Music News

Cuacha Doin'

Lurking somewhere in the dusty bins of your neighborhood record store -- just after Sade but well before Scritti Politti -- is a "new" album by the Sand Rubies called Cuacha -- except that it's really not a new album at all.

It is, however, a renamed, repackaged and expanded reissue of the 1988 debut from Tucson's Sidewinders -- and as such a critical piece of local music history (the use of the Sand Rubies moniker is a concession to the legal wrangle that stripped the group of its name in 1991, and precipitated its breakup two years later).

Though not as fully realized an effort as the following year's seminal Witchdoctor, Cuacha (Latin slang for "shit") is in many ways the most endearing of all the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies releases, displaying a nascent charm and spirit that none of their other albums -- even 1990's career high point Auntie Ramos' Pool Hall -- ever captured.

In a historical context, Cuacha occupies a special place, ranking alongside Green on Red's Gravity Talks, Giant Sand's Valley of Rain, and the Gin Blossoms' Dusted as one of the more important debuts in the last quarter-century of Arizona music -- if only for the fact that it kicked off the career of the state's most archetypal rock band.

While the actual recording sessions lasted only a few days, for Rich Hopkins and David Slutes -- the creative backbone of the band -- Cuacha was an album very much a lifetime in the making.

Tucson's historic YMCA building is located in the heart of the University section of town, just off Fourth Avenue. Situated a few blocks west of the UofA campus, the two-story landmark serves as home to a number of environmental organizations -- including the local Audubon Society and the Arizona Chapter of the Nature Conservancy -- as well as a handful of private businesses.

Rich Hopkins' office is a nondescript suite tucked away in a remote corner of the second floor. There is little to call attention to the fact that this is the headquarters of San Jacinto Records -- the label Hopkins founded nearly 15 years ago -- save for the strains of surf music cascading into the adjacent hallway.

Hopkins' modest quarters are littered with CDs, cardboard boxes and assorted memorabilia: Signed promo photos are strewn about, stacks of fliers sit in a corner and a poster for Cuacha is tacked up on the outer wall.

Already into his early 40s, Hopkins' tanned face is couched by a shag of auburn hair and thick sideburns that give him the robust look of an active outdoorsman. Pulling up a chair, he will spend the next few hours doing something he hasn't done in years: talk about the early days of the Sidewinders in depth.

Hopkins has been reticent to discuss or really examine his days with the group, preferring instead to remain focused on his current endeavors -- chief among them his revolving recording and touring collective, the Luminarios, and the day-to-day operation of his label. Today, though, Hopkins is especially animated as he scrolls through two decades' worth of memories; frequently jabbing his finger into the air, leaning forward slowly to make a point, then relaxing, falling back into his seat and breaking out in a warm, toothy grin.

The adopted son of a wealthy chemical engineer, Hopkins relocated with his family from Texas to Tucson in the early '60s. Hopkins' childhood was a difficult one, reared in an environment he describes as "a pretty serious alcoholic background." Though he was drawn to records and the radio at an early age, music was not given priority in the Hopkins home; both his parents were Ivy League graduates who stressed academia over art.

"Ever since I was little -- because of the problems at home -- my way out was through music, the dream land of music, wishing I could be Leslie West or Jorma Kaukonen or any of the great 1960s and '70s guitar players. That's what I really wanted to do, but I didn't get the encouragement from my parents. It wasn't until I was getting out of college that I decided I wanted to start playing the guitar."

The one exception, he remembers, was a sixth-grade talent show that found Hopkins fronting an amateur combo covering the Monkees' "Stepping Stone" -- a song that would eventually become a staple of the Sidewinders' live sets.

"It was just one song," recalls Hopkins wistfully some four decades later, "but it sounded more glorious and more heavy than anything I'd ever done. I think that kind of feeling of power is what set me off."

Still, it would be years before his musical ambitions were realized. During his teens, Hopkins was already on what his parents viewed as the road to perdition ("basically listening to records and smoking a lot of pot," he jokes) and so he was sent off to prep school in Connecticut in the mid-'70s. After graduating, he enrolled at Ithaca College in New York, where he earned a degree in anthropology.

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr