From KXLU compilation on New Alliance Records).
But oooh man, just what kinda fever dream brought the lyrics on?!? Tim’s crooning about “Planet Xylak” and “Dr. Goodbeard” like we’d been there and met him before, while words like vitrified and theanthropism form the basis for etymological explorations that’ll have the less-erudite among you reaching for your dictionaries left and right. Cursory listeners might accuse this as being nothing more than a witty collection of novelty songs – yes, Dr. Demento did spin this a bit back then – but there’s a dark shadow that follows nearly every clever turn of phrase/key change included herein. These are words & melodies wrenched from creepy Jungian archetypes few of us wanna ever look at too long. Me, I’m awfully glad Tim decided to stare.
Come the early 90’s, VICTOR BANANA issued his/their most infamous moment: the 10-song 10″/CD soundtrack to Daniel Clowes’ Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron graphic novel. Like Clowes’ book, Tim’s song cycle is a tightly compact, dizzying display of literate observations punctuated by cracked humor leaping straight into an abyss of black-hole dislocation. By this point, the band had swelled to include organ, mandolin, vibraphone and background vocals, which gave Tim the tools to unleash his idiosyncratic esthetic sense over an ever-widening musical terrain. From the slow “Velvet Glove” striptease opener through the hypnotic “House of Forever” and on to godforsaken, outlier destinations like “Chief Wampum’s Trading Post” there’s a wretching, sulphuric stench underpinning everything here, like this project was conceived in a parkside public restroom. And when Tim jauntily croons you’re in the middle of nowhere, you fuck! during “Gooseneck Hollow”, I can almost imagine I’m hearing an EZ-listening version of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY. In terms of brainshuffling wordplay, this reaches true Joycean heights – in many ways, eclipsing the text of Clowes’ graphic novel it was meant to support. But: it does not feel healthy in the head. No, not at all.
There were other Tim H. sightings around this time: as VIC HAZELNUT leading an orchestra behind April March on her very 1st EP, Voodoo Doll, as Tim himself playing/writing on comedian Rube Ruben’s Shmendrick EP. But soon after, some of this darkness I have made reference to above must’ve caught up with him, as Tim apparently had a mental breakdown.
In the mid-90’s Tim reemerged, phoenix-like, under the new NEIL SMYTHE moniker with a CD called Refrains. It’s the last we heard of Tim, and the only recording of his still available – yet again, Dan Clowes drew all the why-does-this-wig-me-out artwork. By this point Tim’s musical sense had become so convoluted that not only the lyrics, but the melodies themselves were taking on serious queasy-making abilities. Aahhh, the power of good music.
Now I’ll warn you now: my wife finds all of Tim’s projects, musical or otherwise, creepy in large doses. And I admit there is something not-so-subtly disturbing about all of his work, regardless of subject matter or emotional tone. And that’s the attention to fine, minute detail – whether it’s the obsessive complusive arrangements, the uncanny phrasing, or self-depreciating tone of so much of it. But Tim clearly wants his art to make you shift uncomfortably in your seat – as if to quietly remind you: nothing is alright in this world. Not too many artists out there have done this so effectively using both music and graphic art, for this goddamn long.
And what of his current incarnation as a comic artist, you ask? I’m gonna let that speak for itself, until I develop an equally hyperbolic, graphic art vocabulary to gush appropriately.
Gawk at footage of VICTOR BANANA live on public access TV, ca. 1989
Guffaw at Tim’s standout inclusion in the booklet accompanying the Weird Tales of the Ramones box CD set
Gasp at Tim’s uncanny ability to illuminate other people’s seemingly benign comic panels in oddly uncomfortable ways
Or: follow the lateral thinking of Tim (and few choice others) on their delicately insightful comic blog, Blogflume. For a reeeal trip, explore the nearly 50 posts Tim uploaded back on 7 March 2008 – nuts! Oh boy oh boy Tim: we can’t wait for your Fantagraphics collection to come out.