Closer To The Stars: Soul Asylum

clam dip

When I was in Short Dogs Grow, the band I most aspired to be like was Soul Asylum. They were signed to Twin Tone – the label that brought you Husker Du and the Replacements, they didn’t have day jobs, and they rocked ripped jeans and flannels shirts 15 years before Nirvana hit the scene.  In other words, they were cool. While I think Short Dogs had better songwriting, Soul Asylum toured relentlessly and had a brutal live show.

soul asylum press photo

We opened their Bay Area debut at the VIS Lounge in San Francisco- a club that likely had its heyday in the Fillmore blues scene. As most clubs that hit hard times, it started doing punk rock shows.  They remodeled later, and it became the Kennel Club, now it’s called the Independent. The next night we played with them at New Method Warehouse, Greg Foot’s vegan co-op,located in Emeryville, a “nuclear free zone.” New Method didn’t have a cabaret license, so they hung a banner above the entrance that read “Happy Birthday Bob!”  and sold beer out of a little side room that had a sliding glass window, like a speakeasy. The neighborhood was so dangerous that it was unsafe to walk alone across the street to Jugs Liquor to buy alcohol. There was always some punk hanging around who was happy to escort you. (my favorite was Todd from Christ on Parade.) Today Emeryville is home to Novartis, Pixar and Jamba Juice, Inc.and people drive there just to eat meatballs at Ikea.

new 2001

At sound check, Grant Young, Soul Asylum’s drummer, and I chatted on the sofa. He said everyone in Minneapolis was named Karl or David.  We exchanged addresses and he sent me an original cartoon drawing of a googily eyed guy who demanded “more beer!”

soul asylum murray bowles

The next year, Tom was hanging out of his window on Pierce Street and spied them walking down the street.  Guest listed, Tom called me to go, but I think I was under 21 and didn’t have a fake ID. Tom went, (he had Foot’s ID) and said they were great. There were only a few people there, but they were important: Jello Biafra, Ruth Schwartz, Tim Yohannan.  We saw them later that year at the Mabuhay Gardens. At the end of the set, Dave left a guitar onstage and wandered off. Erik Meade picked it up and jammed with Dan. A photo was taken, fueling the rumor that Erik had joined Soul Asylum.  Actually, he would have been a great fit.

erik meade with sa

Then they played some shows at the Berkeley Square.  At one, the bouncer grabbed Helga by the hair, threw her down on the ground, and started dragging her out of the club. Jessie jumped in to stop him and another bouncer started dragging her out too. I jumped on Bouncer #2’s back, and wound up tearing his shirt off. They had wanted to see Helga’s ID.  When she couldn’t produce it, they bouncer immediately resorted to violence, which made sense as Helga was a 5’2”, 100 lbs, vegan.  Bouncer #2 turned out to be Hector, the booker of Berkeley Square, and later the drummer of Buck Naked and the Bare Bottom Boys,. We had an awkward conversation about the incident when he called me a few months later to book us with Mr. T Experience.

“You ruined my shirt!”

“You hurt my friend!!!”

“You suck!”

“You suck more!!!”

“Wanna play a show with Mr. T?”

“Ok.”

SOUL 001

One of the happiest moments of my booking life was scoring the opening slot for Soul Asylum at the IBeam.  They only did shows on Monday nights at that time. All that stood between Short Dogs Grow opening for Soul Asylum was the band Bomb. I spend days trying to convince the booker that SDG and SA could fill the club. Finally she dropped them, ha ha.

sgd 001

Our first gig in Minneapolis was at the 7th St. Entry, the small club next door to First Avenue- the club featured in Prince’s 1984 movie Purple Rain. When we arrived, Tom called and demanded that Dave Pirner come to the show. Dave tried to beg off. He’d just gotten home from tour; he hadn’t seen his girlfriend in 6 months; he’d been drinking all day. Tom wouldn’t take no for an answer; Dave showed up. Grant snuck me into First Avenue. We drank a beer in Prince’s booth and climbed into the rafters. Grant showed me his secret rafter spot where he would sit and watch Prince’s band play. I didn’t understand Prince’s genius at the time, but these guys grew up with him. At the end of the night everyone crowded into 7th St.’s backstage, and the club manager was yelling, “Everyone out! I don’t even care if you are in Soul Asylum, you have to go home NOW!!!!”

soul asylum 001

The next time in Minneapolis, we all went  to see mutual friends Electric Love Muffin. It was my birthday and Dave gave me a birthday kiss on the cheek. I immediately ran to the nearest pay phone and called Jessie. When I got home, the only thing my female friends asked about the tour was “What was it like to be kissed by Dave Pirner?”

soul asylum 002

All of a sudden they were playing the Warfield. We went backstage, and Dave was distracted- trying to see if he could get a keyboard to play We 3. Short Dogs was getting dropped by our label, and they were playing the Warfield. It was a rough time.

The next year Short Dogs was basically over, and I went to see Soul Asylum by myself at Slim’s.  A friend asked me if I would go talk to them. I said, honestly, “I don’t think they would remember me.” Immediately after that Dan walked up to me and said “Hi Carmela! Wanna have a beer?” My friend just laughed as Dan led me off. Dave demanded to see Tom, but he wasn’t coming, so Dave dragged me to the phone booth in the basement. Tom answered, and I said “Uh…there’s someone here who wants to speak to you.” As I handed the phone to Dave, he transformed from an aggressive madman, to a man speaking gently, as to a child. He asked how Tom was doing, told him he’d put him on the guest list, would leave cab money at the door if he needed it. But Tom declined. Dave had career highs and lows; he understood where we were coming from. After the gig we went across the street to the Paradise. Some of the local rocker girls followed us and, surprise! They actually wanted to hang out with me….and Dave. The girls were begging me to bring him to their house “to party”, the first time they’d ever invited me. Selfishly I asked Dave if he wanted to go- knowing he had a gig the next day, but drunk enough to be manipulated. He said yes, and I told the girls we would be there in 20 mins. As he was struggling to pull my helmet over his dreadlocks, a van pulled up- full of his pissed-off band mates. They had a gig the next day in L.A.; they were leaving NOW; you better get in the van NOW!!! When I got home, the phone was ringing.  The rocker girls wanted to know where we were. Or more likely, WHERE WAS DAVE? I told them the story, but don’t think they believed me. They had probably drawn straws to see who was going to sleep with Dave, and there I was, messing up their plan, keeping Dave to myself.

I didn’t see them play again in the 90’s- they released Grave Dancer’s Union in 1992 and were on MTV.  I wasn’t into the album- it lacked edge.  In 1993, however, I got an interesting phone call.

“Is Tom home?”

“There’s no one here by that name.”

“Tom. Tom Pitts.”

“Oh….” I was evasive, maybe Tom owed someone money. “You can give me your number, and I’ll give it to him.”

“Carmela? This is Dave.  Dave Pirner.”

WTF?

He told me that he was in Amsterdam, on tour, in a hotel and had insomnia. He said he always felt better if he talked to a friend before he went to sleep. We chatted for about an hour. They were opening for Guns N Roses, my current favorite (they had an edge.) I thought playing in Europe, staying in a nice hotel (there was a phone!!!!!), having a hit on MTV, and opening Guns N Roses would be the highlight of my life. He hated all of it. He said he was grateful that they were having success, that he had a room to himself, and that he could call the States (SUPER EXPENSIVE  back then) But he didn’t like playing stadiums- (you can’t see the fans), didn’t like the new label (they went from big fish/small pond to small fish/ocean),and he didn’t like Guns N Roses- (they made fans wait hours for them to come onstage, which he found very unprofessional. Prince would never do that.) He had tinnitus from years of loud music. He sounded terribly lonely. It was a tough transition from the van to the tour bus. As we wrapped up the conversation, he sleepily told me he had two regrets in life. He said  “the first on was agreeing to open for Guns N Roses, and the second is that I didn’t go to that party with you. I should have jumped on the back of your bike instead of getting in the van with the guys.” I laughed and said that he was probably the only person in the world who would lump me together with Axl Rose.

Grant left the band in 1995. They released two more albums in the 90’s. Sadly, Karl, the bass player, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2005 and died in 2006. Tommy Stinson took over bass until just recently because he now plays with…you guessed it…Guns N Roses!!!!!

tommy and axl

Soul Asylum played recently at the Independent.  I bought tickets right away, thinking OMG…..it’s gonna sell out. Scarlett, the drummer in my band, works at the club and put me and Mike on the guest list, so Tom and Cheryl joined us. About halfway through the set I went to use the restroom. As I was peeing, someone on stage mentioned Short Dogs Grow. Scarlett ran into the bathroom and said “Hey Carmela, they just gave you a shout out!” Sigh.  When I got back to our seats, Tom said “Good old Dan- he always liked Short Dogs.” Scarlett got us backstage and immediately we were accosted by their tour manager, an angry, skinny woman, demanding to know who let us back there.  There was no one backstage, no one trying to get backstage, (the attendance at the club was minimal – maybe about 100 people?) and no mob of angry fans. I told her that we were just old friends wanting to say a quick hello. Very uncomfortable.  The door opened and Dave waved me in. He said they’d been talking about us that morning as they crossed the bridge. I told him we met in this location together 25 years ago. Dan, looking pretty tired, smiled and asked if I heard the mention. Tom said a quick hello and then we made our escape. It was all very tense back there. Scarlett told me later that she thought the tour manager and Dave were an item, and that she was trying to keep all women out of the backstage.  Girls are still trying to get him “to party” and miss his ride, I guess. 

My only regret from that time is not being happy for my friends’ successes. I wish that instead of being disappointed in having to work for a living, I celebrated my friends’ victories in the music world.  Being a rock star certainly has it drawbacks- Pirner lost the bulk of his hearing, Kurt Cobain committed suicide, and Tommy Stinson has to deal with Axl Rose. But San Francisco had an insulated, small, special music scene .I wish I had been more respectful and supportive at that time.

soul asylum chills

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