The Fred Friction solo album, Jesus Drank Wine, is an official, commercial reality now, by the evidence of a stack of them on the counter at Euclid Records, hyped on a handscrawled note by Darren Snow as the sort of album that might have resulted had Paul Westerberg attemped to keep up with Bob Stinson's drinking rather than ostracize him from The Replacements.
It's a great thing, this record. It has the full-throated, frontal-assault hilarity and self-lacerating sarcasm suggested by Darren's comparison, but like the best Replacements records (or the best records of any kind) it also has moments of bottomless pathos, hurt, and wonder that just kind of make you go, "Holy shit, I wish I had come up with that."
I have been listening to a bootleg of the record sent to me by Fred for some weeks now. In his handwritten note, on Fred Friction stationery (now curated into the manuscript collection of The Skuntry Museum), he acknowledges that his handlers, such that they are, would likely make him chop up the 12 songs into 12 tracks on the final CD release, but his bootleg version represented the record as he experienced it, as one thing - one song, one story, one life, one man.
This means, among other things, that my version is sort of a pain in the ass for hearing songs over again, which is helpful in getting lyrics exact, and my one attempt to quote from the record (on a FaceBook comment) was tartly corrected by the artist himself, so I'll wait for any extensive direct quoting when I have the commercial release with its 12 fragmented tracks in hand. This note is mostly to say, "Holy shit, I wish I would have come up with that."
And to confess that, in a sense, I tried, and, in another sense, I had my chance and blew it.
I tried. I was one of what must have been countless people over the years who encouraged Fred to make a record of his own. Especially when I was living in New York and would come home, I would be a little disturbed by how Fred was becoming something of a local rock star, running the hippest club in town and partying until dawn with the twang glitterati of the world. Which was well and fine for a minor talent, but not for a major talent, who should be writing songs and making records. And I never thought the records Fred made with The Highway Matrons quite did his songs justice.
So I would buttonhole Roy Kasten (again), and say, "We've got to make a record for Fred" (again), and Roy would say, "Let's do it" (again) and I would call Fred and Fred would have a reason for why now was not the time (once again).
Fred is, to understate the case, not a petty man, so I know he wasn't punishing me or withholding the pleasure I sought in midwiving his record. It just wasn't the time. But, still, it's true and I know it: I had my chance and I blew it.
It was 1988. I had thrown together a graduate student rock band for a pro-choice benefit concert that ended up getting press in the Post-Dispatch, thanks to Rene Spencer and Steve Pick, on the strength of one wacky gig. So we decided to keep it going, one more gig at a time, that lasted 10 years (and in a sense continues until today).
That band, Enormous Richard, often rehearsed acoustic on the street, on Delmar Boulevard, which was still pretty shady in the late '80s. One of those days on the street this raggedy man came running down the Delmar Loop, playing spoons against his skeletal, tattered-bluejean-clad leg, with a massive folder of song scraps folded under his arm.
That was Fred. Those were Fred's songs. They were ours to finish with him and record, if we wanted them, he said. But we were a young band of energetic songwriters, we weren't looking for another writer in the band, and at least one of us was on holiday from the middle class, slumming for fun, and Fred struck him as a little too street, a little too slumming not for fun.
So we declined the offer from Fred. He joined us onstage for spoons, many times - even at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago the night Operation Desert Storm broke out over Baghdad - but we turned away his songs.
In late-night guitar circles in Roy Kasten's apartment, I would start to understand just what we had turned away. These are some of the best songs I have ever heard anywhere. It was sort of like the baby Jesus offered no room at the inn, and turned away to wander. But the baby made its way and it got born on its own, in a South City manger, I suppose. And it is here now to bring good news to the world, to illuminate us and give us hope, and despair, with its little baby dreams.
Drawing of Fred by the late Hunter Brumfield III, from The Skuntry Museum, gift of the artist.