Don't Call It Nothing

Don't Call It Nothing - Episode 14 - Soul Asylum

October 15, 2021 Lance Davis Season 1 Episode 14
Don't Call It Nothing
Don't Call It Nothing - Episode 14 - Soul Asylum
Show Notes Transcript

UPDATE: This was originally linking to last week's episode, so I re-rendered, re-uploaded, and rechecked all the cables and tubes. I think we're good. Sorry about that.

Don't Call It Nothing Podcast #14 remembers Soul Asylum's 1990 album And The Horse They Rode In On, Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy as an acoustic duo, and the limbo that followed the release of Horse.

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Theme Song: Mike Nicolai, “Trying To Get It Right” [Bandcamp]

Welcome to Don't Call It Nothing, the podcast dedicated to the lost history of '90s roots, rap, and rock 'n' roll. I’m your host Lance Davis and today we’re gonna discuss Soul Asylum’s 1990 album, And The Horse They Rode In On. We’ll also get to some Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy acoustic tracks from around that time. Before we get into that, though, lemme give a shout out to Megan Stokes. She not only became a member at the $5/month level, she declared publicly that I amm the only middle-aged music nerd she will allow to mansplain to her. For example, when I pointed out that she spelled her name wrong, there was no showy production, no “listen here little lady,” it was just a confidential, respectful moment between friends … on social media. That’s what I bring to the table. The personal touch. 

If you’d like to support the only music podcast that matters you can do so at the $5 or $20/month level. At the $20/month level, you can collaborate with me on a specific podcast and get access to the YouTube and Spotify playlists that are really a backbone of this pod. Beyond that, the levels are pretty similar. All family members should’ve just received my first bonus episode which is about my Japanese mom growing up in Hawaii (awesome!) during World War Two (oof, not awesome). Strange, too, because I was writing a different story and an anecdote about my mom within that story blossomed into this whole other thing. That original story needs tightening up or maybe I’ll turn it into a two-parter, I’ll figure it out. That will be the next bonus episode (or episodes). To become a member all you gotta do is hit that “Buy Me a Coffee” button at the top of the page or the “Support” button at the bottom and magic will follow. Or if you wanna just hang out and listen, that’s cool, too. Whatever the case, just glad you’re here.

OK, so today’s episode is more specific than my first run of pods, which were more survey-based. A little taste of each year of the decade. Today I wanna zero in on one band at a very specific moment in their career. In 1990, Soul Asylum released And The Horse They Rode In On, and if you go by cassette listens at the time I don’t know if any tape I owned received more spins in my Mitsubishi Colt than Horse on the A-side and Thelonious Monster’s Next Saturday Afternoon on the B. If it was Top 3, maybe Top 2 IN 1990, in 2021 it’s dropped all the way to 8. I know, I’m a monster. There’s 2-3 songs I’d omit and I wish the bottom was a scosh fatter. But, I don’t wanna crack on it too hard. "Veil Of Tears" is a personal fave, like early '70s Stones with Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy on dual riff and Karl Mueller squeezing out a number of cool countermelody bass runs. "Spinnin'" and "Easy Street" are tight as a drum and built around killer melodies. It’s not surprising they were chosen as singles. “All The King's Friends" is kin to "Veil" in the sweet riff department, especially in the hippie freakout middle section. It also has one of my favorite lines, when Pirner sings, "How would I know if there was something wrong, when the weak of heart out-survive the strong?” Pirner doesn’t get a lot of credit as a lyricist, but “All The King's Friends" and "Nice Guys (Don't Get Paid)" have a number of striking images. 

Hijackin' fanatics who kill for religionIn a city full of addicts and color television OrAmazingly infazeable, entirely replaceableThere's nothing I would rearrange, don't ever change

That’s quality. Murphy has a co-writing credit on “Easy Street,” which I’m guessing is the line, “At thee last moment he picked up the phone, and gave you a call.” He also wrote "Gullible's Travels," a rock 'n' roll sea shanty featuring Bernie Worrell of P-Funk on melodica, a small keyboard you blow into, which you may remember from your Neutral Milk Hotel phase. 

I wanna throw a little love to “Brand New Shine.” It’s my favorite sounding track on the album, maybe my favorite track altogether. I love that it sounds like early Lone Justice and Pirner’s vocal is stellar, but I really Iove that Grant’s drums are way up in the mix. Because Dave is country picking on Tele and Dan is chording around him, the mid-range isn’t swallowed up by guitar wash, so Young’s drums and Mueller’s bass have a chance to breathe. I like the reverby effects and the crowd noise towards the end of the song, it’s just a fun arrangement. Where most of Horse is Soul Asylum the rock and pop band, this is a nice peek into Soul Asylum the charming rock ‘n’ roll goofoffs.

That’s Soul Asylum with “Brand New Shine,” the first part the band working on the song in the studio and then obviously the second part the track itself. And look, we can talk about this album or that album, but Soul Asylum was Soul Asylum because of their live show. When old-timers speak reverently about the band’s classic 1986-90 period, it’s their performances that form the backbone of this belief system. I was lucky enough to see these guys twice in 1990 and I can confirm that the legend of live Soul Asylum is 100% true. They didn’t need a light show or smoke bombs or fire. They were fire. Four dudes playing stripped down, locked-in rock 'n' roll with crunchy guitar solos, singalong choruses, and a loose, swinging rhythm section.

The first time I saw the band was also the first time I saw Thelonious Monster, on November 16, 1990, at the Country Club in Reseda. I drove 7 hours south from Chico, a straight shot down I-5, right to the venue, and despite my exhaustion, both bands killed it. Frontman Dave Pirner was charismatic as hell, but the whole band had your classic midwestern likeability. Bob Forrest came out to sing “Free Fallin’” towards the end of Soul Asylum’s set and as I recall he forgot the words [laughs]. Oh, and why “Free Fallin’”? Because “it's a long day livin' in Reseda,” silly. About a month later I saw Soul Asylum again, this time upstaging the Pixies so thoroughly and so convincingly, Black Francis would've been better served playing Bossanova over the Warfield PA.

Soul Asylum, Cabooze Bar, Minneapolis, October 23, 1990. “Veil Of Tears” starts around 31:40.

That’s Soul Asylum with “Veil Of Tears” recorded live at the Cabooze Bar in Minneapolis on October 23, 1990. As you heard at the end there, the show was simulcast on KJ104, an FM station in the Twin Cities. But, it’s my understanding that KJJO and KJ104 were the same station. I bring this up because in the early days of the internet I used to trade tapes with other nerds and I’d see KJJO and KJ104 used interchangeably for what appeared to be identical sets and dates. It wasn’t until the web started filling up with stuff other than porn and conspiracy theories that I was able to suss this out. In one of these trading excursions I got this Cabooze show and it spent a lot of time in my car’s tape deck, though by this time my car was a black 1999 Honda Civic that if you knew me in Austin, you probably saw me driving this car. One of my favorite parts of playing that Cabooze show was at the very end, when that same announcer describes the experience of seeing Soul Asylum on a night when they brought their A game.

KJ104 Announcer

Take that, Abbie Hoffman! Hippie buffoon DOESN’T make the Pentagon levitate and white boomers are over here doing chest bumps. Soul Asylum actually makes the Cabooze audience levitate and they’re all, “OH, TURN THAT RACKET DOWN!!!”

Fine. I will.

Two weeks before this Cabooze performance, on October 10, 1990, Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy visited KJ104/KJJO for an interview and to play a few songs on acoustic guitar. This wasn’t unprecedented. I have acoustic sets from 1986 and 1988 and I’m sure there were many others. And while both men were at their best in the midst of a raging Soul Asylum performance, their acoustic sets brought a different energy to the table that’s worth exploring.

Dave Pirner & Dan Murphy – Never Really Been + Gullible’s Travels + Cars Medley
KJJO, Minneapolis, October 10, 1990

That was Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy at the KJJO Studios in Minneapolis . That was October 10, 1990. This was a strange period for Soul Asylum because though they were kicking ass live (as per usual) and though they gave A&M, if not their best record, then certainly a record for which they should be damn proud. There was one minor problem. Horse didn’t sell. So, the label dropped them, and to add injury to insult Pirner developed hearing issues. When you’re in a band called Loud Fast Rules, it’s not the Fast part that catches up with you. It’s the Loud. Breaking up was considered and I can see why. They’d been together for a decade, spent time on an indie, spent time on a major, it kinda sorta worked out, but not really. And now, if they couldn’t play loud, let alone fast, what was the point? It would no longer be Soul Asylum.

The band played a few scattered shows in ’91, but Dave and Dan were just as likely to play as an acoustic duo. Or, they’d have shows that started out with an acoustic set and then Karl and Grant would come out for the second set. It made sense. If Pirner was struggling with tinnitus or something similar, then not playing loud rock shows would help. They recorded some acoustic demos and played acoustic sets as a way to keep their name out there. And a funny thing happened on the way to the “Where Are They Now?” file. Columbia signed them, a milk carton video happened, and one day we looked up and someone said pointing, “Hey, isn’t that Soul Asylum playing for the Clintons?”

I’m sure my ambivalence toward the Soul Asylum catalog from this point forward is tied to Pirner’s hearing loss. If you’re a badass writer of rock songs, but can’t perform rock songs or you’ll go deaf, you’re probably gonna start writing songs on acoustic guitar and piano. And while that resulted in less reckless Soul Asylum material, as a middle-aged dude I empathize with Pirner’s decision a lot more than I did in my 20s and 30s. Anyway, a few of my favorite Dave and Dan acoustic numbers come from this lost period between Horse and Grave Dancers Union. Here’s an excerpt from one. 

Dave Pirner & Dan Murphy – In My Hour Of Darkness (1:20-2:07)
Top Note Theater (secret room at Cabaret Metro), Chicago, April 13-14, 1991 

From the Top Note Theater in Chicago in April 1991, that’s Dave Pirner singing the Clarence White verse from Gram Parsons’ “In My Hour Of Darkness.” Dan Murphy comes in on high harmony and then he kinda takes lead on the chorus with Pirner moving to low harmony. Again, this was 1991. These guys weren’t riding a sweet wave because that was still several years away. If anything, it shows that the incipient audience and incipient indie rock audience were in many cases the same audience.

Dave Pirner & Dan Murphy – Nice Guys + P-9

That’s Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy at the Top Note Theater in Chicago. They played two nights, April 13 and 14, 1991, and all of these performances were on one of those two nights. The first song of the two you just heard was “Nice Guys Don’t Get Paid” from And The Horse They Rode In On. And that was followed by “P-9,” which you can find on the Clam Dip & Other Delights EP from 1988. That song was written for and about union workers at a Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota. P-9 was the local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and they entered a protracted strike on August 17, 1985, due to dangerous working conditions, and a wage cut, and a wage freeze. It’s easy to see the villain in this song as the Hormel plant. “Is it just a paycheck that I'm fighting for?”

But, with the benefit of hindsight, Hormel is only the most obvious villain. Less obvious is the fact that the UFCW itself sold out Local P-9. In an August 2019 Minnesota Post article, Susan Marks writes: 

“Throughout the strike, the UFCW sided with Hormel management, eventually leading them to order Local P-9 to end the strike in June (1986). When Local P-9 refused, the UFCW suspended P-9 officers, forcing the local union into receivership as it was taken over by the parent union. The action essentially ended the strike, although it did not officially end for several more months.”
 --Susan Marks,
"The 1985 Hormel strike was one of Minnesota’s most contentious labor disputes," Minnesota Post, August 12, 2019

“You gave me nothing now you're taking it away.” It’s hard to not read that lyric as a critique of union leadership. Hormel hired scabs and the UFCW did nothing. Which means every member of Local P-9 was paying dues into a system that was actively undercutting them. Pirner sings, “There'd be enough to go around if I could just get around you” and the “you” in question could be Hormel, could be the UFCW, and could be in a broader sense capitalists, forever the worst part of capitalism.

Speaking of which, the deck was so stacked against this entire generation of bands, I’m glad that Soul Asylum got the golden ticket. Like I said, I’m not crazy about any of their records after Horse, but can we stop pretending like they weren’t as good as any band in America from roughly 1986-1990? And it wasn’t like they were suck-ass before ’86. Soul Asylum, like Local P-9, paid their fucking dues in a bunch of divey punk rock clubs and if they deserve to be criticized for some lesser, later efforts, they deserve to be praised for blazing a trail for Thelonious Monster, Uncle Tupelo, The Figgs, Slobberbone, and Grand Champeen.


That’s gonna do it for this week. As I said at the top of the show. you can become a member at the $5 or $20/month level by hitting that Buy Me a Coffee button at the top of the page or Support at the bottom. Please visit the Don’t Call It Nothing Facebook page and website, Like, comment, tell yo mama, and tell a friend.

Talk to ya next time when we go back to Mississippi for a little camping!