Friday, October 29, 2010

Why Should You Care Now? -- Fire Town.

By Peter Blackstock

I really can't give you a good reason why you should still care about Fire Town. They existed for a brief period somewhere inbetween 1985 and 1990, and primarily occupy the historical gap between the obscure Midwestern band Spooner (who played at the wedding of one of my best friends) and the relatively well-known band Garbage (who had honest-to-god Hits You Care About and all that). Butch Vig is the big name here, mostly because he produced Nirvana's Nevermind, although I'll swear till my dying day that the Seattle record of that era he produced which really counted was the Young Fresh Fellows' Electric Bird Digest. (I'll bet Vig even agrees, or at the very least chuckles at the recollection.)

Vig's bandmates were... a couple of guys whose names I'm too lazy to even bother to look up. They were in some band before that, and probably some band after. I don't mean to slight those guys, just trying to make a point. And the point is: Why should you care what their names are? I don't.

But, damn, I care about Fire Town. I don't know why, exactly. They're akin to the BoDeans, or Mellencamp, or the Rave-Ups. (Who'll probably get their own entry in this series soon enough.) They weren't that good. They couldn't have been, could they?

Then why did I listen to Side A of In The Heart Of The Heart Country about a zillion times in the summer that I lived in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1987, a few thousand miles from everything I loved and cared about?

OK, now we're getting somewhere. This one's about time and place for me. And about exile. A continent away from home, I latched on to things that offered a sense of closeness to what was so far away.

That's not entirely it, though. Fire Town was from Wisconsin. I was from Texas. Listening to Fire Town, I wasn't pining for memories of seeing them play at the Continental Club or Hole in the Wall. In fact, I never did see this band play live.

And yet, a couple weeks ago, when I won a $5 Amazon gift-certificate for guessing the winner of the Redskins-Texans game in a Yale Statistics survey (true story!), I spent that $5 on "Places To Run," "Carry The Torch," "Secret Heart," and "Rain On You" -- the entirety of Side A of that old Fire Town record from 1987.

Why would I do that? Why should I care now? I'm having a hard time answering this one myself. And yet there's something here that calls to me.

OK, first off, these are really good melodies. It's anthemic stuff, probably along the lines of what my old friend Rob Thomas loved about The Alarm, but in a more Americanized way. Instead of faux-political "Spirit of '76" anthemics, it's faux-romantic "Secret Heart" anthemics.

"Faux" in that the lyrics only go so deep. Which is to say, not very. But frankly, it doesn't matter. There is something brilliant about what they do on "Secret Heart," and very few other songs I've ever heard have pulled it off. It's kind of like a melodic perpetual-motion machine. You know how sometimes an artist will change the key of a song for dramatic effect? Apparently it's called "modulation." (I only learned this term upon exiting the stage of the Hole in the Wall one night, having just performed Barry Manilow's "Mandy", after which Rich Brotherton remarked, "Wow, you even did the modulation!" ... To which I responded, "I did the what now?")

So, on "Secret Heart," Fire Town does this modulation thing, and I'm pretty sure they do it again, and then maybe back down again before they go back up, but I swear that by the end of the song, they've created some sort of cycle where they keep lifting the key to where they can build on it for dramatic effect, and it just keeps feeding on itself. "Your secret heart..... WILL TURN ON YOU!", they exclaim, and it hits with far more emotion than they should be able to get away with.

Somehow it just keeps building. And building. And building. They're fading out the song at almost 5 minutes, and it's still ascending to another round of more intensely burning secret-heart turning. If you think that doesn't have a lasting impact, then you've never spent a few dollars of NFL-pick prize-money on an Amazon MP3 purchase.

The other songs on that side were decent enough -- "Rain On You" (perhaps slightly reminiscent of the True Believers' "The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over") and the somewhat more forgettable leadoff track "Places To Run" -- but it's actually "Carry The Torch" that stuck with me more than any of the other songs (even more than "Secret Heart"). This is a hopeless romantic tune if there ever was one: "You can leave but I'll believe / I'll carry the torch for you." And that's just the opening line. Heck, at 21, I was a sucker for that crap. So we'll chalk this one up to nostalgia, mostly.


There's a great guitar lead here. Played by one of the guys not named Butch Vig, presumably. It's a simple, straightforward melody. But it's GREAT. You can hear this thing and still remember it two decades later, even having not heard it in the interim. I can personally vouch for this.

And then there's that kicker of a line in the middle: It's really simple, and yet it's evocative:

"I'll be walkin' tonight, I'll be walkin' tonight."

Walking where? What for? To whom? Why should I care now?

I don't know. But I do.


Postscript, from the friend at whose wedding Spooner played:

"key to fire town and spooner was doug erikson, one of the best unknown singer-songwriters ever to come from the midwest. he fronted both, and was kinda the tom petty of wisconsin. he morphed into "duke" erikson in garbage, the band's bassist. and has recently played bass in freedy johnston's touring band (they also have a cover band with butch).

thing is, in both spooner and fire town, doug was the heart and soul. butch was the drummer. he didn't even produce the early spooner stuff (gary klebe from shoes did). and when bands started working with butch, it wasn't to get his sound, it was because smart studios in madison was cheap.

more than you wanted to know, but you started it. and i love those guys."

1 comment:

  1. Peter: I had never heard of Fire Town until reading this piece, but I will surely be heading to Amazon this weekend for a little digital shopping. Thanks for the musical tip -- as wonderfully dated as it might be -- and thanks even more for the lovely blog post that tries to explain how this music is still important to you so many years later.