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Despite this attention, however, Pirner maintains a becoming modesty. For instance, he and his bandmates happily agreed to back up Lou Reed and Iggy Pop at the giant concert held in conjunction with the grand opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland last month, but unlike Bon Jovi, the Gin Blossoms and plenty of others, they eschewed the opportunity to perform a set of their own.
"The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is always going to be a controversial idea. But to me, it was more about acknowledging those who came before you--which a lot of bands don't want to do. I remember when the Undertones and all those English punk groups were denouncing the Rolling Stones and the Who, and to me that's just a big laugh. How can you play a three-chord song and think you invented the three-chord song? It's just ridiculous. By taking that attitude, I think you're taking yourself out of a lot of fun. To think that you're not a part of a great history if you're in a rock band is bullshit. But I also think it's normal. There's a lot of bitter, resentful defensiveness out there. But that's something you kind of grow out of, I guess."
Pirner's defense of the Hall of Fame isn't out of character for him; he delights in tweaking alternative expectations. For example, he's an extremely vocal supporter of singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, a vocalist and composer who some might put in the folk pigeonhole. "I think Victoria is a genius," he enthuses about Williams, who was saluted several years ago by a tribute CD, Sweet Relief, to which Soul Asylum contributed. "It's very humbling to listen to her." When he's asked why some listeners find Williams such an acquired taste, he claims, "People are generally closed-minded. Whether you're talking about the next batch of punk-rock bands or a bunch of old people who can't stomach the next batch of punk-rock bands, people are set in their ways about what they like and what they don't like. I'm sure there's something in the way Victoria's records sound or her voice sounds or whatever that some people can't get past, but to me, I'm kind of over that thing. I can see through whatever it is in the presentation that gives music the particular slant or orientation that it has, so to me there's really no difference between something that sounds a little more country and something that sounds like heavy metal or jazz. The song is the thing that stands on its own. That's the thing that lasts."
As if to emphasize this point, Pirner reveals that Soul Asylum is set to record a song for a second Sweet Relief benefit project, this one dedicated to the work of Vic Chesnutt, an exceptional artist who was paralyzed in an automobile accident during the Eighties. "It's a project to help out Vic with whatever he needs help on," Pirner says. "He's an amazing songwriter, and it's incredible to me that more people haven't discovered him--especially people interested in something as folk-oriented as rock music. Because what people have in common is more important than what's different about them."
That's a mighty sensitive observation for a punk rocker to make, but Pirner--a punk no longer--doesn't mind the contradiction. He may be wealthy and famous now, but he desperately wants to hang on to the qualities that were important to him before anyone outside his immediate circle knew his name. "When I'm writing a song," he says wistfully, "it's just me and a pencil and a piece of paper and a guitar. And that's really not going to change."
Soul Asylum, with Radiohead. 8 p.m. Wednesday, October 4, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $18.50, 1-800-444-SEAT or 830-2525.
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