In Search of the Subteens 

Why did Memphis' favorite bar band vanish? And why are they back?

What makes a popular band just disappear?

"You want to hear about me sitting alone in a room doing coke and listening to the phone ring?" asks Mark Akin, the lanky guitarist and charismatic frontman for the Subteens, a hard-rocking trio (and sometimes quartet) that spent nearly a decade earning a reputation as Midtown's best bar band before vanishing without a trace. "I was doing a considerable amount of drugs, and that became more important than everything else," Akin confesses. "Obviously, I never expected that to happen. But nobody ever does."

The Subteens story sounds a lot like a Subteens song. Although the band's reunion on Saturday, April 28th, at Young Avenue Deli will likely draw a considerable crowd, when the band formed in 1995, nobody paid them much attention. During their first four years, the Subteens went through drummers like Spinal Tap and played in almost total obscurity to an audience the band describes as "girlfriends and bartenders."

"The running gag was that we were too stupid to quit," says bassist Jay Hines, who calls the Subteens "a band built for self-destruction." But stupid is as stupid does, and the Subteens stupid fortunes began to change for the better when drummer and vocalist Christene Kings from the all-girl California duo the Chubbies joined the group in 1998.

"That's when I first started noticing people showing up for shows," Akin recalls. "And that's also when we started putting boobs on the flyers we'd put on telephone poles." The band wasn't any better, he says, just better looking.

By the time Kings was replaced on drums with John "Bubba" Bonds (previously with Kenny Brown and the Verbs), the Subteens were drawing enthusiastic crowds. In 2000, the group released Burn Your Cardigan, a modish nine-song rocker that one critic accurately described as "harkening back to the days when the Clash could share a stage with the Jam." Buried amid Akin's originals, which vividly chronicle such tried-and-true subjects as beer, Midtown melodrama, and suburban malaise, was an unlikely cover of Billy Joel's "You May Be Right." Although the Subteens would crank out many more originals and cover more obvious material such as AC/DC's "Whole Lotta Rosie" and the Ramones' "Chinese Rocks," "You May Be Right" became the band's standby and a rallying cry for fans who thought Akin was just the lunatic they were looking for.

"I always thought it was fun to play a song that everybody would immediately dismiss as dorky," Akin says of the song, which turned out to be less dorky than prophetic. As the Subteens' popularity grew, so did Akin's ego and habits.

"I got my head up my ass a whole lot more," he says. "I was somewhere backstage dumping out piles of my favorite party favor. The guy I was doing it with was in the opening band, and he looked at me and said, 'Man, what do you think you're in — Aerosmith or something?'

"I wanted to live that [rock-star] life," Akin says. And when people started showing up [to our shows], I took that as permission to start behaving like a jackass without the whole part of selling millions of records."

As Akin sank deeper into his habits, Subteens sets became shorter and more unpredictable. The band might pull off a brilliant show or Akin might throw up on himself. "Either way, it was entertaining," he says. And no show was over until Akin had stripped down to nothing but his guitar and a drunken grin.

"I think I may have started performing to strip buck-naked rather than to play the music," Akin admits. "My idea of what a Subteens show was was debauchery, nudity, and alcohol. That's fun, but you've got to put the music first."

Things got worse.

"I pawned my girlfriend's guitar — as all good stories start," Akin recalls. "She had been bearing down on me to return it, but someone else had bought it. [The Subteens] were playing at Young Avenue Deli, and she lived around the corner. I remember calling her on the phone from backstage and telling her what happened. She understandably freaked. The place was filling up, and the opening band was playing. I left the Deli and walked to her house and found her standing on the porch smashing plates."

Shortly after the release of the band's second (and much better) album, So That's What the Kids Are Calling It, Akin stopped showing up for shows. Instead, he sat alone in his room doing coke and listening to the phone ring.

Akin isn't worried about returning to the stage mostly clothed and fully sober, although his last attempt at playing it straight left him feeling a little awkward.

"I'd been off drugs for maybe two or three months of a five-year coke bender [at the time of the band's last show a few years ago]. Your head's still pretty twisted. Usually I was half-drunk and half-naked and babbling all kinds of insane stuff to the crowd. But immediately I was more self-conscious."

Whether or not this show is a one-time-only event for the band's fans, who never got to say a proper goodbye, or the beginning of a new, more responsible chapter in Subteens history, depends largely on the show. "If we can get through this show without anybody getting arrested or divorced, we'll talk about it," Akin says.

"It's probably a one-off," Hines concludes, pointing out that he's the only member of the band who is still married.

The Subteens Reunion Show

Young Avenue Deli

Saturday, April 28th

Door opens at 9 p.m.; admission $10

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