Monday, March 7, 2011

Iowa: A Musical Wasteland?

In many ways, Iowa enjoys an outsize role in American life. Incredibly, the first Democratic and Republican caucuses remain in Iowa, which demographically resembles mostly itself and the Dakotas. The state is a shorthand for pleasant, uncosmopolitan Midwesterness (this pops up in The New York Times often). The first electric computer, the Atanasoff-Berry, was invented in Ames. Even culturally, Iowa is kind of important: the Writer's Workshop is in Iowa City, and the state was home to John Wayne and Johnny Carson, among others.

But musically, Iowa has always been a wasteland. Or a graveyard--the most important musical events to occur in the state were both deaths. The first was "the day the music died," when a plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper crashed outside Clear Lake. You can blame that one on the Iowa weather and Roger Peterson, a 21 year-old pilot from Mason City. The second event occured when Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off an already dead bat at Veteran's Memorial Auditorium in Des Monies.

Not exactly edifying stuff. To be fair, Iowa was home to Bix Beiderbecke, a mysterious Dixieland musician who played clarinet and piano. However, I have never really felt like Beiderbecke's hometown of Davenport was really a part of my home state, so I'm not sure how Beiderbecke fits in. I'll confess that I'm mostly ignorant about his music, but it doesn't help the state's case that he was born 108 years ago.

On the other hand, tiny Shenandoah, hidden in the state's Southwest corner, can claim a couple impressive musicians: The Everly Brothers and Charlie Haden. Neither of the Everlys was born in the state, but they spent a decade in Iowa during their youth, and went on to record the epochal "Bye Bye Love." Haden was born and raised in Shenandoah, and has impressive pedigree as a jazz bassist, having played with Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett, and in his own Liberation Music Orchestra. You can also throw in Meredith Wilson, of Mason City, who wrote The Music Man and set it in fictional River City, Iowa. If I remember the plot of the musical correctly, it concerns a con man who dupes a bunch of foolish Iowans, and then relents.

But that's a pretty small imprint.* Where are all of Iowa's musicians?

Not in the Iowa Rock n' Roll Music Association, the group who run something resembling an Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If you visit the Association's website, you'll notice that the organization seems to cling onto any group from the 50's or 60's with an Iowa connection. I won't pretend like I'm familiar with many of the Association's inductees, but those names I do recognize do not belong to Iowans, or people with meaningful connections to the state. Examine the Class of 2000, for example. Inducting Buddy Holly just seems cruel, and the Association fails to present a real reason that The Trashmen count as Iowans.

So, aside from a couple jazz greats, and some guys who died or passed through Shenandoah, is Iowa a musical wasteland? Not entirely. For one, Bob Nastanovich lives in Des Moines. Nastanovich was a member of Pavement, probably the greatest band of the nineties, and also played with the Silver Jews. Nastanovich's role in Pavement is limited, musicially speaking. Sometimes he plays a small drum set, or a few synthesizer notes, or shouts backup vocals. But he's been a full member of the band since 1990, and his joie de vivre makes him Pavement's second-largest stage presence. I saw the band on their reunion tour last year, in St. Paul and Nastanovich asked if anyone in the audience was from Des Moines. A few hands went up, and he shared his verdict on the city: "it's getting better." He works just outside of town, at the Prairie Meadows horse racetrack. Of course, the Iowa Rock n' Roll Music Association has ignored the chillest guy in indie.

The IRNRMA haven't enshrined Ames' Poision Control Center either--it seems there's an aversion to, or ignorance of independent music. I saw a fantastic PCC show last summer in Athens, Georgia. I chatted with the band after the show--Ames had just endured its worst flood in a century, so I asked if their homes were OK. But those guys are lifers--they didn't have homes, they were on tour.

Worse yet, the IRNRMA has neglected an Iowan musician who is an innovator and genuine legend. I'm talking about Arthur Russell, a cellist and songwriter who grew up in Oskaloosa. He's best-known for his avant-garde disco work, which was released under names like Dinosaur L and Loose Joints. Russell was an important figure in the New York art scene during the 70's and 80's, doing things like composing 48 hour orchestra pieces and playing cello on a discarded version of "Psycho Killer." Russell died in 1992, of AIDS-related complications.

Like most Iowa musicians, Arthur Russell didn't leave much of a footprint during his lifetime. But that has changed since 2004, when Audika mounted a reissue campaign spotlighting Russell's work. A prolific songwriter, much of his work went unreleased, but Russell's music has connected with many people in recent years (the Soul Jazz compilation The World Of Arthur Russell has been particularly influential). Russell's "mutant disco" and cello pieces have been rhapsodized about and discussed elsewhere. I'll accept that at face value--it's not my favorite work he made--and instead nominate his country album, Love Is Overtaking Me, as the greatest Iowa album of all time.

These 21 songs, recorded between 1974 and 1990, are lovingly crafted, simple, and full of heart. Russell's compositions--even standards like "Good Bye Old Paint" sound like originals here--have a homemade warmth. The plaintive Russell is not a born singer, but his unassuming voice fits the material. Despite the modesty of his approach, Russell's lyrics will tear your heart out. You'd have to be inhumanly stoic--even for a midwesterner--not to be moved when he sings "I couldn't say it to your face/but I won't be around any more." In Russell's hands, small details--orange birthday cakes, putting records back in their sleeves, the warmth of a friend's arm--lend the songs their lived-in feel. He seems to draw on his Iowa roots often, writing about love and uncertainty in a way that recalls Big Star, but with a more rural bent. This is most evident on "What It's Like"--the album's centerpiece, almost Southern rock--where he sets the scene: "In Iowa/In the tall grass/there's a couple."

It makes sense, then, that Love Is Overtaking Me's cover features Arthur Russell standing in a cornfield. This is the best Iowa Album there is, proof that there's life, even brilliance, among the cornfields.

*Compare this to neighboring Minnesota and Missouri. Even when you factor in a per-capita offset (both states are roughly twice as populous as Iowa), the Hawkeye State's imprint doesn't come close.

1 comment:

  1. Don't forget Deep Purple/Billy Cobham guitarist Tommy Bolin, Twin Peaks chanteuse Julee Cruise, and Des Moines native Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins from TLC.

    Take it from me: I've lived in NYC for more than six months now, and I'd still rather see a show in Ames any day.