Musicians Off the Record: Jesse Sublett

From his seminal role as a Texas punk rock icon in the late 1970s, Jesse Sublett has experienced a career full of seductive drama. It is difficult to imagine a more complex and challenging life than that of this art, rock and literary celebrity whofor his part has tried to view every trial through a prism of hope.

Raised in the hill country town of Johnson City in the shadow of all things LBJ, Sublett was never uncertain of his creative potential and professional future. When he moved to Austin in the 1960s, he hoped to find a respite from his inner struggles and a new scope for his very considerable gifts. Music was his calling. “Rock and Roll was a youth thing . . . if you had long hair, you were cool, if you didn’t, you were a square.”

Sublett was a particularly perceptive and convincing musician from his auspicious beginning in Texas’ groundbreaking punk group, the Violators. Consisting of three teenage girls (Kathy Wheeler, Marilyn Dean and Carla Olson) and Sublett, the Violators made their raucous debut at an Austin Tex-Mex bar, Raul’s. Quitting his day job, he formed a second punk outfit, the Skunks, and dove in headfirst as a bass player/singer-songwriter with guitarist Eddie Munoz and drummer Billy Blackmon. By March of 1978, Sublett had stirred a hornet’s nest, pioneered a new sound in the Southwest and given birth to a full-fledged music scene. Austin and Texas music would never be the same.

Conceived in the wake of the punk anti-establishment movement, the Skunks represented a more commercially astute act which left topical songwriting to others. “The Skunks were anti-political; agnostic and ambivalent to issues. We didn’t want to change the world, save the world; we didn’t want to destroy rock and roll, we just wanted to be a rock and roll band and we wanted to be your favorite.” After a successful six year run with the Skunks, Sublett moved to Los Angeles—“a “magical town, a dark Eden that inspires”—in 1987 to form a band with Kathy Valentine (i.e. Kathy Wheeler), formerly of the Go-Go’s, who introduced him to friends in the publishing industry.  Within weeks, Sublett was offered his first publishing contract with Viking and began penning a series of rock murder mysteries. A longtime enthusiast of hardboiled crime classics, his first three novels “Rock Critic Murders,” “Tough Baby,” and “Boiled in Concrete,” were well received and featured a bass playing protagonist named Martin Fender.

Back in Austin in 1997, Sublett was diagnosed with cancer and given a small chance to live. His 2004 book release, “Never the Same Again,” is a bracing account of his unique journey and illuminates his struggles, sacrifice and path to survival.  Today, Sublett is a symbol of perseverance andhis passion for the lyrical life has branded Texas arts and letters forever.