With freshly bleached, close-cropped hair, relaxed in denim overalls and black baby-doll tee cut to reveal a striking Bette Midler tattoo, Tommy Martinez, AKA Tommy Chiffon, sat neatly tucked into the smooth mustard booth of the Hermosillo’s HP Brewery in Highland Park.
While sipping a micro-brew blond, Chiffon spoke candidly and openly on growing up gay, coping with addiction, being punk in the ’80s, the deaths that have punctured-yet-shaped his life, and his brother Anthony Martinez of Black Flag.
Now five years clean from heroin, cocaine, and a meth habit that also gave him a brief walk with death, Chiffon says he and his band have re-emerged to reinvent the R & B infused glam-punk sound he birthed during the early L.A. punk scene.
Coming from a Latino Catholic family of music as the “number seven child of eight kids,” and living in East LA, Chiffon and his brother Anthony were each encouraged to study music at an early age by their parents, especially their father—a jazz piano player in 1940s jazz era. Chiffon’s concentration was piano and guitar, and Anthony, drums.
Growing up in that musical environment, he became inspired by R & B and vibrant, audacious songstresses like Bette Midler, the Pointer Sisters and LaBelle, especially in their dress and style. Shy and gay in a world not as accepting, Chiffon channeled the emotions surrounding his alienated feelings and found further expression lyrically. “I was always writing stuff. Stuff that’s kind of deep talking about my sadness, even though I was optimistic,” Chiffon said. “They were depressing, but I was finding strength in my writing.”
“You hide in your room to get away from world.
People so crazy, put your head in a whirl.
Lonely when there you got to be strong.
Because your heart is true and the world is wrong.”
– from Chiffon’s “True Heart”
“Before [punk], it was female bands. Their empowerment inspired me,” said Chiffon. “But then I discovered David Bowie on a rock station and I went, “Wow!”…he was like me, embracing our different-ness and throwing it in people’s faces!”
It was then that Chiffon would further embrace glam rock and artists like Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and T-Rex, and later couple his flamboyant androgynous look with the harder core music coming into the East Los Angeles music scene in the early ’80s. But it’s his brother Anthony whom he credits with getting him out of his shell and encouraging him towards creating music.
“There was this huge rock ‘n roll punk rock scene in Montebello and East LA.,” Chiffon said. “Anthony had never heard of Black Flag. He was not a punk rocker. He was a jazz musician—a steady jazz drummer. But he loved hard rock, heavy metal. And in the ’70s everyone had a backyard band…and a van.”
“My brother one day said, ‘Hey Tommy, if you’re not doing anything tonight, we’re doing a show in Montebello. Do you want to be my roadie so I could get you in?,’” Chiffon continued. “So I became his roadie and started to experience live rock-n-roll.”
From 1982 to 1989, Chiffon and his bands, Odd Squad, Windows—and Will, with Anthony—would frequently play Al’s Bar, and often alongside bands like Ginger Coyote, the White Trash Debutantes, or Texas Terry and the Stiff Ones. Then it was Madame Wong’s in Chinatown, Madame Wong’s West in Santa Monica, and later a series of clubs on the Sunset Strip.
It was in 1985 that Chiffon and his brother would part as band mates for a long while, as Anthony went on to play with Black Flag, and then with Pygmy Love Circus in 1989.
Chiffon would also move on, and with new band members he would come to form the Tommy Chiffon band, which premiered at the then Dragonfly in Hollywood in the late 90’s. It was there he discovered that other promoters had been brought in, and the band soon found themselves booked at clubs like Lingerie, the Roxbury, and with a 13-month residency at the Viper Room. “I never had to solicit for shows. My landline phone was always full of messages,” said Chiffon.
A DJ friend in L.A., Paul Lee, would then introduce Chiffon to New York band The Toilet Boys, and to lead singer Miss Guy, and the band began opening for them during their West Coast tour from 1997 to 1998.
But it wasn’t long before Chiffon’s drug addiction derailed that fast-moving train. Steady use of methamphetamines from 1985 lead to the band’s split in 1999. “My [band] guys were getting tired of my crazy partying, so they decided to leave, and I just partied even more,” He said.
Photo by Monique A.LeBleu ~ Tommy “Tommy Chiffon” Martinez at the Hermosillo’s Highland Park Brewery. After the split, Chiffon took out a Recycler ad to start a new band. Naming one of his influences as the Ramones, he found himself approached by cover band The Gabba Gabba Heys, where he began performing as Joey Ramone. For other gigs, Chiffon would also perform as a DJ at local L.A. parties, spinning his favorites and often dressing in full glam and make-up for the occasion.
But even with the performance “highs” Chiffon was still a gay man in a straight rock n’ roll world, and Y2K would bring an onslaught of brutality, terrorism, and death to his literal door. In 2000, at the end of a night, on his way home and dressed in glam from working as a DJ at a fashion party in Echo Park, Chiffon was jumped by five men in a vicious bashing.
“They just pounded me. The car slowed down, they got out, and they just ‘boom, boom, boom!’ beat me. Coming out of discos in Hollywood, you’d have these fuckers just waiting for you!,” he said. And when performing, the response was often similar. “When I’m dressed in drag like I always do—and did—they’d just have unopened beer bottles thrown at us in between sets,” Chiffon continued.
Depressed, alone in his skin, recovering from the attacks—and keeping them secret from his family and friends so as not to hurt them—Chiffon then escalated his addictions to heroin.
And in 2001, death came.
While working as a seamstress for friend and designer Grant Krajecki, now of Grey Ant, Chiffon found himself in New York on September 9, 2001, for a fashion show that would never happen. The team, mere blocks from Ground Zero, would experience death and destruction by proximity in the days to come. The experience would deepen his addiction, creating a fissure in his friendship with Krajecki, and end his work with the designer.
In 2002, and after gaining a job at a vintage clothing store, Chiffon met Josh Blunt. Per Chiffon, the two became quick roommates and friends, especially over their commonalities: their mutual addictions. It is not long before, after a three-day heroin bender, Chiffon passes out and into a brief coma and is discovered by his friend and roommate.
According to Chiffon, “Josh couldn’t wake me for 20 minutes. But I could see myself from above with Josh trying to wake me up, pacing with worry.” Although he recalls a “peaceful” feeling, with “everything white” he also recalls Josh shaking him awake. Unable to remember who he was, Chiffon went quickly from feeling great to miserable and equates the experience to near-death, or even dead, and credits Blunt with both saving his life and affecting his music.
Four months after Chiffon’s overdose, and according to a homicide report in the L.A. Times, Blunt was shot to death.
After a fight with a then-girlfriend who lived down the hall, Blunt had gone back to the apartment he had shared with Chiffon. After an alleged call from the girlfriend that she was being robbed, the police had broken into the apartment where Blunt and Chiffon lived and—because there was a knife in Blunt’s hands—Blunt was shot.
“I was in the kitchen and then I heard six shots rang out. The cops are saying ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!’ [Blunt] was just sprawled out on the ground. His chest blown out, [the blood] just like a fountain.”
With guns aimed, they pinned Chiffon to the ground “in Josh’s blood,” according to Chiffon. And then they took him to the station. “They held me for 18 hours without out an explanation,” he said. “They wouldn’t let the press talk to me. What came out in the newspapers was not the truth.”
When he got back into his apartment, Blunt’s body was still there, according to Chiffon.
Not long after that came the death of his father, and Chiffon became primary caregiver, in rotation with his siblings, to his mother—an invalid due to scleroderma. He quit his job and his apartment in order to be with her full-time.
“It’s a slow, treacherous, torturous disease…her skin was so taught-thin on her legs that she couldn’t walk,” recalls Chiffon. “After all this stuff that had happened, I needed my mom. And her needing me was a calling.”
But during this time, at that same dreaded apartment building, Chiffon loses another friend—this time to a drug overdose—and he spirals into a depression one night that prompts his mother to call police in worry. This time, when the police are called, the outcome actually leads Chiffon to recovery in a Free Clinic, but down another tricky path—that of anti-anxiety medication addiction.
Then, in 2006, Chiffon’s mother dies. In four years, he had spent days caring for her and nights self-medicating his depression. There was no time for his music. With his brother Anthony facing similar pain, the two brothers reconnected, moved in together in Montebello and began playing music again. By 2012, after 23 years in addiction, Chiffon said he was finally able to get “clean.”
In 2014, the two brothers reunited the band, along with local musicians Will Fowler and Justino Polimeni, where they played at the Highland Park Art Walk at Urchin, a vintage retro clothing store and where Chiffon still currently works today.
Since then, Chiffon’s brother Anthony—who is currently battling his own health issues and in recovery from a years-old back injury—has returned to his home in Fresno.
With the band’s addition of guitarist James Rowe, the now Tommy Chiffon Three have been playing locally and regularly on the Highland Park circuit at venues like the Off Beat Bar, The Hi-Hat, Cafe NELA, and the Five Star Bar downtown.
In the band’s current, but evolving setlist they perform some of Tommy’s original pieces, as well as covers of songs like Nina Hagen’s “Runaway” and The Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed.” They also venture into countrified territory with “Just Ain’t Like Me” and a cover of “Baby’s Insane.” But the barn-burner is a finish with Chiffon’s hard, gritty anthem “Twist and Shock.”
The band plays often for famous friends, such as for Nina Hagen’s birthday party, as well as for Chiffon’s friend and former manager, L.A. Punk Museum Curator Tequila Mockingbird, for her birthday last year. “I love Tommy!,” Mockingbird said of Chiffon. “When I had MODA [Hollywood],—I was actually working for Paul Picasso—we had Tommy play there all the time. I did manage Tommy back in the day. He’s a fantastic musician, a lot of fun.”
Although Chiffon is happy with the direction his music is taking and with the new band, he still thinks of his brother often. “He’s my biggest artistic supporter, fan, and inspiration,” he said. “He is a talented motherfucker. Ten times more than I am, I swear to fucking God!”
Despite the years of pain and recovery, Chiffon has no regrets on where life took him and his life today, and welcomes any new changes. “I’m happy I took these 15 years away. I’m almost more accepted now than ever. It helped me be the person I couldn’t be otherwise.”
The Tommy Chiffon Three will play at Cafe NELA located at 1906 Cypress Ave
Los Angeles, 90065, on August 17, 2017, at 11:00 p.m.