Cosmetic changes work wonders

April 5, 2002


As the flamboyant frontman for glam-rock revivalists Box-O-Car, Skid Marks takes the stage in staid businessman's attire, but wearing lipstick and eyeliner.

"I wanna be a girl/But I'm just a drag," he sings on the lead track of the new E.P., "In the future ... On Mars!" Not that he has, um, issues or anything.

"We were doing a gig and I came home from work in a suit and tie," Marks says. "For whatever reason, I was like, 'I wonder if my wife has any makeup?' I got some eyeliner and lipstick, and it all came to life. It struck me that you could dress up in an ordinary-looking outfit but twist the image a little bit. The eyeliner was cheap, so when I was sweating, it ran and looked trashy. And it kind of all ties together with the music."

Indeed, it does. Like fellow Chicagoans Caviar or the late, lamented Cupcakes, Box-O-Car took its inspiration from the British scene of the early '70s, when artists such as Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople, T. Rex, and David Bowie injected rock with a sense of liberating sexual exploration, defiant gender-bending, and gleeful bubblegum hookiness.

"That music has a certain something that I can't describe," Marks says. "I love a lot of American bands, too, but I think these sounds are just a little bit more sexy. One of the big differences between Box-O-Car and my old band is that the Charming Beggars were very macho, with more testosterone and more physical shows. I'm still kind of a physical performer, but as far as songwriting, I really try to tap into the feminine side of myself, which I think we all have."

Endearingly chaotic, the Charming Beggars made sloppy but straightforward rock in the tradition of the Replacements. They morphed into Box-O-Car about four and a half years ago, with the goal of eliminating the messiness and focusing on songcraft. "We were writing a different style and trying to stay within three-minute power-pop songs," Marks says. "We wanted to really arrange the songs and try to make them as undeniable as possible in a short amount of time."

The new group found its moniker in a story of a friend's travels. "Basically, we stole our name from a now-defunct high-school rock band from Japan," the singer says. "We liked the sound of it and the fact that it was fairly ambiguous."

A debut album, "Faster Than the Speed of Sound," was released on Veronica Records in 2000; the new E.P. is on the band's own Modern Record Company. Marks says he'd like to follow it up with another full album by the end of the year--a goal that's made easier by the fact that guitarist Ken Sluiter is one of the owners of Western Sound Labs (formerly Kingsize), so Box-O-Car can pretty much record at will.

The current lineup is completed by Dan Polonsky on bass and the mighty Mike Zelenko, veteran of Material Issue, on drums. The three musicians create an impressive setting for Marks' onstage antics, which sometimes surprise even him.

"So many times people that know me and come to see us play are kind of freaked out by how I am on stage, because I'm usually pretty reserved and quiet and shy," he says. "Maybe that's part of it, like the alter ego gets unleashed. The last place I ever thought I'd find myself was performing in front of people, but I think a lot of performers are like that. I don't really think about what I'm doing--I just enjoy it."

At 41, Marks doesn't envision stopping any time soon, and he thinks he's just now hitting his stride. "I feel like I'm getting better and my songs are connecting more with people than they did before, even though I was in a band that was much more popular than the one I'm in now. I feel like artistically, the gap between how I want the songs to sound and how they come out keeps getting smaller and smaller.

"As far as our place in the rock scene, I feel like we cross a lot of boundaries. There are people who like heavy metal who like us, and power-pop fans who like us; the average joe, and the hipster. We're not trying to be super-cool and appeal to only a segment of the population."

Though, of course, a fondness for eyeliner helps.

Box-O-Car plays a record-release show tomorrow at the Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee (773-489-3160), starting at 10 p.m. The cover is $7. Also on the bill: Wolcott, the Lovelies, and the Pages, a young band from Evanston who will close the night with their typically spirited set of early-'60s Cavern Club rock.

* * * *

A few weeks ago, this column profiled Tony Lovato, leader of Blue Island pop-punks Mest, as he celebrated the release of "Destination Unknown," the band's second album for Madonna's Maverick Records. Like many Chicagoans, I'm a fan. But the column prompted some disturbing e-mails and discussions on Internet message boards.

Eight years ago, when he was 13, Lovato played drums in a band called Confederate Storm. Initially, the other musicians were skinheads as a fashion statement, but they came to embrace that controversial subculture's racist attitudes, and the group's songs included white-power lyrics. I returned to Lovato to ask him about this, and he welcomed the opportunity to set the record straight publicly for the first time.

"Kids bring this up all the time, and the record label and publicity people are like, 'Let's not address it,' " Lovato says. "But I'm an honest person, and the more honest you are with your fans, the closer they feel to you--it's not like you're some singer who [messes around with] little girls, then turns around and acts like he's a Christian."

Lovato says he grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, and his first girlfriend was African-American. Then his family moved, and he found himself isolated until he was drawn into the skinhead scene. Eventually, he started to think about its poisonous attitudes. He then split and paid the price, being ostracized and getting involved in fights. (He compares his experience to the film "American History X.")

"When you're 13, you don't think for yourself, and you just go with the flow with the kids you hang out with," Lovato says. "The scariest part about Nazi skinheads and that cause is that they get you at a young age, and they warp your mind. After two years of that, I was like, 'This just isn't right.' It wasn't like it wasn't cool anymore, and that's why I got out of it. I realized: 'This is [messed] up, these people are [messed] up, and I am being ignorant and rude to people.' "

In the liner notes to the band's first Maverick album, Lovato writes, "Sorry to everyone I hurt in the past from my ignorant ways--I hope you can forgive me."

Now, the group tours with representatives of Anti-Racist Action, and he steers fans to their information booth from the stage. "Because of what I did in the past, maybe I can turn this around and do a positive thing," he says. "The truth is, I hung out with these kids for a few years, then I had enough brains to realize it was wrong, and I hope other people can learn from my experience."