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"We Got Cactus," Bloodspasm (1985)
Bloodspasm tore up a series of now-closed Tucson clubs and house parties with blistering hardcore punk starting in the mid-1980s. But the band's lasting mark is surely "We Got Cactus," a song that exemplifies life as a desert rat, a local classic that's endured for nearly three decades in its original wild and boisterous form as well as newer country-rock and folk versions. ["We Got Cactus" was covered in 2004 by Al Perry and in 2010 by The Dusty Buskers.]
The song tells the story of Tucson in 1985, with a sarcastic and self-deprecating pride that focuses almost entirely on the seemingly negative aspects of the city. And in comparison to the glamorous attractions of other cities — surfing, nightlife, lakes, beaches, all that Tucson can claim is cactus.
"In terms of modern Arizona, there's not a song that nails it better than that," says Al Perry, a longtime Tucson musician who covered "We Got Cactus" on his 2004 album Always a Pleasure. "It perfectly encapsulates life in Tucson, and it works so well on every level. There will never be a more accurate portrait of Tucson. That song is the beginning and the end."
Bloodspasm singer Bob McKinley says he wrote the lyrics to "We Got Cactus" in about five minutes one night over a pitcher of beer at the Bay Horse Tavern. Bandmate Eric Snyder already had the music, and the song just fell together seamlessly.
"It's nothing really cosmic or anything — just my observations of the city," McKinley says. "You look at Tucson, and that's about what I saw. It's about being young, and I think it hits the pulse of what was going on in Tucson at the time."
Bloodspasm's original 1985 version, which saw a wider release on the 1993 compilation Yeah, But It's A Dry Heat, clocks in at 1:18, a breakneck pace the whole way. Perry's rendition stretches things out to 3:29.
"'We Got Cactus' is the ultimate Arizona and Tucson song," says Perry, a member of the Tucson Music Hall of Fame, a weekly DJ on community radio station KXCI, and an enthusiastic collector of Arizona music. "It hit me right off the bat. The greatest songs you can write are the ones that stick right in your head. It's not just a song — it's an anthem. Plus, with the local lyrics, you've got something that's very special.
"The thing about that song is it will be great no matter what style you record it in. We could make a disco version of this and it'd sound great. It passes every test you would want to make of a great song."
Perry recorded his own version of "We Got Cactus" at the end of a WaveLab Studio session with Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino. He lifted the country-ish arrangement from Tucson's Slack Mac, whose version Perry heard in the late 1990s.
"It never occurred to me until we were sitting in the studio and we needed one more song. All of a sudden it went viral. It took on a life of its own after we did it. I cannot go out and do a gig without somebody requesting that song. Everybody associates this song with me, but I didn't do a thing. I didn't write it, I didn't arrange it, I just sang it at one session."
The Dusty Buskers, a bluegrass/folk/Celtic combo, fell in love with Perry's rendition and arranged a version for a November 2010 gig — "Locals Covering Locals," in celebration of the 10th anniversary of Fourth Avenue nightclub Plush.
"It's regional pride. It's totally a townie folk anthem," says Phoenix Michael, the Buskers' fiddler and singer. "Everyone else has this fancy stuff and what do we have? Cactus. It's self-deprecating, but it's always the things we like about Tucson."