What At The Drive-In Taught Me About El Paso’s Untold Punk History

Hidden in At The Drive-In's songs is a history lesson on forgotten punk rockers.

By Elijah Watson May 17, 2017
via Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
via Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Earlier this month, At The Drive-In released its first album in 17 years, in•ter a•li•a. The following day, the band kicked off its tour in support of the album, starting in the city where it was formed—El Paso, Texas. As I watched Instagram stories and videos taken from friends attending the show, I couldn’t help but feel happy. That this band, one that obtained mainstream acclaim and defined and redefined the post-hardcore sound of the early 2000s and was about to embark on its highly-anticipated return, is from the same city I am.

I discovered At The Drive-In in 2006, five years after its dissolution and six years after the release of its seminal third album, In Relationship Of Command. By then, the El Paso band had become mythologized throughout the Texas border town and archived on the internet. The only way of seeing its members perform live was through their successive projects: The Mars Volta and Sparta.

Certain friendships made in El Paso were formed around a shared obsession with At The Drive-In—plenty of mine were. As aspiring musicians, my friends and I inevitably looked up to the only band to ever achieve mainstream success—at the time from the city, and saw the group as testament—if they could do it we could do it, too. We were teenagers after all.

Some days were spent watching hours and hours of At The Drive-In footage uploaded to YouTube after school. Interviews, performances—every video was different from the other, offering us glimpses into the band and the world they existed in. Seeing pre-afro Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez flail frenetically in a “Classroom” in Greensburg, PA, in 1998; Rodriguez-Lopez and Jim Ward talking about Metallica’s lawsuit against Napster; Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez messing around at a gas station while trying to fix the band’s tour van; and, of course, the band’s memorable performance of “One Armed Scissor” on the Late Show With David Letterman in 2000.

At The Drive-In was one of the first band infatuations I had during the rise of the internet age. But just as fascinating and fun as it was to learn of the group online, was hearing stories about them from people that knew them in the city. During my junior year of high school, I’d spend most of my lunches listening to my AP History teacher, Victor, talk about the interactions he had with the members. There was one story in particular that he shared that I’ll always remember: how his band played alongside Bixler-Zavala when the latter was the drummer for a band called Fall On Deaf Ears. The punk group was led by two women—Laura Beard and Sarah Reiser—which was unprecedented at the time. Both Beard and Reiser were an important part of the city’s local music scene at the time, having been in bands together before Fall On Deaf Ears—the Glitter Girls and Rope—and lending their equipment to other local musicians.

Unfortunately, the two women passed away at the young age of 17, with Beard and Reiser killed in a car crash on March, 23, 1997. Bixler-Zavala had alluded to their deaths on multiple At The Drive-in songs, but the most notable one is “Napoleon Solo:”

March 23rd hushed the wind, the music died / If you can’t get the best of us now / It’s cause this is forever.

I had sung those lyrics more than once, unaware that this was an ode to Beard and Reiser, two El Pasoans immortalized in one of the most beautifully poignant and powerful songs the band has ever written. In retrospect, “Napoleon Song” isn’t just a tribute, but a cryptic history lesson on other music pioneers a part of the city—people integral to the fiber of El Paso’s local music scene, who were taken away too soon. I gained a sense of appreciation and pride for El Paso through At The Drive-In, but the stories surrounding them added to this mythic allure that  my friends and I had about them, and about an El Paso that was different than the one we were born into.

Years later, I befriended a man named Ralph, who has known Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez since they were teenagers. Just as I had as a teenager, I’d hang on to his every word as he recounted different memories of playing alongside them and referenced local bands they were all affiliated with: Marcellus Wallace, Los Dregtones, Startled Calf. I was 23, but my admiration for At The Drive-In was just as strong as it had been in high school. But through these interactions, I began to understand that At The Drive-In wasn’t mythic but a part of something larger and beautiful — a part of El Paso’s history that I’m still learning about. There’s a privilege in being able to have such interactions, a privilege that comes from being from the same city.

The fact that At The Drive-In made its return on May 5, 2017—two months after the 20th anniversary of Beard and Reiser’s deaths—is beautifully poignant. Whether intentional or not, the timing is symbolic—a reminder that the same place I call home, with my closest friends and family and cherished memories, belong to them, too.