As nightclubs go, Nino's in Tucson was one of a kind. Loosely defined as a steak house, the club's food was an afterthought, being both cheap and bad. But no one went to Nino's for the food. What drew people was music. A crazy idea--booking bands in a checkerboard-floored side room--had turned Nino's into Tucson's most happening scene.

In 1985, a young guitar-bass-and-drums garage band called the Sidewinders was onstage at Nino's, doing its best R.E.M. impersonation. Writhing in white angst, the vocalist ground his lips into the microphone, screaming more than singing. The lead guitarist was a Seventies rock clod, complete with karate kicks copped from Ted Nugent. The other guitar player, a dedicated shoe gazer from the first note, stood hunched over, occasionally bobbing to the rhythms. The woman at the drum kit was simply trying to keep up. The only true musician, the bass player, simply wanted to get it over with.

When it came to volume and speed, this band had it down. Everything else was a wash. Its days seemed numbered.

Zoom forward two years. The Sidewinders still existed, but some faces had changed. The poseur guitarist was long gone. The shoe gazer, Rich Hopkins, had ascended to the post of bandleader-songwriter. The lead screamer, David Slutes, had become a singer, and his lyrics had become the band's trademark.

Along with an engineer and cigarette-smoking girlfriends, they sat in the control booth at Westwood Studios in Tucson, toiling to finish an album, their second. They needed one more song, and it had to be an original. It was late. The meter was ticking on their studio time.

Everyone was quiet until the guitarist began strumming chords he'd been working on at home. He shaped them into a tentative melody. The vocalist began scribbling on a legal pad and singing to himself. The engineer threw out some suggestions for bass and drum parts.

An hour after they started, they were ready to play it through together. Twenty minutes later, "If I Can't Have You" was recorded in one take. As so often happens with spontaneous tunes, it was one of the best this band has ever written. It emerged as the finest cut on an album titled Auntie Ramos' Pool Hall.

In an astonishingly short time, this once-doomed band had actually learned to play its instruments, write songs and make records.

In 1988, it signed with RCA, becoming the only band in Arizona at the time to be on a major record label. Its first two albums, Witchdoctor and Auntie Ramos, both made it to No. 5 on the college-music charts, the most accurate gauge of new music. Singles like "Witchdoctor" and "We Don't Do That Anymore" received regional and national airplay. Somewhat to its chagrin, the band also became a leading light in a genre of alternative music that rock critics everywhere (but the Southwest) refer to as "desert rock" or the "Southwestern sound."

Over time the Sidewinders became Arizona's most accomplished alternative act, leavening its loud, Neil Young-derived guitar sound with pop melodies and lyrics about broken hearts and Arizona's "Bad, Crazy Sun." The band was dominated by Hopkins' feedback-filled solos and some bashing-eighth-note bass lines, but vocalist Slutes became the consummate front man, his singing prowess surpassed only by his stage schmoozing.

A series of tours--one opening for the Replacements--sold out top clubs and spread the Sidewinders' name. Best of all, checks were arriving in the mail from the group's record label. The band had achieved every musician's milestone--living solely on music.

Unfortunately, that's when it was the Sidewinders.
@body:David Slutes remembers the first time he heard Rich Hopkins suggest the name "Sidewinders."

"I thought, 'God, it sounds so Tucson.' It bordered on being cool or really stupid--it could've gone either way. I did like it better than 'Hohokam,' however, which was his other idea."
Once Slutes, Hopkins and the rest of the band signed a record deal and began to tour as the Sidewinders, they began hearing about other bands with the same moniker.

At their first Los Angeles show as the Sidewinders, Slutes says, "There was this guy in a leather jacket looking up at me with these big ol' sad eyes. After the show, he comes up and says, 'Here, you should take this.' He turns around and it was a leather jacket with 'Sidewinders' on the back. He goes, 'You got signed first, man.' I'll always think that guy had character. Because the other ones just sued us."

The Sidewinders were sued by a Top 40 cover band from North Carolina called Sidewinder.

"We thought we could live with them and they could live with us--Sidewinder and Sidewinders," Hopkins says. "They live in one world of the music business and we live in another. They aren't recording, we are. We have a record deal, they don't."
In actuality, the Sidewinders' label at the time, RCA, picked the fight. Someone from RCA heard an ad for Sidewinder in upstate New York. Because the Arizona band was viewed as a hot property, RCA's lawyers demanded that the North Carolina band cease and desist. The Tar Heels, who had recently won a prize on Star Search, were not intimidated. RCA's ploy backfired when Sidewinder sued for exclusive rights to the name. RCA played along until early 1991, when the legal bills rose to $80,000. At that point, the Sidewinders moved to another label, Ensign Records, which immediately settled out of court, giving away $25,000 in cash. And the name.

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Robert Baird