Monday, December 6, 2010

Opening for Uncle Tupelo

Sparked by the inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis on Saturday, I am posting some chapters from my musical memoir that deal with those guys.
This is Chapter 40, right after my previous post, "The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig". 

Opening for Uncle Tupelo

By Chris King

In Sula, a novel I would teach that spring, Toni Morrison, herself an Ohio girl, delivers a subtly devastating line about Dayton. Sula's man friend, Ajax, a philanderer who dreams of flying, has a ticket for the Dayton Air Show. Just one ticket, for him alone, on a day that Sula wants, and finally gets, some loving. When Sula talks him into bed, Morrison writes that Ajax made love like a man thinking about leaving for Dayton.

After our set at the Canal Street Tavern, a table of women waved me over to them. The swaggering 70s tribute act took the stage, and we got to know one another in the fragmented fashion typical of a loud bar. The headliners unleashed brash, sexy music -- they sounded the way Lenny Kravitz looks -- which may have evoked the secret one plump, innocuous-looking woman entrusted to me.

In the total confidence made possible by deafening music, she said she was engaged to marry a man who would not consummate their union until the big day. Not a virgin herself, she knew exactly what she was missing, and she needed some. Would I? Sure, I would. I left their table, and then she left the bar, and then I left the bar (with the phone number where the other guys would be staying). We rented a cheap hotel room on the outskirts of town, and I made love like a man thinking about leaving Dayton to open for Uncle Tupelo.

Very early in our time on the road, drive days took on the character of gagmen sessions. I blocked out text for cartoon panels on large pieces of drawing paper, which Matt Fuller and Chris Bess would illustrate; we would hang them up in nightclub bathrooms to entertain the drunks. I read obscure books looking for weird shit to read onstage during broken string breaks. Somewhere along the road we found some abandoned bowling pins, and kept six, which we decorated as the members of Enormous Richard and used as stage props. We were becoming something more, or less, than a rock band.

The eight-hour drive from Dayton to the Blue Note was long enough to craft an entire goof rock opera. We decided to go the other way. Uncle Tupelo, with their fist-tight thrashes and dour ballads, represented post-punk at its most serious. We thought we should cater to them and their crowd. So we left the customized bowling pins, the "Lover's Guide to Enormous Richard" cartoons, and my copy of Billy Graham Answers All Your Questions in the trunk of the Birthplace, sketched out the least ridiculous set list we could imagine, and headed into the venue.

Which made it a little magical when Uncle Tupelo's bassist, Jeff Tweedy, led me into their dressing room. Coat hangers held suspended three outrageous lavender sequined tuxedoes. "We thought we would outgoof you guys," Tweedy said with a grin. The tuxedoes turned out to be the most flagrant element of an attack plan that also included hundreds of helium balloons released above them as they played a junk country cover of "Anarchy in the UK".

About the time Tweedy was twanging Johnny Rotten to death, I found their manager in the crowd. "We tried to be serious, and you tried to be silly!" I said to Tony Margherita.

"We met each other half way," Tony said. "That's the way it's supposed to work."

Our two bands also met in the hands of their frontman, Jay Farrar. Jay had strung his guitar upside-down! This was discovered just before they took the stage, so he had to play Guitar Karl's axe instead.

It might spotlight the special nature of our band to consider how silly we could be, even at our most serious. One of our longest-standing crowd pleasers was "We're Not REM". Both a poke at REM clones and our own theme song, its only lyrics, almost, were:

We're not REM
We're not REM
We're not REM 
We're not REM
We're Enormous Richard.

The exception was the second verse, when I name-checked some other local bands that mattered to us:

We're not Chicken Truck
We're not the Suede Caesars
We're not Judge Nothing
We're not Uncle Tupelo.

I love rock bands so purely, that may be my favorite verse to scream out into a crowded bar. But with Uncle Tupelo in the house, and three people in their band (plus their manager, Tony Margherita, very much the fourth Tupe), I improvised at the Blue Note. The four lines of that verse became their four names:

We're not Jay Farrar
We're not Jeff Tweedy
We're not Michael Heidorn
We're not Tony Margherita.

So it was that kind of a super-serious night onstage for us.

We also crept into one of their songs, or at least Chris Bess did. During a rare Uncle Tupelo blues jam, intended to have a lounge feel in tandem with their tuxedoes, Chris began to play hand harmonica, standing in the crowd. Chris Bess plays the biggest, loudest, most sweeping imaginary harmonica you have ever heard. "Why don't you go do that onstage?" Joe, our bassist, asked, and he did. His antics brought down the house.

Our working together nearly got more intimate still. In a late-night deal, Skoob and their drummer, Heidorn, decided to play pool. The stakes were set at the Uncle Tupelo van vs. an Enormous Richard song about Uncle Tupelo. Then Tony, ever acting the role of manager, stepped in and upped the stakes to the van vs. the rights to all of our material.

"I want to see something more tangible," he explained, rubbing his thumb against the tips of his first two fingers.

The prospect of not being able to play our songs because Uncle Tupelo owned them (and, no doubt, never even bothered to play them) was a bit much, so haggling over fair stakes continued until it became gradually evident that the two contestants were too drunk to finish the game.

Previous posts in this series

In the Hothouse Basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig


Sorry I don't have an image of our gig with Uncle Tupelo at the Blue Note. I'd love to see a picture of them in the goofy tuxedoes.

p.s. I owe my career to this gig. An essay I wrote about the experienced became my first piece of paying journalism. It has paid my bills ever since.

No comments: