Off And Running

Saying Goodbye To Local Legend Al Perry.

Somewhere along the line, Al crossed over from upstart country punk to disciplined singer/songwriter, and I feel lucky to have seen both. There's something fitting and poetic about Al moving to Dashiell Hammett territory, but I still don't like it. -- Jennifer Powers-Murphy

THE CITY OF Tucson, like many other human constructs, can perhaps best be viewed as a Cartesian paradigm. It is, in other words, a duality of body and mind; both the quantifiable sum of its material manifestations -- the chip-sealed streets and unsynchronized traffic lights that constitute its physical reality -- as well as an evolving and wholly subjective entity that finds footing solely within the consciousness of its inhabitants. The relationship of these two spheres, both shared reality and individual representation thereof, is primarily one of interaction: the actions and responses of the one shaped and determined by the physical parameters of the other. And vice versa.

Which brings us, by circuitous route, to Al Perry.

Ever since high school, I've wanted to be Al Perry. -- David Fitzsimmons

IF ONE ACCEPTS this dichotomous framework, it follows, then, that every inhabitant of the Old Pueblo is in possession of a mental inventory of aesthetic absolutes: a schematic map denoting those essential places, people, events, rituals and circumstances that give substance and individual meaning to this, our shared existence beneath the brutal desert sun. For some, the actual city structure is fairly irrelevant; they hearken rather to the lure of winding mountain trails, the phantom smell of creosote after summer rains. Others, not as spiritually inclined, perhaps, have their hearts attuned to more urban symbols of quintessence, pursuing their manifold destinies among peeling stucco and discarded Circle K coffee cups.

There has been, however, one constant in the lives of all Tucsonans, regardless of aesthetic stance: one iconic presence who bridges all gulfs, who spans all divides, who unifies all scenes; a man whose battered Telecaster can simultaneously evoke, in a procession of cascading E chords, both transcendent Sonoran solitude and caffeine-induced commuter frenzy. That constant is, of course, Al Perry.

Not a day goes by that I don't find myself singing some Al Perry song. -- Fonda Hamilton

WHETHER YOU KNOW it or not, whether you acknowledge it or not, Al Perry has profoundly affected your life. For two decades, his music has provided the Morriconian soundtrack for this city's existence, grafting form to chaos and chaos to form, ontogenetically recapitulating the phylogeny of Tucson's physical growth and internal decay. In outward appearance, of course, Al's muse has altered her demeanor and demands, moving him from the drummer-slaughtering frenzy of the Hecklers' psychobilly stomp to the Cattle's vicious country-punk satire to the subdued, crystalline purity of "Losin' Hand." And yet, to the initiate, it is all one: a continuum of outrage and grief, despair and redemption, detachment and commitment. And yes, brothers and sisters, it does rock mightily!

Al is a damn-near perfect mix of flip flops, pedal steel, humor and Bakersfield twang. -- Sean Murphy

LISTENING TO AL playing live is, in many respects, the best way to communicate with him. Offstage, away from the glare of revolving lights, he can be somewhat difficult to converse with, especially if you haven't known him for at least 15 years. Frequently, questions and comments are greeted with loud cries of "Hah?," obsessive repetitions of cryptic phrases such as "Right on" and "Dude," caustic remarks directed towards the musician, band or song you have vouchsafed for approval, and/or lengthy monologues detailing the reasons why Mike Love should be eviscerated on national TV.

On the other hand, Al has also provided advice, guidance, opportunities and elucidations for innumerable musicians and fans, has played in every band that has ever existed (and even some that haven't), has lent his name to countless charity events and organizations, and is always eager to offer his opinions and views about any conceivable topic. (In fact, I hereby retract the preceding paragraph. You can't get the guy to shut up! Hey, Al -- how about five minutes of silence once in a while?)

Al isn't just a wonderful songwriter and musician -- he's also a very vocal fan -- and one with pretty eclectic tastes. How many people can you name who are rabid about The Beach Boys, Buck Owens, Patty Loveless, Abba, Dick Dale or Cecil Taylor, to name a few? Al loves music passionately and always has an opinion on it. He typically will strongly like or strongly dislike something -- there's not a lot of middle ground. What many people don't know is what a pop music fan he really is -- and he doesn't love the stuff for some kind of ultra hip kitsch value either. He loves it all. -- Marx B. Loeb III

YES, I KNOW: there was actually a time when Al didn't live in Tucson. I know of his Phoenix childhood and adolescence -- the unendurably hot summers, the endless hours watching Wallace and Ladmo and Dark Shadows, the teenage experimentation with glue sniffing, random violence and heavy metal music, and yet, for many of us, it seems like Al has always been here: like the Santa Catalina mountains, he has been an indelible part of the collective conscious. Like those mountains, however, his majesty has sometimes gone unnoticed, taken as a given, assumed. (As the angry radio psychologists are always telling us, this is no way to maintain a relationship.) Sure, he has been granted the usual music awards and acclaim; newspapers customarily refer to him with epithets like "genius" and "local treasure" and the like. But what have you done for Al lately, Mr. and Ms. Tucson? When was the last time you brought him a Mountain Dew or a bag of Cheetos? When was the last time you picked Al up and held him in your arms and said, "Damn it, man, the way you follow 'The Fightin' Side of Me' in your set with the Misfits' 'Bullet' really captures the polarities of the American soul?" When was the last time you drove to Yuma at three in the morning with Fraidy Cat or El Dio playing at full blast from your Corolla's tinny cassette deck?

Well, it's too late now. Al is moving to San Francisco. In fact, he's already gone.

Al and I had taken this awful bathtub acid one day. Later on, I was in the audience watching the Psyclones play, and Al suddenly began clutching his head and shouting, 'Who brought this head vice in here?' -- Nick Seivert

IT SEEMS SOMEHOW fitting that the recent uproar over the future of El Con Mall (inevitably referred to as "crumbling" by The Arizona Daily Star) has coincided with Al's decision to relocate to the Bay area, inasmuch as many of us first made his acquaintance at the Tequila Mockingbird, a fake Mexican restaurant and nightclub at El Con that not only served the worst happy hour buffet in town, but also functioned as the improbable nexus of early '80s Tucson entertainment.

Al worked at the Mockingbird as bartender, and a more judgmental, intolerant and venomous barkeep can scarcely be imagined. It was a brave soul, indeed, who could withstand the withering stare of the grim, red-headed visage behind the bar and order a strawberry daiquiri -- in Al's opinion, the frothy embodiment of all that was truly evil and malign in the world. Former Mockingbird employees fondly recall the night a particularly irritating couple, having sent back their piña coladas because of a perceived lack of quality, were given drinks instead freshened with blue bar disinfectant.

Al was lord and master of the Mockingbird, and it was there I first met him, during one of the innumerable Tuesday comedy nights. I was onstage, wearing elf shoes and a strange burlap dress I'd purchased at Value Village, performing a parody of Delta blues. Al, always a purist of form and style, stood behind the bar and loudly declaimed to all who would listen the height, depth, breadth, extent and substance of my idiocy.

After that, we became good friends, and wrote many songs together.

It's easy for me to recall the day that I met Al. It was my first night cocktail-waitressing at Tequila Mockingbird. Al belittled me for listening to Billy Idol (it was 1983, for heaven's sake). After that, Al became the big brother that I didn't have but really needed. He even bird-dogged me a wonderful husband, so it seemed natural to incorporate Al's name into that of our firstborn son. Aljosha is 14 now; tall, handsome, musical, surly in the mornings, and seems generally disgusted by people -- the spittin' image of his Uncle Al. I love Al madly, and always will. -- Angela McCormick Owen

IN SOLICITING TESTIMONIALS for this article, many musicians had difficulty coming up with a succinct quote that adequately expressed their feelings about Al Perry. Sure, there was no scarcity of "We were so drunk that..." stories; that is part and parcel of the territory. I could have provided innumerable anecdotes myself: Al lying with his head in a bass drum, screaming out the lyrics to "House of the Rising Sun"; Al, dressed as Madonna for Halloween, throwing up in a dumpster, while sorority girls looked on in disgust; Al clutching his four-dollar Britney Spears picture at the Jethro Tull concert we attended last October. But what would be the purpose of such a litany?

It may be enough to reiterate Marx Loeb's description of Al as a person who simply loves music. This love, despite the innumerable classic songs he has written, is perhaps ascertained most clearly when Al is on a stage somewhere, playing Link Wray's "Rumble" or "Ace of Spades." (Just watch his face and you'll know what I mean.)

For many of us, there are fundamental changes being wrought in this town, changes that go far beyond the usual cosmetic transformations of an evolving civic entity: a building torn down here, a business change there. Indeed, these changes go beyond even the relentless din of bulldozers ravaging the desert. For many people, the very soul of Tucson is metamorphosing into something that is nearly unrecognizable. Al's departure is, in some respects, another aspect of that metamorphosis.

Goodbye, Al, good luck, and write often.

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