The sound and Fury III
Every city has a few musicians like Stephen Nutt--talented performers who, for whatever reason, never found an audience. They probably never will, yet they've stuck around forever anyway, working as temps and busboys so they can keep their rock-and-roll dreams alive. They never made a fall-back plan, because they didn't want to fall back and never thought they would. They refuse to hang it up, because there's a chance that the next song they write will be The One--the song that leads them from obscurity to the top of the pops and the front of magazine covers. They know it's unlikely to happen after all this time, but as long as there is that chance, the six-string stays out of the pawn shop.
Nutt, the singer-guitarist in Fury III, long ago gave up expecting to see his mug on the cover of Rolling Stone. Still, he appears to be only half-kidding when he asks me to "make him famous." He says it with a smile on his face, but you can see behind the grin a man who knows that, at 34, he's only got a few more bright tomorrows left before he's stuck in a Holiday Inn bar somewhere singing "Yesterday" three times a night.
He's a bit more optimistic than the characters that pop up in his songs--bitter men who repeatedly fuck things up because they have nothing better to do--but Nutt knows the score. After a decade on the scene, playing in bands such as A Thousand Words, Nutt is aware that he might not get another shot, so he's put all his faith into this one, hoping that all the sacrifices he's made and shitty jobs he's worked will be rewarded with his name on a record contract and enough money to quit his catering job. Or at least enough money to skip out on one spirit-crushing Texas summer.
"Texans don't really have anyplace to go in the summer," Nutt says. "You know, people in New York and on the East Coast can go to places like the Hamptons or something like that when it gets too hot. We don't have anything like that. If we wanted to go somewhere like that in Texas, it's hours away."
Even if the Hamptons were located just north of Denton, Nutt would probably end up staying at home. You can't expect someone who sings lyrics like "I spend my days looking for my name in the obituary column" to inject much change into his life. Just like the narrator in many of his songs, Nutt is torn between needing to do something and wanting to give up. Giving up usually wins.
Over lunch at Cafe Brazil, he brings up the subject of leaving Dallas permanently several times, at one point wondering exactly why he was still living here. But he never sounded too serious about the idea or even concerned enough about the heat to consider moving. Sure, it's hot in Texas, but I can't do anything about it, so why bother? Wearing purple jeans on a day that has ambulances circling old-folks homes like vultures, Nutt's only concession to the 104-degree weather is a recently acquired buzz-cut that makes him look even lankier than before.
The heat won't be the only problem facing Nutt and Fury III this summer. The band just began the exhausting--and often fruitless--task of pursuing a record deal, a wild goose chase that has killed more than a few bands and even more friendships. Shopping around a recently recorded batch of songs, Nutt isn't looking for the type of record deal that Geffen gave the tomorrowpeople. He just wants a label that will release the record and not take too long doing it.
"Hopefully, by the end of the summer we'll find someone to put it out," Nutt says. "We're trying to find labels that are small enough where they'll have money to manufacture it, but it won't be so slow as a medium-size label. Some of the medium-size labels, like Mammoth, even if they decide to put it out, [their schedules] are full until the end of the year. So, we're looking at pretty much the smallest labels around, like TeenBeat."
It seems strange that one of the main factors in Fury III's label search is time. So far, the band hasn't exactly been very conscious of the clock. The single the band released on Direct Hit in 1996--which featured such loving couplets as, "Next time I see you I hope it'll be an accident / Your 15 minutes under the wheels of a truck would be well spent"--only recently made its way into the hands of college-radio program directors.
"It took a while for us to get enough to send out, because the [single] covers are hand-screened," Nutt explains. "I wouldn't even bother sending vinyl to commercial stations. Even a lot of the program directors at college stations said that their DJs didn't know how to use a turntable. So, I guess we won't be doing vinyl anymore."
His voice sounds wistful when he talks about giving up vinyl. This is, after all, the same man who was "really hoping that the rumor about CDs not being permanent was true." It's not unexpected that Nutt remains devoted to vinyl. His lyrics may sound like fodder for Jerry Springer, but his musical inspiration comes from a time when vinyl was the only format. The songs on the Direct Hit single and unreleased EP recall late-'60s British rock, especially Something Else-era Kinks. Surprisingly, Nutt only started listening to that band about three years ago. "Well, I may have heard them before then, but I didn't really get it until recently," he says.
The connection between the Kinks and Nutt goes deeper than a few borrowed riffs, though. "I think I can probably relate to Ray Davies' point of view regarding what he does and how he relates to society," Nutt says. "He's not in the rock-and-roll clique, but he's not a normal person." Nutt has never been part of Dallas' rock-and-roll clique. You won't find him lounging around the Last Beat complex or hanging out with Aden Holt. He's still sort of an outsider, even though he's been a part of the scene for close to a decade.
Nutt may share Davies' point of view about being a musician, but his real kindred spirit is absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett, the author of such plays as Waiting For Godot and Endgame. "I think Samuel Beckett was the easiest to...well, I had to read something three times before I got anything out of it, but the idea of necessity and futility came about, and I can really relate to that. Sometimes the idea of getting out of bed--you have to do it, but what's the point, really? Everything you do is pretty much a waste of time."
An affinity for Beckett provides Nutt's songs with an undercurrent of bitterness and uselessness. The music may be bouncy, but the songs are filled with allusions to betrayal and inertia. A song like "Kickstand" off the Direct Hit single sounds almost breezy if you don't pay strict attention to the lyrics, which include lines like "I was dreaming again this morning about breaking your arms." As Nutt reads some of the lyrics, he says, "It's actually a cherry-pop song." For a second, he looks like he actually means it.
"I'm probably more obsessed with death than most pop songwriters, but I think it's a worthy thing to be obsessed with," Nutt says. "You can only write so many songs about relationships. I've obsessed about those sort of things before, betrayal and all that, but death can kind of blot out all that."
A turning point in Nutt's writing came from, of all sources, Regis Philbin. The song, "Sad Truth Revealed," is a study in how pathetic one person can be, and it was one of the first that Nutt wrote from someone else's perspective...sort of.
"Usually I'm interested in people's motivations, so I'm scrutinizing somebody I know," he explains. "In this case, it just happened to be Regis Philbin. A guy that's so--I don't know how you would describe Regis--there's got to be something really evil about him." Nutt laughs. "I can just picture him as some nasty, pill-popping fiend. The narrator is willing to trade places with Regis, because he can imagine how shitty it might be to be Regis Philbin, but what would it be like to be somebody who would trade places with Regis Philbin just to have a life of any kind? I guess that was during the period of time when I didn't get out of bed very much."
For the time being, Nutt is getting out of bed pretty regularly as the band prepares to return to the stage after some time off recruiting a new bass player. He has actually enjoyed the time off from performing, because it has allowed him to catch up on some band business, like mailing out copies of the single to radio stations. Still, you can tell he's itching to get back in front of a microphone. Nutt's what's-the-point? outlook has yet to seep into his desire to be a musician. As he begins to walk into his house after our interview, he turns around and leans into the car.
"Hey, make us famous so we can quit our day jobs."
This time, Nutt isn't kidding. He even looks like he believes it could happen.
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