On Saturday afternoons in a dark bar on Colfax, a group of boys in baseball caps convenes to drink cheap beer, smoke cigarettes they've given up on giving up, and argue their particular philosophies of Music Thus Far. Hunched over Budweisers, they weigh the relative merits of Bowie, Bruce, Bob, Patti, Iggy, Lou and Nico, Al and Curtis, Willie, Waylon, Johnny, Graham and Gram (Parker and Parsons), the Buckleys (Jeff and Tim) and members of the mono-monikered British monarchy: the Stones, the Beatles, the Who, the Clash, the Jam, the Smiths. The Usual.
The place is a low-light vacuum with a wistful soundtrack, like the world's best rock-and-roll radio station circa 1975; roughly eighty of the hundred discs in the jukebox were released before the dawn of Thriller. None of the regulars seems inclined to acknowledge the world of contemporary pop music -- there's no Radiohead or Coldplay on the box, thank you -- and no one's pushing anyone on the special new bands of the day.
The collective opinion is that they don't exist.
This isn't true, of course, and deep down, the members of this loose Saturday club know that. Most of them are in bands of their own. So are most of the establishment's employees. Songwriters sidle up to the well-worn bar, scratching lyrics to future songs on notebook pages spotted by whiskey drops and wayward ashes. The barback, the bartenders, the sound man, the door guy -- they're all players. They write songs, form bands, play shows -- not because they believe that a career in music is one live show or homemade CD or radio single or newspaper article away, but because that's what you do when you love music, even if you know that it'll never lead to anything. Even if you are of the opinion that the best songs have already been written. What else would you do? And why else would you do it?
Over the past four years, I've written more than 200 installments of Backwash and seen more local shows than I can begin to remember. I've watched bandmembers get hustled by venue owners and hassled by booking agents, ignored by crowds and overwhelmed by bad feeds, drowned out by TVs, cell phones and stageside conversations blurred into nonsense by alcohol. I've seen veteran bands give career-high performances to empty rooms. Once, it was just me, a soundman and a janitor on the floor of a venue off the interstate in Thornton. Over the years, I've deduced that some rules apply to musicians as a group, almost a genus of their own: Don't call before noon expecting coherent quotes; don't offer constructive criticism immediately after a show, even when asked. Wait until the next day, when the adrenaline of stage lights and amplifiers has worn off and returned life to a mortal speed.
I've also learned that many Denver musicians are driven by a desire to play that defies common sense.
By my totally unscientific estimate, there are approximately 2,000 working -- or aspiring-to-be-working -- musicians in this city. If you so chose -- and had access to a teleportation device and a valid ID -- you could see a hundred acts on any given night. Tuesday, Sunday, Christmas Eve. Easy. Clubs never want for acts to take their stages, no matter how many of the damn things open up. Change in the music scene is constant, if imperceptible. Denver bands are like cells that die and are replenished, leaving the body intact as new groups step in to fill voids. You can see it happening now: Black Black Ocean, the Swayback, Angels Never Answer, Switchpin, the Dojo, Blusom, Voices Underwater and others are stepping into vacancies left by acts that expired, moved away or otherwise slipped into oblivion. (If there is a rock-and-roll heaven, we can assume that the Warlock Pinchers, the Psychedelic Zombies, the Aviators and Foreskin 500 are playing to adoring crowds at Ebbets Field and the Rainbow Music Hall, ghost venues that still beckon to longtime Denverites like phantom limbs.)
In my debut column, I announced somewhat snottily that I was awaiting the moment when Denver's music would first impress me. I experienced that moment long ago. Local music is now part of almost everything I do. Were I president of a media company with a limitless budget, there'd be a private jet, a just and generous recording contract and an eternally stocked catering tray for the Czars, Mary Flower, John Davis, Victoria Woodworth, Ian Uphollow, Conrad Kehn of Kallisti, Spiv, Yellow Second, George and Caplin, DeVotchKa, Andy Monley, Thank God for Astronauts, Jet Black Joy, Hamster Theatre, the Erica Brown Band, the Fred Hess Quartet, the Motet, Bop Skizzum, Andy Ard and the Meantime, Christy Wessler, Tinker's Punishment, Rainville, the Procussions, Mile High House, Armando Zuppa, Heavyweight Dub Champion, Wendy Woo, Halden Wofford & the Hi Beams and a hundred other astoundingly committed people and groups that toil in Denver music. (Incidentally, the Backwash Records catalogue would be produced by Bob Ferbrache, Bill Thomas and Mike Jourgensen and the crews at the Blasting Room and Eight Houses Down; the accompanying documentary film would be directed by Frank Rich of Nixing the Twist/Modern Drunkard, scripted by John Reidy of The Hooligan, narrated by Twist & Shout's Paul Epstein and Clear Channel's Chuck Morris, and would star Cindy Wonderful, Joe Bonner, Denver Joe, Maris the Great, Dave Delacroix, and Ronnie Crawford of the Skylark Lounge.)
There's a lot of thrilling talent in this town. But there's also a lot of mediocrity, and a lot of myths. Despite the contentions of a whiny minority, the truth is that with nearly 200 places to play, any halfway decent band can get a gig. And if no one shows up to that gig, it's probably the fault of the artist -- not the club owner, not the vast media machine, not the fates, not even Clear Channel. Some very worthy music is overlooked, and that's a shame, but there's also a lot of music celebrated that's contrived, uninspired and lazy. Hardworking bands figure out ways to make things happen: For example, Colorado Springs's Accidental Superhero now sells thousands of its own records after building a huge fan base through the Internet. Some artists who were local just a few years ago have recently scored national coups: Dianne Reeves won a Grammy; Otis Taylor won the W.C. Handy Award, the blues world's equivalent of a Grammy; Dressy Bessy signed to Kindercore; Cephalic Carnage signed to Relapse; Open Road signed to Rounder; the String Cheese Incident built an empire; 16 Horsepower/Wovenhand leader David Eugene Edwards got even bigger in Europe. But some bands that looked like they'd get better never did; some that swore they were on the brink of a breakout in 1999 are still swearing. Other bands that were hugely popular when I started writing Backwash are still hugely popular -- and I still can't stand to listen to them for more than five minutes. John Denver and Big Head Todd remain our most familiar musical exports -- and John Denver didn't even start out in Colorado. Or with that name.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
One of my best friends is getting ready for her second show with a band she formed this spring. I never see her anymore; it's worse than if she'd found a new boyfriend. She practices constantly, has already recorded and mixed a demo, and spends her evenings printing out tickets, designing fliers, working out chord progressions and sending out gig announcements. She knows the odds, but she's determined to make a successful go of life as a musician. I know the odds, too, but I can't help rooting for her. So I'll go to all of her shows, stand up tall in the crowd, nod to the rhythms and clap loudly when each song ends. I've got a sticker for her band on my refrigerator, next to a postcard painting of George Jones, a photo of Bob Dylan and a banner that reads "My Daughter and All My Money Go to the Larimer Lounge." I've come to the conclusion that these small gestures represent the best things anyone can do to support local music and the people who make it, personal friends or no.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I discovered that some of the employees in that bar on Colfax live together. They met each other in bands. In clubs. Bonded over hundreds of beers and thousands of conversations and a million vital questions: Could the MC5 (in its prime) take Kool and the Gang (in their prime) in a fistfight? Could Joan Jett beat up Chrissie Hynde? Music is the gravitational force that pulls them all together, the stuff of almost every exchange. It's more than what they listen to. And it's more than what they make when they sit down with a guitar, an amp and a notebook full of lyrics.
I've got my own opinions on who could take whom in the local ring, but I'll keep them to myself. Next week, Westword's new Backbeat editor, Dave Herrera, will be the one to weigh in on such subjects. I'll be writing for another section of the paper, because I know that there is more to life than music. There has to be, right? But at the time of this writing, with a cat on my lap and Dylan on my stereo, I can't imagine what, exactly, it might be.