The man behind the singing

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.

"You know, the singing is cute, but I think sometimes he goes a little far in his satire," says Councilman Gary Monahan. "I think he definitely brings some humor to it; I think that's good. It lightens up the mood a little bit, but again, sometimes I think it goes a little far."

Koken says it takes him about a week to write his songs, which he has to squeeze into a three-minute period — the period allotted for public comments — at council meetings.

Koken lives with his wife, Debby, whom he met at the Summer Solstice Festival in Los Angeles County in 1992.

"I had a banjo in one hand, a guitar in the other, and then I met Debby," he says.

The two have nestled into a comfortable routine on Kenwood, just down the street from Lions Park. They were married 11 years ago in his backyard, a potluck event that drew in the whole neighborhood and family from as far away as Pennsylvania. They have a cat — a male, Koken notes, named Buttercup.

Debby is his fourth wife.

So does he ever run the lyrics past his wife for approval?

"Occasionally, but she doesn't approve," he says sheepishly in his living room.

The house is littered with the sorts of things that you'd expect from a family who finds joy out of exercising the mind.

Stacks of books are spread around the living room. Some on politics, many on folk music, others on Jewish art and civilization. Debby has dual citizenship from the United States and Israel.

There's three acoustic guitars, a banjo, a piano and a nearly 3-foot-long shofar bought in Jerusalem.

Most of the instruments are used during the couple's monthly music gatherings, the fourth Sunday of every month, when up to 15 people crowd into their home to jam.

Though Koken's mother was a classical pianist — "I woke up to Bach every morning," he says — he leaves the ivories to his guests.

He took more after his father, career-wise. He said the senior Koken was a mathematician who created the Koken Cycle Generator, or Koken stages, a code-encryption tool used by the military. The only mention of it online appears to be a few sentences of it in a Wikipedia page that mentions its use by the National Security Agency in the 1960s.

"When the sun is eclipsed, you can see the corona around it," Koken says, discussing his father's work. "There's enough ancillary stuff out there about the Koken Cycle Generator. I've gotten some insight into it."

By the time Koken was 15, the family was in New York, where his father took a job with General Electric. He started college at Cornell, then transferred to Syracuse University.

He did not earn a degree but found work based on his technical prowess, he said.

He worked as a software engineer, and said he was part of the graphics team on "Futureworld," a movie starring Peter Fonda and Yul Brynner in 1976.

Koken says his brother, Walt Koken, has the true musical talent.

He's released several CDs, a majority with a group called Orpheus Supertones. His family is scattered across Pennsylvania, Florida and Colorado.

He raised five daughters and has 10 grandchildren. His wife works in Costa Mesa, and he works in his garage.

His latest project: building customized telescope mounts.Koken has a metal lathe and two metal-milling machines to do the work. The workshop is a maze of boxes, tools and metal shavings. He built his own telescope as a kid, and taught himself the guitar when he was 17.

He said he earned his black belt in Judo when he was 50. It only took him 40 years of on-and-off work to get there.

"As soon as you stop working, you start dying," he said.

Twitter: @JosephSerna

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