Freda Love Smith is a lecturer and advisor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University. She is a rock drummer and co-founder of the Blake Babies, Antenna, Some Girls, and the Mysteries of Life, is a staff writer for Paste Magazine, and has published short stories in journals such as the North American Review, SmokeLong, Bound Off and Riptide. Her first book, Red Velvet Underground: A Rock Memoir, with Recipes, was published on November 1, 2015 by Agate/Midway.
(Photo Credit: Rebecca Dudley)
A couple of weeks ago, a band that I played in a long time ago, the Blake Babies, launched a Pledge Music campaign for a digital and vinyl release of demo recordings we made in March of 1988. We’d long been discussing the possibility of reissuing our back catalogue, and in the process of digging around for old tapes, we discovered the demos. We agreed that it would be fun to dust them off, have them mixed and mastered, and offer them to anyone who might be interested. Releasing these demos as a “new” Blake Babies record also seemed like a good way to test the water for reissues.
I hadn’t really thought about the recordings since we made them, but the process of packaging these tracks and presenting them as a new release compelled me to closely turn my attention to this slice of my sonic past. I felt resistance to listening — not for any reason I can pinpoint, more from a general lack of interest and a slight sense of dread. I’ve found myself comparing songs to time machines a lot lately, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to transport myself back to this moment in time. But I did, and it turned out to be an odd little trip.
The Blake Babies were a Boston indie rock band, together from 1986 to 1991 (not counting our short reunion in 2000). The three core members were Juliana Hatfield, John Strohm and me — although we cycled through a few fourth members (including Andrew Mayer, who played bass on the 1988 demos, and Evan Dando, who replaced Andrew shortly thereafter). We were eighteen when we met and formed the band, and we jumped headlong into the endeavor, recording Nicely, Nicely, a messy, sweet little labor of love, and releasing it ourselves in 1987. Nicely, Nicely scored a smattering of friendly press and a bit of college radio play, and it also caught the attention of Boston producer Gary Smith (Pixies, Throwing Muses). In March 1988, Gary booked us into his beautiful new Cambridge studio, Fort Apache, to record with engineer Paul Q. Kolderie.
“It wasn’t an audition,” John Strohm told me in a recent phone call. “But we felt the weight of the opportunity.” If it was an audition, we passed it. We’d go on to record two albums at Fort Apache with Gary: Earwig (1989) and Sunburn (1990). We would build a moderate national following, make a couple of videos, tour a ton, get sick of each other and break up. By the time our last record (the EP Rosy Jack World) came out in 1991, we all had our eyes on the future, and there was no future for the Blake Babies.
But back in March 1988, the future of the Blake Babies was all we cared about. In two days, we tracked twelve songs, our entire set of unrecorded material, and then Juliana overdubbed vocals. These were demos and were not meant to be heard by the world. The session was simply supposed to be a step in the pre-production process, like sketches before a final painting. Most of the songs would later be recorded for Earwig, although some would disappear, only to resurface years later, such as “Take Me, Take Me,” which received a more muscular and rocking treatment (and a name change to “Take Me”) on Rosy Jack World, and “Boiled Potato,” which was resurrected as “Feed Me” on a solo Juliana single (I See You, 1992). Only one song would retire forever, Juliana’s “AKA Deluxebury,” a teenage punk critique of her swanky seaside home, Duxbury, Massachusetts.
It turns out that going back to these demos wasn’t quite as embarrassing as I was afraid it would be — nothing like looking at prom pictures or perusing my high school journals. After weeks of resistance, I blocked off an hour of time, locked my office door, and logged into Dropbox, where the songs had landed after their translation from twenty-eight-year-old magnetic tape to mastered digital files. I sat at my desk drinking tea, clicking through the songs, scribbling stream-of-consciousness notes:
No muscle, but a certain kind of power.
Light, delicate, hyper-caffeinated…
Sounds like I’m having a hard time keeping up.
Awesome, emphatic grunt (at the end of “Don’t Suck My Breath”).
I forgot how funny these lyrics are! (About Juliana’s “Take Your Head Off My Shoulder.”)
Mostly I felt a sense of relief. This batch of recordings captures our material at a sweet spot: before we’d had a chance to overly fuss over everything (a couple of the final recordings on Earwig suffer from fussiness), and before we’d had a chance to find those terrible ’80s drum sounds (what were we all thinking? The Go-Go’s didn’t have terrible drum sounds), but after we’d had a chance to gain some polish and tightness as a band.
Not that we’d tightened up that much. Once I got over my initial surge of relief, my ears inevitably settled critically on the drums. I cringed a little at my youthful attempts to be powerful, and at the artless plodding I lapsed into, especially on the otherwise strong “Lament.” But maybe it’s too cheap and easy for me to drag little Freda over the coals, and the main thing I hear as I listen to myself is effort.
“Some people,” Gary Smith pointedly said to me in the weeks leading up to this session, “have to work harder than others.” He meant no offense, and I took none; I hear his observation echoing through all twelve of these songs. I hear myself working hard and just managing to stay caught up on “Take Me, Take Me,” or myself working hard and not quite managing to keep up on “Grateful” (maybe one of the handful of tracks that is much better on Earwig).
And through all my beads of sweat, I hear John not sweating it at all! His tracks sound startlingly professional. In fact, John was a professional. He had been in bands since high school and had been absorbing great music all his life. His influences are audible here: Bob Mould, Neil Young, Chuck Berry. John had a strong sense of song structure and melody, and he often glues everything together on this session; for instance, his ringing riffs on “Take Me, Take Me” and “Take Your Head Off My Shoulder,” and his perfect punk-pop chord progressions, especially on “Lament.”
But if we were glued together by John, we were utterly defined by the sound of Juliana’s vocals. Listening to her young talent hits me all the harder for the years. I didn’t fully recognize this back then, but now I hear the intensity of a twenty-year-old singer and songwriter who had been waiting and waiting, often despairingly, often impatiently, for the stars to align, for an opportunity to do the thing she was born to do. And here’s that moment! She has a band, a producer, a studio and a crack engineer, and after all those years of singing in her bedroom, she takes the microphone and she nails it. She throws down harmonies and they are amazing. She is the real deal.
I thought that spending time with the Earwig demos might ignite a wave of memory and nostalgia in me. That did not happen. In fact, I couldn’t initially recall many details of their making. I relied on a phone call with John for the basic facts (I’d even forgotten that we recorded at Fort Apache). He has an incredible memory, and he filled me in. I called Juliana to see if she had any of her own memories to contribute.
“I don’t remember anything,” she said. “Where did we record them?”
I relayed to her everything John had just told me.
“I do remember,” she offered, “that we cared a lot about what we were doing.”
I remember that, too. That’s the one and only detail that returns to all of us about those two pivotal days in our lives. We cared so much, were eager to impress and wanted badly to do well. That in itself was clearly a powerful, unifying factor. Back then, I saw the three of us as a largely unified unit (maybe this is partly what made it difficult to find the right fourth member). We were born in the same year (1967), loved the same bands (Big Star, Dinosaur Jr., Volcano Suns), wore the same pocket T-shirts and baggy jeans, voted the same (Dukakis), used the same kind of soap (Ivory), read the same books (Raymond Carver), and ate the same black beans (see my book, Red Velvet Underground, for more on the latter). But after the past few days of listening to these little sketches, I hear less unity, more contrast, more push and pull.
John: confident and professional. Juliana: restless and impatient. Me: less focused, less sure of my purpose, kind of along for the ride. And maybe the deepest shock of all comes not from realizing how far we’ve come or how much we’ve changed, but how very little we have changed. To put it another way, how very much ourselves we already were way back then.
These days, John applies his professionalism and good taste to a successful career as a music attorney; Juliana continues to create, producing new work relentlessly, most recently by proving that her singular voice can make even Paul Westerberg sound better (see Hatfield/Westerberg collaboration The I Don’t Cares, Wild Stab, 2016).
Maybe some time machines zip us back along a straight line to a fixed point in the past. The Earwig demos were a different kind of ride for me, more like circumnavigating a loop that brought me right back to now. Why should I bother listening to this stuff (never mind why should you)? Why do we look at old photos, read old diaries? Are we trying to travel back to another moment, or are we looking for clues, trying to get a better grasp on the moment at hand?
And what about me? Have I changed since 1988? I’ve drifted in and out of the music world, the food world, the academic world. I’ve quit drumming about ten times, but I’m playing again these days, still feeling my way, still needing to work a little harder than everyone else, still trying, trying, trying.
I consulted with my fellow Blake Babies, and we agreed that “Take Me, Take Me” was a good sketch to share here.
Here’s the song three years later:
I like how the earlier version catches us in the act of becoming a band, and the later version catches us in the act of reaching not only our potential but our limits together. Like most endings, its seed was there from the beginning.
(Photo credit: Jeanne-Marie Greiner)