“I’m not just OK,” says Kim Rancourt, raconteur, archivist, tour guide, songwriter, etc. and so forth. “I’m A-OK.” He’s speaking from Brooklyn, a place he’s called home long enough to be a native, though he’s a Michigander by birth and raising. He emerged from Royal Oak, a small-ish Detroit suburb that reached its peak population in the 1960s and ‘70s. Today, it boasts less than 60,000, though Rancourt would find escape in a less populated region, travelling to the state’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula to attend Northern Michigan University. He involved himself in theater, snaking his way back to hip Ann Arbor, then on to New York.
“When Bowie hit Detroit, it changed my life completely,” he recalls. “I’d been living in the woods in the Upper Peninsula and the next thing you know, I’m wearing silver satin pants and plastic belts. I had to get to New York, though I had not thought of going into rock ‘n’ roll whatsoever.”
He landed in Spanish Harlem, around the corner from Home, a restaurant/bar that was a favorite spot for Richie Havens, Dave Mason and John Lennon. “It was my first week in New York and I was meeting all of them,” Rancourt recalls. “But the city was a mess when I got there.”
During a camping trip in Jamaica, he met Mitch Strassberg, whose parents had taken in Suicide’s Alan Vega during some tough times. Rancourt and his new pal bonded over mutual musical tastes, which included Iggy and the likes. Back in New York, they formed the cover band When People Were Shorter and Lived Near The Water, which also included Ron Spitzer (Band of Susans). They were amateurs but found support in several critical figures including Kramer (Bongwater, Dogbowl), who produced all three of the group’s full-length albums.
“He was my inspiration,” recalls Rancourt. “He gave us so much support: I didn’t go into rock ‘n’ roll until I was 29 years old. I didn’t become a father until I was 39 years old. All the kids today feel like they have to do everything by the time they’re 21 or 29. I try to tell younger people I encounter that they don’t have to do everything by the time they’re that age. I got a late start and I’m never going to stop.”
He’s continuing to break new ground as well. His latest album, Plum Plum, is the first he’s issued under his own name. He wrote all the lyrics, while his band, including guitarists Don Fleming (Gumball, Velvet Monkeys) and Gary Lucas (Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley), drummer Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth) and bassist Joe Bouchard (Blue Öyster Cult), provided the music. The lyrics reflect a Beat influence and Rancourt is only too proud to wear his appreciation for Jack Kerouac et. al. on his sleeve.
“I get into lulls in my life where I study people for a long time,” the vocalist says. “Kerouac is one of the major inspirations in my life. I did go to Northern Michigan University to sit in a tower and sit in a tower like he did in Desolation Angel. I read his books in order, so I could see the whole progression. I worked on a project for two years where every musical reference I could find in a Jack Kerouac book, whatever it was, I accumulated all but four references. There were four pieces I couldn’t find. I was hoping to bring out a box set, especially for libraries, where you could read the blurb from his work, then you could listen to the piece on a CD. It really tells a story.”
Rancourt received help from a variety of corners, but legal complications and rights owned by a variety of entities mooted the project. “I still hope that it will get its day,” he says, “because it really tells this other story of Jack Kerouac. Everybody knows the music he was influenced by but when you actually read the blurb from the book and listen to the music, it adds a dimension.”
Though he calls himself “the least musical person ever” and claims his greatest talent as being able to draw class musicians together, it’s evident that the players previously mentioned wouldn’t participate in a project they didn’t believe in. “But I didn’t do that this time,” he says. “Don did it this time and I think that he really came up with the right ones.”
Lucas had worked with Rancourt before on a John Zorn-curate project at New York City’s The Knitting Factory. The chemistry between the two proved more than musical and when Flemming suggested the former Beefheart collaborator from the new project, it became an obvious “yes.”
“We needed something that would be a foil to Don’s Detroit sound, the Ashton sound,” recalls Rancourt. “What could be better than the flourish and intensity of the great Gary Lucas? Seeing them play together is just enthralling.” His enthusiasm for his Shelley’s playing is impossible to contain (“I think he plays the best he’s ever played on my album”) and his love of Bouchard is evident as he refers to him as “the sweetest man ever. An amazing musician who’ll try anything.”
Though it’s impossible to predict where the project will next go, Rancourt remains optimistic. “The first time we played live, we got off stage, looked at each other, and said, ‘When can we do this again?’ We love each other. We really do.”