Refuse to Lose
"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.
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.
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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,
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.
Over the following weeks, industry people would ask me what musicians I had met.
"Christy Darlington came by the office," I'd tell them.
The response was always the same: "Of course he did."
See, Christy has something of a reputation around town for relentless self-promotion. He is part musician, part agent, part businessman, part gonzo promoter who refuses to take no for an answer. So when I didn't mention his CD in print, he wrote me a frustrated e-mail. When I asked him to tell me more of his frustrations, suggesting it might make a good story, he sent me three e-mails; they totaled more than 6,000 words.
"i know i come off as brash or abrasive," he wrote. "people in this town are probably sick of me harrassing them--haha."
Dallas is full of guys like Christy, musicians who almost made it and keep plugging away. Guys with record deals that ended up in the trash, videos that never found airplay, albums that were supposed to break but didn't. We could complain about all this for hours--and one night, over beers, we should--but it's old news that success in this business has less to do with talent than it has to do with luck, persistence, timing and good hair. It's maddening: Labels drop good bands, deals go sour, and after a while, if you're not careful, your dreams get kicked out of you.
Somehow, that never happened to Christy Darlington.
"In terms of motivation, he's probably one of the top five people I've worked with," says Tami Thomsen. Though she now works at Kirtland Records, Thomsen collaborated with Darlington at Deep Ellum's Last Beat Studios, where the band recorded its first two albums, Pretty Ugly (featuring "XMas" and "Marcia Brady") and Girltroversy, a sugar shock of funny, moony songs like "Jodie Foster" and "Judy Jetson." "The most random idea, if it comes in his head, he'll do it," she says. "The list of stuff he would send me to do--I wish I still had it, because it would be funny--but he would want me to send stuff anywhere, from Maximum Rock n Roll, which is obviously an appropriate arena, to Cosmo Girl. If I didn't do it, he would."
"No one's gonna do it for me," Christy explains. "You can't expect people to discover you in a club. 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, 'cause that's the only reason you leave your house and play at the club. You just gotta do promotion. And it works. Well, it hasn't worked yet."
But that's the key word: yet.
Christy once left the CEO of Toyota a voicemail about a tie-in with his song "My Corolla." He pitched Hard Candy cosmetics about packaging an eye liner with every copy of his CD. Once, during our interview, he stopped in the middle of a question and told me to save the tape; it might make a good extra on a CD one day. His Web site boasts an endorsement with Daisy Rock Guitars--"for the Rock goddess!"--but do they realize he's not a girl? (He says they do.)
In 1998, he got another big idea--to legally change his name to Christy Brigitte Darlington. (He was born with the first name Chris. His last name, Greek in origin, he asked me not to print.) This was around the time the band had to switch names as well, and though Christy has since told me that he "took a woman's name to challenge the way society tries to take individuality away from the American male," other people recall it being a lot less serious.
"The way I remember it, it was the names of our two favorite models--Christy Turlington and Brigitte Hall," Visneau says. "The joke was, we wanted to be these fashionistas playing pop punk. We used to read women's fashion magazines and go to the mall all the time and buy all these nice clothes. If there was some other motivation, it was locked up inside his head."
Visneau laughs now thinking about that day, about the look on the face of the woman at the courthouse as she processed his paperwork. "You want to change your name to Christy Brigitte?" she asked. "Are you crazy?"
"Yep," Visneau told her. "He's crazy."
During the week you can find Christy Darlington between the Starbucks and The Limited Too in NorthPark Mall. Hanging up vintage bomber pants amid throbbing dance music. Selling the fake mink stoles that are all the rage with tweens these days.
"I've got a new job at--no joke--Abercrombie and Fitch," he wrote me by e-mail.
Over the years, he's had a slew of these gigs. A short list of retail outlets he's worked at includes Old Navy, Gap, Rampage, Contempo Casuals, Urban Outfitters, Claire's, The Icing and Hot Topic. One Christmas, he worked at UPS for a few days and quit. He didn't last much longer as a telemarketer ("that job just made me hate the world"). He's mopped the floors at Club Clearview, worked State Fair food concessions. He's made almost $4,000 in two clinical research studies. His is a life of eternal starving artistry--or slackerdom, depending on your perspective--in which he can hop in the van at a moment's notice.
"My stuff's been in and out of the pawn shop so many times," he says. "I just scrape by eating mac and cheese and ramen noodles. I can barely afford to do shit."
And yet, he always manages another album. His latest is Euthanize Me, which touts a political edge not seen in previous efforts. His concerns are left-leaning and not particularly sophisticated--don't tell me how to live my life, you conservative white Nazis; skateboarding is not a crime, etc. "Rich whites get away with everything, while all the lower-class poor get it up the ass," he sings in the opener, "F-Em." It's not exactly what you expect from the man who wrote "Pajama Party" and "Boobs, Boobs, Boobs."
Euthanize Me is distributed by Disaster Records, the California punk label co-owned by former US Bombs member Duane Peters, and like many of Darlington's other albums, it was recorded in a blur of about 24 hours. Visneau played on it, along with bassist Omar Yefoon, but they didn't even learn the songs until getting into the studio. The liner notes read, "I know people are gonna slag this record off like they do all my other records, saying my vocals suck, my lyrics are dumb, the production's bad, it's all a big ripoff, etc. etc., but I don't care."
Which is too bad. My problem with Euthanize Me is more or less the problem I have with every Darlington album: Amusing songs sit alongside too many sloppy ones. It's slapdash even for a genre founded on chaos and three chords.
That was the problem Last Beat had with Darlington. The studio recorded two albums and had plans for a third, but they changed their mind. "I was interested in 15 songs, but I wanted 15 great songs," Tami Thomsen explains. "If I had to say, for lack of a better word, Chris' weakness, that's it. Sometimes quantity has risen above quality."
Listening to his rather voluminous body of work, I wish Christy had been more patient, culling the best of his songs for one great album instead of spreading them thinly across eight. This has been the critical rap on his work: good ideas, bad execution.
"I guess I could take two years to record an album and try to make it perfect," he says when I mention this to him one afternoon. "But if you're out of the public eye for too long, people forget about you." He shot back with a series of excuses for his albums' inadequate production, from financial considerations to punk aesthetics.
The following day, he sent me an e-mail. "i dont think production has much to do with whether an artist sells or not," he wrote. "some people happen to think the production on some of my cds is quite good...read my reviews. the good ones praise me like i am amazing. are those people unqualified to make a judgement? or are the only people qualified those who say negative things?"
The life of any artist is littered with rejections and a thousand nos. Those who endure the beatdown are the ones who can turn off the noise, filter out all the negativity and just keep walking into the storm.
Sometimes, though, you wish they'd take the hint.
A few days later, Christy had already found possible distribution for his next album, Lab 257, named after the controversial biowarfare lab. If he could trust a recent series of adoring, polite e-mails he'd been receiving in broken English, the album was going to find a home--in Russia.
He's always been rather ingenious about finding ways to release his albums. After the band was dropped by Last Beat, he found alternate distribution on New York-based Whoa Oh ("Losing money since 1998!") and Holland-based Stardumb. He has eight albums, yes, but also four split 7-inch EPs, four full 7-inch EPs, one split CD, one split 12-inch on vinyl, one full 12-inch on vinyl, and he's been on somewhere between 15 and 20 compilations. On Interpunk.com, an online store, Darlington has 30 items on sale--from albums to T-shirts to buttons to a key chain that reads, "Party Like a Sorority Girl."
"I don't think people here realize all these things he's doing," says Dylan Silvers, who played with Mess and is now the vocalist-guitarist for [DARYL]. "I remember seeing a 7-inch from Italy with our picture on it--with my picture on it--and I was like, 'What?' I didn't even know that was happening."
More than anything, it's this restlessness, this utter relentlessness that sets Christy Darlington apart from everyone else. "I can see Chris, 20 years from now, still getting under people's skin for one thing or the other, still being opinionated, still calling the Observer music editor and introducing himself," Thomsen says. "Maybe he's unrealistic, maybe he's naïve, but I like that about him. I'm a rather realistic person myself."
His local fan base may have withered over the years, but Christy maintains an online cult of hardcore pop-punk fans who blog his every release. One superfan described him as his own personal Elvis. Another, an Ivy League student in Boston, tattooed Christy's face on his leg.
"I think he'll be a punk icon one day," Visneau says.
But he also has his share of enemies. After a show at Double Wide a few months ago, the management claimed in widely circulated e-mails that Christy absconded with about $50 he was supposed to share with opening bands. "Not cool that you guys took off with what little money there was to go around!!!!!!!!" read one e-mail from the booking agent for Double Wide. Christy says management told him the money was his.
There is usually a part of every story in which the hero questions his decision to keep going, in which he takes a hard stare at his life and wonders if all his scars have been worth it. That doesn't happen in this story. Look at the words tattooed on Christy Darlington's hands: LOVE and LUST. It says everything about his relationship to his music and the major labels that still elude him. His friends may tell him to quit. His family may want him to quit. But who said he wanted their lives anyway?
"The rest of my life, I have a big bag of nothing," Christy says. "This is what makes me feel good. This is what I do."
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