Out of the Shadows
photograph by Todd V. Wolfson
There are a lot of things of which I'm probably more informed by what others remember and say about it than what I remember and say about it," says local songwriter/guitarist Jon Dee Graham. "The whole idea of `significance' is one of those things."
That word, "significance," pops up constantly in conversation about or with Jon Dee Graham, discussion spurred on by Graham's stunning new solo album, Escape From Monster Island. Graham says there have been many key moments of personal "significance" throughout his 20-year year career, but he's hesitant to describe any one project, song, or album he's been associated with as socially or culturally "significant." Historians of Austin music and Graham's peers and admirers are much more generous. In fact, it's not hard to consider the significance of Graham's resumé and make a case for him, at just 38, as one of Austin's most underrated musicians.
Consider this: Many active participants of the local Raul's-era punk/New Wave scene say there were few outfits more significant than the Skunks, Graham's first notable Austin band; Lou Ann Barton's first Jerry Wexler-produced set was a local blues watershed, and when Graham made the surprising transition from the Skunks straight into the heart of the Antone's uprising by backing Barton, punks and blues purists alike took notice; what about the most discussed, dissected, and analyzed movement in Austin music history, the "New Sincerity" era? Yeah, that involved Graham too, this time leading the True Believers alongside Alejandro and Javier Escovedo; there are even folks willing to credit Graham as a catalyst behind Kelly Willis' recent run of newfound vitality. Getting Graham to confirm the significance of his accomplishments isn't easy, although he comes close when talking about the True Believers.
Obviously, people did write volumes -- even doctoral theses -- about the True Believers. But perhaps what makes Graham's past seem so significant now is how time, talent, and age have again intersected for Escape From Monster Island, his first ever solo album and a song cycle that takes Graham out of the shadowy role of sideman.
"I really do believe that for most of my career I've been the quiet journeyman," explains Graham. "I've played in all these bands that were reportedly significant, yet I'm not the guy they interview. I'm always the guy in the back of the picture. But it's been by choice. I'm not a self-promoter. I don't go out and network. That just hasn't been my style."
As such, even with what amounts to 20 years of preparation, Graham says the process of recording, releasing, and promoting his first solo album has been a more personally taxing proposition than he ever imagined.
"It's real strange," he says. "There are a lot of things about it that are very unsettling for me. I've written songs for other people. I've had songs on Patty Smyth records, and people like Kris McKay and David Halley do my songs. I've written forever, had them covered, and played guitar in other people's bands, so okay, it seems simple: `How about I write my own songs, sing them, and play guitar on them.' It's not that simple at all."
Although the songs and production on Escape From Monster Island seem simple, appearances are deceiving. This is an album that, for all its inherent listenability, has also been a difficult and painstaking labor of love. In fact, for every moment that borders on Tom Petty pop sensibility, there are another five that border on Tom Waits-style darkness. Why so dark? The answer lies with Roy Amon Norvell Graham, the five-year-old son Graham fathered with singer/actress Sally Norvell. The album is dedicated to Roy, and clearly, most of the songs are about him -- primarily the effects on Graham of temporarily having custody and now living thousands of miles away from him.
"The way I feel about it is all there on the record, and the material facts behind it all are really dear to me," Graham says. "I don't feel comfortable discussing it, but anybody that listens to the record is going to get all they need. This is not oblique poetry I write, nothing's obscure. It's all pretty obvious."
Indeed, few things in life are as obvious as a father's love for his son. And clearly, Graham is working today almost solely to support his son, just as Escape From Monster Island seems like some kind of letter home. But why Graham would choose to release his first solo album in the midst of personal upheaval is a valid question.
"I'd reached a point where the songs I was writing were not the types of songs that anybody is going to cover," he answers. "They're too personal, scary, and dark. Yet, as fucked up as it sounds, I really felt it was important for me to record these songs, under my name, with me singing them, and put it out. It's not like Patty Smyth is going to be singing the kind of stuff I've written anymore.
"But it's also hard for me to say why I picked now, other than there were all these major changes going on in my life. At that point, when I got back to town last year, it was just me and my son in a little shack in South Austin. I was starting all over. It was up to me to shave my head and ask, `Who's going to hurt me now? What could I possibly lose?' I'd basically lived in Europe for a year [touring with Calvin Russell], been all over the United States nine times, gotten a gold record, and been on Letterman. I'd done everything I was going to do as a sideman. It was like the end of the Believers, where I just knew this part was done. It was time to grow by going on and doing the next thing, and this record is the next thing."
To truly understand the significance of Graham's current solo turn as that "next thing" must involve a working knowledge of Graham's past. Like dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other local musicians drawn from small-town Texas to the state capital by the University of Texas, Graham left the border town of Quemado near Eagle Pass at the age of 17 to attend school in Austin. His major? Punk rock, flourishing with the burgeoning scene at a local Tejano bar.
"Raul's was run by these hard-core Mexicans," recalls Graham, "and growing up on the border I felt really at home with giant, badass Mexicans. I suppose I also identified with Raul's right away, because I grew up on a ranch 20 miles away from the closest town. I had a subscription to Rolling Stone and the address was just `Star Route 1.' I would make trips to San Antonio to buy records, because there was only one record store in the nearest town and all it stocked was five-year-old AM radio hits. Then we got bootlegs of the New York Dolls when I was a junior in high school. We had no idea what to make of them. It was exotic, like the first zebra shipped into London. Nobody knew what it was. We'd study them and say, `They're playing out of tune, but there's something really there.'"
In the fall of 1978, Graham got an invitation to join the Skunks, a punk outfit featuring bassist Jesse Sublett and drummer Billy Blackmon after Eddia Munoz left to join the Plimsouls. The band had been playing around town for six months, and at that point, Graham knew full well his college career would be short-lived.
Before long, the Skunks were not only touring as headliners, they were also opening for acts like the Clash, Ramones, and John Cale. A few singles and a self-titled album followed, but even back then -- and almost despite their success -- Graham says he began feeling stifled.
"I was really unhappy because I wasn't getting to write," he explains. "At that point, I was 19, and really full of myself. The Skunks played all the time, toured all the time. I think maybe I just felt squashed by it and I didn't know any better. I suppose I just thought I could do better. Actually, it ended up in a fist fight between me and Jesse [Sublett] at the Continental Club. No blows actually landed, because we were restrained from each other, but it was just kind of young, stupid, hot-head stuff."
And yet, in retrospect, Graham says it was that brand of young, hot-headed behavior, and the band's explosive ending, that may have done the most to cement the Skunks' place in local punk lore. So, then, is testosterone ultimately the source of the Skunks' significance?
"Going back and looking at it, sure, it was a young, hot-headed band," agrees Graham, who left the band in late 1979, "but there was also an undeniable energy to it. Even now, when I hear the record, I realize it sounds pretty good for a trio. But the only way to really gauge the significance is by the number of people that remember it and still ask me about it. Do I think it was socially significant? Only inasmuch that we were out there kicking in walls. We weren't a message band or a political band. We were a really good rock band that happened to play really loud and really undisciplined stuff. I'd love to be able to say we changed things and made some large conceptual statement, but we didn't. We were just a really obnoxious rock band."
And yet, even if the Skunks were really just a New Wave band with a punk ethic -- as some historians have noted -- there was still no move more inherently punk than for Graham to turn his back on the Raul's scene and take a gig with Lou Ann Barton's backing outfit, which he did in mid-1980.
"At first I thought it was just a money gig, but it was also a prestige gig because Lou Ann was Lou Ann," says Graham, who at the time was younger than just about anybody else in the local blues scene. "It was also an entrance into the Antone's scene, and while I wasn't that hot to get involved in that, it was powerful and I was really curious about it. It was totally different, and in the end I don't think I was ever really accepted by that crowd anyway."
Today, it's Graham's contention that the punk scene as a whole wasn't really cognizant that he was playing with Barton, but in the grander scheme of things, Graham's association with Antone's and the local blues scene brought him one step closer to widespread local recognition as a serious Texas-bred guitar player.
"Sure, the Texas guitar hero role had some appeal," he says. "There were no heroes in the Skunks. But then again, the way I play and what I like doesn't have much to do with technique and flash. I'd rather hear the right five notes. But as a guitar player, who doesn't like the notion of what it stands for -- the notion of a Johnny Winter? I wouldn't necessarily go and see him play, but by God, I'm happy he's out there. At the time, that was an influence."
While his stint with Barton lasted less than a year, the fact that it was relatively high-profile set Graham up to lead a pair of pop outfits, Five Spot and the Lift, two bands he says he's not entirely proud of today. Still, both bands afforded Graham the opportunity to write the majority of their material -- an opportunity he squandered by allowing himself to be overly influenced by his bandmates and the surrounding national climate of cheesy New Wave pop.
"The Lift was like this wildly popular band," says Graham. "We were selling out shows and making really good money. In that respect, it was successful. After all, pop is the root of `popular' and this was a very fucking popular band. But it wasn't satisfying. There were perhaps six months of satisfaction from writing all this material and being the front guitar player, but there's also this chicken-hearted thing about not stepping out in front and not selling my own stuff. I hid behind a singer. But at the time, all that was necessary I suppose."
The Lift may have been necessary, but Graham says he still believes the True Believers were nothing less than vital. Like the Skunks, the True Believers also existed before his entrance, only this time Graham was a fan first. "They were the only band in town at that point that I would go see," states Graham. "There was something really compelling about what they were doing. They were different, and real dark and big. I'd go and say, `They're onto something. This is very cool.'"
Because the Escovedo brothers were looking to fill out their sound with a guitarist who could also play lap steel guitar, the fall of 1984 found Graham invited to jam with the band during one of their rehearsals. "I sat in and never left," he says simply. And since the True Believers eventually allowed Graham to sing some of his songs, it was during this period that Austin embraced Graham as something other than a hotshot, hired-gun guitar player.
"It was a hell of a band. I like the records okay, but none of them really capture a tenth of what that band really was," says Graham. "It was great for me because Alejandro and Javier are both really amazing writers and I was learning from them. We cut three of my songs for both albums, two of them making it on each. It was this three-writer thing where there was not any co-writing going on. People would write their song, bring it in, and you had to be willing to fight for it and stand up and say, `This is how this has to go.' It was a really strong dynamic between the three of us. Plus, a rock band with three guitar players all playing too loud right up front was great anyway. This is what I was looking for."
Obviously, a lot of other people embraced that too-loud, three-leader dynamic, with the band making true believers out of fans across the country. Or not. "If everybody who says they saw the True Believers had really been to see us, we'd have been playing Shea Stadium," chuckles Graham. "I hear these great apocryphal road stories, like, `Then the Believers did this.' No, we didn't, but that's a hell of a story. A lot of it I'm really glad to hear we did, only I wish it actually happened. The truth was strange enough."
For the record, the truth is when the band lost their record deal with Rounder/EMI, after having released one self-titled album and watching the second languish in the can (both were subsequently released by Rykodisc as Hard Road, though that disc is now out of print) and Javier Escovedo decided to exit late in 1987, Graham knew the True Believers had ended.
"We had done everything we were going to do," says Graham. "I think Alejandro wanted it to go on, and I understood why, but really what he needed to do was go on and do what he's doing now, which turned out really well for him. We did some amazing things as a band, but it was over. It was tough, because it was the best band I'd ever been in. I'm convinced it was one of the best rock & roll bands ever. But I knew we had to move on."
Graham moved on, alright, -- all the way to Los Angeles in 1988, where he married Sally Norvell, an actress and Austin punk queen, who headed the Norvells and the Gator Family. In theory, she could better pursue the film business there and Graham could pursue an identity outside of Austin music. Quickly, Graham befriended former X frontman, John Doe, and began working with him for his first solo album, Meet John Doe. To that end, Graham says Los Angeles gave him the rewards that were missing from the final days of the True Believers. And, to be working with a musician he respected as much as Doe, Graham found there could be life after Austin.
"Los Angeles let me see my value as a musician, and that wherever I was, I could get work," says Graham, whose stint in L.A. also found him working with Smyth, Exene Cervenka, Ryan Hedgecock of Lone Justice, Dan Stuart of Green on Red, and Michelle Shocked. "It was great to sort of have some validation. I'd been an `Austin guitarist' forever, and now I can come out to L.A. and found myself valid there, too. It was a good thing for me, and I learned a lot."
Nevertheless, Tinsel Town was also a reminder that working with major label artists had no guarantees, particularly after Doe was unceremoniously dropped by Geffen shortly after the release of his album.
"Los Angeles was a continuation of the lesson I started learning when I was touring with the Believers; you have to work a lot harder than anybody in Austin realizes," explains Graham. "It's about how hard you pursue your craft, your commitment, and your realization of the stakes -- that you're doing it for real, not for a talent show, or playing the Beach on Friday for your friends. That was one of the things that separated the Believers from the other bands, that we went out and worked constantly. We were very aware that selling out the Hole in the Wall doesn't translate into the Roxy in Los Angeles or the Warfield in San Francisco."
Although Graham says he dedicated himself to working hard and keeping a steady roster of projects, L.A. also represented a constant choice between his writing, gigging, and session work, and the start of a solo career.
"In a way, having all that work was settling, because I knew that if I were to do my own thing, the chances are I'd be ignored for a long time -- maybe forever," he says. "On the other hand, I could play with some really talented, really amazing people with whom I would not be ignored. It was certainly a choice."
Back at home, there were some who wondered if Graham's career on the West Coast wasn't just a way of avoiding going head-to-head with Alejandro Escovedo -- in some kind of "which
ex-True Believer could do better for himself" battle. Did Graham constantly look at Escovedo's relative solo successes and wish he'd done the same?
"Yeah, I look at Alejandro and know he did the right thing," answers Graham. "There's some of that, because I don't know a single musician that I've talked to from one side of the country to another that doesn't respect Alejandro's work. I've got respect from my peers too, but it's in a different area (as a guitar player), and I want the respect as a songwriter."
Oddly, though, when Graham moved back to Austin early last year, after nearly a year in Europe with Calvin Russell, he'd all but given up on finding that respect, deciding instead to quit music altogether. "I was living in South Austin with my son, doing construction," says Graham. "I'm a framer, and I was framing houses, because I was just tired of the music business."
Now, Graham calls that downtime, and his idea of quitting music, `delusional.' Soon enough, word reached the rest of Austin that Graham was back in town, and a series of five album projects in seven months -- plus an offer to back Kelly Willis -- brought him out of his semi-retirement.
"What happened is that I decided to make a record of my own about May of last year," he explains. "My son had left, and I had done all these sessions back to back as well as being hired to do Kelly's thing. All of a sudden, I see myself doing the same thing all over again. I was supporting all these people in the studio and becoming a sideman for a moderately successful act with cult credibility. It was the same thing I'd already done. I decided that although I need to pay my bills, I'm going to do things differently this time."
Around the same time, Graham began a series of low-key collaborations with guitarist Mike Hardwick, a local veteran who's played with Willis, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Gene and Mike Clark. Initially, the pair just sat around Hardwick's dining room trading songs, but eventually ventured out to play as an acoustic duo.
"What ended up happening was that all of a sudden, these songs of mine had started taking shape as real open, creepy, disturbing stuff. It was really satisfying. And having been in a band situation for 20 years, to have me and a cohort doing these songs was freeing and easy."
In fact, Graham says the material he and Hardwick had been working on was beginning to sound good enough to garner an indie or major label of its own, so he began talking to Rounder, Rykodisc, and a few other labels he'd been associated with over the years. Yet after Matt Esky, the founder of local indie Freedom Records, heard Graham and Hardwick on KUT's "LiveSet," he met with the duo. Graham was impressed. "After all my meetings with major labels over 15 years, I meet him for lunch and say, `What is it you do?' And he says `I make records I like and sell them.' That was all I needed to hear."
As such, Escape From Monster Island was recorded on a shoestring budget over a six-day period in March. "We recorded for three days and mixed for three days," he says. "On the seventh day, we rested." What made it possible to work so quickly, explains Graham, was his recent run of session work with bassist George Reiff, drummer Rafael Gayol, and pianist Michael Ramos on albums for Kacy Crowley and Trish Murphy. By accident, Graham says he had found the rare studio band that didn't sound like a studio band. He dubbed them `The Austin Wrecking Crew,' hired Hardwick and Hit Shack's Andy Taub to produce, and began the whirlwind Escape From Monster Island sessions.
"Kacy and Trish made me realize that we could make my record," says Graham. "As we're working on this other stuff I was thinking, `We could do this and do it fast -- and it would be exactly what I want.' This record was made for very little money, but it wouldn't have been as good if we had the time and dollars to labor over it. I think there's a real scary simplicity to the record that's a direct result of the material combined with the way it was recorded. It was like a bus wreck -- getting everyone in there and saying go. It was another moment where I felt like I was doing something significant. I felt like this was something I'd remember."
Perhaps what makes Escape From Monster Island so memorable, aside from the quality of the songs, is that it's finally Graham singing them. Not only does it put Graham at center stage for the first time in his long career, it also accentuates his voice.
"I thought my voice was scary for years," reveals Graham. "But at some point along the way, I started realizing that wasn't a bad thing. Given the text of the songs I was singing, my voice was probably the best possible voice anyway. I just don't worry about that anymore. At one point, it was a big thing; it was why I always had other people sing my songs, or cover them. Then, it just became unimportant -- it is what it is. If somebody listens to this record and says, `He can't sing,' they're clearly missing the point."
Clearly, the point is an album that delicately balances personal turmoil, fatherhood, and the arrival -- after 20 years -- of a full-fledged singer-songwriter talent. Yes, it's a significant album that tries to make sense out of a significant career. "I've been at this long enough to know that the story that needs to be told, or the truth that needs to be written, for me, is not going to be the sort of thing that's widely commercially palatable. But really, all I ever wanted to do was to make this record -- this record, with these songs., sounding like it sounds. It feels like a snapshot again, of that intersection of time, talent and age."