In which we talk to Tim Lee and Bobby Sutliff about their classic ’85 album, recently reissued with bonus material.
BY FRED MILLS
Terminal, by Jackson, Mississippi, power pop legends the Windbreakers, originally released in 1985 by the Homestead label, has been in yours truly’s personal Top 25 ever since it first appeared—we’re talking an LP rubbing shoulders on my shelf with everything from Who’s Next, Let It Bleed, Funhouse, and Daydream Nation to Shake Some Action, Stands for deciBels, Sincerely, and Places That Are Gone. As produced by Mitch Easter at his Winston-Salem Drive-In Studio (six songs) and Randy Everett in the band’s native Mississippi (four songs), Terminal is a timeless slice of Southern-spawned tuneage that sports all the expected power pop influences yet still sounds utterly fresh and unique unto itself.
Yet with one semi-flukey exception which you’ll read about shortly, Terminal has never seen a proper reissue for the CD and digital eras, leaving me and fellow fans to wonder whether or not it will ultimately be consigned to those perennial “whatever happened to…” essays. As of this writing, it doesn’t appear to be on any digital streaming services, although luckily the superb 2003 Windbreakers career overview Time Machine is on both Spotify and Apple Music, and six of the compilation’s 20 tunes were culled from it.
Windbreakers cofounders Bobby Sutliff and Tim Lee, of course, are not exactly unknown quantities, as both have remained fairly prolific in their post-WBs solo careers—check the Trouser Press entry detailing their work together and separately, as well as this 2015 BLURT interview with Lee about his band at the time, The Tim Lee 3—and although Sutliff’s near-fatal car accident in 2012 served to temporarily put his musical career on hold for awhile, he continues to write and even finds time to collaborate with Montana-based psych=pop monsters Donovan’s Brain. Still, the general public’s obliviousness as regards Terminal seems all the more criminal in 2017 if you actually drop the needle on the platter and allow its pleasures to pour forth anew.
There’s the opening trifecta of “Off & On” (jangly intro, a harpsichord motif, and yearning Sutliff vocals), “Changeless” (a tough, hard-twanging Lee-penned surf/powerpop gem right up there with Let’s Active’s “Every Word Means No” and the Smithereens’ “Behind the Wall of Sleep”), and “That Stupid Idea” (more gossamer jangles from Sutliff, whose soaring upper register here is the stuff of the angels). From that point the record simply doesn’t let loose of its grip on the listener, from Lee’s deceptively dark jangler “All That Stuff,” to a remarkable cover of Television’s “Glory” featuring the Rain Parade as the duo’s backing band, to sinewy, sitar-laced rocker (and Sutliff-Lee joint composition) “Running Out of Time,” which closes the record.
It’s a goddam classic album, period—feel free to rewind to paragraph #2, above—with not a single throwaway tune. It’s also quite possibly the most beautiful bummer of a power pop album the ‘80s produced, with virtually every song a meditation on the vagaries and vicissitudes of love and all the emotional trauma that phrase implies. Utter the words “windbreakers” and “terminal” to someone at a record store or a concert, and if their face lights up and a knowing smile breaks, you’ve got the equivalent of a sonic secret handshake. We Eighties-college-and-indie-rock fans have more than a few records like that, of course, but the thing is, back then the idea wasn’t to keep our favorite bands secret—we felt it was our mission to proselytize for ‘em.
(Below: front and back sleeves of the original LP, plus the new CD package.)
Enter Italian label Mark, which a few months ago reissued Terminal as a sharp-sounding remaster boasting five bonus tracks, four of them from a 1986 live performance. Also included is a bonus booklet adorned with reviews that originally appeared in the wake of Terminal’s release, and some of those critical observations bear quoting here:
“A brilliant jewel of aural splendor from the goldmine left by the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Big Star.” —Option
“Think of them as a genteel Replacements with 12-string guitar, or an R.E.M with clear melodies and lyrics.” —Los Angeles Herald Examiner
“Originals that [evoke] everybody from Dylan to the Byrds, with references to the Beatles, acid-rock and the Left Banke. Sort of a brawnier approach to the Let’s Active sound, and more rural, too.” —Jet Lag
“Is this the pop record of 1985, or what??” —Jim Testa, Jersey Beat
Well, yes—yes, Jim, it was. Matter of fact, it still is. In a moment, let’s take a trip back in time and revisit it, courtesy the two men who created it.
Regular BLURT readers will recall our ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series in which yours truly has profiled the likes of Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter Hours, Green On Red, Thomas Anderson, and The Sidewinders. Sometimes these are fresh essays and interviews; other times they are features culled from the archives and updated as needed. I got the idea from a regular column titled “Indelibles” that I authored for BLURT precursor Harp magazine from roughly 2005 to the spring of 2008, when it closed up shop and filed for bankruptcy, and in fact several installments of my “College Rock Chronicles” have been retooled, expanded versions of stories originally published in Harp.
“Indelibles” itself was inspired by those great Mojo features in which a key, critically-significant album from the past was put under the microscope and viewed through a contemporary lens; the records we selected for each of my columns were, typically, just being reissued as expanded remasters, and the idea was to get the artist to discuss the making of the original album, reflect on its trajectory, and frame it within the larger context of what it meant to his or her career. If the artist was actually involved with the reissue, so much the better, and we would also delve into what went into that project, how bonus material was decided upon, etc. As a music fan first and a critic second, I have to say that it was pretty great to be able to geek out over some of my all-time favorite records by the likes of the Dream Syndicate, the dB’s, Let’s Active, the Clash, Wire, Pylon, the Slits, the Gun Club, Dinosaur Jr, etc.—not to mention being able to geek out in front of some of the people who actually created those records, but not as the slobbering fanboy I actually was, and instead under the assumed guise of (cough) a professional journalist and reporter. The truth is finally out.
So with this Windbreakers story, I’m formally re-booting “Indelibles.” Bobby, who lives with his wife Wendy in Columbus, Ohio, and Tim, based with his wife and bandmate Susan in Knoxville, Tennessee, were kind enough to weather my inquisition, and to them I just want to say—salute, gentlemen.
Set the stage for Terminal: With the first two EPs (1982’s 7” Meet the Windbreakers and 1983’s 12” Any Monkey With a Typewriter) under your belts, what was your collective state of mind as a band, and what was the music scene in your neck of the woods like circa 1984? TIM LEE: Actually, shortly after Any Monkey… came out, we kinda ceased being a band for a while. I started another band, Beat Temptation, that lasted a year or so. During that time, though, the EP was getting some attention, and Sam Berger at Homestead asked if we’d be interested in doing a record for them.
Bobby and I had been hanging out during that time, so it was no big deal to start playing songs for each other and get back into it.
BOBBY SUTLIFF: The 1984 local music scene was an interesting hodge-podge. There were quite a few bands doing their own thing. We were all friends for the most part. Tim and I would together, or separately, sit it with them quite often. Tim’s other band, Beat Temptation, was very good and released a fine EP and a full-length LP.
How did you land the deal with Homestead?
TIM: Like I said, Sam Berger was the guy who asked us to make a record, but he left and was replaced by Gerard Cosloy by the time Terminal came out. It was very early in the life of that label, so it kinda felt like they were just getting their feet wet.
You decided to return to the well for the album with Mitch Easter; what had you liked about him and his studio? What did he bring to the table that made you and other artists gravitate to the studio?
TIM: We made the first Windbreakers EP in a gospel studio in Madison, Miss., and it was not a particularly wonderful experience. But we’d read about Mitch in New York Rocker, and we were fans of the songs he did on that Shake to Date compilation (1981 UK album issued by Shake/Albion to document New York Rocker’s Alan Betrock’s indie label as well as Chris Stamey’s Car label), and we knew about the Sneakers and H-Bombs and the dB’s. So we just called directory assistance and got his number.
We talked [to Mitch] a few times and then we made a trip to Winston-Salem and tracked two songs, mixing and everything, in about 20 hours or something like that. The first session with Mitch was so revealing for me, in that I was like, “Okay, this is why they say making records is fun!” He was so creative and so supportive of our goofy ideas, willing to go down any road to come up with something cool.
BOBBY: We were very aware of the dB’s, and by 1980/81 knew about Mitch. It’s actually quite a long way from Mississippi to North Carolina, but the trip was so very much worth it. After about 20 minutes with him in his garage studio—the Drive-In of course!—we knew we had found our mentor/kindred spirit. I remember one musical moment to this day. I pulled out my guitar and played the intro to Big Star’s “Way Out West.” Mitch walked into the room and said, “Oh, you know them?” We were friends for life.
What are some of your most prominent memories from the Drive-In sessions for Terminal? Hanging with Mitch (pictured left, with Tim) Faye Hunter, and Don Dixon? (The latter two guested on bass on selected tracks.)
TIM: Other than going out to eat, we were pretty much nose to the grindstone, but my favorite memory of being at the Drive-In was the sense of possibility. Electric sitar? Let’s do it. Dixon’s coming by today. Cool, let’s get him to play bass. That kind of thing.
BOBBY: Tim mentions going to eat in passing, but I must confess Mitch teaching us about the two different kinds of North Carolina Barbecue was very important! Faye remains one of the finest people I ever met and I miss her so much. (She passed away in 2013) It’s strange, I’ve lived in Ohio for 20 years now and so has Dixon. And oh yeah, early on we drafted Richard Barone into playing some amazing guitar for us.
Favorite songs cut at the Drive-In? Happy accidents? Failures best left on the cutting room floor? BOBBY: My favorite Windbreakers tune recorded at the Drive-In was “Changeless.” Holy cow, that’s an amazing song—and should have been a massive hit. There are really no failures left behind. Mostly because we were on such a budget we had to use everything!
Tell us a little about working with Randy Everett for the other session back home—I recall spotting his name on more than just your records back in the day, so I’m guessing that he was a valuable guy to that region’s music scene.
TIM: Randy Everett is a guy that we’d just known around town. He was known as a jazz guitarist, but he was just trying his hand at studio engineering at the time. Rick Garner (Terminal co-engineer on the Mississippi session) was a businessman with an interest in music who bought some studio gear and set it up temporarily in his suburban home. That’s where we did the other tracks. As I recall, Bobby traded him a guitar for the studio time.
Randy very much became an important fixture on the recording scene in the South. A lot of folks worked with him, and I worked with him a lot on various sessions. A great friend; I actually saw him just a couple weeks ago. He’s still recording, and he’s also doing some very cool paintings.
BOBBY: Randy Everett is one of those guys other guitar players just hate! He is better than you are ever going to be. And in his own wonderful way he is just as good as anyone else behind the board. And, oh yeah, the guitar I traded him for studio time was a sunburst 1964 Fender Jazzmaster.
You cover Television’s “Glory” with the Rain Parade backing you up on the album; how did that connection happen?
TIM: We knew their record (1983’s Emergency Third Rail Power Trip), we dug it. I was booking shows at this tiny dive bar, and we were able to line them up for one. They stayed with me and (wife) Susan and hung out an extra day. We all just became fast friends. They had a day off coming up the following week, so we made a plan to record that Television song.
I remember all of us sitting at a sandwich shop before the session, mapping out the arrangement on the back of a brown paper bag.
BOBBY: Our entire connection with the Rain Parade was totally Tim and Susan. And wow—was I delighted about that since I was such a huge fan. Later on, I became friends with that other Paisley Pop genius band, True West, and was glad to bring them into our group of friends.
Anything else that was cut for Terminal that you ultimately decided against for whatever reasons?
BOBBY: Quick answer—no. Simply because we had to use everything!
Sonically, what do you think you were going for on Terminal?
TIM: To my mind, we just wanted to make a cool record. That was all. Perhaps Bobby remembers more about that.
BOBBY: Interesting question. I remember that (A) we didn’t want to sound overly dated like perhaps my beloved Flamin’ Groovies did from time to time; and (B) we didn’t want to sound like a “modern” ‘80s band would sound.
I’m struck how almost every single song is about a break-up, or a looming break-up, or looking back at the post-breakup wreckage, running into the girl who broke up with you, etc. Was this by design, or were both of you simultaneously in the throes of heartbreak when you happened to be writing material for the album?
LEE: I was already married, so I’d probably turned my attention to the heartbreak of everyday life, as opposed to any specific romantic strife. (I didn’t mean that to sound as stupid as it did.) (No worries, Tim.—Parenthetical Ed.)
BOBBY: Um, yeah, I kept rewriting the same song over and over. It was of course all about the same person.
What was your reaction when the reviews started rolling in? It was fun to read the ones you selected for the new booklet. I don’t think a lot of young fans can truly appreciate what the fanzine network back then was all about, and how it was “our internet,” along with the occasional breakthrough via a mention in Rolling Stone or Spin. I’ve written in the past about how there was this very special “us against the mainstream” feeling prior to the grunge explosion that has resulted in a bonafide community of friends who still commune on Facebook, etc.
TIM: It’s always gratifying to get good reviews, and most of ours were pretty positive. You’re right, the fanzine network was pretty great. They were physical things, not just something out in cyberspace. It was a very cool scene during the early days of the independent thing.
BOBBY: It’s of course the only reason we ever made a record—to get a good review! I’m only sort of kidding. I’ve got to say this—I met quite a few fellow musicians in those days who are still very close friends. That is so wonderful.
Tell us a little about getting out on the road to promote Terminal, and in particular the 12/26/86 show you culled the reissue’s live bonus tracks from. TIM: At the time, Bobby wasn’t able to tour, so I put together a band in Atlanta and did an East Coast/Midwest tour. It was a lotta fun. Bobby knows more about that live recording than I do… he’s the very handy archivist of the group.
BOBBY: By the time of the 12/26/86 show, I had been out of the band for quite a while and was well into recording my first solo album – 1987’s Only Ghosts Remain. That show was a Christmastime one-off thing. I don’t think we actually did another Windbreakers show together for a couple of years
Speaking of bonus tracks, any other rarities or oddities out there? You included “Lonely Beach,” from the 1985 Disciples of Agriculture French compilation, here. What was the story on it?
BOBBY: It’s my faux surf instrumental, which was recorded in quite a lo-fi way on my Fostex X-15 4 track cassette deck. I did redo it years later in somewhat higher fidelity on my solo disc On A Ladder, but I’m sure the original is better. I went through everything I could find recently and there remain two unreleased studio tracks from 1982 or so. That’s about it.
How did this reissue come about with the Mark label? (Note: Mark is a subsidiary of Italy’s metal-tilting Minotauro Records and to date has also reissued the Original Sins’ 1989 album The Hardest Way.) TIM: The short answer is, the Mark label asked about it, and nobody had prior to that. [Previously] the entirety of Terminal was tacked onto the end of the CD of 1989’sAt Home with Bobby & Tim because CDs were new and we didn’t feel we could ask people to pay $16 for one record. So we gave them a second one free. The mastering on the current reissue is much, much better.
Update us on any current activities—and what’s the possibility for future Windbreakers projects?
TIM: I stay busy with mine and Susan’s band Bark, plus I end up playing with a wide range of other folks here in Knoxville. Most of the time, I’m busier musically than when I was young.
BOBBY: I’ve been working on perhaps a solo disc for the last year or so—about half way there, I reckon.
TIM: We got together 10 or 12 years ago and recorded a couple of songs. They turned out pretty well, and we had a good time doing it. Around that time, we also recorded a song for a Buffalo Springfield tribute record. I guess we just never had the impetus to keep at it. (Note: Five Way Street: A Tribute To Buffalo Springfieldcame out on Not Lame in 2006. Details and a stream of the Windbreakers doing “Expecting to Fly” is here at Discogs.) After Bobby was in that awful accident a few years back, we made a tentative plan to get together with Mitch and record some songs, but that ended up not happening.
BOBBY: I’d be happy to turn over what I’ve got for a new Windbreakers disc. But I totally understand how unimportant that is in the world’s big picture.
Ah, Mr. Sutliff, some of us out here in Windbreakersville might opt to differ regarding that last point. Let the cajoling and convincing begin, fellow punters…
Dreaming about the bad, crazy sun that gazes down upon Tucson.
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: features on Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter Hours, Green On Red and Thomas Anderson) I’m turning shamelessly nostalgic. My reverie was prompted earlier today when my good friend (and BLURT publisher) Stephen Judge sent me a short video clip from Austin featuring Arizona desert rock legends The Sidewinders performing at our annual day party during SXSW at the Ginger Man Pub. There they were, my old pals Dave Slutes, Rich Hopkins and the gang, ripping through one of my all-time favorite songs by the band, “Doesn’t Anyone Believe.” Cue up (a) a ton of regret for not being able to attend SXSW this year; (b) fond memories of our 2013 day party during SXSW when the band also performed, not to mention even fonder memories of seeing them numerous times in the ‘90s when I was living in Tucson; and (c) about an hour’s worth of revisiting Sidewinders videos, reading old clips on the band, and more. Translation: another unapologetically rambling missive from yours truly. Feel free to change the channel now, but if you harbor even the faintest good memories of the group, I trust you’ll appreciate this one in the spirit with which it is served up. As the saying goes—so it’s truth that you desire? Read on….
“Now I couldn’t tell you what I know/ It changes like the weather/ But what I know is what I feel/ What I feel is enough to get me / Out of life and everything it means/ None of this is really what it seems…” — “Doesn’t Anyone Believe,” from 1990’s Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall
Sometime around 1987 or ‘88 a record turned up in my mailbox. Hardly an unusual occurrence; at the time I was working as a music critic for a number of regional and national publications. Most likely the package was posted my way in hopes of securing a review in East Coast rock mag The Bob, which at the time had achieved a degree of prominence, both for its championing of the burgeoning alternative rock movement—at the time, in this pre-Nirvana era, we called it “college rock”—and for its inclusion, in each issue, a limited edition flexi record, which to date had included then-unreleased material by everyone from R.E.M. to Camper Van Beethoven to The Church. A lot of bands jostled for coverage back in those so-much-younger-than days.
But unlike much of the musical flotsam and jetsam that arrived on a daily basis, this particular artifact established its sonic prominence from the very moment the needle hit the grooves—clear vinyl grooves, at that. (Side note: a cassette copy of the album was also in the package, thereby allowing me a nice sonic preview of the music in the car on the drive home from the post office.) Titled ¡Cuacha!, the debut from Tucson’s Sidewinders was at once familiar and foreign to my ears, a mélange of part-jangly/part-distorted guitars, tuneful-yet-aggressive vocals and thundering rhythms (the familiar part) and otherworldly ambiance steeped in a subtextual yearning that suggested exotic locales and a romance with purpose (the foreign part).
Thus began a musical love affair that has endured for nearly three decades, and I’m proud to report that my initial instincts were accurate: in their lifetime the Sidewinders—or Sand Rubies, the other moniker they operated under for a number of years during the ‘90s due to legal issues arising from a dispute with a lawyered-up North Carolina-based cock-rock/Pat Benatar clone band called Sidewinder—would craft some of the most memorable and timeless tunes ever to emerge from the Arizona scene.
“Witchdoctor said to me/ ‘You got no heart/ And you got no soul/ And you’ve got no life of your own/ Surrender what’s left/ And then I’ll set you free’…” —“Witchdoctor,” from 1989’s Witchdoctor
Certainly on their earliest recordings, including the aforementioned indie debut, Witchdoctor and Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall (both released on RCA via N.C.-based Mammoth), one can hear the vestigial remains of the mid-‘80s college rock scene that initially spawned the band (thank you, R.E.M.). The Sidewinders’ proud D.I.Y. ethos is fully evidenced as well, particularly considering that by the tail end of that decade thousands of bands were already tuning in full time to the nascent, noisy rumblings of the Northwest and those who still dared to wield a jangly riff or to sing in a voice south of a shriek risked excommunication from the Temple Of Hip. (My fellow Tarheel Mitch Easter, reflecting on his own band Let’s Active’s experience, told me that by the late ‘80s, anyone who came out on stage with a 12-string was just asking to have his ass kicked.)
Too, key roots and influences jostled for position in the group’s sonic tableaux, from the brawny pop raveups of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Neil Young’s Crazy Horsian gallop to the undulating psychedelia of the ‘60s-era Bay Area bands and—speaking of hip—the classic singer/songwriterdom of Neil Diamond, whose “Solitary Man” found its way into the Sidewinders’ setlists and soon became a performance mainstay.
Still, as with the proverbial “whole/more than the sum” distinction, what you got from the Sidewinders was considerably greater than what appeared to go into the band. First of all, founders Rich Hopkins (guitar) and Dave Slutes (vocals) carried the torch for immaculately-crafted, dynamically-rendered pop out of the ‘80s and into the ‘90s under the somewhat nebulous but still fitting banner of “desert rock.” 1993’s Sand Rubies album, cut for a short-lived subsidiary of Chrysalis Records and by some measures one of those “great lost…” records of the era thanks to a series of label and management missteps, is one of the most powerful documents of the era, panoramic in its sonic detail, richly evocative in its lyric nuance—and still capable, to this day, of taking the listener’s breath away with its scope and power.
And the Hopkins-Slutes duo, along with their shifting array of bandmates, helped lay the groundwork for similarly-inclined younger artists who, after weathering the ensuing decade’s worth of corporatized alterna-rock and its numerous hyphenated variants, would eventually go about the business of restoring the ideals of self-directed and –sustained D.I.Y. to rock ‘n’ roll. Although the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies would wield their greatest impact regionally—hugely respected by the Arizona music community, they were also very vocal and active boosters for scores of other groups—it wasn’t uncommon to find pockets of rabid fans in other locales across the country and around the globe. (I should know; living on the East Coast at the time, I was one of those fans who’d succumbed to the group’s charms. More on that in a sec.)
This was during the pre-Internet age, when following a band involved a lot more than calling up a Wikipedia entry and a Facebook page or clicking on an MP3 download link, and the resulting degree of devotion could be profound to the point of startling. Even as I was corresponding with the band prior to my 1992 relocation from N.C. to A.Z., writing about them for The Bob, England’s Bucketful of Brains and elsewhere (including the official Trouser Press entry), and swapping live tapes with fellow collectors from all points of the globe, other fans, scribes and collectors were doing likewise. You could label this somewhat naively along lines of “grassroots,” but the bottom line is that the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies built up a huge store of goodwill during their initial music industry foray, and no amount of subsequent rock world ups and downs will ever be able to take that away from us or the band.
Legacies are forged over time, of course, and the years have seen a fair share of personal and professional vicissitudes for both Hopkins and Slutes (one feature written about the band called ‘em “Arizona’s ultimate bad luck story”), with albums typically bookending protracted periods of inactivity for the band. More than once, they’ve played an Arizona “farewell” show, including as recently as 2011. Here in 2016, it strikes me as criminal that they haven’t recorded any new music in well over a decade; the Austin performance at this year’s SXSW mentioned in the intro above is but one of just a handful they’ve done since last year’s SXSW, and gig announcements only come sporadically at their Facebook page. That said, Rich and Dave live in different cities nowadays, so we fans will take what we can get.
But the music they’ve made together is permanently woven into the fabric of America’s grand tapestry of rock. 10, 20 or 30 years from now, when some kid encounters a futuristic variant of the mixtape containing, I dunno, the brooding psych-noir of “Bad Crazy Sun,” lush jangler “We Don’t Do That Anymore,” scathing/searing rocker “Goodbye” (one of the greatest kiss-off songs ever), or even the ethereally romantic Old Pueblo travelogue “Santa Maria Street,” he’ll be inspired to investigate further, and in digging deeper will ensure that the Sidewinders legacy continues to be carried forward.
A caveat: A portion of the foregoing was adapted from the foreword I penned for the 2011 book Came On Like the Sun: Collected Photographs of the Sidewinders and Sand Rubies, published by Hopkins and Doug Finical. In drafting my commentary, I compiled enough notes to disappear down the proverbial band rabbit-hole that we writers are prone to, having hung out with and interviewed the musicians numerous times over the years, dating back to the time of the arrival of that first Sidewinders album in my mailbox. Sometimes your objectivity gradually dissolves, and I will freely admit to being completely biased when it comes to their music.
Indeed, more than one friend has heard me talk about the time, circa 1991, when my wife and I were sitting around in our Charlotte, NC, house drinking wine and trying to decide whether it was time to seek out greener pastures, having grown weary and frustrated with our workaday routines in sales for a local shopping mall store chain. One tends to get restless every ten years or so, and thus there we were, literally on the verge of throwing a dart at a map of the United States to see what might be a viable destination. Among our options: New Orleans and Memphis, because we knew it would have to be a music town to make such a move worth cashing in our profit-sharing plans and surrendering our job security.
On the stereo that night were our favorite band, The Sidewinders, and mystically enough, at that precise decision point, “Get Out of That Town” from Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall came on. Against a sturdy backbeat and a bristly-jangly Hopkins guitar riff, vocalist Slutes offered this semi-sage lyrical advice:
“Now I know I’m crazy like a TV evangelist
But that town thinks it’s Los Angeles
And you know what’s worse? It’s trying to be it!
You gotta get out of that town…
And if you don’t know how,
We’ll find a way.
Anything that will allow you
To move out—and get away…
You gotta get out of that town,
Get out of those shopping malls—
C’mon down here!”
Certainly the song was born of the musician’s urging a friend or lover to ditch Phoenix—its sprawl, its plasticity, and yes, its shopping malls—to “c’mon down here” to Tucson. But in that instance, we knew they were surely singing to us as well. Two cross-country fact-finding and house-hunting vacations later, we had hired Mayflower movers to truck us and our stuff out to Tucson. Once we got there, it was not all moonbeams and tequila, of course; no overly romanticized notion ever fulfills itself. But the friends we made were lasting, and the memories we built were permanent. We even decided to have a child, something we’d resisted for ages, feeling that the time just wasn’t yet right for us. In Tucson, though, it finally felt right.
“At night you’ve got to stay awake/ The desert sun won’t even let you think straight…” — “Bad Crazy Sun,” from 1989’s Witchdoctor
Ironically, around the same time we were arriving in Tucson, the Sidewinders were finding themselves in the throes of the aforementioned legal woes, ultimately leading to the name change, a delay in the release of the much-anticipated fourth album, and a series of lineup changes. Within a few years, there would be a breakup and extended hiatus. I distinctly recall feeling, at one point, mildly betrayed: How dare they split after all the energy and emotion I’d put into them.
Maybe that’s why the subsequent Sidewinders reunions have had a certain bittersweet edge for me. Watching that brief video clip of the band live in Austin the other night that Stephen Judge sent me was, well… like I said, I got pretty nostalgic. Happy to see Rich and Dave enjoying themselves (knowing, too, that Stephen was there filming the clip and probably pinching himself with delight), but sad I wasn’t there to be front and center, punching my fist in the air and singing along. Lord knows I have the lyrics to every one of their songs memorized. (Below: a live clip of the band doing “Bad Crazy Sun” from earlier this year.)
Postscript: Years before I moved to the desert, I was dreaming about it. Not just imagining what the desert must be like, or playing back scenes from classic films, but literally: I’d find myself transported to a sandy, saguaro- and yucca-dotted expanse while a bad, crazy sun scorched the back of my neck and an equally blazing brace of guitars played across a background soundtrack like the rumbling of a distant, incoming monsoon. I must have had those dreams for nearly four years before actually arriving in the desert in the summer of ’92, on a wish and a prayer that the physical change in locale—from N.C. to Tucson—would provide me with the psychological change I’d been needing in my life.
It did, and the ten years I spent in the desert remain among my most vivid, productive and alive. For those, and so much more, I have Rich Hopkins, Dave Slutes and the myriad members of their extended family largely to thank. I plan to get back there one of these days.
Every person needs a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack to his or her dreams, and the Sidewinders are mine.
“In this corner, by candlelight/ And that’s where we’ll meet/ On Santa Maria Street” —“Santa Maria Street,” from 1993’s Sand Rubies
A fitting epitaph for the recently-passed guitarist Michael Carlucci.
By Fred Mills
Earlier this year, in August, we published an installment of our “College Rock Chronicles” series that focused on the great ‘80s indie rock band Winter Hours. Then, sadly and unexpectedly, the band’s erstwhile guitarist, Michael Carlucci, passed away at the end of October (go HERE to read my appreciation of Carlucci), and to say it shook up the music community was an understatement.
Now our friends over at The dB’s Repercussion blog have posted a wonderful collection of Winter Hours rarities comprising live and studio cuts that Carlucci had uploaded to Soundcloud prior to his death, along with two tracks that site owner Rob Field indicate may be from Carlucci’s final public performance in March, an acoustic gig that also featured other New Jersey popsters including a couple of folks from The Feelies.
It’s a gratifying listen, to say the least. Not only are their live WH gems like “Island of Jewels” and “Faded Pictures,” there’s a fantastic version of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season.” And one of the Carlucci solo tracks is none other than his old band’s classic “Hyacinth Girl.” Winter Hours fans, this note’s for you.
Go HERE and click on the MP3 link following the tracklisting. You’ll nab a nicely-ordered zip file with all 14 tracks. And thanks, Rob!
Jangly Byrdsian psychedelia, ornate Big Star-esque pop and paisley-powered college rock par excellence—any questions?
BY BILL KOPP
At peril of engaging in a mild bit of hyperbole, Donovan’s Brain can rightly be described as a college-rock supergroup. “College rock” – those of you over thirty may recall – was the label applied to music of the 1980s and beyond that didn’t quite fit on commercial FM radio, but was quite popular in its own semi-underground way. Duran Duran wasn’t college rock, but R.E.M. was; Human League didn’t qualify as college rock, but New Order did. College rock was eventually re-branded as “alternative,” a slightly less meaningful term: alternative to what, exactly? Oh: yeah: commercial product served up by the likes of Bon Jovi. (BLURT, it should be noted, has an ongoing series called “The College Rock Chronicles” that is instructional, having featured, to date, everyone from the Dream Syndicate, the Gun Club,Green On Red and Winter Hours to Dumptruck, R.E.M.,Dreams So Real and NC’s Snatches of Pink, with a side dish of college rock godfathers Big Star and Dwight Twilley.)
“Supergroup,” of course, was a classification that had come about nearly two decades earlier: when musicians of some individual renown came together as a new group, they earned the tag: Crosby, Stills, Nash and (sometimes) Young; Cream; Blind Faith; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Or, in much later years, the Traveling Wilburys.
But back to college rock for a moment. The jangly sound – often thanks to Rickenbacker guitars – was a key component of some of the era’s best outfits. And a knowing update of ‘60s garage rock coupled with a new wave edge; that was part of the mix as well. And some of the groups that exemplified the best of what college rock had to offer were The Windbreakers, Rain Parade, and The Long Ryders. Each of those groups reached their apex in the 1980s; they recorded and released music that may have not shifted millions of units, but they created music that was critically well-received, and that has stood the test of time.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Most of the aforementioned acts have long since broken up, their members having moved onto other things (not to mention having their gotten three decades older). But their creative impulses have not dimmed, and select members of those groups, along with others of note and skill, formed a collective known as Donovan’s Brain. (Above: “Take Me With You When You Go,” from 2013’s Turned Up Later album)
The group, which is loosely based out of Bozeman, Montana, includes guitarist Matt Piucci, late of Rain Parade and – of all things – Crazy Horse; guitarist Bobby Sutliff (The Windbreakers; go HERE to read our feature on Sutliff from 2013); Tom Stevens (The Long Ryders) on bass. And if that’s not enough college rock/alterna-cred, the group’s lineup features guitarist Deniz Tek (of American/Australian punk heroes Radio Birdman) and drummer Ric Parnell (better known to rock fans as Mick Shrimpton, spontaneously-combusting drummer for Spinal Tap, and also a member for a time in Atomic Rooster). The group is rounded out by names slightly less well known but of equal musical caliber: founder Ron Sanchez (multiple instruments), Scott Sutherland (many instruments as well), and vocalist Kris Wilkinson Hughes.
But pedigree only takes one so far: none of this history would matter one whit if the music wasn’t worth the listener’s time. Happily, the players and composers involved have, in Donovan’s Brain, created music that’s in many ways more timeless and potentially enduring as the music they made in decades previous. The group plays down the composition credits, but the fourteen songs on their new Heirloom Varieties (released on Sanchez and Tek’s Montana-Australia label Career) were—as you’ll discover if you read the credits very carefully with Google at hand—written collectively by Sanchez, Sutliff, Sutherland, and Stevens. That said, it’s clear that the other players bring their unique and estimable talents to bear on the arrangements.
After the delightful (if slightly tentative and wobbly) country rock of “Brighten Up Shop” (above), the soaring and winsome “Houseboy” will evoke smiling memories of the twangy, Byrds-influenced end of college rock sound. The more deliberate pace of “Saw it coming” is very reminiscence of Third-period Big Star, filtered through Rain Parade’s paisley-psych sensibility. (Look closely at one of the photos here and you’ll no doubt notice that Sutliff is sporting a Big Star tee.) The whooshing phased-guitars of “Up to Me Down to You” lean even more in a Rain Parade direction.
“Great Divide” feels like Bobby Fuller Four (specifically, the classic “Love’s Made a Fool of You,” which is quoted) crossed with the Flying Burrito Brothers; lots of shimmering electric guitars and winningly loose-limbed vocal harmonies abound. The twelve-string guitar solos are maddeningly short, as they should be in a great pop song: “leave ’em wanting more” is always a good creative strategy.
Some simple yet effective piano is a key ingredient of “Long Time Ago,” a Tom Petty-esque contemplative and melodic number. “Scant Information” revives the paisley underground vibe, with subtle use of Mellotron and backward guitar figures.
Kicking off what’s noted as Side Two (the disc is available on vinyl as well) “Wedding Bell Ring” sounds like the best Byrds tune you’ve never heard: adding to the creamy Rickenbacker guitar is some tasty Leslie-effected soloing and an extended bridge that’s strong enough to be a song itself.
Guitar distortion – something largely absent from Heirloom Varieties – roars in the spaghetti-western flavored “Selfish Modern.” Parnell’s galloping drum parts duel with aggressively strummed acoustic and wailing electric guitars. When the song breaks out midway, it’s reminiscent of The Long Ryders, but with a harder, more menacing edge.
“It Wasn’t My Idea” would have fit nicely on Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, Rain Parade’s 1983 debut. The beautiful guitar solo alone is worth the price of admission; the vocal harmonies are icing on the cake.
“Let it Go” has a melancholy air; its stacks and stacks of chiming, melodic guitar work eliminate the need for lyrics; word would have only gotten in the way in this breathtaking instrumental. “Lightning Life” saves its “Eight Miles High” styled guitar solo until nearly the end. The dreamy “Light in the Window” is a nice slice of retro-psych a la The Dukes of Stratosphear. The disc wraps up with the languid “Sailing off the Edge,” a minor-key workout that combines many of the disc’s best qualities – that Ennio Morricone vibe, those bright Rickenbackers, that keening Mellotron – into a lengthy and dramatic whole.
With Heirloom Varieties, the modern-day supergroup that is Donovan’s Brain has created a consistent, solid album that only gets better in repeated spins. If you’ve skipped to the bottom of the review looking for a quick summary, here it is: Heirloom Varieties is a likely pick for my Best Albums of 2015 list.
Below: an earlier version of the band circa 2009 performing live at the Seattle Terrastock festival.
Photos courtesy of Ron Sanchez and Career Records. Clockwise, from top left: Sanchez & Sutliff; Kris Wilkinson Hughes; a young Tom Stevens; Tek, Sanchez & Parnell; Scott Sutherland; Steven Roback, Sutliff, Matt Piucci & Sanchez (taken at 2013 Sutliff benefit concert). More DB details at http://donovans-brain.net/.
An evocation of a time, a place and a musical fever dream: the late, great ‘80s New Jersey pop band will never be forgotten. [UPDATE: We’ve just learned of the sudden and tragic passing of guitarist Michael Carlucci on Oct. 29.]
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: archival interviews with Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley and Green On Red) I’ve decided to resurrect liner notes I penned back in 2008 for a Winter Hours tribute album. Titled A Few Uneven Rhymes and issued by the Main Man Records label, it was a 2CD collection dedicated to the late, great New Jersey folk-rock/power pop quintet. The record assembled the likes of Dumptruck’s Seth Tiven, the Violent Femmes, Gordon Gano, Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws, the Feelies’ Glenn Mercer and Translator’s Steve Barton, additionally including a track by East Of Venus (featuring W.H. alumni Michael Carlucci and Stanley Demeski along with Mercer and the Bongos’ Rob Norris) plus a previously unreleased 1989 Winter Hours demo. Clearly a work of love by all concerned, including yours truly, it was intended to finally give the ‘80s New Jersey outfit its due—and, in particular, honor charismatic vocalist Joe Marques, who had tragically passed away in 2003 from a drug overdose.
As longtime BLURT contributor Jud Cost put it in his review of the album, “[Many of the ‘80s] bands, including Winter Hours, survived longer than common sense would have predicted. It was a wonderful era, full of weekly surprises, that won’t come again. Here’s a chance to get a real taste of those halcyon days, maybe for the last time.”
Indeed. It’s hard to fully convey the loyalty and love that Winter Hours generated among fans, but back in the mid ‘80s we clung, sometimes desperately, to “our” bands, and when one of them broke up we felt the loss deeply. Getting together in 1983 in the Jersey town of Lyndhurst, the group’s classic lineup featured Marques, Carlucci on guitar, Bob Perry on guitars and vocals, Bob Messing on bass, and John Albanese on drums. And Winter Hours appeared to have arrived fully formed, on the evidence of debut 12” Churches, what with its overtones of vintage folk-rock—the EP even included a cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”— and pristine Byrdsian jangle. Two more 12”ers followed, 1986’s The Confessional and, most notably, the stunning Wait Till the Morning EP which featured the title track and “Hyacinth Girl,” both destined to become timeless classics of the jangle-pop milieu, the type of songs you find yourself playing over and over because they sound better each time. That 12” and the Leaving Time debut longplayer, also issued in ’86 by the small regional indie Link Records, were rapturously received at college radio, as was the 1988 12” Say the Word, leading to a deal with major label Chrysalis, which released the group’s self-titled second album in 1989.
Meanwhile the group was touring the East Coast regularly and I was lucky enough to see them several times in Charlotte, NC, where I was living for most of the decade and became friends with the bandmembers (notably Carlucci who I still reconnect with from time to time thanks to the miracle of the Internet). Chrysalis, unfortunately, could never figure out how to break the band nationally—recall how, by ’89, a noisier, far more unruly sound was rearing its head across the country in Seattle, and as Let’s Active Mitch Easter so famously remarked to me, by the end of the ‘80s if you came out holding a 12-string you were asking to get your ass kicked—and the law of diminishing returns gradually conspired to make the band throw in the towel.
Yet though Winter Hours lasted less than a decade and only released a handful of records, the music endures and rarely do any of the songs sound dated. And then, that was it—at least until the tribute project came along, followed a couple of years later by Arena Rock’s expanded CD reissue of Winter Hours, thereby making it possible for a new generation to discover the group’s beauty and brilliance anew. The fact that so many of the artists on the trib were contemporaries of the band is additional testimony to the love and loyalty I mentioned above.
There’s not a ton of info about Winter Hours on the web, although guitarist Carlucci has set up a very nice Facebook page for the band that features a slew of photos, some of which I’ve reproduced here. There’s also a decent article about the band at the NJ.com website, occasioned upon the release of the tribute, so I’ll just leave you with that along with my own words from 2008, below, which are less a history of the group and more an appreciation—not to mention an evocation of an era that is long gone but never fails to generate fond memories. Also included here are a few choice tracks that I guarantee will melt your hearts. To this day, they still melt mine. (FM)
The Best Dream I Ever Lived
“Dear Fred, just want to say thanks again for all of your help & support concerning Winter Hours and the new music scene. If I can be of any help to you in any way up here, please let me know. Hope you have a wonderful summer. I’ll keep you abreast of Winter Hours in the future. Yours, Michael Carlucci.” ( — from a card sent to me, postmarked May 27, 1987; found 2008, tucked inside the sleeve of a Winter Hours LP)
By some estimations, the mid ‘80s milieu within which Winter Hours operated never even existed — it was all a dream, a kind of mass hallucination experienced by disparate pockets of non-mainstream music lovers. How else to explain the near-simultaneous appearance, in towns all over the country, of bands and fans either creating or soaking up pristine pop and folk-flavored rock sounds that aimed to touch the heart, and the soul, the same way those sounds grabbed the imagination of a generation of Anglophiles two decades earlier?
Back then there was no Internet — no email, no MySpace or Facebook pages, no newsgroups — through which to disseminate the latest up-to-the-second music information. There were no cell phones, either — no text messaging, no unlimited minutes, no calling plans — meaning a person could go broke pretty quickly yakking long distance on the land line (in the mid ‘80s the term “land line” hadn’t yet been coined, by the way). No, if you wanted to tell someone about this incredible group you’d just discovered, in all likelihood you’d send them a letter or a postcard and hope it would arrive before the band passed through their town.
Yet somehow we managed to reach out and touch each other, to paraphrase an old phone company marketing line, and as the decade progressed a network (analog, natch) gradually evolved to bring together fans and bands, college radio deejays and amateur rock critics (such as yours truly), fledgling managers and promoters — often in a very random, ad hoc fashion, but always with a sense of purpose and mission. This is important, we thought. And so we kept pushing forward, one step at a time.
Winter Hours was among those pop-minded groups that found itself right in the thick of the burgeoning college rock scene. (For those of you reading this who are too young to “get” the term “college rock,” just think “indie rock” without the hoodies, messenger bags and ironic hipster stances, or perhaps a pre-pre-pre Hot Topic strain of alt-rock.) The New Jersey quintet’s musical and philosophical peers were spread out all over America — among them, Athens’ R.E.M. and Dreams So Real, North Carolina’s dB’s, Connells and Let’s Active, Austin’s Zeitgeist/Reivers, California’s Game Theory, Connecticut’s Miracle Legion — and it wasn’t uncommon for ardent fans of one combo to be just as vocal supporters of the other groups. We compared notes and passed around live tapes, often — as evidenced by the Michael Carlucci correspondence above — connecting with the bands themselves to ensure that when they did come to our towns they’d know they were appreciated and would want to return.
We certainly welcomed Winter Hours, right from the get-go with their first three EPs, 1985’s Churches plus 1986’s The Confessional and Wait till the Morning. The latter’s “Hyacinth Girl” in particular was a dreamymooodyjanglycool anthem that managed to ride the college-rock zeitgeist as memorably as any tune from the era, and the group continued to craft anthems alternately piercing and punchy all the way through 1989 swansong Winter Hours. In Joseph Marques’ resonant vocals and poetic lyrics, the band had its own Jim Morrison, charismatic and beautiful, but minus the hippie baggage; in Carlucci and Bob Perry Winter Hours had a dynamic, versatile guitar team that could turn from atmospheric to earthy in the space of a single measure; and in the Bob Messing-John Albanese rhythm section that manned the first few records there was a suppleness and sensitivity afoot to power those romantic tunes the band so excelled at. (Albanese was one of several talented drummers who passed through the ranks and was in the lineup the times I saw the band play; he was later replaced by Frank Giannini of the Bongos, followed by Stanley Demeski of The Feelies.) Anyone who experienced the group during its heyday will tell you: as songwriters and musicians, Winter Hours had the gift; it also possessed an uncommon chemistry that helped bring the material vividly to life.
Nowadays I have trouble remembering a lot of what happened back then, and like I suggested before, sometimes it seems like a dream. As with many of you, at the time I was hurtling forward at such a rapid pace that I rarely stopped to take stock of all that was going on around me. Since I wrote for rock magazines throughout the ‘80s I’m fortunate enough that some of my impressions and memories got written down. But only a fraction. If someone were to ask me to name all the shows I saw from, say, 1983 to 1989, I’d probably be able to come up with ten, fifteen, twenty at most before stalling and having to consult my master list of live tapes that I either recorded myself on my trusty old Walkman or received in the mail in a swap (did I mention that there were no MP3s or FLAC files in the ‘80s?).
Hold that thought. There it is right there on my list: Winter Hours, the Milestone Club, Charlotte NC, 4-24-87, audience recording, 65 minutes, EX- sound quality. Tangible evidence that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a dream after all….
North Carolina’s Michael Rank, currently on a creative roll, has been on the scene for decades. An appreciation of his early band. Above, L-R: Sara Romweber, Rank (note leather pants), Andy McMillan.
By Fred Mills
Listening to Tarheel singer/songwriter/rocker/twanger Michael Rank’s stunningly great new album Horsehair a lot lately—hell, it’s been a goddam fixture on the office and car stereo for weeks now. It finds the former Snatches of Pink frontman collaborating with Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire, and it’s a match made in Gram ‘n’ Emmylou heaven. As we noted in the BLURT review of the record, he marries back porch soul to countryish roots rock, and “matters of the heart rarely stray far from Rank’s worldview, as he colors the rest of these outlaw folk tunes with nods to ex-wives, current flames and, of course, son Bowie Ryder, his most consistent muse.”
I practically had to arm-wrestle contributing editor (and Blurt blogger) Michael Toland for who was going to do the review honors as Toland is as much a fan of the dude as I am. (Go HERE to read his review of 2013’s Mermaids, and HERE for my review of 2012’s Kin.) Ultimately I said “uncle” and gave Toland the review, since I’ve written about Rank so frequently over the years that I risk being viewed as not particularly objective when it comes to his records. Well, fuck objectivity, y’know? The whole notion of “being objective” when it comes to discussing art, and particularly rock ‘n’ roll, is a journalistic smokescreen; you can’t write about an emotional experience from a distance, and when critics attempt to do so, their lack of engagement with their subjects shows. I’ll take passion over objectivity any day, because the whole reason I got into rock writing in the first place was because I realized that just listening to music wasn’t enough for me—I had to share my enthusiasm, share the wealth so to speak. In that regard, “Rock Journalist” became the proverbial accidental career.
Horsehair is Rank’s fifth solo album in three years, last year’s Deadstock and 2013’s In The Weeds joining it and the other two mentioned above. That’s a pretty impressive output by any measure, and it’s not an overstatement to say that Rank’s been on an extended creative roll during this time; release-wise, he basically went silent in 2007 following the release of the final album by his previous band Snatches of Pink. In absorbing Horsehair of late and thinking about what Toland wrote, I found myself thinking back to when I first encountered Rank and his music—the aforementioned Snatches of Pink.
It was 1985, and a cassette tape arrived in the mail with little fanfare. Titled The Stupid Tape and boasting a somewhat primitive-looking dark blue j-card, it featured six songs performed by what was at the time a 4-piece Snatches—Rank on guitars, Andy McMillan on vocals, Sara Romweber on drums and Jack Wenberg on bass. Raw and ragged but definitely right, the six-song tape had a primitive, careening-yet-hard-twanging cowpunk/garage quality to it on such eventual Snatches classics as “Salty Dog” and “Ones With the Black” that seemed thoroughly at odds with the prevailing jangly college rock of the day.
1987’s Demonstration/Demolition, also a tape, continued in the aesthetic, and by the time of the first “proper” Snatches release, 1988’s Send In the Clowns LP (released on the Athens-based Dog Gone, a short-lived indie label founded by then-R.E.M. manager Jefferson Holt) the group was also developing into a solid live act with a decent fanbase.
I forget exactly when I saw the group play for the first time, but it was probably around this time in Charlotte, at which point I was the resident Music Editor for alternatively newsweekly Creative Loafing and it had become my “mission,” as it were, to cover artists that the other local media either overlooked or deliberately ignored. Snatches of Pink certainly fit that bill, lurching into town from Chapel Hill on gas fumes and truckstop tacos and aiming to shake some action while shaking up the populace. “Where is the nearest liquor store?” most likely was the first thing they would ask when they arrived at the club.
Booze clearly fueled this band, which had slimmed down to a trio, McMillan having assumed the bass position (and sharing vocals with Rank) for 1989’s Dead Men. This LP, along with next year’s 4-song mini album Deader Than You’ll Ever Be, which was cut live at CBGB as a promotional radio release, is what solidified their image as a hard-drinkin’, unrepentantly badass group who clearly did not give a shit what folks—and, significantly, club owners and bookers—thought about the band as long as they came out to the show. That was another quality about Snatches which more than simply endeared me to ‘em: hailing from a long line of rock ‘n’ roll rebels that included such miscreants as the Rolling Stones, Iggy & the Stooges, Alice Cooper, Johnny Thunders and the Replacements, the Rank-McMillan-Romweber musical mafia were long, and I do mean loooonnnng, on attitude. They lived the part and looked it, too, each member’s shaggy, unkempt hair shrouding his or her face to the point that you figured it was only a matter of time before someone tumbled off the edge of the stage (no doubt this happened on a number of times, but I can’t say if it was due to not being able to see or simply too fucked up to walk). Rank in particular had a British rock star thing going for him, part Keef, part Nikki Sudden, part Hanoi Rocks, what with his penchant for tight pants, flowing shirts and colorful scarves. I mean, he probably wore eyeliner as well, but since I couldn’t see his eyes from under all that hair…
Snatches of Pink were the kind of group that drew a line in the sand between them and the “nicer” artists that the Triangle generally sent down to Charlotte, and a lot of us opted to join ‘em on their side of the line. My good friend Michael Plumides operated the city’s 4808 Club and was an early supporter like me, his own thumb-your-nose-at-the-powers-that-be sensibilities fully in synch with Snatches’. On more than one evening, standing in the audience watching the trio in full spin cycle and at maximum decibel, he and I would marvel at their undeniable outlaw charisma while assuring ourselves that, yes, this is the best fucking group in North Carolina right now. The band was a helluva lot of fun to hang out with, too, whether passing the bottle around or yammering on about the latest records we’d bought or bands we’d seen. During this period I struck up a friendship with Rank that I am proud to say endures to this day; he knew I was a fan, first and foremost, but I think he also knew that I “got” where they were coming from and weren’t simply fostering an image for no other reason than they could do it. He was a guy that understood rock ‘n’ roll tradition and wanted to find where he fit in to it.
There were naysayers and detractors too, one of them also owning a local rock club. I remember having a long conversation with Jeff Lowery (R.I.P.) of the 13-13 Club in which he groused about how unprofessional and arrogant Snatches was. Lowery was an astute booker and brought hundreds of terrific acts to town, but since he was coming from a businessman’s point of view, it probably wasn’t surprising for him to have a problem with a group that knocked over mic stands and monitors, left broken bottles on the stage and ignored the soundman’s pleas to turn down the volume and distortion. I have no doubt that Snatches left a trail of disgruntled club bookers in their wake during their initial run.
Not that their reputation among fans didn’t precede them. They scored a semi-major label record deal for 1992’s Bent With Pray; Dog Gone was, by design, a regional indie, so the distribution and marketing oomph of NYC’s Caroline Records was a no-brainer. In addition to benefiting from a decent recording budget the record found the band experimenting with a softer, psychedelic, more overtly melodic side; just opening track “Mother Crane” alone, with its strummy acoustic guitars, dreamy backing vocals and modal vibe, suggested some heretofore only intermittently displayed folk and roots influences. They didn’t go soft, however, merely expanded the range and depth of their songwriting and arrangements—which, I reckon, is the product of any band’s natural evolution and maturation—while still being able to rock out on a moment’s notice.
The album also served to introduce the stylistic shift displayed on Rank’s subsequent solo debut, 1993’s Coral, also on Caroline, which was dreamy and gorgeous and bursting at the seams with plangent guitars and no shortage of 12-string flourishes. In retrospect, these two albums can be viewed as a foreshadowing of Rank’s current incarnation as a folk/country-tilting troubadour, not necessarily examples of proto-Americana (the records have more of a baroque British feel) but certainly a glimpse of where his songwriting was headed. They also suggested great things loomed for Snatches, given the proper marketing and a healthy touring regimen to get their music showcased outside their immediate region.
And then—silence. In the summer of ’92 I left for Arizona, and as a result, lost touch with a lot of NC friends in the pre-Internet era. Meanwhile, no more music would emerge from the Snatches camp until 1996, and when it did it was, confusingly, under the name of Clarissa rather than Snatches of Pink. Perhaps someone at their new label, Mammoth, had convinced them that the original name was a tad too suggestive for the brave, bold, politically correct new world of commercial alt-rock; or maybe the band just viewed the three-year hiatus as an opportunity to start with a clean slate, but either way, it was a misfire, strategically, as the group’s Silver album failed both to capture a new audience and to hold on to the old Snatches fanbase. Of the former I am certain, because I was working in a Tucson record store and observed firsthand how Mammoth totally dropped the ball in terms of exploiting its distribution arrangement with Atlantic to effectively market Clarissa; of the latter, well, this particular fan thought it was a wonderful record, but my gut feeling is that a lot of people just thought Snatches had disappeared off the face of the earth.
Which it pretty much did after that, at least until 2003 when Rank resurfaced with not one but two albums, one as a heavy-rocking reconstituted Snatches Of Pink, Hyena (featuring Romweber on drums, Marc E. Smith on second guitar and a procession of bassist) and the other as a new group, Marat (whose Marat album was a co-writing project of Rank and John Ensslin, late of NC’s Teasing The Korean). The new-look Snatches would also go on to release Stag in 2005 and Love Is Dead in 2007, with Marat issuing Again in 2005, and all five of these Rank-helmed projects from the ‘00s are worthy entries to the man’s discography but none of them really got the exposure they deserved.
At any rate, this story is less an abbreviated history of Michael Rank and more a belated appreciation for one of my favorite North Carolina bands, the classic Snatches lineup of Rank, McMillan and Romweber. I dearly love those core records and I cherish every memory of seeing them perform live.
Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of info out on the web about Snatches; there aren’t even all that many good early photos of the band online. And the Trouser Press entry is relatively succinct, and incomplete, while the Wikipedia listing is criminally bare-bones and way out of date, with a bunch of dead links listed. There is an official Snatches of Pink website, although it appears to have gone dormant in 2009, and it doesn’t really deal with the early lineup(s) and albums, just the latter-day incarnation. It’s worth noting, though, that during that phase an indie documentary about the band, Now It’s A Rock N Roll Show, was released in 2007 by Trickle Down Productions and directed by Daniel Adams so you can get details about it at the site. (Below: two trailers for the film, which includes plenty of early-days content)
Meanwhile, Bent With Pray, Rank’s Coral and Clarissa’s Silver (which in my mind is a Snatches album) are all readily available, and fairly inexpensively, at eBay and sundry online sources while the three Dog Gone titles surface from time to time (the somewhat rare CD version of Dead Men is even showing currently at Discogs, ranging from $9 to $35). The more recent Snatches CDs can be found easily too, and Love Is Dead is also available at Rank’s Bandcamp merch page along with all his recent solo titles.
Almost as good, and maybe even better considering the ease of access: Rank has posted Send In the Clowns, Dead Men, Deader Than You’ll Ever Be, Bent With Pray, Hyena and Stag all at that Bandcamp page as free downloads (even though I own physical copies of everything, I have been downloading each title while writing this because, well… just because). Speaking of free downloads, back at the Snatches website is a link just called “bootleg” and whattaya know, it is 13-song, lo-to-medium-fi live show from the group’s trio days, Charlotte’s Fucking Web, pictured below, featuring such Pink gems as “Ones With the Black,” “Goin’ Down” and “Salty Dog” plus a ridiculously thrashy cover of the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years From Home.” I’ve got a pretty good idea about that concert tape’s provenance, but I’ll leave that to your fertile imagination, fellow Snatches buffs.
Bottom line: don’t just take my word for how great the band was—find out for yourself by listening to ‘em. The stuff’s out there. Then go get that new Rank album Horsehair. Dr. Toland and I command you.
It’s been a great run, Michael. Salute! Keep ‘em coming, brother.
“We broke a lot of rules and never looked back”: In which ye olde editor pays tribute to the legendary pre-Americana icons, and along the way makes a pilgrimage to Arizona.
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: archival interviews with Big Star, Dumptruck and The Gun Club), I’ve dipped back to one of my favorite groups, a band that helped make the ‘80s just a little bit brighter for me and, no doubt, scores more fans of the U.S. guitar band scene. Some called it the Paisley Underground; others, the New Sincerity. Either way, though, as peers of such classic ensembles as the Dream Syndicate, Long Ryders, Salvation Army/Three O’Clock, True West, Zeitgeist/Reivers, etc., Green On Red was also wholly unique, channeling pre-Americana sounds with gusto.
My article here is essentially a composite of several pieces, including a 1986 interview with GoR frontman Dan Stuart (the story for zine The Bob was titled, inscrutably, “It’s A Long, Long Road From Mel’s Diner,” and no, I do not remember why), liner notes I did for a couple of GoR archival titles that were released in 2003, and a live review of the group’s 2005 reunion concert in their hometown of Tucson—I flew out to the Old Pueblo for the event, being the (yikes!) superfan that I am. Seek out any and all Green On Red records—1985’s Gas, Food, Lodging remains a stone classic of the Amerindie underground—and maybe even scoop up a copy of Stuart’s new memoir chronicling his misadventures with the band, The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings. – FM
Rock ‘n’ roll mythology being the seductive proposition that it is, I’d love to report that my initial encounter with Green On Red took place at some legendary or otherwise colorful setting – a New Orleans cemetery, perhaps, or even the “crossroads” of Robert Johnson lore. Hell, a notorious NYC or L.A. venue would’ve been fine too.
Not, sad to say, the case. The first time I saw Green On Red was at a rundown Charlotte, NC, punk dive called The Milestone Club, a joint whose owner was so cheap he charged bands for the beer they drank and who, in lieu of springing for a real heating system, would sometimes tear off planks from the walls as fuel for the club’s lone wood stove. Indeed, it was on a particularly frigid November night in 1983 that Green On Red – singer/guitarist Danny Stuart, organist Chris Cacavas, bassist Jack Waterson and drummer Alex MacNicol – arrived to perform a solid, if rushed, 40-minute headlining set largely culled from the then-current Gravity Talks album. Afterwards the quartet quickly donned coats and mittens and huddle around the heater, graciously accepting kudos from the handful of fans who’d turned out (including yours truly, on the prowl for autographed record sleeves) while no doubt asking themselves, “This is why we left the Los Angeles sunshine?!?”
But a bond was somehow forged. Not long after I would interview Stuart for American rock zine The Bob, and over the years I continued to follow the group’s progress, from shining star to crashing comet. Upon moving to Tucson, Arizona, in ’92, who should I run into one night at a local Mexican restaurant, but Stuart himself, dining with his wife and some friends. After reestablishing our friendship, we would get together sometimes, usually at a local record shop to talk music, and he’d fill me in on what he’d been up to following the heroin-addled demise of the band and a subsequent return home from Europe for a much-needed drying-out period in his hometown.
Stuart wound up staying in Tucson, also spending a good chunk of his time in Mexico, and aside from a mid ‘90s solo album, Can Of Worms, plus a collaboration with Tucson guitarist Al Perry, he pretty much decided to lay low, musically speaking. Stuart was eager, however, to press me into service to draft liner notes for a pair of GoR projects, an odds ‘n’ sods collection of rarities entitled What Were We Thinking and a reissue of Gas Food Lodging, both released in 2003. Conversations commenced with the surviving members, and a narrative history began to unfold…
“I thought that we would play together like the Dead – at the height of it I thought we’d play together forever.” —Jack Waterson
“I believe bands have a certain amount of life. But I’m grateful to those guys. They got in the van. They suspended whatever was going on in their lives for abut five years. They didn’t get much out of it.” —Dan Stuart
“Still, they were, for sure, some of the best musical years of my life. It was a pretty amazing slice of musical history to be part of.” —Chris Cacavas
Green On Red began life as The Serfers in 1979, inauspiciously enough, in Tucson, Arizona, when Danny Stuart (guitar, vocals), Van Christian (drums) and Jack Waterson (bass) hooked up at a party. Organist Sean Nagore also signed on, only to be replaced after a few gigs by Chris Cacavas, a veteran of a popular punk combo called The Pedestrians. As Cacavas describes the Serfers, “…primitive, punkish, but not merely three-chord rock. What I did was bring a melodic sense; Dan would go for a wall of noise on his guitar; and Jack came up with really creative basslines. I guess we were making quirky music, sort of ‘art-punk,’ perhaps?”
Tucson’s punk scene was just slipping into high gear at the time, at venues like Pearl’s Hurricane and Tumbleweed’s, featuring the likes of our heroes, the Pills, Suspect, Useless Pieces of Shit and Giant Sandworms. “During the day it would have bikers and Vietnam Vets on disability,” explains Stuart, of the latter club, continuing “then the punks would come in at night and one of us would have to draw straws to see who would go around to the regulars and get them to pay the cover. Some of ‘em really got it: ‘Oh, this is just like the Seeds!’ And others were more, ‘You know what a punk is? A punk is someone in prison who gets buttfucked!”
“I remember one night this other bar up the street was closing, all those people in the middle of the street, and suddenly there was this huge brawl like something out of Quadrophenia: rockers versus punks!”
The summer of ’80 found the Serfers headlining packed shows as well as opening for Black Flag, Human Hands, Fear, the Subhumans, D.O.A. and X. Locals Gene Armstrong and Jennifer Murphy, at the time young smitten scenesters who would go on to become popular music critics in Tucson, frame the Serfers thusly: “The last couple of songs [of a gig] they all changed instruments, someone started blowing on a clarinet, and there was just this great cacophony,” recalls Armstrong, with Murphy adding, “It was punk, thrashing about onstage a lot of energy and really raw — but edgier and darker than any other Tucson band. They weren’t just imitating the Sex Pistols or the Ramones.”
After exhausting the possibilities in their hometown the Serfers relocated to Los Angeles and rechristened themselves Green On Red, after a Serfers tune of the same name that originally appeared on a 1980 Tucson radio station’s compilation of locals, KWFM On The Air. (The name change was prompted by a booking agent secretary’s suggestion to Stuart that the recent southern California influx of violence-tilting hardcore-inclined surf-punks rendered a name like “Serfers” a bit poorly timed for the Arizona ex-pats.) “We moved into this sleazy, flea-and-drug-ridden hotel called the Villa Elaine,” says Cacavas. “One room, a bathroom, a kitchen, and out-of-work musicians. There were times we were so broke we’d go out and steal hamburger and beans!”
Scrambling for gigs amongst the litter of the L.A. postpunk scene, the quartet (now with MacNicol, cribbed from Lydia Lunch’s band, on drums; Van Christian would go on front Tucson desert rockers Naked Prey) — didn’t find fame and fortune, but it did find a supportive peer group with such outfits as the Rain Parade, Bangles, and Dream Syndicate. And an old friend from Tucson, Rich Hopkins (later of Sidewinders and Sand Rubies fame), stepped up to loan Green On Red $1200 to cover studio time to record a red vinyl, limited-to-500-copies, 12” EP titled 2 Bibles.
Recalls Cacavas, “I remember when we first got it. We were sitting on the front porch and putting the records into the sleeves, just sort of glowing in the freshness of this vinyl. I thought it was pretty cool — ‘We exist, finally!’ — even though in retrospect it’s [laughs] a pretty quirky little record.”
Meanwhile, it was through a connection in the aforementioned Dream Syndicate that Green On Red’s professional career, in 1982, moved forward a notch.
“We had played a gig with them at the Cathay DeGrande,” says Stuart.” Steve [Wynn] had seen us and he showed up at one of these barbeques we used to have. I played him a tape we’d recorded for less than $200 at this rehearsal space we used that had an 8-track upstairs, and he said, ‘I got a label, let me put it out!’ So that whole tape became the Down There record.”
Wynn’s Down There label had been established in order to release his group’s material; already a fan of Green On Red, he now offered his services to the band. (Stuart, “We all owe a lot to Steve. He did a great job with his label; then he helped us out in the studio later doing some songs; and then he helped us get our first real deal, too.”) Green On Red came out in ’82 and, as both a solid musical effort and a crucial sonic snapshot of an important alumnus of L.A.’s then-burgeoning neopsychedelic/garage scene (later dubbed by critics “the Paisley Underground”), it holds up to scrutiny to this day, its seven songs running an impressive stylistic gamut. There’s the subtly gothic fuzz of “Death And Angels” (its twin Stuart-Cacavas vocal line reveals how musically democratic the band was early on, before Stuart fully assumed the songwriting and singing reins — not to mention Cacavas’ organ serving as the lead instrument); the eerie, noirish surf-rock of “Black Night” (the song, with its insistent Ventures bassline and swipes of tremolo guitar, would remain a favored staple of the group’s concert repertoire for some time to come); the jangly garage pop of “Aspirin” (listen for one of Stuart’s rare — but in its brevity, highly effective — guitar solos); even the paranoidal psychedelia of “Apartment 6” (like “Black Night,” one of the band’s most popular live tunes; interestingly, on the original edition, the song never ends, the closing organ/guitar feedback instead trailing out to a vinyl lock-groove). If the band sounds a bit rushed at times, chalk that up to its punk roots, for the chemistry between players is readily apparent.
Now at the time, Green On Red entertained few career aspirations that extended much past the Hollywood city limits. But also around this time hip L.A. indie Slash Records entered the picture, signing the Dream Syndicate and releasing the seminal Days Of Wine And Roses LP on its Ruby subsidiary. When the Syndicate subsequently moved to A&M Records, Wynn, who in late ’82 had produced a new three-song demo for Green On Red slated for a Radio Tokyo compilation, suggested his friends to Slash. The label was duly impressed; in July of ’83, Stuart, Cacavas, Waterson and MacNicol went into the studio with Slash house producer Chris D (of Flesheaters fame) to record their first “proper” record. (MacNicol notes that at one point Miles Copeland, hungry for fresh “New Wave” bands for his then-happening IRS label, almost signed Green On Red “except we dressed like a bunch of slobs — if we could just dress like the Three O’Clock. Danny just told him to fuck off!”)
Nowadays Stuart reckons that the album sounds somewhat amateurish, but upon its release in the fall of ’83 Gravity Talks, sporting a cleaner sound than the Down There record and elaborating handsomely upon its predecessor’s musical themes, caught the ear of the American indie rock intelligentsia. A rambunctious cross-country tour was mounted in support of the record, earning critical kudos for Green On Red and consolidating its fan base — a grassroots movement that quickly spread overseas.
Recalls Cacavas of the group’s initial touring venture, “It was as big a deal as a coffee and donuts tour can be! Just the fact that people wanted to hear us outside of L.A…. For me, it was the first time seeing the States, and we did seem to be on the road constantly after that. Getting to Europe the first time was very cool. It had seemed impossible at the time – ‘These people got the wrong band!’ To this day, I think European audiences are the most respectful, even at a cult level. They’re good to you, and they appreciate good music.”
The next stage in Green On Red’s development arrived in the form of San Francisco gunslinger Chuck Prophet. The four members were already contemplating the addition of a guitarist in order to free Stuart, a self-professed fretboard hack but charismatic onstage and inordinately blessed with gab skills, to concentrate on frontman duties. The Rain Parade’s Matt Piucci had sat in for a few gigs (and even appeared on a subsequent bootleg album, Eight Miles High). But Prophet, aka “Billy The Kid,” would ultimately prove the right fit.
“I was in a band that got thrown on the bill with these ‘Paisley dudes,’” recalls Prophet, of his initial encounter with the band. “My first impression was they looked like guys who should be operating the rides at a carnival. They played and it blew my mind! It was chaotic as hell, but really entertaining and musical, and the songs were there.”
Prophet became a regular face at their S.F. gigs and, upon moving to L.A. in ’84, landed a spot on Waterson’s couch. Soon enough, he landed the band’s lead axe spot, too, additionally demonstrating a natural flair for songwriting and arranging and bringing a measure of musical discipline to a band in the process of shedding its punk skin. (Prophet: “There didn’t seem to be a lot of communication going on, musically or otherwise, at least not to the naked eye. I remember the first time we got together to play, and Dan presented ‘Hair of The Dog.’ We just fell in and it came right to life, but when we were done I said I thought it seemed to run out of steam after awhile and asked if they had a bridge for it. Everyone just looked at their shoes…”)
Prophet and Stuart in particular forged a friendship that would eventually evolve into a Mick-and-Keith songwriting alliance. And Prophet’s presence in the lineup definitely helped elevate the playing, a point that Cacavas suggests is key. “I was skeptical only inasmuch as I was being territorial,” says Cacavas. “Like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna have to give up some ground here.’ But as we became not four but five musicians interacting, where everyone had to make room, I began to like it. By not playing constantly, I was able to listen more closely. [Chuck] certainly brought up the level of musicianship and made us all play better.” Stuart agrees, saying that the addition of Prophet strengthened him as a songwriter as well: “The way I wrote, it used to be one good line followed by a bunch of throwaways, but when I started working with Chuck that wasn’t allowed anymore. When he came aboard we suddenly had an arranger, too. And as a writer, I had to learn how to balance things — if there was going to be a lead guitar break, there had to be a keyboard break, and so on. I started hearing arrangements.”
It was a five-man Green On Red that went into a Hollywood studio in December of ’84, with producer Paul B. Cutler (later of the Dream Syndicate) to make their followup to Gravity Talks—and what would turn into their all-time classic release. Two months earlier the band members had returned from a brief European tour with a wealth of new material they’d worked up while on the road, and they were eager to record while still firing on all cylinders. Having negotiated a release from Slash in order to go with the larger, better-organized and -funded Enigma Records, no one was more eager than Stuart. The sessions with Cutler went by in a whirlwind, says Stuart, “because we basically cut it live, real fast, very easy. We just had to get it down, and get it down then –because if we didn’t we somehow knew it wouldn’t turn out as good as it ultimately did.”
Right from the outset, on Gas Food Lodging opening cut “That’s What Dreams,” the band establishes an indelible signature: an echoey guitar twang is answered by a churning, Garth Hudson-like organ figure, then an assured, unhurried rhythm section tug follows as Stuart casts his lyrical net widely for losers, dreamers, heroes, villains — as pure a slice of musical and thematic Americana as one could ask for.
From there the album rises and falls with a cinematic sense of time and place — the harmonica-fueled country-rock of “Black River,” the woozily anthemic “Fading Away,” the mordant, minor-chord desperation of “16 Ways,” the churning and epic-in-feel “Sea Of Cortez” — to ultimately arrive at closing number “We Shall Overcome,” the familiar folk-protest ode whose gospel-choir vocal harmonies and melodic lilt suggests an uplifting answer to the disturbing questions posed nine songs earlier in “Dreams.”
On Gas Food Lodging, producer Cutler achieved a sonic spaciousness as broad as the travelogue implied in the album’s title. Too, the band was nearing its performing peak, the Waterson-MacNicol rhythm section a perfectly-tuned V8 throb, Cacavas’ keyboards tonal and colorizing nuances expertly rendered, Prophet’s cosmic cowboy guitar licks in the foreground yet never overriding the other elements, and Stuart finally shedding his lapsed punk sneer and replacing it with an unforced, wide-plains drawl. As a lyricist, too, Stuart had come into his own: gone are what he calls the “throwaway lines” of his early efforts as he sketches out situational slices-of-life, sometimes placing himself at the center of action (check the boozing and hangover in “Hair of the Dog”), others creating vivid character-personas (such as the Bundy-like serial killer in “The Drifter”). As much of GFL was written during the group’s extended touring forays of ’84, it’s first and foremost a road album, and an archetypal one at that. But more importantly, the record is representative of what hundreds of other American guitar bands were doing or dreaming of doing in the mid ’80s. By any stretch, a classic album — and a lasting document.
(Worth noting: Rounding out the 2003 Restless/Ryko reissue, in addition to the Down There and Gas Food Lodging records, are two tracks that never before appeared on CD. “16 Ways II,” originally included on an ’85 label compilation called The Enigma Variations, is a faster, punkier version from its counterpart on G,F,L. And the song “Gas Food Lodging,” a chugging slab of on-the-road garage rock (which, curiously, didn’t make it onto its longplaying namesake), initially turned up on a semi-legitimate Dutch 45 in ’85, before eventually surfacing in America as the A-side of a limited-edition ten-inch platter that Enigma saw fit to release in ’86.)
In March of 1985 Green On Red hit Europewith the vengeance of true barnstormers. When the L.A. band clambered onto stages with nothing to hide behind but faded jeans, flannel shirts and a we’re-gonna-show-you attitude, audiences initially may have been skeptical. Two hours later, however, everyone in the club — crowd and employees alike — would be stamping their feet and hollering for more. The tour was intended to capitalize on the European jaunt of the previous fall, as there was a growing fan base whose word-of-mouth loyalty was not to be underestimated. Too, as both the Down There and the Slash LPs had seen overseas release, even the influential British weeklies were joining the media chorus already instigated by Bucketful Of Brains and assorted German and Italian fanzines in heralding Green On Red the spearheads of no-bullshit rock ‘n’ roll, American style.
Indeed, the group’s marathon sets encompassed all that was great about American music — from band originals like the boozy, punk-fueled garage number “Hair Of The Dog,” the Velvets-inspired neopsychedelic droner “Sea of Cortez” and the lush, countryish folkrocker “That’s What Dreams,” to choice covers of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Creedence Clearwater. That spring the quintet slayed crowd after crowed with their white-hot twang ‘n’ roar, serving as the United States’ preeminent ambassadors of guitar-based roots-rock long before anyone had coined the term “insurgent country; the following year they’d be invited to perform at Farm Aid. Even the bootleggers, notoriously resistant to young artists in favor of the usual Dylan-Stones-Beatles-Springsteen fare, paid the ultimate tribute to Green On Red: underground label F.F.O. issued a handsome, full-color sleeved LP entitled You can run… but you can’t hide documenting the group’s March 28 appearance in Rome.
In May, just a couple of weeks after the band returned to the States, Gas Food Lodging was released (via Enigma, and on green vinyl, in the U.S.; Zippo, U.K.; New Rose, France), quickly becoming a staple of American college radio and even cracking the British Indie Top 20. The combined clout of touring prowess and critical acclaim drew the attention of Polygram, which would sign Green On Red to a worldwide deal and fly the group to London that summer to record the No Free Lunch mini-album. Extensive gigging would be the game plan from then on — a fall tour throughout the U.S., a winter trip to the U.K. and Europe — and prior to that the band would also weather one casualty in the way of the departure of drummer MacNicol (to be replaced by veteran L.A. drummer Keith Mitchell). Stuart reckons MacNicol had simply had enough of the insanity, saying, “The No Free Lunch album was when things were getting, ‘Oh, Chuck and Dan are pushing too hard.’ Alex bailed, and God bless him, we must have been driving him crazy!”
Green On Red’s star was clearly rising, though. Plans were laid for what was to be the make-or-break album, The Killer Inside Me, this time hiring a name producer, Memphis maverick Jim Dickinson. (Prior to the album sessions a set of demos were cut with Gas Food Lodging producer Paul B. Cutler; they would eventually surface on the 2003 CD What Were We Thinking? released by Normal in Europe and Shock in Australia.) The group entered Ardent Studios in Memphis (some of the sessions were also held in L.A. at El Dorado Studios) to record with Dickinson, the sessions now remembered by Prophet as being a mixture of chaos and grueling work.
“We had all this manic energy but we just couldn’t seem to articulate it,” he admits. “Dickinson just set the mikes up around us and let us at it. In retrospect, I now see he wasn’t interested in meddling around for mild short-term results. He was looking to capture more than that – something bigger. We thought we were so untamed and offensive and brave. But in the end, he taught us that we had to be willing to offend ourselves.
“I guess we had to face our own limitations. It was a struggle, and in a way that’s when it stopped being as much ‘fun’ and somehow started to get ‘real.’ The sessions just seemed to go on and on, and what eventually wound up on the record was some of that raw madness and, underneath the abrasive surface, more than a few fairly lackluster performances. Up until that point, we thought we could fly under the radar… It is a tough record in a lot of ways.”
Cacavas is a bit more forgiving, explaining that he’s still fond of the album because it was “different sounding and I was glad we weren’t making the same record again.” Stuart, though, feels that a lot of money was spent “on a bad record. It does have this kind of manic-depressive energy, but nothing’s in time. It’s that old Duke Ellington thing: if it don’t swing, it don’t mean a thing.”
Prescient words? The subsequent tour to promote Killer would be the last one for this lineup of Green On Red.
Waterson: “It was the biggest and the worst. It was the best treatment we had and the most money, and certainly the highest profile, but the soul was gone, man, and I was just doing a job.”
Cacavas: “Dan and Chuck had definitely formed an alliance, and I felt more on the sidelines. Still, it was meant to be a big deal, and I was having a blast. But you could see that Dan wasn’t enjoying himself.”
Stuart: “I was living through a walking blackout existence. I think I went through a nervous breakdown.”
After the tour’s conclusion, the exhausted members scattered. Stuart himself disappeared, and when he resurfaced and it came time for him to reconvene the band for another album, only Prophet was invited along. The resulting Here Come the Snakes, recorded again with Dickinson plus assorted Memphis side musicians and released in ’89, was almost billed as a Stuart solo album, with Prophet on hand, but the record label insisted on calling it a Green On Red album despite the fact that in only featured one original member of the group.
“The truth is, nobody called those three guys [Waterson, Cacavas and Mitchell] to tell them what we were doing,” says Stuart, a distinctive rueful tone in his voice. “Those guys deserved more than a phonecall, and they never got even that. I had tremendous guilt and shame, for years. I still do. But that band had done all it could. We went for our big ‘masterpiece’ on Killer and failed miserably.” Following Snakes Stuart and Prophet would relocate overseas, recording several more albums under the GoR banner (This Time Around, Scapegoats, Too Much Fun), each with diminishing returns, before finally pulling the plug for good in ’92 in a haze of disenchantment and drug addiction.
For their part, Cacavas and Waterson took things particularly hard when they heard from third parties that Stuart and Prophet were recording as Green On Red, each weathering his own period of shock and anger. Over the years, though, they’ve reconciled with the past—as you’ll read in a moment, enough so to sign on for a 2005 reunion concert—and have gone on record as saying they’re immensely proud of what the band was able to accomplish together.
“I’m amazed we did what we did,” says Waterson. “What we had to work with, where we started from. It just shows that the nerve to do something is enough to compel it to happen. It was a great band.”
“A lot of love and respect — but we just drove each other nuts, and the hardest part was losing Danny’s friendship for all that time,” reflects Cacavas, quickly adding, “but still, we had a lot of fun. We easily rode the crest of the mid ‘80s wave.
“You know, things got ugly,” agrees. Stuart. “But I had a lot of fun too. I’d have to say we got away with murder. The music was almost secondary – it was a punk rock thing of not copping out: ‘Let’s stick together and be against the world. Then go get some beer!’”
“We broke a lot of rules and never looked back,” is Prophet’s succinct summarization. “It was a good run.”
The Reunion Concert
Rialto Theatre, Tucson, Ariz.
Sept. 4, 2005
As far as reunions go, it was ranked among the “least likely” – right up there with Husker Du’s acrimonious split. In that regard, when legendary proto-Americana combo Green On Red took to an Arizona stage over Labor Day weekend it was obvious that the musicians – singer/guitarist Dan Stuart, keyboardist Chris Cacavas, bassist Jack Waterson and guitarist Chuck Prophet, plus Austin drummer Darren Hess replacing the late Alex MacNicol – had something to prove professionally and personally. That the show was slated to be filmed for a live DVD (Valley Fever, Brink Films) only upped the ante.
Eighteen years since the Tucson group ground to a halt following the Killer tour the burning question was whether GOR would live up to the legend, or kill it. As Stuart and Prophet had continued without inviting any of the others back, one also had to wonder if hard feelings still lingered. Judgment call in a moment.
The concert was part of a larger three-day celebration of Tucson music. Yet you didn’t have to be a native Tucsonan to enjoy the Sidewinders blazing through their melodic desert rock, or a late night marathon featuring Giant Sand morphing into the Band Of Blacky Ranchette, or Joey Burns and John Convertino playing under their pre-Calexico moniker Spoke (Convertino and GOR’s Cacavas were the weekend’s MVPs, each guesting with innumerable acts), or a pair of surprise gigs by the reunited Doo Rag — although, technically speaking, you had to be female to take in one of those sets, as it was held in a women’s bathroom. With wildly divergent performances ranging from hard twang (Al Perry & the Cattle) to New York Dolls-styled glam (The Pills) to discordant art-punk (Mondo Guano, featuring Doo Rag’s Bob Log III) to manic funk (Pollo Elastico – “Rubber Chicken”) to hi-velocity garage (Knockout Pills), the First Rule Of The Old Pueblo became: There Is No Rule. Icing – BBQ sauce – on the cake was a Howe Gelb-hosted Sunday cookout wherein Giant Sand, Friends Of Dean Martinez, Pieta Brown, Chuck Prophet and others paid tribute to acclaimed Tucson guitarist Rainer Ptacek, who passed away in 1997.
The weekend’s de facto headliners, however, were unquestionably Green On Red, who’d rehearsed for two days and came out swinging. As Stuart drawled, snarled and barked his tales of dreamers, drunks, troubadours and serial killers, the band churned nonstop. Key tracks from 1985’s Gas Food Lodging formed the core of the 90-minute set, notably bilious alkie anthem “Hair Of The Dog,” psychedelic swamp choogler “Fading Away” and the furiously epic “Sea Of Cortez,” which found Prophet, Stuart and Waterson forming a Crazy Horse-like brotherhood of riffs at center stage while Cacavas’ keyboards oozed noirish atmosphere.
Other gems included the 4-part harmony-strewn “Cheap Wine,” from 1983’s Gravity Talks; a sticky, malevolent Stones-like reading of “Jimmy Boy” (No Free Lunch, ’85); and slow-burn raveup “Clarkesville,” standout track on 1987’s Jim Dickinson-produced The Killer Inside Me. With the audience howling for more (the final encore was, fittingly, GFL’s wistful “That’s What Dreams Were Made For”), GOR clearly proved its mettle. But did the band prove anything to itself?
Dan Stuart himself, speaking over breakfast the next morning, gets the last word: “You know, the band ended badly, and I never told those guys [Cacavas and Waterson] that I was sorry. So maybe this was one way to finally make it up to everyone.
“And I gotta tell you, all of us had a total blast last night.”
“A general collective attitude of weirdness”: In which ye olde editor has a memorable 1981 encounter with the L.A. blues-punks, ultimately profiling the band many years later. (Pictured above: the 1981-82 lineup of (L-R) Terry Graham, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Ward Dotson and Rob Ritter.)
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: with the recent reissue, by the Superior Viaduct label, of the Gun Club’s epochal 1981 debut Fire Of Love, now seems appropriate to republish my Gun Club interview/feature originally appearing in January of 2005 in BLURT predecessor Harp magazine. At the time, Sympathy For The Record Industry had just reissued the Miami, The Las Vegas Story and Death Party EP records and interest in the L.A. outfit was understandably high even though founder and frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce had passed away nearly a decade earlier. I was a ground zero fan of the band, having fallen under the spell of the album upon its release (I’d gotten a copy from the Slash label and wound up being a de facto street teamer for Slash, putting up album and tour posters and helping in general to get the word out on the label’s artists), so my dedication ran deep and I was eager to talk not only to former drummer Terry Graham but Pierce’s sister Jacqui and Sympathy label head Long Gone John. All were extremely forthcoming in interviews I conducted with them in late 2004.
Fire Of Love has held up brilliantly over the years and it deserves to be among any serious music fan’s collection. As reviewer Michael Toland put it in his review of the new reissue, “[The album’s] punk-soaked blues and roots rock & roll sound as iconoclastic now as it did in 1981. Newcomers may easily be put off by Pierce’s musical limitations [and] that’s not even counting the usual questions arising from a white guy from a privileged background attempting the blues. But Pierce, buoyed by guitarist Ward Dotson, bassist Rob Ritter (né Graves) and drummer Terry Graham, turns his weakness into strength, utterly ignoring the fact that he can barely play in the accepted manner and simply barreling ahead… The blues is a form given to intensely personal interpretation, from Son House and Charley Patton to Chris Whitley and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The punk-informed approach the Gun Club employs on Fire of Love maintains its power and distinction over three decades on.”
Amen to that, Brother Toland. Without further delay, then, let’s dive into the eye of the Gun Club hurricane…
AAHHRRROOOOUUUUU!!! All heads in a Chapel Hill, N.C. club jerk stageward as the frontman for L.A.’s latest punk export summons up an ear-splitting howl. Part Lizard King, part Charles Bukowski and – with his wild mane of bleached hair-part Deborah Harry-from-hell, Jeffrey Lee Pierce is preachin’ the blues tonight, Gun Club style.
Barely an hour earlier your correspondent was in the bar perched at Pierce’s elbow, marveling at his ability to consume booze at a rate that would flatten a lumberjack. But here he is now, oblivious to blood alcohol content and conjuring ancient spirits as his bandmates – guitarist Ward Dotson, bassist Rob Ritter and drummer Terry Graham – follow him into the maelstrom.
“Jeff was gonna do whatever he did, and pretty much every night we were teetering on the edge of disaster,” recalls Graham now, of that fall ’81 tour. “There was a ‘Jeffrey watch’ in place because we didn’t know what kind of condition he was going to be in when he got onstage. A couple of shows he really, truly lost it. But most of the time he was amazing in his ability to pull it off. Something just took over when we did the show.”
That summer the Gun Club’s debut, Fire Of Love, had appeared on Ruby/Slash, notching press raves everywhere except L.A., where the band refused to bow before the punk orthodoxy or the roots-rock revivalists among whom it was frequently lumped. But the Gun Club had more in common with genre demolitionists the Cramps and Nick Cave’s outfit the Birthday Party, and Pierce, a Slash fanzine writer with a broad knowledge of music history, assembled the band in 1980 intending to rebuild from the ground up blues, country, rockabilly and punk.
Long Gone John, a veteran of numerous Gun Club shows and proprietor of the Sympathy for the Record Industry label, reckons Pierce & Co. did exactly that, observing. “At the time there were plenty of bad hardcore bands and the leftover drippings of the first generation of punk in L.A., and here’s this band following a unique vision. They weren’t concerned about fitting in or being a part of what anybody else was doing.” Drummer Graham, currently writing a rock memoir to be titled Punk Like Me, concurs: “We were able to create a mood, an energy. And at the time, it was all so under-the-radar you could just do a lot of things and not care what people thought.”
Signing with Blondie’s Chris Stein’s label Animal in ’82 the group traveled to New York to make its sophomore platter. Despite a muddy Stein production job, Miami (which featured Debbie Harry on uncredited backing vocals) was the equal of its predecessor: apocalyptic punk blues and voodoobilly swamp-rock swirling around Pierce’s lyric visions of ghosts, succubi and devils. But with Pierce gradually turning dictatorial, both Ritter and Dotson soon quit (Ritter would pass away in the early ‘90s) Following a period of disarray that yielded the import-only Death Party EP recorded with some interim players, Pierce unveiled a new lineup for 1984’s The Las Vegas Story. Featuring Pierce, Graham, future Sisters Of Mercy/Damned bassist Patricia Morrison and guitarist Kid Congo Powers (who’d been in an embryonic version of the Gun Club before joining the Cramps—Graham recalls that he would “try anything and he turned into somebody who really understood noise… really good with sound effects that worked with what we were doing”), the album was sonically slick but, material-wise, as grittily primal as ever.
And as Graham points out, the band was flexing its artistic wings as well. “So there is that person in front, Jeff, plus all that different personality in the band, and it all comes together to create some kind of mood, some kind of energy. It might be dark, it might be bright, whatever. But I think that’s the key: everybody who’s a part of that stands on their own.
“Jeff would come in and say, ‘You know, let’s try ‘A Love Supreme’.’ We go, ‘sure!’ A general collective attitude of ‘weirdness,’ [of] taking risks. And we had a thing where ‘noise’ was an important element onstage, like freeform jazz. We wanted to create a form of chaos and have our songs come out of that.” [Below, L-R, Graham, Pierce, Kid Congo, Patricia Morrison]
Pierce’s appetite for drugs and alcohol, however, made “chaos” the operative term, and during a fall ’84 tour of Europe Graham decided he’d had enough and bolted. At the end of the year, Pierce disbanded the Gun Club and went solo before reviving it in ’87 and going on to do the Juno, Pastoral Hide and Seek, Divinity and Lucky Jim albums. He eventually became clean and sober, too, yet tragically died of a brain hemorrhage in 1996. He was 37 years old.
He left behind a fine corpse, though. “There’s nobody more important in L.A.’s musical history than the Gun Club,” states Long Gone John. “[Labelmates] Rank & File and the Blasters, by contrast, they were pretty serious about ‘stuff’ compared to how the Gun Club was. The Blasters were very fucking serious, and very retro about recreating an era—the hairdos, the clothing, everything. Very religious about their brand of rockabilly. Gun Club wasn’t like that; they didn’t look the part, didn’t really fit the part, they took these elements from here and others from over there, and really created a hybrid genre.”
In addition to Sympathy’s remastered reissues of Miami, The Las Vegas Story and Death Party – Chris Stein gave the master tapes to the Pierce estate as a gift – archival Gun Club projects, including a box set and a DVD, are being discussed. There’s also an official Pierce biography and a Gun Club tribute album due soon. Meanwhile, Pierce’s family is satisfied that the band’s back catalog has been restored to print.
“Jeffrey had this great love for music, and he wanted to teach everyone,” says younger sister Jacqui. “Onstage he’d go into what was, for him, a character, and he wanted interaction with audiences, to test them. But he also was a sensitive, loving person. It’s just that he didn’t show that side to people. It’s like what Klaus Kinski used to always say: ‘Just give them the smut and the shit.’ But like his influences – Jim Morrison, Hendrix, the great blues artists – who had a pure passion about what they were doing, he put his heart and soul into everything he did.”
Mr. Mojo risin’ indeed – aahhrrrooo-ouuuuu!!!
[above photo by Hank Grebe]
THE BAND WHO CREATED A GENRE: INTERVIEW CONTENT THAT DID NOT MAKE IT INTO THE HARP ARTICLE
Jacqui Pierce (Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s sister)
On early memories of her brother: “I remember him hanging out with me and a lot of my friends, getting crazy. He used to wear a lot of my mom’s jewelry—I used to help him get dressed up! That’s probably one of my mom’s necklaces he’s wearing in the Ruby Records promotional photo of the band.
“Jeffrey was a big admirer of Debbie Harry too—the blonde hair, of course, she really inspired him with that, and this crazy, eclectic look. He liked to create different looks… [later] one night at the Viper Room for example, he came on with a trumpet and a sword.”
On his persona: “Onstage he was totally different from how he was at home. He’d go into what was a character for him and he wanted interaction with audiences. He didn’t want things to be wonderful and happy; he wanted a reaction out of people. But at home he was very quite and he’d read a lot, play his guitar—and then try to annoy me and tease me and test my knowledge of music. He’d play records and say, ‘You should know this band!’ Stuff like that. And I think those who really knew him, knew a different side of him.
“He was always testing people—he’d do the complete opposite of something they were expecting, in a way of introducing them to something different. Like, he’d play these Japanese folks songs before a show. Or going into these R&B songs onstage at London’s Town & Country Club, doing ‘Preachin’ the Blues’ and going into ‘Ain’t That Peculiar.’
“I think he just had this great love for music and he wanted to teach everyone about everything and not just this one small-minded respect. Labels really bothered him, period, when people would slap them on you and assume, ‘Oh, you’re punk rock, you’re this, you’re that…’ He didn’t like that.”
Long Gone John, of Sympathy For The Record Industry
On Pierce’s voodoo-punk-blues image: “Yeah, I think it was, obviously, a bit limiting. That’s what it began as, but this guy, as a music writer an everything else, he obviously loved everything from Brian Wilson to King Crimson to whatever. I think he just got different bugs up his ass at different times; he’d want to be a jazz guy, then do fuckin’ avant garde, and in his many different interests he didn’t want to be just one kind of thing.”
On early Gun Club shows: “I saw them very early on when Kid Congo was [originally] in the ban, and that was considerably before Fire Of Love came out. It had to be one of their first shows and I saw them completely by accident when they were opening for somebody else. Pretty much a shambles! But it really intrigued me, and it was evident event that early on that something different was happening.
“Nobody saw the Gun Club as many times as I did in L.A. They were really my favorite band, and I drove around a ’59 pink Cadillac with GUN CLUB license plates—I still have those plates, and if I ever have another car I’ll put them on it. They were my favorite band in every single way.”
Terry Graham, original Gun Club Drummer
On his most abiding memory of Pierce: “Jeffrey liked to talk. He would just talk until you were crying, wanting him to shut up so much! [laughs] But I was hanging out with this guy because I liked him—you couldn’t help but like him! He wasn’t being a jerk; he just liked to talk, and he would just get into the stuff he was talking about. And I liked to listen, so it was a pretty good pairing. [laughs]
On the proverbial Jim Morrison role model for Pierce: “Yes, and it was more than just physical—[Pierce] had a lot of little demons flapping around in his head. Ant at that time, the whole thing being so underground in so many ways, the whole thing just flowered, where people go more than inward upon themselves. So on the one hand, you have some incredible personalities [among Morrison acolytes], but on the other hand, well, there’s a lot of people not around anymore because of that.”
On Pierce’s legendary prowess as a drinker: “He was gonna do whatever he does and it was cool, and we didn’t really have any expectations that he was going to go jump off a cliff—he just liked to drink. So did everyone else around us! Pretty much every night, we were teetering on the edge of disaster. There was the occasional night when we were stone sober and stiff as a board. But it’s like any night you get out on stage whether you’re smashed or not: something just takes over when you do the show.
“Still, most of the time there was a ‘Jeffrey watch’ in place because we didn’t know what kind of condition he was gonna be in when he got onstage. Even getting onstage in time, so there could be a lot of tension underlying things as a result. But once we got onstage, it was a different thing.”
On the Gun Club’s unique visual and musical appeal: “I think it was that everybody in the band had a very distinct personality. There are so many bands now that look like five minutes after they get offstage they’re gonna be at taking the trash out. No personality at all. But it was just a given at the time that you would be distinctive —think about a band like The Cramps, who were pretty good pals with. A lot of bands then had unique sounds, so you had to be creative. If you weren’t creative or different, you just immediately blended into the wall.
“Every show was different because the set was half spontaneous—whatever mood we were in, [the sets] would get played with a lot. There was a lot of room in some of the songs where you could do that, drag out certain things as long as Jeff wanted to, when they weren’t dependent so much on song structure as vocal cues from him. Paying attention to and watching him was really important, and that’s why there was a lot of anxiety about his condition; there were a lot of times when he forgot where he was, even the planet he was on, or that band he was in—he’d start thinking he was James Brown! [laughs]
“A couple of shows he really, truly lost it, and it was just a mess. But most of the time he was just amazing in his ability to come onstage just baked yet pull it off.
“We all had a general collective attitude of ‘weirdness’—that it just might work! Not that we were trying to be the Philharmonic or anything. I mean, a lot of times, Jeff would sho up onstage and, for example, with this beat-up old trumpet one night and start blaring it. And we had a thing about ‘noise’ where noise was an important element onstage. Not as in the kind of just stupid noise; more like freeform jazz. We wanted to create a form of chaos and have our songs come out of that. We were just into crating something that we didn’t know where it was going to go or take us—we wanted to take that risk.”
With a reissue of a key concert album documenting an early Dream Syndicate show just out, and rumors of a new studio album from the band being floated, it’s as good a time as any to revisit this story from the editor’s archives.
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: Earlier this month The Day Before Wine and Roses (Live at KPFK, September 5, 1982) was reissued. Of that CD, which captured L.A.’s Dream Syndicate in full flight just prior to recording its landmark long-playing debut, our reviewer noted, “It may not get the same spins as more accomplished Dream Syndicate records, but it’s still an essential document of a great band at the beginning of its journey.”
Back then the group consisted of Steve Wynn and Karl Precoda on guitars, Kendra Smith on bass and Dennis Duck on drums; meanwhile, in 2014 the lineup comprises Wynn, Duck, Mark Walton on bass and guitarist Jason Victor (also a member of Wynn’s Miracle 3 combo), and the past year has seen an definite upswing in activity for the revived Dream Syndicate. You can hear that incarnation via a hot-sounding download of the May 24, 2013, London concert, watch a video of the band in Cleveland on Nov. 22, or read about ‘em at the Paisley Underground reunion bash in San Francisco on Dec. 5.
With that in mind, we present the following interview with Wynn conducted by yours truly a few years ago, which was occasioned by the long-overdue 2010 reissue of the group’s second album, 1984’s Medicine Show. While the conversation centered primarily on the making of that record, Wynn touched upon all aspects of the group’s career up until that point. As such, it remains instructive to any fan or student of the band’s music and sonic aesthetic. Enjoy.
2010: The reissue earlier this summer of the Dream Syndicate’s Medicine Show was greeted — justifiably — by the sort of critical hosannas typically reserved for some long-overdue artifact from Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Van Morrison. Steve Wynn’s character-driven lyrical narratives and the band’s adventuresome arrangements and muscular playing were enhanced by jawdroppingly fine remastered sound, and the package itself boasted fresh liner notes and a raft of live bonus material, making it a prime candidate for one of the year’s most essential reissues, too.
It was also one of the ‘80s most significant records. Recall how by1984 the Amerindie underground had mostly lost its innocence, swapping many of its occasionally quaint notions of DIY for a more professional approach to music making (owning decent gear, recording in actual studios, networking among club owners and college radio deejay, etc.) to reflect the growing realization that, hey, we might actually be able to earn a living at this. The term “careerist” no longer carried the same whiff of disdain it might have a few years earlier, and it wasn’t necessarily a crime to try to land a deal with a major label, either. The majors still controlled the means of distribution and promotion, so while signing with a major didn’t automatically guarantee you’d wheel into town for a gig and find plenty copies of your new album in local stores, at this point in time it was still your best option, and there wasn’t a band on the planet that wanted to not sell records. If nothing else, it was a matter of pride.
Arriving stage left: the Dream Syndicate. Two years earlier the Los Angeles foursome had issued their epochal long-playing debut The Days of Wine and Roses, a record that not only pushed the group to the forefront of the aforementioned underground in terms of dues-paying, punk-rocking credibility (that it came out on L.A. punk label Slash is no trivial factoid), but also brought a measure of cerebral musicality to the dialogue that would ultimately ensure the album “timeless” status. To this day, TDOWAR pops up on music critics’ best-of lists, and when Rhino reissued it in expanded format a few years ago, the critical hosannas were pretty much unanimous in locating it alongside classic screeds by the likes of Television, Patti Smith, Pere Ubu, R.E.M., Gang of Four and others from the punk and post-punk era.
As the saying goes, the band had built up a reserve of rock ‘n’ roll capital: now it was time to spend some of it. The Dream Syndicate – comprising founding members Steve Wynn (guitars, vocals and the chief songwriter), Karl Precoda (guitars) and Dennis Duck (drums), plus bassist Dave Provost on loan from fellow L.A. psych/”Paisley Underground” outfit The Droogs, who’d been drafted to replace original bassist Kendra Smith – signed with A&M Records and hooked up with noted producer Sandy Pearlman, who while having made his reputation back in the dinosaur-rock era by helming Blue Oyster Cult’s early ‘70s releases had also produced proto-punks the Dictators and honest-to-god-punks The Clash. It seemed like a good marriage of what’s suggested in the first paragraph above: taking advantage of a decent-sized budget in a decently-outfitted studio and tapping the experience of an industry veteran while not completely jettisoning those DIY values that helped get the band to this point in the first place. The album was to be called Medicine Show, after one of Wynn’s greatest compositions, and it was supposed to be the record that would put them on the aboveground radar.
Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke tells the tale in his copious liner notes to this new, expanded Medicine Show, noting how the recording regimen, spread across five months and three San Francisco studios, “was hell.” But it produced a genuine masterpiece, one which didn’t necessarily eclipse its 1982 predecessor but rather stood wholly apart as an entirely reinvented Dream Syndicate – an album that, according to Fricke, “confused underground purists… [but is] actually more seditious in its charge and hazy morality… Pearlman drilling down to the emotional fury inside Wynn’s songs and the rock & roll classicism in [the group’s] garage-band fundamentals.”
Listened to now, track-by-track, Medicine Show has, if anything, grown stronger since its original release. It’s long been my favorite Dream Syndicate album, a fact I’m hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly why. There’s a balancing act going on between the old-school rock of my youth and the punk-powered music that galvanized me as a young adult, and there’s a sonic ambiance that alternately baffles and delights me; the record’s like a foreign film that I don’t fully comprehend but which leaves me deeply haunted for weeks after seeing it. It’s also a bit of a period piece thanks to Pearlman’s reverb-heavy production – but that’s not to mean it’s dated in the same sense as, say, a Duran Duran album is. (Will Rigby of The dB’s once told me, in response to an observation I made about the ‘80s-specific sound their Like This sported, how they were actually eager to take advantage of the most recent studio technology, with digital reverb in particular being one of up-to-date studios’ popular new toys.) The production actually lends a striking measure of clarity to the proceedings, an overt crispness that, combined with a fat, booming bottom end and precisely positioned vocal tracks (both Wynn’s echo-lined leads and the massed-choir style backing vocals), creates a credibly arena-worthy vibe. Sorry, all you underground purists out there.
The album also reveals the sound of a band pushed in the studio by their producer to excel and to play outside their collective comfort zone. The Duck-Provost rhythm section is taut and muscular, while session keyboardist Tom Zvoncheck brings a crucial array of new textures contributing to that big-venue feel. (Also guesting, on vocals, are Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy from the Long Ryders, Gavin Blair from True West and Paul Mandl.) Lead guitarist Precoda was never better than on Medicine Show, bringing an arsenal’s worth of effects and fretboard flourishes that might’ve had those purists going “Oh my!” at the time but, with hindsight, now come across as powered by a deeply felt jazz and psychedelia sensibility. And with Wynn operating as an instrumental foil to Precoda, chopping and slashing and unleashing terse, brittle bursts, the album’s guitar sound essentially finishes the job that Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd set out to accomplish years earlier in Television.
Wynn’s songwriting hits an early peak on Medicine Show, too, serving up emotional confessions (“Still Holding On To You,” “Daddy’s Girl”) alongside stream-of-consciousness Beats swagger (the lengthy, nine-minute “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” – the most Television-like, dueling-guitars tune on the album – which is so outrageously brash and horny that you’re tempted to adopt the singer’s titular come-on of “I got some John Coltrane on the stereo, baby, make it feel all right/ I got some fine wine in the freezer, mama, I know what you like” and try it out yourself on some sweet young thing down at the bar.
The album also delves deeply into the noirish character sketches that would continue to mark Wynn as a songwriter over the course of his long career (which has included, not surprisingly, a friendship and collaboration with hardboiled novelist George Pelecanos). The song “Burn,” musically a blend of the edgy and the seductive (it suggests a cross between Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” and Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”), charts the darkness men find hidden within their souls – “just a few things that can’t be told,” sings Wynn – against a backdrop of short-story vignettes, one of them involving a guy who burned down a field one night and then, upon being questioned by the cops about his motivation, simply replied, “Guess I just don’t know.” Another track, the piano-fueled, Springsteenesque “Merrittville,” finds the protagonist having to contend with the sorry fruits of his even sorrier labors, pursued by thugs and surrounded by shady types who may or may not have his worst interests at heart. And the bluesy, hypnotically pulsing “The Medicine Show” is even darker, lined with a bone-chilling, visceral malevolence so profound it screams to be turned into a David Fincher thriller:
“I got a Page One story buried in my yard/ Got a troubled mind/ Goin’ down to the medicine show/ If I’ve gotta choose between doin’ penance/ And doin’ time/ Goin’ down to the medicine show…
It’s hard to be a reasonable man/ When you stop findin’ reasons for everything/ But tonight I’ll get some answers, baby/ Aw, at the medicine show.”
Jeezus. Who is this guy? What’s he hiding – who, or what, exactly, does he have buried? What’s going on down at this medicine show he’s talking about – drugs? sex? religion? Maybe we don’t need to know.That song, and the album as a whole, will leave you questioning yourself and your own motives. It’s like a novel set to music – a white-knuckled page-turner at that, one which reveals additional layers and nuances, new pretexts and subtexts, with each successive read (listen).
Medicine Show Mk.2010 corrects a long-standing sin of omission by putting the album back in the bins – A&M reissued on CD in 1989, but it’s been out of print for ages – and plugging a glaring hole in the Dream Syndicate’s back catalog. In addition to the 12 page booklet with Fricke’s notes, it also includes as bonus material the five-song mini-album This Is Not the New Dream Syndicate Album… Live! that A&M issued in late ’84 to further stoke the fires for the band, who had been making modest commercial inroads touring the U.S. (including a stint opening for R.E.M.). Recorded at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom on July 7 for a live broadcast over WXRT-FM, TINTNDSAL! features a proud version of Wine and Roses track “Tell Me When It’s Over” (it opens with a delightfully faux-pompous piano intro courtesy Zvoncheck, who had joined the touring lineup), but the focus, for obvious marketing reasons, is on four key Medicine Show numbers, most notably the title track and “John Coltrane Stereo Blues.” Both tunes are heard here en route to earning longterm tenure in Wynn setlists: “The Medicine Show” is all slash ‘n’ burn, Wynn’s unadorned-by-studio-effects voice taking on a trembly urgency that underscores the song’s already established sense of creeping, heart-of-darkness dread. And “JCSB,” with its heady swirls of organ, searing Wynn-Precoda guitars and relentless rhythm section throb (Mark Walton had recently replaced Provost as permanent bassist, and he and Duck are clearly simpatico), firmly establishes itself as a concert tour-de-force, equal parts hard-psych bop and Television-styled outré punk. As a live document of the band circa mid ’84, the mini-album is absolutely essential. (The 1989 A&M CD for Medicine Show also contained several of the live tracks, but not all of them due to length restrictions for CDs at that point in time.)
“Medicine Show sounds unlike any of the other [albums],” writes Wynn, in his addendum to the reissue’s liner notes. “The record is beautiful, unattainable, right and wrong in all the best ways. Karl wanted to make a big, panoramic rock record to justify our move to a major label and the plethora of attention we had received [since] The Days of Wine and Roses. I wanted to make a ‘beautiful loser,’ button-pushing, over-the-top emotional catharsis in the tradition of most of my all-time favorite records. We both got our way.”
That’s for sure. The record IS panoramic, massive, yet it’s also a soul-purger in the most primal, essential sense. And when Wynn cites as among his favorite LPs Big Star 3rd, Tonight’s The Night and Plastic Ono Band he’s not succumbing to hubris by implicitly ranking Medicine Show alongside those, but getting at what a lot of us Dream Syndicate watchers have always known for more than a quarter-century.
Although the lineup that recorded Medicine Show would eventually splinter following a lengthy national tour, Wynn remains justifiably proud of the record and has very distinct memories of what went into its creation. And he was more than willing to settle in for a conversation one balmy July afternoon to reminisce at length. “Of all the records I’ve made,” he offers, “that one’s the hardest to pin down; it’s its own beast.”
Let’s see if we can tame it, then…
BLURT: In an earlier interview, you and I were talking about how Medicine Show is the final piece of the back catalog, the last hole that needs plugging, considering everything else had already been restored to print. So finally you’re able to do that.
STEVE WYNN: Oh yeah. It’s been frustrating. I’ve been trying to do that, really, for going on 15 years now! I remember when I started the crusade, and it has not been easy. Well, it was not easy, and then suddenly it became very easy! Part of the problem was A&M kept being swallowed up by bigger fish year by year — it was like Apocalypse Now, going up to find Colonel Kurtz! [laughs] Trying to get to the heart of the matter! You’d find one lawyer, and then talk to another lawyer, and it was just surprisingly difficult.
Was this final round of negotiations you and the Water label working together to get the record? Give us a sense of how a band is able to pry an artifact loose from the label behemoth [in this case, Universal, which currently owns the A&M catalog].
Well, Water stepped in just recently. It’s been various people championing it along the way. I remember when John Silva, my old manager, was trying to pry it loose, and he, this guy with some serious clout at the height of the Nirvana-Beastie Boys-Beck things going on, couldn’t get it done. Later on Jim Barber, who knew a lot of people, made an effort to get it. And various lawyers tried. I can’t explain exactly why it was so difficult.
Years ago I was interviewing Holly Beth Vincent, from Holly & the Italians, whose first two albums were finally getting reissued, and she outlined what a torturous path it had been. Her feeling was that for a long time the major label that owned those albums preferred to keep the tapes locked up and have no one make any money from them rather than license them for less than their asking price. She had tried for ages.
Right! And the point I kept trying to make was that I’m not trying to get rich; in fact, that record is quite unrecouped! I won’t see royalties, ever. I just wanted to see it out there. My feeling was that, yeah, they could see some of the money back. My theory is that the Dream Syndicate was too popular just for them to let [the tapes] go, but not popular enough for them to want to bother with it.
That’s a pretty damning limbo to be stuck in.
That’s my guess – right in the middle of that. Because you know there are things in their [Universal’s] catalog that just get licensed or put out by them. They didn’t want to let it go but they didn’t want to keep it either. This went on for a long time.
Then all of a sudden Filippo at Water Records called me up and told me, “I saw Medicine Show on a list of things that are available for licensing.” I said, “You gotta be kidding me.” That’s what he specializes in. One thing he does is goes around and cherry picks stuff that’s out of print on other labels that Water wants to put out. So he had the opportunity with this, which was great because I’ve worked with him in the past on some of my solo stuff and he let me be real involved with the reissue.
Water always does a quality job. Sound, liner notes, packaging. And that’s what people want from a reissue. I don’t have to tell you how shoddy reissues were early on, when LPs first started getting put out on CD in the ‘80s. Horrible sound quality from 3rd or 4th generation tapes. Double albums that would have tracks eliminated so the entire thing would fit on a single CD. So you were really involved with overseeing the remastering, the whole process?
Everything. The mastering, the liners, the packaging, pushing for digipak over jewel case – every aspect. Because I wanted it to be done right. See, this will probably be the last CD release for Medicine Show — maybe there will be a 3D hologram version in two years, I dunno! — so I wanted this to be done properly.
One thing of note is the remastered sound: the depth and clarity is phenomenal.
Oh yeah, man, it sounds like what we were listening to when we made the record, what was coming out of the speakers in the studio. It never sounded that good before, because even with the vinyl, we had the problem where both sides were too long, [a fidelity] issue. That was the concern. Now it’s a bit easier, but back then it was a real concern. For example, we were editing “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” down from about 14 minutes to the final version, about 8 ½, and we were doing that not because we were trying to make a “hit single” but to make it fit! Just chopping off parts of intros, verses, solos. Making it more economical, and it probably did serve the song well, but it was because we wanted to make sure the record didn’t skip [due to excessive length].
That’s something a lot of the generation nowadays might not be aware of. The studio rat equivalent of having to walk five miles in the snow to school each morning…
“Lemme tell you the way things used to be, kids”… yeah. You know how it was. I’ve always thought about how the medium dictates the art. It’s funny to think about how certain records mean a lot to people, yet a lot of the decisions that were made on them were based around really weird parameters. “Yeah, that song’s shorter because we were trying to keep it from skipping.” Something weird about that.
I think the original vinyl Medicine Show was really good. The CD [A&M’s 1989 reissue] was terrible. I don’t blame that on the mastering, because Bill Inglot, who mastered it, always does a great job. It’s just that CDs sounded like crap back then. So [during the remastering] I remembered how exciting it was making this record and hearing all the stuff as we were going along, and how happy I was. And I haven’t had that experience of hearing it that way until now.
I’ve had musicians tell me that the experience cuts both ways – that when they go back and revisit an earlier album, both good and bad memories can come back. I understand making the record was also a period of stress for you.
Mmm-hmmm. Some of it wasn’t a happy time for me or, I’m sure, for Karl. It was exciting because we knew we were doing something special, but we took five months to make it, and during those five months we went from being pretty good friends to two people who didn’t speak anymore. That’s no fun. Also, just being 23, various bad behavior, various doubts… if I could’ve told myself back then that 27 years later I’d still be making music and having fun, I think I would have relaxed a little bit. But you put this incredible pressure on yourself to come up with the goods when you’re first starting out.
Whereas now, I think I’m making the best music of my life, and I’m trying a lot less. That doesn’t mean it’s not important or that I don’t make sure everything is the way it’s supposed to be; it’s just more natural because I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’m sure you’ve experienced that in writing.
Yeah, that’s true. I feel like I can do things easier, with a lot less effort, and still come up with something better — and have more fun doing it in the process. That’s probably true with any discipline.
Of course, the flipside is that all the frustrations and neuroses that go into making the record come out in the record, and you can hear it – in a good way. Because making a record is a very intense emotional experience.
That’s fueled so many great records, like the ones you namecheck in the Medicine Show liner notes — Big Star Third, Tonight’s The Night, etcetera. In the review I wrote of your album, I pointed out how it confuses me sometimes, that I’m not sure what I’m responding to and it’s like watching a French movie. Some of the sounds are a little weird, very ‘80s sounding, yet very seductive too. So why is this album, for me, instead of Days Of Wine and Roses, the Dream Syndicate record I respond to the most? It’s very hard to explain. The album a key artifact of the Amerindie underground of that era, yet it sounds unlike other records from that time period.
That’s a great description. I think there’s a little mystery to it. Of all the records I’ve made, that one’s the hardest to pin down; it’s its own beast. I can’t think of any of the other records that sound quite like that. The closest thing that it reminds me of might be some of Nick Cave’s records that came afterwards, which were damaged, and wrong, and often uncomfortable, but make a strong impression. And I think…mmm, I think Medicine Show has its own mystery and a lot of things. Your comment about a French movie is a really good one, because if you go to see any basic Adam Sandler movie, you know the story and you can walk away and say I know what that was about and what the subtext was, and I got from A to B and I either enjoyed it or I didn’t. But there are certain more oddball films where you walk away and go, I don’t even know what that was about, it was stilted and unknowing at times — but I can’t stop thinking about it. And those are the things I’ve always liked.
That would make Daughtry the Adam Sandler of rock ‘n’ roll…Okay, so you started writing Medicine Show not long after the first album, and then Kendra Smith [original bassist] left the band. Take us back to that point, when she announces she was splitting and you say to yourself, “Uh-oh…”
I was really sad about that because Kendra had been a good friend for a real long time. We were in bands when we were 18 back in Davis, California. And I knew how important she was to the band and the sound of the band. But being that age, I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I just said, “Okay, good luck.” We knew we were going on to something else anyway, and she sensed that, and I think that may have been her hesitation about going on. We’d gone from being a goth-y psychedelic band to more of a guitar band and a band that would tour a lot.
And when she left, I think it was February of ’83, we were only one year past our first gig. A lot had happened in that time, a lot of very heady stuff. There was a period of time when I knew if I walked past the newsstand, any music magazine that I picked up would have us in it. I just assumed that, and it was exciting, but also when you’re that young and starting out, it can do weird things to you, and do different things to different people. I think for her it was a combination of maybe seeing us heading in a direction she didn’t like, and also because she was dating David Roback at the time I think they wanted to do things together [as Opal]. The whole touring thing wasn’t as much fun for her as it was for us. So when she left I knew we were going to be a different band.
You got David Provost in to replace her — he’d been playing with the Textones, right?
I was a fan of theirs and used to go see them, and I would see him around a lot too. He’s great – you know, he played with Al Green! Just a fantastic bassist. I just saw him recently, in Portland.
Did you already have the A&M deal cooking when he joined?
No, not then. The reason we had to get him in the band fast was because of the U2 tour. We needed someone who could learn the songs and jump in the van and go. The same thing happened a year later when he left and Mark Walton came in – we had to do a tour.
We were being offered deals by Geffen, EMI and A&M. It was great! I got a lot of nice meals out of that, a lot of ego stroking! Meetings with the presidents of labels, very exciting, very heady, and a lot of fun. I think A&M won out because they seemed more of an artists’ label. The whole vibe of them, and the fact that they were run by a musician, Herb Alpert, and that we’d be able to do what we wanted to. And we did! EMI, for example, we met with Gary Gersh, their A&R guy, and I remember him saying, “Well, you know, when you come with us, you’re not going to have just a label. We’re going to collaborate. We’re going to get involved with the songwriting and the way you make the records.” He was telling me this as a selling point! [laughs] “Check please!” I wanted no part of that. Geffen was great, though, so that was a hard decision. But even Geffen was more of a “corporation” compared to A&M being artist friendly.
And it was the right decision. Because A&M, in the five months of making the record, they never bothered us while we were doing it. They just signed the checks and said, “Keep going.” Which to this day amazes me.
Can you tell me how much they spent on the album, or is that privileged information?
I can tell you that it was something around a quarter of a million dollars…. yeah.
How many Steve Wynn records can we make with a quarter of a million dollars?
Everything I’ve ever done! I can tell you, and I’m pretty sure I can verify this, the time and money it took to make Medicine Show, I could fit everything else I’ve ever done. [laughs] Maybe not the time, but… to me it was a lesson, because I’ve always said about Medicine Show that we could’ve made the same record in a month. But at the same time, we didn’t know what we were doing. We were looking for something and not knowing what it was until we found it, and that was sort of the way Sandy Pearlman [Medicine Show producer] was too. And he’s always been that way: if you talk to people in Blue Oyster Cult, the Clash, the Dictators, you’ll get the same thing from them about Sandy. He takes a long time, and you kind of go on the journey with him.
Everything that happened was for a good end because we got that record. But some producers might have come in and said, okay, do this, this, this, and we’re done. He said, “Keep doing it, and I’ll know it when I see it.” And we said the same thing.
Did you seek out Pearlman, or was he suggested by the label?
He knew our manager at the time, Tim Devine. We were on tour with U2 and played a show at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, and our tour manager was quit or fired and we suddenly found ourselves without a tour manager or soundman for a very big show. Our manager suggested Sandy to do live sound. Most studio producers will not do that. But he did, we met him, and we liked him. It’s funny too – Karl was sold on him because of Blue Oyster Cult, and I was sold on him because of the Dictators. We both had our Sandy favorites, so he was a good choice.
He definitely pulled something out of us that we didn’t know was there. He pushed us to an extreme. He really, in every way, wanted something beyond just the normal rock band experience. It’s funny: his favorite movie, and one he had the poster for up on his wall, was Apocalypse Now. And it was the same thing. That documentary about the film, Heart of Darkness, all the psychological adventures that Coppola and Martin Sheen and everyone went through making that movie – I’m not saying it’s totally analogous, but that’s what we were doing as well.
If cameras had been rolling in the studio with you guys, what might they have caught on film?
They would have caught me throwing a whiskey bottle at Sandy for making me sing the same song 20 times in a row! And him saying to me, “You can’t throw a whiskey bottle at me! Mick Jones didn’t even throw a whiskey bottle at me!” [laughs]
In the new liner notes you write about how Karl Precoda wanted a big, panoramic sounding kind of record, whereas you were going for a kind of “beautiful loser” document. Were there discussions among the band members to that effect, about what you were going for, or was it strictly the intuitive search you suggested a few minutes ago?
It was intuitive. It’s funny, Karl’s mantra was, “We’re in the big leagues now.” He was very affected by that. He felt this was our time to make the big move. And I guess I felt the same thing, but my big move was just to fuck with people’s minds and do something really crazy. I was looking at things like Fun House and Miami by the Gun Club.
We never talked much about business or our career while we were making the record. Sandy Pearlman got very involved in arrangements, though. He had a lot to do with the arrangements on that record, and going against our safety zone. For example, “Merritville” on that record, when I originally wrote it, it was a very fast, almost country punk kind of song. Totally different from what it ended up being. If you imagine that being like something off the Gun Club’s Fire Of Love – “Preachin’ the Blues,” “ For the Love of Ivy,” that sort of song. Sandy just said, “I’m not getting the song here. Slow it down.” And he kept having us slow it down until the song came out. And that was very exciting. It was a new approach to us. Our approach had always been explode. Explode and see what happens. Slap it against the wall and see what happens.
That song is significant, too, for how important the keyboards are in the arrangement, compared to all the earlier Dream Syndicate material. At what point did Tom Zvoncheck come in to add piano to the arrangements? Did Sandy suggest that or was it something you’d been thinking of all along?
I think it was there almost from the start – we knew we wanted keyboards to be part of the record, the sound we were going for. And there’s a lot of keyboards on Sandy’s stuff too; that’s a big part of his sound, the Blue Oyster Cult stuff. We all agreed that was to be part of it. And at the time, I was looking at what Green On Red was doing, what [GoR keyboardist] Chris Cacavas was doing, and I liked that element. So we had never had keyboards in any way in the Dream Syndicate, but given what we were into and the way the songs were, and knowing Sandy’s sound, I don’t think there was ever any question.
“Merrittville” in particular is dominated by Tom’s piano, and it’s a beautiful, elegant tune. Yet I can hear some punk purist and devotee of the first album sniffing, “Oh, they want to be Springsteen….”
Yeah, and that was there. A lot of things about the record were misunderstood at the time. People said it was overproduced — which it was.
“Corporate rock,” yes! Which has nothing to do with anything. So the keyboards being reminiscent of Springsteen, or the drum sound — which, admittedly, is a bit of the time.
But all those things don’t stand out now when I hear the reissue. Now, it is what it is. Like a lot of records: over time, you just accept how they sound. The thing about Medicine Show that was kind of frustrating but also kind of funny at the time was the perception of the record in the States versus in Europe. I mean, the “selling out” part was ridiculous; it wasn’t a sellout in any way. But in Europe there was no real history of the band. Various collectors may have had [1982’s] Days of Wine and Roses, but Medicine Show was recognized as just a completely different and exciting record from an exciting new band. And the same thing happened that I described earlier: how everywhere you’d go, people are going to be writing about it and loving it. We got that [in Europe] on a year delay with Medicine Show. And still, to this day, I think that is the record that has more notoriety and more fans than Wine and Roses.
What you’re describing is something that one supposes has happened to a lot of bands. Howe Gelb from Giant Sand told me a similar thing, how his band was wholeheartedly embraced in Europe. Their record finally comes out overseas, and the foreign fans don’t really have any context or background so they just take it at face value without any baggage that might have existed back home where people had been listening to the group a few years. Or at least this was true in the pre-Internet era.
Sure, and that follows from your local scene, where you’ve been playing and they think they have certain rights to you, to your country, and it expands from there. Someone like Howe has probably experienced that in Tucson. I remember the first time I met Howe through Dan Stuart’s [Green On Red] perspective; they’d gone a long way back so my first impression of him was of this guy from the same scene as Dan’s and they had some history.
The way a person is perceived outside the scene is totally different from the way people inside it perceive the person. What’s ironic is that I first learned about Giant Sand by reading a British magazine, Bucketful of Brains. Yet later, when I lived in Tucson, I realized the whole scene there was different from the way it had been portrayed. It wasn’t this mystical center of desert rock at all.
L.A. is like that a lot. I’m like Randy Newman – “I love L.A.!” But it’s not a very healthy place to be a musician. In the past at least, everything was against the backdrop of the music business: who got signed, who got dropped, where you’re playing, what it all means. I always hated that. You don’t get that in New York at all.
And for the Dream Syndicate, you got a little acclaim, and the knives came out in jealousy from some quarters. That social climbing aspect of L.A. plays a part.
Sure. I think we “climbed” really quick and a lot of people resented that. And a lot of people who claimed to love the band didn’t really know what we were all about. That’s probably true of a lot of bands, where they arc and they start off as kind of a cult band, then have a little success, and finally ease back to where they would normally be. You look at that one moment when you’ve spiked, and it’s exciting, but it’s not all that realistic. Like the whole Nirvana syndrome, where all these people suddenly love Nirvana but would otherwise have hated stuff like that. It’s kind of a funny thing. People would be talking about the Dream Syndicate: “Really? You like this? You like this half hour of feedback?!?” [laughs] And we made a point of testing that too! [laughs]
I bet you did. And yet then you turn around and do something so different like Medicine Show. Nowadays people expect a band not to just repeat the previous album, but for a long time it’s almost like there was an orthodoxy that was a holdover from the initial punk era – so those folks who’d come to expect a half hour of feedback wound up getting this Springsteenian song with a piano. And that disconnect was expressed in a lot of the reviews too, right?
Yeah. And the funny thing, too, is that when you and I were growing up [in the pre-punk period] it was also the way where you’d expect people to change with every record – Dylan or Neil Young or David Bowie. Or even the Velvets, speaking of someone to whom we got compared to a lot: each of the four Velvets albums are radically different, and they’re each definitive for what they are.
Then punk told you that you would have to dress the same way and act the same way and sound the same way or you were out of the club.
Yeah. What was acceptable and what wasn’t. But also, then a lot of money got involved – a lot of money got confused in the ‘80s. The ‘80s became, sadly, the era of the producer and the studio and that kind of stuff. And it kind of got away from what you were recording. It was really weird in the ‘80s, how you saw, top to bottom, every band I knew, we – the musicians – were interchangeable random elements to be used by producers. We dodged that the best we could
Let me ask you about the songwriting. You have always had a reputation – for lack of a better term – for being cerebral. Or maybe “literate” is a better way to put it. Anyway, you stood apart from the whole punk “one-two-three-FOUR!” approach to songwriting. Were you consciously going for the storytelling approach, or consciously going against the grain? Even rebelling against the “baby, I love you” pop style of songwriting?
Well, not necessarily the “baby I love you.” I think Wine and Roses is the sound of a post-teenage group of people who are in their own head, who have their own concerns about how to deal with the world and new things. It’s very much an internal, neurotic record. And in the year after that came out, we went through a lot of stuff. We were seeing the world, traveling to every corner of the country, meeting new kinds of people. And I was reading a lot of things that went along with that. For example, I was seeing the South, so I wanted to read more Southern literature; I was reading Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, things like that. So we were reflecting what was happening to us, reflecting just seeing more and knowing more and pulling out our own thoughts. The subject matter of that second record is very different because of where we were at.
A lot of songwriters go through that and turn around and write their proverbial “road album,” very first person. But instead, you turned those experiences into characters, and that seemed to set you apart as well.
I think it was a very character-driven, third person storytelling kind of record. But most of the things that are happening on that record are very personal. Like, I was talking recently to someone about the song “Armed With an Empty Gun”: that couldn’t be more simple to figure out what that’s about. What I was feeling at the time was, wow, I’m moving fast and there’s all this excitement and hubbub, and I’m doing my best, but occasionally I feel like I’m bluffing and wondering how long can I pull it off.
That’s something I look back now and I can actually say — [conspiratorial voice] I think I was pretty good at it. But everybody goes through that. You have that “impostor syndrome” and the feeling that people are loving you but you’re not worthy of all that acclaim. You get all these self-loathing sorts of second records. Look at the difference between Nevermind and In Utero. There’s so much venom sent inward on that [latter] record.
A lot of people who play music believe in themselves and like what they’re doing and kinda hit that zone and are happy when they do it. But when other people start telling you, “Yeah, I love what you’re doing!” – especially when you’re young – you go, “Are you sure? Really? Are you gonna change your mind tomorrow?”
There is a distinctive element of someone trying to run away from a lot of stuff on Medicine Show, too.
Because Medicine Show is such a narrative-driven album, that’s what draws a lot of people to it, I suspect. And much of it scans like this noirish, desperado record. Lots of guns. Violence real and implied. How about the song “Burn”? Is that a metaphorical tale, or did you read something in the news to provoke that particular imagery, of this fucked-up guy burning a field down?
Without getting too much into it… there were a few disappointing things that had happened in my life, things about my family, things that, um, didn’t work out as they should’ve. There’s that feeling of when you think you have everything figured out and you think you have a strong foundation around you, and then it gets pulled out and away from you. I think there’s the key line in it: “Just a few things that can’t be told.” Like when suddenly things don’t make sense anymore.
“Guess I just don’t know.” That’s another line.
Yes. So then I threw all that into fields and fire and all that kind of stuff, which was written to be about that feeling, “I can’t express this with words or logic, so I just have to have some very violent, explosive behavior to wash it away.” And then, that’s the kind of thing I still have in my songs, just that emotional catharsis for things that can’t be understood.
But you know, the catharsis for that record was other people’s problems. Because it’s easier to write that way. I think of Randy Newman, he’s always writing about himself, even though he’s not. If you listen to every Randy Newman record back to back, you understand him even though they’re all stories, ironic and detached. Eventually you see the connection between all of them, about life and other people and what’s good and what’s bad.
So — the album comes out, you and Karl aren’t getting along too well, and you have to hit the road to promote it, lots of touring, including a long jaunt with R.E.M.. How did things start to unravel for the band?
I guess we just had that rift that never got healed. Looking back, I think it was us just not talking much. Me jumping on the R.E.M. bus whenever possible and hanging out with Peter Buck instead of my own band. It was too frustrating and all that. The reality is that there were a lot of good times too. But we weren’t grown up enough to deal with it, and our friendship soured. We did tour a lot. We did two months with R.E.M. and another month or so in Europe, and then we went to Japan. So in the next six months we toured quite a bit, and I remember that in all that time, the one thing we could talk about was baseball. Karl was also a huge baseball fan.
Did R.E.M. fans like Dream Syndicate? I saw the Greensboro, NC, show on that tour.
It was mixed. At the time the tour was seen as a really big deal because it was two bands who were getting a lot of attention. Of course they were bigger, but we were kind of the standard bearers for the new American college rock or indie rock, whatever name it was that year! So a lot of their fans were predisposed to liking us, and a lot were kind of mystified at the very different thing we were doing from what they were doing. We went on tour and took Tommy Zvoncheck with us because we wanted to do the album, and I’m glad we did, but it probably would have been smarter to go on tour and be a four-piece band again. Just as far as not confronting people – it’s one thing to confront an audience with a new record and let them settle into it, but doing it live you don’t really have that chance to rethink things or reassess.
Yet as you said, this is also the touring period where once you got to Europe you found an entire new audience that was specifically your own.
Yes, because they hadn’t had American bands like us come over there. I could be wrong, but I think we were the first of that era. Maybe Television had gone over, and of course the Ramones and a couple of others. But really, if you think of the post-punk American bands, hardly anyone had been over at that point.
You were fortunate enough, too, to have the patronage of a major label so you could afford to do it.
Oh man, the best decision I ever made in my life – I remember having a meeting with the A&M head of A&R, and he said to me, “Okay, we’re going to give you a choice here. We can either make a video, or go to Europe. We’ll finance one or the other.” I’d never been to Europe in my life, so for selfish reasons I did it! And that has turned out to help keep me going.
Otherwise you’d have been at the mercy of the whims of some MTV exec, where you’d spent all that money on a maybe — maybe I’ll get played on MTV. “120 Minutes” or something.
I know. It was obscene the amount of money you would spend back then just to be seen at 2 a.m. in the morning in the middle of the week. It just didn’t make any sense to me so there was no question.
So finally, after we made it all through that, even though things were going well and having great tours and success in Europe and…
…you break up. How did Karl tell you he was leaving?
He didn’t. I broke up the band. By the time I’d finished that whole six months of touring… the advice I’d give any young musician is, don’t ever make any decisions about your band or your life within two weeks of the tour. Go home, unplug the phone, go out and walk in the park. You’re really in a different state, physically mentally and other things, when you come off the road. But I was thinking, I can’t stand anymore being around people I can’t talk to, have fun with. Where there was this tension and this anger all the time. So that was that. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
Did you tell A&M what you were doing?
Yeah, but I don’t remember how quickly I told them. But I did tell them fairly quickly. And I remember calling Karl and Dennis and just saying, “That’s it!” And then it was unintentional, unplanned, that we reformed three months later. It was a matter of, I still like Dennis, I still like Mark, and I still like playing, so it’s natural that I would play with them. So we looked for somebody who could come into the band. Paul [Cutler] was very much the obvious choice; he was an old friend and I loved his playing, so that was that.
The lineup with Paul was really powerful. I remember seeing the band in 1986 and watching him hunched over at the edge of the stage, tapping his guitar strings with a tuning fork to get these unearthly sounds.
To this day, I wish I could reunite that final band’s lineup. I’m still friends with everyone. But Paul is very definitely retired. He wants no part of it. Mmm… it’s too bad.
Yes, all that money that’s being dangled in front of bands to reunite…
Ohh… you don’t know the half of it! [laughs]
With the touring industry taking such a beating lately, big tours like Limp Bizkit and Christina Aguilera getting canceled and scaled back, I’m curious to know if touring remains a good proposition for you? Is it still worth all the logistics and effort?
It goes up and down. The one thing I’ll say for America, as opposed to Europe, is that in America I just go out and hit the major cities and that’s it, whereas in Europe, these towns you can barely find on the map, we’ll have shows that are great. But yeah, in the big cities in the States it’s as good as it’s been in the last 20-25 years.
And you know, I’ve been living under the radar for so long that everything is relative. I remember talking to Mike Mills one time and he said, “What have you been up to?” And I said, “I’ve been touring Europe a lot; that’s kind of my bread and butter.” And he said, “I know what you mean – we can’t get arrested in America!” And I go, “Mike. Your idea of not being able to get arrested is my idea of winning the lottery!” Last time I saw them they sold out Madison Square Garden. So you see how it is all relative. And some artists like Limp Bizkit’s idea of a bad turnout, I’d be fine with.
I don’t mean this in a pretentious way, but I look at what I do as more like going to see McCoy Tyner down at the Blue Note, me and 75 other people digging it. I guess we’re all jazzbos.
Have you considered releasing one of the live performances your band the Miracle 3 did covering Days of Wine and Roses and Medicine Show? [Wynn and his band performed each album on successive nights in Atlanta on May 14 and 15, 2010.]
I really liked doing that. The Atlanta performances were a lot of fun. But I don’t want to say anything I can’t promise. I will say that 2012 is the 30th anniversary of the Dream Syndicate, and somehow it will be commemorated. I’m just not sure how.
Postscript: Well, here in 2014, we know how that played out—quite well. The Dream Syndicate has been performing selected dates for two years now, and in a recent email exchange Wynn told me that the band is playing and sounding stronger than ever. So strong, in fact, that — drumroll, please — he’s seriously thinking about taking the band into the studio this year to record a new album…
Photo Credit (top) of current lineup: Juan Carlos Quindos
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