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.

It all happened so damned fast, it's astonishing anyone still remembers at all.

"It was a quick ride and a quick fall," says Bryan Wakeland, Fever's drummer and a friend of Brisco's since the seventh grade. Wakeland, who would go on to play with Tripping Daisy until 1996 and is now finishing a tape of his own songs, recalls that he and guitarist Chris Claridy and bassist Jim Holbrook approached Brisco about writing for the band, but that Nick always nixed the idea. Brisco had become the star of the band, its voice and face; never mind that Wakeland and Claridy and Brisco had played in numerous bands before that, all of them writing the songs together.

"But I don't hold any grudges," Wakeland says now. "I never did. Yeah, I wanted to contribute tunes, but Nick was a happening frontman, and I didn't want to rock the boat. Look, we were young. When you're 21, 22, you think you know everything."

In the end, the reasons for Fever's breakup were numerous: After the band's Mercury/Polygram A&R person was fired, a new guy was brought in who didn't particularly care for the band's sound--which had changed considerably between the signing of the contract and the drying of the ink. No longer were they just a tight, fierce rock and roll band: Brisco had begun dating Cafe Noir's violinist Gale Hess, and he wanted to incorporate that band's ethereal Gypsy-jazz sound into his own work--which didn't interest Mercury, or Brisco's bandmates, one damned bit.

By early 1991, Fever began getting calls from labels that had rejected the band at first--Warner Bros., Columbia Records, RCA--but by then, there was too much strife within the band. By March, they had "self-destructed," as Wakeland calls it. Now, all that's left are the abortive demos Fever recorded for Mercury, which were released in the fall of 1996 by Parallax Records, the local indie Brisco occasionally works for. They were sold during Fever's well-attended, well-received reunion gig in late 1996 at Club Dada--so much for stardom.

Brisco has long insisted he couldn't get booked in Deep Ellum after he broke Fever up; he always felt as though club owners held a grudge against him for his brash decision to pull the plug on a band that had yet to even release a cassette.

"You know, by breaking up Fever, I didn't realize how important it was to Dallas and to the people who were involved with it, and a lot of people were hurt by it," Brisco says now. "Some of them took a while to tell me that, and I feel that the route and the way we were going, it was the right thing to do. I think I needed to be humbled. I mean, you don't know that at the time. You do it out of complete arrogance and youth, and you think you can just challenge the world. I was young Muhammad Ali, and I wanted to fight Sonny Liston, except instead of kicking his ass, I got knocked out."

But Boettiger says Brisco never got blackballed from Deep Ellum. If anything, Brisco thought he could pick up where Fever left off after the band broke up; he thought he could step back on the stage by himself and keep headlining weekend shows at Dada. But, in reality, he was no more and no less than a solo artist without much name recognition; the crowds knew four guys who called themselves Fever in the Funkhouse, not one man named Nick Brisco. In March 1991, he played a solo gig at Poor David's Pub--and the club was empty. He would demand the money gigs, only to have Boettiger and other club owners tell him he could play weeknight shows or, maybe, open for someone else on a Saturday night.

"I remember Nick came into the club once and wanted a show with a new band and wanted to play one weekend, and I was like, 'Well, no, you're starting over again,' and he got upset," Boettiger says. "I don't think he realized Fever was greater than the sum of its parts. Nick by himself was just Nick Brisco, and he was starting all over on a new project--and it wasn't Fever. I don't know if I resented him for breaking up Fever. I was disappointed, because they were right on the edge of being signed and making it. But it wasn't like, 'He screwed up, and now we don't have great weekends.'"

In the end, Brisco says now, Fever just wasn't big enough for the sound he heard in his head, a swirl of violins and electric guitars and bouzoukis and saxophones and accordions. As Fever began breaking up, Brisco approached Alan Restrepo--the owner of the local Carpe Diem Records, Cafe Noir's label--about financing a solo record. Brisco's idea was to bring in myriad local all-stars and have them turn his songs into complex, grandiose movements--each a mini pop symphony, every song a dozen crammed into one. Restrepo was initially into the idea. He told Brisco he'd give him $30,000 to make the record, and then helped Brisco assemble the greatest collection of Dallas musicians ever to appear on one record.

In the end, the roster included members of Cafe Noir (including Hess, Jason Bucklin, Lyles West, and Norbert Gerl, who co-produced the album), New Bohemians (including drummer Matt Chamberlain, guitarist Kenny Withrow, and bassist Brad Houser), Ten Hands (Earl Harvin was in the band back then), and Fever in the Funkhouse (Claridy and Wakeland play on one tune each).

Yet Restrepo pulled out during the recording of the album, which would come to be known as Pluto. He and Brisco began fighting about the direction the album was headed in--or directions, in this case. Brisco says Restrepo kept worrying the project was running over budget. "I'm like, 'I'm not going to go over budget, Alan, I just need you to keep the fuck out of the studio, and I need to be able to pay the musicians,'" he recalls.

But Restrepo says he pulled out halfway through the recording simply because he could no longer stand to be around Brisco. The label owner says he was tired of trying to figure out whether Brisco was brilliant or nuts, so he bailed out after sinking, by his estimation, about $3,000 into the album.

"Halfway through, I just couldn't take it anymore, so we went our own way, and I was supposed to get paid back, but I never did," Restrepo says. "It was a fiasco emotionally. I just couldn't take him. There's some brilliance and genius there, or it's total craziness I can't comprehend. He borders on that area. I don't know him now. He could be a different person now. He's an artist at heart in some ways, but sometimes he's hard to get along with."

Brisco finished recording the disc, with David Castell and Gerl producing, and the result is valiantly ambitious and wildly eclectic at best, frustratingly random and absurdly incoherent at worst. With song titles such as "America's Not Free" and "God vs. Government" and "Life or Death (Which Do You Fear?)," Pluto is Brisco's socio-political manifesto set to some of the most stunning music ever made by Dallas musicians; the performances are wonderful enough to, ofttimes, sneak you past some of Brisco's freshman social-studies lyrics ("If I were the president, I would pray, 'Assassinate me' / Take me out of my misery") and sing-speak monologues ("How I long to see the ocean / I remember a time when me and my four closest friends / We went and we did see the ocean").

"I listened to it about a month ago, and I personally think Nick should have sequenced it differently," says Cafe Noir's Norbert Gerl. "The record's all over the place stylistically. It goes everywhere, and that would throw a label off. He should have pulled a demo of the four most accessible songs and shopped it. But it's a good record."

At the beginning of 1992, with Brisco feeling like an outcast in his homeland, he set out for Los Angeles with a few copies of Pluto in hand; there, he hooked up with former KERA-FM music director Chris Douridas, who by then was working at KCRW-FM, the top public-radio station in Southern California. Douridas was also working with Geffen Records, sending prospective bands to producer Tony Berg, who had produced the New Bohemians' second and final album, 1990's Ghost of a Dog. Douridas sent Brisco to see Berg, and the two hit it off like fire and ice. The same thing happened when Brisco had a meeting with executives from Private Music, which was then a new-age label home to Tangerine Dream. Douridas would get Brisco in the door, and Brisco would proceed to burn the building down.

"I pissed Tony Berg off," Brisco recalls. "And Private Records was dying to sign me, but when I met with them, I told them I wanted to direct my own video and if I couldn't do it, I wanted Gus Van Sant. I told them I wanted to put out a video album. They asked me who my influences were. I told them Jelly Roll Morton and Motsrhead, and they never called me back again. Chris' quote to me was, 'Calm down, this is not a boxing match.' I got offered a couple deals on the small level. They wanted to give me only $5,000 to $10,000 for the record, which was not enough to pay for it. No, I want $100,000 for this record.

"I'm a little more calm now, but back then, I was more like, 'Goddamn it, you don't see what's going on!' Tony Berg told Chris I was an asshole...I think my stance was that I was a little too ready to be discovered, which sometimes works for you. I knew it was a risk when I took that attitude, 'cause it worked for Bob Dylan, and I thought it might work for me. I had this great album with these great musicians on it, and then...You know, I thought it would work, but it didn't. It didn't. If you're Nick Brisco, you find a way to make it not work."

Pluto now sits in Gerl's studio-office, unreleased. It will likely remain that way for a very long time.

Brisco returned from the West Coast in late 1992 and almost immediately headed for the East Coast, moving to New York City to escape a failed relationship. He stayed there for six months, writing and reading and trying to figure out where things went wrong, wondering if he had the guts to start over again.

When he came back to Dallas in mid-1993, carrying only his bike and a suitcase, he moved into his parents' house and did "the whole poverty thing," as he calls it. He put together a new band and called it, appropriately enough, Pluto. Featuring a number of musicians who played in The Dead Thing--and, for a while, Bryan Wakeland on drums--the band never made much of a dent; Brisco blames it on the fact that it was hard for audiences to drink and dance to "too many songs about death." He shrugs: "SMU girls didn't like it."

Though he's only 30, Brisco has been around long enough to influence a generation of younger musicians--OK, 25-year-olds--who remember Fever in that warm bask of nostalgia that surrounds so many bands who were so close to becoming something other than Friday-night superstars. One such player was Slobberbone's guitarist Michael Hill, who would eventually join Brisco's new project. (Also playing with Brisco now are bassist Steve Chambers and drummer Jim King.)

Brisco recorded his first batch of new songs and demos in Waxahachie in March 1997, with Hill on guitar, Chambers on bass--and Chris Claridy and Bryan Wakeland by his side once more, inseparable partners even after all this time. But by the time he recorded the second set at the beginning of this year, Claridy had become a full-time member of American Horse (the Jackopierce spin-off), and Wakeland was working on his own music and playing with Meredith Miller.

Those who have known Nick forever and who have heard his new music like to say it reminds them of the songs he wrote in Fever--that is, they're simpler, straight to the point, rock and roll cut from a familiar cloth. What they do not say, what's implicit in their words, is that they are thankful to find their old friend playing in a rock and roll band once again, back on a stage once more, getting his shit together finally.

Because, you see, Nick Brisco may be a lot of things: cocky, ambitious, pretentious, even a little foolish sometimes. But he is, above all else, talented; the only problem is, and has always been, that he knows it all too well, which is why he ruined his band and his best shot at breaking out of the minors.

As Nick Lowe once wrote, time wounds all heals, and Nick Brisco has suffered like few others in the history of Dallas music. He's been celebrated and cast out, adored and vilified, made a hero and a villain in the span of just a few years. And there's no doubt that Brisco, for all his talk of deals that may or may never happen, is just happy, after all this time, to get a gig this weekend playing Club Dada--and on a Friday night, no less, a spot once as familiar to him as his own home. He has paid for his sins tenfold, and he deserves whatever good comes to him. All that remains to be seen now is whether Nick Brisco will embrace good fortune, or whether he will beat the shit out of it one more lousy time.

"I'm not going to lie," Brisco says. "I want my new songs to be heard, and I would like to be recognized. If something happens and I'm not recognized while I'm alive for what I do, I would like them to be available posthumously. I still want them to be there whether they are discovered in the next six weeks or the next six years or the next 60 years, if the planet is still here. I want them to be heard."

Yup. Only Nick Brisco, still such a young man, would talk about being recognized for his greatness when he's dead. How can you not forgive a man like that?

Nick Brisco and his band perform June 12 at Club Dada.

Shaggy P.A.
Speaking of old-school: Former Texas Monthly cover girl Nancy "Shaggy" Moore has picked herself up off the old Lost Highway and started herself a new country-rock-etc. outfit titled, appropriately, Shaggy and Her Light Sweet Crude Band. Those who don't recall Moore's previous band--Lost Highway, which included among its illustrious ranks one Craig Taylor, long ex of Killbilly--might remember her from the good old days when she threw a "Pajama Party" every Saturday night on KNON; she was even supposed to have been played by Molly Ringwald in a movie about her life, and thank the Lord that never happened. The band includes Moore on lead vocals and rhythm guitar; Brian Robbins on lead guitar; Gerald Iragorri, a member of both Junky Southern and Leroy Shakespeare's Ship of Vibes, on bass; and Randy Cook on drums.

"This is my first my band," says Moore, who was also a part-time member of Zydeco Faux Pas. "This is the me shit. The songwriting is really the reason I couldn't help but put a band together, because songs were just popping out all over the place, and I just had to have something to do with them." The repertoire features country standards and a few oddball faves (Blondie's "Dreamin'," for one). Says Moore: "The original stuff ranges from an authentic-sounding Riders in the Sky type of thing to a trash-can blues song to a grungy Steve Earle anthem to an Emmylou Harris sweet thing. It's country because I'm country. But it's everything." Check out Shaggy for yourself June 12 at the Sons of Hermann Hall, when her band opens for Donny Ray Ford's Widowmakers, or the following night at Adair's.

Scene, Heard
After months of swearing she loved playing in Darlington--and hey, no reason to think she didn't--Spyche has left the band to "pursue her own projects," according to the press release sent out by Last Beat Records. She has been replaced, for the time being, by Omar. In other band-departure news, Alan Hayslip--a man for whom the word "journeyman" was created, and we mean this in the most complimentary of ways, swear to God--has departed Floor Thirteen over what he refers to as "procedural differences." We have no idea what this means, but it sounds vaguely painful.

Send Street Beat e-mail to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com. Or, better yet, don't.

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