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Charlie Sexton--sexy And 17

May 18, 1986|STEVE POND

Charlie Sexton, it seems, has arrived.

His debut album, "Pictures for Pleasure," made the Top 20. So did his first single, "Beat's So Lonely," which also won him steady MTV air play. His high cheekbones and Matt Dillon good looks have made him an instant sex symbol. He made the cover of Spin magazine, and he'll soon be hitting the Southland for a series of shows: May 31 at UC Irvine, June 3-4 and 6-7 at the Roxy, and June 11 at UCLA's Ackerman Grand Ballroom.

All in all, not a bad showing for a 17-year-old whose first album was released seven months ago. But in order to arrive, you have to leave somewhere, and that's the problem.

Sexton, you see, left Austin, Tex. And lots of Austinites aren't rejoicing that their native son has made good, because the sleek, massive sound of "Pictures for Pleasure" and Sexton's deep, David Bowie-style vocals are a far cry from the hotshot rockabilly-and-blues guitarist they dubbed Little Charlie when he began playing around town a decade ago.

Last summer, Austin-based manager and longtime music industry observer Joe Nick Patoski talked of the general feeling about Sexton's upcoming album: "They made him into something that none of us will recognize, no question about that. Charlie was raised by the local music scene, and there's definitely some bitterness now that we don't know who the hell the kid is anymore."

And at the end of the year--after Sexton's album had been out for a few weeks--the Austin Chronicle took its yearly poll of the music scene's high and low points. The best of last year's Austin records, according to the voters, were from the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Zeitgeist and Dino Lee.

Sexton's album picked up votes in the poll, too. The category: "Worst thing to happen to Austin music in 1985."

"Yeah, they think I've deserted them," Sexton says with a sigh. "They've got such animosity toward certain things. I don't understand it, but I don't hold it against them, because most musicians in that town just never go any further."

He shakes his head, thinks of the town where he learned his craft and made his name, and mutters softly, almost to himself: "It's turned into sort of a ghost town."

Sexton may have lost a few friends in Austin, but he's got lots of other supporters, some of them in high places. Sexton, for example, is the only new artist Bob Dylan enthusiastically endorses in the liner notes to "Biograph." "I'd like to see Charlie Sexton become a big star," Dylan says, "but the whole machinery would have to break down right now before that could happen."

Ironically, if Sexton is on the verge of stardom it's because the machinery helped him. MCA Records signed him, gave him the money to hire producer Keith Forsey (who's worked with Billy Idol and Simple Minds, among others), and drafted a promotional plan that let the album slowly pick up momentum for a couple of months before the push.

In a way, it looks like a calculated attempt to make a rough-hewn, good-looking kid a rock star, which is why Austinites and others have reacted against "Pictures for Pleasure."

In his earlier bands, Sexton played rough, spirited blues and rockabilly music that's miles from the high-tech sound and booming vocals of his new album, which took months to make and reportedly cost several hundred thousand dollars.

Sexton has heard all these complaints before. He knows the questions are coming. He doesn't even wait for them before he tries to make it clear that he's the guy calling the shots.

"People think the record company made me into something I'm not, but they don't know," says the painfully thin Sexton, an enthusiastic talker. In his black vest, boots and spiky black hair, he's also a natural rock star archetype.

"No one is shoving anything down my throat," he insists. "There isn't a stone that goes unturned without me knowing about it. When he started the record, Keith (Forsey) was into making a raunchy rock 'n' roll guitar record. I was the one that said, 'No, I want it to be big .'

"Everyone thinks that the record company shoved this down my throat, that Keith shoved it down my throat. But everything you're seeing is me.

"I don't owe it to anyone to make a raw record. I'm not tied down to anything. I've never made my own record before, so what makes it wrong to be like it is? That's me . If you think it's too flashy, then I give you my most sincere apology. I'm sorry, but this is what I want to do."

Before there was Sexton and "Beat's So Lonely," there was Little Charlie. Little Charlie was a rock 'n' roll prodigy. He picked up the guitar at age 4, played in a blues band at 10, toured with Joe Ely at 13, hung out and recorded with Keith Richards, Bob Dylan and Don Henley at 15. Stories about Little Charlie regularly filtered out of Texas.

Says Sexton, "It's like Little Charlie was just another tall tale from Texas."

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