Jean Caffeine’s Brand of Cowpunk Made a Fan Out of Townes Van Zandt

Underground punk queen Jean Caffeine has a new music video.EXPAND
Underground punk queen Jean Caffeine has a new music video.
Jean Caffeine

You may not have heard of Jean Caffeine before, but you'd be a lot cooler if you had. Caffeine is a true punk rock original who earned her moniker slamming down cappuccinos in the office of San Francisco's legendary fanzine Search & Destroy as she glued together its iconic layouts.

"[Editor V.] Vale had something that made a lot of cappuccinos," she says on a phone call from her home in Austin, pausing a TV show she doesn't want to admit to watching. "He would make six cappuccinos and he said he could only handle two and I'd have the four."

She left the Bay Area scene in a huff right before the Dead Kennedys became a thing and made her way to New York, where she found work checking coats and spinning records in venues like Mud Club and Club 57 and playing with her all-girl band Clambake at CBGBs.

"The moment had passed," Caffeine says about missing the time when the Ramones, Blondie, Television and Talking Heads made the venue a piece of American music history and legend. "I wasn't really there when all those bands were sort of birthed."

She finally landed in Austin in 1988 when the Cosmic Cowboy era was completely over and done with, but she found a love for country music all the same listening to Hank Williams and John Hiatt.

"I liked the honky-tonk stuff as much as the punk stuff," Caffeine says. "The punk stuff is more like my history, but not really my sound, you know?"

The sound she developed in Austin would one day lead The Dallas Morning News to call Caffeine, “Miss alternative country before alternative country was cool,” and it made a fan of Townes Van Zandt. Well, he said he was, anyway.

"I had actually played with him in Houston," Caffeine says of Van Zandt. "When I first started being more of a songwriter — more Americana, but never Americana enough to lose my little punk edge — I had an agent who booked me with Townes. Admittedly, I probably wasn't very good, but when I saw him at [New York venue] CMJ six months later, he kind of twirled me around, danced with me, and then he said, 'I don't care what anyone else says, I'm a fan.'

"It was a left-handed compliment, which obviously meant somebody he knew wasn't a fan. It was just such a funny lie that I stick it in my PR stuff."

It wasn't long after when Caffeine all but retired from the music scene to take on freelance art teaching gigs, playing the occasional show when time and energy allowed.

"I wasn't all rolled up and dried up and dead, but I just couldn't do 60 hours a week of teaching anymore," she says about her decision to put out her 2017 ode to the San Francisco punk scene, Sadie Saturday Night. "I was like, fuck it, I'm just going to go out and start playing."

And play she did.

Caffeine did about 55 shows last year outside of Austin with a few of those stops being in Dallas at Top 10 Records, The Belmont and Tradewinds Social Club.

"I feel like the underground is more underground in Dallas," she says. "Dallas has always had that kind of development culture and a culture of people wanting to be elegant and dress well and have fine dining and all that glossy stuff. But then the subculture to me in Dallas feels really gritty and fresh. That subculture has grown in Dallas, whereas in Austin, to me it's like this overground culture is completely dominant."

Caffeine will return to Dallas this Saturday for a show with The Prof.Fuzz 63 and Thyroids at Spinster Records and playing with a full band, which is a rarity for her.

"I play in different configurations very often," she says. "I play as a duo, sometimes I play solo and then when I'm lucky, I get to play with a band, and obviously, that's the most fun."

Although she is reluctant to say that she is having a renaissance, Caffeine does see herself in the midst of another reboot.

"Most people are like 0.1 or 0.2, I'm probably Jean Caffeine 0.8," she jokes. "I think it would be hard to have a renaissance if you're in your 50s because it's so fucking hard to get people your age out to shows. They'll go to see the B-52s, but they're only going to go to music that's an event.

"I'm not Blondie. I have that history, but I don't have notoriety. I was a smaller cult figure."

See the premiere of Jean Caffeine's "Love. What is it?" below:

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