Happy to report that Issue #32 of Zisk is now available from my friends at Policymaker, and it’s jam-packed.
Order yourself up a copy (or, pick one up at Quimby’s if you live in Chicago, or reach out to PO Box 469, Patterson, NY 12563) and learn a LOT about the 1919 Chicago White Sox, the legacy of Bob Gibson, the retroactive nerdiness of WAR (Wins-Above-Replacement), the inanity of Chris “Mad Dog” Ruddo, and if you have time, my essay (that I churned out in one typewriter sitting) shortly after the Nationals’ 2019 World Series victory. It draws connections with harDCore and features an illustration by Reverend Nørb (Boris the Sprinkler) that, honestly, is worth more than the cost of the whole issue. I will not digitize said illustration (unless the good reverend tells me to), but trust me on this one.
Have a great week, and I hope you’re all enjoying the 2021 baseball season.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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:
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.”
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.
In one of our concluding lecture-discussions of our Spring 2021 semester, my North America class and I talked about ways we can be tourists in our own backyards. Though most of us live in Mount Pleasant, there are several corners of the city which are completely foreign to us. Relatedly, most of my New Yorker friends, including those who’ve lived in the city for their whole lives, have only really seen about 25% of it with their bare eyes. To me, that reality isn’t discouraging at a time when Google Earth and Streetview make (virtual) flânerie unthinkably accessible. Either way, it’s reassuring to know that you don’t need to buy a three- or four-figure plane ticket, gouge yourself on a hotel room, and adorn yourself in the common “HEY! I’M A TOURIST” attire (typically a tie-dye shirt emblazoned with the city’s name) to participate in tourism.
I haven’t lived in Connecticut for almost twenty years, but every time I return, the place feels less familiar. Of course that’s understandable, though, since a lot has changed infrastructurally in two decades given the heightened cost of living, shifting demographics, and the Nutmeg State’s perpetual intermediary orientation between two of North America’s most expensive cities. I can barely remember a time when the Quinnipiac River Bridge (which I thought, for much of my childhood, was literally named “The Q”) wasn’t under construction. Driving over the (decently) completed iteration still feels odd. I can probably rest assured they’ll need to rebuild it again in less than ten years.
Truthfully, though, when you’re young, your local and regional landscapes are highly dependent on your engagement with the world outside your bubble. When my friends and I got our drivers’ licenses, the farthest we would go on a quotidian basis would be the Wendy’s across town lines or maybe, if I had a chunk of change to spend on CD’s, to a record shop two towns over. My high school girlfriend lived three towns east, and that twenty-minute drive to her house felt like the height of rebellion. On rare occasions, we would all venture to farther reaches of the state: perhaps going to support athletic friends in their road games or heading to New Haven or Hartford for a concert. Typically, when friends and I were home on breaks from college, we would venture into the cities, but I don’t remember, save for shows at Toad’s Place or the Tune Inn (RIP), having real directives other than killing time.
One of my best friends in Knoxville, coincidentally, also grew up near New Haven. He was seven years younger than me, and he left Connecticut over a decade after I did, but whenever we talked about “back home,” we always came to the same conclusion: where was all the cool stuff when we were growing up there? Very quickly, though, we also realized that most of the “cool stuff” either didn’t exist yet in the 1990’s/2000’s or it existed in various iterations which were restricted from us (or, we had our heads in the sand, a common conceit for suburban teenagers). That’s no more thoughtful than some rockist old-timer asking “where’s all the good new music?” (It’s all over the place and available to stream, Roy. Get your head out of 1974).
All that being said, one of my favorite perks of the Ben Irving Postcard Project has been how the cities Irving visited during the Depression Era have laid out a series of destinations that I may have entirely passed by without a thought in my childhood. For example, I always remember knowing that the town of Norwich existed. They had a Double-A baseball team called the Norwich Navigators, but they were Yankees affiliate, so we never ventured to one of their games. I imagine my father went there for meetings pretty often, but it was never a destination for us, and until this past Fall, I could never remember gazing upon the sheer majesty of their City Hall Building. I won’t say it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb among the modest, working-class downtown landscape, but unlike literal sore thumbs, it was worth preserving (which they made official in 1983, when the building was 110 years old).
What is apparent, when juxtaposing the 1936 postcard image with the more recent photo, is that not all of the adjacent buildings enjoyed the same amount of preservationist love and affection. It appears that at least one of the multi-family homes on the Union Street side (left, on the image) has been torn down. The United Congregational Church (built in 1857 as the Broadway Congregational Church), whose steeple is visible at the right edge of the postcard picture, doesn’t stand so close in reality. This suggests that the postcard artist may have taken liberties with sliding the Church closer to the town hall, they widened Broadway sometime in the past 85 years, or my angle just wasn’t a good recreation. Even if I had been able to climb up high enough (or rent a cherry-picker, in a perfect world), I don’t imagine I could have nailed the angle of the original picture.
One noteworthy and refreshing contrast between these ca. 1936 and 2020 images is the surprising abundance of green space in the latter. The parking lot in front of the main entrance in 1936 is now a park named after David Ruggles, a local abolitionist who was pivotal to the regional branch of the Underground Railroad. I had grown so accustomed to seeing pre-Interstate Highway Era green spaces disappear under a sea of asphalt, especially in post-Industrial cities. Imagine the placeless example of Hill Valley, CA which Bobs Zemeckis and Gale built out of the Universal backlot, where the 1955 town green had been supplanted with a crowded, loud, parking lot by 1985. The Back to the Future example is even more appropriate here, given how the UCC’s original spire was removed after being stuck by lightning in 1898.
I hope this is the first of many posts about how something as mundane as old postcards led me to discover fascinating places that were, despite being less than 45 minutes’ drive, completely unfamiliar to me. I would encourage anybody to do the same; I promise that you’ll gain a newfound appreciation of wherever you live(d).
Happy Saturday and Happy Mayday, everybody! It’s the end of the semester for me, so that means a deluge of grading and then a deluge of new posts (currently gathering dust in the drafts folder) for this site!
Thank you profusely to those of you who enjoyed the #NotbyBlur challenge for April. I regret not posting my full list this time around, but there are so many lists on the way that even I may get sick of them. For now, enjoy the song challenge for May: (NOT BY) FLEETWOOD MAC.
One of my co-creators, Matt Gever, already claimed the June challenge for his own nefarious purposes, and I will be grateful for the month off. But he and Marissa reached out to me recently, and we realized the May challenge should be a female artist or at least a band with prominent female membership. Of course, the eternally relevant (more than five decades!) and endlessly dramatic Fleetwood Mac fit the bill, so hopefully this strikes a chord across generations of music fans. It sure would for Nathan Apodaca and all the lucky music academics with whom I got to participate in the Rumours livetweet party back in February.
So, I would imagine you all know the drill by this point. Download, share, have fun on whichever platform suits your fancy, and don’t forget to hashtag it #NotByFleetwoodMac.
Happy Almost-May to anyone who has stumbled back here. The home stretch of the Spring semester has put a whole bunch of entries/essays on hold, unfortunately, but there will be a song challenge for May that I’m sure many of you will appreciate (especially a surprising number of millennials).
A few weeks ago, students in my two sections of GEO 121 (Intro to Globalization) submitted their third paper, which asked them to do a geographic analysis of a song of their choosing. I know I have done this at least once here, but I wanted to keep up the tradition. Here are, in no particular order, the songs which students chose (an asterisk indicates that I assigned this one, per request) for this semester’s music geography paper.
Depending on your age, Britpop acumen, knowledge of my musical preferences, and awareness of Blur’s early, commendable but not quite brilliant debut album Leisure, you may have immediately known what April’s challenge was going to be when you saw the word “bang” in yesterday’s post. Either way, nobody involved in these challenges could possibly have thought they’d make it out of the pandemic year without a tribute to the collective works of Damon, Alex, Dave, and (most of the time) Graham.
Despite how Gorillaz has now technically been a longer-going concern for (genius) Albarn, making goat cheese is a bigger priority for Alex James than plucking the bass strings or hosting BBC documentaries about cocaine, and Graham Coxon has made more solo albums than Blur records, the Essex foursome will always be at the fore for me. So, in the interest of celebrating my birthday in the only obnoxious, ostentatious way I will ever bring myself to, it’s the Not-by-Blur song challenge!
Per usual, there’s only one rule (Gorillaz and other Albarn material are fair game). Make sure to share, have fun, and hashtag it with #NotbyBlur. Also, on the 9th, don’t hesitate to message or tweet at me with your pick! Or, any other day I suppose, but especially on that day. The mind gets short-y as you get closer to forty.