By Dennis Prieto
FOR MANY TUCSONANS between the ages of 21 and 35, the band Phantom Limbs are more than a 2 1/2-column-inch snippet tucked away in some dog-eared copy of The New Trouser Press Record Guide. Their songs composed a veritable soundtrack to young adulthood during the '80s.
Despite having only two albums to document a 14-year history (Romance, released in 1983 by Modern Masters, and Train of Thought, released by CD Presents in 1986), the Limbs remain one of our most popular musical ensembles, combining irresistible rhythms with quick-witted, albeit darkly-humored, lyrics. If one considers a measure of popularity as reflecting any kind of achievement in the entertainment field, then it stands to reason this group is among Tucson's most successful. However, the road to success is paved with large uncomfortable bumps, and, after hitting their share of potholes, Phantom Limbs have found that success has more to do with satisfaction than sales.
Their career has been checkered, to say the least, ranging from highs that include touring with Jonathan Richman and a chart-topping single on Los Angeles' KXLU, to lows that encompass a spate of personnel and personal troubles as well as a nearly complete lack of support from their record label. It would be easy for them to be bitter.
"I can see the headline now," laughs Jefferson Keenan, frontman and rhythm guitarist, "Bitter Old Men Take Last Stab!"
Back in '79, Keenan and Jim Parks were playing with Andrea Curtis (drums) and Suzy Wren (lead guitar) under the name Menage a Trois at downtown bars and clubs along Fourth Avenue "in what is now the Arts District, but was then the dime bag and urine district," remembers Parks.
Cliff Greene replaced Suzy Wren, "and we called ourselves Phantom Limbs because we lost a member," Parks continues.
But musical options were limited in Tucson in 1982. Like Green on Red and Giant Sand, the Limbs left for California; unlike the aforementioned groups, they chose San Francisco over Los Angeles. They caught the attention of Club Foot maestro Richard Kelly, who produced Romance on his Modern Masters label. Keenan says Kelly "understood immediately what we were doing."
Kelly's motto for Modern Masters Music was "Providing the means to escape the life not worth living." And then he killed himself, says Parks.
By the time the album was finally released, Modern Masters had died along with Kelly. Although the album was nationally released to rave reviews (glowing comparisons to Lou Reed, Elvis Costello and Violent Femmes were staples of these reviews) there was little distribution, no label support for a tour and no reason to stay.
They chose to move back to Arizona after a year. "I like being from Tucson," Keenan says. "And I like living in Tucson. There are very few bands here that pitch their sound to be the next (MTV) buzz clip."
CD Presents had picked up Modern Masters' catalog, and agreed to release a second Limbs album. However, the relationship with CD was tenuous. Keenan remembers "They were distributing exciting music: Billy Bragg, the Flying Nun bands from New Zealand--only they weren't paying anyone.
"They wanted more demos, we wanted the money they owed us," Keenan recalls. "We sued them in 1988, then decided it would be easier just wait until the contract expired."
Recently it did and, armed with a full-length studio tape, the Limbs are currently discussing record deals with prospective labels. When talking about such business, Keenan becomes cautious and ironic: "It's the kind of thing that musicians always bullshit about--I guess I'm no different. We've had definite offers from two different companies."
When discussing future career plans, the Limbs assume a relaxed, almost laconic, tone. The most important things to Keenan are "writing and performing songs we think are good. We're not interested in letting music ruin our life. After you reach a certain threshold in pursuing a musical career, the band starts to become your life--and we each have other things we want to do."
He quickly shifts the conversation away from a discussion of professional versus artistic hermeticism by focusing back upon the music.
"From the first song that I wrote, I'd hoped that each one reflected something that someone could connect with in the real world. I'd be writing songs on the bus to work, at construction sites, etc. I don't sit down to write a song, I wait until there's something that I want to write about."
This insistence upon process has not only allowed for masterful songwriting, but also has let the Limbs lighten up about meeting any sort of professional expectations.
"We did all that...national tours, opening for the Cramps, and found that unless one has a trust fund, it's really difficult to tour and lead a functional life. We're more interested in leading functional lives."
In a business that includes hype among its occupational hazards, it's a pleasure to uncover musicians who find satisfaction in doing exactly what they want to do on their own terms. One significant, yet unexpected, consequence of such a relaxed and mature attitude toward success in the music industry seems to be reflected in a paradigm shift toward a more experimental (or alternative) aesthetic.
"People who were kids when we were kids are now record executives," notes Parks. "The level of receptiveness (in the industry) has greatly grown. If anything, we're less alternative than ever."
While Parks continues by joking that new-agey Windham Hill is one of the aforementioned record companies listening to their tape, Ruley looks at the contemporary scene and sees "the Meat Puppets and Daniel Johnston signed to Atlantic, bands like Doo Rag with a nationwide audience--10 years ago that would have been unthinkable."
Keenan, however, has "never pitched music toward any of that. I like our sound, I like the way we write songs and the way we do things. And besides," he chortles, "that rap album was such a dud."
Those of you who missed their performance at Club Congress' New Year's Eve Party will be able to catch them performing songs from their new tape (as well as some old favorites) at the upcoming Wooden Ball acoustic showcase at the same venue.
The Phantom Limbs will perform along with 13 other bands starting at 6 p.m. on Sunday, January 15 at the annual Wooden Ball hosted by Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. For more information call 622-8848.
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