Reeling in the Years

Leaning back on the couch, clutching an empty gourmet coffee cup, Poor Dumb Bastards front man Byron Dean looks the consummate yuppie, but only at a glance. Scratch the surface, and it's apparent that something's wrong. Maybe it's the black Sugar Shack shirt, or maybe it's the scrapes and bruises -- battle scars from the lead singer's stage antics -- that make Dean come across as more than a little bit insane. Then again, maybe it's the stories…

There was, for example, the long-ago show when the Bastards opened for Smashing Pumpkins at Emo's.

"We're up there, and the Emo's crowd is traditionally -- well, we'll say -- medicated and laid-back," says Bastards guitarist Mike Porterfield. "They're blasé about things, like they've seen it all. And when Byron jumped up on stage naked all sweaty and nasty, suddenly it was something different. I don't know if it's the fear of getting a drop of pubic sweat in your beer, but they suddenly started paying attention."

But mere nudity was not enough. They had to take it to the next level. While belting out his vocals, Dean leaned over the stage. For Porterfield, the temptation was too much. "I saw his ass there, and I kicked him off the stage," he says. "For God knows what reason, there used to be a table made out of bricks right there in front of the stage. He fell and hit his head on it. He's laying on the floor covered in mud and filth. And I thought, 'Oh, no. I killed Byron.' I mean, it's our third gig, we're opening for Smashing Pumpkins, and I just killed him. But we kept playing, and he just crawled back on stage."

Dean picks up the story from there. It's like watching two brothers reminisce about their early years. "[Then] we did a song called 'More Fucked Up Than You.' I crawled up on stage, kinda lay there. Mike hit the note, and I just jumped up and we did two more songs naked. I think the write-up in Public News said that our music sucked so we had to rely on hokey showbiz gimmicks to get by. Which to us was, like, 'Cool!' "

Neither critical respect nor wealth has ever motivated these Bastards. At least not for long. Success of any kind seems to scare Porterfield, who walks away every time the band (in his view) gets too serious. The first time he quit was when the group hired a manager.

Dean was always the one who wanted the band to break out, but he apparently has come around to the guitarist's way of thinking. "We tried really hard to make it [once], and it sucked," Dean says firmly. "It was the worst experience of my life. We fought, we bickered. We all had different things we wanted to do. And after a couple of years we broke up and got back to the basics. Mike came back and said, 'Here's how you do it.' Then we started to get popular again, and Mike's like, 'Uh, gotta go.' "

"We were waxing and waning at the same time," says Porterfield. "I couldn't be in Poor Dumb Bastards if it was going to be a big heavy thing. It wasn't based on anything heavy in the first place."

"Right, it started as a joke," Dean chimes in. "It was based on just a couple of guys having a good time. It was real. That wasn't corn syrup blood, man. That was real blood."

The Bastards' original conception was inspired by neither greed nor envy, but by two of the more primal deadly sins: lust and gluttony. High school buddies Dean and Porterfield shared a dream of a low-pressure, informal band that would play the raunchy, punky tunes they loved and would sing about what interested them, namely booze and sex.

"The whole premise was to start stuff on stage," Dean says. "Do it improv. Everything was going to be written live. We used to come over to each other's house together after school and get a tape recorder, and I'd bang on a toolbox and he'd play guitar."

After ten years, Dean and Porterfield are the band's mainstays. An estimated 30 ex-Bastards roam the city and parts unknown. They have left for any number of reasons. "There are people in the band who have gone to prison," says Dean. "We've been screwed by our managers, we've been lied to, we've been cheated. Everything that could happen to a band has happened to us. We just never got the benefit of being rich."

"Believe it or not, we've even separated for artistic differences," Dean adds. Predictably, perhaps, for a band that formed in part to sing the bottle's praises, it was drugs that nearly led to its destruction. "Music became just something that gave us an excuse to get together to get loaded," says Dean. "The music didn't matter, because we weren't writing anything. Typical huge rock band story, we just never got very far. We never left Houston. You could put our story on VH1's Behind the Music, and it would be just as compelling as anything you've ever seen on there because we've been through it all."

"I can remember playing, and everyone was on something different," says Porterfield. "Be it alcohol or [various] drugs." He looks over at Dean, and both shake their heads knowingly. "I live a more sober life now," comments Dean. "I quit drinking. It's good for remembering shows."

"And song lyrics," he adds.

For the Bastards, "talent" is less about musicianship than about pleasing the audience, with either music or spectacle. As with most long-lasting bands, there is a symbiotic relationship at the heart. Dean and Porterfield feed off each other, but unlike, say, John Lennon, whose cynicism leavened Paul McCartney's sweet disposition, these two Bastards partake in a never-ending cycle of one-upmanship.

"Byron's the type of guy who if you jump off a bridge, he'll jump off a building," says Porterfield. "If you set yourself on fire, he'll shoot himself in the foot. It's just about taking it up several levels."

Though older, the Bastards don't seem much wiser, to which Dean's fresh wounds attest. They harbor no dreams of a major-label deal.

"We play music because we enjoy it," says Dean. "If it were for anything else it wouldn't work."

"I don't know if it would be fun to work every day as a Poor Dumb Bastard," adds Porterfield. "I don't know if I could keep up with myself. It takes a lot of work to be [us], which speaks to the energy we put into our performance."

According to Dean, "There's a lot of bands that think that since we're not serious we don't deserve what we've gotten. Well, what have we got?"

"We've had a lot of fun," offers Porterfield. "Maybe they're jealous of that."

Whatever the reason, Poor Dumb Bastards aren't bothered. After breakups, band members and deranged escapades without number, all that matters is the next gig.

"We live fast," says Dean. "We just forgot to die young."

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Elizabeth Taishoff