Saturday, June 19, 2010
Why it's an Enormous Richard reunion and "Almanac" reissue!
Enormous Richard, a throwback from the early days of the St. Louis indie rock and alternative country scenes, will have a reunion weekend this summer, with gigs Friday, July 23 at Jacobsmeyers Tavern, 2401 Edwardsville Rd. in Granite City (trading sets with the house string band, early to late); and Saturday, July 24 at The Duck Room (8 pm Lettuceheads, 9:15 pm Karate Bikini, 10:30 pm Enormous Richard).
The occasion: the first-ever reissue on CD of Enormous Richard's first recording, Why It's Enormous Richard's Almanac, originally released as a 90-minute cassette in 1990 - the same summer Uncle Tupelo released its first record on LP, No Depression. Here is a draft of the liner notes for The Almanac reissue.
Why It’s Enormous Richard’s Almanac
In the summer of 1990, a campus band from St. Louis crossed the Mississippi River and descended into the basement of a modest home next to a hair salon in the dwindling steel town of Granite City, Illinois. The hair salon, somewhat improbably, had a giant pair of wooden scissors jammed into its front lawn, by way of advertisement, which became part of this band’s iconography when they were surprised to find they liked their farewell recordings enough to release them. They released 30 songs, out of 34 recorded that weekend in the basement, as Why It’s Enormous Richard’s Almanac: 30 Skuntry Hits, and its hand-drawn cover featured tiny drawings that evoked the odd subjects of the songs and circumstances of the recordings.
This band, Enormous Richard, sprang up as a diversion for graduate students at one of the most elite and expensive universities in the Midwest, Washington University. Their first excuse to play together was a Rock for Reproductive Rights benefit organized by the frontman, Chris King, a graduate student in literature, like the core of the band. That performance, under-rehearsed as all of the band’s performances would be, was observed by the rock critic for St. Louis’ daily newspaper, Steve Pick. He decided to profile the new band in the newspaper, at a time when there was not such a glut of new bands playing their own odd songs as there is nowadays. This unexpected attention both bolstered the confidence of the band to keep going beyond their initial, one-off benefit gig, and inspired the first in a series of portrait songs that would help define the band’s sets and, eventually, The Almanac: “Steve Pick, Music Critic”.
The grad student core of the band, which also included Marshall Boswell on guitar and Joe Esser on bass, needed to dig into the campus undergraduate rock band scene to round out the lineup. Elijah Shaw, one of the most talented musicians on campus, was enlisted with the promise that he could learn new instruments, essentially, on stage – as he proceeded to do, picking up harmonica, banjo, fiddle, melodica, and a smattering of accordion over a hectic year of local gigs. Matt Fuller, from the legendary campus band Butt of Jokes, by then defunct, joined up for only the one gig. When the one gig yielded press attention that provoked further performance opportunities, Matt stayed aboard for “one more gig,” an agreement that was extended and compounded, gig after gig after gig. He ended up staying with Enormous Richard, in large part, because they were so much better at getting gigs than what he considered to be his primary band, Frog Punch, which was fronted by the shy rock guitar firestorm, John Minkoff. Eventually John, too, drifted into Enormous Richard, when he finally came to the conclusion that they had good songs and what he described as a “messy hilarity” that he found attractive, but stood badly in need of some twangy electric guitar licks.
Indeed, they did need that. Though Elijah Shaw was an inventive guitar player, he was busy in this band playing other instruments he didn’t know how to play. Marshall Boswell was a fine guitar player – a fine acoustic rhythm guitar player. The band had another musician, Richard Skubish, who was an adequate guitar player – an adequate acoustic rhythm guitar player. There was never a need for two acoustic rhythm guitar players, except when you are a local band that is in it, mostly, for the free beer and the good times, in which case you don’t strategize too much about your sound or the band in general. If you are still getting gigs, then the band must be working out just fine. It helped, or hurt, that Enormous Richard mostly played local venues with shoddy monitors or none at all, so they never really heard how good, or bad, they sounded. But they were young guys and wrote songs as fast as an undergraduate in his first apartment cooks eggs, and they performed their songs with a messy hilarity that (it must be admitted) kept the girls dancing and drinking long enough to go home, for the night, with the boys. And, if you can help a bar sell beer and young people find temporary mates, there will always be a gig for you.
The silly songs were always the most successful, as might be expected for a band such as Enormous Richard. “Dogs with Their Heads out the Window” could be defended as a song about the limits of human freedom, but most obviously it provided an opportunity to dog-howl into a beer-soaked bar. “Hanging out with Jesus” could be analyzed as a new synoptic gospel, told from the point of view of one of the thieves crucified next to Christ, but the first thing you noticed were the sacrilegious, scurrilous jokes at the expense of the Son of Man. “We’re not REM” could be understood as gimlet-eyed rock criticism, sending up the countless REM clones cluttering the indie rock band scene, as Camper Van Beethoven had parodied the first twang trend with “Cowboys from Hollywood,” but the thing people remembered was that the drunken band was stumbling around onstage singing that they were not REM, they were not REM, they were Enormous Richard, they were Enormous Richard – which was itself, of course, a ridiculous band name: Little Richard, only bigger; or a pompous way to boast of sexual endowment, depending on how you heard the pun.
But these were thoughtful young men blowing off steam (and paper-grading gruntwork) in the beery bars of St. Louis, and there were serious songs embedded in their set list and the murk of their unrehearsed musicianship. Two fan favorites from the band’s earliest days, “Little Hiawatha” and “All the Greatest Matadors were Fascists,” both told harrowing stories with catchy hooks. The Navajo boy adopted by a Mormon family in “Little Hiawatha” is called an “apple,” which sounds like a throwaway line, unless you know that “apple” is the American Indian variant of an “Oreo” (an insult for a homogenized black person): red only on the outside; all white inside. And the storyline of “All the Greatest Matadors were Fascists” is ripped right out of the highest tradition of 20th century literary reportage, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which indeed reports the phrase used as the hook of the song verbatim in a crucial moment during the Spanish Civil War. Other early Enormous Richard lyrics were pulled from the headlines of the day to make catchy pop (and turgid folk) songs out of current political events: “Ku Klux Kourt” bemoaned President Ronald Reagan stacking the highest court with heartless conservatives; “Promising Young Republican” reminded the new right wingers that they shared political convictions with mass rapist and murderer Ted Bundy; and “Afraids” (somewhat prophetically) parodied the straight male who was cocksure he would never contract AIDS, so long as his many unprotected sexual conquests don’t “whore or score”.
Marshall Boswell left the band first, to focus on his graduate studies and to write books, as he has gone on to do quite successfully. John Minkoff stepped into his spot, and what the band lost in Marshall’s sense of rhythm and soulful singing voice was more than compensated for with actual electric guitar licks, you know, like all the other rock bands had. Johnny, however, was the next to go after his graduation, and it was his leaving St. Louis for more urban pastures in Washington, D.C. that provided the impetus for the two days and nights in that basement, recording the band in Granite City. (The dying steel city across the river was Skubish and King’s hometown, full of unassuming houses with basements where rock band noise could be made, day and night, without irritating the neighbors.) Like the band’s first gig, meant to be their last, their first recording session also was intended to be the only – it was just an attempt to record their songs as future keepsakes. But the band that had never rehearsed away from the stage and had never performed with adequate monitors was amazed to hear itself, for the first time, playing back on the cassettes they recorded in that basement, with Johnny’s spidery guitar lines adding character to the messy hilarity. They were highly surprised to like it, in spite of everything. They decided to print it up and share it and see what happened.
They crammed every available inch of a 90-minute cassette with “30 Skuntry Hits,” using an inside joke for their music – “Skuntry” – coined by Marshall, which has other reference points, but is best parsed as a mash-up of skunk (the band’s malodorous musical totem) and country. For Enormous Richard did play a role in the country rock revival (otherwise known as alternative country, or twang) of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. The summer of 1990, when Enormous Richard’s Almanac was recorded and released, also saw the release of the first record by the very best indie rock band in St. Louis, now remembered as iconic, since it splintered into Son Volt and the world-famous Wilco: Uncle Tupelo, with their debut No Depression. For reasons best known to the writers of those tomes, Enormous Richard has not appeared in the history books written about this minor musical movement, though their ties to Uncle Tupelo – hailed as pioneers – were pretty close. The Almanac was released the same summer as No Depression, which was titled after a Carter Family song (and went on to name an influential magazine), and The Almanac also included a Carter Family cover, “Gospel Ship”. The Almanac was recorded in Granite City, just a few towns over from Belleville, Illinois, which Uncle Tupelo put on the map. The bands knew each other and played together. They appeared together on Out of the Gate, consummate scenester Rick Wood’s compilation of the country music revival in St. Louis that predated almost anything else like it anywhere. Enormous Richard even bought the first Uncle Tupelo van, Old Blue, which they finished driving into the ground, years after the release of The Almanac caught the eye of the mighty Cabaret Metro in Chicago and sprung the upstart Skuntry band out of St. Louis, putting them on the road for years and years of completely unexpected and amazing gigs and experiences.
Along the way, Enormous Richard evolved into Eleanor Roosevelt, and under that name appeared on several national compilations – including one of the first volumes of “Insurgent Country” music released by the seminal Bloodshot Records in Chicago. As Eleanor Roosevelt gradually petered out, the core of the band shifted into a field recording collective, Hoobellatoo, which was profiled on the BBC and still survives today as the non-profit arts organization Poetry Scores. Improbably, the original songwriting core of this funny country band of graduate students trying to run away from literature now sets long poems by the world’s greatest poets – Les Murray, Ece Ayhan, Paul Muldoon – to music, as one would score a film, and releases these “poetry scores” on CD. These scores then provide the starting point for silent zombie movies written, shot, and edited to their music. Twenty years after The Almanac was recorded and released, as its first reissue on CD was being prepared, the first Poetry Scores silent zombie movie, Blind Cat Black, was being readied to screen in Istanbul, Turkey. These lucky dogs who stuck their heads out the window of graduate school in St. Louis twenty years ago, looking for some fun and open air, now find their music roaming the streets of Istanbul in the skins of blind black cats, still exploring the limits of human freedom, still looking for a warm, crowded tavern where they might yowl away the night.
-- Chris King