Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A meeting in Old Blue with Jeff Tweedy

Sparked by the inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis on Saturday, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 46, a few stops down the road from my previous post, "Opening for Uncle Tupelo".

A Meeting in Old Blue
By Chris King

Chicken Truck didn’t hitch a ride on Uncle Tupelo’s magic beanstalk after all. The band wasn’t committed to risking the road, which was the only way to escape local St. Louis status. Our scene’s buzz wasn’t showing the kind of magnetism that attracts label scouts. They were still all bunched up in Los Angeles and New York (though Seattle was just about to start blinking very brightly on the map). So Brian Henneman disbanded the mighty, grimy Chicken Truck and jumped, alone, into the faded blue Uncle Tupelo van.

Tupelo and their manager, Tony Margherita, were not stupid enough to stipulate their own solo opening act as a band just starting to headline nationally. So Brian signed on as a guitar tech, extra hand at the wheel, and occasional shit tone lead guitarist specializing in encores.

I was naive to be saddened by this. “Don’t forget about your songs,” I said to Brian one night at Cicero’s, which became a second home once I checked out of Duncker Hall at Washington University.

“Don’t worry,” Brian said. “I’ve got a plan.” His plan was to pick up contacts and experience vicariously. I was putting the same plan into effect myself, more or less, by peeking into Tony Margherita's Rolodex.

Tony didn’t have an actual Rolodex. He was just in the process of quitting working the counter at Euclid Records, where he had presided over a branch of the sacred order of undiscovered music, met his co-worker Jeff Tweedy of Uncle Tupelo, and learned to massage record label contacts. Tony was yet another Duncker Hall refugee, running the next big thing from a cordless phone on his living room couch.

“You guys have got to get to New York,” Tony said, when I asked. “You’ve got to get into somebody’s ad in the Village Voice. It should be a showcase venue with a really good sound system. Shoot for CBGB. Here’s Louise’s phone number. You can tell her I said to call. You’ll call her a thousand times, but you’ll get a show. That’s your anchor gig. Then pad enough East Coast dates around it so you don’t go too far in the hole. But don’t worry about the money. You're going to lose some money. The whole thing is getting to New York and getting in front of some label guys.”

I called Louise. She said to call back. I called back. Louise said to call back again. This became a pattern. I didn’t actually count, but the number of calls certainly went well into three figures. No rookie band's booking agent could resist suicide if he actually counted his phone calls. You should see the phone bills, and I don't mean the amount due – I mean the bills themselves, the long, hideous train of the same numbers, dialed over and over and over again.

Then, suddenly, I didn’t have to call back anymore. Suddenly, we had a gig at CBGB! Punk rock’s alma mater! In the end, we were one of five bands on some Tuesday night in June, as opposed to being, say, one of five bands on some Wednesday night in May one hundred phone calls earlier.

With my anchor gig set, I hit every club that Uncle Tupelo had played on the East Coast with a press kit, and I made another thousand phone calls. I put together a week of dates -- New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, Hoboken, and Boston, in that imperfect order -- with one day off to enjoy New York City before the big CBGB gig.

Tony agreed that it was a decent itinerary for a first time out, though he wondered at the absence of routing gigs in Kentucky, Ohio, or Pennsylvania to break up the drives east and back from St. Louis. That was a logistical quirk. We would be meeting (and leaving) Joe Esser in New Jersey, his native turf, and didn't want to attempt any gigs en route without a bassist.

I had just booked a one-week East Coast tour for a band without a van. A two-car caravan would double our gas costs, and most likely blow one of our tottering vehicles into oblivion. Our local gigs were picking up, but we didn’t have anything like a down payment on a van, not with my telephone bills to settle. I had put the cart in front of the horse. In fact, there was no cart -- just a horse in St. Louis, smelling the barn in New York.

Benny, the Cicero’s bookie, had started a little Xeroxed house zine, The Subterranean, named for the basement bar’s elevation. I appeared in the first issue, spotlighted in a mock teeny bopper column called “Babette and LuLu”, penned by two local beauties. (LuLu, a former flame of Jeff Tweedy’s, had inspired his lover’s lament “Cold Shoulder”.) In another early issue, The Sub ran its first ad: a band looking for a good home for their old blue van.

I recognized the contact name and number right away, and called it. Tony Margherita accepted a paltry down payment and a pathetic handwritten note testifying that we were good for the balance, regardless of how far from home (or from CBGB) Old Blue broke down on us.

I bummed a ride to the Uncle Tupelo band house in Belleville, where Tweedy passed this battered rock & roll torch to me. As he drove me around town, demonstrating the van's idiosyncrasies, he tried to be chatty. But we really didn't have much of anything to say, or no way of saying it. Maybe that was because we had both developed feelings for the same two women, our local LuLu and a woman named Sue, a legend of Chicago rock who owned and booked the Lounge Axe.

“I’m getting tired of these young, Wash. U. girls,” Tweedy said, obviously a reference to LuLu. “I’m looking for someone more mature,” he added, a likely reference to Sue, who had a few years of gig scar tissue on both of us.

What could I say? Sue had told Benny that I “gave good phone” when I called the Lounge Axe to book our band. At age twenty four, a rocker just creeping out onto the road, I was ready to take giving good phone to an attractive club owner in Chicago over just about anything. But Tweedy had been in the house at the Lounge Axe the night we played there, collecting money at the door and hovering around Sue at the bar, looking rather boyfriend-like. I thought that awkward night in Chicago was crawling around in Old Blue, unspoken, leaving the wrong mood for speaking.

Tweedy and I yapped enough to fill a concordance to the works of William Shakespeare, however, compared to my exchange that night with Jay Farrar, the incredibly shy Uncle Tupelo frontman. As Tweedy let me into their dumpy apartment, Jay was standing in the kitchen with a foot on a chair, thrashing the shit out of an acoustic guitar. He parted his one swooping bang just enough to give me the ghost of a wave, and then went back to thrashing the shit out of his acoustic guitar.

When Tweedy and I returned from the van tour, Jay was still standing in the kitchen with the same foot on the same chair, still thrashing the shit out of that acoustic guitar. Once again, he parted his swooping bang just enough to give me another ghost of a wave, and then he went right back to thrashing the shit out of his acoustic guitar.


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


The photograph is of Lij playing banjo in front of the husk of a different old blue van in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Tragically, no photograph of Old Blue is know to exist at this time.

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