Last time I saw Greg Kihn he was telling me about how he and some friends went down to Mexico on a fishing trip. He caught a twenty-five or thirty pound game fish called a Dorado. A local restaurateur cooked it up in a variety of ways and wound up feeding a sizable number of folks for free. Kihn immediately gained the nickname "El Dorado" and a measure of fame. The story didn't end there, but the "G" rating pretty much did. It continued and involved, among other things, a lot of beer, sun, and fishing during the day as well as the nightly attentions of some señoritas of easy virtue.
That's Greg Kihn. A fishing trip turns into an adventure and even a true fish story gets spun into an entertaining and slightly risqué tale. If you know Kihn you readily believe his claim that "interesting things just happen" to him. You also realize that he is a born storyteller. He's been a rock star, a house painter, a folk singer, a songwriter, a late night disk jockey, a morning radio show host, a wash-out, a comeback, and a few other things so far in his interesting life. Establishing himself as a horror novelist seems to be yet another interesting thing happening to Kihn...and the best way yet to tell stories.
"Writing novels is the culmination of everything I've experienced up to and including this point. One creates people, the worlds they live in, their situations. It's the last stop on the creative gravy train -- and the most fun there is," says Kihn. "We musicians spend the better part of our lives chasing the magic. We're storytellers. It would be misleading, though, to say that a novel is like a song. The best songs write themselves while a novel is a tall drink of water that takes hundreds of hours of work. But the kernel of the story, the heart of the thing, does flow out the same way a song does. There's a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then a little something extra, a bit of the old magic."
Kihn's third novel Big Rock Beat has gone into a second hardcover printing and his first two, Horror Show and Shade of Pale, are now out in paperback. A fourth, Mojo Hand, will be published this fall by Tor/Forge.
Somewhere back in the early 70s Kihn and his musical partner Steve Wright wound up in Berkeley, CA and started The Greg Kihn Band. They joined up with Beserkley Records and started making albums. They'd played thousands of gigs by the time "The Break Up Song" from their seventh album, RocKihnRoll, made the Top Ten in 1981. (Most of the album titles in those days were terrible puns on Kihn's name -- Next of Kihn, Kihntinued, Kihntagious, etc. -- he swears it wasn't his idea.) "Jeopardy," a cut from the 1983 album Kihnspiracy, became their biggest hit. The influence of MTV was just beginning to be felt in those days and the video for the song, a mini-horror movie directed by Joe Dea, was remarkable for the time. "Up until then, most videos were faked 'live' performances featuring big-haired women in lingerie running up and down alleys," explains Kihn. "'Jeopardy' was a concept video, and it offered an interesting alternative. As a result it got tons of airplay and became an international hit. I toured the world."
Kihn lived the life of the rock star to the hilt: "Nobody was gonna cheat me out of a good time. I figured it was my God-given right to party all night and show up late for rehearsal. But that was okay because we never really rehearsed anyway."
"Later, when the hits stopped coming, I tried my best not to notice. Instead of opening for The Rolling Stones and appearing on Saturday Night Live, I was playing Thursday night in Chico. It dawned on me that there might be more to life than sex, drugs and rock and roll. By then I'd gone through two divorces, made and lost two fortunes, and fallen prey to every ridiculous occupational hazard a touring musician can encounter (and there are some beauties)." With the string of hits played out, "I had reached the dreaded point of diminishing returns. So I reigned in my licentious deportment, cleaned myself up, and decided to get a life."
Kihn had been writing continuously through his rock star days, mentally gearing up to write novels for years. The time seemed right to go for it and he gravitated to the genre he loved most: horror. He'd grown up in Baltimore, reading Edgar Allan Poe and never missing a sci-fi or horror flick at the local theater. Writing what he was a fan of seemed natural.
It sometimes take a great deal of work and time to make interesting things "just happen" in life, but through literary agent Lori Perkins, Kihn eventually made his first print deal: a two book hardcover contract with Tor/Forge. His editor there read both Shade of Pale, his first novel, and Horror Show, his second, and felt Horror Show would be the better debut novel. Horror Show came out in October 1996, Shade followed in November 1997. He finished Big Rock Beat immediately after Shade was published, and Tor exercised their option for the third book, publishing it last October.
Meanwhile Kihn revitalized his musical career at a less intense, but perhaps more creative pitch. "Jack Heyrman, with whom I'd grown up, suggested I come back home [to Baltimore] and record the album I'd always wanted in his state-of-the-art recording studio," explains Kihn. "The result was a critically acclaimed CD, Mutiny, which Jack released on his own Clean Cuts label. It was different kind of album for me -- a return to my folky Baltimore roots." (Kihn's musical career began as a teenager in Baltimore playing coffee houses and hootenannies, inserting the occasional original song in a set after yet another rendition of something like "Blowin' in the Wind.") "I wasn't trying to write any hits. I wasn't worried about airplay. I wasn't worried about anything, really. With the pressure off, the music flowed. The follow-up CD, Horror Show, (coinciding with the release of my first novel of the same name) also did well, making several critics 'Best of the Year' awards."
"The book, Horror Show -- a very strange story about a guy who makes low budget horror movies in the 50s...using a real corpse -- was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel and got rave reviews. It sold very well for a first novel -- 15,000 copies hardback, about 60,000 paperback. Shade didn't do as well, but was respectable. Big Rock Beat so far is doing better than both of them. I'm proud of the sales. I work hard to promote 'em."
Between the years 1990-1997, when Kihn was "basically re-inventing" himself, he also got into broadcasting and wrangled his own radio show on KFOX (98.5 FM), a classic rock station in San Jose, CA. After a year doing the night shift, they offered him the morning job, replacing Don Imus. "I now get up at 3:30 AM, about the time I used to go to bed. The show is kicking ass and we're talking about syndication in the near future. The only bummer is getting up at 3:30 AM every damn day to do the show. I hate getting up. I am not a morning person at all. Once I'm there and the mike goes on, it's fun. I get to talk to a lot of interesting people like Dean Koontz, Kinky Friedman, Jimmy Page, and Bruce Springsteen. Music and literature, my two faves. Radio's the perfect gig for me. I don't have to tour all the time, and I have my afternoons and evenings free to write. I now write between three to six hours every day, six days a week."
Mojo Hand, his fourth novel, is "about a guy who's killing all the old blues greats." Set in 1977, a decade after Big Rock Beat, Mojo Hand sees the return of Beau Young, the hero of the earlier book. Beau discovers that legendary bluesman Robert Johnson is still alive -- even though he was poisoned at a gig in 1938. "But the poison," explains the author, "was zombie poison and he was brought back to life by his lover, a practitioner of voodoo. I had the Rolling Stones as characters in it, but the publisher thought it best to change the name to a fictional band, which I did. The Stones are now The Crawling Kingsnakes, Keith Richards is Heath Pritchard and Mick Jagger is Rick Dagger. Think anyone will know?"
The next novel will be One Arm Tan and he's already more than one hundred pages into it. He sees this one as moving away from horror and "more into dark fantasy/mystery." One Arm Tan will be the sequel to Mojo and offer the further adventures of Beau Young. "I am still trying to create my own genre of 'music thrillers,'" admits Kihn.
The music? "The Greg Kihn Band still plays when it feels like it," he says. "Only the cherry gigs nowadays. It's more fun now that the pressure's off. I just love to play. We jump on a plane once or twice a month and do some shows. My son, Ry Kihn, plays lead guitar. King Biscuit just issued a live CD from some vintage shows when Joe Satriani was in the band. 'The Breakup Song' was featured in the movie Beautiful Girls. I did a track on the Springsteen tribute album, Thunder Road, and 'Jeopardy' is the theme song to the new MTV Jeopardy game show. I'm just too busy to go back into the studio until later this year, but will record again as soon as time permits. Right now, writing gets the time I used to spend doing music."
Kihn is currently writing a movie script for Horror Show. "I'm getting some investors together to make a cheap, low budget, 50s style horror movie. It will be an independent film and I'll probably pre-sell it to video to raise more money. This movie thing is a long shot but I specialize in longshots. And why not? It could be a lot of fun. Of course, I'll do the soundtrack. I'm looking for a cult thing here, not a big hit. This is something I've dreamed of for a long time, to join my 'B' movie heroes like Ed Wood, William Castle, and Roger Corman. We'll see what happens."
Knowing Greg Kihn, something interesting will happen...and he'll have another story to tell about it.