For fans of Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers, The Refreshments and good party rock-n-roll in general, it has become one of the best traditions of the Labor Day weekend.
For the sixth year in a row RCPM will raise the roof at the Las Vegas House of Blues inside Mandalay Bay for fans looking for one last big fiesta of the summer. And for the third year in a row, Clyne will play one of his albums in its entirety.
For the past two years, the band has focused on Clyne and drummer PH Naffah’s short-lived but extremely popular years in the seminal Tempe, AZ quartet, The Refreshments, playing the Freshies’ only two major label releases – Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big & Buzzy and The Bottle and Fresh Horses – in sequential order from start to finish.
This year, Clyne continues his history lesson by revisiting the Peacemakers’ debut album, Honky Tonk Union.
“I really enjoy (doing the album-sides). It’s exploring what we did as a band again. It’s just interesting to go back and put a light to what we were doing and how we were creating at the time. It’s like looking through a yearbook, of sorts. It’s fun,” he told the Deseret News recently from his home in Tempe.
For Clyne, Honky Tonk Union, released in the fall of 1999, was a pivotal album in the acclaimed singer/songerwriter’s career.
The end of The Refreshments
The Refreshments – the biggest thing from the Southwest since the Gin Blossoms – skyrocketed to great success with their live shows and their cult classic major label debut Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big & Buzzy featuring the alternative rock and MTV hits “Banditos” and “Down Together.”
But just a few short years later, personnel issues, particularly substance abuse problems by their talented lead guitarist Brian Blush, and disagreements with their record label over their second album, lead to much internal strife.
Prior to going on stage on May 5, 1998, Clyne, Naffah, Blush and bassist Buddy Edwards had agreed that after that show, they would suspend operations for 90 days in hopes the different issues could be worked out.
It would be 12 years before Clyne, Naffah and Blush would play on the same stage together again.
“I didn’t think it was over, when it was over. I didn’t know,” Clyne said.
The birth of The Peacemakers
When it became apparent during the 90 day break that internal issues were not going to be resolved, The Refreshments broke up. Not knowing exactly what their next move would be, Roger and PH packed their backpacks with food and tape recorders, filled their canteens and set off on foot into the Arizona heat for a 40-day soul searching expedition.
“PH and I, we were still in our 20s, and we had a good career. We were enjoying being musicians and we felt like we were in the flow and answering the call and all those spooky things musicians like to do and talk about. So I said let’s go take our strength, go into the desert and do the proverbial 40 days to gain some vision and direction,” Clyne recalled.
The duo, however, didn’t quite make it to 40 days.
“We didn’t even come close to 40 days. I think it was 17 days. It was too hot,” he said.
But inspiration for song writing direction did come during that trip, and Clyne began taking his own hikes with just his guitar and a notebook.
Soon, he was testing his new songs at happy hour gigs around Tempe, shows he still refers to today as “really fun.” Other local musicians would sit in with him from time to time. And the next thing he knew, the beginnings of a new band and new album were in motion.
“That just, little by little, kind of started to become a band. And the next thing I knew we were playing full-sized gigs under a moniker, under The Peacemakers name. And the next thing I knew we were essentially a band. One thing lead to another, and all of a sudden we’re in the van and we’re touring. It happened fast, but it was natural and organic,” Clyne said.
The recording of what would become Honky Tonk Union included several different musicians as they were available, recording different parts. Nick Scropos, RCPM’s current bass player, laid down the bass line for “Green and Dumb.” But it would be a few more years before Scropos, who was still playing in his band Gloritone, joined RCPM as a full time member.
The lineup that became known as the original RCPM was an Arizona all-star band, of sorts, with members of The Refreshments, Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot Workshop.
As the album liner notes say, the 11 tracks that made up Honky Tonk Union were about living and celebrating the southwestern lifestyle through Clyne’s metaphors, boots, shot glasses and continuing love of Mexico that he first showed with The Refreshments. The rock album was filled with Roots Rock and Americana flavoring.
Three of the songs, “Easy,” “Tell Yer Mama” and “Never Thought,” were originally performed by The Refreshments during their final days. Clyne said they were songs the band had intended to put on a third Refreshments album. A bootleg of one of the final Refreshments concerts that can be found today on You Tube featured those songs.
“I’ve heard some of those bootlegs, and I go, ‘Wow,’ it definitely sounds like a Refreshments song when The Refreshments are playing it. But when I hear the Peacemakers play it, it’s a Peacemakers’ song,” Clyne said. “The lineup of The Refreshments was synonymous with the name and that sound. Buddy plus PH plus Brian with Roger was this really unique thing. So if you listen to ‘Tell Yer Mama,’ it’s essentially almost the same tempo, same words, same song structure, but it sounds totally different on that Refreshments’ recording demo as it does on Honky Tonk Union. But my part, what I’m singing, what I’m saying, is almost identical.”
While some fans have speculated that Clyne shifted musical direction between the last Refreshments album and Honky Tonk Union, he says not so. The song writing was the same. But Blush’s guitar playing, which was also a key element in The Refreshments’ sound, was gone.
“The only thing deliberately left behind was the name. I thought the name was very synonymous with that lineup, and I still do,” Clyne said of The Refreshments. “I was just moving. I was just evolving as a writer. I didn’t say, ‘I need a break from this certain kind of writing.’ I didn’t try to change directions. I was just moving, just evolving. The only thing I broke was the name. I didn’t want to break with the songs I had written and I didn’t want to have to change directions because I was really in an artistic flow.”
He was in such a flow, that today he said he doesn’t remember exactly when he finished the album’s opening track, “Beautiful Disaster.” That, along with “Green and Dumb,” are still two of Clyne’s most popular songs today.
What he does remember about “Beautiful Disaster” was the tribute he included to one of musical heroes, Bruce Springsteen. The chords in the pre-chorus were lifted from “Born to Run.”
“I did it on purpose just to see if anybody was listening. At the time, (Bruce) was definitely popular, but he sort of had this moment where he was fading from the popular consciousness. And I just wanted to see if anyone would hear the echo. So it was a deliberate thing,” he said.
His other big song from the album, the haunting love song, “Green and Dumb” is “totally autobiographical,” he said.
Roger’s father and his father’s side of the family come from a long history of ranching. One Easter week on the Clyne ranch in Arizona, there was an accident with their best cattle horse, “MP,” short for “Mother’s Pride.” The accident was completely preventable, Clyne recalled. But the horse was injured severely that it had to be put down. A “terrible” incident, as Clyne recalled, that left him with feelings of guilt, remorse, and anger.
That same week, as Clyne was walking around the ranch one night with his guitar, he watched his wife, Alisa, inside the house through a window. Soon, the lyrics for “Green and Dumb” were written. Much of the imagery painted by the song’s lyrics were real events.
“It is a love song. But there’s definitely sort of an underlying bitterness in there. And I think that’s why it’s got that flavor, people find it both bitter and sweet. It is a love song, but it goes deep into longing and frustration. It was a true song. It was autobiographical,” he said. “It’s me walking around the barnyard with a guitar and a bottle of wine trying to work out a lot of different emotions and it all comes out in ‘Green and Dumb.’”
A picture of “MP” can be found on the inside sleeve of Honky Tonk Union.
Success and Reconcilation
Honky Tonk Union shot up to No. 1 on Billboard’s Internet Sales Chart. The week it hit number one, it eclipsed some music legends such as Paul McCartney, Barbara Streisand, Eric Clapton, Santana, and others such as Tori Amos, Melissa Etheridge and the Dixie Chicks. A plaque awarded to Clyne for this achievement still hangs in his house today.
It was an achievement Clyne would reach again with his ¡Americano! album. Clyne has released six studio albums and three live albums with the Peacemakers during their steller career. And all on the same independent record label he started with in 1999. Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers are the only independent band to debut in the Top 10 on Billboard’s Internet Sales chart for six consecutive albums, including two #1 entries.
The last song on Honky Tonk Union, a song called “Tow Chain,” has been out of the set list for a number of years. Many fans have interpreted it as a song written in anger against Blush following the breakup of The Refreshments. Clyne says that’s only partially true.
“A lot of people think I’m just pointing my finger at a single individual. But, it actually takes a lot to get me to boil over and I take all the bad parts about the people who piss me off and write one song,” he said while admitting that Blush is an element of the song, but not the only one.
Clyne, Naffah and Blush reconciled in 2010 during an unplanned meeting at an RCPM show in Indiana. Today, he said he is over that anger he once had and he can play that song for fun without digging up any emotions.
“I am actually looking forward to relearning that song and visiting it and see what it stirs up in me just for fun,” he said.
Earlier this year, The Refreshments came full circle and Clyne, Naffah and Blush played their first full set together as The Refreshments in 15 years, opening for RCPM during the band’s annual Circus Mexicus music festival in Rocky Point, Mexico.
If that was indeed The Refreshments’ final concert, Clyne said this time they went out on a high note.
“In 1998, when we broke up, we didn’t know it would be our last show. So, it was nice to be able to go, ‘Now, if this is our last show we can walk away and walk away feeling good about it rather than feeling bitter and cheated.’”