That was probably my favorite thing about him: how he could go on and on about any old thing. The man could spin a yarn. Most of his stories seemed to be exaggerated for effect, but that was part of his charm. In any case, Reuter seemed incapable of keeping his mouth shut. In a world where many commentaries are muted or diluted for a potentially disapproving audience, Reuter would’ve been talking and commenting all over the Internet and losing Facebook friends left and right. He would’ve been blabbing, and it would’ve been entertaining, at least, and possibly infuriating. Or it might have been insightful and wise. He was unpredictable, that Bob.
Reuter died on August 3 of last year in a tragic elevator accident. His passing punched a big fat hole into the heart of the St. Louis music scene, not just because he was gone but also because his death felt avoidable. Reuter was a leader (and much to his chagrin, an elder) of all of the beautiful musical and artistic weirdness that flourishes in south city. He was a musician, a DJ, a photographer and a writer. By extension, he was an accidental St. Louis historian and photojournalist, quietly and slowly documenting decades of St. Louis bands and characters.
On August 3 of this year — exactly one year and one hour after Reuter passed — I found myself sitting beside his ashes. I went to the home of Chris Baricevic to interview him about Reuter’s legacy and his grand plans for the future.
Baricevic was written into Reuter’s will as the executor of his estate. In a strange generational role reversal, Baricevic and Reuter mutually mentored each other. Reuter showed Baricevic the ways of the old-school St. Louis musicians, and Baricevic worked to help Reuter acclimate to new ways of doing things. Reuter once told me that he owed Baricevic for a “life turn-around.”
It’s an easy scenario to imagine. In all ways, Baricevic is a man who gets things done. As the founder of Big Muddy Records, he is an essential piece in the local music scene puzzle, and his specialty seems to be digging up and promoting worthy local talent. He will use whatever limited resources he has to somehow manage not only to complete his goals, but to thrive. He’s calm, smart, hard-working and the kind of guy who seems to just naturally press coal into diamonds.
After doing his best to wrangle Reuter when he was alive, Baricevic now has the unenviable (and everlasting) job of managing Reuter’s posthumous affairs. A month or so after Reuter’s death, he hosted a memorial tribute concert at the Casa Loma ballroom. It was, by all accounts, a successful endeavor both spiritually and financially. Aside from being one of the most impressive, talent-packed and touching things that many in the local music community have ever seen, it funded the initial donation into a piggy bank that intends keeps Reuter’s work available to the public for generations to come.
Baricevic has many projects up his sleeve. First of all, Reuter’s band, Alley Ghost, is still touring and playing his music, and the men of Alley Ghost are scheduled to record even more Reuter-penned music soon. Recordings of his old band, the Dinosaurs, are currently being mastered by St. Louis expatriate Mario Viele (of Sex Robots fame) and will be eventually released to the hungry public. And Baricevic has big plans for his Cowboy Angel Foundation, an organization set up to ensure Reuter’s legacy and contribute to the local music community.
Tomorrow night at the Ready Room, Bob’s bandmate family will host a show in honor of his birthday. Alley Ghost is headlining, of course, and supporting acts include Johnny Walker (Soledad Brothers), James Leg (Black Diamond Heavies), the Defeated County and Jack Grelle. Joseph Sulier will be reading some of Reuter’s writings, Ashley Hohman is spinning Bob’s Scratchy Records after the show, and there will be merchandise for sale and a silent auction of items donated by local bands and organizations.
Read on for more about Reuter’s legacy, legalities surrounding his death and the massive potential for the St. Louis music community through the Cowboy Angel Foundation in the interview below.
Jaime Lees: Tell me what’s been going on in the past year.
Chris Baricevic: Well, what’s been going on with Bob’s stuff in the last year is this: Most of it is hung up in bureaucracy. We’re still waiting for probate to stamp the will, you know, and so it’s all kind of hung up in the legal process and probate court and all of that.
I’ve been trying to find a spot — like, a public spot, to put the bulk of his ashes in. I’ve been talking to the woman in charge of the park that’s going in next to Mangia and — fingers crossed — they’ll let us put them in there. But that’s in the same kind of process. They told me they have to, like, write policies and stuff. So I don’t know if that’s a for sure thing or not, but that’s what I’d like to do: have him on South Grand somewhere where people can visit. I mean, he was a public figure. So we’ll see what happens with that. I don’t really have a backup plan.
As far as his music goes, Mario [Viele] took a bunch of reel-to-reels up to New York. He’s been mastering them over the course of the past four or five months, and he’s got enough that we’ll be putting out two full LPs of original Dinosaurs recordings from 1978 to 1979. There will be one album of home-studio recordings — they had a four-track machine, it seems — and one album from a live reel. They used to play three- or four-hour gigs at these different bars in town, and they recorded a few of the shows, and we have one full concert which they play pretty much all of their originals, and it sounds really good. So we’re going to put out a “live at the no-name disco” LP, as well.
As far as going through Bob’s past work, that’s as far as we’ve gotten is the Dinosaurs. And other than that, Alley Ghost is going to be recording a new record in a few weeks here at Native Sound. Mario is coming into town to get behind the board, I’m going to be producing it and Brice [Baricevic] is doing most of the vocals. Mat [Wilson] does a song or two. And Alley Ghost as Bass Amp [Maysam Attaran], Brice, Mat, Adam [Hesed] and Dan-O [Daniel Lawless] have been touring about once a month pretty much since the beginning of 2014. Next week they’re doing a five-day run down to New Orleans. So they’ll continue to be touring with the Bucket City booking agency, and we’ll be doing that record.
And as far as when that stuff will come out? I don’t know. Because I think I have to wait for the will to go through probate court first.
When do you expect that?
[Laughs] You can’t expect things from the legal process. You’re just kind of at their mercy.
You’ve had good, proper legal advice, right?
I’ve definitely had legal advice, but I don’t know what legal advice is good and proper! [Laughs]
So has someone argued that the will is invalid for some reason? Is that’s what is taking so long?
No, it just takes a long time to process. It took me about four months to get his death certificate. It was so ridiculous. Because you can’t even start the probate process until you get the death certificate, so I was just calling every few weeks and ask if it was done. They’d say, “No, it’s not done yet.” I would call the, you know, the coroner’s office. And then one day in December I called them and this lady was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. We’ve had this thing done since September.” So just more bureaucratic fun. [Rolls eyes] I don’t know what happened. I just got the feeling that it was some kind of filing-cabinet error. Who knows.
Before you can advance with the Cowboy Angel Foundation, all of this has to be done first, right?
OK, so here’s what’s up with the foundation: That all seems like a somewhat far-off vision. All of the money that we made in the month after Bob died with donations and income from the concert, pretty much all of that is going into records: into the Dinosaurs records, into the Alley Ghost record. All of the money made from those will go back into it. It will all have the Big Muddy boat label on it, but financially, all of Bob’s recordings are separate. The money we made was enough to start putting out records, basically.
But not enough to keep putting out records?
Well, we’ll keep putting them out if they sell. But to do anything on the scale of what I’d like Cowboy Angel to be is, like, a way bigger endeavor that would require a lot more start-up cash, so all we can afford to do is start putting out Bob’s stuff. And then eventually, hopefully, we’ll have enough money to start putting out all of his photography, his writing and stuff as well. And until we find a buried treasure somewhere…
I mean, you’re open to benefactors, right?
Oh yeah! Totally, totally. But until then we’ll just keep putting our energy towards that. The band wants to keep doing their thing so they’ll have all of Bob’s merchandise with them. It’s been going really well with them on the road.
Alley Ghost has really been touring every month?
Just about. At least a weekend or two. I know that they’ve done a lot of the cities that they went to with Bob. I think they’re still just doing the same kind of stuff: small shows and small venues and bars that a band starting out on the road would play.
I think it’s great that Bob can get new fans without even being there.
Yeah! They’ve been saying that it’s going really well.
So, with the terrible stuff concerning that elevator and all, you can’t legally do anything about that until…when?
Everybody tells me that I can’t do anything legally about it at all. At all.
Because Missouri says you have to be a blood relative to sue. It’s a rare thing. Missouri is, like, one of two states where the executor of the estate doesn’t have any stake to sue on stuff like that.
Well, that’s disappointing.
Yeah, if this were Illinois it would be an open and closed case. It would probably be so obvious that it would be settled out of court.
So, there’s no hope that there’s a giant check coming your way still from stuff like that?
Well, that’s not even the point, though. From what I understand, the person that’s responsible… [trails off] Honestly, it’s all just so crazy. It needs, like, a Nick Fury-type detective to come in and pull all of the shadows away. It’s all very blurry. The city tells me that the investigation is ongoing. All I know for sure is that I don’t have the power to sue. Everybody keeps telling me that I, personally, can’t.
Well, it would be nice to have the option even if that’s not the path that you decided to take. What’s the point of an executor if you can’t execute?
And also, it just seems like somebody is getting away with some very extreme criminal negligence here. Somebody or multiple people, you know. The city is ignoring it. The people whose names are on the building are ignoring it. So it’s all pretty frustrating.
Because you knew him so well, what do you think that Bob’s fans could to as the best tribute to him? What do you think that he would like for them to do?
Just to listen to his music, read his books and look at his pictures. That was pretty much what he cared about: his art. I think that Bob would just want people to get into his stuff, honestly. He’d want them to get into his stuff and to get into themselves in the same way; to be a creative spirit.
So what are your ideas for the future?
I do have somewhat of a vision for what Cowboy Angel should be. I’ve really only tried to vocalize it once or twice before. But the idea would be — in a land of infinite possibility with no financial or resource restraints — there’s this building. And it’s a center for artistic and creative people in St. Louis. It would provide them with living resources. Like, for example, it would be a place where you go to get help finding a job, finding a place to live, finding medical help, psychiatric help, life coaching, counseling. Also, the center would also be a place where music lessons are taught and organized. For example, we would have musicians from the city going out to teach people with the focus being on underprivileged people who don’t have these resources normally.
It would be a place for people who don’t have the environment to craft not only their art, but also their life so that it is allowing them to continue making their art. Which is pretty much what I did with Bob — I was working with him to help him get his life to a place where he was working on his art and still getting by without any kind of frustration in that cycle.
So the center would focus on that idea and kind of web out into all the things that an artist or an aspiring artist would need to survive with their art. That includes work spaces, education, etc. It would be a community in which people can support themselves and each other in ways that are just kind of up to their imagination. And the idea is that it’s this thing that exists with Bob’s spirit and some of the money would be funneled into it, but the bulk of that money will stay towards the continuing production of his music. It’s such a grand notion that eventually it would have to have separate fundraising. But the basic idea is just that it’s a center for south-city freaks and weirdos and creative people to just kind of make their lives better and to contribute to and be a part of the community.
It’s nice because there’s already a lot of that in St. Louis but on smaller levels.
It’s something that happens naturally, for sure. The community aspect of this is just a forward-movement of all of that.
Like an extension of it?
Right, exactly. But the focus would be more on the things that all of these people struggle with, you know? Which is a lot of times just help getting by or help finding resources that they don’t know are available to them. And maybe situations will improve with health care changing, but honestly poor people are still going to need financial help.
Yeah, a new health-care system doesn’t change the gas bill.
Right. So the idea is just to have this place where people get together that is just helping the artist to get by and live better lives. But, like I said, it’s a grand vision for the moment, unless somebody wants to step in and throw down to make that more of a reality.
Or hand you a building?
Right! Or hand me a building! It’s just kind of a far-away vision. Right now my focus is on what Bob’s legacy is going to be, on Bob’s band still doing their thing and on the production and distribution of his art.
Event information for the Bob Reuter Birthday show here.
Today’s Band T-Shirt Trends Are Getting Ridiculous and Awesome
By Jaime Lees
Fri., Aug. 8 2014
Band shirts used to be a way to easily identify other members of your tribe. It was a method of claiming allegiance without saying a word, a way to help find other like-minded people. People wore their love on their sleeves, quite literally. Back in the day you couldn’t just creep on somebody’s FaceSpace profile or look up their online playlists to find out their tastes in music, so kids who wanted to rep their favorite band had to wear the dang shirt. I know when I was a young lass, I was certainly intrigued by any gentleman wearing a Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt. (Bad move. Most dudes who like Dinosaur Jr. are emotionally damaged beyond repair. I am prepared to argue this point at length.)
And while there were t-shirt ordering magazines (remember Rockabilia?), for the most part to get the dang t-shirt you had to go to the show. So the shirt didn’t just mean that you liked the band, it meant that you showed up for the band, which spoke even more to your devotion.
When I was a teenager, band shirts usually didn’t come in smaller sizes or tailored for women. Kids these days are so spoiled, I swear. We had one choice: wear the XL or nothin’, so we walked around like dopes with giant sheet-like T-shirts that draped from our collarbones down to our knees. The shirts were ill-fitting (especially if you’re like me and have a bountiful bosom) and of poor quality, but we walked uphill in the snow both ways to get get them, goshdarnit.
Nowadays I’m far too picky for such shenanigans. I’d feel dumpy in an XL sized men’s shirt and, well, I just don’t want to talk to strangers. Creeps often see band t-shirts as a way to make contact and I don’t want to be bothered. I don’t want to talk to them about the bands we have in common and I don’t want to feel obligated to explain to them about bands that they don’t know. And I certainly don’t want to get trapped into having to give some stranger dude a high-five because we both like Echo & the Bunnymen or whatever.
You like whatever music you like and I’ll like whatever music I like and we can just leave each other alone. I’m old and cranky.
But sometimes I see a band shirt that makes me change my policy. Band t-shirts have gotten so much more interesting in recent years and there have been trends that I can totally get behind when it comes to band fashion.
Like all members of my generation, I’m a sucker for things that are clever and when I saw the Beach Boys / Black Flag one I had to buy it, even though I’m still not sure how to wear it.
It’s two bands in one, see?
I’m a big fan of the Black Flag logo. Probably a bigger fan of the logo than the band, even. It’s so great. It’s simple and unmistakable and representative and everything that a good logo should be and, man, there are a lot of Black Flag parody t-shirts and other items out there for sale. A small sampling from our friend Google:
Another of the all-time great band logos came to us from the Ramones. Designed by graphic artist Arturo Vega (long time art director for the Ramones), it is a rip of the US Presidential seal and it has since been aped, itself, in various hilarious fashions.
My favorite trend in music merchandise is this one particular style where a shirt appears to be advertising one entertainer, but is actually showing another. My winner in this category is the Nirvana / Rihanna shirt. It’s so delicious. Even setting aside my special interest in both Nirvana’s music and Rihanna’s life, this one still gets me. It’s that subtle little detail in the mark below the eye. Well done.
Other stand-outs in this category include these purposefully (and hilariously) mislabeled shirts featuring Lou Reed / Iggy Pop, Bob Marley / Jimi Hendrix, RuPaul / Beyonce and Blur / Oasis. So cheeky. So trying-to-make-me-buy-them.
And check out my friend Sam rocking the amazing Beyoncé / Misfits mash-up:
Tons of band logos have also been mocked by genius specialty company Monsters of Grok. Here, you can find the names of all of your favorite scientists and philosophers presented on shirts in familiar logo form. Show off your smarts, rocker. Witness:
The final greatest newer trend in band shirts is minimalist-designed apparel. It’s popular trend applied in many formats, but can be especially appreciated by music-minded architecture snobs and font fetishists. (I’ll admit: I’m guilty here.) These stylized screens are usually engineered to distill a band down to its essential core: its members. I’ve seen this style in person many times and just a few weeks ago a roadie for Veruca Salt smiled and pressed this guitar pick into my palm as thanks for supplying his singer with some ibuprofen.
What’s your favorite T-shirt trend? Are you a grown-up who still buys and wears new band T-shirts? They seem so much more fun now and I’d like to get with some of these new designs. Teach me how to wear these things again without having to do some complicated, elaborate upcycling artistry. Maybe pillow cases are easy enough to make, right? And buy me this because I need it. I don’t know why, but I need it:
link: Riverfront Times
link: the Village Voice
The Baseball Project w/ Water Liars
by Jaime Lees
It’s a band. That plays songs about baseball. That’s all. But the aptly named Baseball Project isn’t some county fair novelty act, it’s a modern day supergroup. The players drafted to this musical team include Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows) Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate), Linda Pitmon (Zuzu’s Petals) and Peter Buck and Mike Mills of R.E.M. fame. Songs like “Extra Inning of Love” and “Monument Park” carry titles that push the sporty theme, but these cuts are more than that; they’re stories told through the filter of the game. The bands melodies glow with a warm, familiar fuzz-pop sound– reminding listeners that these musicians shaped America’s musical history in the same way that The Babe shaped America’s pastime.
The Baseball Project
8:00 p.m. August 6
6504 Delmar Blvd. University City, MO
link: Riverfront Times
Remembering Garth Brooks’ Alter-Ego Chris Gaines
by Jaime Lees
Fri., Jul. 11 2014
Inspired by Garth Brooks’ recent announcement of his world tour, we thought we’d take a minute to look back on our favorite era of Garth-ness: the invention of Brooks’ alter-ego, Chris Gaines.
Alter-egos help an artist feel free to express sides of their persona that might make their fans uncomfortable otherwise. When we see an artist as just a ballad singer or just a rapper or just a pretty pop star, the artist often feels the need to rebel in the form of an alter-ego.
David Bowie had multiple alter-egos. Most notably, he posed as Ziggy Stardust, space-age rock superstar. (Not really a stretch.) Bono from U2, ever the overachiever, had three alter-egos: The Fly, Mephisto and The Mirrorball Man. Prince had Camille. Beyonce was briefly evil Illuminati super goddess Sasha Fierce. Gaga did Jo Calderone. Mariah Carey released Mimi.
Janet Jackson was Damita Jo and Strawberry. Eminem was Slim Shady. Mary J. Blige’s rap persona is called Brook Lynn, a move revived by Justin Bieber when he rapped under Shawty Mane. The Beatles, heroes of reinvention, found freedom from expectations while posing (and recording) as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And the most current (and extreme) example of the artist / alter-ego divide is Miley Cyrus / Hannah Montana.
Taking on a full alter-ego isn’t the only way to put on a new face. Many artists have flirted with this method to a lesser degree, insisting on being called other names for (usually) brief amounts of time. For example, Snoop Dogg became Snoop Lion, Sean Combs has been everything from Puff Daddy to Puffy to P. Diddy to Diddy. Paul McCartney was briefly going as Gladys Jenkins. David Johansen of the New York Dolls released music under the name Buster Poindexter. Jack White tried to go by Three Quid while touring Europe. Even Hank Williams recorded other song styles under the name Luke the Drifter.
While some stars have varied levels of intensity and commitment when it comes to their alter-egos, Garth Brooks embraced the character of Chris Gaines with an intensity that was weird, off-putting and kind of thrilling. It was one of the greatest train wreck moments in pop culture history, right up there with Bald Britney and Michael Jackson dangling “Blanket” over a balcony railing.
In the 1990s, Garth Brooks had been riding an unprecedented wave of success. His first album was released in 1989 and he broke nearly every music record out there for the next ten years solid. He set concert attendance records, was a best-selling artist world-wide, every album he released went platinum multiple times and he won nearly every major music award available.
And then, inexplicably, in 1999 at the tail end of a decade that he just flat owned, Brooks decided to mess with the formula. In one of the most perplexing events to ever happen in pop music: Garth Brooks invented Chris Gaines.
Maybe Brooks was rebelling against his success or maybe he just needed a change. But most likely, he was sick of the confines of country music.
Country, like any good subculture, has its own unwritten rules about how a person should speak, what words they should use, where they should go, who they should interact with and — especially — what they should wear.
Every genre has a uniform and conformity is demanded. Rappers wear gold chains and bling just like country stars wear pointed boots and cowboy hats. Brooks wore all of that plus those nut-exploding painted-on jeans and a whole series of bad rodeo wear. Maybe he was just sick of having to wear those damn obnoxious shirts?
Particularly in country music, conformity is demanded and artists are expected to acquiesce or be promptly smacked down by Nashville executives. The idea of a “country crossover artist” — now presented so perfectly by Taylor Swift — was looked down upon in 1990s country music. At the time, artists like the Dixie Chicks had been labeled with the “crossover” tag, but that’s because the members didn’t dress classically country. They sure sounded country, though.
So while artists and potential label signees were being told they weren’t “country” enough, Garth Brooks, the absolute King of Modern Country, threw his cowboy hat out the tractor window and went digging in his dress-up trunk. Confined by his own specific success, Brooks couldn’t just go make a pop album, he had to invent a character.
Seemingly overnight, Brooks morphed into Chris Gaines, the fabricated pop singer with an invented background and an entirely different musical style and singing voice. Supposedly built as a character for a never-completed movie staring Garth Brooks, the character of Chris Gaines soon took on a life of its own, with Brooks performing, doing interviews as and even staring in a VH1 Behind the Music “documentary” as Gaines.
Gaines had flat-ironed angular black hair (a wig), a severe soul patch and terrible Eurotrash clothes. Gaines also had his own elaborate back-story with a whole big fake history of family troubles and personal problems. He was pensive, deep guy who was also supposed to be from Australia.
The from Australia part was the worst decision of them all (now Brooks had to attempt to pull off an accent, too) but Brooks later said that the hardest part of being Chris Gaines was not trying on a brand new personality, but trying to look thinner. Brooks designed Gaines to be 40 pounds lighter than him, meaning that Brooks was constantly making Zoolander‘s “Blue Steel” face in Gaines photos because he was always sucking in his cheeks.
Just like his inventor, eventually Gaines cracked the Billboard charts. His Babyface-esque “Lost in You” made it all the way to the Top 5. Brooks’ time as Gaines was largely seen as some symptom of a mid-life crisis or a full-fledged freak-out, but he definitely had enough talent for two artists.
It was odd from top to bottom — he came off like a total nutter, and it essentially marked the end of his career as a major player in the music industry. But Brooks took the biggest risk of his career with Gaines and cheers to him for that. His rebellion wasn’t even Gaines, his rebellion was refusing to not rebel. Basically, this country guy dressing up and posing like a gothic MySpace teenager was somehow totally punk. Go Garth.
Brooks retired from recording and performing for almost a decade after the Gaines Disaster but has since released a few singles, done a residency in Las Vegas and dropped a rare performance here and there. But now Brooks has put his hat back on and has scheduled a world tour.
Will it be the biggest comeback of all time? Probably. Brooks already has the future of entire cities hanging on his stirrups like he’s the gosh-darn Olympic games.
Garth, we know you’re really busy and all but can we make just one request? Have Chris Gaines as your tour opener. We love him. Please? Thanks.
link: Riverfront Times
link: Minneapolis City Pages
by Jaime Lees
One of the greatest success stories born out of the massive ’90s alternative scene in Chicago was Veruca Salt. Fronted by Nina Gordon and (St. Louis native) Louise Post, each songwriter offered her own distinct strength: Gordon with blooming melody and Post with fiery power. The band was signed to Geffen Records, had a few videos in heavy rotation on MTV (“Seether,” “Volcano Girls”) and produced a handful of albums of revved up alt-pop before fading from the spotlight and officially announcing its hiatus in 2012. But this year brought a new Record Store Day release from Veruca Salt and renewed public interest in this band that undoubtedly still has something to prove.
link: Riverfront Times
I Kinda Like It: Tales of an Arcade Fire-Ambivalent Music Journalist
By Jaime Lees
Fri., Apr. 25 2014
We music writers are often encouraged to argue our musical tastes in black-and-white terms. Not only does it make for a more interesting article, but hard-stance or scandalous opinions prompt conversations and an interesting, interactive online comment section.
One band that every music journalist seems to have a big, unalterable opinion on is the Arcade Fire. Love it or hate it, this band seems to have prompted the most spilled ink and fevered nerdy debates of any modern group.
I consider myself an Arcade Fire agnostic — after all of these years of exposure it’s like I still need more proof before I can commit to an opinion. Not only do I feel pulled in two different directions when I think of the band, but my views are wrapped up and twisted in my own personal history and the kind of “full disclosure” experiences that journalists are meant to avoid when writing objectively.
See, I spent a decent amount of time with Win Butler, singer for Arcade Fire, when I was just a teenager. He attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, with a friend of mine whom I visited frequently. (I mostly scheduled my trips around when I’d be able to attend Echo & the Bunnymen concerts in Manhattan, just a short train ride away. I’ve always been weird.)
I visited SLC a few times in a two-year period during 1999 and 2000. Sadly, the friend I was visiting seemed to always be ill when I arrived. (Once because she’d had surgery and a couple other times because of what I now recognize as probably alcohol poisoning.) In any case, when she wasn’t available I spent a lot of my time on the East Coast being babysat by her excellent friends and dorm-mates who were kind enough to let me tag along with them. They took me into the city and offered to be my guides so that my seventeen- or eighteen-year-old ass wouldn’t get into trouble.
Sarah Lawrence was (and probably still is) a school for the freakishly ambitious, the insane and the insanely privileged. It was one of the most expensive colleges in the country during the time that I visited, and it has maintained that standard. (Total undergraduate tuition and fees are currently estimated to cost over $66,000 per year.) Honestly, it’s one of the most ridiculous places I’ve ever been. The school was known for not giving grades, working on a pass/fail system and letting students “explore” and invent their own “concentrations” instead of committing to a major. This meant that most SLC students basically blew through around $200,000 of their parents’ money while they fucked off for four years.
Everyone seemed lonely and bored on that campus, too, but this worked in my favor when I’d hop off a plane and needed a companion — and one of my favorite babysitters was Butler. I liked him because was a total sweetheart and a big Cure fan. He sometimes had the Robert Smith hair and everything. He seemed to wear mostly black, and despite what the picture above might indicate, no, he didn’t always dress like Brendan Fraser in Encino Man. (I took that photo at a dress-up dance party.) He was geeky, shy and mega nice. And very, very tall. Whenever he took me into the city I’d always be jogging to keep up with him because my short legs had to take an average of two and a half steps for every one of his. Our adventures were always exhausting.
He left SLC sometime in around 2000 and took off for Canada. The next time I saw him was when his new band, Arcade Fire, toured the Midwest in 2004. I saw the (now-legendary) St. Louis show at the Rocket Bar and another one in Columbia at Mojo’s. I’d heard his demos and liked them, but I still thought I was going to see some stupid college band. To my surprise, they arrived in town fully formed, and the music was impressively passionate. Arcade Fire was opening for the Unicorns and played for a very small audience at both of these gigs, but by the next year the band was on a main stage at the revived Lollapalooza festival in Chicago.
The vibe backstage at Lollapalooza was intense. Gone was the joyous, silly kid who had shown me around New York City. He’d been replaced by a guarded grown man under intense scrutiny. The pressure was palpable. It was the hottest Chicago summer in decades and Butler sat at a table under a white tent, and we all tried to enjoy some delicious catered pumpkin ravioli while his handlers were attempting to pull him away to do this or that. None of that tension was visible from the stage that day, though. The band played in the blazing heat and impressed the thousands in the crowd. They all seemed more relaxed after they played, but the responsibility was still great. I watched the band be interviewed by MTV and realized that their lives had completely changed.
It’s still hard to wrap my head around what happened in this year where the band went from playing club dates to becoming major festival headliners. It was hard to process for them, too, no doubt. Arcade Fire had signed to Merge Records and its debut, Funeral, was released during one of the oddest periods in modern music. Merge pushed the band hard (the hardest I remember seeing a band, not a pop star, being pushed in recent history), and it managed to hit right at a time where an odd cultural shift was occurring with American youth. There were tons of young and college-aged would-be hipsters (for lack of a better word) who hadn’t really found their place in music and weren’t sure where to angle themselves and their tastes.
Arcade Fire’s sudden and massive popularity also inspired tons of musicians to form multiplayer ripoff bands who were hoping to cash in and get signed. We had a couple of these type of groups here in St. Louis (don’t worry, I’m not naming names), and they wore the outfits and tried to be way epic but didn’t quite have the talent to pull it off.
During this time the rules of music journalism were also changing quickly — with reviews (and photos) becoming more important than previews. Major music festivals hadn’t quite fully become travel destinations yet, and girls didn’t even know about “festival fashion” or the unwritten rule of wearing flowered headbands when in attendance. Mostly, it seemed that kids were desperate for something to grab onto, something to make theirs. This, combined with the sudden popularity of MP3-fueled music blogs, social media and every kid with Internet access on the planet striving to be the first to drop a link to the next cool thing caused a magical pop-culture moment, and Arcade Fire just happened to be there.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, could have predicted the insanely sudden and international success of the Arcade Fire. Not even the music executives who pushed the band. Yes, the band was good. Right away it was good. But it was also weird. There were a bunch of members onstage and they made all of this big noise with an intensity that was nearly off-putting. They dressed like they were bohemian Amish, and the songs they played were often lyrically obtuse and frequently sung in half-French.
Music journalists — always feeling unappreciated and therefore quick to prove their intellectual qualities — grabbed onto the band and projected shit-loads of assumptions onto its music. Arcade Fire has inspired some of the most tedious, over-written, uninteresting thesis-type “think pieces” in modern journalism. (Sorry, I know this is one of them.) We writers overthink this band with an amazing frequency. From pointing out deep literary references to deciphering coded statements about the September 11 terrorist attacks, these essays never seem to be completely off track, but they miss the point: Arcade Fire songs are about human emotions. That’s why so many people like the band. Fans seem to feel them, for whatever reason.
This is where I start getting confused, though. I wouldn’t say that baroque, dramatic art rock via Canada about partying with “the Haitians” is exactly my thing. Without a personal connection to the band I might have dismissed it outright as a bunch of art-school losers. But no matter how loosely associated you are, or how long ago it occurred, it’s jarring to see someone you once played spin the bottle with on the cover of Spin with Bruce Springsteen. I think without a personal interest I would have only vaguely paid attention to the band, and that would’ve been about it. But because I was invested, I actually listened and was rewarded. Sometimes.
I’ve always found most of the band’s music to be overly dramatic and semi-annoying, but, man, it also has a few really, really good songs. I loved “Wake Up” off of Funeral deeply and immediately — it reminded me of the promise shown in some of the demos I’d had in the early 2000s. And Neon Bible is by far my favorite Arcade Fire album because it combined the band’s trademark builds and blasts with more lush, subtle sounds. I caught the Chicago show on the Neon Bible tour and it was appropriately mind-blowing, and raised my expectations for the band. But then after that I thought The Suburbs was just OK and I’ve only heard pieces of the latest record, Reflektor, twice, both times while riding in someone’s car. My verdict was a resounding, echoing “meh.” It seemed as though with Reflektor the band had discovered the Talking Heads, and that was kind of my only thought.
I last saw Arcade Fire play in Kentucky in the fall of 2007. I took a friend who had just received a cancer diagnosis but had not yet undergone surgery. It was rough. He needed a road trip in the worst way, so we drove to Louisville to see Arcade Fire play on the riverfront with LCD Soundsystem. LCD brought the dance party, but AF’s show put us on a bad track emotionally. Let me tell you: an Arcade Fire concert is not somewhere you want to be if you have something heavy hanging over your head. Arcade Fire’s intensity can easily fuck your vibe if you’re already in a bad place, which actually says more about the bands power more than it does about our emotional state that day.
Indeed, how I feel about the band seems to depend on my mood. When I’m feeling generous, its activism, earnestness and stage costumes can remind me of later-era R.E.M. When I’m not, everything about the band reminds me of the bloated, pompous arena monster that is U2.
As far as pop culture influence, the band’s public image is also something to be examined and explored, for sure. There’s always a backlash with any level of popularity and most of my friends who haven’t really listened to the band think its members are a bunch of poseurs. I can’t blame them, really. They look odd and the band has endured a series of PR gaffes and very public swipes. (A while back Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips went on the record about his distaste for the band. This must be a personal bummer for Butler and his wife, vocalist Régine Chassagne — they took friends to a Flaming Lips concert years ago on the eve of their wedding.)
After that first huge rush of attention occurred, the band did the only reasonable thing — went back to Canada and hid out for a while. It was a smart move. Arcade Fire had reached maximum saturation. But this kind of thing also has consequences. Because the band doesn’t give many interviews, it has retained an air of mystery, and therefore it can be easy to make assumptions about its members’ character or intentions. As cool as they may be, or sweet or funny, there’s something whack with their media presence. To put it bluntly: They seem to always come off like douches. It’s an easy leap for the public to make when all the public knows is the serious nature of the music and there’s not much good information out there to counter all of the bad information.
The worst of the anti-Arcade Fire backlash came just last year when the bands Twitter account announced that to attend one of its shows: “Formal attire or costume MANDATORY. (Formal wear = suit, dress or fancy something…)” The request was also printed on tickets by Ticketmaster and the outrage was immediate. Young fans who were already strapped for cash because of buying tickets to the shows were now panicking that they had to go out and buy prom dresses and rent tuxedos — thinking that they wouldn’t be able to get into the show otherwise.
Like many others, my first reaction was something like, “Eh, fuck you, buddy!” What a bunch of bullshit. I was appalled, thinking, “No way. We don’t tell you to stop wearing those Mennonites-at-the-disco suits or those horrible fingerless gloves, you don’t get to tell us what to wear to your concerts.”
Worse yet, the band waited nearly two months to issue a formal “apology” via its Facebook page, posting in part, “To everyone really upset about us asking people to dress up at our shows… please relax. It’s super not mandatory.” Hm. This seems like the wrong approach, entirely. They said it was mandatory, but then they said it’s not and then they seemed to imply that the fans were stupid for getting “really upset.”
If the band wanted to inspire a sense of spontaneous community in fans by getting them to dress up and have fun, this was a whack-ass way to go about it. Here, it seems, the band could take some advice from the Flaming Lips. Instead of encouraging fun, AF tried to make it mandatory. It’s hard to defend something like that and this is where the bands’ aloofness again works against them. It might not seem fair, but people can only go on what you show them. And when all you seem to show them is crap like this, they’ll respond accordingly.
The only, and I mean only, good PR move I’ve seen Arcade Fire pull in the last few years was appearing on Saturday Night Live. The song performances were okay, but the band members participated in a comedy sketch that showed the public that they might actually have a sense of humor about themselves. A few members of the band participated in a scene that was fully at the expense of their egos, with Butler taking the brunt of Tina Fey’s ribbing. (She said he looked like, “Some kind of hipster Paul Bunyan. Could be a Civil War reenactor or some kind of Serbian basketball player,” and that the band’s old-timey instruments look “massively stupid.”) Butler even did an impersonation of Robert De Niro on-air — it was the first public display of levity or humor I’d seen from him in years.
I was laying in bed a couple of weeks ago with my dude friend and we were talking about the special releases for this year’s Record Store Day. I was going on and on about how great R.E.M.’s MTV “Unplugged” recordings were and forced him to listen to a bootleg copy of a song that I had on my phone. He was patient through the song and then took a deep breath and said, “Every R.E.M. song sounds like it’s trying to break my heart but it just never can.”
As soon as he said it I realized that’s how I feel about Arcade Fire: It is trying to break my heart but it just never can. I can feel the intensity but it just doesn’t sway me. I think the band is good at what it does, it’s probably just not for me. I’m glad that the generation just younger than me seems to enjoy it — I really think they could (and do) like a whole lot worse. But with Arcade Fire, I just don’t know what to think anymore. Am I letting my fondness for a dude I hung out with as a kid sway my views? I don’t know. Music appreciation and tastes are so personal and complicated, even sometimes for those of us who get paid to have an opinion.
With this band it’s not like I feel that I don’t care, it’s more like I’m just not sure how to feel at all. I have strong feelings in both directions. Am I missing something here? Persuade me either way.
link: Riverfront Times
Legs McNeil became one of my favorite authors when I first read his Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk as a young teen. Even if you don’t own the book, you’ve undoubtedly seen its ransom-note-styled spine on the bookshelf of your music-loving friend. It’s an assertion that’s been made by others many times before, but I’ll say it here one more time: Please Kill Me is the definitive account of the early New York punk scene. (Trust me, I’ve read them all.)
But McNeil’s pedigree far precedes my birth. He has many professional accomplishments under his belt, but he’s probably best known as the cofounder of Punk Magazine, a New York-based pop-culture magazine famous for documenting the CBGB scene in the 1970s. (Through this, McNeil is also frequently credited with popularizing the word “punk” as we know it.)
Exactly a year ago this week, McNeil came through town on a book-reading tour, and I arranged for him and his beautiful, kind-souled assistant to stay with me. (I came in contact with him a few years back when he interviewed me for an upcoming book.) His St. Louis tour stop was set up at the Silver Ballroom, the friendly punk-rock pinball joint. He did his reading there, gave a great interview at KDHX and in between we basically spent a few days hanging out on my porch and drinking tea while McNeil gamely entertained any of my friends who stopped by with delicious insider tales of Patti Smith, Blondie, the Stooges and all of the rest of our favorite artists.
I texted McNeil a couple of days before his arrival and asked if he wanted to see Chuck Berry while he was here. He replied with an immediate “FUCK YES,” and my wonderful friend Jim got in touch with Joe Edwards and they got us hooked up with tickets to see Berry play his monthly gig at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room. As a proud St. Louis native, I’m always glad when I get to take out-of-towners to see our rock & roll legend in that super-intimate room. McNeil was as impressed by Berry as I was with him, calling him an “original punk.” We stopped for touristy photos at the Berry statue on Delmar Boulevard on the way home.
That night, after thoroughly inspecting my bookcases, McNeil said, “You’re really going to like my next book.” He was right.
Here’s the back-story on the book: McNeil lives in a small down in Pennsylvania and is friends with the man who runs the post office across the street from his house. One day this man’s daughter came by his house to borrow a book, and when McNeil asked her what she’d been reading, she said that the best thing that she’d read lately was a diary written by her best friend’s older sister, Mary Rose, who had died.
McNeil was intrigued. He arranged to meet the girl’s mother, read the journal, and they decided to publish it. Because Mary Rose died when she was a minor, the journal was considered part of her estate and thereby controlled by both of her parents. According to McNeil, Mary Rose’s father was a creep who never paid child support and showed little interest in his child unless he thought he could profit off of her. McNeil and Mary Rose’s mother took him to court to gain control of the publication rights. Six years, four judges and $50,000 later, the diary was finally theirs to publish.
Dear Nobody: The True Story of Mary Rose arrived in the mail at my house last week and, honestly, I didn’t want to put it down. I blew through all 330 pages in two sittings. It’s a fast read and compelling. Mary Rose was resilient, confused, troubled and brave. She wrote about everything she experienced in her young life, from boy troubles to new hair styles to family problems and chronic disease.
At times, I identified so much with Mary Rose’s troubles I worried that I am immature. But Mary Rose’s teenage fretting, lostness and bravery in the face of pain and illness is something that any reader can identify with from time to time. Her words express the kind of deep truths that can only be written in a private journal.
I called McNeil over the weekend to interview him about this new book and about Mary Rose. In the interview he is his usual blend of smart, curmudgeonly and kind.
Jaime Lees: Tell me what drew you to the story of Mary Rose.
Legs McNeil: Nonfiction stuff is just gripping to me, you know. Also, when I read Go Ask Alice I knew it was fake. Even when I found out that the editor had kind of made it up, before that I knew that it was fraudulent. Because no one used the slang that they used in that book. I’d never heard anyone use it. It really pissed me off for some reason, probably because they sold it as a true diary. I don’t know. It just made me furious that they confused everyone. So I’d always been kind of looking for the real Go Ask Alice, and I think I found it in Dear Nobody.
Did you follow the A Million Little Pieces scandal? Do you remember that one, from like, six or seven years back?
Yeah, and what was the one with… the [J.T.] LeRoy book? Yeah, that just seemed like more bullshit, you know.
Yeah, I’d rather read true things any day. But I think I’m weird like that. I think you’re weird like that, too.
You know, you can tell when something is authentic or not. And I think that’s part of what’s great about Mary Rose, is that there’s no doubt about the authenticity. Also, we’re posting original pages from the journals so people know that it’s not another fraudulent literally scandal.
Tell me about the legal issues you had in getting the book published.
Oh, that was a nightmare. In about 2009 when we were going to go out to sell it — after we’d spent a year and a half editing it — our New York lawyer said that because she was a minor when she died that her parents inherited her estate. When a minor dies, the parents automatically inherit the person’s estate. So that meant her deadbeat dad was entitled to half of the money from the mother’s share. And he was really…I mean…this guy was an asshole. I just felt like he wasn’t entitled to anything. So we went to court to open the estate and have him removed as the beneficiary. And that took four and a half years, because no male judge wanted to make a ruling on it, so they passed it to the next judge because they didn’t want it to be overturned in a higher court. I don’t think they knew what the fuck was going on, you know?
It was really frustrating. And it wasn’t until we got a female judge who understood and who ruled on it when we went to court. And I knew the father was a deadbeat asshole, but I didn’t realize how much of a deadbeat asshole he was until the mom testified in court. He wanted to pull [Mary Rose] off life support the week before she died so he could collect on the insurance policy he took out on her. He’s just a scumbag, you know?
So, what do you think is the most interesting part of the Mary Rose story?
Hmm. That’s a good question. I think…she can be so profound one moment and so bratty and just an asshole the next. The main contradiction with her seems to be adolescence, you know? That roller-coaster ride of emotion and mood swings. You know [she wrote things like], “I love him. I love him. I love him. I hate him. I hate him. I hate him.”
I can relate.
[Laughs] Yeah! She just seemed to capture all of those dumb mistakes. She gets high, and she wakes up in the hospital, and they throw her in detention or wherever. I could relate to those fuckups, you know?
When you came across the story, you already knew the ending and you knew that she had died. What if you came across this journal and she hadn’t died? Like, what if you knew her as an adult and she gave you this diary? Is it as interesting to you then?
See, I don’t know. I think I was attracted to it because I knew she had died. It wasn’t until I really read it and realized how shitty this girl’s life was that it really affected me. I think I was just thinking about it superficially when I heard about it, but when I read it and could see all of the pain and torment that this girl went through…it was just shocking.
Yeah, and it wasn’t just that she died, it’s that she knew she was going to die. So she sort of has that hanging over her head the whole time.
Yeah. Impending doom. So, you kind of don’t blame all of her stupid choices. You think about “Well, what the fuck would I have done?” Probably something very similar.
Or worse, even! So, Mary Rose wrote that she liked Nirvana, but what other music did she like? Do you know?
Well, in the actual journals she had all the bands names that she loved, like Hole, Nirvana, Pavement. Who else was in there? She liked those Bikini Kill kind of things. You know, those grrr grrr…
The Riot Grrrls?
Yeah, in the ’90s. I think the book takes place between 1996 and 1999.
Yeah, that’s about the right time period.
Oh and L7, I think, she was into. She had really good taste in music.
She also kept describing that her hair color would change.
[Laughs] Yeah, I know.
Do you have any pictures of her? Or do you know what she looked like?
No, in fact, I refused to look at any pictures of her while we were editing. Because I didn’t want to be swayed by it. I’ve only seen one picture of her.
Are people trying to give you stuff of hers now? Have you become the caretaker of her legacy?
No, no her mom is the caretaker of her legacy. No, I don’t think I’d want that responsibility.
Does this book make you more interested in teenage-girl diaries? Did it change your taste in things that you might find fascinating?
A lot of girls have said to me, “Wow, you should have read my diary.” And I say, “Well, let me read it.” And they say, “I destroyed it.” Or they lost them. And that’s something that is kind of tragic. But I’ve always been kind of interested in teenage writing. I mean, that’s what Please Kill Me is.
It’s teenage writing?
[Laughs] Well, it’s very emotionally retarded. It’s also very smart, like Dear Nobody. But at some point we’re all stupid. Like when Cheetah Chrome throws the guinea pigs out the window, you know? It’s just like, “What are you doing?”
Yeah, there are some adolescent tales in there, that’s for sure.
But you know what? When I was a kid — and I have them all now on the bookshelf right next to my desk — I have all of these gang books from the ’60s. Like Run Baby Run and Down These Mean Streets, and that’s kind of what Please Kill Me was based on. These gang books. I always wanted to be in a gang. I grew up in the suburbs where the only gang of kids were, like, toddlers riding in big wheels. So I always liked the city. And hanging out on fire escapes and smoking cigarettes was always very romantic to me.
Well, you did it!
Yeah! When we did Punk Magazine I did a lot of that, but it was more hanging out on stoops and drinking beer. Talking to girls as they walk by and stuff like that. It was fun. I tried to live out those books, but I was too much of a wimp to join a gang.
Was it as great as you thought it would be? Sitting around on stoops and hollering at girls?
Yeah! And drinking beer! And smoking cigarettes!
Speaking of, when you were here you saw Chuck Berry. Can you tell me about that?
Oh, it was great! I really wanted to see Chuck. I mean, he couldn’t really remember the words, but it was so much fun just to be in the same room with the guy when he’s playing, you know? And he was fuckin’ ancient, wasn’t he?
He’s ancient plus a year, because that was a year ago this week.
Was it? This week? You know, it’s like Chuck Berry will never die. Ever. Even when he physically dies, he will never die.
Well, that’s sort of what you did for Mary Rose, too.
Oh, who knows? It will probably come out and nobody will read it…
Oh, shut up. Now tell me, do you often see bands when you’re out on book tours? What’s your musical intake?
I’m really into garage bands from the ’60s. So over the summer I’m going to try to see a lot of garage bands. I’m going to see the Standells. They’re touring, actually. Their tour starts now. I just want to see them do “Dirty Water” live, you know? And I’ve been buying a lot of records these days. Vinyl is back!
Dear Nobody is available now at Barnes & Noble and other retailers.
link: Riverfront Times
link: OC Weekly