David’s appreciation for The Buck Pets is a love, and frustration, that we’ve all known. It’s the lonely cult syndrome, in which an artist connects with you so categorically, deeply, and spiritually, that their obscurity seems no less than a deplorable injustice, a mistake, or perhaps some sort of clerical error. On the surface, this telling of his story here on Antiquiet is an attempt to elevate another underrated band. But it’s also a universal parable, with a touch of catharsis.
At some point, I gave up. I stopped recommending to friends that they listen to The Buck Pets. Something finally got through to me that a band I loved wasn’t so much an acquired taste as a lonely pursuit. After a couple years of trying to instill the enthusiasm I had for the band, I resigned myself to the fact that what was once something I thought I would introduce everyone to eventually became something that I just had to keep to myself. It would be something like how you might react if someone told you that you just had to listen to some obscure rapper from the late 1980s: There is no possible way that it would have the effect on your current ears as they would have if you’d been around to hear them when they were fresh.
For me and The Buck Pets, maybe it was a combination of location and the timing of when I first heard them that had such an immediate and permanent impact on my life. The band came out of the Dallas scene in the late ’80s, a grungy blend of punk and metal, a potent combination that pre-dated Sub Pop’s glory days by a year or so with a self-titled debut in 1989. As if to prove this point that they were just slightly ahead of their time, Charles Peterson, the photographer whose iconic, blurry, black and white photos would become the look of Sub Pop, took the album’s cover photo. On top of that, the album contained a track called Song For Louise Post, named for Veruca Salt’s Post four years before Veruca Salt even was a band.
I was lucky enough to live in a small college town that had a great “alternative” radio station, when “alternative” didn’t mean Linkin Park or Sublime; in 1989 it meant The Pixies, Wire, Pere Ubu, The Replacements, and The Sugarcubes. I heard The Buck Pets on WOXY and my friend Aaron bought the cassette. He put the tape on his big stereo and it was like hearing my inner thoughts through Marshall stacks. There was sensitivity and confusion and angst and anger in the lyrics, and the music was just complicated enough that the jocks wouldn’t understand.
The summer before my senior year of high school, I remember driving back from dropping my dad at the airport very early in the morning and hitting the highway with the windows down, cranking their “hit” A Little Murder without a care in the world. Maybe part of my continued obsession with the band comes from wishing to be 16 years old again, loving rock and roll as if it were something I could have all to myself. This was well before the internet brought us pictures and tweets from every band ever, when there could still be some mystery. They resonated with me, but they weren’t in Rolling Stone or Spin or Alternative Press. There were no websites tracking their every move, so information was scarce.
So scarce that when their second record Mercurotones came out my first year of college, I hadn’t known it was even coming until I saw it in a record store one day. (Can you imagine?) I took the CD to my dorm and was perplexed. It wasn’t as heavy as the first record, it had acoustic guitars in some places and sounded almost radio-friendly, and there was even a sort-of dancey song, Libertine. But it slowly slid into my deep consciousness. A friend and I even played one of the songs at a party, much to my delight.
Once again, they were ahead of their time. Mercurotones was produced by Michael Beinhorn, who would go on the produce Soul Asylum and Soundgarden. And that dancey song? That was produced by the Dust Brothers, who would later produce Beck’s Odelay.
The record didn’t really make a dent, just a year before Nevermind and all of that. It just got lost in the air. I would have put that record up against anything else that year: Sonic Youth’s Goo, Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, or even Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual De Lo Habitual.
Speaking of Jane’s Addiction, The Buck Pets landed the opening spot on that tour in the fall of 1990. Like the eager fan I was, I drove from Oxford, Ohio out to Cleveland (a five-hour drive) the day of the show to see them. What I didn’t know was that they had been kicked off the tour, a few days earlier. Which meant I wound up in the front row only to realize the Rollins Band was the opener, instead of the band that meant so much to me. There I was, a few hundred miles from home, with my heart broken from not getting to see them, multiplied by the macho rock of Rollins Band.
I started my own band around that time. I took it as a sign when I found a drummer’s flyer in which, among the standard list of grunge bands, he listed The Buck Pets as an influence. I often used The Buck Pets as a touchstone when trying to write songs, though they were never as good. And I didn’t have a reference point to try to ape their live shows, never having seen them, and with no YouTube to bring them into my room.
The Buck Pets went quiet for a couple of years, eventually resurfacing the summer of 1993 on a new label. To The Quick was produced by Ted Nicely, who worked with Fugazi, Jawbox and Girls Against Boys. It was a mellower album, with a feeling of heartbreak and melancholy strewn throughout, as evidenced by one song title in particular, Nothing’s Ever Gonna Be Alright Again. And then there was Rocket To You’s desperate loneliness: “You can catch depression through the telephone / Lonesome line that stretches across 17 area codes…” But they still had their raw power, such as on the title track with its defiance-in-the-face-of-fashion lyric, “Cut my losses, cut my hair,” which I actually took literally that summer. I cut off my grunge hairstyle going into my final year of college, and that year I often found myself putting on that record’s all skies are grey skies attitude on like a warm blanket, finding consolation that I wasn’t the only person in the world that sometimes fell down a hole of sadness that even buzzsaw guitars couldn’t fix.
And they came through Cincinnati, just an hour’s drive from me in the winter of 1994. An ice storm came through that same day, so I chose to sit that one out. Assuming, with the foolishness of youth, that a band as amazing as The Buck Pets wouldn’t just do three albums and split. They’d surely do another record, another tour and then it would all come together and I’d get to see them live.
It wasn’t to be. They went poof. With a whimper, not a bang. I was fortunate enough to find a great woman who supported my writing habit, and then we moved to Los Angeles and I found work at a music trade magazine, HITS. This was the kind of magazine that took pride in being self-effacing and allowing the musicians who came through to sign the walls of offices and hallways. It wasn’t uncommon to see something like Pink’s Sharpie scrawl next to Afroman’s. So I wrote in big letters above my office “Buck Pets 2000” to convince the people I met in the industry we needed to figure out a way to get them to reunite. I didn’t immediately realize that at that point, I actually knew people who knew them.
The next year, I crossed out the year and added to it. “Buck Pets 2001” was not to be, either.
But obviously, I had fallen off the wagon again, convinced that enough time had passed and I could somehow bring them the fame they deserved. Whenever, however I could, I would talk up The Buck Pets. I made friends with one of my wife’s coworkers, and at some point, I brought up my love for the band. As it turned out, Brendan had gone to see them in Dallas when he was still in high school. His dad, who took him to the show, was the band’s manager through their last two albums. I now had narrowed the gap between me and this mysterious band to one single step. Mike Gormley manages bands to this day, and is always kind enough to not roll his eyes when I see him and assault him with questions about those days.
One of my college friends worked at the recording studio where they did part of the Mercurotones album and I’ve been trying to get my hands on the master tapes from those sessions. I don’t know what I would do with two-inch analog tapes, but the idea of them gathering dust and decomposing makes me sad. In the same way that if I see one of their CDs at a used store, always in the bargain bin for $4 or $2, I need to liberate it and then give it to someone worthy. But the problem is, nobody I know hasn’t heard of The Buck Pets anymore, because I still talk about them like it’s 1992 and they’re going to break out and play stadiums.
I suppose they did get to play a few huge venues, to be fair, touring as the opener for Neil Young. But The Buck Pets are still like a very secret, members-only kind of club. That might be okay for a little bit, but great bands deserve fame and money and all of that, right? Instead, they get stuff like this 2009 mention in Spin as one of the “100 Greatest Bands You’ve Never Heard Of:”
While the Replacements flailed, the door was open for less sozzled acts who also wore their hearts on their flannel sleeves. This Dallas band’s 1990 album, Mercurotones, was ruggedly catchy, just a little slick, and unafraid to end with a Skyway-style ballad because, well, them’s the rules.
A few years after my “Buck Pets 2001” campaign failed, I was at a meeting at a record label and a mutual friend’s name came up in conversation, and I said I’d always wanted to start a Doobie Brothers / Buck Pets cover band with them. The woman I was meeting with turned bright red and said that she hadn’t thought of The Buck Pets in years, but during their touring days, she had a “lost weekend” with one of the guys in the band. Her words, not mine.
When I joined Facebook, I added The Buck Pets as a band I liked. There was exactly one other person who also liked them on Facebook at the time. Their records were out of print on CD, and you still can’t find them on Pandora or Spotify. I have seriously considered trying to buy the rights to To The Quick and reissuing it, but I know as soon as I started that process, the cost would skyrocket. Also, my wife has talked me out of it since there are better ways to spend that kind of money.
Seeing the band live has fortunately qualified as such a worthy expenditure.
That’s right, The Buck Pets have briefly reunited, three times now. Once in 2010, which I somehow didn’t know about! But they also reunited in September 2015 at the Toadies’ all-day festival in Dallas, and again in Dallas in January 2016. They were not inexpensive trips, but we went to both, because it’s likely that a band as great as The Buck Pets are only going to do three albums and split (though they did self-release a demos/rarities disc). No more tours, no more shows. I offered to cover their guarantee if they wanted to come to Denver, where we live now. I don’t think they’ll take me up on it. They’re too old and wise to want to get in a van and play for small crowds.
I’ve been a total fanboy, adding the members as friends on Facebook, nervously talking to them after each show, getting photos with them, taking the set list from each show and getting their autographs. And one of those photos actually made it onto our official holiday card we sent to friends and families. I guess even though I’m jaded enough to say the music business has shrunk so much that it should be called “music hobby,” I’m still a geeky fan on the inside, 17-years-old and blown away that some guys in Dallas with guitars and drums were able to encapsulate my emotions and put them to music.
The shows, by the way, were amazing. They didn’t miss a note. They sounded like what they must have sounded like more than 20 years ago, when it was all new and fresh. In both shows, they only played one song from To The Quick, which is their prerogative. It’s fitting, that it was Nothing’s Ever Gonna Be Alright Again, because the hopelessness of the title gets undercut in the next line: “…But it’s okay.”