By Mark Guarino
Dave Pirner is fighting his way home. “Traffic here ever since the hurricane has been horrific,” he reports, navigating the streets to get to Bywater, the New Orleans neighborhood where he lives. “We almost got hit again and we got into a car accident not so long ago.”
The Mighty Mississippi has long figured into Pirner’s life except until seven years ago, he chose to live above its banks, not below. It would be easy to interpret Pirner’s choice to leave Minneapolis as an indirect exit strategy from Soul Asylum, the band he co-founded in 1981 with guitarist Dan Murphy and bassist Karl Mueller. When Pirner pointed his car South and didn’t stop, he already lived the rock star prototype: ten years slugging it out on a celebrated punk scene, commercial success on a major label, and the grind of touring that comes with instant celebrity and the hunger to sell alternative punk to a global market. Seventeen years later, Soul Asylum reaped its reward: burnout and backlash. “You’re not sitting around saying, ‘whoopee, look at me, I’m successful’,” he said. I suppose it should be that way, but you’re working your ass off. It’s good to make music but it definitely had come to a point that to go play ‘Runaway Train’ on a TV show was not what I set out to do.”
Murphy is more succinct: “lots of fucking work, lots of repetition, same fucking thing every day.”
New Orleans opened the door to traditional roots music and Pirner stepped inside. He became an obsessive fan of ace funk legends The Meters, a Thursday night regular at Vaughan’s Lounge to hear showman Kermit Ruffins blow his horn, he produced a record by barrelhouse piano maestro Henry Butler, he prodded the elderly jazz men at Preservation Hall for secrets to their enlightened playing and Art Neville volunteered to teach him what musicians in the other 49 states tend to forget: music is meant to be, first and foremost, a pleasure.
“I started seeing bands that were smiling when they were playing,” Pirner said. “I started hearing this black gospel music that was so affirming and uplifting. I really wanted to have some of that. I wanted to highlight the faith and the hope that you have to have to persevere and can (make you) believe you can come out the other side.”
The kids in Fallout Boy don’t talk like this. Why? Because when you’re a teenager you never think a day will come when the music might stop, not because someone slept with someone’s girlfriend or a manager booked town with the cash, but because someone in the band — someone you shared dreams of playing music with while trading joints in your bedroom or whiled away the hours with while listening to the Ramones — dies when you weren’t looking.
Last June, months after recording The Silver Lining (Sony Legacy), the first Soul Asylum album in eight years, Mueller suddenly suffered an aneurysm in his home. He was 41 and died in his home. Up to that moment, he was receiving treatment for esophageal cancer and waiting for surgery. “We were very, very optimistic,” said his widow Mary Beth Mueller. “No one said ‘you’re going to die’.”
Making music amid life’s wreckage, a way of life forever in New Orleans, was beginning to become relevant for a rock band that lost its way. Before his death, Mueller’s sickness became the catalyst to jumpstart all three bandmembers — friends since high school — to stop licking their wounds and turn out their best album in years. “(Mueller) was just heroic. I couldn’t believe how much he had been through and how badly he wanted to make this record,” said Pirner. “It becomes even more bizarre when I think Karl was in the band until the day he died. He never ever really talked about breaking up.”
“Nothing can take away from you … what you’ve been through/stand up and be strong,” Pirner sings on the opening song of the new album, a rallying cry against inertia that the band recorded after Mueller’s death.
It can be said that Mueller was the lynchpin that not only brought Murphy and Pirner together to form a band back in 1981, but he was one of the first kids to drag the first wave of punk to the Twin Cities by its nose ring.
His first stage was the Uptown Lunds market, where he became the most famous bag boy in town. After visiting a friend in England in 1978 where he attended shows by The Damned and The Cure, Mueller returned with his freak on, sporting bondage trousers, leathers, earrings and spiked hair. “All of the sudden Karl became this icon,” said Murphy.
Girls swooned. “I remember the absolute minute I fell in love with my husband,” said Mary Beth. “He was the coolest damn thing I think I had ever seen.”
Mueller was riding the right wave. Minneapolis was on its way to becoming the new capitol of pop music. In the early 1980s, Prince was starting to gain momentum as well as producing team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. But it was the underground punk scene that later became legendary, with bands like The Suburbs, Husker Du, Things Fall Down, The Replacements, and The Magnolias boxing it out at the clubs in South Minneapolis, a small pocket of the city that became ground zero for bands creating their sound from scratch. “Everyone joked if anyone dropped a bomb on the corner of 26th and Lyndale, it would have wiped out 95 percent of the Minneapolis music community,” said Peter Jesperson, who managed Oarfolkjokeopus, the neighborhood’s only record store located across from its only music room, the CC Club.
Pirner, who would skip school to comb through music magazines and the week’s new releases at Jesperson’s store said the activity at the time “was almost too good to be true.”
“There was competition that was fun,” he said. “Everybody tried to be different and that was the competition. Whoever was the kookiest won. It was about having a blast and a good time. There was a lot of making fun of everything.”
Mueller had two things that would ensure him a career in rock: a fake ID and a mother who encouraged him to use the family garage as a practice space. He schooled Murphy, his high school classmate, in punk essentials like The Vibrators, Generation X, The Buzzcocks, The Clash (“Karl was my ears to that stuff, I was into Tom Petty and Aerosmith,” he said) and Murphy returned the favor teaching him how to play bass. Together they went to see The Shits, Pirner’s band, that night witnessing them tear apart the Simon and Garfunkel weeper “The Sounds of Silence” that was anything but. Turned out that Mueller had also befriended Pirner, who went to a separate high school, in his effort to make something, anything, happen. Like most people in the neighborhood, Pirner already knew of Mueller as the standout bag boy with the punk rock hair.
“I could tell he desperately wanted to be in a band. He just reeked of rock. I thought he was so cool. We didn’t have any guys like that in my high school,” he said.
Eventually Pirner played drums behind Mueller and Murphy and they called themselves Loud Fast Rules. Jesperson, then co-founder of Twin/Tone Records and manager of The Replacements, solicited them on Midwest tours with the ‘Mats and Husker Du. It was in 1982 at Merlin’s, a Madison Wis. club, where he realized the up-and-comers had arrived.
“I remember walking into the room and there was a small crowd, maybe 15 or 20 people, and Loud Fast Rules were onstage playing their asses off,” he said. “And it was like these guys were playing in an arena full of screaming fans. It was awesome. And I just stood there and it just completely overwhelmed me and I thought, ‘oh my god.’ I didn’t realize how much power they had. And then I remember them finishing their set and (Replacements bassist) Tommy (Stinson) and I walked into the dressing room. I just said, ‘god, we have to talk about making a record.’”
Stinson was in Paris when he heard the news Mueller died. He flew straight home. After The Replacements imploded in 1991, he spent years making solo records and working as a hired gun, most notably for Axl Rose in Guns n’ Roses, a project now more soap opera than working band. But despite his obligations, over dinner with Mueller’s widow he agreed to step in for his former high school friend.
Since Mueller already recorded his bass parts, the new gig required learning them, plus the back catalog, for shows. “He’s really a remarkable man,” she said. “He’s that punk rock guy that fits in really well.” (Stinson declined to be interviewed for this article.)
The Silver Lining is a record the band had to make. Back in 2004, Pirner and Murphy were so primed to record again, they co-signed a $60,000 bank loan to fund everything themselves with no label involved. “I’m pretty proud of that,” said Murphy.
After debuting the results for Sony Legacy, new drummer and Prince protégé Michael Bland (“a key player in the situation,” said Pirner) stepped in and said the album didn’t hold up enough for him. After a week with Stinson recording four more songs, the album felt finished.
The new songs are primed for the stage, always Soul Asylum’s greatest playing field. Pirner’s maudlin tendencies slinks just below the surface (“all is well in hell/I wish you were here,” he sings), rising up on the ragged rock energy that dominates this record and hooking into melodies that make the songs large in scope. While that’s been the band’s calling card since their Twin/Tone years, there’s also a bittersweet tone running from top to bottom, giving the heavy rock flashes the type of defiance that comes from lives fully lived.
It was a long road to get there. After four albums with Twin/Tone, major label inertia with A&M, the band turned Top 40, signing to Columbia in 1992 and unveiling Grave Dancers Union, a commercial smash that sold over a million copies. That was the crossroads where Soul Asylum became a band that could set off punk tremors in their live show, but could also write well-crafted pop songs with a bracing rock soul.
“I was just happy for them,” said Jesperson. “They were (considered) ‘Replacements Junior’ in the early days a little bit. But the fact is, they surpassed The Replacements in terms of record sales and popularity.”
Two albums followed, a time when Murphy said the band was caught in a stranglehold. Fans from the Twin/Tone years had left which he attributed to never touring clubs after circling the globe for two years straight. With each new album, the road stretched longer ahead of them and, after awhile, the rearview fogged up and there was a panic they wouldn’t find their way back.
“I spent my young adult life completely on the road. I don’t really have regrets. But sometimes I wish I stopped to smell the roses a little bit more,” Murphy said. After Columbia made overtures that they collaborate with professional hitmakers like Glen Ballard, Murphy said they waited for their contract option to run out and didn’t resign.
After Katrina, swamp water from Lake Pontchartrain traveled through the streets and up to the door of Dave Pirner’s house, but didn’t enter. On walks through his neighborhood, he was struck by the random rules of disaster: You saw ruins depending on if you turned your head left or right.
Pirner said he made New Orleans home because he wanted to start over. But what he absorbed listening to music in those tiny, tin-roofed clubs was what he first came across in 1981 at the corner of 26th and Lyndale: “what a local scene can be all about.” After a solo album where he incorporated traditional sounds and a muted tone, he started again to look upriver.
“I guess I was just feeling sort of thankful for what I have left,” he said. “Part of coming back to Soul Asylum was putting the loud, loud, loud guitars back in. I really missed them.”