Texas-born guitarist/singer/songwriter Gary Myrick was a veteran of several local blues and roots-rock bands (including one, Kracker Jack, in which he replaced Stevie Ray Vaughan) before he moved to Los Angeles at the end of the ’70s. Signed to Epic with his band the Figures, at a time when American labels were starting to push new wave as the sound of rock ‘n’ roll’s future, Myrick is remembered chiefly for 1980’s “She Talks in Stereo.” But his best work has a lot more energy and staying power than that of most one-hit wonders.
Gary Myrick and the Figures comes on strong right out of the gate with “Living Disaster” and scarcely lets up from there. “Model,” “Ever Since the World Began” and “Meaningless” all rock with relentless energy, as well as some tricky rhythm changes. The ska-tinged “You” and the noirish piano-driven break in the otherwise frenetic “She’s So Teenage” make good change-ups. The album ends with two more conventional rock tunes, a cover of the Kinks’ “Who’ll Be the Next in Line” and the love-lost ballad “Deep in the Heartland.” Myrick’s knotty, angular leads hint at the rather bent sensibility that characterized many of the artier LA bands of the day (Suburban Lawns, Wall of Voodoo); his high, slightly adenoidal voice likewise conveys an ironic, wise-ass outlook. His rhythm playing, though, still bears welcome traces of his early discipline, particularly on “She Talks in Stereo” and the snaky, insinuating “The Party.” The Figures — ex-Canned Heat keyboardist Ed Beyer, bassist David Dennard (a fellow Texas emigré) and drummer Jack White, formerly of Player (yep, the “Baby Come Back” band) — provide crisp, tight support throughout, and co-producer Tom Werman captures the band with clean, uncluttered sound. The 2009 reissue includes nine songs — a nearly complete live reprise of the LP — recorded at the Whisky À Go Go and show the Figures to have been an excellent live band. (The first four tracks comprised a 1980 promotional EP.)
Unlike so many of the acts signed in the first major label rush into the new wave surf, Myrick and the Figures came up with a substantial second effort. On the surface, at least, Living in a Movie is a smoother ride than the debut. Apart from the rave-up “Madam B” and “Promises, Promises” (basically a rewrite of “Meaningless”), producer Geoff Workman buffed down the band’s sharp edges. On the positive side, Myrick’s songs have a stronger sense of melody and many have a sinister undercurrent, from the obsession of “Tattooed on My Forehead” and “Romance” and the anxiety in “Died on Television” to the haunted, wary feel of “Penetrate My Heart” and the title track. The darkness is balanced by the upbeat “My Girl (It’s Simple)” and “No Crisis.” The Figures come across like an American Attractions, especially in the contrast between the nuance and color of Beyer’s keyboards and the drive of Myrick’s guitar. A terrific follow-up. The re-release adds four live tracks originally issued on a 1982 promo EP — three songs from Living in a Movie plus “Fame Is Dangerous,” a song that wouldn’t see an official release until 2001…and then in a dramatically different form from this rocking rendition.
The Figures went their separate ways in 1982. (Dennard returned to Texas and eventually founded Dragon Street, a roots-rock-oriented label. White ended up in Rick Springfield’s band; he also married and raised a family with actress Katey Sagal.) Myrick recorded the five-song Language with half of Jo Jo Gunne, drummer Curly Smith and keyboardist Jay Ferguson (yep, the “Thunder Island” guy). With their input, Myrick’s songwriting remains strong, particularly the ballad “Message Is You” and the anthemic “Time to Win.” The slinky “Glamorous” highlights the narcissism of the club scene, almost like an updated “Life in the Fast Lane”: “You are the prettiest girl in the parking lot / I’m sorry that I mentioned it / Maybe you’re not / You’re standing on my feet / Don’t let anybody see / You can hurt me back at my place / For a reasonable fee.” And the jumpy, energetic tracks “Guitar, Talk, Love & Drums” and “Lost in Clubland” are good fun. Despite the quality of its songs, the EP’s synthetic sound hasn’t aged as well as the preceding albums. The 2009 Language CD adds nine outtakes from the sessions (“Fun Time” and “Live on the Moon” are the standouts) and an extended mix of “Guitar, Talk, Love & Drums.” (As with most of Wounded Bird’s reissues, the Myrick CDs are skimpy on liner notes and weakly packaged. Rhino they ain’t.)
Myrick signed to Geffen with a mostly new quartet of Smith, keyboardist Harpo Hilfman and bassist Mark Leonard. On Stand for Love, he sounds even more anxious to get that elusive second hit, tailoring the album to prevailing pop radio trends with a juiced-up, synth-heavy rock sound. His guitar playing remains distinctive, and his songwriting continues to improve, particularly on “Don’t Let the Good Die Young,” “(If) Love is Not Enough,” “I Was a Painted Picture” (whose touches of acoustic and slide guitar hint at a direction Gary would take later) and the title track. But John Luongo’s production smothers the songs. Female backing vocals turn the ballad “When Angels Kiss” precious. The funk of “The World Watches On” feels forced. And it’s never a good sign when an artist re-records his hit. The revised “She Talks in Stereo” pummels just about everything that was great about the original under a galloping, overheated arrangement. (Myrick did it one more time in 2010 with a third version that hews much closer to the original, but the rhythm section plods and the production is overworked. It sounds like a bar band covering the song on ’80s Retro Nite.)
Myrick spent the second half of the ’80s as a hired gun for such artists as Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and John Waite. At decade’s end, he joined ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon and singer Nigel Dixon (formerly of English neo-rockabilly band Whirlwind) in a new group, Havana 3 A.M. Each member of this core trio brought something distinctive to the table — Myrick’s roots in Texas blues and south-of-the-border styles, Simonon’s experience in punk, ska and reggae (and every other genre the Clash dabbled in) and Dixon’s background in rockabilly — along with their songwriting talents and instrumental chops. This blend catches fire on Havana 3 A.M. With Travis Williams on the drum kit, the band plays its admixtures with energy, enthusiasm and verve, and the self-production has just about every track jumping out of the speakers. Dixon sings of youngsters growing up in poverty (“What About Your Future,” “The Hardest Game”), thrill-seekers (“Joyride,” “Blue Motorcycle Eyes,” “Surf in the City”) and young toughs challenged to prove themselves (“Reach the Rock,” “Life on the Line,” the bullfighting tale “Death in the Afternoon”) in a clean, airy tenor, his English accent undisguised. “Blue Gene Vincent” is a Stray Catsy tribute to the rockabilly legend. In the instrumental “Hey Amigo” the band tops off its mix of reggae rhythms and spaghetti-Western-style guitars with mariachi horns, harmonica and samples from a gunfight scene in a movie. The ska-flavored “Living in This Town” closes the album on a mournful note, bringing the band back from its romantic genre-hopping adventures to the dreary homogeneity of modern urban life: “Coca-Cola children crying / Sitting watching every station / Culture clash and TV wins / Living in this town.” For his part, Myrick lays down viscerally satisfying guitar riffs and tremolo-heavy leads all over the disc. A few dumb lyrics can’t detract from this invigorating album.
Simonon left the group before it could record a follow-up. The remaining duo began searching for a new bassist/collaborator, but Dixon died of cancer in 1993. That left Myrick with the band name, and he clung to it, recording Texas Glitter & Tombstone Tales with bassist Tom Felicetta and drummer Jamie Chez, putting his name and voice out front. This new lineup lacks the collective imagination and spark of the original; Chez and Felicetta provide competent support but no collaborative input. Instead of the rich stylistic blend that distinguished Havana 3 A.M., this has a narrower focus, mostly Latin and blues-rock. As for the songs, the narrator of “Innocent Man” lays out his shopworn scheme: “Got me a file in a chocolate cake / About midnight, I’m gonna make a jailbreak / South of the border, my señorita waits for me.” “Tex Pawnshop & the Tremelos” is the hackneyed story of a band scouted, signed and gypped by a record company. The band plays some hot rockabilly in “Carjack,” but the incongruous (not to mention bad) lyrics send it into the ditch: “Carjack this, you mother / Save your money for a hot-rod, custom-made / Jesus died so that you could be saved.” “Tejas Queen” and “Hunger” enliven the program, with Gary adding a hint of his ’80s style to the sound. But those tunes show up too late in the set to make much of a difference. And it’s anyone’s guess why Myrick chose to remake “Blue Gene Vincent,” since he and his band don’t do anything with the song that makes it compare to the original.
History repeated itself for Havana 3 A.M. Mark II: the group split up after one album, and one of its members passed away (Chez, in 2005). Myrick returned to the life of a musician for hire, scoring films and supporting other artists, and occasionally gigging around southern California. He managed to record two CDs and release them on his own during the 2000s. The second, 2004’s Reinvent the Gods, ended up being deleted pretty quickly. Waltz of the Scarecrow King, on the other hand, was picked up by an indie label, and as of early 2010, remains available. Producing the disc with Tchad Blake, Myrick explores his roots on a dozen originals, playing them on acoustic guitar and Dobro with string quartet backing (or, more accurately, a string duo overdubbing). “Honk If You Love Jesus,” “Time,” “The River,” and the instrumentals “Haunting of White Rock Lake” and “Saints of the Mojave” all feature dark, mournful melodies, ghostly strings and truly beautiful guitar playing. As a lyricist, Myrick isn’t exactly a storyteller; even a song like “Gary’s Lament” is more a series of details than an actual narrative. But he does bring more of himself to these tunes, singing about traveling from Texas to California and back again in songs like “Redeemer,” “Hometown Waltz” and “I Took a Train.” On “The Ghost of Elvis,” Myrick shares an entertaining tale of a gig interrupted by an emergency (“The bartender said, ‘We must evacuate / I smell fire in the walls, and it’s getting late’ / I took my time, packed up my guitar / I chugged my drink and he emptied the tip jar”), but then sabotages it with a silly chorus (“The ghost of Elvis flies above us / Throwing rose petals and little cheeseburgers”). The updated lyrics to “Fame Is Dangerous,” on the other hand, come from an older, wiser place: “I saw my best friend die in a fight with himself / The hurt of holding onto the lie is too much.” Well worth hearing. (The CD includes videos for “Honk If You Love Jesus” and “Hometown Waltz.”)