Black Gold: Soul Asylum Rocks On
That Midwestern work ethic keeps the band going …and going …and going.
That Midwestern work ethic keeps the band going …and going …and going.
Although I have called the East Coast home for over 30 years, I remain a Midwestern boy through and through — born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can take the boy out of the Midwest, but you can’t take the Midwest out of the boy.
And if there is one thing that we Midwestern folk pride ourselves on, it’s our work ethic.
Even so far removed from the region, my work ethic is still one of the things I hang my tuque on. I also look for it in others, regardless of profession …or gender. You don’t have to be the best; you must strive to be the best. And that comes from doing the work.
I was dating someone who asked me what I liked about them. Sure, I liked many things about her: intelligence, sense of humor, and the usual stuff. But after a couple of seconds, the first thing out of my mouth was: “Well, you have an excellent work ethic.”
Hard to imagine that a woman wouldn’t see “work ethic” as an attractive attribute or high compliment — That’s right, ladies, I’m available!
Once upon a time, the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul) in Minnesota was a hot music scene. At one particular moment, the scene was pulsing with Prince, Husker Du, The Replacements, and Soul Asylum, as well as a host of bands that never reached a national audience. But as any music fan knows, these scenes are transient (see Seattle, Athens, Austin, etc.).
That said, I have to imagine being a musician and songwriter from Minnesota is tough. Not because of the winters, but because of the musical pedigree.
The ultimate literary rock God, Bob Dylan, is from Hibbing, Minnesota. In the Twin Cities, you had the genius of Prince and the scrappier, but no less literary or intelligent, Bob Mould of Husker Du and Paul Westerberg of The Replacements.
For reasons that elude me, Dave Pirner and Soul Asylum are rarely spoken about with the same reverence as their contemporaries Husker Du or The Replacements. Their bands came up together, and Pirner and ‘mats bass player Tommy Stinson went to school together. But these guys get overlooked when many consider great rock bands from Minnesota — or even worse, marginalized.
After years of banging out one EP, three full-length albums on Minneapolis indie label Twine/Tone, and then two albums on A&M Records, the band couldn’t get any real traction. They took a jab at the industry’s attitude towards them by titling their final A&M Records album …And the Horse They Rode In On. The label reacted accordingly and didn’t promote the album, which sold only 70,000 copies, and A&M dropped the band.
Columbia Records threw Soul Asylum a lifeline. And then, the stars aligned, and they released the multi-platinum Grave Dancers Union in 1992 (aka, the one with “Runaway Train”).
From a Rolling Stone article in 1993, just after Grave Dancers Union’s release:
“You see, over their 11-year existence, Soul Asylum has been called many things: America’s best live band (check); music-industry misfits (check); punk poets (check); insightful adults trapped in terminal adolescence (check); the last great gasp of life from the early-’80s Minneapolis music scene (check). They’ve even been toe-tagged as dead and gone.”
While Soul Asylum’s commercial success may have only yielded two platinum albums (1992’s Grave Dancer’s Union and 1995’s Let Your Dim Light Shine) and the only original member remaining is the lead singer and principal songwriter Dave Pirner, the band, and the brand, have yet to be toe-tagged.
But when considering the pantheon of well-known Minnesota musicians, Soul Asylum always seems to be the afterthought. After everyone lists Bob Dylan, Prince, Bob Mould, and Paul Westerberg, it takes a Soul Asylum fan to say: “Hey, what about Soul Asylum?”
“Oh yea, they’re great too.”
Everyone knows Bob Dylan and Prince are flat-out geniuses. Bob Mould is a genre-bending musical and creative polymath. Paul Westerberg is one of the most respected songwriters of my, arguably any, generation.
I feel like Dave Pirner has been incorrectly left off that call sheet.
When the lyrical grand pooh-bah of rock and roll is fellow Golden Gopher Bob Dylan, and your contemporaries are Prince, Mould, and Westerberg, it’s going to take A LOT of talent to rise above the noise. Many bands in Minnesota tried, and tens of thousands around the country tried.
Very few succeeded.
Soul Asylum succeeded.
That being said, it wasn’t just tenacity and the band’s work ethic that helped break Soul Asylum.
Dave Pirner is a wickedly underrated songwriter. He’s clever, funny, reflective, open …he’s pretty much all the things that make a great writer.
If you close your eyes and listen to “String of Pearls” off Let Your Dim Light Shine, it's like a 4:30 Robert Altman film.
If one had a singular criticism about Pirner, it might be that he has stayed in his songwriting lane all these years. But that’s not a criticism. Pirner writes what he knows, and he writes his songs in his voice …that’s what makes a great writer.
I wouldn’t expect Dave Pirner to make an experimental noise album any more than Bob Dylan to release a hardcore rap album.
So what gives? Why can’t Pirner and Soul Asylum get the respect their fellow Minnesotan brethren get?
The history is there, the performances are there, the songs are there, the work is certainly there, and yet somehow, the respect isn’t.
I had always been familiar with Soul Asylum, but my inroad was …And the Horse They Rode In On. From there, I worked my way backward. Shortly after I’d exhausted their back catalog, Grave Dancers Union dropped. And boy, howdy did it. It was and remains a great album. The success of that record was hard-fought and well deserved.
Unfortunately, right after Grave Dancers Union, grunge hit. And that genre and the industry’s approach to it took no prisoners. Even though the guys in Soul Asylum had always worn jeans and flannel (you will recall that they’re from Minnesota), straight-up rock bands like theirs became a casualty — despite Columbia Records’ attempts to label them as “grunge.”
Their follow-up to Grave Dancers Union, 1995’s Let Your Dim Light Shine, was also an excellent record …that had some success. Even though it was a terrific follow-up, it just wasn’t the sound “of the moment.” That’s honestly the problem. It’s a great album.
It didn’t help that Pirner had become a pin-up, ended a long-term relationship, and stirred the paparazzi’s interest when he began dating Winona Ryder.
Soul Asylum released one more record on Columbia Records, Candy From A Stranger, in 1998 before being dropped by the label.
Dave Pirner and co-founder and lead guitarist Dan Murphy drifted apart, other members left or were fired, and one passed away.
But Soul Asylum still wasn’t ready to be toe-tagged.
Like a phoenix rising, the band dropped The Silver Lining in 2006. Arguably one of their best albums. They enlisted fellow Minnesotan drummer Michael Bland (Prince, Paul Westerberg) on drums. When original bass player Karl Mueller grew too sick from cancer to play, they brought in Generation X’s own Keith Richards — Tommy Stinson (The Replacements, Guns-n-Roses) to finish up recording and to stand in for Mueller on tour.
This line-up (Pirner, Murphy, Bland, and Stinson) was the one I saw in 2008 on a triple bill with Everclear and Cracker at Webster Hall in NYC. I coaxed a couple of friends into going with me.
I swear to you, there was no better rock band on that night in NYC. The proof is that about 40–50% of the audience left after Soul Asylum's performance. They were the middle band; the headliner was Everclear.
One of my friends left immediately after Soul Asylum, and the other and I stuck around (she was an Everclear fan). But even after a couple of their songs, she leaned over and said: “Yea, let’s go.”
Since that show, things have changed for the band. In 2012, Tommy Stinson left to do Tommy things (including a Replacements reunion), and co-founder/lead guitarist Dan Murphy retired from music altogether.
Let that marinate for a moment. A musician retired from music without going into rehab or dying. And he didn’t just retire; he did a major career pivot. Murphy left rock and roll and went into …wait for it …the antique business.
But did Dave Pirner quit? Nope. Retire? Nope. He and drummer Michael Bland enlisted Winston Roye and Ryan Smith and are doing what Soul Asylum does — continuing to work.
I dragged another friend to see them in 2015 at the Brooklyn Bowl. She had no interest, but in the middle of the show, she leaned over and said: “I know all of these songs.”
As we stood outside afterward smoking a cigarette, she said: “That was amazing.” Just then, Dave Pirner walked right by us toward his tour bus, carrying a beer and smoking.
Never one to be shy, she said: “Great show!”
He stopped and turned: “Huh?”
She said again: “Great show! We loved it.”
Pirner’s smile was big and genuine: “Oh, thanks a lot, man!”
[Fun Fact: I saw Soul Asylum in 2008 with Everclear and Cracker, the ticket was +/-$50. I saw them in 2015, the ticket was $25, and I saw them again in 2020, just before the pandemic, and the ticket was $25. You can’t even see a good local band for $25, let alone a national act. So, thank you to Soul Asylum for keeping rock and roll affordable!]
Dave Pirner and Soul Asylum are as solid as anything you’re likely to encounter. Pirner is:
A solid songwriter
A solid guitar player
A solid singer
A solid front-man
In other words, he’s carried that Midwestern work ethic into his art, and it’s one of the things that makes him so reliable. You know he’s always going to deliver, be it live or in the studio. Will he be excellent 100% of the time? No. He’s human. And that’s also part of the beauty.
It genuinely makes me wonder where the love is for this band. Sure, they haven’t sold millions and millions of records, but neither has Bob Mould or Paul Westerberg.
Soul Asylum is like the Rodney Dangerfield of Rock and Roll — they get no respect.
But if after 40+ years in the music business with a few million albums sold and if you’re still alive, sounding good, articulate, creatively viable, and working? Hell, that’s success in any industry, let alone rock and roll. That should command some respect, especially when your catalog is as deep and rich as Soul Asylums.
Yet, for some inexplicable reason, few seem to care.
If it weren’t for their tenacity, Soul Asylum’s career would have imploded after Let Your Dim Light Shine.
Dave Pirner may not carry the gravitas of Bob Dylan or Prince or even Bob Mould or Paul Westerberg, but he’s no less talented. He and Soul Asylum deserve a seat at the table.
They haven’t earned it through just hard work. They’ve made it through hard work AND their talent.
The goal of any creative life is to create. And you can’t make great work without doing the work.
“Youths write to me all the time and tell me their bands will get nowhere because of all the bands in the world. I tell them there has always been awful music and that no great band ever wasted time complaining, they just got it done. Their ropey ranting is just a way to get out of the hard work of making music that will do some lasting damage.” — Henry Rollins.
That identifies Dave Pirner and Soul Asylum. The band did and continues to do the work. And the quality of the work and their work ethic have allowed them to do “some lasting damage.”
That means something.
Well, it should mean something anyway.
Soul Asylum STILL isn’t ready to be toe-tagged.
Thanks to Noah Levy, S.W. Lauden, Terry Barr, Kevin Alexander, Rob Janicke, Alexander Briseño, If Ever You’re Listening