True West

True West


To stand transfixed in front of dueling True West guitarists Richard McGrath and Russ Tolman as they created a turbulent sea of noise under soaring vocalist Gavin Blair would keep you awake all night, long after those six cappuccinos had worn off.


True West: a two-fisted, two-guitar band you're bound to love even if you despise the rest of the groups in the Paisley Underground. I have no idea who said that or who these people were who disliked the Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, Green On Red, the Long Ryders, the Bangles and the Three O'Clock -- the Los Angeles-based combos that comprised the Paisley Underground. Everybody I knew loved them! And True West in their prime were every bit as exhilarating ”and psychedelic in the best sense of the word” as benchmark Paisley combos Dream Syndicate or Rain Parade. To stand transfixed in front of dueling True West guitarists Richard McGrath and Russ Tolman as they created a turbulent sea of noise under soaring vocalist Gavin Blair would keep you awake all night, long after those six cappuccinos had worn off.

Sorting out how True West came to exist might best require the services of U.K. journalist Pete Frame, famous for an extensively annotated series of band family trees. The print version goes like this. In the late '70s, Steve Wynn and Kendra Smith were enrolled at the University of California at Davis, about 10 miles west of Sacramento. Unlikely as it seems, Davis would become the hub of a thriving music scene that would catch fire in the early '80s with new indie-rock heroes like Scott Miller's Game Theory and Guy Kyser's Thin White Rope.

Before any of that took place, Wynn decided to form a punk-rock band in 1979. What he created instead was Suspects, a New Wave outfit consisting of Smith on vocals, Wynn and Tolman ”both KDVS college-radio DJs”on guitars, Blair on drums and Steve Suchil, a UC Davis law student, on bass. "Steve Wynn said to me one day, 'I hear you play guitar. Let's start a band,' says Tolman. "He had this grand scheme in mind, and he'd been saying the same thing to Kendra." The trio advertised for drums and bass.

Blair, born in New York and raised in Philadelphia, remembers answering that ad when he moved to California. "They wanted a drummer who could play every kind of music, and I could keep a slight beat," he says. "We opened for the Mumbles, the top dog in Sacramento, on New Wave Tuesday nights at Slick Willie's."

The Mumbles' guitarist was Richard McGrath who remembers the Suspects doing a great version of the Beach Boys' "Don't Back Down." It's the only thumbs-up the band ever got, apparently. They cut one single ("Talking Loud"/"It's Up To You") that still makes its participants cringe. Wynn once said he intended to track down all existing copies and burn them. "It is pretty lame," says Tolman of the disc. "Steve's on one channel, real clean, going 'chink, chink, chink,' and I'm on the other one with this fuzztone going 'chgzzchgzz' and Kendra's just chirpy and cute. Fortunately, there was a contingent of boys who just liked to look at Kendra."

When Suspects threw in the towel, Wynn and Smith returned home to Los Angeles, hooked up with guitarist Karl Precoda and drummer Dennis Duck and formed the Dream Syndicate. "They urged all of us to go down there, too," says Blair who began drumming instead with Sacramento combo the X-Men, who featured future Game Theory member Donnette Thayer.

After Wynn split, Tolman formed an outfit called Meantime with Sean O'Brien on vocals and Rick Gates, son of Bread's David Gates, on bass. The only Meantime single, Tolman insists, "was even worse than the Suspects record."

A name change to True West didn't help the struggling band. "We stole that name from a Sam Shepard play we saw listed in the San Francisco Chronicle," says Tolman, inspired to replace O'Brien when he heard Blair sing from behind his drum kit with the X-Men at San Francisco punk-rock palace the Mabuhay Gardens. "I did one song, 'Pirate Love' by Johnny Thunders," says Blair. "Russ would come see us play and yell, 'You should let the drummer sing more!' That was real flattering."

Now manned by Blair on lead vocals and Tolman on guitar, along with bassist Ken Lacewell and drummer Frank French, the ever-evolving True West sounded, says Tolman, "somewhere between U2 and Gang of Four." Adds Blair: "Before Richard joined the band, we did sound like U2. Boy had just come out and Russ was the only guitarist. He had an Echoplex and everything had this massive echo, like the Edge." The sound changed dramatically once McGrath was added on guitar, says Tolman.

The five-man True West played a tiny, glass-bricked nightspot called Berkeley Square in January of 1983—opening for the Dream Syndicate and Green On Red. Over the years, it's become a show you dearly wish you could go back and experience again. "That was our first-ever Bay Area gig," says Tolman. "Richard had just joined, and Danny Stuart of Green On Red made some comment about his guitar tone sounding like the Guess Who's 'American Woman.'"

Released just before the Berkeley Square show, the debut True West record, a single with Pink Floyd classic "Lucifer Sam" on the A-side and "Reficul Mas," the sa


Hollywood Holiday (Fr. New Rose) 1983 (PVC) 1984
True West EP (Bring Out Your Dead) 1983
Drifters (PVC) 1984
Hand of Fate (CD Presents) 1986
West Side Story (Skyclad) 1989
Best Western EP (Skyclad) 1990
TV Western EP (Skyclad) 1990
The Big Boot — Live at the Milestone (Bring Out Your Dead) 1998

Out of State Plates (Mad Rover) 1989
Marva Miracle (Still Sane - Germany) 1992
Out of State Miracle (Paisley Pop) 2006

Totem Poles and Glory Holes (Down There/Restless) 1986
Down in Earthquake Town (UK Demon) 1988 (Skyclad) 1989
Road Movie (Fr. New Rose) 1992
Sleeping All Alone EP (Fr. New Rose) 1992
Sweet Spot (Brilliant) 1994
City Lights (Ger. Blue Rose) 1998
New Quadraphonic Highway (Ger. Blue Rose/ USA: Weed) 2000

Goodbye Joe (Skyclad) 1990