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The Beatdown

I had a ritual as a kid. Every Thursday, I'd pick up a Westword and sit in the corner booth at Rosa Linda's Mexican Cafe, flip to Backbeat and pore over Gil Asakawa's prose, line by line. I couldn't wait for the day when I'd be old enough to actually go and see the bands I read about. I also hoped that someday I'd write sharply enough to have my own work appear in Westword. Never mind that I'd yet to write a single paragraph for any publication.

Fast forward to the early '90s. I'm foggy on the year, but it was around Christmas, somewhere between the release of Glue and Purplemetalflakemusic. I was a struggling, unpaid freelancer for a local rag whose name still makes my mother cringe, on assignment at Rock Island, witnessing the Fluid deliver a once-in-a-lifetime performance. John Robinson and company owned the stage that night, manhandling the hometown crowd with flawless material honed from hundreds of sets slugged out in the underground. The images from those 45 or so minutes were burned into my recollection long after the fragrance from that cold winter night -- the smell of sweat and stale cigarette smoke -- dissipated from my clothes.

I've since jotted notes at innumerable shows that I consider legendary. A few weeks after the Fluid gig, at the same venue, I stood mesmerized as I watched King Scratchie and the rest of the Warlock Pinchers -- from whom I still vehemently contend Cobain stole the satanic-cheerleader shtick for the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video -- work the crowd and themselves into a frenzy, alloying the irreverent wit of the Beasties and the ferocity of Slayer. Then there was the time I witnessed a jaw-dropping set by Pil-Bug with a handful of strangers in the basement of Muddy's. The performance in that damp, darkened room was so intimate and visceral, it felt like we were watching the band rehearse from behind a two-way mirror. Frontman Augy Zhivago was close enough for me to trace his fingerprints as his hand clutched the mike.

It's moments like these that compelled me to keep writing, even without being paid for so many years, documenting the music and the experience. Those same moments saw me through day jobs that were killing me slowly. For years, I'd come home at night and write until I literally couldn't see. Sometimes I didn't sleep for days. That's when I produced my best work. And it all led up to this.

Some days you're the hydrant. Some days you're the dog. Today, brothers and sisters, you can call me Cujo.

I've been pinching myself for the better part of a month, but now it's time to buckle up for a white-knuckle-nerve-shattering hell ride. I'm the foul-mouthed, opinionated, chain-smoking audiophile who'll be putting with a hockey stick from now on. I was genetically engineered to do this job. It's all I've ever wanted to do.

From the first day I started reading the publication you're holding in your mitts, it became my trusted friend and companion, as well as my adversary. Let's just say we've had a love-hate relationship over the years. Early on, Asakawa's writing gave me a profound appreciation for all styles of music. (Of course, all of the records I inherited/stole from my five siblings over the years didn't hurt in diversifying my tastes.) I remember vividly the disdain I felt for Michael Roberts when he succeeded Gil. Roberts praised the albums I hated. I loved some of the albums he hated. Nevertheless, over the course of time, Thursday after Thursday, Roberts's succinct writing style and his evenhanded coverage of the local scene earned my respect. When Laura Bond, my esteemed predecessor, took the reins in 1999, I was guarded and skeptical. Who was this newbie, and what qualified her to opine on a scene that I had watched so many locals build with blood, sweat and tears? Inevitably, she, too, gained my respect -- and if you read her farewell column in the last issue, it's evident she became part of the very scene she critiqued every week.

So who the hell am I? I'm just a local kid made good. I kicked down doors when no one would answer. I learned how to write by writing -- endless rants on everything from why I thought Radiohead's Kid A sucked when it first came out (too derivative of Aphex Twin), to why Van Morrison's Astral Weeks is one of the best albums of all time, to why, pound for pound, Tupac delivered his most relevant material before he was down with Death Row. It also probably doesn't hurt that I'm a native. I was born and raised in this small town. I can breathe in this small town -- in fact, my lungs freak out when I leave here. I was taught to fear Jesus in this small town, and I'll probably die in this small town. I love this place. There's nowhere else on the planet I'd rather be, and there's absolutely nothing else I'd rather be doing.

Somebody once asked me if I had to choose between losing my vision or hearing, which I would pick. I didn't have to give it a second thought. I'd die -- literally shrivel up and have no reason to exist -- if I couldn't hear the music anymore. It makes me feel alive. It comforts me when I'm sad. And conversely, somewhat inexplicably, it makes me feel sad even when I'm happy. Great albums will do that to you. I still can't make it through Joni Mitchell's Blue or Sam Phillips's Indescribable Wow in their entirety, for that very reason. Ultimately, the bottom line to me is this: Music lives and breathes.

Rock and roll, however, is dead. If you doubt it, just ask Lenny Kravitz.

No wonder the majority of modern music journalism has given itself over to forensic science: no emotion, just the facts, the written word relegated to sterile, formulaic, homogenized anecdotes. Gone are the days of vitriolic diatribes penned by obsessive audiophiles, fueled by caffeine, nicotine and sub-legal unmentionables. Yes, sir, its story is now being chronicled by shameless name-droppers with ballcaps covering their receding hairlines, sporting Dockers khakis, with Windsor nooses fastened securely around their necks. You know, the "Browns" of the world.

Ergo, the quandary: How do you write something that resonates with the mesh-trucker-hat-wearing disciples of the new school without alienating the dyed-in-the-wool purists and casual listeners? Experience has taught me that it's all about passion. I fully intend to fill the pages of Backbeat with entries that will inspire and entertain you, and even, dare I say, piss you off at times -- whether you've heard of the artist we're covering or not. My goal is to give you a reason to get off your collective heinies on a Friday or Saturday night and shut off the idiot box in favor of discovering the sounds and vibrations being churned out in our fine city. We're blessed to be in a place centrally located in the United States, so that almost every major act comes through here -- and you can actually get a ticket to see them. Not to mention the fact that we have some of the finest venues and arguably some of the best musicians in the country.

I know, I know, I've heard all the requisite complaints. Denver is a sports town. Denver doesn't have a music scene. Folks won't go out to see live music. Right on all counts. That's the perception, and perception is reality for most people -- but perception can be changed. I've been among the people for more years than I spent in school, and there are definitely some pervasive attitudes and aspects of the scene I'd like to see changed, or at least reassessed.

First, that "Denver doesn't have a scene" statement irritates the hell out of me every time I hear it uttered. If by "a scene" you mean that Denver doesn't have a definitive sound like more ballyhooed cities such as Boston, Seattle, Minneapolis, Chapel Hill, New York City, you're right. So what? That's what sets us apart. We have a plethora of free-thinking musicians hell-bent on carving out their own niche rather than shamelessly aping the next trend. Need examples? Slim Cessna's Auto Club, 16 Horsepower, DeVotchKa, Gladhand, nGoma, the aforementioned Warlock Pinchers, the Czars, Jux County, Worm Trouble, Whores Pigs and Ponies -- the list goes on and on. So celebrate the diversity and support the scene. Really support it; don't just give it lip service. If you're in a metal band or a fan of metal, go to a folk show. If you're a folkie, go see a punk show. Whether you like the music or not is inconsequential. Pay your five bucks and talk all the shit you want at the bar -- but GO!

To put it simply, I don't believe in the term "local music." When it comes down to it, every out-of-town band listed in these pages is "local" somewhere. You can expect me and my army of resident wordsmiths to be unflinchingly honest with our criticism and to hold every local artist to the same standards and scrutiny as the major-leaguers. Be forewarned: Just because an artist is from here doesn't mean he'll be coddled or handled with kid gloves. Not every disc that comes across my desk will get ink in these hallowed pages; the woefully mediocre will be ignored. Consider this: The worst insult to an artist is indifference. I have neither the time nor the energy to cover the ordinary.

For a great slice of the scene, come to the Westword Music Showcase this Saturday. For a measly five bucks, you can see thirty of the area's finest. Five bucks is chump change; I've seen folks drop more on coffee. Trust me, it's worth every penny.

In the meantime, I'll be doing what I've always done -- listening for the artists that can be heard above a thousand voices screaming simultaneously. I may burn some bridges. I'll be telling it like it is and may hurt some feelings in the process. That's okay. I've been running out of matches since the day I was born. You never know, though; I might just turn you on to your next favorite band.

Till next time, I'm living the dream.


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