The Rise and Fall of a Rio Grande Cover Band
It’s been said that every red-blooded American boy wants to be one of two things: a football player or a rock star, and ideally both. Possessing a wraith-like physique, I was only ever realistically eligible for the latter.
I had played violin since the third grade, but attracting no girls whatsoever and not of much use at parties, it was increasingly set aside in favor of the guitar. I started playing Dad’s old mail-order classical guitar in the fourth grade, learning a single blues lick and playing it repeatedly until every member of my family was on suicide watch.
It was probably late in ninth grade when I first picked up a friend’s electric guitar, and instantly it was like I had contracted some kind of mental virus. I could scarcely do or think about anything else for the remainder of high school, college, and three years beyond.
Forming a band was not something that just happened one day. At first and for a long time, there were merely jam sessions with a constantly changing line-up of aspiring rockers of wildly varying skill sets. None of us had the organization or common sense to just take lessons, which would have moved us light years ahead. What’s more, lessons sort of seemed like cheating. Lessons were antithetical to the spirit of rock and roll. And once you had a lesson, you could never again say, “Never had a lesson.” It was probably just being cheap.
And so we learned through trial and error, listening over and over and over to cassette tapes, searching them backwards to try to pick out that lick or discern that chord and building our skills glacially. I distinctly remember teaching my friend Dave how to play barred chords over the phone, me standing in the hallway of our house at a black rotary phone, him at his house, cradling the receiver between his jaw and shoulder as I coached him through it … “okay, now put your ring finger one string up and two frets over.”
When it dawned on my parents one day that the idle tinkering had ceased and that I was in fact in a band, a rare family meeting was called.
It was understandable that alarm bells were going off for Mom and Dad. In the intervening twenty years since Pat Boone topped the charts, things had gotten a little crazy. Whether Kiss, Ozzy, Alice Cooper, or even the innocuous Bee Gees—who my grandmother refused to believe were actually men when I played her the then-best-selling record of all time—popular culture had become bizarre and disorienting, sinister and casually indecent.
As we sat awkwardly on our living room’s sectional couch, ground rules were laid down. What I remember of them is as follows: Being in a band was not license to do drugs. I was not to do drugs, and I was not to play music about doing drugs or any other nasty stuff. I agreed, and returned to the tiny silver jam box in my room to continue working out the intro to “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love.”
The irony of it all was that it was precisely my morning-noon-and-night preoccupation with the band that kept me out of serious trouble in high school. Rock’s deserved reputation as a gateway to sex and drugs notwithstanding, drafting playlists, memorizing lyrics, practicing guitar in my room for hours a day, and trying to market ourselves was as good an antidote to drug use and idle mischief as any that might have been concocted by our elders.
The first name we took was “The Dudes in 3-D.” The core of the band was formed by Dave on bass and me on guitar and vocals. Throughout high school, we went through a Spinal Tap-like succession of drummers, Paul, Rudy, Tibo, Steve, and another Paul, before settling down with Wade.
There’s a special place in heaven for Wade’s parents, because, whoever is your drummer — that’s whose house you practice at, and we practiced in Wade’s house every Saturday or Sunday and sometimes both, banging through their home with amplifiers and guitar cases, turning their den into a viper’s nest of electrical cables.
Fairly early on, perhaps in a moment of self-importance, we shed the light-hearted Dudes in 3-D name in favor of The Plan, in the tradition of bands of the day with “The” followed by a sufficiently abstract singular noun: The Who, The Guess Who, The Knack, and even The The.
Eventually we added Dave’s brother John on keyboard and brought in our buddy Steve to take lead vocals. Steve’s high tenor allowed us to cover the pop metal that was the bread and butter of the early Eighties, much of which has aged about as well as those who popularized it.
But we were down with the classics too. Each practice would start pretty much the same way, with the opening chords of the Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove.” It was our anthem, as we usually closed every gig with it. “China Grove,” named after a San Antonio suburb, was a nice little rockin’ warm-up and always sounded pretty good. (We opened every gig with Stevie Ray’s “Scuttle Buttin’,” or as close an approximation as a high school boy with two years’ experience could muster.)
Gigs were precious in those days, and with that lineup, The Plan managed to play four or five before graduation split us up.
As we continued coming home from college each summer, Dave and I started playing with a guy one year younger than us who lived a block away. Jason was a Neal Peart thrall who worked up a serious sweat behind the kit when the song called for it. He had taught himself to play in an alarmingly short time and could come up with mind-blowing fills. When Dave and I graduated in 1989 and returned home to McAllen to work, Jason was there, going to college, and so we began to think about playing on a semi-professional basis.
We set a goal of mastering four fifty-minute sets, the standard for live cover bands of the day. Springsteen was always considered a sort of marathon man because he played four-hour shows. We did that much, then packed everything up in our van, and drove it back to town while Bruce was enjoying a cold one backstage. Then we got up the next morning and were at our day jobs by 8:30, while Bruce was sleeping it off and ordering room service.
The worst gig ever, you ask? That would have been our short-lived show at the Red Snapper Inn in Harlingen. Just as we loaded up the white Ford Econoline van and headed east out of McAllen, a storm broke over the Valley and dumped about five inches of water in an hour. Foolhardy and hungry for gigs, we pressed on, easing through flooded intersections to keep from drowning the van’s spark plugs.
We had agreed to play for a percentage of the bar that night. So we set up dutifully in the corner. The room was a little empty, but it was early, we thought. Surely we’ll fill the place out by closing.
The rains kept coming and lapped at the tops of the street curbs. Oh, well. Even a small audience, if appreciative, can make for a productive gig. We can try out some new material on them, we thought, consider it a paid rehearsal. There were four people at the bar. That was it.
During the last verse of our second song, Eric Johnson’s “Soulful Terrain,” a fight broke out, and five minutes later the cops showed up and hauled the four off.
The bar was completely empty. Naturally, the owner decided to close early that night. Our take of the bar was forty-five dollars. And our “agent,” who must have cast some sort of spell on us earlier, talking us into letting him represent us for twenty percent, took eight dollars of that. That was the low point.
The high point was getting sixty people on their feet, hooting and hollering so loud after our cover of Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover” at Austin Street Inn in McAllen that the applause actually hurt our ears. For a fleeting moment, it was like the Beatles’ early U.S. shows. The audience noise actually surpassed the volume of the band.
Between those extremes was our standing gig at a joint right on the Rio Grande called Pepe’s on the River, a bar and grill that hung out over the snaking, muddy, green-gray river, where water skiers would slalom back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico all afternoon, then pull their boats up and tie off on the dock for a margarita.
There, we’d be waiting for them with a little “China Grove,” a little Stevie Ray, Hendrix, Clapton, Frampton, and the rest of the classic rock radio Pantheon. I’ll say this: we managed to make a lot of noise for three dudes.
Pepe’s was essentially just a big pavilion — a concrete slab with steel posts that held up a thatched roof, all open-air, which we loved because the breeze would come through at night and carry all the cigarette smoke out of the bar. Breathing has always been an underrated part of singing.
Pepe’s drew possibly the most eclectic crowd in North America. Bikers with long beards, leather jackets, and dirty jeans; retirees from nearby mobile home parks, some of whom could drink the bikers under the table; Tejanos, the Mexican-American version of kickers, who wore white straw cowboy hats and crisply pressed Wranglers over their snakeskin boots; college kids from up in Edinburg, school teachers from the Midwest who had come down because of the teacher shortage; the “fallen jocks,” a subset of our high school alumni body who had been wildly popular during school and now just existed night-to-night, pathetically trawling each new night club in the Valley for any remnant of their glory days.
The routine was pretty much the same every week. I’d get a call at The Monitor, the newspaper where I worked at the time as a reporter, or Dave would get the call at work, and whoever got the call would call the other two and mobilize the troops. “Pepe’s tomorrow night, eight to midnight?”
“Okay. Should we practice?”
“No, we got it.”
“Meet you at the store at 6:45?”
The store was Dave’s family business, an educational supply store that sold bulletin board borders and pens and pencils and duplicating master books and cardboard cut-outs of Lincoln and Washington and so on to the Valley’s elementary schools.
And the store was headquarters for The Plan. It was the strangest of settings for rock and roll. Three guys setting up in the widest aisle, right between the cash register and a duplicating book entitled “Suzy counts to Ten,” grinding and wailing to classic rock and blues under the slightly disapproving gaze of President Washington and Reverend King. It was the only place we could practice, and Mr. McLeod, saint that he was, let us. We also stored the P.A. system, speakers, mic stands, and the drum set with all of its innumerable stands and cymbals in the store’s warehouse.
We’d meet at the warehouse loading dock an hour and fifteen minutes before every gig and load the entire thing into a single white delivery van, the Ford Econoline. It was a three-dimensional puzzle, fitting every-
thing into the van. The massive P.A. speakers would go in first at the back doors, upside down so they wouldn’t roll around. Then Dave’s bass amp and amp head, then my guitar amp, then the mic stands, then our gig bags, stuffed with black cables and effects pedals and extra batteries and toilet paper (some of these gigs were Spartan). Then the saw horses that the speakers sat on would come apart and be stacked on top of the speakers. Then the bass drum, then the tom-tom drums, stacked up like a Tower of Pisa, then the floor tom, then the three roto-toms, then the cymbals: the high hat, the crash, and the china boy, each with its own stand. Then the bass drum pedal, and finally the stool, or “throne” as the salesman had called it at the music store.
The Econoline had only a driver’s seat and passenger seat. We would stack the van full of equipment back to front, floor to ceiling, then, the odd man out, either Jason or me, would sit on a lawn chair between the two seats, or precariously on the drum throne, and off we’d go, fifteen miles to the southwest, out of town, through the mesquite, twisting and turning along the two-lane blacktop before topping a levy and reaching the gravel parking lot and palapa-roofed pavilion.
After we had finished our twelve-minute rendering of Hendrix’ “Voodoo Chile,” and called it a night at twelve-thirty or one a.m., after the cables that had created a jungle floor across the concrete patch where we played were coiled and stuffed into the gig bags, everything went back into the Econoline in the same order, then was unloaded at the warehouse.
We’d fall in bed at one-thirty or two (always after a Whataburger combo meal) and drag it out of bed at eight, when I’d head back to The Monitor, Dave would head to The Rio Grande Book Company, and Jason would trudge up to Edinburg for another day of class at UT-Pan American.
This was the glamorous life of live music in the Rio Grande Valley, and this routine probably more than anything else was responsible for my decision to pursue a career in writing instead of music. A career in live music is tantamount to late-night weightlifting work-outs, but with much more awkward objects, and in a coal factory, with drunk people close-talking to you the whole time.
Ours was possibly the most improbable of live music acts ever to be successful in the Valley. Billing ourselves simply as “Classic Rock & Blues,” we pushed the bounds of popularity harder than most.
Often we joked that our business cards actually should have read “Obscure, Undance-able Instrumentals.” Many were the times we would get a full dance floor rocking, only to send them all back to their tables with some mixed-meter instrumental like Rush’s “YYZ,” something designed for listening, NOT dancing. It’s not that we were opposed to the dancing; we loved the dancing. We just loved playing the challenging stuff even more.
But most of the gig, at least for me, was ecstasy. We covered most heavily my beloved Doobie Brothers, the just-deceased Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Johnson, but worked in hits from Peter Frampton, The Eagles, James Taylor, Jimi Hendrix.
The bikers and mamaws didn’t care what it was; they just wanted something loud that they could dance to. We saw everything from dirty dancing (often directed at Dave or me as we were trying to play) to tipsy “seniorcizing” that looked more like water aerobics than club dancing. We saw it all; and it wasn’t all pretty.
The drummer is always the workhorse of a band, and doubly so of a rock band — if he’s doing his job. Jason beat those drums harder than anyone else in the southern half of Texas.
One day, Jason, who was known to us as “the drum pig” due to the profuse sweating involved in the job, almost passed out in the middle of, aptly, “Couldn’t Stand the Weather.” It was one of the few day gigs we ever played, and the management had decided we belonged out on “The Bikini Deck” that afternoon. From that moment on, day or night, we always kept a box fan trained on the drum pig.
We were also the only band in the area who brought its own set. It was simple but effective: a twelve- by fifteen-foot canvas backdrop we had painted in Jason’s driveway, with our logo, surrounded by as many random curiosities as we could think up in that two-hour period: a pterodactyl with a tennis ball in its mouth, two Egyptian hieroglyphic men in cowboy hats, a diagram showing supply and demand equilibrium curve, a radioactive fallout symbol, a food chain of fish, a giant space alien with one black almond-shaped eye peeking from behind the N of “The Plan.”
As an added visual, Jason had borrowed two bulletin board decorations from the teacher supply store for the front of his bass drum: a laughing clown and crying clown. Anything to keep the audience guessing and ourselves amused. These clowns drew the eyes to the bass drum, and hence helped avert eyes from the floor tom, to which Jason, who was in college and did not have a lot of money, in order to properly mute the drum and keep it from ringing, had duct-taped to the head none other than one of his mother’s Kotex pads. A regular MacGyver.
Our lighting was a single floodlight that I would, in a singularly ill-advised act, hang by climbing a borrowed aluminum extension ladder to the ceiling.
One thing we were never too proud for was the sight gag. Any kind of visual gimmick we could come up with we would spread across our four sets. Dave’s gimmick was disappearing. He wore a wireless radio transmitter on his belt. The Plan being too cheap to hire a sound man or even to buy monitors, Dave took it upon himself to be our monitor, which meant strolling out into the club, sometimes one hundred feet away, to check the sound. Sometimes Dave would disappear for minutes at a stretch, and since nearly every song ended with “the good look,” a three-way visual confirmation that it was time to wrap it up, Jason and I would just vamp until Dave’s return, often departing on wild, Hendrix-style fusion explorations, kyoto-inspired chiming on the guitar accompanied by a marching snare. Running out of ideas, our eyes would search the pavilion’s pool-table area for signs of Dave, who despite his invisibility, never missed a note.
Jason’s sight gags were stick twirls and tosses. And mine were playing my Stratocaster in every position I could conceive of. Behind the back, behind the head, between the legs, with the left forearm, spanking the finger board with the right forearm, anything to break up the visual monotony of three dudes standing there for four hours under an unblinking floodlight (that acid trip of a backdrop notwithstanding).
Alas, in the fullness of time Jason graduated with a business degree and took an assistant manager job with K-Mart, which promptly transferred him almost five hundred miles away to the East Texas town of Lufkin. Dave and I foundered around, trying out a new drummer here or there, but nothing ever clicked after that.
A few months after we had played our last gig at Pepe’s, the whole place went up in smoke, as if to put the ultimate punctuation mark at the end of that era of our lives. It must have lit up the South Texas sky like a stadium, the straw of its enormous thatched roof fueling flames that would have shot sixty feet into the air, fed with a fresh supply of oxygen from the open-air restaurant below.
After that, another business group bought the charred remains and rebuilt. They kept the name, but everything else seemed to have changed. The concrete floor was now covered in tile. The old bar, formerly plastered with giveaway T&A posters from beer distributors, was replaced with a mahogany bar with a brass railing that suggested Cheers. Nothing was the same.
From that time on, until it too closed, we called it “Corporate Pepe’s.” Maybe it’s just as well. Some things belong to a time, and in our memories, the bikers and grannies and vatos of Pepe’s belong to 1991.
— — — — — — —