Editor's Note: An abridged version of this article appears in this week's issue, featuring 100 Songs that Defined Arizona. In celebration of Arizona's centennial, we spoke with Eric Swedlund, a writer, photographer, editor, and all-around-good-dude in Tucson, Arizona, about "We Got Cactus," sort of an unofficial Tucson anthem, which coincidentally works pretty good for the rest of the state, too.
"Spring without flowers is just as remorseful/As an autumn denied the colored leaves fall/Long is the winter when there's no snow/And summer is painful when the wind won't blow/Welcome to my home, no fear of pneumonia/This is paradise, in Tucson, Arizona.
Bloodspasm tore up a series of now-closed Tucson clubs and house parties starting in the mid-80s with blistering hardcore punk rock.
But the band's lasting mark is surely "We Got Cactus," a song that exemplifies life as a desert rat and a local classic that's endured for nearly three decades, in its original wild and boisterous form as well as new country-rock and folk cover versions.
The song tells the story of Tucson in 1985, with a sarcastic and self-deprecating pride that focuses almost entirely on the seemingly negative aspects of the city. And in comparison to the glamorous attractions of other cities -- surfing, nightlife, lakes, beaches -- all Tucson can claim is cactus.
"In terms of modern Arizona there's not a song that nails it better than that," says Al Perry, a longtime Tucson musician who covered "We Got Cactus" on his 2004 album Always A Pleasure. "It perfectly encapsulates life in Tucson and it works so well on every level. There will never be a more accurate portrait of Tucson. That song is the beginning and the end."
Bloodspasm singer Bob McKinley says he wrote the lyrics to "We Got Cactus" in about five minutes one night over a pitcher of beer at the Bay Horse Tavern. Bandmate Eric Snyder already had the music and the song just fell together seamlessly.
"It's nothing really cosmic or anything, just my observations of the city," McKinley says. "You look at Tucson and that's about what I saw. It's about being young and I think it hits the pulse of what was going on in Tucson at the time."
The song isn't anywhere close to a postcard view of Tucson. It's about low-wage jobs, cheap rent, meager bus service and the prevalence of 7-Eleven stores. It's about wanting to escape but at the same time loving the easy-going freedom. Hawaii's got surfing. LA's got Hollywood. New York's got nightlife. We got cactus - -and lots of it, to stab your butt on!
"I'm a very satirical person," McKinley says, deadpan and modest in interview. "But the lyrics couldn't have existed without the original hardcore music."
Bloodspasm's original 1985 version, which saw a wider release on the 1993 compilation Yeah, But It's A Dry Heat, clocks in at 1:18, a breakneck pace the whole way. Perry's rendition stretches things out to 3:29.
"'We Got Cactus' is the ultimate Arizona and Tucson song," says Perry, a member of the Tucson Music Hall of Fame, a weekly DJ on local community radio station KXCI and an enthusiastic collector of all Arizona music (he's also running for president, FYI).
"It hit me right off the bat. The greatest songs you can write are the ones that stick right in your head. It's not just a song, it's an anthem, plus with the local lyrics, you've got something that's very special."
"The thing about that song is it will be great no matter what style you record it in. We could make a disco version of this and it'd sound great. It passes every test you would want to make of a great song."
Perry recorded his own version of "We Got Cactus" at the end of a WaveLab Studio session with Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino. He lifted the country-ish arrangement from Tucson musician Slack Mac, whose version Perry heard in the late 1990s.
"It never occurred to me until we were sitting in the studio and we needed one more song. All of a sudden it went viral. It took on a life of its own after we did it. I cannot go out and do a gig without somebody requesting that song. Everybody associates this song with me, but I didn't do a thing. I didn't write it, I didn't arrange it, I just sang it at one session."
The Dusty Buskers, a bluegrass/folk/Celtic combo, fell in love with Perry's rendition and arranged a version of their own for a November 2010 gig - Locals Covering Locals in celebration of the 10th anniversary of Fourth Avenue nightclub Plush.
"It's regional pride. It's totally a townie folk anthem," says Phoenix Michael, the Buskers fiddler and singer. "Everyone else has this fancy stuff and what do we have? Cactus. It's self-deprecating, but it's all the things we like about Tucson."
What started as a one-off novelty song for the Buskers grew into a live staple, just as it did for Perry.
"People in small towns will bring down the house with a chorus of 'We Got Cactus.' People love it even way outside of Tucson. Anywhere in the Southwest you can play that song and people will get behind it. It's just a barnburner," says Buskers guitarist Stuart Oliver. "It's one of the wittiest songs I've ever heard. The song is brilliant and it has to be carried on. It's vintage stuff at this point. If there was another song about Tucson that good, we'd learn it too."
For his part, McKinley says the song is still valid now, though the buses do run a bit later than they used to. The surviving members of Bloodspasm still get together for gigs every year or so and always play it. That poetic opening line, however, had to get chopped a bit.
"We play it faster now. At the beginning of the song I have to change the first line because it's impossible to sing it any faster."
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