Between the cracks
There are some things that, to be truly enjoyed, require a certain suspension of cynicism--stuff like reading fiction, finding God, falling in love...and music, of course. And cynicism about David Garza--or Dah-veed, as he prefers to be called--has been all but the party line in many of the hipper music circles in Austin, where Garza, a Dallas native, now resides. I know, because I was one of those cynics.
That trepidation was the result of what must be the most phenomenal band emergence ever witnessed by the Capital City's vaunted and often insular music scene. In a career that lasted a mere 10 months, Garza's previous band, Twang Twang Shock-A-Boom, went from playing the West Mall on the University of Texas campus for fun and tips to packing a thousand or so fans into Liberty Lunch and showcasing at the headquarters of CBS Records (now Sony Music).
Throughout that time, many in the Austin scene reacted to the band's swift ascension as Bob Dylan's Mr. Jones might have: There was something going on there, and they did not know what it was. So they laughed, scorned, and speared the trio that had accomplished what some of the most highly touted Austin acts of the day had yet to even come close to: packing the clubs, selling scads of cassettes, and getting a private audience with the honchos of what was then the silk-stocking major record label.
"At a very early stage in my career, I was laughed at and made fun of, and I think that's pretty funny," Garza says with a big smile over lunch at Julio's, a Mexican chicken joint not far from Garza's home in Austin's Hyde Park. After all, he who laughs last, laughs best and loudest. Since launching a solo career after Twang Twang broke up in 1990, Garza--who calls his act Dah-veed, from the Mexican-American pronunciation of his name--has been laughing all the way to the piggy bank.
He has released four CDs on his own label and three limited-issue cassettes (all manufactured and distributed by the Dallas-based Crystal Clear Sound), tours an ever-expanding circuit of venues filled with enthusiastic fans, and makes more than a decent living doing so, all without a record deal or manager. Meanwhile, many of the Austin acts with the media attention and recording contracts Garza hasn't gotten aren't nearly as successful, prolific, or artistically free.
As a newcomer to Austin in the fall of 1989, as well as a veteran cynic--or, rather, critic--I took more than usual pains during my first months in town to try to understand Twang Twang Shock-A-Boom's quick rise to the top of the music scene, a phenomenon that caused both surprise and consternation to the resident scenesters at that time. But anyone with half an eye for performing talent could see that Garza had a captivating presence on stage, while his rhythm section of drummer Chris Searles (now one of Austin's top percussionists) and bassist Jeff Haley (who has since relocated to New York) were a skintight, accomplished, and incredibly musical team.
The setup was deceptively basic--acoustic guitar, upright bass, and minimal drum kit living up to the band's onomatopoeic name--and the songs incredibly simple and catchy. To someone weaned on Bob Dylan, chanting choruses like "Me so twang-eee" and "Don't get AIDS" rang shallow, perhaps, but that didn't matter to the hundreds of college-age fans who were singing along. As Willie Dixon sang, "The men don't know, but the little girls understand."
Though at the time they were only college freshmen, all three Twangers already had considerable musical schooling under their belts. Garza started playing guitar at age 11 and immediately became an avid musician.
"While all my friends were learning how to smoke cigarettes and do cool things like that, I was learning how to play Zeppelin tunes [while] listening to Redbeard," Garza recalls.
"I started hanging around Deep Ellum in 1988, before they started making T-shirts that said 'Deep Ellum,'" he says, laughing. Soon after, Garza started his first band, The Happy Farmers--which he describes as "really quirky...kinda Talking Heads meets the soundtrack from Grease"--and opened shows for such Dallas faves of the era as the New Bohemians, Ten Hands, and Fever in the Funkhouse at Club Dada. By age 18, he won a classical guitar scholarship to UT, where he quickly hooked up with Austinites Searles and Haley, whom he had previously met at high-school band competitions.
"We had music theory class together, and we were all failing it, too," Garza recalls. "One afternoon we were sitting outside the music building eating lunch or something, and I was just playing this little riff, and Chris had his bongos, and Jeff had his stand-up bass. We just said, 'Why don't we go to the West Mall and make some money?' We were just busking; we weren't a band. So I just started playing some songs I'd written. We made some cash, $50 or $60, which is not bad for about 30 minutes. So we split it up and went to Conan's Pizza and had a party."
Their impromptu shows nonetheless became a big draw.
"People would come up to us and say, 'When's your next gig?'" Garza remembers. That was our gig, and we were making pretty good money."
Within a few weeks they secured their first paying show at the University's Cactus Cafe; a month or two later they moved next door to the far-larger Texas Tavern. Their sold-out shows and the brisk sales of their first cassette, Me So Twangy, soon attracted the interest of Austin manager Mark Proct, who worked with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and now manages Jimmie Vaughan and Storyville. With such similarly flavored folk-pop bands as the New Bohemians and Poi Dog Pondering winning deals and even, in the case of the Bohemians, having hits, Twang Twang Shock-A-Boom seemed a natural.
So Proct set up a Friday lunchtime concert for Twang Twang in a CBS Records conference room in New York, hoping perhaps to duplicate the stunt of another manager, Mike Appel, who walked into legendary talent scout John Hammond's CBS Records office with an unknown singer and his guitar and left with a deal for his client, Bruce Springsteen.
"We went from playing for fun maybe six, seven months earlier on the West Mall to playing in New York City for these suits talking about direction, units, and marketability," Garza recalls. "That experience pretty much did it for me."
This time, however, CBS passed. Twang Twang broke up soon after, and the Austin cynics chortled heartily at how the failed showcase had shattered the band.
"Even if that was the truth, and it's not, why would you guys be cynical about it?" Garza asks this cynic interviewing him. "You guys should be glad about that. It was too much too soon. I was 18, 19, whatever. People were trying to push us this way and that way. It's just kinda silly to think about that kind of thing: 'Oh, why didn't it happen?' It's water under the bridge. It was fun, a lot of fun.
"I don't think I am really jaded from what happened in that year," he asserts. "In 10 months we recorded 63 songs. We just did it. You saw it. What do you think? Should I be angry? Should I hold a grudge?"
Maybe. Then again, I'm a cynic.
None of this cynicism probably matters to Bonnie, whom I met at a wedding in Dallas a few weeks ago. Smart, confidant, refreshingly free of cynicism, and as pretty as the day is long, she's a 23-year-old music fan whose truly catholic tastes include Blondie, Frank Sinatra, Gals Panic...and Dah-veed, whom she suggested we go see after the reception. Perhaps it was the champagne, or maybe it was the company, but I stifled my cynicism and was ready to give Garza another chance.
Garza's first solo CD, Eyes Wide Open, had suffered from the same sort of immature lyrics that were Twang Twang's Achilles heel. His next disc, Culture Vulture, knocked me for a bit of a loop. His knack for melodic hooks had grown from obvious to slyly infectious, with the emerging ethnic rhythms only doubling the ante. But the real shocker was the word play, which at its best was favorably comparable to Elvis Costello, the modern master of the form.
Perhaps the turning point for Garza was when at 21 he heard Dylan for the first time after a Cactus Cafe soundman gave Garza a tape.
"That changed my life, literally," says Garza.
Add that to his other epiphanies--"Zeppelin, seeing U2 live in 1983 when I was 12, Talking Heads, New Bohemians, Latin Playboys"--and you begin to get an idea of the ever-expanding place from which Garza is now coming.
Seeing Dah-veed live at Trees may not have exactly been a life-changing moment for me--though I did pay for live music for the first time in years, and consider every penny of the eight bucks money well spent--but it was transformational. Rather than doing my usual cynical shuffle at the back of the room, I was up in the middle of the crowd with my new friend Bonnie, dancing and singing along to choruses like, "Sigh bye sigh," and, "I would be your slave." And why not? His rhythm section of drummer Michael Hale and bassist John Thomasson is as massive and muscular as the Cowboys' offensive line, while Garza himself exudes an almost charismatic enthusiasm as he sings and rips off sharp guitar leads with joyous passion and keen precision. I was probably the oldest paying customer in the place, yet I felt as young as anyone there, and surprisingly bereft of the cynicism that comes with age.
"I'm not playing for people your age," Garza says. "I'm playing for people my age."
Garza knows how to capture the attention of a generation weaned on sitcoms, sound bites, and MTV video quick cuts.
"I say, 'Shake their butt and their mind will follow,'" says Garza. "There's a lot that I am actually trying to say, but some people only get it after dancing to it for six months."
Garza's most recent CD, Blind Hips In Motion, still finds an artist undergoing growth and transition. Bearing the influence of his latest life-changing album, The Beauty of Wynona by Daniel Lanois, it doesn't quite capture the spirit, charm, and energy Garza brings to the stage. But it's certainly as strong as many of the indie and major efforts coming along these days. Those are the records so often accompanied by a hipster-generated buzz that, in reality, probably isn't as strong as the enthusiasm one finds in Garza's fans who crowd into the clubs he plays here in Texas, as well as throughout a circuit he's carved out that runs as far north as Chicago and as west as California.
"We make as much money in Kansas City as we do in Denton," Garza says. "We make as much in Lawrence, Kan., as we make in College Station."
Instead of getting turned down by record companies, now it's Garza who has been saying, "Thanks, but no thanks," at least to a couple of indie deals he's been offered.
"It may have been a mistake to turn people down, but it's not like those people are going to go away," Garza notes. "There's always another South by Southwest. There's always tomorrow, in a corny kinda way."
Besides, lately Garza's even been getting recording funds from Sony Music, the same company (though with a different owner) that didn't ink Twang Twang Shock-A-Boom.
"They keep giving me money for demos, and I don't have to sign anything," Garza says.
So while the music business weasels scurry around looking for the next Nirvana (short-term cash-in) instead of the next Sinatra (long-term payoff), Garza continues to build the sort of career that should assure him a nice long run, with or without a record deal.
"Look at Trees the other night," Garza says. "We had 525 people paid after basically being equally ignored by press and radio. Have you ever heard me on the radio? Have you ever seen the big glowing feature on me?
"I have supported myself from music ever since I left Twang," he continues. "I have an office. I have somebody who works for me 30 hours a week, and a drummer and bass player on salary. I'm glad and I'm lucky that I have been able to support myself without an outside source. I also have total freedom, and I love it.
"I'm proud of my catalog, I'm proud of my art, I'm proud of my music," says Garza, and like the Energizer Bunny banging on his drum, "I just keep going. I've made a living out of falling between the cracks.
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