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To knock on any door along the street would not be an exercise in courage. It’s a typical street in a sedate Maryland neighborhood, lined with spacious single-family houses, lawns, driveways—the happy suburban domain of those on the middle/upper-middle-class borderline.
But amid the uniformity of painted shutters and shoveled walks, there’s an ostentatious and perhaps slightly sinister anomaly. While most of the other houses have VWs, Toyotas, or Nissans parked out front, one driveway boasts three new Mercedes. Two are low, black, sleek; the third one’s an arresting shade of red. While not unheard of in this neighborhood, they seem a bit out of place.
But then, so does their owner. In fact, given his history, his presence in this area, let alone this neighborhood, seems bizarre. The irony is not lost on him. “When I got thrown in solitary back in 1988, all my friends in prison were joking that while Dan Quayle got to go to the White House, I got to go to the shithouse,” he chuckles. “Now I’m here in Washington, and he’s back in the shithouse—Indiana.”
His given name is Brett Kimberlin. But political junkies (and devoted readers of Doonesbury) are probably more likely to remember him as The Guy Who Used To Sell Dan Quayle Pot (and who became a cause célèbre when the U.S. Bureau of Prisons wouldn’t let him talk about his dealings with Quayle—and Quayle’s DEA file).
Something of a business prodigy, Kimberlin, at age 16 in 1970, opened a hugely successful Indianapolis health food store—so successful, in fact, that six years later a city merchants’ association named him businessman of the year. Ironically, Kimberlin wouldn’t be able to stay for the whole awards ceremony, owing to another business commitment: His beeper alerted him to the fact that an 11,000-pound shipment of marijuana—smuggled on a U.S. Navy airstrip, no less—had just arrived. (A licensed pilot since 16, Kimberlin came up with the idea.) Being a store owner, many later discovered, was just one of Kimberlin’s talents.
In fact, there seemed to be no end of facets to his personality. Sent to prison in 1979 on drug trafficking and explosives charges, Kimberlin quickly enrolled as a law major in a State University of New York correspondence program. He took his bachelor’s degree, got certified as a paralegal, and became an effective jailhouse lawyer. He started working out; within a few years, he was a nationally ranked weight lifter in the 144-pound class. A practitioner of yoga since the mid-’70s, he became a sort of spiritual mentor to fellow prisoners, selling many on the virtues of vegetarianism. And when he got out of prison in late 1992, he quickly re-established himself in the multimillion-dollar import-export business—but this time, moving legitimate commodities.
But now, as Kimberlin prepares to mark his third year as a Washington-area resident, yet another persona is emerging: Brett Kimberlin, alternative rocker.
“While I was in prison, I did everything I could to keep my head outside the walls,” explains Kimberlin, a short, wiry guy who looks and sounds a bit like comedian David Spade. “Writing songs was part of that. And when I got out, I just had a lot of rage, a lot of feelings I needed to get out. I’d seen a lot, and felt I had a lot to say. This was my way of saying it.”
Titled Escape From Hell, Kimberlin’s debut album—released under the name of his band, Payback—won’t be out for at least a few months. Kimberlin describes its musical ethos as “alternative—PJ Harvey with a dick.” The album can indeed be fairly characterized as alternative, as there’s very little else out there that sounds remotely like it. As produced by Paul Mahern, who has worked with performers ranging from Iggy Pop to the Judybats, almost all the songs on the album—which range from lecherous ramblings of dubious taste to intricately arranged paeans to the human spirit and dead relatives—have a distinctive sound. The anti-conservative, anti-PC, and plain anti-authoritarian numbers share dark and edgy settings.
“I would say the songs are raw, heavy, and somewhat frightening—pretty much what you would expect from someone who spent many years in prison,” says Mahern. “When I heard his four-track demos, they just seemed genuine. A lot of younger musicians focus on what people are expecting, or perfecting one recognizable sound. I think Brett just wants to write what he wants, and I really liked that. This is not a record made by someone with an eye toward a marketing strategy.”
There are a few radio-friendly tracks on the album: “Crash and Burn,” a Randy Newmanesque portrait of a brother’s self-destructive impulses, should prove accessible to just about anyone, while songs like “Life’s a Bitch,” “Sowing the Seeds of Revolution,” and “Rock and Roll World” could appeal to WHFS or DC-101 listeners.
While Kimberlin says some degree of commercial success would be nice, he insists that it’s not his intent to try to use an album to cash in on his notoriety. “I think that would be a normal reaction, because so many people try to jump on the 15-minute bandwagon, do the John Bobbitt kind of thing,” he says. “If people want to view this that way, it’s their choice. But they’re missing out on something important.”
From the cynic’s point of view, it’s easy to dismiss the above as the PR of a wannabe rock star using a “fuck you if you don’t like it” approach to provoke the skeptical into buying his album. It’s true, however, that he’s not doing it for the money; because of an odd set of circumstances, Kimberlin’s doing quite well in the financial realm.
While in prison, Kimberlin made the acquaintance of a fellow prisoner who needed help getting family members out of the Soviet Union; Kimberlin, the jailhouse lawyer, read up on immigration law, and did their asylum applications. Over the years, he handled numerous asylum cases for Russian Jews, including relatives of one Valentin Kariman. After the U.S.S.R.’s collapse, Kariman became a high-ranking government official in Ukraine. To show his gratitude, Kariman brokered a few deals between Kimberlin and Ukraine; now, Kimberlin is exporting lube oil and tires to the former Soviet republic. “That’s how I got the Mercedes out front,” he says.
So if it’s not the money, why, then? To be sure, his comments about using music to vent post-incarceration feelings of lust, rage, and contempt are valid. But those feelings are also rooted in a subversive desire and laced with a healthy dose of arrogance.
He sees himself, he says, as “one who speaks the truth the way John Lennon did.”
“It’s like what Lennon felt when he wrote ‘Revolution’—he said this is about something; this is important,” he says, then sighs. “I feel really sad for kids today, because they don’t have any real radical role models like we did.” Another sigh. “Hootie and the Blowjobs? It’s enough to make you puke. And all these other bands whining….If you wanna be brought down, be brought down, you worthless piece of shit! What I sing about on tracks like ‘Soldier of Fortune’ and ‘Sowing the Seeds of Revolution’ is how I’m gonna fight, and make it. I went to prison, and goddamn it I’m not gonna let them take me down!”
Not all the songs on his album—which Mahern characterizes as minimally produced and “pretty much Brett”—have political overtones, which in some respects may be unfortunate: While tracks like “Life’s a Bitch (For a Government Snitch)” and “Who’s Next” (a song about unfounded sex crime accusations) have a definite edge to them, others, like “Waiting to Meet” and “Teen Dream” (both about having sex with teenage girls) are lacking in subtlety and tend to make one squirm. But this is exactly what Kimberlin wants.
“I say things a lot of people are afraid to say. Yeah, ‘Teen Dream’ is about fucking a teenage girl. Every guy who’s seen a good-looking teenage girl has thought about it. I’m talking about that lecherous quality that every man, though he won’t act on it, has.”
It’s his fondest hope that conservative presidential candidates will hear the album and publicly condemn it, since some of the lyrics were written with them in mind (“You’re always trying to tell me not to toke/You’re always trying to tell me what to fear/You’re always trying to tell me when to smoke/You’re always trying to tell me what to hear”). Of course, this isn’t an album Tipper Gore will like, either, and if the president hears the album’s last track (“Hillary,” which includes the lyric “I’d love to tell you that you make me hot/I’d love a taste of what you’ve got”), he, too, might be inclined to favor record labeling.
But on one level, what his critics think of Kimberlin’s album really doesn’t matter. While everyone’s life could be a book (Kimberlin’s life, in fact, will become a book later this year; New Yorker writer Mark Singer has expanded his article into a biography), few have as many twists, turns, and bizarre plot developments as Kimberlin’s. Few have also been as unexpectedly fulfilling. While many of us might reflect a bit wistfully on how, as children, we wanted to be a multitude of things when we grew up, few of us have actually seen it happen—especially on our own terms.
In five years’ time, the album cut by Brett Kimberlin could be remembered with anything from admiration to disdain. But for a guy whose life has been a series of shifting personas, what will matter for him is that he got a little press, rankled a few people, moved on, and was able to add yet another identity—“musician” at least, “rock icon” at best—to his shadowy repertoire.
But, he acknowledges, one thing will forever elude him. “Whatever I do,” he says, wryly grinning, “I’ll probably never get my own exhibit in the Dan Quayle Museum.” CP