Dream Syndicate – Medicine Show

January 01, 1970

(Water/Runt)

 

www.runtdistribution.com/water

 

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.

 

As Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke
relates in his copious liner notes to a new, expanded/remastered Medicine
Show
, 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).

 

The Medicine Show reissue arrives courtesy Water Records (part of
Runt Distribution, specializing in key archival releases), and it 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.

 

Now it’s time for the rest of you to catch up.

 

Standout Tracks: “Burn,”
“Medicine Show,” “John Coltrane Stereo Blues (live)” FRED MILLS

 

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