FACING CHARLIE SEXTON
Experience Charlie Sexton as I did:
*Meeting Joe Ely in New York two years ago and hearing him rave about a little Texan punk who played guitar “like you wouldn’t believe.”
*Hearing more and more about this same little punk from people whose opinions you respect very much–about a band called the Eager Beaver Boys, led by this Sexton kid, that howled, screamed, rocked and did all sorts of things that you’d like if you ever saw it, which you didn’t.
*Reading that Charlie Wonderboy had been signed to MCA Records, was leaving his Austin home for wonderful L.A., and preparing to make whatever definitive statements a kid his age has within him to make. On vinyl, of course.
*Listening to the soundtrack of The Wild Life and hearing the same human performing the Stones’ classic “It’s Not Easy” with well-known musicians Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood.
*Hearing an MCA bigwig you respect very much–who’s not one for hype–tell you to “watch out” for Charlie Sexton, because he’s going to be “very big.”
*Receiving the Charlie Sexton album, Pictures For Pleasure, in the mail with the skimpiest bio you’ve ever read.
*Reading the same bio and carefully studying producer Keith Forsey’s sole comment: “When you hear this record, you’re gonna see his (Charlie’s) face. You’re gonna hear his persona, his character, and his charisma. Charlie’s delivering a picture to people through music.”
*People you work with who watch MTV all the time and deny that they do start talking about this Charlie Sexton character: who is he?, he’s cute, I like his cheekbones, he looks like Billy Idol, etc. Main point–he is being discussed at all.
*Reviews of Pictures For Pleasure emerge, all of them similar. Sexton used to be good, great guitarist, sold out, went to L.A., put out techno-schlock courtesy producer Keith (Psychedelic Furs, Billy Idol, Simple Minds) Forsey. Most reviews written by people who’d never even seen Sexton play, who’d just read he “used to be hip.”
*Sexton goes to Europe. Interviews in Brit weeklies. Says in NME: “I figure I’m young an’ I’m gonna do it right the first time, not like all these other assholes.” Adds: “Those bands in Austin, they aren’t gonna do nuthin’ ‘cos you gotta leave, you’re just stifled in Austin. I used to be part of that scene, until I saw 30-year olds playin’ the same clubs they started out in 20 years earlier or whatever.”
*Reading a column in the Austin Chronicle, which you receive regularly though you don’t quite know why, by one Michael Corcoran. Column is a “confidential” letter to Charlie Sexton by Corcoran, expressing befuddlement with Charlie’s above quote. Last words of confidential letter to Charlie: “Your album stinks.”
*Decide to interview Charlie Sexton. Day you leave, you receive letter from writer Corcoran, who asks if he can write a Charlie Sexton feature for CREEM.
*Fly to Manhattan for interview and Sexton show; both are canceled.
*Album leaps to #15 w/bullet on Billboard charts.
*Fly to wonderful Syracuse, New York, for second interview attempt.
Charlie Sexton limps into the hotel room at 9:30, two short hours before he’s to perform in USA Sam’s, a Syracuse bar of the sort you’d expect to find in Syracuse, and apparently do. Charlie is limping because a few nights earlier, in the heat of the moment onstage, the 17-year-old guitarist hurt his foot. Now he has to perform sitting on a stool. At least he’s better off than his bassist, who’s got shingles. And at least he’s got his voice back; he lost it the week before, which is why he’s here now.
Charlie sits down on the couch. His hair is great. A few stray pieces stick up about six inches or so; later, onstage, most of the other pieces will join it. Good looking? You bet! Charlie Sexton sits down and reminds you very much of the little brother you’ve never had, and the last thing in the world you want to do is ask him the sort of question you’re sure he’s been asked over and over and over again. For kicks, you do.
Did you see that thing in the Austin Chronicle, Charlie?
Tell me what you thought.
“Those guys … most of those guys aren’t even from Texas in the first place. And that’s about as far as I’ll take their judgement.”
Did you know those guys?
“No. That guy who’s been writing for that paper, Michael Corcoran–not to mention any names, but Michael Corcoran–he’s from fuckin’ Hawaii, and he’s been writing that column for about a year or a year-and-a-half or something.”
Don’t you find it odd that you’ve just put out your first album and you’re already in the position of having to defend yourself to anybody?
“Oh yeah, definitely. I thought I’d been more betrayed by him than I’d betrayed Austin. Because the thing is, that guy is speaking for Austin, so he says. But half the people I speak with about it in Austin wouldn’t give a fuck if he went and jumped in a lake.”
But you realize, as you ask him these things, that Charlie Sexton really has nothing to explain to anybody, and if you continue asking these this sort of questions, he’ll come across in a way he shouldn’t: defensive, making excuses, unsure of himself. He’s none of those things. “It’s sort of strange,” notes Charlie, “because they said I departed from what I was all about–my roots and what I did, you know? But the thing is, this is my first record. So in that case, what did I do wrong? Because I never made a record before. Half the time I was playing clubs and I was so loud you couldn’t hear what the hell it sounded like anyway. So it’s sort of funny.”
What isn’t funny, though, is how MCA Records must be feeling. Not because of whatever bad reviews Sexton might’ve received, and not because Charlie Sexton “departed from his roots,” because that’s just crap. They must feel funny because they’re sitting on a goldmine and they know it.
“Having it all” is a great cliche; Charlie Sexton has it all. He can write songs. He can sing. He is as good-looking as anybody that performs rock ‘n’ roll, and certainly not gleeful about it. And, most importantly, he can play. And with that combination, Charlie Sexton has it within him to reach more people–and sell more records–than anybody has in many years. Not with this album, though it’s multi-platinum bound, and maybe not with the next. Let’s say in five years, when Charlie’s ironed out all the rough spots–the band, singing other people’s songs, the self-consciousness, the hype-or-fear-of-it-and is totally his own man.
In five years he’ll be 22.
So, Charlie, are you a pretty modest guy? I was already at the club you’re playing in tonight, and it’s filled with teenage girls. Lots of them. Let’s face it, you’re being elevated here as the Face Of ’86.
“Yeah,” he says. “But so what? What if I fall off a truck and scrape my face off? At least I still can play, you know?”
Sure. But maybe you’re up there onstage playing, and you’re thinking, Here I am playing, and all these girls are screaming, and they don’t realize what an excellent guitarist I am. They think I’ve got good cheekbones.
“Yeah, but it ain’t something where I come out and say, ‘Hey, ain’t I good lookin?”‘ Charlie picks up an imaginary guitar and starts riffing. “I say, ‘What does this sound like,’ you know? It’s kind of a fine line there, there’s nothing I can really do about it. I can’t say, ‘OK, I don’t want you all to like me–because I’m a musician, I’m not an image.”‘
OK. And how much control have you had in your presentation? Do you feel comfortable with the way you’ve been presented to the public?
“Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean, I would’ve liked to comb my hair a little more in a couple spots, but…”
I bring it up because of the bio that MCA sent out with your record. It was pretty sparse. It seemed like a purposeful move.
“Yeah, well, you know–you get these bios that are five pages long, that say, ‘Charlie was born on August 11th, fell down and scraped his knee when he was four years old…â
MCA’s Katie Valk, in the room with us, interjects: “Can I … ?”
“No one’s ever really said he’s the Face Of ’86,” she says. “That was the purposeful move.”
Charlie gestures to the world at large. “That’s what they say.”
“That’s the purposeful move,” continues Katie. “We’re so afraid. We’re so afraid. We’re so afraid because … he can play, you know? And in reality, Charlie’s not interested in doing interviews, in doing all these other exercises. Charlie wants to play. He’s doing this because…this is a part of what you’ve got to do. But Charlie wants to play, he’s a player–he’s not a music business person. He’s a musician.”
So this explains the skimpy bio? The presentation?
“It’s sort of like why I feel comfortable about it all,” says Charlie. “Because we don’t come out and say, ‘OK, this is the Face Of The ’80s.’ It’s the kids that’ll say that. The people, everyone else, who’ll say that. That’s uncontrollable–that’s freedom of speech and freedom of opinion in America.”
“And that’s where it’s coming from,” says Katie. “Out there. We’re petrified to say something like that.” She looks over at Charlie. “I mean, I’d love to say, ‘Look at this face.’ But I would never do that, because … he plays.”
Pictures For Pleasure is the first Charlie Sexton album. If you knew nothing about Charlie Sexton’s famed “roots,” did not associate Keith Forsey with the worst Psychedelic Furs album ever made, and instead approached it with an open mind–which, if I might gesture to the world at large, is exactly what they are doing out there–you would probably like it a lot. Charlie can sing, as I said, and after I spoke with him I realized who he reminded me of: Roderick Falconer, who used to be Rod Taylor on Asylum in the early ’70s, put out two very Bowie-ish albums in the mid-’70s, and later went on to write for television. I think Charlie is very aware of Ziggy Stardust-period Bowie; his vocal harmonies on “Tell Me” certainly could’ve been lifted from that album, or the pair Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson recorded on his own. And Sexton tried Ronson as his first producer. Why? “Because he was sort of very different from a normal producer, plus he was sort of exotic, you know? The things he’d done with other people, like Mott The Hoople, and all the stuff he’d done was very cool stuff.” It didn’t work out.
And Keith Forsey?
“The funniest thing about it is, Keith wanted to make a rock ‘n’ roll guitar record,” says Charlie. “I went, ‘OK, Keith, we can try that,’ and so we did a couple of tracks that way, and he said, ‘Well, it’s all right, isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s OK.’ And I said we can do it this way–and I tried to explain to him the way it is now–and he said, like, ‘Wow, really, you’re into that?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’ and he goes, ‘OK!’
“And the thing is, people who go, ‘Keith Forsey produced Charlie a certain way’–the thing is, it doesn’t say it in print on the record, but I was half-responsible for the production of the record. Fifty percent responsible. So if people go, ‘I don’t like Forsey’s production, but I like you,’ then I say, ‘Well, you don’t like me either, then.’ You know?”
Later that night, Charlie Sexton will perform songs from his album, an older song called “I Wake Up Screaming,” songs by the Sex Pistols, Elvis Presley, and–odd, this–“Rebel Rebel.” He will play the guitar exceptionally well; there will be girls waiting outside his dressing room, girls who drove all the way from Boston and want to give him some roses; he will by night’s end have just as many males raising their fists and screaming “CHARLIE” as females; he will not be playing USA Sam’s in Syracuse again, unless they add a few thousand more seats in the interim. He is on his way up, you see, and he has more going for him than lots of people already up there.
But earlier, in the hotel room before the show, young Charlie looks down at his sprained foot and anticipates that night’s performance. “I feel like I’ve got a big clown’s hat on, because I’m sitting down,” he says. “I still jump around on that stool, though. I rock on a stool, you wait and see.”
(CREEM, July 1986)