One of the largest “after-school” music programs, if not the largest and most promoted program on the web (much to my surprise), is School of Rock. Their jam-based education approach started in Philadelphia, and now, no doubt riding the wave of the many popular TV talent shows, boasts over 100 locations around the world, including Seattle. The Crocodile, in Seattle’s Belltown, supports the School of Rock by making their stage available for students to play live shows for friends and family.
On a June night, the reunited band Come was scheduled to perform at The Croc in support of their reissued debut LP, “Eleven, Eleven,” which is sometimes written as “11:11” (Matador Records, 2013). But before that, the School of Rock gave a “Zappa” performance, with their students taking the stage and performing Zappa tunes. When I got to The Croc at 8 P.M., the Zappa event was just over and the crowd dispersing. A small group of students gathered at the front entrance talking (loudly) about their evening as rock musicians: the “brutal” sound checks they all had to go through, and “how difficult” it was to learn so many Zappa songs for their performances. I even heard Bob Seger’s name mentioned affectionately.
None of the students noticed as recording artist Thalia Zedek (Live Skull, Come, The Thalia Zedek Band), carrying a backpack and a newspaper, walked behind them and stopped at the main entrance to chat with The Croc staff about her band’s upcoming sound check and performance. Zedek has released records with Matador/Beggars Banquet, Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records, and even Seattle’s own Sub Pop. Apparently, the School of Rock doesn’t prepare its students for all aspects of a life in music, like how to spot the real thing when she’s clocking in for work. Had even one of the students turned around, they’d have seen a real live rock musician going to work, as she has done, for more than 30 years. Frank Zappa was certainly cool, but he’s dead. There’s a lot you can learn from the living in the music business.
The students soon departed. Standing outside on the sidewalk on a warm Seattle evening, before the doors officially opened for Come, I could hear the band start their sound check. Zedek’s guitar and sultry voice floated out of the opened clerestory windows, sending a rich version of “Submerge,” the opening track to the Come’s still astonishing “Eleven, Eleven,” now again joyously on vinyl, out into the night. These were master musicians launching into their signature sound.
To listen to this record today, 20 years on since it first appeared, is to feel all over again the urgency, the power of this band’s raw electric guitar sound, with Zedek’s unusual and emotionally changed vocals. Cut adrift, the sound is emotional and questioning, challenging the world of music once again. Come’s approach back in the day was to distill down the essential elements of their songs to a simple sound, simple language. I think that’s what “alternative music” is all about: resisting the popular, easy methods of making music, instead exploring new ground and saying something different.
Come’s sound is all the more startling when you consider all the music emerging in 1991, the year Come’s first 12-inch single, “Car,” was released by Sub Pop. Bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were offering alternatives to Bryan Adams, Paula Abdul, and Amy Grant. It’s always dangerous trying to build a theory of cultural evolution from popular music, but music does frequently reflect those deeper longings and anxieties that can’t always be articulated in other ways. Come’s howl and blues sound, when considered today, feels a little like what Jack White did with The White Stripes—more layered, of course, but still taking traditions and established structures and stretching them into their own aesthetic, finding something cool, new, and smoldering in something much older. It’s moving backward to find a way forward.
Ironically, when you look back at the press the band received in the beginning, at the time of “Car” and then “Eleven, Eleven,” there seems to be, in the media at least, a mindset that fame and huge commercial success were just around the corner for this band, that somehow commercial success was more the objective of the band than its music. Lots of predictions were made by important reviewers back in the early 1990s. But the band went its own way. Today, all that positioning for hooks and labels reads like something forced, or worse, something entirely wrong, entirely revenue focused. Like reading the poetry of Sylvia Plath and thinking you’re in “chick lit,” and if you called it “chick lit” a market of readers would pile in to get it. I even wonder if amping up that kind of focus on this band confused audiences from a more accurate appraisal of what Come had to say. In any case, the constantly roving eye of popular media shifted away from Come, and huge commercial success never quite arrived.
Today, with the reissued “Eleven, Eleven” in its lavish double gatefold, two LPs and bonus 7-inch, lyrics printed inside on the sleeve, this powerful musical statement is made again, for fans and new audiences alike. Thalia Zedek, Chris Brokaw, Sean O’Brien, and Arthur Johnson reunited and toured briefly this summer in support of this release. The set they played at The Croc included “Submerge,” “Dead Molly,” “Brand New Vein,” “Off to One Side,” “Bell,” “William,” and “Orbit.” Many of these songs, in live versions, all appear on this new double release.
The second LP in the “Eleven, Eleven” package covers songs performed live at Vermonstress Festival in 1992. That year Sub Pop organized the two-day festival in Burlington, Vermont. About 15 bands played, including Codeine and Beat Happening. Here’s a cool blog that actually has pretty much the entire festival details, band by band, and track by track. Listening to all these songs and bands today is like jumping in a time machine and racing back to a time before a major intellectual shift in music took place. Playing the vinyl LP is a rich experience as well, remastered. It’s a minor miracle that the soundboard recordings from Vermonstress survived all these years.
So, if I taught a class at the School of Rock, I’d of course encourage students to study past masters. But I’d also spend some time talking about the importance of artists who haven’t reached the lofty success of a Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, or Van Halen. I’d tell them that the music business is a hard business these days. And then I’d point them to artists like Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw, who continue to release new material and also do the hard grind of touring, night after night. I’d point out that a record like “Eleven, Eleven” would be a high-water mark for any band. And we’d applaud Matador that it’s now back on vinyl, where it belongs. One for the ages.