Broken Fever

The hardest thing Nick Brisco ever did was grow up

He's almost unknown now, another anonymous musician who sweats to get gigs and sells his basement tapes at shows and the odd independent record store that stocks local releases. He's got a day job operating the clock at amateur hockey games around the area, and when he's not keeping time, he's killing time on the ice himself, tending goal as long as his back's not acting up. And when he's not keeping the puck out of the crease, he's writing songs and playing his guitar, hoping for one more chance to erase the memory of so many opportunities already blown.

He's currently shopping 13 songs on two self-made discs, but Nick Brisco has dozens more floating around inside his head; they're his "fantasy albums," he says, unfinished business yet to be recorded. The songs are split between two discs being sent to record labels, and they're an impressive enough collection for a wide-eyed rookie or a weary veteran--the dark, hoarse rock and roll made by a man who wants to be Bruce Springsteen but settles for Steve Earle singing John Mellencamp. They're poetic enough ("Keep your faith a little bit longer, she says as I lay myself down into the grave"), tortured enough (among the selections are "My Place in Hell" and "Postcard from Hell"), wry and rocking enough to convince you this guy has talent and then some. Then you realize they've been saying that about Nick Brisco for years, and what the hell has he done about it?

The 30-year-old Nick Brisco who schleps his bicycle into the dark confines of the Lakewood Landing on this 100-degree Monday looks a lot like the Nick Brisco who used to play for hundreds on Friday nights. His eyes are still a bleary mix of exhaustion and intensity; perhaps he's a bit softer around the edges now, but he looks much like he did seven years ago, when he and his bandmates in Fever in the Funkhouse were this close to escaping heroic obscurity as one of Deep Ellum's golden children.

Seven years ago--it seems like a lifetime ago now, a time before Deep Ellum turned into Fraternity Row, when all the clubs were owned by different people instead of a handful of businessmen, and when Sara Hickman and Nick Brisco were the reigning queen and king of Elm Street. Seven years ago--so much has changed since then, and yet sometimes it all seems very much the same. Brisco is still here among us, long after he broke up Fever in the Funkhouse and then promised to leave town and make something of himself; he's still shopping around his demos, still speaking at machine-gun speed about what should have been but wasn't, still seeming at once so brazen and so innocent.

Those who don't know him now, or who didn't know him when, might mistake Brisco for an arrogant pest--someone who drops the names of authors and books he's read to impress you; they might wonder why anyone would bother with him anymore. But those who do (did?) know him say he's still the same old Nick, a guy who doesn't stop reading, learning, talking, and trying to make something of himself. They forgive him for breaking up Fever in a fit of narcissism; they forgive him for promising so much and delivering only disappointment.

"Time cures a lot of things," says Club Dada co-owner Doak Boettiger, who booked Fever in the Funkhouse long before anyone mentioned record deals or promised them fame. "To be able to look back and see what you did and did wrong and be honest and open about it, that's maturity. Nick has grown up a lot. My God, how old was he back then? Think about it. People get into music for all sorts of reasons. It provides you with ego, women, and glamour. How can you be humble when you're 22 years old?"

The question is: Does Nick Brisco forgive himself?
"You can't blame others for your shortcomings, because it comes back to you," he says, nursing his pint of beer in the sticky gloom of this self-proclaimed dive bar. "I've been reading The Last Temptation of Christ, and in it, the author, Nikos Kazantzakis, believes that in order to survive, man needed a struggle. So the way I look at the Fever thing is like, it was easy street, but when the struggle came, as a group we fell apart. I've been struggling ever since, and it's a purpose. Not that I would never accept something easy, but everything I get is not easy."

Only Nick Brisco would compare his struggle to that of a fictional Christ's, but it's more endearing than annoying. It's just his way of proving he's well-read, and it's just his way of relaying the fact that, no, things haven't been easy ever since that $75,000 demo deal with Mercury/Polygram turned into a worthless piece of paper.

Fever's is a cautionary tale often told among those who wonder what might have happened...if only. It's a story about three childhood friends who formed a band in 1987, named it after a Rolling Stones lyric, became prototypical overnight sensations in a struggling scene in need of a little instant fame, received a huge chunk of change from a record label dying to sign them, lost the deal when their label liaison got fired, then broke up when the drummer and lead guitarist and bassist tried to convince the frontman to let them sing their songs too.

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