Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Guest Blogger: Andy Smetanka. Photos by Dan Engler.
Mike And Rick
Until a few years ago  I carried at least one apple box full of old, poorly-organized cassettes, virtually none of them with cases intact, from one house to the next in Missoula, every time I moved. I'd been doing this for over twenty years until I just said just said the hell with it: I'm not even going to look into the box this time. Not going to get sucked in again. I'm just going to leave the box out in an alley with a FREE sign on it.

Have you ever found a lost or discarded collection (perhaps in, ahem, a “cassette caddy”) of someone else's mix tapes and listened with guilty pleasure to the unfolding psychological profile, in music, of a complete anonymous stranger? I know I have. When I was ten or twelve, my dad found a suitcase full of pow-wow cassettes in the parking lot behind his office: one-off recordings of Crow, Kiowa, Northern Cheyenne and Blackfeet drum music from various Montana tribal gatherings throughout the '70s. Maybe eighty of them. That blew our minds, mine and my younger sister's. We listened to lots of them. We were also excited about recording things off the radio, but we promised our dad we would not record over any of these Indian tapes. I hope that suitcase is still in his vast collection of old stuff somewhere.

Well, somebody found my old apple box full, because the next time I looked into the alley it was gone.  I felt confident and relieved in this great gifting of magnetized tape to a random stranger—a budding young cassettologist, one hopes, who will keenly tuck in—because I reckoned there was no longer anything irreplaceable in it.

The irreplaceable has been gradually set aside. Over the years and between moves, I've gradually sifted out anything Made in Missoula and moved it to a separate and much smaller box. Hard choices: a couple of mix tapes from old girlfriends or prospective girlfriends held on in that Missoula box until that last fateful change of residence, but in the end it seemed sort of lovely to turn those musical mash-notes loose into the world again, anonymously, fluttering like windborne smooches, and each one a kind of spore with another chance to find purchase.

Dan Strachan, Oblio Joes  ca. mid '90s
But the Missoula stuff: I dug it up it last month while moving again, and it's pretty much all I've been listening to for two weeks in my new deluxe North Side garage studio/basic man-cave. What kind of cassettes am I talking about? Let me name ye a few: a rare copy of the Oblio Joes' first recorded efforts: the 1993 Christmas Break four-track sessions. It was clear within a few seconds of popping it it into a tape deck that the recording was still crispy and crunchy and perfectly preserved after its two-decade sleep. Right beneath that, I found a cassette copy of Johnny Joe's four-track solo album, Can't Think What I'm Saying, recorded under the name Johnny Apple. Not widely released, to say the least, but it's great navel-gazing stuff. The first track (it must be called “I Don't Know What I'm Going to Do Today”) is a favorite: virtually guitarless. except for a lazily heroic solo that sounds like J. Mascis playing through an itty-bitty Peavey Rage.

I have these things on CD as well, but tape is way better. It's got muscle and period authenticity. The wearisome debate between MP3 and vinyl etc. etc. completely discounts the fact that some music is best heard through a shitty tape deck, be it in a man-cave or a weaving Subaru driving up to the sledding hill after the bars all closed.

Humpy. Denis O'Brien, Andy Smetanka and Dave Parsons
Also rescued from oblivion: rough cassette mix of songs from the unfinished (i.e. barely started) 1999 Humpy LP, with vocals on about half the tunes.  Also a copy of the Povstock! compilation, featuring a couple songs apiece from the nine or possibly nine million bands that played a chaotic all-ages benefit show for the Poverello Center in February, 1994 while just down the street Roxy Theater was burning to the ground.

Also: The only existing recordings (so far as I know) of Bastard Squad and the Grilled Cheese Sandwiches (two bands, although it would be a good name for just one band). A tape marked “Fiorello” in handwritten block letters that turns out to be a boom-box recording of a Phantom Imperials practice. The only song I could name was “O.J. Simpson,” but it all sounds fantastically loud and noisy--again, like it's just yesterday and you didn't mean to interrupt practice, you just wanted to drop by and pick up some handbills for this show coming up. Heart Breaker!

Treasure, I'm telling you! The oldest of these cassette recordings predate, by two or three years at least, any of our wildest notions that a Jay's band could make a CD. Records seemed more within the realm of possibility, but expensive, and recording options were few compared to today. Most of us weren't familiar with the process, didn't relish the idea of paying for it, but were grateful when a couple of people (Abe Baruck in particular) finally came along and said: Hey, I can do that, and cheap! But at some point everyone recorded themselves on a boom box, and in many cases there's still only that one copy. I seem to have a lot of those only-one-copies in my small collection; I'm happy and relieved they've survived two decades of indifferent storage while they were in my care, and I look forward to returning many of them to their original creators at the year's Total Fest--with the condition they burn me a CD copy in return. Once, or if ever, they figure out how to do that.  On second thought, maybe I will just hang on to them.

So. I am gradually arriving at my point. In listening to all of this vintage Missoula rock glory (the better to get primed for the last TF, of course), I'm struck by how many good songs Missoula bands wrote in the '90s (and here I must also mention the Rat Boy's Choice cassette by old-school, pre-Jay's hippie misfits Judy Rosen Parker, which continues to amaze). More so, that all these bands seemingly wrote and played them under the understandable assumption that few people outside the valley—indeed, outside a very small group of locals—would ever hear them. Struggle to imagine this, young people: we didn't have bandcamp or the internet at all.

It's debatable whether the mass distribution of music by internet has diluted away any discernible trace of a regional sound to set Missoula apart from Any Other College Town, USA, but then, it isn't accurate to say there was any particular Missoula sound back in the 1990s, either. I suppose we all aspired to Fireballs of Freedom levels of showmanship and reputation (“greasy” was about the highest accolade you could hang on a rock band in 1995) and envied the Oblio Joes their gift for girl-hypnosis, but taken together it was more like a defining spirit. In Jay's Upstairs, at least, between 1993 and 2000 or so we had a unifying place—had it all to ourselves, in fact—where just about anything was allowed to thrive. As long as you rocked somehow and weren't a bunch of dicks, you were in. A lot of people still think it was some elitist rock clubhouse, but really it was as simple as that.

Almost of these old “Jay's bands” had at least one signature song, a crowd shout-along or a standby set-closer by which to flicker on in Missoula rock posterity. But not just every Jay's band had a bona fide anthem. That's true of bands everywhere, of course. How do you describe an anthem? I dunno. But you know it when you hear it, and wherever in the ethers anthems come from, not just every band manages to summon one. You don't just sit down and write a rock anthem, do you?

The Oblio Joes
Perhaps it's a problem of abundance. Take the Oblio Joes. This is just my personal bias, of course, but as much as I love the Obes, particularly their early days, no one song of theirs stands head and shoulders above the others as a crowd-unifying anthem. In any set, the Oblios had at least five songs that were anthems if only for the evening—tunes that were just woozily, belovedly, 100% perfectly them, but supplied the soundtrack to our own lives at the same time. On any given night at Jay's between 1993 and 1998, just about any Oblios song might ring like a personal anthem to whatever you happened to be feeling. One of my happiest memories of Jay's is one of bringing a new girlfriend (a non-scene type, which was how I preferred to keep things) to her first Obes show and feeling the squalling guitars of “In Love and Insane” washing over us, just for us, whacking our ears and hearts and genitals with a giant romantic indie-rock tuning fork! I can tell you with certainty that “In Love and Insane” is exactly what it sounded like to fall in love at Jay's Upstairs in the fabled Summer of 1995.

Then again, “Sometimes I Wish You Were a Girl,” another crowd-melting Oblios show-ender from that era, was actually an ecstatic testament of Platonic love between Johnny and Stu. Never mind: it still had the most joyous audience vocal participation of any song in its day. Still, if I had to nominate one Oblios tune for special anthem status, it would be “Space Opera,” a song set in space that nonetheless taps into an intangible but very earthly longing, and adds a guitar solo that peaks in a shower of starlike twinkles. I can see I must move on here.

You'd think a band as swaggeringly self-aware of its own mythology in the making as Fireballs of Freedom would have anthems by the bagful, and to a certain extent you'd be right. Most Fireballs of Freedom songs are, of course, anthems to the Fireballs of Freedom and their exploits, and their lyrics would probably read like an encrypted version of every side-splitting band story Kelly Gately has ever told you—if only, you know, you could tell what in the world the brother was singing about. (Gately, for the record, insists he has handwritten copies of all his lyrics.) For me, Fireballs songs are anthemic only in those places where Gator's worldview is somehow made available to me (to be fair, I'm terrible with picking out lyrics in loud music), and on that score there's no touching the chorus of “The Dart Song,” which is as anthemic in its celebration of youth and freedom and the right wheels as a chorus can be: “When I'm driving down the freeway/I always get stoned/When I'm driving in the Dodge Dart/I'm always at home.” In my alternate rock universe, Fireballs of Freedom write the music for all Super Bowl advertisements.

At this point, having dispensed with my two cents re: anthems, you might be asking yourself if I would nominate any songs by my own band, Humpy, to be considered for this status. To the extent that one can make these calls about one's own band, I would say: No. The song most attached to us, the one with the loudest sing-a-long factor and almost invariably our last song of the night, is the rare song we did not actually write ourselves: “You Make Me Sick.” Anthemic it might be; ours it was not, despite the fact that we undeniably put our stamp on it. We didn't even hear the original version bySatan's Rats first: We had a cassette copy of a soundalike version by the German band Upright Citizens, passed to me on a trip through northern Finland and Norway by a gaunt exchange student named Jörn, and the reason the Humpy version came out like it did is probably that we only ever listened to it together once.   Unfortunately, I never bothered to learn the lyrics—or, indeed, any consistent lyrics at all—which shortcoming alone must disqualify our version from top-tier punk anthem status.

Mike and Rick
To the point, then: There is really only one Missoula song, in my estimation, that transcends the personal and the microcosmic and the self-mythologizing and really reaches the rarefied atmosphere of the regionally, if not quite universally, anthemic. That song is “Sunset on Evaro,” by Mike and Rick.  Not a duo, Mike and Rick was/is actually a three-piece, with none of its members named Mike or Rick. They are, in fact: Tim Graham (guitar, vocals), Joe Mudd (bass, vocals) and Dave Knadler (drums, vocals).

In the halcyon mid-to-late '90s they inhabited, Mike and Rick's aesthetic seems to have reached them by budget time machine from the Missoula County Fair, circa 1985: local culture at its most gleefully trashy, fast-forwarded for ironic rockist reconstruction in 1997, complete with name-checked Z28s and some crayzee weerd-spelled titles on tha Prince/Slade/Poison typp 2 boot . Not a gimmicky band by any stretch, but definitely into exploring territory equally authentic to Missoula and its environs. By the time they released their own CD in 2000, Who's Gonna Kick Your Ass vol. I, their penchant for riff-rockin'  arch-drollery had whisked them quite away from any familiar trucker-chic trappings of retro irony to follow, of all things, in the steps of Lewis and Clark with a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek retelling of the slogging Expedition as a lonely, horny effort with an unaccommodating Sacajawea everyone's only hope of heterosexual coitus. And just in time for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial! “Pride of America” is also an anthem of a sort, a damned catchy and daringly irreverent song (given the bicentennial milieu), and pound for brilliant pound probably the Mike and Rick track I most admire. 

But, like I say, nothing quite compares to “Sunset on Evaro.” From the molasses-thick opening guitar blast, it is anthem WRIT LARGE, rolling on unstoppably through hand-clapping, foot-stomping singalong to a shaggy jazz-chord comedown.

Evaro, of course, isn't a place where you'd think to go to watch a sunset unless you lived there, and very few people do. It's a little cluster of a town at the top of Evaro Hill, north and west of Missoula on Highway 93, and for that reason a kind of first landmark when you're getting out of town and headed on northerly adventures. In Mike and Rick's case, probably in a fully tricked-out stabbin'-cabin of an orange shag-carpet lined Ford van with sunsets airbrushed on the sides. In any case, the sundown is more figurative than literal, here, used more in the sense of curtains falling on something. The protagonist seems to be leaving Evaro to start his life again elsewhere---in Turah, to be precise, which is just priceless.

Mike And Rick
It's the almost haphazard mention of these places  (plus the Wilma and the Oxford Cafe--“No better place,” goes the triumphant chorus, “to get fucked up!”) that hints at the mystical alchemy of how anthems are made. It hardly sounds fussed-over; from the opening chord, you simply ride along with Mike and Rick, almost like they're extemporizing their private tour of the town and its environs, the places fixed in our local and mental geography—even unassuming old Evaro. If you know the places—and all Missoulians do—you become passenger, participant and proud booster in the musical version. And even if you forget the words once or twice, there's the chorus to redeem you: “Sunset on Evaro/Keeps calling me to my home...”

To redeem us all. You will never hear a Missoula crowd sing along louder and more ebulliently with one of its own. We're home and we know it (even those who no longer live here), and this is the song that sums it up perfectly. Missoula, this is your anthem!

Mike and Rick songs
Garden City Woman
Cobra Glow

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