Tagged: the Replacements

Waiting: The story of Van Duren

From the Velvet Underground onwards, the annals of popular music are stuffed with stories of artists who fell through the cracks during their careers – only to be granted belated entry into the pantheon decades later. Big Star are another famous example – an early-70s power-pop group from Memphis signed to Ardent (a subsidiary of legendary soul label Stax), whose three highly influential records were hampered by distribution problems.

It wasn’t until 10 years later, through groups like R.E.M. and the Replacements, that the Big Star name began to spread. It’s a mystery, therefore, that it’s taken more than another 30 years for Van Duren – another gifted Memphis power-popper who moved in the same circles as Big Star, and was managed by early Rolling Stones impresario Andrew Loog Oldham – to receive similar attention. Bizarrely, Duren doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

Waiting, named after one of Duren’s most affecting songs, is a documentary that makes a concerted attempt to rescue this one unlucky musician (there are millions of them) from the margins. It was conceived by two first-time film-makers from Sydney, Greg Carey and Wade Jackson. After being mutually smitten by a rare Australian pressing of Duren’s first album, Are You Serious? (1977), the pair resolved to track down the man himself and tell his story.

In fact, the film tells two stories. Duren’s is fascinating and sad, albeit familiar to anyone versed in the unjust world that is the record business. Duren moved with some of its best and brightest, and Are You Serious? brought him flattering comparisons to Paul McCartney. But a bum deal meant ownership of his work remained in the hands of his label, Big Sound, and a second album, Idiot Optimism, didn’t see the light of day until 1999.

There was also the label’s Scientology connections, which meant they attempted to convert all the acts on their roster. Duren, already in debt, just wanted to finish his record, which he correctly thought was his one shot at stardom. It flopped, and by the mid-80s, after another near-miss with another band, Good Question, his musical career was as good as over.

The second story is a buddy film about how the documentary was made, with Jackson and Carey the heroes of their own adventure. This is where Waiting falls down. Much is made of their amateur status, and that they came to the film being down on their own luck. There are fist-bumps and high-fives with each breakthrough in their investigations, and as the pair track their quarry we get to see minutiae like booking flights.

But Duren was hardly elusive. They found him on Facebook, and he was happy to help. It’s a puzzle, then, why interviews with him are audio files, until late in the film, when Jackson and Carey meet their hero on camera. Other interviews with Duren’s associates, which are professionally shot, are excellent and revealing. Hearing Duren speak from early on robs the film of suspense leading up to his big reveal. He wasn’t hiding.

The filmmakers’ tendency to get in the way of their subject is exemplified at the film’s climax. To use Duren’s songs, Jackson and Carey needed to license them, and permission wasn’t forthcoming. With the help of a pro-bono lawyer, they win back Duren’s ownership of his own music. Triumphantly, they return the masters and remaining stock of Are You Serious? to his home. Duren is clearly moved, but a clunky voiceover spoils the moment.

Duren is a fine subject for a documentary and the story is passionately told, but at moments like these, it’s ham-fisted in its delivery. If not for Carey and Jackson’s super-fan level of commitment, though, Australians wouldn’t have the chance to see him performing live on our shores for the first and perhaps only time this month. Duren, who has been waiting a long time for his due, can thank them for that.

First published in The Guardian, 7 April 2019

You Am I: Porridge & Hotsauce

Every artist needs a few demons to get by, right? You Am I’s Tim Rogers knows he’s got ’em; he just doesn’t call them out by name: “They’re just some pushy friends, they’re on my couch, they’re on my knee.” He’s learned to live with them over the years. “If I don’t let ’em in, some other fool will / If I don’t let ’em in, maybe they won’t come back again.”

Daemons (as Rogers calls them) sits squarely in the middle of You Am I’s 10th album, Porridge & Hotsauce, and it wants you to know he’s OK. If this ballad – just acoustic guitar and strings – could almost seem too self-aware for its own good, it’s nonetheless reassuring. Rogers, who has been open about his struggles with anxiety and depression in recent times, is at ease with himself.

It’s also reassuring that the remainder of Porridge & Hotsauce is hot rock & roll, many of its 13 songs coming in well under the three-minute mark. Tearing out of the blocks with Good Advices, which dismisses the well-intentioned opinions of others with a flourish, it’s an enjoyable ride, with Rogers in fine voice and his band’s capabilities shown off to full effect.

It’s the sound of a group that’s at ease with itself, too: one that knows its strengths and, mostly, plays to them. The obvious exception is the swinging soul revue of Two Hands. Recorded with the Dap-Kings’ horn section, it’s an extension of Rogers’ recent work with the Bamboos, and stands out by virtue of sounding like nothing else You Am I have ever recorded.

That aside, we’re in familiar territory. The bottom-of-the-bottle reflections of One Drink At A Time reveals Rogers’ huge debt to the Replacements; She Said Goodbye could have been recorded by the Easybeats in 1968, and the charging power-pop of Out To The Never Now features a vocal turn by second guitarist Davey Lane. These are among the best songs here.

Others have a slight by-the-numbers feel. Beehive could easily have slotted onto the band’s third album Hourly, Daily; Bon Vivants and A Minor Blue are rumbling rock numbers that make a noise but don’t hit nearly as hard as they mean to, and the closing title track is a 90-second throwaway about what it takes to get you going in the morning.

What Porridge & Hotsauce lacks, inevitably, is the nervous tension of You Am I’s tremendous early work, when Rogers’ daemons weren’t confined to the couch and were raiding the liquor and medicine cabinets. That hint of danger, so crucial to the best rock & roll, is absent here. This happens to bands that have been around a long time: it’s why the old stuff is, indeed, often better than the new stuff.

So if you already own nine You Am I albums, you will find little to surprise you here. But there will be much that delights, too. For Rogers’ sake, I’m glad he’s got his daemons on a leash. For his art’s, I hope they stick around, like those annoying friends you can’t get rid of and talk too damn much. You’d kick them out, too, if what they had to say wasn’t so interesting.

First published in The Guardian, 13 November 2015