Saturday, December 18, 2010

The way the music dies

Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys.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 119, which follows immediately upon my previous post, "Math problems and cluck tracks".

The way the music dies
By Chris King

Our rock & roll road had turned into a trail. It was gradual, the drift from grinding concrete connecting gigs in cities, where we asked people to pay attention to us, toward a lazy path winding between interesting old guys in obscure places, who let us pay attention to them. For most post-punk bands, the road ends much more abruptly, with screeching wheels, screaming, and years of seething after the wheels come off the van.

It’s hard to believe, but my buddies in Judge Nothing had been on the road, on and off, since the night I first saw them wearing upturned buckets of chicken on their heads a decade ago. They had been putting together scratchy tours since the birth of Cicero’s Basement Bar. Judge Nothing had cranked out four cassettes on their own dime and two CDs with an indie label in Chicago. No one toured or tried harder than these guys. And their crowd did grow, though not on the scale of their former friends and college classmates in Uncle Tupelo – let alone Wilco, the only band with roots in the Cicero’s scene that left the smelly van for a plush tour bus.

In the early months of 1997, just after Elijah and I tracked Ken Coomer of Wilco to the jerky Rosco rhythm, Judge Nothing hit the road, yet again.

A January or February tour of the Midwest is a miserable thing. You could have asked Buddy Holly. Heat on his tour bus gave out during one wintry Midwestern road swing, his “Winter Dance Party” package tour of 1959, inflicting a drummer with frostbite and inspiring the bandleader to charter a plane after a gig in Iowa. At the end of that flight – which went only five miles and ended nose-down in a corn field — they all had frostbite, or rather their corpses did, since they spent a cold winter night crushed in the wreckage. That was “the day the music died,” as Don Mclean sang in a song everyone raised on ‘70s radio has permanently grooved into their brains.

Nearly forty years later, touring indie rockers had it no better on the winter road. In January and February and most of March, show-goers remain suspended in after-Christmas hibernation. Crowds are thin, roads are icy if not actively battered by a blizzard. Sleeping in the van is not an option, so it’s literally do or die at the end of the night when it comes to begging for a crashpad.

Why bother? For the dream, of course, which needs to be fed. If a struggling rock band took a break for two cold months, they might never crawl back into the van again. Gigdom looks insane viewed from anywhere except inside gigdom.

It’s one reason why indie rockers wear their bluejeans into rags. You get used to scruffy pants, and they help you get cozy in rancid vans and shithole rock clubs. The instant you launder your clothes, they feel wrong, and so does your life. Buddy Holly was no penniless indie rocker, but the urge to arrive early enough in the next town to do some laundry was one of the reasons he chartered that plane. The dream must have died in him, if laundry was on his mind. The death of the music itself was only a tragic afterthought.

The Enormous Richards and Judge Nothings of the road book our tours in January and February because the weak won’t and the superfamous don’t. Gigs in plum venues open up during these months, places that wouldn’t take your call if you were touring during any other time of the year.

Judge Nothing booked a gig for the first days of February, 1997, at 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis. The isolation of that fair city makes for a long, exhausting haul, and a dangerous one during the winter. A blizzard can hit at any time during the endless grind of I-35, and fill the van with uneasy thoughts of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper, scattered as corpses across an Iowa corn field, quietly collecting snow in the night.

But 7th Street Entry was a CBGB for post-punk bands. This was where The Replacements and Husker Du cut their gig teeth. Every band wanted to earn that sticker on their amplifier cabinets. I know I gave myself serious gig neck calling 7th Street a thousand times, to no avail. An opening slot there was a damn good anchor date for a tour. So Andy Dykeman, Judge Nothing’s drummer and de-facto manager, put together a frozen 10-city tour around it that winter.

The gig gods were against them from the get-go. On the way to Kansas City, they wrecked the van – the first time they had so much as dented a fender in a decade of road gigs. If you change your pants even once a week and never sleep on a stranger’s floor, you might be thinking OMEN. Get your butts back home. But no, they soldiered on. Down the road, they wrecked again. They hit a patch of black ice and slid onto the grassy knoll of the median. GRASSY KNOLL. Assassination. Death. Go back home! But, no. The dream. They had a gig at a cradle of post-punk. Onward to the gig. To the dream.

When loading their gear into 7th Street Entry, they encountered what should have been a pleasant surprise: Wilco was playing at First Avenue, a much bigger room next door. Judge Nothing and Uncle Tupelo grew up together on the east side – the wrong side – of the Mississippi River, where we all got our start as kids. Judge Nothing introduced live sound to the basement bar where Uncle Tupelo made its name. Andy Dykeman and Jeff Tweedy (the honcho of Wilco) had doodled in the backs of college lectures and swapped gigs. Andy unloaded his drum kit at 7th Street Entry, then went next door to First Avenue to say hey to Tweedy.

“Jeff’s bodyguard, or something, stated that Jeff did not want to see us,” Andy remembers today. “We sent him a note, saying hello, and another one of his many roadcrew said he was not to be bothered. Oh, well. Fuck him. We played our gig and headed home.”

Driving south on I-35 through north central Iowa, Judge Nothing hit the end of the road. The van did not so much crash as its reasons for being evaporated. Maybe it was the cold shoulder from a former friend who had upgraded his gig to plush tour bus and handler status. Maybe it was just how long the highway through Iowa looks in the dead of the winter. Certainly, it was ten years of doing this, a decade of gigdom, without it ever getting any easier.

First, the bassist, Flea Bodine, cracked. Right there in the van, on the road home, he quit. And then the dream died in Andy, too, just like that. Andy quit. That left the frontman, Doug Rafferty, who said everyone only needed a little sleep, they could talk it out later.

Doug pulled into a diner for a bite to eat. They must have made an impression climbing out of the battered van, in their filthy, raggedy gig pants. As a waitress turned their coffee cups right-side up, she said, “You must be part of the Buddy Holly band.”


“The Buddy Holly tribute band! You know this is the day they found his plane? Right over there. And I mean, right over there, in that corn field right across the road. The ballroom where they all played their last concert is just up the road. They do a concert over there every year. The Winter Dance Party. The Day the Music Died. I would have sworn you was a part of that.”


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
Trading horses
No Chris Bess
Jamming with the dead
Fruits of the tunes
Picking and grinning
Math problems and cluck tracks

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