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Home on the Range

Chewing the cud with Al Perry, who celebrates two decades of music with his first new album in nine years

by and

This is the house
That all my troubles built
I live at the end of Blue Street
In a town called Loserville.
When your true love's gone
And you're down to your last cent
In this neighborhood
There's always a place to rent.
--Al Perry, "Loserville"

Despite what you'll hear after the sizzling electric guitar announces the start of "Loserville," local cowpunk musician Al Perry does not actually live at the end of Blue Street--at least not this week. Instead, he resides at a cozy university-area casita that's a shrine to three things.

The one theme you don't expect is Da Vinci's "The Last Supper," represented in paintings, sculpture and even a 3-D replication that turns into a portrait of Jesus, depending on how you tilt your head.

"I just like 'The Last Supper,'" Al says by way of explanation.

Then there's the surf stuff: knick-knacks scattered across shelves and a custom-made board resting along one wall beneath his window.

But the primary object of worship is music. He's got albums stacked on shelves across two walls of his bungalow--thousands of them, all neatly alphabetized, ranging stylistically from George Jones to Abba. (He shares a rather unhealthy love for both.)

The substantial record collection is even more amazing when he mentions that he's lost his entire collection two or three times over the course of his life, although he's somehow hung onto the first record he remembers buying: a four-song Beatles EP on a Mexican label.

"I'm not really as much of a record collector as I am a music collector," he says.

Boxes of CDs are stacked in the kitchen. A concert poster for a recent Brian Wilson show--which he flew to San Francisco to attend--is stuck on the fridge. A framed photo of Buck Owens sits on a shelf, and a portrait of Howlin' Wolf, by local artist Tom Walbank, hangs on a wall.

Music is Al Perry's life. (In an e-mail exchange, he writes: "It's sick that I am still doing this stuff [after] so long, but it's the only thing I like. Well, I like surfing, too. And girls are OK.") He's been plucking and strumming his six-string on local stages for close to a quarter-century. He's put out his own albums, including the Bakersfield-inspired stone-classic Losin' Hand back in '95; he's appeared on plenty of others' releases, including acts like Fish Karma, James Dead and Giant Sand; he's served as a guitar tech for one of his musical heroes, Link Wray; and shared a stage with Bo Diddley. Pavement's Stephen Malkmus once dedicated "Range Life" to him from the stage of the Phoenix stop of Lollapallooza. He's deejayed Al Perry's Clambake, a weekly late-night show on KXCI-FM, and he's played everything from the blues to rockabilly, country to punk, as a member of myriad Tucson bands.

"One time I was in seven bands all at once, which was fine, because some of them didn't play all the time," Al says. "They only played once every three months or something. But every now and then, all seven bands would be playing over the course of two weeks, plus rehearsing. It'd be really busy, but really fun, too."

When he's not playing music himself, he's listening to it or reading about it, constantly expanding his already-encyclopedic knowledge of all things music-related. From the time he was cognizant as a child to present-day, music has been a tireless pursuit.

The music has been a ticket to stages in L.A., El Paso, Boston, pretty much every country you can name in Europe, and even Canada, where the Cattle toured in the mid-'80s while their record, Cattle Call, was in heavy radio rotation. Yes, that's right: Al was once a Canadian superstar.

Al formally celebrates 20 years--20 years!--of playing with his foremost backup crew, the Cattle, with a big ol' Al-apalooza next Friday, Sept. 3, at Club Congress, that will put him on stage with a lot of old friends. Best of all, it's also a release party for a new CD, Always a Pleasure--his first in nine years--recorded with the help of his pals in Calexico, John Convertino and Joey Burns.

"I look back, and I've had a great time," Al says.

It's tough being a genius
Misunderstood as well
But I'm like one of those hermits
I won't come out of my shell
--Al Perry, "Little by Little"

The diversity of sounds and styles in Al's record collection manifests itself in his music, too. His trusty Fender Telecaster supplies both types of twang--that found in surf music and in all variations of country--but it can just as easily resemble the jangly pop of the 1960s that he first fell in love with as a kid. Who else but Al Perry can perform a blazing surf guitar instrumental next to a country weeper, follow that up with a balls-to-the-wall Motorhead cover and somehow manage to avoid a sense of incongruity? On top of it all, he's also a witty lyricist, armed with a gift for a wry turn of phrase.

If you count songs that Perry says "will never see the light of day," he estimates he's written hundreds upon hundreds of them since he began. For every song he's released, there are dozens that he hasn't.

Songwriting comes relatively easy to him these days when he's messing around on his Martin acoustic guitar.

"If I just sit there and kind of try to keep myself open to all the songs in the cosmos and let the music speak through me or whatever--I don't mean to sound corny or New Agey--but they just come," he says. "It's kinda funny when you look back on a song that you wrote, and you've forgotten what the process was that you wrote it by, and you're like, 'Man, how did I come up with that stuff? That's such a great idea; I can't believe I thought of that.' And that's when you've tapped into The Thing. The way I look at it, I just picture this sky with song titles like stars, and it's really just a matter of reaching out and grabbing one and finishing it."

Though it's now a vast wasteland populated by venomous right-wing pundits, in the 1960s, the AM band of the radio dial was the outlet of choice for all types of rock and pop music. It was also Al's escape from his otherwise rather white-bread upbringing in suburban Phoenix. Echoing a lyric from "In My Room" by the Beach Boys--one of the groups he discovered in those days, and which remains on the short list of Al's all-time faves--he remembers being "one of those kids who stays in his room a lot listening to his radio."

When he daydreamed about being a rock 'n' roll star, he always wanted to be a drummer. "I think every kid does," Al says. "Drummers always seemed like they were really cool."

But his parents concluded that "a guitar makes less racket," so that's what he got as an eighth-grade graduation present. He played in his room and occasionally jammed with friends, but never formed a band.

In the '70s, he became increasingly disenchanted with rock--"I think '75 is generally considered the worst year for rock," he says--and turned to blues and jazz while attending college. Along the way, he pretty much shelved his guitar, but reconsidered once punk came along and reinvigorated the rock landscape. "When the (Sex) Pistols came out, it fired everything back up," he says.

Al's academic career eventually led him to the University of Arizona in the late '70s, where he found himself living in a house near Speedway Boulevard and Country Club Road that became infamous for loud, neighborhood-disrupting parties.

"We'd just give fliers to everybody in town, and hundreds of people would show up," Al remembers. "I don't know why we did it. It was insane."

It was those parties that spawned Al's first band, the Subterranean Blues Band. They were enough of a hit that they were soon playing the clubs of those halcyon days--the Night Train, Nino's and Pearl's Hurricane--and served as the opening band for up-and-coming touring acts such as the Blasters and John Cougar. "There were no other blues bands in those days," he recalls, "so we used to get a lot of gigs."

During the next few years, Al moved on to other bands--including the Psyclones and the Hecklers--before finally forming the three-member Cattle with bassist Dave Roads and drummer Dave Robey in the summer of 1984. Roads has remained a Cattle constant ever since, though the drum stool has featured a rotating cast. (Enter your own Spinal Tap joke here.)

"I just like the dynamic of a trio," Perry says. "You have so much freedom. If you want to stretch something out a little bit, you just look over at Dave, and it's cool; you don't have to worry about sticking close to arrangements or anything like that."

Roads, a lifeguard and swim instructor who has been playing bass with Al since he was 17 years old, says his musical career has "been a blast."

"I've been able to do a lot of things I probably would never have done, like going to Europe three times," Roads says.

They've been together so long that, according to Al, Roads "knows some of my stuff better than I do."

"Sometimes, somebody requests something just as a joke and I say, 'Let's try to play that,' and I have to ask him because he knows it," Al says. "He's a real musician, a solid, steady-freddy kind of guy, a really nice, give-you-the-shirt-off-his-back kind of guy."

When we're together
It's always a pleasure
--Al Perry, "Always a Pleasure"

Oddly enough, Al doesn't spend much time with Roads when they're not playing a gig.

"We keep meaning to play tennis or something once in a while, but we kind of never do," Roads says with a laugh. "Maybe we've been able to stay together as long as we have because we don't have time to get on each other's nerves."

But other longtime local rock 'n' rollers say Al is good company both on and off the stage.

"I think Al is extremely talented and extremely knowledgeable and extremely authentic," says attorney Jefferson Keenan, front man of the Phantom Limbs. "He's become a fixture in the Tucson music scene. And he's just a fun guy to be around."

Some time back, Keenan and Al, along with Chris Burroughs, teamed up to form an outfit that started out with the idea of specializing in real, old-time honky-tonk.

"In the initial wave of rockabilly revival, there were a lot of what we considered to be phony, dress-up rockabilly bands," Keenan remembers. "And they all had 'cat' in the name."

Thus was born the Fraidy Cats, covering Eddie Cochran, Buck Owens, Webb Pierce and--every once in a while, to keep in tune with the zeitgeist--rockabilly versions of songs by the Violent Femmes and Guns N Roses.

The Fraidy Cats will reunite for next week's CD release party, as will Gila Bend, a band that Perry has joined on bass from time to time.

Al still remembers the first time he saw Gila Bend at Tequila Mockingbird, a bar at El Con Mall (immortalized by Al in a 1985 surf-punk instrumental called "El Con Malo") that served as musical melting pot for a wide range of eccentric musicians, from Fish Karma to the then-Giant Sandworms.

"Gila Bend had this song, 'Fuck Me Big Banana,'" Al says. "They just had these hilarious, really goofy songs. They just knocked me out, so we because instant friends."

Loren Dircks, frontman of Gila Bend, succinctly sums up his feelings about his occasional bassist: "Al's awesome," he says. "He can do it all."

It seems Al made a lot of friends at the Mockingbird, where he also served as not only bartender, but, according to his good friend Fish Karma, who he also met there, "lord and master."

"A more judgmental, intolerant and venomous barkeep can scarcely be imagined," Karma once said of Perry. "As surly as he may have been behind the bar, he also let off a heady dose of steam on stage."

At least one of those performances is etched in Keenan's mind.

"I vividly remember him tumbling backwards into the drum set at Tequila Mockingbird," Keenan says.

You've got me dancing
With a lampshade on my head.
You've got me wishing
I'd just as soon be dead.
I'm all twisted
And bent out of shape.
I'm all tied up in knots
Don't make no mistake.
--Al Perry, "Twisted"

The music has been his passion, but it hasn't always paid the bills. Besides tending bar, Al has clerked at Toxic Ranch Records and, for the last decade-plus, worked on and off at the front desk of downtown's Hotel Congress, which he calls "a cool place."

"It's been there such a long time," he says. "There are great people who go in there and hang out; there are great people working there; there are good bands playing there; there's always something going on. It's kind of a spiritual place for me."

He was working the front desk one day when he got his first big Hollywood break. A pair of talent scouts for The Quick and the Dead came into the hotel "looking for people with unusual looks," Al recalls.

Believe it or not, he fit the bill. During his time on the set, he observed that Gene Hackman was "cool"; Sharon Stone, who spent a lot of time in her trailer, was "aloof"; and director Sam Raimi was "polite and nice and he always wore a tie."

The highlight came when he and another extra playing the undertaker's assistants got to haul Stone down a dusty road after she's supposedly been shot and killed. (Sadly, the scene didn't survive the final cut.)

"All of a sudden, there was Sharon Stone lying there and they said, 'Go get her, boys,'" Al says. "We went walking out there and grabbed her and dragged her down the street."

Lucky Al: Given the opportunity, who wouldn't want to drag Sharon Stone down the street?

Another city and another day
I can't make your memory just go away
I could fill this motel's pool up with my tears
I'm having a good time, wish you were here.
--Al Perry, "Having a Good Time"

About four years ago, Al split Tucson for a spell, leaving what Keenan calls "a gaping hole" in our music scene. He relocated to the Bay Area as an assistant manager of a youth hostel.

The highlight of his time away? He finally taught himself to surf.

This was no easy feat, considering he couldn't afford lessons and was a few years beyond ideal novice age. He'd watch other surfers, pick their brains, paddle out and strive to just get his balance on the board. After months of struggle, on a cold winter day, he caught a little knee-high wave.

"I was totally hooked," he says. "It was the most fun thing ever."

But the job soured, and Al's subsequent efforts to find a steady job in Santa Cruz fizzled. Work was hard to come by, he says, "plus, I went surfing every day instead of looking for a job. I always said I'd look for a job in the afternoon, and then it was like, nah, I'll just take a nap. And then I'd wake up, and the day was almost over, and it was time to go out for the evening." The upside: He's a pretty good surfer these days. When the right wave comes his way, he can catch it--a rush second only to being onstage.

"For me, being better at music than at surfing, it's easier for me to get a good gig than a good surfing session," Al says. "I can be feeling kind of depressed, physically not so great, but I get onstage and for some reason everything just fades away and your mind just clears. It's kind of just like that meditation thing--your mind just clears and you're just focused on the moment and it just feels better than anything else.

"I'm not talking about energy or excitement or anything like that, but just when you're playing really well and everything just feels right," he concludes. "There's nothing that feels better."

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