©2023 By Andrea Kusten
I’m Andrea Kusten, but they call me The Big Mama Freak. FREAKS was my Heavy Orange Rock band with then-husband, Howie Pyro, in NYC circa the late 80’s. Fast forward to 2023, we’ve just released a deluxe career-spanning retrospective double LP set on translucent 180 gram orange vinyl, available to purchase from Rough Trade mail order: https://www.roughtrade.com/us/product/freaks/still-in-sensurround
It was such serendipity that the master tapes for our only album, 1989’s “In Sensurround” were discovered in a basement the same week Howie went into the hospital for a successful liver transplant.
We– guitarist John Fay and myself– immediately started planning a remaster and began assembling bonus tracks. All the funds from the lp were to help pay for Howie’s recuperation after the life-saving surgery.
Alas, Howie Pyro, the legendary bass player for New York City’s D-Generation, “I Luciferian”-era Danzig, FREAKS, and Max’s Kansas City’s underage darlings The Blessed, died of covid pneumonia in May of 2022.
As a result, one hundred percent of the album revenue would help Howie’s sister fund the storage of his enormous underground memorabilia collection and settle his estate. He did not leave a will, but he left behind thousands of treasures from the underbelly of pop culture, an empire so vast that it cost ten grand just to move it from his home to a warehouse.
Howie was as well-known as an insane collector of all things bizarre as he was for his rock & roll legacy. A group of his friends even put together a lost B-movie film festival and Intoxica/Green Door-style dance party in his name last October in his adopted city of Los Angeles. The same gang sold Howie Pyro t-shirts, record tote bags and enamel pins to raise money for the cause.
FREAKS “Still In-Sensurround” is a testament to our Heavy Orange Rock, a sludgy pyscho-delic blend of punk, glam, garage and proto-metal with a large dose of stoner rock. We took the name of our genre-blurring sound from the British amps we used. The vintage mod orange Ludwig drum kit rounded out our backline.
Howie came up with the band name. We felt that since we did not fit neatly into one musical niche, we were FREAKS in the then very diversified New York City live music scene. We were one of the more popular groups in the underground world of CBGBs, Pyramid Club, the Lismar Lounge and other East Village venues of the era, as we were embraced by all the various rock-n-roll cliques in the city. FREAKS shall inherit the Earth …or so we thought.
The band split for good in 1990 after the strain of a revolving-door membership at the end of our run. The final nail in the coffin was when Howie left to form D-Generation with Jesse Malin, the lead singer of D-Gen who also has a successful solo career.
Jesse and Howie were like brothers. Jesse roadied for FREAKS. Howie went to live with Jesse when we split up in late 1989. Side note: we kept the band going and got along just fine after the broken marriage. What Jesse has done for Howie since his dire diagnosis of liver disease is beyond brothers though…he’s more like a guardian angel. He started a Gofundme that raised over $75,000 in three days, a tribute to Howie’s popularity and legions of generous friends. Jesse threw two star-studded benefit concerts, huge affairs…one in New York and one in LA. After Howie passed, Jesse honored his friend’s dying wish to have a celebration-of-life tribute concert in each of his beloved cities. Yep, he did it all over again. Malin also wrote a heart-wrenching, but highly entertaining eulogy called “The Patron Saint of Weird” published by the Village Voice.
Jesse Malin has a little empire of nightclubs and bars in the East Village. He named his latest one 96 Tears, after the tattoo Howie had on the back of his neck. The ambiance is pure Pyro. The walls are studded with showcases featuring oddball items from the infamous massive collection. The drinks even have Howie-esque names like the “Jet Boy” and the “Astro Zombie.”
The whole saga of Howie’s death has weighed heavily on his friends. It was a rollercoaster ride for sure.
First was the absolutely last-minute availability of a healthy liver and the overnight surgery that saved him, followed by weeks of coma. When Howie woke up, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and then right about the time he was cleared to finally go home after months in the hospital, Covid struck. It wrecked his lungs beyond repair. The rest of his body gave out. It was a soulbashing sucker punch after the lifesaving ordeal he went through. God, I miss him so much.
Aside from recording a cassette-only rock opera called “Heavy Orange Pippi Skelter,” FREAKS also explored the world of conceptual art. In the summer of ‘88 we launched the Heavy Orange Rock Project. We dug up weighty stones from our drummer Eric Eckley’s backyard, spraypainted them dayglo orange, then hand lettered our logo and slogan on them, then we traipsed around the city leaving them in high visibility areas. The catch was that they would stay as mysterious public art until some pedestrian would lug the thing home. They’d have to really want these 20-25 pound rocks.
FREAKS were silly sometimes…zany in way that was out-there yet accessible and also present in the zeitgeist of some of our compadres in the music biz, such as Redd Kross, L7 and the Lunachicks. Our own little scene developed that revolved around FREAKS, the Lunachicks and a fabulous, rawkus band of misfits called Da Willys. We all shared a rehearsal space in the notorious Music Building. I had the lease on room 1206 (previously occupied by Madonna) and dubbed it the Freakhouse. Those were the best of times.
So far the feedback on the record has all been positive. Many of Howie’s fans are hearing FREAKS for the first time and discovering that missing link between Howie Pyro in the Blessed and the Howie Pyro of D-Generation. I hope you will check out “Still In-Sensurround” and hear for yourself just what Heavy Orange Rock is all about. Also feel welcome to join the cult of Howie Pyro. Those who knew him will never forget him.