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Photo by Jack GouldIt's a hot, late-spring afternoon, the kind that tells you winter's really gone—maybe forever. The members of John Wilkes Kissing Booth are kicking back on singer Derrick Brown's boat, the Billy Ocean. A few are sipping Coronas, and at least one is steadfastly fighting seasickness. Brown has lived on the boat for a couple of years now, and the vessel's hold is crammed with a bed, a small TV and a stack of books, including The Neil Pollack Anthology of American Literature. Brown claims he's going to be selling the Billy Ocean soon and move into a shed, in order to save up money to buy a bigger boat. It's difficult to tell if he's joking.
He's not joking when he shows off his latest acquisition: a calendar of women firefighters from Florida.
"It came to the wrong address, but no way am I giving it back," says Brown.
The night before, the band played a release party at Fullerton's the Hub to promote their new CD, Goodnight Machines. The show included a full-size kissing booth (where they traded smooches for a dollar) and weird lighting effects—mostly flashlights taped to the mic stand. Drummer David Beeman had lost his cymbals and had to be driven to an audience member's house to borrow new ones.
During the set, Brown quipped that he wanted to see how it felt to sing a song while holding someone close, so a 19-year-old girl eagerly jumped onstage. He sang the whole tune with the woman pressed close to him, and, toward the end, she tried to make out with Brown as the band played on.
It seems like everybody wants to make out with John Wilkes Kissing Booth these days. The band has slowly built a dedicated legion of followers since forming on Halloween 1998.
"At the time," explains guitarist Jeff Numainville, "we just wanted to write silly, novelty songs, sort of like Weezer. We weren't taking the whole thing very seriously." One of their early songs, "Lesbiana," was a moving and heartfelt account of the song's protagonist being in love with a lesbian and realizing it'll never be (not unlike Weezer's "Pink Triangle," actually) but still loving her because she was "hot."
"I couldn't sing or write punk," recalls Brown, "and we didn't want to sound like anybody else. I have kind of wussy vocals."
The band's first gig, at Darin's Café in San Clemente, followed a reading by Brown and his longtime friend and collaborator, poet and multimedia artist Buzzy Enniss. Few in the audience expected a band.
"I was kind of surprised," says poetry promoter Jaimes Palacio. "I thought John Wilkes Kissing Booth was just the name of the show Derrick and Buzzy were doing. I felt pretty dang stupid, actually, but I was knocked out. I had heard Derrick sing an Afghan Whigs song once, but that was it."
"I try to keep my poetry career separate from the band now," says Brown, who garnered a great deal of attention in 1998 when he placed second in the National Poetry Slam Finals in Austin, Texas. "Part of it's because I don't want it to be just about me, and part of it's because these guys want it that way."
"Yeah," chimes in guitarist Tony Joe Neal. "We don't want him to be our Gwen [Stefani]. It would be easier if he wasn't so pretty."
According to Numainville, the band grew quickly from its poetry-reading roots. Numainville credits that change to the addition of Neal, who added a harder, more serious edge to Brown's then-wacky lyrics (bassist Paul Smith and drummer David Beeman round out the band). By the time they landed their first major gig—at Linda's Doll Hut—the Kissing Booth's musical style had greatly evolved, the silliness replaced by a haunting, surreal quality.
"Well, we have one song about dying by shrapnel, and another song about dying in Spain," Brown says. "We're really grim, aren't we?"
In many ways, Brown's lyrics are reminiscent of the morose, satirical songs of Morrissey and the Smiths—minus the annoying sense of self-pity. Not surprisingly, the lyrics reveal the same weird dichotomy as Brown's poems—outwardly funny but deeply disturbing. In Brown's poem "Amazing Jim," he is lying on the grass with a girl, looking up at the clouds. The girl pinches the flap of skin at his elbow and says, "Amazing, there's no nerves there." Brown replies, "Amazing. I can't feel a thing."
The line gets laughs, probably because Brown's tone, pacing, facial expressions and body language radiate "funny." John Wilkes Kissing Booth pull a lot of the same tricks on a bigger scale. Their song "The Union Rides Again" is built atop sharp, near-paranoid lines like "You're the reason/I triple-lock at night" and "Yes, I need your love/Just like I needed cancer." Pretty harsh, but Brown delivers them as he would a love song, and despite the heavy undertow of Smith's bass, the song projects an upbeat aura. You can envision lovestruck teenagers declaring it "their song" as they stare longingly at each other, even though it's twisted and wrong.