Photo by Jeanne RiceIt's 1986, and a bunch of miscreant students at Mater Dei High School decide to enter the senior-class air-guitar contest. These are some of the Catholic campus' outcasts —drinkers, losers and reprobates—so what could be a better finger-flip to the prissy authority figures dominating their educational lives than miming to WASP's "Fuck Like a Beast"?
So they go for it—Satan comes to Mater Dei!—and they're on, all done up in WASP-ian black leather, with saw blades jutting from their elbows and bulging codpieces aplenty. And then one guy in this pseudo-band quaffs down some liquid and starts breathing fucking fire everywhere, and at least one sister starts crying as if she and the entire student body are going straight to hell for this. And the kid up there aping Blackie Lawless, complete with gray hair streaks? Well, son, that kid would one day grow up to be Walter Clevenger, who these days writes sweet love songs to his wife and kids.
"Unfortunately," Clevenger remembers, "we lost the contest to the football guys who were doing rap."
'Twas a brief, adolescent fling Clevenger had with ugly fire-spewing metal bands, a phase bookended by the steady diet of vintage-country music his parents loved (especially George Jones and Merle Haggard) and spun regularly while he was growing up in Santa Ana and the eternally catchy, Beatle-y, Nick Lowe-y, Marshall Crenshaw-y power pop tunes he has made his name by with his band the Dairy Kings since his first album in 1997.
But now, the clairvoyant Clevenger has seen his future, and it's about to come full-circle: he has been at work for a while on a traditional country record. "I've got most of the songs written for it," he says, "it's just a matter of getting in the studio and finishing it up."
First, though, there's his new album, Full Tilt & Swing—brand it "transitional," if you must—where the giddy pop hooks bend a bit to make room for obvious Jayhawks and Steve Earle influences. Still excellent, just different and, after a four-year gap between Full Tilt and 1999's Love Songs to Myself, a tad overdue. It's not like Clevenger has been lazy, but between the collapse of Permanent Press, the indie label he was signed to, occasional band road trips to Seattle and the Carolinas, and assorted real-life goings-on, these songs were getting sort of dusty—"Radio Sea," for one, was at least a year old.
"I really wanted to get this album out this year, so I bit the bullet, threw down the Discover card and got it done."
Yeah, Full Tilt & Swing is great and all, but it's also pretty damned depressing. The package art alone is dour—stark black-and-white photos of junked cars rotting by the Salton Sea, a gaping crack in the earth alluding to trauma and destruction, and beneath the CD tray, the most horrifying sight of all: a tossed-away collection of 45s melting beneath the savage desert sun. Slap the CD on, and things get even uglier: "Radio Sea" is a pissed-off tirade about the sad state of the musical airwaves; "Fast As I Can" is about a guy on the edge; "Jonathan Doe" is the name of someone done wrong for the last time by his trash-talking old lady; "Love Don't Mean Anything"—well, that's a giveaway title. And whoever inspired "Supermarket Checkout Queen," she's walking a picket line someplace now and not too happy about it.
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(There are light moments, such as Clevenger's lullaby to his son, "I'll Be the One," and the hey-baby-loosen-up wink penned for his wife, "Let Your Hair Down Tonight.")
Ah, but Clevenger's real genius is in his ability to coat downer lyrics like these with amazingly catchy, sing-along melodies, which make everything seem bright and fun and neat and not depressing at all, even though they are—the guy will probably make a terrific Pentagon spokesman someday (really, there are huge, sweeping swaths of Hammond organ on Full Tilt, pumped forth by Dairy King Wyman Reese, and if you can't perk up after hearing a Hammond, you're probably a corpse; it worked so grandly that Clevenger wonders why he didn't use one sooner).
Like many OC musicians, Clevenger is content with forever playing local rooms and releasing his own records (Full Tilt is on his own Brewery imprint). He's not about to go chasing after a fat label deal—let them come chasing after him, thank you. Besides, nonexistent is the label that would let Clevenger traverse wildly from power pop to country to the covers album he's also plotting ("Fuck Like a Beast," Walter! Gotta do it!). There's also the monthly acoustic night at Costa Mesa's Bamboo Terrace, which he'll be booking and hosting.
"If I can just put out records and not be ashamed of them 10 years later," Clevenger philosophizes, "what else can I ask for?"