Anonymous asked: Hey Southie! Is there a midwestern equivalent to "Pacific Ocean Blue," the surprisingly evocative and heartfelt 1977 album by generally underappreciated Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, that many feel is the quintessential elegy to a vanishing epoch? Just wondering....
Wow, the old regional equivalencies question. Good one. After some consideration, my thinking is that the Midwestern equivalent of Dennis Wilson’s 1977 Pacific Ocean Blue is the Iron City Houserockers’ 1980 Have a Good Time But Get Out Alive.
First of all, I should say the Iron City Houserockers were from Pittsburgh, which isn’t a Midwestern city, exactly. It’s not not Midwestern, though, as it bears many of the same traits that legimitately Midwestern cities like Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Paul or St. Louis. Basically, these are cold, snowy cities where people with Northern and Eastern European names have difficult jobs and drink themselves slowly to death in the same bars their fathers hung out in. The further out you zoom on a map from the center of the country, the more interchangeable fuzzy terms like “Midwestern,” “Rust Belt” and “heartland” become. So in this case, we’ll let the Iron City Houserockers speak for the whole region.
Have a Good Time is, like Wilson’s record, generally overlooked; not many people know it outside of a 400 mile radius of Pittsburgh. I first heard it through my brother Nate, who will buy any LP that has a photo of a guy with a skinny tie and neon colors on the front regardless of whether he’s heard it or not. And Have a Good Time is almost the archetypal new wave-looking record: crazy Xeroxed photo, slashy modern typefaces, eye-gouging green and aqua blue color palette, and six guys in skinny pants hanging out in front of a burned-out industrial hellscape with reflective sunglasses. I imagine that’s why Nate bought it. I’m sure some hack designer at MCA Records hand-picked every visual element on the cover for maximum contemporary trendiness.
The reason I’ve picked it is because it, too, is a quintessential elegy to a vanishing epoch. The leader of the band was a fellow named Joe Grushecky, and his songs are all, as you say of Wilson’s, “evocative and heartfelt” in a specifically “I’m just a working class guy trying to make it” sort of way. He wrote what he knew, so most of the songs are actually about going out to bars. In fact, the centerpiece is two companion songs: “Junior’s Bar,” which is about going out to seedy Midwestern clubs and trying to meet girls, and “Old Man Bar,” which is about going out to, well, bars where old men hang out, and listening to them talk about World War II. “Junior’s Bar“‘s refrain is “I hope I don’t go home alone tonight,” and “Old Man Bar“‘s is “I hope no one sees me here tonight.” This really defines the limited emotional contours of the Midwest in the 1970s for a certain type of person.
The feel of the record is that the whole mess is about to come crashing down, too. The 1970s in the Midwest were pretty bleak: recessions, racial tension, manufacturing jobs going overseas, urban decay, labor unrest, and a general sense of Carterish malaise (Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive is a really good book on this subject, if you’re interested). It’s a good record, and actually a little bit cheesy in that overblown HEARTLAND RAWK Springsteenian sort of way (in fact, Steven Van Zandt plays on it). But even if it is a little creaky and dated in places, it’s earnest and moving in a really surprising way. Once those old men in the bar die off, it’s not clear who or what’s going to take their place.
The best song on the record for me is “Blondie,” which is about how Joe and his girlfriend Angela love Blondie — the band — but when Blondie comes to town to play the local rock club, Joe and Angela aren’t cool enough to get in because they look like fat flyover country schlubs! I mean, talk about a crisis of identity! Talk about an elegy for the decline of the Midwest!