Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Call-Up

I'm old, which means I wonder about kids these days.

I actually don't wonder so much about kids as much as I do about musician kids.

I remember myself as a teenager in Moline, Illinois in the 1980s, sitting on a stool in our basement, playing the bass lick during the solo section of Rush's “Tom Sawyer.” You know the lick.

Dee-do-de-do-de-do, Dee-do-de-do-de-do.

I quit trying to play it with the record because there was no way I'd ever play it as fast as Rush's bass player, Geddy Lee, so I played it by myself over and over again, stumbling through the fingering, driving everyone in my house crazy.

I loved this song, and this music--Moving Pictures is one of my all-time favorite albums--but I liked other things about Rush too. I liked that they had this gangly bass player with a big schnoz who walked around the stage like he owned it, playing these impossibly complicated bass lines, some of which I could never imagine replicating. (“Tom Sawyer” was maybe in my league. “YYZ”? Forget it.) I liked that the band was from Canada. (Any foreign clime was exotic to me, even Canada.) I liked that the trio's image was carefully cultivated to make this Midwestern corn husk fantasize about one day being just like them: smart, amazing at my instrument, strutting around the stage like the Prince of Sudan. As a teenager, I was also a kind of gangly bass player with a big schnoz. Who was to say it couldn't happen?

After I moved to Arizona in 1990, these two worlds―the world of normal me and the world of big time rock--collided. I'd moved to the area because I had a friend who'd moved to Phoenix the year before who would let me share his room if I split the rent. I didn't know much about Phoenix, but I knew it had 2.5 million people, and a college with 40,000 students in nearby Tempe. There must be some kind of music scene there, where I could play original music in a band while finishing my degree.

My hunch was right. There were rock clubs in Tempe like Long Wong's on Mill, and the Sun Club, and Chuy's, where local bands played and acted like rock stars as much as the scene would let them. Most of these bands could draw enough to cover their beer tabs, and a few were genuinely popular, like the Gin Blossoms, who could fill any of these clubs on any night of the week. People actually danced when the Gins played--like, guys with girls dancing; not some random chaos where people hold their hands in the air and jump up and down. The tunes were great, the beer flowing, the sexual energy palpable. I couldn't imagine being anywhere else.

Cue collision.

The Gods of the Major Labels descended upon our little town the same year I arrived, and the Gin Blossoms inked a record deal with A&M Records, the first band out of our scene to get signed. A&M Records was the real deal. The Police had been on A&M. Styx. Squeeze. Tempe was being smiled upon, and suddenly, almost overnight, there was a conceivable path from my everyday life as a twenty-year-old musician to the national music scene. I could seriously entertain visions of becoming some facsimile of Geddy Lee. I'd never really felt that way before the Gins got signed.

And these feelings were validated to an even greater extent in 1991 when bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam broke through to the mainstream from their own sleepy musical enclave of Seattle. There was something happening in the zeitgeist, something started by bands like REM and Hüsker Dü a decade earlier and now carried forward into grunge, something that would allow folks like us to occupy the top of the musical charts. There was no reason why the band you saw on Friday night at your local club couldn't be the band you saw the next year on MTV.

I used to call this phenomena “The Golden Ticket”--you're just a normal schmo walking around town and then, suddenly, you're ordained--but now I find that metaphor inaccurate. A Golden Ticket, á la Willy Wonka, implies too much dumb luck: you buy a chocolate bar, and you either get a ticket or you don't. There's always been plenty of luck involved in landing a major label record deal, but luck wasn't the word that came to mind when bands started getting signed out of Tempe. It was more a reward for talent and work, like the call-up of a hot hitter from AAA to the major leagues. It was your soul and work ethic giving you a shot at your dreams. In those early years of the Tempe scene, 1990-1993, the only two bands to get signed were the Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot Workshop. They were also my two favorite bands.

The Gins subsequent success nationally over the next few years greased the Tempe skids even more, and in 1995 my band the Refreshments signed with Mercury Records. Mercury was the label of Kiss, John Mellencamp, and not so long ago, a Canadian trio called Rush. My band would make two albums for the same label that had released Moving Pictures fifteen years earlier. 


At the time in Tempe, there was a lot of talk of the Refreshments becoming the next Gin Blossoms, and our achievements along those lines are noteworthy. We had a hit single in 1996 called “Banditos.” We played “Banditos” live on the all-new Late Night with Conan O'Brien. We wrote and recorded the theme song for the Fox television series King of the Hill. There's plenty to brag about, but the success of my band isn't really what I think of when I think of the Tempe music scene. That all happened post-Blossoms, which was a different game. When I think of the scene, I think of those early years of hanging out--inside and outside--Long Wong's, watching the Gin Blossoms and Dead Hot, wondering how to get into a band as good as those two. I loved this time so much so that, when I set aside music in 1998 to write my first novel, I decided to focus on these early years. That novel, published in 2003, is Stuck Outside of Phoenix.

Flash forward to 2008. I'm at home watching Mill Avenue Inc., a documentary about the gentrification of the Mill Avenue area of Tempe, where much of the fun happened back in the day. Nico Holthaus, the director of Mill Ave. Inc., had contacted me about a year earlier to interview me for the film, and I was watching it for the first time. In 2003, Long Wong's--because of economic pressures placed on it by the systematic gentrification of the area--had been forced out of business, and as the last of the great Tempe clubs to go under, it represented the final nail in the coffin of what had been our music scene. This gentrification happened so quickly and seamlessly it was a little scary. All our shared history, gone. Many griped about this, but it was Nico who got film rolling, organized everything, focused the message. The result was a film that was entertaining, informative, empowering. A brief phone interview with me appears toward the end, and I'm proud to have had anything to do with it.

The message of that documentary--that gentrification doesn't have to happen; we let it happen--is an important one, but what I enjoyed most about Mill Ave. Inc. were the glimpses into the scene back in the day. Nico compiled film and photos of my cohorts and heroes, like the Gins lead singer Robin Wilson working at a record store in 1989 and gushing about his band's soon-to-be-released local album; and Sara Cina, manager of Long Wong's, shedding a tear as she talks about the last days of the club. It felt great to be connected with Tempe again. The clubs were gone, many of the bands broken up, but Mill Ave. Inc.--in a visual, visceral way--kept the scene alive. I learned from it that film had the power to put us right back there in a way nothing else can.

I emailed Nico in 2010 with the idea of him making a movie version of Stuck Outside of Phoenix. I didn't know him well--we'd met face-to-face exactly once--and I had no idea how he'd react. I knew we were both Uncle Tupelo fans from Illinois who'd moved to Arizona in the early nineties and fallen in love with the Tempe scene. I got a reply from Nico in a matter of minutes, nothing but “YEEHAW” written in bold caps.

I wrote the screenplay for the movie in 2011, focusing on bringing back that palpable sense of a music scene on the brink of discovery. Nico is producing the film, and he has a director and film editor and many of the other necessities lined up. He could start rolling as soon as next month.

So, back to kids these days, and me being old.

When a teenage musician of today sits in his room and plays along with his equivalent of “Tom Sawyer,” what is he thinking about? More to the point, what is he dreaming about? Is he dreaming that someday he might play in a band and maybe that band will get signed? Is he dreaming that someday he might get tapped on the shoulder by some person from a record label, who will be smiling ear to ear? I don't think so. I don't think kids see bands on major labels in 2012 and think, “Wouldn't that be cool.” And if they do, they probably shouldn't, because the landscape of the music business has changed so drastically since I played in the Refreshments, winning the game for them is an entirely different enterprise. They need to embrace DIY and make a name for themselves in their communities and on the Internet. As an artistically viable force, major labels don't have much to offer them anymore.

And hey, that's exactly as it should be. The Internet and digital technology have taken the game out of big corporations' hands and given it to each and every one of us. You can make and distribute a record, set up a rock tour, film a video--everything the Refreshments thought we needed a record deal for--in your bedroom. It's the fruition of everything Ian MacKaye and Mike Watt ever dreamed of. You control your destiny, not shareholders. In 2012, making sure shareholders have someone to mess with is Justin Bieber's job. You're making art. So do it yourself, jam econo, and show us old folks how we should've been doing it all along.

But even though things are better now, that doesn't mean we didn't give something up. Yes, we lost something when we screwed The Man. I think the main thing we lost was the dream of The Call-Up, the sense that our talents, if we work hard, could lead to someone important tapping us on the shoulder and saying, “Boy, have we got a deal for you.” It's how it happened for Elvis and the Beatles and Kiss and Led Zeppelin and Van Halen and U2 and Nirvana and Green Day. Look at that list. Rage against the machine all you want, but it's kind of hard to hate the system entirely that brought all of them to most of us.

More than anything Stuck Outside of Phoenix the Movie should emphasize the sense back then that you could be a normal schmo in a band, in a scene, and that scene could get hot, and bands could get signed, and you could wind up on MTV with your face next to Jimi Hendrix's and Bono's and Kurt Cobain's.

Unfortunately, movie-making is a little different from running a rock band out of your bedroom. Many of the same kinds of DIY tools apply, and many don't. For one, movie-making involves a lot more people, and those people need to get (very nominally) paid. In other words, if Stuck Outside of Phoenix the Movie is going to happen, funds need to be raised.

Luckily, the 21st Century has its own mechanism for these kind of things called Kickstarter. Click on this link to learn more about Stuck Outside of Phoenix the Movie, and please consider donating to its Kickstarter campaign. And don't forget to take a look at the very unique incentives for donating. As I learned when watching Mill Ave. Inc., film can bring back memories like nothing else. It's called movie magic. Thank goodness there's still some magic out there.

I'm going to be writing more about this project over the next week or three at this blog, and I have a few surprises in store, especially if you're a Refreshments fan. Please keep tabs on me here every Monday as I unveil more events in the name of this effort. For now, give to the Kickstarter campaign, and thanks for all you do.


Owllady said...

Hey Art. You're right that memory connects us to the best parts of our past. When I started fooling around with writing a novel, I naturally gravitated toward including rock music somehow. Currently in its third draft, the project flirts with the rock lit genre. The more I listened to the music from that era (late 70s, and 80s) the more I remembered those heady days of being a Rock Music Fan. The passion I felt back then is driving me now. So here's to your project and to mine--ROCK ON!!!

Art Edwards said...

Rock on, Owllady, and good luck with the novel.


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