The Town Criers
(Ray Brandes tells the tale of San Diego’s alt-country pioneers.)
The Town Criers was a country-rock band that featured many of San Diego’s Che Underground musicians, including myself and Dave Klowden of the Tell-Tale Hearts, Peter Miesner and Mark Zadarnowski of the Crawdaddys, Tom Ward of the Gravedigger V, and Dave Ellison of the Rockin’ Dogs. The group predated the alt-country movement of the 1990s by several years.
The last few months of the Tell-Tale Hearts’ existence were contentious times. Eric Bacher had quit the band in 1986, and many of the original San Diego scenesters had either left town or simply moved on. By the time guitarist Peter Miesner of the Crawdaddys arrived to save the day, the rest of the band members had begun to feel the effects of nearly four years together, and relationships were further strained by meddling outsiders and substance abuse.
For me, Peter’s addition to the group provided a welcome distraction from the band’s disintegration. Peter, David Klowden and I spent long hours listening to traditional blues and country music, as well as the mid-’60s Bakersfield sounds of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Two great inspirations for me were Gram Parsons, in particular the International Submarine Band’s “Safe at Home” album, and Doug Sahm. During the last six months of the Tell-Tale Hearts’ existence our set lists reflected the great divide that was growing in the band.
Pictures from a final performance in January in the basement of the building where Croce’s is currently located show a marked change in the group’s appearance. In the photographs, Peter and I are wearing short, slicked back hair and I am playing guitar in nearly every shot.
When the Tell-Tale Hearts finally split for good in February 1987, the group disbanded into two factions. Bass player Mike Stax and keyboardist Bill Calhoun reunited for a short time with Hearts guitarist Eric Bacher and became the freakbeat Barons. (Mike and Bill would later give the Tell-Tale Hearts a second run.) The rest of the band — Peter, David Klowden and I— joined forces with Gravedigger V bassist Tom Ward to create the Town Criers.
We practiced a few months in Tom Ward’s parents garage, where at 10:00 p.m. promptly, Tom’s father would enter and point to his watch. This was quite a contrast to the later Tell-Tale Hearts rehearsals, which often ended with one particular member unconscious on top of his instrument.
In a sort of musical bootcamp, I learned to tune my guitar, pay attention to microphone technique and work on my songwriting. We played one of our first gigs at the San Diego Ballet Academy on Washingston Street, where several brand-new scooters with Style Council stickers were parked outside. Needless to say, if this new generation of kids had a hard time processing the Pretty Things, what would they do with Lefty Frizzell? We set our sights elsewhere, leaving the ’60s scene behind, and collecting a menagerie of old friends and new fans along the way.
Listen to the Town Criers! “Slippin’ and Slidin’ ” • “Black Cloud” •”Every Little Sin” • “Try It Again” • “Here Come the Tears”
Though the longest-running lineup of the group featured Ray, Peter, Mark Z and drummer Dan Tarte, other musicians made their presence known throughout the band’s three-and-a-half-year existence. Most notable was Dave Ellison (whom I had known from the Rockin’ Dogs days), who stunned us with his steel guitar playing and carried the group for a couple of years. The group’s final guitarist was original Penetrator Scott Harrington, who practiced with the group for a couple of months and played the band’s final show.
The band only made three recordings, in the spring of 1988 at Mark Neil’s recording studio in El Cajon, California. These include two Ray Brandes originals, “Black Cloud” and “Every Little Sin,” and a Peter Miesner original, “Try It Again,” which features Peter on lead vocal.
The live tracks here are Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’” from one of the band’s first gigs, at the Saigon Palace, and a Ray Brandes original, “Here Come the Tears,” performed in Joshua Tree National Park at Joe Hughes’ wedding, off of a generator behind a pile of rocks.
– Ray Brandes
The Town Criers perform the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “I Don’t Want”:
Ray Brandes: Vocals, rhythm guitar (1987-1990)
Peter Miesner: Lead guitar, vocals (1987-1989)
Tom Ward: Bass guitar, vocals (1987)
David Klowden: Drums (1987, 1989-1990)
John Vetter: Bass guitar (1987)
Mark Zardarnowski: Bass guitar (1987-1990)
Dan Tarte: Drums (1987-1989)
Dave Ellison: Steel guitar (1989-1990)
Jim Frizell: Guitar (1990)
Scott Harrington: Guitar (1990)