My father, Ken, grew up in the beach town of Ventura, one of 5 brothers and one sister who were born between 1932 and 1948. If you lived in Ventura in the 50s, chances are you knew the family, especially if you went to the Lutheran Church, where their mom, Marie, was the piano and organ player. One thing that struck me as I grew older and became a serious rock music fan, was how much the five Kiunke boys reminded me of one of my favorite groups, the Beach Boys. The recent deaths of two of my uncles, Don and Pete, brought this idea more into my mind. Here is how they line up, at least in my mind.
Brian Wilson = Paul. The oldest of the Kiunke boys, Paul naturally is a leader, as was Brian in the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson wrote most of the Brach Boy songs, arranged the vocals, and produced their greatest recordings. Like Brian, Paul was very serious about his goals, studying hard to become an engineer and succeed in his career, but he also knew how to have a good time, but without overdoing it. They were both the visionaries of the group.
Mike Love = Ken. If you grew up knowing the Kiunkes, and were a serious student, you probably hung out with Paul, but if you wanted to party, Ken was your guy. Like Mike Love, Ken liked to show off and run the show, which you either loved or were annoyed by. Ken worked hard, but school wasn’t his main thing, and he became a machinist. Mike Love was a some-time lyricist and front-man of the Beach Boys, but he was not the driving force behind their success. They were the promoters of the group.
Al Jardine = Don. Al was the Beach Boy everyone liked. He was always ready to support the group, playing rhythm guitar and singing harmony vocals, rarely stepping into the spotlight. There was never a feud between Al and any of the others. Don was also one of the warmest, kindest men and universally well-liked. A hard worker but not necessarily career driven, he followed more in his brother Ken’s footsteps, working in construction as a surveyor. They were the supporters of the group.
Carl Wilson = David. In appearance, attitude, and goals, Carl Wilson emulated his brother Brian, as did David after his brother Paul. Carl was a serious and accomplished musician, playing lead guitar for the band and a great singer in both lead and harmony. When Brian stepped aside in leadership of the group, it was Carl who took over. Also working hard, Dave earned a good education and became an engineer, and he and Paul were also the only non-smokers of the siblings. Dave is the only one of them to never get a divorce, remaining faithfully married for going on 50 years.* They were the doers of the group.
Dennis Wilson = Pete. While Dennis wasn’t the youngest of the Wilson brothers, he was the least serious of the Beach Boys, and if mom Audrey Wilson had not insisted, he may have never been kept in the group. Not a serious musician (but a decent stage drummer) he was not usually part of the harmony singing, but did have a good solo voice, and his good looks made him popular with the girl fans. Pete was the youngest, and didn’t become a teenager until the 60s, when his brothers were mostly married with children (so he was the last to “join” the group.) He followed in his brothers Ken and Don’s footsteps, in a blue-collar career as an electrician, and also with his love of partying. He was the most extroverted of the brothers, and like Dennis Wilson, he embraced the “hippie” look and lifestyle, and his beard gave him the same devilish good looks. They were the spirit of the group.
Their sister, Joan, was as much (or more) of an extrovert as Pete, and just as warm and kind as Don, but obviously doesn’t fit into this narrative. (Perhaps she’s a bit like the Wilsons’ mom Audrey, the Beach Boys’ biggest supporter and cheerleader.)
And while this comparison works for personalities, it does fall apart if you consider music—none of the Kiunke Boys took after their mom to be musicians; though Ken used to strum a guitar at parties, he never kept one. (Some of their children, though, are talented musicians—Don’s son Randy and Paul’s son Steve are both great guitar players, I play a decent rhythm guitar, and my son is a great piano player (and there may be others in the family that I am not aware of.)
I have fond memories of the Kiunke family gatherings when I was young, when they all (except their father, Paul, who died when I was a baby) were together. And when my dad, Ken, moved out of state, my mom insured we still joined them at Christmas parties at least, and I got to know my uncles, aunts, and cousins fairly well.
Some of my cousins or other relatives may have very different memories and impressions of the Kiunke family, and the personalities of the siblings. My impressions are obviously based on limited experience with all of them. Ironically, I probably know my own father least of all, as he moved away when I was about ten years old. So if you think I am wrong about anything here—maybe they were more like the Rolling Stones?—please let me know.
The last time I saw my dad was at a summertime get-together at Joan’s house, when Ken traveled down from Oregon for a surprise visit. That was also the last time all five brothers, their sister, and Mom were together (pictured above.) Ken died soon after that, in 1991. I joined his brothers at the funeral up in Oregon, and got to “know” my late father and his brothers even better. (In a bit of tragi-comedy, Pete carried the memorial partying a bit too far, and when we boarded the plane for the trip home, his exuberance crossed a line for the flight attendants. He was asked to leave, and Don and Dave stayed back to help him sober up for the next flight home. Classic Dennis-like move…)
Sadly, Don died in 2017, and Pete in 2018. Like the Beach Boys, who have lost Dennis and Carl, the remaining members of the group may still get together, but the chemistry and magic will never be the same as it once was, but will live on in our hearts and memories forever. Whether is was beautiful five-part harmony singing, or just five guys standing around with a beer, laughing and joking together, talking about cars and sports and whatever, into the evening, there was something special going on.
* This is not to put down or disparage the others, or the idea of divorce; it is often the best solution to an unworkable marriage. The brothers’ second marriages all endured, were quite successful, and, for the most part, were to the ladies I grew up with as my wonderful aunts.
David Bowie’s recent death prompted me to think about this enigmatic artist and my “relationship” with him. I, of course, never met Bowie, but when I was about eleven years old I used some of my allowance money to purchase the single 45 record “Space Oddity.” The song, which I bought after hearing it on the radio, changed the way I listened to music.
After first getting into the lyrics, I soon noticed that on my record player, I could turn the balance right and left, and hear two completely different vocals coming out of either side. As a novice music fan, I hadn’t really paid any attention to harmony singing, I just thought more people singing can make it sound better (like the great Partridge Family songs I had been into—boy, Danny and Laurie sure sounded good with Keith!*) But hearing Bowie’s voices both separate and together really struck me as something ethereal—I just had to listen to those two parts over and over.
But the song itself is such an oddity on its own. Basically a folk song over acoustic guitar, Bowie mixed in synthesizers (played by Rick Wakeman) and electric guitars to add all the spacey sound effects to beautifully tie together his tale of a new age explorer on a dangerous mission.
The story is fairly simple. Major Tom, an astronaut, is sent on a solo mission to orbit the moon. He makes a spacewalk, but electrical problems surface, and he loses all communications with ground control, apparently never to return to earth. (Strung out in heavens high, hitting an all-time low, according to Bowie’s later song Ashes to Ashes.) But the way Bowie tells the story makes it a true oddity.
We open with a fairly pedestrian conversation between ground control and Major Tom. He must be a British astronaut, because America’s Mission Control in Houston would not be calling their astronauts by such a casual name (unless, of course, Tom is his last name…) The countdown proceeds with Bowie’s haunting “Ten…nine…eight…seven…etc.” as the engines are started, and a final wish of “God’s love” is given as the rocket is launched.
Now the lyrics start to get strange. Ground Control’s next communication to Tom is that he is now becoming a celebrity—as if the press only just found out about this space launch. Not only has he “really made the grade”, but the press are most interested in Tom’s fashion choices! The line “And the papers want to know who’s shirts you wear” seemed so bizarre to me, that for years I though it must be that the papers wanted to know “who shot you where”—meaning “what is this mission all about?” The controllers seem to be more excited about the success of the media coverage than the actual mission itself.
Next Ground Control tells Major Tom that it is time for his spacewalk, that is, only if he is up for it. (It’s time to leave the capsule if you dare.) He does indeed step through the door, and marvels at how peculiarly he is floating and how unusual the stars look—not your typical highly trained astronaut on a scientific mission, more like how you and I might react to suddenly being in outer space.
Bowie was very prescient about one thing, however. In 1979, ten years after the release of Space Oddity, Tom Wolfe’s book, The Right Stuff came out. Wolfe revealed that the Mercury astronauts, all highly trained test pilots, were concerned that they were being placed in a capsule with virtually no control—they even had to fight to get a window put in! The expression the astronauts used was that they didn’t want to be “spam in a can”—essentially just human cargo in a ship they had no control over.
Major Tom had the same idea, though he didn’t seem to object much. He says in the next phrase that he is “sitting in my tin can, far above the world.” He sees the blue planet earth, but there is nothing for him to do. He is, by his estimation, past 100,000 miles (less than halfway to the moon) and feeling very still, apparently just along for the ride.
His next exchange with Ground Control is the strangest one. Perhaps sensing that things may not turn out so well, he very gently and tenderly asks the crew at home to tell his wife he loves her very much. Ground Control responds very sharply “She knows!”—almost like they’re telling him to shut up about his wife for God’s sake! She knows you love her, why should we tell her? Perhaps this response was the result of their new frustrations over mounting problems with the mission. They next frantically try to communicate with Tom, but his circuit is dead, there’s something wrong.
Major Tom, typical for a British officer, is stoic about his fate. He still muses about floating in his tin can, by now, closer to the moon than earth. He can still see the blue planet Earth, but knows there is nothing he can do. He’s done for, and that’s it. Not exactly the pluck and gumption shown by the Apollo 13 crew, or the fictional Matt Damon character in The Martian. He’s more like the British officers lampooned by Monty Python—“Oh blast, got a bit of a gammy leg, have to cut the damn thing off…”
And so the song drifts off like Major Tom himself, into space and out of time. Now, many have suggested that the song is a metaphor for a drug overdose, and that makes some sense. Bowie, in Ashes to Ashes, even said “We know Major Tom’s a junkie.” But I much prefer to think of it as a literal account of a botched British space mission. It’s not so depressing that way.
This essay is in no way meant to disparage the song at all; it remains one of my favorites of all the great Bowie songs. There are so many, and the Ziggy Stardust album brilliantly plays on the spaceman theme, but of an alien visitor to Earth.
When Bowie died, I thought of how he was one of the three great rock singers whose voices rose above all others in their unique, otherworldly qualities. The voices who could take a great song, and put it forth in a way like none other, and that brought chills to the spine! They were David Bowie, Freddie Mercury of Queen, and . . . who is the third?
There are lots of great rock singers—Robert Plant, Lennon and McCartney, Jon Anderson, Michael Stipe, Van Morrison, Elton John, Marvin Gaye . . . the list goes on, but I could not find that third voice I assumed must be in the pantheon. So I am left with two. But all great things come in threes. Let me know who should join them!
Here is a strange, early version of the song and a video from 1969.
Epilogue: With the death of Aretha Franklin on August 16, 2018, I thought more about this question, and realized I had not considered any female singers in the list of greats. Though not necessarily known as a "rock singer," Aretha certainly sang rock songs, like Respect and Think. And she was one of the most influential singers of the rock era. And her voice was in the great beyond, like Bowie and Mercury. While other famous vocalists like Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and Mariah Carey could do vocal gymnastics around her, hitting and holding those powerful notes, and running up and down the scale within a word, to me it is all really gymnastics—exercises meant to impress the audience. Aretha sang with heart and meaning to the song, and did not distract with vocal excess. She sang, it was real, and it was beautiful. And she could play a mean piano.
*Years later of course I learned that the Partridge Family vocals, besides David Cassidy and Shirley Jones, were all done by professional studio singers, not by a group of teen actors. It took me a while to accept that.
David Letterman signed off for good on May 20, 2015 after 33 years as a late night talk show host, surpassing Johnny Carson and all the others as the longest running night time host in television history. But he was so much more than that, and every host that follows him—Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Myers, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart, etc.—have been influenced by and owe a debt of gratitude to Dave.
It wasn’t supposed to work out the way it did. When Letterman was first recognized as a talent he was given a morning show on NBC—a preview of what was to come, but just in the wrong time slot. He had already been a comedy writer and stand-up comedian, but it was his appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, first as a guest and then as a guest host, that made him seem to be the heir apparent to Johnny—a role he relished, and his goal was set—he would take over when Johnny retired.
But Dave, in effect, shot himself in the foot, basically killing any shot he may have had to fill that role. When he was given his own show, created for him to follow the Tonight Show, he, along with girlfriend and head writer Merrill Markoe, designed a show that was entirely premised on the idea that television and talk shows were stupid, and if you were hip enough to enjoy Late Night With David Letterman, you could appreciate it only ironically. When they ran a segment like “Stupid Pet Tricks” you could enjoy the animals and their owners, but only if you understood that it was making fun of TV entertainment. Sure, jugglers on other shows were talented, but are they any more entertaining than watching a lady with a dog who could almost talk? And why have a ventriloquist on the show when you could just throw stuff off the roof?
As the show developed they introduced regular anti-entertainment characters like Larry “Bud” Melman, Chris Elliot, Andy Kaufman, and even Dave’s own dogs Bob and Stan. And who better to make fun of celebrity schmoozing than Paul Shaffer, Dave’s band leader and resident hipster. And to further lampoon the celebrity culture, rather than an audience segment like Carson’s “Stump The Band”, Dave did “Brush With Greatness” when audience members would tell stories about how they were once right next to, or even spoke with a real movie star.
Celebrity guests were either in on the joke (like Bill Murray) or made to look slightly foolish or pompous. Singers like Andy Williams or Johnny Mathis, regulars on the Tonight Show, would never work, but hip bands like REM and X fit right in. But it wasn’t just irony and snarkiness the show was after. Largely forgotten 60’s singer Darlene Love was brought in to sing her song “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” in 1986, and became a regular on Dave’s Christmas shows. You could tell he had genuine affection and appreciation for her, as he did for other artists, like Tom Waits, who would never have made it to the Tonight Show back then.
Dave’s show was built to appeal to its natural audience. While many of Carson’s fans would stay up just a bit past the local news to catch Johnny’s monologue, and maybe a Carnac sketch and Buddy Hackett interview, the people watching Dave had to hold out until 12:30, and to 1:30 to catch the whole show. (This was a time before DVRs, and most VCRs still had 12:00 blinking on their screens.) So that meant college students and others who did not have traditional jobs to wake up to the next morning were the ones watching.
Meanwhile, while Dave and team were crafting their show, one of his best and most frequent guests, stand-up comedian Jay Leno, was given the job of guest hosting the Tonight Show whenever Johnny was absent, which, by the late 80’s, was often. And Leno dutifully toned down his act to fit right in. He embraced the cornball humor and good natured ribbing that appealed to Johnny’s audience.
So in 1992 when Johnny finally retired after 30 years on the show, NBC executives had no real choice other than to hand it over to Jay. After all, the Late Night With David Letterman format would never work in the Tonight Show time slot, and no one could imagine Dave bending his personality and the show’s sensibilities to fit in to appeal to the traditional Tonight Show audience. And they were right.
After Dave, feeling betrayed by NBC, moved to CBS to bring his Late Show in direct competition with Leno’s Tonight Show, he almost never won in the ratings. But the show was a success, and Dave proved he was ready for “slightly closer to prime time”. And while Leno, though shaping the Tonight Show to his own brand of humor and personality, remained the safer choice and continued to appeal to the older viewers, Letterman continued to have more adventurous musical acts, more clever comedy bits, and guests who could share in Dave’s humor.
As if to prove that theory, when Conan O’Brien, who had taken over Late Night when Letterman left, was given the Tonight Show, he brought some of those same sensibilities with him, and NBC couldn’t wait to get rid of him, rushing Leno back to the chair before O’Brien’s next haircut.
Illustration by the author
I came of age during the Rise of Dave, and was a big fan from the beginning. As a college student in the eighties who worked unusual hours, I fit right into his target audience, and grew to love Letterman show staples, such as the weekly viewer mail, where dumb questions were treated seriously with equally dumb answers. In Dave’s Record Collection we were exposed to wonderful music by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (before anyone else knew they made records), Lorne Greene, Telly Savalas, and numerous misguided celebrity recording efforts and self-help disks. And of course the famous Top Ten lists, which began as random combinations of subjects like “Top Ten Scooby Doo Characters and Sailor’s Diseases—Number 10: Fred! Number 9: Scurvy! Number 8: Velma!...” The lists eventually evolved to focus on one running gag, like “Top Ten Surprises in Mr. Peanut’s autobiography.”
When Dave moved to CBS, I moved right along with him, and the show continued to be great, but that was also the time that my personal life moved to a more normal schedule, and I wasn’t able to keep up as a regular viewer. As cable television grew, there were also more options out there, especially with the presence of Comedy Central and shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Daily Show, which shared some of the attitude and sense of the absurd that Letterman brought. But when it was time to watch TV at 11:30, it was unthinkable to turn on Leno’s Tonight Show—almost embarrassing. Dave was still the go-to choice.
Dave was always “human”—despite his sometimes ironic detachment, he was always the everyman character, who was not confident in any talent he had. Unlike Jimmy Fallon, you would never see Dave sing or dance. He was the definition of self-deprecating humor, and participated in comedy bits—like donning a velcro suit and jumping from a trampoline to stick to a wall—as the guy who was reluctantly dared into it. Even when Krispin Glover famously seemed to have a dangerous mental breakdown on the show, nearly kicking Dave with his platform-soled shoes, Dave just looked like the guy at a bar fight trying to get out quietly without getting hurt.
As he got older, he became even more human, dealing on the air with his own personal infidelities and violations, and then with quadruple bypass heart surgery. He seemed to get warmer towards his guests, which was natural, especially when speaking with his oldest friends, such as Bill Murray, Regis Philbin, and Jerry Seinfeld. The show also become more formulaic, sticking to a standard pattern, and not as groundbreaking as it once was, becoming more and more a part of the mainstream entertainment they were lampooning in the early years.
Dave himself, however, remained appealing, not only as his old genuine self, somehow above the fray, but as the standing elder statesman of the legion of followers. So in that way, he really did achieve Johnny Carson-like status in the new millennium. In the late 80’s, as more and more late-night shows began to appear—along with Dave there was Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak, and Garry Shandling’s take as himself as fictitious host of his own show—all, especially Hall, revered Carson as the “King” while trying to establish their own niche. Today’s much larger crop—O’Brien, Kimmel, Fallon, Stewart, Kilborne, and probably even rival Leno—clearly regards Letterman the same way. Even Oprah Winfrey, who for years thought of Dave’s jokes at her expense as insulting, came around and seemed to see what was genuine and appreciative in him, and made several appearances on the show, including in his farewell week.
So when Dave officially said goodbye, it was the end of an era—a very long one. It certainly marks the passing of his brilliant career, and one can only hope he stays around, occasionally in the public eye, for a long time to come. It was always comforting to know he was on every night, and though I rarely watched in the last ten years, I knew he was there whenever I needed him. Now, with Stephen Colbert taking over the show, I will once again be in the ‘cannot miss this’ mode—as I was with the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert double feature from Comedy Central. Of course, it won’t be the same as the commitment I made to Dave in the eighties—I’ll just DVR every show and catch it when it’s convenient...
© Ken Kiunke - Reprintable with Attribution to Ken Kiunke-FineArts.com.
Dave shares his record collection