Posts Tagged With: News & Observer

The News & Observer: For old time’s sake

Turn to page 287 of “Step It Up and Go” and you’ll come to the book’s “Acknowledgements,” a couple of pages where I give thanks to some of the many people who helped me out over the years. And that section begins thusly:

I owe thanks to so many people, places, and things, but especially to the Raleigh News & Observer, my professional home from 1991 to 2019.

That paragraph goes on to thank a long list of some of my former co-workers starting with Suzanne Brown, the editor who hired me to be the N&O’s music critic and brought me to Raleigh. I was there for 28 years, and as I’ve told more than one interviewer, covering music for the paper for so long was kind of like working on the first draft of this book the whole time.

It’s been well over a year since I left the paper, amid many tears, and life beyond it has been better than expected. I was unsure I’d be able to continue making a living as a writer without the N&O’s safe harbor — but so far, so good. Between book stuff, magazine freelancing work and writing for various arts councils, I keep busy and get by.

Nevertheless, it still feels weird not to be in the N&O newsroom anymore. I still catch myself using or thinking the word “we” in regards to the paper, which is probably an instinct that will never go away entirely.

I am, however, delighted to be back in the N&O’s pages today for the first time since February of last year, thanks to the book. There’s a generous Sunday-paper spread in advance of Monday’s “official” Oct. 19 publication date, with an excerpt (the opening of Chapter 10, about Chapel Hill’s 1990s “Next Seattle” phase) and a very fine interview/feature by my longtime pal and fellow N&O alumnus Stacy Chandler. They put my byline on the excerpt, and seeing my name in that familiar spot makes it feel kind of like old times — a nice closing of the circle.

Meanwhile, the “Step It Up and Go” PR campaign is picking up steam on a couple of fronts now. Also today on this Sunday, Oct. 18, I’ll be on UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch,” airing at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time (and repeating at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 20). It’s an interview with “Bookwatch” host D.G. Martin, which we taped back in July.

And at 4 p.m. today, I’ll be one of this week’s guests on the latest episode of the “Secret Monkey Quarantine Half-Hour Show,” starring longtime local-music fixture Jeff Hart with family, friends and guests. This week’s other guests include Alice Zincone, Adrienne Meddock and Steve McGowan.

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Indy Week: “The Dean of North Carolina Rock Critics”

In my 28-year tenure at the News & Observer, I was accustomed to thinking of the Indy Week as my competition. There were a few interludes when that competition was heated and not altogether pleasant — but more often than not, things stayed cordial and friendly over the years. They’ve been quite kind to my past books, as well as to my time as Piedmont Laureate last year.

Because we were covering the same turf, there was always just enough of an edge to where it felt like we made each other better, which seemed as it should be. Of course, circumstances change, and I even wrote a piece for Indy Week last year after leaving the paper (a remembrance of the late great Sara Romweber). That means I’ve had a byline in Indy Week more recently than the N&O, which I have to admit feels a bit strange.

And in the here and now, I must thank Indy Week and writer/editor Brian Howe for the extraordinarily kind coverage they’ve given “Step It Up and Go,” complete with a headline I can’t help feeling unworthy of: David Menconi, the Dean of North Carolina Rock Critics, Pens a Loving Landmark History of Our State’s Popular Music.

Holy Robert Christgau, that is amazing. Shucks, y’all — thank you. I am beyond honored.

Events at the INDY - INDY Week

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Finally, closure

It’s overly glib and probably kind of insulting, for which I am sorry, but I’ve often likened book-writing to child-bearing. Regarding both, there seems to be a part of your brain that fools you into not remembering just how freakin’ difficult it is until it’s too late. And then there you are, back in the middle of it once again and thinking, Oh yeah — DAMN but this is HARD!

So I signed the contract with University of North Carolina Press to write what became “Step It Up and Go” a little more than three-and-a-half years ago. Groundhog Day 2017, which seemed fitting. That was the culmination of a several-year proposal process that had been pretty involved, mapping out how it would go — from Charlie Poole to “American Idol.”

I felt pretty good about things because it seemed fairly straightforward. Most of the book’s primary subjects, I had covered before for the News & Observer, some at great length. So I had a roadmap of past stories and reporting to rely on. Factoring in the time for supplemental new interviews and research, it seemed plausible that I’d be able to blow through about one chapter per month. On that timeline, I should have been finished by the fall of 2018 with the book coming out sometime during 2019.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Inevitably, life did not exactly cooperate, starting with my job at the N&O, which went through some radical changes with a “digital-first reinvention.” Various other traumas large and small cropped up as 2017 ended, and 2018 came and went with no end in sight. Probably the only reason I got to the end of it in 2019 was that I left the paper that year, which was a wrenching but necessary change.

It was well into 2020 before the whole thing was done and dusted, with pictures and cutlines and permissions and rewrites and copy-edits and all the rest. The pandemic slowed things down further, of course, but we finally put a period on it this past summer. And here, finally, is closure a month before the “official” publication date.

Today, I drove over to Chapel Hill to pick up a few copies from UNC Press. My editor Mark Simpson-Vos and I couldn’t hug it out, but we did the best we could in this pandemic age. To actually get to hold this book in my hand after all this time, to finally see it as A Thing That Exists after being just this mirage-like abstraction for so long, is kind of unbelievable.

Whew…

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“Step It Up and Go” and the universal interconnectedness of all things

Step“Step It Up and Go” is subtitled “The Story of North Carolina Popular Music” rather than “The History” for a number of reasons. The biggest is that it’s not a comprehensive A-to-Z history, which seemed like too much to bite off for the amount of space I had. I was less interested in doing a Wikipedia-styled encyclopedia trying to cover everything than in telling a story where I could give each subject some room.

To that end, it unfolds in episodic fashion with 16 chapters covering about a 100-year timeline. Don’t tell UNC Press this, because they have a no-memoir policy — but yeah, it’s kind of a memoir of my decades covering music across North Carolina for the Raleigh News & Observer.

After coming here 30 years ago knowing little about North Carolina beyond Doc, Earl, The dB’s and Let’s Active, I came to regard the state’s musical history as one large and ongoing story with a through-line of hard-headed blue-collar practicality linking disparate styles — rock, soul, blues, bluegrass, country, jazz and all the rest. Raleigh writer Tracy Davis picked that idea up and ran with it in a very nice feature/interview in the current issue of Raleigh’s city magazine Walter. I’m grateful to her for taking the time, and to Walter for including so many pictures from the book. It starts on page 74 of the September issue.

Also related to “Step It Up and Go” is a feature I wrote myself for the current issue of Our State magazine. “Buskers and Music at the Crossroads” is about some of the historically significant busking spots across North Carolina, where acts including Blind Boy Fuller, Doc Watson, Avett Brothers and Charlie Poole earned their pre-fame performance stripes playing for the pocket change of people passing by. The story starts on page 158 of Our State’s September issue.

WalterMe

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Places That Are Gone: The Brewery

On this date in 2011, a piece of local-music history died when the Brewery came down — leveled to make way for a fancy student-housing complex. And even though it’s been gone for seven years and plenty of other fine venues have sprouted up since then, I still think of the Brewery as Raleigh’s definitive live-music club. That’s probably a function of age, but it’s an icon in my personal pantheon.

What follows is a rumination inspired by the Brewery and other joints around town that have vanished in the 27-plus years I’ve lived in Raleigh. I read this onstage at Kings nightclub in Raleigh on April 29, as part of the spoken-word series “7 Stories.”

# # # #

PLACES THAT ARE GONE
(with apologies to Tommy Keene)

7storiesmeMy name is David Menconi and I have been writing for the News & Observer for 27 years, three months and 14 days — all in that dingy old building around the corner from here. Tonight finds me in a weird moment of limbo, between work addresses.

This past Thursday, April 26, was our last day at 215 S. McDowell St. Pictures were taken, graffiti scribbled, maybe an object or two broken or lifted on our way out the door. Tomorrow morning, the N&O takes up residence in the Bank of America building on Fayetteville Street. We’re all expecting the old building to be bulldozed soon for a skyscraper.

This very club Kings has a transient history, too. For its first eight years, 1999 to 2007, Kings was right down the block from the N&O, across McDowell Street. The old Kings was the first place I ever saw the Avett Brothers, Little Brother and even Bon Iver and Megafaun — although those last two were the same band back then, DeYarmond Edison.

7storiesposterThe old Kings didn’t have the best layout, with the bar in the middle dividing the room in half. But it did have a lot of funky thrift-store charm. This new Kings we’re in now has been here since 2010 and it’s better in every way. Yet I still think of the old Kings as Raleigh’s definitive indie-rock joint. And contemplating the grassy spot next to Poole’s Diner where it once stood, I got to thinking about other music places that have come and gone in Raleigh’s rush into whatever it’s becoming.

When I moved to Raleigh in January 1991, I lived on Clark Street, just across from Cameron Village. I got here too late to experience the Cameron Village Underground and nightclubs like The Pier, which closed in the mid-’80s. But there was a Record Bar over there — remember record stores? — even though the Cameron Village Record Bar was not my go-to store.

No, my go-to back then was The Record Hole, on Hillsborough Street near campus right across from the Brewery. Run by John Swain, an irascible character straight out of “High Fidelity,” it was one of those joints that was closed til it was open, open til it was closed. John could be pretty gruff, until you proved to him you were alright. I passed his test one day when another customer asked the name of Robert Gordon’s first band, and I knew the answer: Tuff Darts. After that, John would save me records he thought I’d like, which was wonderful while it lasted. He was only 42 years old when he died in the summer of 1991, and the Record Hole died with him. That spot has been Curious Goods ever since.

7storieslineupDowntown on West Street, across from Roast Grill, stood the Fallout Shelter — a subterranean spot that had anything and everything. I remember the insane 1993 bidding war over the local band Motorola, who played a showcase at the Fallout Shelter for seemingly every record-label A&R scout in the free world. There were more industry people than paying customers, which was sadly indicative of how the renamed Motocaster’s career went after that, too. The Fallout Shelter closed a few years later, around the time Motocaster was breaking up.

In the mid-1990s, what is now the Lincoln Theatre on Cabarrus Street was called Gillie’s. All I remember about the place was its seating around the bar — swings that hung down from the ceiling, which was pretty precarious late at night after a few drinks. The Pour House over on Blount Street was different back then, too, called The Grove.

Raleigh’s main R&B club downtown was The Vibe, upstairs at 119 E. Hargett St. — where you’ll find Alter Ego hair salon now. In the late ’90s, when Public Enemy was on hiatus, their deejay Terminator X moved to the area and bought an ostrich farm in Dunn. And he’d come down to The Vibe to spin records and hang out with the owner, Greg Dent. A few years earlier, Greg ran another Raleigh club called The Zoo and one of his regulars there was a young man named Christopher Wallace. You might know him as Notorious B.I.G.

Just down Martin Street, the Berkeley Cafe is still there, although its old music hall is now Capitol Smokes next door. But the Berkeley still has bands play on the back patio, which is kind of a shrine to the old Sadlack’s Heroes — the funky beer joint that anchored the Hillsborough Street strip for three decades. That block of Hillsborough is a fancy Aloft Hotel nowadays, but countless musicians worked and played at Sadlack’s over the years. It is, of course, where Ryan Adams formed Whiskeytown in 1994. But that’s another story.

Hillsborough Street is pretty much unrecognizable now from the early ’90s, with the Rathskeller, Western Lanes, Velvet Cloak and IHOP all gone, or going. Even Logan Court, “Faithless Street” to those in the know, was recently torn down. I miss them all.

Still, the long-gone place that lingers strongest in my memory was down at the west end of Hillsborough Street, the Brewery. It’s been gone since 2011, torn down to make way for the student housing complex Stanhope. But in December of 1990, when I came to Raleigh for my job interview at the N&O, the Brewery was the first place here I ever saw a show. Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, who was a lot of fun. While the Brewery wasn’t too long on creature comforts, I quickly became a regular, especially during the eight years when I lived a block away.

In 1992, the band Blind Melon needed to get out of L.A., so their label moved them to Durham. The story I heard was that they needed to go someplace “less druggy,” which is both funny and sad. But that summer of 1992, before their album came out, Blind Melon played every Sunday night for a month at the Brewery, and I was shocked at how terrible they were. At least they remembered to send the Brewery a platinum album to remember them by after they hit it big. I remember seeing it on the wall behind the bar, and I’ve often wondered where it is now.

I also saw the Cranberries at the Brewery, playing for about 40 people a few months before they blew up on MTV. Paul Westerberg, Stereolab, Don Dixon, COC, Flat Duo Jets — too many to count. The Brewery was also one of the sets for the movie “Bandwagon,” which you should see if you haven’t because Jac Cain is in it.

The most fun of all was in the second half of the ’90s, when the Brewery was the CBGBs of alternative country. It was home turf for the Backsliders, who recorded a live album there and called it From Raleigh, North Carolina. Whiskeytown, 6 String Drag, Pine State, $2 Pistols and more all seemed to play the Brewery at least once a month. And at least one band I know of formed there: Tres Chicas, in the women’s bathroom. The acoustics in there were solid, I hear.

A breezeway connected the Brewery with the Comet Lounge next door, and that was the best between-band hangout spot. I especially remember SPITTLEFEST, the “Southern Plunge Into Trailer Trash & Leisure Entertainment,” which brought together a bunch of twangy bands every year. They’d set up a potluck in the breezeway, and I can still picture it. Even smell the barbecue if I try really hard.

Because yeah, I was there. And I’ve even got the T-shirt to prove it.

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“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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George Lawrence, fare thee well

GeorgeL.jpgWriting is a mostly solitary pursuit that involves a lot of what Stephen King (among others) calls “ass in chair time.” But there are times when other people do enter into it and leave their mark, especially when they turn up at a particularly opportune moment. That goes for George Lawrence, a former News & Observer co-worker of mine who passed away in his sleep Monday morning at age 58.

Not quite six years ago, I was slogging through the obligatory horrible first draft of “Losering” and doing what one does: trying to convince myself it would be worth the agony while dealing with the usual cocktail of insomnia, insecurity, self-loathing and various other emotional goodies induced by book-writing. In the midst of all that, I bumped into George at a Neil Young show in Durham that I was reviewing for the paper.

I hadn’t seen George in a while and we got to talking about Ryan Adams, who he’d known well enough to be one of his local party buddies back in the day. And as soon as he found out I was writing a book about Ryan, George perked right up and provided just the dose of enthusiasm I needed to get over the hump. George wound up being one of my best sounding boards as I worked to wrestle “Losering” to the ground, which earned him a place of honor in the “Acknowledgements” section on page 202:

A special few went truly above and beyond the call of duty: Dean Dauphinais, Tracy Davis, and George Lawrence for being extra eyes, and voices of enthusiasm when I was at my lowest ebb.

rsglLong before all this, George was an N&O fixture by the time I got there in 1991, holding multiple editing and managerial jobs in the newsroom. What I remember most about George back then was him being the life of the party at out-of-office gatherings or pickup softball and basketball games, always quick with a quip and a backslap.

Eventually he left journalism to go into PR and consulting, but it was a choice he seemed to regret. I’d hear from him intermittently, and he’d talk wistfully about how much he missed writing and wanted to get back to it. He’d send me the occasional piece of rock memorabilia, too, like this vintage framed Rolling Stones album cover (which I’ve got hanging on the wall right next to my record collection at home).

George did have his struggles in recent years, and he was in and out of the hospital repeatedly with a lot of health problems. But he’d still pop up now and then on Facebook, to lob a song lyric my way or ask a question about some band or other. Several times over the past year, I had the thought that I really ought to check in on him; right now I’m feeling a little guilty for not making more of an effort to follow up.

Of course, if George were here, I expect he’d brush that off with a self-deprecating joke — or maybe he’d drop another lyric. His last words to the world on his Facebook page came a few weeks back, a quote from the late great Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt’s epic of betrayal “Pancho and Lefty”:

GLTVZ.jpg

Somewhere in the great beyond, I picture George seeking out Townes to have a word about that.

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Bookmarking Scuppernong

ScuppernongWhat will most likely be my final round of “Comin’ Right at Ya” promotion happens later this week, with a couple of book events over in the greater Greensboro/Winston-Salem Triad vicinity. Friday evening (Sept. 9), I’ll be at Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books to chat about “CRAY” as well as “Losering” as part of Scuppernong’s Words of Note Festival — which coincides with the National Folk Festival and 17 Days Festival, both happening concurrently in Greensboro.

BookmarksThe next day (Saturday, Sept. 10), I’ll be in Winston-Salem for the annual Bookmarks Festival. My bit happens from 12:30 to 1:15 p.m. Saturday on the City Stage of Winston Square Park (on Spruce Street right by the Hanesbrands Theatre), a panel called “What’s in a Name? Eye-Catching Titles.” I’ll be there alongside “Good Morning, Midnight” author Lily Brooks-Dalton; and Steven Sherrill, author of “The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time.”

Bookmarks is bringing in close to 50 writers for this year’s edition and the author list  includes best-selling novelists Jonathan Safran Foer and John Grisham, as well as a couple of my former News & Observer colleagues, Debbie Moose and Bridgette Lacy. The complete Bookmarks 2016 schedule grid is below.

Both of these events are free, so I hope to see some folks.

BookmarksSked

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Connells greatest hits, and mine

ConnellsSCYIt’s not a book, exactly, but it’s something that appears in a compact disc booklet (remember those?). That would be Stone Cold Yesterday: Best of The Connells, a greatest-hits package that Concord Music Group is releasing on Sept. 9, with liner notes written by yours truly. These are the first liner notes I’ve done since Tres Chicas’ debut album Sweetwater way back in 2004, and it was a great honor to be asked. The Connells are a group I’ve been writing about ever since I moved to Raleigh 25 years ago, and regular readers of this space might recall the most recent instance of that — the “’74-’75” video remake we put together for the News & Observer last fall.

Of course, “’74-’75” is on the 16-song track list, which you’ll find below. And for those in the general Triangle vicinity, The Connells will play a free show Sept. 8 at Raleigh’s Schoolkids Records (for the store’s Hopscotch Day Party); and an outdoor show at Raleigh Little Theatre’s Stephenson Amphitheatre on Sept. 17, on a bill with modern-day local stars The Old Ceremony and David J of Bauahus/Love and Rockets fame.

 

1. Stone Cold Yesterday
2.’74 – ‘75
3. Still Life
4. One Simple Word
5. Crown
6. Carry My Picture
7. Slackjawed
8. Something To Say
9. Scotty’s Lament
10. Over There
11. Fun & Games
12. Get A Gun
13. Maybe
14. Uninspired
15. Just Like That
16. New Boy

ConnellsLiner

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Big in Europe: The Connells’ “’74-’75,” updated to 2015

ConnellsVid

The Connells, 1993.

When Ryan Adams made his way from Jacksonville up to Raleigh in the early 1990s (as outlined in the “Before” section of “Losering”), there were a handful of big fish in the Triangle music scene — Corrosion of Conformity, blackgirls and Superchunk, among others. But one of the biggest was the Connells, who were part of a wave of jangly guitar-pop bands that followed in R.E.M.’s wake. While the Connells were a popular regional draw on the college-radio chitlin circuit of the Southeastern U.S., their music was accessible enough that they always seemed like a band that should have been bigger elsewhere, too.

By the time Ryan was hitting his stride with Whiskeytown in 1995, however, the Connells suddenly were bigger elsewhere. And not just big, either, but huge. In one of the Amerindie underground’s odder success stories, the Connells briefly hit the big time overseas in the mid-’90s with “’74-’75,” a pensive and moody ballad from the band’s 1993 album Ring.

“Big in Europe” is a well-worn joke in the music industry, but it really was true in the Connells’ case. Where Ring barely grazed the charts here in America (peaking at No. 199 on the Billboard 200), it made the Connells stars in Europe, with its “’74-’75” single going all the way to No. 1 in Norway and Sweden while cracking the top-10 in another nine countries across the continent. It even earned a platinum record in Norway to go with gold records in Germany and Sweden.

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David Hoggard in 1974 and again in 1993 with his wife Susan and daughter Alison, from Mark Pellington’s video of the Connells’ “’74-’75.”

A major part of “’74-’75″‘s success was its evocative video, which juxtaposed then-and-now images of members of the class of 1975 from Broughton High School in Raleigh with yearbook photos and footage shot in the fall of 1993. Two Connells members had also gone to Broughton; all three of my kids in recent years, too. Anyway, “’74-’75” is the rare video that actually enhances a song, never getting too heavy-handed while implying more than it says. It remains a great curio of mid-1990s North Carolina music.

Hoggards

Alison and Susan Hoggard with a picture of David, who died in 2013. Still from video shot by N&O photographer Juli Leonard.

Back in 1994, when “’74-’75” was in the early stages of its run, I tracked down and interviewed all 16 people in it to do a story for the paper. In honor of the 40-year anniversary of Broughton’s class of 1975, we decided to update it again to the present day — but literally this time, by editing new footage of everyone into director Mark Pellington’s original video. The band’s representatives were kind enough to give us permission to do this; and we didn’t quite get full participation, but close: 15 of of the video’s 16 subjects agreed to be photographed again, as did the Connells themselves.

So here is “’74-’75” circa 2015, with superlative visuals and editing by two of my News & Observer photojournalist colleagues, Travis Long (whose work documenting local music in Raleigh has been referenced here before) and Juli Leonard; plus accompanying stories that explain a bit more about the video and where everyone in it is nowadays. Pulling this beast together was an immensely labor-intensive process, so we’re all somewhat relieved now that it’s finally done. But we’re also counting down to the 50-year anniversary in 2025.

We’ll see who all is still standing by then.

http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article44889822.html/video-embed

ADDENDA: In response, nice Blurt essay by the estimable Fred Mills. And wow, over in England the BBC noticed!

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