Rail thin, with a ragged mop of gray hair, Jerry Gaskill’s rangy appearance is belied by his pleasantness and nearly constant smile. I am speaking with the King’s X drummer over a year after his death. At least that’s how Jerry insists on referring to it. In late February of 2012, Gaskill suffered a massive heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. The band cancelled all scheduled tour dates, including one in Dallas, adding “heart attack” to the very short list of things capable of slowing down King’s X. Jerry is fully recovered now and the band is back to touring, about to play a packed house at Trees to make up for last year’s cancellation. The occasion elicits an examination of the legacy of King’s X, a band that, thirty years later, people still can’t pin down.
King’s X formed in 1980 as a power trio, 14 years after Cream prototyped the arrangement. The group’s initial sound was a U2 derivative, infused with singer and bassist Doug Pinnick’s soul, but still jumpy and unfocused. It was not until guitarist Ty Tabor detuned his guitar to compose a song titled “Pleiades” that King’s X found their signature sound. Even now, it is nearly impossible to describe. Imagine Sly Stone without the horns, with more punch in the bass, virtuosic guitar solos, speeding and stalling to tricky time signatures, riding a wave of three part harmonies. Even that neglects a dozen more qualities that define King’s X. Listing them all would probably crash iTunes.
It took eight years of tireless gigging before King’s X got to make an album. “If we haven’t paid our dues, then I don’t care to pay dues,“ says Jerry Gaskill. They joined the Atlantic Records family in 1988 with the release of Out of the Silent Planet. Their relationship with the label lasted nine years and incurred moderate success: spotty MTV airplay, top-100 album positions on the Billboard charts, and a favorable slot at Woodstock ’94. But widespread commercial success continued to elude the band. Despite being fronted by a tall Black man with a teased-out Mohawk, the impossible-to-categorize King’s X struggled to make headway in an image-obsessed industry. And still there were other identity issues confronting the band.
King’s X never made any attempt to join the Christian music industry, which, by the late 1980s, was a thriving, multi-million dollar enterprise. Still, the Christian roots of the band’s creative output were impossible to ignore. Out of the Silent Planet contains specific references to Christian rites, the 1992 self-titled album’s cover is an allusion to the Gospel of Matthew, and 1990’s Faith, Hope, Love is titled “Faith, Hope, Love.” The conclusions were easy to draw, and King’s X let people draw them, while still maintaining their distance from a religious culture with which they were progressively at unease. Then, the bombshell dropped.
“Doug [Pinnick], at one point, revealed, or came out, and said, ‘Hey, look, I’m gay,’” remembers Jerry Gaskill. “From what I understand, the Christian bookstores pulled us right off their shelves.” The year of Pinnick’s revelation was 1998 and the album being yanked from shelves was 1996’s Ear Candy. Ironically, the album, which includes the lyric “I guess I lost my faith” reached the highest position on the Christian charts of any King’s X album before and certainly since.
But none of it, not the elusiveness of fame or the label woes or religious labels being imposed and subsequently ripped off affected how the band felt about each other and about making music. “Nothing’s changed for us except for the evolution of us being ourselves,” says Jerry Gaskill. From the perspective of King’s X, they always remained true to their peculiar musical vision and their personal convictions, even as the musical landscape shifted beneath them.
King’s X can depend on one thing: the respect of fellow musicians. Their innovation is acknowledged in the back-stages and recording rooms, if not on Magazine covers. Take, for instance, what came to be known as the “Seattle sound.” No one is quite sure if King’s X or Soundgarden invented drop D tuning first (Soundgarden’s Ultramega OK was released the same year as King’s X Out of the Silent Planet), but no less an authority than Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament was convinced enough to declare King’s X the inventor of grunge. “I think I’ve come to realize that musicians do seem to be drawn to us,” says Gaskill. “I’m honored by it, and I think it’ll keep us around, because there’s always going to be musicians.”
Yet, despite the sophistication of their music, King’s X continues to be lumped in with metal acts. Past tours have included opening slots for Sammy Hagar and a touring bill with Krokus. Their fan base today is a mixture of prog-rock nerds and headbangers. King’s X is consistently thrown in the same pigeonhole as Extreme, Dream Theater, Rush, and Queensryche, though you could just as easily set them next to Funkadelic or Prince.
The most common quality of King’s X fans, despite their other tastes, is their fierce loyalty. And those same fans are now having children. “There’s little kids who grew up listening to King’s X because their parents do,” says Gaskill. “We have the parents, the grandparents, and their children. They’re very loyal and really believe in the band.” It is because of this following that King’s X, who has not released a studio album since 2008’s XV, can tour on the strength of their name alone, confident that they can fill a mid-size venue in almost any city.
When the show begins at Trees, the house is packed with potential Rocklahoma attendees. They are mostly men, around 42 years old, wearing Megadeth and Judas Priest shirts. And, yes, many of them have brought their teenage sons. As if to drive the point home, the final opener is a man with a roosterfish, blond coiffure playing instrumental, Steve Vai-esque versions of Journey and Ozzy Osbourne.
King’s X takes the stage a short time later to “Groove Machine,” which has become the band’s standard opener. The tall, sinewy Doug Pinnick, now 62, looks at least two decades younger. He has reached an Iggy Pop like status of rock and roll agelessness. These are the first full shows Jerry has done since his heart attack and the band isn’t missing a beat. The three go deep into their catalog of songs, all the way back to their heavy reworking of an old spiritual called “Over My Head.” The crowd instantly recognizes every riff. To them, and to me, each is a like a jazz standard, singular, unrepeatable, both simple and elegant in its originality.
No one is quite sure how the public at large will regard King’s X when the book is finally closed on the band. In the category of power trios, only Rush and ZZ Top exceed them in longevity. They are important enough musically to become legends, but fringe enough to be forgotten completely. Jerry Gaskill has his own modest hopes for how that legacy will read. “I hope that it will read that we were just a band that were all our own, that we’re one of those bands that, if you take any of the members out, that band no longer exists.”