Tyler’s Favorite Albums (1983): Violent Femmes

I could dedicate this essay to just praising the originality and uncompromising dark humor of the Violent Femmes’ definitive first album. I could tell you how Brian Ritchie’s bass solo in “Please Don’t Go” may be my favorite one ever recorded. I could also recount how “Kiss Off” is a sleeper for one of my favorite karaoke songs. I could also get into a one-sided argument about how, in a hardcore landscape facing the disintegration of Minor Threat and a takeover by meatheads, there was nothing more punk rock than scrapping anything electric or distorted and essentially busking for ten tracks. Instead, I’ll share a couple disparate memories related to the Violent Femmes which illustrate just how pervasive and timeless this record is, in spite of itself.

Flashpoint: 2003.
I went to the WBCN River Rave with my college girlfriend and some of her friends from the Boston area. I was already pissed because Blur cancelled, and in order to keep some seats we snagged near the pavilion, we had to sit though Saliva for 30 minutes. Now, my audience is so niche that I’m probably not off-base to write that anyone reading this already thinks that Saliva are one of the shittiest hard rock bands to ever (1) emerge from Memphis or (2) have a cross-over hit single. Because it was a radio station-sponsored music festival, a lot of the people there bopped up and down to “Click Click Boom” and cheered as Josey Scott ranted that the Dixie Chicks should have been kicked out of “our” country. After Saliva finally finished their set and got the hell offstage, we were more than ready for – “hey, who’s on next, anyway? …. JACK JOHNSON?”

Yes, the genius programmers at WBCN decided to follow a right-wing cheez-metal band with the most obnoxiously chill singer-songwriter to emerge in the twin frat-bro shadows of Dave Matthews and Brad Nowell. I didn’t know much of Johnson’s music at the time, and none of us had any beef with him, but like Matthews and Nowell, his fans hadn’t done his reputation any favors. Johnson himself was probably flabbergasted to have to follow Josey Scott’s talentless “Love It Or Leave It” boom-boom show, but the guy deserves a LOT of credit for resetting the temperature that day. As utterly inoffensive as Johnson’s music is, he helped dial things back a bit and put us all in a better frame of mind. Maybe that programmer DID think it through, in retrospect.

Anyway, the moment when my opinion of Jack Johnson shifted, permanently, came at the beginning of his third or fourth song, when he strummed the instantly-recognizable opening chords of “Please Don’t Go,” the third track on Violent Femmes. I perked up, probably vocalizing, “Is this dude really playing a Violent Femmes song? And a deep cut??” Turned out, that dude really was playing a Violent Femmes deep cut. He sang the first verse of “Please Don’t Go,” instantly making casual fans of every beleaguered music nerd in the amphitheater. It was still early enough so that the drunks were only tipsy, too, so I had yet to make a voyage to the bathrooms in a scene not unlike when Simon Pegg darts through a crowd of zombies in Shaun of the Dead.

Fast Forward 10 Years: 2013. The California Low Desert. Coachella Festival.
My friend Laura and I met up to car-camp with a couple friends of friends. Our site was surrounded by, on one side, a group of nice folks who drove out from New Mexico, and on the other sides, about 15,000 of the worst people on the planet. However, Blur were playing, and although I finally got to see them play in Hyde Park in 2009, I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to see them on US soil for the first time*.

As the first night finally arrived, we watched the Stone Roses sleepwalk through their set before she split to go watch How to Destroy Angels, whose set conflicted with Blur’s. For those who don’t remember, How to Destroy Angels was a Nine Inch Nails side project with a relatively brief shelf life. From what she told me at our campsite later, she managed to get pretty close to the stage, where she befriended a short middle-aged man who mentioned his son was over seeing the Wu-Tang Clan. She could not get over how a person in their 50s would be that amped to see a Trent Reznor.

Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes) playing at the Coachella Festival, April 2013. (Photo by Tyler S. for Sonic Geography).

The following afternoon, our group migrated over to one of the main stages to see the Violent Femmes. As they took the stage, Laura lit up, turned to me, and said “Oh my god – that nice old guy I talked to before How to Destroy Angels?? That was the singer from this band!”

My response was hardly understated: “You hung out with Gordon Gano and didn’t tell me!?”

Laura defended herself, reminding me that she didn’t know who he was – Gano didn’t even mention being there to play at the festival! What a humble guy, considering how he wrote some of the most timeless and quintessential camp songs of the 20th century. So humble for a guy who created the best record of 1983, mostly when he was still a disgruntled teenager, forced to ride buses around Milwaukee and occasionally getting locked inside his house by his own parents.

Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo (who I’ve seen play with the band twice in between his stint being kicked out) opened their set on that blazing sunny afternoon announcing, “We’re going to play our first record for you, from top to bottom!” That’s the Violent Femmes for you – giving the people what they want! If only more foundational underground bands could be so thoughtful. 

Victor DeLorenzo (Violent Femmes) playing at the Coachella Festival, April 2013. (Photo by Tyler S. for Sonic Geography).
Brian Ritchie^ (Violent Femmes) playing at the Coachella Festival, April 2013. (Photo by Tyler S. for Sonic Geography).

Liner Notes

*I found out, years later, that the 2003 run supporting Think Tank was a nightmare for them, since Graham Coxon was no longer with the band, Simon Tong wasn’t a suitable replacement, and Dave Rowntree was going through coke-rage to the point where he was a tyrannical asshole to Nardwuar during their Vancouver stop. Rowntree did apologize and Nardwuar accepted, but goodness what an uncomfortable video if you find it.

^Am I the only one who can’t help but think about this when they look at this picture?

AAG PRESENTS: Michigan Redistricting Webinar (Wednesday 4pm ET)

This Wednesday, I will be hosting an informative discussion about Redistricting in Michigan on behalf of the AAG’s Redistricting Panel Series.

My guests will be Atty. Mark Brewer (former Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party), Nancy Wang (Voters Not Politicians), and Rick Sadler (MSU-Flint), with a couple of potential special guests, too.

MORE INFO AND REGISTRATION IS HERE. This event, like all the AAG Redistricting Webinars, is free.

Tyler’s Favorite Records (2001): Converge – ‘Jane Doe’

Via the Converge Bandcamp Page. Jacob Bannon’s cover art for ‘Jane Doe,’ released 20 years ago, tomorrow (9/4/2001).

I’ve always been of two minds about the relentless retroactive consumption of analog data into digital, considering how we are more than 80 years past The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. On one hand, certain images and texts were conceived to be transmitted in particular manners through specific networks. On the other hand, I get to watch more streaming video than I could conceivably view in my lifetime of bands I love at specific moments in their formative years. On the other other hand, it’s more material than I could possibly view in my lifetime. It gives me anxiety to think about sometimes.

Around the time of my birthday this year, I decided to dig a little and see and if live video miners like Hate5Six had published anything from my favorite Syracuse venue from my undergrad days, Planet 505 on Westcott Street. Of course they have: a pair of sets filmed by Daniella Dombrowski in May 2002. One of which was Converge, the greatest band ever to come from Boston, touring on the steam of their epoch-defining album Jane Doe.

Given the date of that gig, I should have been in town, probably burying my head in the sand over finals or something. It physically hurts that I could have walked down the street and been at this show. But then again, I was only cursorily aware of Converge at the time, and I missed the boat on any opportunity to be a “hardcore kid.” There were certainly plentiful opportunities to find community, maybe even start my own band (despite having very little musical talent), but I found other creative/social outlets throughout my college years.

More ink has been spilled about Jane Doe, Converge’s masterpiece, than almost any album in its style, so I don’t know how much my insights would contribute to the conversation. I agree with the assessment that this record did more for “loud” music than almost any record by a large handful of highly unlistenable metalcore arena-fillers who would follow. It elevated them to high art within whatever style of punk/metal it is they play. To put it bluntly, the record absolutely smokes. It takes you for a ride, and sometimes, it’s hard to get up after listening intently.

Ever since that bizarre moment in the mid-80s when metal became shockingly marketable (or marketably shocking), nerds had been fighting to defend the style from meddling parents, dilettante meatheads, and critics who overlooked the good shit. The subgenre’s greatest musician, Metallica bassist Cliff Burton, died tragically in 1986, missing out on the spoils of that cultural crest. MTV put Headbanger’s Ball on the air in April 1987, splintering metal world into the hopelessly commercial (Poison, Ratt, etc.) and defiantly underground/evil (Mayhem, Repulsion, etc.) with some Slayers bouncing between those worlds.

Right after the turn of the millennium, Converge, who came from the hardcore scene more than metal, released a record in that tradition that was impossible NOT to defend. I’d be loathe to call Jane Doe metal, since their greatest proponents were punks or college radio nerds (guilty), but it has most of the tropes we associate with metal, particularly the distortion that Kurt Ballou shoves up your ass as both guitarist and producer. The biggest “upgrade” from previous efforts (most of which were still very good) came in the form of new drummer Ben Koller, who is now almost universally regarded as one of the best to ever play in the style. He also firmly shifted Converge into the camp of “mathcore” with bands like Botch – playing in non-traditional time signatures – though many of the songs on Jane Doe still follow certain rules of pop music structure. One example is “Bitter and Then Some.” I may not be an expert on metal or metalcore, but moments recorded in that style don’t get any better than that *BREAK* at 0:32, one of my favorite moments on the entire album:

Though the members of Converge could not predict the future of the world when writing and recording this opus, the album’s release date one week ahead of the September 11th attacks feels eerily appropriate. Any American with access to a television was inundated with images of rubble and fires for weeks, lending the companion tracks “Phoenix in Flight” and “Phoenix in Flames” an especially morbid din. To Ballou’s many, many credits here behind the analog mixing deck, the latter really does make Jacob Bannon sound like a gigantic bird burning to death.

I’m not being hyperbolic. Listen for yourself. It’s the 21st century, and you can find any of these tracks pretty easily. This isn’t underground anymore. Not that there aren’t still plenty of jocks and/or meatheads in the scene, but thanks in large part to Converge, the thrashy, mathy punk they helped spearhead (and still run the table on) is unquestionable art and belongs to the nerds again. Only now, we stand in the back, but we’re still at the gig, all these years later.

For those interested in my full Top 10 list of 2001:

  1. Converge – ‘Jane Doe’
  2. The Coup – ‘Party Music’
  3. Aesop Rock – ‘Labor Days’
  4. Jimmy Eat World – ‘Bleed American’
  5. The Strokes – ‘Is This It’
  6. Life Without Buildings – ‘Any Other City’
  7. The Dismemberment Plan – ‘Change’
  8. Rival Schools – ‘United by Fate’
  9. Nymb – ‘So, this is How It Is’
  10. Andrew W.K. – ‘I Get Wet’

Tyler’s Favorite Records (1982): Roxy Music – ‘Avalon’

If you enjoy reading about my favorite records and live in Central Michigan, then you can come hang out and hear me play my favorite records TONIGHT at the Larkin Beer Garden (next to the Dow Diamond in Midland). I’ll be spinning from 6 until 9 or so! [/PSA]

It would stand to reason that Milo Goes to College would be my top record of this year, considering what a watershed era it was for American punk music (and I have a Descendents tattoo), but instead, my favorite album released in 1982 was a largely maligned “comeback” record by an egomaniacal, dinner-jacket-wearing crooner. Granted, most of the maligning I’ve seen in online communities around Roxy Music’s masterpiece Avalon is done by what I can only assume are bitter Eno loyalists. I absolutely enjoy those early prog-fire albums the collective did in fancy space costumes – I’m technically in the middle of Michael Bracewell’s tome Remake/Remodel: Becoming Roxy Music as I write this. You just can’t heap praise on Avalon without dealing with the fact that “Virginia Plain” and “Editions of You” also exist in the same universe. In 1998, Rolling Stone saw fit to choose the Eno-free Siren (an entirely okay mid-70’s glam-pop album with maybe three or four great tracks) to stand above the rest of the band’s catalog on their “RS 200” list.

I should write, with utter transparency, that I haven’t reached Simon Morrison’s 33 1/3 book on Avalon yet in my reading queue (but I cannot wait to dive in). Because this is my website, I reserve the right to come back to this post and amend it accordingly if Morrison helps me discover that I’m completely full of it. But, there’s something refreshing about sitting down without the discursive baggage equivalent to at least three or four episodes of ‘Behind the Music’ on a record you love. Considering how much time I spend thinking and writing about music, it’s somewhat refreshing to just colo(u)r a record in verbal kindness because it’s wonderful and you love it.

That’s the hill I’m going to die on regarding Roxy Music’s 1982 album Avalon. It’s ten tracks, (partially instrumental) of thoughtful, temple-massaging, everything’s-gonna-be-alright slow jams which permanently established the 80’s iteration of Sophisiti-pop (later re-branded as the invented joke-genre Yacht-Rock) and retroactively established Bryan Ferry as the Godfather of New Wave. Perish the thought that a college radio colleague was about to apply that label to Morrissey ahead of Moz’ inevitably-cancelled Syracuse show back in 2004. I stopped him and said that Ferry deserves that title, if we insist on slapping it on somebody. So many of the “New Wave” tropes we took for granted pre-dated Duran Duran and MTV. Most of them even pre-dated Bryan Ferry, but I can’t think of one British musician of the post-Rock n’ Roll era who more encompassed so many of the New Romantic aesthetics.

Bryan Ferry in 1975 (Photo by Anwar Hussein for Rolling Stone / Creative Commons Usage)

It will undoubtedly strip me of cred to admit this, but the first time I remember hearing “More Than This,” Bill Murray was singing it in Lost in Translation. For those of you who haven’t seen Sofia Coppola’s elegant, insufferable romp through Tokyo, I would advise against it unless you enjoy watching privileged people being sad (Lost in Translation walked so Eat Pray Love could run). But, like a lot of mid-2000’s cinematic pablum whose apparent directive was to make young gen-xers (later renamed “millennials”) feel deep, it featured some quality tunes. From what I remember, the film brought Kevin Shields back from the dead, too, fourteen years after he dropped his own masterpiece Loveless (my 8th-favorite album of 1991). The most memorable moments of Lost in Translation all centered around music: Murray singing Roxy Music to express his disillusionment, a very young ScarJo crossing a bridge in a cab to Loveless highlight “Sometimes,” a stripper dancing to the teaches of Peaches (“Fuck the Pain Away”), and of course a pretentious ending slathered in “Just Like Honey.” The latter (putting a hip song over the credits just because you like it) felt like a device employed by countless student filmmakers in order to show off their musical taste (guilty), not something that Nic Cage’s cousin, born into Hollywood royalty, needed in order to wrap up her movie.

I’ll return to the topic at hand.

Some people ridicule that fantastic falconry cover, but I can’t imagine Avalon without it. As much as this was a departure from a lot of Roxy Music’s 70’s fare, the image fit into their singular fantasy world, drawing from the Arthurian legend and not using a sultry female model (or models) to get their point across. I would imagine that Morrisson’s book will address this, too, but I’m willing to wager that Ferry was seeking his own Avalon upon which to recover from the 70s, ultimately building a musical one. Either way, it’s appropriate, because Avalon is much more reflective and infinitely less horny than “classic” Roxy Music. Rather than playing like a raucous night out at some club, it feels like an ex-clubber approaching middle age, taking their coffee out onto the back patio and thinking about all of the mistakes they’ve made. It’s overwhelmingly tasteful music that still manages to be funky and doesn’t abuse saxophones like 98% of the coke-recovery (or coke-relapse) jams that followed in the decade. Andy Mackay deserves recognition on that feat alone.

I think I’m going to stop here. I did some light Googling in order to fact-check myself, and I wound up spending about twenty minutes reading up on Welsh mythology. Listen to Roxy Music’s Avalon. If you have a record player, buy it on vinyl. Get home from a particularly long day, put the needle at the beginning of Side 2, prepare a hot compress or grab a cold drink during “The Main Thing,” and make sure to lay down with either source of comfort by the time the mysterious, drifting into to “Take a Chance With Me” begins. It’s bliss.

For those of you interested in my Top 10 Albums of 1982:

  1. Roxy Music – ‘Avalon’
  2. Descendents – ‘Milo Goes to College’
  3. Angry Samoans – ‘Back from Samoa’
  4. Discharge – ‘Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing’
  5. Bad Brains s/t
  6. Zero Boys – ‘Vicious Cycle’
  7. Orange Juice – ‘You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever’
  8. Youth Brigade – ‘Sound and Fury’
  9. Yazoo – ‘Upstairs at Eric’s’
  10. Cocksparrer – ‘Shock Troops’

Tyler’s Favorite Albums (1981): Crass – ‘Penis Envy’

Growing up, I knew one kid who was into Crass. He lived in a big beautiful house and slept on his cheek so as not to disturb his liberty spikes. He didn’t like me very much, but we collaborated on a couple of film projects via mutual friends. Once, I remember him conveniently waiting until one mutual friend (who loved the Clash) walked away to badmouth the Only Band that Mattered. Something about them being “corporate punk” or some other predictable critique. But, he made me curious about who Crass were, since AllMusic (the most available resource to demystify them in 2001) didn’t really help. I remember it called them “the most brittle and hard-line of the first wave of UK punk,” which of course made me want to get my hands on their music. Thankfully, Napster and KaZaa provided a window into a few songs to which Geoff casually dropped references – “Do they Owe Us a Living?” (OF COURSE THAY FOOKING DO!), “Banned from the Roxy,” and perhaps the most disorienting and downright frightening of their early tracks, “Shaved Women.”

Chumbawamba, another anarchist collective from the UK, had hit it big 4 years prior with “Tubthumbing.” Most of the people I knew at school were buying the eponymous CD and reselling it while absorbing NONE of the band’s anarchist message. I didn’t even go through with the trouble of owning it in the first place, as much as I may get curious someday when stumbling upon it for a quarter in some used-media warehouse. Chumbawamba’s importance didn’t make sense to me until well after I’d gotten into Crass, which happened in 2004 when I bought a bootleg best-of Crass CD in Madrid at the “1931 market” by Tirso de Molina. If there was one time and place the music collector in me wishes he could transport back to now, it would be then and there. A bunch of Spanish Anarchists, carrying (and selling) the flags of their ancestors that the Clash sang about set up every weekend with a sea of DIY shirts, tapes, and records that I would have bought ALL OF if I hadn’t been a confused American trying to sort out where he stood politically.

DVDs and Badges at the anarchist market, Tirso de Molina, Madrid, July 2015. Photo by Tyler S. for SonicGeography.com.

That Crass bootleg, which contained the entire screed from (I believe) “Yes Sir, I Will” translated into Spanish, contained a reasonable overview of their musical output during their pre-ordained 7 years of existence*. Also, to address an elephant in the room, I’ll admit that the first two Crass records aren’t very good. They absolutely fit neatly into the silo of “punk,” according to people with a fairly myopic understanding of that genre-world, but I’m not the only person who think those records are much more interesting than enjoyable.

The third Crass record, however, is unassailable and boils my blood (in a productive way) more with every listen. Eve Libertine, who assumed lead vocal duties (a political act itself in 1981 DIY punk), sings every song on here (save for one, sung by Joy de Vivre) like she’s actively castrating a rapist and knows history will vindicate her for doing so.

Via Hear She Roars

The production, if my lack of technical expertise could be forgiven, is NASTY. The late John Loder, who is roundly regarded as a genius, had a touch that simply elevated bands without compromising any of their edge nor idiosyncrasies. There is not one track on Penis Envy that sounds like a rock song should sound, but it still sounded cooler than almost any other punk album released in 1981. The needly guitars and sharp-as-hell bass on “Systematic Death” wrap you up and asphyxiate you while Libertine defiantly yells about how “they fuck our minds so they can fuck us silly!” The line that closes the song (“they’d almost paid their mortgage when the system dropped its bomb”) is particularly brutal to hear in 2021, when most of us are spending our entire lives in debt, servicing a system that keeps moving the end zone back every time they feel like cycling wealth upward. And, to paraphrase Eddie Izzard, “people [are] just sort of fine with that.”

When I was building my curriculum for a course on Geography and Gender, a revisit to this album inspired me to create an assignment directing students to pick a song with some lyrical theme around gender to present and analyze critically. Penis Envy was hardly the first album within the realm of popular music to put feminism front and center, but there’s something otherworldly about how well, forty years ago, Crass anticipated our contemporary conversation about gender. Sexism, like racism, was baked into the greater capitalist system, not a variable defect, and to defy either, one has to ask and answer some very difficult questions.

Unlike their frenemies in Chumbawamba (who sold about 5 million more records), Crass’ message has never been anything but crystal clear. No matter where Crass (as a collective) fit into the greater pantheon of punk’s half-century of history, they solidified themselves as a great band with Penis Envy – my favorite record of 1981. Have a listen here and see below for the rest of my top ten of that year.

WHAT VISION IS LEFT, AND IS ANYONE ASKING?

My Top 10 Albums of 1981

  1. Crass – ‘Penis Envy’
  2. The Adolescents
  3. OMD – ‘Architecture & Morality’
  4. Gang of Four – ‘Solid Gold’
  5. The Judy’s – ‘Washarama’
  6. Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive
  7. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – ‘I Love Rock n’ Roll’
  8. Penguin Cafe Orchestra
  9. The Replacements – ‘Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take out the Trash’
  10. Soft Cell – ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’

*For the purposes of this entry, Steve Ignorant’s cash-grab reunion tour(s) don’t count toward the band’s legacy. You have to make certain compromises when forced to live within a system you didn’t create and don’t support, and I have no idea what motivated/pushed Steve into doing that. At any rate, he does not appear on Penis Envy.

Sonic Geography (Vinyl Night) Tonight in Midland, MI

Sonic Geography at the Larkin Beer Garden
Thursday 07/29 | 6 – 9 PM

Happy Thursday!

For those of you in (or with friends in) Central Michigan looking for a place to hang out after work this evening, I’ll be spinning records from 6-9pm at the Larkin Beer Garden. The garden itself is all-ages, there is no cover, and they will have a food truck on premises. Find it nestled on the North gate of the Dow Diamond, across the park from State Street. See you tonight!

More Info about the Larkin Beer Garden Here

The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Ludington, MI

I began the Ben Irving Postcard Project in earnest in 2013 when I first inherited and began cataloging his collection of postcards. Even prior to my research into the history of the Postal Service and tourism in America, it made sense how many featured hotels. Of course the hotels wanted to make it convenient for lodgers to advertise the place, even if the recipients would never stay there or even visit the city. The penny it cost to send a postcard in 1938, run through an inflation calculator, would amount to only 19 cents in 2021 (17 cents cheaper than the still-paltry 36 cents it currently costs).  

It also stands to reason that, coming out of the Gilded Age, hotels were among the fanciest and more forward-thinking buildings in most American cities. As I’ve previously written, structures like the Hotel Floridan in Tampa were, as of Irving’s 1938 stop there, the tallest building in the state. Some smaller towns had little to advertise other than their spartan hotels targeting travelling salesmen. Others were more a cocktail of heritage, mythology, and utilitarianism. 

In the case of Ludington, a beautiful town on the Northeastern shore of Lake Michigan, the Stearns Hotel was just that. The Mason county seat, Ludington has long been a summer destination for sailors, golfers, and beach bums alike. It is also a boarding location of the car-ferry which crosses Lake Michigan into Manitowoc, another source of income and attention. In 1903, lumber baron Justus Stearns founded the city’s first “major” hotel at the corner of Ludington Avenue and Rowe Street, across from the relatively new Mason County Courthouse (completed a decade prior to the hotel). I assume the “major” designation means that, through the city’s 19th-century growth, the only lodging options were smaller boarding houses and temporary outposts.  

The above postcard, which Irving mailed in October 1938, is a bit more detailed on its inverse side than most. It mentions a manager named E.T. Moran, and it also references the “World Famous Ossawald Crumb and his Unique Art Collection.” Otherwise, the details on the inscription space were straightforward: 100 rooms, rates from $1.75 ($33.41 in 2021 – still a bargain), and a Dining Room (which I can only assume refers to the Grand Ballroom, detailed here).

One great thing about still-operational hotels from these postcards is that they’re ostensibly open 24 hours, so I can actually visit the interior of the depicted buildings at any time. Unfortunately, in too many cases (especially the grander hotels in larger cities), the hotel’s corporate ownership hires a revolving door of desk attendants and managers who couldn’t be bothered to learn about the history underneath their feet. I can’t say I blame them, since the job is stressful enough between having to dress up, spend most of the day on your feet, deal with whiney patrons and run things up to your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss at least once a week in order to afford rent, groceries, and gig tickets.

Bust of founder Justus Stearns atop the lobby fireplace, Stearns Hotel, Ludington, MI (SonicGeography photo)

Fortunately, the Stearns Hotel, which has been owned by the Bowden family since 1964, is not one of those. When my partner and I got to the hotel, we walked into the Rowe St entrance (engineered for loading in lodgers’ luggage and kids), passed by several historic photographs (more on those in a moment) and met Randy Bowden and his son-in-law Jeff Urka, who were helping customers at the front desk.

Randy was a font of information about the hotel, having practically grown up in the building. Obviously, his family purchased the hotel almost three decades after Irving stayed there. He mentioned that he had a vague recollection from his 60’s youth of the original Stearns Hotel neon(?) sign visible in the lower right hand corner of the 1938 postcard, but he couldn’t remember if the sign was preserved anywhere. He also said his father would likely have known (or known of) E.T. Moran, but that Thirties wave of management was long gone by 1964.

One comment that Jeff made regarded how the 1938 postcard pre-dated a door and stairwell cut into the Rowe Street entrance. He gestured over to a nearby wall, where a framed picture hung featuring a postcard almost identical to Irving’s, save for that key difference:

Image courtesy of the Stearns Hotel.

It appears that the hotel added the Rowe Street entry stairwell sometime in the 1940’s. As much as I can’t be arsed to care about car makes and models, it would be helpful to have my father’s memory of American cars from the post-war era just to more accurately date these things.

Another consistent feature from photos of the hotel’s first few decades was the ivy that blanketed the entire exterior of the building that was visible in the picture. As cool as ivy looks, it is a pain to maintain, can overwhelm a building with insects, and wreaks havoc on the mortar which hosts it. The north wall had grown so withered under these circumstances by the 1960’s that the building owners decided to tear it out and install some office space for extra rental income. The Tiki Video Nightclub, one of Ludington’s hottest week-end night spots, is split between the old space and the new both literally and aesthetically. I don’t know how many “video nightclubs” still exist, but something about that concept screams Eighties to me (which could be a good thing).

Today, the hotel has been reconfigured to 65 rooms, down from the original 100. Bowden attributed this to the shifting needs and desires of guests over the past five decades. In Irving’s time, the hotel served mainly travelling salesmen, who were typically fine with a bed and a sink. As the lodger base diversified and began to include more couples and families, their accommodation expectations expanded.

Bowden also mentioned that the Ossawald Crumb Art collection hung in the hotel for ages, but was removed relatively recently. Because I hadn’t grown up in the Mason County region, I had no idea who Ossawald Crumb was. According to this 2016 article in the Holland Sentinel, Ossawald Crumb was an apocryphal/mythical figure, invented by Justus Stearns’ son Robert in 1932. The collection is still in the Stearns family, apparently residing with Robert’s grandson Robert Gable somewhere in the region. It most recently emerged at a Ludington Area Center for the Arts special event in 2018.

Given the history-consciousness of the Bowden family, it didn’t shock me to see that they were way ahead of me on the repeat-photography. Anyway, here is the overlay. Enjoy the rest of your week(s)! Thank you again to the hotel owners and staff for their help with the hotel’s history.

The Stearns Hotel (Ludington, MI) in a 1938-mailed postcard, and in June 2021 (overlay). Both images SonicGeography.com.

MOW Fest (June 1, 2001)

I’m convinced there’s a “Rule 35” for Instagram; if someone imagines an Instagram account, that means there is (or will be, soon) an Instagram account devoted to whatever they imagined. One thought I had, when I rediscovered this flyer from my senior year of High School, was that there should be an Instagram account devoted to archiving obviously-made-in-Microsoft Word gig flyers.

Speaking of rules, one of the first rules of designing a gig poster or flyer is don’t do it in Microsoft Word.

I remember thinking that when my friends in a high school organization called MOW (Men of the World…more on that in a second) organized a benefit show and this flyer started going up around our hometown. What made it even more confusing was how many people in positions of leadership in MOW were in bands, or had at least gone to enough shows to recognize that it’s always worth throwing some money at a graphic designer, especially considering how many talented artists we knew from our High School.

Let’s talk about the show itself. As stated, it was a benefit for the Madison ABC (A Better Chance) house, which allowed students from low-income backgrounds to spend a year or two living and attending our high school. It brought a lot of great people together, and, to speak to the elephant in the room, practically tripled my high school’s BIPOC population.

From what I remember at the Arts Barn that night 20 years ago, there were multiple video and still cameras around, but as of this writing, I haven’t found any publicly shared documentation of it. During the 2020 lockdown, I got especially obsessive about archiving, organizing, and making accessible so many documents of cultural performances, largely inspired by hate5six, copyscams, and, you know, the internet at large. In 2001, I was still formulating a lot of these ideas, but in 2021, I am an adamant proponent of the idea that no gig is too small or too insular to be culturally or historically significant. Tony Wilson (channeled through Steve Coogan) said it, and I’ll refrain that here.

As far as MOW itself, here’s a bit of background. A large confluence of guys in my graduating class (and a few underclassmen), many of whom were friends of mine, started an organization called Men of the World as a counterpart to the longer-established Women of the World (WOW), a charity and leadership organization for women in our high school. Twenty years later, a bunch of mouth-breathers who don’t understand why the patriarchy sucks have ruined anything that includes the term “Men’s” for the rest of us. However, MOW formed in a world before 4chan; the guys who formed MOW were all close friends with the leadership of WOW, and starting an organization for men to do similar work was simply a fun way to double our class’ charitable output. The fact that I felt the need to type out this paragraph to retroactively distance MOW from the contemporary umbrella of “Men’s Rights Activism” is a sad reality, but here we are.

One thing I do remember about this show was what a socially diverse crowd it brought out to the Arts Barn. Over the prior three years, the Saturday night gigs at the Arts Barn had gone through a weird transformation where the town (aka THE GROWN-UPS) wrested control from the kids. In the mid-90’s, before the town built a new police station on the opposite side of the parking lot, the place was a shithole. It was also completely packed the hell out every Saturday night, seemingly no matter who was playing. It was, ostensibly, the only all-ages venue where the “supervision” was whatever older siblings signed off on the rental. In 1997-1998, Kit, an elder statesman (21 or so was “elder” at that time) from a local hippie family booked hardcore, metal, and crossover shows. I wasn’t cool enough at 15 to know where all of the tastemakers started hanging out instead, but show attendance did start thinning out. As the millennium approached, the town took control of bookings. There were still plenty of good/loud bands who played, but the shows felt safer and more supervised, which is poison as far as rebellious kids in an upper-middle-class town were concerned. Every once in a while, the Flaming Tsunamis (in their early incarnation as a ska-core collective) would bring hordes of kids over from the town next door, but overall, a lot of Arts Barn Saturdays were smaller affairs.

MOW Fest, however, gave the whole thing a shot in the arm. At the time, my snide arrogance probably led me to privately deride all of these poseurs who I’d never seen at an Arts Barn show, but in retrospect, I have a deep appreciation for a group of people putting a lineup together with no reverence for scene divisions or genre. The lineup provided something for everybody. If you didn’t like one band’s style, you went outside. I remember a few of my friends (who were more in the Dave Matthews/Phish crowd than the Blink-182/Ataris crowd) commenting on Mad Mardigan’s set that “they didn’t really like that style of music, but [Bryan] was really good at playing it.”

I don’t remember the order the bands played (notice there was no real hierarchy to the bands billed, other than order on the flyer), but here are some of my other scattershot memories.

Revelaria were a hard-charging, acoustic-centered band led by a Shawn Mullins-looking dude named Josh Pomerenke, his brother Matt on guitar, and a drummer named DJ Gibson who resembled, as my friend Andrew pointed out to me, a height-of-fame Brad Roberts. I remember enjoying their set, and many of us wound up with copies of their self-produced 4-track CD. I still have it, so I’ll scan the cover in.

The biggest crowd filed in for Hey Driver, a jammy band led by Dan Zaccagnino, who would later go on to found Indaba Music in 2007, appearing on the Colbert Report shortly thereafter. Dan and his colleagues sold Indaba to Splice Media in 2018, so I imagine they’re doing pretty well.

Klatu (I think the proper spelling was Klaatu) was a progressive metal band that included a gigantic, dreadlocked singer (who I believe was named Charles) and bassist who was, I believe, the older brother of a classmate (and talented sax player) named Steve. They prided themselves on never performing the exact same song twice, and I did see them play the Arts Barn a good handful of times, but that’s really all I remember.

Cover of Mad Mardigan’s 2001 EP

Though I was closest friends with the members of Mad Mardigan and I did enjoy their set, I thought Call Me Donnie had the set of the night. Both bands formed after Proteus/Inprofect broke up; drummer Pete (who we called Phony Tony due to his resemblance to Tony Hawk) went on to Mad Mardigan, and guitarist Tim started Call Me Donnie. Looking back, this transition was reflective of the greater cultural shift away from Rage Against the Machine-bred Rap-Metal into the New Found Glory/Blink-182 bred pop-punk wave of the early 2000’s (as much as Nu-Metal and its white-collar cousin Butt Rock held on).

CMD was a collaboration between Tim and a Swedish exchange student named Parry (Pär or Per; I lost touch with him and don’t remember), along with a talented younger drummer named Mark. That was the only time I ever saw them. Honestly, I don’t remember if they played any other gigs, since Perry was on his way back to Sweden, but they brought the house down with their New Found Glory / Riddlin’ Kids love. I remember yelling, “Play Refused!” at Parry, which made him laugh, and we had a spirited conversation about Dennis Lyxzén after their set.

Regarding Shoe and the Melgibons, I don’t remember either of their sets. It’s possible that one of the bands didn’t show up, or they played at the beginning before I even got there. If anyone remembers (or was in) one of those bands, please comment below or reach out to me.


That’s all I have. If you were at this show and we haven’t spoken in years, know that I hope you’re doing well and would love to hear what you’ve been up to. If you have any photos, videos, or other materials that verify that this show happened, get in touch!

If you read through this never having been to Connecticut or never having heard of the Madison Arts Barn, welcome to this corner of the universe. There is some scant evidence of the Arts Barn’s mid-90’s era on the CT Hardcore Archive, which I just found on YouTube here. Apparently, Jawbreaker’s bassist went to high school at the Hammonasset School, which shut down in 1991 and became a part of the Town Campus.

Throwback Thursday: 2006 Interview with Drummer Bobby Vandell (Jesse Johnson’s Revue, Lipps Inc, More)

Bobby Vandell in 2016. Photo by Kimm Anderson for the St. Cloud Times

Storytime.

In 2005, when I first moved to DC, unsure of what I wanted to do with my life (something I still grapple with, 16 years later, with a PhD), I set up a website for TDC Productions, an informal “production company” my cousin, his friends and I, co-founded sometime in the mid-1990s. After the TDC crew dispersed in the mid-2000’s, I was the only one consistently using the name. Unfortunately, it took me a few years to get any video production work, so the website turned into more of a blog and repository for other projects and events I was starting to put on around town. In 2006, I started doing freelance writing for a briefly lived music and culture blog, and I remember the editor telling me that he liked my website, but he really had no idea what it was. Was it a music blog? Was it a comedy website? Was it a retrospective archive of some marginally funny DIY films my cousin and I had made over the previous decade (hindered, no doubt, by the lack of embeddable streaming way to share the films).

Nonetheless, I pushed on with the blog, using it as a way to keep generating what would, by the beginning of the 2010’s, be called “content.” Back then, “micro-publishing” would have been a better term for it.

Anyway, for my first two years after college, I worked for an audio company in Bethesda. It didn’t offer a whole lot of upward mobility (which was, to paraphrase my friend Jake Young of Wizard and the Bruiser, something of an American birthright, until around 2007), but it was flexible, cushy, and I actually liked my coworkers. During my lunch breaks, I had opportunities to wander around the fading landscape of “the old Bethesda,” filled with greasy spoon sandwich shops, an Olsson’s franchise, and a wonderful (long-extinct) used bookshop whose name I forget. All I remember was that it was located on/near the 7700 block of Old Georgetown Road. This dusty bookshop had bins of classic LP’s in decent shape for unimaginably cheaper than what they would bring today on the Bubble-driven Discogs. I could be wrong, but I bought a copy of Tom Waits’ Frank’s Wild Years for $8 and a copy of The Housemartins’ The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death for $3. I wish I had bought more vinyl from that place, but I lived in a small room in my friend’s apartment, without much disposable income.

It was in one of these dollar bins that I saw Bobby Vandell’s photo for the first time – he was one of five musicians supporting Jesse Johnson, the hot-pink-bedecked Prince associate best known for playing guitar behind Morris Day in the Time) on his 1985 “solo” album, Jesse Johnson’s Revue. Vandell, Tim Bradley, Mark Cardenas, Michael Baker, and Gerry Hubbard were all stylish as hell for Minneapolis ’85, but from where I sat 21 years later, they looked like characters in some Rocky Horror/80’s Prom b-movie. In fact, Cardenas was the only one in the band without a ghost-whisper of a crustache. Observe:

For reasons owing equally to me being too young to lack wisdom for what to place on the internet and having too much time on my hands (a deadly combination, we all know), I decided to scan the photos and roast the band, individually, on a blog post. I was thoroughly convinced that my audience consisted of about 10-15 likeminded college classmates, so I filed it away and didn’t think of it.

A few months later was when it got weird. I checked my email at work, and I saw a message from an AOL email address that I didn’t recognize. It was Bobby Vandell, whose wife had apparently googled him, found that post, and completely lost it in laughter. She called Bobby into the room, and between uncontrollable laughing fits, read the post to him. He found my email address and reached out to tell me that I was welcome to trash him anytime I liked. What a guy.

Not know what else to do, I called my friend Adam and left a voicemail. He called me back to say it was the greatest thing he had ever heard. That night, I told my roommate Tom, who told me that I should interview him for my website. Tom was (and still is) a genius. So, I worked up the nerve to email Bobby back, explain myself, and ask if he would like to answer some questions. Below is the result.

I’m excited to re-share/re-issue this interview now after 15 years, since it was the first interview I conducted for my own publication, and it really set in motion what’s become a life-long passion for oral history and musical ethnography. Also, I’m sure this would gel with the research on the Minneapolis Sound by Maciek Smółka as well as Rashad Shabazz’s work on the role MPLS had in nurturing Prince.


The Interview

TYLER: the general overview question. What have you generally been up to nowadays? Do you still live in the Minneapolis area? Wife/Kids? Still doing percussion much? As a side note, are you well versed in any other instruments?)     
BOBBY: I have been fortunate to make a “living” performing and recording music for my entire working life to this date. I got paid to do my first gig when I was 14. Today, 39 years later, I’m still doin’ it!  I have begun to broaden out a bit however. Presently, I am working with my friend Scott Olson, who invented Roller Blades, on a book about the subject. Roller blades are considered to be one of the most significant inventions of the 20th century and I was lucky to be one of the first people on them back in the early 80s [since] I grew up playing hockey. I am doing all the research for the book. We will be video taping interviews for a documentary also. It is an exciting project.

I continue to play drums mostly locally, where I live, in the Twin Cities. I still get off on playing in a band. I get around a guitar and a keyboard a little and I love to sit in with bands on bass, but I am not very good. Unfortunately, I was not blessed with the common Minneapolis talent of being great on every instrument. I have a wife, 3 pugs and 2 cats. No kids that I know of. 

Are you still in touch with Jesse or anyone from the Revue?     
I just got Mark Cardenas’s email address. He is in Seattle. Jesse is in the Phoenix area. He had to move there due to extreme allergies. I just got his [phone number] recently. I may give him a call. He had a rock trio last time I saw him in the early 90s. It was a great band. Very loud, tons of Marshall amps, really good. He is a great guitar player. The others, I don’t know.

Until when would you estimate you actually resembled that sexy photo of yourself on the back of the album?   
I would say I held on to it a bit [too] long, the 80s were hard to let go of for me. I met a woman 20 years younger than me in 94′. She eventually influenced me to change my hair and some of my clothes. But, I am embarrassed to say, that didn’t happen till about 1999. After she changed my look, I married her in 2000! 

Who were your favorite drummers/percussionists while growing up? Anyone that you pay particular attention to today?    
I like drummers for different reasons. Some for their chops and others because they are simply so musical. In my early years, I loved Ginger Baker from Cream, Jon Bonham from Led Zeppelin, Mitch Mitchell from Jimi Hendrix’s band and Buddy Rich. My biggest inspiration was probably David Garibaldi from Tower of Power and Mike Clarke and Harvey Mason, both from Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. Tony Williams was a true giant, I dug him a lot. There are so many great drummers now. Keith Carlock with Steely Dan is a really cool drummer. Guys like Dennis Chambers and Vinnie Calliuta are true heavy weights but I also like drummers who are simply musical, I don’t need all those chops to be impressed. Don Henley with the Eagles is a great example. The guy with Maroon 5. I could go on listing great drummers for days. 

What were your thoughts on the Minneapolis music scene (any/all of it) at the time? Were you guys positive or negative about Purple Rain mania?    
Looking back, it was cool living here and being part of it. When Prince began breaking this city wide open, we were all playing in bands around town. I made it a point to be in the best, funkiest band in town at any given time. Prince would come to our gigs often just to hang out or steal one of our members. The Time would come to our gigs and we would let them perform on our gear for a whole set. There was a really cool energy going on in the early 80’s in Minneapolis. Because of Prince and the Time, the ears and eyes of the musical world were on Minneapolis. It did not suck.

If you could conjure them up (I know you said a lot of it was a blur, haha), we’d love to hear one or two of the greatest stories you’ve got from your time playing/touring with the Jesse Johnson Revue.    
You must understand, Jesse Johnson’s Revue did not really exist, at least not in the way that you and the public perceived it to exist. That in itself is a long story you are probably not interested in. As a band, we did the video for the single, “I Want To Be Your Man”, only showed on BET. I wore a red suit that people still comment on to this day! A bass player friend of mine got that suit as a hand me down and sold it for a gram of cocaine! I would love it back, if you ever see a guy in a red suit, I’m sure it is mine so just take it!

We also did the Soul Train television show. That band did not tour so I really have no wild stories to relate but I remember the whole JJR experience teaching me the power of television and the media. In 1985, I worked for a short time for the group Chicago. We were in Canada and one night, Robert Lamb, Jimmy Pankow and myself went to a disco after a show. Now keep in mind Robert and Jimmy are very successful and rich rock stars in a band that has many, many top 10 hits but is virtually faceless. Our table was frequented by fans throughout the evening who wanted autographs, but not from my rock star friends, from me! Jimmy, Robert and I got quite a kick out of it. I will never forget it.

Also, I was in Africa shortly after that and I was recognized on a safari in a very secluded part of the bush country in Kenya. A very [bizarre] experience to say the least.

By the way, I was on a break at that photo shoot having a cig when that shot for the album was taken. I begged Jesse not to use it. I didn’t relish glamorizing cigarette smoking for kids but he loved the shot and the rest is history.

As what may possibly be an addendum of sorts to that last question, your first email made it sound like the groupies were flowing back in the day. What sort of audience and ‘backstage friends’ did the JJR shows attract?    
As I said, we did not tour as the JJR. but I will say that where ever I went back then, there was an abundance of women. Mostly young, black or mixed and fine. More times than not, they thought I was quite something. Those times were very good for my ego and other parts of my body as well. The good thing was that the worst STD you could get back then was treated with a trip to the doctor. Let’s just say it was a good time to be young and known.

What have you been listening to primarily as of late? Any favorite artists out there today?    
I listen to a lot of different stuff, I always have. Mostly I listen to obscure stuff. I love Jon Cleary. He is Australian but has lived in New Orleans for years. He also plays keys with Bonnie Raitt. I dig this group called Soulive, I just got hip to a group called CAB, their CD “CAB4” is really cool. I love Donald Fagan, Mark Brussard, Maroon 5. I like country guys too, Vince Gill is awesome, so is Brad Paisley.  I dig Latin music. Big band Salsa stuff.

What do you think you’d be doing today had it not been for your experience with this band?    
Quite honestly, even though we never did a gig, The exposure that band got me was quite amazing. I definitely would not have gotten known as much as I would have without JJR. But I would be doing the same thing now regardless.

Any final reflections on the state of music/the world/the lack of pink cars with “Jesse” license plates today?    
I have played music all my life. JJR was a small fraction of the experiences I’ve had. I have been fortunate to play for many great artist’s. Bonnie Raitt, Roy Buchanan, Al Wilson, Sam Moore, Bruce Conte, The Time and Chuck Berry to name a few. I even produced the music for Rosanne Barr’s comedy album and backed up The Amazing Jonathon and Soupy Sales. I was a member of the band Lipps Inc. who had the number one hit in the world at the time, “Funky Town”. I performed for 65 thousand people with Alexander O’Neal at Cincinnati’s River Front Stadium and RFK Stadium in DC, We also sold out Wembly Arena in London 10 nights in a row. I have earned 4 gold records. I have also performed as a Lion in a fast paced stage show with costume changes and pyrotechnics for one passed out drunk at a smoke filled casino in Wendover Nevada on a sunny Sunday afternoon! I remember opening the Soul Train Awards show on live National TV and the next night playing blues for a bunch of cowboys in a funky bar in the Colorado Rockies that had bra’s and panties hanging from the ceiling! All have been rich and rewarding experiences. 

My main observation about performing now is that audiences don’t seem to listen like they used to – the passed-out drunk in Wendover excluded! – It seems like live music doesn’t have the same effect on people it did years ago. Almost as if the music is bouncing off them, like it’s disturbing their television watching.  I blame MTV for a lot of it. People seem to listen with their eyes now. It also seems like people are unable to discern between quality and crap in live music and there is a lot of crap! Everyone now wants to be on stage and it seems like everyone is in a band. News flash: Not everyone is a musician or a singer!

Audiences in Europe are more discerning. I know a number of American artist’s that have moved to Europe for the very reasons I’m talking about. I realize my comments seem a bit jaded and tainted with anger and bitterness. I accept that criticism but I don’t feel that way. I can only observe from my perspective of years of performing and that is what it feels like. I also acknowledge that there is an enormous amount of talent in young people. Those are my observations today, tomorrow, who knows!

The Spinto Band and Blog-Rock Nostalgia

The other day, I posted a picture of the Spinto Band’s 2005 album Nice and Nicely Done on Instagram, along with a photo of my ticket stub and handbill from a gig they played at the Knitting Factory in late 2004. The band’s founding guitarist/songwriter Nick Krill commented to thank me. That gig was truly a game-changer for me, so I decided to share the images here, with a little backstory.

The Spinto Band were started in Delaware in the mid-90’s by the titular Roy Spinto’s grandson Nick Krill and a group of friends (including two sets of brothers). At the end of the 90’s, two members of the band, Jon Eaton and Albert Birney, left to attend college in Syracuse. It was there that I made their acquaintance through a group of creative older friends, three of whom started the Perry Bible Fellowship. Those were strange and wonderful times. I had several chances to see the Spinto Band play small venues in Western New York, including Planet 505 (which will garner several mentions on this site in the coming months), but somehow, I never saw the band perform until converging on a show in Tribeca’s Knitting Factory on December 21, 2004. See the flyer and ticket stub (above), noting that the headliners were technically Hijack Jupiter, another band composed of Syracuse friends who organized and promoted the show. Anyway, the Spinto Band’s set that night remains one of the ten (give or take) best live sets I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if it was the cold-outside/sweaty-inside juxtaposition of the Knitting Factory’s basement, how recently I had turned 21 (it may have been my first time in NYC since I had), or the band’s no-holds-barred DMX adaptation^, but the whole thing melted my brain in the best way imaginable. Thankfully, some evidence still exists on Flickr of how the night ended:

spinto band
The Spinto Band ending the evening at the Knitting Factory, December 21, 2004. Photo by Toni Sheppard (Flickr).

Now that I’m somewhat far removed from that moment, I can gaze back through the inevitable multivariate filter of hindsight, critical media geographies, and just simply getting old. The mid-2000’s “boom” in mass-visibility of millennial culture and viability of the now extremely dated (at least in nomenclature) genre of blog-rock is starting to retreat off the pale of our rearview mirrors, so look forward to plenty of essays like this one explaining just what the hell blog-rock even was. Some artists I affiliate with that era built long and successful mainstream careers over the 2000’s, even flirting with celebrity (e.g. Death Cab for Cutie, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Arcade Fire, and Vampire Weekend, in rough order). Others got “the bump” from websites like Pitchfork and other hype factories that pretended to not know (or, just didn’t care) how much power and influence they held – a viable canary-in-the-coalmine for what would happen with Twitter, Facebook, and all of the latter’s holdings in the 2010’s. Some of these ‘others’ were perfectly decent to me (e.g. Wolf Parade, Tapes n’ Tapes, !!!), but didn’t enjoy the same enduring level mainstream appeal.

Then again, over the prior three decades, consolidating media conglomerates had mixed up a generous cocktail of deregulation, privateering, and conduit expansion (i.e. perpetually speeding-up internet) and snuffed out any semblance of whatever ‘monoculture’ the blog-rockers had been born into. Dannagal Goldthwaite Young, whose book Irony and Outrage I’ve been reading recently, dedicates a chapter to this shift across the Reagan-Bush-Clinton administrations, all of whom were preoccupied with the horribly misguided promise of deregulating media ownership. Though not a media geographer, Young expertly points out the geographic dysmorphia with a quote by former Washington Post editors Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser, who “see this dire situation as the result of corporate motives prevailing unchecked across the media landscape” (p. 39):

“Most newspapers, television networks, and local television and radio stations now belong to giant, publicly owned corporations far removed from the communities they serve. They face the unrelenting quarterly profit pressures from Wall Street now typical of American capitalism” (2002, quoted in Young 2020, emphasis mine).

This sticks with me for several reasons, not the least of which being how I came of age across the millennial divide, when we were suddenly all expected to want to live in Brooklyn or Silver Lake. Everyone in “ad world” was suddenly a hipster. The great promise that the internet would help music scenes transcend place, thereby rendering geography inessential, had fizzled. I can only speak for myself here, but this felt strange, considering how the pre-internet era of my youth had been dragging the journalists to all corners of the country less than a decade prior. Even worse, my generational tags, which had been “Gen Y,” “The Pepsi Generation,” and “the MTV Generation” for my entire life, were slowly being replaced with “millennial,” which was (to me, anyway) condescending shorthand for somebody who didn’t remember life before the internet. At the time, I was walking up and down Columbia Road NW in DC, listening to The National’s Boxer like every good Gen-X dork, fairly oblivious to all of this, but in retrospect I’m pretty pissed, honestly.

Strangely, but not shockingly, the heated conversations my punk-loving friends and I had in high school about “selling out” were fading from relevance. I may have cited this following passage here before, but Ronen Givony’s concluding manifest about Jawbreaker in his 33 1/3 volume about 24 Hour Revenge Therapy bears repeating:

“Maybe this is a symptom of the general passivity and quietism of always-online American life in the twenty-first century; or maybe it’s just another example of settled debates, bygone values, and obsolete terms… In a time when almost no one still buys albums, and tens of thousands of streams will earn a band pennies, the reasoning goes, artists deserve to get paid any way they can manage, and rightly so. Who are we to blame them if the only people still paying musicians their true worth are corporate advertising and branding companies? It’s a difficult claim with which to argue, which is why almost no one ever still does.”

I reached out to Krill to see if he remembered that era in any similar light, since he spent much of that time touring internationally with the Spinto Band. For example, they did a run of opening slots for the Arctic Monkeys when Alex Turner and Co. were barely into their twenties and riding an an unconscionable wave of hype around “I Bet that You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” They toured the UK with other acts on Bar/None Records (the Hoboken label that gave the world the first two brilliant They Might Be Giants records). Even “Oh Mandy,” a single off of Nice and Nicely Done (that may have been inspired by Mandy Moore; reports vary) appeared in at least one national ad campaign. Guitarist Jon Eaton called into my Georgetown radio show in 2008* when they released the “Summer Grof” single and their second album Moonwink, telling me about said UK shows as well as Spanish festivals like the brief-lived Summercase.

I always felt like the Spinto Band were in as a good a position as any to epitomize the highwater mark of “blog rock,” but the term doesn’t hold much of a meaning to Krill these days, and he has no recollection of it meaning much to him and his bandmates 15 years ago, either. He does remember, though, feeling expected frustration with the new music media landscape.

“[Around the mid-2000’s,] I do remember being a little peeved that if a record didn’t get a ‘Best New Music’ shout out, it could kinda get immediately lost in the noise,” he recently told me, referencing Pitchfork’s ostensibly career-making designation given to albums ranked higher than 8.0 on a 10-point scale. Years of continued service to indie rock, however, have endowed Krill with retrospective wisdom one would expect from a seasoned veteran.

“The more time I’ve spent in the music business, the more I realize that it really is a lot down to the hard work of an artist and the team they assemble around themselves,” he wrote. “Someone can shine a spot light on an artist, but that only can do so much. Artists that persist and make a career out of that initial attention truly have a vision for their work, and the work ethic to create amazing music and not stop until it is great.”

Nick Krill mixing a recording (photo via his website).

Today, Krill is still highly active as a producer and engineer, working with bands like The War on Drugs, Dr. Dog, and the aforementioned Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. As he put it, SoundCloud and Bandcamp are, in essence, a continuation of the function blogs served as a way for people to “scratch around and hunt for new tunes.”

I can’t help but agree, considering how much music still resides on my hard drive that I discovered via blogs during my downtime at various office jobs (prior to what Aesop Dekker termed “the great file sharing holocaust” a decade ago). There are still a few blogs I punch into my search bar on occasion simply to check in, not particularly expecting their proprietors to have picked the lock, cleared the cobwebs, and lurched the weathered, rusty machinery back to life.

The so-called “vinyl resurgence,” which had been going on for a solid half-decade before most any major media outlet noticed it, is even more salient considering how much digital music has been buried in the past 25 years. Hell, half of the music I bought from touring DIY bands at the time were on CDr’s they probably burned at 48x. My personal laptop doesn’t even have a built-in disc drive. Givony’s quote referencing how relatively few people buy music anymore does carry some weight, but our relationship with music has always changed depending on way which we discovered it, not just relegated to the digital era.

Given how much love, documentation, and reinterpretation Millennial pop has been getting of late, we are dangerously close to full-on 2000’s nostalgia. It may well already be here (don’t be stingy with case studies in the comments, if there’s anything I’m missing). Hopefully, the Spinto Band will be able to reap some of those spoils, whatever that may mean in the 2020s.

Thanks for reading.

“Your work looks good / Your look works great”

^According to Krill, this was a rap song the group wrote in high school that they performed whenever Albert Birney, who left the band in 2003, made it to a gig. I’m grateful he was there that night.

*If I ever locate this interview, I’ll plan to append it to this post.