Honesty Is Golden
Golden Smog began its life as what singer-guitarist Dan Murphy describes as "the cover band from hell. We'd learn, like, twenty or thirty covers in two days. And we'd just barely learn them. We'd play requests, too--like 'Freebird.' There'd always be some wiseacre who'd call out for that one. But we usually wouldn't play the whole thing. It gets kind of boring when it goes into the guitar solos."
Musicians in literally thousands of bar bands from coast to coast have similar tales to tell, but Golden Smog isn't just any bar band. Rather, it's a bar band with a pedigree, albeit one obscured by the liner notes of 1995's Down by the Old Mainstream, the Smog's full-length debut for the Rykodisc imprint. Murphy, whose main gig is as a member of Soul Asylum, is identified on the cover as David Spear, and his five bandmates also sport noms de plume. Jeff Tweedy, the co-founder of Uncle Tupelo and current leader of Wilco, is dubbed Scott Summitt; Kraig Johnson, of Run Westy Run, bears the alias Jarrett Decatur; Jayhawks Gary Louris and Marc Perlman are called Michael Macklyn and Raymond Virginia, respectively; and Noah Levy, of Honeydogs fame, operates under the unwieldy moniker Leonardson Saratoga. These pseudonyms suggest a Traveling Wilburys-like cheekiness, but Murphy, who's pretty cheeky himself, insists that this act of obfuscation was forced upon the combo.
"It definitely had to do with contractual problems," he says. "I would have rather used my own name, and so would everyone else in the band. But Soul Asylum is signed to Columbia, and Wilco is signed to Warner Bros., and everybody else is signed to other labels, and we couldn't work it out. Like with Columbia, I respect them for wanting to keep everyone on all their rosters there, because they have kind of a family thing. But I don't think the Smog is a Columbia band. It's smaller than that. Sales-wise, there'd be all this anticipation, and I don't think the Smog could handle that."
Hence the need for liner-note disguises. Murphy credits a concierge at a Phoenix hotel where Soul Asylum stayed during a tour with suggesting a solution. "He was like, 'We had Bon Jovi in here last week, and the way they check into their rooms is they use their middle name plus the name of the street where they grew up.' And I thought, 'If it's good enough for Bon Jovi, it's good enough for us.'"
That's where any comparisons between the Smog and the outfit that gave us Richie Sambora end. Mainstream and its five-track predecessor, On Golden Smog, are shaggy excursions into country-inflected rock of the sort that Wilco, the Jayhawks and Son Volt have been championing of late. But whereas many of the recordings by the aforementioned acts (and others that emulate them) brim with a relentless seriousness that goes down smooth with many critics but tends to ossify upon repeated listening, Golden Smog's platters exude a refreshing sense of fun that previously seemed beyond these guys. The Tweedy-penned "Pecan Pie" ("Sometimes I get so hungry/I think about pie all day") is far more informal and lighthearted than his usual efforts, while Johnson's goofy, lackadaisical "He's a Dick" and "Red Headed Stepchild," a collaborative rocker by Murphy and Perlman, are as engaging as they can be. Moreover, the playing and arrangements are far less fussy than one might expect from a sextet dominated by players with so much studio experience. The good time that was had in the making of the cuts wasn't blanched out prior to its arrival at your friendly neighborhood record store.
"You can hear the mistakes and whatever," Murphy admits. "Our producer, Brian Paulson, was like, 'You guys aren't making a Soul Asylum record, and you're not making a Jayhawks record.' But even so, at first I was like, 'Jeez, we can fix that later.' But we never did. We just put it out, and everything worked out fine. There's a level of musicianship that I'm proud of. Even if it's not perfect--and there are guitars that are out of tune and singing that's flat--it sounds like we know what we're doing.
"That's kind of the beautiful thing about this band. Everyone in the Smog is in other bands, and the expectations for those other bands are way high. But the expectations for the Smog are nonexistent. So when we listen to something, we're like, 'Hey, that was better than I thought it was going to be.'"
This attitude is perfectly in keeping with Golden Smog's origins. The group began as an opportunity for peers on the Minneapolis music scene to get together outside the confines of their usual musical configurations and play whatever popped into their heads for appreciative drunks in local dives. The players' repertoire recognized no boundaries of taste or quality. They willingly tackled the good, the bad and the ugly.
"We'd do 'Guitar Man,' by Bread, which is a pretty good song," Murphy remembers. "And 'Operator,' by Jim Croce--that's a classic. We would kind of do it to bug people, I guess, but we were completely in on the joke. It wasn't like we were up there acting like we were hot stuff. And the best part was, when we would play those songs, people would be like, 'I hated that song twenty years ago, but tonight it sounds all right.'"
Much the same approach was taken with On Golden Smog, which dates back to 1992. (Originally put out by Crackpot Records, the CD has been reissued by Rykodisc.) Tweedy had not yet joined the project, and Levy's place on drums was then filled by Eddie Garfield, aka ex-Replacements member Chris Mars, who also created the artwork for the disc. Moreover, the participants (including Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, who also guests on Mainstream) didn't bother to pen any new compositions; Bad Company's "Shooting Star," the Rolling Stones' "Backstreet Girl" and Thin Lizzy's "Cowboy Song" were good enough for them. "We kind of did it completely on a whim," Murphy confirms. "We did it in a day."
By contrast, Mainstream took a lot longer--five days, in fact--and cost a grand total of $5,000 to put on tape. Coordinating the get-together of so many prominent musicians was simpler than it might seem. "What happened was, the Jayhawks were supposed to go to Australia and tour, but the tour got canceled," Murphy notes. "So they were like, 'Shit, we've got ten days off. What are we going to do?' Which is when they thought, 'Hey, let's go into the studio with the Smog.' So it was literally within a week that we were all doing it, which was nice. If we'd had a month to think about it, it would have been a different record." He adds, "Money wasn't a problem, either, because the studio gave us the time on spec. They said, 'If you ever get a record deal, you can pay it back.' And, to say the least, we didn't have to worry about catering and all that shit. We didn't have to worry about the clock ticking, either, because we didn't even think we were making a record. We just thought we were making a demo tape."
For the sessions that became Mainstream, the players decided to write most of the tunes themselves, despite their having prepared nothing in advance. "V," "Red Headed Stepchild" and "Radio King" were among the ditties that various Smoggers made up from scratch just before recording them. "People would just pair off and get lyrics together and come up with bridges," Murphy says. "It was pretty spontaneous. Sometimes making a record is like working in a Ford factory; you don't really get much of a sense of the finished product because it takes so long to make. But the Smog is more like, 'Let's put the fenders on now, and then the bumpers,' and so on. And twenty minutes later, you're done.
"Soul Asylum used to make records like that when we were at Twin Tone. And I can't listen to them anymore. They're good records in a way--they're like, what you hear is what you get. And they have some good songs on them. But they're a little too loose for me. When somebody puts them on, I go running. So it was a surprise to me that I really liked the Smog record--and we enjoyed making it so much that it's kind of rubbed off on other things. The Jayhawks just did another record, and they did it very similarly to the way the Smog did it; they tried to keep a lot of the tracks and so on. And I think the next Soul Asylum record may go in that direction, too. Our last two albums [Grave Dancers Union and Let Your Dim Light Shine] have been pretty meticulously recorded, because if you want to get something on the radio, you have to make sure they sound really good. But we'd like to find a happy medium for the next one."
Right now it appears that there will be another Golden Smog album as well. January 1997 is the target month for the recording session, and perhaps by then, the parties concerned will have received permission to use their actual handles. According to Murphy, "It's an argument that's waiting to happen, and I think we'll win. But no matter what, I'd love to make another Smog record, and I'd love to do more shows. And if the lineup changes, it changes. Everybody in the band is replaceable. All that stuff about us being a 'supergroup' when we first came out was ridiculous. We call it a stupor group, which is what we've always been."
Still, a few things have changed. For instance, the Smog is hearing fewer requests for rock hits from the Seventies these days. "We're playing mostly Smog originals--although there's always somebody who yells out for Tweedy's other stuff at our shows," Murphy says. "I think he flies the guy around from city to city. He's always like, 'Tweedy! Wilco! "Box Full of Letters"!' It's good for Tweedy's ego, I guess. But sometimes I'd just as soon hear 'Freebird.'"
AT&T LoDo Music Festival, with Dr. John, Golden Smog, Maceo Parker, Roomful of Blues, Zoo People, Los Straitjackets, the Picketts, Sherry Jackson, Chris Daniels Band. 4 p.m. Friday, August 2, Wynkoop Street between 18th and 20th, $18, 830-
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