The Dark Side of Alternative

Tucson’s Whole Enchilada Benefit

When it happened, I’d finally decided to move forward through the crowd, loosely grouped in front of the outdoor stage at Tucson’s iconic Hotel Congress. Beloved local band Sidewinders, the penultimate act at this Whole Enchilada benefit show, was already playing their third number. But I still hadn’t committed myself to the experience.

There are limits to anything goes. Hotel Congress, Tucson.

Lead guitarist Rich Hopkins, wearing a Jefferson Airplane Volunteers T-shirt, folded inward over his red Gibson, ready to unleash another one of his terse, wiry solos. Suddenly, I felt the way surfers must when, after waiting all day to catch a decent wave, they suddenly find themselves riding a perfect one. The bottom dropped out of my stomach. This wasn’t nausea, though. It was pure exhilaration. 

I was inhabiting the music in a way I rarely do these days and outdoors, surrounded by people who were loving it every bit as much. 

This is what I had been missing from my life, not just during the pandemic, but in most of the decade preceding it, when one family crisis after another had made the simple act of going to a show feel like a herculean task. Even on those rare occasions when I would actually make it to the venue on time, the constant stress in my life made it almost impossible to relax. At best, I was going through the motions. 

But this was different. This wasn’t just a pleasant diversion, but total abandon. I wasn’t just “present”, like the reluctant student who raises her hand during roll call. I was totally THERE, so fully inside the moment that past and future troubles melted away.

And then I wasn’t. 

The wave was over. I was once again preoccupied. Yet this wasn’t the sort of distraction with which I had become so distressingly familiar. Although my preoccupation persisted, I could still see new waves coming and sometimes catch them. 

I remembered how things used to be, when I would be able to get in this zone several times a year. Sometimes even several times a month, during the full springtime calendars that frame South by Southwest and Coachella, when bands pass back and forth across southeastern Arizona.

Still, while I was happy to be back in that zone tonight, my enjoyment was shadowed by self-reproach. Because I had not come to Tucson’s Hotel Congress to relax, but to report.

Fifteen minutes earlier, I hadn’t even been managing to do that. Although I was physically present, my mind was far away, pursuing a train of thought inspired by the controversy that had clouded this benefit for the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen. It had been conceived to honour the history of a particular scene, reinforcing the self-understanding of its longtime participants. Now there was a distinct possibility that it would end up damaging that legacy instead.

Although I had purchased my ticket to the benefit beforehand, I almost followed the lead of friends who had decided that, no matter how worthy a beneficiary Casa Maria might be, they just couldn’t stomach being at a concert whose lineup had, until recently, included Chuck Wagon and the Wheels, a band whose eponymous frontman, Charles Maultsby II, has long been an unrepentant peddler of extreme Antisemitism. 

The reason Chuck Wagon and the Wheels had been on the bill to begin with is that one of their songs was included on the three-LP compilation The Whole Enchilada: The History of Desert Rock, Tucson, AZ 1978-1994, which the benefit was supposed to reflect. 

Best-known for their minor novelty hit “Disco Sucks” from 1979, the band was known for repurposing elements of Western Swing and the Bakersfield Sound into a kind of irreverent country punk.

As “Disco Sucks” suggests, their humorous lyrics communicate a culturally conservative worldview, which makes sense when you learn that Maultsby was the son of a famous US Air Force pilot. 

Yet as offensive as their songs may seem too sensitive contemporary listeners, Chuck Wagon and the Wheels have managed to maintain a loyal, if small following for decades. While some of the people who go to see the band perform may share Maultsby’s extreme ideology, the majority of their audience over the years has consisted of conservatives with libertarian leanings, a demographic that the Desert Southwest has been known for since Barry Goldwater ran for President.

Now that I was finally invested in the concert, but had recovered my reason, I began to ponder the deeper implications of the controversy. As the driving force behind the compilation, Hopkins undoubtedly wanted to go beyond the personal and political differences that had divided musicians back in the 1970s and 1980s to produce an inclusive historical document. That’s why it provides such a broad cross-section of music from the period it covers: the intricate country-and-western of the Dusty Chaps; the first-generation punk of the Pedestrians; the spare blues of Rainer Ptacek; and the more radio-friendly alternative rock of the Sidewinders themselves. Aesthetically, the album prioritizes variety over coherence.

And the concert held to celebrate its release, complete with screenings of filmmaker Maggie Rawlings Smith’s documentary of the same name, was planned in the same spirit. 

Asking Chuck Wagon and the Wheels to participate was an acknowledgment of their role in developing a Tucson music scene that was powerfully shaped by punk, yet never repudiated the musical genres favoured by the participants’ parents and grandparents. In an abstract sense, it was the same reason why the organizers had wanted to feature Fish Karma’s witty Country Joe and the Fish-style folk-punk, the languid pre-Nirvana indie rock of River Roses, and the lyrically brilliant ballads of original Giant Sand drummer Billy Sedlmayr.

Like other medium-sized cities, Tucson, Arizona has witnessed the growth of a rich alternative music scene since the early 1990s. Already a place where diverse musical genres came together in unpredictable and inventive ways, the local scene became increasingly self-reflexive about its special qualities as independent artists proved increasingly willing to surrender the dream of making it big in Los Angeles or New York in the hope of making the smallness of Tucson “big.” 

In step with larger trends toward decentralization in American culture and the foregrounding of local colour it promoted, they found ways of turning the disadvantages of working outside the mainstream into strengths.

The music on The Whole Enchilada was made before this trend became apparent. The artists interviewed for Rawlings Smith’s film make it abundantly clear that they made music in Tucson out of necessity. When they had an opportunity to leave – usually to Los Angeles, seven hours away by car – they eagerly embraced it. Yet almost all of them returned, eventually, realising that their art was bound up with the place in ways they hadn’t initially perceived

Like the musicians who became identified with Sheffield and Bristol in the UK or Seattle in the US, they came to understand that Tucson and the surrounding Sonoran Desert informed their approach in complex and sometimes contradictory ways. Cut off from both the inspiration and frustration living there provided, they struggled to make art that was honest and true. Being bombarded with big-city vices didn’t help either. 

The fact that so many musicians of their generation were still around and willing to participate in The Whole Enchilada testifies to their retrospective devotion to the music scene they helped to create. Those who continued to make and perform music tended to become increasingly identified with Tucson, foregoing the mainstream-friendly approach that was supposed to make them more marketable for one that actively resisted standardisation in favour of local colour. 

Paradoxically, this refusal to continue striving for nationwide success directly contributed to some Tucson artists, especially Giant Sand and its spin-off Calexico, achieving international recognition. Music fans on the European continent proved particularly keen on what, following the logic of The Whole Enchilada, could be termed “desert post-rock”. Regional markers that had once seemed like a limitation were now recast as selling points. 

It’s worth asking whether this New World aesthetic became popular in the Old World because it provided a way of psychologically accessing native traditions that modernity had blocked off. 

Maybe it wasn’t possible to make a direct connection with regional identities that had been suppressed by the modern state. But the outline of an indirect one could be discerned in the approach of Tucson artists, many of whom had come to the desert from more sedate parts of the country and learned to love their strange new home by assimilating its distinctive cultural offerings. 

One of the things I remember finding hardest to understand about the Tucson music scene as a newcomer was the seemingly perverse relationship between aesthetics and politics. Long before I learned of Chuck Maultsby’s extremist beliefs, I was baffled by the extent to which participants from ideologically opposed stances partook of the same regional mythology. 

Today, the scene is usually identified with a relaxed – if occasionally self-righteous – multiculturalism. Most of its long-time members are politically progressive. Many returned to the city, after spending time away, because they vigorously believed in its tradition of fusing low budgets with high ideals. And key figures, such as Giant Sand mastermind Howe Gelb, are of Jewish descent. 

In short, Maultsby’s far-right politics would be radically incompatible with the dominant values of almost everyone who was likely to attend. Yet there is a strong libertarian streak running against the grain of this multicultural progressivism. In the case of someone like Gelb, it is apparent on an aesthetic level.  

His adamant refusal to play by commercial and aesthetic rules, the laid-back restlessness that pervades all of his work draws from the same well of freedom as the aggressively laissez-faire stubbornness of the region’s native conservatism.

Tucson is the sort of place where people still plug in their holiday lights long after the new year has come, government and home owner’s association be damned, where bristly defiance of codes is regarded as a virtue throughout the political spectrum.

This is the best explanation I can muster for why the organisers of The Whole Enchilada thought inviting Chuck Wagon and the Wheels to perform was a good idea. It also demonstrates why, when The Tucson Sentinel, a local online newspaper, drew attention to Maultsby’s repugnant conspiracy-mongering, something had to give.

Plans to boycott the event began to circulate. Some individuals, including one of the scheduled performers, threatened to take matters into their own hands and confront Maultsby directly. 

In light of this outcry, the organisers of the benefit removed Chuck Wagon and the Wheels from the bill. The only hope of preserving the goodwill that The Whole Enchilada had accumulated was to acknowledge their mistake and shift the focus back onto the project’s many good qualities. 

Unfortunately, this decision came too late. Although The Tucson Sentinel’s Editor-in-Chief Dylan Smith had questioned organisers about Maultsby’s participation in the benefit concert with plenty of time to spare, it apparently wasn’t until he ran a story about it that the organisers took action. 

Also troubling was the animosity directed at Smith for doing what any decent journalist would have. He complained of a “blame the messenger” mentality, for which I saw ample evidence in Facebook comment threads. 

Considering that Maultsby’s beliefs had been reported upon by The Tucson Sentinel three years earlier and had been known to members of the music community for over a decade, the organisers were either guilty of willful ignorance or had concluded that the benefits from having Chuck Wagon and the Wheels perform outweighed the drawbacks. 

Whatever the reasoning – or lack of it – that led organisers to include Chuck Wagon and the Wheels in the first place, I couldn’t believe their insistence that they should have been permitted to handle the problem “in house”, so that the good vibes surrounding The Whole Enchilada would not be disturbed. 

At a time when racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination inspired by the legacy of fascism are threatening to become normalised in mainstream political discourse, the failure to vet participants properly had already done more damage to the project’s reputation than reporting about the problem ever could. The fact that the controversy was reported by a French internet site demonstrates how much the Tucson scene matters in certain European circles, but also suggests that its future appeal will suffer. 

Or so it had seemed to me when I arrived at the venue. As I scanned the crowd for familiar faces, I wondered how many people at the event shared my reluctance to embrace the feel-good vibe that the organizers had tried to cultivate. And I noticed how old the crowd was. 

I recalled what it had felt like in the early 2000s when, after moving to Tucson for work, I had done whatever I could to familiarise myself with the local music scene: going to concerts, scouring the shelves of independent record stores, reading articles in the city’s free weekly. 

No matter how hard I tried, though, I could never shake the feeling that I had arrived too late. Although I could learn a great deal, my knowledge would never be the sort that insiders can summon with ease. 

Two decades later, I still felt this way. These grey-haired people standing around me belonged in a way that I never would. Maybe that’s why they had been able to overcome any misgivings about attending the event. Because they were an integral part of this community, they weren’t going to let one controversy estrange them from it.

That’s what I was thinking before I caught that first wave. Afterwards, once I began to think again, I was no longer a mere outsider. Instead, I had the distinct impression of splitting in two. 

Part of me remained distant from the proceedings, observing both the performers and the crowd with the dispassion of a researcher. But this intellectual side was now counterbalanced by something else. I had passed through some invisible barrier and could now see myself dissolving into a collective. 

This wasn’t the temporary sensation of solidarity that one gets from simply being part of a crowd, either. It was emphatically historical. 

By relaxing into the experience of this particular concert, I also revised my memories of previous ones I’d attended since moving to Tucson. I understood, finally, that having been both physically and emotionally present for them was now sufficient to confirm that I had become what sociologists call a participant observer. I wasn’t just contemplating the scene from afar. I was also part of it.

And with that understanding, I perceived the dangers that came with that belated sense of belonging. Because once I was no longer preoccupied with all the ways in which I felt excluded, I found it much harder to remember that there had been a very good reason for me to resist the goodwill radiating through the crowd. 

For the rest of the benefit concert – the remainder of the Sidewinders’ set and all of Giant Sand’s – I did my best to strike a balance between immersion and liminality, passion and reason. 

Perhaps the initial decision to include Chuck Wagon and the Wheels in this event hadn’t simply been a poor decision, made without adequate reflection. Perhaps it wasn’t just a mistake, and anomaly, but an indication that the kind of history The Whole Enchilada aspires to communicate is itself a problem. 

Local music scenes are usually self-reflexive. New artists know that their success might well depend on acknowledging their forebears. They don’t just “cross-pollinate” with other musicians of their generation, but with their mentors. 

But the Tucson music scene documented in The Whole Enchilada ended up pushing these tendencies to an extreme. 

Even now, artists who got their start in the late 1970s and early 1980s regularly collaborate with ones who were barely even born back then. And there doesn’t tend to be much of the sycophantic elder worship that has a deadening effect on art.

The Tucson music scene also stands out for resisting the notion that some musical genres are hopelessly dated and that the use of others must be restricted on the basis of identity. Western swing, Delta blues, norteño, cumbia, and hip-hop, are available to all, just as the foundations of rock and country are. 

No one exemplifies this anything-goes mentality better than Howe Gelb, who has not only kept Giand Sand going for four decades, through a dizzying number of personnel changes, but also performs solo and with smaller groups. The week after the Whole Enchilada benefit, where the latest incarnation of Giant Sand concentrated on rough-hewn blues-rock with a psychedelic tinge, he was performing piano jazz with a trio indoors at the same venue. 

It’s hard to argue with any of this. On the contrary, these traits continue to make Tucson a great place to see live music. At a time when local colour is harder and harder to come by, it’s wonderful that the city still boasts a music scene that cares about contributing to culture in a broader sense.

Unfortunately, the scene’s many strengths also contribute to a troubling weakness. When anything goes from an aesthetic standpoint, it becomes harder to impose limits in other arenas. 

I am confident that no one who ended up performing at the Whole Enchilada benefit show finds Chuck Maultsby’s political convictions acceptable. Yet they were willing to share a bill with him in the name of what we might call historical solidarity. 

My own experience at the concert showed me how appealing it can be to perceive this interconnectedness. Along with the excitement of being able to watch live music with a true crowd again, this sense of belonging threatened to disable my capacity for critique. 

In the end, I was lucky to maintain enough distance from the event to be able both to enjoy it fully and to consider the implications of that enjoyment.

Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.