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“So Yeah Apparently Someone Slipped Dave Pirner a Tab of Acid at a Show One Time”

Want to find a ’90s alternative band that will always be underrated and will never, ever, ever get enough credit for influencing the millennial landscape? Look no further than Soul Asylum, who started out in the ’80s in Minnesota as hardcore punk and by their ’92 hit single “Runaway Train” had fully paid their dues in the underworld.

As reports Rolling Stone in their November ’92 spot on the band, lead singer Dave Pirner once “played a gig after being slipped a tab of acid and followed the show by spray-painting the band’s mobile home gold.” We always used to call individual doses “hits” of acid so I think the first time I read this I equated “tab” with like “10-strip,” which means 10 hits, although on further reading I realize it might have just been one hit.

Still, acid is nothing to take lightly: there are stories of people jumping off of buildings thinking they can fly while on the drug, that Ben Folds song about somebody becoming a born-again Christian while “tripping all night in a tree” (which is maybe worse than dying, depending who you ask), and generally just losing their mind for life from acid-spiked punch at a prom. Needless to say, it’s a pretty shi**y thing to do to someone.

But even the Rolling Stone article, though not persistently derisive of the band, necessarily, seems to gloss over this episode as if it should have been water under the bridge, or something Pirner should have got over quickly. It’s not like someone secretly giving you like one pill of Xanax or something. It’s something that has the potential to change your mind forever.

What’s furthermore interesting, and even haunting, is that you can feel this off-kilter, psychedelic influence on some of Pirner’s subsequent work he’d do with the band: perhaps “Sun Maid,” which he champions as a psychedelic vignette in the interview as a ballad to be chastised by meagre fans, but more importantly, “String of Pearls,” a bizarre and beautiful epic on the followup Let Your Dim Light Shine about a pair of Siamese Twins that grows up to be the first president and a preacher so skittish that “Death was one thing / But women made him nervous / So he ran to his car / And he drove ’round the corner”. Within “String of Pearls,” my favorite song on the quality outing Let Your Dim Light Shine, the band plots down this chorus which is basically exactly like R.E.M.’s “Belong.” But it’s GOOD. This is an important aspect of the LSD influence: there are reports that the drug was originally manufactured as a way of getting people to be easily coerced, to go along with the government’s ideas that, say, there’s really a guy walking on the moon, and say, the North Vietnamese are really a threat to America’s moral integrity, even when the logical mind would have been focusing on who killed Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But Soul Asylum in “String of Pearls” is able to mimic R.E.M. in a way that’s so direct, robust and stalwart, that ultimately, artistically, it works.

The third point I’d like to handle here, and what’s all the more puzzling and disturbing to me, is that the band got dropped from their label following 1998’s Candy from a Stranger, and this being an album I happen to really like, what’s more. It’s sort of got that psychedelic, sunrise-inducing tripped-out feel of much of Let Your Dim Light Shine, but the songs pare down into something more focused, like a mix of Nirvana and twee pop. It’s perfectly pliable alternative rock, but, and this is what really gets me, Pirner was nonetheless stridently classy and cooperative with the label’s decision: “’It’s sort of sad to say, but you could see the whole grunge-rock-band thing getting totally over-saturated and people were looking for something new.’” [1] This is of course overly reductive of what Soul Asylum were actually doing at the time, which was crafting truly original songs as supported by sophisticated classical riffs as they were pure inane grunge noise, but this is hardly to the point, I suppose.

Either way, it bears insisting that the world can be kind of shi**ty toward these ’90s bands, as was hinted at in SNL’s spoofing of the “grunge singer” (which I know is all in good fun, hopefully not taken too seriously by certain spiny, jealous parties) but doing things like slipping them acid without thinking about it, trying to pull out Kurt Cobain’s hair [2], and perhaps most importantly, the stupefyingly caustic handling of Hootie & the Blowfish, a band that wrote some of the catchiest songs of the decade and has an exorbitant amount of fans. Spin minces no words as they attempt to debase them down to the lowliest of oafs in their last article, listing them as “a band whose broad, feel-good anthems (were) designed to make frat parties full of Dockers-clad pledges wave their red Solo cups in the air” [3]. Excuse me, this was my favorite CD when I was 12 and I’ve needed a frat house like a fu**ing hole in the head in my life. Also, “Let Her Cry” and “Time,” two excellent singles, are anything but “feel-good anthems,” as anyone who’s heard these songs should note.

The album is varied and well-rounded, even taking on racism in “Drowning,” but sometimes it seems that all we get for these alt-rock firebrands is obnoxious jealousy and spite, with this one dude on my comment’s feed referring to it as “’90s sh** rock” (gotta love that descriptive term there) that was “boring and base.” Yeah, I mean I guess if you grow up doing Tide pods and butt shots you’ll find good music boring. But for what it’s worth, this happens to be a human being up there, pouring ample amounts of heart and character into his songs… any how can you not love Darius Rucker’s voice, so warm and full of timbre? Hootie & the Blowfish approached rock and roll with a funny name and a unique position, being a black singer in a band full of whities (some of whom shred on the backing vocals to “I’m Goin’ Home,” mind you). But too often instead of being championed for this, and for putting out songs that are so pliable and playable, they’re browbeaten as being “simplistic” or “brainless,” or whatever these jacka**es are claiming. Excuse me, at least they played guitar solos, which is more than pop artists today can muster up in terms of instrumental virtuosity. Maybe there’s been a string of Frank Zappa conventions at the nation’s mini-malls that I missed, or something.

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[1] wikipedia.org

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[2] As reported by Everett True’s Nirvana: the Biography.

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[3] spin.com

 

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