Without batting an eye, Jim Skafish will tell you that he's "the sole originator and godfather of punk in Chicago." And that's not all--he takes credit for launching new wave and alternative rock as well. It all started in February 1976, when his band Skafish first walked onstage at B'ginnings, a club in a Schaumburg strip mall. That was the moment, he says, "when we created an art form."
Skafish's claims are certainly open to debate, but it is true that his band served as an early inspiration for others in the area who wanted to hear and play music that didn't sound like Styx, the dominant Chicago band at the time. "Skafish wasn't really punk in the generic definition, but he gets name-checked a lot," says Hi-Fi Records owner Joe Losurdo, who's putting together a documentary about the early Chicago punk scene. "It's like the George Bailey effect," says Greg Sarchet, a Lyric Opera bassist who played in Skafish for four years. "So many artists come and go and they're not remembered, but they serve a valuable function. They're the anonymous heroes of society."
While New York and Los Angeles are generally considered the focal points of early American punk, the movement had its adherents in the industrial midwest, where artistic types trying to break ranks with the prevailing blue-collar, high-testosterone culture subverted rock 'n' roll with oddball or highly personal songs. Such was the case with Jim Skafish, who grew up in East Chicago, Indiana.
Skafish studied classical and jazz piano as a kid. His mother had trained as an opera singer and his father, who died when Jim was 15, had been a big-band musician. In high school he formed a jazz trio, the Jim Skafish Group, and also played in a glammy blues-rock band called Sway. But as he got older he decided he needed another outlet to deal with his painful childhood, which he says was riddled with abusive teachers and classmates. In 1976, at the age of 20, he pulled together a group of musically inclined friends to form Skafish.
None of them had a rock background, but they were willing to follow the lead of their front man, who liked to be in control. "I remember practicing a lot," says drummer Larry Mysliwiec, now a police officer in Schererville, Indiana. "I remember one or two years into it, Jim had gotten the measles, but he made sure we still practiced at his house. He directed the rehearsal from upstairs while we were downstairs. I think at least three or four of us got the measles. That's how adamant he was."
The music was less abrasive and more complex than what people tend to associate with punk. There were lots of key and time signature changes, with synths and keyboards washing over jittering guitar and bass. The vocals were always front and center and the lyrics were as tortured as the music was genial: in "Disgracing the Family Name," the band's first single, Skafish cataloged his family members and what they all thought of him, while in "Joan Fan Club" he took on the persona of the leader of a group of popular kids who tormented a fat girl with acne.
And then there was the stage show. Over six feet tall with an unforgettably enormous nose and sagging man-boobs, Skafish often came on dressed in vintage ladies' bathing suits or tube tops. That wasn't exactly what northwestern Indiana audiences were expecting, and even in the heart of Chicago it wasn't unusual for a crowd to turn hostile. The worst instance was in February 1977, when the band opened for Sha Na Na at the Arie Crown Theater. Mysliwiec, for one, wasn't sure the promoter knew what he was in for: "I think he just thought we were some nice local band." Skafish took the stage done up like a middle-aged woman, eventually stripping down to a one-piece bathing suit as he applied lipstick. "I remember an usher threw up," Mysliwiec says, "and the promoter tried to yank us off the stage." The scene grew so ugly that security pulled the plug after 15 minutes. Skafish says a friend who was filming the concert later told him that he'd seen someone point a gun toward the stage.
After the Sha Na Na debacle the band found their audience at early Chicago punk clubs like La Mere Vipere and O'Banion's. In 1978 they played CBGB; Skafish says they were the first Chicago band to do so. They hired a manager, Scott Cameron (who had also represented Stan Kenton), and along with the Buzzcocks, the Fall, the Cramps, and fellow Chicagoans Wazmo Nariz were among the early signees to Miles Copeland's fledgling I.R.S. label.
I.R.S. released Skafish's self-titled debut in 1980. The band toured internationally to promote the record, even opening some shows for XTC and the Police, and had a performance of "Sign of the Cross" ("the first sacrilegious song in history," according to Jim) included in the Copeland-produced concert film Urgh! A Music War. But album sales were dismal, and Skafish says he had to beg Copeland to pay for a follow-up. Copeland finally agreed but wound up rejecting the initial recordings, demanding that the group return to the studio to create something more listener friendly. He flew to Chicago to oversee the sessions and spent a week sleeping on a couch in the converted garage behind Jim's house. "He literally spent the entire time yelling and throwing tapes against the walls," Skafish says.
Conversation tanked after its 1983 release and was savaged by critics who thought it was generic 80s dance music with lyrics that weren't up to snuff. "What people don't realize is that I.R.S. put out an abridged, watered-down version," Skafish says. "Conversation was heavily weighted toward the pop side and people just assumed that was what I wanted to do. There's a whole other second album no one's ever heard that was certainly more groundbreaking than anything Skafish had ever done." The band never recorded again, and after taking one last shot at touring, packed it in for good in 1985.
The breakup left Skafish at a loss. He taught private piano lessons out of his childhood home (where he still lives) and picked up odd musical gigs here and there, even playing organ at Saint Mary's, the Catholic church that had been the inspiration for more than a few of his early tunes. He continued to write songs, releasing a new batch every so often on cassette, and from time to time would attempt a comeback. In 1986 his cousin Bobby Skafish, then a DJ at WXRT, and Scotty Brown, a local musician and promoter, set up a solo show for him at the Limelight. When Brown opened the Avalon the following year, Skafish became a fixture on the schedule.
Brown says Skafish's Avalon performances, which usually consisted of him playing old Skafish songs on guitar and keyboard with the odd jazz tune or Bach composition tossed in, did well. But Skafish says the shows never brought in enough money, and by the early 90s he had no choice but to scale them back, focusing instead on commercial gigs and engagements at events like the Park Forest Jaycees' Labor Day festival.
By 1993 Skafish had reached a crisis point. Money was in short supply, "so I just threw it up to the universe," he says. "I had to do something." The answer came one afternoon when he saw an infomercial for a psychic network on TV. Skafish says he'd become aware of his own psychic abilities when he was 14, and they'd been an integral part of his life ever since. His band even had a spiritual adviser, Glinda Harrison, now his wife. Harrison had helped Skafish calculate the ideal release date for his band's debut record, among other contributions, and was credited with "psychic assistance" in the liner notes.
Skafish had given psychic readings to friends and associates over the years--he says he did one for Iggy Pop when the two toured together in 1979--but he'd never seriously considered making a living at it before. He figured out that the company was headquartered in Boca Raton, called them up, and asked for a job. Eventually they gave him one. It was the first steady work he'd had in years, and though he left the network in 2001, to this day psychic readings remain his primary source of income. He won't say how many clients he has, but he will disclose some of his more significant revelations: "I actually predicted 9/11," he says. "I'd completely forgotten that I did that until two of my clients reminded me."
Music never generated enough money for Skafish to survive, but he didn't quit. He says he's written hundreds of tunes over the last ten years, and in May he released his first new recordings in almost 14 years: Tidings of Comfort and Joy: A Jazz Piano Trio Christmas. He's been playing Christmas songs at corporate gigs for many years, but hadn't ever considered recording them until Harrison "intuited" the project a few years ago. The idea was unusual, he says, but "energywise, it just felt right. And if you're legitimately in that process, what comes to you is the antithesis of logic."
The album consists of 13 instrumental standards--"Deck the Halls," "Jingle Bells," "Silent Night"--along with a song called "We Three Kings Fusion." The trio is Skafish on piano, local session player Larry Kohut on bass, and Tom Hipskind of Kick the Cat on drums. The selections are familiar, but Skafish says he recorded them with a new approach. "I was thinking of it in terms of how I feel during the holidays, about how you can be alienated and sad."
Skafish started his own label to put out Tidings and has plans to release his band's early recordings on it as soon as possible. He's trying to acquire the rights to the I.R.S. releases, which have never been available on CD, "but it's still in negotiation," he says. "It's difficult--it's like a part of my scrapbook that's been cut out." (Meanwhile, some of the band's signature songs can be heard at skafish.com.) Skafish believes audiences in Chicago and beyond might be more open to his music than they were when he wrote it. "Back then people were saying, 'This guy's just trying to use the stage for psychotherapy,'" he says. "Now everybody's doing that. The whole world is more ready. Exactly how much, I don't know."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez, Ted Adams, Paul Natkin.