Dressed completely in black and sporting tinted shades that never come off, Hans Olson looks like the understudy for Death in a Bergman flick.
His ominous appearance and growling baritone are tempered by a nostalgic smile as he ticks off the legends with whom he's shared a stage: Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Willie Dixon top off the pagelong list. Olson laughs and sucks on his umpteenth Merit of the day. "Most of these people," he says fondly, "are all psychotics."
The Valley's consummate bluesman admits he occasionally "spun out of control" himself while carving out an identity as an artist whose lean but fascinating slide guitar and harmonica-in-a-rack technique is recognized by industry insiders to be among the best anywhere--Chicago, L.A. and the Mississippi Delta included.
Just tuning up, Olson tosses off music beautiful enough to be mistaken for a song. He's been known to quietly devastate an audience with his interpretation of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," then blow the room down with a rootsy, boot-stompin' number that has him strumming and wailing like his old friend Tom Waits.
"Hans plays better with no hands than most people do with both," says Blue Note club owner Rick Parrish. "People have gone around this man for too long. He needs to be recognized."
Revered in the Valley blues scene, Olson remains a relatively obscure figure beyond its borders. Except, that is, in Europe.
Since 1984, Olson has toured that continent seven times, and is currently on the road in France, where, he notes, he outsells Johnny Cash. In 1993, Olson kicked off a blues festival in Belgium that featured Albert Collins, John Hammond, Jeff Healey and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. "Eighteen thousand people showed up, and I cooked," he says. "It was the most perfect gig from top to bottom."
Even so, when Olson returned to the States, he was still what he was when he left--a regional sensation with national potential and a bad-luck streak. Despite his talent and ten albums to his credit, big-time success in America has somehow eluded Olson.
Or perhaps he's eluded it.
Alternately foiled by ill fortune and his own stubbornness, the artist who calls himself "Mr. Unlucky" has a love/hate relationship with mainstream success that would do any Amerindie zealot proud. While Olson envies the fame and financial rewards of major-label success, he's reluctant to uproot himself for a year of constant touring or to surrender his artistic vision to a producer "two months out of college and one month in the industry" who would likely want to spiff up his classic blues sound to make it more commercially viable.
"If you just play the blues," Olson says, "it's like you're a priest and you live in poverty. You're respected for keeping this tradition alive, but you never get ahead."
Still, Olson can't say he never got a shot. Bill McEuen, the producer who broke the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, took a serious interest in him in 1982. "This guy was turning out golden stuff," Olson says.
McEuen flew Olson to Los Angeles to record a five-song demo called The Aspen Tapes, a bloated project that included a 13-piece back-up band. The demo captured the attention of the president of Warner Bros., who was ready to fork over a $150,000 advance. Figuring he had finally struck gold, Olson moved to L.A. and started to max out his credit cards.
Then things got weird--the president of Warner Bros. was suddenly fired. "That was unheard of," says Olson. McEuen was undaunted. The new Warner president, it turned out, was a pal of his, and still eager to cut a record deal. There was only one catch: The new guy hated The Aspen Tapes. McEuen told Olson they would have to make a few small changes to his style.
"Bill comes in and says, 'We're gonna go to Nashville! You're gonna be a No. 1 country artist, I've just decided.'" Olson, though, hated "that twangy bullshit," and refused to don a bola tie, riches be damned. "[McEuen] got mad," the singer recalls. "I don't blame him, 'cause I'm a stupid kid and he's the guy that everything he touches turns to gold.
"He was right and I was wrong, and I say that to him all the time now, and he says, 'You blew your chance.' All of a sudden, Lyle Lovett, k.d. lang, Dwight Yoakam come along. I woulda been right in there."
Recollecting his discovery of his love of performance evokes happier thoughts.
"I was 6 and watching Gene Kelly do a soft-shoe on television," he says. "It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen--to just be standing there and look so good keeping his feet going. So I go out to my garage, close the door and put salt on the floor to help with the soft-shoe. I danced for an hour. It was like, 'Show business! I'm gonna be in show business!' It started then, and I've always kept up with it." Since then, Olson has performed solo and as part of a group, playing everything from folk to punk--"twangy bullshit" aside, of course.
"I have a band," he admits, "but the money's lousy and we play less and less. It's down to three times a year, so we're not so hot."
One past collaboration had Olson joining forces with a spikes-and-leather crew to produce an acerbic ditty called "Gods of Hardball." "I needed to write a song like that," says Olson, "because at one point, I had that kind of rage."
In the Seventies, that anger attracted Tom Waits to Olson, and the two became fast friends. "Tom once told me I was an influence on him because I was such a romantic character," says Olson, who lost an eye at age 5. "Back then, I wore an eye patch and drank way too much. I could outdrink Tom, anybody. I was absolutely dangerous. Gone." One night at the Troubadour, a Hollywood showcase club, Olson met Rickie Lee Jones and introduced her to Waits. While Waits lounged in the adjoining bar, too bored to care, Olson checked out Hoot Night, an open-mike event that featured up to 100 performers in a single evening. Each artist got five minutes to slam out a song and impress the record-industry heavies who regularly attended.
"This girl comes out," remembers Olson. "She had on a long black dress, sits down by herself with an acoustic guitar and crosses her legs. The dress splits all the way up the thigh. White leg comes out--boom! It got your attention. She was the best thing I'd heard in years." After talking to the leggy singer, Olson went next door and told Waits, "`You missed out, 'cause I saw something really cool. Rickie Lee Jones. Remember the name.' Next thing I know, she's in Rolling Stone and sleeping with Tom. She was living on the streets in L.A. and Tom was King of the Streets, so it was perfect."
If Waits was the king of L.A.'s seedier districts, Olson was the prince. When he wasn't shooting pool against wise guys, he jammed in biker bars. "You wanna talk bone-chilling blues?" he asks. "Those were the days I learned to play that stuff, to bikers who'd beat you up if you weren't good. So you had to get good. Before I knew it, I'm working all the time and had an album out. I remember looking at the record going, 'Jesus Christ. I'm really doing this.'" When Olson first came to Phoenix in 1969, he liked what he saw: a musical wasteland. "Every other town had a history," he says, "and this one didn't. It was a level playing field, so I stepped up and said, 'I'm from California, but I love it here and I want to prove it.' Twenty-six years later, they're believing me."
As unofficial guru to dozens of musicians, from Dead Hot Workshop to Chico Chism, Olson has always been eager to help others learn the tricks of a cutthroat trade. "I used to have these kids call me all the time," he remembers, "asking about copyright and stuff. They perceived me more as a colleague than a threat because I'm not really in competition with anybody here. I'm not doing the same thing musically." Over the years, Olson has occasionally turned his back on his desert disciples to search for greener pastures. "I've lived in Austin, L.A. and San Francisco," he says. "All hip scenes, but when I got there, I just yawned and said, 'Yeah, this is a hip scene, but we could have one in Phoenix that's even better.'" With that in mind, in 1986 Olson helped found the Sun Club, the former hub of the Tempe music scene. The story goes like this: Figuring he could cash in on his talents as a production manager, Olson answered an ad soliciting help for a fledgling music venue. "The guy I became partners with, we got a little more involved than I expected as far as legal things go. Suddenly, I'm the president of the corporation." When other investors began bickering with his partner, Olson wanted out of the deal. He was contractually obligated to stay in, however, and wound up trapped in the middle of a money-sucking fiasco. Resolving to make the best of the situation, he sank five grand into renovating the decrepit building and prayed that his partner was competent. No such luck. "After about a month, I realized he had absolutely no program," says Olson. When the investors finally pressured the inept partner to bow out, it was Olson's name left scrawled on all the legal papers.
"I realize immediately that I can't handle this," he recalls. "I didn't do good in school, I didn't want to. Now I don't know the things I need to know to deal with this legal mess, and my life goes right in the toilet."
Despite the circumstances, the bar became a hot spot for local modern rock--ultimately launching the Gin Blossoms to national popularity--even though Olson admits he "hadn't listened to new music in ten or 15 years" and thought U2 was military hardware.
Feeling clueless, Olson hired Tempe locals to handle the booking while he played blues venues to support the Sun. "We were selling a lot of tee shirts," he says, "but I was still takin' home gig money to pay my help." Eventually, Olson went bankrupt and the Sun Club sank below the horizon for good in 1992.
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Now happily out of the club business, Olson still gigs almost every night in support of his new CD, Kachina Blues, a gritty romp recorded in a garage with $40 microphones and digitally remixed "in all the computer ways" to sound like a million bucks. "I would smoke some weed, have a couple drinks, and about four in the morning go out to the garage," Olson says of the recording process for Kachina. "I'd hit two switches and be recording."
Olson remains cautious about the recording's prospects. "I've always put out these albums," he says, "and they always get good press, but it means nothing. The gigs don't change. Nothing changes. I'm known all over the world to musicians, but they're the wrong audience. They want free records, they want to get in free. It's the industry I've got to convince.
"I've become this great American hero people don't want to ruin," Olson continues. "They say, 'Man, you're making a living playing music. You don't kiss anybody's ass.' But I've always done what I wanted with no compromises. I'm starting to feel I've lived with my soul fulfilled long enough; now maybe it won't be so hard to do something for money."
Watching Olson spin through a set, it's hard to imagine him worrying about money. When he gets fired up, he seems to approach his music as an impassioned initiate--more concerned with learning than with earning.
"It's your job to master these songs," he says. "If you can't play 'Mannish Boy' and play that right, you can't play the blues. And if you can't play the blues, you're not a very good musician.