The Judy's Come Back
The Judy's are rehearsing. Live. Right now. This fact alone should be enough to send a certain subspecies of Texas music aficionado — those who came of age in the late '70s and early '80s, when musicians fed up with rock's bloated arena excess stripped it down into the sleek strains known as punk and New Wave — into CPR-worthy palpitations. Even so, as when any band revisits riffs and rhythms that haven't crossed their minds (and fingers) in almost three years, the Judy's are a little on the rusty side at the moment.
"I still can't hear where you're at," bassist Jeff Walton tells singer and keyboardist David Bean, who is running through his lyrics without the benefit of a microphone. "You're going to have to face me."
Bean, Walton and drummer Dane Cessac, childhood friends who grew up in Pearland, are assembled at Walton's studio near US 290 and Mangum to drag their arch, keenly satirical, hyper-catchy songs out of mothballs. Those songs, as released on the albums Washarama (1981) and Moo (1985), as well as on various EPs and 7-inch singles, once made the Judy's one of the most popular bands in Texas. And a full generation after the original lineup last performed on any kind of regular basis, many would argue they still are.
The three fortysomethings are dressed in street clothes rather than the milkman uniforms, beachwear or Hare Krishna robes they once favored for their shows, which brought packed houses to venues such as Numbers and Austin's Club Foot — but this is unquestionably a Judy's rehearsal. A framed poster for Washarama hangs in the hall. Bean's keyboard is set up atop an ironing board, a familiar sight for any of the nearly 1,500 people who have viewed the clip of their 1981 performance of "Guyana Punch" on YouTube. An array of pots and pans, which Cessac attacks like Animal from The Muppet Show on "Right Down the Line," is strung up on a frame near Walton's amplifier.
Slowly but surely, the wayward notes fall into place. After a few tries, Bean (playing a miniature marching snare that belongs to Walton's son) and Cessac (on tom-tom) ace the moment in the "Grass is Greener" chorus where they theatrically click their drumsticks together. Walton successfully navigates the circular, robust bass lines of "Rerun" and "TV," two of the Judy's songs about the boob tube. Bean attacks the surfy two-chord vamp of "Girls! Girls! Girls!" (another preferred topic) with punk-like intensity, and croons the opening lyrics to "Guyana Punch" — his twisted tribute to the Jonestown tragedy and the closest thing the Judy's had to a hit single — through a paper-towel tube. The chemistry between the three is obvious; at the subsequent photo shoot, they giggle and crack each other up like it's picture day at Pearland High.
"I think that's the third time we've [rehearsed] tonight," exhales a flushed but smiling Walton afterward.
The reason for these rehearsals is the Judy's upcoming performance at the Austin Music Awards March 13, a 20-minute set that will mark the trio's first public appearance since the 1994 Raul's Reunion at Austin's Liberty Lunch. (They played a full set as a private benefit for a cancer-stricken friend at the former Pearland Elementary School in spring 2005.)
Last December, after nearly a decade of promising to do so, they finally released Washarama, Moo and 1991's never-before-released Land of Plenty (recorded after Walton and Cessac had left the band) on CD for the first time via their label Wasted Talent Records, sparking a renewal of interest in the group that has yet to subside. Stacked on a desk in the studio's reception area, an assortment of boxes and envelopes (about 30 in all) are bound for destinations like Dallas; Lanexa, Kansas; and Daniel Island, South Carolina. Orders have come in from as far away as Greece and Japan.
"It's like two to one," Walton says. "For every two [orders] in Texas, there's one from somewhere else."
No sooner had the Judy's set up their Web site, www.wastedtalentrecords.com, than the orders started pouring in; the first came about five minutes after the site went online. When news of the CDs' availability reached the community at long-running fan site www.thejudys.com, more than 150 orders came in literally overnight.
"It scared me," says Walton a week earlier, as he and Bean stuff a previous batch of envelopes with shirts and CDs at his studio, which these days doubles as the Wasted Talent offices and stockroom. "I didn't even know if [the site] was working properly, and then it was like, 'Oh, now we have to place all these orders.'"
The band originally planned to sell the CDs through their Web site alone, but the overwhelming demand forced them to reconsider and send shipments to various local record stores. Since then, they've sold so well several retailers, including Waterloo Records in Austin, have already reordered.
"They've been doing great," says Sig's Lagoon owner Tomas Escalante. "Washarama's the one. We sold out all my stock I got of that."
Though Sound Exchange doesn't usually see much crossover with Sig's, the CDs are selling just as briskly there, reports owner Kurt Brennan. "We were one of the last ones to get them," he says. "But we're actually doing really well with them."
Cactus Music, which has fashioned a sizable portion of its back wall into an elaborate Judy's display, is already on its fourth shipment. "I e-mailed Jeff the other day asking him to bring by another 25 or 30 pieces," says owner Quinn Bishop. "He was like, 'Wow, really?' I think they misunderstand their popularity and underestimate their cachet with people who love music here in Houston. Washarama's been in our Top 10 since its release, and Moo was last week too."
The albums' appeal isn't limited to the people who have been waiting years to replace their vinyl copies with CDs, either. "I'll play it for some younger teenagers and they're like, 'Wow, this is cool,'" says Escalante. "They dig it and pick it up — it's an easy sell."
"I think some [customers] were probably back there in the old days, but it's also people who aren't old enough to have been back there," agrees Brennan. "They're pretty legendary here, so that's something people have been begging for on CD forever."
"We're kind of over it, I think, but it was always coming up in the weirdest ways," admits Bean. "But yeah, I'm surprised it's selling like it is and that there's an interest."
Their continuing popularity might come as a surprise to the Judy's, but not to longtime fans like Bishop. "They were definitely one of the Houston bands that could have [made it]," he says. "Probably exhibit A as far as that goes."
The Texas punk scene of nearly 30 years ago was dominated by the more aggressive, hardcore-leaning sounds of Houston's Really Red, Legionnaire's Disease and Culturcide, and Austin's Dicks and Big Boys, so the Judy's crisp, almost mechanical songs stood out even then. They played the same venues as those bands, places like the long-gone Island at U.S. 59 and South Main and the Agora Ballroom at Richmond and Loop 610 (where they opened for the B-52's and Talking Heads) but drew an entirely different audience.
"The interesting thing about the Judy's audience was it wasn't like the traditional inner-city punk-rock or eclectic crowd," says Houston punk-scene veteran Tom Bunch, who went from videotaping bands like Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys in those days to owning Washington Avenue venue the Vatican and then managing the Butthole Surfers and Toadies in the '90s.
"The lower Westheimer scene was gays, cross-dressers, junkies, punk rockers, artists — drastically different from what it is right now," continues Bunch. "The people that came to see the Judy's were mostly upper-middle-class people from the suburbs, and fraternity and sorority boys and girls. They claimed the Judy's as their band."
As three clean-cut kids from Pearland, the Judy's admit to feeling out of place. "I remember feeling intimidated by some of the punks," says Walton. "I thought they were really rough, and [that] they hated me."
That wasn't necessarily the case, explains Bunch. "All I know is the people that liked the Judy's loved 'em, and the people that didn't really didn't," he says. "I don't ever remember people wanting to ban the Judy's or being pissed off that they were doing what they were doing."
The Judy's fit in a little better in Austin, where the punk and New Wave crowds who came to see bands like the Skunks, Standing Waves and the Huns mingled a little more freely. (This was also before punk became defined by the Mohawks-and-tattoos image that has persisted ever since.) At places like Raul's and Club Foot, capital city audiences keyed onto Bean's cerebral lyrics and infectious songcraft almost immediately.
"They were a smart band, and Austin has always had smart audiences," says Austin Chronicle senior writer Margaret Moser. "The original punk crowd in Austin was a very smart audience — they were mostly communications students and stuff, so you had a very high degree of appreciation for kitchiness, for intelligence, for something different, and the Judy's fit that bill all the way around."
The Judy's formed sometime in 1979, but Bean, Walton and Cessac had already been playing together for years. Walton and Cessac were in the same junior high school band, while Walton and Bean grew up two streets apart and used to get together for unusual guitar-and-trombone jam sessions in the future bassist's front yard.
"I remember thinking it was really cool that he had an electric guitar and could play 'Space Oddity,'" Walton says. "He would come over on his bike with his guitar, and I'd see him coming around the corner. I can still see that."
The Judy's eventually came together from the remnants of their previous schoolboy bands like Mondo Babies, the Jets and the Cleavers, taking their musical inspiration from the oddball, eclectic, minimalist sounds of bands like Talking Heads and the B-52's. New Wave was foreign to the Houston airwaves back then, but Bean — just back from a summer trip to Austin, where he had discovered the same punk scene that would soon enough embrace his band — happened to record an episode of 1970s late-night concert series Midnight Special hosted by Blondie and largely devoted to New Wave.
"I remember being mesmerized by that [show]," says Walton.
Shortly after the newly christened Judy's recorded their first single, "Teenage Hangups" — while the record was away at the pressing plant, in fact — tragedy struck when their fourth member, guitarist Sam Roush, was killed in a car accident in late 1979. Walton says Roush, his bandmate in the Cleavers, was a happy-go-lucky guy and talented guitarist, while Bean remembers him as part of the little group that used to sit around at lunchtime drawing mock stage plots on napkins. After he died, the group thought about bringing in another guitarist, but ultimately elected to remain a three-piece and dedicated "Teenage Hangups" to their late friend. (Ironically, the version of "All the Pretty Girls" that was the flipside of "Teenage Hangups" and later appeared on Washarama was the one the band elected to record without guitar.)
"At that point, I don't think we wanted to bring anybody else in," Walton says. "We felt like, 'Let's just go on and do it this way.'"
Shortly thereafter, the band's career began in earnest when Bean dropped off a cassette — they still hadn't gotten the records back from the pressing plant – at the Island (then known as Rock Island). Instead of politely thanking Bean and promising to be in touch, the owner offered the band an upcoming slot opening for Joe King Carrasco, the popular Texas musician who combined traditional Tex-Mex with New Wave and had several hits in the early days of MTV, on the spot.
"I remember going to school all week excited because it had been in the newspaper we were playing on Thursday night," says Bean, who with Cessac was a senior at the time. (Walton was a grade behind them.) "That was a big deal."
Word about the Judy's spread quickly. "You're at the club and somebody mentions, 'Hey, there's this really fun group — you'll never believe them, they're playing pots and pans,'" remembers E.A. Srere, who managed the Judy's for about a year and a half. "So we went down to see it and fell in love immediately, of course. They were so adorable I wanted to eat 'em up."
Srere, an attorney with the Dallas County public defender's office for the past decade, likens her managerial duties with the Judy's to being a "den mother." Besides calling clubs to arrange gigs and fanzines for interviews, when the band decided to do a show in honor of the recent Mount St. Helens eruption, she was tasked with driving around Houston looking for a suitable volcano they could use onstage. She tried to ease Bean's pre-show anxiety — "holding his hand while he threw up, that kind of thing" — and was in charge of their guest list, which led to an interesting encounter with ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons one night at the Island.
"He said, 'I think I'm on the guest list,'" Srere remembers. "I said, 'And your name?'
"'Well, my name's Billy Gibbons.'
"'Really? Oh yes, yes, you're on here.'
"I asked him, 'What brings you to the Judy's?' He told me his pigs liked the Judy's."
As befitting boys not yet out of their teens, the Judy's were fond of practical jokes. As Srere would be driving them to a show, they enjoyed tying socks around their heads as mock blindfolds and attracting the attention of passing motorists with signs that said things like "Help. Call police."
"These rednecks came by one time and showed us their rifle, and I said, 'That's enough,'" she laughs. "The Judy's were a lot of fun."
The Judy's broke up around 1982, but reconvened around 1984 to record Moo. Bean chose the title because he liked the idea of people calling record stores and saying "moo!" to the voice on the other end. (Modomusic, the solo EP he recorded in the interim, is included on the Moo reissue.) They picked up right where they left off, soon packing Numbers on successive weekends and playing for more than 1,000 people in Dallas. Bruce Godwin, owner of the much-missed Record Rack and a former partner in Numbers, where he also DJed from 1980-1990 — and who once appeared as the "Ghost of Liberace" during a Judy's show at the Arena Theater — says the band was every bit as popular as the era's biggest college-rock artists.
"They were hugely popular in Texas, right up there with the Ramones, R.E.M. [and] Siouxsie & the Banshees," he says. "The high-school kids loved them, but so did punks, nerds, gays and parents. They always sold out no matter what."
Margaret Moser, who booked the Judy's for this year's Austin Music Awards, brought New Wave producer Liam Sternberg, who discovered the Waitresses ("I Know What Boys Like") and would go on to write the Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" and the 21 Jump Street theme, to a Judy's show. He loved it, telling her Bean had a "platinum voice" and including Bean's "My Imagination" on his 1984 Elektra compilation Ten from Texas: Herd It Through the Grapevine.
Rumors swirled the Judy's were about to be signed to Warner Bros., and the band seemed poised to take the next step beyond regional success. But for reasons neither the band nor their friends still can't quite explain, that next step never came.
"Everybody back then thought they were going to hit it big, they were going to be the next Talking Heads, the next B-52's," says E.A. Srere. "You think you can just be enthusiastic enough and a group will sell themselves, and you soon learn that the music business is brutal and you've really gotta know what you're doing, and you gotta know people."
"I think their local and regional success was a big surprise to them," Moser offers. "But I also think they were more ambitious than they knew. I just don't think they knew how to channel it, and there wasn't much industry back then [in Texas] to support them with anything."
The Judy's did reach out to the big-time labels, Bean remembers, and were shot down every time. Blondie, the B-52's, Talking Heads and even Devo all eventually broke out of the New Wave disco to enjoy mainstream chart success; so it would seem that a band with distinct similarities — not to mention a sizable and enthusiastic regional following — would be a sure thing. But whatever it was about the Judy's that worked so well in Texas just didn't fly in New York and L.A.
"Most of the time, [labels] would request to hear something because they saw our name, or they were getting references or whatever," sighs Bean. "They'd hear it and go, 'We don't get it.'"
According to the Pearland Economic Development Corporation, the population of the suburb on Houston's southern border is projected to surpass 70,000 by 2011. In 1990, ten years after Bean and Cessac graduated from high school, it was just shy of 24,000.
"At the time, it was almost more of a rural place than it was suburban," says Bean. "Back then, there were three groups: the jocks, the kickers and the heads."
The Judy's didn't belong to any of those — the closest high-school subcategory would probably be "band geeks" — but nonetheless, their Pearland roots were fairly obvious to people who hung out with them. Their idea of an afterparty, Srere remembers, was hitting up either a bowling alley or House of Pies.
"They were really clean, innocent boys," agrees Moser. "They didn't do drugs, and they mostly had girlfriends and they read. Even their parties were these cute little parties, not like the big orgiastic parties I was used to. It was very refreshing."
Not only did their relative isolation in Pearland keep the Judy's out of trouble, it freed them from the peer pressure that comes with belonging to a big-city scene. "I think it insulated us quite a bit," says Bean. "I think being sequestered out in a garage in Pearland gave us this sense that we were independent and could do whatever we wanted to do.
"We wanted to define for ourselves what we were going to be and how we were going to do it," he adds. "I think having that sense of being alienated from the big city also meant we could alienate ourselves from what the trends were."
That said, the Judy's never had much luck winning over their Brazoria County neighbors. Walton and Bean's group Mondo Babies played the Brazoria County Fair talent show in Angleton, where they lost to a twirler. (A Barbra Streisand impersonator beat them the year before that.) Another early group of Bean's played a chili-supper fundraiser for a friend of a friend's dad who was running for office; people kept yelling "Freebird!" at that one. As the Judy's, they made an auspicious debut opening one Pearland High dance where Bean, as "Johnny Typhoid," flung beef liver at the audience.
"We were trying to freak out the school," he says. "We considered ourselves very punk at the time, although the music wasn't punk."
The Judy's agreed to play one Pearland Founder's Day celebration, but Walton says standing up there in the city park playing for their hometown was "just awkward." Nonetheless, under "Notable People from Pearland" on the city's Wikipedia page, the Judy's are one of only three entries, alongside the baseball pitchers Clay Hensley and Adam Cowart.
"I remember growing up I never thought there were any cool bands from Pearland, and certainly none of them that actually opened for Devo or anything like that," says Press contributor and music blogger Craig Hlavaty, a 24-year-old Pearland native whose mother was a high-school classmate of the Judy's.
"For the longest time, the kids in Pearland always thought their band was the first band from Pearland to ever do anything, because Pearland's kind of a boring place," he says. "You don't really think of Pearland when you think of weird New Wave guys banging on refrigerators and stuff like that."
There may be a few more big-box stores and master-planned communities in Pearland today (okay, more than a few) but Hlavaty says it's as small-town strait-laced as ever, with church and football at the top of the social pyramid – "if you've seen Dazed and Confused, it's kinda like that" – and little to no precedent for creative types looking to do something different. Except for the Judy's.
"It's cool to see there's been older people who've come before you and actually succeeded in it," he says. "And you don't have to stay in town and go to one of the six Sonics every Friday and Saturday night."
Especially now, with their albums finally available on CD and their third live appearance in 15 years in the very recent past — their Austin Music Awards set will, in all likelihood, be on YouTube before this issue reaches newsstands in Pearland — plus the momentum that comes from finding out kids half your age still dig music you recorded more than a quarter-century ago, why don't the Judy's keep this going for a while? Among their fans anyway, the mere possibility of the Judy's playing live again isn't that far removed from, say, the Pixies, Police or Van Halen reunion tours. So what's stopping them?
"Life," Walton and Bean offer simultaneously.
If life didn't make the Judy's into the kind of rock stars their Texas fans always thought they deserved to be, it didn't exactly deal them a bum hand, either. Overall, they're pretty satisfied with where they wound up.
Walton made the cover of the Sunday Houston Chronicle business section in October 2004 for his work as a TV and film composer; his well-appointed studio is decorated with memorabilia like a Planet of the Apes trashcan (his all-time favorite film score) and a French poster for Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl. Cessac, who now lives in the Hill Country community of Driftwood, followed his culinary muse through opening and closing a Clear Lake-area restaurant to earning a position as the number one chef at the main Whole Foods Market in Austin. Two hundred people work for him. Bean lives in Houston, but commutes to teach upper-elementary math and science in — where else? — Pearland. He still writes music, but won't say much else except that it's very "personal."
Since they played that cancer benefit for their friend a few years ago — which also inspired them to finally take the necessary steps to get their albums remastered and re-released — the Judy's have continued to collaborate off and on; they recently recorded the theme for a Japanese cartoon called Sergeant Frog.
"It never feels weird," says Walton. "It always just feels like we're doing what we know how to do. It's never really gone away."
The main thing preventing them from playing out again (besides Cessac living in Austin) is simply the amount of legwork and preparation required to stage one of their shows, which were always closer to theatrical productions — a milk-bottle conveyor belt and someone dancing onstage in a cow costume, for example — than three guys walking onstage and playing music for an hour. Short a production manager or any other sort of help, all those duties would fall to the band members. As they have before, including in a pair of previous Press articles, they say they'd be open to the idea given the proper circumstances. But what those circumstances might entail is anyone's guess — this is a band, after all, that even bristles a little at the very notion they're "back together."
"Things happened over the years and people left, but we still see each other through the years so much I don't think of it that we're not together," says Bean. "I mean, I don't think we're together, but I don't think we're not together either."
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