(Updated Friday, March 16, 3 p.m., to reflect new information about cause of death.)
The Plugz were just a little bit faster and tighter than the other bands in the L.A. punk rock scene in the late 1970s, and much of that ferocious precision was the direct result of the masterful sense of timing and touch by drummer Charlie Quintana.
Quintana's death in Mexico at the age of 56 from an apparent heart attack was announced Wednesday. He reportedly had been suffering from emphysema.
The El Paso, Texas, native also played with Social Distortion, Bob Dylan and Izzy Stradlin & the Ju Ju Hounds, among others, but he’d already demonstrated his extensive and astonishing range as a drummer on The Plugz’s crucial early recordings.
The L.A. trio’s two classic full-length albums couldn’t be much more dissimilar. Their 1979 debut, Electrify Me, burst with short, fast and snappy punk anthems such as the gibberish absurdity of “Wordless” and the arch Jonestown Massacre fable “The Cause,” alongside a frantic, sped-up evisceration of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” that quite frankly aced the countless wimpier versions that followed in its wake. Singer-guitarist Tito Larriva’s acerbic observations about life in this “Berserktown” were given considerable heft by the deceptively simple, curtly dynamic and solidly punchy interplay of bassist Barry McBride and drummer-percussionist Quintana.
Punk rockers often were dismissed as sloppy musicians in the classic-rock ’70s but not Charlie “Chalo” Quintana. The tumbling avalanche of supersonic tom-toms that he instigated on the intro of the album-opening “A Gain, a Loss” revealed his power, but Quintana also showed a supreme sense of swing when he switched seamlessly to a thrashing proto-hardcore pace or downshifted into a swaying but hard reggae groove on the album’s title track. The sharp crack of Quintana’s snare drum that announced the official start of “Adolescent,” following Larriva’s opening salvo of snarled guitar riffs, was momentously sublime and perfectly timed — a seemingly minor detail that triggered and connected the song’s ensuing thrashing intensity.
By the time of The Plugz’s second and final album, Better Luck, the group’s sound had expanded considerably. Gone were most of the punk rock tempos and silly lyrics, although occasional tracks such as “Achin’” still rocked overtly hard with Quintana’s closing fusillade of deft drum rolls and Larriva’s mesmerizing blur of Who-style power chords. But many of the songs had much more sophisticated arrangements, such as “American,” which recalled Love’s psychedelic-pop period, and the Latin funk-punk rhythmic shifts of “Gas Line” and “El Clavo y la Cruz.”
When the group ventured into outer space on “Reel Ten,” the evocatively poignant instrumental that fused surf-guitar sparkle with Ennio Morricone orchestral grandeur at the end of the film Repo Man, it was Quintana’s laconic drumming that kept the dreamy tune from floating away. By the mid-’80s, The Plugz had mutated into the more roots-rocking and bluesy Cruzados with the addition of guitarist Steven Hufsteter (The Quick, Shrine, The Dickies) and bassist Tony Marsico (Matthew Sweet, Paul Jones).
“We had an amazing connection; you can hear it in the way we play together,” Hufsteter posted Wednesday on his Facebook page in tribute to Quintana.
In an email interview the same day, Hufster elaborated on what it was like working with Quintana. “Tito Larriva was frustrated finding a drummer for The Plugz, so he went back to El Paso and somehow talked Charlie’s mom into letting Tito take her 14-year-old son to L.A.,” the guitarist wrote.
“I got to know Charlie when we were hired musicians for an Italian prog-rocker. Charlie had matinee-idol looks and … played with the relaxed assurance of a veteran session musician, but he still wasn’t old enough to be in a bar,” Hufsteter continued. “He tricked me into joining his struggling local band [The Plugz], which turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“Although Charlie was the greatest person to party with, he was also a deep and sensitive soul who appreciated the best things in life and art. He was constantly turning me on to new art and music,” Hufsteter added. “Driving all night in a van, killing time before sound checks, crashing on fans’ floors — Charlie and I were always laughing about something. Even on this sad day, thinking about him makes me smile.”
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Hufsteter closed with a final regret: “I was so sure that I would play again with him and Tito together.”
Quintana’s early reputation as an exacting but not overly flashy drummer eventually led to tours and recordings with a diverse group of performers including Joan Osborne, Cracker and Jimmy & the Mustangs. His stint with Bob Dylan, which included a performance on David Letterman’s late-night talk show, was a rare example in the ’80s of a classic-rock legend working with a punk-rock musician.
Quintana was also a member of The Havalinas, Izzy Stradlin & the Ju Ju Hounds, Circle Jerks and Agent Orange. He played drums with Social Distortion from 2000 to 2009 and appears on Social D singer Mike Ness’ second solo album, Under the Influences, a 1999 collection of roots and country covers.
More recently, Quintana, who was widely known for having a big heart when it came to underdogs of all kinds, tried to rescue abandoned dogs after relocating to Mexico. He frequently posted about animals in need on his Facebook page, although Quintana’s most recent posts alluded to unspecified problems in Mexico and a sense of despair in his life.