By Jeff Walsh
With his acoustic album "Motorcycle Childhood," Tyson Meade uses spare arrangement and raw vocals to share details of his life. It's very different from his other role as the openly gay lead singer of the Chainsaw Kittens, where he used to take to the stage in lipstick, tights and mini-skirts.
The Kittens' new album should be out in late Summer, followed by a US tour, but for now Meade is kicking back in Oklahoma, not far from where his family still lives. His family plays a role in his solo album.
A picture of a young, barefoot Tyson with a sixth grade school friend is inside the sleeve, as well as several other family pictures. The lyric sheet is hand-written by Meade. But the family alluded to in the music and in the artwork stir mixed feelings in Meade.
'It just goes right by them'
"Aunt Ruby's Porch," the first song on the album, is about Meade's aunt who wanted to help him purge his queer demons.
"It's about my Aunt Ruby not too long ago telling me she could go with me to get an exorcism, because I'm obviously possessed by a demon to feel the way I do," Meade says. "This is the aunt I grew up next door to, who's like a second mother to me."
Meade, 33 ("going on 50"), of Norman, Oklahoma says his homosexuality is never a topic of discussion with the family -- which is fine with him.
"It's not like it's easy in any family, but I just don't want to be the rag doll in the middle of the tug of war, and every time I go home, it becomes, 'Well, I accept you ... but your uncle, or your brother, he thinks you should be burned at the stake,'" he says. "I think everyone in the family probably knows, and making it official is really kind of silly unless there's some reason.
Meade pauses, thinking back on his statement, which went on for about five minutes punctuated heavily with "umms," "you knows" and "likes." Then he starts laughing a staccatoed giddy laugh. "Didn't that just ramble like some awful Led Zeppelin song?"
But wouldn't his family be aware of his album, which also features "Our Liar's Lairs" about coming out, and the homoerotic wrestling pose-inspired "reverse nelson-inside crotch"? Wouldn't they also know he spent his early days in the Kittens singing on-stage in a dress?
"It just goes right by them. I'm serious. I think I've tried to incriminate myself so often that's why I figure they've got to know," he says. "But maybe that's why she wanted me to get an exorcism. She probably would have even sprung for it."
This is coming from the same family that has openly accepted Meade's lesbian aunt, although they never address their sexuality. "We kind of really border ... we don't actually border, we reside nicely in the redneck area," Meade says. "A lot of my family are thoroughbred rednecks, which is nothing I can help. At the same time, I have another aunt who has had a female partner for the past 25 or 30 years, and her partner is totally accepted as being part of the family. But no one has ever said they're gay, they're just a couple. It's this totally weird thing. I always call my aunt's partner an aunt, they're both my aunts. I would stay with them for a couple weeks at a time when I was growing up, and they lived in Kansas. My family would definitely not get the PC Award, that's for sure."
Meade figures he'll finally be accepted when he brings a partner home. "If that's how the rules work in this family, when I get a partner ... and it's looking right now that I might be 80 by that time," he says, laughing again. "When I'm hobbling up with my cane, and this other little old man is hobbling beside me, maybe they'll be like, 'Oh, is this your friend?'"
'I just wanted to move to the planet where they were'
Meade says growing up gay was "pretty awful" for him.
"That part was definitely put in a straight jacket and a padded cell for the first 20 years of my life," he says. "Actually, beyond the first 20... Even still, I guess eventually my mom will read something and realize, 'Oh yeah, I have a gay son.' But it's not like I ever had a talk with my parents. I tried when I was 14 or something, and until I have a companion, I don't think it's important to make it known what I'm about.
"I know that they know, and I have this kind of family where we would just rather be in the dark. They honestly don't want to know any kind of details of anything. I just respect that."
Meade used music as a way to escape when he was growing up. "I've basically all my life been a daydreamer, here half the time and not here most of the time," he says. "When I was a kid, that was my escape. I could read Rock Scene magazine and other things like that. And hear about parties and New York, and the New York Dolls or Iggy Pop doing something insane, or Keith Moon driving a limo into Ringo Starr's swimming pool.
"It wasn't so much that I identified with them. I just wanted to move to the planet where they were, but I didn't know if there was any shuttlecraft would take me there, especially before MTV and cable came.
"Oklahoma was totally cut off from the rest of the world. I've talked to a lot of people who were really unhappy in their childhood. I was always very happy, but that part of me was tied up and put in a closet for the first 20-odd years of my life. Iggy and the Dolls made me go 'Wow!' It didn't have that much to do with sex. A lot of times they had this disclaimer, 'Oh, but we're not attracted to men.' But it was still the gender-bending thing."
'I just felt I had to be honest'
Meade, wearing lipstick and cross-dressing, never hid his sexuality. But it wasn't discussed. He didn't bring it up in interviews, and the media avoided it. "That's kind of the crazy thing about it. I guess I did have this sign on me saying 'I'm gay,' but I never really thought I had a sign," he says. "All my words could be taken ... they had a lot of not only double entendres, but quadruple entendres to them. So, finally, someone says 'Are you gay?' And I was like, 'Yeah.'
"It wasn't a big deal, it's just like 'Well, I am,' and I can't lie. But I never used it as a banner for the Kittens. But I just felt I had to be honest, which in rock music is just the death of anyone. I think when it comes right down to it, people just want some sort of lie a lot of the time."
When the Kittens' new album "Speedway Oklahoma" his stores, some lyrics won't be up for audiences to debate. "Mouthful of Glass" documents a scary near-rape experience Meade had with another guy. The lyrics go "He said he wanted to blow me, I said you don't even know me. Then he tried to roll me, so maybe he could own me," followed up by the next chorus, "He said he wanted to blow me, I said you don't even know me, with my mouth full of broken glass and my face smashed in the grass. He'll never call me, call me, call me."
"I know women have the same problem, and I guess it's taboo still with them," he says. "I had a guy go psycho at one point when we were kind of in the midst of stuff, and it's kind of taken from that.
"The song is really happy, but it was a very turning moment in my life, because I realized how insane the human psyche can be," Meade says. "That song is kind of about that. It's the yin and yang. You're attracted to somebody, they seem really great and really cool. You're attracted to them because they're sort of on the edge, and they turn out to be out of their minds and could kill you. And you're like, 'I think I better figure out what attracted me to him in the first place.'
And for someone who says he's doesn't want to be wearing a gay badge, he'll have lots of explaining to do with his Judy Garland-inspired "Dorothy's Last Fling."
"I was just like 'Oh, Judy. Poor Judy.' And all of the sudden I just had this song," he says. "It was actually this really great catchy song, and I was like 'Oh no, but it's about Judy Garland.' That kind of seals my fate right there."
The Kittens album will be released on Scratchie Records, which is owned by two of the Smashing Pumpkins. The Kittens left Mammoth Records after their last album "Pop Heiress" didn't do well. "We were really dissatisfied with Mammoth," he says. "And I know they're going to read this and I'll be in hotter water with them. I love the people there, but it just wasn't really our kind of label. We weren't with our own there and we'll leave it at that."
Meade, the only gay Kitten, says his sexuality isn't an issue with the other guys in the band. "The guys are like my real family. They are the sweetest, best guys that you could ever want."
And, although Meade is now out of his, many of his dresses will remain in the closet when they tour.
"It was fun when I did it, not to say that I may not do it again. But it was turning into a gimmick and parody of myself. This is what people expect of me so I better put on black tights and a pink mini-dress and wear a lot of makeup," he says. "So, I thought, well, maybe I'll just wear some Levi's today instead. It's not so much a part of things anymore.
"It was fun because we were from Oklahoma, and people were like, 'Omigod, how can this band from Oklahoma be wearing makeup and dresses. And we're like 'How can we not be from Oklahoma, we're this out of our minds. We're victims of our environment.'
"The Kittens are, and I don't want to sound like Molly Hatchet, just this good time, love to play, hard pop. It's a little harder to dig down and hit the nerve of the Kittens, because we're kind of like a pop turtle, where there's a shell kind of around it, and that's our presentation. I wanted my solo record to be kind of the turtle without his shell."
Mellow, but not safe
The solo album is littered with pictures of Meade and his family. "It's pictures from me in my childhood, and the cover is me and my family on motorcycles. We were like this really demented Brady Bunch," he says.
Meade says the response to his solo album has been mixed, but since the album is very personal, bad reviews don't bounce off him as easily as they normally would.
"Every time you hear something bad about it, it's like somebody is sticking a pin in you," he says. "With the Kittens, it's just blah blah blah. But now, it's like they're saying these things about me personally. That hurts, but I realize I have to ignore it. Those reviewers have their own opinion."
Part of the reason it comes across as so personal is that Meade's voice is very prominent, and the instrumentation is much softer.
"Some people are just wanting to hear something like ... oh, I'll say Hootie," he says. "My album's mellow, but it's not safe. It's very unsafe in that way. You just can't put it on and feel like you're getting the Best of VH-1.
"It's pretty self-involved and self-indulgent. I have a lot of friends I haven't talked to in a number of years, and the album is kind of a letter to them -- this is how I'm doing, this is what I'm doing. And that's the thing that propelled it. I don't know how many albums that kind of philosophy propels, but it was really the thing that made me do the solo record."
Meade doesn't try to shun his sexuality, but says he doesn't like being just "gay" to anyone.
"I get patronized in a way, like 'Oh, he's my gay friend. I know this other guy who's gay. I should introduce you two' And I'm like, 'Oh, what are we supposed to talk about? Triangles or something?' That's one of those things that drive me crazy," he says. "Then, I realize these people, and I realize it's cool that they try to be... it's like if you know a black guy and start saying, 'Oh, I used to listen to the Supremes when I was a kid. You like me, right?' It's that same thing.
He also doesn't think he's in a position to give advice to others about their sexuality.
"I don't know if I can give good advice, but I certainly can give some advice," he says, laughing. "Every case is so different. I don't think it's worth a kid getting kicked out of their home just because they're gay, and that still happens.
"This might sound cowardly, but you have enough to deal with without having to deal with the parents. With me, I tried but I realized it was not a subject to discuss. It just wasn't," he says. "A lot of my friends who are out say you can't hide or whatever. Well, it's just not worth it to me with my parents to have them be ... it's not like a disappointment. It's like 'Satan is in my body,' because they are really religious. You can't even talk about sex to begin with them.
"Everybody has to feel comfortable with themselves and I don't like wearing the gay badge that everyone that meets me automatically knows. I hate being 'Oh, that's Tyson, my gay friend.' I hate that, because it's something I've told them and they know, but it's nothing you can see, not a physical trait. It's so intangible," he says. "Gay -- does it mean sex? Something other than sex? I really don't know. How gay am I, then, if I have been celibate for a couple of years. I'm gay no matter what, but a lot of these friends that are straight had sex with guys with girls involved more often than I've had sex, but then they're not gay?! I don't get it. I don't get the rules.
"Someone give me the gay rulebook, because they didn't pass it out to me in the sixth grade," he says.
Meade is preparing to do a quick East Coast tour, and then he will hit the road with the Kittens later in the year. So, does being an openly gay lead singer of a rock band get you male groupies? Meade doesn't know.
"It hasn't happened. You know, the thing is, I'm so oblivious that I don't even probably have any idea that's what's going on," he says, laughing. "And I'll be like, 'Oh, nice to meet you. Here's a Coke. You can have some of our deli platter.' I'm pretty dang oblivious when it comes to that stuff. It very well could be, and I could very well not know it."