Behind the Music of the Tiger King

The story of Joe Exotic’s songs is so strange that even Netflix’s five-hour documentary doesn’t have room for it.

Joe Exotic stands tall against a cloudy background, pretending to play guitar
Screengrab from “I Saw a Tiger”

There’s so much off-the-wall material in Netflix’s Tiger King that it’s hard to imagine it left anything out. But as sprawling and digressive as the seven-part series may be, there are areas where it only scratches the surface. The music videos made by the man who calls himself Joe Exotic largely function as comic relief, evidence of his charmingly inept but unflaggingly confident attempts at fame. But Joe’s music, and the story behind it, is far stranger than even Tiger King’s five hours can encompass.

To begin with, the songs that are presented as Joe Exotic’s … aren’t. They were written and performed by Washington state musicians Vince Johnson and Danny Clinton, whom the Clark County Columbian flagged in 2010 as local artists to watch because several of their songs were due to be featured in a movie called Nude Nuns With Big Guns. According to Johnson, who answered questions via email, they connected with Exotic via an ad looking for someone to write a theme song for his private zoo as well as the in-the-works reality TV show about it. (If you’ve seen Tiger King, you know how that turned out.) “He seemed like a dandy,” Johnson wrote. It wasn’t until months later, watching Joe’s videos on YouTube, that Johnson realized Joe was going to “Milli Vanilli” the songs and take full credit for them.

While Tiger King offers tantalizing glimpses of the music videos Joe made to accompany “his” songs, you can (and I did) easily lose a good chunk of the day watching the mesmerizing full versions on YouTube. There are straightforward, if unlikely, bids for country radio airplay like “Pretty Woman Lover,” which features Joe being pawed by scantily clad models over slap bass, and “How Was I to Know,” a soft-rock ditty about misdirected love, although the latter drops the pretense of heterosexuality by showing him staring mournfully at his soon-to-be ex-husband, John. From happier times, there’s “My First Love,” which features soft-focus shots of Joe and John smiling at each other in the snow, and “This Is My Life,” a goodbye-to-all-that ballad, released while Joe was purportedly dealing with cancer, that proclaims, “My true loves were men, but I’m just like you.”

And then there are the doozies. Tiger King dwells for a while on “Here Kitty Kitty,” which fires back at Joe’s nemesis, animal welfare crusader Carole Baskin, by playing up rumors that she murdered her husband and fed him to her tigers. It isn’t subtle, either: Joe hired a Carole Baskin look-alike and had her gleefully feed his own big cats with strips of raw meat served from a platter topped with a mannequin head. But while the docuseries tells us the story of Zanesville, Ohio’s Terry Thompson, who turned loose his sizable collection of exotic animals, including nearly three dozen lions and tigers, before killing himself, it doesn’t get around to “You Can’t Believe,” a musical “tribute” that alleges Thompson was actually murdered by the deep state in an attempt to discredit private zoo ownership. The video positions Joe as a dogged investigator, slapping a folder down on an interrogation table and lighting up a cigarette, and shows uniformed men in masks leading a blindfolded Thompson look-alike into a clearing and sticking a gun in his mouth.

Joe Exotic didn’t write any of the songs, and he didn’t even sing on most of them, although a few seem to feature his vocals mixed low over Collins’ and Johnson’s recordings. But it’s hard to imagine them being sung—or being pretended to be sung—by anyone else. They’re as specific to his life as Taylor Swift’s musical diary entries are to hers, full of references and name-drops that are inexplicable unless you know the stories behind them. Johnson says Joe would set the subjects for the songs and then leave Johnson to “do my research,” although that doesn’t necessarily mean he agrees with their conclusions. For “You Can’t Believe,” Johnson says, “he told me about his friend Thompson and how he was being railroaded and he wanted a sympathetic song, so I gave him one.” But as for the idea that the government had him killed, “Hell no. I think he was a creep/nut. Those cats he let out could have killed anyone.”

Though it doesn’t exactly stand on its own, there is one of Joe Exotic’s songs that’s strong enough to survive outside the hothouse environment of his overstuffed life. “I Saw a Tiger” couldn’t be more closely tied to Joe, with its lyrics about being awed by the majesty of big cats, and the video is full of the same goofy first-day-in-iMovie effects. (Joe seems particularly fond of a stormy sky dropped into the background, in this case while he’s standing on the hood of a pickup truck and playing his guitar.) But it’s also a straight-up anthem, and the cornball reversal that closes the chorus—“and the tiger saw a man”—is the stuff of legitimate pop hits, albeit the kind you feel a little embarrassed getting caught singing along to.

B.J. Barham, the singer for alt-country band American Aquarium, posted a cover of “I Saw a Tiger” to social media earlier this week, after bingeing the first few episodes of Tiger King with his wife. “It’s so beautiful, man,” he said of the series. “It’s like a train wreck you can’t look away from. You know you shouldn’t like it or approve of it or even want to see it, but you can’t stop watching it.”

Barham, who hails from rural North Carolina, says he’s in awe of the show’s “redneckery,” and while some may see Joe as an alien specimen, he’s a familiar figure to people raised working-class. “We all know that guy,” Barham says. “Everybody has one of those guys in their town, the super eccentric guy who will do anything to keep his name in the headlines. Most of them are the mayor. I don’t think every town has a true gem like Joe Exotic, though. A lot of them pale in comparison.”

Barham admits he had to do 15 or 20 takes of “I Saw a Tiger” to get one where he made it through the entire song without laughing. But he’s also genuinely admiring of its power. “It’s so big and bombastic. It’s everything I love about cheesy anthem rock,” he says. “It could be an a ’80s Springsteen song if it wasn’t about the tiger holocaust.” Recording the cover was a product of coronavirus stir-craziness, but Barham says he expects to be playing it onstage long after the quarantine has lifted. “It’s gonna be my walkout song for at least a year,” he says. “Lighters up before you even play the first note.”