Wisecracks and Roadside Flats: The backhanded compliment
Carmody Irish Pub in downtown Duluth is often home to a small contingent of off-duty musicians, but even some of us road dogs were back in town tonight. The great Jim Hall laughed along with ska wizard Jason Wussow and good-humored bluesman Jamie Ness. The melodious voice of Jerree Small bounced alongside the witty snickers of mandolin ace Erik Berry and the snitty wickers of piano player “Rusty” Sackett. Lefty, the Latin percussionist, tended bar while pedal steel player Lee “Big Country” Martin’s taxi idled out front on Superior Street.
I had just returned from a 72-hour solo songwriting sabbatical two hours north, on Lutsen Mountain, and was happy to be chopping it up with the locals.
My first attempt at making a living as a free-thinking, stubborn singer/songwriter was in the show-me-the-money environment of Atlantic City, N.J. In Duluth I found a place to develop my art organically on the outskirts of popular culture and far away from the soul-crushing business of corporate music. I also found a place where I felt comfortable in thrift store clothes.
I joked and jived with the others as I sipped a thick Guinness Stout and reveled being in an environment filled with love and encouragement.
Eric Pollard was the only musician in Carm’s not extending his glad hand to the others. Pollard began cutting his teeth in country rock bar bands on Minnesota’s Iron Range while still in high school. Afterwards he cruised through the music program at University of Minnesota Duluth during the day and in the evening gigged with jazz bands and local jam-rock legends, The Dukes of Hubbard. He was now touring the world as a sensitive percussionist for Sun Kil Moon, the high-octane madman drummer of Retribution Gospel Choir, and multi-instrumentalist for minimalist art rock connoisseurs, Low. Soon he would release his own album under the name Actual Wolf. Pollard is one hell of a musician.
Pollard no longer wore layers of random thrift store discoveries like the rest of us. His pants were tighter, his shoes were pointed and he wore all black save his official trademark red sunglasses through which he now viewed the world day and night. He had little interest spending time in Duluth and no interest in drinking beer at Carm’s. His mind was on Nashville, New York and Los Angeles. My mind was on my Guinness. On his way out the door, Pollard pulled me aside.
“Look man,” Pollard said. “I love your songs. I like your style. Girls dance at your shows. I even like your records, but they’re hippie records.”
Ah, the backhanded compliment. Different variations of the backhanded compliment are used in Jersey as a show of affection without having to be polite. Many in the congenial lands of Northern Minnesota would misconstrue Pollard’s words, but my defense mechanisms yawned, rolled over and went back to sleep.
“Hippie” has become a dismissive word in our society. Hippie can also carry strong negative connotations in musician lingo, but coming from Pollard, I didn’t take offense. I knew what my man was trying to elocute.
Early on, I recorded my songs in an anti-music-establishment way, as if the buzz and background noise of cheap equipment helped tell my story as outsider musician. I wasn’t concerned about snappy intros, structure or other necessities involved in making a song radio-friendly. I put plenty of time and effort into writing my songs, but some of my recordings were improvisational live takes and first takes with friends and family playing and singing along. My recordings had been more charming than professional.
I was working on a more professional presentation of my compositions with master Minneapolis producer and musician Erik Koskinen. But there was no sense in arguing with Pollard.
“Hey man,” I said with a phony bravado, “I like hippie records!”
“I like hippie records, too,” Pollard relented, almost smiling before getting serious again. “Look man, I’ve been touring Europe with Low and meeting famous musicians who are not as good as me or you, they’re just working a little harder. You sing your songs. No blues. No stories. Just the goods. ”
I pulled slowly on my frothy Guinness.
“King J-Lar will record it,” Pollard continued. “Steve Garrington will play bass. We’ll have to bring up Jake Hanson from Minneapolis to play electric guitar. I’ll play everything else.”
“That sounds good, man,” I said. “But who is Jake Hanson?”
A few months later, Pollard gathered all of us at Sacred Heart Studio on Duluth’s Central Hillside and turned his vision into reality. The old church was an ideal setting for a gospel-inspired song I had written the Sunday morning of my Lutsen retreat.
“We might have to chop up that second verse,” said Pollard, sitting on his drum throne and scribbling on a pad. “Steve will write the bridge.”
Steve was at the piano working on different voicings for the chords.
“I love the key of A flat,” said Steve. “We’ll take the bridge to C Minor, then G flat to B flat minor.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Jake approved, smiling and flipping his hair to the side while sitting cross-legged on his guitar amp. By now, I knew who Jake Hanson was. Part scientist, part dragonslayer.
“Let’s get a tempo,” said Eric, clicking his drum sticks together. “1, 2, 3, 4.”
Check out the podcast version of "Wisecracks & Roadside Flats" on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher. Teague Alexy's new album “Circuit Sessions” will be available April 4. Preorder at TeagueAlexy.com.