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Admittedly, the Zsa Zsas are less a trad cover outfit in the Boogie Knights mold than, say, experimental interpreters in the vein of Dread Zeppelin or El Vez. They prove this early on, opening with a mind-blowing medley of "Live and Let Die" into Santana's "Smooth," which twists into "Hava Nagila" and closes with a weird can-can coda -- throwing in snippets of everything from Sabbath to Ricky Martin in between.
The group's act is something more than mere sonic shtick, however, as the clever segues -- "Whole Lotta Love" into "Muskrat Love" -- highbrow musical references and in-jokes demonstrate.
Throughout the gig, the goateed Slutes is incredibly animated: Bounding around the stage in a tuxedo and sombrero ensemble, shilling for show sponsor Tequiza beer and generally hamming it up, he comes off like a cross between a punk pantaloon and a suave Latin Lothario -- David Johansen meets Xavier Cugat.
Oddly enough, of all Slutes' post-Sand Rubies efforts -- including the critically acclaimed power-pop project Maryanne and slo-core exponents Little Sisters of the Poor -- the Zsa Zsas seem to be the most commercially viable. The band is set to fly to New York in June to be featured on a new VH1 show called Cover Wars (it won't, of course, be the first time Slutes has appeared on the video music channel; the Sand Rubies' clip for "Santa Maria Street" was in regular rotation on the network in 1993.)
After playing a full two hours as the Zsa Zsas, Slutes and company break for 20 minutes. The singer reemerges clean-shaven and clad in a spangled silver shirt to perform a second set as a high-camp combo called the Gay Caballeros. "We know all de songs," declares Slutes, in a fey chirp, "Well . . . only de gay ones, actually." And they do, playing everything from "I'm Too Sexy" to a night-capping, over-the top rendition of Celine Dion's Titanic theme -- complete with haunting boat whistles and Slutes' glass-shattering diva shrieks. The evening proves a huge success; the group breaks Club Congress' attendance record for a local band by a hundred.
A few days later, Slutes is back at Congress, but this time it's early afternoon and the bar is empty, save for a few employees preparing for the evening's upcoming show by alt-rockers Cracker.
Leaning back in a large red booth, Slutes looks a good decade younger than his 38 years. The self-deprecating charm and boyish good looks that once wooed females -- from barmaids to record executives -- are still there. Gone, however is the tawny mane of hair he wore as a trademark, replaced by a close crop of dark brown. The Zsa Zsas' gig has left the lithe singer suffering the aftereffects of a cold. Apologizing in advance if his answers are delivered through an antihistamine haze, Slutes recounts his long, sometimes rocky partnership with Hopkins and the events leading up to the recording of Cuacha.
For Slutes, the road to rock 'n' roll was considerably less circuitous than for Rich Hopkins. The son of a prominent Tucson attorney, Slutes gained an early exposure to the music from his older brother, an ardent fan of Bowie and the Beatles, who led his own art-rock combo, the Bonzo Fungus, in Phoenix.
Graduating from Salpointe Catholic High, Slutes kicked around Southern California, attending college and studying history before returning to Tucson and finishing up at UofA in the early '80s.
Like Hopkins, Slutes had also been touched by the punk promise of the Pedestrians and the legion of like-minded outfits they spawned. "I remember being down at Pearl's before it closed and pogoing my little head off," says Slutes. "After that it was going to Tumbleweeds every weekend. It was definitely a huge influence seeing all the bands from that scene."
By the mid-'80s, Slutes' musical résumé was relatively short. He'd sung with the disturbingly monikered garage combo Billy Bowel and the Movements, as well as a cover band (and precursor to the Zsa Zsas) called the Vegas Kids. By early 1985, the bulk of Slutes' focus was on recording local acts in his makeshift home studio (he would eventually release a compilation of those sessions, Tunes From Tucson, in 1987) when he made the fateful decision to put his own lyrics and voice on the Sidewinders song he'd recorded.
"What an asshole," laughs Slutes, recalling his own unmitigated gall. "It was pretty bold to think, 'Yeah, it'll be okay if I do this.' But Rich's guitar just made a lot of sense to me immediately. I felt I could naturally sing over it and play with it. For me, it was an easy sound to understand."
A reluctant Slutes was cajoled by Hopkins into joining the band on short notice for its upcoming Jack's gig. Armed with a handful of lyric sheets, Slutes took the stage with the Sidewinders -- then consisting of Hopkins, Curtis, bassist Ron Zastuary and lead guitarist Dave Moskowitz, a pintsize '70s rock relic with a bizarre penchant for Ted Nugent-like onstage acrobatics.
Though the group gigged regularly and the Hopkins/Slutes partnership yielded a couple more songs early on, the Sidewinders floundered for much of '85 and '86, going through a stream of ill-fitting guitarists and bassists. Making things worse was the fact that Hopkins' and Curtis' marriage was falling apart; they would eventually divorce in 1986, though she would stay with the band until 1989.