Freshen Up, Freshen Up

The milkmen are back on their rounds.

Talk about dedicated devotees -- one dormant Houston band has not one but two regularly updated fan sites, even though they haven't played a note together publicly in their original lineup since about 1986. That band would be the Judy's, the wildly (if only regionally) popular dork-pop trio that was Weezer before Rivers Cuomo had his first breakdown. They might have been They Might Be Giants.

Actually, when I wrote that they haven't played since '86, I was lying. They played last month at a cancer benefit in the auditorium of what is now a theater but what used to be the Pearland elementary school, where they first took the stage in talent shows in the '70s. "The songs all sound pretty good right now -- which is a little odd," says bassist Jeff Walton. "It sounds fresh, not '80s retro, and the last thing we want is to be '80s retro."

And it looks like there could be more shows in the offing as well. Stress the could be. "We don't know right now," Walton says. "We're in the middle of discussing that…Uh, actually we think we will do some more."

A whole generation has been born and, hell, finished grad school since the Judy's ruled the Texas new-wave scene. Circa 1980, their sound was minimalist, smart, danceable and catchy as all get-out. Snotty-voiced singer Bean wrote some of the oddest lyrics ever, about topics as diverse as the Jonestown Massacre (their biggest "hit," "Guyana Punch"), content captives of Islamic radicals ("Vacation in Teheran") and of course "Girls, Girls, Girls." "All the Pretty Girls" should be every picked-on suburban dork's anthem ("All the pretty girls in high school…Make me sick!"); and elsewhere, Bean just offered plainspoken advice, such as "Don't Be a Hippie." ("There's no need for peace and harmony," the band sweetly harmonized.)

Live, the band was fond of props -- Bean flung diced liver and Jell-O with chopped-up doll parts inside around his high school auditorium at a talent show, and later the band would douse the audience with ice water by the bucket, or take the stage in matching milkman costumes.

Pioneering punk promoter M. Martin remembers those days well. All too well. "I had agreed to go up with [promoting partner Richard] Tomcala to help production on a show up in Dallas, and the guy who was supposed to be their dancing cow was nowhere to be found," he remembers. "I was fighting off a fever, and Richard asked me to be the dancing cow. I did it, but I told Richard he owed me big-time. So I wound up wearing this cow costume, dancing like a fool at the front of a stage. And I ended up with a borderline case of pneumonia because of that."

Their very first write-up, in the Pearland High School newspaper in 1979 when the band was still known as the Jets, captured the ambience of their shows thusly: "People are slipping into their peg-leg pants, garnishing themselves in dog chains and razor blades, and wearing non-committal looks on their faces…. THEY'RE PUNKING OUT." And wearing non-committal faces throughout, the Judy's punked out all the way to opening shows for the B-52s, Bean's inspiration and his favorite band as a youth, not to mention other kindred spirits Devo and Talking Heads.

The Judy's conquered the college crowd in Texas, but no further. All of their albums -- most notably the full-lengths Washarama and The Moo Album and the EPs Teenage Hangups and The Wonderful World of Appliances -- came out without national distribution on Bean's own Wasted Talent label. Only one of the band's records ever was released on CD -- 1991's swan song Land of Plenty -- and none of their recordings has been rereleased, despite Bean's statement to this paper in 1998 that the band would be rereleasing its records before the end of that summer. The reporter, Robert Wilonsky, was skeptical with good reason.

Not that there isn't demand for the rereleases. Those who bought their Judy's records on cassette or vinyl would all likely buy the CDs now or download the stuff onto their iPod or whatever. We mentioned something earlier about their dedicated fans. Here's an example of that enthusiasm, from a visitor to the fan site who missed the reunion show, and to put it mildly, is a bit upset about that. "I would have flown to Kenya," wrote "Skinny." "Swam a mile through crocodiles, hitchhiked to Tanzania, climbed Kilimanjaro barefoot and stapled my own mother to a tree just to catch the last few seconds of the show."

"For a lot of people Washarama sort of defined their childhood," says music business veteran (and infrequent Press contributor) Greg Ellis.

"They were fun; they were pop, though, and I wasn't into that," says Martin. "I was into nailing goth chicks. But I would probably enjoy them more now that I have somewhat broader musical tastes. They were definitely one of the greatest Houston acts that never happened on a national level. They were quintessential '80s -- they should have been bigger."

Looking back, it does seem astounding that they never signed with a major, but you can't fault crappy talent scouts alone on that score. Bean never wanted the fat contract, and after all, they were already big-time rock stars in Houston, Austin and Dallas. "We just didn't really pursue it," says Walton. "We were pretty young -- it just didn't happen."

"They had that thing that I have seen many times in this market where they get a little bit of success and that goes to their head really fast," opines Martin. "And then after that there is this state of ambivalence where there is this attitude of 'Oh, my God, you mean we have to work ten times as hard for five times as long to make it out of here? Screw that, I'll just get a job as a stockbroker.' "

Or a water shiatsu massage therapist, which is what Bean did, and now he's also teaching sixth-grade math and science in Pearland. Drummer Dane Cessac has bought and sold a Clear Lake restaurant and moved to Austin, while Walton has a successful career here as a film and TV composer. And perhaps, soon enough, a full-fledged co-composer of new Judy's music. "That's the million-dollar question right now," Walton says. "We're kicking it around -- and we just might do that."

Those crazy punks. Always with the non-committal jive…

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