For 30 years, local guitarist Tim Boykin has been singing for his supper.
Tim Boykin has been playing guitar for a living since he was 15. Though Boykin once disdained the “have guitar, will travel” notion of performing whatever was necessary to pay the bills, he eventually discovered that such work wasn’t a bad way to earn his keep. He was born in Birmingham but because his father was in the military, Boykin moved frequently, returning to Alabama as a teen. He became a guitar wizard adept at playing practically any style of music, transforming from a teenage punk rocker to a versatile guitar sideman and respected studio musician over the past three decades.
“At that time [the early 1990s] there was still actually a real blues scene [in town] and Topper Price and the Upsetters were playing at the Nick,” recalls Boykin. “Leif [Bondarenko, legendary local drummer] asked if I would come play some gigs with the Upsetters and my dumb ass was like, ‘Well, man, I don’t know. You guys are a bar band, you’re a cover band. I don’t think I can do that.’ Leif called again and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ I went and played a gig with Topper and made like $30 and I was like, ‘Oh wow, I can actually get paid for playing music.’ So that ushered in this era of stability. I was like, ‘Oh wow, I’m playing, I’m doing what I love to do, and it’s like a jobby job.’ The Upsetters weren’t making huge money but it was steady money.”
Boykin knew early on what he wanted to do with his life. His first guitar was an acoustic instrument his mother had brought home for him when he was 12 years old. He soon learned “Psychotic Reaction” by the Count Five. Though he has taken a few lessons, Boykin is mostly self-taught.
“I didn’t know that it was called this but there’s a part of ‘Psychotic Reaction’ where the rhythm guitarist makes what you call ‘ghost notes,’ where he’s just doing a purely rhythmic thing and not really playing notes on the guitar,” Boykin recalls. “And I figured out how to cop that and just thought that was incredibly fine and went crazy with it and broke all the picks I had.”
Boykin quickly latched onto the Ramones and Sex Pistols but also listened to classic rock like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. “The first two albums I bought on my 13th birthday were Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ Armed Forces and Ted Nugent’s Weekend Warrior at the PX on Fort Bragg.”
Guitar provided him with an identity while growing up in North Carolina. “I had found my niche in my high school social life. It was really different culturally up there,” he says. “People were more interested in what you did than what you had. Word got around that I was a good guitar player. And so within my little group of stoner friends up there, it was like, ‘Kevin’s a good fighter, Steve can fix cars, and Tim can play guitar.’” When he moved back to Birmingham in his mid-teens, however, his new classmates weren’t very impressed that he was a musician. “When I was going to Berry [High School], the rules were all different. It didn’t matter what you could do, it mattered what you had, how much money your parents had, that kind of shit,” he says. “People knew I played guitar but they didn’t care. They were like, ‘Oh yeah? Well, I have a Z28 Camaro.’”
Boykin soon trumped his classmates, however, joining up with local punk outfit the Ether Dogs, and for the first time earning money playing his guitar. “Getting in the Ether Dogs while I was in high school brought me into this whole other social scene with older people and this whole other deal that was going on. So to me that was the real world.”
Boykin embraced the punk credo that stipulated attitude over ability. “I remember reading stuff where [music writer] Lester Bangs was saying, ‘You need to just get a guitar and go do this now. You don’t need to wait around until you’re good enough. You need to get a guitar, learn three chords, get on stage, and be playing now. Worry about the finer points later.’ And I took that to heart,” he says. “By the time I was 15 years old I was playing in bands and clubs and stuff. And I felt like that’s what I was supposed to be doing. So I was hearing the Ramones and going, ‘OK, cool. I can go ahead and be doing this. It was more about energy than finesse.’”
His first band was the Dead End Kids, which played parties at the homes of Mountain Brook teens since the band’s drummer was from that area of town. Boykin then joined the Ether Dogs and played regularly at The Cavern on Morris Avenue in the early 1980s. By 1984 he formed Carnival Season with Brad Quinn playing bass and Mark Reynolds on drums. (Disclosure: Ed Reynolds, author of this story, played guitar with Carnival Season briefly.)
“Tim was the most authentically punk-rock kid I’d ever met,” Quinn says of Boykin, with whom he shared a deep fondness for remedial algebra when the two were in school together. “He was an army brat and had moved around a lot with his family, and he was really steeped in the history of punk and its precursors—The Stooges, MC5, The New York Dolls, The Velvet Underground—all the stuff that everybody nowadays claimed they loved all along, even though they were probably listening to Yes or something. Tim was into Lester Bangs and had read a lot of the seminal rock writers, and so he was really thoughtful about rock ‘n’ roll. He was fairly class-conscious and saw things in a more politicized way than a lot of kids around Birmingham, at least. He was a big influence on me and a lot of other kids at the time. I’m sure he probably felt like a misfit, but that’s partly why it worked.”
Boykin’s ability to write catchy melodies and sing his own songs became evident when he joined Carnival Season at 18, right after graduating from high school. This was also his introduction to making records, with the band recording demo sessions for MCA Records before signing with U.K. indie label What Goes On. (Arena Rock Records reissued much of Carnival Season’s catalog on CD in 2010.) Underground pop phenomenon Tommy Keene produced the sessions that led to Carnival Season’s lone full-length album.
“That was the first album I’d done with anybody. It was very stressful,” Boykin recalls of those sessions. “We were young and everybody felt that there was a lot at stake. There was a lot of tension and conflict . . . some about creative decisions and stuff . . . Tommy kinda had this ’60s rootsy thing, which we had kinda moved away from. We had become more of a hard-rocking band. I had this little solid state Marshall half-stack that wasn’t real versatile but it was this sound [Tim loved]. That was my sound. That was kinda where my head was at, at that point, a lot of that early ’70s British rock kind of stuff. And Tommy was like, ‘Well, man, I have some perfectly nice amplifiers here. We can get you a good guitar sound. Here’s this lovely Fender Deluxe amp—which is a bitchin’ amp, a great amp—but it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s fine because I’ll just pack up my shit and go home.’ And I’m glad now that I held my ground about that stuff, but then on the other end of things I learned a lot of stuff and had some real first-time experiences. Tommy was real good at getting vocal performances. He made us work real hard. And you didn’t have any kind of [vocal enhancement] toys at that point [in time]. You couldn’t make a bad singer sound good, you really couldn’t. When you hear the Go Go’s and Belinda Carlisle singing on pitch? It’s because they made that poor child do take after take. A couple of vocal performances from me were like, ‘Yeah, we did that by the sweat of our brows.’ And I didn’t know before that that’s how you did that.”
The band lasted five years.
“After Carnival Season, it was kind of a learning process. I was still really young. When I quit Carnival Season, I was 23,” Boykin says. “At that point I felt like I had really been around the block. Initially, I thought that I had to be in a band that has a record deal. So I ended up being in the Barking Tribe—they had a record deal and got out on the road and worked real hard and made zero dollars. It kind of helped me assess more what my goals were and what I wanted to be doing.”
After a couple of years with Barking Tribe, Boykin began writing music again, forming Pinky the Stabber and then the Shame Idols, which caught the ear of Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and REM. McCaughey hooked the Shame Idols up with Frontier Records, where the band recorded two critically-acclaimed albums. Boykin figured he had the best of both worlds, making money with one band and finding a creative outlet for his songwriting talents with his own group.
“I was making money playing with Topper [Price],” he says. “Then I’d tell him the Shame Idols were flying out to L.A. to play and that I’d be gone for a couple of dates. My spot [with the Upsetters] was secure. I’d either line up a sub or they’d get somebody to sub. I’d go play rock star and then come back home and get back to work. It was great.”
By 1998, Frontier Records no longer existed so Boykin decided to record a third Shame Idols album at his own expense.
“The Shame Idols always had a real strong pop sensibility. But the first couple of albums are really heavy guitar things, to me,” he explains. “At the time Frontier folded I was listening to a lot of more kind of power pop–oriented stuff like the Flamin’ Groovies, that kind of thing. I was getting more of a ’60s kind of vibe.”
The band broke up in the process of recording and Boykin decided to record the new material as the Lolas—his dog’s name. Around this time he also started the Tim Boykin Blues Band.
“It was me basically trying to still do what I had been doing when I was playing with Topper and doing the Shame Idols,” he explains—using one band to make a living and the other for his songwriting talents. “Boy, I was just trying to book my own life at that point. I was booking the blues band all over the place and at a lot of the same clubs I was actually booking the Lolas in there, too. And man, at some of those clubs the Lolas were a hard sell. We were doing covers but we weren’t doing the bullshit covers that they liked to hear down there. We were doing the Flamin’ Groovies and shit and they were like, ‘What the hell is that?’”
Boykin currently plays with Birmingham blues singer Shar Baby, recording her album Shar-Baby’s 11 O’Clock Blues at Boykin’s home recording studio, Bushido Sound.
“I think Tim’s one of the greatest guitar players here in the state of Alabama,” says Shar Baby. “That boy is somethin’ else. That guy is true. He’s over the top—off the chain, as they say.”
Boykin’s old bands rarely completely die; rather they seem to be in a temporary cryogenic state, ready for thawing out every few years to record a new CD or play a show. Carnival Season has done recent reunion gigs and there has been chatter among band members about a new record. The Lolas and Shame Idols rear their heads from time to time as well. When the Lolas “started to fizzle out” a few years ago, Boykin sought a different direction.
“I was starting to repeat myself and I was wanting to do something kind of different,” he says. “I initially got excited about what was going on with stoner rock, desert rock, doom metal, that kind of stuff. I was partly attracted to it because it was more of a grassroots, death metal scene that seemed analogous to the way the whole punk scene was. It seemed like indie rock had become this whole status quo. So I was really looking for something that kind of seemed counter culture.”
Moving in a metal band direction, Boykin worked with Annexed Asylum before forming Throng of Shaggoths with former GNP [Grossest National Product] guitarist Chris Hendrix on drums. “Annexed Asylum was a lot of fast stuff, showing off chops with various degrees of success,” he says, laughing. “Throng of Shoggoths is a slower, heavier band with weird time signatures. The songs are based in H.P. Lovecraft. It’s very weird stuff.”
There is a misperception that musicians must move away from Birmingham to truly be successful, Boykin says. However, he has found that living here has certain advantages, especially financially.
“I’m traveling so much. San Francisco is a beautiful city but people who live there will tell you that it’s absolutely brutal to live there. You have to work three jobs and you’re still almost living on skid row. There are other places that are a lot more laid back, like Seattle, Indianapolis. And those places are kind of like Birmingham. . . . There are big cities that I like but I’m not necessarily pissed off that I don’t live in them.” &
To contact Tim Boykin for guitar lessons and to access his performance schedule, go to http://timmehworld.com.