NOTE: Nothing in the following paragraphs is guaranteed to be accurate. If you encounter anything herein known by you to be wrong, let me know.
Steve Krikorian was born July 4, 1950, in California's sunny San Joaquin Valley, the grandson of Armenian immigrants. His father was a World War II bomber pilot (Steve sings about his father and grandfather in the song "Stuck"). The circumstances of his birth, of course, placed Steve directly in the middle of the beginning of the Baby Boom.
Hilarie K. Orman, an elementary-school classmate of Steve's, picks up the thread: "I think I can shed some light on his early psychology. He was an excellent student, outgoing and happy, but with a passionate interest in gangsters. One of the most memorable occasions in fifth grade was our Valentine's Day party, when, after the PTA mothers had served punch and cookies and left, Steve lined up all the boys and re-enacted the Chicago St. Valentine's Day Massacre, with himself and Alan Shapazian and John Mesorobian wielding the (imaginary) machine guns, and everyone else falling in writhing agony as they were gunned down. It was great fun, and a real credit to Steve's charisma that he was able to pull this off with Mrs. Hansen looking on. She was a great teacher who could control a class with a single word, and she appreciated the occasional spontaneous gesture from her 11-year-olds."
Ah, those halcyon days of pre-Columbian—er, pre-Columbine—innocence!
In 1965 Steve became the bassist in a Fresno-based band called The Raik's Progress, along with the aforementioned Alan Shapazian, who played rhythm guitar, as well as Nick van Maarth, who would collaborate with him for years afterward. You get extra credit if you know the origin of the phrase "The Raik's Progress." Later that year Steve's family moved to Palm Desert to farm in the Coachella Valley. Steve stayed behind, living with uncles and aunts and/or other band members. In 1966 The Raik's Progress took its shot at musical fame, playing clubs on L.A.'s Sunset Strip. The band recorded one single for Liberty Records, released in 1967, but broke up soon afterward. That single plus a full live set were reissued in 2003 by Sundazed Records under the title Sewer Rat Love Chant. Steve rejoined his family in Palm Desert until 1969, then relocated to Los Angeles, where he's lived (more or less) ever since.
In 1973 Steve made his first major recording—an album entitled Remnants with the Crickets (drummer Jerry Allison and bassist Joe Mauldin). (Best known for their work with Buddy Holly, Allison and Mauldin continued to record years after the Bespectacled One's untimely 1959 death.) He also appeared on a followup Crickets album entitled Long Way from Lubbock, which was released only in Europe. Next, Steve went solo and took the stage name Tonio K., ostensibly after Tonio Kröger, the title character of a novella by German author Thomas Mann.
Tonio's debut album, Life in the Foodchain (Full Moon/Epic, 1978), won respect from critics (Stereo Review called it "the greatest album ever," and Rolling Stone gave it five stars), and along with the follow-up Amerika (Arista, 1980), it earned him a niche in L.A.'s burgeoning punk/new wave scene. He became a fixture at clubs, where both he and his fans were famous for their shenanigans. Fan Chris Huber recalls: "I still have a paper beak that they gave out one night at a Whiskey a Go Go gig so we could all look like Tonio on the Amerika cover.... 'I Handle Snakes' ... was a very cool number in the clubs as Tonio would fight a huge stuffed snake."
Tonio sometimes punctuated these shows with a dialogue vaguely reminiscent of Pontius Pilate on Good Friday. Here's how he tells it:
"I'd go, 'How many of you hunger after the truth, in this Dark Age of lies and media hype?' And everyone would yell, 'Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!' Then I’d go, 'How many of you hunger for a meaningful relationship in this time of sexual manipulation and gender reversals?' And everyone would yell, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah!' Finally I’d go, 'But then again, how many of you just want a pancake?'"
The audience members would invariably affirm that pancakes were indeed the only tonic for their deepest yearnings, and Tonio would proceed to make the pancakes on an electric griddle and fling them into the crowd. Other hijinks included dressing up as an Arab, complete with white burnoose; giving an impromptu lecture on Joan of Arc during "The Funky Western Civilization"; or starting to sing "H-A-T-R-E-D," stopping at the line "But suddenly darling, the tables have turned," and insisting that every table in the club be picked up and rotated. He'd also end every show by impaling an acoustic guitar on a microphone stand (or a vacuum cleaner, or whatever was handy), and he saved the necks from these guitars, building a collection that eventually numbered over 200.
The next Tonio K. project, tentatively titled Too Cool to Be a Christian, was recorded but never released. A four-song test pressing from those sessions remains one of the most sought-after Tonio K. collectibles. The joke behind the title, of course, was that Tonio's songwriting was beginning to allude to his Christian faith. ("Hey John" is addressed to John of Patmos, author of the book of Revelation, and even the misogynistic "Mars Needs Women" quotes from the book of Proverbs.) He did release a third punk/new wave album: the five-song EP La Bomba (Capitol, 1982).
The Tonio K. of 1978 to 1982 was either rock'n'roll's angriest funny man or its funniest angry man. (To this day, he can count Weird Al Yankovic among his most ardent fans.) His songs were humorous enough to be played on Dr. Demento and nihilistic enough for him to do concerts with the Circle Jerks. Much of the anger was directed at the opposite sex. Tonio seemed to be out to prove that no resentment was too deep for words. Yet, he says, "I was never the misogynist that some people probably hoped I was." Tonio's anger was never an end in itself—he merely used it for the sake of a joke. He was, in fact, satirizing the very idiom to which he belonged.
In following years, new wave gradually ceased to be au courant. Bands with big hair, long police records, and weird names like Mötley Crüe and Guns'N'Roses took over the L.A. club scene. Tonio had to wait four years for his next record deal. By the time Romeo Unchained (What?, 1986) appeared, Tonio's music had mellowed somewhat—raucous guitars took a back seat to keyboards on most tracks—but his wit was as sharp as ever. There were some definite thematic differences, however. The feigned misogyny had disappeared completely; in its place were some heartfelt love ballads. And though K. was still obviously disenchanted with the planet he lived on, some of the songs actually sounded hopeful. The album even ended with a number called "You Will Go Free." (Tonio did reprise "I Handle Snakes" from the test pressing, just in case any of his old fans were still listening.)
Thanks to an unusual distribution deal, Romeo Unchained—the debut release on the short-lived What? label—was available not only through A&M Records, but also via Word, the gospel-music giant. Word apparently pushed the album a lot harder than A&M did; buyers had a much better chance of spotting it in Christian bookstores than in Musicland or the Wherehouse. This, coupled with adoring attention from Christian music magazines (and some of the more daring Christian radio stations), led to the popular perception of Tonio as a "contemporary Christian artist," a pigeonhole that he never asked for and didn't really fit.
Tonio married Linda Myers, who, by the way, shot the cover photo for his next offering, Notes from the Lost Civilization (What?, 1988). This tasty morsel was served up in a blend of R&B, new wave, and pop that Tonio called "urban surf music." Unfortunately, this was around the time Word Records lost interest in anything musically or theologically progressive. Word choked on one of Notes' best songs, the sardonic "What Women Want," and deleted it from the "Christian" version of the album. Not long afterward, the carefully orchestrated distribution agreement fell apart.
Tonio recorded one more album—entitled ¡Olé!—but A&M, having been sold to Sony, never released it. He relocated for a while to Austin, Texas, where in 1990 he formed a band called 16 Tons of Monkeys with his friend Charlie Sexton. During the '90s, Tonio has gradually retreated from recording and performing; instead, he works behind the scenes as a successful songwriter.
Interest in Tonio's music has not expired, and Tonio himself has graciously allowed Vermont-based Gadfly Records to reissue several of his albums on CD, some of them for the first time. After extended negotiations with A&M, Gadfly secured the rights to the long-lost ¡Olé! album and released it, marking Tonio's quiet re-entry into the music scene. In 1998 Gadfly followed up with Rodent Weekend '76–'96 (Approximately), a collection of unreleased songs from his early years, alternate takes from the La Bomba sessions, and "I'm Supposed to Have Sex with You," a non-album cut that accidentally became the closest approximation of a "hit" in his career. Just in time for the new millennium came Yugoslavia, K's first collection of new songs in a decade, and a live set by 16 Tons of Monkeys. Rumors of further releases have not been quelled. In the minds of a small cadre of devotees, Tonio recorded some of the best albums of the 1980s. And doggone it, if Journey, KISS, and the Eagles can come back, so can this guy. You never know.