The Cult of Nick Curran Remembers His Guitar Genius
From rhythm & blues to rockabilly and punk, the late Austin shredder lived to subvert genres
Iggy Pop once claimed that his groundbreaking group the Stooges plied a version of the blues aimed at disaffected white teens. Pity he never witnessed Nick Curran deconstruct his antihero anthem "No Fun." Growlin', prowlin', and rippin' hot-wired solos worthy of T-Bone Walker, the tattooed greaser with Joe Strummer's Combat Rock-era ducktail/mohawk wailed the song into a Fifties stripper soundtrack readymade for a young Little Richard.
Rhythm & blues, rockabilly, and punk guitar genius, the Austin shredder lived to subvert genres. And he did so with a wink, a grin, and unbridled gusto. Curran, who would have turned 40 on Sept. 30 had he not succumbed to oral cancer on Oct. 6, 2012, wreaked havoc on convention.
"He was gonna fuck shit up just for the fun of it," says Dallas rockabilly revivalist Kim Lenz of the youth who manned lead guitar in her band the Jaguars for years. "He had a mischievous streak. He wanted to surprise people. He loved to surprise people!
"And he had this God-given talent for rock & roll."
"He was irreverent," smirks the woman who knew Curran best, Carole-Ann Labbe, his mother. "He was irreverent even toward music, the thing he valued the most."
"The way people talk about how they got to see Johnny Thunders, or whoever?" begins Kevin Preston of millennial Los Angeles garage punks Prima Donna. "That's the way we felt about Nick Curran. We got to see Nick Curran! We would talk about that in the tour van. We felt like in the future, the way others talk about these rock & roll legends? We felt Nick would have to be included in that conversation."
"Probably one of the most talented musicians to come to Austin," surmises Kim Wilson, who led a Fabulous Thunderbirds lineup energized by Curran's rocket-fuel guitar in the mid-Aughts. "The other one would be Doug Sahm."
Real Gone Racket
Sole child of blues guitarist Michael Curran and his wife in 1977 Biddeford, Maine, Nicholas Michael Curran came into the world all but predestined.
"Before he was born, I knew he was going to do something musically," says Labbe. "He would just be kicking away in my belly any time there was music! It could be the stereo or anything. He was born to do it.
"He had a fascination with drums when he was really young. When he was 2 or 3, the drummer in his dad's band gave him some sticks. Oh, boy! Every pot and pan in the cabinet came out, and that's all I heard for months. Then his father went on the road and came back with a Muppets drum set. I thought Nick was going to turn inside out!
"When he was 9, he wanted a guitar, so I bought him a little electric guitar and a Gorilla amp at Toys 'R' Us. When he opened it on Christmas, he picked up the guitar and amp and retired to his bedroom. He just started playing.
"I asked, 'Nick, where did you learn to play like that?'
"He said, 'I just got the feelin', Mom.'"
In no time, Curran shot up into a teenage headbanger.
"I was a huge Zeppelin fan," he told rockabilly fanzine Real Gone Racket in 2003. "Also my favorite when I first started playing guitar was Guns N' Roses. Appetite for Destruction was the first stuff I really learned on guitar. Slash, yeah, I was totally into that."
An 11-minute YouTube clip of Curran rehearsing with his junior high school band documents a shoulder-length mane and his trademark growl already in place. His chops on an ancient Danelectro guitar around his shoulders border on otherworldly. Soon, Mike Curran called with a new direction.
"My dad asked me if I wanted to play in a band with him," continued Curran. "I ended up playing rhythm guitar in this blues band when I was 15. When I was 17, I started getting into rockabilly. I was kind of into it before, a little bit. Had my own band for a couple of years. Then I started playing with Ronnie Dawson."
Dallas-born "Blond Bomber" Ronald Monroe Dawson (1939-2003), maybe the finest Lone Star roots guitarist of them all.
"Ronnie sent Nick a bus ticket to Dallas," Labbe recalls. "Ronnie's wife Christine and Lisa Pankratz, his drummer, saw him when he got off the bus and said, 'Jesus Christ, he's just a baby!' He was 18.
"Nick said, 'Mom, this is the best thing that's ever happened to me!' He loved playing those two tours. Ronnie took him under his wing and showed him the ropes. Nick took everything Ronnie taught him to heart. He taught him about the work ethic; 'You might feel so bad that you could lay down and sleep for days, but the show must go on. Your fans are depending on you, and you can't let them down.'
"Nick never forgot that."
On the recommendation of Sean Mencher from High Noon, Kim Lenz then hired Curran, who relocated to Dallas in 1998. Three years later, he made the move to Austin.
"I'd done my first record for Hightone," Lenz recalls. "Mike Lester was a fabulous player, but he was not cut out for the road. I had all these tours slammed out to promote this record and no guitar player who could travel. Nick met us in Oklahoma City on the way to the Northeast to do a buncha shows, and we tried him out at a friend's house. Two bars into the first song, we were like, 'FUUUUCKK!'
"He was only 19 then, and wasn't really experienced. He had this rock & roll/punk cover band he played with at his local club, and he was really into Stevie Ray Vaughan and the blues. None of my band knew traditional rockabilly at the time, so we just listened to that all the time. Nick picked it up really fast. He especially tuned in to Cliff Gallup, Gene Vincent's guitarist."
Curran solo spots designed to relieve Lenz during her three-hour shows built a fan base, soon leading to his own solo records and a budding rep amongst exalted company.
"I heard a story about someone talking about Nick with Billy Gibbons," claims local punk mainstay Frankie Nowhere, who played Iggy Pop to Curran's James Williamson for two years in Austin's Flash Boys. "And Billy said, 'You mean that kid who sounds just like Little Richard?'"
All five Curran solo albums, produced by careerlong bassist Billy Horton on vintage gear, howl like long-lost Richard Penniman outtakes. They're also noted for hifalutin guests, like Doctor Velvet's Jimmie Vaughan cameo in 2003, and jarring reinterpretations, such as the aforementioned "No Fun" from his 2004 Blind Pig release Player!, featuring the guitarist's next boss, Fabulous Thunderbirds mainstay Kim Wilson.
"I heard his records and became a fan pretty quickly," Wilson recollects. "Then I saw him one New Year's Eve in Michigan. That's when I said, 'I've gotta have this kid.' He was the most talented young player I heard in my life. True, he went through his second childhood late in life with the punk stuff, but when he was playing blues and R&B, he was untouchable."
Reform School Girl
Sept. 13, 2013: Ex-high school art teacher JD McPherson is making waves with a reissue of his homemade debut, Signs & Signifiers, a set of contemporary rock & roll seemingly excavated from Chess or Specialty Records. Rung up for an ACL Fest preview, he's clearly caught off-guard when compared to Curran.
"Let me just talk to you a minute about Nick Curran," he paused. "I bought Fixin' Your Head, which is his first solo record, back in the Nineties. And it's only because of Nick Curran that I ended up doing what I do now.
"I was into a lot of music; I was playing in all kinds of bands. I was playing in punk bands and rock & roll bands. I dunno, I was trying to do basically what I liked. But when I heard Nick Curran, I was like, 'Man! This is on another level!' Because he was so great. I'm just gonna speak as a fan: He had one of the best rock & roll voices and guitar techniques of anybody on the planet. He's a hero to me, but I was also jealous of him at the same time.
"That last record he did [2010's Reform School Girl] seemed as though it was the record he'd always wanted to make."
McPherson obviously didn't note Curran's primacy in a vacuum. According to Labbe, cancer prevented her son from appearing on the Black Keys' massive El Camino LP. Days after the guitarist's death, Keys frontman Dan Auerbach requested a Curran tour tee in advance of his appearance at ACL Fest. He proudly wore it onstage and dedicated the group's set to the fallen guitar hero.
"He had a lot of friends in Austin," says Labbe, "all these punk [musicians]. When he went out partying with those guys, he would walk the walk and dress in the bullet belts and things. He loved [Krum Bums singer] Dave Rodriguez's mohawks, and those two would have mohawk parties, doing each other's hair!
"He loved the Ramones growing up, the Clash. He would say, 'Mom, if you listen to these old blues records, that's punk!'"
That manner of thinking led briefly to homegrown blues/punk mash-up Deguello, his membership in the Flash Boys, and both the formation of Nick Curran & the Lowlifes and his final album, 2010's Reform School Girl.
"We were on the road when Reform School Girl came out," says Preston. "We listened to that in the van nonstop. At least he got to put out that record. It's everything he was about, all his roots. It's the culmination of everything we think is cool – the girl groups, rockabilly, punk rock. It's all in there, and I never heard it done that way."
Meanwhile, Curran's private life came to a head as well. He was seeing Applicators guitarist Avery Carl, and enjoying domesticity as only he could.
"He bought a house in East Austin back when it was, 'No, don't go on that side of 35! You'll get killed!'" laughs Lenz. "He bought it for $12,000 and rebuilt the floor in the kitchen – did all this stuff. It was the cutest place once he got done with it. He could do anything!"
The Big C
Curran could do anything, it seemed, except conquer cancer.
"Avery had been trying to get him to tell me for some time," Labbe recollects. "He finally called me Nov. 17, 2009, and said, 'Mom, I have cancer.'"
"I remember knowing about it before he knew it was cancer," says Lenz. "But he didn't have a doctor to go to then. If he had regular health insurance, he might still be alive today. But he had this white spot on his tongue, and he took his time getting it checked it out. He finally found a doctor through HAAM. It took a month to see the first doctor, then two months to see a second.
"That's when they found out it was cancer, and it turned out to be a fast-growing one."
Opting out of surgery on his tongue, which would have ended his singing career, Curran declared himself cancer-free six months later following intensive radiation treatment, adding a "Fuck Cancer" knuckle tattoo to his already prodigious ink. The promotion of Reform School Girl went into overdrive, some songs becoming a staple on the syndicated Little Steven's Underground Garage radio show.
"Prima Donna played with Nick & the Lowlifes at Red 7 just after he'd beaten it the first time," says Preston. "He was more vicious onstage than ever!
Then the cancer came back.
"He left for a tour in Europe late in 2010," says Labbe. "The guys said he was complaining that his tongue was hurting again, and he was scared. When he got back, I told him, 'The minute you get up tomorrow morning, you call the oncologist. Get in there and have them do a scan.' He tried. He called and told them he was in pain, and they accused him of drug-seeking. Then they told him it was a reaction to the radiation, and it would go away."
It didn't. Labbe intervened in March, getting him a new scan that revealed the tumor's return. She decamped to Austin for the lengthy surgery process. Afterward, he flew home to Maine, but then experienced a sharp pain in the neck on the opposite side from where the tumor had been removed. Tests in Austin revealed another tumor, followed by more surgeries.
"Then Nick started losing his voice," says Labbe. "All this time, the radiation and tongue surgery didn't affect his voice. Operating on his neck did it. For Nick, that was the worst thing in the world. I remember him sitting on the couch and telling me, 'I have lost everything that means anything to me in this life. I can't sing anymore. I have a hard time playing guitar. I don't really know if I want to live anymore, because I lost everything that means anything to me.'
"That about broke my heart."
A Flash Boys gig at Red 7 opening for TSOL on Sept. 5, 2012, proved his final live appearance.
"What can we learn from Nick Curran?" wonders Wilson. "Be yourself, and don't be afraid to be yourself. Don't be afraid of what people say. Don't be afraid of what people think is the norm. If you're gonna go against it, go against it. It's okay to be different. I know that's what he subscribed to. Nothing wrong with it. Be different. Be yourself. Break through barriers."