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Timbuk 3's Hit Twosome: Their Future's Bright

November 08, 1986|RICHARD CROMELIN

"The only thing we've got that's been kind of weird is people offering endorsements, people wanting to use the song 'Shades' to endorse their products."

Pat MacDonald was discussing the fallout from the success of Timbuk 3's "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades," which is shaping up as the most unlikely hit record of the year.

Added his wife Barbara, the other half of the group: "Or just to use the phrase as a slogan--'Our future's so bright we have to wear shades.' It's like, 'Wait a minute, have you really listened to the song? Do you know what it's talking about?' "

What the song is talking about is "a peeping Tom techie with X-ray eyes." It's a biting and funny character sketch of a guy you love to hate, a nuclear-science student who's got it made and wants you to know it: "I got a job waitin' / For my graduation / Fifty thou' a year / Will buy a lot of beer / Things are goin' great / And they're only gettin' better / I'm doin' all right / Getting good grades / The future's so bright / I gotta wear shades."

With the words delivered rapid-fire over a driving folk-blues backing, the song recalls the Dylan-influenced singer-songwriter era pulled into the '80s. It doesn't have much in common with today's mainstream radio fare, but it's quickly moving in on the Top 40.

"I lived in Nashville about 10 years, when I was really young trying to be a songwriter, and that was exactly the kind of song they told me not to write," said Pat, 34, during a phone interview from the MacDonalds' Austin home. "It doesn't have a bridge, doesn't have much melody. . . . "

What are people responding to then?

"Probably the beat," suggested Pat, who estimates he's written 500 songs since starting as a teen-ager. "And the difference of it. It sounds good though. It really sounds good on the radio."

MacDonald wrote the song in '83 when he and Barbara were based in the college town of Madison, Wis., taking off from a phrase Barbara dropped to another member of the band they had at the time.

"I saw a bunch of different ways of taking that phrase," he said. "It seemed to fit that character. . . . It wasn't anybody in particular. The attitude in the song isn't exclusive to college students either. It was a certain attitude that was real strong at the time, and still is, I guess. It's just a real kind of selfish attitude--'Things are going OK for me, so what the . . . .' "

The ascendance of Timbuk 3--which headlines the Roxy on Friday--is as off-the-wall as the song. Pat, who grew up in Green Bay, and San Antonio native Barbara met in Madison in 1978. Though they quickly became a couple, they maintained separate musical careers until Barbara joined Pat's blues-rock band the Essentials. When the group broke up, the MacDonalds (who married in 1983) made their big decision.

Recalled Barbara, 29, "We decided we wanted to do something with the two of us and not have any extra people who were not as into it as much as we were." But the couple wanted more than their own guitar backing, and they remembered something they'd seen on a trip through Memphis.

"There were these guys playing on the street and they had this ancient steam-driven drum machine," said Pat. "They were playing this old shuffle blues, and it was great street music . . . and it seemed like fun, it seemed smart. It seemed like a real intelligent way to make music. It was all real compact, well-conceived.

"It seemed like the right thing to do to get something together that we could do wherever we went. We figured we might be able to make a living year-round playing on the street. That's where the jam box idea came about."

The jam box--a portable stereo tape player--became the duo's third member, providing rhythm and other musical support pre-recorded by Pat. A trial run on the streets of New York worked well, and Timbuk 3 headed for the fertile Austin music scene with modest ambitions and firm confidence.

"I thought, 'Well, here's what you got to do, Pat: Keep playing these bars, play three sets a night, play all original music, and . . . eventually through process of elimination you're gonna end up with three sets of music that's gonna interest somebody at some point.'

"I always felt that somehow my songwriting would be recognized eventually. I wasn't so sure about having hit songs on the radio sung by Barbara and me. . . .But I always thought that our music was good enough that it should be successful.

"I thought we'd make three or four independent Timbuk 3 releases and we'd sell 'em at our gigs for the next five or 10 years. We were prepared for that. That would have been fine in a sense."

"We've never needed a lot of money to do what we do," Barbara added. We were always happy with what we had as long as we had enough to pay our bills and buy guitar strings. . . .

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