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"The Sunset Palms is a cheesy, seedy, beautiful hotel," says Beat Angels lead singer Brian Smith. "There's an all-nude strip bar called the Seven Veils next door, and this very black, very beautiful hooker was on the front sidewalk every evening."
Smith was admittedly smitten by Ms. Golightly, and one night after his band returned to the Palms from Unhappy Hour producer (and former Guns n' Roses guitarist) Gilby Clarke's home studio, he decided to record her reeling in tricks. "I just went out there with a portable DAT machine and said, 'When you talk, talk into this,' and she did," says Smith.
The result--Golightly calling, "Hey, baby, you wanna go out? C'mere, cutey. Hey, c'mere" as only a Hollywood hooker can--isthe perfect sound-bite intro for the Angels album, which came out February 27 on Epiphany Records. Golightly's call sets the tone for about as fine a slice of '70s-flavored power pop as any band has cut since the Clash's Combat Rock.
"The way we look at it," says Smith, "there's this certain spirit that was handed down to us by the New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols, the Stones, even early Cheap Trick. That spirit is missing in today's rock 'n' roll, but, as trite as it sounds, we embody it. If it wasn't for Johnny Rotten, I wouldn't get up in the morning."
Every one of the 11 songs on Unhappy Hour clocks in at less than four minutes ("All hail the three-minute pop song," exclaims Smith). And while the Beat Angels' debut is worth buying for the cover art alone--a nicked, digitally altered image from an old Jackie Gleason lounge record titled Music, Martinis and Memories--it also captures the best qualities of hard pop-rock. The compact double guitar lines are gritty and loud, but deftly carved, and Smith demonstrates considerable talent as a noir lyricist. "Cigarette smoke in the air," he sings on "The Most Beautiful Loser in Town," "serpents twisting above your hair/As you reminisce about the girl that you were ... in the slow light of the barroom hum, the cue shots echo how low you've come."
Smith, who writes all the lyrics for his band, says most of the lines on Unhappy Hour were penned over a two-month period in early 1995 when he was drunk, broke and living in awest Phoenix trailer park. "I had no car, nojob, nothing," he says. "I read pretty much everything byJim Thompson during that time. I read, I wrote songs and I starved." Smith pulled out of his tailspin when one of his songs, "Sideshow," was picked up by Phoenix native Alice Cooper for his latest album, The Last Temptation. "Those royalty checks are still coming in, still paying for pasta," says Smith.
Aside from the hard-boiled tone of Thompson's crime fiction, Unhappy Hour's booze-soaked mosaic of fallen women, trampled dreams and bar-fly existentialism also bears the mark of writers such as Raymond Chandler, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. Smith is well-read and peppers his conversation with literary allusions. The singer says his new favorite writer is Dorothy Allison, who wrote Bastard Out of Carolina, a wrenching, first-person account of white-trash life in the South as seen through the eyes of an abused, highly sensitive and intelligent young girl. "What use is college?" says Smith, who never went. "All I need is a library card."
The Beat Angels started playing together about a year and a half ago, Smith says, as "an angry response to hippies and all things Mill Avenue. But the band's life line can be traced farther back, to a night in 1989 when Brooks bumped into Smith as the singer stumbled out of a porno shop on Hollywood Boulevard. Smith recognized Brooks as a member of the L.A. glam band Motorcycle Boy (Smith was a member of the pop outfit Gentlemen After Dark at the time), and the two had a brief conversation. Three years later, they crossed paths again at an Iggy Pop concert and, surprisingly--given the condition both say they were in at their initial meeting--remembered each other. "He told me he was a musician and I asked him if we wanted to make a band, but he was living in Tucson," says Brooks, who moved to Phoenix after Motorcycle Boy went off the road. "About a year later, I walked into Zia records, and there he was. This time he lived in Phoenix, and that was it."
The two picked up guitarist Keith Jackson at the Mason Jar. "They told me they needed someone who could play eighth notes," says Jackson. "I said, 'I can do that.'" Jackson is a big bruiser of a punk rocker from Detroit, whose gentle demeanor matches neither his look nor the ferocity of his playing. "I skipped the whole American-rock thing," Jackson says. "I skipped the whole Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin thing. I flipped that whole page and went directly from glitter rock to punk, and I haven't bought a new record in 11 years."
One thing about Jackson--he doesn't change his clothes that much. He washes them, mind you; he just doesn't change them. "I know just how I want to look, and so I always wear the same clothes--the same jacket and boots, the same shirt. The thing is, eventually, they start to rot off your body. And so you get a new set, and it rots, and you get a new set, and it rots. I have a closet full of rotten clothes I use to mark the years."
Jackson has had 32 years to mark, and says that, by now, making it as a rock musician is his only hope for a comfortable life. "I've spent my whole life playing guitar, and I've spent so much time getting as good as I am that it's too late to do anything else. I could never work a nine-to-five."
Three weeks in a yo-yo factory is the extent of Smith's day-job resume. "It almost killed me. I can't do that again--I'd rather be dead than work another job like that. I mean, you hit 28, 29, what are you gonna do, go back to college and feel like a horse's ass walking around campus? Forget about it. This band is it." Brooks agrees. "I tried working at a couple of record stores and it didn't agree with my system."
The only one of the five Beat Angels with a straight job is bass player Kevin Pate, who works in a head shop. Drummer Jon Norwood, widely regarded as one of the best in the Valley, recently took what Smith characterizes as "a fairly serious leave of absence" because of personal problems. The Beat Angels singer says he doesn't know exactly when Norwood will rejoin the group, but that at this point the operative word is still "when" rather than "if," and most likely Norwood will be back before the band leaves in April to tour the West Coast and New York in support of Unhappy Hour.
In the meantime, with help from fill-in drummer Frankie Hanyak (of Serene Dominic and the Semi-Detached), the Beat Angels continue to play out, still professing that the right clothes and hair run a close second to the right music in accounting for the band's success, in the past--the Angels earned a sizable Valley following within weeks of forming--as well as the present and future. "I don't understand the concept of getting onstage looking like you just mowed somebody's lawn," says Jackson, who in contrast to the glam look favored by the band's other members dresses like a London Calling-era British punker.
Smith, who like Brooks lifts his flashy, androgynous fashion cues directly from the New York Dolls, says, "I've looked like this all my life. I was into the look of this music way before I played it. I slithered from the womb dressed like this."
"We get accused of being a lot of things," Smith says, "like fags and posers." He pauses. "Well, we are posers. But it's like, Michael and I go to Circle K and some right-wing cowboy in his pickup truck is like, 'What are you guys, fags or something?'
"I've been beaten up several times in my life for how I look. The last time was about two years ago. I was at a Circle K and I was drunk and I was getting a 40, and the guy behind me was like, 'What's up with that?' So he followed me out to the parking lot and pushed me really hard in the back, and I fell down and my 40 broke on the pavement and pieces of it spread everywhere. I was so bummed, man. But I don't like violence, so I got up and ran away. But I was like, 'Why, man? Because I idolized Keith Richards when I was a kid?'"
Jackson, who looks like he could bench press Smith and Brooks strapped together, is the appointed champion of the band. When "some belligerent, truck-driving son of a bitch" started flak during a Long Wong's show last fall, Jackson cracked him over the head with his guitar midsong.
"You can take the kid out of Detroit, but you can't take Detroit out of the kid," Jackson says, laughing. "The Beat Angels have this ritual. Every time we leave each other after practice, I kind of look these guys over and say, 'Hey, don't get beaten up out there.'"
The Beat Angels are scheduled to perform on Saturday, March 9, at the Mason Jar, with Autumn Teen Sound. Showtime is 9 p.m. Unhappy Hour is available at Eastside Records in Tempe, and at all Valley Zia, Tower and Best Buy outlets.