Pat and Barbara MacDonald, better known as Timbuk 3, are “keen observers of American culture,” according to reviewer Andrew Abrahams in People magazine. The couple—and their rhythm-providing boombox— burst on the music scene with their debut album Greetings from Timbuk 3 in 1986. With a musical style that blends pop, rock, folk, country, and even funk, Timbuk 3 combines lyrics that can be “sarcastic, whimsical and unflinchingly emotional,” in the words of Rolling Stone reporter Moira McCormick. The mixture won the approval of fans and critics alike, especially as embodied in the hit single, “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” and the MacDonalds have released two subsequent albums, Eden Alley and Edge of Allegiance.
Barbara grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and Pat was raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin. They met in 1978 in Madison, Wisconsin, where Barbara was making preparations to attend the university there. Pat was a solo performer at a local club, and Barbara admired what McCormick described as “the intense young man’s deft picking and pithy lyrics.” They became friends, but the relationship soon deepened into love. In the following year, Barbara gave up bartending to become a solo performer in her own right. She recalled for McCormick: “I’d play Fond du Lac, Pat’d play Green Bay. We’d meet at the Stretch Truck Stop on Highway 41 at 3:00 a.m., have some coffee and drive back home in tandem.” Eventually each became involved in separate musical groups, he with the Essentials, she with Barbara K and the Cat’s Away. After they married in 1982, Barbara left her group to join Pat and the Essentials.
But there were problems, and the band broke up, leaving the MacDonalds to their own devices. Actually, the couple saw this turn of events as an opportunity. “For Barbara and me,” Pat explained to McCormick, “music was our whole life, but everybody else I’ve played with has been more casual. So we figured with just the two of us, we could achieve what we were going after.” With just the two of them, however, the MacDonalds found it difficult to create the kind of sound they wanted; Pat finally came up with the idea of prerecording a rhythm track and playing it back on a boombox while they played acoustic guitars. Once they bought the proper equipment, they came up with the name Timbuk 3 and headed for New York City to try out their act as street musicians. After a week, they moved to Austin, Texas.
Fortunately, Timbuk 3 went quickly from performing on Austin’s streets to performing in its nightclubs, including the Hole in the Wall and the Black Cat Lounge. At about this time they also managed to get a demo tape to Carl Grasso, of I.R.S. Records, who was in charge of finding new talent to feature on the MTV program, “The Cutting Edge.” In 1985 the show featured Austin talent, including the MacDonalds, whose performance garnered them a recording contract with I.R.S. By the following year they had released Greetings from Timbuk 3 and made a splash with what Steve Simels of Stereo Review hailed as “the world’s first rockabilly ode to an undergraduate physics major”—“The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” Supposedly a song protesting the dangers of nuclear technology, many misinterpreted “Shades” as an upbeat, optimistic ditty. Pat MacDonald complained to a People reporter: “I thought my point was clear as a bell. The man in the song is naive and dangerous.” Other cuts from Greetings included “Hairstyles and Attitudes” and “I Love You in the Strangest Way.”
Though Richard C. Walls, reviewing in High Fidelity, asserted that Timbuk 3’s 1988 second album, Eden Alley, “is just as inventive” as was Greetings, many critics deemed it something of a disappointment. It didn’t yield any hits, but David Browne of Rolling Stone singled out the songs “A Sinful Life” and “Little People Make Big Mistakes” for praise, commenting that “husband and wife wrap their voices around each other’s, spin off into solo parts and then converge like lovers” on
Group members are Pat MacDonald , born c. 1952, and Barbara Kooyman MacDonald , born c 1958; married to each other, 1983; children: Devin.
Both performed as solo artists in Wisconsin; Barbara worked as a bartender, in Wisconsin, c 1979; both joined the Essentials, c 1983; formed Timbuk 3, in Austin, Tex., c 1984. Some of their songs are in the film, Texas Chainsaw Massacre II.
Awards: Grammy nomination for Best New Artists, 1987.
Addresses: Home —Austin, Tex. Record company —I.R.S.
the latter cut. In 1989 the MacDonalds released their third album, Edge of Allegiance, to better reviews. Andrew Abrahams of People voiced his approval, saying that “musically the duo gets a fuller sound” and lyrically “they’ve sharpened their satirical knives.” Edge of Allegiance includes the hit, “National Holiday,” which makes fun of patriotic celebrations like Independence Day and Memorial Day, and “B-Side of Life,” which “both satirize[s] and lament[s] Joe Everyman who picks up his dinner at 7-Eleven,” according to Abrahams.
But despite the often sarcastic bent of Timbuk 3’s lyrics, which have tackled everything from television evangelists to homelessness, Walls noted the “essentially sympathetic quality” of the band’s work. He claimed that their songs are more detailed than they are judgmental, and that their subdued delivery softens the bite of their satire. The MacDonalds’ songs, Walls concluded, “can’t fail to warm the cockles of any world-weary secular humanist’s heart.”
Greetings from Timbuk 3 (includes “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” “Life Is Hard,” “Hairstyles and Attitudes,” “Facts about Cats,” “I Need You,” “Just Another Movie,” and “I Love You in the Strangest Way”), I.R.S., 1986.
Eden Alley (includes “Eden Alley,” “Easy,” “Reverend Jack and His Roamin’ Cadillac Church,” “Sample the Dog,” “Tarzan Was a Bluesman,” “A Sinful Life,” and “Little People Make Big Mistakes”), I.R.S., 1988.
Edge of Allegiance (includes “National Holiday,” “B-Side of Life,” “Standard White Jesus,” and “Wheel of Fortune”), I.R.S., 1989.
High Fidelity, August, 1988.
Interview, March, 1987.
People, January 26, 1987; February 16, 1987.
Rolling Stone, November 6, 1986; August 11, 1988.
Stereo Review, January, 1987.
Texas Monthly, November, 1986.
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