Looking for a rock and roll hero who has had a career for decades, never “sold out,” never made a shitty record, never been, er… spoiled by great success (read: never got really famous)? Look no further than Steve Wynn. He is still out there (sometimes with a reunited Dream Syndicate) playing his brand of heroic music, equally in thrall to the late 60’s and late 70’s underground (think Velvet Underground meets Standells meets Television with lots of guitar based jamming in the live show and you start to get the picture.) Lyrically, Dream Syndicate were in the beatnik/Patti Smith tradition of literary, thoughtful anthems. The Medicine Show was their second album and first for a major label, so expectation in the 1984 underground was very high for this album. With big-time producer Sandy Pearlman (The Clash, Blue Oyster Cult) on board, it seemed like these brainy L.A. Paisley Underground heroes might break through to the mainstream and change the face of modern pop (pretty bad at that time) for the better. As it turned out, history frowned on the whole Paisley Underground movement (it would have gone gangbusters now) and almost all of the great bands from that era (Opal, Rain Parade, The Long Ryders etc.) are no more than a footnote. However, at that particular moment in time I remember being blown away by this thoughtful, intense album.
The heart of all Dream Syndicate music lies in the juxtaposition of their lyrical ambition, with their fearless guitar workouts. Somewhere between Neil Young’s ferocity and Tom Verlaine’s stinging precision, lead guitarist Karl Precoda laid it down for the ages on this album. Snaking in and out of Wynn’s snarling vocals on songs like “Bullet With My Name On It” or the title track, his guitar coils in waiting for the opportunity to strike with lethal force, biting with venomous lethality. One of the unsung guitar heroes of the modern era, Precoda is as distinctive as he is reminiscent of the greats. On the song “Medicine Show,” and the incomparable “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” Wynn’s brains and Precoda’s brawn provide the exact raw elements needed to combine and produce a musical explosion. The first time I heard “Coltrane” I could not believe a rock band had the ballsy effrontery to name a song after one of the great musical geniuses of the era and then just OWN it as powerfully as The Dream Syndicate did. After Wynn sets the stage with his hipster verses about 20th century musical ennui, he and Precoda tear into an absolutely, joyously dangerous cat and mouse game with verses and guitar breaks, building in intensity to a psychedelic punk frenzy that’ll grow some hair on your chest. Live, the band would take this song to sometimes-ridiculous lengths, but the album version is just right.
The album comes to a close with a reminder of Wynn’s superb songwriting on the Springsteen-like “Merritville.” Pearlman’s intelligent production lends the band the gleam and restraint they needed to smooth their raw edges, yet he keeps their spiky, punk vitality completely intact. Precoda rips into a meaty, noisy solo between Wynn’s honest verses on American life. Springsteen, Michael Jackson and Prince all topped the charts in 1984, and when one listens to The Medicine Show in that context, it is both a wonder that it wasn’t a hit, and a reminder that in any given year, much of the cultural and intellectual vitality of our society is well hidden from the public eye.
- Paul Epstein