Earlier in the night, I witnessed what happens when Kennedy — who looks a lot like a redheaded version of sports talk-show giant Jim Rome, complete with a beard that conceals his mouth — isn't in charge. As he and I chatted, a longhaired, skinny-as-a-mic-stand guy requested an Iron Maiden tune from Bikini's digital jukebox. Kennedy, who hates heavy metal, glared at the kid and said, "Looks like he took a wrong turn at 1985. And why is he wearing his ex-girlfriend's jeans?"
After a bit, Iron Maiden faded out and Metallica's "Master of Puppets" started playing. Kennedy still wasn't feeling the music. "This is like music to study for the GED test. Or music to fill out a McDonald's application to," Kennedy said. "Or, wait, music to pop zits to. Music to help my mother find her welfare check to."
It's not hard to see how Kennedy can sometimes rub people the wrong way, especially when he rants about local musicians, the women in this town, scenesters, or possibly even you. When I told friends who know him that I wanted to write about the DJ, drummer, and goldmine of musical knowledge, responses ranged from "Awesome!" to "Uh, why would you want to do that? That guy's a dick." Personally, I've always thought Kennedy is great. I appreciate someone who can openly express strong opinions in person, especially about music. And like him or not, Kennedy — who plays percussion for a few local bands and has had his weekly DJ gig at Bikini Lounge for two years — is, indeed, an important fixture in the local music scene. There's more behind the overbearing attitude, music snobbery, and his sometimes haggard-looking appearance. Kennedy, who recently spent some time being homeless, is actually a pretty down-to-earth cat.
Kennedy, who's in his 30s (he declined to give his exact age), has lived in Phoenix off and on since 1982. After getting booted out of his parents' house a month before high school graduation, he moved to New Hampshire and began disc-jockeying for WEMJ 1490-AM in small-town Gilford. From there, he toiled at a few other East Coast radio stations before returning to Phoenix, where he learned the ropes and appeared on-air as a non-salaried employee of The Edge 103.9. But he ditched that job after he had to announce, "The Stone Temple Pilots were the cutting edge of rock." He hasn't returned to radio since, instead spending six to eight hours a day listening to tracks at home as well as researching, downloading, and making play lists for his Bikini Lounge gig. He even does all this on the toilet.
Recently, Kennedy made a conscious attempt at finding the saddest songs of all time that connect with the universal love-and-loss thing. I can understand why. Both of his parents died in the past two years, and he went through one of those life-changing breakups of the stab-you-in-the-heart-with-Elliott-Smith's-knife variety. He also didn't have a place of his own for a while, so he stayed with whoever was willing to lend him a couch or a hunk of carpet for the night. About the music he's been attracted to, Kennedy says, "I'm an emotional person who tends to be a little sad, so I tend to like a lot of sad songs."
But he's always had music to comfort him. This includes playing drums with the Gypsy-esque The Power of Positive Thinking and introspective folk rockers The Via Maris, as well as co-producing a record for Bay Area singer-songwriter Ash Reiter. The best way to describe Kennedy's percussion style is that you don't really notice him, but if you were to take him away and plug in a not-so-good substitute, you'd realize you took him for granted.
According to Kennedy, his longtime gig at Bikini Lounge came as a result of "being a control freak." He says, "I was at a bar [Bikini Lounge] that I was fond of that looked a certain way, and I thought it needed a certain type of music. I wanted to hang out here, and I didn't want anybody else choosing the music for me. That makes me feel very uneasy."
So instead of playing mainstream country, hip-hop, today's radio music, or heavy metal — music that will never see a single download onto his computer — Kennedy bathes the bar in American-fortified roots music, such as "Counting Sheep Over You" by Linda Glover, Cat Power, or odd covers of popular songs.
There's no mistaking that Kennedy is dead-set in his ways when it comes to rating his view of "good versus bad" music (Joe Tex versus Iron Maiden). And even when he does soften his opinions, which isn't often, he still comes off sounding elitist. As he's taking a break from the DJ station at Bikini, Kennedy says, "I used to totally write people off and think they were stupid if they didn't like the music I liked. Like, when I made a girl I was dating cry because I was picking on her for liking Tori Amos." When I ask how long ago he stopped feeling this way, Kennedy takes a piece of his beard between his index finger and thumb, tugs on the red strand until it's straight, and stares into the bar's deep shadows for a few seconds.
Then he replies, "An hour ago."