The man behind the singing

Terry Koken sings, not speaks, during City Council public comment time. His lyrics can often be critical of officials, but in a 'Weird Al' kind of way.

August 11, 2012|By Joseph Serna
  • Rather than speak, Terrell "Terry" Koken usually sings his comments, accompanied by his guitar or banjo, at Costa Mesa City Council meetings.
Rather than speak, Terrell "Terry" Koken… (DON LEACH, Daily…)

Driving down the 1700 block of Kenwood Place in Costa Mesa, it's not easy to miss Terrell "Terry" Koken's house.

On a street lined with well-manicured lawns, budding palm trees and flower beds, Koken's yard — with its pine tree, brush, untamed flower patches and lack of grass — fits in only with the faded green 1968 Volkswagen bus in the driveway.

On the van's rear is an old bumper sticker for The Planetary Society.

"It's been to the moon and back," Koken says. "More than 500,000 miles."

Standing at his porch, with a doorbell that doesn't work and a steel barred gate, one can hear the twang of a banjo emanating from inside the house.

"That was 'Salt Creek,' a bluegrass song," Koken says.

Though he was born in music-rich St. Louis, the Kokens bounced around the Midwest; he, the oldest of five, spent his formative years in Illinois.


"Well, Illinois is right next to Kentucky, and not too far from Nashville," the 70-year-old says, explaining his taste for original American music. "When you turn the music on, you had old-timey music, hillbilly music, bluegrass music. The trigger for the whole thing was the Kingston Trio, believe it or not."

It's those bluegrass roots that explain the City Council crooner's penchant for singing his comments to Costa Mesa's leaders, a cappella-style.

He sings during the public comments period, a time when residents can address the council about any issue they like.

"It's like scratching an itch," he says. "With the former councils, we were not only heard, but listened to … I don't expect the [current] council to hear them."

Koken's lyrics are clever — imagine a folksy"Weird Al" Yankovic— and based on tunes Koken already knows.

They don't so much address a particular issue, as much as mock the council's four-member majority, which is considering an outsourcing plan.

A little more than a year ago, Koken sang part of Richard Thompson's "Hard Luck Stories":

"Running into you is like running into trouble

you bend my ear and I see double.

You're everybody's idea of a waste of time.

You still come around because I used to listen.

But I run a steam ship I don't run a mission.

Don't be mistaken in thinking you're a friend of mine.

It's those hard luck stories, that's all I ever get from you.

Hard luck stories, you're going to drive me out of my mind."

Those on the other side of the critiques say they don't really mind, though they take issue with the level of sarcasm.

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