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Sobered by reality... It was the year that wouldn't end. At least, that's the way local singer/songwriter Tony Vila looks back on 1992: 12 months of one misfortune after another. "It seemed," says Vila, "like I always had some natural disaster following me at the time. I feel like I've had nine lives -- like a cat."

The string of mishaps began with a flood that left the interior of Vila's rented house swimming in more than a foot of rainwater. Then came the tornado. Vila had been living in his Channelview neighborhood a little more than a month when that hit.

"I'd just gotten into a fight with my significant other, and I told her to get in the damn car," he recalls. "So she did, and we went to Houston to promote a concert I was playing. On the way home, we were listening to the radio and we heard [our] subdivision [was] hardest hit. When we got off the feeder, we saw the road was blocked off. There were helicopters flying around. It was like a battle zone."

The damage to Vila's old digs is right there in full color, for all to see, on the back of his second and latest CD, South Central No. 9 (the "9," of course, refers to the life he's now on). It shows a battered, one-story brick home, its yard littered with debris of various shapes and sizes. A sliding glass door is blown out, its window blinds hanging in a tangled mess. Jutting up out of the earth in the foreground is a large tree that looks like it was snapped in two by God's thumb and index finger.

"We were very lucky, actually. We basically just got everything sucked out and sucked in," says Vila. "The house across the street from us was a two-story home, and the only thing left was the refrigerator."

Vila packed up his stuff (minus some recording equipment and a guitar, which were totaled in the storm) and moved on. By the time he'd found another place to live, the girlfriend -- who had suggested the move to tornado central in the first place -- was history. Perhaps, Vila admits, he should have taken that as a sign, seeing as his luck started to change for the better soon after he "got rid of that woman."

A life-sucking relationship out of the way, Vila channeled his accumulated troubles into South Central No. 9, an emotionally frank collection of musings on love, loss, survival and hope. Those heavy themes are buoyed by an upbeat mix of roots rock instrumentation and sophisticated, confessional-style folk-pop song writing -- not to mention Vila's oddly compelling, quivery tenor.

South Central No. 9 was recorded more than a year ago at Congress House in Austin with a slick lineup of studio help that included keyboardist Travis Doyle, steel player and Jesse Dayton sideman Brian Thomas, guitarist Bradley Kopp and Houston drummer/producer Robbie Parrish. Money and other issues, however, kept its release on hold until just recently. In fact, Vila is already finishing up another CD, From the Gentleman at the Bar, which should be out in a few months. The effort will feature four tunes sung in Spanish, Vila's native tongue.

A bartender by night, the Cuban-born Vila has been chasing after a full-time career as a singer/songwriter since 1988, when he landed his first gig at Fitzgerald's. Since then, Vila has seen an assortment of ups and downs, but he's hung tough.

"I'll tell you what, in '92 and '93 it was a little better [for singer/songwriters] here than it is now," Vila admits. "But I'm not going to knock this town. People are hungry to hear original music."

One thing working in Vila's favor is his friendship with the well-connected Parrish, a seasoned session drummer whose gigs have included backup work for the likes of Grace Jones and Suzanne Vega. In the early '90s, Vila remembers, "he called me up and started name-dropping, and I figured he must be big or something. The cool thing was that all the people he was talking about were actually real."

Eventually, Parrish coaxed him into the studio, and two years "and $15,000 to $20,000 later," Vila was holding a copy of Count the Time, his 1993 debut. And while Vila's may not be the name on everyone's lips locally, his well-produced, self-released product has been finding its way into all the right hands. A&R reps from Sony were seen snooping around at a recent performance. A CD release party for South Central No. 9 is slated for August 31 at Ovations. In the meantime, Vila is preparing From the Gentleman at the Bar for release and playing the occasional local gig -- that is, when he's not working to stay a step ahead of the next disaster.

Discretion is key... True to his enigma, the Artist (often seen as Squiggle and formerly known as Prince) is blowing into town this weekend with only the smallest whiff of advance notice. His deal with host venue the Summit was sewn up only last week, and the performance is Sunday: Talk about last-minute heroics. Word has it the tour -- much like the sprawling Emancipation release it's backing -- is one

monumental throw-down to behold, though the Artist's numerous costume changes tend toward the tedious. Tickets range from a rather pricey $35 to a whopping $75 for Purple Circle access. Those $75 seats, by the way, can only be charged by phone through Ticketmaster. To get in the spirit, I'd suggest trying a credit card without a name.

Etc.... Ever wanted to eyeball an actual Grammy? You'll have your chance soon enough. La Mafia is loaning its 1996 award for Best Mexican American/Tejano performance to Houston's Hard Rock Cafe for the next six months. There'll be an installation ceremony Tuesday, followed by a live La Mafia performance for friends and contest winners. Predictably, La Mafia's latest release, En Tus Manos, went platinum only weeks after its release. It features more of the same Latin pop and south-of-the-border balladry that earned its predecessor, Un Millon de Rosas, the Grammy nod last year.

-- Hobart Rowland

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