Sold Asylum

America's best live band keeps charging along, even without a credit card

I found out he didn't even have a credit card, so I changed my mind about kicking Dan Murphy's ass. For so long it's been itching at me, a desire to jack Soul Asylum's guitarist, carried over from an encounter five years ago when "the best live band in the universe" played at Club Nu. Murphy had supposedly told someone that a story I wrote about the band was "wimpy," so after the set I did the natural thing: went backstage and threatened him. He denied the allegation. Then he spent several minutes dissing South Florida, vowing that he and his Minneapolis posse would never, ever return. Too much rain. Doltish audiences. And look at this venue A it's a freakin' disco!

"Yeah, I remember that A all these girls, painted gold," Murphy says now, "being led around on chains." The New Times article from 1988 ended with this prediction: "The future will shine on Soul Asylum."

After a decade of relentless touring (which often involved sleeping at friends' houses for budgetary reasons) and recording singles, EPs, albums, and sundry compilation contributions for Twin/Tone and then A&M, Soul Asylum has finally found their way out of the underground and into America's living room. The quartet's latest, Grave Dancers Union, on Columbia, is a relative smash (more than 600,000 copies sold, Murphy says), bringing them better gigs, including appearances on late-night network-television broadcasts and MTV.

The Asylum has answered its own lyrical question, asked in 1986's "Never Really Been" A "And where will you be/In 1993/Still singing the same tune?" In a way, yes. In another, no. Somehow the fishy music critics of the world, try as they might, have failed to lock in on the underpinning of this classic American rock band: hooks. If you don't know hooks when they're carrot-sticked before your consumer ears, okay. But critics should feel their gills being ripped out.

They haven't. Instead, pop pundits have weaved verbal webs based more on geography than the simple fact that sloppy rock can be, at least in the hands of this band, as infectious as any music. Hooks don't always equal big sales, after all. People began its Soul Asylum story with this question: "Is there a Minneapolis sound?" Us opened with "Long before the Seattle music scene, there was one in Minneapolis." Rolling Stone spent the first couple of paragraphs describing "midday in Minneapolis." Even worse, the San Francisco Chronicle referred to the group's guitarist as "Daniel" Murphy. Oh my.

So it is a good thing that the Asylum has never been "distressed by the universal press," depressed instead about their "last pinball game." Regular Peter Pans flying above a real-time industry that chews up dreamers like so many sunflower seeds. "[Columbia president] Donny Ienner is real aggressive and real self-assured," Murphy says. "He's not a businessman, he's more street, not much schooling. He follows his instincts. He told us he wanted to jam this record right up A&M's ass. I said, 'If that's your motivation, I'm down with you.' He wields a big stick. When he says 'jump,' people say 'over what?'"

MTV jumped, showcasing Soul Asylum on its spring-break and presidential-inaugural specials. Saturday Night Live and David Letterman and The Tonight Show A they jumped. Keith Richards had the band open some of his solo-tour dates. Murphy and his pals A singer-guitarist Dave Pirner, bassist Karl Mueller, and drummer Grant Young A jetted to Europe with Guns N' Roses. "I hoped the label would push this record like hell," Murphy says, adding that, yes, the constant interviews that go with a hype campaign are a pain. "The Keith thing, they didn't think it would sell. They were right. But it was still a good experience. Ours are not compatible crowds. Keith is Keith. His fans don't give a shit about the opening act. These are people who buy Stones records."

I spoke to Murphy just before he left for Europe. (I didn't mention my longstanding offer to kick Axl Rose's ass.) "I don't buy into that whole mystique," Murphy says of the Guns' rep. "We're not gonna live their lifestyle. Going with them means we get to play in front of a lot of people. Axl digs us. Duff and Slash came to see us in Minneapolis and once in Los Angeles before they got huge. They're pretty normal guys. A lot of things happened to them in a very short time. I don't think you plan on being an enfant terrible. We have our own brand of fun and trouble. We don't need to emulate anyone else."

If there is a downside to Soul Asylum's long-deserved but newfound fame, it is the critical trend of insisting that Grave Dancers Union is the first and only time the band's amazing sound has been effectively captured in the studio. Once they get past the Minneapolis thing, music writers jabber on and on about how the group was held back for so long because, although everyone knew they were the best live band in the world, there was no recorded material to affirm that. Such an argument is plain wrong and, I'd suggest, an attempt by these critics to make it seem they always thought the band was great, they just didn't happen to mention it in print.

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