Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Q & A About Burn Your Bookes

Taffety Punk Theatre Company's production of my play, Burn Your Bookes, opens at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington, D.C. on Friday, April 30. I'll be blogging about various aspects of it here until opening night. Info/tix at

As Taffety Punk put together the press push for Burn Your Bookes, we decided on some video (stay tuned) and on a quick Q & A with the playwright that gets people up to speed on alchemy, why the play is a "triptych," and also introduces some of the main characters in the play, including Edward Kelley and his stepdaughter, Elizabeth Jane Weston (right).

I decided to share the Q & A with the wider Balkans via Bohemia audience. Want me to delve deeper into any questions? Leave a comment and 'll do so in a future post.

Why is alchemy so difficult to understand today?

The English historian Charles Nicholl writes that “Like all occult systems, alchemy employs a language of symbolism and subterfuge. You enter a linguistic labyrinth full of cross-references and false trails. Its strange and wonderful images -- its green lions and red kings, its nigredos and albedos, its lactating virgins and cannibalistic couplings -- have a multiplicity of interpretations and counter-interpretations.”

The simpler answer is that alchemists wanted it that way. In this case, knowledge really was power. If everyone knows how to do what you do, then why are queens and emperors going to employ you?

Another problem is that you had to get results. And though alchemy was a forerunner of modern science, its methods and approach to knowledge were often at odds with what we now call the “scientific method.” Modern science values transparency, clear writing, and a gradual approach to knowing via hypotheses and experiments. Alchemy was murky, metaphorical and often attempted to work backward from grand cosmological schemes.

Why is Burn Your Bookes a triptych?

The information that we have about Edward Kelley is so contradictory that it is almost impossible to fashion a clear and straightforward narrative.

We know almost nothing about Kelley before 1582 (when he was 27 years old) except for wild legends about necromancy, forgery and criminal acts. Then he steps into the home of John Dee – one of the great English intellectuals of the Renaissance – and we have six years of the minutest detail about him: visions he saw in a scrying glass, drunken escapades, fights with his wife, his strange relationship with Dee, and Dee’s report that he did indeed appear to “manufacture” gold.

Then Kelley breaks with Dee in 1588 and the record of him becomes more obscure again. We know he was made a knight in Emperor Rudolph II’s court. He was thrown in jail – not for alchemical fraud, but rather to prevent him from leaving Bohemia to return to England. He’s released to find himself impoverished, and is eventually thrown in jail for debt and dies in prison. Even his death is murky. There are tales of an escape attempt, and even suicide.

The play is structured in such a way as to capture those contradictions of Kelley’s life and character. Each of the plays three acts informs the other two acts, and informs against them too.

The play argues that Kelley was not a charlatan. If not, how did he get such a bad reputation?

Three main reasons. The first was the growing notion – reinforced even in contemporary plays such as Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610) – that alchemy equaled fraud. Kelley was by far the most famous English alchemist; thus, he was seen as the biggest fraud.

The second reason was the posthumous publication in 1659 of John Dee’s extraordinarily detailed diaries of his “spiritual actions” (i.e., crystal gazing) with Kelley as A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits. The diaries not only revealed that Dee and Kelley talked with spirits and were given an “Enochian language” by angels, but also that Dee and Kelley drew up and acted upon a compact to share all things in common, even their wives. It’d be scandalous today; think about the reaction in 1659.

A third reason that Kelley has continued to have a bad reputation is modern scholarship on John Dee, which steadfastly denigrates Kelley to reestablish Dee’s reputation as one of the great – and most interesting intellects – of the Renaissance. The project of restoring Dee was long overdue and has produced rich and wonderful scholarship. But many of the scholars who’ve embarked upon it have cut through the knotty complexities of the Kelley/Dee relationship by deriding Kelley, eliding Kelley, or just plain ignoring him.

Who was Elizabeth Jane Weston?

Part of my inspiration to write the play was to address the role of the women in the tale of Kelley’s life. What did Kelley’s wife (Joan Kelley) and Dee’s wife (Jane Dee) make of this strange episode of “cross-matching” that their husbands concocted?

But as I researched and wrote the play, the story of Kelley’s stepdaughter, Elizabeth Jane Weston, intrigued me. She was a teenager when Kelley died, but her story sheds a great deal of light on what we know about his later years. We know that he employed a tutor to teach her Latin. We also know that around the time of his death, she began writing poems in Latin. Many of them were poems to the Emperor or other important figures in Prague, presenting herself as a poor English girl in Bohemia seeking redress for the injustice done to her family.

A woman writing Latin verse in 1602 was well past novelty. Westonia (as she styled herself) was a sensation among the network of Latin-speaking poets and writers across Europe. (One even sent her a laurel wreath.) We also know she had contact with other prominent alchemists, including Oswald Croll. (The Folger Shakespeare Library has a copy of her first book, called Poemata.)

Another interesting thing about Westonia is that her connection to Kelley was largely hidden from the time of death until the 20th century, even though she mentions Kelley in a poem to the emperor in her first book. Two Czech scholars rediscovered the connection in the 1920s, but English-speaking researchers did not pick up on it until the 1970s. Considering the continuous interest in Kelley from the time of his death to the present, this hidden relationship suddenly bursting forth into view in our own era after three centuries proved too tantalizing to resist dramatizing.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Burn Your Bookes Tickets on Sale!!!

I'm happy to announce that tickets are now on sale for Taffety Punk Theatre Company's production of my play, Burn Your Bookes. And, yes, that is a nifty press photo for the production!

We've been hyping it as "the sex, drugs and baroque 'n' roll behind Edward Kelley's pursuit of the Philosopher's Stone," but it's also a play about how we know the world and the intersection of science and poetry with power.

The play opens Friday, April 30 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington DC. (545 7th Street, SE -- it's two blocks from Eastern Market Metro on the Orange & Blue lines.)

Due to demand for tickets from press and Taffety Punk donors (opening night is doubling as press night), April 30 is already sold out. Before we even really put tickets on sale.

But tickets for the rest of the run -- including two shows on Saturday, May 1 -- are on sale now right here at our website.

As always with Taffety Punk shows, all tickets are a low low low $10. We want you to come and still have cash for a couple of beers to chew over what you saw after the show.

We are also offering two "pay what you can" preview shows on Wednesday April 28 and Thursday April 29 at 7:30. (No advance sales for these shows.)

More info about the play and a press release here.

The show closes Saturday night, May 22.

I'll also be blogging about various aspects of the play right here at Balkans via Bohemia. But I will not be blogging or Twittering tech week. :)

If you're interested in helping out the playwright, here are three things you can do:

1) Please come! And come early in the run!

2) Let other people you think might like a play about alchemy know about the show.

3) If you do come and do like it, repeat #2. Word of mouth is key. Blogging welcome!

(Image: Daniel Flint as Edward Kelley and Joel D. Santner as Muller in Burn Your Bookes.)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Last Call for Return of the Byrne

Just a quick post to thank everyone who came out on Thursday night in St. Louis. Music fans in Mound City had a wide variety of choices -- including Willie Nelson -- but we managed to attract a pretty nice crowd that plunked down $10 to help Taffety Punk Theatre Company and hear some amazing new music by Leadville and Magic City and astonishingly rare reunions by Stillwater and Free Dirt. And oh yeah... Brian Henneman and Mark Ortmann showed up with the Diesel Island posse to play some songs -- and the evening kicked off with a set by a Chris King-led Three Fried Chamber Players.

I'll update this post if some of the music and photos become available. But I want to express my immense gratitude to the folks who played and the folks who came to listen. I caught up with a lot of folks over the five hours (It was terrific to see former RFT colleague Mike DeFillippo, longtime St. Louis music scenesters Rick Wood and Jarrett Tindall, Adam Reichmann from Nadine and Robert Griffin from Prisonshake), and made a couple new pals as well. (I should also thank old friend Fred Friction for hosting on his KDHX show, "Fishin' With Dynamite.")

And a big shout out to Kevin Belford -- who designed our marvelous poster. Have you checked out his book, Devil at the Confluence? You should.

Won't do reviews or anything, but some quick impressions, in roughly the order of appearance:

Three Fried Chamber Players: I really hope that Chris King and the rest of this gang -- Tim McAvin on drums, Josh Weinstein on bass, Adam Long on cello, Dave Melson on lead guitar and mandolin and Heidi Dean (who did not appear due to family bereavement) -- keep on doing this. The subtle energy of this acoustic lineup truly flatters Chris' songs.

Stillwater: Man, they rocked. It was also a reminder of how much of the energy and melody of Chris Grabau's present work as the ringleader of Magnolia Summer was present at the beginning of his songwriting career. Throw in a stinging version of the early classic "Handlebar" and a Guided by Voices cover and you had Grabau and John "Obie" O'Brien and Mike Rose provide one amazing 30 minutes.

Free Dirt: Standing on the stage as I was about to introduce them, it was like 1998 or something. Tom Buescher and Greg Vernon cracking wise. (Vernon played with a cast on his left arm, by the way!) Dave Harris exuding a sheer infectious delight in getting ready to play music. Dan Niewohner absent from the stage 'til just before they were ready to begin. The start of the set was a little like a prize fight -- the four players feeling each other out a bit. But about two songs in, the band just locked in with that fierce and frictive intensity that always made them one of my favorite bands. Just wonderful.

Brian Henneman and Mark Ortmann: They came -- with fellow Diesel Island members John Horton and Kip Loui. They saw. They conquered with a couple sharp Neil Young covers and a smashmouth version of the Premiers' "Farmer John." The squall of guitars was staggering.

Magic City: They were everything that their Facebook tunes promised -- and more. The combination of theatrics, power and dark soulfulness in the sinews of every song portends really big things from this band. The version of "Animal Spirits" had me transfixed. See them.

Leadville: Another band whose promise on MP3 was fulfilled and underscored live, where the clean lines of many of the recorded versions is roughed up considerably. Tom Buescher is one amazing songwriter!

Last note: Door prizes are a key to any successful event! Again, immense thanks to everyone!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mihajlo Mihajlov (1934-2010)

There's sad news from Belgrade tonight: Author and dissident Mihajlo Mijhajlov is dead at the age of 76.

I got to know Mihajlov a few years ago on a visit to Belgrade. Other than forcing Russian horseradish vodka on me, he was a wonderful host.

His book, Moscow Summer, was an instant sensation. It holds up terrifically even today. It also set him on a collision course with the Yugoslav establishment.

I wrote a profile of Mihajlov for The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2007. It's behind a paywall, but I've cut and pasted it below for the interested parties who read this blog:

* * * * *

The Path of Most Resistance

Mihajlo Mihajlov rose to international prominence as a dissident in Yugoslavia in the 1960s and 1970s, but Russia and its literature remain at the heart of the 73-year-old thinker's life and work.

"He sees himself as a Russian," says Myron Kolatch, editor of The New Leader, an influential labor magazine that helped make Mr. Mihajlov famous. "He is thoroughly embedded in Russian culture."

That Russophilia extends to hospitality. On a recent visit here, Mr. Mihajlov served homemade horseradish vodka (to be downed in one fiery gulp) and puffed contentedly on stalinki, small, filterless cigarettes from Herzegovina, which were, he says, the preferred tobacco of Stalin. When I confessed that I don't speak Russian, Mr. Mihajlov and his other guests, all Russian speakers, pointedly wondered aloud why I had chosen to learn Serbian instead.

Mr. Mihajlov's parents emigrated after the Russian Revolution, eventually settling in Belgrade. He grew up speaking Russian fluently.

Russia also helped drive him into the role of dissident. In late 1964, as a junior professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of Zagreb's campus in the Croatian city of Zadar, Mr. Mihajlov wrote a three-part travelogue for the Yugoslav magazine Delo about his trip to the Soviet Union that summer.

The first part — a slyly acidic survey of the Soviet literary scene — was published in January 1965 without incident. But the second part, published the following month, sparked an indignant protest from the Soviet Union's ambassador to Yugoslavia. The reason? Mr. Mihajlov's startling assertion that "the first 'death camps' were not founded by the Germans, but by the Soviets."

At that time, President Josip Broz Tito was steering his nonaligned Communist country between East and West during the cold war. He took a stern line against Mr. Mihajlov, confiscating the magazine and attacking him by name in a speech. The professor was arrested and tried for "slandering a foreign state" and on other charges. He was found guilty and sentenced to nine months in prison.

In an e-mail message after his visit to Washington, Mr. Mihajlov recalls himself as a "young and impudent man" who inadvertently published the pieces at a key moment in Soviet politics — the sudden end of the thaw begun by Premier Nikita Khrushchev. "In my book, I wrote very positively about Khrushchev's 'liberalization.' But it so happened that Khrushchev was, in October 1964, overthrown by a triumvirate — [Leonid] Brezhnev, [Aleksey] Kosygin, and [Nikolai] Podgorny — who immediately started "restalinization." Of course, I could not know that this would happen, and that my text would provoke such a political storm."

As Mr. Mihajlov pondered his imminent loss of freedom, his work took a different path, making its way into the Western press. His travelogue appeared in The New Leader in March 1965. It was published as a book, Moscow Summer, by Farrar, Straus & Giroux that same year.

The writer's case became an instant cause célèbre. Editorials were written. Literary figures, including the playwright Arthur Miller, came to his defense. In June 1965, the Yugoslav government suspended his sentence.

But that first brush with the law — which cost him his job and prevented him from formally obtaining his Ph.D. — "spiritually liberated" him, he says. He was arrested again, in 1966, for attempting to start an independent magazine, and sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

Mr. Mihajlov served that full sentence and was imprisoned again, in 1974, after yet another personal attack by Tito. Once again his case became a rallying cry. The trial and his prison hunger strikes received worldwide coverage. The Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov nominated Mr. Mihajlov for the Nobel Peace Prize. His work was cited by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.

Tito's personal interest in Mr. Mihajlov had one unexpected effect. "The fact that I was attacked personally by President Tito, and then arrested after his attack on me, protected me through almost seven years of prison," the scholar writes in response to an e-mailed question. "If I had been arrested on the initiative of the local secret police, I would for sure have been severely beaten and maybe tortured. But who could dare to do this with 'Tito's prisoner?' … So, paradoxically, his attacks on me were also my best protection."

Much of Mr. Mihajlov's later work is concerned with spirituality, a faith reinforced by his spells in prison. In choosing that path, he has followed a long line of 20th-century dissidents, including Solzhenitsyn and the Polish poet Aleksander Wat.

While in prison, Mr. Mihajlov wrote a book of aphorisms called Unscientific Thoughts — as yet unpublished in English — that he smuggled out in letters to his family. "The important thing is not to build heaven on earth, but to discover it," he wrote. "Heaven already exists and doesn't need our help."

In late 1977, quite unexpectedly, Mr. Mihajlov was released. The Yugoslav authorities allowed him to emigrate in May 1978. He came here to Washington, where his sister lives, and was pressed into a lecture tour that took him to colleges all over the United States. On his recent visit, after a few hours of vodka, cigarettes, and talk, I asked him what first impressions of America he had gleaned from that tour.

"It all looked the same," he said with a sigh, before growing silent.

Mr. Mihajlov was more expansive in a later message, writing that "I traveled for almost two months from university to university, visiting about 30 states. Unfortunately, I did not see too much, in fact, only airports, hotels, university halls, and some professors' houses."

His nomadic life continued after the lecture tour. Banned from Yugoslavia, he took a string of visiting professorships through the late 1970s and early 80s, including stints at the University of Virginia, Ohio State University, and the University of Glasgow. He also worked for a time as an analyst for Radio Free Europe and held a fellowship at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

After Tito died, in 1980, Mr. Mihajlov's opinions on Yugoslavia's future were highly sought after. Already the former dissident had struck a pessimistic — and prescient — note, telling Newsweek in 1978 that there would be a "bloodbath" after the longtime leader's death.

Looking back, Mr. Mihajlov writes that "it was natural to come to the conclusion that after the departure of Tito, the illness of nationalism would blow up if democratization did not occur. Of course, I am not a prophet like Nostradamus; I could not describe precisely what the ethnic 'bloodbath' would be like. But it was logical [to think] that this would occur just from an observation of social development."

In essays and op-ed essays published during Yugoslavia's collapse, Mr. Mihajlov was an outspoken voice against nationalism. In 2001, a year after the final collapse of the nationalist Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's rule, he moved back to Belgrade.

Today Mr. Mihajlov holds a unique position in Serbia: a prominent former dissident to both Titoism and nationalism.

His sister Marija Ivusic says his ability to influence public debate in Serbia was one reason that he moved home. "Misha is a celebrity in Yugoslavia," she says.

In newspapers and on radio and television there, Mr. Mihajlov continues to write and speak about Russia and the role of spirituality in a global political renewal. "To put it briefly," he wrote in one recent essay, "it is impossible to fight pseudoreligiosity with nonreligiosity. Against an evil spirit, only true spirit can fight successfully, not the lack of spirit which is flooding the present-day world."

Mr. Mihajlov takes a modest view of what he and other Yugoslav dissidents accomplished. "I do not think that dissidents seriously affected the situation in Communist countries, especially in Yugoslavia," he writes. "Of course, it was important that they exist, but they did not overthrow one-party dictatorship. Western governments were more influential in such matters."

But Mr. Kolatch, the labor-magazine editor, says Mr. Mihajlov has, in fact, "made a real contribution to how the world has been shaped. He was one of many dissidents to do so. He is, in his mind, still doing that."

(Photo of a young Mihajlo Mihajlov at the Pushkin Statue in Moscow, about the time he wrote his classic literary travel diary, Moscow Summer.)

The Bands @ Return of the Byrne: Stillwater

Return of the Byrne: A St. Louis Fundraiser for Burn Your Bookes at the Schalfly Tap Room is only a few days away. (Thursday, March 11 at 7 p.m.)

In the lead up to the gig, we'll have a look at the bands who'll be playing
. Today it's Stillwater.

* * * * *

Fuck you, Cameron Crowe.

When you decided to swipe the name Stillwater for the band that your younger self follows in Almost Famous, you relegated one of the best St. Louis bands of the mid-1990s to wander in the white noise of the interwebs.

But I come today to resurrect St. Louis' Stillwater in collective memory, if only for a brief moment, before that white noise of the interwebs and Hollywood washes over it again. Let's call it a brief "Howdy" to the universe...

All three members of Stillwater are still making music. Guitarist/vocalist/principal songwriter Chris Grabau has fronted the critically acclaimed Magnolia Summer through three terrific albums -- Levers and Pulleys, From Driveways' Lost View and Lines from the Frame. (He also picked up a long-overdue nod as "Best Songwriter" in the 2009 Riverfront Times music poll.) Bassist John "Obie" O'Brien plays out with the Jenny Kavanaugh Band. Drummer Mike Rose has the sticks in Leadville -- which will also play at Return of the Byrne.

But the music they made as Stillwater deserves remembering. Their two CDs -- Full Throttle Day and State Line -- featured a combination of ringing clarity and sonic muscularity that was novel in St. Louis alt-country circles. And in live performance, Stillwater could tear it up.

What they've done since argues that Stillwater was a great launching pad for its trio of members. But the thing that stands out for me personally with Stillwater is the good feeling that the band induces in me even to this day. The overwhelming power of the band's music was always juxtaposed with a lyrical vulnerability and fragility. There's a tenderness to the band that's hard to articulate, and with which I identified as a writer and a fan.

The mid-1990s were in some ways a difficult time at Richard Byrne Inc. Often, when I think back to that era, I remember a lot of frustration with my own life and creative pursuits. I remember pointless feuds and wasted energies. The great times I had in that era were also suffused with sadness, even self-pity. I felt exploited where I worked (wait, I was exploited where I worked), blocked as a creative writer, and in some ways spinning my wheels.

But when I put on State Line this past weekend and let it wash over me as I wrote, the disc brought back all the wonders of that era and the happiness I felt at many moments. I remembered so clearly standing in bright sunshine with a microbrew at some outdoor festival or another, nodding along to "Porchlight" or "Legacy Song." Watching people even drunker than I was reel along to "Howdy." Calling out for "Handlebar" until Grabau would cave.

But more than that, when I think about Stillwater I remember the great friendship I had with Chris, Obie and Mike. The pranks, the talk of great plans, and the knowledge that even if music couldn't always change your life, it was there to console, cajole and make you smile.

The exercise of previewing the bands for Return of the Byrne has reminded me that whatever I thought or still think about myself in that era, or how much I regret some of my own failings back then, I had really wonderful friends and heard some really wonderful music. And even helped some of it along in my way.

I am delighted that Stillwater is reforming for this gig. And that along with all the other bands, we're going to put ourselves in a very happy place on Thursday night at the Schlafly Tap Room.

(Stillwater promo shot, 1995ish? From left: Mike Rose, Chris Grabau, John "Obie" O'Brien)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Bands @ Return of the Byrne: Brian Henneman and Mark Ortmann

Return of the Byrne: A St. Louis Fundraiser for Burn Your Bookes at the Schalfly Tap Room is only a few days away. (Thursday, March 11 at 7 p.m.)

In the lead up to the gig, we'll have a look at the bands who'll be playing
. Today it's our Special Guests Brian Henneman and Mark Ortmann.

* * * * *

In the life-changing moments department, few dates for me will rival New Year's Eve 1988.

As usual with such things, it was an accident. I had just become the music writer at The Riverfront Times a month or so before. Pissed off an advertiser with my first column: a fact made clear to me by one of the associate publishers at the office holiday party.

As a graduate student on the edge of my bank account, I was enjoying the extra cash. But I was really worried about what I was going to do to fill a column on the local music scene every freaking week. The town seemed completely dead on the surface, with only a few bright spots here and there. I was particularly interested in bands that were playing their own songs. That's the real fuel of a music scene.

Club owners quickly had the new columnist in town on their radar. And that New Year's Eve, I was planning to head downtown to a swanky new nightclub and dance the night away. Maybe score a column out of that.

The weather turned incredibly shitty as darkness fell. The St. Louis mix of snow/freezing rain that makes driving a risky business, let alone trying to score a taxi. My girlfriend at the time and I decided to go out but stay much close to University City. Cicero's Basement Bar -- a place I'd enjoyed since I'd arrived in town 18 months earlier -- was hosting a New Year's Eve party with local scenesters Rugburn. That was the ticket.

As we descended the stairs into the basement bar, the opening band was just starting to crank up. They literally blew my head off with these loud, brazen (and most important, self-penned) country songs, as if Neil Young had made love to Lynyrd Skynyrd and to David Allen Coe in a field of stone and glass.

It was love at first sight. It was Chicken Truck. And suddenly the idea of doing a weekly music column in St. Louis seemed much more promising. I can't say for sure that I never would have found Chicken Truck and through them Uncle Tupelo and so on and so forth. But I know for a fact the particular and fortuitous crappy weather and change of plans that night definitely accelerated the process.

Ninety percent of the people reading this know at least some of the story after that point. Three of the members of that band -- Brian Henneman (guitar/vocals) and Mark Ortmann (drums) and Tom Parr (guitar) went on to form the Bottle Rockets after Chicken Truck called it a day. And that band has had incredible critical success not only against the odds of launching a band of high songwriting and performative chops in the sea of crap that is popular music, but also in navigating a seemingly never ending obstacle course of personnel changes (including a few new guitarists -- and a period as a trio -- and a few new bassists), bad luck, bad labels and bad manners.

The good thing is that the Bottle Rockets story has turned out just fine. The Bottle Rockets are with the good people at Bloodshot Records and are touring behind a terrific new record called Lean Forward.

But in the lead up to Return of the Byrne, I don't want to tell an oft-told story. I want to delve back a bit into the Chicken Truck story, just to point out how important that band was to the entire 90s wave of the alt-country genre.

The other day, as I was rummaging around in my parents' basement for door prizes for the benefit, I happened across the typewritten lyric sheet for Chicken Truck's legendary 90 Minute Tape.

The 90 Minute Tape is what academics call an "Ur-Text." So many good things sprang from those 30 songs, including a good number of Bottle Rockets songs which Brian eventually reworked: "Rural Route," "Every Kinda Everything," Dead Dog Memories," "I Got What I Wanted (But I Lost What I Had)," "Young Lovers in Town," "Gas Girl," "Lonely Cowboy," "Waiting on a Train," "Perfect Far Away," and "Get Down."

Below the list of songs and their times are some typewritten notes on the recording, which I reproduce here:

Brian Henneman: Vocals, Fender Esquire, Gibson EH-150, Guild D-35
Bob Parr: Vocals, Fender Telecaster Bass, Hohner Harmonics
Tom Parr: Gretsch Tennessean, Guild D-25
Mark Ortmann: Pearl Drums (Because he wants the best!)

Recorded by Chicken Truck on a TASCAM Porta-One cassette recorder, from January 9, 1986 through November 5, 1986. (Behind the green door!)

The 90 Minute Tape isn't only important as a treasure trove of songs later repurposed to great effect by one of the best American bands of the last 25 years. The versions on the tape are integral works of art in themselves.

But for me, the tape is important because it represented the emergence of a major American songwriter. With the occasional lyrical assist from fifth Trucker/Rocket Scott Taylor (and a few songs by other band members), Brian Henneman had the desire and the talent to renovate the American country song from its moribund state in 1986.

You can't listen to "Young Lovers in Town" or "Perfect Far Away" on the 90 Minute Tape and not be blown away by the simplicity, the word play, and the genuine emotion married to an astonishing tunefulness. The shock of that recognition is why people get into writing about music.

Past all the many moments and memories I have had with Brian and Mark -- the Festus Chainsaw Massacres and watching them open for John Fogerty and the countless other journeys -- I go back to that first New Year's Eve and the first time Mark handed me the 90 Minute Tape. Brian's songwriting has had an incredible and continuing influence on the genre.

I am honored and delighted that they'll play at Return of the Byrne. And for Bottle Rocket completists, I can promise a door prize from the 90 Minute Tape era will be up for grabs. Hint in the image above. And a couple other awesome collector's prizes as well.

(Image: Chicken Truck, "Drag My Butt/Every Kinda Everything" 45 single; Rural Route Records.)

The Bands @ Return of the Byrne: Leadville

Return of the Byrne: A St. Louis Fundraiser for Burn Your Bookes at the Schalfly Tap Room is only a few days away. (Thursday, March 11 at 7 p.m.)

In the lead up to the gig, we'll have a look at the bands who'll be playing
. Today it's Leadville.

* * * * *

"Don't try too hard, son/ You look dumb." (Leadville, "Shittown")

Leadville plays that good 'ol fashioned alt-country with intensity and panache. That's to be expected when you're essentially a Lou alt-country supergroup: Tom Buescher (Free Dirt/Fran) -- vocals/guitar; Larry Bulawsky (Magic City) -- guitar; Will Horton (Phonocaptors) vocals/bass; Michael Rose (Stillwater) drums.

The band released their first and only record, Time Kills, last year and garnered terrific reviews from local media and a nomination as "Best Americana Band" in The Riverfront Times' annual music poll.

The raves and nomination are well-deserved. I'm spending a lot of time with Time Kills in the run-up to Return of the Byrne: The weepy wonder of "On Your Own," the raggedy fizzy handclap country of the opening track, "Wheels," the smash and grab "Shittown" (quoted above) and a powerful holdover from Free Dirt "Pretty Songs."

The cool thing about Tom Buescher's songwriting here and in Free Dirt is its emotional honesty. Fran? Well, as one could tell from that band's essaying my own drunken behavior at state fairs in a song, the Fran always had its own thing going on that put a premium on absurdist humor.

But I digress. What I mean by "emotional honesty" is simple: There are few songwriters who tackle what used to be called the "honkytonk" lifestyle the way that Buescher does, with self-awareness, humor and absolute candor. These days, honkytonk tends to mean a bunch of clean and comped-out (and compromised) bullshit that are fucking line dance fodder. Buescher takes the honkytonk back to its true roots.

You can hear a couple tracks, including "On Your Own," "Wheels" and "Got Your Number" on Leadville's MySpace page. I'm very excited to hear them played out live!

I e-mailed a couple of questions to Buescher and Rose about the band a few days ago. Here's what they say:

Q: How did Leadville form? How is it a continuation/disconnect from what you've done before with Free Dirt, Fran and Stillwater?

Buescher: I spent a year in England from 2000 to 2001. This kind of took the air out of the Fran band. So I was bandless and bored in 2002. I ran into Will Horton, ex-Phonocaptor bassist, and we hatched a plan for a band. Mike Rose was available and interested, so we put the three of us into a band. Larry joined up in a few years ago, and expanded the sonic landscape of the band in a huge way. To me, Larry really helped Leadville turn the corner. I think we are a much better band with him. We do some versions of Free Dirt and Fran songs that I wrote, but these have been re-tooled in tempo, feel, and sometimes structure. They are now Leadville versions.

Leadville is an evolution of styles for me. Fran and Free Dirt were a sum of the members, as both were filled with songwriters and the set list was a near even split of songwriting styles. Leadville is a Buescher songwriting setlist.

Every band change has been a transformation for me. Free Dirt, Fran, and Leadville were complete line up changes. Playing with different people was critical to my growth as a song writer and player. Fran was a dramatic departure from Free Dirt, and Leadville is a similar departure from Fran. I loved playing in all of them, and I share a special relationship with all the people I've played with over the years. There are bits and pieces of all of these people in the songs I write today.

Rose: I was getting itchy and called Tom about forming a group, and Will Horton (of the original Phonocaptors) asked Tom about forming a group around the same time. It was weird because I moved shortly after calling Tom, and my phone number only forwarded for a couple weeks. Tom called back to say he was interested on one of the last days that my phone number was forwarded (and my new number was unlisted).

Q: What's it like playing music in the Midwest at this particular moment? The whole music industry seems to have undergone a sea change since I was writing music criticism: Much of that traditional infrastructure of the music industry has disappeared. Bands get signed off a blog or an mp3 or two. And yet there still seems to be some demand for live music and entertainment. Rock clubs haven't disappeared. What's in it for bands these days -- aside from simply wanting to make music? (Which for alot of people, is quite enough thanks...)

We play for the sake of playing now. We've all got kids now, and priorities have shifted. In the past, we would have been pleased with a 6 week stint in an old van, but not so much anymore. I have become existential about music as a business these days. The excitement of a new song or a well done show is my reward.

Rose: While we're serious about the music, Leadville is pursued at a slower pace than Stillwater (and probably Free Dirt). So if we miss practice once in a while and meet at a bar instead, its cool. There is less of a rock n' roll agenda. It's about writing good songs and playing well, but it isn't as consuming as my earlier band.

The barriers to entry into the music business have lowered from their already low status. Recordings have gotten better, and the amount of people who will pay for an original work has decreased. One thing that hasn't changed is that people who are in music to make money are in music for the wrong reasons. I think for bands the 'joy' is being able to express yourself, and express what you love.

(Leadville from left to right: Mike Rose, Larry Bulawsky, Will Horton and Tom Buescher.)

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Bands @ Return of the Byrne: Three Fried Chamber Players

Return of the Byrne: A St. Louis Fundraiser for Burn Your Bookes at the Schalfly Tap Room is only a few days away. (Thursday, March 11 at 7 p.m.)

In the lead up to the gig, we'll have a look at the bands who'll be playing
. Today it's Three Fried Chamber Players. (And see update below for rectification of vital omission of Roy Kasten...)

* * * * *
At the risk of being immodest, I'm going to say that Washington University in St. Louis did a really good thing for the local music scene in the late 1980s when it plucked out a couple of applications to its English department and Writing program.

Yes, I was in that group of Wash. U students. Lured by the chance to study with Howard Nemerov, Don Finkel and (the criminally underrated) John Morris. Ended up running away to join the circus that was the Performing Arts Department and winning the first A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival with my first play, Untangling Ava. And moonlighting with The Riverfront Times as a music writer. (And now Don Finkel's son Tom Finkel edits RFT...)

Like I say, immodesty reigns here. I think I had a positive impact overall -- at least in St. Louis' music scene. In a John the Baptist way. Preaching hellfire and brimstone and alt country. Splashing water 'pon the believers. The Jagermeister and beer-sticky sneakers era.

But a couple other Wash U Englishers of my era have also cast big shadows. For instance, Theresa Everline was in Duncker Hall in that era, and eventually became one of the sharpest writers and editors at the RFT before embarking on a wide-ranging freelance career.

Two others have left even bigger footprints in the Lou itself. Dan Durcholz is one of the city's most successful rock writers. After cutting his teeth at The Riverfront Times, Dan's gone on to freelance at pretty much any rock publication and major newspaper that's worth taking seriously (Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Billboard, St. Louis Post-Dispatch) and has a radio gig on KMOX-AM. He's also co-written a book on Neil Young -- Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History -- which will hit stores in mid-May and which you can pre-order from Amazon here. (Dan was also kind enough to interview me about Return of the Byrne the other day in STL.Today.)

Which brings us to the Wash U English student who's left the biggest footprint on the Lou: Chris King. He's done so musically, yes, with bands including Enormous Richard, Eleanor Roosevelt, Three Fried Men -- and the amazing Poetry Scores project. (Next score: New Missouri Poet Laureate David Clewell.)

But Chris' influence ranges wider and deeper than even the deep waters of St. Louis music. He is of course the editor of The St. Louis American -- which afflicts the politically comfortable and powerful leaders of the city and also garners awards by the armful. And his blog, Confluence City, is a good a guide to the artistic pulse of the city as you'll get from a single blog.

More important, Chris has made a home in St. Louis and been an incredibly positive force in the city's cultural and political life. If anyone comes to mind when I think of Chris, it's the legendary late 19th and early 20th Century St. Louis editor William Marion Reedy. As a journalist and talent scout in his magazine, The Mirror, Reedy kept Mound City at the forefront of the nation's cultural scene -- writing sharp political analysis as he was discovering and/or nurturing literary talent including Theodore Dreiser, Ezra Pound, Vachel Lindsay, Amy Lowell, Edgar Lee Masters, Zoe Akins and Sara Teasdale.

Chris straddles the same worlds of politics and culture with Reedyesque vigor, wit and brilliance. So I was incredible honored that he agreed to organize a set for Return of the Byrne under the name "Three Fried Chamber Players" -- recruiting the amazing Heidi Dean (vocals/guitar); Tim McAvin (percussion) drum ; Josh Weinstein (double bass); Adam Long, (cello); and Dave Melson, (mandolin) to open the benefit at 7 p.m. sharp.

Chris sent along an e-mail (below) that links up this ad hoc combo with his past endeavors and gives you a bit of a preview. He's right that we've gotten pretty tight via social media the past year or so. It's going to be wonderful to see (and hear) this latest sonic experiment!

Chris writes:

I have been back in touch with Richard Byrne over the past year, thanks to social media.

We knew each other through multiple connections when he lived in St Louis - we were both Wash U grad students who became RFT reporters when Ray Hartmann owned the paper - but I've actually come to feel closer to Richard by following his much more recent work as a writer and reader.

I really loved the production Taffety Punk Theatre did of one act of his new play, Burn Your Bookes, when he posted it on social media; and when he said he was coming to St Louis to stage a benefit band show for the production, I really wanted to contribute.

Richard knew my music from my first band, Enormous Richard, which was getting its start when he was migrating from the RFT music critic to its media critic. I have done a few things with music since those days, but had nothing going when this opportunity arose, so I decided to put something together.

My most recent working band was Three Fried Men, so I tried to revive that, but when our most recent electric guitar wasn't available and we ended up with an all-acoustic lineup, I decided to change the name to Three Fried Chamber Players, which I thought might make people expect something more sedate.

Actually, I first floated the name as an excuse to sit down while I played guitar, but in rehearsal I have enjoyed standing up while I play, and the other songleader Heidi Dean stands as she plays, so maybe the name is moot, but it's our name (at least for this gig) and we are sticking to it.

The band: Tim McAvin, a guitar and keyboard player playing a primitive drum set for us; Josh Weinstein, on double bass; Adam Long, on cello; Dave Melson, a bassist playing mandolin for us; and Heidi Dean and myself, both playing acoustic guitar and singing their own songs, though not at the same time. Our 10-song set for the benefit is split equally between Heidi songs and my songs.

A disinterested observer, the artist Jeff Miller, who came to our most recent practice on Monday walked around the circle of the band as he left, thanking people for the music and issuing very classy, brief notes of praise to each of us. Here is what he said:

To Tim (primitive drums): raw
To Josh (double bass): rock solid
To Dave (mandolin): crisp
To Adam (cello): ebullient
To Heidi (vocals, guitar): a dozen birds just let out of a cage
To me (vocals, guitar): Daniel Johnston who is not going over the cliff.

That sounds about right at this point.

Update: Chris King reminds me: "Don't forget, Tony Margherita passed through WU English just before we did, and another peer of ours left arguably the biggest impression on the STL music scene if only because he keeps making it: producer Roy Kasten."

Ugh. I hate failing memory. Roy's been huge. One word: Twangfest. And, yes, he was a Dunckerite, though we did not hang out much in that era... I think I was well into theatreland (aka Escape from the Writing Program) by the time I got to know him. I had thrown over Duncker for the Drama Studio.

And I didn't even delve into Single Point of Light. Oy vey.

* * * * *
(Image is cover of Enormous Richard's first record, Enormous Richard Answers All Your Questions.)

The Bands @ Return of the Byrne: Magic City

Return of the Byrne: A St. Louis Fundraiser for Burn Your Bookes at the Schalfly Tap Room is only a few days away. (Thursday, March 11 at 7 p.m.)

In the lead up to the gig, we'll have a look at the bands who'll be playing
. Today it's Magic City.

* * * * * *

Nostalgia is cool and all that. (And we'll dive into it a bit more in the next few days...)

But one of the best things about going back to St. Louis for Return of the Byrne is the chance to check out a very cool new band like Magic City: Larry Bulawsky (vocals and electric guitar); Adam Hesed (Farfisa organ, electric piano, vocals); Anne Tkach (bass, vocals); Jonas Hamon (lap steel, trombone, mouth harp, guitar, magic); Sam Meyer: (drums)

I have to thank Return of the Byrne guardian angel Brett Underwood for turning me on to Magic City and asking them to play the benefit. The songs that you can check out on their MySpace page are slinky and muscular by turns, smart and arty but in a exquisitely seedy and noirish way. On first listen, you can hear the Jonathan Fire*Eater in the band's DNA (see below), but there's something more overtly vulgar and theatrical going on too. I think they're going to be a band to watch over the next few years because of their talent, panache and unpredictability. There are surprises galore in this music. If we can get them to DC in the next couple months, that'll be perfect... And if they do get over to Europe as they plan to do after their album drops in summer, Europe is gonna eat them up.

But let me allow two Magic Citizens -- Anne Tkach and Adam Hesed -- introduce themselves. I emailed them a couple questions and they were kind enough to shoot back replies with alacrity and wit. And did I mention I can't wait to see this band live? I can't!

Q: How did Magic City form? What's going on with the name?

Anne: "Magic City"! The name first appeared to us in a Man Ray silent short film that some of us were involved in scoring for performance with our friend Sherman S. Sherman. There is a shot in that film of the scrolling marquis on the top of the notorious Parisian club called "Magic City"-- a haven for queers, misfits and miscreants, folks like us. We have since discovered that it is the name of a huge, famous strip club in Atlanta, GA, among other things.

Adam and I were in a band -- Bad Folk -- that broke up in the fall of 2008. We lived above Hairy Larry Bulawsky (Leadville, Couch Bucket), with whom I had played several years ago in the Good Griefs. That part was a no-brainer, the rest has fallen into place over time, including our friend J.J. Hamon (Theodore) who wanted to play in a rock band and current drummer Sam Meyer (Wormwood Scrubs): Your standard incestuous South Side rock band...?

Pat Boland (aka Patty Bobo) was our first drummer, which made us a truly multi-generational band as he is the same age as Larry's son Beau (Exercise). He left us for The Conformists. He's young... awesome drummer. Sam Meyer was/is my dream drummer and we decided that we had nothing to lose asking him to join us. I am glad we did, as he rocks. One thing that is happening in this band is that Larry (guitar savant?) is focusing more on singing. Very exciting. His song "Animal Hair" is older than Patty Bobo.

Q: There's so much cool stuff going on in your music -- the organ gives it a real noirish, even Jonathan Fire*Eater sort of feel that's tremendously appealing, smart lyrics, and an artier (though exquisitely seedy) vibe going on that I haven't ever heard much of in St. Louis rock. Are there particular bands that you feel close to as influences?

Anne: Hahaha! Adam is going to be so thrilled when he sees question #2, he should definitely field that one. I had never heard of Jonathan Fire*Eater till I met him. He is a huge fan, lived in D.C. for a bit back then. I'd say JF*E, and especially Nick Cave are our more direct influences, though we all love a lot of music. Larry has been writing songs for quite a long time.

Adam: Anne was right, I am thrilled. I discovered JF*E (along with the Make Up and Delta 72) at a very formative time in my life and still they are one of my favorite bands.

I don't think that I disagree with Anne at all, but there are a couple of things I would like to add. Primarily, that as Anne and Larry and I were sitting around the kitchen table discussing what we wanted our new band to be, we all agreed that we wanted a real rock 'n' roll band without all that twangy stuff that is so prevalent in St. Louis, and at the same time Larry wanted to get away from the big guitar rock that he has often played in order to focus on his singing.

The idea was to have a heavy backbone of drums, bass and organ and to let the lap steel take the traditional place of lead guitar while completely stripping it of its twangy tendencies. These were the criteria that informed the forming of the band, which lead us to many nights of listening to JF*E (as you noticed), Nick Cave, and especially, I'd say, Johnny Dowd, with whom we hope to do a split 7".

We are in the mixing stage of our first LP and hope to have it out by summer when we will start doing some touring, and we hope to be in Europe next year.

(Photo: Magic City live at Off Broadway in St. Louis.)