Refuse to Lose

Musician Christy Darlington could have—and perhaps should have—quit years ago. So why didn't he?

"I'm gonna die one day staring at the dressing room walls."

--Old 97's, "Dressing Room Walls"

Christy Darlington grew up a small kid, a shy kid, who loved music probably more than anything--the grunt of Angus Young's guitar, the velvet baritone of Morrissey. There was only one problem: He couldn't play it.

"Anyone who says they don't want to be popular and famous and have as many people listening to their music as possible is full of bullshit," Christy Darlington says.
Mark Graham
"Anyone who says they don't want to be popular and famous and have as many people listening to their music as possible is full of bullshit," Christy Darlington says.

Like most kids, Christy Darlington had more bravado than talent, more imagination than chops. (He also had a different name, but we'll get to that later.) On the guitar, he fumbled with complex fingerwork; his singing voice was limited. It's the point at which most people hang up their Fender, swallow their stadium fantasies and find some other pastime. Christy Darlington found punk rock.

Armed with liquid courage and a pocketful of Ramones riffs, he strapped on a guitar and started a band with bassist Ron Malippa and drummer Steve Visneau.

"When we got our first gig, we only had a few songs," Darlington remembers. "We were like, 'Shit, dude, we better write something.'"

They called themselves Mess.

It was 1995, just a year after Green Day's Dookie had smashed through the gravitas of the day's grunge with songs about whacking off and going mental. Once underground and dangerous, punk burst onto MTV in a teen-friendly parade of hoodies and green hair. Of course, Mess preferred the old-school subversion of The Queers and The Misfits to the Top 40 commercialism of the Offspring. They were full of big ideas and romanticism and beer. That's about all they had.

"He couch-surfed for the first five years I knew him," Visneau says. "He was basically a homeless punk. I'd go pick him up, and he'd be living in squalor, on a dirty mattress in a hot place, eating rice he fried in a pan because he couldn't boil it. I'd be like, 'Get in the truck. We're going to Burger King.'"

In any other career, it's called crazy; in music, it's called dedication.

But there was a reason for that dedication--Darlington turned out to be a promising songwriter, penning a handful of sharp, catchy bursts of pop-punk as the front man for Mess: "I hear sleigh bells ringing/And nebulous sirens screaming," he sang in "XMas," a snarky anti-holiday ode. Another crowd favorite, "Marcia Brady," waxed poetic about everyone's favorite syndicated sweetheart. This was back when Darlington drank, and Mess became the perfect, stumbling soundtrack for a wasted Saturday night. What he lacked in technical virtuosity he made up for in showmanship. This paper once called him Dallas' answer to Johnny Rotten.

And yet, the years that followed also brought a string of frustrations and near-misses. A legal battle caused the band to change its name from Mess to Darlington, and though it stuck, no one else did. Visneau stayed the longest, making five albums with his best friend, but eventually even he left for the rock band Slowride. Almost a decade after the band began, Darlington has one member--Christy--who plays a handful of local gigs each year at venues like the Barley House and Club Clearview. Last summer, he scraped together a small tour, filling out his lineup with fans he found online. The rest of the year, he works at the mall. He's 31 years old.

Society is fairly indulgent with its musicians, but only for so long. It's OK for a 21-year-old to wear leather pants and run off with the rock-and-roll circus, but after a few years, we start to look at them funny. We suggest a real job, a wife, a family. We suggest that maybe it's time to, you know, grow up.

"After you do it for a while, you develop a chip on your shoulder," Christy says. "People start telling you that you need to quit, that it's a waste of time. You wanna prove those people wrong. If you end up being successful, you can just throw it back into their face."

Christy Darlington doesn't want a wife or kids. What he wants is to play music, tour, find a major label. But have you ever tried eating ramen noodles for a decade? Once, he signed an e-mail to me like this:

"From a very broken-down, poverty-stricken dallas musician/punk rocker with a career that no one cares about and cds no one buys or listens to,

xoxo

christy brigitte darlington"


The truth is most musicians don't achieve as much success as Christy Darlington. His single "Marcia Brady" was beloved by both Howard Stern and Rodney Bigenheimer, the influential Los Angeles DJ who is the subject of The Mayor of Sunset Strip. He has toured the country nine times and Europe three times. He has been on the Warped Tour twice. He has released eight full-length albums--more than Guns N' Roses, more than the Beastie Boys. If quantity counts for anything, Christy Darlington gets a gold star.

It was around the release of his seventh CD, All the Wrong Moves, that I met Christy Darlington. It was my second day on the job as music editor when he showed up--friendly and polite, a human canvas of tattoos--to introduce himself and offer me a review copy of his album.

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