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Border-Jumping with Roger Clyne

Viva Méjico: Roger Clyne
Jonathan McNamara

Weekends start early in Rocky Point. The sun hasn't yet set on a Friday night, but the beach is already spattered with vomit. Most people entering the tony Peñasco Del Sol hotel, overlooking the beach, plop cans of cerveza down on the marble counter as they check in. Where they find them between the entrance and the front desk is a mystery.

Puerto Peñasco is seeing a little more debauchery than normal this weekend as ground zero for Circus Mexicus, a beach-party-style concert put on by Roger Clyne. The former Refreshments frontman has been carrying on with his country-tinged pop-rock career in the decade since his band split after finding minor success with "Banditos" and "Down Together." Clyne is — he'll admit it himself, with minor qualifications — Arizona's Jimmy Buffett. He paints a quixotic portrait of life in the Sonoran Desert, singing songs about drinking tequila with a cast of shady characters inhabiting the dusty towns along the border. It's not escapism, he likes to say, because people really live it.

See photos and video from Circus Mexicus on Up on the Sun.

In our border-obsessed society, the line in the sand between us and Mexico is what defines us as Arizonans. We both eat burros and worship the sun, but Arizona is the side with sidewalks where you can rollerblade safely. There's nothing vaguely political about Clyne's music, but it's safe to say no one outside of La Raza shows less respect for the concept of a border between Mexicans and Americans than Clyne.

He's about as Arizona as you can get — born here, schooled here, and living within five miles of the Tempe home where he grew up — but he's made a living off his infatuation with Mexico. Nowhere is that more clear than Circus Mexicus, a drunken weekend that doubles as the physical manifestation of Clyne's music.

Years after Clyne's brush with mainstream success, and long after hipper locals grew weary of his act, he's still popular with a cultish group of fans spread across the country. This may come as a surprise to the denizens of Mill Avenue and Roosevelt Row, but many people still consider the 40-year-old Clyne cool.

A few times a year, he summons 3,000 to 5,000 of them to the side of the border with shabby sidewalks. This is Clyne's effort to blur the boundaries between band and fan, between Mexican and American, giving people a fleeting encounter with the life he sings about. It all culminates with a Saturday show during which he plays a Springsteen-esque four-hour set comprising almost every song he's written, while fans — blue-hairs and children among them (this crowd is perhaps, amazingly, even less fashionable than Buffett's) — watch fireworks explode overhead.

For fans, Circus Mexicus is a celebration of debauchery and obsession. Greg Ross, 39, has lost track of how many times he's seen Roger — they all call him Roger — but it's been at least 50. A Scottsdale resident, he's been to Circus Mexicus twice and Rocky Point more times than he can count, starting when he was 8. Roger pimps the Circus everywhere he plays, says Ross, and when people catch a Roger show in, say, Omaha, they make a note to come down and see it for themselves. For Ross, the event isn't quite the pilgrimage it is for others. In his mind, the border is already blurred.

"I think being down there [to a lot of Clyne fans], it kind of ties a lot of these songs together," he says. "But for someone like me who's from here, the songs could be in Mexico, the songs could be in America, anywhere in the Sonoran Desert. I kind of look through the border, to me it's just the Southwest."

At breakfast on Saturday, Mitch from Cincinnati puts down two green bottles of beer (they don't drink Corona in Rocky Point; it's Tecate or Dos Equis, por favor) and says this is "not unusual" for him, though his baby face and choice of khaki safari shirt suggest he's no Paul Westerberg when it comes to beer for breakfast. Mitch says he's seen Roger and his band, The Peacemakers, seven or eight times. Even though he works in finance, and the finance industry is melting around him, he wanted to go down to Mexico to see Roger. The drive down from Tucson was exactly as he pictured it from the songs, he says, as is this town, not far removed from its days as a sleepy fishing village. Mitch's waiter provides yet another story for the guys back home, offering to procure whatever drugs or hookers he wants.

"I've got girls, ages 22 to 27," he says. "Anything you need — anything."


Sound check is a little late. Everything this weekend is a little late, says Peacemakers manager Keara Zito. It's Mexico, she says — that's how it is. A bigger challenge down here is balancing the natural need for Clyne and his family to have privacy against the passionate fans' desire to get as close as possible. Not even the crew goes to the house Roger owns down here, she says, but he does interviews on the tour bus and he'll sign autographs for hours.

 

"We need to get that gate closed or people will be trying to come in for sound check," she says, eyeing the fence around the sandy lot where Roger and his band have played since the show outgrew Sunset Cantina's porch. "The hardcore fans will be lining up soon so they can get spots in front of the stage."

Inside the fence, Clyne arrives for sound check. He has sort of a hippie vibe — not totally unlike what you'd expect a cult leader to be like. Wearing flip-flops, bright orange shorts, and the same shoulder-length hair he had during his Refreshments days, he drops references to Ayn Rand and Tom Robbins in conversation. He waxes philosophical easily, especially about the mystique of Mexico.

"What is desert culture? It's all mixed up down here," he says. "The heroes and villains in our mythologies and the borders have always been sort of shifting and flexible, and they're all relatively new in the history of our nation and, certainly, the world — so there's a certain, maybe, propensity to want to ignore these borders."

Clyne adds that he's a "fan" of this notion.

By 6 p.m., there's a long line in front of the gate. In it, you find about 100 of the hardest of the hardcore Peaceheads, many from Arizona but others from across the country. Some have seen the band hundreds of times. Jill "Front Row Girl" Potter of Prescott is near the beginning of the queue. Potter lives this life more than most others, having her own place nearby.

"I know where Roger's house is, and I know where his boat is," she says, "but I would never bother him. I run by [his home] every day, and I just wave."

Tawni Waters of Albuquerque and Jessica Flynn of Detroit made plans online then rendezvoused in Phoenix for the drive down. Tawni has seen the Peacemakers more than 500 times but got in line 21/2 hours early to be at the front. She sounds like a typical Peacehead when talking about Clyne:

"The first time I saw Roger, I knew he was a force of nature, a force to be reckoned with. I thought I was in the presence of greatness, and it's been eight years and I still think, every time I see him play, I'm in the presence of greatness."

Eventually, the doors open and the fans have a 200-yard footrace for the best spots, front and center. A few hours later, Roger takes the stage, the audience in a beer-fueled frenzy. The Circus Mexicus concert always starts with "Mexico" and ends with "Nada," both off the Refreshments' breakthrough, Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big & Buzzy. Fireworks are launched from behind the stage, beach balls bounce around the crowd, and joints are passed. People walk around with six-packs — still in dolphin-killers and snuck through the front door or over the fence.

A scuffle breaks out in front of the stage, and Clyne offers to buy both guys a beer if they chill out. They do. It's what every rock show should be — a little taste of anarchy, something you so rarely see in this hyper-corporate age when concerts are held in palatial arenas crawling with security. You can see why the older crowd comes, to recapture the ghost of some Allman Brothers show past, and why the 20-somethings come, to get a taste of that Phish show their older sisters told them about.

The songs are mostly about burros, beers, and bandidos. Most reference Mexico explicitly, but the others, like "Jack vs. Jose," a story song about an encounter with a bourbon-pushing Southern bartender, share the mindset.

It's a four-hour, 50-plus-song set, but to me, it surprisingly never drags. It's intoxicating to see someone so enamored of this place and these people. As the show goes on, the audience is entranced, the border blurring in a way that would make a certain carpetbagging Masshole with a badge very nervous.

Somewhere in the crowd is a dude wearing a khaki shirt who's been drinking since breakfast. He's about to head home to Cincinnati, to a job in a collapsing industry. But right now, he's in Rocky Point, drinking cervezas and dancing to another song about Mexico, a tale Roger Clyne just can't help but tell. Like Roger says, it's not escapism if you really live it. Even for a weekend.


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