Sometimes it’s what you don’t write.
Case in point: An otherwise solid piece in the Wesleyan alumni magazine (“Wesleyan Rocks”) recently fleshed out the stories of two Wes-gestated bands, MGMT and Das Racist, along with a bit of Wes-spawned band history. It also and detailed a few other contemporary outfits trying to make it similarly big. Everyone knows about Dar Williams ’89, but did you know the folkist Highwaymen were Wesboys? I sorta did but was glad to be reminded.
However, the historical rundown of Wes bands stood out to me for a couple ’80s-era omissions that deserve their place in the pantheon, such as it is. Actually, after a little digging (a.k.a. “reporting”), I’ve learned only one omission is legit, but both stories remain intertwined — through me anyway.
Been thinking a lot about vinyl lately. We’re throwing a Vinyl Halloween party in a couple weeks, whereby guests bring an album and dress from the album. Going through my vinyl in search of costume inspiration drove home the fact that record albums, their sound and visual aesthetics, were so very central to my early life, through college but especially at Wesleyan. I had arrived at school with a few records, maybe 10? But to this freshman single, a tiny cubicle in Butterfield C, I had brought from home only a “box” (this was well before briefcase-sized radio/tapedeck/speaker combos even claimed to boom), i.e. nothing to play vinyl upon.
Luckily, the double two doors down was occupied by two guys I’d end up living with the next four years, plus a few thereafter. Dave Rose ’86 brought a fine stereo to the table. Actually, the turntable sat atop a standard dorm-issue dresser that was, now that I think back on it, the perfect height — chest high, a somewhat novel but ingenious arrangement, as it made the manipulation of the record and needle far more facile. Optimal even.
It was in this dorm room that I gathered and otherwise brazenly co-opted a huge chunk of music and, ultimately, my musical sensibility. Rose was responsible for the entire stereo and a goodly portion of new bands I would absorb. He naturally saw patterns in the stuff I took to, and I remember him suggesting this band called Dumptruck, from Boston. It must have been played, something off that one album Rose owned at the time, Positively, but I don’t remember it making any impact on me.
After college we all moved to Boston, well… Somerville and Medford. At some stage that first year out of school, Rose’s brother Tom had gone to see Dumptruck at Jack’s in Cambridge. Said they kicked ass. When visiting Rose in Somerville I placed Positively on the turntable in his apartment and it was great. See here an extraordinary video from that era, one that could have been filmed in our basement, at 388 Medford Street. And here’s another. “Dumptruck is really good,” I told Rose, who replied with mild exasperation: Yeah, I’ve been saying you’d like them. For years.
When you’re right, you’re right. About that time, late 1986, we came by (okay, Rose purchased) a new Dumptruck album, For the Country. Even better. Not sure they or anyone knew it at the time, but these guys were playing really solid, driving, garage-inflected alt country in the mold of Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt and Wilco. But, of course, Dumptruck anticipated the mold.
For the Country did well but the band and their label soon parted ways, in no way amicably. They sued each other and Dumptruck were effectively barred from any further recording, pending resolution of the actions. So they toured, and we went to see them as often as possible, must have been 10-15 times. They were a tremendous live act, urgent and tight, playing all our faves and a raft of inspired covers (Dylan, Neil Young, Procol Harum).
One drunken night when the Butterfield C boys were living together in Somerville, we decided Dumptruck needed a legal defense fund. We wrote them a note briefly detailing our simplistic legal strategy and enclosed a check for $50. To our shock, we got a letter back from Dumptruck front man Seth Tiven, who addressed the letter “Hey, Somerville Dudes”. Couldn’t have been nicer. Offered a few pleasantries and included a cassette tape of their embargoed new material, which we loved and subsequently played to death. There was even a back-up tape made because, well, they were temperamental, fragile bastards those TDKs.
Sometime shortly thereafter we caught Dumptruck at the legendary bandbox club TT the Bear’s, in Central Square Cambridge. It was, on several levels, one of the finest club shows I’ve ever seen. Galaxie 500 opened; I bought their album On Fire the very next day… Dumptruck killed and played all their songs from the demo tape. Only we Somerville Dudes knew the words, of course, and I thought for a moment Tiven looked our way when perhaps he could hear someone singing the high harmony on my favorite track, Ghost Town.
We said hello backstage, after the show, and though we saw them a bunch more times, we never had any real contact thereafter. By the early 1990s, the band’s moment had come and gone. The label lost the suit, ultimately, but the damage had been done. That incarnation of Dumptruck would never record another album. Tiven moved to Austin in the early ‘90s and recorded some of the demo songs along with his newer material. I believe the album is called Terminal. The name Dumptruck was employed, as it would on some future releases, too, but it was Tiven and a whole new line-up.
There would be a Dumptruck reunion at SXSW, in 2007. I recall hearing about this shortly after the fact and being very angry we didn’t go down to Austin. They did another in 2011, and while I wasn’t at all aware that was happening, it’s possible this gig occasioned the Dumptruck retrospective I read online somewhere this past spring. It was in this retelling of the band’s saga that it was revealed Seth Tiven had attended college at… Wesleyan.
Could this be true? Yep. A Bachelor of Arts in Music, class of 1980.
I emailed Rose: “Did we know this?” No, he confirmed; we had not. But we agreed it was damned cool. So, I think I speak for Rose and other followers of the Boston club scene in the late 1980s when I say, Seth Tiven merited inclusion in the Wes alumni magazine story.
Sadly, while Seth Tiven has been added to my own personal pantheon, there’s one Wes music luminary I must let go. That night at TT’s, I thought for sure I had recognized another Weskid, Naomi, the sullen-cool bassist for Galaxie 500. I spotted her immediately and was convinced we had shared least a couple English classes back in the day, at Fiske Hall, though I can’t claim to have known her really. For more than 20 years I’ve accepted this as fact, that the bassist for Galaxie 500 had Wesroots. However, in researching this piece I’ve come across quite a bit of info to the contrary. Naomi Yang, who would go on to record several more albums post-Galaxie as part of a new line-up, Damon & Naomi, went to Harvard apparently. I am trying to accept this.