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Posted Jun 4, 2011, 11:18 am
After a quarter-century of solid songwriting, countless club gigs and a brief flirtation with the big time, Tucson's prototypical desert rockers played a final show this week. Much like their city, the story of the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies is as much about what could have been as about what came to be.
'Nothing to show for 20-plus years of wasted life'
A few years back, when my work took me to Phoenix four days a week I renewed my acquaintance with a college girlfriend who was now living there. She told me that she fondly remembered a Gin Blossoms show we went to together in the lounge of a declining hotel on Stone Avenue.
I corrected her. It was not the Gin Blossoms, I told her. It was the Sidewinders.
No, she said. She was absolutely sure that it was the Gin Blossoms. She clearly remembered the show because the lounge did not have a proper stage, so the band was on a riser only a few inches above the floor. As a result, the audience towered over the lead singer, who was rather short.
I remembered that show, but it was not the Gin Blossoms. It was a band from Tucson called the Sidewinders. The Sidewinders were a big deal at the time, but no one outside of Arizona had even heard of the Gin Blossoms at that point.
No, she was absolutely sure it must have been the Gin Blossoms. She had all their albums and they remained one of her favorites after all these years. As for the Sidewinders, what I said was the first thing she had heard of them in a long time and she barely remembered anything about them except their name and that they were from Tucson.
In retrospect, the confusion is understandable. Music critic, former Tucsonan, and Sidewinders booster Fred Mills has said that had they "not been derailed by legal and label problems, the Tucson quartet might've beaten neighboring Tempe's Gin Blossoms to the brass ring." It is as if the Gin Blossoms merely filled a Sidewinders-shaped hole in the rock and roll universe.
At a distance of twenty-plus years it becomes a little unclear what it was that made a given band special. The truth is that a lot of bands back around 1989-1991 sounded at least a little like the Sidewinders. This was the heyday of bands like The Church, Concrete Blonde and Smithereens, the brief era of sincere 3-chord guitar rock that softened the resistance and made Nirvana's breakthrough in 1991 and all that happened later possible. From the perspective of 2011, it is easy to see that the similarities of these bands and how they fit together in the larger story of rock and roll.
'Take me down to the place of memories'
At the risk of invoking a cliché, one really had to be in Tucson at the time to understand what the Sidewinders meant to the Old Pueblo.
First, while they clearly fit in a music scene which included Giant Sand, Naked Prey and the River Roses, they were hardly the same as those bands or anyone else. In some ways, this should go without saying. If they sounded just like everyone else, they would not have gotten a major label record deal. While there were plenty of guitar-driven pop outfits at the time, none of them had the charisma and Mark Lindsay-esque voice of David Slutes or the uninhibited guitar work of Rich Hopkins.
The Sidewinders were suddenly everywhere
I am not going to pretend that I am one of those people that have been following them from the beginning. I was a teenager when they first came together in 1985, so I was not going to the places they played until a few years later. I did not see them play live until around 1988, when they were on the verge of the RCA record deal that changed everything. After that, they were suddenly everywhere.
Their first major-label release was 1989's "Witchdoctor," whose title track made a brief appearance in the lower rungs of the top 40. Its best track, "Bad Crazy Sun," indulges in an epic, prog-rock audacity to tell the story of doomed migrants abandoned by a coyote in the forsaken desert of Southwestern Arizona, well before such subject matter became a national cause celebre. That the song was quoted as recently as 2004 in a Pulitzer-nominated book by Luis Alberto Urrea speaks to how well this remarkable album has held up over the years.
At the time, the local media, only slightly less clueless then than they are now, took notice, registering shock about what we knew all along: namely that Tucson had an active and vibrant music scene. They followed every move that the Sidewinders made. This, they said, was the first Tucson act to get a major label contract since Linda Ronstadt in the 1970s (NB: Not true, as it turns out. Where was the love for the Dusty Chaps?), so it was big news that Tucsonans were on MTV, getting radio play all over the country, and touring with the likes of Tom Petty.
In the Old Pueblo, some of us reacted with predictable resentment. A lot of us were rooting for the River Roses, another 4 piece guitar band characterized by awesome songwriting and skilled musicianship. In many ways, they were better than the Sidewinders, but, as one friend of mine once said "all their charisma is behind the drum kit" and in those days, this was not a formula for rock stardom. It became hip for some of us to pretend to hate the Sidewinders while we went to their shows and secretly loved their records, saying that their success was somehow stolen from the River Roses.
Their 1990 release, "Auntie Ramos Pool Hall," seemed to be about Tucson in some ways. The title referred to a run-down practice space which the band rented from a member of the City Council which is now a rather bohemian arts space called Dry River Collective. Some tracks featured guest musicians from the Tucson scene, while the inner sleeve included a list of every musician who ever played with the band, prompting some folks to say "him? really?" One track, "Get Out of That Town," was a somewhat clumsy but sincere song about why we all hate Phoenix.
'Our future is gone'
Nonetheless, in our hip, 20-something early 90s irony, we worked to find fault with it.
The first single was an ode to lost youth called "We Don't Do That Anymore." At first, those of us at the UA's student radio station sneered at it, but it grew on us eventually, and it became the second of their 2 hit singles.
A few days after we received the record at KAMP, I spotted Dave Slutes at a big house party near downtown, with a woman under each arm and a beer in his hand. Just to be a smug punk, I went up to him and said "Hey, Dave, I thought you didn't do that anymore!" He had no idea who I was at the time, but we have become friends since then, and in retrospect he did not really deserve it, but it gave me and a few buddies a chuckle.
At this point, David Slutes was a rock star, at least in Tucson. We all knew guys who insisted that he made off with their girlfriends, which was generally not true. He was sufficiently well-known that a cartoonist for the Arizona Daily Wildcat used to regularly make gags about him, which Slutes actually appreciated. Meanwhile, Slutes skipped his tenth high school reunion to "live the life" as he said, touring North America and Europe with Pearl Jam and playing shows for 30,000 fans.
In 1991, things came to a grinding halt with a legal entanglement that eventually forced them to change their name and to go dormant for 2 years. This, of course, is almost a lifetime in pop music. They emerged from hibernation as the Sand Rubies with an excellent album produced by Waddy Wachtel. A single got some radio play, but the momentum and the enthusiasm were lost.
As the Sand Rubies, they continued to make good music, though much of the time has been spent in hiatus. They remained popular in Arizona and maintained a sufficient following, particularly in Europe, to justify some modest touring. On their most recent release, 2007's "Mas Cuacha," a song called "Showcase '89" chronicled the band's halcyon days and made it clear that they were grateful for their brief flirtation with stardom.
'The past is chained to me'
Thursday night, the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies played a show which they announced would be their last.
Someone called it their "Last Waltz," but it included no turkey dinner or spontaneous appearances by Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. In fact, it was a rather modest affair which was strangely satisfactory. The venue was a humble outdoor stage at The Hut, a 4th Avenue dive, there were problems with the sound, and the bassist had some difficulty with his guitar strap, so the whole thing came off as less than slick, which was a big part of its charm.
It would be tempting to say that this marks the end of an era, but this would not be accurate. Though they never became washed-up, the truth is that the Sidewinders were a product of a specific place and time, and this has long since passed.
We tend to regard the Old Pueblo is a place where things almost happen
The phrase "Tucson sound" is now far more likely to evoke the layered sophistication of Calexico than the guitar-dominated "desert rock" that held sway in the Old Pueblo 20 years ago.
Still, the Sidewinders and their story have much to say about what has not changed about Tucson: namely, that we tend to regard the Old Pueblo is a place where things almost happen.
As Tucsonans, we grow up with stories about the great things that started and never finished, a legacy, perhaps, of losing the capitol to Prescott in 1877 which continues to manifest itself in our cynicism about Rio Nuevo today.
We spend a so much time complaining about what is not happening, so much effort looking outside our community that we tend to overlook the great things that are happening the talented people that we have right here.
In the days of the Sidewinder's heyday, we all thought that big things were going to happen in Tucson, that all of our favorite local bands were going to make it big the way that it seemed that everyone from Seattle was getting on the radio a year or two later. This did not quite pan out.
I wonder if it is our love-hate relationship with our city that held us back from making this happen. "Nothing ever happens here," we keep saying, while missing out not only what is happening, but also failing to work to make things happen.
Still, the Sidewinders were great, and imagining what could have been is largely a waste of time. For a few years back there, they made Tucson proud and brought positive attention to our city and state. The Old Pueblo owes Dave and Rich a hearty thank you. We also need to remember what their story tells us about the awesome, though too often unappreciated, potential we have as a community.