Good Year for Bad Days
It's an archetypical Western story.
Four earnest young cowpunks pile onto a bus and set out on the hardest road they can find, looking for life and adventure and irony. Along the way, they make people laugh and dance. They find unexpected success, then return home with an empty gas tank and a hero's welcome, only to be sucker-punched and wake up face down in the street with wallets missing.
Then like any prototypical Westerners, they get back up to do it all over again.
The story could be cast in a lyric by Roger Clyne, lead singer and songwriter for the Tempe rock band the Refreshments, and it would chart their rapid ascent during the past two years and sudden stall over the past two months.
The band charmed Tempe with its danceable, upbeat rock tunes, full of heartbreak and smartass, then took its first major-label CD, Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy, well up the charts, spiking a single named "Banditos" (with its bad-attitude refrain, "Everybody knows that the world is full of stupid people").
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsTue., Nov. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
The Refreshments toured the continent, earning a quirky following that seemed a subset of Jimmy Buffett's Parrotheads, made the right TV appearances, sold a song to a TV show, sold another to a movie soundtrack, recorded a second album.
Just before Thanksgiving, the Refreshments returned from 14 months on the road and played a sold-out, kick-ass show at the Cajun House in Scottsdale, "happy to be home and well-rehearsed," as one band member put it.
Then came the one-two sucker punch.
Through bad luck and bad management, they lost a spot playing at the Tostitos Tempe Fiesta Bowl Block Party and then got dragged into court over it.
And early this month, Mercury Records let the band's recording contract lapse, unimpressed by the flagging sales of its second CD, The Bottle & Fresh Horses. The critics liked the second CD for its more mature content; the fans apparently liked the band's cantina-rat persona and didn't want the boys to dry out and grow up just yet.
Through a corporate management shuffle, the Refreshments had lost their champion at Mercury. No one seemed to remember the band's potential, the numbers of its first CD, the excitement of its concerts.
That's not enough to keep four good men down. While it shops for a new recording company, the band is holed up in its practice studio in Tempe, writing and rehearsing new songs, then airing them out in the same little clubs where the band got its start.
There had been an omen in the chorus of the Refreshments' latest single, "Good Year," a song that Mercury released against the band's better judgment. And it bombed.
It's been a good year for bad days
or a bad year for good days,
well, here we go again now
here we go again now.
"We're happier being independent," Clyne said bravely last Sunday night at the Yucca Tap Room, where the band put on a free, impromptu show. Then as always, good times or bad, the boys turned the amps up loud and brought down the house.
On Christmas night at Gibson's in Tempe, a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd patiently waited for the Refreshments, through the sets of two bands.
A Refreshments concert is a joyous, sardine-packed sing-along, and if everyone has his or her arms in the air, it may be as much for lack of space as for dance rhythm.
Singer-guitarist Roger Clyne has puppy-dog good looks, brown hair that falls along his face and down his neck. He wears big bright Hawaiian shirts--especially one with a 1940s version of a racy lady dressed in a strapless bra--that drape over the frame of a "healthy 159-pound American boy," as he sings in one song.
Singing, for Clyne, is often a tuneful shouting that wracks his shoulders and contorts his face. He taps time on his amp with a big, floppy Jack Purcell sneaker. He bounds and bounces or leaps Springsteenlike, with his back to the audience, legs tucked to one side, guitar counterbalancing on the other. His charisma beams through the room; blond co-eds stare at him longingly.
Bassist Buddy Edwards, his head nearly shaved, bounces nearby; drummer P.H. Naffah stares intently from beneath a baseball cap, pounding relentlessly. All three flail and throb, so that the whole group would be in danger of levitating if lead guitarist Brian Blush weren't so steadfastly anchoring the other side of the stage.
Blush braces himself in a corner, in a Western-sequined jacket and a black 10-gallon Stetson, eyes closed, smiling blissfully, occasionally busting a minimalist Chuck Berry duck walk, and pumping out the big raw guitar licks that start and end nearly every Refreshments song.
The sound is upbeat pop, basic rock 'n' roll. All four, privately, apologize for their lack of technical expertise on their instruments, picking up the slack with attitude. Clyne's lyrics run ripe with bons mots, sometimes pensive, sometimes snide and occasionally downright funny.
"Roger has a way of saying what every man is thinking," says Brian Blush. "I find myself saying, 'Damn it, why didn't I say that? I've been thinking it all my life.'"
The catchy melodies and clever lyrics have been both the band's strongest suit and biggest critical liability.
"We never drew a line and said we're going to be a serious band or a funny band," says Buddy Edwards. "Both of them were pretty essential in our approach to what rock 'n' roll is. One of the Kids in the Hall, the TV show, said, 'I love rock 'n' roll, but I also realize how stupid it is,' and from the time this band started, we've always approached it that way."
Some irony-challenged listeners have interpreted Refreshments staples like "Banditos" and "Mexico" as being anti-Mexican. Lyrics in the former, for example, exclaim, "The good guys and the bad guys, they never work past noon around here. They sit side by side in the cantinas, talk to senoritas and drink warm beer. . . ."
Clyne, in fact, meant the songs as homage to a more relaxed and civilized society he perceives south of the border, where he'd rather be. He speaks Spanish, and unselfconsciously peppers his English conversation with Spanish expressions.
The Refreshments could fill any local venue, anytime. However, in local critics' circles, "accessibility" is a pejorative, as if being able to like a song and understand it on a first hearing were a bad thing. They've been called the "Refratments," for their ardent student following, and local memories of their bar-band days.
"For some reason, America believes that unless it smacks of all sorts of pain, unless it's bad, it's not art, and I don't agree with that," says Clyne.
Blush adds, "We've heard things like 'too pop for radio' or 'too hooky,' and those arguments never made sense to me."
Ted Simons, the morning DJ at KZON, calls the Refreshments a "snotty little band putting together quick quirky pop songs."
"I'm not a big fan of clever. I like honest, artistic stuff," he says.
"I think that's part of the reason I can't relate to it," says Mark Zubia of the local band the Pistoleros. Zubia likes the band members, but not their music. "Not that it's not dark," he continues. "It doesn't have as much soul as I like to have in music."
Another local band is alleged to have challenged the Refreshments to a fistfight.
At issue is the Refreshments' rapid rise.
"You have bands that have been playing for seven, 10 years in Tempe, and here's a band that's been around a year and a half that's on MTV and touring around the country," says Charlie Levy of Nita's Hideaway. "People get jealous."
"I'm full-on jealous of all their success," admits Curtis Grippe from Dead Hot Workshop, another popular Tempe band that made the climb from local to national act and back again. "I think it's really cool that they've had success."
Then Grippe turns the tables. "The Refreshments have been very supportive of everyone they've worked with, especially Roger," he says. "In all my years of knowing him, I've never heard him say one bad thing about another band. He's the only musician I could say that about. I love their music. It's good-time pop music."
And there's not a better show in town than the one they put out for their loyal fans.
They finished well after midnight on Christmas.
Buddy Edwards and P.H. Naffah disappeared almost immediately. Brian Blush and Roger Clyne hung out in the small upstairs dressing room at the back of Gibson's to decompress. Blush quietly smoked a cigarette.
Clyne was folded into a couch, looking as if he had been picked up and wrung out by a giant hand, spent, politely trying to focus his eyes on an ardent fan who was prattling happily about Mexico and how good the show was.
Clyne croaked out the proper response.
National music critics paint the Refreshments as if they were playing Yuma and Gila Bend in juke joints that look like TV beer commercials, full of hot tee-shirted blondes in tight jeans.
"Maybe that's what they've got implanted in their minds as to what the Southwest is," says Blush, "a truck stop with a saguaro in the parking lot."
Still, even local music writers harbor a notion of four happy-go-lucky guys piling into a Suburban with a cracked windshield, throwing beer cans out the window on the way to a weekend in Mexico spent crying over lost loves.
The reality is four pleasant men pushing 30, who live separate lives and come together to make music.
On the road, "It's like touring with the Osmond Brothers," says their former A&R man, Peter Lubin.
Although all of them attended Arizona State University, only one of them is actually from Arizona, Roger Clyne, the singer and main songwriter.
What the four hold in common is an anxious recognition that although they have crept into the musical big leagues, they could be sent down to the minors, especially given recent history. And though they have recorded one near-gold album, they are hardly rock stars. They live in modest middle-class houses with their wives or fiancees; Roger Clyne, who turned 30 this week, has a 10-month-old boy. They eat in taco shops. They make only about as much money as, say, a newspaper reporter, and that is always tentative.
"We had a hit single. We sold almost 500,000 records, and we make almost exactly the same as a national band as we made as a local band," says Buddy Edwards. "Almost exactly the same."
They all carry not-so-fond memories of working day jobs so that they could gig at night. And they all jealously cling to a success that allows them to do what they want and get paid for it, knowing it could end at any time.
Otherwise, they are four different men.
Brian Blush, 28, grew up in suburban Detroit, the son of a psychologist. He wandered out to Tempe to study communications at ASU, and when he tired of that, he tried business and then dropped out altogether to focus on band life.
"Brian's the one person I know who knows exactly--exactly--what makes him happy," says bass player Buddy Edwards. "He doesn't care why, and it is both his strength and his weakness. What he likes is to be onstage playing music."
Blush is smilingly cool onstage, hiding beneath his big cowboy hat. He admits that it's almost an out-of-body experience, that he sometimes finds himself listening in, observing from outside and thinking, "Whoa, this is a pretty good band."
But he seems a younger, more vulnerable being walking anonymously around Tempe, the Stetson replaced by a truck-stop baseball cap. About the only thing identifiable about the off-duty Blush are the knees poking through his blue jeans. He speaks gently, introspectively, not just about his music, but about his relief at being off the road long enough to cut his grass and visit with his wife. The other band members joke that they really don't know what Blush does when he's not performing, assuming he inhabits some hermetically sealed universe.
Blush spent the second part of the 1980s in a band named Ritual, which played cover tunes, and then with a second local cover band named August Red. Along the way, he fell under the sway of the legendary guitarist for the Gin Blossoms, Doug Hopkins.
The Blossoms were still a local band, and Blush was too young to get into the clubs where they played. He'd been stopped at the door of Long Wong's, and then, failing to get in the front door of the now-defunct Sun Club, he looked for a way to sneak in.
"I was walking around and found a back door," he remembers, "and I was just about to give it a tug when it flew open. And there was Doug Hopkins, this tall guy with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. I didn't know who he was."
"Buy me a beer," the older guitarist demanded, "and I won't shanghai your ass."
Blush settled in at the bar, and when Hopkins took the stage, he settled into new aspirations.
"I sat back and it changed my life," he says.
Blush claims he learned much about guitar playing from Hopkins, though it's hard to hear. His licks on Fizzy Fuzzy are bigger and edgier than Hopkins' guitar work on the Gin Blossoms' New Miserable Experience--if that is any fair comparison. Hopkins was on his way out of that band when the album was recorded, and how much he actually contributed, and how much of his soul had already been consumed by alcoholism, has been debated in the press.
But influence shows itself in other ways.
"Brian was Doug's biggest fan," says Curtis Grippe from Dead Hot Workshop. "He wore a hat like Doug's, kinda walked like Doug, stands onstage like Doug. He plays riffs like Doug. Doug was his mentor."
Arthur Eugene Edwards III, 28, calls himself Buddy, because, he says, the long name is too regal for a kid from Moline, Illinois. His parents and grandparents worked in the John Deere plant there, but Edwards went to ASU to study English literature.
"I studied English lit because I wanted to know what Moby Dick was about," he says. "I had no plans for a job. Before the Refreshments, I had 10 jobs in 14 months, doing the lowest of the low."
But he liked being in a town where the local bands played more than just cover tunes. He'd work a week or two to pay the rent or airfare to Mazatlan, gigging at night in college bands. When he graduated from ASU, he applied to the university's graduate program in creative writing and was turned down. Ironically, unlike most aspiring writers in writing programs, he now earns enough to spend his days at the computer working on a novel.
Edwards has an explosive and a frequent laugh.
He lives with his wife in Ahwatukee, drives her Camry, and is like just another accountant in sneakers and a flannel shirt on his day off. During an interview at a taco chain in an Ahwatukee strip mall, Edwards was interrupted by his next-door neighbors. They chatted politely about the taco franchise.
After they left, Edwards apologized for not introducing them because he didn't know their names, even though he's lived next door to them for several years.
"They don't know what I do," he said.
Edwards seeks normalcy and hates being on the road.
"You're taken away from everything that's regular in your life," he says. "When I come home, I kind of demand a certain amount of: This is what happens in the morning, this is what happens in the afternoon, and this is the evening, every day, and I literally write it out on a piece of paper every day."
Drummer P.H. Naffah, 28, is also a Midwesterner, a doctor's son from suburban Chicago, who came to Tempe to go to college. P.H. stands for Paul Habib.
Like the other Refreshments, he's a self-taught musician. As a kid, he would go to the basement to pound on his drum kit for hours, harboring a fantasy of being a rock star, without thinking of studying toward that goal.
Instead, he studied biology at ASU, which pleased his father, because it meant that P.H. would be a physician, too. From 1985 until 1993, he played in a band called Rain Convention, then quit when he graduated from college to work for a cabinetmaker in Fountain Hills.
He'd taken the med-school boards, but hadn't actually applied to medical school, which irritated his father. And he was irritated himself that his job started so early in the morning that he could neither play in a band nor even go out to see other bands.
The Refreshments called on him in 1995 as a replacement for a drummer who wasn't working out.
Naffah is the steadiest of the four band members, quiet and rarely ruffled.
"I've never been a very conflicted person," he says, and the other band members agree.
Buddy Edwards recalls a road argument on the bus with Clyne and Blush over their play list for a college-town gig. Edwards wanted the band to play an equal number of songs from each album--to sell records, rather than just slip into a frat-house song list to get the college kids off their seats. And he wanted the show to end at some predictable point--Blush and Clyne would just as soon play until they drop.
As the fight escalated and the vibe whirled through the bus, Naffah, Edwards recalls, walked right up the aisle, through the shouting, refusing to acknowledge that it was even happening--effectively ending it.
Roger Clyne is the soul and center of the Refreshments.
On a recent December morning, Clyne opened for rapper Puff Daddy.
Clyne's mother teaches elementary school in Gilbert, and he'd agreed to visit a library full of students who were curious about what it was like to be a musician.
Though he projects confidence while hiding behind a guitar and a microphone onstage, here on a stool in the school library, he was kept off balance by a barrage of grade-schooler questions that were as focused and to the point as any journalist's.
"Why are you called 'the Refreshments'?" a child asked.
"Because it was the only name we didn't get into a fight about."
"What kind of car do you drive?"
"An old Toyota Landcruiser with a cracked windshield."
"Did you like math?"
The kids all cheer.
"Who doesn't have trouble with math?" he asks back. Hands go up. "Okay, you guys are freaks."
"Did you ever cry while singing a song?"
They ask which famous musicians he knows. Clyne fumbles around with names from Seven Mary Three and other grown-up bands.
"Do you know Puff Daddy?"
"No." Unsatisfactory answer. The kids press until Clyne says, "I am pining to meet Puff Daddy, and if I ever do, we'll reconvene and I'll tell you all about it."
Then he offers a good alternative: "We play the song on King of the Hill."
A cheer goes up. Then another gleam of recognition:
"Do you sing 'the world is full of stupid people'?" one girl asks.
"Yes, I do," Clyne answers firmly, "but it's 'everybody knows the world is full of stupid people.' If you take that as true, then that means that somebody's thinking that about you and me, too."
Clyne's mother is the sister of Republican Congressman John Shadegg; his grandfather was a political strategist for Barry Goldwater. His father is a working cowboy. Since his parents divorced when he was quite young, Clyne split his time between Tempe--he attended Brophy for two years--and his father's family ranch near Sonoita, south of Tucson. There he learned to rope and herd cattle.
If his Uncle John is a free-market advocate of logging and ranching and mining, Clyne is a radical environmentalist--his first job out of college was as foreman on a crew cleaning up the Salt River bottom--and a radical egalitarian.
He drives an old truck and lives in a commune with his longtime girlfriend Alisa Jellum, his 10-month-old son Otis, his brother and one of the band's roadies. Though he writes most of the band's songs, he insists that the royalties be split evenly among the band members, reasoning that they spend the same amount of time onstage as he does.
All of which makes the band's L.A. manager, Michael Lustig, smile.
"As much as Roger tries to make it a democracy, he is still the leader," Lustig says.
Clyne describes himself as a control freak; the other band members see his control as generosity.
"The thing I absolutely adore about Roger is his ability to be unbelievably selfless," says Buddy Edwards. "If you were to call Roger and say, 'I have a problem with my transmission, can you help me?'; that's his perfect day. He loves for you to bring your car over so he can 'help' fix it. Basically, he does it for you while you drink beer."
When Clyne enrolled at ASU, he tried studying music, but he found it too mathematical, too divorced from his experience. "Furthermore, I couldn't do it," he says bluntly.
Instead he took a double major in psychology and anthropology, played in bands at night, and was on his way to a graduate program in psychology that got sidetracked when the Refreshments took off.
In 1992, Clyne and the bass player from his band at the time, and a vagabond friend named Michael O'Hare took off for Taiwan with the hope of getting jobs teaching English.
They blew most of their money on a stopover in Honolulu and had to sleep in the park and play music in the street to earn back enough money to get to China.
When they reached Taipei, they booked into a youth hostel, "Which pretty much ended up being Drug Central," Clyne remembers, "where all the dealers brought drugs to sell to the foreigners, which was us. It was evidently the seediest place you could live in Taipei, because once we got jobs teaching, all our students were begging us to move out and offering us a place to stay with them: 'You can't live in the Taipei hostel.' 'You don't know the reputation the place has!'--which was all the more reason to stay."
They took their instruments to subway terminals to earn the rent. The Chinese were underwhelmed.
"At first we played a lot of songs we thought would be hip over there, pseudo-cool American music--Pixies, Camper Van Beethoven, Nirvana. It sounded really cool in the subway with all that natural reverb. But it ended up scaring the Taiwanese away."
Other buskers suggested that they play Beatles medleys, John Denver and Everly Brothers songs, and then the open guitar case started filling up with coins--illegally of course. Clyne could tell the police were coming when the vendors all started running, and he would pack up his guitar and coins and start running, too.
After nearly a year of teaching English, Clyne and friends booked passage to Thailand. His favorite Refreshments song, "Mekong," unfolds in a bar in Bangkok, where local and international travelers intersect and exchange lies and life stories while waiting for trains and planes.
It's a halfway nostalgic song:
"We flew all the way/From Taipei today/ Still, Bangkok's pissing rain/And I'm going blind again/And I haven't seen my girl, for 15,000 miles."
Then the tempo shifts up:
"Is it true it's always happy hour here?/ 'Cause if it is, I'd like to stay a while."
"Mekong" shows Clyne's sensitive eye: He was touched by the poverty, destitution and prostitution, which comes out in the haunting line, "Smile at the girl in the door/Another four-dollar whore/But don't look her in the eye/It'll break your heart."
To describe the ups and downs of Clyne's life on paper somehow makes him sound fragile or even neurotic. In fact, he's funny and strong, stably fused to fiancee Alisa and son Michael Otis--whom he named after best friend and traveling partner O'Hare, who died a year ago. And he speaks with naked honesty about taking his own sanity to the abyss and back.
When the Refreshments were forming, Clyne suffered from debilitating panic attacks and agoraphobia, and worries of not accomplishing what he needed to.
"I used to fear that if I would go to bed and my life were over and I'd never wake up, that I would have regrets about it."
He laughs at the paradox.
He pulled himself away from the brink, went to his father's ranch, wandering off into the mountains with a bedroll for days at a time on spiritual quests, walking and sitting and fasting and confronting himself and the vastness of the outdoors.
"I really like that feeling," he says. "At once you're all alone and totally vulnerable, and, at the same time, you're part of a different hold that you don't feel in the city. I have to seek that shift in reality."
The Refreshments rehearse in the back of a store on University Drive in Tempe. In the front is an assemblage of amps and instruments and plain junk, some of it memorable: plastic army men from the band's video of its song "Down Together," an empty bottle of Mekong whiskey, a topless airbrushed rendition of the bomber-nose babe on the cover of Fizzy Fuzzy.
The music takes place in a tiny carpet-lined space. Aside from the amplifiers, the only furnishings are a couple of stools and the back seat from a minivan, as if guests could seat-belt themselves to keep from being blown away.
The band warms up with a Tom Petty song, then a couple of its own, before trying out a new song that Clyne has sung into his little four-track tape recorder. Blush and Naffah have heard the tape and are already thinking up ways to slip into it--Blush has a guitar riff he wants to feather onto Clyne's high guitar introduction.
The chorus of the new song reflects the effect that touring has had on Clyne's experience:
I don't know how you got through security,
You picked all my locks by being so low key.
I've never been easy, but I'll be easy for you.
The first run-through is tentative.
"The first record I put on when I was writing this was the Cars--the first song is 'My Best Friend's Girl.'"
He walks some bar chords up the neck of his guitar, the same he just played in his own song, but naked and alone, they sound like "My Best Friend's Girl."
He noodles a few rhythms, trying to get the Cars out of his head.
They run through the new song again, easily this time. Clyne titles it "Easy."
"Pure pop," he says.
Then he turns his humor back on himself, free-associating to a Metallica tee shirt that proclaims "Metal up your ass."
"They should have a popsicle coming out of a toilet that says, 'Pop up your ass,'" he quips.
Pop has been the Refreshments' stock in trade, the music for which it is both praised and criticized. The band got its start playing college town bars, where job one is to sell beer and job two is to get the students onto the dance floor--or you don't come back.
Clyne had struggled with a cowpunk band called the Mortals, and several of the songs that later appeared on Fizzy Fuzzy he sang in that earlier three-piece band.
"They were a little tamer, a little greener," he says. "The tempos were a little faster."
Others have said that the tempos were so fast that it was a wonder Clyne could get his mouth around the lyrics.
When the Mortals broke up, Clyne and the drummer, Dustin Denham, linked up with Buddy Edwards, and spent a summer writing songs and trying to fashion a sound. They wanted a lead instrument, anything but a guitar--a violin, perhaps, or an accordion like Camper Van Beethoven, a band they admired. They held auditions, but the musicians they talked to mostly wanted to know how much money they got per gig.
Doug Hopkins had already been booted out of the Gin Blossoms and had left the Chimeras (which would morph into the Pistoleros), and Clyne asked him to sit in with his new band. Hopkins missed the date and then told Clyne that he had shoved his guitar through the roof of Edcel's Attic, a Tempe club. Clyne took that as a bad sign.
Shortly afterward, Hopkins took his own life.
Brian Blush, meanwhile, had been playing with his own band, August Red.
When Hopkins died, Blush quit music altogether and holed up in his parents' condo in Palm Springs.
"The one guy who was the world to me and that represented rock 'n' roll to me was out of the game," Blush remembers. "So I said, 'Fuck it, I quit.'"
A mutual friend of Blush and Clyne suggested that they get together. Clyne had his prejudices about Blush's earlier band.
"It was the jealousy of my youth," Clyne says, "because they had all the chicks, they had all the gigs. They were really popular and we were the geeks."
Blush had a better opinion of Clyne; on his nights off, he would go listen to the Mortals.
"I really became a fan of Roger because not only did he have clever and witty lyrics, but he was fun to watch," Blush says. "It wasn't a power stomp. In fact, it was a pretty sloppy, kind of drunken band, but that appealed to me."
He agreed to audition. The others eyed him suspiciously as he plugged into his big amp, and then they started to play.
"We launched into our first song," Clyne says. "It was immediately imperative that he be our lead guitar player."
"There was such a spark that it freaked us out," he says. "We played the first note and all of us got the same smirk on our face."
The Refreshments played their first gig on January 29, 1993, at Long Wong's in Tempe, hard-pressed to come up with 10 songs. They played regularly at the Yucca Tap Room; the wives and girlfriends would go along and dance, and soon the word got out that there were chicks at Refreshments shows.
Late in 1994, the band members played in a local band contest sponsored by Ticketmaster, and won, earning them a spot in a regional competition in Seattle which they also won. Later at the finals in Los Angeles, they came in first out of 7,800 bands, and won $10,000 worth of recording time to make a demo tape.
They didn't need it. They'd already recorded an independent-label CD, Wheelie, which came out that December and did well in the Phoenix area. It got passed on to the majors.
In March 1995, the Refreshments were invited to play at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas, a showcase for regional bands, where they were sought out by Peter Lubin of Mercury Records.
Lubin had received a copy of the indie CD from an Austin-based scout.
"The first time I put on Wheelie, I actually excused myself and went to the bathroom," Lubin says. "But Wheelie had a funny way of returning to the disc player over and over, and when you do A&R and have so much to listen to, it's unusual for a disc to keep reappearing in the tray. After a while, I made a mental note that if I ever got the chance, I'd look into the Refreshments."
He made the date in Austin, took them out for lunch, got hammered on tequila, heard them play, and signed them.
But the band was not completely satisfied for reasons that none will talk about now. Dusty Denham, the drummer, was not living up to the others' expectations, and though the current band members toss about the word "professionalism," rumors on the street are even less flattering. In any case, the band fired him.
Denham did not return calls from New Times.
Peter Lubin was appalled that the band would fire its drummer right before it went into the recording studio.
P.H. Naffah, meanwhile, was working his day job when he got invited to try out for the drummer's spot.
His sister and his fiancee, with whom he lived, constantly played Wheelie.
"I'd come home and they'd be playing the Refreshments' CD nonstop."
That was a good thing: He had the songs in his head when he went to try out, and he got the job.
Fizzy Fuzzy is essentially a remake of Wheelie, but executed at a much higher level of professionalism under Lubin's direction.
"They made us go to work and put the beer cans down," Clyne says.
But the work paid off. The Refreshments topped Billboard magazine's "heatseekers" list of new acts for weeks. Fizzy Fuzzy reached number 97 in the Billboard 200. The album is poised to go gold, having shipped close to 500,000 copies--not as well as the Gin Blossoms did with their two albums, but respectable nonetheless. "Banditos" climbed to number 11 on Billboard's Rock Tracks list.
The Refreshments hit the road, playing more than 300 shows in the U.S. and Canada.
They played to dead air in Los Angeles, braved flying chicken drumsticks at a music festival in Omaha, and got pelted with mud in Cleveland. But then they found they had cult followings in such disparate places as Denver; Minneapolis; Portland, Oregon; and Boston.
"You'd think someone in Boston or the Pacific Northwest wouldn't be inclined to know about taking road trips through Nogales or down to Rocky Point," says Brian Blush. "But regardless of where they're from, they pick up on that vibe."
"It is amazing to me to go to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and see 800, 900 people who know all the words to all the songs," says Peter Lubin. "That is very significant. Every gig they play, they have to spend an hour and a half signing autographs and answering questions."
They played Chicago on a Sunday night in January during an ice storm, and still managed to rouse 500 fans. They needed 30 security guards to get them in and out of the venue safely through the throngs of crazed fans in Springfield, Missouri.
"One guy sent us a naked video of his girlfriend dancing to our music," says Clyne.
They made appearances on the Conan O'Brien show and a PBS rock road-show series. They wrote the instrumental theme song for Fox TV's King of the Hill prime-time cartoon--Entertainment Weekly called it the best new TV theme. They placed another single on the soundtrack for the film An American Werewolf in Paris.
The Refreshments were hot.
Then their second album came due.
Many of the songs on The Bottle & Fresh Horses date to before the band's first album was recorded, others had been written on the road.
They'd all heard the gripes about Fizzy Fuzzy's accessibility, and although Clyne denies it changed his style in the slightest, Blush admits that it "affects your psyche."
The Bottle is edgier and darker. But it did not fare well.
Peter Lubin, who had signed the band to Mercury Records, had been fired in a management shakeup, and the Refreshments lost their inside champion. And although Mercury offered to let Lubin oversee the new album, Michael Lustig, the band's L.A. manager, thought that would be bad luck in an already compromised situation.
Lubin, who remains in close contact with the Refreshments as a friend and an adviser, tries to be objective about the second album.
"I think if I had to sum up the second album for myself, I would have to say it's frightening the extent to which their personality is missing from that record," says Lubin. "And I don't mean the material."
Indeed, the songs are vital and exciting in concert, but the rendition through tapes and wires is workmanlike.
The critics liked it better than Fizzy Fuzzy "because the songs are more mature," says Michael Lustig. "But sonically it doesn't have the immediacy that Fizzy Fuzzy did."
The record-buying public apparently agreed. The Bottle came onto the Billboard 200 at number 150 in its first week out, and then never showed up again.
How much Mercury promoted the CD is anyone's guess. It won't comment.
"I never got a Refreshments CD, and I get a lot of CDs from bands I never heard of," says Chicago DJ Marty Lenartz.
Mercury decided to release Brian Blush's song "Good Year" as the first single, to the band members' consternation. They saw "Good Year" as a B-side, but trusted the company's judgment.
It failed at the record store, and Mercury seemed to forget the band's earlier successes.
During the first week of January, the Refreshments' contract with Mercury came up for renewal, and Mercury was not excited. (Mercury would neither confirm nor deny a thing to New Times.) It offered to release a second single, "Wanted," and a 90-day extension on the contract to see if it could resuscitate album sales. The Refreshments passed so that they could shop elsewhere.
"We made a co-decision to get off the label," says Clyne.
Peter Lubin remains optimistic on their behalf.
"Strictly as an industry observer," Lubin says, "the Refreshments are more signable now than when I signed them."
As hometown heroes, the Refreshments were an obvious choice to play at the Fiesta Bowl Block Party, but that deal went south as well.
Creative Artists, the L.A. firm that represents the Refreshments, had wrestled with Image Entertainment, the local firm that books the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl Block Party, over how much to pay the Refreshments for a New Year's Eve show. Image had offered $17,500, and the band's management insisted on $20,000, which band manager Michael Lustig claims they got last year for a New Year's Eve show at a local venue.
The two sides reached agreement on the figure, but not on what went with it. Image claims that the extra $2,500 included an agreement not to play elsewhere in the Valley between the November contract (which was never actually signed) and the New Year's Eve show. No such wording appears anywhere in the agreement; Image claims that there was a verbal agreement and that such exclusivity is an industry standard.
But the band remained unaware of any such expectation. On the night before Thanksgiving, the Refreshments performed a heart-stopping show to a sold-out crowd at the Cajun House in Scottsdale.
When the Fiesta Bowl found out about the performance, it called Creative Artists, demanded that the band's fee be lowered because of the perceived infraction, but eventually came back to the $20,000 figure.
Lustig went ballistic and told Image Entertainment that the price had just gone up to $35,000.
"That's extortion when you're talking two weeks before an event," says Ken Koziol, Image's president.
Much of the misunderstanding hinged on the sum paid last year to the Gin Blossoms for last year's Block Party, rumored to be well over $100,000, a figure that Koziol refused to confirm, but says did not come out of his budget; instead it had been negotiated directly by Frito-Lay, the owner of Tostitos.
The Refreshments saw the exclusivity as an attempt to limit their earnings as a local band.
"When you're paying $17,500 to $20,000, they're no longer a local band in my mind," fumes Koziol. "You cross the line and become a national act and then different rules apply."
The Fiesta Bowl got out its big guns. On December 23, although the negotiations to date had been handled by managers and agents, the band members themselves were served with subpoenas at 1:30 in the afternoon ordering them to be in Superior Court at 4 p.m. The Fiesta Bowl was seeking a temporary restraining order to keep them from performing their Christmas show and also was seeking damages against the band to recoup the costs of publicizing the concert that would not happen.
Precisely at 4 p.m., the elevator doors opened on the top floor of the courthouse and ejected three Refreshments and a lawyer of the moment. They'd spent the few hours' notice frantically looking for representation.
Blush was dressed in full concert regalia, rock-star suit, hat and boots in place. Clyne wore sneakers and a suit coat. Naffah had on his usual baseball cap. Edwards was out Christmas shopping and blissfully unaware of the uproar.
The elevator opened again and launched out reporters, notepads in hand. Clyne spoke animatedly, waving arms, wondering aloud why the Fiesta Bowl had rained down on them.
"I have to remember to breathe," he said in an aside.
Blush was smooth and measured, quietly answering questions.
Naffah sat on a bench with an amused look on his face, unpursued by the reporters and not really caring.
He turned to the New Times reporter he'd had lunch with that afternoon and said, "How's that burrito sitting with you?"
The elevators opened a third time, and the Fiesta Bowl party walked out in single file, as caricatured as a scene from A Hard Day's Night: first a Snell & Wilmer attorney who resembled Niedermeyer from Animal House, then a leggy lady attorney in a short skirt, then Koziol, then two Fiesta Bowl officials, the last one carrying a phone. The rockers and the reporters all stopped talking to watch the procession march toward the courtroom.
The Refreshments' lawyer pulled them aside to try to come up with a strategy. He suggested they offer up a free charity concert in the name of the Fiesta Bowl, if the other side would drop all other issues. Clyne and Blush talked it back and forth and then turned to Naffah and asked what he thought.
Naffah looked up from the table and said, "I just want to rock."
Moments later the whole crew assembled in the courtroom--rockers, reporters, lawyers, the judge. Blush had his hat off for the first time in memory; the three musicians sat next to their lawyer, looking like three vandals who had been caught blowing up mailboxes. The lead Snell & Wilmer lawyer seemed pleased by the total victory and then read the proposed settlement agreement aloud to the court, ending by wishing everyone a happy holiday.
The judge thought it over.
"What about this happy holiday stuff? Do I have to have a happy holiday?" he asked. Then he slammed his gavel and the deal was sealed.
"This is what John Lennon would have done," Clyne said.
Then under his breath, he said, "I need a drink," and he retired to Long Wong's.
Exiled from Tempe, the Refreshments played a New Year's Eve show at the Hard Rock Cafe in Newport Beach, California, a free party sponsored by a local radio station.
The stage was jury-rigged from a dining platform behind a railing that led out to an outdoor patio. Blush and Edwards sat at a patio table backstage; Blush had his unplugged guitar in his lap and was strumming along to the music of the opening act, a local trio doing its best Pearl Jam shtick.
Blush turned to Edwards suddenly and asked, "You ever play in this band?"
"No," Edwards replied.
"I did," Blush shot back, and then started singing the next lyric along with the lead singer.
"Next we'll play the Black-eyed Pea circuit," said Naffah, who was leaning against the door to the stage. "This is a paycheck. We should be playing in Tempe."
Clyne passed around shots of tequila in clear plastic beer cups, and the band took the stage.
There were about 200 partyers in the bar, split between Refreshments fans, who hugged the railings up by the stage, and young folks who looked up surprised when one or other of the band's singles played, as if to say, "Oh, you're that band." Others were tourists in town for the Rose Bowl who had wandered in looking for a New Year's party, but spontaneous dancing broke out, nonetheless, in this least interested group.
The band's wives and girlfriends danced backstage. In the front row, a phalanx of young blondes who follows the band to all its California concerts stared lovingly at Roger Clyne. They hung on the rail and sang along to every song. Clyne tried not to look at them because they were a half beat behind, their lips moving like bad dubbing on the soundtrack to a Japanese movie, and he was afraid he'd lose his place in the song.
The stage was level with the crowd, separated by a pair of railings six feet apart. Clyne later commented that he'd rather not have a barrier between him and the audience.
"I like the stage about this high," he said, holding his hand three feet above the floor. "Then the audience's faces are right there, almost in my groin."
He didn't mean it the way it sounds, but the straight line was quickly pounced on.
"That about sums it up, doesn't it?" a wag asked.
"Yup," Clyne parried, "and then they applaud."
For the last chorus of "Banditos," Clyne turned his microphone toward the audience to do a familiarity check. There was a healthy volume:
"Everybody knows that the world is full of stupid people."
Clyne was not displeased. He put his hands together like the Dalai Lama, and nodded with a smile to say thanks.
After midnight, the crowd thinned out by half, leaving only the diehard fans.
The Refreshments then did what any self-respecting rock band would do. They picked up the tempo and turned up the volume and kicked ass.
Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: email@example.com
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.