Hitler Would Have Loved You: Tonetta Interviewed
, December 6th, 2011 07:32
Earlier in the year Cian Traynor caught up with 63-year-old cross-dressing, YouTube star Tonetta for this illuminating talk on outsider art
What the hell is going on in that apartment? A masked man in drag prowls about with menacing promiscuity, grooving to funk as filthy as he is, sounding like Captain Beefheart breathing down your neck.
This is the lair of cult YouTube hit Tonetta.
For one day a week, Tonetta is a 63-year-old upholsterer from Toronto named Tony. But since his wife left him in 1983, he has lived a reclusive existence. That was the year he stopped watching TV, quit listening to music, and began recording songs using cheap guitars from the sixties and a vintage drum machine pumping the same strutting beat. Ever since, he has been compelled to crank out tunes with a pair of tights on his head, gyrating blindly towards inspiration.
In 2008, Tonetta began physically posting videos of himself performing alone in his apartment to someone who would upload them to YouTube, where they went viral. It was there that Tonetta came to the attention of Dirk Knibbe, who offered to release the material on his label, Black Tent Press.
777 Vol. I, 777 Vol. II and Vol. III are compiled tracks from 26 years of prolific output, combining bursts of poignant pop genius (‘Drugs Drugs Drugs’, ‘Big Rig’ and ‘G & B Showers’) with repetitive tales of depravity.
But Tonetta is still adjusting to the idea of having a following and getting a peek behind the scenes is not exactly straightforward.
Once Tonetta has agreed in principle to an interview, there’s a three-hour window, late at night, during which he’ll screen calls and possibly answer.
“This is how it works with him,” explains Knibbe, offering tips on how to make an introduction.
Sure enough, midway through leaving a message a frantic voice cuts into the line.
Tonetta: You've seen my stuff, ay?
I have, yeah.
T: A lot of people don’t like it. They call me this, they call me that. It’s hard to judge people.
Well I’d say more people like it than don’t like it.
T: You think so, ay? I would have thought if that was true there’d be more subscribers. There are 1680 subscribers – is that good or bad? That account has only been up for a year.
Before YouTube, had anyone heard your music?
T: To be honest with you… no. Not really. I started YouTube in 2008. I’d never heard of it. Someone told me because I used to pass out my cassettes, right? Like in Toronto, right? Because I’m from Toronto. Then someone said, ‘Look, I’ll help you. I’ll open an account.’ Once it got on YouTube, it was getting attention. Whether it was good or bad, it was still getting attention. They closed down the first account, Tonetone444. Once you get three violations, they close you down, right? Then we opened up Tonetta777. Three violations again, they closed it down. A lot of my subscribers got pissed off at that. They started putting my stuff up on their own accounts so YouTube couldn’t touch it anymore. Then I opened up tj1479 and that’s when Dirk got in touch with me last year. But they keep closin’ me down. Right now I’ve got two violations again. [mad intake of breath] It doesn’t really make sense. Dirk opened up a Facebook fan page and they closed that down too. I think it had 2,000 fans on that.
How does it feel like to finally have an audience?
T: Um... well it’s not really a live audience.
No, but you have a following, a fan base.
T: It feels good. It feels all right. It gives me something to do, I guess. I don’t really know. I do it because I like playin’ guitar and horsin’ around. To me it’s fun. I’m just sharin’ it with other people.
Did you ever ask Dirk why he likes it?
T: It’s hard to say whether he likes it or not. He’s puttin’ out albums and makin’ money off it, you know what I mean? So I don’t really know if he sincerely likes it. It’s hard to tell with people. If he’s doing all these records, then he’s got to be making money. I don’t think he’s makin’ big money but he’s making something otherwise he wouldn’t go ahead with a second album. If I need something, he’ll send me it. If I need a guitar or a mask, he’ll send it to me.
How do you feel about the songs? Are there any you’re proud of?
T: Oh, there’s too many. I like a lot of them. They mean more to me than making money. They mean things. ‘My Bro’ – that’s about my brother who committed suicide. ‘Death Sentence’ – that’s about another brother who screwed me, right? Real good? So I wrote a song about him. Another one’s about a girl called Maggie; I kind of like her a lot. They mean things. If I’m doing this for the money I may as well pack it in – because I don’t make any! I’ve been doing this since 1983 but I’ve been playing guitar since I was 12 or 13.
Have you really been living in seclusion without TV, music, and the internet all that time?
T: I don’t think [those things] would help at all because it would probably make me sound more like other stuff, you know what I mean? If I listen to music it’ll make me sound like these people. I’m also an artist. I draw, right? If I went to art school all I would be doing is learning how to draw like the teacher. You don’t really branch out on your own. You don’t become independent. I really believe I’ve got a different sound. [sharp intake of breath] I don’t know what it is. People say it’s different. It’s weird, crazy music. What is it? I don’t even know what it is. I don’t know what it is. What is it to you? I... how does it sound to you?
Well I like the idea that there’s a purity to it because you don’t have all these influences getting in the way.
T: That’s what I think too! See I haven’t listened to the radio or watched TV since 1983. I watch the odd western but my brother will tape it for me and send it on VHS, so I’ll watch that, right? I didn’t bother with the radio because everything’s the same all the time. I really believe all this stuff is programmed. They’re always playing old music. I got tired of it. I think boredom is making me write. I get so bored of the world. That’s what it is. It’s monotonous. It’s boring.
Tell me about the outfits you wear in the videos.
T: Oh, I don’t even know. YouTube started that. I never put on dresses! I’ve got 171 uploads right now and probably another 10 more over the weekend. If I did them all in a suit and played a guitar, it’d be awful boring. I needed an idea. I picked up a mask here and there. It started in the beginning. People started getting a kick out of it so you start doing more and more, right?
I think, in the end, you have to be true to yourself, not thinking about how to rack up hits.
T: Well I feel like doin’ them anyways. It’s got nothing to do with gettin’ more views. But I’m not gonna stand there with just a shirt and tie on. People don’t want to see that. I tried. They said, ‘we wanna see hide! We wanna see flesh!’ I guess they like a slutty look. So I guess it’s a bunch of guys or gays... Perverts watchin’ me! What do I care? If it turns them on…
Why don’t you play live shows?
T: I’ve never done it before. I don’t know if I could. I don’t have the nerve. I’m not sure of myself. That’s why. But I’ve been offered [shows]. Plus, I’d need a band. I do all this stuff in my apartment, like an 8-track Fostex. Then I punch everything in: I play the guitar, the bass, put in the rhythm, sing. I need at least four people to get my sound. I don’t have these people.
But you seem quite confident in the videos.
T: Yeah, because there’s nobody watching me. You’re behind curtains. It’s simple. It’s easy. There’s nobody there to judge you, to throw eggs or tomatoes.
I think you’d find that people would like it.
T: I go to Pride [festival] every year in Toronto. Five people yelled out the name Tonetta. I don’t know these people or nothing. They came up and said ‘oh we saw you on YouTube’. One girl said her boyfriend has my album. They said, ‘Look it, if you play in one of the pubs here, people will come.' Some people say it’s kinda pop. They say it’s pop music. I don’t know what it is. But maybe you’re right. People will come, I guess. I don’t know.
What does your ex-wife think?
T: Well I don’t know. I haven’t talked to her since 1983. But she knows. She’s gotta know because my kids know. I haven’t seen them since 1983, since they were eight and 10 years old; two boys. Once I got on YouTube in 2008, right? One of my kids emailed me right away. But when I started puttin’ on the dresses and stuff, he stopped. He said, ‘You’re embarrassing me.' What could I do?
How would you like to be remembered?
T: Um... [sounds sad] I don’t know. I think I was born with a gift, ay? I don’t think I could stop if I wanted to. All I know is the reason I’m doing this is when I die I don’t want my music to die. When I die I want my kids to know what I was all about. And it’s kinda working cause they know me now. All these years they haven’t seen me but they still know. Years ago my wife said, ‘I don’t want them takin’ after you.' And they were doin’ that, ay? Hoppin’ on the back of my motorcycle, wearin’ leather jackets, gettin’ their ear pierced at eight years old. She put a stop to it; she got rid of me. That’s all. I think that’s basically what the story is all about. She didn’t want them takin’ after me. We’re a different class. Even her father says, ‘We’re one cut above.' They were the Higgins and we were the Jeffries. So they thought they were a better class, I guess. My son’s still there. He gets in touch now and again. He doesn’t like my stuff anyways. He doesn’t like the language. But I think that’s what people like. If I just wrote a nice love song, I don’t get as many views. But when I’m horsin’ around, actin’ like an idiot, I’m getting lots of views. Some of them got 160,000 views. Apparently this guy, Perez Hilton or somethin’; I don’t know what he did. But in one night he got 146,000 people watchin’ it. Even YouTube was interested in one: ‘My Report Card’. I don’t know how to use that stuff, the internet. I’ll go to the library once in a while to see what’s goin’ on but that’s about it.
But songs like 'Hitler' and 'Drugs Drugs Drugs' – they’re well-crafted and catchy; it’s not because they’re funny or shocking.
T: Yeah? Well ‘Drugs Drugs Drugs’ coulda been the first song I wrote in 1983. What kills me is [Dirk] put it on the first album and it’s the same version I did in 1983. I couldn’t believe it. People were buying something I did in a bedroom in my mother’s house on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. ‘Hitler’, that one I did about a year and a half ago. Did you like that one? That one was about my boss. I help part-time out in Markham. He doesn’t even know it’s about him. I’m an upholsterer. I recover furniture. I’ve been doin’ that since I was 16. That’s what’s keepin’ me alive. Now I just work one day a week or something and it helps with the rent. Lately there’s no work at all. I guess like a lot of trades, ay? But you like that Hitler one. What is it you like? The words? The music? What is it about it that you like? One of my bosses is the type of person who will say yes to anything. Know what I mean? He’s not a fighter, right? And it kinda pisses me off sometimes. There’s one called ‘Metal Man’. Well that’s about him too. Don’t tell him ‘Hitler’ is about him. He might get mad. He mightn’t call me anymore. I need the bucks once in a while. But see how they’re based on people? I’m not makin’ them up out of my head. They’re actual incidents is what it is. A lot of them are about my wife but there’s nothing good to write about her. What about that ‘G&B Showers’? People seem to like that one a lot. Some people like certain ones. It’s funny.
Do you think you’ll warm to the idea of playing live one day?
T: Dirk’s got [Tonetta tribute band] the Growlers. Apparently he’s promoting the new album in record stores and he’s getting the band to dress up as Tonetta. And he wants me to be there. He was willing to pay for the flight and I could stay with him and stuff but I just turned it down [sounds sad].
T: Because first of all I don’t like planes. I don’t fly. Damn planes. Too many musicians died in them. John Denver... and what’s his name. They all died in plane crashes. I don’t trust pieces of metal in the air. The only way is down. You’re not goin’ to live.
If they played a Tonetta show in Toronto, would you go?
T: Yeah, I probably would. Whether I’d perform or not... the stuff’s gotta be rehearsed. For me to do it, it’s gotta be rehearsed. I can’t just go there. I want it to sound like it sounds on YouTube, right? That kinda sound. I heard the Growlers and, okay, they did my songs but it doesn’t sound like me. It’s not the same. When people re-do songs, it’s never as good. You have to have the same artist because it’s their feelings. You have to have that hate and love and all that stuff in you to do things. I think you build character as the years go on. Look at Michael Jackson when he was eight years old. He was a superstar, right? But he was cute. An eight-year-old kid singing a love song: that doesn’t make sense to me. He knows nothing about love. But everybody thought he was cute. That’s what made him so big. That’s all it was. You’re not grown up. I’m talkin’ to you but you’re not mature. But I like the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson. I followed soul artists. When the Beatles broke up, it was John Lennon I followed. That guy could write; that guy was deep, you know what I mean? After he died, I didn’t know who to follow anymore. It was around then I started writing anyway so it kinda worked out.
So you’re calling from Ireland now? Is that right? Unbelievable. People call from France, from London, all around the world. It’s pretty interesting anyways. I guess I should be flattered, right? Interviews are good, I guess. Right? People must be interested if they want to talk. When you’re lookin’ at me on YouTube, do you think I’m a nut? Cause some people think I have dead bodies in my apartment. They say, ‘what’s behind that curtain? He’s a sickie’. You know what I mean? Stuff like that. They’re not reading it right. That’s what it is.