Lush Life

With a new CD, Phoenix's Beat Angels prove there's no success like failure

It's 1997, and rock 'n' roll is still a dirty phrase.
Once merely synonymous with teenage copulation, the term now embraces a wide array of unseemly images. Your parents doing the nasty on a Monsanto carpet. A guy in his late 40s washing his Buick to the strains of Steppenwolf. The bloated rock star in a tux being inducted into the Hall of Fame while the up-and-coming nobody living in squalor thumbs his nose at the induction telecast.

And then there are the kids. Oh, let's never forget the kids, in whose clammy hands whatever future remains for rock 'n' roll doth rest. Maybe we needed to be a whole generation removed from limp anthems like "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me" for kids even to want to use the term again. Whatever it took to burst through the blockade--the death of grunge or the sight of Pat Boone with an earring--rock 'n' roll is happening again, dammit, and it's happening right here in our fair city.

Kids, fed up with MTV, their former arbiter of taste, are getting off their duffs and acting like fans of something for a change. They're calling up local radio stations like KZON, KEDJ and KUPD requesting to hear tracks off the Beat Angels' second CD, Red Badge of Discourage, like they're escapees from some corny Alan Freed movie. And it's not because this band sounds like 311 or Rollins; it's because people have fun at Beat Angels shows and want it to last throughout the workweek.

To teens and people who experienced the Clash and the Dolls firsthand, the Beat Angels have been synonymous with rock 'n' roll in the Valley, serving as a punk-and-pop oasis in a panorama of hair-farmer/metal leftovers, desert rockers, hippie groove bandwagon jumpers and genre-specific cover bands.

On the other side of the coin, the Beat Angels have made themselves synonymous with beatniks, booze hounds, low-rent fast talkers and women with pasts--the legend emblazoned on the new album's pulp-novel parody sleeve. For three years, singer Brian Smith has written all too knowingly about people who for some reason or another don't want to go or can't hack going home. He has an almost vertiginous attraction to the walking wounded and their well-traveled routes to the bottom. It's his cologne, and he surrounds himself with it like so much secondhand smoke.

"I do at times embrace this notion of a romantic lowlife," acknowledges Smith. "There are times when I find myself there, broke and drunk. That's precisely why I live where I do in Phoenix, Van Buren and 14th Street, pretty much the worst neighborhood in the city as far as prostitutes, whores and junkies are concerned, cabbies on crack, whatever. I chose to live here, though. I mean, I could've moved to Tempe or something stupid.

"I think there's a certain amount of observation to being a good writer and a certain amount of living it, too," Smith continues. "I'm not saying I'm living this horrible existence. I'm saying I'd rather be closer to it than not."

Smith isn't home today, but his daily required dosage of decadence is in no short supply. He and the other Angels are in Los Angeles, part of a weeklong coastal jaunt in support of their new CD, and this morning he visited a movie set.

"I watched a porno movie being shot, something called Cherry Poppers 3. It was depressing," he says, with a laugh. "Not much joy going on. Just a lot of lights, camera and anguish."

A porno set isn't the ideal place to be nursing a broken heart, either, but it's better than the apartment full of cheapened memories waiting for him back at Van Buren. Smith's usual demeanor, an ungodly blend of Keith Richards and Snagglepuss, is conspicuously not crackling through the phone lines today.

"I miss my girlfriend," he says, groaning. "Breaking up is a horrible thing. I don't recommend it. My liver is pretty much telling me to get over it already, 'cause my liver's about ready to get over me. It's making its way through my stomach."

Smith confesses that the breakup was a long time coming, and the desperation informs many of the songs on Red Badge, like "You're a Wreck" and "Crashing Back to Her."

"When you know the one who's admired you for so long doesn't want to be your good little 'plus one' anymore, it hurts your ego," he says. "But I understand that. I can't blame her. Writing and performing are self-centered, solitary callings.

"The irony of this whole thing is that no one gives a flying fuck about lyrics except the occasional rock journalist in Pennsylvania. The kids don't really know; they get off on the sound and look of the band."

If looks can't kill, then they certainly can be the impetus to form a band. Smith linked up with guitarist Michael Brooks before he even knew Brooks could play, because they had similar rooster-maned hairdos. They also shared a similar drinking disposition.

"Michael and I are from the Dean Martin School of lushes, we turn into these sort of '50s swingers. And [guitarist] Keith Jackson can go either way drunk, be the punk bruiser or the teddy bear."

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