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Judy's Lore

Fans still pine for Houston's dork-pop heroes

Even now, after all these years, David Bean still gets letters and phone calls from fans who wonder where he is, what he's up to, why he disappeared. Perhaps they've heard the stories about how he became a recluse after he left the stage, which isn't really true at all. More likely, they just want to discover for themselves what happened to the boy from Pearland who became -- for a brief, spectacular moment -- a rock star without ever having to leave the state.

Those who go to the trouble to track down Bean are fans from way back, adults whose childhood rock-and-roll memories dance to the sparse, quirky-jerky pop-and-roll beat of songs Bean and his old band mates in the Judy's wrote when they were barely out of high school themselves. Said followers still hum the off-key melodies, still know all the words to "All the Pretty Girls" ("... in high school make me sick!"), still hope for a reunion that may -- or, more likely, may never -- take place.

Truth be told, the phone calls and the notes aren't all that creepy to David Bean. He rather likes them, and is flattered by the attention paid to a band that died a handful of times throughout the 1980s before finally running out of breath in 1991 somewhere along the road between Pearland and Houston.

"I am really impressed," the 36-year-old Bean says. "It must have really meant something. But part of it just escapes me."

It all seems so long ago, a lifetime stuck back in the past. The Judy's were native heroes, the best '80s pop band to hail from Texas -- so much better than the Nelsons and so many other one-hit where-are-they-nows? who plied the club circuit back then. The Judy's opened for the B-52's, Devo and the Talking Heads, and though they were so much younger than those bands, they seemed so much smarter. Their music was austere, lean, clean, catchy; they banged out the beat on pots, pans and smashed light bulbs that went pop, pop, POP in time to the music. They wrote songs about Gary Gilmore ("How's Gary?"), happy hostages ("Vacation in Tehran"), Son of Sam serial killer David Berkowitz ("Dogs"), Jim Jones ("Guyana Punch," with its call to come "freshen up, freshen up, freshen up"), television's wasteland ("Reruns," "T.V."), stalkers ("Trixie and the Killer"), and sex-change bliss ("The Grass Is Greener"). As a result, they had thousands of words devoted to them in Houston, Dallas and Austin newspapers. In September 1981, Texas Monthly remarked, "These kids have talent, humor and originality in abundance."

Yet the Judy's released only two official full-length albums in their career: Washarama in 1981 and The Moo Album four years later, both on the band's own Wasted Talent label. The albums were bookended by an EP recorded while the boys were in high school (Teenage Hang-Ups in 1980, which features an early version of "All the Pretty Girls"), the six-song The Wonderful World of Appliances the same year, the "Girl of 1000 Smells" single (the B-side is sung in Russian), and a 1991 farewell CD that barely waved good-bye. Now, their albums sell for hundreds of dollars to collectors, though they're also liable to show up in the racks at Half-Price Books and Records, and sell for pocket change.

Bean, who still maintains Wasted Talent, plans to release all the albums on CD sometime in the near future -- before the end of the summer, he says with a shrug that implies: Don't hold your breath. "When it happens, it happens," he says, laughing. "I've been telling people for years, 'Oh, they'll be out in several months.' "

Eighteen years since the band's inception in a Pearland garage, the Judy's live on, a new wave zombie too stubborn to die. DJs around the state still get requests for Judy's songs, some on a weekly basis. For the past two years, Michael Wilson, a Nashville-via-Houston Internet programmer, has maintained a fetishistic web site that contains every single Judy's song sampled, in its entirety, at CD-perfect quality. (The web site's address is maddancer.com/thejudys.)

"The Judy's site gets more action than my business site," says Wilson, who's also designing a Judy's screen saver that will be available before the end of the year.

Over the past three years, the Seattle-based indie-pop band Tullycraft has covered the Judy's on three separate releases: In 1995, the band remade "Guyana Punch" for the compilation When I'm Hungry I Eat: Songs About Food, then recorded "Mental Obsession" on 1996's Old Traditions, New Standards, and issued "She's Got the Beat" this year on a Japanese-only vinyl single.

"People send me tapes all the time," says Tullycraft's Sean Tollefson, "and someone in Alaska sent me a tape of Washarama. They said, 'I listen to your band, and this sounds like the same stuff you're doing.' Well, the tape sat there a few weeks, and then I popped it in and was just amazed. Since then, I've been looking all over for their records. I've had to go to the web site, and I've downloaded all the songs and have them on cassette. I mean, they were just so stripped down -- the bass and drums are the whole backbeat. And David Bean is just a really great songwriter."

Was, that is. Bean has long since abandoned music for a career as a water shiatsu massage therapist, a hobby that turned serious once the Judy's disbanded for good. He has not recorded since 1991, when he took a bastardized version of the Judy's -- bassist Jeff Walton and drummer Dane Cessac were long gone by then -- into the studio to record Land of Plenty. The album, the lone Judy's record available on CD, came and went, which is perhaps just as well: Where the band's earlier recordings were angular gems, Land of Plenty trips over its own conventionality. Songs such as "Riding in a UFO" and "Superman" are far less charming than their lunatic predecessors; listening to them is like watching an old friend grow up, get fat and break out in a rash. Perhaps it was inevitable a career with such promise would end without much fanfare.

"Trying to get the album done was a nightmare," Bean recalls. "I was growing more and more distant. I thought, even if I made it big, I'd be miserable, so why am I doing this? The last show was a horrible frat fest, and beer got thrown all over our equipment. The band got pissed off, and I had trouble collecting the money. It was like the universe was saying, no."

The Judy's began as most teen bands did in the late 1970s, as a punk-rock hobby playing to the lawnmowers and other junk stored in the garage. But after Bean spent a summer in Austin and heard the B-52's playing at a record store, he returned to Pearland and told his buddies of a terse new sound that left plenty of room for punch lines. Thus, the Judy's were born, their possessive name and their sound inspired by the Athens, Georgia, band that, even now, refuses to die.

"It wasn't like we said we were going to be the B-52's," Bean recalls, "but we were struck by the minimalism."

Indeed, when second guitarist Sam Roush (who appears on Teenage Hang-Ups) died in a car accident in 1980 (the week before the EP's release, no less), the rest of the band decided not to replace him -- fewer musicians to clutter up the sound. "We were scheduled to play before the school dance in the cafeteria the week he died, so we had to cancel the show," Bean says. "It was a big blow. We never performed live with him."

The band sold copies of the three-song Teenage Hang-Ups (with a full-band version of "All the Pretty Girls," Bean's vocals reverbed to death) in the cafeteria at Pearland High School. They recorded The Wonderful World of Appliances not long after. For a short time, rumors circulated about a pending deal with the Warner Bros. label, but they proved to be nothing. Bean insists the Judy's never sought out a record deal or, for that matter, a manager. They were content enough releasing music on their own label and touring regionally, playing out just seldom enough to make every show seem like An Event. The last thing they wanted was to be a club band, making the scene in hopes of getting noticed by someone looking to buy their souls for a few thousand bucks.

"We never knew of being close to any kind of deal," Bean says. "We didn't want to focus all our energies on that. We didn't want to make demos and go to L.A. If there was interest, that was good, but we were always around other musicians who talked about this deal, and it was like they weren't interested in being where they were and entertaining people. I was just never interested in chasing after something like that. There was enough in front of us that kept us happy. But believe me, we would have welcomed a major-label deal, but we also thought, 'Who would sign us?' We knew we weren't commercial. Majors always said, 'The production's awful,' but we said, 'Of course it is. We paid for the records and recorded them in three hours.' We thought we sucked too bad to get signed."

The band would disband in 1981 after Washarama, then again in '83, get back together once more in '85 for The Moo Album, then slowly come apart again. In the end, all that was left was Bean and a gang of impostors for Land of Plenty. The band would regroup here and there for the occasional gig -- their last appearance was at the Raul's reunion show at Austin's Liberty Lunch in the early '90s, celebrating the long-defunct punk hangout. Bean isn't averse to doing a few reunion shows here and there. But these days, he has little tolerance for songs about high school girls and Three Mile Island; if anything, he'd like to record some of the new music he's writing and, yeah, release Washarama on CD for the few thousand folks who might desire such a relic.

"Jeff, Dane, and I were in the studio together not long ago working on another project -- it wasn't Judy's stuff," Bean says. "But we get together and see each other [from] time to time, both socially and musically. We don't see each other so often that we're, like, the best of buddies, but there's so much history there. We knew each other in grade school. I mean, just sharing all those years of incredible experiences -- to be in your teens and have all this stuff happen, and going from Pearland to a semi-successful regional rock band. We got to see all kinds of things we never dreamed of. I think that's still back there.

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