Play That Song Again: Before They Were Cool, Man

Posted in Blogs, Music

April 19, 2017

Ah, springtime: when a young music nerd’s thoughts turn to saying, “I know more than you, and I liked that band before they caught on to the mainstream.” I’m ashamed to admit it, but I fall victim to this dread disease; I try very hard to be nice and unassuming, but every now and then, the “cooler-than-thou” feeling deep within me rears its ugly head.

In May, 1994, I was at the much-beloved Crocodile Café in Seattle, waiting to see great Georgia songwriter Kevn Kinney. I was unfamiliar with the opening act, a local Seattle band called, auspiciously, The Presidents of the United States of America. Since I was in the front of the crowd pushed up against the stage, I could see that they had a small drum kit and — wait, did the bass player have only two strings on his guitar? And look, the guitarist with the Fender Telecaster had only the middle three strings of his guitar. Pretty interesting. This power-trio then proceeded to explode into a crazy set — loud, silly, energetic songs that had the 100 or so people in the audience jumping up and down with pure joy. Those minimally-stringed guitars packed a real Ramones-like wallop. “Holy cow,” I thought. “These guys are really great.”

Later, in the break before the headlining set, the Presidents’ Chris Ballew, in a straw hat and sweaty t-shirt, was selling $10 cassette tapes of the band’s unreleased songs out of a cardboard box. They looked to be homemade Maxell dubbed tapes, colored with Crayola color crayons by the band. Actually, he was selling out of the lid of a cardboard box. Very low budget and fun, just like their music. I really enjoyed the band, but thought, “Ehh, ten bucks. I need to make sure I have enough for the ferry boat back home tonight.” I passed.

Shortly thereafter, the band created a local buzz, then released a record, then a tour, and, about a year after I said, “No thanks” to Chris offering me a $10 cassette, I saw them perform “Lump” on the David Letterman show: two minutes and thirty-four seconds of the pogo-dancing bliss I had witnessed at the Crocodile. Their record became huge, and I still mourn the decision to pass on what would have been a nice souvenir.

About the same time, maybe the early 90s, I was browsing in William James Bookseller, a wonderful used-and-rare bookshop in Port Townsend. (Happy to find they’re still going strong.) My eyes fell on a used paperback called “Crazy Heart,” and, since it had a picture of a guy with a cowboy hat and Gretsch guitar on the cover, I picked it up. The first few pages about a broken-down country singer looked really promising, so I bought it and took it home. I read it in about two days, loved it, and it was my own private secret for years. Other friends hadn’t heard of it or read it. Internet searches showed it to be out of print, so I guarded and treasured my beat-up copy.

My copy of “Crazy Heart” by Thomas Cobb (Photo by Erik Christensen)

Until, in late 2008, I saw the first trailer for a new Jeff Bridges/Colin Farrell/Maggie Gyllenhaal movie. It looked familiar. “No, can’t be,” I thought. Sure enough, it was “Crazy Heart,” the story of Bad Blake, washed up country legend, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb. “Hey! Hey!” I waved a pointed finger at the TV screen. “That’s my book. That’s my favorite book no one’s heard of!” Wonderful film, and still Jeff Bridges’ only Academy Award.

And lastly, an “only there in spirit” discussion: Bruce Springsteen, pre-American icon, before “Born To Run,” back to the circa 1974-75 Bruce, who could maybe sell out a small theater. I didn’t get on board until about 1978, and by then it was already too big. Give me the old Bruce, as captured on many fine bootleg recordings, radio shows, and TV simulcasts. My favorites are the ones recorded in the summer of 1975, while Suki Lahav was still in the band playing violin, and the first draft of “Thunder Road” was still called “Wings for Wheels.”

My favorites from this era are the Columbia-released “The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” his studio album from late 1973 — a funky, loose, messy-in-all-the-right-places record, and “You Can Trust Your Car To The Man Who Wears The Star,” a concert recorded in February 1975 on the campus of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. You can hear it’s recorded in a small room, the songs are less anthemic than the 80s hits, and they contain changing motifs, flat-7 chords, drunken sing-alongs, and (as always) great stories. This was when Bruce was still supposed to be the “new Dylan” and also called a rip-off of Van Morrison or The Band — either of which I would take as a great compliment. You can find pretty much everything I love about music on these two records. Later, when Bruce was featured on magazine covers or giving concerts in soccer stadiums? Nah. Not for me.

My copy of “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle” (Photo by Erik Christensen)

So why this fascination with “I was there first?” Is this human nature, or getting to feel some sort of moral superiority? Why don’t people — myself included — get more excited about sharing discoveries, rather than feeling “this is mine?” Art and music should be the ultimate thing that ennobles us, makes connections, and helps us rise above our own condition.

So I’m sharing these with you now.

Give the music and accompanying books and film a solid listen and let me know what you think. I’m going out in search of more new treasures, and I promise not to hide them away or brag about getting there first.

Stay tuned.

Erik Christensen teaches English at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry, and, when in Seattle, tries to be first in line at the Tractor Tavern.

The Erik Christensen band plays at the Penn Cove Brewery Taproom in Coupeville April 28, and at the Evening of Song For Social Change at Blooms Winery in Bayview April 29.



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  1. For me, it was Jerry Lee Lewis at the Nesadel Club in Pasadena, Texas before anyone had heard of Great Balls of Fire and then Willie Nelson with Doug Sahm at the Soap Creek Saloon back when Austin was Austin. Willie just shows up with his long hair, wrinkled cowboy hat, white t-shirt and dirty jeans in contrast to his earlier Hello Walls album cover with cropped hair and a suit.

    Also once walked out on a George Sherring Quintet show – easy to do since George was blind.

    • Come check out the one act plays of local talent “before they hit it big” June 9-24. Especially those midweek written by local Whidbey women.
      Shameless self promotion. I wrote a stage adaptation of a story Jim Freeman wrote for the Whidbey Weekly years ago. This will be work-shopped and then performed at 2:00 pm matinee performances on June 14 and 21 at Zech Hall in WICA.
      All 14 cast and crew members are also all life-expe
      rienced. Youngest is 60 years young. The oldest is 88 years old today. Sort of like “The Zimmers,” old age pensioners who performed to acclaim on “Britain’s Got Talent.”
      Come see it, get your playbill autographef.
      BTW Donna Hood is in the play!

  2. Doesn’t this website have a “fix glaring typos you only notice after pushing the submit button” feature?

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