Tory’s interest in music kept him occupied, and like most creative kids, he did try forming rock bands in high school.
The condition improved in his mid-teens, Tory said, but it was another element of his life that would contribute to a sense of being not like everyone else. Tory’s interest in music kept him occupied, and like most creative kids, he did try forming rock bands in high school.
“We would practice up in a hay loft,” he said. “I remember trying to play Rolling Stones and Aerosmith songs in winter, and my hands would be freezing. I listened to a tape of it—we were trying to play ‘Back in the Saddle’ by Aerosmith. And it sounds like the Sex Pistols on quaaludes.”
Tory’s musical style evolved from listening to the records he loved, and teaching himself how to play various instruments—over 30, eventually.
“I play mainly by ear,” he said. “Vocals were my main instrument. I sang along with Bowie records. I thought, I like that voice because he’s got a big range. He goes from sounding smooth to, like, this screaming sound. And I liked that vocal style. It seemed like all the other bands I listened to, they were emulating him, too. I mean, Ric Ocasek had this sort of Lodger sound. And there were groups like Sisters of Mercy that were emulating the lower, baritone Bowie voice. For me, Bowie turned me onto music I didn’t know. Before that, it was Elton John, just because of the melodies, and I liked his piano style. But Bowie…he would name-drop. He’d bring up Eno’s name, and I was like, who’s Eno? And then I’d realize, oh, Eno was in Roxy Music. And then I’d listen to what Eno name-dropped, and it was like Philip Glass, John Cage. Who were these people? So it was a whole family tree kind of thing. All these people knew each other.”
The connections continued into other forms of music, such as Miles Davis.
“On the last song on Diamond Dogs, Bowie played the trumpet part on a moog, ’cause he’d heard Miles do that on a particular album and thought it was cool. So I started to know more about who these people were. And that’s how I realized at 16 that I liked jazz fusion. Return to Forever, early Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra. I liked that stuff, but I found it alienating since it didn’t have any vocals. And there weren’t short pieces. So I was interested, but it removed me too much. The same with art rock. I’d get a Yes album or ELP or Rush. I’d think, wow, this is really cool. But I wasn’t used to that kind of arrangement. A lot of Yes pieces are almost like classical music. So I think that’s why I really liked new wave, because it had the best of both. The Cars had the synthesizer sounds and the electronics that the art rock stuff had. But it also had the simpler pop of, like, Elton John and David Bowie. So I thought, wow, this is interesting and you can chew your gum to it.”
With both his look and his musical taste evolving rapidly, young Mr. Peniston needed just one more thing to complete his transformation. It happened in 1980.
“As soon as my parents divorced—right after I graduated, that’s when I started the whole Tory Starbuck thing,” he said. “I thought, I’m using that name from now on, not just for recordings, but when I introduce myself to people. Tory was my middle name. The Starbuck came from the character played by Dirk Benedict on Battlestar Galactica. I used to have my hair like him. And people said I reminded them of him."
And how about the letter Z?
“That was just my favorite letter. Just because I like the shape, and because it’s not used a whole lot. It isn’t from ‘Ziggy.’ People used to say, oh you just did that because of Ziggy Stardust, but that wasn’t it.”
Scorn from others evidently had little impact on Tory’s determination to be himself. He dressed and carried himself exactly as he wanted.
“I don’t know why I kept doing it, even after I got beat up,” he said. “I would come home with a black eye and a split lip, and I wasn’t like, Well, I’m not gonna do that again. In fact, it sort of made me get even more like…the next time I went out, I’d wear a pirate patch and a bandolero. My look was sort of a combination of what I liked about punk, the new romantic look, and then new wave. I wanted to look like the music I liked. I wanted to have a look and image so that when people looked at me, they’d be like ‘Oh, I know what he likes.’”
The new Tory Z. still had to try to make a living like the rest of the folks, and he soon found himself working at a shoe factory in nearby Jonesburgh.
“That sort of depressed me because I thought I’d be there forever. I think I worked there for six years. It’s weird; I was telling Venus that I have dreams about the shoe factory all the time. I learned to work on every machine…I mean, I can build a shoe from scratch. Each foreman just got so tired of me. They just didn’t understand me at all. I think they wanted to fire me, yet the owners liked me a lot. So they’d say, ‘Try Tory over on the tack pulling machine,’ or some other machine.”
While one would think Tory’d be in the depths of misery in a factory environment, in typically inventive fashion he turned the situation to his advantage.
“It was cool, ’cause when I was cutting the fabric out for women’s shoes, there was this big roll of material called jute. I had to pull this thing over it that was hydraulic. And there were these things called dies, and they would cut the shape in the material. While I was cutting the jute, what I had left over was this great piece of leather or suede or something. And it would have all these holes in it. So I would like, rip it apart and wear it as a poncho. I had these space-age kind of bat-cave looking serapes, like what Clint Eastwood wore in those spaghetti western movies. I’d make sure they were purple or black. And I would make all these great clothes. People would just shake their heads…”
At the factory, Tory met his friend Lance, whose father was training him to be a shoe designer. Lance would become Starbuck’s first significant musical collaborator. They formed a band called Vinyl Emissary, the first of Tory’s many bands to do original material.
“Lance already had a house in Jonesburgh, he was making good money,” said Tory. “He’d invite me over, and I would bring albums with me; I think I started with the Cars, Devo, Talking Heads—that kind of stuff. I was weaning him. I couldn’t just bring over really wacked-out stuff. But then I started bringing over stuff that was more like Ultravox, Japan, Bauhaus. He seemed to really latch onto the stuff that would be considered goth now. But to me, it was just darker new wave. Like Joy Division. Siouxsie and the Banshees, he just loved. ’Cause he liked the darkness, but he also paid attention to the musicianship. He seemed to like drummers. So I talked him into buying a drum set. And I’d bring over a synthesizer, or a guitar, or a little Casio, and we’d just start playing. I would get a drone going on a synthesizer. I’d start this drone—” Tory effectively simulates a droning sound. “And I would play lead on the guitar. I would play these things that to me, sounded like the right notes. And it turned out that I was emulating Arabic and Indian music the best way I could. When I listened to the tapes later, I was like, ‘That’s like the Indian music I’m buying!’ I knew where I’d heard it. And Lance was doing these kind of tribal beats on the drums.”
Meanwhile, Tory also found himself sitting in with seminal St. Louis bands like Rude Pets and Be-Vision. He was essentially a “guest” musician, albeit a rather striking one.
“It was cool, but I ended up playing lots of covers. I lived so far away that I couldn’t really make it with them as a permanent member. But every time I would come in and they’d play, I would end up singing a Bowie song, or Ultravox. I’d do anything from play drums to synthesizers. This went on from about 1982 to 1987.”
Tory’s “flair for hair” took a short-lived turn toward the professional around this time. He enrolled at a Cosmetology school for two years, which one would think would’ve been a natural fit. Not so.
“I couldn’t get hired because I wasn’t gay,” he said. “All the hair places I wanted to work were owned by gay people, and it bothered them that I was straight. And I couldn’t get hired other places because the people thought I was gay. I’d wanted to go to hair school because I thought maybe those people would at least accept me. But no, they were the complete opposite.”
Any discussion of hair with Tory Starbuck compels one to ask about his frequent changes in hair color. After all, a leading publication recently stated that his hair was the most interesting thing about him. But Tory’s explanation is not what you’d think.
“People would always say to me, oh, you’re doing that because you want attention, or because you wanna be rebellious. Maybe subconsciously that’s there. But it really has more to do with sculpture and animals. It’s sort of like, I noticed that white people all pretty much look the same. We look really dead under fluorescent lighting. Really! And I always thought it was odd that all the male animals were the flamboyant ones, and the females were the ones that blended with the nest. Birds especially. And lizards. Monkeys, and lions, with those big manes, you know? And have you ever seen those Channel 9 specials about what birds will do to get laid? The male birds will build an entire sculpture out of rocks and things. These elaborate rituals. And what do men do to get laid? They go to a bar and burp in a woman’s ear. Can’t you do better than that? So I thought, yes, I can! Leave it to me to do a very dyslexic thing to get a girlfriend. I found that I got dates when I started wearing makeup and doing my hair. People would go ‘Aw, ya fag!’ But I was like, ‘No, I actually I’m doing this so I can get a girl!’ It was the very opposite of what they said. I ended up meeting a really interesting girl at the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was all decked out, you know? So that was cool. And then it also became a good way to meet bands.”
One of the bands Tory met was an early incarnation of Gravity Kills called The Trend. They were youngsters attending Jefferson City High School in the mid-’80s, and Tory sang Bowie’s song “Blue Jean” with them, to the dismay of the school principal. A band member also offered to record some of Vinyl Emissary’s music at his house. Tory’s musical net was starting to widen rapidly. He recalls running into “some Chesterfield Goth kids” in 1986, and a few of them joined the band, which changed its name to Saturnalia Glossolalia (the latter word means “speaking in tongues”). A larger band meant they could play live more often. But SG was short-lived, as Tory moved to St. Louis, officially, in 1987. There, he formed yet another band called Futurist Manifesto.