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.

The truth is that Soul Asylum albums A especially Say What You Will... and Hang Time and Made to Be Broken and Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode in On A not only stood out but stand up. So it is unsettling to read in a magazine that "it took them seven albums, but Soul Asylum finally delivers." Smarter critics, such as Ira Robbins, must be wondering if anyone ever reads what they write. Robbins once called Dave Pirner "a songwriting genius" and praised the band's ability to "roar and sigh at the same time."

Daniel Murphy says he doesn't worry about all this much. "If Hang Time would've come out under other circumstances, it could have done well. Things were never right for us at A&M. They thought they'd fail if they tried, and no one wants to do that, so they didn't try. It was like 'give them $2000 to tour, those guys are crazy, they love sleeping on floors.'" Twin/Tone, the label that launched the band, was different. "We're not real money-grubbing guys," Murphy notes. "But if you do something on a budget, you should get the money. You have to protect your self-interests 'cause no one else does. Twin/Tone was a great way to start, because there wasn't pressure and they loved the band."

Murphy's hindsight is only slightly clouded. When A&M issued the seven-months-in-the-making Hang Time in '88, the band actually got to sleep in a few hotels. On the other hand, they found themselves playing some pretty weird venues besides Club Nu. They made a shopping-mall appearance in San Jose, California, that left them feeling "like Spinal Tap," Murphy said at the time. The record itself should have been, hypewise, everything that Grave Dancers Union has turned out to be. Critics called Hang Time too slick, a little too clean, an assessment Murphy agreed with up to a point. "It's a far cry from perfect," he said then. "But I think it's the best we've sounded on record." The "slick" tag is especially ironic in that producer Ed Stasium would play back the mixes on a portable taper and through a TV speaker. "The CD thing is for audiophiles only," Murphy said in 1988. "Our recordings sound best on a carry-box." Since then a cottage-industry has developed around the reissuing of the group's old records on CD. Oh my.

Much more has happened in light of the group's two-album (plus options) deal with Columbia. (The second release won't be out for some time. Murphy says the band will take several months to write songs after the current touring frenzy subsides.) For one thing, they're booked with the Spin Doctors and Screaming Trees A other "alternative" outfits A at AT&T's place next Tuesday. ("The Trees are kinda nuts," Murphy says of his billmates. "They don't live right. But they're nice guys. The Spin Doctors I don't know much about, I've heard their songs on the radio. It's a different vibe than we're used to. I haven't done acid in a few years. I don't know if their crowds will like us, but I don't really care.")

For another thing, Soul Asylum recently spent several weeks touring under a corporate sponsorship in a sort of 18 percent versus "99%" deal. That's interest rate versus the band's anthemic tune from the latest album. Their benefactor was MasterCard International.

I should note that I've never been much for anything that requires the insertion of my name into a computer; never had a bank account or dealt with plastic money. Not that I have anything against those who do. But you have to admit this was one strange deal. During the research for this article I talked to a number of the band's handlers, including one who warned me to not mention MasterCard to any member of Soul Asylum. "They'll just hang up on you."

"It was a weird thing," Murphy says of the MasterCard deal, which sent the band to a dozen college campuses (including the University of Miami's) earlier this spring. "We got approached to do it. They gave away some posters, and got us that silly MTV beach-party show, which we were pretty disappointed with. People squishing balloons with their bellies.... Corporate America always leaves a bad taste. No, we didn't get a [tour] bus out of it. It did lower ticket prices. Part of our motivation was to get a taste of how these things work." (This reminds Murphy of another recent encounter with Corporate America. While cutting Grave Dancers Union, the band learned that a car company was using one of their videos in a commercial A without permission. "The lawyers are talking," Murphy says. "They took the ad off. We worked so long for whatever integrity we have.")

Anything to be cool, they say. For the heck of it, I called up Nancy Hemenway, the vice president of marketing for MasterCard International. She explained that the company sponsored the tour to increase "awareness." She told me the company wanted to bring "something of value" to college students. "Soul Asylum is extremely popular," she said without irony. "We took into account their background, their solid reputation. They're a little older, they have longevity, they're not extremely hard, more of a traditional rock group." Not a bad evaluation on behalf of a band that began as Loud Fast Rules and has included at least one rave-up thrash rip on each album.

Pressed, so to speak, Nancy admitted that an advisory board actually selected S.A. from a number of other candidates. "We went through a process," she says. "My eyes glazed over. I don't know the difference between the Lemonheads and the B-52's. We had a college advisory board and did a phone survey. We asked who they were aware of, who they liked, and who they would go see. The response to Soul Asylum was 100 percent." Beats 99. Besides, Hemenway adds, "they were touring on their own. There were some venues they'd be playing. I guess you'd call it 'gigs.' They were smart for tying into a major corporation. It lends credibility to their reputation. They play nice rock and roll. Nice music."

Whoa! Man, it's hard to get hard these days. And a guitar is a man's best friend. Yesterday's worries are today's. Gullible's travels. Keep it uppp. These rules were made to be broken, made to be broken, made to be broken.

"No, I don't have any plastic," Murphy says. "I tried, but I was delinquent on my college loans. They're paid off, but it stays on your record."

By merely applying, I recently received a MasterCard in the mail. And I'd be perfectly happy to use it to rent the members of Soul Asylum a decent hotel room. Or they can sleep on my floor. As long as they're willing to play a few bars of "Passing Sad Daydream."

No, on second thought, forget it. You do still hate Florida, right Daniel? "More or less." I'm gonna kick his ass.

Soul Asylum, with Screaming Trees and the Spin Doctors, performs at 7:00 p.m. Tuesday at Bayfront Park Amphitheater, 301 Biscayne Blvd, 358-7550. Tickets cost $21 and $22.50.

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