Posts Tagged With: Flat Duo Jets

“Wild Wild Love” for Flat Duo Jets

FDJWWLBefore I moved to North Carolina in 1991, there were only a few local bands I knew much about. But one I had already come to know and love was Flat Duo Jets, the guitar-and-drums duo of Dexter Romweber and Chris “Crow” Smith. I’d caught the Jets on tour the previous year in Denver, opening for The Cramps, and their space-age bossa-nova rockabilly still stands as one of the most amazing spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. It also turned out that the News & Observer editor who hired me for the paper’s rock-writer job just happened to be married to Dexter’s manager, which was something else I considered a major selling point.

Once I got here, I became even more of a Flat Duo Jets acolyte, writing about them every chance I could in the paper as well as magazines including No Depression and Spin. And when I wrote my novel “Off The Record,” I modeled the unhinged rock-star protagonist as a mixture of Dexter and Ryan Adams.

All of which has led up to my latest and possibly most ambitious non-fictional spiel about the Jets to date, as part of a new reissue being released this week — Wild Wild Love (Daniel 13), an honest-to-God vinyl box set centered on their 1990 full-length debut album Flat Duo Jets. Along with abundant outtakes and rare tracks, the package includes a beautifully illustrated 40-page booklet featuring vintage photos and three essays, one of them a scene-setting band history by me that weighs in at more than 9,000 words. The other two essays are by Flat Duo Jets producer Mark Bingham; and Josh Grier, who produced the Jets’ 1984 cassette-only EP (In Stereo), which will be on vinyl for the first time in this box set.

Look for Wild Wild Love in better records stores on Saturday, April 22, as part of Record Store Day.

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Next up: “The Big Book of North Carolina Music”

ncblueNot quite a year ago, I found myself at an industry convention gathering with some of my rock-writing peers, doing what we all do at these things — swapping stories, telling lies and catching up about projects we had in the works, real as well as imaginary. Talking to another writer I knew, I mentioned that I was working on a book proposal for a history of North Carolina music. His reaction was…surprising.

“Yeah,” he scoffed, “that’ll be a short book.”

Words were exchanged, some of them unpleasant; no, it didn’t go especially well. But almost a year later, I am pleased to report that this “short book” has taken a major step from abstraction to reality. I’ve come to terms and shaken hands with University of North Carolina Press for a book with the working title “The Big Book of North Carolina Music,” which will have a format similar to UNC Press’ 2008 best-seller “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.”

uncpressWhile this won’t be an encyclopedic A-to-Z history of North Carolina music, my “Big Book” will cover a lot of ground in its 16 chapters — from Charlie Poole in the 1920s to “American Idol” nearly a century later, with Blind Boy Fuller and Rev. Gary Davis, Arthur Smith, “5” Royales, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, the dB’s and Let’s Active, Superchunk and Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five, Nantucket and Corrosion of Conformity, beach music, 9th Wonder and J. Cole and more in between. It should come in at close to double the heft of my Ryan Adams book “Losering”; and while that still isn’t nearly as long as it could be, it’s nevertheless the most ambitious book project I’ve ever taken on.

But the beauty part is I’ve already been working on this book, piecemeal, for more than a quarter-century. I moved to Raleigh in 1991 to take the News & Observer music-critic job, and my first day was Jan. 15 — two days before Operation Desert Storm started in Kuwait. That was a time when the Worldwide Web wasn’t much more than a gleam in Paul Jones’ eye, back when most people still got their news by reading it on paper or watching the 6 o’clock news.

I must confess that I didn’t come here thinking the News & Observer would be a long-term destination, but it just worked out that way. Back when newspapers were still prosperous, the desired career trajectory was to spend five years or so at a mid-sized paper like the N&O before trying to move up to the New York Times or some other prestige publication. For a variety of reasons, that never happened. Most of the opportunities that came my way over the years felt like they would have been lateral moves rather than upward ones, although I did get a call from the Washington Post in 1999. But that was right after the birth of my twins, Edward and Claudia. At that moment, starting over in a big city was just not in the cards.

So I stayed in Raleigh and I’ve never regretted it, in large part because North Carolina music turned out to be fascinating and beguiling in ways I never imagined before I lived here. When I arrived, I was fairly well-versed in the North Carolina music I’d heard from afar on college radio — Connells, Let’s Active, Flat Duo Jets and such — without knowing much of anything about the history from farther back. So I’ve spent my years here filling in the history, bit by bit, learning as much as I could about North Carolina’s wildly varied music.

Despite the many variations of this state’s music, I do see all of it as of a piece and part of the same continuum — and “The Big Book of North Carolina Music” will, I hope, tie it all together as one story. I’ve spent the past few months going through my archive of stuff to get it organized (see below), and now begins the real work. TBBoNCM will be my side-project for the next two years, the thing keeping me up late nights and weekends and days off. If all goes according to plan, it will be done and dusted by the end of 2018, with publication to follow in 2019. Fingers crossed!

And yeah, whenever it’s done: I’ll be sending an autographed copy to that colleague.

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No Depression in heaven, or down here

So it was the News & Observer that got me to Raleigh all those years ago; but as recounted in “Losering,” it was No Depression that led to my first direct contact with Ryan way back in 1995. No Depression was a great magazine during its 13-year run, and a wonderful thing to be  part of. I miss reading and writing for it, very much. But the swift decline of both print media and the record industry was too much of a double-whammy to overcome, and No Depression ceased publishing in 2008.

In the summer of 2005, however, the magazine was at its peak in terms of heft. That was when University of Texas Press published the second anthology of No Depression writings, “The Best of No Depression: Writing About American Music.” A profile of Ryan from the fall of 2000 was included in the book, and I did some bookstore readings for it around the Triangle. Below is a spiel I worked up as a preamble, tracing the magazine’s history, my involvement in it and also my relationship with Ryan (and his part in inspiring a character in my 2000 novel “Off The Record”). If you’ve read “Losering,” some of this will be familiar.

Ten long years ago, a friend of mine named Peter Blackstock began talking about a music magazine he was starting. “No Depression,” they were going to call it, after “No Depression in Heaven” — a 1936 Carter Family song covered by the upstart band Uncle Tupelo. Uncle Tupelo was one of a number of young bands coming to country music by way of punk rock in the 1990s, alongside the Jayhawks, Old 97s, Freakwater and others. No Depression was going to cover these bands, as well as oldtimers like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris.

It was an ambitious undertaking, and I’d like to be able to say that my response was, “Wow! What a fantastic idea!” A decade later, I am mortified to confess that I didn’t take No Depression too seriously at first. In fact, when Peter asked me to write something for the magazine’s first issue, I told him I wasn’t sure I’d have time.

Peter was an old and dear friend, and I had some familiarity with his quirks — his obsession with the songs of Jimmy Webb, for example, or his habit of driving halfway across the country for a dinner date. When I lived in Boulder, he showed up from Texas semi-unannounced more than once. Another time, I remember Peter calling from a payphone somewhere in the Texas Panhandle to ask if I could make him a cassette tape of Joe Jackson’s new live album. He had an assignment to review it, and he was going to pass through Colorado on one of his spur-of-the-moment driving trips. So he was wondering if he could come by and pick that up on the way, from a different time zone.

I’ve watched a lot of startup magazines come and go. At the time, there seemed no reason to think that No Depression would be more than another of Peter’s quixotic quests. But he was persistent. Peter wanted me to do a short feature on a Raleigh band called Whiskeytown, and he had already developed an editor’s knack for just which button to push to get me to do it. “If you can’t do it,” he wrote in an e-mail, “we can probably find someone else, but not as good a writer as you.” I like flattery as much as the next guy. So I finally said yes, even though Peter did not yet have the wherewithal to pay any of his writers. But I would not come away from this assignment empty-handed.

That summer of 1995, I was deep in the trenches of attempted literature, writing a novel about a fictional rock band. The leader of this band in my head was a self-conscious young man with some very screwed-up ideas about stardom and celebrity; a guy who was equal parts brilliant and crazy; and a person at war with himself because he desperately needed people to like him but could only express that as arrogance.

In short, this character I was struggling to bring to life was Ryan Adams, leader of the aforementioned Whiskeytown. My fictional rock star was named Tommy Aguilar. I originally envisioned him as Dexter Romweber, unhinged guitarist in another local band called Flat Duo Jets. That took care of Tommy’s crazy and unstable half. But he was still missing the boundless ambition and rock-star swagger I had in mind. For that, Ryan turned out to be the perfect model.

I went to every Whiskeytown show I could, lurked nearby whenever the opportunity presented itself and wrote about them often. Whiskeytown moved swiftly up the local and national totem pole, signing a major-label deal in 1996 and earning big plaudits for 1997’s Stranger’s Almanac — still my favorite record from Ryan’s entire catalog. Likewise, No Depression magazine was an immediate success. After paying all the contributors with a T-shirt for issue number one, Peter was able to start paying his writers actual money by the second issue. The magazine also went from quarterly to bi-monthly publication in the fall of 1996.Whiskeytown appeared on the cover of the July/August 1997 issue when Strangers Almanac came out, although Peter wrote that story himself instead of letting me do it, the no-good so-and-so. But it has been a pleasure and an honor to be associated with No Depression over the years, and to watch it grow from those modest beginnings to the very impressive magazine it is today. I believe I’ve had a byline in every single issue except one.

Meanwhile, I was still spending the wee small hours of every morning working on this novel, now called “Off The Record.” Tommy became Ryan, although there were times when it seemed like Ryan was becoming Tommy. In 1998, I was commissioned to write liner notes for a Whiskeytown record — the reissue of their first album, Faithless Street. It was an utter fiasco in which Ryan behaved so neurotically, I felt like I was being held hostage by my own fictional creation. I wrote multiple drafts, each of which was found wanting. Ultimately, the album came out with liner notes by Caitlin Cary rather than me, which was probably karmic justice.

But having Ryan as a model for Tommy Aguilar was a God-send. Like Ryan, my fictional Tommy is dark-haired, kind of pigeon-toed and sometimes wears the same thick-framed glasses favored by Brian Wilson. WWRD (What Would Ryan Do?) was a handy guide for whatever the Tommy character should say or do in a given situation. And imagining dialogue in Ryan’s voice was very useful.

Predictably, Whiskeytown fell apart after a few years, and Ryan started a solo career. His first solo album was called Heartbreaker and it came out in September of 2000, the same month No Depression published my profile of Ryan that’s in this book. And that was also the month that “Off The Record” finally came out. Early on, I tried to be circumspect about the connection between Tommy and Ryan. But enough reviews noted the similarities that I soon gave that up.

As it happened, this No Depression profile would mark the beginning of the end of whatever personal relationship I had with Ryan. I was pleased with how the story turned out, and I felt like it really captured him. But lots of people were very unhappy with it. Ryan’s ex-girlfriend, the subject of many of the songs on “Heartbreaker,” was furious about being identified by name. Ryan’s manager didn’t like the story, either, for reasons I never really understood. And Ryan himself responded with a puzzling e-mail — dated September 11, 2000, eerily enough.

“I am very angry with you but only out of love,” Ryan wrote. “I’ve discovered that you don’t know me very well. It isn’t even important. You are much more beautiful without me to consider. I’m drunk and in Seattle and I just went to see a spiritualist guide (they call him a shaman) and my life is changed. Hard changed. I hope to think about you in my meditations. Peace and cookies, R.”

(NOTE: To see this email reproduced in all the typo-ridden glory of Ryan’s original message, see the “Losering” preface.)

The last conversation I ever had with Ryan took place the following spring, in April of 2001. He called me at home one night, angry about a bad review someone else had written, to ask if I thought he should confront the writer about it. No, Ryan, I said, you should really just let it go — even though I knew he wouldn’t. And sure enough, I heard that he left a screaming rant on that other writer’s answering machine later that night.

(NOTE: “That other writer” was none other than Angie Carlson.)

We talked for a while that night. Ryan said he was working on a screenplay, a book and three different records. One of the albums was called Gold. “It’s so fuckin’ good, man,” Ryan said. “I hope you like it.” But I didn’t much like Gold when it came out a few months later, even though that was the record that made him a star and picked up multiple Grammy nominations. So what do I know?

In our last conversation, Ryan never mentioned this No Depression feature that seemed to upset him so much. He did, however, bring up “Off The Record.” He hadn’t yet read it, but he said, “I’ve been told that the lead character is like an unholy cross between myself and Dexter Romweber.” Well, Ryan, I said, you’ll just have to read it and let me know what you think. “Maybe I’ll do that,” he said.

I’ve always thought that if Ryan were to read “Off The Record,” he would claim to be pissed off. Secretly, however, he would be pleased to be a central figure in a book about rock mythology — because Ryan is nothing if not all about rock mythology. Maybe that’s what happened, maybe not. I guess I’ll never know.

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