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Stephen Pride on the Range

by Brian Keizer

When I heard my first cassette of Stephen Pride's four-track demos it was around 1991 and I knew he was a 19 or 20 year old rocker who loved Prince and Dylan and Hank Williams and soaked up influence like a sponge. He was in bands; had been in bands and would be in others and was not primarily the front person in those bands, but he was writing stuff for himself and those bands and putting it on tape. He played all the instruments. Maybe I was biased from the start, since I heard the tapes first, but I never liked the bands as much as the tapes. Influence be damned and whatever it is in the face of how the world sizes you up but as a young rock kid from the West what Stephen was making was new rock. He could say Dylan or Prince if he wanted but you were going to think Westerberg, Mould and Uncle Tupelo.

When I first heard Stephen's stuff The Pixies were everything and about to go away. This was after all 90s music.  Soul Asylum was flirting with the Top 40 after a decade as left-of-the-dial road warriors.  The Replacements were getting all shook down and My Bloody Valentine were the sonic homecoming court at the Daydream Nation prom.  Nevermind hadn't yet dropped.  Guns N' Roses were the biggest band in the land, U2 the world.  PE and NWA had bumrushed center stage of the post-Pistols' show and it seemed aesthetics and culture politics could move the pop discourse.  A near 50 Neil Young dropped Ragged Glory on the Gulf War nation and toured with Sonic Youth as the bombs fell out of the marketplace.

Stephen Pride's songs were like the spirit of Jonathan Richman back at the Stop & Shop in "Road Runner." An object of desire, a soda, ambiguous attitude and the radio on.  That radio on.  A voice cracking for simple desire and then just as you moved in close mocking you.  The sad heart's comedy of Westerberg on "Unsatisfied." The fucking adolescent post-adolescent, late adolescent unmade generation and I-don't-give-a-fuck emotion at the Stop & Shop before the cultural ginsu configuration where a loud guitar's just a loud guitar.  That was what Stephen had.  It was an embryo but you leaned close to the speaker to hear it coming out.

In some ways Check Your Head was the most honest evocation of that nation.  Too many influences and too much fun in the garage skatepark to worry about cutting up the baby.  A baby just being born.

Nevermind hit.  Maybe you forgot, but apologies to Steven Wright, Kurt Cobain was the greatest deadpan comedian of the 90s, of the late 20th century.  That he was a one-man punk rock song factory; that's the legacy to bore future generations.  Lennon and McCartney were funnier in the grooves than in all those public put-ons.  In the 90s comedy was a sadistic dance to "Stuck in the Middle With You" and a cop's severed ear.  It was a watch stuck up an ass to hide it from the gooks.  It was black suited hitmen and the yellow brick road of Slacker.  I always thought the funniest scene in the movie was the car with the mounted speaker the morning after the pixelated clubrush.  "Guns for Sale.  Guns for Sale."  That was funny and it looked like a new morning in the 3rd world Slacker America I lived in.  It was a proleptic glimpse of Cobain's nation, the one that by 5 million and counting became a torn jean on a runway and the certain knowledge that fashion mavens weren't in the business they loved to look bad and distressed.  Fabulousness has a way of cutting into the native visual all-time and winking dismissively.  Disgruntled assholes with a truck and a fertilizer bomb outside a Federal building can pretty well put the kibosh on the mainstream's investiture in self-analyzing righteous anger.  The underground turned into the mainstream and then was sent back underground by slackers' little brothers and sisters.  The beauty of Nirvana's trajectory turned inward so every post-ironic nuthugger could read his line-by-line suicide theory until he got bored and bought whoever's record.  Cynicism and market share are insufferable partners, more so than anything this is what the teenage consumer said at the end of the 90s.  Be happy get a new haircut and find a girl or turn the baseball cap around stop grousing and get the fuck up.  Fuck things up and then invest in your own IPO.  We live in satisfied times.  Mostly that's what Klebold and Harris detested.  The happy faces in Abecrombie and Fitch.  Unfortunately the final act of those negative creeps is the point at which the schizophrenic pop rock nation met at the end of the 20th century.  Who can blame you for going into denial and turning up the ambient.

What does that have to do with Stephen Pride?

Nevermind that question.


--


There's a moment in Stephen's song "Help Yourself"; I guess it's the second verse but really the first verse because the "first verse" is a series of mumbled riddles.  Maybe I should describe the song's unfolding because it's one of the things that as I hear that moment over and over crystallizes its power and rises out of the mix into that individual subcortex that says that's sad and beautiful because I feel the truth of it like a memory come upon you on the street when the hurt is just for the time passed.  "Help Yourself" opens with a downshift of turnarounds like in medias res some epic song has come to this and then it lets us into a loping almost-epic sprawl.  Its harmonic form seems to suggest one of those mid-to-late-career Dylan story songs that unfold and unfold into a jeweled refrain, like "Every Grain of Sand," crossed with the Husker Du of Zen Arcade.  But almost as soon as the expectation is set up the pattern turns in on itself and changes time in an inevitable turnaround like life or perspective changed in mid-stride and you say well of course that's where it was always going.  You keep waiting for the words to this epic but they don't come.  Instead after an interim, you recognize the singer is mumbling. "How many lawyers does it take to butter a piece of toast?""--something like that.  You lean forward to hear not sure you even heard that.  And you hear a mumbled response or continuation.  "It doesn't take any lawyers to butter a piece of toast." And then the voice is there.  It's like a dolphin leaping free of the ocean.  "Shoot your breath into the air/It's so cold outside you can see it hanging there."  We are in the loping sprawl and the summery lassitude has already been cut by those lines.  "You are heavier in the water/You are safer at the shallow end."  And there comes the summer pool largesse  rising to the center of the mix.  It's a song of all seasons it seems, but one thing is certain, whoever he's singing to isn't going to get the verses to line-read and ponder.  All the main action of life is in the unsaid riddle, the space between the body and mind in nature.  And the turnaround is back throwing the whole proceedings back on themselves.  It's not all forward motion with the juxtaposed non sequitur dredging the lake of memory.  It's teasing and purposeful and you lean in for the next verse.  So maybe that moment is actually in the third verse?  It's almost maddening how the song structure keeps you hanging on; and then the voice rises again.  "I don't wanna ride in the middle front seat/I wanna stretch out in back with the big kids." The sudden immediacy of the lines and the first person unveiling is breathtaking then the reedy voice shrieks in childish plaint and lucid want.  "I don't wanna be the Princess/ I wanna be the dragon/ I wanna get the fuck out of this goddam station wagon."

Elvis Costello once remarked of the subject matter of Gen-X rock and roll at the moment of Nirvana and Pearl Jam's rise, that it was "Mom I just went pee pee music."  It was partially true and a cheap shot.  From a man who once rounded up Elvis's old band to wrap himself in their sound and aura it was hypocritical.  Elvis, Jerry Lee, Little Richard and the Poet Laureate and architect of the rock and roll dream, Chuck Berry, planted the city in the center of pop and dared teens to follow.  Of course they turned it to cash flow revolution.  That still is the heart of rock and roll's power.  It is not really a revolutionary music; it is a grace note on the bumper of the greatest economic engine ever created by man.  It blew up a world where two world wars fought by teenage boys and 20something soldiers could not end in a stifling repression of the inevitable forces wars are fought for-- at their most frivolous that translates into the rights of sweet little sixteen.  And lest we forget it is her body that drives the entire advertising age we live in.  The inheritors of the dream, the latch key kids raised in the broken familial landscape mined it with punk rock and hip hop beats and modern music is at that line.  That is rock and roll today, 20th century go to sleep.

Elvis Costello knows all this and as leader of the Attractions fronted one of the greatest shock rock combos to lace the teenage dream.  "Alison"'s solipsistic narrator is adolescent in mind and sneer.  It's that body of hers that's got him going all sarcastic. That he could generate witty rejoinders more voluminously than any rocker since Dylan pushed Costello into a song stylist who could be cynical perhaps about the lyricism of Gen-X rock, but the sonic punch carried the day.  The drama was in the mosh pit and on the turntables.  And finally the misleading simplicity of say Kurt Cobain and P.J. Harvey's lyrics returned rock to the crystalline gem hardness of blues lyricism with an open door always to dredge 20 years of post 60s rock lyricism.

But back to "Help Yourself," that fever dream of the American family locked in the station wagon, the organic way it rises out of the song, the voice: it stands with Nirvana's "Sliver" and a load of Michael Stipe vocalisms and lyrics as the most evocative generational recall for me (I mean the way a photo sums up a whole time of shared isolation for one and a shared process that is grade school and high school) of the whole sibling drama that is center stage as the extended family of time past dead ended into the nuclear family of modern day, the 2 and a half kid era rising out of the madeleine.

Then the final verse kicks in or rather collapses into as misanthropic a lyrical turnaround as most any of Elvis Costello's literate misanthropes, so tired of knowing they're never gonna get the chance to make "our little angel," have ever found themselves in.  This time the avalanche of downstrokes giving way to the loping guitar figure ushers in more discernible mumbling.  "Why did the divinely inspired man cross the road?" A long pause-- and then: "Because the sign said walk."  Then the voice rises again and it's back to that address of the first verse.  "So there is a script written for your life/written by a thousand monkeys who can type." There's a coppery taste of misanthropy in the air, the early seasons of youth, the eternal days in the sun and cold gone, the vision of that girl you feel he's addressing grown and onto new things and that hint of circular sarcasm is now just the bitterness of divided creation.  And the singer leans in with a joyless bitter summation of the story for all of us.  "It's pretty good right up until the end/the last twenty pages are really weird, they don't make any sense." And the downstroke that began the song erupts and lets us into the epic sprawl again.  Endlessly it seems you wait for more words.  There are none.  It stays open and nagging.  It doesn't post a reclamation against the tenets of life.  It just follows its form out and ends.

It's the kind of unpredictable artistic engagement I had leaned into the speaker and listened for on those first four track demos and it still staggers me to hear it now, as many times as I've traced its form.  It's a real song.  And if he did nothing else I would tell whoever would listen, this is a big something as songs go.  You can't ignore someone who can make a song like this; you have to follow the story out to the end.  I first heard that song in May of 1997.

But as always the story circles back.  In the early 90s, Stephen was in a Denver band called It.  The lead singer was a flamboyant guy who wore a chain from his nose to his ear and had a fab Cure hair-do.  The songs were smart and biting and the sound was formidable.  One of their signature songs was Stephen's minor early masterstroke "Video Queen."  It was a goofy-as-all-get-out song that got inside you and kept growing; it was funky, and the nerdy mocking "I'm a video queen" chorus had real malice hidden in it.  The Dead Milkmen never really got this pissed off in their nerdy way.  He glimpsed this egocentric dervish and just pasted it to the wall and because it was way into, say, Madonna's career, Post-Sex and all that, it seemed either backdated or ahead of its time.  Who could see Britney Spears coming up the pipe then, and Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore and on to all the boys dancing so pretty?  Stephen's demo of that song is 1991; he's younger than N'Sync and The Backstreet Boys and if you hear it you'll know how much he likes them now.  Plus you can hear the lanky Western kid who worshipped Prince.

It went the way of so many other bands and Stephen was on his own again with his demos.

Every now and again he'd wash up in Frisco and we'd see what's going on.  See some shows.  He was still in It back in 91 and 92.


--


He came back to San Francisco in '93 and we tripped around.  He was 23 or 24 I guess and was looking for The Burbank Sessions. It's rare Elvis and mint like a tailfin on a 57 Chevy.  Even the cynical know-it-alls behind the counter at the record shop gave him some credit for that.  They didn't have what we were looking for.  But they had some trace of respect for the goldmine buried under 'my taste is better than yours.'  He never collected anything just for show but to find the mechanics of the ineffable.  It was the high water mark of Pavement's underground renown.  Slanted and Enchanted a wired holy grail beneath the rivers of sidewalk, moving everywhere across the nation.  Watery Domestic was beautiful terminal graffiti.  Cobain passed.  Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain dropped.  To a 16 year old kid now "Range Life" might not mean anything.  It didn't really mean that much in relation to "Summer Babe" and "Gold Soundz," but it was a comic diary of the indie rock moment gone mainstream that signifies like crazy.

Stephen wanted to write an answer record to it.  He did.  It's called "Everybody's a Comedian."  It's like "Honky Tonk Women" written in a Sandinista world where the brilliant band's party line is flaring out into glorious beautiful musical configurations while they kick back Caribbean style with weed and blow and keep the rock star stuff on the down low for image's sake; the car he's riding in is picking up all the No Depression fumes as it goes.  It's all rock twang and kick drum and snare, loping intervals not so much band on the run as torn and frayed: "The crazy old man in the custom painted van doesn't give a good goddamn about your road trip to the coast/It's all about dollars and sense and you ain't making any and that's the part that cracks me up the most."  It sounds more like he's sending up himself than anybody else; it's the indie rock dream that's roasting -- and now that it's been forced underground again by the record company mergers, it's bittersweet venom. The verses scroll some shadowy betrayal and lesson of personal tumult.

It became a centerpiece of his next band's sets, along with "Spermatozoon", "Change the Station" and "Future President." The songs kept coming and Wash, a nifty smartass trio, finally gave Stephen some traveling companions to face off with.  He had graduated from U of Colorado at Denver in music and found his band of the streets.


--


Had Wash been together and at their best in the year and a half after Nirvana's rise I'm sure you would have heard of them, if only for a minute. After that year and a half of major label scouting wherein every white kid with torn jeans and a guitar behind the counter of a Taco Bell (or, like Stephen, a 7-11) in a band had been signed to some indie/major development deal, certainly I'm sure you would have heard of Stephen.  Maybe Denver would have gotten some new hot city buzz like Chapel Hill and San Diego and you fill in the blank.  In '97 they were doing gigs with bands like Dressy Bessy, labelmates to Denver's biggest band Apples in Stereo.  But the times were changing; the merger mania that found all the weird kids with the gold soundz searching for an audience commensurate with their capacity for ego and difficulty were about to be cut to the curb back out to indieville.  Ironically the Girlsville of Lilith went blockbuster mocking the guyville of indie rock fallen on a public worthy of its capacity for cynicism, a public willing to totally ignore it and raise the rap-rock greaser hordes above the madras stylings of Soc's like Pavement and all their comrades out on the range.


--


Maybe the best band Stephen was in during the last decade was the Dixieland band he played banjo in, the Claim Jumpers, who went to music festivals all over the country.  This was a serious all-ages show and band. There's video of Stephen burning down the house on a duet with a guy from the Claim Jumpers' parent band, the Queen City Jazz Band, who looks 80 if a not a day past 65.  Stephen is no slouch on the banjo or the National steel. Stephen was always certifiable no-depression with none of the recognizability of the movers.  Right sound and no timing again and again.


--


But Stephen's a musician and keeps on moving and plugging in or unplugging and rocking the mike at the coffeehouse (Hotel Utah and Sacred Grounds in San Francisco of late).  Stephen relocated to Frisco as his alliance with Mark Miller a big new music drummer on the 80s scene (John Zorn) began heating up.  Mark has been working with him to produce new sounds.  So now the progressive slippery Zappa-esque musical bent of some of those songs has a direction.  They're laying down tracks as we speak.

I think Frank Zappa would have liked some of Stephen's music. It's funny and insinuating; it creeps up on you.  It's got fucked time signatures and whacked guitar parts played because that's how the composition was going and he took himself seriously in the right way; if the guitar part meanders into that thick melodious shimmer and then swims around in 5/8 time for a while, that's purposeful.  Don't knock the rock confuse it and then knock it.

He hates phonies, whether they come on all smug and you're-lucky-to-know-me-sport or so cool and humble and I-have-no-idea-how-I-got-on-20-channels-and-40-inches-of-copy -in-every-paper-and-magazine-in-the-free-world.  He hates guys and girls on billboards way more than I could ever manage to muster and really doesn't seem to think he would feel differently if only that mannequin would fuck him.  Which isn't to say he's more allergic to cheese than you are. You won't admit it but your cynical ass is eating up cheese with your Wall Street Journal everytime the IPO craze sells you a new technorific American hoohah.  He'll take the cheese straight up over the top and with a little guitar skronk, while you get it fed guilty pleasure up your anus via Behind the Music and Where are They Now.  I don't know where Warrant is now and I don't really know where it all went downhill for Poison but I know this: Blind Willie McTell is dead and still no one can play the blues like Blind Willie McTell.  On your mama's grave I'll swear that to you.  Stephen has a National Steel, a Martin acoustic and a banjo and he knows because he's tried, and those songs' factual obsolescence is as myopic as VHl's dichotomy of legends and has-beens.  It leaves no room for the Ramones or for Tampa Red. What does it mean if Hank Williams don't mean nothing to you? You get a self-fulfilling prophecy if with your other hand you're selling the warm studio run-off until it comes around for its close-up of crypto-conservative risk management-look at the gamblers at the end of the line.  Don't worry you missed the party, look at the mess and chuckle for not having to even waste your schadenfreude.  Mr. Jones, the wildest thing in your America is the commercials.

So I don't know what commercial place there is for Stephen Pride. Show Business has two elements and only fools and romantics ignore one element and still hope to come out all right. After the third time it's only the soft in the head who don't get a little wiser if still a whole lot sadder, so be it.  Unfortunately there are some people I'm sure who follow the hopeful line out to the end.  In a number of years I'm sure I'll see a flawless documentary about one or more of them.  And smart, literate keen film watchers will savor the life going down like a trainwreck.  I hope it's not your life and I hope it's not mine.  And I know for sure Stephen Pride's life won't be found out that way; which only gives me a little comfort. Stephen Pride is a rock and roll artist and songfolk; he could have been a studio musician but wanted the line of his composition. He works by intuition and the raw nerve of emotion that is just trying to find a way to get through this thing and not just go to the volume and the head shake every time the calculus of life doesn't add up.  I wish many more hearts up on that ledge with the invisible boy when the underside of satisfied times shows itself and people are ready to get back to music that informs the culture is outro or roots rock formal and beautiful and signifies.  That music is all around us still but is not selling in show business today.  The art that is not in the words "show business" is a gamblers' hand in a usurer's hell-a-dice.  Sometimes you get it, sometimes you go down hard and fast, and sometimes like Howlin' Wolf showed in "Going Down Slow," you just take your ride and let reclamation outweigh regret.

In Stephen Pride's songs I've swum upstream with a sperm, watched the stations go by and forgot if I was riding that late night radio on ... or taking a train.  I've known the dull thrill of baby blue mustang which is like the dull thrill of a girl you like but who is emotionally present but unavailable or logistically unavailable; the yearning gone to straw and a burned barn for how the midnight hour is lonelier more so than not.  I've thrilled to the deadpan overload of "Old Ladies Reading the Bible," a song that will only date when there is no religious right to fly the flag every four years and scare the mass into realizing how few votes away from Roe vs. Wade's overturning we are.  Still it's a song for last season and the next, for everyone who didn't forget that Frank Zappa faced off with the potential first lady of our nation back on Capitol Hill not too long ago.  Be satisfied and watch the Dateline piece on what a hip liberal lady the first mother of music censorship is, and go buy some stock online, but Stephen has that cold 15-year-old intuition of right and wrong down.  Finally he might have it down colder and it might be time to retire all the stereotypes we hold to so dearly in pop about youth seeing the truth about power and speaking truth to power.  When the number of girls under 18 having boob jobs has risen by 140% in the last five years, let's just say truth's not as simple as it used to be.  I always thought truth in the crude common parlance was overrated, mainly because what people are usually talking about is the way it is, not truth.  If truth was so easy to see we wouldn't have so many people wandering around on Prozac and locked in therapy sessions to get right and function out here in the world.  Truth is shadowy.  Stripped of the means of distributing and playing and set loose in the air, music is just a sound in your mind communicated from another host body or set of bodies to a receiver.  Yet it holds in some respects along with painting and sculpture the purest history of man's time shucking his own shit for a trip to the four winds in a parade of ash for that little semiquaver of time that is human history.  Stephen Pride is like a local hero no one knows not in his locale because everyone's always moving on these days who walks into your stop&shop for a newspaper then drives by later to get some beer and find out how the poor slob who's doing the job he used to do in late night Denver convenience hell is holding up and in between the time he walked in and drove in and walked by and drove by all the while with the late night radio on he was painting a sound in the mind and on tape and in some bar or club that is like a cave painting of how we stumble through and how we live and lie to ourselves and live some more and erupt in noise and squalor and zone out into private space and melancholy and the epic of our family lives receding into two generations' emotional recall at most and how that is the collective confidence-man hustle of now that is another cage of the present future generations will laugh to see we didn't figure out.  Stephen's laughing already even as he's shot down in flames again.