Saturday, May 24, 2008

Uncle Tupelo: An Early Glimpse

If I was identified with any particular band as a music critic back in the Midwest in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was Uncle Tupelo. It's been fascinating to watch as the story of their improbable rise and untimely demise thickens into myth, and how Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy have forged incredible careers for themselves out of that wreckage.

I still get a lot of questions about those times from the most unlikely sources, but it's only rarely that I feel compelled to write about those long-departed days. (I wrote enough as it is, much of it hungover, and it's only fair to let the Greg Kots of the world have their turn.)

This is one of those times, however. A couple weeks back, I caught wind that a bunch of very early video of Uncle Tupelo had gotten onto YouTube courtesy of a gentleman who goes by the moniker PantsElderly. Tupelo fans will want to check it out. (It'll kill the better part of the afternoon, especially if you also like Son Volt.)

Among the videos posted were two that were of particular interest to me. They were recorded back in May 1989 at a benefit concert at the Soulard Preservation Hall in St. Louis, MO. It was the very first time I saw Uncle Tupelo, and it has an odd back story that also involves Chicken Truck (who later became the Bottle Rockets).

The situation was as follows: After a long flirtation, I had just become the music critic for the Riverfront Times in November 1988. I was writing a lot about local bands, feeling my way through the scene in my most hectic semester of grad school at Washington University. (In addition to the column, I was teaching two English composition classes, finishing my poetry thesis, dramaturging Wash U's production of A Midsummer's Night's Dream and then wrestling my own first play -- Untangling Ava -- through its production at the university's Drama Studio.)

The first great band I saw in St. Louis was Chicken Truck, who played the 1989 New Year's Show at the in/famous Cicero's Basement Bar along with Rugburn. They tore the place up with blazing metallic versions of the songs on their legendary Rosetta Stone (the so-called "90 Minute Tape"), and they were the first band about whom I wrote a long feature in the RFT.

Chicken Truck had really just started gigging in St. Louis, and I think they were a little stunned by the attention. But I knew already that they were an amazingly original band. They played their own songs. (Believe me, it was rare in that era of STL rock. ) They had a vision, too, however warped. Songs on that original 90 minute tape became staples of the Bottle Rockets' subsequent discography: "Dead Dog Memories," " Get Down River," "Coffee Monkey," "Financing His Romance," "Perfect Far Away," "Waitin' on a Train" and a hefty amount of the first two records.

But little did I know, however, that by writing about Chicken Truck, I had stepped into a local rivalry of sorts. Uncle Tupelo had also just started busting out of their little cubbyhole in Belleville IL, and they were already gaining fierce partisans. Which sets up the Mississippi River Center benefit show.

Because I was still relatively new to the St. Louis music scene, I relied on people at the RFT to help me sort through it all. And the impression that they left me with was that Uncle Tupelo was a Grateful Dead cover band. (!) Which was, precisely, the last thing I wanted to be writing about.

So the benefit arrives and I head down to South St. Louis. Chicken Truck was third on the bill. Uncle Tupelo was last. I watched the Truck rip it up and headed to the bar. That's where I was accosted by Steve Scariano -- a St. Louis musician of some renown himself in subsequent years with the Love Experts and Prisonshake -- who was one of the band's early believers. (Did he work with Jeff Tweedy at Euclid Records yet? Not sure. Whatever.)

Anyway, Scariano tore into me. It was one of those finger in chest diatribes. In sum, the message was pretty simple: I was a total dumb ass for writing about Chicken Truck and ignoring Uncle Tupelo. I remember feebly protesting. Why should I write about a Dead cover band? (And let me say here that I think Steve did very much the right thing. So much so that I started engaging in similar theatrics almost immediately. Though I have to give myself a bit of a mulligan. In St. Louis circa 1989, it would have made perfect sense for a Dead tribute band to have headlined a benefit like this.)

So anyway, I stayed. And you can see some of what I saw in this video, and another one here.

It's really rare, I think, that you can relive such a seminal moment in one's own career. I've told this story like, 300 times (including to Kot in his Wilco book) and to be able to actually watch what set me off into evangelizing for this band to the point of ridicule is pretty amazing.

All the legendary things are here: Shambling, earnest and yet incredibly intense stage presence. A brilliant, full-formed original song ("Graveyard Shift") and a blistering rethink of an already savage Creedence song. Jay's skull and crossbones guitar strap. Jeff's mama with a bowl-style haircut. And check out the 1:27 mark in the "Fortunate Son" video, where Mike Heidorn tosses up one drum stick, then another. Yikes.

It was all there already pretty much. I'm really happy that I saw it. And eventually Tupelo and the Truck became fast friends, to the extent that lead Trucker Brian Henneman ended up as Tupelo's guitar tech/de facto encore guitarist. But those are tales for another day.

1 comment:

bartlett said...

Loved reading the Riverfront Times piece. And that CCR cover is something else. More Tweedy/Farrar stories please.