Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 100, a good long stretch of twenty chapters down from my previous post, "Jamming with the dead". We have skipped a lot – Enormous Richard has a distribution deal now with the label that distributes Charles Manson, and I have begun to document an African elder named Nymah Kumah – but I think you can follow the storyline.
Fruits of the tunes
By Chris King
Not long after I returned to St. Louis with a shoebox full of Nymah Kumah’s memory collection on cassettes, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was found in the room above his garage with a junky kit in a cigar box, a triple overdose of heroin in his veins, and a shotgun shell in his head. He was twenty seven years old.
I thought of some things he had sung.
“In the pines, in the pines, where the sun, it never shines.”
He left a confusing letter, not quite a suicide note, about quitting the music business.
“The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I'm having 100 % fun. Sometimes I feel as if I should have a punch in time clock before I walk out on stage.”
I thought of Nymah Kumah, singing to himself, alone, for forty years.
“All the warnings from the punk rock 101 courses over the years. Since my first introduction to the, shall we say, ethics involved with independence and the embracement of our community has proven to be very true.”
I thought of something Nymah Kumah said about selling music. “When you're a baby and can hear sound, walking and talking – can you sell that? Man stole music from the birds anyway.”
I got stoned that night and went to see a rock show. Our buddies the Boorays had a gig. They had outgrown Cicero’s now and were headlining a more upscale club across town. Same four guys, same post-punk surf rock approach, except they sounded strangely clean and a little soft. The place was packed with nicely dressed people in slacks and Docksiders.
“Pointe zombies,” Mark Stephens, the frontman, said to me after the show, at the afterhours party. The Pointe was the local “commercial alternative” radio station of the type that blanketed the country in the wake of Nirvana’s success. I guessed the Pointe had been playing the Boorays.
“More people come to the shows now,” Mark said, “but they listen less. Fucking Pointe zombies. Remember the old Cicero’s? It was only us, but at least we listened to each other.”
Mark still looked like a thrift store mannequin sprung to life. He fidgeted his way through a pack of cigarettes and twelve beers between last call and dawn, crashing through Nirvana songs on a battered, tuneless guitar.
The next month, Uncle Tupelo was dead. The inscrutable frontman Jay Farrar split. He and Jeff Tweedy were picking up the pieces in separate projects, Son Volt and Wilco. The band that had ignited our basement bar was history. The old Cicero’s was gone for good.
The next month, Bello called me, the guy from Fruit of the Tune, Enormous Richard’s new distributor in New Jersey – the ones who distributed Kinky Friedman and Charles Manson.
“Bad news, man, bad, bad news.”
“Kurt Cobain is dead,” I said. “Uncle Tupelo broke up.”
“You know? I heard that. But guess what? Indie distribution is in the toilet. Have you heard? We just got slammed with returns. We’ve been banking on records we thought were sold, and they all just came back in the mail unpaid. It’s over.”
“The bubble, man, the boom. Everybody snapped up every band in sight, and now all their records are coming back unsold. I’m sorry. We’re busted. Fruit of the Tune is flying the coop.”
“Man stole music from the birds anyway,” I said.
“Listen,” Bello continued, “I’m only calling you because I like you guys. You’re real people. You’re a college professor. You’re not just some horny kid with his first distortion pedal. You’re not some sick goof rock fuck. You’re not Charlie Manson, for Christ’s sake. I want to do something for you. I can’t get it all back. But I want to get you something.”
“Little birdy, little birdy,” I sang, “come and sing me your song.”
“You sent me, what? Nine hundred units? I’m going to get you back a box. Two hundred count. I’ll make Mango cut you a check – no promises for what. It won’t be what you’re owed. Cash it the second you get it, or you can bounce it on over to the trashcan. If you want the rest of your records, watch the auction notices. Highest bid wins. If you want the rest of your money, sue Mango. But you’ll have to get in line behind Mojo Nixon and the Manson Family.”
I sang, “Such a short time, to be staying here. But a long time, to be gone.”
“Exactly. I am out of here. I’ve got tax ... issues. I’m telling you and my grandmother where I’m going – Puerto Rico – and that’s it. The surf is great. I hate the music. I’m thinking of wearing ear plugs so I never hear another note. I’ll open a fish taco stand and surf the sun up every morning for the rest of my life.”
I thought it was all bullshit, except for the news that we were getting screwed out of our records. But in fact, mail soon arrived at the Marconi house, precisely along the lines Bello had described. First, we got a box of our CDs back, each with a little faded Tower Records sticker affixed to it. Our record Warm Milk on the Porch had curdled at last. Then a Fruit of the Tune check came for $150, which actually cleared the bank. And then a postcard from Puerto Rico.
I’m on the beach.
Look for the little fish taco stand.
I’m the guy with the false front tooth.
He had drawn a little cartoon of the scene. He wasn’t a bad cartoonist. That kind of looked like Bello on the beach, hawking a fish taco as a curling wave crested, all the way down to the hole in his mouth.
From And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore (unpublished).
Previous posts in this series
In the hothouse basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig
Opening for Uncle Tupelo
A meeting in Old Blue
Strangers in the village
Managing your religion
A farewell to Old Blue
No Chris Bess
Jamming with the dead