What's Squeezing Denver 's Will to Rock?
As a Dozen Fellows Play Air Guitar,
Bellows that the Air Box is the Heir to Guit-Box
“I'm probably one of the five best guitarists in Denver .”
“Who's better than you?”
Onstage, a long-haired blondie was flinging his head around, pretending to shred to 80's metal while a surprisingly large crowd shouted hoots of confusion.
“Let's see. Uh… Check that. I'm the best guitarist in Denver .”
“Are you here to perform?”
I was talking to Rack Thomas, an audience member at the Hi Dive's first ever Air Guitar Competition.
“I'm just here to watch. I wanted to see if people could even pretend to rock in this town.”
“I don't know. It's kind of ironic that the Hi-Dive is hosting an Air Guitar Competition when this club is the Wimp Rock Capital of the World.”
Pissed off and cocky. Just how I like ‘em. I patted my pocket to make sure I had a pen and paper and said, “Let's go someplace where we can talk.”
We went to the bar next door and had a drink (he: five beers, me: two nothing and sevens).
“It's pathetic that in this town of three million [sic] they could only get a dozen people to sign up for an air guitar competition. From what I hear, at least two of the guys come from out of state.”
Stretching my fingers, I said, “You're about to go on a rant, aren't you?”
Indulging me, he continued, “Man, I'm twenty-four years old. I'm a southpaw. I play a Strat through a 4x12 Marshall amp. I'm not Hendrix but I'm damn, damn good. I use distortion and feedback. I swing my arm like a windmill. I leap like a Baryshnikov and land like an atom bomb. I love Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, and Kurt Cobain but after that, my influences stop. Because no one plays with guts anymore.
“Indie rock has taken over Denver 's scene. You gotta go to the suburbs for anything that resembles rock anymore. Denver used to be a punk town. The Fluid, Five Dog Frenzy, Crestfallen, and a bunch of other cool bands that started fights. Somewhere in the early 90's everything fell apart.
“The guitar is the entire basis of Rock and Roll but it has been totally emasculated by the accordion. And the whole thing started because of a band called the Denver Gentlemen.”
A Brief and Probably Inaccurate Recent History of the Accordion in Denver (as told by Rack Thomas)
The Denver Gentlemen (Original Line-Up): Spawned about a dozen bands. I've only met one person who actually saw them. This person, Chuck, claims they were a sight to behold, “Like watching the Beastie Boys but country.” By all accounts they were a group of ex-punks who took a liking to country music and songs about incest. Fatefully, their instrumentation included an accordion.
Sixteen Horsepower: The first Denver Gentlemen spin-off band. Often—and wrongly—described as rockabilly-esque they were really just goth rock on antique instruments played badly. The lead singer played an accordion (he called it a “bandoneon” but he's not fooling anyone).
Slim Cessna's Auto Club: The second DG spin-off. They underwent the following permutations: Pure country, then alternacountry, then fire the band and start over with Munly to become self referential ironoalteroindiecountry, then move to Rhode Island and who's paying attention anymore? Accordion? Check (usually).
The Kalamath Brothers: sprung from the Denver Gentlemen via the Auto Club, this band is a wonderful example of what we can look forward to once Tom Waits loses his voice completely. A great songwriter in the tradition of Kris Kristofferson (i.e., best heard through someone else's pipes), the lead singer doubles on the accordion.
Munly: Used to be quirky, now just irritating. Last time I saw him his band included an all-skinny-girl string section trying not to look uncomfortable in lingerie. Accordion? I can't remember seeing one but I wouldn't doubt it. He does play autoharp, which is worse.
Tarantella: Almost as an afterthought, a bunch of people who used to play in the Auto Club and DG started a band that sounded just like (d) all of the above, but classier. They performed sitting down. They drank wine and sang in French. I don't even know if they're still together. Ils ont eu un accordéon.
Wovenhand: See Sixteen Horsepower.
Denver Gents Mark II: A couple of years ago, the Denver Gentlemen revved their engines again (minus any trace of the original DG mystique and all but one of the founding members) and, in spite of the fact that no one came to their shows, their freaky circus music somehow got choice gigs until they dissolved again. Their accordion player happened to also play in Devotchka.
Devotchka: No relation to the Original Denver Gentlemen but their violinist played in the DGMK2, the lead singer played with Munly during the Clinton Administration, and their drummer is Polish. They can make an audience dance as long as the room is dark and the wine is red. Fortunately, the accordion usually takes a back seat to the guitar (or bouzouki). Still, which do you think made it to a T-Shirt? Not the guitar (or bouzouki).
(End Brief History of the Accordion)
Rack is speaking through clenched teeth. “In the face of this kind of opposition, how the hell do you expect the electric guitar to survive?” He orders a shot of bourbon. “So here I am, 24 years old, I rock like a mothereffer and I can't get a gig for nothin'.”
“Guitarists are a dime a dozen, pal,” I point out sympathetically, “You should have taken up the drums.”
“But I'm an incredible guitarist.” The shot arrives. He tipples it. I ask for the bill. “When I get in a band, people get scared. I don't know why. I don't dress flashy [true: jeans and a t-shirt] I don't use drugs or hang out with a tough crowd. I just play too powerful. I don't wanna write songs or sing. I just want to play guitar. It frustrates me so much because I know that if someone would just turn up some of this wussy music, it would spin the world on its ear.
The people at the next table are eavesdropping. He leans forward and speaks in conspiratorial tones, “For everything I just said about Denver 's scene, the national acts are even worse. I saw Belle and Sebastian a while ago and it almost killed me.” His voice gets louder, “Belle and Sebastian played their songs just like their CDs and the crowd just stood there like a bunch of Swedes. Man, if those guys had a real drummer and me on guitar, they'd rule the universe. I dream that I'm standing upon a craggy outcrop with, like, this princess at my side and we're fighting hordes of Belle and Sebastian fans like Conan versus the Gondwaiths.” He exhales. “I can't take this shit.”
“Relax, buddy. You'll be fine.”
“I don't know, man. Every time I audition it's the same thing. ‘Thanks, but you rock too hard.'” He pulls out his wallet—empty—and I pay the bill.
“I'll survive. When it's all said and done, if the worst thing people can say about me is, ‘He rocked too hard,' then that's not that bad. Carve it into my tombstone and send me to heaven in an Edsel.”
--Strapping Danforth, July, 2004
Sent: Sunday, July 11, 2004 5:45 AM
Subject: Rack Thomas
Hey, where do I find this Rack Thomas guy? I'm a princess (ok, I'm just a lead singer, but it's the same thing) all alone on a craggy outcrop and I need a guitarist who rocks REAL hard or I'm going to be overtaken.
Sent: Tuesday, July 13, 2004 5:45 AM
Subject: Re: Rack Thomas
It's always a pleasure to get a note from a fan.
From what I could gather, Rack spends most of his time in his basement apartment. I honestly wouldn't recommend him as a bandmate. He's kinda creepy. I didn't mention this in the article, but he said he has an arraignment coming up for some sort of felony charge involving cattle. I don't know what you're imagining, but if it's anything like what I'm imagining, it ain't purty.
Regarding his guitar prowess, I'd guess that he was lying through his teeth. Still, don't let the weirdness of one freakazoid stop you from fighting the good fight. You'll do better fighting off the hordes without him.
It's the craggy outcrop that matters. They can't get you up there.
(And your singing will be heard for miles.)