Asked where they'd like to meet to talk family and music, Bill and Curtis DeGidio chose Jimmy's, the Heights-area icehouse that is figuratively and sometimes literally in the shadow of Fitzgerald's, the site of many fine DeGidio nights passed and yet to come. One recent Monday evening, the beer was cold, the weather was pleasant and we were never out of earshot of music.
Beers go warm at times, though not usually at Jimmy's. The weather here can change between sneezes. But the constant between this father and son is music. Father Bill was a member of The Pagans, one of the bands that helped usher in American punk rock. Curtis, his son, is keeping the family interest fresh with his band The Velostacks and by teaming with Bill in the latter's group, The Guillotines.
“We probably wouldn’t be sitting here together if it wasn’t for music, because that’s what got us to talk to each other,” says Curtis.
Bill picks up this riff and plays off it.
“Yeah, there’s not a lot to keep a dad and son together as they get older," he notes. "There’s not a lot of glue.”
That glue has pieced together more than just a father-son relationship. It’s helping cement Houston as a city that touring punk and garage-rock acts seek out, particularly to play on the same bill as the DeGidios’ bands. Tonight, it’s Brooklyn garage-punks the Mad Doctors, in town for a show at Rudyard’s with the Guillotines. Next month anarcho-punk legends Reagan Youth and NYC proto-punks The Dictators will headline Velocityfest, May 27 and 28 at Fitz, along with both DeGidio bands and 18 other acts.
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“If this goes good, I see this as Houston’s alternative to Punk Rock Bowling in Las Vegas,” Bill says.
“I look at it also as kind of the anti-Free Press Summer Fest,” Curtis interjects. “Free Press is catering more and more to indie bands and dance; it’s kind of forgotten its underground roots, whereas we’re still giving out the stoner-metal, punk rock, sleaze-rock, whatever you wanna call it.”
If you ask Bill, it’s still rock and roll to him. He was part of a late-1970s Cleveland, Ohio, music scene that bred significant bands of the era — groups like Devo, the Dead Boys, the Cramps, Rocket From the Tombs and Pere Ubu.
“We came through the punk rock first wave, but really we were more of a rock and roll garage band," he says. "That’s what we listened to: the New York Dolls, Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground. But the whole thing exploded and we were right at that time starting our band, and it seemed like a perfect way to sneak this really raunchy garage-rock in.”
According to Bill, the Pagans' first gig was in 1977, shortly after the group recorded its first record, “Six and Change.” They convinced an acquaintance to record the song in exchange for backing him on a Led Zeppelin track.
“At that point, I’d had all I’d wanted of that stuff and now we’re onto punk rock,” Bill recalls. “So we convince him to let us record first. We did our five takes of ‘Six and Change’ and stopped the tape, and [Pagans guitarist] Mike Hudson just grabs a pair of scissors and cuts the tape right at the head, grabs the reel and says, ‘Sorry, Lou. We gotta go.’”
That was the wild beginning of a wild ride that would have Bill and his cohorts recording rave-ups like “Street Where Nobody Lives,” “Not Now No Way” and “What’s This Shit Called Love?” That song would be covered by The Meatmen, which gave Curtis some bragging rights.
“I’m listening to it and I tell my buddy, ‘Dude, my dad wrote this song,’ and he was like, ‘Oh, no he didn’t,’” Curtis shares. “He was always my rock star. Kids would have Alice Cooper’s pictures on the wall; I would just have these little pictures of my dad and The Pagans.”
That was life for a while, before the divorce. Bill says other houses in the neighborhood had hopscotch spaces drawn on their driveways; his boasted a chalk figure of a punk with a Mohawk. He’d take all three of his kids to sound checks and rehearsals, but in the end, only Curtis caught the music bug.
“Through him, punk rock never had any rock stars to me. They were all just normal guys,” Curtis says. “One of my earliest memories is sitting on Dee Dee Ramone’s lap and him reading me an X-Men comic book backstage at the Agora one night.”
“I can’t believe what it was, what it turned into,” Bill says of punk’s early days. “Man, you couldn’t walk down the street looking like we did without catching hell. I went to the mall in 1977 in corduroy pants with duct tape wrapped around them, a chain around my neck with a leather [jacket] that said 'Pagans' on the back. I walked into the mall with a friend of mine and he’s normal-looking, right? We’re walking through this mall and I looked at him and said, ‘Hey, Bob. Everybody’s looking at you.’ He goes, ‘Motherfucker, they’re looking at you! I can’t believe how you look!’ I said, ‘Oh. I thought they were looking at you.’”
Curtis shares a similar story.
“I was about 16 and my mom had helped me dye my Mohawk like this aqua-blue-green thing, and we’re walking through this mall and there’s all these old bags just sitting there staring at us," he says. "I was like, whatever, it happens everywhere we go, I’m over it. But my mom – I don’t know if it was built up from years of having to defend him all the time or having to defend me – she just turned around and just gets right in their face and is like, ‘Yeah? Then all of your kids are on fucking drugs!’”
Her point was those people were judging a clean, straight-A student by his look, a kid who would ultimately join the Army, study and work in photojournalism, travel abroad to places like Nepal, settle into an IT career as a web developer and, of course, play music. The first guitar Curtis played was a Les Paul Black Beauty. He was 12; it belonged to his dad. Less than two years later, he played his first show, literally in the garage of a Cleveland home. After his military service, he played with Chrome Kickers, a revamped lineup of Defnics, a band that Bill had played with in Cleveland. He was asked to play because band leader Bob Sablack reasoned, “You probably play guitar like your dad.”
Both father and son are incredibly open, the way rock and roll survivors are. The Pagans’ early music is still owned, for the most part, by an Ohio record-store operator who promoted shows in his stores. That’s a mistake that's chalked up to youth and inexperience, but one they’re okay discussing, especially if it’s to the benefit of today’s budding young artists. And Curtis says Bill’s substance-abuse issues — eight years behind him now — proved to be the thing that brought them this close together, side by side, talking with us on a Monday night in Houston.
“I was scared. I didn’t really know him. I realized I had no idea who my dad was outside a couple of records in my collection and coming down here every once in a while,” Curtis says. “I made a choice one night and said, ‘I’m gonna move to Texas. I’m gonna meet my dad and hang out with him and get to know who he is.’ When I first came down here, I didn’t really know what to talk with him about. But it was music and motorcycles.”
“One day I just woke up and said to myself, ‘I’m either dying or getting clean today,’” Bill recollects. He said Houston has been a rebirth for him. Here, he met his wife, Julie, affectionately known as “Jewels.” One day, looking through her closet, he saw a bass guitar. She told him it had been at least ten years since she’d played it.
“I said, ‘Cool, I’ll get a drummer over in a couple of days, I’ll find one, we’ll jam.’ She said, ‘All right, but I don’t play gigs or nothing.”
Three weeks later, they played their first gig at the 19th Hole, and haven't stopped playing since. When Curtis arrived in 2007, he was coaxed into Bill’s band, Chelsea Hotel, in nearly the same fashion. They played their first official show together at Dan Electro’s, during Bill’s fourth decade as a working musician.
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The DeGidios are working to keep the romance of rock alive. Bill said his co-workers live vicariously through his exploits, and Curtis reminded that music served a bigger purpose in their lives.
“When I came down here, I didn’t really know him that well," Curtis says. "Now he’s my best friend. The first guy I call for a beer is my dad.”
“When people watch us play, they realize it’s five people that like each other, have fun and love music,” adds Bill. “I can’t help but smile onstage sometimes. I’m like, ‘Damn, I’m gonna have to quit laughing so much; I don’t look as mean as I should look. But I’m beaming, man, I’m happy. To be able to be onstage and I look to one side and there’s my wife and the other side is my son – I’m lucky, man; I’m lucky as hell.”
The Guillotines, Giant Kitty, the Mad Doctors and the Killer Hearts play the Green Room screening afterparty tonight at Rudyard's, 2010 Waugh. Free admission to the first 50 people to come from the screening.