One Big Guitar
True Believers once again
I. Rehearsal, 2012
Brent Grulke, who helped build South by Southwest into an international reckoning, has died. A memorial concert stacks more than three decades' measure of how beloved he was in the local music community, long dormant bands honoring him with their vintage songs one last time.
The most anticipated of these acts gathers into a room trying to start the engine. It will not kick over.
"GrulkeFest? We didn't even rehearse," grouses one of the band's three guitarists. "The PA blew up! Basically, we're just mouthing the words, trying to remember where the changes are!"
Another guitarist, the bandleader's brother, thinks, "I came all the way to Austin for this?! Man, I could've gotten this in Hollywood!"
Come the night of the show, spirits run high at the Moody Theater. Two generations of Austin rock – Doctors' Mob, the Reivers, Sixteen Deluxe, Fastball – play good and loud, as Grulke would have wanted. The headliners finally take the stage. In their time, the evening's honoree drove their van, mixed their sound, and listened to their leader's earliest songs while offering advice and encouragement. Now, when it counts the most, these former golden boys are nervous. This isn't the time, place, or occasion not to hit on all cylinders.
Taking the stage with trademark swagger, gang leader Alejandro Escovedo calls the tune. From the first chord, the fivepiece plays hard and true, like its name, demonstrating the same force of nature as Motörhead. Against all odds, the True Believers match, if not eclipse, their former glories.
II. Kingsville, J.K. Northway Coliseum, 1984
Joe King Carrasco & the Crowns are plying their Tex-Mex "Nuevo Wavo" in the South Texas cultural wasteland on a Saturday night. The assembled frat boys and sorority girls couldn't care less about the music, a soundtrack employed only to git fucked up and have a gud tahm!
The venue's literally a barn, which normally hosts rodeos. Its dirt floor means the air clumps in thick clouds from dancing. I'm 18, a high school senior, the sum total of the Alice's "punk scene." The grit now covering my faux leather pants and Beatle boots isn't any more welcoming than the rutting rubes.
That's precisely when The Wild Bunch takes the stage.
Some are wearing real leather, some denim. They've got long dirty hair and bolo ties, possibly some smudged eyeliner, and they're oozing Jack Daniel's and Marlboro fumes. The only thing louder than their attitude plugs into their amps: three guitars. Three.
"Oh, my gawd!" roars one of those guitarists nearly 30 years later. "It's MOLLY HATCHET."
Thankfully, it was more Johnny Thunders. With a twang.
"Yeah!" exclaims Jon Dee Graham downstairs in the Continental Club office after his Wednesday night residency performance, where a modest audience soaked in his world-weary songs and gnarled guitar. "[Three guitars] was one of those things that shouldn't work, because people go, 'Well, who is the lead guitar player? Who was the rhythm guitar player?'
"We all were," he laughs. "Really, it's just ... one big guitar."
One big guitar, fat with covers ranging from the Velvet Underground to the Stooges, Mott the Hoople, and T. Rex. Even Merle Haggard. AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" was a frequent encore.
"We were pretty loud, weren't we?" Graham nods.
Indeed. And they will be again – at South by Southwest, in the studio, and on tour in 2013. Why reanimate the True Believers now when all three songwriters have spent decades forging respected solo careers?
"I think the way everybody's viewing it," explains Graham, "and the way I'm certainly viewing it, is it's not 'either/or,' it's 'and.'
"We're all in such different places now. It's a better band than we ever were. No one wanted to bring it up, because we were all just blown away. So, our friend [and onetime True Believers manager] Joe Nick Patoski said, 'You guys would be crazy if you didn't do this now.'
"So, we had a sit-down and I was shocked, because everyone said, 'I'm in! I'm in!'"
Graham says several studios have offered their services. Each songwriter is expected to bring one new composition apiece to rehearsals for their SXSW dates next month, all to be tracked shortly after the festival. After that, they'll be back in the fall.
"Al is at the peak of his career," notes Graham, who turns 54 on Feb. 28. "I played 100 dates on the road last year and almost 140 dates in town. Javier [Escovedo] made a record with Ken Stringfellow from the Posies. Everybody's doing quite well. But the chance to go out and do this one more time is wonderful."
III. In a Truck With Alejandro Escovedo, 2013
"The thing the Believers had, which a lot of other bands didn't, was that we were a gang."
Alejandro Escovedo has just packed the Continental, delivering tight, rousing, well-crafted rock & roll. We're sitting in his truck behind the club, rain misting the windshield. For the next hour, he recounts the tale of the True Believers. He's seemingly composed the history mentally, over time, just waiting for the right audience.
"We were definitely a rock & roll band," he continues. "We had that kinda thing about us. Not many bands had it at that time. You either had Cinderella, or you had that indie/Replacements-kinda thing."
"It's less country and more Western. It's in my guitar, that reverb-y Stratocaster, those long lines. Javier and I were developing that before we got Jon Dee, and it was very much more Santo & Johnny-like lines. We wanted to be the Mott the Hoople of the Southwest," he grins proudly.
"Look at the bands we came from, too, Javier and I. [His] Zeros were hard-hitting! They were the Standells of the punk movement. And [my band] the Nuns were almost Blue Oyster Cult-ish in their attack. So, we had that going for us."
While the Zeros emerged from Los Angeles and the Nuns from San Francisco, Jon Dee Graham's punk trio the Skunks ruled locally, and drummer Rey Washam cut his teeth in Sharon Tate's Baby, the Big Boys, and, later, Scratch Acid. Bassist Denny DeGorio also emerged from the Bay Area in the Offs. Every man came with a punk pedigree.
In addition to opening for the Sex Pistols' final U.S. performance in the Nuns and a stint on the opposite coast in New Waver Judy Nylon's band, Escovedo founded Rank & File in 1979 with ex-Dils punks Chip and Tony Kinman. A briefly popular "cowpunk" band that resided locally for a stint, it provided a good living, except the Kinmans took out their frustrations on Escovedo, pressuring him to take lessons from a "real country guitarist." A particularly disastrous Sacramento show with the ascendant Lone Justice led to so much acrimony that Escovedo quit. The next day he called music journalist Chris Morris.
"[I said,] 'I just left Rank & File, and I'm thinking about calling Javier and asking him to start a band with me.' Chris said, 'So fucking call him right now!' Javier was washing dishes at a restaurant. I called him, he thought about it a day or two, and said, 'Yeah. Let's do it.'
"We knew what we wanted to sound like. We both loved the same bands growing up together. We knew we'd have a bit of all these different things. Then it was a matter of deciding, 'Well, do I come to L.A., or do you come to Austin?'"
They picked Austin for being "centrally located." Here, they could woodshed, safe from L.A.'s competitive environment. Javier arrived at the old Downtown Greyhound bus station months later, head-to-toe in white denim and sporting long black hair, a Les Paul Jr. in one hand and his belongings in a paper grocery bag in the other. He moved into his brother's house in Hyde Park on Avenue D, the two working by day painting houses and then playing all night fueled by 12-packs of Meister Bräu ("the cheapest beer we could find").
"By the time Javier arrived, I'd already got Denny and [drummer] Keith Carnes. We were rehearsing as a threepiece. When Javier came, he was gonna be more the soloist, more melody. And he had a lot of songs. He came with a satchelful. He writes a lot, very prolific. I would say the first year was more Javier material.
"I was starting to write, too," offers Alejandro, 62. "The first song I wrote was 'The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over.'"
IV. On the Phone With Rock & Roll Javier
"I was coming out of a period where I just sat in my room and wrote songs," laughs Javier Escovedo at his arrival in Texas. "So, I had a lot of ideas, and [Alejandro] helped me realize and polish up a lot of those ideas. It worked out. Then he started writing a lot more. As you well know."
Javier's prolificness hasn't diminished over time even if his first solo album, City Lights, only came out last fall. In fact, Jon Dee Graham's assertion that the True Believers' three principal songwriters each bring a new tune to next month's rehearsals seems like lowballing to him.
"I was thinking we should do more than that," he says. "I wrote down about five that I'd like to submit."
The natural-born rocker of the band, "Rock & Roll Javier," as Alejandro calls him with brotherly pride, not only brings another kit bag of tunes to the group's reunification, but also his Johnny Thunders guitar work and aura. Many modern Austinites seem unaware Alejandro has a younger brother, but he gives the band its swagger.
Graham, on the other hand, asserts that he never formally joined the True Believers. They'd been rolling about a year, playing backyard parties, Dallas skate contests opening for the Big Boys, and Oklahoma City gigs where they were expected to play three sets when they only had 12 songs. The band he initially caught at Club Foot was "really exciting! Really different. Even they couldn't figure out what they were doing!"
Like Javier, Graham was also washing dishes. He saw the True Believers often, and soon he and Alejandro began talking. The latter asked the former to sit in with his lap steel when the band opened for Byrds-maniacs the Long Ryders. Next time, Graham was told to also bring his guitar. Then he got in the van.
Much seat-of-the-pants touring ensued in a van bought by the Escovedo brothers' parents. Alejandro booked gigs from roadside telephones, while the band subsisted on loaves of bread and packets of lunch meat. One time, R.E.M. and several members of the Athens, Ga., indie rock aristocracy threw a benefit at the 40 Watt Club to get the True Believers home when a gig fell through.
Back home, the band's manager, Joe Nick Patoski, snared a deal with Rounder Records, then in alliance with EMI. An album was recorded in three days by Memphis maverick Jim Dickinson, with preproduction consisting of a conversation in the car picking Dickinson up from the airport to drive him to the studio. Once the eponymous LP came out in 1986 – not a bad song on it even if they all sounded like demos – the band barnstormed America once again, this time more professionally, one trek lasting eight months. Los Lobos even took the True Believers with them on their own first major tour following the success of the Ritchie Valens biopic, La Bamba.
Now on EMI proper, the band was informed by its major label that they needed a Top Ten producer for their sophomore disc. They chose Jeff Glixman, hot off producing the Georgia Satellites' hit debut, and regretted it once he insisted they replace the rhythm section. Glixman punched up the True Believers' three-guitar attack considerably, but with everything done and the artwork ready to go, their corporate sponsors suddenly began stalling. Then they dropped the band altogether.
After that, Javier admits things disintegrated rapidly. No label would buy the second album, even as the group itself struggled to move forward with Hector Muñoz on drums and J.D. Foster on bass. Over dinner with his brother, Javier quit the band.
"Will & the Kill had a manager and a record label, the True Believers didn't," recalls Javier. "Will wanted me to go on tour, so it was kinda like, 'Y'know, maybe it's time to go somewhere else.'"
"We tried keeping it going after Javier left, but it didn't last long," confirms Alejandro. "It wasn't inspired. Suddenly, we were beating a dead horse.
"We beat that horse with all our heart, believe me."
V. Back Home, Last Week
"None of us has ever stopped. We've been in the ring the whole time. But now we're fit. Everyone's more present than we ever were, and more grown-up. I'm excited about it," enthuses Jon Dee Graham.
Javier Escovedo won't leave his home in San Diego to be in the True Believers, who have reunited periodically since he left the band in 1987, most notably at SXSW 1994 when Rykodisc paired the group's two albums on a single CD, Hard Road. He can, however, get on a plane or in a van and go anywhere.
"I've been to Spain and Europe with the Zeros. I'm sure I can do it with the True Believers. They've got an airport here," he laughs.
Graham says the True Believers taught him a lot, notably that you can be the biggest band in Austin and it doesn't matter outside the city limits. He adds the Escovedos taught him chordal and harmonic economy.
"It was definitely going to school," he smiles. "It was awesome."
And what does the schoolmaster propose, back in his truck?
"I don't know what the future holds," admits Alejandro Escovedo. "I just know it'll be fun. I'm looking forward to it. I wanna be good. I want people to see how good the band can be."
He muses about his critically acclaimed solo "concept albums," Real Animal and By the Hand of the Father.
"That would be an interesting approach for the True Believers," he nods. "Maybe just tell the story of the band? It's very Mott-like."
"The Ballad of the True Believers," anyone?