The Witchdoctor at Thirty

I have felt like a stranger in a strange land for most of my life.  It was more than fantasy.  I think every kid, or adult for that matter, dreams of living at another time or in another place: Sherwood, Camelot, the American West, a galaxy far, far, away.  But for me, it was more than that.  It started early and only became more pronounced the older I got.  I first became aware of it while examining the subject of music.

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Everything that I liked was older than me, something that was effecting teens two and three years my senior.  I didn’t like anything that was trendy or popular among my peers, in fact, most of them had no idea how to even pronounce most of what I liked.  Long story short, over a lifetime of that, growing into someone who pursued live and local music over national touring acts, and developing relationships (might I even say friendships – sorry Cameron Crowe) with some of my idols – I have often felt that if I had just been a few years older – I wouldn’t have missed anything.

Nowhere has this been more keenly obvious that on really re-immersing myself into The Sidewinders / Sand Rubies body of work.  Not only does this band have direct connections to many of the artists whom I have mentioned on the Arizona music family tree articles (The Rise of the Arizona New School – Parts One and Two).  But somehow, it feels more poignant than that, more personal.  Why? Perhaps because The Sidewinders / Sand Rubies are from my home town of Tucson, Arizona.  Perhaps because they were playing The Sail Inn while I was attending the U of A, and playing late night role playing games, and not paying attention to live music at all.  I was underage.  The college rock scene was not even on my Goth Geek radar back then.

Fast forward to 1994 – 1999, and everything I love and am enjoying musically in Tempe is somehow connected to this band that I somehow completely missed from my hometown.  I felt like I had once again…. just been a man out of time, and missed something profoundly important to everything that I was currently devouring.  The Sidewinders had gone on hiatus after some rejects from North Carolina sued them to change their name, the Gin Blossoms had exploded beyond Tempe, the Chimeras had become Pistoleros, and The Refreshments were launching.

Fast forward again, this time it is August 23, 2019 and Pistoleros are playing with The Sidewinders to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their record Witchdoctor.  I have been invited as Ryan King’s assistant to have a special view of the show, and access to the musicians.  It was like being able to have my dream fantasy of being a roadie fulfilled, in some beautiful, small way!  I had a blast, and am looking forward to working with the tech genius again soon.  Seriously… Ryan Squared???? How do you beat that!!!

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But as I was listening to the Sold Out performances, I was swept away in waves of nostalgia.  Wishing, just like I had a million times when I was a kid, that I had been born at some other time, or in some other place. This feeling did nothing but intensify when David Rhodes (Big Finish) came in, and called The Sand Rubies the soundtrack of his teens.  That and something about skateboarding down Mill Avenue and bumping into Curtis Grippe.

David and I graduated from high school the same year.  And that feeling of just being Out of Time came surging back.  Here I was watching one of the coolest shows in recent memory, as a guest of an Arizona Hall of Fame band, and writing music reviews for the local music that has been the core of my adult life.  But back then?  Back then I was gyrating like a spider every night of the weekend at Tucson’s all-ages dance-club The Fineline, and 100 miles north David Rhodes was bumping into Curtis Grippe in front of Long Wong’s, and right up the street at The Sail Inn, The Sidewinders were writing the history that in a few decades I would be researching and digging through with a near Biblical attention to detail.

Of the trio of bands really making a name for themselves and trail blazing that rock/ punk/ country fusion that would become known as southwestern rock, Live Nudes, Dead Hot Workshop and The Sidewinders (this is right before Gin Blossoms, and long before Jimmie Eat World), the one I knew the least about was from my hometown.  And their genre defining album Witchdoctor is 30 years old.  It is a bit late for a review.  Towards the end of the set, because David Slutes’ only set list was the actual vinyl Witchdoctor album.  He kicks off casting us into the pit of memories with the title track, laments about not letting more time to slip away on Cigarette, and when they got to Side B – he flipped his setlist.  But two songs of that live side B are about Time:  Before Our Time,  I think we are growing old before our time;  and World’s Apart, dreaming about the future and the children we’d have.

I got thinking about teaching poetry.  I have told you all before, I was a high school and community college English teacher for a bit.  But one of the things I have always said is that the best song lyrics were modern day poetry, and ought one day be anthologized as such.  As literature.  I mean Bob Dylan!  Tupac!  Brent Babb!  But as I thought about poetry, about its resonance over time, its impact that through years is proven universal and timeless, I realized that perhaps…. it was not too late to write a review of Witchdoctor.

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I just needed a Delorean.

A 30 Year Perspective of Witchdoctor:

The groundbreaking album from Tucson rockers, The Sidewinders.

The late 1980s.  Glam.  Duran DuranDepeche ModeThe CureWhitney HoustonMadonnaMotley CrueGuns n Roses. Van Halen.  But something else was happening back then under the new genre of College Radio, and college radio stations across the country were embracing something different.  Something jangly.  Something more raw, less produced, more vivid.  And the kings of college radio: REM.  To take it a step further, one could argue REM took the roots of Punk and infused it with the Southern Rock / Southern Gothic Georgia roots – and bands like The Sidewinders/ Gin Blossoms/ Dead Hot Workshop and Roger Clyne did the same: infusing that punk rock spirit they loved with the country and wild Arizona western rhythms of their homes in Arizona.  As the 90s peaked, bands from the pacific northwest had taken over the mainstream with Nirvana and the labeling of “Alternative” music.  And somehow, with the exception of Gin Blossoms New Miserable Experience, that iconic Tempe Sound stayed in college.

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I found myself listening to the album like a time machine.  Thinking of how the songs had aged, and hadn’t, and how they were effecting me, right now, as if they were new and in real time.  And how even if true, that is okay.  That is the beautiful thing about art.  It doesn’t matter how old it is, when you first find it, it is new again to you.

Allow me an illustration to try to explain.  Many bands right now are touring on anniversary tours.  Gin Blossoms just completed a sweeping tour on New Miserable Experience, bands like OMD, Berlin and The B-52s were just in town, and UB40 and Crash Test Dummies were just here this week.  The nostalgia of it makes complete sense.  25 and 30 years ago all of these bands had huge followings of young people.  Those young people are now stepping back out, leaving empty nests, and discovering life after 40.  But as one of these forty-somethings, not only seeing my long time favorite acts, but also seeing countless performances of new and emerging artists – it becomes more than that.  It becomes generational, about defining the voice of an age, and daring to look at it with a historical perspective.

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I am reminded of my favorite part of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire.  Louis is frustrated, angry, he is at odds with everything in his world and struggling to find a sense of place.  Armand on the other hand is trying to re-emerge into a world that has long moved on without him and which he does not understand.

And, again, indulge me, are we this metaphor?  Holding on to some sort of memory of a better time, or a more fun time, and reveling in a night to be able to relive it.  It is harmless.  But every single one of us knows the difference in watching an old show on Netflix that has not aged well at all.  It almost has no place beyond to wait to be rediscovered for an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Then, there are others, that almost play better now.  Like nothing of their message has lost a sense of relevance.  Some of these acts from our youth…. never transcend that nostalgia.  That is their value.  Others – open a sense to something deeper, like the time since its release has done nothing but enrich it.  Like wine.

I am reminded of sitting on the living room floor as a kid.  My parents had several bookshelves of old vinyl records, and I used to go through them, open them up, devour their pictures and liner notes.  Most of the albums were old country & western albums.  Meryl Haggard.  Johnny Cash.  Marty Robbins.  Crystal Gail.  George Strait.  George Jones.  Hank Williams.  Waylon Jennings.  There were also a few early Beatles, maybe a Who album or two, I remember looking at Doobie Brothers and not knowing what a doobie was.  Anyway, the reason I bring these up?  I hated it.  I hated all of it.  Country made me want to straight up puke and run screaming for years.  Then life happened.  Pain happened.  Blue collar, hard knocks, California breakdowns, financial crisis’, divorce, child support, heart break – life happened.  I love Meryl, Johnny, Hank and Waylon now.  It is like life’s bruises allow you into a club.  But these artists almost seem like they are defining the poetry of human experience, not of an age.  These songs feel like they could apply to anyone, regardless of environment.

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When I was a high school teacher, teaching The Great Gatsby, I would spend a lot of time talking about The Lost Generation.  The writers that defined that era.  That moment in time. Whether we are looking at the poetry of T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound or the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald, those artists did not so much define a personal experience out of time, as much as they define the entire era itself.  IE…. The Spirit of an Age, to bring it all the way back to my Interview example.

This was the place I was visiting, and stayed in, for days while listening to Witchdoctor, and then also familiarizing myself with the rest of The Sand Rubies discography.  As I listened to these songs, I found myself not slipping down the lane to The Love Shack or Taking my Breath Away and dreaming of the Danger Zone.  I found myself connecting to the desert.  I found myself connecting to my city.  I found myself connecting to the same voice that has been speaking to my soul for the entirety of my adult life.  I found another artist speaking of my beloved Sonoran Hope and Madness.  I found another view from The White House.  I found myself Hanging on to Nothing and realizing that this New Miserable Experience was not a bunch of angsty 90s kids with crunchy guitars, flannel shirts and ripped up jeans in the desert.  Or angsty 90s kids with crunchy guitars, flannel shirts and ripped up jeans in the pacific northwest.  Perhaps…. even in our forty-somethings, and beyond, this Karma Covered Apple is exactly….

The Spirit of Our Age.

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And it was beautiful to me, in an old English teacher, poetry lover kind of way, to experience The Sidewinders/ Sand Rubies almost like the prequel to a movie that I have very much loved all of my life.  And it was awesome to hear those songs, and not feel nostalgia…. but connection, understanding, and belonging.  Not as a party you have fun at, get your Just Can’t Get Enough on and go home from, but as a lost and beloved member of a family that somehow just made the photograph perfect and full of a million Mixed Realities.  And I am pulled full circle back to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, “Their art never lasts.”  Sure, he is talking about coolness, uncoolness, beauty, and the beautiful people – but the idea resonates.  What makes art last?  Is it that it defines a moment of time in the human experience?  Is it that it transcends time?  Is it that it defines something collectively about ourselves that perhaps we can’t even individually describe.

Yes.  And The Sidewinders / Sand Rubies are all of the above.

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Keep the Greasy Side Down, Amigos

 

2 Replies to “The Witchdoctor at Thirty”

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