Eleven years ago, on New Year's Eve, the Jetzons played their first gig. Next Tuesday, New Year's Eve, all of the group's original members will reunite after almost nine years apart to try to recapture a little of what made the Jetzons, for a time, the Valley's biggest band.
Cultivating a new-wave look that was decidedly British, the Jetzons were the Valley's answer to Talking Heads. Avid explorers of the then-primitive world of synthesizers, the Jetzons laid out lightweight, pop-rock grooves that filled dance floors and made people smile. At its peak, around 1982, the group's eminently danceable riffs were packing venues all over the state and in California. Two years after their New Year's Eve debut, however, the Jetzons succumbed to the one-two punch that kills most bands--drugs and a hassle with their manager. The combination splintered the group just as a record deal was looming. The original version of the band played its last gig in July 1983. What had made the Jetzons great--lead singer and songwriter Bruce Connole--was also what helped to tear it apart. Throughout the band's time together, Connole wrestled with a heroin addiction. Not just another Sid Vicious--a no-talent musician with a drug habit--Connole is a songwriter and performer of real substance who has swung between long periods of sobriety and precipitous slips into darkness. In the spurts when he's clean, Connole has been able to successfully shift stylistic gears, write new music and form new bands. Unfortunately, every time those bands gained momentum and the money began to flow, he'd get hooked again. One of the Valley's most talented rock 'n' roll wunderkinds, Bruce Connole has been the driving force behind the Jetzons, the Strand and now the Cryptics. The Jetzons' lone album still brings back a rush of memories to those who knew the band in the early Eighties. The Jetzons is filled with the band's guitar-heavy takes on the three-minute pop song. Although the long, anthemic "431" was always the centerpiece of their live sets, "You" is the tune that most people remember pogoing to.
Driven by perky synths and its big-hook chorus, "You" was the Jetzons' biggest hit. Written by Connole and the band's keyboardist, Brad Buxer, "You" also became the group's burden. Fans never stopped requesting it and the tune became a standard the band could never equal.
"`You' is so cute and so happy," Connole says. "It's one of those songs that you wished you'd never written."
Connole is tall and thin, and his long hair hangs down near his face and invites constant flicking. Dressed in black boots, black jeans and a black leather motorcycle jacket, he sits in a booth at the back of a downtown restaurant, smoking incessantly and getting more than a few cynical laughs out of his own mistakes. In conversation, he refers to himself as a "has-been." Well-read, Connole spices his conversation with references to Eastern philosophy and literary figures like William Burroughs--every junkie's favorite man of letters. Since the Fifties, when people like Burroughs and Charlie Parker gave it a certain mystique, heroin has been linked to creativity. For the sober Connole, that's an empty illusion. "Contrary to popular belief, you function on heroin, as long as you can get it," Connole says with a grimace, as he shakes another cigarette out of the pack. "Instead of having a lot of little problems, you have one big one. But it was always a handicap. It never made me play or write any better."
Right now, Connole says he's clean. Despite a studied aloofness, he says he doesn't mind talking about his "disease" because so much of his life doesn't make sense without it. His latest cleanup (and the genesis of his latest band, the Cryptics) began in August 1990 when he hit what he calls "the lowest point in my life so far."
"I hit bottom the day [Saddam] Hussein invaded Kuwait. I thought, `The whole world's going down with me,'" he says. "I was bankrupt on every scale you can imagine--the woman I was living with left me, I was strung out and at one point I was so agoraphobic that I had to drink a quart of 151 or something just so I could leave the house and get to the methadone clinic. "I've had thoughts of suicide before, but this time there wasn't even any consideration of what people would say at my funeral. What brought me back from the edge, though, was the old Hamlet thing--if I had known what's on the other side, I probably would have gone for it."
Fortunately, the fear of the unknown kept him in this world. After weeks of fighting the addiction alone in his apartment, he kicked it and has been clean since. He says his 32nd birthday, November 6, 1990, was the first day he didn't have to take a chemical to feel well. The question now, however, is: Will he slip again?
"Statistically, I'll probably fuck up," he says, obviously betting against it. "But so far it's like they say in AA: If I keep doing what I'm doing now, thinking the way I'm thinking, I'll be okay. Life comes in 24-hour packages, and that's the way I'm taking it."
Blessed with quick fingers and a restless, expansive, native intelligence, he's managed the difficult feat of writing good songs in three widely divergent styles--punk-pop (the Jetzons), twangy cow-punk (the Strand) and retro-distorto rock (the Cryptics). Born in Phoenix and raised in the area of 40th Street and McDowell, Connole dropped out of Phoenix Eastside High School before finishing his sophomore year. "I kept running away from home, which interfered with my academic career," he says with a grin.
A lifelong guitar player who also took a stab at the violin, Connole joined his first band, Billy Clone and the Same, in 1978. The Same had a sound that Connole calls "more cerebral than punk." After releasing one EP called X&Y, the Same broke up in 1980 after front man Mike Corte died of a heroin overdose. After a short stint as the Burning Flamingos, Connole and ex-Same member Damon Doiron recruited keyboardist Brad Buxer and drummer Steve Golladay, and the Jetzons were born.
After two years in the Valley, the Jetzons split up. But that wasn't the end. After an abortive session with a Texas producer, Connole moved to Los Angeles and, along with Buxer, re-formed the band. The L.A. version of the Jetzons quickly regained most of the band's lost momentum and was soon packing clubs again. The group also recorded a demo that Connole still considers one of the best things the band ever did.
After the Jetzons broke up for good in 1986, Connole returned to the Valley. Reacting to what he calls "the whole L.A. rocker thing," Connole began writing tunes with a country twang--songs reminiscent of Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds. In 1987, after getting sober yet again, Connole hooked up with Doiron and drummer Allen Ross Wiley to form the Strand. It was nearly two years before Connole's familiar addictive cycle took effect and the Strand split.
Despite the upcoming Jetzons show, Connole's current songwriting and performing energies are focused on the Cryptics. Made up of guitarist Jason Huff, bassist Mark Cady and drummer Rick Trobman, the Cryptics have quickly become one of the best- known and most controversial bands in the Valley. Most of the backlash comes from fans of Connole's former bands. Jetzons fans just can't understand why the neo-Black Sabbath Cryptics are so loud. Strand fans just can't understand. Connole shrugs it all off.
"It's simple," he says. "None of the kinds of music I've ever written or played have been marketing moves. I've been sincere about all of them. "The Cryptics came out of reading Baudelaire's poetry, William Burroughs' writings and listening to Ministry and Big Black. This is coming out really cliched, but those horrible depths gave new meaning to my life."
Still, Connole knows the Cryptics have a lot of old fans wondering.
"It's weird that the people who come to see the Cryptics don't even know who the Jetzons are. It's really bizarre to have rockers coming up after the show, saying things like, `Oh wow, dude, you guys really rock,'" Connole says in his best Bill-and-Ted accent. "What can you say to that? `Hey, nice black Reeboks'?"
Playing only original material, most of it penned by Connole, the Cryptics have finished a new cassette, Kill Me, which will be released locally in January. Using that tape as a demo, the band plans on moving to L.A. next May. But like the Jetzons before them, Connole says they'll return to the Valley on a regular basis.
Although he knows his track record makes him a bad risk, Connole seems willing these days to work for a larger measure of success. Eternally uninterested in the business side of music, Connole says he's keeping an open mind.
"If a record deal came along for the Cryptics, I wouldn't turn it down," he says. "But in my experience, record deals are just like what would happen if someone comes in and hands you the keys to a Jaguar. For three days, it's great, but then it'd need a tune-up, which costs a fortune, and you're screwed. They [record deals] can be a short period of excitement followed by more problems than you had before."
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Connole is a songwriter and performer of real substance who has swung between long periods of sobriety and precipitous slips into darkness. "I hit bottom the day [Saddam] Hussein invaded Kuwait. I thought, `The whole world's going down with me.'" "I kept running away from home, which interfered with my academic career," he says with a grin.
The Cryptics has quickly become one of the best known and most controversial bands in the Valley.
"Record deals are just like what would happen if someone comes in and hands you the keys to a Jaguar. For three days, it's great.