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Reading List: Michael T. Fournier's Hidden Wheel

Michael T. Fournier's Hidden Wheel

Back in high school I absentmindedly plotted out the Slint / Rodan / Tortoise family tree in the margins of my notebooks. Slint was always the epicenter, but Rodan and Tortoise had an ever-growing number of branches. I practiced this history in isolation, since my geographical location (near Poughkeepsie, NY) might as well have been the moon in comparison to Louisville and Chicago. Thanks to my age and location, I hadn’t actually seen any of these bands yet, if they even still existed by that point. But my obsession willfully ignored this outsider status. Even if Poughkeepsie didn’t have a burgeoning scene, I could memorize the bands, labels, venues, and people of Louisville, Chicago, Champaign, D.C., and Chapel Hill.

Unlike the hard-and-fast plots in my notebooks, scenes don’t linger in stasis. This point was made clear my first night in town upon moving to Champaign for college when I attended Braid’s (then) last show. A week later, I missed C-Clamp’s last show in town, hearing about it a few weeks later. Castor was gone, Hum was effectively gone, Honcho Overload and Love Cup were long gone. The scene wasn’t dead—my first English class was taught by Matt Mitchell, the guitarist for Rectangle (a band I’d later see almost a dozen times and help with the artwork for their sophomore release)—but there was no doubt it had changed. I knew this fact going in, but I learned it fresh again and again as new bands formed, old bands broke up, venues opened and closed, labels went dormant, record stores closed, and, most routinely, people moved away. The names change, but the pattern remains.

Michael T. Fournier’s debut novel, Hidden Wheel (named after a Rites of Spring song), runs on this pattern. An art scene pops up in the university town of Freedom Springs, fueled by a few genuine talents, a driven promoter, some historical ties, and an underpinning of second-tier bands, sketchy venues, and outside fascination. The specifics merit a family tree of their own: former chess prodigy (and dominatrix) Rhonda Barrett creates enormous autobiographical canvases, which are then promoted by Ben Wilfork, a former Chicago scene kid who opens an art gallery / performance space. In turn, bands like Stonecipher, a collaboration between an ex-Dead Trend bassist (more on them later) and quickly improving drummer Bernie Reese, and artists like Max Caughin, who paints on discarded CD cases, gain interest. This scene is documented via interviews, journals, tour diaries, press clippings, and show flyers in an academic overview some 300 years later (!), with footnotes explaining what these archaic physical and digital formats were.

That’s admittedly a ton to process at first, like being introduced to the Rodan family tree with an Everlasting the Way single and knowing you need to hear everything else, too, but it’s important to get to the details. As you might expect from someone who taught punk rock history at Tufts, Fournier drops in enough wry references to connect Freedom Springs mythology to the larger world. To wit: Dead Trend was Freedom Spring’s founding hardcore group who went through constant line-up changes (six bassists, three drummers), evolved into a “Buddhist rap-metal” group, and went back to the basics for their reunion tour. The book includes a few flyers for their shows, including a Photoshopped billing with Operation Ivy that recalls a similar move in Jud Jud’s liner notes. Dead Trend is fictional—mostly—but it’s hard not to read Bad Brains and Black Flag into their history. Nautically obsessed math-rock group Coxswain is a proxy for June of 44, with mock lyrics like “Stem and stern! Cape of Hope! Humble spice! Periscope!” jabbing at “Sharks and Sailors.” Venues like Chicago’s Lounge Ax and Cambridge’s Middle East are worked into the story. Even recent Boston band Ketman gets a quick nod.

Fournier also excels at depicting the daily grind of scene life. Living in communal houses, working shit jobs, eating at ill-maintained burrito huts, having brief romantic relationships with other members of the scene, conversing about the importance of vinyl, scraping together enough money to record an album that people are just going to steal off the internet anyway—the names and places in Hidden Wheel may be fictional, but those points will be familiar to anyone who’s attended a show in the basement of a punk rock house.

Hidden Wheel could have simply been a de facto memoir, smudging the details on Fournier’s time at Three Wadsworth in Allston via Bernie Reese’s journals, but two things keep it closer to fiction. First, Rhonda Barrett’s artistic output is the center of this scene, not Stonecipher or Coxswain, and the drive of the narrative is seeing how the events of her life brought her to create her autobiographical canvases and why future scholars would still be interested. Second, those footnotes from the future add a perspective beyond merely commenting on the changes in content delivery. The idea of people still caring enough about this scene 300 years after the fact to document it (noting that the Library of Congress has a copy of the Stonecipher LP in its archives) is a slick validation of this sub-culture.

One intriguing wrinkle: ostensibly fictional band Dead Trend isn’t that fictional after all. Fournier plays drums in the group, who’ve posted some acoustic demos of their vintage ’80s hardcore songs on Bandcamp and have an official 7” coming out soon. Less surprising: they hate Reagan, love the Minutemen, and, in true ’80s hardcore fashion, will likely fit eight songs on that single. Whether they stick around long enough for a Buddhist rap-metal phase is up for debate, but the real-life existence of Dead Trend makes Hidden Wheel an open dialogue on scenes like Freedom Springs. It’s part promotional gimmick for the novel and part DIY statement, recognizing that you can always switch from outsider to insider.

Hidden Wheel is a compelling complement to Michael T. Fournier’s enthusiastic and informative 33 1/3 on the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime. Whereas Double Nickels is a factual account of one band, one record, one town, Hidden Wheel generalizes the appeal and histories of scenes like Louisville and D.C., recognizing the familiar pattern driving those DIY spaces and local record labels and recreating it as a narrative. Fournier recognizes that scenes are forged by the energy of the people involved and remembered by the artistic tomes they leave behind, and nails both perspectives. It's managed to make me excited about albums both real and fake, which is no small achievement.

Keep an eye on Fournier’s Tumblr for upcoming Hidden Wheel readings and Dead Trend live shows. The latter will be at O’Brien’s in Allston on April 28th; don’t miss the chance to be a part of semi-fictional history.

Summer Plans

You may have noticed that I’ve been busy lately catching up on some months-old record shopping tales in The Haul. I’m still behind in that department, having gone to town on Record Store Day, but I’d like to map out a terrifying agenda for the next few months.

The Haul: No record shopping until I’ve caught up. (My wife rejoices.) Maybe a trip to the dollar bin if I’m going through withdrawal. This process slowed down after realizing that it’s a lot easier to write about these albums after listening to them, which, amazingly enough, takes time. Unfortunately, I realized that after missing a few big entries, meaning that I have a handful of completed posts waiting for chronological order.

Record Collection Reconciliation: I’ve selected 45 LPs and ten bonus seven-inch singles to tackle this summer. Expect new entries soon.

Compulsive List Making: I have about 30 unfinished top ten lists (J. Robbins songs, songs that sound like J Robbins songs, Rodan family tree songs, etc.) and I may very well finish a few of them.

Reading List: I’m formulating my summer reading list at the moment and hope to tackle at least ten novels this summer, several of the “it’s completely embarrassing that you’ve never read this book before” variety.

Feel free to encourage one meme over another.

(Don't) Meet Me in the Dollar Bin

Since my early record shopping days at various Rhino Records locales throughout the Hudson Valley, I’ve loved rifling through dollar bins in search of overlooked treasures or misplaced greats. The main Rhino find I can think of off the top of my head was Thingy’s To the Innocent, one of Rob Crow’s better efforts. Particularly back in high school, when I actually sold CDs back in order to fund the purchase of new discs, every dollar counted. I couldn’t necessarily hear a record from start to finish before purchasing it, so being able to take a chance on a hunch or a whim was refreshing. My record collection is littered with near hits from the dollar bin—discs no one would buy back, so I kept—but I look at these as fond mementos of a few hours spent looking at everything a given record store had to offer.

Reckless Records in Chicago not only surpassed Rhino’s dollar bin selection, but the two and a half hours between their locations and Champaign compelled me to pick up everything that triggered the slightest nerve for fear that I would never see it again. With a campus job in tow, I was fine with dropping seventy five bucks on a single trip, and I wanted to bring home as much as I possible could. The weighty bags typically contained a few full-price CDs, a smattering of lesser-priced used discs, a handful of cheap ’80s vinyl, and a lining of dollar bin selections. Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis typically forced me to go for the higher priced material, but I remember one time when all seven inches were on sale for a buck apiece. I recall buying around thirty of them.

Even Parasol Records—the bastion of my full-price indie rock purchases even before learning of Rhino Records—got in on the act when they moved to their Griggs Street location, setting up a nice sized dollar bin which provided a rare moment of finding what I was actually looking for in Sixto’s lone, self-titled album. This set-up was especially great because Record Swap, a longtime Urbana store, charged three (yes, three) dollars for selections from their wall of forgotten ’90s indie rock, a price I was largely unwilling to pay. Parasol deserves even more credit for the lasting effect of their old print catalogs, with one line descriptions of every band that I circled and memorized for future reference. Between these catalogs, the Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, and recommendations from friends and magazines, I knew what I was looking at when I skimmed through a huge bin of cheap discs.

Throughout these adventures in dirtying my fingers and bolstering my stacks, I started noticing the trends, the various discs that would be in every dollar bin in a given city or in every dollar bin in every city; Agnes Gooch, I’m talking to you. Occasionally I even felt bad for such bands, but typically the response was more of a “How did they get this many CDs pressed?” I could understand why Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase, R.E.M.’s Monster, every Sugar album, and every Candlebox album litter higher priced sections in used stores (I blame record store hubris for not putting such frequent residents in the cheapest of cheap bins, or, preferably, their own landfill), but it was always the unknown bands, the complete failures of the post-grunge major label signing rush, that baffled me the most.

When I found In Your Ear in Harvard Square and its massive, double-layered dollar shelf, I figured that this finally might have lent some depth to the largely disappointing array of Boston record shops. Newbury Comics is passable for relatively new material, CD Spins (or whatever various locations are now called) typically has a few worthy used selections, and Twisted Village is excellent for when I want some bona fide psych-rock (which, sadly, is not that often), but the dollar bins attached to these and other stores have been small and underwhelming. In Your Ear took all of my prior assumptions about the residents of dollar bins and amplified them a thousand times.

Have you been searching for the complete discography of Claw Hammer? What about seven copies of Dig’s Dig? Do you need copies of their other material as well? What about Lucas maxi-singles? Would you prefer not to recognize the band name at all? Wait a second, everybody remembers the self-titled Tesla album, right? I bet you need that in the most carnal way possible.

If I had taken notes, that paragraph could go on forever.

The best thing I found in that bin was a promo of Knapsack’s This Conversation Is Ending Starting Right Now, and unlike my pre-.mp3 willingness to pick these up in order to hear an album on the cheap, there is almost no reason (besides supporting a record store in the most middling way possible) to pick up a cardboard sleeve–encased disc anymore. Perhaps at some point I would have buckled to the whim of hearing TripleFastAction’s first album on six different stereos (an experience akin to the Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka, I can only imagine), but I slinked up the stairwell with nothing in hand, passing a crate of absolutely free Barbara Streisand LPs on my way to the door. There’s even another In Your Ear location over by the Paradise in Boston University turf, but unless I have some inkling for the complete output of J-Bird Records, I will not enter it.

I have two theories on this situation. First, In Your Ear had its heyday in approximately 1994. Since then, they’ve restocked the absolute bare minimum to remain open—a copy of the Killers’ Hot Fuss on LP, for example—while continually picking up marginal vinyl selections from estate sales and Goodwill stores and overpricing any album that seems remotely intriguing. (Big Black’s Songs About Fucking for fifteen bucks? No thanks.) The dollar bin filled up in 1998 and local residents simply knew better than to look through it. It may already be categorized as a landfill, but the store owners refuse to put the permit on display just in case someone comes in desperately searching for their college roommate’s frat brother’s cousin’s band, which put out one record on Atlantic in 1995, selling 1,600 copies of their 100,000 copy pressing.

Second, I’m finally tired with the process of record shopping. Whereas in 2000 I could easily outlast any companions on trips to record stores, at this point I just don’t care to see everything a given store has to offer. I’d rather find a way to purchase a disc new from a band or a store I like (Parasol, Tonevendor, even Newbury Comics in a pinch) than to pick it up for eight or ten bucks used from a store I dislike. Nine years of dollar bin shopping has taken its toll on me, sure, but I’ve also probably hit the reasonable limit of forgotten ’90s indie rock discs that my CD cabinet will hold without vomiting them out in disgust. Thanks to .mp3s, I purchase discs that I know I like instead of discs I think I might like because they’re on a familiar label or feature the first guitarist of a band whose second record showed promise. Taking chances requires a considerable amount of time and patience and results in more disappointments than crowning achievements, so I’m more willing to play it safe, even if it means paying more per disc.

Of course, there’s a third option in which this is just a phase and I’ll grow out of it, but I’ve already seen used book shopping surpass used CD shopping in my priority list. The best thing about buying used books is that virtually all of the authors I care about are dead, meaning that unlike the moral dilemma of buying used CDs of active contemporary bands and thereby not contributing to their capacity to make new music, proceeds from buying new books would only allow their families to enjoy more royalties and publishing companies to live off made commodities. The ironic thing is that even though I’m a graduate student in English, I probably know more about lesser-known ’90s indie rock than I do about lesser-known modernist poets. I’m sure there’s a Trouser Press Guide for this somewhere.