Suicide Kings' two front men look like the kind of guys your daddy warned you not to play poker with.
Clad in timeworn cowboy shirts, scuffed, pointy boots and skinny-legged jeans, Bruce Cannole and Dick Taylor stick lit cigarettes in the necks of their guitars and get down to business onstage at Nita's Hideaway. The song is "Hard Luck and Heroin," a harrowing, pop-tinged country rocker. Its title could pass for the short-take bio of this new, power-house, local Americana band made up of a cook and three ex-junkie cab drivers--one of them an original Gin Blossom.
"She's a hurricane blowing out of control," Cannole and Taylor sing in harmony. "She's a freight train thundering through my door/She's a river running through my soul/Hard luck and heroin have taken their toll."
Since the band started regularly playing out about six months ago, Suicide Kings have attracted a solid but eclectic local fan base of hard-drinking, blue-collar country-and-western fans and younger alt. rockers with a taste for roots music. Both factions were out in force at the Kings' recent weeknight show at Nita's. The band fleshed out its set with well-tooled covers of Conway Twitty and Johnny Cash standards before closing with another original, "Even Hookers Say Goodbye." Cannole and Taylor unstrapped their guitars and helped disassemble the drums, then hopped in their cabs out in the parking lot, illuminated the taxi lights and sped off to start their graveyard shifts, ferrying drunks home from other bars.
Longtime devotees of local music in this city may remember Cannole as the brilliant-but-bombed brains behind the Jetzons and later the Strand. Cannole now refers to the Jetzons as "an overrated New Wave cover band," but the band had a huge Valley following in the early '80s. The Jetzons relocated to Los Angeles in 1983 and were a prominent presence on the California club circuit until they broke up four years later. "The Jetzons were a pretty big deal, but I managed to skillfully sabotage anything really major happening," says Cannole.
The singer says his current move from New Wave to country represents less a sudden new awareness than a decision to finally follow his true instincts as a musician. Cannole spent his formative years in Arizona and was exposed to country at an early age. But he says his interest in traditional country was born out of a failed relationship with a hooker he met in a drug-treatment center when he was 17.
"I was with her for a year, and then she left me," he says. "I was looking around for the right kind of music to accompany the morass of self-pity I was in at the time, and someone turned me on to a Hank Williams record. I was pretty much hooked from that point on."
Cannole put together the Strand when he returned to the Valley from L.A. in 1988, and started working roots influences into his sound. "That simple, old music has always hit a stark note with me, but I was always so preoccupied with being cool I was afraid to go out and play it," he says.
Like the Jetzons, the Strand fell prey to its leader's junkie lifestyle. Cannole says he was a heroin addict until a little less than a year ago. Quitting dope, he says, "was about as courageous as running out of a burning house."
"I just got to the point where I was really desperate and I wasn't dead. I know a lot of people who are dead who seemed much more deserving of a clean life than I am. And I know a lot of people still using who seem to have a lot more going on than I do. So [quitting] is not something I really take any credit for."
The seed for Suicide Kings was planted last August when Nita's Hideaway manager Charles Levy asked Cannole to play some songs at the bar's weekly acoustic night. Levy briefly shared a living space with Cannole a few summers back, and says that based on what he heard around the house, he decided Cannole was one of the best songwriters he'd ever heard.
Reluctant to accept Levy's invitation, Cannole was swayed by Levy's persistence and promised payment of a carton of Kool 100s. "I had pretty much given up the idea of playing music anymore. I had retired . . . again," Cannole says, mocking himself. "But then I thought, 'What the hell, it'll be fun. It's such a low-key thing, it shouldn't have all the trappings I'm trying to avoid.'"
Cannole says he bullied Taylor into joining him, because he hates to play alone.
Taylor, who also spent his wonder years in Arizona, started playing guitar when he was 6. Like Cannole, he's introspective and laughs at himself a lot--especially when he talks about how he and the late Doug Hopkins founded the Gin Blossoms.
The way he tells it, he and Hopkins were passing a guitar back and forth on the tailgate of Taylor's truck one night in the parking lot of the Scottsdale bar Anderson's Fifth Estate. They decided they had something going and decided to form a band--Hopkins had already come up with a fabulous name.
"Ultimately, we ended up with me, Jessie [Valenzuela] and Doug all writing songs. But I started shooting dope again, and they were all drinking, and they thought shooting dope was worse than drinking, and I thought drinking was worse than shooting dope, so we'd fight about that a lot."
Taylor eventually quit the Gin Blossoms right before they threw him out. They all decided to give it another go, but Taylor checked himself into a treatment center before the band got rolling. "So, basically, five years later, I experienced the pleasure of working in a furniture warehouse in North Carolina for five bucks an hour and listening to the stuff I wrote on "Found Out About You" on the radio. It was a real moment."
Longtime friends, Cannole and Taylor played together briefly in the Strand, but it didn't work out because one of them was trying to stay clean and the other was shooting up. "Over the years, Bruce and I have never been 'together' together for any length of time," Taylor says, again laughing. "I guess this is the first time we've both had our acts together long enough for it to turn into anything."
The acoustic-night jam at Nita's struck a chord in both musicians in spite of themselves. "It felt really right," says Cannole. "I got very prolific in my writing and excited. I hadn't really left the house to go out to clubs for two or three years, so I wasn't really sure what was going on. I assumed whatever it was, it involved a lot of tattoos and piercings."
Cannole says he was surprised to find that the tattooed and pierced gravitated toward their roots-country stylings. For the first time, he says, he found the "self-fortitude" to guilelessly write in the style closest to his heart. "I used to buy that whole line about pain and creativity, and I found out that the root of all my musical endeavors has always been self-pity. Pure and simple. I know that now. It's not very grandiose or spectacular, but that's what it is. That's what inspires me, that's what I write about. If I strip away all the pretenses, that's what's left."
Based on the success of their acoustic sets, Cannole and Taylor found a rhythm section to back them up and named their new band after a gamblers' slang term for the King of Hearts, who holds a sword to his own head.
The Kings' drummer is Chris "Bolt" Olson. "Chris lived in San Francisco for a long time, which created an influx of really bizarre ideas in his head that are totally impractical," says Cannole. "They're artistic as all hell, but completely useless. He kind of embodies everything that, in my own Arizona way, I think that San Francisco is."
Cannole and Taylor jokingly refer to their bass player, Scott Calkbrenner, as "The Prozac Kid." "Not that he's on Prozac," says Cannole. "He just looks like he's eating way too much of it--with Xanax chasers. He's an angry little man, but he sure doesn't look like it."
Live, Bolt and the Prozac Kid build a subtle but steady base of operations while Cannole and Taylor trade turns on lead and rhythm guitar and harmonize their vocals. Cannole takes the role of tormenter in their stage banter, jibing his partner as Taylor silently scratches his chin with an extended middle finger.
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Taylor also plays a lap steel guitar, perched on a modified ironing board, that adds a delicious Western twang to Suicide Kings' sound, especially the band's signature country-western version of "Heart of Glass."
Cannole says the idea to cover a Blondie song struck him one night in his cab. "There seems to be this resurgence of New Wave music," he says. "It's kinda funny. Every resurgence is funny to me 'cause I was around the first time. It seems like every time I sober up, there is a whole new revival of something. The last time I got sober, it was all the hippies, and then I went off on another five-year voyage, and the next time I came to, I was playing in a club with a bunch of punk-rock kids."
Suicide Kings are scheduled to perform on Friday, July 12, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with the Paladins. Showtime is 10 p.m.