Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Van Duren: The Cream Interview

Posted By on Wed, Sep 12, 2012 at 7:30 AM

Van Duren in 1977
  • Photo: Seth Tiven
  • Van Duren in 1977
If you’re an adept of power pop, you may have heard Van Duren’s classic 1978 full-length, Are You Serious?, and you may also know that Duren — a Memphis native — played in bands with Chris Bell and Jody Stephens of the famed Bluff City pop group Big Star. In fact, Duren tried out for Big Star in 1974, but the band was on its last legs, and the audition itself was a strange one. Still, Duren is one of the greatest power-pop artists, and if his story intersects with Big Star’s more well-known tale of Stax-and-Beatles syncretism and noble failure, he’s followed his own path since he began playing around Memphis in the late ‘60s. As the Americana Music Association examines the Big Star legacy tomorrow with a panel discussion featuring Stephens, and a performance of Big Star’s music (also tomorrow) that teams Stephens with dB’s founder Chris Stamey and R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, the Cream checked in with Duren in Memphis to get his take on what made Big Star big, as well as the skinny on Duren’s contributions to the Memphis scene. We also asked Duren to define power pop — his answer is fascinating, and delivered from way inside the style.

Born in Memphis on Aug. 25, 1953, Duren began playing in bands in his teens. As were the other participants in the Memphis power-pop saga, Duren was influenced by British Invasion pop, and the budding performer began writing songs in the vein of The Beatles, Badfinger and Emitt Rhodes. He got his audition for Bell’s slot in Big Star through the recommendation of Stephens — the two had known each other since high school. Working with Stephens, Duren recorded demos at Memphis’ Ardent Studio in early 1975, and these caught the ear of guitarist and rock critic Jon Tiven, who had taken an interest in the Big Star story. Tiven brought former Rolling Stones manager and Immediate Records mogul Andrew Loog Oldham to Memphis to produce further demos for Duren, and Duren put together The Baker Street Regulars, a band featuring Bell and Stephens.

Duren’s 1975 demos are of high quality — they’re melodic, sophisticated and very catchy. “Grow Yourself Up” and “Andy, Please” are idiosyncratically constructed, but lack the neurosis of Big Star’s recordings. Duren went to New York in 1977 to record Are You Serious? (released in England on the London label as Staring at the Ceiling) for Tiven’s fledgling Big Sound label, and toured the Northeast before cutting the equally accomplished Idiot Optimism, which is up there with Radio City as an addictive, intelligent and compelling power-pop statement. (Recorded in 1978 and 1979, Idiot Optimism was finally released in 1999.)

Coming back to Memphis, Duren put together a band, Good Question, and became a local institution. Beginning in the late ‘90s, he made two full-lengths with another Memphis Big Star acolyte, Tommy Hoehn. After suffering a stroke in 1999, Duren took time off to recover, and released a solo record, Open Secret, in 2005. Meanwhile, the ranks of Memphis power poppers were diminished with the 2010 deaths of Hoehn, Chilton and Big Star bassist Andy Hummel.

Duren’s just released a new full-length, Her Name Comes Up, a collection of tracks he recorded with Los Angeles songwriter Tim Horrigan between 1990 and 1997. Her Name Comes Up is updated Beatles-style songcraft, bursting with the sprung rhythms and oblique structures that characterize Memphis power pop. “Midnight” and the amazing “Evelyn” are classic Southern-fried variants on the music created by The Beatles and Badfinger, with perhaps a little XTC thrown in for good measure. Fully recovered and, he says, healthier than ever, Duren is still recording and performing in Memphis — carrying on the work begun by Lennon and McCartney and continued by Bell and Chilton. It should go without saying that he’s a superb musician who deserves a much larger audience.

Nashville Cream: Van, you’re such an accomplished all-around musician, not to mention a great singer. So what happened when you auditioned for Big Star in 1974?

Van Duren: Jody [Stephens] and I had become friends, and we had talked about trying to do something together. This was after Big Star had recorded, finished and mixed Third — we’re talking, like, the summer of ‘74. Jody wanted to do something with me, and I wanted to follow some kind of path with him, 'cause I liked Jody a lot, and we got along well together. At that point, Big Star was a three-piece, and [bassist] John Lightman had replaced Andy Hummel, who had gone back to school and quit the band. They had done a brief tour — Max’s Kansas City and a couple of things — but they really weren’t known as a live band. My impression was that it was mainly Jody pushing to add a fourth member. Of course, you couldn’t replace Chris, but his idea was to bring in somebody like me, who was a songwriter and a lead singer, as opposed to just a guitar player. At the time, I was a bass player and not really much of a guitar player, beyond playing rhythm guitar. They were looking for a lead guitar player, and I went, “Well, OK, we’ll see what happens.”

NC: So, what happened?

VD: Well, I showed up at Ardent on a Saturday in August, in the afternoon, and John Lightman was there. Jody and I were there, and then Alex comes in with Lesa Aldridge, who was his girlfriend at the time. We’re talking about 3 or 4 in the afternoon, and they were already pretty, you know, involved with some Mandrax, or Quaaludes. It was interesting, and it wasn’t conducive to making any kind of music. Here again, I’d brought my big bass amp in, ‘cause it’s all I had to play through, as a bass player. I was playing guitar through a bass amp, which was horrible. I had prepared songs from the first two Big Star albums. Alex didn’t want play any of that — he wanted to play some T. Rex stuff I’d never heard of, and “Slut” by Todd Rundgren, which I was familiar with.

NC: So that was it?

VD: It was a disaster, for all kinds of reasons. They decided to bring me back the next Saturday to do it again, and exactly the same thing happened. It ended up with Lesa gradually taking her clothes off to the point where she was dancing around in her underwear. Lesa’s a good friend of mine now — back in those days, I didn’t even know her. She’s just turned into a completely different and wonderful person. It was odd in all kinds of ways. One thing that did happen the second time, is Alex sat down at an upright piano that was in the corner of the room, and played stride piano for about 10 minutes, beautifully, like Scott Joplin. I was so amazed, and he was not necessarily in his right mind. It was so off-the-wall and so brilliant.

NC: Had you been around for the recording of Third?

VD: No, I wasn’t, although Jody gave me the test pressing of it. I was confused by it, because I was such a fan of the first two records, and I couldn’t accept it. Nowadays, I mean, I figured out what was goin’ on, and where Alex was comin’ from.

NC: What was it about the Big Star records that you liked so much?

VD: I was a big fan of Chris, first of all, what he brought to the table. I didn’t even know him at that point. When Radio City came out, I didn’t know that Chris had co-written a few of those songs, and actually played on some of it. They just agreed to disagree.

NC: How did you meet Chris Bell?

VD: Jody and I decided, well, maybe we should write together, and we started thinking about it and talking about it. And in the middle of that, very quickly, he said, “You know, maybe we should get Chris involved in this.” Chris had been in Europe for a while, doing his solo stuff, and he came back into town. The day before Thanksgiving, ‘74, we met at a little restaurant downtown called The Little Tea Shop, which Chris’ dad, Vernon, owned, among other things. We met there, and part of the reason was, Chris could go in and comp our lunch. I remember that was the date, because that night George Harrison played at the Mid-South Coliseum. That was a landmark for me, because I went to that show that night, and in the daytime, at lunch, I was meeting Chris Bell for the first time. We talked about putting a band together, and it took a year from that date until we really got down to doin’ anything about it. In the meantime, Jody and I did three sets of demos at Ardent. The first one was in the spring of ‘75, with [drummer] Richard Rosebrough engineering. That got the attention of Tiven — Jody was hooked up with Tiven because of the Rock Writers’ Convention. [Held in Memphis, the 1973 event is notable for a legendary performance by Big Star.] Tiven got the idea for Andrew Loog Oldham to come in.

NC: After you made the Ardent demos, that was when The Baker Street Regulars began to play around Memphis?

VD: I was the bass player in that band, and I learned by watching what Chris was doing. I did “Make a Scene,” along with many other Chris Bell tunes, in The Baker Street Regulars.

NC: It sounds like you have a lot of respect for Chris Bell.

VD: I respected what Big Star had done on their first two albums, and working with Chris, I was dazzled — dazzled and dismayed. Chris, personality-wise, could be a sweetheart, and he could be a real tough guy to be around sometimes. At his core, he was a brilliant musician, but he was incredibly frustrated by the lack of success of that first, brilliant album. He took it to heart like nobody else did — rightfully so, because he was so much a part of that sound.

NC: You went to New York in 1977. What was the reason for the move?

VD: By March of ‘77, I was literally starving. I couldn’t make my rent, and Tiven, from far away, says, “OK, we’ve started this new label [Big Sound], and if you can get here, we can put you up, and make a record.” I basically had to move out of my place and live with friends, so it was, like, desperate. I sold my bass amp and bought a one-way ticket to La Guardia, and took a cab from the airport. I was about busted at that point. Tiven and [bassist] Doug Snyder had an efficiency apartment in Greenwich Village, and that’s where I ended up flopping on the floor for the summer of ‘77.

NC: The record you made, Are You Serious?, is considered a classic of power pop. How did you record it?

VD: Well, if it wasn’t for Jon Tiven, I never would have had the opportunity to cut Are You Serious? We did part ways when we started making my second album, Idiot Optimism. For the first one, I’ll tell you, I was in charge of that record — I called every shot. There was nothing that happened on that record, good or bad, that I wasn’t in charge of. I couldn’t do it any other way. I had to go in there quickly and lay down some kind of foundation. I went in and started with a drum machine and a guitar — we’re talking about a beatbox thing, like lounge singers used to use in the '70s.

NC: The songs on that album are just amazing — “Grow Yourself Up” and “Chemical Fire” are classics. Do you still perform any of that material?

VD: I think “For a While” is a really cool thing. Then there are the ones that everybody loves, like “Chemical Fire” and “The Love That I Love” and “Grow Yourself Up.” And “New Year’s Eve.” But the ones I do today are “So Good to Me (for the Time Being)” and “The Love That I Love.”

NC: Then you did some touring in the Northeast, and began working on Idiot Optimism.

VD: Yeah, Idiot Optimism was a band thing. It was like a rhythm section and me, and different guitar players and singers and so on. It was a bit layered, but it was more like a band approach.

NC: You do a version of Chris Bell’s “Make a Scene” on that album. How did you come to record that?

VD: That’s the only cover song I’ve ever cut — ever. And the reason I did it is because I’d played with Chris and loved the song, and it was a really cool tune that I could put just a slight twist on. We cut the basic tracks — this was in the fall of ‘78 — and I got a rough mix, and I came back to Memphis for the holidays, and my intention was to call Chris up and say, “Guess what. I’ve got a surprise for you.” But I thought, "Well, it’s Christmas, so I’ll wait until a couple of days after Christmas." And before I could call him, he died in a car wreck, on Dec. 27. It was completely devastating. I really wish I’d called him when I hit town, and shared that with him. We do “Make a Scene” now, with Good Question. My current vocalist Vicki Loveland and I share the harmonies. It’s evolved a little bit — it’s less of a funk thing and more of a rock guitar thing. And man, it really gets a good reaction. And you know, nobody knows, even in this town, who Chris Bell is.

NC: For a long time, the Memphis power pop thing was under the radar, right?

VD: I think “under the radar” is being kind and charitable.

NC: Why don’t more people know about, for example, Chris Bell, especially in his hometown?

VD: Why? You ever been to Beale Street?

NC: Yeah.

VD: Do I need to say any more? People in Memphis, or people elsewhere, when they think of Memphis, they think of Beale Street. They don’t think of Big Star, and they don’t think of rock ‘n’ roll music of any kind. That’s what we all fought against and battled against, stylistically and creatively. When I had my adventure in the Northeast, man, when I told anybody I was from Memphis, they just loved me. I was from Memphis — it’s legendary. But in Memphis, you can’t get arrested. It’s bizarre, if you think about it, but it’s a life-long struggle against the stereotype.

NC: What kind of material do you do these days in Good Question?

VD: Well, the second set is like, “Gimme Shelter,” [Ann Peebles’] “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” [The Average White Band’s] “School Boy Crush” and “Girl of My Dreams” by Bram Tchaikovsky. And yesterday, we just learned “To Sir, With Love” and a Susan Tedeschi song. It’s all over the place.

NC: Her Name Comes Up seems like it takes your music in a new direction. Much like Idiot Optimism, it’s material that took a while to see the light of day.

VD: A lot of those things on Her Name Comes Up were so spontaneous and in-the-moment — written the day-of, you know, or written in the studio in Los Angeles. I’m really proud of it, because it’s another aspect of what I’ve been doing. Like Idiot Optimism — I lived with that damn thing for 21 years. It came out in Japan in 1999. I always thought it was the best thing I’ve ever done, up to that time, by far.

NC: When you were making Are You Serious? and Idiot Optimism, were you trying to further the legacy of Memphis-style power pop, in the mode of Radio City or Chris Bell’s solo work?

VD: I always thought we were all contemporaries. We were all going toward some kind of similar goal, which was basically playing what you feel, and coming up with something you think is original.

NC: Your work is highly prized by power pop fans. How would you define power pop, and do you think there’s a record that signals the beginning of power pop itself?

VD: That’s really tough, because I’m resistant to that category. If I had to think about it, which I’m not really good at doing, I think the first power-pop record was The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna,” or “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” It’s so all over the place, and such a vague categorization. But honestly, “Baby Blue” by Badfinger might be it — Badfinger was the ultimate power-pop band. We didn’t know what that meant back then. I listen to Badfinger now and just weep because it’s just so beautiful — especially the last few albums, the Warner Bros. records. I was sitting there in 1975 playing that vinyl and saying, “This is what I wanna do, but I can’t.” If there is a true power-pop beginning, it’s all in their lap. I think Are You Serious? is perhaps on the outer fringe of power pop, but I think everything since then is all over the place.

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