These shockingly suboptimal times have many people who do not even consider themselves nostalgic looking back wistfully at every opportunity. You can see it done deliciously right in the ripped-from-the-cool-kids-of-the-‘90s soundtrack and clothing of HBO’s Euphoria. You can see it done wailfully wrong in the hilarious-if-it were-not-so-calamitous public comparison of Billie Eilish to Kurt Cobain. As the confounding cultural spiral toward notions that mediocrity and victimhood are traits to be admired continues apace, some of us crave an open remembrance of a time when rock (and speech and life) was a bit less cosseted, and artists who had actually lived on the street (read: homeless) still did not claim to be from there in some regrettable bid to appear ‘hard.’ A time when rock stars still chain-smoked Parliaments, wore the same clothes for weeks, and had no PR people to keep them from smelling as loud as they sounded. Enter Soul Asylum and Local H, in 1984 and 1987 respectively. Enter the ‘Dead Letter Tour’ in 2020 to return us to that runic time, and to do so in a way laced with the kind of curveball rapture one receives from a rogue double-bounce on a trampoline. In the sunken dark of Atlanta’s Center Stage on Monday, February 24th, these two different-but-same dynamos of the dregs co-headlined a show that felt like 1992, when malls were still huge and the shows of the bands that would be even more huge in one’s formative influences were still thaumaturgic and tiny.
Not content to simply emerge from the wings to the bubbling ebullition of Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”, Local H took the added serious-as-death measure of assuming the stage dressed in the exact same all-white outfits immortalized by George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley in the 1984 video, except with the salaciously-Scott-Lucas detail of having changed the “Choose Life” logo to “Choose Lifers.” Such a glorious (and intentional) juxtaposition, by the way: one of the world’s most infamously sincere and upbeat bands costume-portrayed by one of its most sardonic and aslant. If you did not know that Local H has a new album entitled Lifers scheduled for an April 10th release, you might think this was just a not-so-tongue-in-cheek nod to the permanently incarcerated – a demographic that surely must support Local H’s general badge of authority-disdain. One also cannot help but read the third meaning presenting in that simple gesture – that what one was about to witness is a band who has done it, and done it Herculean hard, for decades. The Local H lads are, in all respects, music industry lifers, a divine division of artist not commonly cast anymore.
The old, familiar Pack Up The Cats Local H, this writer is gleeful to report, has lost not one poisoned quill of their famously considered examination of human skeeviness, their demolition of the golf patter associated with diseased relationships, their impatience with the prattling gorgons of pop culture, and their roaring presentation of the underwhelmed world-weariness the forced intermingling with all of this wreaks upon any smart person. Ever and still the Solon of brilliant sarcasm, Scott Lucas endures, draped in his natural armature of the most searing, quippy sharpness, like a delightfully surly teenager. One gets the immediate sense that this is a man who could not be horsewhipped into agreement with anything but his own ethos. How completely restorative and exhilarating! How rock and roll.
Local H does not possess the kind of merits that are slow to click on their neon. Opening with the broiling “Buffalo Trace”, off 2004’s Whatever Happened to P.J. Soles?, they made sure to waste no time forcibly ripping the audience from any comfortable placebos or false assurances that may have been adopted in their absence. After the terrene onslaught wrought by The White Stripes, who adeptly took the idea themselves from the Flat Duo Jets, a lot of people forgot that the history of gelignite duos had a first wave that stretched far further back than the neo-garage revival of the early 2000s. The Lear-jet-loud “California Songs” lay bare the kind of esculent earwash the Local H boys damn near perfected back then.
The first track off the forthcoming Lifers, a little ditty bulls-eye branded “Patrick Bateman”, demonstrated Local H to be not just highly literate, but also keenly alert to and unafraid to call attention toward the ways that unforgettable character, omphalos of 1980s New York venality that he is, has never been more socially or politically relevant than he appears today, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the Middle America from which the band itself derive. Not only is Local H a group Patrick Bateman would almost certainly have blithely slain unwitting bogans to, they are also a band you can imagine Brett Easton Ellis moshing in eager simpatico with.
Nobody sings in a more hawkish elocution than Scott Lucas. Rather than bemoan the depletion of standards and scruples he would quickly tell you the world never had to lose, he surmises every sick scenario of the thematic arc in a rock band’s life between major to boutique label with a gelastic mixture of bravado and not-quite-resignation. Lucas has an unerring knack for writing even pseudo-romance songs from the pointy end, and always with words imbricated in fatalistic aggression toward a music business that unforgivably underrated his band, as well as the jackals and parasites that stood by watching, frothy groupie-types included.
Still set up on stage in a sort of tag-team, bipedal, audio arm wrestle wherein the ownership of volume on any given song could genuinely go either way between Lucas and the ultra-mutiny of a metronome that is drummer Ryan Harding, Local H is a band forged on true sweat equity. “Bound For The Floor” went to Lucas and “High Fiving MFer” to Harding at this particular roll of the decibel dice, and both of these intense crowd darlings were received by a room full of H-hounds so zealously in tandem with their heroes as to lay a quarter claim to some of that indigenous volume themselves. Original colossi of the working-class punk DIY, the band then nonchalantly unloaded their own equipment to a looped soundtrack of vintage Soundgarden and made way for a band that once had Soundgarden open for them.
It would be a strenuous sift trying to sort out which tout de suite detail that Soul Asylum gifted to the audience, even before plugging in their instruments, was most telling of the shambolic joy that was to shortly ensue and last for the entire stretch of their 70-minute set. Was it that a primary amp appeared with the “R” and “ALL” of Marshall deliberately taped over so that it simply announced itself as “MASH”? Perhaps that the band slunk-danced onto stage, very non-ironically, to the tune of the Pink Panther? Or even that Dave Pirner (QRO interview) led his first interaction with the audience with an inescapably cheesy, and thus hilarious-coming-from-him, joke about British barbers that he then attributed to his guitar tech, Cyrus?
No matter, the faithfully foul-mouthed feral boy and his tribe remain every atom as twirly and headbangy as they were the first time “Somebody To Shove” soundtracked your after-school special. Pirner has called what he does with music “anti-magic,” and one would be inclined to believe it once bestowed, as Atlanta was, with the sight of Pirner on acoustic, Ryan Smith on lead electric, and a wondrous-but-unnamed bassist (not Wynston Roye) kneeling in a tight closed circle, facing each other like mirrored warlocks, to play “Black Gold”. This with no one less than Michael Bland, Prince’s former percussionist, perched like a humble deity behind them to make it all as magically Minnesota as Minnesota can possibly get, but with plenty of glimmers of Pirner’s longstanding home in the voodoo capital of New Orleans. Speaking of “Somebody To Shove,” the guys laid it on early, the third song to be exact. You only think you love the chortles of that opening guitar riff until it is twirling atop your tympanic membrane live! Then love promptly ceases to be a big enough word.
There exist in the collective witticisms of society several versions of a quote about what you typically find when you “scratch the surface of a cynic,” variously attributed to John Ortberg, Peter M. Senge, and even George Carlin. The quote states that one will, upon scratching, find a “wounded idealist,” “frustrated idealist,” or “bruised romantic,” depending on whom is being given credit for the quote in a chosen moment. Dave Pirner is unmistakably an impressive and unrepentant cynic. Not for nothing does one name one’s company “Frustrated Incorporated,” after the chorus line in a song one has already named “Misery”. Not for nothing does one name one’s first band “The Shitz” and not be joking in the least. He is like the male incarnation of the “junkyard angel” Bob Dylan is singing about in “From a Buick 6” and, like said seraphim of scrap, is in continual need of a “dump truck to unload his head.”
Pirner may well qualify as the most sophisticated and Keatsean trashcan poet since Dylan Thomas, and though he could easily share in (and likely outdo) Thomas’ roistering autobiographical tales of both delectable and destructive debauchery, somehow he emerged with the hopeful heart of Sylvia Plath. Is it a cosmic coincidence extraordinaire that his forthcoming album, entitled Hurry Up And Wait, due April 17th and just in time for Record Store Day, is exactly the same as that of what could be argued are his Brisbane brothers, the sweetly scummy Dune Rats (The Aussies beat him to the punch slightly and released their Hurry Up And Wait at the end of January)? Pirner’s lyrics traditionally bend in the direction of Bukowski, but without the overt pleasure in the nihilism. Like the Dalí of detritus, he actually seems mournful about the dejection of the world in general. He would clearly still change it all if he could and can still courageously care. He is a rare cereb to the doomed niche of interrogating American truths for the purpose of good.
To that end, by the time the crowd-revered “Runaway Train” made its atmospheric appearance, Pirner had the room fully ensconced in his perdurable, snow-blue world of Black Flag suffused with James Taylor. “Runaway Train”, with its lachrymose a-minor attention to the plight of hapless latchkey kids who ended up in the wrong alleyways of life, was an unusually heavy lift for a band in a dead-level time when heavy lifting was all real songwriters cared to do. The grunge boys were always serious and forward-thinking about serious matters that previous generations of musicians either coded their approach to, or simply did not broach at all for fear of the social/market consequences or simple inability to talk about. There might not be another instance in popular music history wherein subject matter relative to homeless, missing, and exploited children represented an artist’s most commercial success, and it says a great deal that Pirner was able to reach the awareness of those squeakiest of clean in the most varnished halls through his skillful overture to the filthy, poor, and vanished.
However, lest MTV get their way and have you forget, Soul Asylum are not of the Seattle grunge scene, or any other grunge scene, though Dave Pirner has many times made it known how close his “brothers-in-arms” relationships were with all of his grunge contemporaries like Chris Cornell. That being said, Soul Asylum are, foundationally, Minneapolis street rockers who happened to accidentally have the right hair and clothes at the same moment Eddie Vedder was impacting runways in Milan, and thus got to ride the crest of the same wave when fame finally came calling for them all. Soul Asylum’s birthplace scenemates were actually Hüsker Dü (whom Soul Asylum once tied with for “best garage band” in the city) and The Replacements, not Alice in Chains or Mother Love Bone. Bob Mould went on to produce Soul Asylum’s debut record in 1984. The Soul Asylum boys looked grungy because, well, they were grungy, in the truest sense of the word, living in vans and alternately trying to be The Butthole Surfers or becoming living characters from any number of The Butthole Surfers’ most precarious storylines. The socially-conscious subject matter of Soul Asylum lyrics, coupled with the fact that Bill Clinton kept asking them to play for him (1993 and 1995), saw them quickly become synonymous with the larger framework met by their battering ram of a 1992 release, Grave Dancer’s Union. So close were Pirner and Cornell in the early 1980s that Soundgarden opened for Soul Asylum the first time the streetwise striplings from the Land of 10,000 Lakes made their way to Seattle.
Pirner’s justifiable revulsion at the chintzy junk stocks that pass for human value systems is palpable in every javelined melodicism he ever hurled at the frottage and fug, even the ones he did not write. Two twinkling moments in this show where one could really get a vibe on who Soul Asylum is as a band occurred in their performance of the heartrending “If I Told You”, along with their heartfelt cover of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy”. The first, a sick-at-heart song about faded love that might just as easily have been an oil painting depicting volumetric clouds in so many shades of grey that known names for all the conjured colors ran out before the first bar was sung. The second, further proof that no one needed of how pure and undiluted Pirner’s connection to the American heartland, with all its chambered highs and lows, absolutely is. After all these years, he still plays like he is busking on the street and earnestly, effortlessly sang Campbell’s lyrics as if he had just torn them from a page in his first-ever tour diary.
Even folks who may not have their spirits redrawn by the music must fairly give Pirner a bow for his decades-long, ramrod resistance to materialism of any kind and his admirable failure to even touch a toe into that simpering holy huddle of entertainment do-gooders who virtue signaled before it was officially a thing. I have always maintained that if a person has to put it on a t-shirt, that person does not really believe or embody it. Dave Pirner, compliments of his ability to habitually write songs that function like overworked angels, forever fighting the invisible twin tigers of tyranny and torpidity, deserves to be on all of our t-shirts until we can get as consistently honest.
Readers of a certain age will relate to being able to look back on iconic Andrew McCarthy or Matt Dillon movies from the mid to late 1980s and realizing that it really is not about the movie at all; that it is entirely about Andrew McCarthy or Matt Dillon and how totally of the moment everything about them was in 1988. Or how one can look back at pictures shot on film 15 years ago (and that one raced to Wolf Camera to develop!), in the last gasp of analog photography before everyone had a cell phone, and suddenly recognize that all of the most basic, everyday cars in the background look totally exotic and prototypic because they are the best kind of dated/familiar to a time that is utterly gone. It is not until you see a 2002 Subaru Outback that you realize a) that nothing whatsoever looks anything like a 2002 Subaru Outback anymore and b) you really miss that. These bands are just like that – they are living, breathing, screaming, distorted yearbook pictures of that kid you sat next to every single day but had totally forgotten about, images that spark anamnesis so true to the mark that they only get truer to the mark as time goes on.
Seeing Local H and Soul Asylum on the same bill is as impossible to describe in words as might be an entente between, say, Traci Lords and Trish Goff – Local H all malfunctioning hyperdrives and Soul Asylum all greenwashed entropy, both blazingly beautiful. Illinois and Minnesota at bat to splice-jog your memory with regard to what middle America can mean to rock rectitude. Rather than feeling like sparring time bombs on a shared poster, Local H and Soul Asylum feel much more like the most charming curse-baiters and gadabouts you have ever laid ears on. Take the runaway train of the Dead Letter Tour the first chance you get. It crashes through all the right intersections and regally fails to yield at all the important contemporary “Stop” signs – like self-aggrandizing suckdom, for a start. The only stolen orphans on board are your memories of the halcyon days when bands were this powerfully original routinely – but had no idea that was a thing.