Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Strangers in the village, still feeling gone

Sparked by the inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis on Saturday, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys.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 53, a few stops down the road from my previous post, "A meeting in Old Blue".

Strangers in the Village
By Chris King

Local bands become traveling bands because they want to outgrow their hometown. Then the first paradox of becoming a traveling band is you aren’t a local band anymore. You aren’t even local beings.

In the fall of 1991, I saw Jeff Tweedy at Cicero’s. He invited me to his car to hear some mixes from the new Uncle Tupelo record. I heard more pop, less twang, and was amazed by one of Tweedy’s own songs, an urgent rock ballad with a chorus adapted from Emily Dickinson.

My heart, it was a gun
It’s unloaded now
So don’t bother

Tweedy always manages to be a little smarter than you give him credit for.

Sue at the Lounge Axe was firmly his sweetheart now, I knew. That uneasiness was over. We were just two band guys flipping through some very promising rough mixes. “What will you call the record?” I asked.

“I’m thinking about calling it Still Feel Gone,” he said. “We’re on the road so much now that even when I’m home, I still feel gone.” That’s a pretty good synopsis of the twilight condition of the no longer local band.

Home, for the traveling band, becomes a place to do laundry and make money, at your day job and at local gigs. My day job was strange for a white guy who spent his nights jumping up and down on stage, singing about AIDS and not being REM, and whose houseguests casually unpacked eight balls of cocaine on the kitchen table.

I was teaching mostly college students about the identity of blackness as revealed in literature. We started with slave narratives, dwelled on Jimmy Baldwin as long as I could, and ended with Sula, which I taught as a novel about two disturbing truths: you were once a part of your mother’s body, and now you are not. The students looked at me like I was a crazy white man. If only you knew the whole of it, I would think to myself, most of my mind already gone on the road.

Our hometown gigs were becoming mob scenes. One of a band's jobs is to sell beer -- to draw a crowd and keep it there, spending money on rounds -- and we excelled at this, for awhile. We had our hometown of Granite City to thank for that. Led by my older sisters, Planet Granite teleported itself across the river en masse when we had a gig. This was a rowdy, unreserved crowd that liked to roar and bend at the elbows to get the liquor into the mouth. Skoob and I, cut from the same crazy cloth, had the same approach to alcohol. We stood front and center, swigging beer for all to see. The Granite City contingent, on stage and in the crowd, set the pace for epic drinking.

A highlight for the Granite City hooligans was a homesick song, "Planet Granite," I wrote from the road.
I want to go where I was young
Feel the steel mill smoke in my lungs
I want to see the coke ovens glow
On some faces that I know
Beam me down to the Planet Granite
It was an underdog song, given Granite City’s reputation as a scary domain, home to drunken rednecks and airborne pollution, a place to be avoided. The national press Uncle Tupelo was receiving about coming from a rugged, working-class town was amusing to me. Belleville was mild and suburban compared to the Planet.

Of course, Skoob and I were not permanent residents of Planet Granite anymore. When we came home from the road, we came home to Marconi Street, as two of the only non-Italians living on the Hill. This contributed to that feeling of dislocation that Tweedy described, the still feeling gone. We had a crumbling house to ourselves for almost no money, but we were very much strangers in the village.

We did our best to make ourselves feel at home, though. For guys in a rock band, this consists of putting up traveling bands and hosting afterhours parties. When the bouncer at Cicero’s made his rounds at 1:15 a.m., hollering, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!” the Marconi house was often where the stragglers went.

On one such night, a very bad thing happened. A game of midnight stickball broke out across the street. Across the street, of course, was St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church. By an act of God, or perhaps the Goddess of Illusion, no church window was shattered. But apparently the monsignor’s sleep was disturbed.

I saw Sonny -- the gruff, neighborhood meet-and-greet guy -- very early in the morning.

The hour was hard on a hangover. No amount of ignoring the pounding on the door would make it go away. Finally, I crawled into consciousness and answered the knock.

“Sonny,” I said. “It’s early. On a Sunday.”

“Sunday is a work day across the street, you know,” he said, thumbing toward the Catholic church.

I have screwed up a lot. I tend to catch on pretty quick when someone is hinting at an error of my own.

“Sonny,” I said. “I’m sorry. We went a little late last night. Please extend our apologies –”

“I grew up playing basketball across the street,” Sonny cut me off. “I’ll play you any day” – emphasis on day, as opposed to night – “that’s not a church day. And I’ll run your ass right into the asphalt. But I don’t see a strike zone spray painted on the monsignor’s bedroom wall. And we didn’t put up those lights for night games. The party’s over, fuckface.”

That seemed to be his sayonara. I started to shut the door. But he turned back before he left for good.

“This is the last time you see me,” Sonny said. “Next time, the call goes straight to Sal.”

Dressed in his Sunday best, Sonny crossed the street to St. Ambrose, where the church bells had begun calling the righteous to mass.


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

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