Upon returning to Chicago I quickly got a job with A.C. Nielsen and received my first assignment in Elmira, New York. For the next six months I would have almost no contact with other people. I mostly worked alone and finished my work so fast that I usually only put in about thirty hours a week. I learned how to play guitar. Before I left Chicago I had traded my black Fender Precision bass for a sixties model Telecaster. I wanted to write songs. I had the Neil Young Zuma songbook with chord diagrams to learn from. To this day, I rarely play a real G major; I thought a G chord only used two strings. I started to write the kind of depressing songs that only a twenty-three year old reading Rimbaud and Genet could write. The music that I loved was post-punk British guitar slash- Echo and the Bunnymen, Gang of Four, The Mekons, and Joy Division. I moped. I also made my first drive into New York City. I left on a Saturday morning with the idea that I would see the city.
I came into the city driving through Harlem and found myself in a Times Square parking garage. I almost got hit by a cab crossing the street and dizzily found myself standing in front of Bond’s International. It was early afternoon. A guy approached and asked me if I wanted a ticket for the show inside. I thought it was a scam. The Clash had just finished a week’s worth of shows, The Clash on Broadway, and a matinee had been added on at the last minute. For five dollars I bought a ticket, and within my first hour on my first visit to NYC I was watching the greatest band in the world. I couldn’t make this up. Afterwards I got in my car and drove the four hours back home. I made many other solo trips to the city. I saw REM (they had the Radio Free Europe 45 out) open for Gang of Four at the Ritz, New Order at the Peppermint Lounge, and The Cure at the Ritz. I spent a ton of money on records that soothed my solitude. After a year I received my request for a transfer to Chicago and I returned with an expanding record collection, a cat called Pigeon, and the ability to sort of play guitar.
I really wanted to join a band so I answered some ads in the Reader. I didn’t even hear back from the two bands I auditioned for. I moved to Rogers Park on Lunt near the Heartland Café. I met my musical brother, Raoul V. Stober, a genius who shared my passion for music and possessed an instantly recognizable maniacal laugh. I worked, but I lived for music, went to any show at Tuts, listened to Cheri Pugh et al. on WNUR, and consumed one Strohs after another while listening to records. Raoul turned me on to MC5 and John Coltrane. There was an exciting new American indie movement starting. Bands like Mission of Burma, Pylon, the DBs, and Dream Syndicate were my favorites, and college radio and fanzines were fueling the fire. I met a drummer from Louisville named Janet; she moved to Chicago and worked at the Heartland Café where she met a girl named Shu.
In 1983, Eleventh Dream Day formed. In early 1984 we played our first show at the Jefferson Davis Inn in Lexington, Kentucky. By the time Doug McCombs replaced Shu on bass and Baird Figi joined as a second guitar player in 1985 we had recorded material that we wanted to turn into a record. Back then there were dozens of small indie labels around the country, some created by the bands themselves to release their records as well as friends’ records (Down There), but also labels like Twin Tone in Minneapolis and Rough Trade in London that were growing rapidly on the strength of their growing rosters. After sending out our demo tapes with no takers, my old college friend Keith offered to put a record out on his label, Amoeba Records. There wasn’t a whole lot to it back then. The main thing was to get yourself in a van; tour as much you could (we had to book our own tours) and get some distribution. Anybody could do it. There was a network of indie bands criss-crossing the country playing at clubs like Batteries Not Included, The West End, The Jockey Club, Tewligans, Seventh Street Entry, Uptown, Staches, Gabes, Middle East, Maxwells,and CBGBs. There was always a floor to sleep on. The camaraderie amongst the bands was the best part. Our pals were the Hollowmen from Des Moines, The Libertines from Cincinnati, Precious Wax Drippings and Friends of Betty in Chicago, and Yo La Tengo and Antietam from Hoboken. I had a job still, but I would do anything to play. We used to play Minneapolis on a Sunday night at the Uptown- load off the stage at midnight, hop in to the van and drive all night; I would shave and put a tie on at a rest stop and be ready to start my job at 7:00 a.m. We made Prairie School Freakout which started to get us some attention around the world due to fanzines (Bucketful of Brains and Unhinged in England- Howl in Germany- Forced Exposure/The Bob at home). The record came out on Amoeba again as well as New Rose Records in Paris. Radio support was there as well. WXRT’s Big Beat show and WNUR were playing it. We got to open some big shows at Metro- Long Ryders and Meat Puppets which got us some notice. Joe Shanahan also had Rock Against Depression night at Metro- usually 3 bands on a Wednesday night for five bucks. We played a bunch of those. You’d generally see the same faces, but there were a lot more every week.
The first sign of the whole thing unraveling was the death of several large distributors. Caroline, Jem, and Rough Trade were all having difficulties. Labels were getting shafted as invoices were going unpaid. It all began to snowball. SST and Homestead which ruled the indie world were having trouble. Some of the best groups began to (gulp) jump to the promised land- the majors. Husker Du and The Replacements were first. Did they get bigger? No. Careers? No. Neither band would surpass their indie greatness. In the summer of 1989 we started recording Beet with Gary Waliek of Big Dipper/Volcano Suns fame. We liked his production on MOTO’s Don’t Have to be a Dick About It. How’s that for indie values? We were happening. Just having fun, no pressure, rocking in the indie world. We were talking with Rough Trade; maybe a bigger deal. And then Atlantic came knocking.
Overall, the Eighties was an exciting time in music. Bands were taking all their influences from sixties garage to post punk and making original takes on it without some of the self consciousness that accompanied the new wave/punk scene. That’s not to say that possibly the most godawful crap ever reared its ugly hairdo in the Eighties in the form of ABC, Haircut One Hundred, and Flock of Beagles. Ugh. Bands like Great White created legions of Guitar Center noodlers that still plague us today. And possibly the worst thing to ever happen to the music industry- MTV
Next: The Nineties- major feeding frenzy/dead fish handshakes