Brian Keizer is the author of "Liner Notes: Neil Young," produced by
Dave Marsh. He has written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Spin, and contributed to
"50 Ways to Fight Censorship" by Dave Marsh, and "The New Book of Rock Lists,"
by Dave Marsh and James Bernard. This essay was written back in
When I heard my first cassette of Stephen Pride's four-track
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
young rock kid from the West what Stephen was making was new rock. He
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
to go away. This was after all 90s music. Soul Asylum was flirting
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
dropped. Guns N' Roses were the biggest band in the land, U2 the world.
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
Youth as the bombs fell out of the marketplace.
Stephen Pride's songs were like the spirit of Jonathan Richman
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
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
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
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
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
bore future generations. Lennon and McCartney were funnier in the
than in all those public put-ons. In the 90s comedy was a sadistic
"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
the yellow brick road of Slacker. I always thought the funniest
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.
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
fertilizer bomb outside a Federal building can pretty well put the kibosh
the mainstream's investiture in self-analyzing righteous anger. The
underground turned into the mainstream and then was sent back underground
slackers' little brothers and sisters. The beauty of Nirvana's
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"How many lawyers does it take to butter a piece of toast?"--something
that. You lean forward to hear, not sure you even heard that. And
a mumbled response or continuation. "It doesn't take any lawyers to
a piece of toast." And then the voice is there. It's like a dolphin
free of the ocean. "Shoot your breath into the air/It's so cold outside
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
largesse rising to the center of the mix. It's a song of all
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
unsaid riddle, the space between the body and mind in nature. And the
turnaround is back throwing the whole proceedings back on themselves.
not all forward motion with the juxtaposed non sequitur dredging the lake
memory. It's teasing and purposeful and you lean in for the next verse.
maybe that moment is actually in the third verse? It's almost maddening
the song structure keeps you hanging on; and then the voice rises again.
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/
wanna get the fuck out of this goddam station wagon."
Elvis Costello once remarked of the subject matter of Gen-X rock
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
who once rounded up Elvis's old band to wrap himself in their sound and
it was hypocritical. Elvis, Jerry Lee, Little Richard and the Poet
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
cash flow revolution. That still is the heart of rock and roll's power.
is not really a revolutionary music; it is a grace note on the bumper of
greatest economic engine ever created by man. It blew up a world where
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
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,
century go to sleep.
Elvis Costello knows all this and as leader of the Attractions
one of the greatest shock rock combos to lace the teenage dream.
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
rock, but the sonic punch carried the day. The drama was in the mosh
and on the turntables. And finally the misleading simplicity of say
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
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
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
A long pause-- and then: "Because the sign said walk." Then the voice
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
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.
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
It's the kind of unpredictable artistic engagement I had leaned
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
real song. And if he did nothing else I would tell whoever would
this is a big something as songs go. You can't ignore someone who can
a song like this; you have to follow the story out to the end. I first
heard that song in May of 1997.
as always the story circles back. In the early 90s, Stephen was in
a Denver band called It.
The lead singer was a flamboyant
who wore a chain from his nose to his ear and had a fab Cure hair-do.
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
nerdy way. He glimpsed this egocentric dervish and just pasted it to
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
is 1991; he's younger than N'Sync and The Backstreet Boys and if you hear
you'll know how much he likes them now. Plus you can hear the lanky
kid who worshipped Prince.
It went the way of so many other bands and Stephen was on his own
with his demos.
Every now and again he'd wash up in Frisco and we'd see what's
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
and mint like a tailfin on a 57 Chevy. Even the cynical know-it-alls
the counter at the record shop gave him some credit for that. They
have what we were looking for. But they had some trace of respect for
goldmine buried under 'my taste is better than yours.' He never
anything just for show but to find the mechanics of the ineffable. It
the high water mark of Pavement's underground renown. Slanted and
a wired holy grail beneath the rivers of sidewalk, moving everywhere across
the nation. Watery Domestic was beautiful terminal graffiti.
passed. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain dropped. To a 16 year old kid
"Range Life" might not mean anything. It didn't really mean that much
relation to "Summer Babe" and "Gold Soundz," but it was a comic diary of
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
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
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
in music and found his band of the streets.
Had Wash been together and at their best in the year and a half
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
Hill and San Diego and you fill in the blank. In '97 they were
with bands like Dressy Bessy, labelmates to
Denver's biggest band Apples in Stereo. But the times were changing;
merger mania that found all the weird kids with the gold soundz searching
for an audience commensurate with their capacity for ego and difficulty
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
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
Stephen was always certifiable no-depression with none of the
recognizability of the movers. Right sound and no timing again and
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 M.E. Miller, a big new music drummer on the 80s scene
Zorn), began heating up. Miller has been working with him to produce new
sounds. So now the progressive slippery Zappa-esque musical bent 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.
funny and insinuating; it creeps up on you. It's got fucked time
and whacked guitar parts played because that's how the composition was
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
He hates phonies, whether they come on all smug and
you're-lucky-to-know-me-sport or so cool and humble and
-in-every-paper-and-magazine-in-the-free-world. He hates guys and girls on billboards
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
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
the IPO craze sells you a new technorific American hoohah. He'll take
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
it all went downhill for Poison but I know this: Blind Willie McTell is
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
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
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
risk management-look at the gamblers at the end of the line. Don't
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
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
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
film watchers will savor the life going down like a trainwreck. I hope
not your life and I hope it's not mine. And I know for sure Stephen
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
Wade's overturning we are. Still it's a song for last season and the
for everyone who didn't forget that Frank Zappa faced
off with the
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
that cold 15-year-old intuition of right and wrong down. Finally he
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
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
is the way it is, not truth. If truth was so easy to see we wouldn't
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.
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
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
is human history. Stephen Pride is like a local hero no one knows not
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.