When I hand someone my Tribune business card, it often prompts a quizzical look. “You cover arts and entertainment AND county government? That’s weird.”
It is weird, but then, I’m weird. I actually like covering both, and that goes back to my days at the University of Minnesota. I worked at the Minnesota Daily, starting out as a police reporter, then covering environmental issues and quickly getting put on the Minneapolis City Council beat.
From there, I moved over to covering the Minnesota Legislature, and in the summer of 1984 I covered the presidential election. My boss even sent me to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. I was afraid I might be arrested at the airport for an unpaid speeding ticket in San Diego, but I lucked out and went on to send back the kind of dispatches you’d expect for a college kid who was way out of his element.
The thing is, the first time I walked into the Daily’s basement offices in Murphy Hall, I took a right turn and headed toward the arts and entertainment section instead of veering left toward the news area. I wanted to write about music. The A&E co-editor at that time was Dave Ayers, who did such a great job covering The Replacements that he jumped to their record label, Twin Tone Records, when he left the Daily. He later discovered Ween on a scouting trip out east to check out another band.
Ayers had plenty of music writers, and it was kind of a plum assignment anyway, so you’d need to be something pretty special to get in at A&E. I was not that special, but after proving myself on the news side for a couple years — both as a reporter and copy editor — they took a chance on me as A&E co-editor. I started my one-year tenure in the fall of 1984, just missing out on the biggest A&E story in the Twin Cities that year — the release of Prince’s breakout album and movie, “Purple Rain.”
I have to say, it was a pretty good gig. We had some great, experienced music writers, so I didn’t do many stories myself, especially after my feature about the Butthole Surfers failed miserably to capture that band’s anarchic approach to rock.
My favorite part of the job some weeks was opening the mail. The Minnesota Daily was on the map as a legit publication. Sometimes I’d get a dozen record albums and press packets in the mail each week (most of them major label releases), on top of fat press kits for movies, full of glossy photos, along with passes for private screenings for reviewers (and editors).
As much as I loved rock ‘n’ roll, my musical education was in its infancy then. Most of the music I owned had come from joining record clubs starting as a young teen, with choices based on what I heard on the radio, so the artists I listened to were firmly in the mainstream. In college, I started reading record reviews in Rolling Stone and started exploring the backwaters of rock, but I didn’t have a ton money to spend buying records.
With all these free records coming to us at the paper, I now could explore new music releases as much as my time would allow. Opening the mail some days was like Christmas, and that year I saw a lot of records come through that came to be favorites: “Learning to Crawl” by The Pretenders, “Stop Making Sense” and “Little Creatures” by Talking Heads, “Centerfield” by John Fogerty, “Scarecrow” by John Cougar Mellencamp, “The Unforgettable Fire” by U2, “Songs from the Big Chair” by Tears for Fears, “Across a Crowded Room” by Richard Thompson, “Like This” by The dB’s, “How Will the Wolf Survive” by Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega’s self-titled debut, “Fake News” by Covfefe (kidding) and “Let It Be” by The Replacements, the album I listened to the most that year.
Big-selling albums also came out during my year at A&E (as the weekly section was called) by Sting, Don Henley, Madonna, Phil Collins, Wham!, The Hooters and Eurythmics, along with flashy debuts by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Katrina and the Waves and Chris Isaak, and these all made their way into my record collection for a time at least, all stamped with “promotional use only.”
Nobody was sending music to us on CDs yet, but the tide would soon turn. Early in 1984, the first American CD pressing plant starting cranking out discs, which, contrary to what I would have thought, made them more affordable than CDs manufactured overseas. Fun fact: The first CD made in America was “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
Perhaps back then the La Crosse Tribune cultural correspondents used to be showered with packages containing new music the way I was at A&E, but it has been a long time. And why would the record companies, major and otherwise, send us CDs, much less LPs? If they want to share music with me, all they have to do is email a link.
Somehow, it’s not quite as exciting getting an email as it is getting a beautiful vinyl record encased in lovingly designed jacket, but I have discovered new favorites this way in the year I’ve been at this gig.
I had a chance to listen to a couple new releases worth mentioning this week that came in the email. The new four-song EP by Matthäus titled “Effigy” is fantastic, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Father John Misty (whose new album, “Pure Comedy,” is one of my favorites of the year so far) tweeted that the band’s music is “gorgeous.” His assessment ought to carry a lot more weight than mine, obviously.
The seven-piece “chamber folk band” with members from Chicago and St. Paul is headed by Ben Montalbano, and the music on “Effigy” truly is gorgeous, with adventurous composition, intriguing rhythms and lush, inventive arrangements (loved the French horn parts) that reminded me of Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Surfjan Stevens and even Coldplay in the music’s elegant accessibility.
The cool news is you can see them in person Saturday night at The Root Note, where they will be joined by Jillian Rae, whose music I have discovered (and adore) this year.
We might not ever get a chance to see Ayron Jones live in La Crosse, but we can hope because I’d bet the Seattle-based rocker would whip a crowd into a frenzy. His 14-song debut album, “Audio Paint Job,” is freshly released today, and I heard a lot to like on it. The album, produced by the legendary Barrett Martin (former Screaming Trees drummer and in-demand session musician, producer and writer), shows Jones’s versatility. I liked Jones best on funked-up guitar rockers like “Take Me Away” and “Be There With You,” with brought Lenny Kravitz to mind.
Rock on …