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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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,"
"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,"
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
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,"
"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."
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
By ROB PATTERSON
Rob Patterson is an Austin-based freelance writer.