Hey, Denver Joe

How'd you get that drink in your hand--and that incredible way with a song?

It's a rainy Monday night in Denver, but a small crowd has braved the elements to hear a local legend. Denver Joe Vasquez, wearing a black broad-brimmed hat, black shirt, blue jeans and boots, steps to the microphone and delivers his trademark greeting to the faithful: "We want to remind you all to drink up and be somebody. This ain't no goddamned coffeehouse. This is the world-famous Cricket on the Hill." As the enthusiasts at the Cricket hoot and holler in approval, Joe acknowledges a lanky young man in a Denver Broncos jersey: "We've got John Elway in the audience, ladies and gentlemen--give him a hand." Then he introduces the first song of the night. "We're gonna do an old Willie Nelson song for you right off the bat," he growls. "And we don't give a fuck whether you like it or not." As a freight-train rhythm chugs from his worn-out acoustic guitar, Joe sings in a husky, booze-seasoned voice: "I'm just a country boy who's learnin' that the pitfalls of the city are extremely real." An instant later, Joe's stellar trio (guitarist/pedal-steel player "Uncle" Dick Meis, bassist "Aunt" Lois Meis and drummer Ordie Garrison) kicks into gear, filling this Capitol Hill bar with some of the purest, most stirring music imaginable.

Like the unholy spawn of Willie, Waylon and Lenny Bruce that he is, Joe gleefully violates every rule in the How to Succeed in the Music Business handbook before the next fifteen minutes are up. During that time, he smokes a cigarette; takes four sips of Jack Daniel's on the rocks; repeatedly references a popular synonym for intercourse; raises doubts about the sexual preferences of several males in attendance ("Didn't we see you ride into town sidesaddle?"); and plays only the first number all the way through. Joe does start a second number--Buck Owens's "They Call Me a Playboy." But at the heartbreaking moment when Uncle Dick's pedal steel begins keening, the singer tilts back on his heels, drifts off-mike and brings the ditty to a stumbling finish. "Hold on there, Uncle Dick," he says, in a state of apparent distraction. "I was gettin' a little misty."

Fortunately, the patrons at the Cricket don't mind such tangents. After all, most of them are Denver Joe fans. Kristen Behrendt, a student at the Colorado Institute of Art and a self-diagnosed music addict, calls him "the epitome of not following the rules." And Chuck Hughes, who leads the Hillbilly Hellcats, notes, "Beneath his ragged, off-the-cuff exterior lies the true spirit of American honky-tonk music--the complete opposite of Nash-Vegas. He's a honky-tonk genius."

"Honky-tonk" is Joe's preferred term for his music. Although his sets are built upon the compositions of Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash and other C&W icons, he hates being lumped in with current country practitioners. "I hate country music today," he announces. "It makes me sick." So what's his opinion of the cowboy-hatted hillbilly wannabes who populate the Nashville Network? "Pussies," Joe says in disgust.

Of course, Joe's staunch anti-Nashville stance wins him points at the Cricket. According to Thom Salturelli, the club's owner, "Our crowd wouldn't go home and listen to country music. But they'll come here and listen to Denver Joe."

Why? "Maybe it's because we don't sing through our noses so much," Uncle Dick supposes. But to devotees, there's considerably more to Denver Joe's appeal than that. Rob Biesk, a Denver architect, concedes, "There's something kind of decadent about going to see him at the Cricket." Adds another follower, Scott Monett, "You can tell he's lived every line he sings."

That turns out to be a fair statement, although only a handful of Joe's acquaintances knew it until now. Over the past few years, Joe has routinely turned down interview requests: "I used to dream of seeing my name in print," he concedes, "but now that's the least of my worries." And even after consenting to an on-the-record conversation, he makes one last attempt to dissuade his inquisitor. "Instead of conducting an interview," he says, "I thought I'd give you this." He hands the writer a napkin covered in lyrics distinguished by meticulous penmanship and perfect punctuation. "It's a song I wrote when I was eighteen."

At first glance, the words to this tune seem as maudlin and shlocky as anything on mainstream-country radio. But the composition's subtitle reveals Joe's saucy nature and provides a glimpse of his troubled past. The tune is called "Song for Daddy (Whoever the Fuck He Was)."

"My dad split three months before I was born," divulges Joe, who came into the world in 1955. "I've never seen him." As a teenager, Joe tried to mask the hurt he felt as a result of this desertion with beer, drugs and "fightin' at the drop of a hat"--the last phrase a line from the song. Referring to these defiant words today, he says, "Oh, yeah--I never looked back. I never thought about it twice." Then, in acknowledgment of his denial, he adds, "Winky-winky." When asked if he has any reservations about revealing painful details from the past, he responds, "What the hell. It's the dirty, stinkin' truth."

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