While James Teitelbaum was out with Pigface in 1994, playing keyboards on future industrial classics like “Suck,” “Asphole,” and “Fuck It Up,” none of his bandmates had any idea that he was living for the moment he could slip into a Hawaiian shirt and make a beeline for the nearest tiki bar. Teitelbaum, a newbie recording engineer at Chicago Trax who’d been drafted for the tour, had become obsessed with what he calls “the lost relics of Polynesian culture” two years earlier, while studying recording in Florida. But he kept it to himself–both in Pigface and then in Ministry, when he toured as that group’s programmer and keyboard tech in 1996.
“When you’re on tour you’re stuck on a tour bus for ten weeks,” says Teitelbaum, now 35, “and when you have time off the one thing you want to do is go where they’re not. Not because you don’t like people, but you need to carve out your alone time. Going to these tiki bars is how I did that.”
Teitelbaum photographed the bars he visited on the road, and those pictures provided the inspiration for the Tiki Bar Review Pages on his Web site (www.tydirium.net). He created the site in 1995 primarily as a way to teach himself Web design, but other tiki enthusiasts soon discovered it and began crawling out of the bamboo. “At the end of the 90s,” he says, “when I got to different cities there’d be people waiting to drive me to these places to help me check them out.”
Today the site includes approximately 500 reviews of bars using his “TiPSY Factor” rating system–that’s Tikis Per Square Yard. In 2003 he compiled more than 400 of them into a book, Tiki Road Trip: A Guide to Tiki Culture in North America. To promote the book, he attended Hukilau, an annual convention of tiki aficionados in Fort Lauderdale. Now he’s one of the co-organizers of the event, which attracted about 1,500 attendees last year.
Teitelbaum is now totally out of the tiki closet. Since last July he’s organized Tabu Tiki Night, which features bands, hula dancers, and of course tropical drinks in containers almost as big as your head. The event takes place on the third Wednesday of every month at Trader Vic’s, in the basement of the Palmer House Hilton–which, Teitelbaum asserts, has the highest TiPSY Factor of any bar in Chicago.
Teitelbaum grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and describes his time there as a “fairly dull, middle-class existence.” The tiki fad had passed by then, but he remembers an early enthusiasm for primitive art. “Instead of going to soccer camp or something, I’d always go to art camp at the Cleveland Museum of Art,” he says, and he habitually checked out the African masks on his visits. “It really creeped me out, but you know how kids are–when you’re creeped out by something you’re drawn to it.”
After graduating from high school, he studied photography and electronic music–“I wanted to be the next Kraftwerk,” he says, laughing–played in a couple of bands, and worked at a recording studio in Cleveland, eventually deciding to pursue a career in engineering.
Teitelbaum traces his enthusiasm for all things tiki–a Polynesian word that means “first man”–to a random visit to a South Pacific-themed bar back in the early 90s in Florida, where he’d enrolled at a technical school. “I walked in, looked around, and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got tribal art in here, you’ve got 1950s pop culture in here, and you can get a drink in here,'” he recalls. “This I like. This is the mother lode. You could say that all roads led to tiki.”
In May of 1993 he moved to Chicago, and within two days of his arrival he landed a job at Chicago Trax, where he got to work with Pigface and Ministry, as well as the Revolting Cocks, Material Issue, Loud Lucy, and others. But it wasn’t until he hit the road as a soundman for the neo-swing band Royal Crown Revue in 1999 that he finally found musicians he could confidently ask to join him on a tiki outing.
Today Teitelbaum’s musical tastes have veered far away from industrial. “I’ve definitely gone backward in time in the last ten years, because I think some of the older music is a lot more interesting than what is coming out today,” he says. “But I have a lot of other music that isn’t Martin Denny. I also own a condo that has a dining room completely jammed wall to wall with tiki stuff, but there’s pretty much no tiki in any other part of my home. The tiki obsession is just one facet of who I am, just as that room is one part of my home.”
He’s currently working on another book, with the working title “Big Stone Head,” which combines a history of Easter Island–ground zero for tiki culture–with a discussion of its impact on pop culture. And he continues to host his monthly Tabu Tiki Night, which attracts about 150 attendees who hear about it through postcards, flyers, Teitelbaum’s Web site, and other online tiki resources. Judging from the photos from past events that he’s placed online, Teitelbaum has successfully attracted a healthy subculture of women with a taste for vintage dresses and men who feel at ease in floral print shirts and fake-flower leis. “Everybody knows it’s for a lark,” he says. “But especially right now, people need to go into this dimly lit, romantic, windowless little paradise, hang up their hang-ups at the door, have a cocktail, and flirt.”
He’s unwilling to overstate his own role in the tiki subculture, however. “It’s nice being a big fish in this little tiki pond,” he says. “But it’s really important to keep in mind that it’s just a silly little pop culture thing that I and a few thousand other people get a kick out of. As soon as we lose sight of that, it stops being fun.”
Tabu Tiki Night
When: Wed 4/20, 7 PM
Where: Trader Vic’s, Palmer House Hilton, 17 E. Monroe
Info: 312-726-7500, www.tydirium.net
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.