Everyone stares at Kenny 5 in public. Resistance is futile. Uncommonly handsome in a rock-star way, Kenny's bright brown eyes are as piercing as collapsing stars. His sturdy arms are completely sleeved in tattoos. His not-quite-black hair is a sculpted thicket of pointy angles and hazardous cliffs.
Today, he's wearing long olive-green army shorts. Even more of his tattoos -- like a polka-dotted Betty Boop -- are visible than usual, since he's also sporting a gray-blue gas-station mechanic's shirt with slashed sleeves. Its sewn-on patch reads "Vince." This getup provokes a few odd stares in Toojay's Deli today. But Kenny, excitedly rambling on about UFOs and aliens, is oblivious to his fellow Lake Worthians. He catches the eye of a mousy blond waitress.
"Excuse me, Susan? Do you remember me?" he asks loudly. "Remember? I thought the guy from the Dick Van Dyke Show was sitting right over there?" He points to the next booth.
"Oh, yeah," Susan says hesitantly. "Yeah."
"Was it him?" Kenny asks. He looks disappointed. "Aw, you never asked him!"
"No," Susan admits. "I never did."
Unfazed, Kenny continues smiling at the memory. "Man! I'm telling you, I saw Morey from the Dick Van Dyke Show right over there."
Since several of the elderly Bermuda-shorts-clad gentlemen at Toojay's could pass for Morey Amsterdam, this tale doesn't sound completely outlandish. That changes, however, when another waitress approaches to take our order.
"What would you like today?" asks Kathy, graying hair curled neatly, glasses dangling from a chain next to her nametag.
"A small portion of chopped liver," Kenny replies. "With challah bread. Sliced thinly, please! Pretty please! And a small side of fruit."
As Kathy records the order, Kenny continues: "Can I ask you one other question? Do you live in Lake Worth?"
"Um-hmm," Kathy says.
"Do you know that lagoon that's up there?"
"Have you ever seen anything in there? I'm not saying, like, an exact Loch Ness monster..."
"Manatees, I've seen," Kathy answers, "but..."
"Never seen anything that could be construed as... maybe something?"
"No, and I've lived here since I was a kid."
"And you've never heard anything?" presses Kenny. "Not even a story?"
"Nope," Kathy says. "But it is dirty. I wouldn't swim in it anymore. I did when I was a kid."
Not much stands in the way of Lake Worth latching onto the idea that there is, in fact, something unexplained living in the murky lagoon separating downtown from the Atlantic Ocean. Kenny 5 knows how to make a myth. In a past life, Kenny and a few cohorts suggested that John Tesh -- a new age "musician" also known as "The Commentator Who Ruined the 1996 Summer Olympics" -- was actually a space alien. The tall tale grew from a local phenomenon into a hypodermic of hype that spiked a national nerve. The Detroit media jumped on the bizarre story, and radio talk shows pumped it up even more. "The biggest kicker was being on the front of USA Today," Kenny beams.
Back then, Kenny's flirtation with fame didn't end with USA Today. It included national tours with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, Bad Brains, and the Boredoms; a promising career in the underground rock video field; plus enough ambition and raw talent to do anything, go anywhere. Exploring punk rock, grunge rock, art rock, experimental rock, noise rock, and, finally, nothing but noise, the iconoclastic Kenny 5 has latched on to lofty associates since arriving in South Florida in 2000. He's working with local legends like Guggenheim Fellowship-winning modern dance guru Demetrius Klein and the world-renowned Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art. And soon, he plans to bring a traveling sideshow of internationally acclaimed weirdness to the subtropics.
The moment Kathy returns with our food and sets it on the table, the air conditioning quits in midhum. All the lights go out. The electricity in the restaurant stops dead. Outside on Lake Worth Avenue, every traffic signal is dark. Nobody downtown realizes it yet, but a construction crane installing sound panels on I-95 has just fallen, taking down Lake Worth's power grid with it. "Weird, huh?" Kenny says with a wink. "Told you we shouldn't have been talking about Tesh!"
Ken Greenbaum was born and raised in Detroit. He ended up in film school there in the mid-'80s. Undaunted by the massive canon of music the city had produced, Kenny jumped right in, determined to make a mark even though he didn't even play an instrument. By 1987, he was lead singer for Loudhouse, a metal band cultivating a small but fervent army of Detroit fans. Virgin Records took notice, and the following year the label released For Crying Out Loud, which provided Loudhouse a substantial promotional push.
"At the time," Kenny recalls, "Virgin had Iggy Pop, John Lydon from the Sex Pistols, Ziggy Marley, Paula Abdul, and the Rolling Stones. I thought to myself, 'I'm doing the right thing. I mean, Iggy? Fuhgeddaboudit!' I thought, 'I'm exactly where I want to be. I'm going to be a rock star. '"
Decorated with a nose ring, tattoos, and long crimson dreadlocks -- very 1988 -- pipe-cleaner-thin Kenny fronted the group. "Virgin marketed us as Jane's Addiction meets the Red Hot Chili Peppers," Kenny comments.
When Virgin gave Loudhouse $10,000 to compose a track for the Patrick Swayze/ Keanu Reeves film Point Break, Kenny and the band had just heard Nine Inch Nails for the first time. "We wanted to get into that and work with some machinery," he says. Loudhouse's punishing industrial remake of the Deep Purple classic "Smoke on the Water" sounded like a winner to Virgin, which pushed the song onto the radio.
"Unfortunately, it started to get some airplay," Kenny says. "We did it as a joke, but it became a hard thing to live down."
Though successful, Kenny was never comfortable as lead singer. So in 1988, he abandoned Loudhouse. Drummer Vinnie Dombrowski became the new vocalist, and the band changed its name to Sponge. The new iteration has forged a respectable career as a post-grunge act. Sponge is "all of Loudhouse but without me," Kenny says without a hint of regret.
Kenny returned to the Detroit underground scene and his first love, moviemaking. With college pal John Quigley, he began Chrome Bumper Films, creating videos for then-unknown up-and-comers from the Motor City like Kid Rock, White Stripes, and Eminem. Until Chrome Bumper turned a profit, Kenny worked at Record Collector, a Livonia record store, earning about $7 an hour. There, he met fellow employee Davin Brainerd. The duo discovered a true calling together on Halloween of 1992, when they volunteered at a Jaycee's haunted house in suburban Livonia.
"It's a power trip to be in the haunted house," Brainerd remembers with the enthusiasm of a sixth-grader granted permanent recess. "It's so much fun. We wanted to do our own Halloween show, and Kenny said, 'We should make a haunted tube!' So Kenny would make this tube that you'd crawl through. His dad worked at a Livonia appliance store, so he had access to all these refrigerator boxes. Then Kenny brought a megaphone -- and we found that volume in a haunted-house setting really scares people."
Through Brainerd, Kenny met Livonia's most famous music export, Warren Defever. By the early 1990s, Defever's band, His Name Is Alive, had released two albums for England's ultratrendy 4AD Records, joining a cadre of European etherealists like Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins, and Pale Saints. His Name Is Alive's music mirrored the orchestral/experimental bent of those acts, but beneath the surface were signs Defever was a real weirdo. For starters, he also played bass in a rockabilly band called Elvis Hitler. When Defever got together with Brainerd and Kenny, the three decided to devote their time and energy to producing nothing but noise.
Noisy, noisy noise.
The trio began using the store as an after-hours rehearsal space. "The Record Collector was where all the magic happened," Kenny elucidates. "That's the first place I ever made noise. Working there was like going to college, like a crazy noise school. The Record Collector was a neat proving ground for a lot of our projects." Defever gave Kenny a nickname, MOG, and during the early '90s, the trio became enamored of Japanese experimental/noise band the Boredoms, which had been introduced to the United States the year before on the inaugural Lollapalooza tour. Using his connections, Kenny convinced promoters to let his new project open for the Boredoms when they visited Detroit in 1992.
"Warren played drums," Kenny explains. "And Warren's not a drummer. Davin played guitar. Davin doesn't know one note on the guitar. I played a huge flywheel from a car and a metal table." During the show, Kenny hit his head on the flywheel. "I was bleeding all over the place," he recalls, "which the Boredoms loved. We knew we were onto something."
Before Kenny lost himself in the anticommercial playing field of noise music, however, he took one last stab at the mainstream. With Detroit drummer Scott Goldstein and guitarist Matt Ruffino, he formed Mog Stunt Team. Each member adopted the new surname of 5. In fact, in contrast to similar groups using skulls, crossbones, and Satan, Mog Stunt Team was eager to prove it was several digits shy of 666. Still, the music was aggressive, explosive.
"Oh my God, it was so wild," remembers the band's engineer/producer, Steve King. "They had this whole rehearsal studio that had scientific gauges and weird doors and equipment. They used to shoot videos, make movies, and rehearse these great songs there. They'd get the whole room vibrating with their sound. They were so good." In 1996, Mog Stunt Team's debut, 555, led off with a manifesto that described the band thusly: "Boredoms Versus Black Sabbath." A video featuring George Clinton followed. Legendary punk label Amphetamine Reptile picked up Mog Stunt Team and issued its next two albums.
When Kenny learned that easy-listening superstar John Tesh was coming to Detroit for a concert in June 1996, his friend John Quigley suggested they protest the show to generate attention. They brainstormed, enlisted a local writer-friend, David Livingstone, and concocted an organization known as NATAS -- the National Anti-Tesh Action Society. Kenny's imagination ran wild. "We made our own uniforms," he says. "We always called 'em uniforms, never costumes. It was very bare-bones -- I'm president of the junk patrol. If I can't garbage-pick it, I don't want it. Kay hand-sewed these red arm bands. It looked so cool.
"The next thing you know, we go out and picket at the Fox Theater," Kenny explains. "I invited everybody and their brother, but nobody really showed up. It was basically me and the guys from the band. So I hired some bums for a couple of dollars. I gave 'em the signs [reading "The End of the World Is Coming" and "John Tesh Is an Alien"], white uniforms, red arm bands, and helmets. We blocked the entrance to the door, giving people tin foil, telling them, 'This will stop the Thought Probe Radiation that Tesh releases through his music. '"
The Detroit press hadn't had this much fun covering a protest since the 1967 race riots. Within three days, the event was featured in USA Today. After his brother called, Kenny bought a copy of the paper and, sure enough, found the blurb with pictures of a smiling Tesh next to a shot of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and a caption reading "Separated at Birth?"
"Then it gets really weird," Kenny says. Twisting a piece of challah, he continues in a classic carnival-barker voice: "It got complicated after that. Very complicated. People would go, 'Why him?' Well, why not him?"
Kenny insists he harbors no ill will for the man. "I had more of a deep hatred for his so-called music," he says. "He's such a perfect target -- the white teeth, the hair, he has the Christmas baby, the perfect wife."
Next, Kenny and his cohorts set about milking maximum mileage from the rapidly ballooning Tesh controversy. "Kenny had a rally at the Shelter in Detroit," remembers Carey Loren, who was a member of the seminal '70s Detroit band Destroy All Monsters. "That's the nightclub featured in [Eminem's] 8 Mile movie. He transformed the whole place into a mad scientist carnival with antigravity boots and a fortuneteller booth and all these UFO noise things. He'd have people coming up on stage to give false testimony. I played a crazy professor. It was a nuts event."
By then, the "John Tesh Is an Alien" message was wending its way through the national media as joke of the month. Already a notorious Tesh-basher, Jay Leno -- or at least his writers -- had a field day. When Tesh appeared on the Rosie O'Donnell show, she playfully slapped his shoulder. "Sorry, did I hurt you?" she asked. "I know a lot of people are afraid to touch you because of the whole alien controversy." Tesh then recounts the Detroit event: "Like being in a war or something," he says, before quickly steering the conversation from UFOs to his wife, Connie Selleca. He turns to O'Donnell and asks, "Did you and Connie exchange baby stories when you were on the plane?"
A grown man who wants to discuss babies with Rosie O'Donnell? Hel-lo! Alien!!!
Entertainment Tonight ran several segments on NATAS and Tesh's alien secret. Other celebs joined in the fun: Larry King told ET's cameras, "He is an alien. I know John very well. I know his planet."
Billy Crystal chimed in: "I don't know. Something has to explain this whole thing. People are buying the albums!"
But the best publicity came courtesy of a program called Strange Universe. The nationally syndicated show on the WB Network ran two Tesh episodes in late 1996.
The first begins with a solemn narrator: "The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Chicken Little. History is full of truth tellers no one listens to."
Kay Kramer (now Kenny's wife) and John Quigley appear as a pair of "freelance photographers" who were videotaping the protest in front of the Fox Theater. "Thirty minutes after the concert let out, John Tesh came out and my camera just went down," Kay tells the interviewer.
"Like something was interfering with it," Quigley adds ominously.
Actually, the camera's battery died just as Tesh emerged to greet fans and meet the protesters. The final seconds of footage show the robed helmeted protesters dropping their signs and recoiling in terror at the sight of Tesh.
"I was a little skeptical at first," Kay says on Strange Universe. "But I truly believe now he is an alien."
She goes on to explain NATAS' complex mythology, which charged that Tesh was an advance guard, an interplanetary mole sent to do surveillance on Earth for an invading interstellar army known as Echelon. In its literature, NATAS released a "Gray List" of other suspected aliens including Strom Thurmond, Bill Bixby, Karen Carpenter, and Christina Applegate. "Not everyone on the list we are certain about," a chain-smoking Livingstone told Strange Universe. "Tesh, we are basically absolutely 100 percent certain about. Go ahead and laugh, but we take this very, very seriously."
At the end of the program, the show's host offers a telling caveat: "One note: This very well could be a publicity ploy for something called the Mog Stunt Team, a rock group touring the country with a CD and the alien message."
Kenny now admits: "It became a shtick for the band. The band had nothing to do with it at that point, but the records were selling like this," he says, snapping his fingers. "People became so obsessed with it. When we toured, local news would follow us into town. We had to put on our helmets -- we could never be out of uniform. We became the product of something we invented."
After starting out as such a good sport, the alien thing started to get old for Tesh too. "I think he liked it for a few minutes. Then he got tired of talking about it," Kenny says. "He's, like, 'What about my music?'" But he's got to remember, this was the only thing that separated him from Yanni!"
"It's not funny," Tesh complained during a subsequent Entertainment Tonight interview. "When people ask me about it, I'm trying to find the joke in it. Besides, I'm six foot six and weigh 220, and I cannot even fathom why they think I could fit in an alien spacecraft."
Soon, NATAS chapters had sprung up in Atlanta, New York, and Buffalo. Eventually, to allow the controversy to die down, NATAS offered to stop bothering the star if he supplied them with a hair sample and a thumbprint. Tesh never responded. The whole thing was even immortalized as a Trivial Pursuit question.
As the '90s drew to a close, Kenny tired of chasing the dragon of fame. Touring nonstop, Mog Stunt Team quickly wore itself out. In 1998, Kenny turned his back not only on his band but on his film career in Detroit. "We were making money," Kenny confirms. "I was making videos for bands like the Melvins. Some of our videos would make us as much as $50,000 a pop. We were rocking it out, but I didn't take care of the business the way I should have. They were looking to become more of a professional studio when I left. The other guys were more technical. I was the artist, the guy who could hang with the groups. The other guys were button-pushers. But I would have been the man on the silver mountain over there if I had stuck around."
In 1999, Kenny and Kay made a pilgrimage to Roswell, New Mexico, for obvious reasons. Once they reached the UFO/alien nexus, the couple tried to decide what to do with the rest of their lives. "Kay said, 'OK, I'll follow you, but what's your plan?'" Kenny recalls. "And I was out of plans. I didn't have any music left in me. I had used up every cool idea for everybody else's stuff. I was done. I don't think I burned too many bridges, though I definitely burned a few. I just had to get away."
Back in Detroit, his old friends are quite successful. Quigley runs Chrome Bumper and, along with King, is aboard the Eminem train. King went on to engineer The Eminem Show and the 8 Mile soundtrack. "Marshall [Mathers -- Eminem's real name] is brilliant in so many ways," King says. "He's an artist. He hears it in his head. Kenny does too. I think what Kenny wanted was not to be entered into the corporate pages. He wanted to keep his music as an art form.
"Kenny deserves it all," King continues. "He knows to draw the line where things are getting too commercial. He's really good at that boundary. He'll come right up to it, and then go the other way." Carey Loren echoes: "I'm very proud of Kenny. I think he has a brilliant mind. He can adapt to almost anything -- film, music, editing."
In 2000, he and Kay -- whose family lives in Palm Beach County --landed in Lake Worth "almost by accident," Kenny says. "It reminded me a lot of Key West, and I love the Keys."
At Lake Worth's venerable Downtown Books and CDs, Kenny found a familiar environment. He started working there and soon amassed a cadre of supporters in Lake Worth's art community, most notably Demetrius Klein. After Klein's teenage son became a store regular, it wasn't long before Kenny and Klein began a strange partnership.
The surprising combination of Kenny 5 and Klein -- who's barely five feet tall but seems to contain the muscle mass of two Henry Rollinses stacked side-by-side -- has become Lake Worth's odd couple of the arts. "When people see me walk in," Klein continues, "nobody expects me to look the way I do -- this little guy with all these muscles. And Kenny walks in, this little guy with all these tattoos, while you've expected a dancer and a composer!"
Their first venture was a noise-and-dance performance held at Downtown Books in early 2001. Last April, Klein participated in Kenny's "Geeks Freaks and Mysterious Visions" spectacle, attracting hundreds of curious patrons to a weekend exhibition of tattoo art, noise -- and a Haunted Pyramid to crawl through. Knowing that the dancer-choreographer had already played Houdini during a 2000 ballet performance, Kenny enlisted him to dangle upside down from the ceiling of the studio where the show was held and break free from a straitjacket and chains.
"That was Kenny's [idea]," Klein says. "That was his whole evening. And it was a big hit! What I really like about working with him is he's totally uncompromising in what he's doing artistically, which means he can scare the hell out of you at times. With that show, there was no compromise at all. Once you start watering Kenny's stuff down, it ceases to become what it is."
Kenny has also ingratiated himself with the staff of the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art. Kara Walker-Tomè, the institute's education director, has tapped into Kenny's eccentricity for several projects. Last year, Kenny 5 joined her for an audio-visual project that involved teaching kids how to use simple video and sound equipment.
"I was blown away by what he got these kids to produce," she says. "And the kids were so blown away by him, of course. Just physically as a person and his personality and his character, and he's so... the kids just loved him immediately. He's so enthusiastic, and his passion for what he's doing is just so all over him."
At first, Walker-Tomè says, the kids weren't sure what this project was all about: "You mean you want us to put an object in front of the camera and make a funny sound?" But since everything was connected to a computer monitor, the kids could view the results of their amateur artistry immediately. When they saw the collages they'd assembled with Kenny's help, they were ecstatic, and a blast of kid creativity followed.
The video/sound pieces "were just so cool!" Walker-Tomè enthuses. "They were very simply done in terms of technique and material, but Kenny's unbelievable imagination made the workshop so successful. Everyone was so impressed, especially the kids who aren't exposed to this at all. It totally blew their minds." Walker-Tomè would like to enlist Kenny to help develop a new media project and give him artist-in-residence status at the museum. Additionally, Kenny has asked the institute for several thousand dollars of grant money to continue working with kids at Congress Middle School, bringing his digital video experiments to the curriculum while representing PBICA. "I'd be going there once a week and turning the room upside down," he envisions.
With an attention deficit disorder approach to his work, Kenny floats and flits among a lot of different media, quickly tiring of one and moving to another. His productions blur the lines among sound, vision, music, painting, and other disciplines, making a nonlinear collage from them all.
Is Kenny 5 like a crazy pied piper of Lake Worth, leading respectable artists down a path strewn with low-brow kitsch and avant-garde uselessness? Walker-Tomè laughs. "I also see it in the reverse," she says. "Our professional relationship is also a lot about trying to bring what he does into less of the fringe. I see us as trying to meet in the middle."
These days, Kenny 5 lives the quintessential good life in a gorgeous, white stucco, Old Florida home in downtown Lake Worth. The massive oak front door swings out, revealing a carpeted living room where svelte blond Kay and seven-month-old Echo sit in the dark. Stretching out in her baby swing, redheaded Echo gives Kenny a toothless smile and a visitor a bashful gurgle. An hour after the lights went out in Lake Worth, there's still no explanation for the power outage, which leaves the 1920s-era cottage eerily quiet. On one wall is a photograph of a dreadlocked Kenny in the early days. The old wood floors have been refinished. The ceiling in the living room is covered in outrageously scalloped stucco, all puffy like upside-down meringue.
Kenny's back-bedroom studio is almost pitch-black this afternoon. Only a shard of sunlight enters through a window hidden behind a bookshelf. Like old battle axes, his electric surfboard, electric grease pan, and auto flywheel hang high on one wall. His A/V setup, with a computer, video camera, and DVD burner, are tucked into a corner. Counterculture encyclopedias like Modern Primitives and Industrial Culture Handbook are stacked next to a well-read copy of Your Baby's First Year.
With his sister-in-law Lisa Kramer, Kenny is a partner in another Lake Worth record store, Purple Haze. Located in the city's western outskirts, the shop has continued the tradition (and the stock) of Downtown Books, which closed in 2001 following the death of its owner, Frank Ferrara. It affords him a decent living, Kenny says. He's well aware that if he'd stayed in Michigan, he could have easily positioned himself under the steady stream of Eminem's money hose. Kenny, however, sounds happy with his tradeoff.
"I have regrets," he acknowledges, "but why look back? I get more out of working with kids or doing a film with [Klein] than anything I'd get out of putting my name on an Eminem video." Pushing regrets aside, Kenny is planning to reunite with Brainerd and Defever for the first time in five years here in South Florida. In fact, Kenny's old haunted house-cum-Haunted Tube has become annual Halloween fare back in Detroit.
"Kenny came up with this whole shtick," Brainerd recalls with a chuckle. "For a while, he had this thing about Abraham Lincoln. He'd go on and on about how Abraham Lincoln was the first guy to ever make a haunted tube. He would always talk about UFOs and Tesla coils as he'd be leading the kids into the tube. It was so funny, the first time I ever heard Kenny say it -- he just kept saying over and over again into the microphone with this crazy costume on, 'Do Not Enter the Haunted Tube!' And he's leading people in, even as he's telling them not to!"
Kenny, Brainerd, and Defever started another tradition in Detroit they'd like to continue in South Florida: Noise Camp. In January, the trio will present the event in Lake Worth or Miami, possibly both.
The press information about Noise Camp, available on www.timestereo.com, describes it as "an annual outdoor electro-acoustic noise activity." But, Brainerd admits, "That's a little more pretentious than seeing a guy in a cardboard tree suit fall over because there's no eyeholes in it. It's sort of hard to describe," he continues. "It's an opportunity to forget yourself and have fun in a natural setting. Even though it's an artificial natural setting." Designing the sets for Noise Camp's performances, Brainerd makes fake trees and fake logs out of cardboard.
Defever will perform on the electric pinecone.
"It's just a night of games that builds up to this noise show at the end," Brainerd explains. Originally nothing more than an experimental cassette tape, Noise Camp has grown into a touring entity that's even journeyed to Europe and Japan.
"We've been carrying on these traditions without Kenny, which is sad," Brainerd says. "We've had to find people who can act like Kenny!"
Needless to say, Kenny 5 is overjoyed that he'll be making music, madness, and mayhem with his friends again. And he's eager to take Brainerd and Defever out to the back roads of the Everglades, exploring the camps and chickees: "Once Warren sees all those huts," predicts Kenny, "he's gonna want to record his next ten albums out there!"
Out at the Lake Worth Lagoon, a salty, rank, dead-fish odor hangs in the evening air. A recent study found that the water is polluted virtually past the point of reclamation. Other information about this body of water -- like, say, stories regarding unidentified critters living in its sludgy goo -- aren't easy to come by.
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"Do we have any literature about a creature living in the Lake Worth Lagoon?" asks the shocked woman who answers the phone at Palm Beach County Environmental Resources office in response to a reporter's question. "Are you serious?" She asks the person next to her: "Has there ever been a folklore? About a creature? No?"
When Noise Camp rolls into town this January, however, Kenny 5 hopes the whole town will be buzzing over the Mystery of the Lake Worth Lagoon Monster.
"I heard something from somebody who lived here in the '20s that something was spotted in there," Kenny says seriously. "It was a black, greasy, tinfoil-y, machine-looking monster.
"It might be sort of fun to light a fire," he continues with a deliciously deviant twinkle in his eye. "It's an experiment. That whole John Tesh thing was a mind thing, but if I started talking about that, no one would believe me. The Tesh thing... I just put it out there, and it came back way more than I ever could have expected in a million years!" Sounding astonished, he says, "And I didn't have to do anything but put the idea out there."