Friday, October 31, 2008

Featuring Thomas Crone as: The Cornerman

Yesterday I connected with the ever-elusive Thomas Crone at Mangia to unite him with my sketch of Fire Chief Sherman George (signed by the subject), which Thomas had agreed to purchase for $5. After money changed hands, and I spent the money on an O'Fallon 5 Day IPA, I made this awful sketch of Crone and had him sign it.

His musings documented on the sketch were about his turning away from the sport of prizefighting. Crone's whole Hoosierweight boxing career came and went while I lived out of state, but I remembered exploiting it for imagery in a chapter I wrote about local critics in a music memoir I worked on when I was in New York, looking back at the old Cicero's Basement scene.

Here is that chapter, featuring Thomas Crone as: The Cornerman.


From And Let Him Ply His Music:
Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore

35. Betting the Horses
By Chris King

The runaway success of Uncle Tupelo was a cause for many in St. Louis to celebrate. No one popped the cork more often or more loudly than Richard Byrne, the music columnist for the Riverfront Times, the city's alternative weekly known as the RFT. Rich -- yet another refugee from the English program in Duncker Hall, a sarcastic wit from Philadelphia -- had banged the drum for Uncle Tupelo and Chicken Truck with an insistence that was difficult for some musicians to fathom. Not many people would have disagreed that they were the two best bands in town. But many people wondered why Rich Byrne seemed to think they were the only two bands in town.

Steve Pick helped us make sense of it. Our portrait song began with the lines:

Steve Pick, music critic
Former writer for the Riverfront Times
Ray Hartmann gave him the can
For a grave journalistic crime
He gave a poor review to a local band.

It was a true story. The paper's owner, Ray Hartmann, a local celebrity liberal, at first saw the paper as a civic booster. Rich Byrne, the paper's current music critic, acted as if it were his mandate to break a local band on the national scene. He picked his winning horses, Uncle Tupelo and Chicken Truck, and he covered his horses. Everybody else who showed up at the track got what was left over, which wasn't much.

Just as Enormous Richard was undergoing our overhaul, adding a classic rock guitarist and redheaded accordion player to keep the show on the road, Rich Byrne moved up the RFT totem pole. He became the media critic, with his new column stationed at the front of "the book" (journalists always call their papers and magazines "books"), the domain of "hard" news and a gateway to greater things. His replacement was a guy named Thomas Crone.

As a reader, Tom had railed against the RFT's music coverage. As a columnist, he saw some wisdom to their ways. If Rich Byrne had been trying to catapult Uncle Tupelo into national stardom, you couldn't be sure he had played a major role, but you absolutely couldn't say that he had failed. Yesterday, they were in Rich Byrne's column, and now, they were in Rolling Stone. Tom Crone decided to pick some winning horses, and Enormous Richard was his first pet pony. He blew us up in a huge feature story and began to cover our every Cicero's gig, which — not coincidentally — began to grow in size and stature.

The image of someone exhorting a horse to victory doesn't quite capture the image of Thomas Crone in the early St. Louis post-punk scene. Tom would later get involved in amateur boxing, as a writer and a fighter, and he brought pugilism to bear upon his approach to writing a music column. If he was something like Enormous Richard's corner man, bellowing encouragement and advice, he also took swipes at other bands (now permissible in the pages of the RFT, apparently) and generally enjoyed being in the middle of a fray.

St. Louis sits in the center of the country, and is said to be the Gateway to the West, but anyone working in the arts there often feels there are all too few roads leading out of town. Scenes tend to turn inward. A partisan local critic is a live wire. Everyone wants a little throb of the power, no one wants to get zapped, and nearly everyone feels a little more disconnected than they deserve to be.

Enormous Richard was a bizarre choice for a contender. Far more talented local musicians could remember gigs when we openly and honestly asked onstage for help fixing a broken string. No lead singer in town was less musical than I was. The Alex Chilton opening gig opportunity had come too early for us, just a month into our existence, advertising a very awkward band to every serious rock music fan in town.

But all those underage drinkers who saw us at the Red Sea could now drink legally at Cicero's. Many of them were the same easily eyed women who had followed around those handsome Suede Caesars. We were a band that loved to bend our elbows, and stopped drinking onstage only when we had to play a song, which is contagious to the crowd. That was a potent combination. Rich Byrne -- still a music scenester -- would often stop me at Cicero's to hint at the aphrodisiac powers of Enormous Richard. Our song "Al's Love Turkey" about the entrepreneur who sold packaged poultry dipped in Spanish fly began to look prophetic.

Guitar Karl and Chris Bess were enormous boosts to audience access. Johnny had plugged a hole in the band, and defined our sound as far as Matt and I were concerned. But his guitar was chronically out of tune, and his more ferocious departures were for post-punk roots purists only. Karl played clean and smoothly in tune. He nipped and tucked Johnny's licks, and packaged his solos in a way that anyone could understand.

Chris turned similar tricks on Elijah's contributions. Atonal fiddle and clunky banjo parts, learned on the job yesterday, were replaced by the pure, bold tones of an accordion played by a guy who seemed to have been born wheezing one. And Chris was visually unforgettable. Elijah's lithe build and bedroom blue eyes held their own crowd appeal, but just about every rock band has a sexy skinny guy. Only Enormous Richard had a 275-pound gagman in striped overalls, playing accordion with his legs widely splayed and the lead singer (that would be me) crawling in between them.

And we were, in some ways, and on certain songs, still a country band. If you were placing bets, you might think the St. Louis roots revival was about to get pushed up out of Cicero's on the magic beanstalk of Uncle Tupelo, with Chicken Truck next to see the light, and after them, dangling down a few branches, the weird cousin with the accordion, us.

If that was how Thomas Crone was betting his card, then a very smart, hardbitten club owner in Chicago immediately made his money look a little less stupid.

On the advice of Tony Margherita, Uncle Tupelo's manager, I had sent a copy of the Almanac to the Cabaret Metro in Chicago, far and away the most prestigious indie rock venue in the Midwest. Their unique method was to respond to band submissions by letter. There it was in print, signed by Fred at the Metro. We had "a naturalness you don't often hear." We were welcome to call, he would find us a gig. I called and booked a show for mid-January (1991).

Me and Skoob were getting off the window ledge at last, and Enormous Richard was getting on the road.

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