To anyone who spent their formative years embedded in their local or regional music scene, it still holds a gripping nostalgia. Those people can still rattle off a list of bands that mattered—even if the only people who ever recognized it were the same ones showing up to shows in rented quinceañera halls or their parents backyard while those bands were active. In most small towns or distant regions, the locals can still hold endless, nostalgic conversations in which they relive how great those act were.
I recently had one of those conversations when I profiled the fiction writer Fernando A. Flores for the current issue of Texas Monthly. Touring bands didn’t come through McAllen—it’s a long, out-of-the-way drive to get there from Houston, Austin, or San Antonio—so the scene had to make its own heroes, ones that Flores chronicled in his new collection of short stories about the Rio Grande Valley punk-rock scene.
The fact that he’s authored a lauded book and is a rising star in Texas’s literary scene is strange—to me, he’s still Fernie, the roommate I moved from South Texas to Austin with when we both sought our fortunes in a bigger city in our early twenties. We both spent a lot of time at the punk rock shows in the Valley—mostly in McAllen—and when we caught up to talk about his book, it made sense to dig through a collection of old mp3s to revisit the music.
We went through seven tracks—they didn’t all make it into the magazine—and listened to them all. They’re snapshots of a time that’s largely passed, to be certain: the songs were mostly recorded between 2001 and 2003, and the brand of pop-punk that bands such as All Choked Up, Yoink!, Inkbag, and Stiff One Eye played is largely out of fashion these days. So is the sweeping emo of The December Drive, which recalls the late-nineties/early-aughts era of the genre, when swathes of teenagers would cry their way through Jimmy Eat World shows. Meanwhile, the aggressively weird Charlie Daniels Death Wish were kind of a band out of time even back in 2002, and We Suck’s take on early-eighties hardcore sounds like something that could have been recorded in 1983 or by retro punks in 2013.
But still, as Flores and I revisited these songs, I learned that there is not only some staying power within the music, but a deeper meaning to the kids in the front lines of the Rio Grande Valley punk scene.
All Choked Up
When Monica Hinojosa of All Choked Up sings, “I’ve been this way for the past six years” and “I don’t really care/it’s who I am,” she’s telling a personal story to an audience made up of the people she saw every day—but taking individual truths and wrapping it up in a catchy hook is at the heart of pop music. That’s where everything starts, and it’s why it’s so easy to have an affection for these bands not just in spite of the fact that nobody else ever heard about them, but because nobody else knew. “Sucker” isn’t a song that would have made a lot of sense if kids in Nova Scotia were listening to it on the radio, maybe, but she wrote it for the people who she knew would hear it—and that intimacy is something you can only get from a local music scene.
Yoink!’s “Stay Away From My Girlfriend” is more accessible, but the band’s singer and songwriter, Roberto Godinez, was always someone with bigger ambitions. (His work with his current band, the Valley-based Young Maths, also show how adept he’s remained at making music that’s relevant in the moment.) “Stay Away From My Girlfriend” is built around pop hooks and shout-along choruses (and, sure, juvenile subject matter) that could play in any room or any teen’s headphones—but not everybody’s teenage punk band gets to go where its talents could have taken them, from the Valley or otherwise.
The December Drive
Because for the most part, these scenes are built around youth. There’s a passionate, nervy energy to create something when you’re a teenager and you’ve just realized that you can. When The December Drive started writing songs—and “This Side You’ve Never Seen” might have been their first—they were barely out of short pants. I wasn’t old when I was going to punk shows in the Valley, but I had finished high school, which made me feel ancient compared to a band like this one. But I remember the way that December Drive—a band that was playing music that, back in 2000, was cutting-edge—shook up the community they were a part of. That’s another one of the things that local music scenes, especially in places as isolated and remote as the Valley, can do—make their own heroes. The December Drive were sixteen-year-old rock stars in the area, drawing 300 or 400 kids to their shows. Watching a group of high school kids with guitars become icons to their peers was a unique experience.
Those scenes also have their stalwarts. I’m sure that the members of Inkbag would have bristled at the notion of being part of an old-guard of traditionalists—that’s not the most punk rock of descriptions—but when I played the song “Ten Minute Love” for Flores, he said, “I think the city of McAllen should give Inkbag free rent for life,” just because of their longevity. They’d already been a band for years when groups like The December Drive and Yoink! were starting out, and they’re still a band today, at least occasionally. Part of the way you know that music—and what it represented—really did mean something is when you can see how it directly changed people’s lives. In this case, that means that it’d be possible to go back to the Valley and hear Albert Garza sing “Ten Minute Love” today.
Stiff One Eye
Not every song that mattered got preserved perfectly. “America” only exists as a demo recording—the drum sound is thin, and the mix doesn’t sound great—but there are things that you can only hear in the recording if you know the stories behind them. Stiff One Eye isn’t going to win any awards for maturity, and Jason Jasso’s songs were mostly about girls, or about how people in other bands were jerks. But if you knew him as that sort of songwriter, you can also hear him grow up through a song like “America,” which starts out political (“Only in America do children shoot their friends and neighbors/only in America do we send rapists home for good behavior/only in America do we let television raise our children”) but ultimately concluding that, “Only in America could a boy like me ever get a girl like you.” It’s a sentiment that a lot of pop songs aim to achieve—the casual blend of the personal and the political—and you can find that in “America,” too.
Charlie Daniels Death Wish
When I talked to Flores about Charlie Daniels Death Wish, he mentioned Michael Hall’s “The Secret History of Texas Music” from earlier this summer, which told the story of a bunch of the famous (and less famous) songs by Texas artists. “I’d love to see one about the great underground Texas bands that nobody knows about,” he told me. He brought it up around “Knife Handles,” because this band was maybe the most important of the Valley punk-rock scene. The music was weird, aggressive, and interesting—fifteen years later, there still aren’t a lot of people making music like this—and for as many bands as there were who wanted to write pop-punk songs to play with their friends, there’s something else that can happen in communities where music is basically being made in the dark. In a city like Austin or Houston, a band like this would have had so many eyes on them that they might not have been able to develop. But in the Valley, there was an opportunity to create something that could remain pure in its weirdness.
Marc Villareal called his band We Suck to make a point—it didn’t matter if they were great, they were here, and he tried his best to spread that philosophy to other bands. He wrote “Too Hardcore” as a way to get the kids at the show—he’d always hold the mic out to the crowd for the chorus—to make their voices heard, to announce that they were there, too, and if they had to declare themselves anything, they would be “too hardcore for you.”
Some of these songs are objectively great. Some of them are more like snapshots of what a hidden part of Texas sounded like if you were a young person who liked loud music. But they’re not forgotten or lost—they’re the songs nobody knew to look for.
That might change at some point soon. Flores’ book brought some new interest to the hidden scene, and Charlie Vela—who, way back when, played drums in The December Drive—is at work co-directing a documentary about the history of the Rio Grande Valley music scene from the 1960’s to the early 2000’s. The trailer for Vela’s documentary debuted over the summer, though the final film probably won’t start screening until the 2016 festival season. But it’ll be an important way to introduce a scene that mattered to people who have never heard of it, much less never had a chance to see it. But you don’t need a documentary to hear what made it matter. There’ll always be the music.