Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band
Foster MacKenzie III
The great Root Boy Slim aka Foster MacKenzie III.
While the artist known as Root Boy Slim, Foster MacKenzie III, departed this world entirely too soon at the age of 48, he left us with a highly entertaining and weird catalog to remember him by. Though my previous statement seems to suggest that one might somehow forget about the existence of a group called Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band, I’m here to tell you won’t be able to. Here’s why.
First of all, the band is called Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band. And there is no way that anyone could possibly be expected to forget a mouthful like that. It just can’t be done. If you are not aware of Root Boy Slim, then you probably didn’t come of age in the late 70s and early 80s in the Washington, D.C. area where MacKenzie was/is pretty much a folk hero. Do you remember the guy who tried to scale the fence at the White House in 1969 who claimed to be searching for the “center of the universe” while tripping balls on acid? That was Foster MacKenzie III. This unfortunate trip would land MacKenzie in a psych ward that resulted in being diagnosed as a schizophrenic which required he be medicated for life. Perhaps the time George W. Bush (one of MacKenzie’s frat brothers at Yale) hurled him off the front porch of their frat house because he caught him smoking weed resulted in some sort of head injury. Who knows? Whatever propelled the madness that was Root Boy Slim it just simply worked, even though songs from MacKenzie’s catalog include titles like “Liquor Store Hold-Up in Space,” “I’m Not Too Old for You,” and “Too Sick to Reggae” that all sort of scream “joke rock,” making it easy for the casual observer to perhaps dismiss Root Boy Slim as some sort of goofball gimmick. However, that assessment would be pretty far from the truth.
Foster MacKenzie III was a lot of things, including being quite talented. When he got up on stage and sang “Boogie ‘Til You Puke” with his liquor-soaked voice, it was in complete earnestness just like any other musician who cared about their craft. He surrounded himself with quality musicians like saxophonist Ron Holloway who had previously stood beside Gil Scott-Heron and Dizzy Gilespie. In 1977 he managed to secure a lucrative record contract with Warner Bros. to the tune of $250,000. In 1978 Root Boy and his Sex Change Band opened up a show for the Ramones and the Runaways after which MacKenzie attempted to sweet talk a young Joan Jett to no avail. According to legend, a year later at a show MacKenzie got blotto on blow and fell off stage causing mayhem all over a table where an upper-level record executive with the label was seated with his wife. Needless to say, that didn’t go over well and after dismal sales for their debut album Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band with the Rootettes, Warners bought MacKenzie out of his contract for $40,000.
The front cover of Root Boy Slim’s 1986 album ‘Don’t Let This Happen to You.’
In 1979 MacKenzie and the band got another shot at fame when they were asked to perform “Boogie ‘Til You Puke,” in New York. The band’s performance was used for a scene in Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video—a bizarre NBC late-night television special created by Michael O’Donoghue, the brilliantly funny writer whose credits include National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live and the film Scrooged. Long story short, the special, which also included appearances by Klaus Nomi, Debbie Harry, and Sid Vicious, never made it to the airwaves because when the suits at NBC saw it they refused to air it. That same year the band played the nineteenth annual Reading Rock Festival sharing Saturday’s bill with Cheap Trick and the Scorpions. Despite all the coke and failed record contracts, 1979 had its moments for MacKenzie and I.R.S. records would sign the band to their sub-label Illegal Records, though, just like Warner, the label would later drop kick MacKenzie to the curb thanks to album number two Zoom which tanked just as hard as the band’s debut.
Though Foster went by the moniker Root Boy Slim, MacKenzie, who is often affectionately referred to as the “Lenny Bruce of the Blues” was a pretty big dude clocking in at over six-feet tall and two hundred or so pounds. But that didn’t stop him from performing all kinds of antics on stage like pretending to vomit (which earned him another nickname the “Duke of Puke”) or perhaps curling up in the bass drum for a brief, make-believe nap. It’s all pretty fantastic stuff. Thankfully, a documentary on Root Boy Slim has been in the works since last year thanks to the great Jeff Krulik of Heavy Metal Parking Lot fame who got filmmaker Dick Bangham (who was already working on a RBS doc and also designed album covers for MacKenzie back in the day) together with Scott Mueller. The documentary tentatively titled Boogie ‘Til You Puke: The Forgotten Legend of Root Boy Slim is due out sometime this year or in 2018.
More after the jump…