The Ballad of Joe King Carrasco and El Molino
Cigarette haze drifted above the heads of patrons at the Soap Creek Saloon waiting to hear Doug Sahm one night in 1976.
Onstage, an eager young rocker held court first. Joe Teusch hailed from Dumas, up in the Panhandle, the broad flatlands that spawned Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Jimmy Gilmer & the Fireballs. Later, the area produced another generation of unparalleled songwriters, including Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Terry Allen, and Butch Hancock.
Inspired by Sahm's Sir Douglas Quintet, Teusch headed south to Austin, playing in Chicano soul bands like Shorty & the Corvettes, and dropping his Germanic surname in favor of the more fitting Carrasco. When he appropriated Doug Sahm's off-and-on sidemen, the recently dubbed Joe "King" Carrasco and El Molino started getting attention.
"This song was written by Huey P. Meaux," Carrasco told the Soap Creek crowd, leaning his shaggy head to the mic to introduce "Please Mr. Sandman."
From a seat deep in the puzzle of wooden tables and folding metal chairs, a voice penetrated the smoke. "He stole it from Jimmy Donley!"
After the set, the heckler introduced himself as Joe Nick Patoski, a writer who shared the opener's interest in obscure Texas music. Thus began a beautiful manager-performer friendship that continues today (see sidebar).
In 1979, Joe King Carrasco traded El Molino for the younger, hipper Crowns, but his Texas garage rock, crossbred with a brassy Mexican sway, remained the same on Saturday Night Live and MTV. Though the Sex Pistols had fired the shot heard round the world, Carrasco's Nuevo Wavo blanketed those early days like a serape. His hybrid Tex-Mex beats cultivated here imprinted Eighties music everywhere, and thus garnered the attention of artists from Michael Jackson and Elvis Costello to Manu Chao.
In the intervening decades, Joe King Carrasco's never stopped.
"I'm from Dumas, where they recorded Buddy Knox's 'Party Doll.'"
Joe King Carrasco's talking by phone from his home in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (see "Playback," Dec. 14, 2012). That cultural grounding is important to Carrasco, because it informed his earliest music and shaped El Molino. Yet, that Caribbean bleat didn't find him, he found it – all across the Lone Star State.
"To me, the Panhandle sound has surf guitar in it, wide-open echo, and reverb guitar. Terry Stafford is Panhandle music, too. He wrote 'Suspicion' and 'Amarillo by Morning.' I still go between my horn stuff and keep-it-simple Buddy Holly thing. That Panhandle sound combined with San Antonio.
"In the early Seventies, after I came back from Mexico, I put up a sign in one of those record stores on East Seventh. Shorty called me, so I played with Shorty & the Corvettes, then with Ben Marines' Salaman. Ben taught me to play the cumbias and polkas. Little Joe, Johnny Hernandez, Sunny & the Sunliners – those were my heroes."
Heroes weren't hard to find when El Molino played its first gig down in McAllen in 1976. Carrasco, bassist Speedy Sparks, and guitarist Ike Ritter shared $15 between them and were still searching for a drummer. They found a hunchbacked San Antonio percussionist by the name of Richard Elizondo, whose right hand was missing a digit. "Gimme four," he'd wave to his friends, who would amiably slap his palm back. With legendary saxophonist Rocky Morales and keyboard player David Mercer in tow, El Molino had one goal.
"On August 16, 1976, we went to ZAZ Studios in San Antonio," says Carrasco. "For $250, you could record two sides for a single and get 250 45s. Me, Ike, Richard, and Speedy, we cut 'Tell Me' and 'Mezcal Road.'
"When 'Tell Me' came out, Doug Sahm started paying attention to us. He really helped me out. When the Texas Tornados did 'Tell Me,' man!
"To have Freddy Fender sing your song ... wow! Really an honor."
On, Off, and Rewind
Carrasco's music maintains the strong Tex-Mex core begun with El Molino. In Puerto Vallarta, he performs at a JKC-branded restaurant called Nacho Daddy with a band that sounds and looks like the Crowns, right down to its female keyboardist. The frontman's pidgin Spanglish gets him by in Mexico, as on "Nacho Daddy":
My baby don't frijole like she used to
She don't tamale like before
We used to guacamole
Down on the Rio Pali
Now my baby don't frijole like she used to
"I write all my stuff on cassettes," he proclaims. "For the last 30 years, I'll write songs every few minutes. I carry a cassette player with me with 90-minute tapes. It's a diary of my life. I'm up to 250 cassettes. Every five minutes, it's a different song!
"People look at me like, 'Cassettes?' I don't know anything else! It's on, off, and rewind, so you know where you're at. I'm working on stuff now I wrote in '84 and '85."
Working with San Antonio musicians resembled herding cats, so Carrasco disbanded El Molino in 1979 and immediately donned the Crowns. Half a decade later, Joe King Carrasco & the Crowns leaped from MTV to the world stage with songs like "Party Weekend." Live shows dazzled, as the fashionably dressed Crowns whirled around a frantic Carrasco, who sprung from amp stacks into the crowds.
If Lucinda Williams opening for El Molino marked one measure of success in the Seventies, R.E.M. warming up for the Crowns stood for another in New Wave's Eighties, a decade that also saw Michael Jackson sing on the group's "Don't Let a Woman (Make a Fool Out of You)." The band's offbeat charm kept it running until the Nineties, when Carrasco shifted away from the Crowns into reggae.
Then, late last summer, Carrasco got together with El Molino members Speedy Sparks and Ernie Durawa and recorded "Tamale Christmas" for the annual Holiday HAAM Jam disc, raising money for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. One track led to another while recording at Roadhouse Rags, and before long, Augie Meyers, Jesse Dayton, Joe Morales, Aaron Lack, Chuggy Hernandez, Jimmy Shortell, Marcelo Gauna, Gil Herman, and Lisa York had a whole album in the can.
Named Tlaquepaque for the title track, the new full-length finds Carrasco again taking his sound and his show on the road.
"I wrote 'Tamale Christmas' because nobody's got a good Latin Christmas polka! We ended up with 25 songs! What's cool about Roadhouse Rags is there's people watching you. You're kind of performing and recording. It's a different energy. Like old Austin, when Doug [Sahm] played!"
Driving Through the Drug Wars
"I've been driving through the drug war, man!"
The words are spoken casually, but a quick survey of the map reveals the bloody truth of Carrasco's statement. Puerto Vallarta sits in the southern part of territory controlled by drug gang Sinaloa Federation, though Cartel Pacifico Sur is beginning to move in. Carrasco says Zetas are present too, out of their usual comfort zone to the east.
JKC moved to the Pacific resort town nearly seven years ago with his three Jack Russell terriers. Its temperate climate and near tropical beauty compares to Hawaii, with abundant bougainvillea and hibiscus in eye-popping colors framed by palm trees and the rich blue ocean. Even with gigs at Nacho Daddy, Carrasco makes the trek across the U.S.-Mexican border five or six times a year.
"I've been driving through the whole drug war, and I see the heavy-duty checkpoints. It's crazy, and Laredo's especially insane. I hope it gets better with the new president.
"You really got to be on your toes. You don't know when the next checkpoint is coming. They might put one up real quick. I've seen a lot of things. I try to get to the border before six at night. You don't drive after dark. You can't see who's searching you.
"You get pulled over by guys with ski masks on and all you see is eyes. You have to show all your papers if you got a car. Lotta questions. You just kind of get used to the guns and masks. It's not like Mexico used to be – drinking beer and driving down the road.
"You get used to having machine guns pointed at you. I'm just a gringo. I travel as straight as I can. I give the guys at the checkpoints free promotional things and show them my pictures. If that doesn't work, I tell them about Manu Chao, who did [my song] 'Pachuco Hop.'
"I pick my routes, through San Luis Potosi or Zacatecas, and try to avoid the hot spots. It's kinda heavy.
"I'm a loner, driving up and down the coast by myself with my dogs, sneaking them into hotels. They're my kids, my three dogs. If I didn't have them, I don't know where I'd be. I drive my bands crazy because I don't tour unless I have my dogs."