Smart guys

The Upper Midwest is not without its share of significant contributions to rock music history. Waukesha wizard Les Paul established the electric guitar as a viable band instrument, then pioneered multitrack recording technology that would become the foundation of modern music production. Chicago blues players, whose distinct sound captured a worldwide audience off the wax of Chess Records, launched a generation of young American and British guitarists headlong into rock ‘n’ roll. And Minnesota’s Bob Dylan brought legitimacy to the nascent pop-rock scene of the 1960s with his folk/protest-infused accents.

But in each of these cases, success was defined by their reception in designated music industry hubs like New York, Los Angeles or London. Sure, there may be talent in the sticks, but unless it was recognized on the coasts, it was as if it never existed.

Fast forward to 1980s Madison, Wis. The punk revolution that had taken hold in places like New York, Washington and L.A. found its way into this college town, and its particular twist on the genre is the subject of a new documentary “The Smart Studios Story.” The film revisits a scene bubbling with countless basement bands formed among dormmates who brought an assorted variety of noise to local bars and house parties, all for a nominal cover charge and (maybe) a pitcher of beer. Some were good, and some were not. Most of them were generally in it for the fun, and there was no illusion of finding success in the traditional industry way. In fact, that was the point — to thumb their noses at the establishment. Who had any interest in being the next Huey Lewis, .38 Special or Styx?

Two Madison musicians, Steve Marker and Butch Vig, embodied this do-it-yourself spirit when, in between playing with an assortment of  bands, they founded a local recording studio. They had no business model, no plan for profitability, no particular experience or expertise with audio engineering — really nothing other than a love for music. That should’ve been a recipe for disaster, but remember, this was Madison — no ordinary business environment. So Marker and Vig went about setting up their studio, paid bills when they could and recorded bands — lots and lots of bands. And those recordings found their way into other college towns like Minneapolis, Champaign, Ill., Austin and Seattle.

That’s where the story gets interesting. One of the bands Smart recorded, Killdozer, was turning heads as tapes made their way around the underground scene. It wasn’t necessarily the quality of the music — Killdozer had a decidedly unserious style that bordered on novelty. But the band’s sound — a relentlessly heavy, driving, pounding and thrashing once described as the sound of gravel in a lawnmower — that was a Smart Studios product that others quickly decided they wanted. One of those bands was Seattle’s Nirvana.

We know what happened next. Nirvana recorded briefly at Smart, landed a contract with Geffen Records, insisted on keeping Vig as producer (against the company’s wishes) and soon after released “Nevermind.” The album effectively ended the ’80s sound dominated by synth pop and hair metal while launching a new era in rock ‘n’ roll termed grunge, known for the heavy, pounding, thrashing amalgamation of noise that in some ways represented the long-awaited marriage between punk and metal. Whatever it was, it set rock music on a new course.

All starting in little old Madison.

Vig produced another seminal ’90s band, Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins (hat tip to the Midwest again) and went on to form Garbage with Marker and singer Shirley Manson. Smart Studios, meanwhile, hobbled along until shutting its doors in 2010, bringing a unique chapter in rock ‘n’ roll — and Madison — history to a close. In the end, it was a product not only of its place, but its time. It couldn’t have happened anywhere else.

The Smart Studios Story_TRAILER from wendy schneider on Vimeo.

 

A horse apiece

Throughout politics, sports and art, legends breed mythology, and rock ‘n’ roll is no exception. The most legendary rock group of all time, the Beatles, had their share, most notably the enduring myth that Paul McCartney died in the band’s early years. Fans found confirmation in the various lyrical hints tucked into the Fab Four’s (Three’s?) subsequent output. Like conspiracy theories, the conjecture is what makes it entertaining, and tales can run the gamut from credible to purely outrageous. Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off of a bat (maybe), Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” called out Warren Beatty (probably), and Keith Moon passed out during a gig after taking horse tranquilizers (definitely). Mostly the stuff of harmless fun.

And then there were the Rolling Stones. As the bad-boy antidote to the squeaky-clean Beatles, the Stones embraced any opportunity to take things to a darker place. That included their music (“Sympathy for the Devil”), their behavior (doing jail time after a 1967 drug bust) and their mythology. Before Keith Richards’ truly scary drug consumption of the 1970s, the Stones-as-evil myth centered primarily around two deaths that occurred in 1969 — banished guitarist Brian Jones’ drowning in his home swimming pool, and the stabbing of a fan during a concert festival at Altamont Speedway in California. The circumstances of both leave a lot open to question in terms of the Stones’ culpability, but the band has never shied away from cultivating an image of trouble. People will believe what they want to believe, but in rock ‘n’ roll, it doesn’t hurt to carry an element of danger.

But to me, the most intriguing mythology surrounding the Rolling Stones concerns the origins of the band’s iconic “Wild Horses.” Recorded around the time of Altamont in 1969 but not released until 1971, the song has the distinctly sweet country flavorings that had crept into the Stones’ music since Richards’ budding friendship with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. Parsons and his Flying Burrito Brothers released their own version of the song — with the Stones’ blessing — in 1970, causing more than a few observers to wonder if he was the original writer. Parsons died of a heroin overdose a few years later, setting that proposition into full motion. To this day, only credited writers Richards and Mick Jagger know the truth, and whether they’re telling it is the subject of many heated Youtube comment strings.

In the interests of fairness, here then are my two cents on the topic, with equal time given to each penny.

The case for Jagger/Richards

This is a pretty strong case. In his book “Life,” Richards cites his longing for time with his young son as an inspiration for “Wild Horses.” Who knew that the competing demands of the road and a new family were taking a toll on the baddest guy in the baddest band in the world? Meanwhile, Philip Norman’s unauthorized Jagger biography relates Marianne Faithfull’s suicide attempt in Australia after her relationship with Jagger went sour. As the story goes, he rushed to her bedside, expressing proper gratitude that she hadn’t succeeded. Faithfull’s response: “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.” Was she the “graceless lady”? The other argument I’m relying on Richards’ artistic integrity. He freely admits his early influences and makes no effort to downplay their role in his musical output. In the late 1970s, he had the Stones hold off on releasing “Start Me Up” because of the opening riff’s similarity to that in Jay Ferguson’s “Thunder Island.” And when the chorus for “Anybody Seen My Baby” bore an uncanny resemblance to k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving,” the band immediately owned up to it and credited her as a co-writer. If “Wild Horses” were Parsons’ song, I can’t believe Richards would deny it.

The case for Gram Parsons

This is a bit tougher, because I’m relying on the feel of the song rather than any written documentation. As I’ve mentioned, it features the sweet country flavorings the Stones were exploring at the time. Parsons appears to have been Richards’ guide into the genre, which may have prompted the band to record at fabled Muscle Shoals in Alabama. The lilting, minor-chord-dominated structure was foreign territory for the straight-ahead blues-rocking Stones (keyboardist Ian Stewart refused to play on the track because he disliked the minor chords, leaving those duties to session player Jim Dickinson), and the melody isn’t particularly suited to Mick Jagger’s voice. It is, however, a perfect fit for Parsons, and the Burritos’ version strikes me as a purer interpretation of the song. I’ll never dislike the Stones’ version, but the Burritos turned me on to the true potential of the song and how it should be done. For the Rolling Stones, “Wild Horses” was a temporary venture into a genre they would eventually abandon. Listen to Parsons’ version, and you can hear Jackson Browne, Eagles and even Elton John (think “Tiny Dancer”) coming in the not-too-distant 1970s.

So does that make Parsons the writer, or simply a better interpreter of the genre he introduced to his buddy Keith Richards? My own conclusion is that Richards and Jagger wrote the music and lyrics under Parsons’ tutelage. The Stones’ early blues catalog shows them to be astute students who eventually overtake their teachers. This was just more of the same. Parsons never made it as a bona fide star while the Stones went on to write their own chapter in rock ‘n’ roll history. There are people who would begrudge them their artistic merits while giving Parsons some overdue acknowledgement, but it doesn’t work that way. The credit on “Wild Horses” reads Jagger/Richards, and the rest falls under that delightful umbrella we call pure speculation.

A brief shining moment

Far be it from me to step into Hallmark card territory, but I think there’s truth to the idea that life is really about the small moments. Maybe it’s a quick cup of coffee with your dad, an unexpected phone call from a friend, or that presentation you nailed at the office today. These are the experiences that carry us through the humdrum existence that makes up the other 99 percent of our time.

If art imitates life, great art captures the Hallmark moment with snippets so sublime that they rise out of, and in some cases above, the work that contains them. Eric Clapton pulling notes from the air like tears with his guitar slide on “Let It Grow.” Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel sizing each other up as rivals for Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver.” Paul Newman breaking down when he realizes he’s been suckered in “The Color of Money.” Such moments stand alone, as strong as any personal memory.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” has a well-earned reputation as one of television’s finest sitcoms because of its ability to stage life’s beautiful snippets. The series benefited from uncannily spot-on casting, which contributes to the genuine nature of the characters’ relationships. That’s on full display when, for instance, it falls upon Mary to explain the facts of life to Phyllis’ daughter Bess. Or when Edie leaves Lou in one of the more heart-breaking exchanges in television history.

But my favorite “Mary” moment comes early in the episode “Once I Had a Secret Love,” in which Lou confides in Mary about his one-night stand with Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens. The scene, which takes place entirely in Lou’s office, highlights his innocence and Mary’s comparative worldliness in a reversal of their usual roles. The acting is masterful. Lou’s sexual naiveté is believable, while Mary’s mix of concern and amusement probably reflects the reaction of most viewers. There’s a natural friendship, an abiding respect and love for each other that will be tested later in the episode. The drama that plays out only enhances the longing for those cherished 4 minutes and 40 seconds, in Lou’s office with the door closed, that set the story in motion. It’s no surprise that’s where the two return to resolve their differences in another memorable scene to end the show.

Here’s the full episode. The scene I’ve described runs from 1:00 to 5:40.