BY BOB NICKAS
ALL DRAWINGS BY TONETTA.
Stills from Tonetta’s music videos for “Sweet & Sexy” and “Grandma Knows Best.”
I’ll be your drain tonight.” How’s that for an opening line? Unforgettable? Perverse? And yet somehow... tempting? Keep in mind that it’s being delivered by a man in his early 60s, with a platinum-blond wig screwed to his head as he shakes his moneymaker for the camera in his Toronto apartment. Although the “Dancing With Myself” factor may be precipitous, Billy Idol has nothing on this guy. In his “Grandma Knows Best” video he’s totally buff, squeezed into a little black bikini bottom, with his hair cut short and spiky. His styling decisions are nothing if not deliriously twisted. For “Sweet & Sexy,” his face is obscured by what looks like a white porcelain doll mask. Visual and sonic collisions can be eerily inspired. Dressed in a belted lady’s swimsuit and singing about Jesus, he’s a gnarly Serge Gainsbourg meets a silvery Jeanne Moreau by way of 1960s French yé-yé. Equally cool and disturbing, this is Tonetta, one Tony Jeffrey, an artist, songwriter, performer, and contagious force of nature. In a world of parrots, Tonetta actually lip-synchs to his own lyrics. “What’s a caveman to do?” he wonders. “Eat, drink, and screw/ That’s all I want and all I know/ I was blessed with a ten-inch pole.” While Tonetta has been recording his irresistibly catchy songs since ’83, the videos made at home have only been spilling out over the past two years, quickly finding a devoted if not bewildered cult audience via YouTube. Any artist would give his eyeteeth for the kinds of comments that are regularly showered on Tonetta: “I’ve never had this feeling before... I’m horrified but can’t seem to look away... like a car wreck.” “I’m blasting this and dancing in my underwear! Tonetta connection!!!” The most succinct is also the most undeniable, simply stated: “This cannot be unseen.”
While terms like “creepy” and “scary” come up with some frequency, Tonetta clearly offers something people are missing in their increasingly predictable lives, whether they know it or not, or care to admit. Tonetta’s redefinition of “guilty pleasure” isn’t simply a matter of permission, of allowing an audience to have a good time without any of the attendant and boring remorse: He gives himself permission. In a repressive society, doing exactly what you want is tantamount to the greatest crime of all; the ever-prolific Tonetta, particularly at his age, is a genuine role model, not a goody-goody type like Naomi Campbell or Tiger Woods or even Sir Elton John. When most people are busy rolling over and playing dead, Tonetta jacks up addictive hits like “Drugs Drugs Drugs” and “Yoassismine.” Pull the ninja mask over your head, break out the leather vest, oil up your six-pack, and get ready to wail on that toy guitar. Forget zoning out to a coma in the corporate atrium of MoMA, this is performance art, as messy, invasive, and unrelenting as the day is long. But just when you thought he couldn’t take you higher, there’s more. Tonetta, it turns out, is also an unexpectedly fine draftsman whose frisky imagination is at the service of curious drawings that skim the surface of the unconscious and plumb the depths of the everyday.
A tour of Tony’s drawing gallery is a matter not only of navigating a series of bizarre twists and turns but also of surrendering oneself to more mysterious and ravishing deviations for which you are never fully prepared. In one portrait, the upper half of a woman’s body faces forward, while the lower half is somehow turned around, pendulous breasts hung over the ledge of a considerably wide bottom: a crisscross Venus Hottentot. In another, a faceless figure, anatomically female from the waist up, has been endowed with a gargantuan uncircumcised penis. The naturalistic image of a naked skater would be unusual in and of itself, and yet the addition of an oversize beagle cradling her distended, pregnant belly gives one pause. A sweet black baby in its crib could have been copied from a family snapshot, but a group of tragically emaciated African children, wide-eyed and bearing empty cups, is its nightmarish inversion. Here, Tony asks, IS IT FAIR, and wisely omits the question mark. As social realism turns toward a free-floating surrealism, we are submerged into pure reverie. In one dreamlike image, the corpus of a woman embodies a trio of alien lovers. Or an adorable ET is somehow enraptured by a veiled baby-elephant trunk. (Of course it’s not, but we’re adrift in magic ether. Suspend your disbelief for the briefest of moments, at least.) For all that seems “disturbed,” there is real poignancy and tenderness in these drawings, and as befits a worthy heir to the realms of the surreal, an obvious undercurrent of obsession and an unrepentant delight in fetish. Welcome to the world of Tonetta. Drain you.
Tonetta’s recordings are available from the daring Black Tent Press label (www.blacktentpress.com).