"I earned it. After 30 years in the desert, you deserve something, man."
Hans Olson sat in the spotlight Sunday, an iconic lonesome bluesman. He had come to Hayden Square in Tempe to play a song and collect our new Big Chihuahua award for lifetime achievement as part of the New Times Music Showcase. The stage crew, accommodating headliner Maroon5, needed time to set up the sound, but that didn't faze Olson. The acoustic prodigy -- a cooler-than-thou figure with delighted smile, cream-shaded graying hair, aviator shades, black cowboy boots, jeans and button-down shirts -- improvised a few quick tunes, strumming his 1973 model acoustic guitar, making his mouth harp sing, teasing the audience.
For the younger bands, the showcase was an opportunity to win over new ears. Sixth Year Senior, Redfield, the Rasta Farmers, No Gimmick, Aural Aesthetic and uninvited party crashers the MadCaPs all rocked it. For others, the night made for good drama. Busted Hearts, pissed about logistics, skipped out at the last second from My Big Fat Greek Restaurant, while Haggis had an apparent onstage meltdown at McDuffy's near set's end.
For the wise Olson, the night seemed like just another gig. He played the rousing stomper "Where's the Gray" for the thousands gathered in the Square, ending with the kind of shakin' blues jam reserved these days for hippie festivals.
"It's really a kick-ass song," his wife Gina said loyally from stage left as hubby finished.
Olson enjoyed his spotlight. It hasn't always shone as easily.
"I tried to be a mechanic for two years, but I was the worst mechanic ever . . . I broke more bolts than anyone I ever saw. I just didn't have a feel for it."
Hans Olson played Sugar Daddy's two days earlier. Sugar Daddy's is huge, with outdoor and inside lounging areas. It's an upscale happy-hour bar, and its clientele is about as white as imaginable. Yet here sat Olson among this crowd -- his growling, dusty voice may be the blackest you'll ever hear from a white man -- playing acoustic guitar and harmonica and singing songs that sound extracted from the Mississippi Delta. Some were boogies, others faithful blues, still others folk ballads.
Most of his efforts, per the usual these days, went unnoticed.
"I'm doing so many gigs where I'm just background music. Like this gig," says Olson, 50, as he pulls a cigarette from one of those old-style metal cases. "To make a living, you have to play at lounges. You're just in a corner, adding atmosphere, but it's not about me."
Author of the "Phoenix Boogie," Olson has been straddling a line between white and black, between vernacular tradition and bland culture, since the mid-'60s -- it was a love for the Rolling Stones, after all, that turned him on to old black players. His life is replete with tragedy and serendipity. He earned his blues stripes the old-fashioned way -- just as Muddy Waters was a poor sharecropper's son, so, too, did the young Olson suffer hardship.
A cousin accidentally shot Hans' right eye out with an arrow at age 5. Hans' father died of polio the same year; his mother remarried an abusive alcoholic.
Olson grew up in San Bernardino, California, home to the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. Olson's family first moved to Phoenix in 1969 during his senior year of high school. The natural-born rebel found himself fighting with local rednecks. A few months after graduation, Olson returned to San Bernardino to join the Angels, but his timing was a little off.
"The same week I went back, there was nobody there," he says. "I asked where everybody had gone. They said they were up in San Francisco policing a concert [a little Stones fiasco called Altamont]. When I heard about all that stuff they did, I said, You know what? I've got to pick a side here.'"
He chose music over brawling.
The pain and detached cool of his voice is well-earned -- there's also alcoholism and a few aborted attempts to make it big in California. He'd open for B.B. King and others when they rolled through town. He won a rabid following in Phoenix, success in San Francisco and Austin and the chance to tour Europe in regular intervals for eight years. When bands like the Tubes bailed for more visible cities, Olson gladly took their spots. With momentum on his side, he tried to make it big in Hollywood in 1976. He befriended fellow white-boy revivalist singer Tom Waits and wore an eye patch, a touch that made bigwigs salivate.
The superficial attraction to his eyewear is only one of many things that drove Olson back to the comfort of Phoenix after only a month. "It's an evil town," he says. As he tells it, a bar hound's decision to sell his soul to the devil drove him out of Tinseltown for good.
"He had been a lounge piano player and he said he had a dream the devil had come and said, Hey, give me your soul and I'll make you one of the most incredible keyboard players of all time,'" Olson says. "The guy said no for years. He kept having this dream. Then, one day he had the dream and said, What the hell.' . . . He said he signed a piece of paper with a pencil. He got up in the morning and said there was a pencil sitting on his table he'd never seen before. I heard him play . . . it was some of the most unbelievable keyboard playing I've ever heard in my life. It was Beethoven on LSD sort of weirdness. I hallucinated demons out of his piano before I knew the story."
But then the guy, says Olson, bemoaned how there was no market for his talent. The deal was all for naught. There, at a bar, the depressed musician asked Olson to give him his soul back.
So Olson retreated. Save for his European gigs and his vocal on the theme to the Burt Reynolds CBS sitcom Evening Shade, Olson, despite his obvious gifts, never did get his break. Today, he doesn't tour -- "There was no money," he says -- and sells CDs at his shows.
"It's one big sea of humanity."
Olson stepped off the stage at Hayden Square, pleased with his performance. As he packed up his gear, an old friend in a leather cowboy hat sneaked up from behind. Steve Larson, guitarist for Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, approached and warmly started teasing Olson about his gear, specifically an "amplifier simulator," a bomb-looking apparatus with clock faces on it that doubles as a full amp.
The two clearly are kindred spirits. "We dated the same girl," Olson cracked. Larson, whose band played an unannounced Showcase set later in the night, said Hans was like a brother to him.
All warmth aside, the younger man paused when he was asked to put Olson in the context of the Phoenix story. "Hans has always been on the cusp of being huge," Larson said. But alas, Larson said, shit always kept getting in the way. But Olson continues to perform, and that's inspiration enough for the local scene, according to Larson.
Seconds later, Larson bemoaned the changing music industry -- costs, record deals, priorities -- that put the clamps on Olson's ambition, and he painted his friend as the last of an independent breed. "You're gonna never know what you're missing in Hans. How's that for the final word?" He smiled and walked away.
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