Workingman's Band — Soul Asylum
Soul Asylum is almost like the Rodney Dangerfield of rock and roll — no respect. Like Dangerfield, they deserve it.
Even though I’ve called the East Coast my home for well over half my life now, I am a Midwestern boy through and through.
One of the many traits we Midwesterners carry with us, no matter where we hang our hat, is our work ethic. It’s solid. It’s certainly something I’ve carried with me through the years and it’s definitely something I look for in others, regardless of profession . . . or gender.
I was once asked by someone I was dating what I loved about them. So I thought about it. I mean there were a lot of things, right? The usual stuff, intelligence, sense of humor, etc. After a lengthy pause I landed on “Well, you have a really solid work ethic.”
Turns out women don’t want “work ethic” to be an attractive attribute. At least not this particular woman.
Once upon a time, the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul) in Minnesota was a music hotbed. But scenes are transient (think Seattle, Athens, Austin, etc.) and the scene moved on. However, Minnesotans are industrious folks and the Twin Cities soldiered on forging an even greater and more distinctive music scene. As well as legacy.
But I have to imagine being a musician from Minnesota is tough.
Think about it. The penultimate literary rock God, Bob Dylan is from Hibbing, Minnesota. In the Twin Cities, you find the scrappier benchmark bands (but no less literary) like Husker Du and The Replacements.
And, of course, in a category all by himself, Prince.
Always bringing up the rear is the group I consider to be one of the hardest working, and certainly one of the best, rock bands of the era, Soul Asylum.
Yes, that Soul Asylum.
From a Rolling Stone article in 1993, just after the release of their hit album Grave Dancers Union:
“You see, over their 11-year existence (now, 35 year), Soul Asylum have been called many things: Americas best live band; music-industry misfits; punk poets; insightful adults trapped in terminal adolescence; the last great gasp of life from the early-’80s Minneapolis music scene. They’ve even been toe-tagged as dead and gone.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the pantheon of well-known Minnesota musicians, Soul Asylum is always mentioned but usually last. Even worse, as an afterthought, “Hey, what about Soul Asylum?”
“Oh yea, they’re great too.”
Of course, everyone knows Bob Dylan and Prince are flat-out geniuses, Paul Westerberg is one of the most respected songwriters of my generation and Bob Mould is a musical and creative polymath (the theme song to The Daily Show, yea, that’s his).
With the exception of Dylan, when these people are your contemporaries both personally AND professionally, it’s going to be hard to get heard. Many Minneapolis bands tried.
Soul Asylum succeeded.
They worked and worked and eventually broke through. But make no mistake, it wasn’t just tenacity that broke Soul Asylum.
Principal songwriter Dave Pirner is far from a lousy songwriter. He’s clever, funny, reflective, open . . . he’s pretty much all the things that make a great writer. Above all else, Pirner writes relatable songs.
Okay, maybe Pirner isn’t as profound as Dylan, as prodigious as Prince, as clever as Westerberg, or as diverse as Mould but Pirner is a strong songwriter in his own way, with his own voice. That’s what makes a good writer.
So what gives? Why can’t he and Soul Asylum get the respect their fellow gopher brethren get?
The history is there, the performances are there, the songs are there, the work is certainly there . . . somehow the respect is lacking.
I’ve seen Soul Asylum a number of times over the years. First in 1990 when they had just been dropped by A&M Records and were out doing a half acoustic and half electric show. I don’t recall very much of this show. It was a long time ago and involved a rather prodigious amount of alcohol. I can only guess it was good.
Then Grave Dancers Union happened. And when it did, I was happy. It was a great album and they had earned, and deserved, the success.
While I never saw them at the peak of this success, I did see them much later (2009) on a triple bill with Cracker and Everclear.
In between Grave Dancers Union and 2009, albums sales fell, they were dropped by their record label, Pirner was skewered by the press for his movie star dalliances, Pirner and Murphy drifted apart then back together, members left or were fired and one passed away. It was a tough period.
But Soul Asylum soldiered on, it’s that work ethic thing.
So by 2009, original members Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy had recorded The Silver Lining, their strongest album since Let Your Dim Light Shine. They enlisted fellow gophers (obviously) drummer Michael Bland (Prince, Paul Westerberg) and my generations closest equivalent to Keith Richards, bass player Tommy Stinson (The Replacements, Guns-n-Roses) to tour.
This was the line up (Pirner, Murphy, Bland, Stinson) I saw on that triple bill. Four golden gophers playing rock and roll, what more could I ask for? (I should probably note that I was born in Minneapolis, so I may be a wee biased.)
That night in NYC, Soul Asylum was sandwiched between Cracker and Everclear (somehow Everclear was the headliner). I assure you, my bias aside, on that night, there was no better rock and roll band than Soul Asylum. They literally crushed it. They were so good that half the audience left after their set.
My date and I suffered until Everclear’s third song. Thankfully, they played the big hit at the top of the show. Once outside she said, “Wow, Soul Asylum was better than everyone else and I knew every song.”
Since then things have changed. In 2012, Tommy Stinson left to go do Tommy things (a Replacements reunion among them) and Dan Murphy retired from music altogether. Yep, a musician retired from music without dying. He did so voluntarily to run . . . wait for it . . . an antiques business.
How’s that for a career pivot?
But did Dave Pirner quit? Nope. Retire the name? Nope. He and drummer Michael Bland enlisted Winston Roye and Justin Sharbono and are doing what Soul Asylum does, they’re soldiering on.
I saw them as recently as 2015 in Brooklyn. For $25! Now when was the last time you saw a band that you knew for $25? The band was in fine form. They were great.
Look, Dave Pirner is solid at everything he does. He’s a solid songwriter, a solid guitar player, a solid singer and a solid front-man. In other words, Pirner is reliable and always going to deliver. 100% of the time? No. He’s human, but most of the time. Yea. He’s a professional.
With Soul Asylum, I sincerely doubt you will ever be disappointed. No matter how much you pay.
So, what’s going on? What am I missing? I don’t get why they don’t get the love.
No, they haven’t sold a bagillion records, but neither have Paul Westerberg or Bob Mould.
But for some reason, Soul Asylum just never seems to get the respect they deserve. The respect they’ve worked for and, frankly, earned. In rock and roll there are no guarantees, I understand.
But if after 35 years, a few million albums sold and you’re still alive, sounding good, articulate, creatively viable and working, well, that should command some respect. Especially when your back catalog is as deep and rich as Soul Asylum’s is.
Soul Asylum IS a great band. Okay, maybe their output from the mid-90’s to today could best be described as sporadic but they’re still a great live band and they’re great on record (however intermittent the releases).
Yet, for some inexplicable reason few seem to care. If it weren’t for their tenacity and work ethic, Soul Asylum’s career would have died after Let Your Dim Light Shine.
Soul Asylum and Dave Pirner may not have the gravitas of Bob Dylan, Prince, Paul Westerberg or Bob Mould, but he and the band stand alone in their own right. Both now and historically.
The goal of any creative life is to be creative. And you can’t be creative without doing the work.
Dave Pirner has done the work. Soul Asylum has done the work. They continue to do the work. That’s a creative life.
The work. That’s a Midwesterners life. That’s Soul Asylum’s life.
When your contemporaries are a who’s who of modern music, it takes a lot of work to get heard above some of the best songwriters in the history of rock and roll. Soul Asylum did the work and made sure that their voice was, and is, heard. That means something.
Well, it should mean something anyway.