by JAY HORTON & BETSY DAVIS
“Touring both the U.S. and Europe together with these brothers in arms, the Young Fresh Fellows were nightly witnesses to the evangelical fire of the Bums shows. At the lonely work of spreading the rock ’n’ roll gospel and baptizing a new audience every night with love and beer, the Dharma Bums took takin’ care of business to a new level.” —Scott McCaughey (Minus 5, R.E.M., Young Fresh Fellows, producer of the Dharma Bums’ 1989 debut Haywire), Feb. 9, 2010
Ages ago, when independent distribution remained the sole province of crackpot pamphleteers, Portland hardly imagined itself a launching pad for bands. Portland, in the 1980s, was where bands were from—somewhat regretfully. And, parts south, things were even worse.
“Jim [Talstra; bassist] and I met as kids ’cause our parents worked together at the Silverton Appeal, ” says Jeremy Wilson, frontman for the Dharma Bums—Oregon legends from the days before grunge changed everything. “We were really young, playing bars, VFW halls, Grange halls, high-school dances.” They moved to Portland in 1986, and, almost instantly, became the informal house act for the original incarnation of punk mecca Satyricon. “I remember doing shows where Greg Sage from the Wipers would be the only guy in the audience,” guitarist Eric Lovre recalls. “One week, we played at Satyricon four nights. We could play with punk-rock bands, we could play with hippie bands. We couldn’t even drink, being underage, but we were so excited to be there, playing with the big boys: Mojo Nixon, Jazz Butcher, Meat Puppets.”
“We were ubiquitous openers for touring bands,” drummer John Moen admits. But the Bums developed a devout following that swept the nation, state by state, thanks to three beloved albums climbing the college rock charts (highest-ranking indie artists for three consecutive months, Wilson says) and a dizzying slate of live performances. The Bums averaged more than 200 shows per year, at their peak, in the U.S. and Europe.
The unending succession of shows were each marked by conviviality, levity: They were joyous in a way that Northwest music was generally not. The band was unfettered by punk pretensions and rooted in rock ’n’ roll while absorbing pop complexities and lyrical depth. It was absent the angst and dour solipsism of the surrounding scene and Wilson’s contagiously ecstatic, tightly wound delivery was uniquely, playfully punk. The Bums romanced a more untroubled era of musical history with a clear reverence for classic-rock riffs, ornate harmonies and a whimsical intensity that set them apart from other indie bands of the era, defying and transcending categories. They were not, in a word, grunge. “We did sound heavier than most bands in the country at the time,” Lovre recalls. “In the Midwest, it was all Love Tractor, wimpy stuff. But, compared to Seattle, we were not heavy.”
“We were touring with Skin Yard,” Wilson recalls, “and the singer, Ben, said something like, ‘We love touring with you guys. You’re like the soaring eagle and we’re the jet plane engine that devours it.’ I remember, when we played a few shows with Tad, feeling that way a few times.” Considering the peculiar timing of their amicable 1992 dissolution (just as major labels fell upon anything and everything Northwest), there’s an enduring belief that the Bums somehow missed out on the brass ring. Wilson dismisses any talk of lapsed opportunities. “After we broke up and saw grunge get big, I signed a $2 million deal with fuckin’ Elektra Records,” he says. “I went on to play with Pilot for eight years, but…we never had the camaraderie.
“The music scene in general is a lot different than when we grew up,” Wilson continues. “There was no Internet—the Internet was getting in a van and driving from city to city. That was the network. So that required a lot more planning, a lot more resources, a lot more than just getting on the computer. You had to go to a studio, and, for a band to put $5,000 together, that required a whole different level of thinking and organization and commitment.”
In recent years, Lovre has continued to produce and engineer hand-picked artists from his own analog recording studio. Talstra, after playing in a string of notable local acts, appears with Scott McCaughey in the Minus 5. Moen founded critical faves the Maroons, played alongside Elliot Smith and Stephen Malkmus, and currently drums for the Decemberists. Beyond manning the MastanMusic label/studio and releasing his own solo work (as have all the others), Wilson’s just happy to be performing again following his serious medical troubles in 2008.
“For whatever reason, I had gotten to a point in my life before the heart surgery where I really felt depressed. And when my heart situation happened, it was completely phenomenal to me that hundreds of people in the Portland community came to my rescue and raised $45,000 for me to have my heart fixed. I’m really grateful for this community, and I think that [the reunion] is gonna be a really awesome show. I can’t wait to show everybody that,” he smiles, “I still got heart.”
SEE IT: The Dharma Bums play the Crystal Ballroom on Saturday, Feb. 20, with the Young Fresh Fellows and Derby. 8 pm. $15 advance, $17 day of show. All ages.