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Goodbye, Tomata du Plenty

David Xavier Harrigan, a.k.a. Tomata du Plenty, lead vocalist for the Screamers (‘77–’81), died of cancer in San Francisco on Monday. He was 52. Born near Coney Island and raised in Montebello, Tomata was the son of Irish immigrants. He is survived by two sisters.

One of L.A.’s all-time biggest club bands, the Screamers were also its most mysterious. They are renowned as the original punk underground’s most popular band, who vanished into thin air without ever releasing a single record, who never officially toured, and who were so far ahead of their time in doing away with electric guitars in aggressive rock that they were called “techno-punk” by local scene scribe Kristine McKenna as early as February ‘78. Style and theater were also so much a part of the Screamers that nobody ever called them out for being a punk band with a full-time stylist. Later on, under the direction of Austrian filmmaker Rene Daalder, the band made a series of video clips and promotional films nearly two years before MTV went on the air. Gary Panter’s screaming, hair-raising skull caricature of Tomata has become one of the most recognizable emblems of the L.A. underground rock-band rebirth of the late ‘70s.

No one in the music industry understood the Screamers or their lo-fi (one ARP Odyssey synth, one Fender Rhodes with fuzzbox, minimal drumkit plus Tomata) psycho-Kraftwerk-meets–The Night Porter performance art, yet the band regularly sold out multiple consecutive nights at the Masque, the Whisky and the Roxy with their meticulously polished productions. After the final breakup of the Screamers in ‘81, Tomata embarked on a new career as a painter, and gradually evolved into a revered folk artist who worked the storefront-gallery circuit in Seattle, L.A., Miami, New Orleans and San Francisco. (He always said he’d sooner sell 100 of his trademark instant paintings depicting his favorite artists and other plain folks at $25 each rather than one at $25,000.)

Before moving to L.A., Tomata had joined the Cockettes theater troupe in San Francisco in ’68 and afterward was a beneficiary of Seattle’s “1-percent-for-the-arts” policy at a time when there were more than a dozen funded live theaters in that city. Tomata became a big hit on the thriving Seattle off-theater circuit of the early ‘70s as a member of Ze Whiz Kidz, a lip-synch troupe he co-founded with the late Gorilla Rose (R.I.P. Michael Farris) in ‘69, and which godfathered major rebirths of local scenes in modern dance, performance art, punk and the gay underground in Seattle. After bailing on Ze Kidz circa ‘72–’73, Tomata performed comedy with Fayette Hauser and Gorilla at CBGB in New York, where the opening acts were weird new bands like the Ramones and the Stilettos (with a pre-Blondie Debbie Harry). Back in Seattle circa ’75–’76, Tomata formed the Tupperwares, an all-drag vocal trio with Melba Toast, who later reinvented himself as Tommy Gear (the enigmatic musician-writer who wrote most of the Screamers’ classic songs and then seemed to disappear), and Rio de Janeiro (David Gulbransen). Tomata and Tommy moved to L.A. in early ’77, changing their name to the Screamers after meeting keyboardist David Brown and transplanted Oklahoman multimedia artist-musician KK Barrett.

“With style, grace and humor,” Tomata once said, “everybody must be made to feel important sometime . . .”