Lee Kohl is a born storyteller. He’s the kind of guy you want sitting around your campfire. Clever, funny, a little wild, Lee seems capable of holding an audience’s attention for hours with little effort, especially if he’s got a guitar in his hands.
For example, if you catch Lee on stage, you might hear a song (Dead Lee) about all the ways Lee has almost died. These include twenty-one car crashes (“been through the windshield three times”), a shotgun fired at his chest close-range during a highway robbery, which somehow missed, and falling three stories onto the ground, after which he stood up, pulled a few nails out of his arm and walked to the hospital.
But as wild and gruff as Lee might appear at times, listeners will also find him to be deeply thoughtful, well-informed, sometimes even tender. One of my favorite songs of Lee’s is “My Heart Is Everywhere”, originally inspired by a conversation with his then three-year-old son, Zeke. (You can listen to more of Lee’s music here.)
It was his friend Jef Davis who, in 1975, unlocked Lee’s gift for songwriting. The two attended college together in Marshalltown. Lee had a Theater scholarship while Jef studied music. As Lee tells it, “Jef was playing the piano. I walked in one day and said, ‘Oh, I write words,’ and he says, ‘Well those are just lyrics waiting for music.’ So, I went off, the next day pounded out three sets of lyrics and handed them to him. The next day after that he brought me back two of them as songs. And that did it. That’s what started it.”
After about forty songs of Lee and Jef working together, Jef finally told his friend, “Look, you’re just writing way too fast for me. I need to teach you an instrument.” They started with piano, but before long, they realized Lee would need a more portable instrument.
“Remember, this was the ‘70s,” explains Lee. “It’s not like now where you can just grab a keyboard, and it can be light and you can actually take it someplace. Any decent keyboard in the ‘70s that you could actually play and that would react to you was a fortune. So, [Jef] was like, ‘You can’t carry a piano around with you, so you better learn how to play a guitar.’ And he said, ‘Plus, the girls, you know. They like that much better.’”
Not long after, toward the end of 1977, Lee moved out to L.A. to take a job as a newspaper writer. He stayed there for roughly seventeen years and worked a wide variety of other jobs to support his music habit. There are too many to share here, but it’s worth quoting him as he describes a couple of his more interesting positions.
“I took a side job with a guy who was an ex-L.A. County Sherrif, a private investigator who did process serving. [...] We were process serving in Compton and Watts. We were going into really bad neighborhoods and serving, but the funny thing was, those weren’t really the tough people to serve. The tough people to serve papers were the business executives, going to Century Plaza and places like that where they had whole security teams hired to keep you away. There were executives who had $5,000-10,000 bounties on just being able to serve them papers!”“I worked for a private security firm in Los Angeles where the person who was president of the company used to be head of security for Menachem Begin [former Prime Minister of Israel], so he was a member of the Mossad. [...] And it used to amaze me that here was this known Mossad member, but all these Arab diplomats and even just rich Arabs who would travel to Los Angeles would hire a Jewish security firm to protect them.”
All the while, Lee wrote and kept playing music with his friends. All of them were singer-songwriters who loved to play but who were also wary of the music business after seeing what it has done to so many great musicians.
Then, in 1992, Lee booked a Valentine’s Day show at the club Mama Pajamas in L.A. He and his friends each played individual sets, and then for a finale they joined together and played as a band. After the show, a man called Papa John, host of the popular public radio show, Blues Hotel on KXLU, approached the group and invited them to play live on his show. At the time, they weren’t even a band, but they quickly organized themselves as the “Urban Farmers”. During their first show together, Papa John invited them to be the house band on Blues Hotel for the next six months. “And that was it.” Lee says. “That made us.”
They were on their way to being an established band in the L.A. music scene. “So, what happened then?”, I asked Lee. Relationship problems. This interviewer definitely didn’t get the whole story, but the short answer is that Lee’s wife at the time is now married to a former member of the Urban Farmers.
Then, in 1994, Lee’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given two to six months to live. So, Lee moved back to Iowa to be near him. His father surprised everyone, however, by living another four-and-a-half years. During that time Lee remarried his first wife (not his second wife mentioned above), “so my first wife became my third wife.”
For income, Lee took various odd jobs, including some lobbying, and in 1996 he was hired to run election campaigns for union executives at Rockwell Collins. Six months later the union struck, and Lee was tasked with the job of media spokesman during the strike. From there he went on to work as a lobbyist for the IBEW union, which meant spending a lot of time in Des Moines.
That’s when he restarted his music career. He had stopped playing music after coming back from L.A., his guitars stored in a closet. But when Lee was lobbying in Des Moines he started pulling them out on the weekends as a stress reliever.
His oldest son Seth had at that time spent about four years playing in a variety of teenage bands. This was around 1998. Seth, a bassist, was ready to play with more serious musicians, so he and his father began playing together. Not long after that, Lee was introduced to guitarist George Hettinga, and the three played a regular Tuesday gig at the LiFT bar in Des Moines’ Court Avenue district.
“At that time we were the Sharecroppers,” says Lee. Since then, he’s gone through a number of formations with different members, though George continues as part of the band, and Lee’s sons also perform with him from time to time. These days, they’re known as “Lee ‘Big Daddy’ Kohl and the Wrecking Balls”.
Technically, Lee isn’t supposed to play music right now or do any kind of strenuous work because of health issues. But that’s not possible for him. After his sons, music is the great love of Lee’s life. “My doctor has me on a work restriction that will not allow me to pick up this guitar,” he says. “And I’m like, ‘You might as well put a bullet in me!’ So, I just ignore the doctors and move on, and I tell them that. I tell them, ‘Look, if you want me to stop doing this, then I might as well kill myself.’”
His bandmates feel the same way. As George puts it, “Music is more than money, or just playing and people clapping their hands. Music has some soul-fulfilling purpose that really does more than the sum of its parts. For everyone, not just us.”
To learn more about Lee “Big Daddy” Kohl and The Wrecking Balls, visit leekohl.com. Better yet, see them live. It’s always a good show. Lee and his band regularly play in various venues around the corridor. The best way to find the next show is to visit Lee’s Facebook Page.
Story and photographs by Courtney T Ball.