Knoxville’s old-school punk community has lost another great, Todd “Bonehead” Townsend, who died on Tuesday, April 26. Townsend, 50, was an important mover and shaker of the 1980s music scene that coalesced at the fabled Hippie House in Fort Sanders. The cause of death remains undetermined.
Lead singer of the groundbreaking heavy metal/shock-rock band Bone, Townsend was probably most known for his brash presence on the Fort Sanders party scene and as a doorman at the backroom of Vic and Bill’s Cumberland Avenue deli, the nexus of local punk activity between 1984 and 1986. He was also a columnist in local ’zines The Addict and, later, Slag, where he interviewed prominent touring bands appearing in Knoxville, such as Fugazi.
Townsend was basically a country boy transplanted to Fort Sanders bohemia, and proudly so. When people started calling him “Bonehead,” he appropriated the name as his own, self-assuredly recreating himself as a rowdy but lovable rogue.
In the 1990s Todd more or less exited the music scene, opting for a quieter, rural life centered on family, sports, and the outdoors. He is survived by his wife, Suzanne Mittleman Townsend, mother Sandy Hankins, father Larry Townsend, son Jack Townsend, his son’s mother, Angel Perkey, and sisters Taryn Erwin, Tessa Gentry, Ashley Riggins, and Laura Townsend.
The funeral featured a veritable who’s who of the ’80s rock scene. Pallbearers included Carl Snow (Koro, Red), Brian Waldschlager (Wh-Wh, the Dirtclods), Jay Martin (Hard Knox, Teenage Love), Mike “Rubber” Prough, guitar wizard Chuck Sanders, and Townsend’s son, Jack.
“He had this massive force of energy about him,” says Hippie House mainstay and ad hoc landlord Joey McPeak, former drummer for Bone and Teenage Love. “His personality was always cranked up to 11. He was fearless and knew no physical pain, the perfect party warrior and a damn good man.
“We were housemates for years, and occasionally I’d get to see the ‘after-party’ side of Bone, the sensitive and domesticated side. We would both laugh about how every time he did his laundry, he’d meticulously count and match his socks and then store them neatly. I guess that was his way of kind of balancing out the chaos.”
Everyone, it seems, has several Bonehead stories.
“It’s hard to have a favorite,” says former STDs guitarist and show promoter Camp Childers, who is now a television producer in New York. “Joey [McPeak] and I were going to Atlanta for a show. Bonehead rode with us, and we dropped him off at a mall in Chattanooga where his old girlfriend was working. He told us that he would meet us at an exit on the way back. So we drove back through around 4 a.m., saying there was no way he’d be there—that he’d surely found another way home. But we pulled over just in case. And there he was, sitting on the guardrail with a big smile.”
Simply put, Townsend was the stuff of legend, the local equivalent of Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Long John Silver, and Sid Vicious. As such, it’s hard to believe he’s gone.
“I keep thinking that he’s going to call me any time,” says Christopher Scum, the Knoxville punk rocker who was one of Bonehead’s acolytes in the Hippie House era. “I just expect him to laugh about it all and say that this is all just another rumor—that you know how people talk.”
All of us who knew Townsend will remember him for his pivotal role in the music scene, and his booming voice, quick wit, and never-ending war stories of a life lived on the edge. Imagine a punk version of George Kennedy’s character in Cool Hand Luke, and you’ll have an idea of what Todd was like. His braggadocio and adventurousness, however, masked a fierce intelligence, a strong sense of morality, and an elemental sweetness. In short, he was a vivid and complex man.
“One thing that most people probably don’t know is what an excellent father to his son he was,” says long-time friend Jay Martin. “He was very serious about his family. Jack is all class, and Todd was so proud of him.”
His wife of 20 years, Suzanne Mittleman Townsend, says that the bold, larger-than-life persona Todd created was sometimes a burden—that he was in fact an introspective and gentle man.
“I just want Todd to be revered for the son he raised, the music he loved, the life he lived, and the legend he created,” she says. “Peace at last to you, my dear Bones.”