RIP Pierre Kezdy: A Naked Raygun Tribute

Bassist Pierre Kezdy
Stacia Timonere / Getty Images
– Bassist Pierre Kezdy
(left) and Jeff Pezzati of Naked Raygun at Cabaret Metro in Chicago on Aug. 1, 1987.

Chicago punk legend Pierre Kezdy was a perfect embodiment of his best-known band, Naked Raygun: physically daunting, but privately big-hearted and quick to laugh. Or at least smirk.

Kezdy, who died of cancer on Oct. 9 at age 58, bullshitted his way into punk rock history. As legend now has it, a teenaged Kezdy overheard two guys talking about starting a band one afternoon at Chicago punk dive Club 950, and confidently offered to join and play bass, having never so much as touched the instrument before.

He apparently taught himself quickly enough for the ruse to remain unknown for decades. And the ensuing band, Strike Under, was short-lived but helped pave the way for Chicago’s fertile 1980s punk scene, and also provided the debut release for fledgling local music label/store Wax Trax! Kezdy served in numerous other local punk groups including Arsenal, Trial by Fire, and Pegboy, but is best-known as a member of Naked Raygun.
Although I’d been a Chicago-raised punk fan since before my teens, I had some initial trepidation about going to an actual Naked Raygun show and catching a steel-toed boot to the face (the mid-80s was a much different punk rock proposition than the Monster Energy stage at the Warped Tour, kids). But my aspiring punkette high-school girlfriend went to a Saturday-afternoon all-ages Naked Raygun show at venerable local club Metro, and breathlessly described how she had “stage-dived” and been passed around the room atop a sea of punks, which had been “amazing.”
I took her at her word and went to the next Raygun show at Metro, and her description did it no justice. What looked like a precursor to a leather-clad riot turned out to be a tight-knit outsider community congregating to slam at the altar of their heroes (who deadpanned in their most famous lyric, “What poor gods we do make”).

The band was a jet engine of buzzsaw melody from the first snare crack, with a tangle of sweaty hands grasping at singer Jeff Pezzati’s microphone for the soaring “whoooooah-oh” singalong choruses that are Raygun’s “Chicago-style” signature. And if anyone inadvertently caught a boot to the face, they were quickly helped up and tended to.

While brimming with excellent local bands like Articles of Faith, Effigies, and Big Black, Chicago’s ‘80s-era punk scene never got the national notice of local scenes in NYC, L.A., DC. Or, for that matter, even its smaller Midwestern neighbor, Minneapolis. The exception was Naked Raygun, who quickly rose to the top of the Chicago heap, released a string of nationally-revered albums, and has remained a vital performing entity off and on through the present day. 

Kezdy joined the band after the departure of founding bassist Camilo Gonzalez following the release of groundbreaking debut album Throb Throb (1985), and played on a streak of truly gripping, incendiary records – All Rise (1986), Jettison (1988), Understand? (1989) – which has rarely been rivaled in punk, or otherwise. The band also famously changed the life of a kid named Dave Grohl.

While the subjects of Naked Raygun’s songs included the requisite hardcore rants against conformity and authoritarianism, the band also unblinkingly explored personal and emotionally-rooted issues like depression, addiction, and betrayal. But don’t you dare call them emo. 

More than any cultural affiliation or political screed, Naked Raygun were first and foremost ambassadors of their city’s meat-and-potatoes, regular-guy, blue-collar heart. At any given time, half the band (including Kezdy) had day jobs as union plumbers. And while other punk bands clashed with local police, Naked Raygun, with their neatly-cropped hair, controlled demeanor, and utter lack of nihilism, looked like they hung out with cops for beers after their shifts.
For his part, Kezdy distinguished himself as both the perfect musical complement to Raygun’s John Haggerty, one of few genuine guitar heroes in hardcore punk, and as a writer and player in his own right. Kezdy, who veered between mirroring Haggerty’s trademark searing, melodic leads and throwing down the rumbling, low-tuned foundations that were distinctly his, also wrote some of the band’s best-loved songs, including “Vanilla Blue” and Raygun…Naked Raygun (1990) album highpoint, “Home.”

I didn’t know him, but the flood of hysterical and heartwarming “Pierre stories” posted in the wake of his passing makes me regret it. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but it would be between the time he reflexively gave the shirt off his back to a fan who had admired it without a second thought and simply played that show shirtless, or how every conversation inevitably drifted to the things that were ultimately most important to him: family, friends, and fishing.

As a Chicago punk fan who came of age in the ‘80s, I saw no shortage of Naked Raygun shows, and never walked away less than exhilarated. Thanks, Pierre, and farewell.