Fred Mills: 10 Musical Moments

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In which the editor of this magazine totally, like, geeks out about his inner geek.

BY FRED MILLS

Not long ago I had the pleasure of reconnecting with Cor Gout, founder and frontman of the Netherlands’ long-running rock/post-punk band Trespassers W  (not to be confused with a number of other similarly-named, Winnie The Pooh-inspired entities such as Seattle’s Trespassers William). He and I had corresponded frequently back during the ‘80s and ‘90s, as I was smitten by his outfit and wrote enthusiastically about the group. (1988’s Dummy and 1989’s Potemkin remain classics of that timeframe, and the group continues to this day.) In addition to his musical endeavors, Gout is also a poet, author and journalist, and among his literary activities has been working with the Dutch music and record collector magazine Platenblad, which first started publishing in ’92. Out of the blue, he got back in touch with me recently because he wanted to interview me via email for Platenblad and for a forthcoming book project; clearly he sensed that tapping yours truly’s (cough) vast reservoir of musical knowledge would be a sure-fire way to boost sales and impress his readership… I digress. Also part of the project, and appearing in previous issues of the magazine, are Simon Frith and other luminaries, so apparently I am in good company.

Below are the fruits of that interview, “10 Musical Moments With Fred Mills,” which I have no doubt will (cough) draw plenty of eyeballs to my blog here, and in turn, drive traffic to the BLURT site—particularly if you write and speak Dutch.

For those poor lost souls who only understand English, however, following the PDFs of the Platenblad feature is my original text which he adapted for the magazine. I trust that all of you will be suitably impressed to run, not walk, to the nearest internet search engine and track down copies of the magazine and, upon publication, the book. Tell ‘em Cor sent ya…

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My correspondence with Cor started with a few questions about my journalistic background, which commenced in the late ‘70s doing punk fanzines and trying to score free records, and eventually turned into actual paying assignments with actual magazines…

Cor Gout: When did you start writing for Option?

Fred Mills: I started with issue 1 in 1985 after being invited by the editor and publisher to be a contributor to the new magazine. This was because I had previously contributed to its predecessor, OP; when OP folded, it essentially split into two magazines, Option and Sound Choice, and I was also invited to write for Sound Choice and did so until it stopped publishing. I contributed regularly to Option for almost all of its lifetime, primarily record reviews of all genres – for each issue the writers were sent a box of records and tapes that the editor had personally selected for us, based on what he perceived our tastes and strengths to be.

Did you also write feature articles?

Yes, I did a few during my tenure with Option, although much of the time the artists I was interested in writing about and interviewing (such as psychedelic and punk acts) were not considered huge priorities for Option, as there were so many to choose from, and the magazine prided itself on being very broad in its purview and actively sought to cover as much non-rock material as possible.

For what magazines apart from Option did you write?

In the ‘80s and early ‘90s there was a slew of them, often one-off projects or me simply giving a ‘zine a story or review that for some reason the editor solicited from me (typically, about a North Carolina band since I lived in North Carolina until 1992). Among them: The Bob, Bucketful of Brains, Puncture, Jet Lag, and Biohazard Informae and Son of Biohazard (which were my own ‘zines). By the mid ‘90s I’d also been writing for Spin, CD Review, Backstreets, Stomp & Stammer, Magnet and others, along with weeklies such as Creative Loafing, Phoenix New Times, Tucson Weekly and Seattle Weekly.

What was your favourite mag you wrote for (and why)?

The Bob – indie rock mag out of the Philadelphia area. This was partly because they would print anything I submitted, but mainly because my tastes aligned quite closely with the editors’ tastes. They also trusted me to not only come up with reviews and stories that fit their underground and college rock aesthetic, but to do several regular columns – I wrote columns on cassettes, fanzines/books and the Australian/New Zealand scene. I think The Bob stopped around 1994-95, but I am not 100% of that. I have no digital records of any of my Bob stuff, and all my archives are in storage and not accessible. And the magazine never got digitized for the web. I would simply say “mid ’90s.”

The publisher/founder was Gregory Beaudoin, while the editor was David Snyder. And Bruce Davis was probably the Associate Editor (I think). Greg also did most of the layout, and although early on he assigned the content, eventually David handled all assignments and directed the editorial slant. Greg loved postpunk and new wave and the early issues, with content such as Siouxsie and The Cure, reflected that, as did American powerpop groups such as The dB’s that he championed in the magazine. My first piece for The Bob was on The dB’s, in fact. And I am guessing that any Trespassers W reviews I wrote were at the request of Greg, or possibly David – although as things developed, they let me pick most of my own reviews so I don’t doubt the fact that I would have probably asked them to let me do a TW review!

David was definitely an “early adopter” of the American indie rock and garage scene, so a lot of the stuff that we wrote about under his editorship reflected that. He also loved the garage bands of Europe and Australia, much like Bucketful of Brains in England, and we often thought of ourselves as comrades in arms with Jon Storey, Nigel Cross, etc. from Bucketful. Like me, a total record collector (vinyl) nerd, and avid champion of indie and underground US bands.

Mention a few of your articles you are proud of.

I did cover stories on R.E.M, and the Flaming Lips for The Bob: the former had me traveling around with the band in NC and VA for about a week and the issue my profile appeared in was also the first issue that The Bob included a flexidisc with it, an exclusive R.E.M. cover of “Femme Fatale”; the latter was one of the earliest national features on the Lips so I feel like I was way ahead of the curve in spotting their uniqueness, and we also had an exclusive flexidisc featuring them covering Led Zep and Sonic Youth – from a tape a friend and I recorded at the show ourselves. [The Flaming Lips Flexi for The Bob: “Thank You” (Led Zep) b/w “Death Valley ’69” (Sonic Youth), recorded live at the Milestone Club, Sept. 11, 1987, Charlotte NC, by Fred Mills and Tom Cannon. (We have a video of the show too, but it has never been distributed). These two tracks were later released on the official Lips compilation A Collection of Songs Representing an Enthusiasm for Recording…By Amateurs.]

I am also very proud of an extended feature I did on The Doors around the time the Oliver Stone movie was coming out, because I interviewed the surviving members, the Doors manager, one of Jim Morrison’s best friends, and even the guy who worked with Stone on his screenplay. That story actually got picked up for republication in 6 additional publications, including 3 overseas; I think I wound up getting paid in some form or another about 5 times, which ain’t too shabby. In the story, I was able to state in print for the first time, officially (as opposed to rumors) that Jim Morrison was impotent for the last couple of years of his life — his best friend revealed the details. My biggest regret is not writing a book on the Doors, as I definitely had the background, knowledge and archives to do one, not to mention a stockpile of initial interviews. But at the time I said to myself, shit, who needs another Doors book, given how many there already are; nobody would buy it. So I dismissed that silly little notion of writerly ego fluff. Boy, was I wrong on all counts.

Tell me about your current magazine. What sort of music does it cover?

Blurt magazine – www.blurtonline.com — It rose from the ashes of Harp magazine, started by the same guy, who eventually burned out and sold it. Meanwhile, though, I’ve been editing it since it began in 2008. It started as a digital/downloadable publication then later turned into print, and then after about 14 issues finally reverted back to all digital. As a result, the writers and I pretty much cover whatever we are interested in, from indie to metal to Americana to underground hip hop. Anything that is non-mainstream (i.e., we are not Pitchfork or Spin) we might write about. I post daily album reviews and news to keep the content fresh, and then throughout the week I also post exclusive features and interviews, book/DVD/concert reviews, audio and video track premieres, etc. Nobody gets paid (I certainly don’t) so it’s more of a blog-type labor of love in which we do what we can in between living our lives and having day jobs. In that regard, I personally have come full circle: I’m essentially writing to keep my name out there and to keep free music coming in, which is the same as it was for me when I started in the early ’80s. In 2016, a career in music writing is abject fantasy, so you might as well enjoy what you’re doing, and if the occasional album, book or concert ticket gets slipped over the transom, consider that a “win.”

10 MUSICAL MOMENTS:

1—I was probably about 10 or 11 and one afternoon I went over to my best friend’s house and we decided to play some of the records his older sister, then in high school, had. One of them was the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown” and to say it blew my mind would be a huge understatement—I had NEVER heard a so-called pop song that complex and dense, so lyrically inscrutable-yet-tantalizing, and so rhythmically hard. Prior to that it had been standard fare British Invasion like Herman’s Hermits and Motown soul. It was a gateway drug.

2—A few years later, maybe around ’68 or ’69, I had wandered uptown after school. Walking across a parking lot I heard this muffled noise coming from a large shed behind one of the stores. Carefully opening the door just a crack, I was immediately assaulted by a loud electric blues song dripping with distortion and boasting a kind of sleazy swagger (I later found out that it was a psychedelic adaptation of the Stones’ “Paint It Black”). It was being performed by three long-haired, hippie-type high school dudes. I had NEVER seen rock music performed live and in person before, just on TV. I was mesmerized—addicted.

3—On January 21, 1977 the Patti Smith Group came to the University Of North Carolina Chapel Hill, NC. Day of show: I went over to the venue to see if I could volunteer as a roadie-for-the-afternoon and, in turn, meet the band. Soon enough I was humping boxes of cables at the soundcheck, later talking with Lenny Kaye at length about “Nuggets” and garage rock, and getting autographs from the entire band. I also watched Patti letting in about 15 or 20 fans who had gathered outside the stage door, bearing flowers and gifts. (“Don’t kick them out,” she firmly instructed the stagehands.) Many years later, while interviewing her, I recalled the scene and she noted that taking care of the fans had always been paramount for her.

4—A couple of years later I was contributing to a fanzine called “Biohazard Informae,” which had been started by members of the Chapel Hill group The H-Bombs, featuring a pre-dB’s Peter Holsapple and a pre-Let’s Active Mitch Easter. Will Rigby (later of the dB’s) also wrote for the zine and heard that John Cale was coming to Chapel Hill, and as he was acquainted with Cale’s bassist George Scott (R.I.P.), he suggested that I line up an interview with Cale for the zine. I accepted the “assignment.” Only trouble was, I had never done an interview before…

Day of the show: I meet Scott at the venue, pre-soundcheck, and he ushers me upstairs to the dressing room where Cale is ensconced. A rather large (not fat) and imposing chap, he is dressed in combat fatigues, smoking a big cigar, and has copies of “Soldier of Fortune” scattered around the table and floor. We settle in for the interview, I turn on the tape recorder, he scowls at me, and it’s all downhill from there. In my nervousness I stammered and fumbled through my lame questions (“So, John, Lou Reed’s career really took off after the Velvets broke up. How do you gauge YOUR career success?” [Cale, stiffly] “One day at a time.”). Then, after about 15 minutes my batteries start to fail, and of course I did not bring extras. The interview never saw formal publication, but it did teach me some very important lessons about what one needs to be a journalist, namely, extra batteries and a pint of whiskey to calm the nerves.

5—On January 31, 1985, the Replacements came to Charlotte, NC, punk venue the Milestone Club. Since I was at soundcheck to meet the band, I wound up giving them directions to the nearest liquor store and also was asked to keep an eye on Bob Stinson (R.I.P.) until showtime as he apparently had a habit of disappearing from time to time. So I hung out with him, talking about nothing in particular, and then at one point he asked me if I knew where he could get some “candy.” There was some initial semantic confusion on my part: “What, coke?” “No, candy.” “You don’t mean smack do you?” “No, candy!” That cleared up, we make a run to a nearby convenience store. Soon, Stinson’s happy as a clam with his paper sack of jawbreakers, lemon balls and candy cigarettes—the latter would be visible later during the concert, poking from his ears.

It was an amazing show, incidentally, one of the proverbial “trainwreck” concerts where the band spent more time doing covers and partial covers than actual ‘mats songs. It taught me that rock ‘n’ roll is less about ability, finesse, taste and entertaining the fans, and more about passion, personal vision, and trusting in one’s own ability to create art without regard to the public’s expectation.

6—In January of 1990 Tom Cruise had finished filming his race car flick Days of Thunder at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. At the time I was the Music Editor for local weekly newspaper “Creative Loafing” and as it turned out, my friends in rockabilly band the Belmont Playboys had been hired by the Cruise people to perform at the cast and crew wrap party. The band wanted me to accompany them as one of their “roadies” in order to document what would certainly be a choice addition to their performance resume. We got more than we bargained for…

Early in the evening, co-star Robert Duvall arrived at the party with four very special friends in tow: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, June Carter Cash and Jessi Colter. Holy shit. I soon enough ditched my undercover-journalist guise and turned into a gushing fanboy, going over to welcome them to Charlotte and shake their hands. Soon enough, Cash and Jennings got up onstage to play with the band for a couple of songs, followed by their wives, and then by Duvall. Before it was all done, Duvall was leading the entire room in an extended chorus of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The looks of pleasure on Jennings and Cash’s faces were priceless—as was the million watt smile Cruise flashed when I wandered over to him to “casually” ask what he thought of the band and the guests. “Man, they were rockin’!” he replied. Looks like I scored an interview, not to mention one of those once-in-a-lifetime, gonna-tell-the-grandchildren-some-day moments.

7—In September of 1990 GWAR came to Charlotte, NC, venue the 4808 Club. I was, naturally, going to cover the show for “Creative Loafing.” This turned out to be the night that GWAR fell afoul of the prevailing Bible Belt mentality in our region and the looming PMRC/parental warning stickers/war on metal & hip-hop era. Vocalist Oderus Urungus was arrested for obscenity: according to the charges he depicted “anal intercourse, masturbation, and excretory functions.” Well, it was GWAR, what did you expect? The band would later turn the incident into a movie and an album, but meanwhile there was a near riot; the club owner was also arrested for being part of the melee; and I not only covered the scene for the paper but also wound up writing about it for Billboard magazine and being interviewed by MTV News and Rolling Stone.

The evening and its aftermath affirmed my belief that rock music was and should remain the voice of anti-authoritarianism, and anti-status quo. And that it didn’t matter whether we were talking about Elvis Presley wiggling his lower body, Mick Jagger arousing the hormones of impressionable young teenage girls, GWAR performing mock sex acts upon right wing preachers and politicians, Two Live Crew asserting their right to be as nasty as they wanna be, or Marilyn Manson scaring parents into thinking their kids were on the verge of leaving home to go join a satanic cult. Rock will always find a way to give the current generation a reason to think outside the box and to hoist a middle finger at the previous one.

8—In October of 2011 I found myself sitting in the upstairs dressing room of Irving Plaza in New York with Joe Strummer (R.I.P.), who was touring with his band The Mescaleros. Talking to him for “Magnet” magazine—and also having our interview filmed by Dick Rude for the Strummer documentary Let’s Rock Again!—I found him to be as gregarious, thoughtful and, yes, intermittently cranky as I’d heard him to be. We talked about heroes and role models and career highs and career lows and “the only band that matters,” Strummer consistently deflecting my comments any time he detected even a hint of fanboy praise and referring to himself as merely a “hack” who was lucky to work with talented people.

It was an incident prior to the interview, though, that sticks with me the most, and is emblematic of the man’s character and all around genuineness. Earlier, downstairs during the photoshoot for the article, in the main room was opening band The Slackers attempting to soundcheck. But the club soundman grew impatient and informed the group to finish up. Overhearing this, Strummer marched over to inform the soundman in no uncertain terms that The Slackers were to be given as much time as they needed. “I remember what it was like to be the opening band trying to hustle through a soundcheck and taking abuse from clubs, soundmen and headliners,” he declared, upon returning to the shoot.

9—During 2014-15 I found myself reverting to my baby-boomer ways, springing for not-inexpensive concert tickets to see Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and The Who, all artists I had seen multiple times previously and, with the exception of McCartney’s early band during the ‘60s, artists I had caught in their proverbial heydays. But I had faith that they would still be able to deliver the goods, and I was not disappointed. These were not performers resting on their laurels or even taking victory laps. They were having the times of their lives.

This says to me that as we bow down at the altars of aging jazz and blues men, we need to acknowledge that just because rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be a young man’s game it doesn’t mean we put our heroes out to pasture when they hit some so-called expiration date. The rock ‘n’ roll oldies circuit is no longer the cringe-inducing domain of county fairs, ya know?

More important: rock is also a torch that keeps getting passed along, a phenomenon I witnessed firsthand. I took my then-13-year old son to see Springsteen, McCartney and The Who. He is not an avowed music fanatic like myself, although was certainly aware of each of these artists’ music. And while during the three concerts he remained his “cool” reserved self—Dad also pledged not to turn into That Air Guitar Dude during the shows so as not to embarrass Son—there was telltale tapping of feet and subtle drumming his hands on his seat, and not once did I catch him immersed in his iPhone screen. So yeah, he enjoyed it, and it wasn’t just one for the boomers. I’ll take that as a “win.”

10—Speaking of heroes, November 12 comes every year, and in 1997 it became a date that changed my life immeasurably, though not with a deep note of sadness. While living in Arizona during the ‘90s I worked at a record store, and among my regular customers was my friend Howe Gelb of Giant Sand along with his rhythm section, Joey Burns and John Convertino. (Burns would frequently come by the store to hang out and to see what interesting early folk, ethnic and Mexican records I had taken in, I would subsequently get quite the little private thrill when those sounds began surfacing in his and Convertino’s side project, Calexico.) I became friends with a member of the extended Giant Sand family, guitarist Rainer Ptacek (R.I.P.), who was a slide virtuoso a la Chris Whitley and specialized in a unique form of tape-looping when he performed with his resonator guitar, a vintage and beautiful National Steel.

Rainer, originally in pre-Giant Sand outfit Giant Sandworms with Gelb, was closer to the bone than the more commercial-sounding Whitley, with a purer, more soulful, less structured and more instinctual sound. But his career got interrupted after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, and although extensive radiation and chemo therapy granted him an extra year of life, on Nov. 12, 1997, he finally succumbed. It hit me hard—far harder than I ever anticipated. In a lot of ways it had seemed like he became the sound of the desert for me, both in a musical sense and spiritually, too. There was just something expansive yet intimate about his music, and during my conversations with him (sometimes as a journalist, others as just a fellow music collector sifting through new arrivals at the record store) I got to see the music geek and the fan in him alongside the songwriter and the artist.

I think that it’s important for folks to understand that the geek/fan stuff always occurs before the songwriter/artist part of the equation. Such knowledge doesn’t necessarily pull our heroes down from the pedestals we erect for them, but it definitely makes them more human and their music more meaningful in the long run over the course of careers that will inevitably have their ups and downs and artistic highs and lows. Rainer taught me that you don’t have to worship those heroes. But I still celebrate his life and legacy every year, on Nov. 12.

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