New to the Triangle, Sal Canzonieri and Electric Frankenstein look to reanimate their raucous rock ‘n’ roll
By Bryan C. Reed
Sal Canzonieri can thank a bone tumor for setting the course of his life. Back in 1975, at 15 years old, Canzonieri underwent surgery to remove the growth, and his mother, looking to comfort her son, offered to support him in any activity he chose. “I was like, I want a guitar, and I want to learn kung fu,” Canzonieri recalls. Soon he was practicing Shaolin kung fu and learning power chords.
Later, Canzonieri would go on to tour the world as the founding member of cult punk-rockers Electric Frankenstein, and turn his martial arts practice into a holistic approach to kung fu and the more internally focused qigong, which he now teaches to others interested in Chinese traditional martial arts.
Recently settled in Cary, Canzonieri is ready to start yet another chapter in his life of rock ‘n’ roll zen. His brother Dan, who plays bass, lives in Apex; and drummer Wheez Von Klaw lives in Carrboro, officially making Electric Frankenstein a Triangle band. Lead guitarist Ed Warner, of longtime Raleigh rock ‘n’ rollers KIFF, stepped in to play lead guitar, helping the band re-energize its old material—and start work on new songs, as well.
“It’s refreshing to basically build it up again from the ground up,” Canzonieri says. “We went back to the original albums and we re-learned the songs the way the albums are. The speed of the records, and the intensity.”
When the Canzonieri brothers founded Electric Frankenstein in 1989, it was an outgrowth of the same childhood obsessions that turned Canonieri onto rock ‘n’ roll and martial arts in the first place. “We all grew up on Famous Monsters magazine, Rat Fink [comic books], hot rods, ‘The Munsters,’ ‘The Addams Family,’” he remembers. As far as kung fu was concerned, he says, “1973 was ‘Enter The Dragon,’ so that was the original inspiration.”
But while the early 1990s saw the explosion of “alternative” rock, tastes for old-school punk rock had receded from the public view. Often described as a “punk revival” act, Electric Frankenstein embraced the aesthetics of lowbrow art and pop culture, and took inspiration from high-octane rock bands like The Stooges, the Ramones, AC/DC and the New York Dolls.
For more than 30 years, with scores of singles, compilation appearances and studio albums to the band’s name, Electric Frankenstein has honed its dynamic fusion of old-school punk and garage rock, building a global audience with loyal fans across the U.S., Europe and Japan. Even now, Canzonieri says, “We’re as intense as we always were because we never stopped playing.”
But the early years found the band looking to reanimate a scene that had gone stale. “New York was real sleepy when we started,” Canzonieri says. “We were like, oh, we gotta wake everybody up and jump-start things. So we did.”
A blend of influences on Electric Frankenstein provided the foundation for this wake-up call. “We said, ‘Let’s put together a band that could inspire people the way we got inspired by other bands.’ We were looking at The Damned, and so many bands, he says. “We were influenced by so much stuff: ’50s stuff, ’60s stuff, ’70s stuff. It’s a lot of influences, and that’s the reason we’re called Electric Frankenstein. All the body parts are all the kinds of rock, and when you put them together, it’s something bigger.”
INSPIRED AND INSPIRING
For Canzonieri, that merger of disparate elements is, ultimately, the point. It’s an extension of the Daoist and Buddhist principles of his martial arts practice, learning “how to be happy in the world without being a part of the world,” he says. “You’re enlightened, you’re awake. Your brain is seeing insights. That further augments the fact that you like cool movies, foreign films, indie films, cool art—everything that’s really interesting.”
For more than 30 years, Electric Frankenstein has provided a platform for visual artists like Basil Gogos, Mad Marc Rude, Dave Burke, Coop, Emek, Ron English, Dirty Donny and Frank Kozik, among many others. Two collections of the band’s album and poster art have been compiled and published; a third book offers illustrations accompanying the lyrics to 125 Electric Frankenstein songs.
Musically, the band has proven influential not only in their performances and prolific recorded output, but in the platform Canzonieri has provided for other bands with his “A Fistful of Rock & Roll” compilations. “Life can be really fun and great and inspiring,” Canzonieri says. “And punk does that. It lets you wake up to an inspiring life. You want to be inspired and you want to be inspiring to other people.”
Whether that inspiration comes from music or meditation, movies or monster magazines—or martial arts—Canzonieri makes a clear connection: “It all narrows down to making life worthwhile.”
By pulling elements from disparate sources, Sal Canzonieri has constructed a life that, like the avatar of his band, often seems larger than life. Fitting, then, that it all started with a bit of surgery.