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Enter the Dragons

Listening to contemporary rock 'n' roll records these days is like drinking in the afternoon to avoid boredom; the idea may sound appealing at first, but after indulging you find yourself either nodding off like grandpa or saddled with a dull headache, or both. I mean, c'mon. When was the...
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Listening to contemporary rock 'n' roll records these days is like drinking in the afternoon to avoid boredom; the idea may sound appealing at first, but after indulging you find yourself either nodding off like grandpa or saddled with a dull headache, or both.

I mean, c'mon. When was the last time some perfect-toothed prats like Filter or Foo Fighters paraded their arthritic shimmy across your TV screen or through your woofers and it made you jump from your sofa, inspired to get ripped or lose your virginity or break things?

Rock 'n' roll has become so dull that it's no coincidence that video marketing bread is buttered with the female posterior. Hence, the frequency of Tommy "Black Like Me" Lee's wifey-pooh Pamela's squeak-toy curves and bitch-pout popping up in rock-vid clips.

And Lee's mysterious metamorphosis from millionaire metal dunce to millionaire ghetto mook has many strip-metalers referring to wifey-pooh as Yoko Lee. In his latest Methods of Mayhem "Get Naked" vid, he pimps wifey-pooh out like porn product placement. During the clip, the mirthful couple can be seen romping buff-bare on a motel-room bed.

So, of course, the Methods of Mayhem record just went gold.

Pamela Anderson Lee can also be seen lighting up Lit's latest MTV smash-a-roo, playing a porny Land of the Giants-type amazon woman who at one point lies belly down whilst the tiny members of Lit lip-synch atop the crevice of her skimpily clad derrière.

Ironic self-mockery or cheap tricks of anatomical exploitation? What's the difference? The music blows antelope turds.

And the record-buying kids, many of whose quality of life is tethered to MTV, are swallowing it by the Dumpster load. They are learning that those who are famous now become that way by successfully hawking a persona -- devoid of heart or inspiration of ideas -- not from authoring an artful idea and giving it life.

The conjecture is: If great bands had a place in pop mainstream and were therefore heard, this celebrated-for-being-famous rubbish would be as unwarranted as it is unsatisfying.

If kids were instead buying bands like the Hellacopters or Magnified or even Massive Attack (one hip-hop band giving black dance the qualities of literacy, intelligence, politics and passion instead of butt crack and ho's) and not Filter or Lit or Foo Fighters or Wu-Tang Clan, then pop music wouldn't be such a triumph of the ordinary. It would be fun. A reason to jump up and down.

And all of this brings us to the Dragons, San Diego's finest rock 'n' roll band since, well, no one, unless you consider Rocket From the Crypt or Blink 182 as anything more than the respective Dictators and Green Day ransacks that they are.

The four-piece Dragons alternate between sounding like pissed-off thunderheads to blues-spirited cats with heady cases of guitar distortion envy. The band's latest record, R*L*F (Rock Like Fuck), embodies the latter best: hook-heavy songs propelled forward by big-lunged singing, firmly rooted in tried-and-true Sticky Fingers/LAMF heritage.

The members of the Dragons all wear the part well: a far from Diet Coke glow that recalls vintage-era Glimmer Twins, spindly-armed and untamed hair, big shoes and down-dressed glam.

"I mean, Kenny [Horne, guitarist] has got to keep me in line every now and then," titters the Dragons' hoarse-voiced lead singer, Mario Escovedo, via cell phone from the band's van. He and the rest of the Dragons are rolling south on California's Interstate 5, just outside of Irvine. "He's always threatening to handcuff me to the van."

Escovedo, youngest of the much-storied musical Escovedos, and band -- guitarist Horne, bassist Steve Rodriguez and drummer Jerrod Lucas -- are heading home from a show at the Garage in Hollywood. The performance, the band's first in that town in two years, is said by the promoter to have "smoked hard."

Escovedo launches into an analysis of gig-night boozing: "You know, even when I have a blackout session now and then, I am still a happy drunk. We are all happy drunks. The only thing I can think of is when they try to tell me to shut up and go to sleep after the party is over."

(Discography alert!) In 1996, the band's scarcely great -- yet solid -- debut, Pain Killer, was issued by Scam-O-Rama. In 1997, the Dragons signed to Long Beach-based Junk Records and released their second album, Cheers to Me. September 1999 brought the wonderfully ratty R*L*F.

Since 1994, the Dragons have strung themselves out on countless self-funded tours, weekend out-of-towners and straight-through 24-hour drives. I have seen the band in Texas, in L.A. and in San Diego, and damn if they have yet to let me down.

Although their songs -- credited to the band as a whole -- conjure pre-AA Westerbergian virtues like Jack and Coke, Guinness Stout and the pre-sweatsuit Stones, three of the band members are married, and two have kids.

Those stats alone give the songs a sense of strained normalcy, a tension that extends far beyond the loud chords and ferocious drumming. Running through many of the sub-four-minute blasts are themes that see singer Escovedo attempting to balance that which cannot be balanced. The simple things, like marriage, booze and rock 'n' roll.

Escovedo understates it thusly: "My marriage is still together. She puts up with me and I'm lucky. She's a good girl."

"If you think about it," he adds, his voice just topping the drone of the van's motor, "for 10 years it [Dragons] is part of our lives. We've gone from being all, like, single guys to where some of us are married. I got a couple of kids, Jerrod has a kid. The personal lives keep going on, but you know, it has been going alongside the band, too. And whether to end the band was never a question."

As I often spout in this space, any band lacking wide mass pop respect is struggling for survival. And now more than ever. This is the age of rock stars pawning Puma sportswear or Hilfiger leisure blazers. David Bowie's face graces credit cards.

Dragons drummer Lucas works as a handyman at an apartment complex. Bassist Rodriguez is a representative for a shoe company. Guitarist Horne is a student. Escovedo listens for news breaks on a police scanner for an all-news radio station.

Escovedo ponders the rock 'n' roll fame chase in a time when it is all about TV celebrity skin and clever ways to redefine jerking off.

"That's one [idea] that I think has kind of changed. I think it is getting better as far as rock 'n' roll. Right now there is like a ton of great bands. Glucifer is great. Supersuckers as always. The band called the Black Halos. There's Electric Frankenstein who are great. There's a lot of great bands out there that are touring and seem to be doing well.

". . . Blink 182 is like punk, but they are still hitting that teen audience that is always gonna buy those records. You know they talk about masturbation a lot."

Mario Escovedo grew up Mexican-Catholic in Huntington Beach before moving with his family to San Diego. He is the youngest of 13 siblings. His father is still kicking at 93.

His family has produced more than its share of ruffians wielding a bottle and a song. His pop, a retired plumber described by anyone close to the family as a hard drinker, would often sing songs at parties and generally raise hell. You can hear Escovedo smile when he says, "You knew it would be a late night if he had a union meeting."

Eleven of his siblings -- half sibs, actually -- are from his father's first marriage.

"My mom raised all the kids except for two. So she took on his whole previous family and then started having more kids. So it was like a house that was a terror all day long. I don't know how they survived it."

The family genealogy includes Santana percussionist Pete Escovedo and his daughter, Sheila E.; and Martin Short musical director Peter Michael Escovedo. There's press darling Alejandro Escovedo and Zeros/True Believers Javier Escovedo.

"I look at Alejandro. And Alejandro tours the country and he's got like six kids, and he spends seven months out of the year out on the road. And you don't even question it, it is just what you do."

Escovedo learned his way around four-chord songs from Javier and Alejandro. Javier was a founding member of the great late-'70s teen punk band the Zeros, a band once dubbed by Slash magazine as the Mexican Ramones.

The Zeros released a new record in December and still do well in, of all places, Spain. Alejandro was in the San Francisco-based Nuns, followed by Rank and File, True Believers (with Javier) and Buick Mackane.

"Me and Javier are the closest out of all of us," Mario says. "But Alejandro has always been there to give me a slag here and there. When we all get together, we are all slagging each other all the time. My brother will say, 'Hey, I like what you are trying to do.'

"When I was growing up [with Javier] I was forced to listen to his stuff, you know, when it all first started coming out. That was when I first started listening to the Dolls, the Heartbreakers, Johnny Thunders, then the Clash and the Sex Pistols. It used to crack me up 'cause Javier would paint his shoes silver and put glitter on them. He would write 'New York Dolls' on telephone poles and stuff."

Escovedo explains his band's lack of PR skills with self-deprecating irony. He figures that could be why the band hasn't been more successful.

"It's kind of been a hard thing for us because we are not really fighters as far as, like, the business side of things. We ain't hard negotiators or anything like that. The problem is, we like to play so much we would be more than happy just to play anyway. We've done stuff where we've driven 24 hours for one gig."

Kids are warming up to the Dragons. And not just in San Diego. Relentless gigging in strange towns in front of six people is starting to show dividends.

"That's what I feel really good about, you know, building an audience one person at a time. And now it is finally starting to do us some good. It feels good. It's not like we did anything overnight, I mean, we have been working for this."

After playing the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, the Dragons will set off on a West Coast jaunt with Norwegian Sub Pop band Glucifer.

In December, the Dragons recorded a live show at their San Diego clubhouse, the Casbah, for release on May 2. Titled Live at the Casbah, the overdub-free disc captures the band in all its spirited, Jack-and-Coke-slamming glory. The band's live staple, a cover of the Texas Tornadoes' "Adios, Mexico," is done up with boozy aplomb. Two hidden CD-ending covers, guileful versions of "Happy" and "Starfucker," sum up perfectly the band's essence. Versions to which even Keef would no doubt offer a crusty nod and gap-toothed grin.

The Dragons are scheduled to perform on Saturday, March 11, at the Green Room in Tempe. Showtime is 9 p.m.

Contact Brian Smith at his online address: [email protected]

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