B y F r e d M i l l s
THIS IS A Tucson tale, and, as everyone knows, most good stories are told around the dinner table. Dan Stuart is seated across from me in a noisy Grant Road diner. We're both eyeing improbably huge breakfasts of fried eggs, potatoes, cajun sausage and slabs of toast the size of two-by-fours. Between mouthfuls I lean forward to get the goods.
It was way back in the late '70s when a scruffy crew of Tucson punks formed The Serfers. By the time Stuart's band hit Los Angeles it had been rechristened Green On Red, going on to issue a series of classic albums and to tour Europe at the forefront of the "new Americana" guitar band movement. In '88, the original line-up dissolved when Stuart reconvened Green On Red for a new recording; only San Francisco guitarist Chuck Prophet, who'd joined up around '84, was invited along.
The betrayal remains a sore spot among those left behind, and Stuart admits he handled matters poorly: "I'm an asshole plenty of times." Though he also claims that version of the band was musically inferior, riding a crest of international popularity it really didn't deserve. "What a con man I was," he laughs, "the way we projected ourselves as being, you know, the new version of The Band or something!"
At any rate, the Stuart-Prophet incarnation of Green On Red continued to tour and record, using hired guns and expensive producers until '92, when heroin habits overrode creative energy.
"My wife's from Spain, and we went back there," recalls Stuart. "I hadn't been strung out for a couple of years. We get in a cab from the airport to this hotel, wake up in the morning, look outside. It's Plaza España, and I see these Nigerians interacting with people walking along. So I go down there, thinking I'll get a little hash. And he says 'No hash...' I wonder, what are the odds I'm directed to the one place, in a city of at least five million, where I now know where to get a substance that I've been running away from for years. That just started me off, and by the time I left Spain I was doing two hundred dollars a day!
"It was truly a horrific experience. I felt I was never going to escape, and it took a while! Now, I associate Tucson with health. Although I don't believe in "reformed" anything--I've come to grips with my past so I don't have to run from it, and actually, the biggest blessing that ever happened to me is that I became a heroin addict. Because it brought me to my knees, made me re-examine, gave me a whole new window to look through."
Expatriate Stuart, upon returning home to Tucson, began collecting his thoughts and experiences. First he teamed up with Al Perry for their Retronuevo collaboration. Then he sketched out his solo project.
Can O' Worms (Monkey Hill Records) was recorded in Tucson during two December weeks in '94. Music vets J.D. Foster, Jon Dee Graham and Daren Hess all contribute to a diverse, rewarding set. (Stuart: "Those guys basically did it for free, and I'm so thankful. I need to surround myself with champagne, because I'm like a bad Ripple wine!")
High points on the album include the hallucinogenic, Lanoir-esque "Home After Dark"; a gentle folksong, "The Greatest," that positions Muhammad Ali as a beat-the-odds metaphor; and a snaky, hip-noir number with guitars, organ and sax called "Expat. Blues" serving as the disc's centerpiece.
Explains Stuart, "The big thing is the whole 'Expat' thing. You could make a valid comparison with my internal civil war to the noble cause a whole Spanish generation before went to fight. And I definitely was in a civil war with myself, my wife--who's back in Spain, I don't know if we're going to get a divorce or not--and life and death, basically. It was important to me when I got back that I make sense of it all. Not that I can! All I know is that I lost total connection with all that was important to me.
"But I'm really proud of (the album). My heroes are people like Waits, Cohen, Dylan, Lou Reed, and I'd like to get to a point where I can let the process take me to places I never thought I'd go. One of the things I detect in Can O' Worms that I don't detect in the (Green On Red) records is honesty."
Stuart is also putting the finishing touches on a compilation, Green On Red: Archives Vol. One. It may include a page each of liner notes from the former members "so if they have any axes to grind, they can go ahead and do it. Although right now everyone's mad at me because I don't have enough early stuff on it! But I've got these boxes of cassettes, multi-tracks too, and the tape itself had to have enough sonic legitimacy for CD to be considered; I didn't get into performance. I think of it as the 'great lost Green On Red album,' going back to the earliest Serfers recordings, demos never released in any format, live radio stuff. It's funny, the best part of it is right before the band disintegrated, the demos we did with Paul Cutler right before we got together with Jim Dickinson for Killer. Some of that stuff sounds good, and the band is kind of happy."
So why did the original Green On Red break up? The dysfunctional family syndrome?
"Oh yeah," nods Stuart, lighting a cigarette as the waitress takes our plates. "It's sick. Bands are okay when you're young and you're playing out a lot of dramas you maybe didn't get from your family. But people get into role playing as to their niche in the band. I was talking to Chuck just recently about how in the beginning when you're a singer-songwriter you don't want to have to deal with people who'll question arrangements. You fight that. Later I started to become willing to question my own way of doing things. It's okay in the studio to let things go on a journey. We never used to do that in Green On Red. Never explored."
This being a Tucson story, perhaps we should close with a clip from the scrapbook...
"I remember one summer we opened up for everyone from Subhumans to DOA, Black Flag, Human Hands, X, Fear. But there was hardly any place to play. The first punk shows were put on at a place called Pearl's Hurricane Bar; it was near where Club Congress is, this old derelict bar. Then (there was) Tumbleweed's, on Fourth Avenue. During the day it was full of Vietnam vets and bikers. At night we'd come in, and someone would draw straws to see who would go around and get them to pay the cover! Some of them really got it: 'Oh, this is just like The Seeds!' But others were more, 'You know what a punk is? A punk is someone in prison who gets buttfucked!'
"There was this little record store, The Record Room. We'd have afterhours parties there. One night, at the rock bar up the street, The Choo-Choo Train, those people came filing out. And there was a huge fight in the middle of Fourth Avenue--with Van Christian getting the best of everybody!--and it spilled into the Record Room. Just a brawl like something out of Quadrophenia: rockers versus the punks!"
Ahhh, the good old days....
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