What the Reuniting of Dallas Punk Legends The Telefones Means for Dallas Music

In January of 1980, a Texas Monthly article beamed over the musical genesis taking place in Dallas, hopeful that North Texas might produce something beyond “Ted Nugent-style, dinosaur rock.” The trashy punk sound from New York had already landed in Dallas three years prior and was beginning to coalesce into its own community of fans and musicians, albeit abridged in comparison to New York. One of the bands Texas Monthly called out as exemplary of this new Dallas sound was The Telefones, a Plano group navigating that cagey boundary between punk and new wave.

The Telefones began as the brothers Dirkx—Jerry, Steve, and Chris. The band formed as a reaction to Dallas’s justly derided surplus of banal cover-bands, preferring instead to draw inspiration from New York and England. In the musical climate of 1979 Dallas, they were part of the new underground: a tight community of musicians that Jerry Dirkx, frontman for The Telefones, recalls as “a little bit incestuous.”

As a trio in the late ‘70s, the band struggled to apportion their desired breadth of instrumentation between three members, resulting in the addition of the late Will Clay on saxophone and synthesizers. Clay’s style and enthusiasm for underground music gave The Telefones a New York punk feel and a standout reputation in Dallas. The Telefones released two LP’s—Vibration Change and Rock-ola!—on the local VVV label in 1980 and ’81, respectively. Jerry himself displayed an impish, witty streak, penning odes to bowling and rewriting himself as a parody of the insatiable rockstar so common to the day: Jerry Godzilla.

As swiftly as they’d been pulled into the public eye, the bands of the Dallas punk and new wave underground were washed out. The Telefones themselves relocated to L.A. in 1982, sharing a manager with notorious L.A. punkers Fear[RS1] . It was a big move for the band, considering the Texas-centric opinion Will Clay once offered of America’s two cultural pulse points: “New York has a lot of cults and L.A. has a lot of fads.” So it was unsurprising when the band returned to Dallas after five years, afflicted with that homesickness peculiar to Texans. Meanwhile, the punk era of Dallas faded and eventually became something buried and lost. Mentioning The Telefones today will draw a look of recognition only from the small cadre of people who lived through it and from those who have dragged it up out of curiosity, mythologizing it along the way. Recently, that small cadre has been active in its attempts to revive Dallas’s memory and, improbably, The Telefones have reformed in the process.

The Telefones’ recent slew of gigs is actually a result of Jerry’s determination to right a wrong. In October of 2009, The Lakewood Theater hosted the first of two recent Hot Klub reunions. The shows were organized to celebrate Dallas’s Hot Klub: an early 1980s venue visited regularly by Dallas’s underground punk bands and fans when Deep Ellum, as Jerry tells it, was only a glimmer in Dallas artist Frank Campagna’s eye. “Lakewood was such a disastrous gig that I wanted to play another one, just to prove that we could do it.” Jerry booked The Telefones for several subsequent gigs across DFW, including the latest Hot Klub reunion at Trees in July.

The reunited Telefones perform.

When I sat with Jerry Dirkx to discuss the recent Telefones activity, it became clear that he resisted being made into the musical legend of my imagination. Jerry is thirty years older, but his eyes still focus with a youthful energy. He is wise, warm, and patient, the qualities one might expect from a man and musician of experience: but from Jerry’s perspective, little has changed from 1979. For thirty years, Jerry has been making music on his own and in several bands including Fat Palace, Sparrowbox, and with Jayson Bales and The Charmers. Much of it, he believes, is superior to his work with The Telefones, though he admits it is unlikely to be afforded the same exposure.

Jerry is currently focused on continued improvement on that October show, gaining spontaneous momentum along the way, the result of which is an EP of new Telefones music and a record’s worth of recorded material. Even so, the status of the resurrected Telefones remains day-to-day.

“There’s no plan [beyond the EP],” Jerry admits. “We have a full album recorded, but we don’t know what do with it.”

Jerry’s modesty goes so far as to become underestimation. Having remained musically active since 1980, Jerry and company retained their chops and austere showmanship ethic, making them a conspicuously engaging live act. A marketer Jerry Dirkx may not be, but The Telefones pique new interest with every new concert. If these shows continue, Jerry may not have to wonder how to sell his new album. People will be demanding it.

There is no sense of bitterness or regret with Jerry Dirkx. He and his brother Chris are the only original members of The Telefones. Brother Steve and Mark Griffin—formerly MC 900 Ft. Jesus—both took a pass on reuniting, a fact Jerry handles with patient empathy. Jerry Dirkx is still writing and performing music as if nothing has changed, and still enjoying it. He is not some punk reimagining of John Wayne’s True Grit who feels like Dallas owes him a measure of respect as a member of the old guard. It was only my hubris to cast him as such. And it seems unreasonable to expect newer bands to respect The Telefones when they themselves made no attempt to pay a similar homage in 1980. But for citizens who may be curious about the noise Dallas used to make in the punk and new wave era, The Telefones have offered them a chance to hear it in person.

Photos courtesy of Jerry Dirkx.