Hey, Denver Joe

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."

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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."

The environment in which Joe was raised didn't make his situation any easier. His mother, Shirley Vasquez, was a single parent who was left to raise Joe and his three brothers by herself. The location of their home, at 28th and Champa in Five Points, made her task that much tougher. Joe got his first guitar at age nine and carried it with him wherever he went. ("I always knew I was going to be a guitar player," he allows. "It wasn't up to me.") But a few short years later, he was also packing a pistol. According to Joe, "Everybody had guns. In my neighborhood, anyway."

Frank Luna, Joe's older brother, also knew these rules--and he died by them. Joe was just eleven when Frank was killed in a shootout with police in California shortly after he'd finished serving time on a burglary charge. "He was the coolest. He always believed in me," Joe recalls. "He would take me places when I was a kid and tell people that I was gonna be a guitar player someday. Ever since he was killed, I haven't had a decent night's sleep." Even today, he says that he can't rest peacefully "no matter how much whiskey I drink."

When Joe turned sixteen, he dropped out of West High School and hit the trail with his dog and a guitar. After a few years of traveling, writing songs and working various jobs, he returned to Denver, where he began playing guitar in a local rock band. (The band's first gig, in 1984, was at the Cricket.) But within the next year or so, Joe found himself increasingly drawn to the music his mother listened to when he was a child--early country and honky-tonk. Joe soon followed this muse, performing solo and with a band, Luke the Drifter & the Lonesome Saddle Tramps, named in tribute to Hank Williams.

Since then, Joe has spent the lion's share of his time at the Cricket, either playing live or working as the club's doorman/bouncer. "Oh, yeah," adds Joe. "I was married once--for twelve days...We were so happy. Her name was Mirth--maybe that was the problem." The match wasn't a total loss, though; the hat he wears on stage was Mirth's wedding gift to him. Joe got something he treasures far more out of another relationship--a son, Rio. "He's fourteen years old, and he's a bad-ass drummer," Joe says proudly. "My favorite drummer in this whole stinkin' town. I see him every day."

Of course, Garrison remains Joe's main man on the drums--and Uncle Dick and Aunt Lois are just as key to the band's success. In fact, the three, who play a brief set at the beginning of most Denver Joe shows, are as big an attraction for some people as is Joe himself. Uncle Dick met Joe three years ago, while visiting the Cricket as part of another band. A year or so after they began playing together, Joe remembers, "we were playing an anniversary party for Ordie's parents, and our bass player didn't show up. Well, Uncle Dick says, 'Let me call my wife--she ain't doing nothing.'" When Aunt Lois arrived, Joe was knocked out. "She's beautiful--she's decked out. And she knew every song I've ever heard."

Lois came by her encyclopedic knowledge of music the hard way. She and Uncle Dick, who met as seventh-graders while playing in the 4-H Club band in their hometown of Fort Morgan, Colorado, tied the knot four decades ago and have spent most of the years since then playing country music in either Nashville or Denver. Even so, Uncle Dick admits that their gig with Joe has been unlike any they've had. Why? "Well, he does drink a lot," Uncle Dick says.

That's putting it mildly. On stage, Joe is a walking advertisement for the temperance movement. Part of his mystique comes from his reputation for consuming unbelievable amounts of alcohol. Uncle Dick is among those who claim that some of Joe's onstage drunkenness is a shtick, since he's been cutting back on potent potables lately. Joe, however, refuses to confirm this rumor. "Maybe Uncle Dick just thinks nobody can drink that much whiskey and stay on their feet," he notes, grinning. "But I've got years of practice."

Joe also has plenty of experience using what Uncle Dick and Aunt Lois politely refer to as "free speech." His banter revolves around an almost religious use of the aforementioned F word, as well as biting digs at listeners. During a recent performance, for example, Joe suggested a waitress throw out a particularly boisterous male patron whose fighting abilities he had denigrated. When the young man protested this assessment, Joe came back with, "You couldn't lick your lips, college boy." Instantly, the crowd exploded in laughter--as did the target of Joe's barb. Behrendt sees such language as simply part of Joe's appeal: "If you're a newcomer, or if you take it out of context, it seems offensive. But when you're sitting at the Cricket and you take the show as a whole, it seems to fit in."

"We couldn't last five minutes in a 'country' bar," Joe confesses. "We drink, we smoke, I cuss. But so what? I'm not trying to be Merle Haggard." Uncle Dick concurs: "It works at the Cricket. It's a different kind of crowd and a different kind of place. But it's great to be a part of it. The people here seem like a family."

Folks other than Cricket regulars may get a chance to enjoy Joe and his band in the near future. While he'll continue to play at his home away from home a couple of Mondays a month and on selected additional dates (he next appears there on October 18), he's planning to perform a few gigs at other venues, including October 25 at the Lion's Lair, where he'll open for Jetredball. If these plans come off, he may even supplement his usual all-covers set with a few of his original compositions. Of the 200 or so numbers he's written, he estimates that he's got "about 60 or 70 good ones."

Of course, some people may not appreciate Denver Joe's honky-tonk stylings and in-your-face humor. For those who fall into this category, Joe offers a suggestion. "Try being Denver Joe for a while--see how far you get." After taking a sip from his glass of whiskey, he quotes some Buck Owens wisdom. "I'm not tryin' to be somebody...I just want a chance to be myself.

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