THE MEDICINE SHOW’S HEART OF DARKNESS Steve Wynn & the Dream Syndicate Pt. 1

The songwriter journeys back downriver, more than a quarter
century later, to probe the making of a troubled masterpiece.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

The reissue earlier this summer of the Dream Syndicate’s
epochal second album, 1984’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. Yours truly, in fact, was wholly unrestrained with the praise, singling
out Steve Wynn’s character-driven lyrical narratives and the band’s
adventuresome arrangements and muscular playing. “The record is panoramic, massive,”
I wrote, “yet it’s also a soul-purger in the most primal, essential sense.”

 

That this Medicine
Show
Mk. 2010 (Water Records) also boasts fresh liner notes, a raft of live
bonus material and jawdroppingly fine remastered sound makes it a prime
candidate for one of the year’s most essential reissues, too. (You can read our
dissection of the album elsewhere on the BLURT site.)

 

Although the band – Wynn, vocals/guitars; Karl Precoda,
guitars; Dennis Duck, drums; Dave Provost, bass – 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]

 

To be continued. In
Part 2, Steve Wynn delves further into the creation of
Medicine Show, and then discusses the aftermath.

 

Steve Wynn on the web:
www.stevewynn.net

 

[Photo Credit: Howard Rosenberg]

 

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