Longtime Austin musician Mike Carroll, who left an indelible impression as the passionate and charismatic singer for 1980s blues-punk garage band Poison 13 and later with the Lord High Fixers and Total Sound Group Direct Action Committee, died Tuesday night after a weeks-long battle with bacterial meningitis, close friends confirmed on Wednesday.
Carroll had been a roadie for seminal Austin punk band the Big Boys in the early 1980s when two members of that band, guitarist Tim Kerr and bassist Chris Gates, teamed with him to become the singer for a new band that also included guitarist Bill Anderson and drummer Jim Kanan. Releasing two albums on indie label Wrestler Records in the mid-1980s, Poison 13 played regularly at venues such as the Continental Club, and they appeared on the Austin episode of MTV’s “The Cutting Edge” in 1985 alongside acts such as the True Believers, Daniel Johnston and Timbuk3.
Two of Carroll’s bandmates remembered him with thoughtful public posts on social media in recent days when it became clear that Carroll would not recover. “Mike was into rockabilly, the Cramps, and ’60s garage before it was cool and way ahead of the curve,” wrote Kerr. “I brought in the blues and we all liked punk. It was seriously like witnessing Dr. Jekyll turn into Mr. Hyde when he was up on stage singing. Here was this quiet, somewhat shy guy who would just go off on stage.”
Anderson, who now plays with local band Churchwood, shared some thoughts he’d written a few years ago for the photo blog of former Austinite Pat Blashill, who photographed Poison 13 and many of Austin’s prominent punk and alternative bands in the 1980s.
Carroll “stood out for having a crazy black pompadour and tons of tattoos, rare in mid-’80s Austin,” Anderson wrote. “We had a pretty raw and unadorned approach to blues and rock and roll, either by design or maybe that was just the natural way it came out. Mike was one of those guys that wouldn’t say too much, but when he did talk, everyone listened, because he was smart, had great taste, and somehow knew about all this at-the-time obscure shit way before anyone had ever come up with the Internet. He wrote most of the lyrics and picked a lot of the covers and when we played, he somehow transformed from the silent introvert in the corner to a screaming, wild singer.”
Both Kerr and Anderson described the band as being too punk for Austin’s blues crowd and too bluesy for the city’s punk scene, but that blend made them unique in town at the time. It also influenced young 1980s musicians from Seattle, including some who became central to that city’s grunge heyday in the late ’8os and early ’90s.
In a 2011 American-Statesman story about mid-1980s Austin punk bands, writer Joe Gross talked with Gates about a show his post-Poison 13 band Junkyard played with Soundgarden. “My first inkling that anything was up was when the Soundgarden guys all said, ‘You were in Poison 13!’ and I said, ‘Uh, you know who Poison 13 was?’ They played a Poison 13 song as an encore.”
Steve Turner of the band Mudhoney remembered Carroll on Wednesday as “a very nice, sweet, quiet guy,” and recalls seeing him whenever the band went to Austin. The connection to Seattle, he says, happened largely because of the group’s 1984 self-titled debut album and a song called “One Step Closer,” which Seattle band the U-Men took to covering at live shows.
Survivors include his wife, Julie Mercer Carroll. A memorial service is tentatively being planned for February.
Here’s a video for the song “One Step Closer” that the Austin History Center posted to YouTube a couple of years ago: