Tag Archives: college rock

Fred Mills: THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT.7 (Thomas Anderson)

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“Hopefully the world is big enough for all us”: The Austin rocker, whose career stretches back to the ‘80s, on his remarkable new album, on death, dying and the afterlife, on the travails of dealing with indie record labels—and on the various other Andersons out there who keep stealing his digital thunder.

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 and Green On Red) I’ve opted not to trawl through my personal archives—although, as you’ll learn, my subject today definitely is a favorite part of my journalistic history. Instead, I’m presenting an interview I did recently with an artist I’ve admired since the late ‘80s but who, for reasons that will become clear, I’d lost touch with for a good while. Ladies and gentleman, allow me to (re)introduce Thomas Anderson.

Anderson’s a native of Norman, Oklahoma, but for the majority of his adult life has lived in Austin. If memory serves, I first became aware of him as a journalistic peer; he was writing for the likes of Trouser Press and Musician and was an ace scribe at that. All along, though, he’d been writing songs and finally, in ’89, he decided to move to the other side of the stage lights and release his first album, Alright, It was Frank . . . and He’s Risen From the Dead and Gone Off With His Truck via his own Out There label. Critics like Robert Christgau approved, and as was frequently the case back in those days, the record found its way into the hands of such (cough) roccrit tastemakers as moi and my old pal Jud Cost; it’s entirely possible that Jud and I got on the horn and called each other up simultaneously to call “dibs” on reviewing the LP for the rock mag we both scribed for, The Bob. There was something undeniably compelling about Anderson’s Dylan/Reed style of literate rock lyricism, and he also knew his way around a good hook and a catchy riff.

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Nowadays, “singer songwriters” are not even a dime a dozen, more like a nickel a dozen (if that much). But a quarter century ago, at a time when Seattle was starting to breathe down everyone’s neck, it took a lot of huevos to prize actual songcraft over attitude, and to understand that to “kick out the jams” wasn’t a template, but an aesthetic—and that it was okay to have folkier, contemplative material alongside full-tilt rockers. In that, Anderson was clearly a traditionalist, one who didn’t mind wearing his influences on his sleeve while still bringing something absolutely fresh to the table.

Several acclaimed albums would follow, including Blues For the Flying Dutchman (Dutch East India) and Moon Going Down (Marilyn). Meanwhile, I landed in Tucson, and I consider myself fortunate to have struck up a friendship, first via the mail and then later in person when he traveled from Austin to Arizona for some shows. Gifted with an easy-going, self-deprecating manner and a brain containing veritable Wikipedia of musical facts and trivia, Anderson’s the kind of guy you could sidle up to in a bar and within five minutes find yourself deep in conversation about some obscure record or swapping rock ‘n’ roll anecdotes.

Which doesn’t exactly bring us to his new album Heaven (Out There) because Anderson’s put out a number of other records since the early ‘90s, including 1998’s Bolide, 2003’s Norman, Oklahoma and archival releases The Moon in Transit (2012) and On Becoming Human (2013). But Heaven, comprising all-new material (his first such collection in years) does serve to remind me of all the things that appealed to me in the first place. Cheerily billed as “songs about dead people and the afterlife,” it kicks off with the jangly “No Thought For the Morrow” plus a blazing T. Rex/Velvets-style rocker titled “Arguing With the Dead,” and indeed, with lines like “Old man lying in an ICU/ Loved ones around him weep” (the former) and “When I get to Heaven it’ll clear my head/ ‘Cause it’s no use arguing with the dead,” Anderson’s thematic mandate gets fulfilled right from the get-go.

Elsewhere there’s atmospheric ballad “Chelsea Grail,” which with its references to Andy Warhol and Brian Jones makes explicit that Anderson is paying tribute to the late chanteuse Nico; a Bowie-esque slice of wham-bam distorto rock, “All the Cool People Have Left the Party,” lamenting how our heroes, icons and objects of desire are “leavin’ too soon” and in their wake are “nothin’ but some loud and obnoxious goons”; and a folky, seven-minute epic “The Wilderness,” which provides Anderson his chance to ponder, at length, what the afterlife might resemble, his protagonist wandering around on the streets of Heaven, taking in the sights.

There’s plenty more, of course, but you get my point: Anderson remains a scholar of literate and thoughtful tunesmithery while instinctively channeling his rock ‘n’ roll roots, and the result is one of the nicest musical surprises to come down the pike so far this year. I caught up with him via the digital horn, and what follows is the result of the two of us doing some long-overdue commiserating.

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BLURT: Perhaps a good way to start would be to re-introduce yourself, as I imagine a good chunk of our readership, at least the younger ones, will be unfamiliar with your work. Could you tell us a little about your roots and background?

THOMAS ANDERSON: Well—the Okie roots aren’t much to talk about. Oklahoma is a place that people largely want to get away from. A lot of music has come out of Oklahoma, but with the obvious exception of the Flaming Lips, it’s mostly been made by people once they left there. From Woody Guthrie on.

As for me, I spent the ‘80s writing for music mags such as Trouser Press, Creem, Record and Musician. Around the end of that decade, I released my first album, titled Alright It Was Frank, And He’s Risen From The Dead And Gone Off With His Truck. Since then I’ve released seven more, including Heaven, the new one. There have also been a couple of 45s and some stray tracks on compilations.

So why surface now, in 2016? With the ascent of Donald Trump, a lot of people would appear to be getting ready to go underground and/or move to Canada…

Surface?! I never thought I went under! Really, I just put out records when I can, y’know? It’s always been that way. I have a neurotic fear that at some point—for whatever reason—I won’t be able to do this anymore, so I try to release stuff whenever I can. In the old days, when I was on actual labels, I was kind of at their mercy as to when my stuff got released; but now, I’m always working on the next one.

I remember when you were working at Waterloo, you quipped to me that you try to leave Austin during SXSW. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen go down in your adopted city, both pro and con, in the time you’ve lived there?

I’ve moved to Austin twice. The first time in…1984, I think? Back then I could walk over to the UT campus in the evenings and visit Sterling Morrison in his office. At the time he was working on his thesis on Cynewulf, the Anglo-Saxon poet, and he always appreciated an excuse to put it aside for awhile. Or I could talk to Roky Erickson, who was living with his mom and a black cat named Halloween, in a house with spray-paint all over the walls. The Big Boys had splintered into Poison 13, and the Standing Waves had moved to New York. I used to play at an awful coffeehouse run by some distant relative of Ernest Tubb, and go see the Tail Gators and Brave Combo.

I moved there again around 1993 and basically worked in what I call “yuppie support,” as most of the musicians did. Lotsa minimum-wage jobs to make rent on a ghetto apartment up on Rundberg. It was depressing. On the good side, I played a lot of shows at the Electric Lounge, and had records coming out on Unclean and Propeller in Austin and on labels in Europe. It’s… um… hard to explain. Austin’s great for a lot of people, but maybe not so great for me. It’s kinda like, if I go to a party and no one there is particularly happy to see me, I leave, y’know? Now, I kinda bounce back and forth. When Bob Mould moved there in the ‘90s, a friend of mine asked him what he thought of Austin. He supposedly said, “It’s nice to live in a place where the street don’t smell like piss.” So yeah—Austin has its advantages!

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen go down in the independent music world, bot pro and con, in the time you’ve been part of it?

Um… is Korn still big? No—seriously, I’m the last person in the world to ask about that…. Since I stopped working at record stores, I’m totally in the dark on what’s happening in music. I always figure that if something is great enough, I’ll probably hear about it eventually. Maybe in BLURT. [Damn straight. —Reviews Ed.]

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The new record—”Songs about dead people and the afterlife”: indeed, the songs frequently invoke words like dead, angels, graves, dying, etc. Were there specific incidents or losses that inspired you to go thematic on the record?

Awhile back, I was on a Mark Twain kick. In attempting to read everything available by him, I found a work called Captain Stormfield’s Visit To Heaven, which, as far as I know, has never been published in its entirety. It’s a story about a man’s visit to the afterlife, and who and what he finds there. And how existence works there. And I thought, ‘What a great premise for an album!’ I mean, you can do anything with that–songs about famous dead people, songs about people you’ve known, songs questioning good and evil, songs about the meaning or meaninglessness of life… you can do anything with that concept. And I wrote a ton of songs for it. In addition to the twelve songs on the album, I had songs about Lou Reed, Jeff Buckley… a LOT of songs.

Depressing subject in theory, but in execution, wonderfully contemplative, with gorgeous arrangements. Still, not the easiest “sell” from a marketing standpoint—discuss.

Well, hopefully I’ve kept it entertaining. I dunno… everyone from the Carter Family to the goth groups have been pretty death-obsessed. I’ve tried to keep it light. I mean, my Heaven has a porn star [Savannah, in “Savannah Got Screwed”] a gospel/blues singer [Washington Phillips, “Dolceolo Glory”], a Star Trek actor [Leonard Nimoy, “He’s Dead Jim”], Nico, and Sheb Wooley [“Sheb Wooley Dies in Oklahoma”] Plus, Michael Jackson has a romance with the author of Frankenstein [“Mary Loves Michael”], and Nixon and JFK stroll by [“The Gatekeeper’s Tale”]. Who else is gonna give you a Heaven like that?

Are all the songs of recent vintage, or are any from the archives? And given that you performed all the music yourself, were there any pitfalls in taking the extreme DIY approach?

A lot of it was written around the millennium, some more recently. “All The Cool People Have Left The Party” I wrote after listening to a bunch of Prince 12″ singles. The only pitfall in the DIY approach was that I was using a new digital recorder this time, instead of the 4-track cassette deck I used on the last couple of albums, and I was getting some anomalous sounds when I tried to use a lot of guitar distortion; which might explain why most of the guitars on there are pretty clean. My friend Kels Koch of the Million Sellers said the sound reminded him of The Blue Mask. So I’ll pretend that was the idea!

In that regard, you’ve come full circle/returned to late ‘80s roots, true? Which resonates with me: I basically write about music without getting paid these days, just for the free records and to scratch my creative itch—just like it was all those years ago when I was writing about you for The Bob.

It’s like you start out scratching the creative itch, and it becomes an obsessive thing. Which has led to a lot of mediocre art. I mean, it feels good—terrific even—to create something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. You know that feeling when it all works—it’s there in journalism just like music—it’s just the best. So you keep scratching that itch. It’s kinda like a gambling addiction, I guess…

You seemed to go on a decade-long hiatus from 2003’s Norman, OK and 2012’s The Moon In Transit. What were you doing during that time? Did you continue to play music and write songs?

Simply put, my label ceased to exist. My stuff had been coming out on a German label called Red River, and they had started working with some new distributors who were jacking them around—telling them what to release and when, not paying them—and eventually the guy who ran the label, a great guy, by the way, just threw in the towel. I had an album ready to be released. It was called Radar Angels—it was recorded, mixed, mastered, the artwork was done… it was ready to go; then the label was gone. One song from it got licensed to Sony in Germany (for a blues compilation—I’m right in between the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Greg Allman), a few more I made available online; but eventually I just started working on a new album. So yeah, there was a little ten year break in there….

Your website doesn’t appear to have been updated since, er, the release of Norman, OK, and the Wikipedia page for you essentially cuts off at 2013’s On Becoming Human. Are there any plans to rectify this info gap for the general public? And how can people get the record, either hard copies or digital?

First of all, that’s not my website. I have no control over that. As for Wikipedia…wait—I’m on Wikipedia?! Where?! I mean, I’ve looked! Dude, send me a link or something! I’ve NEVER found anything on me on Wikipedia—it’s all Paul Thomas Anderson. [Ed. note: Thomas and I have subsequently rectified this, so BLURT is hoping that both the unofficial T.A. site and the Wikipedia page will see updates in the near future.]

People can get Heaven from CD Baby—and they also have the two albums that came out right before it. They have both physical copies and downloads. You can also get downloads from iTunes or Amazon or any of those places. Plus, you can stream the stuff on Deezer or any of those places. Y’know, I think both Unclean and Propeller Records in Austin still have a few original copies of my 45s from twenty years ago. Get ’em before they’re gone, kids!

What’s coming up for you next? More recording? Touring?

Two things—I’m working on a Requiem Mass For Nash The Slash, and I don’t know what the hell I’ll do with that, if anything…. Also, later this year I hope to do a digital reissue of my second album, Blues For The Flying Dutchman. Lately I’ve been dusting off some early demos of some of those songs for possible bonus tracks, and they sound GREAT.

Finally, what would you say to people who search for you on the internet and think that THIS Thomas Anderson, apparently based in CT, is you?

Nope, he’s definitely not me, though I wish I had his guitar. Cool shirt, too. Back in the MySpace days, some girl from Scotland contacted me because she thought I was the Thomas Anderson who sang a song used in the short-lived TV series Shark. I had to break it to her that I wasn’t the Thomas Anderson she loved. Weird girl—she seemed to be drinking or drunk in all of her online pics. She disappeared after awhile. Maybe her parents made her take down her page; she looked like she was about fifteen. But yeah, there are quite a few Thomas Andersons out there. Hopefully, the world is big enough for all of us. [Below: OUR Thomas Anderson. Accept no substitutes…]

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Fred Mills: THE COLLEGE ROCK CHRONICLES, PT. 8 – The Sidewinders

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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….

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“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).

Cuacha

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.

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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.

Sidewinders book

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

Fred Mills: Memories of N.C.’s Connells

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Dedicated to my late brother-in-law, one of the world’s biggest Connells fans…

BY FRED MILLS

It will come as no surprise to learn that many of my fondest music memories are from the mid ‘80s when I was living in Charlotte, NC, and the college rock scene—the mostly indie-based precursor to the alt-rock explosion of the ‘90s—was thriving. In this space and elsewhere on the BLURT site I’ve written lately about 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. We, as music consumers, do tend to focus on the records and the concerts that were our soundtracks during our so-called formative years, and I’m no different. The ‘80s were a pretty big deal for a lot of us, and there were a lot of bonds formed back then that endure to this day.

One of those bands, for me, was surely Raleigh’s Connells, whose run starting in the mid ‘80s lasted for more than a decade, during which time they not only became mainstays of college radio but also made modest inroads into commercial radio and MTV—and, with the release of the single and video for 1993 album Ring track “’74-‘75” they also turned into Top Ten stars in Europe. I was a huge fan from Day One and frequently wrote about the band in the publications I scribbled for back then, zines like The Bob, Puncture and Option, along with Charlotte weekly Creative Loafing. In fact, such was my public devotion to the group and its likeminded musical peers that my friend and fellow scribe Byron Coley, in a review of the Connells for the notoriously cranky but influential Forced Exposure, described the band and the album quite succinctly: “More Fred Mills southern jangle pop.”

Ouch. Well, I’ll take that as a compliment, ‘cos it was true.

I was also fortunate enough to see them numerous times over the years, typically in Charlotte clubs like the Milestone or the Pterodactyl or occasionally when I visited the Triangle (such as this R.E.M.-headlined one at Meredith College in May of ’85 where they along with Don Dixon and the Pressure Boys were an opening act; in the video at about the 1:08 mark you can see what I think is the back of my head). A decade or so later, when I was living in Tucson, the band came to the Old Pueblo to play at the Downtown Performance Center, so naturally I went out to see them and I was greeted with hugs and high fives all around—just a great feeling to be in their presence again and to know that they considered me a friend.

All of this came rushing back this morning while reading the online version of the Raleigh News & Observer. As I noted in a BLURT news article:

Longtime fans of North Carolina’s Connells – a mainstay of the late ’80s and early ’90s, they still perform occasionally in and around their homebase of Raleigh – will remember the “’74-’75” video from the band’s Ring album. The song was a minor MTV hit here in the states but went absolutely massive in Europe, and it was bolstered by the below video filmed by acclaimed director Mark Pellington (who also did hit vids for U2 and Pearl Jam.

Today in Raleigh’s News & Observer music critic David Menconi wrote a kind of where-are-they-now article about the people who were in the original video (they were mostly at Broughton High School, which is where several members of the band attended); a photo gallery of those people as they appear in 2015 accompanies the article. Even better, the newspaper put together a newly edited version of the video, plugging in visuals from the photo shoots of the people – including the members of the band in 2015.

The project, by Menconi along with Juli Leonard and Travis Long, had to be as emotional to create as it is to view—you can see it HERE at the N&O. It’s fascinating to view the original 1974-75 yearbook photos of the folks, followed by what they looked like in the early ‘90s at the time of the original video shoot, and then followed by what they look like now. Their smiles and glances, even in a couple of instances outright laughter and embracing of loved ones who had also appeared in the clip as children, have a certain bittersweet quality that’s hard to describe, so I’ll just suggest you watch the clip and see what I mean.

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Digression: I also suggest you scroll quickly past the following image of yours truly circa 1974-75 unless you are a masochist. I have no idea why I feel compelled to share this with you, but “over sharing” is what Facebook hath wrought among the populace, eh? [Image posted by absolutely no popular demand whatsoever. – Blurt Photo Ed.]

FM

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Postscript: What affected me even more deeply than the video, however, was an additional memory it stirred up, of my former brother-in-law, Tommy Huntley, who was from my hometown and was also the cousin of Connells guitarist George Huntley. Rightly proud of the family connection to a band that was nationally known and, eventually, internationally famous, Tommy would drive up to Charlotte whenever the Connells were slated to perform and we’d go see the show together. A couple of years older than me, there’s no question he loved the band just as much as I did and he was unique among many of the old hometown crew in that he continued to nurture a hunger for discovering new music even as he approached middle age.

Tommy passed away unexpectedly a little over ten years ago, from a heart attack, and when I was at the funeral I ran into George Huntley for the first time in ages. By this time he was no longer in the Connells, having launched a successful career in real estate, but I know the big smile was genuine when I told him how much his former band had meant to Tommy. Music has that unique power to link folks together somehow no matter what the distance is or how much time has elapse.

In that regard, I’d like to dedicate this modest appreciation of the Connells to Tommy. I hope you are up there, brutha, humming along this morning to “’74-‘75” just like I am…