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Sweet 'Thing'

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Kihn Ya Dig It? Greg Kihn testifies about "That Thing You Do" experience.

Bay Area rock legend Greg Kihn recognizes the truth in Tom Hanks' bittersweet rock & roll fable

By David Templeton

Metro Santa Cruz writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he joins chart-topping rocker and novelist Greg Kihn to see Tom Hanks' nostalgic rock & roll flick, That Thing You Do!.

AS OUR WAITRESS swings by to pour more coffee, my guest, Greg Kihn, announces, "I have a confession: I was shaking the ketchup, and the lid flew off, and a big cascade of ketchup landed all over the booth next door. But we already kinda cleaned it up."

"That was sweet of you," she says, somewhat taken aback. "No one ever cleans up their own messes."

"Well ... we just saw a Tom Hanks movie," Kihn explains happily. "So now we're all full of good cheer and human kindness. It's a good thing we didn't see some Oliver Stone movie, huh?"

The movie he's referring to is That Thing You Do. Written and directed by Hanks, it's the sweet, authentically presented tale of four guys in a rock & roll band who enjoy one brief taste of fame during the summer of 1964. Hanks plays the cynical, experienced record company exec who guides them and who understands that some bands are only destined to have one great moment.

Kihn, a rocker whose career has taken him through several such moments, has had Top 10 hits with a number of songs, including "The Breakup Song (They Don't Write 'em Like That Anymore)" and "Jeopardy." After a highway-full of bumps and curves, Kihn's own rocky road has led him to his current position as morning DJ on one of the Bay Area's major radio stations (KUFX, 94.5FM, 5:30-10am).

Much to Kihn's delight, he also has published a novel, the deliriously weird Horror Show (Tor, 1996), a crafty sendup of B-grade horror movies. Then there is his new album, also titled Horror Show (Clean Cuts), a mature, melodic departure, mostly acoustic, featuring some of Kihn's best writing in years.

"You know that scene where the band hears their record, and they all dance around the appliance shop?" Kihn asks, recalling one of the film's more infectious moments. "I've lived that one. My first record, the first time we were ever played on the radio was on KSAN. It was Beserkeley Chartbusters. I was driving down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, listening to the radio, and suddenly ... there it was. It was just like in the movie. Within seconds the whole band showed up, just magically, at the Beserkeley offices a few blocks away. We were all jumpin' up and down, and flippin' out. A magical moment in the life of any professional musician--the first time you hear yourself on the radio. It's really a kick.

"For me, just recently, seeing my first novel in print was a lot like that," he grins. "I went to the book store and saw it there, and I just flipped out! I ended up buying one, for Karmic reasons. It felt pretty damned good.

"Rock & roll is really a happy accident," Kihn offers a bit later on. "You write a song and you play it one way, and it's okay, but then you play it faster and ... whoa! You have a hit.

"Look at 'Louie Louie,'" he laughs. "Those guys weren't trying to create a phenomenon. They were covering a calypso song they didn't know the words to, and it just happened to come out so garbled that people thought it was dirty lyrics, and one thing led to another, and all the frat guys bought it 'cause they thought it was talking about sex stuff. Next thing you know, the FBI has a copy of what they claimed were the dirty lyrics, a conspiracy to subvert the youth of America. That's rock & roll.

"The twists and turns of fame are a mysterious business," he continues. "I had my first hit record--it was almost like I'd been handed a script. 'Here's your script, kid!' I look through it and go, 'Oh look! We're gonna be on Saturday Night Live! We're gonna tour Europe. We're gonna make tons of money. I'm gonna marry a blond model.'

"So here I am flipping ahead now. 'Oh, geez. We get divorced. I go through a drug period. There's a bankruptcy! Oh my god, it's horrible!' But you keep reading and then, 'Oh look, I start coming back. I get my wits about me, I write a novel; it gets published. I get a radio show. Wow! There's a happy ending!'

"I look at these young bands starting out now and I wonder what kind of script they're being handed. Do they have the same future that I did? Who knows? Why did I do all the shit I did? I guess it was in the script. Maybe my whole rock & roll career was just fodder for my future career as a novelist.

"If I've learned anything," Kihn adds, "I've learned that our lives are just random events that somehow connect. There are lines of destiny that cross in the oddest of ways. It's unpredictable, but it's kinda cool."

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From the October 24-30, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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