When I first conceived of the Parlando Project several years ago I did not plan to analyze the poems I presented. My original vision was to present the combinations of music and words directly, unmediated.
I had several reasons, including that I didn’t think I was particularly good at that, but the chief reason was that I was worried that was too easily associated with the idea that poetry was some kind of tricky riddle meant to lock out it’s meaning from the unworthy, rather than a different way to approach how things are.
For every person who is satisfied by “solving” a poem, there are twenty-times more that find the effort not worth their time or attention, and a not unsubstantial number that have been found-out for bad readings, wrong guesses, and are shamed from ever making another attempt with poetry. Or for safety and comfort, some readers will restrict themselves only to poetry that seems to reveal itself at first sight.
The experience of poetry as rote code-breaking or writing of it like a video game cheat solution, even if you find that sort of thing engaging and fun, reduces it. Constraining your poetry experience to easily-grasp aphorisms and reassuring sentiments also limits it.
Once in operation the Parlando Project didn’t follow my plan. If you’ve been reading the more than 300 posts here accompanying the audio presentations of poetry, you’ll have seen that most of the time I present some kind of explanation of what I think the poem means. How’d that happen? Mostly because I ask questions as I experience the poems, and then I think “Why not try to find an answer?” Those answers often delight me, and I can’t help but share them.
And maybe that’s just as well. Get the puzzle part, the explain part, out of the way and we can get on with the enjoyment of the word-music, the music-music, and the innumerable costumes, persons, and ways of speaking by which the poems come walking up to us.
Why introduce today’s piece, D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale” like this? Because I can’t tell you what this poem of his means to me, at least not yet. For a moment I stopped myself and asked how I could perform or present this without knowing that.
Lawrence, better known as a novelist, was also a poet published in the early Imagist anthologies, and this poem fits well into that new Imagist idea of how poetry should present things. Minnesota is covered by a couple of feet of snow at this point in our particular winter this February. The winter landscape Lawrence presents is vivid and rhymes with my experience.
Early spring in England, daffodils in the grass, flowers in planters…and then snow.
It’s the other character besides the poet/speaker/singer and the landscape that puzzles me. It’s only a pronoun, “she.” And what do we know of “she?” Female. Walks out in the deep snow, no mention that there is any accompanying her. “She’s waiting.” For what? We aren’t told directly, though the lovely line that describes her waiting “Impatient and cold, half sobs struggling into her frosty sigh” is both vivid and mysterious. England isn’t as cold in winter as Minnesota, but no sane and competent person goes standing out in the rural snow alone without some good reason. Well except for hunters, and my sane statement still stands. I did give some thought about the poem being a hunting story, but I can’t think of any English game that would be large enough to sob and sigh.
The last stanza only compounds the mystery for me. She’s “come so promptly.” Huh? Sounds like there’s more than a common-sense supposition that there must be a reason for her to be there. The poet/speaker/singer steps to her, and the poem concludes before it tells us, saying only the question “Why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?”
I read one attempt to explicate this as the story of a woman who has come to meet her lover who is about to break up with her, keying partly off the line that says she’s come promptly though she knows that “she’s only nearer to the inevitable farewell.” I don’t have anything better myself, but I’m not buying that. Another says she’s death. I could go part-way for that, although then what’s she/death doing knowing about and being constrained by farewell? Death breaks up with us, we don’t break up with death!
Could she be winter? The poem’s opening says winter has just arrived or returned overnight, so there’s a link to the “promptly” remark. That gorgeous sobs and sighs line could be winter winds. If this is so, then what the poet/speaker/singer has to tell winter is that they know spring will inevitably come.
And so my appreciation for the mystery continues, it isn’t solved now, and it was far from solved when I performed this earlier this week, singing only the question, and thinking of Mark Hollis. It was intriguing to forget certainty as I sang lines of uncertain meaning, but I could grab onto their beauty and find emotional hooks in threads even if I couldn’t view the tapestry. My earlier experiences of this poem, particularly when heard aloud and formed in my voice, are no lesser than my experiences after questions and possible answers.
It’s my hope, as it has been since I started this Project, that you can do the same, and listen to the audio pieces (perhaps several times if you are intrigued) and let meaning and the emotions that surround it accrue in its own time, for your own self. The player gadget for D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale” is below, and thanks for listening, it means so much to me.
“Papa John” Kolstad worked to arrange at least one more Midstream poetry reading event tonight, as a remembrance and continuance of the series run for the past six years by David Shove who died at the turn of this year.
I know this blog has a good number of Twin Cities Minnesota readers, but even locally the Midstream series was a less-known-than-it-should-be thing. Best as I can tell, three things made it special: David Shove himself, who had a beautiful offhand way* of presenting a wide-ranging group of poets and writers; the space itself, a large second floor room full of clutter that says unpretentious and informal;** and the upper-Midwest kind of poets, who have a tendency to community feeling, a sense that they, their poetry, and their readers/listeners are all in this together.
Community Feeling. Some of the folks gathered to remember David Shove tonight in Minneapolis
Therefore, even though the event occurred with the palpable absence of David Shove, it still felt part of the series—and not just because absence is a kind of presence. As it sometimes does, the reading opened with some music—tonight, Kolstad on guitar and Richard Terrill on saxes performing some jazz as folks wandered into the room from the trench warfare of our most recent eight-inch snowfall. Then sixteen people with various connections to David and the Midstream series spoke of him, often concluding with a short poem.
I was one of those, perhaps the one who knew David less than any of the others. I only knew him from the reading series, but that was still a something. Yes it was. I did an off-the-cuff reading of the Wallace Stevens’ poem “To the Roaring Wind” that I had posted in a musical performance here last month when I first heard of Shore’s death.
Here’s a player gadget to allow you to easily hear that performance of “To the Roaring Wind” from January.
*Shove as a presenter had a slow, dry way of speaking that the first time you saw him you might not think much of it. Then the next time you’d notice the method of it, and the third time, the art of it.
**The decor of the room I think is the unstoppable flotsam of past enterprises run out of the room and Kolstad’s own intended collage sense. Part Marcel Duchamp and part Daniel Kramer’s “Bringing It All Back Home” record cover.
A couple of weeks back a local music legend Willie Murphy died. I’m going to ask indulgence from this blog’s overseas audience, because unless you were around Minnesota in the last 50 years or so, you’ll likely have no idea who Murphy was—no, it’s even more location specific than that—I believe you need to have memories pinned within a few blocks of the intersection of Cedar and Riverside avenues, in a Minneapolis neighborhood near the Mississippi river known as The West Bank.
Many years ago the West Bank was a Scandinavian immigrant enclave, and it is now the home to Minnesota’s largest Somali community. But my story today is in-between, in the second half of the 20th century, when it was home to a thriving bohemian culture, immigrants of a slightly different sort.
Shortly after I moved to Minnesota, I got work at a hospital there, and when I had enough money saved up, I took classes at the University of Minnesota which spans the two banks of the river. I came late to the West Bank scene, but I absorbed the stories of those nonconformist young immigrants who were homesteading something that was called “the counter-culture.” The counter-culture was Willie Murphy’s job, as much as musician: putting together bands, recording other musicians, inaugurating live music venues, working and networking the scene.*
Willie and the Bees getting down somewhere in the past
But he was a musician too. Sang, played bass, guitar, and piano. Interpreted a lot of great R&B and wrote some good songs himself.
He was never the businessman. He engendered some of the things that entrepreneurs like to claim they do, but he never got the cash rewards. It’s a complicated story and I don’t know all the details—but I do know that he was an artist making art on his own terms right up until his last months of his 75th year. In one trope of musician’s slang, musicians “make the gig” or “make the scene.” Murphy lived that literally: he made a lot of gigs, helped make a scene.
Angel headed hipster. Murphy in his later years, still keepin’ on.
Mine’s a complicated story too. I eventually fell in love at the same time with two people who lived on the West Bank. There was music most nights and every weekend at a couple of coffee houses, a short-lived jazz club, a music school, and several bars, all of them within four or five blocks. And for my literary side, besides the University, there was Savran’s bookstore, which was well stocked with small press publications and poetry in several languages. In one’s Twenties many are imprinted on the culture encountered then, but the West Bank in the ‘70s seems an especially strong tattoo—and nostalgia fades in reverse.
Most change happens slowly enough that you never see it happening. One day you look over your shoulder and you see everything behind you isn’t there anymore.
Or you pick up a paper and see that Willie Murphy has died.
Most change happens slowly enough that you never see it happening. One day you look over your shoulder and you see everything behind you isn’t there anymore.
Or you pick up a paper and see that Willie Murphy has died.
I felt I needed to write about this, regardless of how well I could do it. The song I wrote “Willie Murphy (Is Always Playing on the West Bank)” has in-jokes and puns that only West Bank habitués will understand. In the first verse I twisted a line from Ginsberg’s “Howl” that also supplied the name of Murphy’s last band. Punned-in the name of some West Bank bars in the second verse, gave a shout-out to Koerner Ray and Glover in the bridge, and got in a sideways nod to the West Bank’s Mixed Blood Theater before I finished.
A week ago, I sprung it on the LYL Band and we gave it a go, with Dave Moore supplying his piano part off-the-cuff. You can hear it with the player below.
*Murphy recorded an LP with “Spider” John Koerner back in the 60s, and produced Bonnie Raitt’s first LP in the early 70s. Willie and the Bees was an integrated R&B band that mixed funky jazz and danceable grooves for a decade or so from the mid-70s into the early ‘80s.
Don’t worry, we’re only taking a break from our regularly scheduled mix of various words (mostly poetry) with original music to tell the history of the Parlando Project’s alternate voice Dave Moore. So far in our story, he’s gone from poet to pioneering Twin Cities indie band lyricist to full-fledged songwriter to singer-songwriter-keyboardist for a two-person band of poets with instruments in about two years. If you’ve been following along, I’m the other poet.
How did this turn out?
Returning to 1980 after the release of the Lose Your Lunch Band’s Driving the Porcelain Bus recording, the two-man-poet-band thing seemed to be a problem. Around this time a handful of Twin Cities indie rock bands had eked out a local circuit of venues that would book them. This was all very tentative, and only sufficient to give bands the initial toe-hold on a career, and it wasn’t really open to something as sparse and loose as we were. Could we possibly have tried to push that square peg, a “hardly rock band,” into that circuit?
Perhaps. We started looking to fill out the band, with the drummer being the biggest problem. I had started to dabble with electric bass, and Dave’s Farfisa combo organ had left-hand gray keys which could be dedicated to keyboard bass duties in the Ray Manzarek mode. The first third was Jonathan Tesdell, a guitarist who had a set of congas, and who was drafted out of a commune down the street. Jonathan practiced and played with us for a few gigs on electric guitar, but I can’t recall us ever even trying the congas as a replacement for a more rockist drum set live. But after a few months, Jonathan left town, traveling light. I once heard that his Gibson Firebird electric guitar that he sold before packing for travel was bought by The Replacements’ Bob Stinson.
Next up was a very talented guy who I believe was working then in the live comedy and theater scene,* Dean Seal. Dave somehow recruited him**, and Dean played drums and bass. Of course, not at the same time, a limitation we overlooked because he was willing to play with us. Dean could write great songs as idiosyncratic as Dave’s, and he had a good singing voice (later recordings with Mr. Elk and Mr. Seal demonstrate his cabaret-ready performance chops***). Dean later went on to a long and unique career, leading the Minnesota Fringe Festival for several years, and in this century becoming a UCC minister who combined his theater and comedy experience with religion.****
Performing “Magnetized,” the rarely seen, full LYL Band live in the ‘80s. L to R: unknown drummer (see below) Dean Seal, Dave Moore, and Frank Hudson
Alas, Dave and I had sort of lost the fire to play out around the time Dean joined up. I’m not even sure if Dean could have been the singing drummer (harder than it looks) and songwriting voice that could have given Dave a rock-club ready band. With us, Dean played mostly electric bass, and he took a liking to a cheap Japanese copy of a Gibson EB0 bass that I had found in a second-hand store. We traded basses, mine for his similarly low-quality Made In Japan bad-translation-of-a-Fender bass. That instrument sits next to me as I type this, and I still play it often on pieces you hear here. Somewhere in the later ‘80s the LYL Band went, as press-releases still say these days, “on hiatus.”
Why? When I asked Dave today he said he hadn’t thought of that, but as we chewed it over I think it was the matter of both of us, in committed relationships and needing to pay the rent and bills at the lower edges of the economy, gradually converting the concept of the public band to a private joy.
But as that was, almost imperceptibly to us, happening, Dave’s songwriting took one more turn. The goth and gothic Fine Art lyrics and the agitprop and Dada characters of the early LYL songs were joined by unconventional and sincere love songs.
It’s more than 30 years ago, but I can still remember the first time I heard Dave sing this song, as I have heard Dave sing many songs before or since, stone cold fresh. We didn’t often discuss songs before playing them. Unless specifically working out a live set, we didn’t work out arrangements, run through the changes or discuss accompaniment. We just let it happen for fun or failure.
So, there we are in the 1980s. Dave’s standing at the Montgomery Wards electric piano, I’m no doubt sitting with my Cortez 12-string acoustic guitar with a DeArmond soundhole pickup. I’ve programmed a simple three-drum beat on a Mattel Synsonics electronic drums toy. I hit record on the cassette recorder. Dave hammers out some chords and I figure out the key and some kind of pattern as quick as I can. He begins to sing—and I suddenly realize this is, surprisingly, a love song, a damn fine love song, though still uniquely Dave. What do I think next? Well, that I had better not screw this up. Playing lead/melody lines on a 12-string has a catch: the two highest string courses are tuned in unison, but move to the G string and lower, and they jump up to courses tuned an octave apart. Listening to this now, I can still feel how I kept that in mind as I played. If music be the food of love, don’t lose your lunch.
I have some later, better-recorded versions of “(I Think I’ve Lost My) Total Recall.” The lyrics Dave wrote as a younger 30-something were good then, but when I perform or listen to this song now, thoughts of memory loss mixing with love are real as well as art representing the impact of love. As songs occasionally do, it’s gone from heartfelt to heartbreaking—but this is the moment I first heard it, and so, excuse the archival audio quality and listen.
As a bonus, although also low-fi, here’s what a putative ‘80s LYL Band as a fully realized rock band would sound like. We’d planned this gig at a Native American center with Dean Seal playing drums or bass on alternate numbers. We’d setup and sound-checked ourselves, and then left our instruments sitting on stands at the end of the building’s gym. As we left for the rest of the event before we played, four guys, unknown to us, went over to our instruments, and began to play them. They were pretty good as I recall, sort of blues-rock. We figured there was no reason to stop the better, volunteer musicians. They played a short set, maybe two or three songs or so. Later that night, the drummer asked if he could sit in for our set on Dean’s drums. Trusting in chance, that’s what happened. The song “Magnetized” is a Dave Moore lyric, another love song, but I think I wrote the music and sang it here. Once more it’s a cassette recording, taken from the vocal PA that night. You can hear me slightly off-mic trying to let the band know when I’m going to the bridge and walking over to let the rhythm section know that it’s time to end the tune.
*Someone should write a book on that circa ‘80s Twin Cities comedy scene, and yet oddly enough no one has. Louie Anderson, Liz Winstead, Joel Hodgson, Kevin Kling, Jeff Cesario—and I could go on—were all starting out in the Twin Cities in this era.
**Dave remembers he was working as a record store clerk for a time at the Wax Museum on Lake Street, and his manager there, knew Dean, and probably introduced them. Dave doesn’t recall knowing anything about Dean’s theater and comedy work then, only that he played bass.
***One story is that when Mr. Elk and Mr. Seal recorded an album at Prince’s Paisley Park they did it so quickly that it was the least expensive recording ever made there. Here’s some of their work.
Today we’re going to have our first Parlando Project double-header, two pieces whose words and music were written by Dave Moore back in the 1979-1982 era and both of which appeared on the Lose Your Lunch Band’s only official release, the cassette-only Driving the Porcelain Bus in 1982 1980*.
The LYL Band and Porcelain Bus were not entirely political, but the elements of political protest and social commentary were a big part of it. Some of this was based around the election of Ronald Reagan as US President in late 1980 which at the time seemed to be the culmination of a long conservative struggle dating back to the early ‘50s.** You could say it was like today’s post-Trump election era, and one could point to similarities, although the pendant in me could list considerable differences too. I’ll just let that rough likeness stand to simplify the history for our younger readers. It’s close enough for rock’n’roll.
Dave also points out that his spouse and her relatives at the time were politically interested, and discussions in their circle often included political analysis and issues. I’d add, knowing Dave from a decade before that, that the same could be said about him. Let’s just say that around 1980 it wouldn’t be strange for political dialectics to be part of a casual conversation in South Minneapolis, again, just as today.
But here’s something interesting I noted as I rethought those years, the local music scene really didn’t reflect that directly. I recall folk-singer Larry Long, a man who has sought to continue the legacy of Pete Seeger, as being around the cities during this era, but at least as far as recordings he comes later. John Trudell an activist and singer was based out of the region later in his career, but in the early 80s his musical expression was just beginning, and he was living in California then.
Of course, artists portraying the world and how people relate to it cannot help but reflect political and social connotations in their work, and to that degree that any of the biggest bands to eventually emerge out of the Twin Cities indie scene were political, it was largely that.*** Those bands had something to say about life: what they opposed, what they preferred. An argument can be made on both artistic and commercially-distributed subversion levels for that. But the songs Dave was writing then were sometimes upfront about their political stance. In those songs, subtext, which was also there, was what was beneath the politics, not the other way around.
Traveling to a telephone pole of the past, we see a Dave Moore Dada poster for an early ‘80s show
So, let’s step out of the history and into the songs.
Here’s “Scrap” a companion song to “The Night Inspector” which you’ve already heard here, inspired by Dave’s work in a machine shop in this era. There was a good live version sung by Dave on Porcelain Bus, but I don’t have access to a digital copy of it right now, so in its place here’s a later solo acoustic guitar version where I sing it.
And here is an actual cut from the Porcelain Bus, engineered by Colin Mansfield, just after he was helping Husker Du get underway, a song asking the rhetorical question “What’s Wrong with That?”
If you’re asking yourself, where’s the poetry and various musical settings that you’ve seen here before, know that I plan only about one more history-of-a-band post before returning to our regularly scheduled programing. If, on the other hand, you wonder how this all turned out, the next post will be about that.
And, of course, footnotes, but we reject the hierarchy of superscript numbers for asterixis!
*I’ve just located a few digital scans I made years back of the even then moldering materials form this era, and they show the the Twin City Reader reviewed Porcelain Bus (see footnote below) in their issue that covered the upcoming week interval of January 7th to the 13th 1981. This would mean we recorded it in late 1980 and probably released it before the turn of the year.
**for a detailed history of this conservative effort, I recommend Before the Storm by Rick Perlstein. For me a lot of what he covers was current events, but for most present-day Americans, it’s history. His two follow-up books are good too, but why not start at the beginning?
***Two exceptions I can note, even if neither are the best-known songs in their respective catalogs: Paul Westerberg’s “Androgynous” from the 1984 Replacements LP Let It Be, a heart-felt yet casual sounding and appropriately ambiguous song about busting gender roles, and then Prince’s arch “Ronnie Talk to Russia” from 1981’s Controversy, where Prince sounds like the LYL Band would sound if they had Prince’s skills, work-ethic and recording studio (or at least a drummer and bass player). Perhaps Mr. Nelson was paying tribute to The LYL Band and our sound, but Prince’s song was released a little less than a year before “Driving the Porcelain Bus.” OK, the new date for Porcelain Bus means that theoretically Prince could have heard Dave’s Farisa drenched sound before he used a similar punky combo organ sound on “Ronnie Talk to Russia.” File this under “improbable.”
OK, that last part is irony for you English majors, but Porcelain Bus was reviewed and got a cover blurb on the local alternative weekly in 1982 January 1981, along with Prince protégé’s The Time’s LP. The blurb said “The Time Ain’t No Lose Your Lunch Band,” a statement that I think we can all agree on. The review said we might become a cult band. If you’ve read this far, you’re our last chance as cult adherents. You don’t have to shave your head, sell tracts, move to a compound in the country, or worship Dave as a semi-divine incarnation—unless you think it’ll really help. I believe Dave would rather be worshiped as an Andy Devine incarnation anyway.
Did I skip over Dave Moore the poet and writer to get to Dave Moore the words and music guy? Perhaps. Let’s step back away from the 1980s and recap a bit in word-print silence, without any musical noises at the beginning.
I met Dave almost exactly 50 years ago in 1968. And my first encounter found him reading his poetry in a church. He was also publishing what would have been called an “underground newspaper” in those days, an occasional Ditto-machine-printed* dozen pages or so of social, political and cultural comment, which I eventually contributed to. 1968 was a fabled year, like unto 1989 or perhaps some year coming soon in our current folly, full of momentous and contentious events. Odd as it may seem, it felt important to engage with them on paper, even for a small audience.
Dave left for Wisconsin to continue college, I ended up in New York to not. We didn’t see each other for over five years.
When I decided to cover Bob Dylan in reverse, and left New York for Minnesota in 1976, I ended up staying with Dave for a while and helping him work on rehabbing a run-down house he was living in. Dave had hooked up with a group of writers, the Lake Street Writers Group, all of whom lived a few blocks from that central east-west commercial/industrial strip in Minneapolis. As a group it was an unusual mix, including bartenders and low-paid workers, most with some college under their belts, but now in their mid-20s trying to figure out what to do with life that didn’t formally give college credits. These experiences gave the group something of a blue-collar, we’ll earn our cultural worth, not be awarded it, air that I liked. I too joined in the group.
The Revolution Will Not Be Duplicated…for less than 1/4 cent a copy! Just think, I could run off a few pages of this blog and have them in mailboxes by the morning!
Besides the usual get-together/critique/talk thing that writers’ groups have done forever, the Lake Street Writers Group ran a little magazine, The Lake Street Review. The first two bootstrap issues were printed on Dave’s Ditto machine, the magazine’s post office box was Dave’s too, and Dave was co-editor in the beginning along with the founding spirit of the enterprise, poet Kevin FitzPatrick.**
I asked Dave what poetry he remembered writing or publishing from this era today, and he reminded me that in the mid ‘70s he was concentrating more on stories. “Oh,” he recalled, “There was a song ‘Ballad of Mr. Lake Street vs. Mr. Id’ in the Lake Street Review.” That piece of Dada was attributed to John Lee Svenska in print, but it would have predated his work with Fine Art or the LYL Band by several years.
What would you get if you combined blue-collar with Dada? One answer would be some of the first songs Dave wrote for the LYL Band. Yesterday’s “Evil Man” would be one example, the man in the title morphing from childhood bully to sociopathic businessman to stickup man. You could see this as a new expression of the notable Woody Guthrie line about “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen,” but by having the evil man fade in and out of these equivalented roles from verse to verse, the Dada this-beside-this comparison is made. In today’s piece, Dave’s early ‘80s song “The Night Inspector,” the Ubu Roi rides a fork-lift in a factory. To give you some relief from the audio quality of the archival recordings from the early ‘80s, this performance is a later one where I sing Dave’s song with acoustic guitar. Go go Night Inspector (player) Gadget…
*I’m reminded that Fugs’ founder Ed Sanders was able to raise his ruckus in the ‘60s Greenwich Village scene at first by being the owner of a similar machine on which he printed his own little magazine and flyers. Ditto machines were better than Mimeograph machines. Mimeo machines printed in purple and their printed pages stank of that can’t-be-healthy-for-you volatile ink that is probably responsible for some of you getting lower mid-century grades than your parents expected on school tests. Ditto machines produced pages that looked more like “real” printed work with dark black text.
This month, I’m going to start a series here featuring the words and music of Dave Moore. This is different—and not—because long-time listeners will have heard Dave’s voice and words here from the beginning, but this time I’m going to expose a little more of Dave’s range of work. If you’ve come here expecting our usual eclectic mix of poetry from various eras with music, don’t worry, we’re not abandoning that (and there’s lots here, just look at the archives on the right), I’m just taking some time to present something different, and “something different” has been my aim since the start.
I’m going to try to put Dave’s stuff in context, at least the way I’ve seen it. I’ve known Dave for 50 years. He was writing poetry before I met him, and he’ll write things for the page to this day, but he became a songwriter and he has had a long-running one-panel comic for decades too. I’ll start by talking about the songs.
A little over 40 years ago Dave’s words were used for the lyrics of a third of the songs on one of the pioneering Twin Cities punk/new-wave/indie records: 1978’s Fine Art’s Fine Art. Dave didn’t perform with the band, and as far as I know, he didn’t have any direct input on the music the band created for the songs. Fine Art existed from just before their only LP was recorded until around 1983.
That you haven’t heard of Fine Art is likely derived from several reasons. The biggest one is that they, unlike some later Twin Cities’ Indie bands, never made it nationally, but I remain puzzled as to how they have disappeared from the memories, books, and posts of those who have sought to cover the local Minnesota-based heroes that made and made up the late 1970s scene that produced The Replacements, Husker Du, and Soul Asylum, and even to some degree Prince, a scene that was then the platform under an even later generation of Twin Cities connected indies like Babes in Toyland, The Hold Steady, or the Jayhawks. Like other cities who experienced the eruption of indie bands in the late 70s and early 80s, the Twin Cities has its own selection of “They were so good and original, how come they never made it as national acts?” bands. The Suicide Commandos, The Suburbs*, and The Wallets were unforgettable to most who saw them locally, but their national/international profiles never really existed, and are now, like our weather will be soon, below zero. Fine Art, who have a good case to being seminal to the scene, who staked their own distinctive sound within it, are forgotten even locally, and that pains and puzzles me.
So, if you make it through this post, you’ll know more about the band Fine Art than anything you’ll be able to find in a book or on the web. In talking about why they didn’t make it into history, I’m going to try to sneak in why you should care about what they did.
OK, what were the problems and obstacles that explain why you haven’t heard of Fine Art, even though they helped break the ground for a significant Indie rock scene?
Their name, Fine Art, can be understood unironically. Their leader**, Colin Mansfield was a highly experimental guitarist, and his compositional ideas were not punk pure nor entirely pop accessible. A sizeable portion of the Twin Cities scene followed the early 80’s movement to make hardcore music which was intense not only in its volume and velocity, but in the kind of loose authenticity that later was called grunge.*** “Art rock” was another of the labels hung on “Progressive Rock,” and that was the enemy to this segment. Fine Art, particularly in it’s early days, could be just as much (or even more) a focused frenzy as, for example, Husker Du,**** but that band had a non-sequitur, non-significant name, and Fine Art’s name on a concert handbill may have suggested the wrong thing to some of the market.
They were song-oriented. Despite the continuing connoisseur appreciation for Grant Hart, Paul Westerberg, and Bob Mould as songwriters, the early TC live indie music scene then was not conducive to them. PAs, live board ops, and venues tended to make all the bands vocals unintelligible. On record, the songs come through, but Fine Art issued too few recordings: essentially one self-titled LP of an early version of the band before they were fully formed, and one EP, Scan, that better represents the middle of the band’s life. I’m unaware of any other Minnesota band with the breadth and quality of material from this early ‘80s era which left so little recorded legacy—but then that proves my point I guess, how would I know if such other bands existed?
The Fine Art lineup in 1980 fronted by Terri Paul and Kay Maxwell, Colin Mansfield on the far right. Also visible is Liz, their bass player that year which gave the band a 50/50 male/female split.
Live shows. The power of Fine Art in a live show could be substantial, perhaps most intensely on a small stage in a small room, but despite having exceptional singers/front-women over the band’s lifetime, they didn’t always come over on the First Avenue mainstage, the largest venue to present indie acts by the early ‘80s. Their contemporary local heroes The Suburbs (who like Fine Art never limited themselves to hardcore punk-rock moves) would in this era have one of the most dynamic high-energy live shows I’ve ever seen. Last night I watched Sammy Hagar on TV relating what he thought the wisest words legendary concert promoter Bill Graham had imparted to him: “It isn’t the audience’s job to win you over, you have to win them over.” Sammy Hagar, then as now, wouldn’t be a cool re-teller of an always controversial promotor’s bromide, but Fine Art in all it’s incarnations, had a cool stage demeanor, putting out the best music they could devise without a smarmy sales pitch, but also never explicitly pulling the audience into their vision. This stance works more often after you’ve become famous, or (paradoxically) after you’ve become famous for not catering to audiences in an overt way, but it’s the more difficult shot to make, and Fine Art didn’t make its shot.
I was going to write even more dancing-architecture about Fine Art on stage when I discovered that there is available a good quality film of them just past the midlife of the band, performing at the famous 7th Street Entry small room in Minneapolis. This was a good lineup for the band musically, and the performance is about as open and inviting as any I recall seeing. The short film misses some of my favorite numbers, any 45 minute film would, and in particular it includes none of the songs that best showed singer Kay Maxwell’s more exploratory vocal work. But, apropos of my point above, this is about as open and warm as they got, even in a small club. Guitarist Colin Mansfield even smiles. On stage. While the camera is on him.*****
Fine Art in 1981 perform a set in First Ave’s small 7th Street Entry room. As per usual, I think Dave Moore may have written about a third of the lyrics in the songs here.
They didn’t tour. I can’t say for sure why they didn’t. Any bootstrap band has to commit to a “get in the van” leap even for an Indie tour. This means no income other than chancy part-of-the-door proceeds and increased costs even if only for gas and repairs. Hometown relationships will be sacrificed. And the logistics for a six-person band with two women are a much greater challenge than for say a three person trio male-bonding road trip. Realistically, if they had toured, would out-of-state audiences have reacted differently than Twin Cities ones? In some markets I think it’s possible, but far from assured.
Front women. Throughout almost the entire run of the band’s life it used dual female lead singers. This was unusual in this era, locally and nationally, but more so in Minnesota indie circles before the mid-‘80s. Gender mix at indie shows in this era from my memory showed a higher male attendance, and the tastemakers were almost entirely male. Early versions of the band paired Kay Maxwell with Terri Paul until Terri Paul left to marry Suburbs’ principal Chan Poling. Maxwell then was joined at the front of the stage by violinist/vocalist Jennifer Holt, who in turn left to form Tete Noires, another needs-to-be-remembered-more Twin Cities band that prefigured the Riot Grrl idea of the later ‘80s. In theory, you could expect CIS sex-appeal to be a marketplace-trumps-art plus, but remember Fine Art wasn’t a band that wanted to explicitly ingratiate itself with audiences, and the band’s songs almost never featured conventional or playful boy-girl romance or sexual come-ons. In fact, most Fine Art songs throughout the life of the band took a distinctly cool look at relationships and their frictions with individual autonomy, something that pop and rock music didn’t allow female singers to do much in the 70s.****** In this skeptical and examining regard, they were doing in the small Minnesota scene what some post-punk bands in England and the US coasts were doing, but it’s likely that Fine Art was developing this attitude independently. My guess is, that to the extent the young men of the Brent Kavanaugh generation heard the lyrics at a gig, or absorbed the stance portrayed by the singers on stage in a non-literary way, Fine Art wasn’t going to be their new favorite band. Would it be better if they listened? I certainly think so.
Fine Art circa 1982 on the First Avenue mainstage: Ken Carlson, Jennifer Holt, Kay Maxwell, and Colin Mansfield
Today as I think through these things I wonder what would have happened if I was rich and possessed a time machine, could I use cubic money and hindsight to change things? Could I have tried to break them as a recording act without local scene cred? No assurance in that. Try to move them to New York and ace out Blondie, but end up as The Shirts instead? Move to Athens Georgia and try to be the B52s, but end up as Pylon? I suspect the best fantasy bet would have been to move them to England, an even more imaginary gambit, but it was a scene more capable of breaking unusual bands because the extensive network of critics and music press there competed relentlessly to find unusual bands to champion.
OK, we’ve left Dave Moore for awhile here, so let’s circle back. Fine Art had women frontmen who handled the vocals. That means that Dave’s lyrics first were sung by women. A song like “Nailed,” performed by Fine Art on their LP and regularly in concert afterward, is ostensibly a vampire blues that might have been the text from an issue of Tales From the Crypt, takes on a different cast sung when sung by two women in harmony. Lines like “I gave you my body, and you took it too. Always thought you’d give it back—shows how much I knew” change in that context.
Here’s Dave Moore’s lyric “Nailed” performed not by Fine Art, but by the LYL Band. Colin Mansfield wrote the music here, and we only approximated it. I’m doing the lead vocal, though Dave peeks through on backing vocals. If you watched the Fine Art/7th Street Entry video you may be able to put together a mental construct of what the “real thing” sounded like on a good night. Let me assure you, it was even better than what you are imagining.
Because what’s more punk-rock than footnotes
*The Suburbs are perhaps the most similar Twin Cities band to Fine Art in style. Their principal Chan Poling brought a broad outside musical background into his band as did Fine Art’s Colin Mansfield. And at their best, each band’s rhythm section was solid, and their approach to songwriting eclectic and unafraid of oddness. The Suburbs had the more dynamic live show though, even on a large stage, and the conventional all-male lineup presented a show that could be enjoyed without further thought by the plastic beverage cup waving male club goer. My impression was that the Suburbs were soon a very consistent live draw for any venue hosting them, and Fine Art never was that. Of course, all that talent and appeal didn’t mean that even The Suburbs made it past local hero standing.
A survivor band version of The Suburbs still exists, and Poling (who performs with them) has gone on to a successful career in music that continues to today.
**I don’t know exactly how the band was organized, but Colin Mansfield, along with his then wife Kay Maxwell and outstanding rhythm guitarist, the late Ken Carlson were the three members who participated in every version of the band, and though music and lyrics were contributed not only by Dave Moore but as well by the rest of the band, I always got the impression that Colin was the organizer and collator of that process. I’ve lost the thread with Colin over the years, but he transitioned to in the box electronic music later on, and unlike the Fine Art material, that later work is available.
***As a marker for this aesthetic, I’ll note that Soul Asylum first performed under the band name Loud Fast Rules. The Replacements, whose IP holders should see about the availability from Blackglama of the phrase “What becomes a legend most,” were able to gain attention as the ultimate in anti-showbiz casualness, where a sloppy show meant that they really meant it.
****Colin Mansfield from Fine Art produced Husker Du’s first demos and their initial single, which sounds less like later Husker Du and more like Fine Art. After Husker Du broke up, Colin and Du bassist Greg Norton formed a short-lived trio Grey Area.
*****In my experience Colin Mansfield was a pleasant, understated and helpful man, as well as quite a musician. I once suggested, from my position on being less than any of those things, that it might help if he looked more animated and moved by the music on stage, and he asked back if there wouldn’t be some visual value in all that sound coming out a still and undemonstrative musician. We both were probably right, but he was right from a position of greater talent and achievement.
******Here for example are some of the other songs from that LP issued at the band’s beginnings in 1978, and remember all vocally performed by women: “Don’t Tell Me That,” “Too Much Pride,” “I’ve Got to Protect Myself,” Rapist,” and “Speak My Language.” Ken Carlson wrote the first three, Andy Schirmer wrote the third, and only the last was written by one of the vocalists, Terri Paul. It’s an odd dynamic isn’t it? Songs of self-assertion, anger, skepticism toward love relationships as a system, sometimes inward turning pain, written largely by men to be sung from the viewpoint and voice of two women. I don’t know if this was planned, my suspicion is that was something of an accidental combination which the band allowed to happen and then grew to embrace. I never asked. I don’t even know if any of the band men thought of themselves as feminist, and it wouldn’t shock me if any of the women in the band would have stories where the men failed to show feminist understanding. Human beings, they’re like that.