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"I have a band," he admits, "but the money's lousy and we play less and less. It's down to three times a year, so we're not so hot."
One past collaboration had Olson joining forces with a spikes-and-leather crew to produce an acerbic ditty called "Gods of Hardball." "I needed to write a song like that," says Olson, "because at one point, I had that kind of rage."
In the Seventies, that anger attracted Tom Waits to Olson, and the two became fast friends. "Tom once told me I was an influence on him because I was such a romantic character," says Olson, who lost an eye at age 5. "Back then, I wore an eye patch and drank way too much. I could outdrink Tom, anybody. I was absolutely dangerous. Gone." One night at the Troubadour, a Hollywood showcase club, Olson met Rickie Lee Jones and introduced her to Waits. While Waits lounged in the adjoining bar, too bored to care, Olson checked out Hoot Night, an open-mike event that featured up to 100 performers in a single evening. Each artist got five minutes to slam out a song and impress the record-industry heavies who regularly attended.
"This girl comes out," remembers Olson. "She had on a long black dress, sits down by herself with an acoustic guitar and crosses her legs. The dress splits all the way up the thigh. White leg comes out--boom! It got your attention. She was the best thing I'd heard in years." After talking to the leggy singer, Olson went next door and told Waits, "`You missed out, 'cause I saw something really cool. Rickie Lee Jones. Remember the name.' Next thing I know, she's in Rolling Stone and sleeping with Tom. She was living on the streets in L.A. and Tom was King of the Streets, so it was perfect."
If Waits was the king of L.A.'s seedier districts, Olson was the prince. When he wasn't shooting pool against wise guys, he jammed in biker bars. "You wanna talk bone-chilling blues?" he asks. "Those were the days I learned to play that stuff, to bikers who'd beat you up if you weren't good. So you had to get good. Before I knew it, I'm working all the time and had an album out. I remember looking at the record going, 'Jesus Christ. I'm really doing this.'" When Olson first came to Phoenix in 1969, he liked what he saw: a musical wasteland. "Every other town had a history," he says, "and this one didn't. It was a level playing field, so I stepped up and said, 'I'm from California, but I love it here and I want to prove it.' Twenty-six years later, they're believing me."
As unofficial guru to dozens of musicians, from Dead Hot Workshop to Chico Chism, Olson has always been eager to help others learn the tricks of a cutthroat trade. "I used to have these kids call me all the time," he remembers, "asking about copyright and stuff. They perceived me more as a colleague than a threat because I'm not really in competition with anybody here. I'm not doing the same thing musically." Over the years, Olson has occasionally turned his back on his desert disciples to search for greener pastures. "I've lived in Austin, L.A. and San Francisco," he says. "All hip scenes, but when I got there, I just yawned and said, 'Yeah, this is a hip scene, but we could have one in Phoenix that's even better.'" With that in mind, in 1986 Olson helped found the Sun Club, the former hub of the Tempe music scene. The story goes like this: Figuring he could cash in on his talents as a production manager, Olson answered an ad soliciting help for a fledgling music venue. "The guy I became partners with, we got a little more involved than I expected as far as legal things go. Suddenly, I'm the president of the corporation." When other investors began bickering with his partner, Olson wanted out of the deal. He was contractually obligated to stay in, however, and wound up trapped in the middle of a money-sucking fiasco. Resolving to make the best of the situation, he sank five grand into renovating the decrepit building and prayed that his partner was competent. No such luck. "After about a month, I realized he had absolutely no program," says Olson. When the investors finally pressured the inept partner to bow out, it was Olson's name left scrawled on all the legal papers.
"I realize immediately that I can't handle this," he recalls. "I didn't do good in school, I didn't want to. Now I don't know the things I need to know to deal with this legal mess, and my life goes right in the toilet."
Despite the circumstances, the bar became a hot spot for local modern rock--ultimately launching the Gin Blossoms to national popularity--even though Olson admits he "hadn't listened to new music in ten or 15 years" and thought U2 was military hardware.
Feeling clueless, Olson hired Tempe locals to handle the booking while he played blues venues to support the Sun. "We were selling a lot of tee shirts," he says, "but I was still takin' home gig money to pay my help." Eventually, Olson went bankrupt and the Sun Club sank below the horizon for good in 1992.