Monday, June 20, 2005

Song of the Week 6/17/05

Soul Asylum - "Sometime to Return"

Karl rocks, at Rock for Karl

In my “day job” as a “music journalist” I’ve had to write a few obituaries for rock musicians that have died before their time was up. I’ve finished most of them pretty easily, perhaps with the occasional joke or two (because we’re sarcastic bastards in the media ya know) before moving on to write about the latest dumb shit Fred Durst or The Offspring or Dave Matthews Band did that day.

But once in a while I end up having to write about a musician that’s gone too early (George Harrison, Elliott Smith, 3/4 of the Ramones) whose songs have played a large part in my life. That’s the case with Karl Mueller of Soul Asylum. Mueller died Friday morning at the age of 41 (or 42, depending on whose obit you believe) after a year-long battle with throat cancer.

I only met Mueller once, at a post-show meet-and-greet in Syracuse in early 1993. He seemed to be the least likely “rock star” in the room. He sat there on a couch, pretty much minding his business and letting Dan Murphy and Dave Pirner deal with the small group of fans in the dressing room (there was less than 10 of us, as this was many months before “Runaway Train”). He seemed happier than anyone in the room, content with the memory of a great show they had just played, and the cold beer currently in his hand.

I saw Soul Asylum seven times in my life, and all but one were great shows. Pirner would always flail around with his guitar somewhere down around his knees. Murphy would lay down blistering lead licks and some of the most passionate backing vocals any man could muster. Drummer Grant Young (and later on, Sterling Campbell) would bash away on the drums. And in the middle of it all, holding it together, was Karl Mueller. He wasn’t flashy, but didn’t need to be. His steady playing held things together when the group would do a 10 minute medley of 70s covers or a blistering 90 second version of a Descendents song.

Now you might be wondering why I would waste all this space (and paper, as this was written in my little notebook while drinking a few beers at one of my Brooklyn haunts) on a bass player from a 90s one-hit wonder. Well my friends, Soul Asylum had a life before “Runaway Train” saturated the airwaves and pictures of missing kids became a staple on M-T-V. Soul Asylum rocked, oh they rocked hard, they rocked recklessly and they knew how to make a song that would cause you to scream the chorus at the top of your lungs and pump your fist as if nothing else mattered at that exact moment. So allow me to indulge you with the story of my discovery of one of Minneapolis’ finest acts.

In the summer of 1989 I worked at my FM college station, 92 WICB. The station was kept on 365 days a year because the powers that be thought it was good P.R., so a small staff of students was hired each summer to run the station. When that summer began I knew only about 15% of the “modern rock” that the station had in its library, but I got to hear a bunch of great new albums that first month of being on air six days a week -- Bob Mould’s Workbook, The Pixies' Doolittle, Love and Rockets' self-titled album and Adrian Belew’s Mr. Music Head were all in heavy rotation, and all of them were brand new artists to me. Included in heavy rotation that summer was the Lost Angels soundtrack, which included a new Soul Asylum cut called “Just Plain Evil.” After my first couple of spins of the (gasp!) vinyl I wasn’t that impressed. However, one 92sday (when we played double shots) I grabbed the Soul Asylum album called Hang Time at random and played a song called “Sometime to Return.” I was dumbfounded. How had I missed a song this great? Words fail me when I try to sum up how much this song rocked my world that one late June afternoon 16 years ago. From the low rumble of Mueller’s bass and Murphy and Pirner’s cranked-to-1100 guitars to the words that make no sense most of the time (“Throw away your calendar/And saddle up your salamander”) this song, at that moment, crystallized everything I felt was good about music that summer -- and pretty much for the rest of my life. And Friday night after writing up Mueller's obit, I listened to “Sometime to Return” over and over again, trying to make sense of life, and those lyrics.

People my age (35.6) are getting used to losing some of our older greats (how long will the entry be when Neil Young goes to the harvest in the sky, I wonder), but losing Karl Mueller at such a young age seems like a crime. I think the respect and love that his fellow musicians felt was best summed up by Bob Mould, who reunited with his ex-Hüsker Dü bandmate Grant Hart at a Minneapolis benefit last fall to defray Mueller’s medical costs. Mould told Billboard just last week about the two-song reunion, “Grant got my cell number somehow that afternoon and called me. I said, ‘Sure. This cause is bigger than anything.’”

And how can you not miss a guy that would agree to be slathered in clam dip for an EP cover:

R.I.P. Karl -- we hope your time here brought as much joy to you as it did to us.

1 comment:

m said...

hey , just saw yer trubute to karl mueller... thanx for thinking of the man.

he was a goodguy...

i have written one as well up at my "bleargh"...