Tuesday, February 12, 2008

BEN SCHELKER, Gimme Schelker! (unofficial, cassette, 1991)

I actually didn't write this originally for this blog. I'm not sure what I wrote it for. But it also seems applicable here, especially since it helps me solve a little problem that's been nagging me about this blog.

Last September, Gail dropped off a number of records and tapes with me for the blog. Among them was a tape of a solo show that Ben Schelker had done long ago (1991 is my best guess) at Canal Street Tavern's Tuesday night Musician's Co-op. I had planned on posting that show on the ten-year anniversary of his death last November, but my law school commitments were simply out of control at that time. So I put it off. Since then, I've been meaning to post it, but it didn't feel right posting it without some kind of write-up about what Ben meant to me and us and all of us. But then every time I tried to write something on that, nothing would come out -- or at least nothing that didn't terribly underestimate the impact Ben had on our lives or overstate the whole drama of the thing.

But then I wrote this which, as I said, is not entirely congruent with what this post is supposed to be about. Truth be told, it's not entirely about Ben. I've tried to make alterations to bring this more in line, but that didn't work. Still, it's closer to the heart of the matter than anything else I've written and deleted so far. Anyway, here it is:
In the fall of 1991 (I think -- might've been '92 -- this old man's memory does fail him sometimes) my old band the Oxymorons went on tour. We did two dates in Minneapolis: one at the THD Punkhouse on a Friday and another at the 7th Street Entry the next night.

The night before we were to go to Minneapolis, we were somewhere in Wisconsin and pulled off at a truck stop around midnight. I don't remember why, but that night we couldn't go any farther. Maybe we were out of gas, or maybe the van needed some part, or maybe we were all just too tired to drive any more -- don't remember. But the place we parked wasn't just a truck stop, it was a mega-truck-and-travellers' stop with a parking lot the size of three football fields (and isn't it interesting how we often define the size of flat places where people don't gather in terms of football fields?) and a big facility with a full service restaurant, bathrooms, showers, video arcade -- and a convenience store with all the necessities: auto parts, clothing, air fresheners, junk food, pirated video tapes, yeah... Funny thing, though: the place was practically deserted. Ours was one of maybe ten vehicles in that massive parking lot. The facility itself was open, but the store, the restaurant, even the arcade were all dark. Except for a couple of security guards and maintenance people, nothing moved.

For some reason, I was feeling just awful about the band that night. We had just gotten off a two or three day layover in Madison -- two shows had been cancelled, and we were hundreds of miles from home with no money to do anything, so we lay around this generous kid's house playing his Nintendo, eating his macaroni, and drinking his beer (though for some reason, we had gallons of vodka of our own). I was sick of Grog, sick of Nick, sick of Ben, sick of Jen (Grog's girlfriend, who was roadying for us at the time), sick of playing to empty rooms, sick of scraping by, sick of making crappy records, sick of the bands we played with -- sick, even, of the seemingly endless columns of empty faces watching us as we played (which seems to contradict what I said about playing to empty rooms -- and it does, but like anyone, when I'm down on something, I can't help but embrace even the contradictions if they depress me more).

Everybody slept in the van except me. I tried, but it was fucking cold. Except for one night we spent in the van in the middle of a snowstorm outside Ann Arbor, Michigan, I've never been that cold in my life, even though it was only fall. And I was too wound up to sleep anyway. I spent most of the night wandering around that dark, empty place -- smoking cigarettes, drawing occasional stares from the few employees. My hair was fucked up. I must've had bags under my eyes. Hadn't eaten in at least a day. And I was wearing a dark blue jacket upon the back of which I had hastily scrawled in yellow paint, "I NEED SOUL!" (fitting caption to a white boy from Dayton at the time -- probably even more true today than it was then) I don't really know what they were thinking, but I imagined all sorts of terrible things. For those few hours, I really felt disconnected from everything, and I would say that I just wanted to go home, except that I felt I was already there -- home in this gigantic, empty waystation for others who were all on their way to better places. I hated every goddamn one of them.

Anyway, probably around 5 a.m., the restaurant opened up. I sat down and spent my last 80 cents on a bottomless cup of coffee and sat there smoking for a while. Eventually, Nick came through the door and sat down across from me, then Ben, then Grog and Jen. We sat there, pretty much in silence, for a little while, and then we went back to the van. Grog started it up. Perhaps he'd got the part we needed or maybe we got gas or whatever it was to get us going again, but we were off. Honestly, at that moment, I don't know why I got in. I felt like a zombie, just shuffling off to wherever.

But after a while, we came over this rise, and there were the Twin Cities: Minneapolis-St. Paul -- just laid out before us. I don't know if we'd been riding in silence or if I just hadn't noticed the tape, but suddenly I heard The Replacements -- a band we'd all worshipped for years, a band that was based in the Twin Cities. I thought of Husker Du and Soul Asylum, two other bands we all loved that had also come from this place we were driving into now. I thought of Mary Tyler Moore and the Mississippi river. I saw the sun rising behind those cities, and it seemed that this place that we'd all heard so much about in the music we loved had invited us to come there.

That night, we played one badass set at the THD House. It was in a basement, and I swear it was packed wall-to-wall. People were crowding on the stairs. It was hot, and there was one lightbulb on a chain swinging over Ben's head (I think he clocked himself on it once or twice). And we were loud as fuck.

After it was over, we packed up while Grog went to see about money. People were coming in and out of that house and the next band was blaring away. Unlike other nights, we didn't have to pack up right after the set because we were staying on THD's floor. Ben and I grabbed some beers and just started walking down the block. At first there were some people in tow, but as we kept walking, they got fewer and fewer. Eventually, it was just us. We stopped when we saw this metal bridge over the river to our left (I'm not sure if it was the Mississippi -- maybe a smaller tributary).

We went out on that bridge and dropped the empty beers into the water (littering motherfuckers...). We had been talking a mile a minute about the band, about music, about Minneapolis, about everything -- but after a minute or two on that bridge, we just stopped. I looked at the sky and the stars and the water. I looked at the black street, strangely empty of cars or people now. I thought of Minneapolis and the bands we loved -- all of whom were probably the main reasons we were there at that place in that moment. I heard factories, and I thought of how at this hour, they must be running largely automatically -- machines dutifully building things, with only a couple of human beings there to watch over them. I thought of John Berryman, who was a poet who killed himself by jumping off a bridge in Minneapolis. I don't know why I thought of him, but I said nothing about it. And I said nothing about how I felt so connected right then and there to the city and all cities and all the machinery and people and the white noise they all make together. Had I put my ear to the ground, I believe I could've heard things happening on the other side of the world. There was water, and there were voices.

Six years later, Ben was dead, and I told this story as part of his eulogy while his body lay in a coffin about six or seven feet from the lectern at which I stood. Then the priest (it was a Catholic funeral) closed the mass, and we carried Ben's coffin down the aisle and out to the hearse. It was heavy, and I took ibuprofen later because I thought I pulled a muscle in my right arm. I've sometimes wondered if I will sleep and awaken on that bridge.

There's an Aristotlean term, in media res, which he used to describe a literary device for how epic poems usually open. It means "in the middle of things." For example, The Odyssey begins at a point halfway through the overall plot, and then it backtracks to the beginning and goes from there until it eventually arrives at where it started about halfway through the length of the poem. Then it tells the rest of the story. We, among us, live in media res. We go forward and back and arrive at the middle, which looks like the beginning, but it's only half. Each of us is the sum he has not counted: subtract us back through nakedness and night and you will see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas. There's a good life, in the meantime.

I've been typing very fast and haven't eaten anything all day.
Grog gave me a tape with the THD House show on it, and I've ripped it. But as I said, that's not what I'm posting today. Today's download is Ben's Musician's Co-op show that Gail taped long ago. I haven't chopped it into song-by-song tracks because I figure, if anyone listens to the music on this blog, they're probably listening on a computer, iPod, or other MP3 player -- none of which seem capable of playing tracks without a two-second pause in between. For this show, that simply won't do.

Of course, this was never released, but I decided to give it a name of it's own. And I have chosen Gimme Schelker because Ben used to joke about how if he ever did a solo album, that's what he would call it. I want to make it clear that he was joking because all of us generally considered the idea of solo albums in general as a bit silly. I mean, maybe Paul Westerberg can get away with it (and even then I'm not sure -- Gail is his biggest fan and even she seems to be on the edge of laughing whenever she mentions him in his capacity as a solo), but nobody else -- not Bob Mould, not Ryan Adams, not Jeff Buckley. I mean, come on guys: get a band! Even dead Ben Schelker can't really get away with it, but death is probably the ultimate defense to ridicule, and even if it's not, Ben drank ridicule like he drank Wild Irish Rose -- his unique gift being that both seemed to have the same effect on him. So be it.

Song List:

Wasting My Time
Pleasant Distraction
Day of Reckoning
Diner Song
Survival Kit for the Lonely
Taoist Lumberjack

Download It! (34 MB)

Recorded by Gail Dafler on a handheld cassette recorder in 1991 (I think).

As you can see, there's one song on here I don't remember the title of. In fact, I have no recollection of this song whatsoever. I know it never became an OXYMORONS song. If you happen to know the title, post something in the comments section.

It's not the best show he ever played, but it is full of false starts, errant tuning, and mumbled lyrics where Ben couldn't think of anything better. It's Ben. Gimme...

As I said before, this is a Musician's Co-op show. Until recently, Musician's Co-op was a long standing tradition at Canal Street Tavern during which every Tuesday night, anyone who wanted to could take the stage and play pretty much whatever and however they wanted for 30 minutes. I understand Musician's Co-op was discontinued last March (although Mick has hinted that this may not be a permanent thing -- let's hope so), but in the years before that, Canal Street hosted any number of unpaid solo performers ranging from seasoned local musicians just playing for fun to all sorts of wonderful oddballs and talentless jerk-offs. I've got one or two more Musician's Co-op shows on tape, and I'll post them and more information about that whole deal at some point in the future.

More music coming up on Saturday or Sunday. Until then...

take care



G said...

The best post I've seen you write thus far. I remember that truck stop in Eau Claire and the flies that had taken over our van. We actually played in Green Bay the day before on a flatbed truck and the flies attacked every van.

You have some of the details wrong, but that was a hell of a trip. I think you captured the mood perfectly though. I really miss Ben.

jones() said...

Details, you say? Bother me not with details, man!

take care


Miss_K said...

I agree with Grog, this is a beautifully written post.

Anonymous said...

PLEASE fix the download link!

Anonymous said...

Awesome post and nice remembrance of Ben. Lovely, talented guy.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post for a talented guy. Thanks for writing it.