Tucson sounds: 2021 year in review, with hopes & lamentations
2021 makes its exit. Like most sequels, it was worse than pandemic year #1. Meanwhile, we remember those lost, celebrate creativity and pin our hopes on 2022.
2021? I give it a B-
2021? The year in review? I’ve had better. Don’t know about you.
This is the year that things were supposed to get better. There was a hoped for scenario where all the summer tours from 2020 were going to happen and venues were going to spring back to life. In fact, more audiences than ever before were going to be seeing live music, just because we all missed it so dearly. This was the year we were going to have house parties and huge holiday celebrations and epic homecomings and tearful reunions. This was the year that we were all going to hug each other within an inch of our lives.
To be fair, there have been glimpses of what could have been. Stops and starts. Optimistic efforts. It’s as if our collective pandemic tour of duty keeps being extended, but we get little weekends of shore leave from time to time.
And so it goes.
Have there been highlights? Hell yes, there have been highlights. A whole lot of creative folks just spent a year and half in lockdown. They’ve been working on stuff. And some great documentaries have come out, spurring us to rediscover the past in a new light (I’m looking at you, “Summer of Soul.”) And then there are the folks we’ve lost. Lots of them this year.
Let me tell you about one of them. Mike Nesmith, musician, Monkee, and creative miscreant.
As a Gen X rock and roll fan who grew up when MTV still played music, the Monkees made an impact on me, it’s true. But the serious Texas folkie who often played stern straight man on the show seemed a little boring to me at first. I didn’t yet recognize the skill and craft and failed to pay due respect to the sly genius of Nesmith’s droll humor and deadpan comic timing. That all came with time.
Something I did get, though, and had vague but happy memories of, was a brief lived, weird little show on early Nickelodeon called “PopClips,” which featured music videos before there was an MTV and may well have been my first exposure to the Split Enz and Madness. Guess who’s idea and production company were behind that little endeavor? Yep. A certain Mr. Nesmith.
And a couple years later, when I went down the punk and William Burroughs and Sid and Nancy rabbit hole, I inevitably worked my way back to Repo Man. Produced by, you guessed it, Mike Nesmith. And eventually I discovered the subversive comic genius that was Tapeheads with John Cusack and Tim Robbins and a soundtrack by Fishbone. Produced by the man himself, natch.
Any doubts I’d retained about Michael Nesmith being in any way boring or conventional were dead and buried by the time I hit 17 or so, coincidentally the age at which I finally grasped his phenomenal talent as a songwriter and musician. I remember being incredulous at the revelation that Nesmith had written Linda Ronstadt’s breakthrough Stone Poneys hit “Different Drum” and a friend introducing me to the silliness that is “Rio” and trying to wrap my head around it all coming from the same guy.
The film (and television, and music, and publishing) production made more sense, once the context was clear. Nesmith was raised by a hard-working, loving, single mother in 1940s Texas and grew up pretty humbly until the family’s fortunes changed when Nesmith was in his teens. His clever, clerical worked mom Bette invented what would become Liquid Paper and the family went from struggling to comfortable almost overnight. That meant Michael Nesmith could safely pursue a career in the Arts and know that he probably wouldn’t starve.
Years later, when his mother died and left him with millions in Liquid Paper related riches, it meant that he could offer that same assurance to other people and projects who would never get a greenlight from traditional media finance wonks. Meanwhile, the man continued to write, do film projects, pen a novel and work on whatever weird ass music projects struck his fancy for the remainder of his life, eventually even making peace with the Monkees’ legacy that once embarrassed him so.
So may the gods of those who make things bless the memory of Mike Nesmith, placing him in the exalted hall of weirdo creative benefactor saints along with folks like Andy Warhol and CBGB’s Hilly Kristal and David Bard of the Chelsea Hotel (who would famously trade free rent for paintings by penniless but talented residents.)
And may we all give what we can to keep each other afloat, be it an investment in a project or a Bandcamp purchase, or a crowdfund contribution, or a heads up on welcoming venues and open gig slots and possible collaborators.
Closer to home, as the fabled Desert Rock generation of Tucson musicians hits rock and roll old age (aka their 50s and beyond) we sadly lose a few of their company every year and this year’s no exception.
A guy of Loving Grace
Machines of Loving Grace co-founder Stuart Kupers was kind of a hometown boy here in the early 1990s when the band breached Alternative Radio charts and scored a track on the movie soundtrack for The Crow. Kupers, who suffered from both Parkinson’s and Gaucher’s diseases, died in early November, and many local folks were more than a little devastated by the news. Well-known in Tucson music circles not only as guitarist and composer for that breakthrough industrial rock/pop band, but as a music educator and a collaborator on a number of local projects, Kupers was also a gifted commercial musician and composer, and the author of some memorable local television and radio jingles, including what's probably the most earworm-ish version of the Precision Toyota of Tucson ad.
Kupers also once left a solo performance of an original composition called “Scooter Girl” on a local musician friend’s answering machine. For years afterward, my friend referred to him as “Scooter Girl” with a frequency which might have led to a solid beat down from other '90s era Tucson rock dudes. Not Stu, though. He grinned, chuckled and accepted his pal’s ribbing with grace and good humor. Because that’s the kind of guy he was, and that’s kind of what I want to be like when I “grow up.”
Heavens for Betsy
And then, there was Betsy.
An Arizona native, Betsy Scarinzi was a whip-smart, crazy-talented and incredibly prolific musician. A multi-instrumentalist and an incomparable songwriter, Tucson friends know her best as partner with local legend Gene Ruley in local alt-country rock band Silverbell, though she also went on to found and front equally stellar Santa Fe band HollyHocks.
In recent years Scarinzi battled an aggressive type of brain cancer and kept fighting and playing music throughout the ordeal, with much support from her friends and fans in both her old stomping grounds in Tucson and new home in Santa Fe. Alas, by late November of this year the fight was over and the cancer had won.
Betsy Scarinzi died close to Thanksgiving, joining her bandmate Gene Ruley in leaving us far too soon. If there’s a rock and roll heaven, though, I’d pay good money for a ticket to that reunion.
I Wanna Be Your Papa Nez
So I know it’s been a while, folks. And I have a lot of new releases to rifle through, a lot of juicy local rock and roll gossip to share, shows to go to and brand new projects to tell you about. And I plan to get back into the groove of that soon. But for now, let me be your virtual Michael Nesmith. Not by stoically wearing a wool hat and playing guitar. Though I have started practicing on an acoustic and I swear I'm gonna get better. Nah. What I mean is that I believe in you and I want to you to write things and play music and make things. And any resources at my disposal are earmarked for the purpose of helping keep you all doing exactly that.
To be fair, I don’t have access to a corrective typing fluid fortune or a production company, or really any monetary resources to speak of. But I know some radio folks (I’m one of them) and some news media folks (I’m also one of those) and I’m about six degree or less of separation from every local band or venue worth their PA in this dusty little burg. And I believe in you.
So with that admonition, go make some weird music or a movie that doesn't seem to make any sense to anyone or, hell, go invent music television again, because nobody's really doing that any more. Then let me know and I’ll tell folks all about it.
Happy New Year from your friendly neighborhood music scrible.
Ring in the new year locally...
Friday, December 31
Sunday, January 1, 2022