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."

Brooks and Smith snagged Jackson from what Smith terms "a fuck-awful punk band." Jackson, a transplanted Detroit rocker who once played with the Angry Samoans, boasts an immaculately groomed buzz cut and an encyclopedic knowledge of Britpunk.

"I saw the Boomtown Rats on The Mike Douglas Show and decided there and then I wanted to be like that," says Jackson, in a group conversation before their L.A. departure. "I was born to be in this band because I know the three chords necessary to play these songs, and I know how to apply them to both kinds of music. Pop and punk."

Jackson provides the essential comic foil for Smith onstage and off. "On the whole way back from Austin, Keith dreamed up this character called Outback Jack," says Smith, laughing. "He's a psycho bushman who rapes you and eats your testicles. And he's always happily describing how they're to be served to you."

After only three years together, the Angels are already on their second rhythm section in as many albums. Jackson is the most vocal about how new additions drummer Frank Hanyak and bassist Tommy CaraDonna galvanized the group.

"Frankie plays for the song," Jackson nods approvingly, simulating a one-two punch. "Our old drummer John was great, but his playing was so precise, so into the meter, I felt like I was always playing out of time."

"So what Keith's saying is that I can't play in time," slurs Hanyak after his fifth Coors Lite. Hanyak's a contrary drunk, prone to arguing with people who actually agree with him. But you've got to love his shy, world-weary demeanor, telling you in all sincerity that he has a hard time talking to strippers who frequent Beat Angels shows because they've got all their clothes on.

Rounding out the group is CaraDonna, who's not a very good drinker, but an exceptional bass player who's toured with the likes of Alice Cooper and Joan Jett.

"Tommy's a real rock star," Smith points out proudly, "and we're lucky to have him. He's been around the world six times and played in front of 60,000 people at Wembley Stadium eight times."

"Why is he here? I don't get it," scoffs Jackson.
Once upon a time, CaraDonna could put his bank card in an ATM machine and find a sizable checking-account balance. Now he doesn't even have a bank card.

"The amount of suffering and starving we do to be Beat Angels, this is phenomenal," marvels Smith, showing bravado and screaming uncle in the same breath. "I mean, Frankie has lived without a phone for four months. We practically have to consult a Ouija board to let him know we've got a rehearsal. Our lives are so disrupted, so not what you'd consider normal. When we say we have no money, it means we have no food and no medical insurance and we're scraping pennies to go buy beer."

Currently, the band seeks tour sponsorship because its members can't afford to do it and its label, Epiphany!, won't pay for everything when the Beat Angels tour, a not-uncommon indie scenario. The major labels don't seem to be much of an option at this point, because they're so busy falling apart.

"EMI just closed up its American shop, labels under the EMI umbrella went belly up and those bands are like homeless now," reckons Smith. "Labels are disappearing, bands are disappearing. Too much mediocrity has created this big glut of nothing.

"It's funny because before when we were going to them, we had major-label interest, but weren't ready as a band. Now we're more than ready as a band and we don't care. Because we made a record that we stand behind either way. Our goal is just to work a fan base as many places as we can. Tonight, someone from Elektra is coming to our show because they heard about us, not because we called them. If they want us, they can come and get us."

Despite the downbeat title, Red Badge of Discourage finds the Angels more confident in the studio, and producer Gilby Clarke (ex-Guns N' Roses guitarist) managed to capture the band's live sound, minus the occasional shouts for drink specials.

"The kids that come to our shows, people who work in grocery stores, different walks of life and musical tastes, everybody finds something on this record that appeals to them, and that didn't happen with the first one," Jackson says. "Unhappy Hour didn't capture us like this one does. We performed the songs well, but something didn't come across on the record."

Smith adds, "We got reviews thinking Unhappy Hour was going to be cocktail music. Popsmear magazine was actually quite indignant about it."

Even at the end of a glum sugarplum day like today, the boys have a lot to be thankful for. Red Badge's release in Britain will be accompanied by ads in Melody Maker, and the band is getting quite popular in remote ports of call like Japan, Italy, Sweden and Canada. It's getting airplay across this country as well, with local radio slowly coming around. In the meantime, you can hear selections being aired nightly in strip bars like Bourbon Street, Band Aids and Amazons.

"I saw a girl dance to 'Glitter Girl' at Band Aids and it was a religious experience, it really was," says Smith.

"I cried," Jackson adds.
Smith's a symphony of contradictions that could only exist in a rock 'n' roll world. On the one hand, he wants to live alone like a bohemian and become a great writer, on the other hand, he craves domesticity--the wife, house, kids and dog bit. He loves a good drink but describes the time in 1992 when he stopped drinking for three months as the best he's ever felt.

"The first week was the hardest. But, eventually, I woke up and started running three miles a day," he says with enthusiasm. "I was already a vegetarian anyway, so that was heightened, I got more strict. And I was actually kind of quick-witted for a change. I could read faster and think faster."

So why not become next month's poster boy for sobriety? Smith pauses to reflect. "Sobriety's a damn good thing, but I'm just not ready for it yet.

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