El Rey

Joe King Carrasco's heart and soul still beat to a different drummer one who plays cumbias, reggae rock steady, and a hundred other rhythms from around the world


"It's too bad gringos can't understand this music, because it's just so neat," laments Joe King Carrasco. He's recounting how a gringo of German descent given name, Joe Teusch from Dumas in the Texas Panhandle became not just a Tex-Mex music fanatic, but one of its most passionate musical messiahs, the King of Tex-Mex rock n roll, as he calls himself. But if many gringos still don't yet understand the pleasures of the sounds from south of the border, it's not for lack of effort on Carrasco's part.

Since the mid-1970s, he's been a fervent advocate for the cause of injecting Mexican-American sounds, or maybe better, Gringo-Chicano music into the rock and pop worlds, second only to San Antonio's Doug Sahm, who Carrasco admits was a role model, and who is Carrasco's musical father in every way but biology. Long before rock en español, Joe King was playing a sort of Spanglish pop-rock that made him a sensation both here and abroad in the late 1970s. Starting out in Austin, where they first were all but ignored by the local music crowd, Joe King Carrasco and The Crowns craftily caught the ear of the finicky yet influential New York City rock cognoscenti, and springboarded to fame as the kings of nuevo wavo music. The band signed with the world's hippest label of the moment England's Stiff Records, the launching pad for Elvis Costello, Madness and other greats and were able to surf the punk/new wave zeitgeist with a cross-cultural style wrapped in a colorful sarape that caught the ear of the times.

The zenith of Carrasco's rise came with a December 1980 appearance on Saturday Night Live (then in its heyday as well). And in the early days of MTV, you could barely turn on the channel without seeing the video for his song Buena, filmed guerrilla-style on a double-decker bus throughout the city of London. Carrasco was later arrested while being filmed in front of Buckingham Palace amidst the notoriously stone-faced royal guards. Not long after, Carrasco even managed to get Michael Jackson to sing on a track of his one MCA major label album, Synapse Gap, in a sweet turn of justice on a song he wrote, Don't Let Love Make A Fool Of You. I haven¹t talked to Michael since then, says Carrasco with a chuckle. I still have his phone number somewhere.

Manhattan madman.
With a sound born out of The Sir Douglas Quintet's She's About A Mover, 96 Tears by ? Mark & The Mysterians, and Woolly Bully by Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs and which later grew to encompass everything from cumbias to reggae rock steady Joe King Carrasco was definitely El Hombre del Momento some two decades ago. And even after his arc across the pop music stratosphere, he has continued to make fine, invigorating music from a stylistic borderland between pop-rock and Latino sounds and rhythms.

One of the great treats of the late-1980s in New York City, where I lived at the time, was going to see Joe King Carrasco y Las Coronas (as the band name naturally mutated to) at the tiny and very hip Lone Star Cafe, especially during the years that original Mysterian guitarist Bobby Balderrama was a Corona. When I moved to Austin in 1989, I expected that I'd see even more of Carrasco and his band. But as I've constantly joked with him over about eight of the 10 years I've lived in Central Texas, I saw more of him in New York City.

So where is he now?
Within the confines of the current Texas music scene, as well as the popular music stratosphere, Joe King has all but fallen off the radar screen. And in Austin, the supposedly musically-reverent city from which Carrasco and the Crowns were one of its most notable exports, it's almost as if he's become a non-entity. More than once in recent years, I've pondered: What happened to Joe King? And what is he doing now?

"You know what Y2K is?" Carrasco asks me. "Yield to the King." He delivers his punch line with a mischievous smile, like the kid who dipped his hand into the cookie jar and got away with it. We're hanging out at Rancho No Tengo, his little patch of land near Llano just a few minutes west of Lake Buchanan. At the core of Carrasco's homestead are the first sections of an adobe home he's building himself. It's a retreat that rivals the efficiency of the nearby hide-outs of the Hill Country Y2K cultists hunkering down for the big millennial breakdown, albeit with far more soul, humor, and zany modern pioneering spirit.

We're hanging out on his patio on a balmy, starry October night. Around us are the accouterments of JKC's Y2K career survival tactics: boxes of CDs he burns himself on a CD maker, and then packages with homemade, color-copied artwork that resembles the bootleg recordings that account for much of popular music¹s distribution in the Third World. Nearby are a pile of the wooden boxes from which he fashions his own line of Mexican folk art altars that he sells, along with his CDs, T-shirts, caps, pants, shorts, bags, hammocks and even Joe King Carrasco pillowcases hand-woven in a Yucatan village, through his delightful and comprehensive website, www.joeking.com.

Check out the tour schedule, and one finds that Joe King Carrasco y Los Crowned Heads of Tex-Mex (as he calls his band on his latest CD, Hot Sun), are busy indeed, playing across Texas, around the United States, and at resort towns along the Mexican coast. He has repackaged most all of his previous albums for internet sale, emulating south of the border business practices in the mythology of his own commerce. "It's Anaconda Records," he explains with a wink, "and it comes from a country in South America, the breakaway nation of Tamalia, and the record company president is named Al Carbon. He makes them in the jungle, and it takes a day by burro to get them out."

Cumbia roots
But for all his sly Tex-Mex puns, Carrasco has been a serious student of Tex-Mex music and the Mexican and Chicano way of living since his teen years. By seventh grade, he was playing in garage bands. Then came a seminal musical experience. "On Sam The Sham's first album ,which contained the classic, Woolly Bully he did a cumbia called Juimonos. "If you listen to all my albums, you'll hear the cumbias. They're all the bastard versions of Juimonos. I just liked the Woolly Bully groove, and the organ," he explains.

"When I was 17, I started hanging out in Mexico. That's when I started getting into Tex-Mex music, and wrote a song called Federales, about a girlfriend I had in Oaxaca who got taken away by the federales. Then I just really started digging on Mexican music. I figured that the coolest place in the world was Oaxaca, so I wanted to play the kind of music that came from there that¹s how it all started," recalls Carrasco.

By the mid-1970s, he had landed in Austin, and was playing in chicano party bands on the Latino Eastside, like Shorty & the Corvettes, and learned to truly play Tex-Mex. He then started his own band, El Molino, which played Carrasco's budding song output as well as tunes by San Antonio legends Sonny & the Sunliners, hits from the catalog of legendary producer Huey Meaux, and numbers by Louis Prima and Frank Sinatra (stumbling on the current swing craze some 25 years too soon). El Molino drummer Ernie Durawa is now with The Texas Tornados. He recalls that Zaz Studios in San Antonio had a deal for $250 "where you go in and record your song, and you get 250 singles." The session featured hot San Antonio players such as Rocky Morales, Charlie McBurney, and Arturo "Sauce" Gonzales, along with some of Austin's best. "It was really fun. It was like a party, but we got a single out of the party." Eventually, after many trips back to Zaz, Carrasco had an El Molino album.

A King is born
By then he'd also gotten his new moniker. "When I was playing with the Mexican bands, they couldn't say Teusch," he says. "That was when Fred Carrasco had tried to break out of Huntsville back in 1974 with a big shootout. Carrasco was killed, so that week the Mexican guys said, "We're going to call you Carrasco." As Carrasco's musical vision congealed, he'd also developed a co-conspirator in Austin music critic Joe Nick Patoski. "Joe Nick came up with the name Joe King Carrasco. I wanted to be Count. Augie Meyers had this band called Lord August and the Visions of Light. And there's Sir Douglas, and Prince Rockin' Sidney. I wanted to be something royal like that."

The newly-crowned Joe "King" put out the El Molino album on his own Lisa Records, named after his girlfriend at the time. It got picked up by Big Beat Records in England, where it caught the ear of Elvis Costello, at the time a breaking English star in the first swell of new wave music. Carrasco followed the trend, and El Molino mutated into The Crowns. Patoski became Carrasco's manager and mock-Svengali, and Patoski's girlfriend Kris Cummings started playing Farfisa organ and accordion with the band. ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons produced a single for the band Party Weekend b/w Houston El Mover, released on the tiny GeeBee Records that became Carrasco's calling card to win over the mass of New York music critics on the first Big Apple visit by the Crowns, thanks in part to Patoski's wrangling with his critic peers. It all landed Carrasco on the big-time musical radar: record deals, videos, European tours. The band captured the wild and woolly, just-for-the-fun-of-it spirit of the times, not just in their music, but in the show they put on. Carrasco would work the stage like a caged animal in heat, eventually leaping sometimes off a small trampoline into the audience and wandering about, playing guitar, thanks to the world's longest guitar cord that, in some venues even allowed him to play leads from out in the street. As the show ended, Patoski would come on stage with Carrasco's crown and cape, and try to lead the 'King, a la James Brown, off into the wings. But no the singer would escape to the mike for one more line. It was effective rock theater, both reverent and at the same time cheeky. And it's those manic antics that still make a Joe King Carrasco show one of the most intoxicating brews of sheer musical fun that the party rock world has to offer.

JKC's maquiladora:
Even at home, supposedly in repose, Carrasco is a wonder both of adrenal energy and sensible Tex-Mex peasant-style living off the land. He built his home from dirt dug up on his land, and the materials that augment the abode have all been found, scrounged, salvaged and, only occasionally, purchased as he built his house by hand, with only the help of some Mexican workers (who gave him yet another nickname, Matehuada Joe). New walls are going up using scrap material surfaced with adobe: One of them filled with his trash, the other constructed around old refrigerators. The whole effect gives the place a vibe that falls somewhere between a tiny village cantina and a Gaudi shrine.

Also on the spread: three dogs (among them, Anna, a Jack Russell Terrier who sings along to La Bamba), a 1940s house trailer, an old broken-down tour bus and van, a cactus he recently saved from a gas station parking lot, a low-slung barn filled with musical equipment, and a paddock crammed full of junk that is another man's treasure. "I never throw out anything because I always find uses for it," he says.

"When you're in Mexico, you figure out that people down there are really smart about finding uses for everything." If the power goes out for Y2K, all Joe has to do is light some candles, stoke the fireplace, and wait for the computer glitches to get fixed. From the potential pop star that MCA Records once thought he could be, Joe King Carrasco has faded back to a cottage industry. Or maybe better, an adobe industry. "There's a lot of time to do stuff out here, man," he enthuses.

"Once you live in something like this, you change your way of viewing things. I think it also makes you a better songwriter, because it's so organic." Carrasco has literally and figuratively bought and built himself his homestead for a song, achieving a rare freedom as a working musician. "In a way, it keeps you grounded, where your music is more soulful, I think," he says. And for a guy who has been on nine record labels and "never received a single royalty check," it's enjoyable to finally cash in on his
talent by putting his music out himself.

"It also allows him to just take off and head down to Mexico," which Carrasco does whenever he has time. "When I go to Mexico, I still take buses. I go down to Laredo and hit the midnight bus down to anywhere," he says. "I just like Mexico. It's just so laid back. Once you're in Mexico, you don't give a shit about what happens here. If I could ever just afford to stay down there, I would. Once I make enough money, I've got an area picked out where I am going to live. It's right outside of Saltillo. It's called Parras. It's the wine capital of Mexico. It's like California, but there's nobody there, and it's all colonial, and it's just the perfect climate. Great place to write music. It's real majestic, real extreme weather."

In a new career wrinkle, Carrasco has just contributed seven songs as the music supervisor for the short film Borderland by Sidney Brammer, daughter of Billy Lee Brammer, author of The Gay Place (the best novel ever written about Central Texas, with a character modeled after Lyndon Johnson). "[Borderland] is the best thing I ever did," says director/writer Brammer, who also plans to cast ,if almost typecast, Carrasco as a Rio Grande drug runner when she expands it to a full feature, Tales of the Borderland. Low and slow profile Carrasco¹s embrace of Mexican music and culture does resemble the old line from the British Raj in India about the Brit who "has gone native." But Carrasco has a genuine respect and affection for his adopted Mexican milieu, one that's borne out in his music. He admits that being a gringo making Latino-inspired music is "weird sometimes." But he sees no contradiction between his German heritage and what he's chosen to do. "My goal in life was ," he says, pausing to summon up a memory. "There was this band back in the 1970s called Tortilla Factory. There was this guy who worked for the city of San Angelo named El Charro Negro. He was one of the back-up singers in Little Joe & The Latinaires. And El Charro was this black guy who learned how to speak Spanish, and he had the best band in Texas, Tortilla Factory. He was like an inspiration to me. I thought, if this guy can do it, maybe I can do it."

When I comment on how effectively he continues to fly beneath the popular music radar, Carrasco laughs appreciatively. "I think that's good, though. It keeps it simple, and it keeps it low-key. Low profile in a way is good, because you can still maintain your lifestyle, and do what you want to do. If it was high profile, I'd do it, but." You might then be singing about La Vida Loca? "I dunno," he concludes. "I just wanna finish the next section of my house, pay off my credit cards, and go to Mexico. I'm not rich or anything. I live in a mud house. But it's working out okay."

Rob Patterson is an Austin-based freelance writer.