It was the very early 90s. Hair metal bands still freely roamed the earth. Albuquerque emerged as the premier destination for national tour kickoffs for Ozzy Osbourne, Ratt, and Warrant. Venues like the water-slides west of the freeway became top 40 lightning filled disasters. The “underground,” as it was, consisted of the Fat Chance and Club Wreck, where a great but sparse list of bands like Cracks in the Sidewalk, the Strawberry Zots, Broadway Elks, Jerry’s Kidz, Eric McFadden and the Ant Farmers played.
Following my hasty exit from Mama Mia’s restaurant, precipitated by the manager figuring out the wait staff’s scam of using Entertainment cards to skim cash, I began working at Fred’s Bread on Central Avenue. First as a dishwasher, then as a coffee slave, it was a way to pay the bills while I played drums in a trio, Elephant, and occasionally went to UNM. And one day, a scruffy weasel of an entrepreneur came in for a conversation that would change my life.
He had just sold his paper, The Onion, moved from Wisconsin, started an alt weekly in Albuquerque, and would I like to write music reviews? Borrowing new releases from the very kind and nervous owner of Natural Sound, we were off and running. It turns out that there were a lot of people ready to read poorly written reviews of obscure records they would never hear. More importantly, a little advance news of shows was enough to begin to drive a musical movement.
Like a lot of “overnight successes,” all of the ingredients were there already. Pushing against MTV-driven corporate music, bands from across the country—Fugazi (Washington, D.C.), Sonic Youth (NY), Mudhoney and Nirvana (Seattle), underground newspapers were suddenly relevant to the soon to be named Gen Xers (bladdy fucking blah) who had looked into the general culture and found that old-line magazines, newspapers and television were incapable of being tattooed or pierced.
Instead of being the hometown of Ozzy’s drummer, Glen Campbell, or that guy who played second guitar in The Motels, Albuquerque was changing from a metal-driven, LA-derivative place dominated by big bars in the Northeast Heights, dominated by a very Cosa Nostra promoter and TJ Trout as tastemaker, to one where downtown and the University was its cultural center. Scads of bands started popping up, and venues did as well. The Sunshine, the Dingo, the very illegal firetrap that was Club Hell, and the Dingo Bar opened. Existing venues like B.O. revamped their tired Cure + Bauhaus = Big City disco to build a very dangerous stage 15 feet off of the ground. Guralnick built the Outpost. From these little sparks, Resin Records and a cadre of bands- BigDamnCrazyWeight, Allucaneat, Elephant, Cracks in the Sidewalk and many many others played host to the bands that were driving through New Mexico, willing to play for gas money or bagels from Fred’s.
Helmet played the Outpost. Nirvana played a very empty house party in Santa Fe. Dinosaur Jr. played Bow Wow Records. The Butthole Surfers and the Flaming Lips played UNM. From other parts of the country, people talked about the interesting, cheap and friendly spot we were becoming. People moved from across the country to be a part of the music scene, and students at UNM from other places started their own bands.
For a moment, music and live performance seemed to tear at the fabric of culture, revealing something substantial underneath, and it began to gain its own momentum–not just in music, but in film, art, photography, and so on. The group of kids that shuffled in and out of Fred's Bread and Bagel, Bow Wow Records, and the like began to refine their craft. Some of them got it right.
Elephant found another drummer after I quit. I formed the Drags with CJ Stritzel and Robby Poore. I quit that band and concentrated on my writing, ultimately writing for every outlet in the Southwest with a circulation greater than 10,000, and then got married and moved to San Francisco. Joe Anderson, a former bandmate started his own clubs: Launchpad, Sunshine Theater and Low Spirits.
People graduated college and moved on. Or they didn’t. Others took their place.
Recently, some of those bands stuffed themselves into their old wedding dress and dragged out the old hits in a show I would have loved to see.
Threads and connections started in the ghetto connect this early group to the latest and perhaps most influential iteration (now enabled more by the Internet than anything), including Zach Condon of Beirut, Jeremy Barnes of A Hawk and a Hacksaw (Neutral Milk Hotel), and James Mercer (The Shin).
Here is to another interesting twenty years.
From 1991-2002, Brendan Doherty contributed hundreds of articles and record reviews to the NuCity and then the Alibi. He has contributed to 35 newspapers, 40 free weeklies, the Associated Press, UPI, the Journal, the Albuquerque Tribune, New Mexico Magazine, and others. He wrote a guidebook about New Mexico for John Muir Press, and was a staff writer at the New Mexico Business Weekly. In addition, he was the healthcare and biotechnology reporter at the San Francisco Business Times. He is currently driving a minivan, raising two girls and five chickens while living on an island in the Bay Area, and working in public relations at Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest integrated health care system.
The early days of The Alibi, then known as NuCity (before a Chicago publication with a phonetically identical name threatened to rip out all of our editorial teeth), were the types of days that every flash-of-genius writer chortles over when he's being interviewed by Oprah about his sizzling debut novel, or every tech guru recalls as she laughingly characterizes her time spent paying her dues before the Big Brilliant Idea that Changed Technology ForEver. They were days of subsisting on Fred's bagels (since we mostly got paid in "bagel bucks" instead of cash); working (sometimes even crashing) in a hot office box with Department of Health condemnable carpet; and simply assuming, with the nearly impervious certainty of youth, that everything would get better, and that we'd have fun in the meantime.
But since I was a bit older (a UNM grad student) than the whippersnappers (freshly minted University of Wisconsin alumni who'd graduated at age 14 after starting the now-famous Onion and who then bounded over to Albuquerque to launch NuCity), maybe my perviousness was perviouser because a couple of symbolic events shook my sense of admittedly weak professionalism.
One came in the form of the "serious" debut of our politics issue. We'd worked hard on the format and content: local pols running for office had been profiled; corresponding election season events had been catalogued; illustrations had been applied to cleverly embellish the stories. I, as the Managing Editor/Editor, along with our Copy Editor at the time, had the last look through before giving the final approval. Perfect! So proud! So political! So grown up! Too bad about the blaring, mega-point headline that spelled the word "candidate" wrong, as we saw the next day before the issue inexorably hit the stands–a classic minor-major detail. The other folks at the paper who were psychologically healthier than I was just laughed it off, smoked a cigarette, and began laying out the next issue.
The second event actually came before the first one chronologically, but it had bigger ramifications at the time. We were applying for membership in AAN, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and a group of us (Chris Johnson, Dan Scott, Landry? Dabney? O'Leary? Jonesy? Petersen?) had flown over to California with our precious offering–an issue that featured a solid, well-researched story by the inimitable Tim McGivern, illustrated by the swashbuckling Jason Waskey. We actually had to appear before a panel of AAN judges in an American Idol meets the North Korean Ministry of People's Security moment. And we were eviscerated. Bomblets like "juvenile" and "unprofessional" and "unworthy" were tossed about casually by people who were supposed to be cool! They had the word "alternative" in their dang title! Where was the encouragement, the pub invitation, the tender promise of mentorship? AAN was important since, through membership, we could use their big stories in our paper and they could pick up and circulate ours as well. It was the only time, to date, that a professional setback made me cry. One journalist in the judging group did attempt to defend us and spoke to us afterward as well. He was the lone African American on the panel and commended the diversity of our coverage. Chris and Dan lobbed a few choice expletives, laughed, said we'd be fine, and smoked some cigarettes.
They were right. We eventually did make it into AAN, now operating under the expanded 21st identity of Association of Alternative Newsmedia. "Canidates," both in title and in practice, are long forgotten. (Although we did once have an interesting conversation with at-the-time New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, which presaged his perpetual libertarian presence on the national ticket ... but that's another story.) So while most of us, past and present, may not be Oprah dazzlers or tech zillionistas, we probably have better carpet now, and the Alibi still laughs, spits out an expletive here and there, maybe smokes a cigarette when the spouse isn't looking, and publishes onward.