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Rock Gardeners

In the early 1990s, it was hard to find a Valley band that didn't know, and somehow benefit from knowing, Julie Hurm-Tessitore.

A local music "it" girl, she was connected to the local scene to a ridiculous degree. Hurm-Tessitore worked for Evening Star Productions, promoter Danny Zelisko's baby in pre-Clear Channel days, bringing acts to town that otherwise might have skipped our metropolis. When she moved into radio -- first as an account executive with alternative station KEDJ, then with the more-rawkish KDKB and other stations -- she helped local bands reach their potential by connecting the industry dots.

So when Hurm-Tessitore passed away last March from cancer, it left a void in the circle of musicians whose lives she had touched. When her husband, local musician Jeff Tessitore, struggled to find a fitting tribute to his wife and her life, he remembered something she once said in passing.

"She said that if she ever were financially independent . . . she would start her own charity," says Tessitore, whom Valley longtimers may remember as the guitarist for 100 Iced Animals. "She said, I don't know what it would be, but it would have something to do with kids,' so that's where this whole thing came into play with the garden. It's the perfect thing; we know it's something she would like -- and it's [for] a good cause."

He's talking about the Julie Hurm-Tessitore Memorial Garden, to be built at the West Valley Child Crisis Center on West Meadowbrook Avenue in Phoenix. "The garden is going to be something for the kids to learn how to plant stuff, be it flowers or vegetables, a place for them to get away and hang out. These kids are from abusive families, they are battered kids."

Like every good cause, the memorial garden has a bottom line, and money needs to be raised to bring the tribute to fruition. Tessitore got on the horn with some of the couple's old friends. He called up Brian Talenti of the now-defunct rockers Haggis, who previously was the vocalist for 100 Iced Animals, Arizona's first grunge band (before grunge was a dirty word).

"I said, Hey, would you guys like to do a reunion show and try and raise some money for the garden?' and of course he said yes," explains Tessitore. "[Bassist] Tim [Brink] and [drummer] Scott [McDonald] of course said yes.

"And then I was like, Great! Let's see if Beats the Hell Out of Me want to do it.'"

"Julie had a big hand in a lot of our success," says Beats the Hell Out of Me singer Michael Pistrui. "I just can't imagine anything she would enjoy more than having these bands together playing in her honor."

Hurm-Tessitore had refined rock 'n' roll taste. Beats the Hell Out of Me, a precursor to heavy bands like Rage Against the Machine in their '90s heyday, was a force live. Dark, ferocious, at times downright scary, the band was raw energy diffused by complicated key changes and jazz riffs, a confusing amalgam of styles that defied categorization.

"That's kind of where we got the name Beats the Hell Out of Me, because when people tried to describe us, [they couldn't]," says Pistrui.

It can at least be said that the band, which featured Pistrui on throat, Tom Coffeen on lead guitar, Chris Bailey on second guitar, Aaron Stewart on bass and Erik Rogan on drums, presaged and bested many of the so-called nü-metal bands that took over alternative radio in the mid-'90s; Rage Against the Machine was the high end, while Limp Bizkit took the low end.

"Beats the Hell Out of Me was a place to go and relieve a little stress," Pistrui says.

Pressed to describe just what was happening onstage, Pistrui was at a loss.

"Gosh. I think it was heavy rock music with a structured format. The players in the band were all for the most part jazz musicians," he says. "It had the heavy driving energy, but it wasn't your run-of-the-mill flavor of the day."

Not only did Hurm-Tessitore help Beats Me find an audience outside of Phoenix by helping them secure a record deal with seminal underground label Metal Blade Records, but she also connected two like-minded bands for what must have been a blow-out show.

Julie, the story goes, called Rogan and said, "Hey, my friend's band is coming into town, you gotta see them, we've got to set up a gig with them,'" says Rogan. "Julie was working at Evening Star at the time, so she helped set up the Rage Against the Machine show; we played with them at the Mason Jar."

This was before Rage's first album came out in 1992, and the pairing of the two bands may not have been as altruistic as it seemed. Julie Hurm and Mr. Tessitore transcended the gig straight into their first date.

"She used to sit alongside the stage and, like, throw ice at me. Her and [Zia Record Exchange founder] Brad Singer would throw stuff at me while I was playing, laughing, and I would always look up and there she would be," says Rogan. "But this particular night she wasn't goofin' off. She was making eyes with Jeff the whole show."

Hurm may have first glimpsed Tessitore when 100 Iced Animals and Beats the Hell Out of Me played one of their many shows together in the early '90s.

"If you weren't into the Tempe sound, which was really becoming huge, and you weren't into heavy metal, which had always been a dominant force on the local scene, then the shows when those two bands played together was a good alternative," says Brink, 100 Iced Animals' co-founder.

100 Iced Animals were the hook-friendly foil to Beats Me's dark energy. Plenty chunky on their own, Talenti's pop sensibilities still shone through, bringing a little of the Pacific Northwest to the desert.

"We were inspired by the likes of Nirvana's Bleach album," says Talenti. "I was writing songs before, but when we heard Bleach, that was a really exciting record when it came out, and I was like, There's something going on here that I definitely would like to be a part of.'"

The band was so inspired by the burgeoning grunge explosion that Talenti once drove from Phoenix to Seattle, demo in hand, and stormed the gates of the Emerald City's then-indie powerhouse Sub Pop, expecting a deal on the spot.

The subsequent meeting with label folks didn't land the band a deal, but Sub Pop did distribute the band's seven-inch single "Shovel."

"We were really excited because we got an order for one from France," says the singer.

In spite of their fan in France, the long-term bliss of 100 Iced Animals wasn't to be, and the group disbanded quietly in 1994. A couple of years later, Talenti returned with another popular local act, Haggis. Haggis had been a staple of the local scene for a number of years, but was last seen live at a tumultuous show at last year's New Times Music Showcase, which found Talenti and bassist Moon going at it onstage. So, what is the fate of the favorite local Scottish delicacy?

"Haggis is done. We gave it a good shot, but it just wasn't fun anymore," Talenti reports. "I think we were trying too hard to get to the brass ring. It just wasn't the same as when we started the band."

What about the onstage ruckus at the showcase, which earned the band a win in the Most Entertaining Live Show category? "That was the final show. It's gone down in history." But Talenti is a slave to his art, and in a verbal wink, he says, "I think you'll see me back onstage sooner than later."

And sooner rather than later we can see Talenti and 100 Iced Animals opening for Beats the Hell Out of Me to benefit the Julie Hurm-Tessitore Memorial Garden. It's a time capsule for those music enthusiasts who want to reminisce and enjoy a snapshot of an important part of Phoenix's pop music past.

"Julie would be right on the side of the stage making faces at us for this show," Talenti says. "It's gonna be an emotional night, but it's going to be a very rewarding night as well."

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Jonathan Bond