Up and Rumbling
Long Wong's is dead, even for a Monday.
It's half past eight and the club's weekly acoustic showcase has started unusually early, smack in the void between happy hour and late night.
While most of the assembled patrons are fixed to TV screens flashing returns from the evening's college basketball games, on stage Gin Blossoms songwriter/guitarist Jesse Valenzuela is playing as if all eyes are on him. Bent over a sunburst Gibson acoustic, he colors a midtempo country tune with a delicate series of licks -- carving subtle filigrees with a network of bends and slides.
Valenzuela moves and plays with an almost feminine languor, the fringes of his crisply parted black hair falling down over the fret board. He'll play for an hour before packing his gear and quickly shuffling down the street to another bar to perform "If Not for You" as part of a birthday tribute to the late George Harrison.
Breezing through a catalogue of old chestnuts and rarely heard originals, Valenzuela launches into a winding ballad titled "Babyface." Three minutes of heart-fluttering ennui end with a coda of candyfloss vocals and liquid guitar runs.
As a smattering of fans make requests, Valenzuela scolds them like a disapproving parent.
"You kids. You always want the up-tempo numbers," he jokes, before launching into the familiar descending chords of "'Til I Hear It From You." It's odd hearing the number -- a Top 10 smash and one of the most played records of the '90s -- in such a drab setting. While the song's refrain once blared from FM radios nationwide, it currently echoes in a half-empty bar amid the din and clatter of bottles and glasses. Jesse Valenzuela is right back where he started -- in a sense, at least.
It'd be a joke to pretend that the guitarist is the same scuffling wide-eyed rocker he was when the Blossoms prowled this very Mill Avenue stage nearly 15 years ago.
Nearly 40, he's a husband, a father and a well-established artist. With a wall of platinum records, a handful of hit singles and an address book filled with industry contacts, he doesn't need to slog through a decidedly unglamorous weekday set, one that won't even cover the cost of gas money. Yet he's decided to return to the places his old band used to haunt -- maybe to repay his dues, maybe to sharpen his craft.
Whatever the reasons for his return, this time Valenzuela is very much on his own -- and poised on the brink of a new career.
The following morning finds a bleary-eyed Valenzuela sunk into a favorite booth at Harlow's Cafe. Sipping a cup of coffee, he leafs through a script for a new Billy Dee Williams movie for which he's been asked to write a song.
Among the pivotal figures of Valley music's old guard, Valenzuela has long been its most enigmatic personality. The lone teetotaler in a notoriously drunken band, Valenzuela managed to stay out of the fray after the Blossoms' controversial firing of group leader Doug Hopkins and the recriminations that followed in the wake of his 1993 suicide. Although maintaining an extremely low public profile since the Blossoms' breakup, Valenzuela has quietly remained a busy and well-connected figure in the music industry.
After years of false starts and delays, this week -- coincidentally, a decade after the Blossoms completed work on their major-label debut -- Valenzuela bows with his first solo effort, Tunes Young People Will Enjoy.
"When asked, I want the response to the record to be, 'Oh, I really enjoyed it,'" he jokes of the album's title.
Armed with a bone-dry sense of humor and a withering wit, Valenzuela seems to enjoy a bit of good-natured needling directed at his inquisitor. Despite his often glib responses, the singer admits it was a long and circuitous route to reach this point in his career.
A Phoenix native, Valenzuela's musical life began as a teen playing Spanish mass at St. Daniel's church in Scottsdale. By the time he graduated high school, Valenzuela was bumping around in a variety of country and cover bands before finding himself in the midst of the burgeoning early '80s East Valley rock circuit. After stints in Tempe pop progenitors the Photos and as a happy hour acoustic act, Valenzuela eventually signed on with the Blossoms, riding shotgun during their bumpy eight-year journey to the peaks of pop stardom.
The group's much-publicized breakup in early 1997 spawned two bands, singer Robin Wilson's Gas Giants and Valenzuela's Low Watts. The latter outfit seemed especially promising, teaming Valenzuela with fellow Blossoms guitarist Scott Johnson, local bass vet Daryl Icard (Feedbags, Major Lingo) and former Bob Dylan drummer Winston Watson.
The group quickly inked a deal with the Blossoms' old label, A&M Records, and began preproduction for a full-length album, demoing songs with producer Craig Schumacher in Tucson. Though the group managed a handful of high-profile shows -- including a two-night coming-out party at Nita's Hideaway -- the Low Watts' run was brief.
The absorption and eventual elimination of A&M by corporate monolith Universal Music signaled the end of the band's financial backing, and with it the end of the fledgling group.
Looking back, Valenzuela admits the project was somewhat ill-fated from the start. Burned out after years on the road and tired of the band environment -- and with Johnson and Icard working with Roger Clyne's Peacemakers -- Valenzuela let the group die quietly. "It was a little halfhearted," he says of his involvement with the band. "Ultimately, I decided to move to California to try something else."
Relocating to Los Angeles, Valenzuela began what would be a busy run of session work and songwriting over the next four years -- all the while knowing he had abandoned a promising collection of material.
"When you're a working musician, and if you're busy, you don't worry about things like that," he says. "I just kind of forgot about those songs and started working pretty heavy in production and co-writes."
For several years, Valenzuela remained satisfied with his work, his contentment due in no small part to a new marriage and the birth of a son. Even after returning with his young family to the Valley, Valenzuela still managed to secure a number of prestigious opportunities -- having songs cut by artists as diverse as the Calling and Judy Collins, and getting offers to tour with the likes of Stevie Nicks and Paul Westerberg.
Mostly, though, Valenzuela found himself working with kindred singer-songwriter spirits: Eagles collaborator J.D. Souther, twang-pop tunesmith Bill Lloyd, ex-Plimsoul Peter Case, Odds front man Craig Northey. Working with these various collaborators, Valenzuela would occasionally revisit one of his old songs for a soundtrack or a TV show, meanwhile squirreling away fresh tunes for a project he knew deep in his heart he'd one day tackle.
Finally, in the summer of 2001, Valenzuela decided to dust off those long-forgotten numbers, polish off a few new ones and start his solo career in earnest.
"I'd be in the studio doing demos with people, and I found this group of musicians I really enjoyed playing with," he recalls. "If there was extra time at the end of a session, I'd tip the guys out to stay and we'd cut a track here and there. And that's basically how this album came together."
The gifted pool of musicians Valenzuela gravitated toward was centered on the Los Angeles studio run by engineer/producer Michael Vail Blum (Madonna, Redd Kross, Suicidal Tendencies). Among the players were a versatile cadre of Tinseltown cats boasting an impressive roster of credits.
Along with longtime musical foil Daryl Icard and a smattering of talented guests, Valenzuela gradually pieced together a strong, classically grounded collection of pop songs, brimming with refined melodies and keenly observed ruminations on love and life. With nary a wasted note and a modicum of verbal economy, the 11-song disc admirably apes the elegant reserve of Nick Lowe and the carefully wrought craftsmanship of Marshall Crenshaw, two of Valenzuela's personal faves.
While the richly textured tracks evince Valenzuela's penchant for pop hooks, the material doesn't worship the Byrds-Big Star-R.E.M. trinity that guided the Blossoms' oeuvre.
"There isn't much jangle on any of these songs," insists Valenzuela. "I was trying to make a record that was more John Hiatt or Joe Henry-sounding. Something a little darker maybe."
To that end, the jagged, escapist themes of "Bulletproof Jacket" -- all looped grooves and warped guitar slashes -- achieve just such a somber brilliance, while the bittersweet "Damaged Goods" juggles Valenzuela's passion for sunny harmonies and bittersweet lyrics.
Meanwhile, cuts like the funky, skittering "We Can Still Run" and the Latin-flecked "Andale Pues" champion a rhythmic approach that's far rootsier than anything else in Valenzuela's canon.
"I was always thinking this batch of songs should be more percussive in value," he says. "And I didn't want to have a lot of guitar sound, per se. I wanted the kick drum and the vocal, that's what I was looking for."
Although Valenzuela relied on a contingent of seasoned L.A. studio pros to bring his songs to fruition, surprisingly, the album isn't cursed by any session-band slickness. Guitarist Nick Kirgo's colorful slide work and Herman Jackson's plangent organ smother the songs in bluesy verve, while drummer Gary Mallaber -- a veritable heavy hitter for the likes of Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and the Beach Boys, among others -- guides the beats with typical aplomb; the musical cast giving many of the older songs a fresh, almost repertory airing.
Elsewhere, a pair of album highlights were salvaged from some late-'90s sessions at Memphis' Ardent Studios, teaming Valenzuela and a group of R&B vets -- including Al Green session ace Steve Potts -- with the Blossoms' old sound guru John Hampton.
If any criticism can be leveled at the album, it's that Valenzuela's lyrics sometimes lack a convincing emotional punch, his songs offering a wistful charm rather than intense profundity. Something less weighty than, say, the horn-rimmed fury of an Elvis Costello or the angry young man antics of a Ryan Adams. The coolly detached Valenzuela, for his part, seems uninterested in cultivating a persona of faux angst for the purpose of selling records.
"The pop music I like best is probably a little more understated. I never went for the chest-beating stuff," he observes. "It's not particularly commercial to do that. But it's how I write and how I am. There are some very personal songs on the album, but I don't want to knock people over the head with that."
Still, when he lowers his guard, as on the album-closing "Someone Else" -- a crackling slice of distressed self-examination -- Valenzuela's work shines with a soul-baring intensity.
A significantly improved singer, Valenzuela seems to take his vocal cues from power-pop supremos Dwight Twilley and Tommy Keene (the latter of whom guests on the album). Valenzuela's tight phrasing and warm midrange -- on tracks such as "Lucky Stars" and "Looking for You" in particular -- showcase a far more confident crooner than the one featured on the occasional Blossoms side.
Despite positive reaction to the album -- Valenzuela had offers from several labels before deciding to release the disc on his own Gabriel Records imprint -- the singer's aims for the project are modest.
"I don't really see it as being the start of a huge solo career," he admits. "I write songs, and if I can go play a few cities, I'll do that, but in the end, making an album and recording is all just a part of what I'm doing as a musician."
Upon purchasing Tunes Young People Will Enjoy, most people will be shocked to find the album comes affixed with a prominently placed warning sticker. It's not the standard RIAA admonition about explicit content, but rather a cheeky caveat that reads: "Warning! This Album Contains Music From an Ex-Gin Blossom!"
Obviously, no conversation with Valenzuela can pass without discussing the 800-pound gorilla on his résumé. Even 15 years after the Blossoms' inception, the group remains arguably the biggest band to emerge from the Valley -- and certainly its longest-running musical soap opera.
Given an insider's perspective, it would seem the politics within the group are only slightly less complex and burdened by the weight of history than the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Despite long-standing personal struggles, in the past few months the group seems to have changed its status from broken-up to semi-active, if not quite fully reunited. The band, which has played a handful of dates since the year began, has a number of regional shows planned as well as a national tour with Soul Asylum slated for the summer.
The Blossoms' catalogue has also been given a boost recently, as the band pressed a limited number of CD copies of its independent debut, 1989's Dusted. Valenzuela confirms that Universal Music is in the process of issuing a lavish 10th anniversary "Deluxe Edition" of New Miserable Experience -- a project that will be given the full remastering, repackaging and bonus disc treatment.
Inevitably, the flurry of activity has sparked talk that the band will write and record a third album, an idea that Valenzuela -- who admits a successful comeback in today's market would be a long shot -- is approaching cautiously.
Still, for those involved, it seems a tempting proposition. Few groups in the history of music can say they left more than a million records on the table, as the Blossoms did with their last album, the Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling Congratulations, I'm Sorry. ("We left on top, just like Jim Brown," jokes Valenzuela.)
Regardless of its motivations, the group's renewed work status has yielded a predictable outcry from some that the band members have grown desperate and are merely seeking to cash in.
"To make a living as a musician is a pretty difficult chore, and the task doesn't get any easier as you get older," offers Valenzuela. "There are some financial concerns that grown men have, and, since I'm not a trust-fund kid, I have to work. And if I make a living playing music, I don't know why that should upset anyone. But apparently, it does.
"However," he adds pointedly, "if money were the prime motivator, then we would've made another record already -- so it's obviously not. We don't make a fortune when we play a show, but we have fun and it's kind of nice to create that sound again. If we seriously had wanted to whore it up, we would've made a record by now. Because everybody's had enough hard knocks where it's been thought of, certainly. But if [a new album] is gonna happen, it has to take its own time, fester in its own way."
For now, though, Valenzuela's sights are set squarely on his solo endeavors, including this week's local CD release party, a string of showcase and songwriter circle appearances, and a clutch of Midwestern club dates with Icard. In between, he'll find time to produce albums for Valley luminaries The Pistoleros and Mark Norman before the Blossoms begin their summer road swing.
As he flips through a date book that's filled through the end of the year, Valenzuela offers perhaps the best and most succinct assessment of his continuing career.
"In this business," he says with a knowing smile, "you have to keep plugging away."
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