"Who owns the blue van out front?"
The big guy with the short, spiky hair in the "Riopelle '82" tee shirt hasn't dropped into Cactus Jack's, the "Cheers" of Ahwatukee, just to clue some hapless double-parker to move it or lose it. He's looking around at the shoulder-shrugging suburbanites, wondering who in this fat-wallet hot spot was audacious enough to buy that rolling relic he spied in the parking lot. And who here was hip enough to Valley rock 'n' roll history not to paint over the faded, peeling Blue Shoes logo plastered across both sides.
"I knew the band that van used to belong to," he boasts to the bartender, who nods amicably while sliding the newcomer a napkin. "Man, they were a hot band. Did that skinny-tie new-wave stuff everybody was into back around the time of `My Sharona.' Even had an album out that all the stations were playing. God, what was the name of that song?" He cocks his head and stares off toward the club's small stage, trying to springboard the slippery song title from the tip of his tongue.
Onstage, a modishly dressed woman, her back toward the audience, adjusts a headband over a long black wig. Her partner, a man in his mid-thirties with a Beatle haircut, fiddles around with the settings on a tape deck. As a recorded keyboard and synthesized oboe begin bubbling out the familiar opening measures of "I Got You Babe," the couple turns to face the patrons, looking like the genuine Sonny and Cher.
"They say we're young and we don't know/Won't find out un-ti-i-il we grow.|.|."
"`Better'!" blurts the big guy. "That was their big hit. I remember seeing them when they opened for Talking Heads at Neeb Hall. Everybody figured they were gonna be the band that put Phoenix on the map."
The regulars are listening intently now, watching the suds-swilling stranger watching the duo--and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Maybe it's the wig Peggy "Murph" Murphy is wearing. After all, she looks nothing like the smiling Patti Smith clone she resembled back when "Better," the song she wrote and sang with Blue Shoes, was scaling the playlists on five local radio stations and generating major-label interest on the West Coast.
Or maybe it's the way Don "D.R." Wilke is bobbing back and forth with that vacuous Sonny Bono grin. Who would guess that's the same face that used to leer so sardonically from all those full-page nightclub ads back when Blue Shoes was the in-demand band?
Whatever the reason, the guy sits on that stool watching this crowd- pleasing couple serenade a bar full of nostalgic baby boomers for three, four minutes. Never once does it dawn on him that he's staring straight at the original owners of that battered blue van.
"Yep, that was a hot band," he repeats, turning back to face the barkeep. "Wonder whatever happened to them?"
"WE'RE JUST OLD, crusty people without any imagination or taste," jokes D.R. Wilke during a break between sets. Since returning to club work a couple of years ago as the retro-rock duo 1960-Something, Murph and D.R. have been asked "What happened?" more times than they care to count. And for good reason. If their story was a TV Movie of the Week, you could see the spinning newspaper headlines documenting their decade-long slide from notoriety to near obscurity.
1979: A New Times story on "Local Bands That Could" proclaims Blue Shoes the Valley combo with the best "potential for national exposure."
1980: An Arizona Republic review hailing the band as a cross between the Beatles and the Police concludes, "Such genius must have a future."
More newsprint follows: a full-page ad announcing the long-awaited arrival of the band's debut album Put On Blue Shoes and subsequent splashes advertising the nonstop club dates of "the local hit makers."
Now fast-forward to 1991. No headlines--no press at all, actually, just the flyers printed at their own expense to plug their weekend appearances. The latest gig: an exclusive engagement at the Tempe Ramada Hotel lounge--promoted jointly with fifty-cent kamikaze shooters.
What happened, simply, is a bad case of momentum interruptus. Blue Shoes' manager Charles Emerson had been promoting the band, getting them opening slots on big-name shows, keeping record stores stocked, even landing them on Wallace & Ladmo three times. Emerson just ignored some of the little details. Like paying the bills.
When he left and the band suddenly found itself saddled with more than $7,000 in unpaid expenses, Blue Shoes instantly became, in the words of D.R., "these little musicians trying to play a big person's game."
"Suddenly, we were dealing with an advertising budget, distribution arrangements and so on," he says. "And at the same time we were trying to be a band and make the best music we could."
The couple continued to make music, first with a pared-down band called Red Alert and later as a duo appropriately titled the Last Word. But they stopped making good money. By the mid-Eighties, the two were averaging $25 to $50 a night playing their original music in out-of-the-way clubs and working day jobs to pick up the slack.
Looking for better money, the couple decided to switch to cover versions of popular hits. "We still wanted to do music we liked," Murph insists, "and we weren't all that keen on a lot of current Top 40. So we figured, `Why don't we do some of the Sixties songs that we always dug?'"
It worked. The couple's take on the swinging Sixties has been building an enthusiastic following. And the money has gotten better.
Still, one wonders, could the quirky couple who once stood at the fore of progressive music in Phoenix possibly be happy doing a Sonny and Cher shtick for sloshy suburbanites? Surely, the dynamic duo's slow slip from Park Place to Baltic Avenue on the music-biz Monopoly board has left the two bitter, disillusioned, sunken, suicidal.
"We're having a ball!" Murph proclaims, and the couple's consistently exuberant performances bear her out. Over painstakingly rendered backing tracks that capture the spirit of each song as well as its instrumentation, the singer and her one-man band belt out an evocative "Eight Days a Week," a faithful "Ferry Cross the Mersey" and a ringing "Red Rubber Ball" with all the fervor they once reserved for their original power pop.
"We're doing songs we love," rhapsodizes Murph, "and songs the audience knows and loves, too." If they miss the heady hype of their fifteen minutes of fame, they sure don't show it. "I'm happier than I've ever been," agrees D.R. "For the first time, I'm making a living just playing music. I'm doing exactly what I love to do."
But the duo's musical transition--one that looks jarring from the outside--has not been that much of a shock to Murph and D.R. In fact, they feel lucky to even be playing at all. Five years ago, an event occurred that nearly took them out of music permanently. In a word, or rather three, that event was Nancy Christine Wilke.
THE SMILE THAT WELCOMED D.R. home that day was different from the dotty, caffeine-drawn grin Murph frequently had pasted on her face since the birth of their daughter a sleepless six months earlier. On most evenings, when D.R. dragged his tired bones home from his dispiriting delivery job, the blunted breadwinner would open the door to find the new mother wearing a look of exasperation and exhaustion that easily trounced his own. Once, he arrived home to the din of stereophonic sobbing and discovered his wailing wife and daughter engaged in an unwinnable cry-off on the couch.
But this time, the picture was decidedly different. Serene and buoyant. A Norman Rockwell portrait where a Baby Blues comic strip had usually appeared. It very nearly scared the hell out of him.
"It was great that Murph was adjusting so well to motherhood," says D.R. today, helping four-year-old Nancy load a cassette of The Little Mermaid into the family VCR. "But for weeks, I had been asking her when she thought she'd be able to start singing again, and she kept saying, `I don't know, I don't know.' It looked like she'd never get back into it."
The pregnancy and birth totally derailed Murph and D.R.'s musical career. To pay the rent while the couple's club gigs were on hold, D.R. had been putting in extra hours on his day job as a courier for DSI Delivery and had even begun boning up for an entrance exam with the U.S. Postal Service.
He had hoped it would be only temporary. While he relished his role as a new dad, D.R. longed for the night when a trusted babysitter could sub for his indispensable partner and Murph's voice could once again tackle something more tuneful than "Rockabye Baby."
But their return to the stage kept being delayed, until it appeared the frustrated songwriter should start memorizing the bulk-mail rates and the new nine-digit zip code for greater Guadalupe.
"I didn't have any interest in playing anymore," Murph explains. "I was just into being a mom."
Struck by the realization that somewhere on the way to becoming the next Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart the couple had missed a fork in the road and inadvertently stepped onto the life path of Ward and June Cleaver, D.R.'s eyes become transfixed on the sofa and end tables lining the back wall of the living room.
Years ago, he recalls, that same space had been tenanted by stacks of amplifiers and instruments. Like a fantasy sequence out of an angst- ridden yuppie TV drama, D.R. stares at the ottoman and sees flashes of Oberheims. Stratocasters behind the Stratolounger. Paistes beneath the throw pillows. Just a few years earlier, Murph and D.R. were opening concerts for the likes of the Ramones and the Talking Heads. Now, in a daze of domesticity, D.R. could hear the lyrics of a David Byrne song rattling around in his noggin: "This is not my beautiful house/This is not my beautiful wife!"
"I looked at Murph, playing with the baby and beaming like the mother in a Pampers commercial," D.R. recalls. "And I thought, `This is not the rock 'n' roll chick I married!'"
BUT HE WAS WRONG. It's five years later and the Pampers-perfect mother is basking under the hot lights at Scottsdale's Backstage, banging out the tempo to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Down on the Corner" on a loud, regulation-size cowbell. "This is our daughter's favorite song," Murph tells the audience, "next to the one that Crab sings in The Little Mermaid."
Having a child may have been the final diversion that sent Murph and D.R.'s music career sputtering out of the fast lane and onto a residential street. But the new addition has also been the inspiration behind the creative couple's return to the stage. "Playing rock 'n' roll was beginning to seem, I don't know, adolescent," says Murph, echoing the mores of an entire generation of investment bankers with Gibsons in the garage. "But now, with Nancy the age that she is, she thinks it's kinda neat that her mom sings. So it's come full circle."
Firmly rededicated to a life of entertaining, if not challenging, Valley clubgoers, the proud parents have even started training the tyke for the family business. Last Christmas, the Wilkes allowed Nancy a crack at the microphone on the annual holiday cassette the two create for their family, friends and fans. Her initial off-key efforts have begun to generate a little concern.
"She seems really into picking up mics and singing and dancing," Murph reports, warily. "And you want to encourage her, if you think she wants to do that. But.|.|.I don't know. It's like, at what age do kids get their pitch? Is she gonna sound like this forever, or is she going to improve?
"Do we have to start yanking her from the Christmas tape?"
D.R. joins in, and they both laugh uproariously, vividly imagining a future of music-making that ultimately has nothing to do with major-label deals or record charts.
Somehow, it still seems exciting to them.
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"Playing rock 'n' roll was beginning to seem, I don't know, adolescent."
"I looked at Murph, playing with the baby and I thought, `This is not the rock 'n' roll chick I married!'"
"I didn't have any interest in playing anymore," Murph explains. "I was just into being a mom."
"At what age do kids get their pitch? Is she gonna sound like this forever, or is she going to improve?