Sunday, December 5, 2010
Uncle Tupelo in the hothouse basement
Sparked by the inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis last night, I feel like posting some chapters from my musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 15. Though it references previous chapters by dropping band names previously elaborated (Judge Nothing, Chicken Truck), it stands alone as a description of early Uncle Tupelo and the musical culture in Cicero's Basement Bar during the late 1980s that helped to nurture them.
In the Hothouse Basement
By Chris King
Very few people remember the first time they saw Uncle Tupelo at Cicero’s. That is because you didn’t actually see Uncle Tupelo at Cicero’s. You saw the backs of people who saw the backs of people who saw the backs of people who saw the backs of people who saw Uncle Tupelo.
Through a sea of flannel shirts (worn for comfort, not for fashion) and baseball caps (worn in lieu of hairdo, perhaps in lieu of shampooing), you saw flashes of fragments of Uncle Tupelo. Jay Farrar, the least expressive but most central of the three, already judged a mystery owing to his severe shyness, might be glimpsed peeking though a bang as he delivered a lyric. Jeff Tweedy, the chatty bassist and apologetic hitter and misser of harmonies, enacted the band’s constant pace changes with jumps and wobbles that sent him bouncing off the walls. Most everyone could see at least one frame of those near-falls. The drummer, Mike Heidorn, was most visible at rest. When the sea of people parted between songs, sipping or fetching drinks, he sat revealed behind his drum kit, opening his neck for a long pour of beer.
When Heidorn was replenished, and Jay had adjusted the settings on his amp through his bangs, and Tweedy had promised his next harmony would be better, they would hit again. Instantly, everyone would remember why they were standing in a crowded basement with the bill of somebody’s baseball cap digging into their neck. These guys had it. Jay’s voice had a veteran’s poise and a whiskey-red tone all its own, and Tweedy’s harmonies added tenor highlights to its prematurely aged depths. From time to time, the night would be pierced by a rightness you simply never hoped to hear from a pair of local microphones. Tweedy’s voice had a babyish register that served, to my ears, as a useful comment on the lyrics. When you could hear what Jay was singing, it was about a weary world and a dismal day in it. It brought distance into the eyes of all the drunks at the close of a show when Jay sang about drinking yourself to sleep, but I didn’t buy it. Those lyrics didn’t seem deeply lived to me. Tweedy’s harmony vocal, however, made them livable. I heard a kid’s joy in singing undercutting Jay’s perpetual dirge.
Jay's dire ballad “Life Worth Living” was the swaying, singalong culmination to an Uncle Tupelo show. There was a long climb up to that quiet place. It was mostly nasty, slash-and-burn post-punk rock. A Husker Du rhythm hand whipped through simple folk chords with sudden snarls of riffs and blistering miniature guitar solos. Three guys played as one. This band had been hammered tight in its Belleville woodshed. Whatever was driving them apart and troubling their friends in Chicken Truck was inaudible when they plugged in and played. Fingertips stilled cymbals just as hands muted strings, creating instant silences in the middle of songs. Then everything crashed back in with a single, urgent, vicious strike. There was twang in that whiskey voice, and anger in the band. It wasn’t country punk, quite, it was the next stop on the line. It was so damn good that many have been tempted to name it. Insurgent country, alternative country, alt. country, twang. Country post-punk was how it always sounded to me in the basement where it grew from a boy to a man.
Tupelo was also a well-stocked human jukebox. Even though they set the standard for the “original music” scene in St. Louis, Uncle Tupelo was a great cover band, too. These young, fresh-faced guys from the wrong side of the river had done their homework. They could take you on a breakneck, slam-and-jam tour of the history of American music, from the Carter Family, who brought the old as the hills music out of the hills and onto the radio, to Credence Clearwater Revival and Neil Young, who juiced up folk styles in the 60s and 70s, all the way up to my Meat Puppets, whose derangement of country ballads was obviously one of the primary source forms in the Belleville woodshed.
It is fair to say that everyone heard Uncle Tupelo at those early Cicero’s shows. They certainly played loud enough for that. The sonic experience in that basement left something to be desired, though. There was no escaping the fact that this was loudly amplified music in a narrow concrete basement, administered by a sound system (two generations beyond the initial Judge Nothing rig) that was hardly worthy of the bands it first delivered to the world.
The tiny, concrete confines of Cicero’s damaged its sound and cramped its crowd on a big night, but its size was essential to its role in growing a local scene. Twenty five people on a Tuesday night felt good in that basement bar. The biggest staggering-room-only Tupelo draw would have looked dinky in most of the clubs on Laclede’s Landing, the renovated St. Louis riverfront. The Landing bands played radio hits as wallpaper music for vast numbers of people not looking to discover anything new about music (or themselves). The Landing clubs were impersonal places of employment, where working musicians made a buck making it easier for people to get drunk enough to get laid. Cicero’s was hothouse soil. Bands shot up fast, because it seemed possible there, and only there, to shoot right through the roof and keep growing, perhaps snagging a few of your friends on your branches and taking them for a ride. The urgency of Uncle Tupelo, and their charisma, was inseparable from Cicero's soil.
From And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore (unpublished)
Picture of Uncle Tupelo in Cicero's by Toby Weiss.