Little Boy Lost
After years of being told how great he is, guitar prodigy Charlie Sexton is learning a basic lesson of the music business: Hype doesn’t sell records—or keep your label happy.
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WHEN CHARLIE SEXTON was called to the stage at the Austin Music Hall by Bob Dylan last November 4, it should have been one of the shining moments of his career. For two nights, before sold-out crowds of more than two thousand, Dylan would jam with stars of the Austin music scene—including veteran Doug Sahm and up-and-comer Ian Moore—yet the apple of his eye was 27-year-old Sexton. “He’s one of the greatest guitar players,” the grizzled rock legend told the packed house, and up strolled Sexton nonchalantly, probably expecting hoots and hollers from his hometown fans. But rather than a warm welcome for the local kid who made it, Sexton was greeted with an apathetic silence.
It seemed like a bad omen—and indeed, less than a month later, things got worse: Sexton and his record label, MCA, parted company, this after a ten-year relationship, four albums, and more than $2 million spent to nurture him, record him, and promote him. The trouble, everyone knew, was that Sexton’s latest CD, Under the Wishing Tree, sold fewer than 30,000 copies in the U.S. and fell far short of the worldwide minimum—375,000—stipulated in his contract. It was a clear case of an artist not satisfying his label’s expectations, though the Sexton camp did everything it could to spin the situation favorably. “Charlie is now a free agent,” his manager, Tim Neece, told me soon after the news hit. “We see this as an opportunity.” Sexton, for his part, faulted MCA. “They didn’t get me the sales they promised,” he said, neglecting to see how the deal he had cut—complete control over his own work, including what lyrics he writes, how he sings his songs, and when and where to tour—gave him a significant level of responsibility.
Whatever the case, why Charlie Sexton should find himself in his present predicament is one of the great mysteries of Texas music. Since he was old enough to hold a pick, he has been regarded as a guitar prodigy. By age seven he was a fixture in Austin clubs. At twelve his talent for playing vintage rock, blues, and rockabilly was so well established that Joe Ely recruited him to be his lead guitarist. At thirteen he could “play everything that Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan were doing—it was mind-blowing,” recalls his old friend and mentor Speedy Sparks, a former bass player for the Texas Tornados. At sixteen Sexton was signed by MCA and hyped all over the world, his face splashed across the covers of teen magazines; in Japan fans were even creating handmade Charlie Sexton dolls, complete with his trademark high cheekbones.
So what went wrong? Part of the problem seems to have been the nonstop efforts to make Sexton into a star; he was positioned and repositioned so many times that his fans never knew which Charlie they were looking at. First, although he had made his name as a blues artist, MCA sent him off to Hollywood to become a pop icon. His work with British producer Keith Forsey produced a radio hit, “Beat’s So Lonely,” in 1985, but the album it appeared on, Pictures for Pleasure, disappointed his core audience in Texas, as did the follow-up, Charlie Sexton. Meanwhile, Sexton became so entranced by Forsey that he began speaking in a clipped English accent. Then, when he returned to Austin at age 23, MCA reinvented Sexton as the leader of the Arc Angels, a roots-rock supergroup that featured Stevie Ray Vaughan’s onetime rhythm section. But after one album the Arc Angels disbanded, so Sexton was reinvented yet again, this time as a mature singer-songwriter. “Charlie had this incredible image and he and MCA made all the wrong decisions,” says an executive at a rival label. “They took his hard-core blues fans and alienated them.”
Perhaps, but part of the problem has to do with Sexton alone—specifically, with the one thing about him that seems least likely to cause him trouble: his looks. Charlie Sexton has always been movie-star handsome, which is probably why MCA sent him to Hollywood in the first place. You might say he looks like an extremely thin, somewhat greasier Matt Dillon. The problem is that Sexton’s “amazing cheekbones,” as The New Yorker put it, nearly overshadow his musical ability, so much that his appearance is a touchy subject. “Don’t talk about his cheekbones—that is our worst nightmare,” pleads Tim Neece. “I’m surprised Charlie hasn’t taken a razor blade to his face,” says a friend. “He has never been comfortable being as handsome as he is.”
One day last fall, Sexton showed just how uncomfortable he can be when the spotlight is turned on him. He was sitting in the most remote corner of Little City, a coffee bar in downtown Austin that is a hangout for pretty girls and prettier boys, and on that day he looked every bit the star—his hair was perfectly gelled and his loose chamois shirt was unbuttoned to show off his chest. Typically, everyone in the place approached him as if they were irresistibly drawn to him, yet Sexton would have none of it. “I’m the one people love to hate,” he insisted.
Sexton had just gotten back from the Texas leg of his cross-country tour to promote Under the Wishing Tree, and he was miffed at the lukewarm reaction to his stage show. On the one hand, his fans were thrilled to see him in the flesh. (“I never dreamed I’d be booking him in my own club,” says Chris Chaney, the 26-year-old manager of Fitzgeralds in Houston. “I’ve booked bigger bands, like L7 and Hootie and the Blowfish, but I was so blown away that we were in the same room for an hour that I couldn’t even talk to him.”) On the other hand, they didn’t much like the music they were hearing. They wanted him to play material from all of his records, not just the new one.
Consider what happened at Trees, a popular club in Dallas’ Deep Ellum district, last June 1—the first tour date. Throughout the show, audience members seemed unsure whether to dance or listen; eventually they grew bored, and many drifted out before the show ended. “As soon as a song is semi-quiet, it’s not loud enough to demand their attention,” Sexton complained, “and they start talking about how their car got towed or their hairdo. Sometimes I can’t even hear the drums in back of me.” Yet even the ones who listened patiently, like the bartender who had brought two old Charlie Sexton albums to work, grumbled disapprovingly. Another fan at the show told me, “I’m not usually this much of a pest, but he could at least play one or two old songs. Throw me a bone, Charlie, throw me a bone.” He shook his head. “Charlie is so self-absorbed that he doesn’t care about us.”
It was no different when the tour ended on August 12 at Austin’s Backyard. A deliriously drunk woman whirled and gyrated near the stage throughout Sexton’s performance, yelling, “‘Sweet Nadine,’ ‘Sweet Nadine,’” but her pleas for a rendition of the Arc Angels’ best-known hit went unanswered; she might as well have been talking to a wall. When I mentioned this to Sexton at Little City, he stared at me in disbelief. “‘Sweet Nadine’? Hey, the record’s there—they can listen to it whenever they want. I’m not a jukebox.” Jarring words from someone who should be eager to please, but he was totally serious. “I’ve spent a lot of time making and writing music, and I think American audiences are so spoiled,” he said. “I don’t want to revisit where I’ve been—I’m in a progression. I can always write better songs, I can always play better, and I can always be a better person.” Playing his old songs doesn’t bring back good memories, he said. Maybe he cares more about how he feels than how happy he can make his fans. “Why should they be happy?” he asked me. “I don’t mind making them happy, but I don’t want the strings attached.”
This picture of Charlie Sexton—embittered, embattled—is a far cry from the snapshot his mother, Kay, likes to show visitors: Charlie as a smiling baby, still in diapers but dragging a guitar behind him as if it were a wagon. Back then, he didn’t have to fret about fans or record sales. “When we were little kids, I told my younger brother, Will, to forget about basketball and playing with his friends,” he recalled. “We weren’t going to do any of that. We were musicians.”
By the time he and Will were old enough to toddle, Kay—just a teenager herself, and estranged from their father, Michael, who had served time in a state prison at Huntsville for marijuana possession—toted them off to wherever she happened to be hanging out: the One Knite, the Aus-Tex Lounge, the Continental Club. Over time, she exposed them to the music of artists like the Vaughan brothers, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Lou Ann Barton, W. C. Clark, Doug Sahm, the Leroi Brothers, the Bizarros, and El Molino. It was an education rarely afforded kids their age. Before Charlie was ten, he was bringing along a guitar to the clubs, and he and Will were actually sitting in with the musicians their mom had come to hear. His first band, Charlie Sexton and the Eager Beaver Boys, founded when he was thirteen, became regulars at the Continental Club. “We were like three kids,” remembers Kay, sitting cross-legged on her bed in an old touring bus she calls home. Clad in shorts and a loose-fitting blouse, the 43-year-old can talk for hours about Charlie, whom she obviously loves and dotes on and clearly considers a friend and peer. The plastic milk crates she fills with photos and newspaper clippings are testimony to something more than just a mother’s love for a son. “We learned together,” says Kay, “but he learned faster and better than me.”
Indeed, midway through the eighth grade, Charlie dropped out of school; too many times he was up all night at the clubs. “We’d get home and the school bus would be leaving our house,” says Kay. “We’d just laugh and say he’d been at night school.” Speedy Sparks remembers that Sexton was so popular with the clubgoing adults that nobody ever asked why he wasn’t in school: “I don’t think anybody else could have done that. He got the red carpet treatment.”
Charlie’s life never seemed to be affected by his chaotic upbringing—at least not until he got to Hollywood, where he mastered the bad-boy lifestyle: While other teenagers were out riding bikes or playing sports, he was going through as much money as he could, doing drugs, riding motorcycles with an older bad boy, actor Mickey Rourke, and hanging out with an even older bad boy, Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones. Unfortunately, Kay followed him to the West Coast and succumbed to big-city demons herself. Yet to his credit, Charlie was always there to pull her back—to pay the bills, sober her up, find her a place to live. “He was like a little man,” says Kay. “He wanted everything to be perfect.”
Even Kay would have to admit that today things aren’t perfect for Charlie. Certainly his close friends know it: “He’s out there on a limb,” says one, “and very few people want to tell him the truth. They don’t want to say the wrong thing.” And, finally, Charlie seems to know it too. “I’m in a weird place right now,” he acknowledges. But being without a label for the first time in his career means he is also in a good place, for he has the opportunity to slow down and regroup. “I didn’t have a scholarship or a family to send me to college,” he says. “Hell, I didn’t even have a childhood.” Maybe, as Speedy Sparks says, he’ll decide to get out of the business. Or maybe not. But at least it’s in his hands—and who knows? Parting company with MCA could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him.