Jailhouse Rocker

A popular Denver musician goes from playing in bars to being behind them.

Most musicians aren't morning people--but if police are right, Brian Nalty is the exception to this rule.

On July 9, the onetime guitarist for the Jinns, a Denver-based roots-rock band that seemed on the cusp of national stardom during the late Eighties and early Nineties, was identified as the so-called Early Morning Bandit and arrested. He's been charged with several counts of aggravated robbery in connection with a crime spree that saw 32 holdups of local stores during a span of less than a month.

According to Detective Robert Partenheimer of the Denver Police Department, Nalty's most recent walks on the wild side, which began June 12, weren't confined to Denver. Officials in Jefferson County, Lakewood and Golden also want a piece of him, and other suburbs in the metro area are expected to try to link him to ripoffs in their jurisdictions, too.

The Bandit initially specialized in robbing convenience shops, liquor stores and fast-food eateries between midnight and 4 a.m.--hence his nickname--but he branched out to other times of day toward the end of his run.

"No weapon was ever seen," Detective Partenheimer says. "He would just demand money and say he had a weapon." At least one security camera caught the suspect in action. An acquaintance of Nalty's who wishes to remain anonymous says, "One of our friends saw the video on the news and said, 'Shit, it's Brian.' Even though he was wearing a baseball hat, you could see his whole face. But he didn't squeal on him."

What finally led to Nalty's arrest, Partenheimer says, was the vehicle he reportedly had been using: a late-model Nissan pickup. A witness of one robbery provided police with a description of the truck and a partial license-plate number. Patrol officers subsequently spotted the Nissan on the street and traced it to an inmate then cooling his heels in an Adams County jail. Partenheimer says that the prisoner fingered Nalty, whose photograph was later recognized by a robbery victim. Nalty is currently in the Denver County Jail, being held on bail set at $125,000. He declined Westword's request for an interview.

This latest incident represents the end of a long fall for Nalty, who has been a famous (and infamous) figure on the local music scene since 1981. It was then that he and brother Pete Nalty, a talented singer, songwriter and keyboardist, formed Bop Street, a combo that stood out from the new-wave-influenced groups that were popular then by championing a style that harked back to the rock and roll and rockabilly of the Fifties. The sound was nostalgic for some, but Pete's sweet vocals and Brian's persuasive riffing also made it as musically immediate as anything offered up by their contemporaries. Crowds flocked to club dates starring the performers, and promoters hired them to open for national acts such as Billy Idol, who personally chose Bop Street to appear with him during an appearance at Red Rocks.

Over more than five years, the band built its reputation by touring throughout Colorado and the Southwest. But when original drummer John De Alva left to join the Navy, the Naltys figured it was time for a change. Renaming themselves the Jinns (after spirits from a Muslim legend that exercised supernatural control over humans), Brian, Pete and the rest of their band continued to draw on Fifties influences, but they updated their instrumentation to give their songs a more modern edge. Not too modern, though: Primary tunesmith Pete stuck to melodies that called to mind heroes like Johnny Cash, Gene Vincent and Charlie Feathers, and his three favorite lyric subjects remained girls, girls and girls. In a 1989 Westword profile, Pete defended his vision: "Who'd want to listen to a song about George Bush in ten years? We write about women, 'cause women were here in the Fifties, and they're still here."

This approach was an immediate success, and by the late Eighties, the Jinns, along with the Samples and Big Head Todd and the Monsters (two acts presently signed to major-record-label recording contracts), were seen as the groups most likely to put Denver back on the music-scene map. Moreover, Pete's songs--which he referred to in Westword as "timeless rather than timely"--displayed the kind of artistic growth that prompted critics throughout the region to rave.

Harbingers of troubles to come cropped up during this period: Brian began fighting more frequently with Pete and his bandmates, and he was arrested for driving under the influence in February 1988. But these problems were overlooked amid more positive developments. In January 1990, the group, fresh off the release of The Jinns, a first-rate CD produced by guitarist-to-the-stars Kenny Vaughan, was signed to represent the Miller Beer Band Network. A few months later, following an impressive performance at Austin's prestigious South by Southwest music conference, the combo inked an agreement with Warner Chappell, among the country's top publishing companies. After a year, the firm was still enthusiastic about the Jinns' prospects and invited them to play an invitation-only gig in Nashville in front of representatives of numerous major labels, including MCA and Capitol, prior to renewing their agreement the next day.

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