Music News


Tonight, in untold thousands of bedrooms and garages across the country, musicians will gather to write and record songs. Many of these tunes will bite, of course, and many more will so closely resemble current or past hits that they'll have little reason for being.

And, lest we forget, a handful of these compositions will be good--the kinds of things that someone other than members of the musicians' immediate families will appreciate. A tiny percentage of this material will wind up on LPs, CDs or cassettes available for purchase at a record store near you, while a smaller portion still will become popular enough to bump its makers up an economic class or two. As for the rest--some of it genuinely swell--it will remain in the aforementioned bedrooms and garages, dripping with potential but heard primarily by the very people who sweated over its creation.

Which brings us to Denver's own Incredible Five Cent Sugar Rockets.
The Rockets have a name, as well as two members--multi-instrumentalists Mike Vullo and Patrick Goodwin. But whether the pair actually constitutes a group is open to interpretation. Rob Schneider, leader of the Apples and a guiding force behind the Elephant 6 label, certainly thinks so: "They've got the greatest songs in the world," he says. "I think they're really, really cool."

To which the self-deprecating, black-humored Vullo replies, "I may have great songs, and I may be the greatest songwriter in the world, but if I can't get a band together, who cares?"

The answer is: anyone with access to a Rockets demo. Vullo and Goodwin have written well over fifty songs together since meeting last year, and you'd go broke betting that even one of them is lousy. The majority of the compositions fit under the Beatles-esque pop umbrella, but within that designation, they veer from one side of the map to another. "Private Crisis" is a deliberate shuffle that calls to mind the early work of the dBs--it's sunny and dour at precisely the same moment. "Fuck to Forget" is the jauntiest slice of bile imaginable. "Song for You" is melodic mopiness that Brian Wilson would be proud to call his own. "Completely Mental" is a slacker ballad of undeniable sincerity. "You Let Me Down" is as distorted and crushingly powerful a rocker as anything this side of "Gimme Some Truth," John Lennon's infamous hate letter to Paul McCartney. And on and on and on. After tuning into a Rockets cassette, the average listener will be left counting the minutes until he can hear more.

But sorry, average listener. You can't.
Vullo and Goodwin, huddled in a recording-equipment-packed room in Goodwin's Aurora house, have the usual excuses for this state of affairs; an inability to find compatible bandmates is one frequently cited. Unlike most of those players offering such rationalizations, though, the two Rockets aren't using them to mask incapacitating stage fright or any related maladies. Vullo in particular has a track record of legitimate activity that plenty of area musicians would envy.

A New York native, Vullo spent most of his 26 years in Florida, which he criticizes with undisguised relish, calling it "the slimiest shitbox on the planet.

"Musicians are lower than shit there," he continues. "People would go to clubs purposefully to ignore you--and the clubs would have you turn down to accommodate them. Someone asking `Can I have a beer, please?' would be louder than a guitar solo. Sometimes I'd purposefully go on stage wearing a dress and combat boots just as a big `fuck you' to all the racist, sexist, homophobic assholes out there."

Earlier in the Nineties, Vullo was often a member of four or five bands at the same time. The most prominent of these was Rooster Head, a South Florida favorite that's been heavily touted by area publications. Vullo served time as a drummer for Rooster Head and reports that the combo was romanced by several labels during that period. He blames head Rooster Michael Kennedy for the deals falling through and for other sins, too: Vullo left the band over disputes stemming from Traditional Cock, an independently released CD for which he says he didn't receive the credit he deserved. With nothing else to keep him in Florida, he followed his girlfriend to Denver in late 1993. She returned to Florida a short time later, which broke Vullo's heart even as it provided him with a wealth of fodder for songs.

"To this day, I have insomnia thinking about her," he reveals. "I went back to Florida a while ago and left this big letter for her that said, `I love you and I'm going to die without you.' I pretty much haven't heard from her since." He pauses before adding, "`Completely Mental' is all about her."

Following his true love's departure, Vullo decided on the spur of the moment to fly to California and join the other 5,000 guitarists trying out for an open slot in the Red Hot Chili Peppers lineup. At the audition, he so impressed the contest's judges that he was allowed to jam with Anthony Kiedis, Flea and the rest of the band, but he lost out in the end to former Jane's Addiction axman David Navarro. His only consolation was Goodwin, whom he had met through a classified ad he hoped would lead to the birth of a band.

"Teenage Fanclub was our common ground," Vullo reports.
"Yeah," agrees Goodwin, a 21-year-old who moved to Denver in late 1993 after spending time in Las Vegas and San Bernardino, California. "But I'm into Kiss, too." He gestures at a Kiss poster adorning one wall. "I'm totally used to people making fun of me for liking Kiss. I've got two Kiss pinball machines in the garage."

These disparate influences didn't prove an impediment to songwriting. Vullo and Goodwin very quickly began to make demos of pieces they penned jointly, with each trading off on instruments (some borrowed from a music store where Vullo works). But when it came to finding a compatible bassist and drummer, they kept coming up dry. In a little less than a year of existence, the Rockets have played exactly one show, opening up for the Apples.

At present, Vullo and Goodwin are actively trying to change their situation by recruiting a bass player and drummer as committed to making something happen as they are (call 698-9398 for more details). There's no guarantee they'll succeed--their tapes may well stay stacked up in Goodwin's closet for all eternity. But Vullo hopes the Incredible Five Cent Sugar Rockets won't suffer the same fate as countless other garage bands that came before it.

"It's killing me that we're not playing," he insists, leaning against the end of Goodwin's bed. "I intended on furthering my musical career, and I haven't done it yet. We need to get out of this room.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts