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Soul Asylum: A Hard Dazed Night

Dave Pirner burns the midnight oil, defending his band, music and his punk credibility

Dave PirnerDave Pirner

Dave Pirner and Soul Asylum perform at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium in Santa Cruz, California on October 11th, 1995.

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

To spend time with Soul Asylum is to learn how to sleep from 9 to 5, when the rest of the world is out punching buttons and lifting crates. In 14 years of music making, Soul Asylum have slowly contorted their lives to adapt to rock & roll’s unusual hours of touring and performing. Rock & roll has not always treated the band well; in fact, it almost split the group up several times. But the Minneapolis quartet persevered, and in 1993 its luck changed, almost too dramatically. Unlike Soul Asylum’s bad luck, their good fortune can be explained in two words: “Runaway Train,” their runaway hit.

Today, Soul Asylum aren’t the same band they once were. They’re a little self-conscious, a little insecure, a little nervous. After all, it’s not easy for a band brought up on a steady diet of punk to accept success without some embarrassment.

With Let Your Dim Light Shine, Soul Asylum’s first album since the success of “Runaway Train,” they must prove that they are bigger, better and, ultimately, more important than “Runaway Train.” In other words, they must prove that the right kind of band can overcome the wrong kind of fame.

Making the challenge even more difficult is the fact that these former Minneapolis punks have pulled what seem to be a few star-trip moves recently:

(1) They fired their longtime drummer, Grant Young, and replaced him with an ex-pickup drummer for Duran Duran and David Bowie (Sterling Campbell).

(2) Their lead singer and songwriter, Dave Pirner, left his girlfriend of 13 years to date a movie star (Winona Ryder).

(3) The band has not just jammed with but has had nighttime conversations about being stars with one of rock’s heavyweights (Bruce Springsteen).

So now you have the handicaps. Take out your score cards and prepare yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, for the greatest battle of the decade —– or at least of the next few pages: Soul Asylum vs. Rolling Stone. In three sizzling rounds you will be drawn ever closer to the answer to the most nagging of musical conundrums: Who can stay up later, a rock band or a rock magazine?

 “Please bust my chops, because I’m in the mood to have my chops busted,” Dave Pirner says. It’s just after midnight, and the straggly looking 31-year-old with a baby face is standing in a hotel lounge in Austin, Texas, announcing his arrival. He’s only been in Texas for a half-hour, and the battle has already begun. It wouldn’t be the first time his chops were busted today, either. At the airport, security reprimanded him after a passenger on his flight from New York complained about Pirner’s foul language.

“I’ve been fucked with just enough where I’m going to start to draw the line,” Pirner says in his distinct voice, half space cadet, half dorm-room philosopher. He wipes a greasy blond dreadlock out of his face and continues: “I’m just going to disappear – really. Faster and faster, the more pressure people put on me. I’m going to, what’s the word, introvert and go away. And I’m trying to talk myself into that.”

For good?

“Yes, for good,” says Pirner. “And maybe this has never been done before, but I’d like to beat the system. I would like to have the coup of just having been in a great rock band that nobody cares about anymore. Don’t you think I could do that? Here I am for the first time in my life with the fucking greatest band in the world, and I am going to disappear. I will take the band out there on the road and give it to the people with a certain sense of pride. But at one point or another, they’re going to have to understand that if they miss the show this year, it might be the last show. You know? It might.”

But then again, it might not. Pirner is in a strange mood tonight. Six hours ago he brought more than four months of work to an end by approving final mixes for the songs on Soul Asylum’s sixth album, Let Your Dim Light Shine, and he hasn’t yet recovered from the intensely single-minded process that is the recording of a record. Tonight he wants to see how provocative he can be, how many arguments he can start. He’s also fighting an inner battle between his confidence in his songwriting and his insecurity about how the public perceives him.

“My aspiration is to stand alone,” Pirner says in an extremely lucid moment, “to put myself on a pedestal and to hate myself for standing on a pedestal.”

At the root of Pirner’s confusion is success. He’s thinking about how Kurt Cobain dealt with it, how Bruce Springsteen deals with it, how Dave Pirner is going to deal with it. “I wouldn’t kill myself, because that’s been done already,” Pirner says. “I think about it sometimes, though.”

Springsteen, a sometime late-night confidant of Pirner’s, knows the dilemma well. “Dave and I sort of talk on the phone a little,” Springsteen says. “It was a pretty confusing experience when I was that age. Being worried about [being a rock star] is good in my opinion. I was always worried about it. I don’t know if it helped, but I know that it was good to worry about it.”

As the hours tick by, the beer bucket empties, various Soul Asylum members come upstairs to bid Pirner good night, and the conversation grows more surreal. Pirner has a few things on his mind –— things that may have something remotely to do with music —– and seems dead set on unloading them. Picture, if you will, a hotel lounge. Pirner sits on a sofa, engaged in what seems to be a heated conversation with a reporter. Drummer Sterling Campbell sits on a chair to their right, leaning in closely.

PIRNER: But look, Socrates was fucking Greek, man. I mean, what influence has that culture had on us as people now? Those wrapped-up leaves with rice in them … [Soul Asylum’s publicist arrives.]

PIRNER: I mean, that shit doesn’t taste that good, but it tastes pretty good. And you kind of sit there, and you eat it, and you go, “All right, these motherfuckers, they ate this shit, and they made a bunch of motherfuckers drag fucking rocks up a hill to build some big old colossal thing. And they tried to create this whole society.” And what was the food left over from that? These fucking grape leaves wrapped around rice.

PUBLICIST: I have a recommendation to make as a publicist. You guys could stay up all night talking, but the on-the-record portion of the interview should be over at this point.

CAMPBELL: No, no, no, no.

PIRNER: I think I can be held accountable for anything that I should say. I’ll tell you what I want to know, though. What’s Rolling Stone‘s angle here? Do they think we’re rock stars and suck or what? What do they want to know about us, just between me and you?

PUBLICIST [coughs]: What would be the most natural, obvious question to answer that? The new record? Coming off the tremendous success of Grave Dancers Union?

PIRNER: I mean, what the fuck could possibly be interesting about us?

[The publicist is silent.]

PIRNER: Exactly. That’s the right answer.

PUBLICIST [flustered]: Is the tape recorder running? Could you turn it off?

It’s a losing battle for the publicist, and he departs for his hotel. It’s past 2 now, and the beer is gone. Pirner pees in a nearby vase; there is no toilet to be found except for the sink, which is being used by Campbell. Just as he’s zipping up, Campbell’s French girlfriend comes upstairs to drag him off to bed. Most nights with Soul Asylum are like this. First, guitarist Dan Murphy starts yawning and goes to his room to sleep. Then bassist Karl Mueller starts yawning, and he goes to his room to sleep. Then Campbell’s girlfriend starts whispering in Campbell’s ear, and he goes to bed (not necessarily to sleep). Then Dave Pirner talks, drinks, smokes, plays guitar, hangs out. No one knows if he really goes to sleep or not. It’s like a tree falling in the forest: Does it make a sound if no one’s around to hear it?

“It doesn’t matter to me how late Dave stays up,” says Mueller, “as long as we can still do our jobs onstage. If Dan gets up at 8 a.m. to look around some town, and he’s tired by the end of the night, that’s no different. The good thing about staying up late is that you have time to yourself to think about things or, in the case of Dave, to write.”

It’s 6, and Pirner is in his hotel room with a new stash of beer —– neither thinking nor writing —– and Kraig Johnson, a longtime friend from the Minneapolis bands Run Westy Run and Golden Smog, the latter a country-tinged band featuring Dan Murphy. Pirner is gazing at the generic lights of the city outside his window. “Where are we?” he asks. It’s the third time that Pirner’s wondered what city he is in and the first time the question hasn’t been answered.

“I don’t want to know where I am,” Pirner says with a sigh, “because then I’ll get upset.”

It may seem like Pirner’s joking, but the truth is that he has a serious problem with orientation. Even when he gets off the elevator in his hotel, he invariably turns in the direction away from his room. “I have no sense of direction,” he says. “I think it’s because my mother was so bad with directions. I spent most of my childhood in the back seat of the car watching her get lost.” During Pirner’s one and only year in college, studying political science at the University of Minnesota, he never made it to his classes on time because he couldn’t find the buildings they were in.

“It’s real hard to come to terms with the idea that I should be held responsible for finding my way to the grocery store,” Pirner says. “There’s a certain part of my brain that is just so devoted to music that it becomes a disabler. Remembering phone numbers is more difficult for me than the average person because I’m always trying to remember a melody I thought of earlier. It’s a total absent-minded-professor kind of thing. I put the crackers in the refrigerator, and it’s just because I’m thinking about other things while I’m having a cracker. And it’s frustrating, because it’s like ‘Why did you put the crackers in the refrigerator, Dave?’ And I don’t even remember doing it. I never forget a face, though.”

There are three bags in Pirner’s room. In them, says Pirner, are all the possessions he owns in the world: clothes, notebooks and an acoustic guitar. Of these, what’s most important to him are the notebooks in which he writes songs. That’s why he has photocopied them all, squeezed them into two shoe boxes and left the duplicates with a friend in Manhattan. He has no tape deck, radio or CD player; he amuses himself by reading comic books or walking around art galleries. Spread out across the room is a colorful array of socks. “Socks are my favorite clothes,” Pirner says, pulling up a pant leg to reveal a red-and-black striped one. “These socks cost $25. I love socks, though I always lose them.”

Pirner collapses on the bed, spilling a beer on the covers in the process, and picks up his guitar. “Shouldn’t a got so loaded/Damn near exploded,” he sings, drawling the first line from “To My Own Devices,” a song from the new album that almost seems like a plea for help. He hands the guitar to Johnson, who sings some Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt and Woody Guthrie as Pirner plays percussion on a telephone book.

The sun rises, and I wonder if I’m keeping Pirner from sleeping. So I make my excuses.

“We were just getting warmed up,” Pirner says as I walk out the door. At the time, I think he’s kidding; but the next night, I find out he’s not.

Soul Asylum: 1. Rolling Stone: 0.

“I think dave is in some kind of battle of the minds with you,” Murphy says the next day. But it’s not just a battle of the minds or a battle to see who is more credible. It is a battle to see who can stay up the latest. This is made clear just before Soul Asylum’s concert at the Terrace, in Austin.

“You shouldn’t have gone to sleep last night,” Pirner says backstage. “We stayed up and got eggs and screwdrivers from room service when it opened.”

In concert Pirner’s exhaustion doesn’t show. The band leaves the audience dumb-founded, performing all 14 songs from Let Your Dim Light Shine —– even though the album hasn’t been released yet —– and tossing in only one familiar song, “Somebody to Shove,” from 1992’s Grave Dancers Union. The band does an impressive job working out its new material onstage: Pirner has to apologize only twice for being underrehearsed.

Watching Soul Asylum onstage, it becomes clear that although Pirner gets all the gossip-page ink because he’s dating a Hollywood celebrity, Soul Asylum are not a one-man show. Murphy’s harmony vocals and clanging guitar add a necessary edge to each song, and Mueller seems to be the only band member able to hold Pirner’s lofty lines and Murphy’s burning guitar together. If Pirner is air and Murphy is fire, Mueller is the solid earth.

“Karl is this band’s grounding,” says Murphy. “Without him, we would never have been together for so long.”

“It’s the same thing with any troupe of people,” says Mueller in his tired-sounding deadpan. “Somebody’s always volatile, somebody’s kind of steady, somebody’s the most creative or talented. It’s whatever comes natural —– and for me it’s to be steady and keep things even.”

After the concert, the band piles into a van and drives to a nearby club where its Minneapolis pals the Jayhawks are playing. Pirner is more than happy with Campbell’s performance, his second ever with the band. “For the first time in 14 years, I’ve got the right drummer,” Pirner says. “Sterling falls on every consonant and syllable that I’ve always imagined was the right one.”

“OK, enough, man, I’m in the band now,” Campbell says. But the rest of the band is just as hot on Campbell. “Before, Dave’s songs were the strongest, but our performances didn’t always do them justice,” says Murphy, who is being a little too modest, especially since he co-wrote one of the best songs on the new album, “Promises Broken.”

“Promises Broken” is a gentle, bittersweet song that pivots on the phrase “take me home,” which Murphy sings with all the poignancy he can muster. It’s a song that aches not just with the pangs of absent love but also with the sheer exhaustion of touring.

“There’s a line about the Hotel Satellite in the song,” Murphy says. “And the Hotel Satellite is pay-per-view. I was sitting in Arizona when we were touring with the Spin Doctors two years ago, and I was flipping through the channels, and all of a sudden I saw this thing about Dave on some news show. That’s how I came up with the line ‘From the Hotel Satellite/Don’t look like you’re living right.’ It’s kind of a dig —– but in a friendly way. I have so much respect for Dave musically. But I think he’s consumed with music in a way that’s really not healthy.”

Murphy is a perfect counterweight for Pirner. Where Pirner talks in abstractions, Murphy speaks plainly. Where Pirner frets about his place in rock history, Murphy advocates a strict policy of playing without thinking. Where Pirner is obsessed with music during his waking hours, Murphy has a wife, a 5-year-old son from a former relationship and a longtime interest in antique trading.

“I can see myself settling in to having the Sanford and Son of all Sanford and Son junk shops,” Murphy says. “I just have a life that is so different and far away from the music. Going to auctions is really relaxing for me —– like a trip to the shrink. But, you know” –— he scratches his chin and reconsiders – “somehow I always find myself pursuing popular-culture shit from the ’20s and ’30s. Maybe that’s because I have some unworked-out guilt about being in Soul Asylum, so I’m trying to find popular cultures from other generations.”

As different as Murphy is from Pirner, they share one concern: the Grammy-winning “Runaway Train.” “I feel like I have to fight for the integrity of this band,” says Murphy, “and I think everybody in the band feels that way. We’re having this big moral issue now of whether we’re going to play ‘Runaway Train’ on our tour. And I constantly have to stick up for that song and the video and the fact that other people are playing it. I think we’re really defensive about it. It’s a new experience and a new struggle that we have now when interviewers come in saying, ‘What’s it feel like to be a successful band?’ And ‘How do you follow up a successful album?’ ”

It’s about time Soul Asylum have to answer those questions; after all, it’s taken six albums. Soul Asylum were born in the apartment of Murphy’s sister, where Murphy and Mueller were living after high school. One night after a particularly inspiring Iggy Pop show, Murphy suggested that Mueller start learning the bass. A week or two later, after another inspiring punk show, the two plugged their instruments into a single guitar amp and performed their first song together: “Bodies,” by the Sex Pistols. After that, Mueller approached Pirner, whom Mueller met while working as a carryout boy, about playing drums.

“I didn’t have a big revelation that told me that I should be in a rock band or anything,” says Mueller, whose realistic outlook probably stems from the fact that his parents were librarians. “When I first heard the Clash and the Vibrators, I knew there was something going on. And I’d see the Replacements and Hüsker Dü and say, ‘These guys aren’t any older than me, and I don’t know that they’re any smarter, so why shouldn’t I do it?’ ”

The band kicked around Minneapolis’ thriving punk scene under the name Loud Fast Rules. They switched Pirner to guitar and vocals because he didn’t cut the mustard as a drummer and recorded their first album, 1984’s Say What You Will…

Back then, the band’s art was in the high volume at which it played. The songwriting came later, around 1986, with its second album, Made to Be Broken. On it, punk and pop play tug of war with folky ballads on one side, thrashing noise on the other and Pirner’s hoarse, edgy voice smack dab in the middle.

In 1987, Soul Asylum signed their first major-label deal, with A&M, and things started going downhill quickly. They made the mistake of trying to record their second A&M album, And the Horse They Rode In On, on a soundstage to replicate a live feel and ended up with a weak-sounding record. After the poor promotion and poor sales of And the Horse They Rode In On, the band decided to leave the label. But leaving was not an easy task. Soul Asylum had to fork over $200,000 to break their contract and spent the next four years paying the label an equally outrageous amount in back pay.

“It was frustrating,” Murphy says. “But you get over being bitter, and you just feel fucking hurt.”

It was almost the end of the band: Everyone in it was back at his day job or contemplating returning until Oliver Stone came along.

“I went and saw that terrible Oliver Stone movie about the Doors,” says Murphy. “And I remember leaving the theater and just feeling fucking empty. I was like ‘That’s right. I was in a band that had a chance to be something.”

So Soul Asylum reformed, recorded Grave Dancers Union for Columbia and put their best foot forward with a well-produced mix that captured the group’s ragged glory. From the power pop of “Somebody to Shove” to the trudging country of “Keep It Up” to the punk crashing of “99%” (not to mention “Runaway Train,” which rocked an MTV nation), there’s not a stinker on the album. Now, as Pirner says sarcastically, everyone expects Soul Asylum to be “the big, crappy voice of a generation.”

But with Let Your Dim Light Shine, Soul Asylum retain their own voice. There’s the catchy power pop (“Misery”), the trudging country (“To My Own Devices”) and the punk crashing (“Caged Rat”), plus ultra-schlocky late-’70s hard rock (“Crawl”) and, as an album closer, a song that describes a woman’s trip to the outhouse (“Just Like Anyone”).

“We didn’t really worry too much about what people expected when we recorded this album,” Murphy says. “But we thought about it a little. I remember Dave called one night. He was all freaked out about whether people would like it. I said, ‘Well, you’re a fucking songwriter: You write songs, and if you like the songs, and if we like the songs, chances are they’re pretty good,’ because we’re very critical of ourselves.”

At the Jayhawks show, Benjie Gordon, the A&R person who signed Soul Asylum to Columbia, has an arm drunkenly tossed around one of the big, crappy voices of a generation. Campbell, off to the side, has an imaginary machine gun in his hands, and he’s opening fire on Gordon and Pirner and everyone in their vicinity. “There’s going to be a race war one of these days, man,” Campbell says, continuing to rehearse for the occasion. He may be joking; he may not be. But we can’t worry about it right now because he’s not holding a real gun.

Campbell is small and serious and happens to be a genuinely good guy who is capable of turning very intense at times. He has the mind-set of an outsider and feels ostracized from both white society (he feels that some people disapprove of his interracial relationship) and black society (he felt like a misfit growing up listening to Led Zeppelin while his friends were listening to the Ohio Players). He wants to have kids with his girlfriend, but she’s only 20 and still living life as if it was here for her benefit. He met her at a club in France. His pickup line: “Smile.” (He admits it’s a lame line.)

Soul Asylum slowly gather in their van after the concert. Mueller and his wife, Marybeth, arrive first and wait the requisite half-hour it takes to gather the rest of the troops. It must suck traveling in groups. “You don’t know how much I hate it,” Mueller confirms.

Murphy and his wife, Bonnie, decide to find their own way back to the hotel. He has seen just about enough of the band during the past dozen years. “Karl, Dave and I have been together for so long,” he says, “that when we’re on a tour bus, we have nothing to say to each other. We can’t be like ‘Remember the time?’ because we’ve all heard it a million times.”

Around 2:30 a.m., a typical evening back at Soul Asylum’s hotel begins: Murphy leaves to go to sleep, Mueller leaves to go to sleep, Campbell leaves to go to bed, and Pirner stays up, talking with wide-eyed wonder about tonight’s universal enigmas and unsuccessfully trying to pick fights over petty points.

At 5:30, the alcohol is long gone, and Pirner’s eyes are hanging heavy. Once the front desk sends up a replacement key for his room (he lost his), he turns in for bed, and those left in the room enjoy the victory of having stayed up later than Pirner. 

Soul Asylum: 1. Rolling Stone: 1.

Round 3
The scene: another hotel room in another city. On a glass tabletop sit two wine bottles, one of which is empty.

PIRNER: OK. Like, 70 percent of this Rolling Stone article is going to be bullshit, man, about what you think this band is about. And you’re going to pick out some quotes to support what you think is going to fit your take on the band. And what pisses me off is that I have no fucking idea what your take on this band is. Dude, you’re 26.

ME: I should never have told you I was younger than you.

PIRNER: I know you shouldn’t have. But let’s talk about it. It’s exciting to me because I think you’re a hotshot. I think you’re more happening than I am. And I think you have some sort of angle on me. You’re going to pit me against Courtney Love and Mike D. But I’ve met Yanni. I probably know more about Yanni than you do.

ME: You probably do.

PIRNER: I probably do. So me and you are going to try to conduct a good interview, and you’re going to write an article telling me something I don’t know about the band.

ME: I’m not writing this article for you. I’m writing it for the people who listen to your music.

PIRNER: Honestly, what do people fucking care about musicians and the music they make? I don’t think they fucking care. And I don’t need this article, I don’t need this interview. But to tell you the truth, I’d like it if you could make me into someone other than my material. But you’ve got a project on your hands. And you’ve got a bunch of pretty dysfunctional guys to talk to.

The conversation gets even more bizarre after this point. But between Round 2 and Round 3, someone seems to have taught Pirner how to say, “Off the record.” And not only has Pirner made the rest of this part of the debate off the record, he has requested that every time he says the word totally that it be stricken from the record. That is probably an abuse of the privilege.

Off the record is an option Pirner uses often when talking about Winona Ryder, who hereafter will be referred to by a pet name that Pirner uses for her when in the company of others: Girlfriend. In the 17 hours we spend together today, he only mentions her name twice. Once to say that he was upset at being called Ryder’s boy toy in these pages a year and a half ago and a second time to explain why he sang her name at a recent show at Tramps, in New York, the show during which Bruce Springsteen popped onstage to duet on “Tracks of My Tears.”

“It’s tough not to bring your friends into your music sometimes,” Pirner says. “So there’s this lyric in a song that I kind of changed. It goes, ‘I’ve been to Minnesota/I’ve been to Arizona/Oh, Lord, you know, I’ve been to Winona.’ And I was thinking about the city called Winona. But obviously I was playing off the double-entendre involved. I guess at this point, I should either say, ‘Next question,’ or I should talk about it.”

Instead, Pirner avoids the topic altogether by talking about how he would punch out any punk-fanzine editor who would dare to ask him how his credibility is affected by his relationship. Pirner and his girlfriend met when Soul Asylum taped their MTV Unplugged special two years ago. What they have in common is that they are sensitive, thinking people who hate being part of the celebrity system; what sets them apart are Pirner’s extreme hours and his nomadic lifestyle. Pirner says they are supposed to move from Los Angeles to San Francisco soon, a decision that not even Soul Asylum’s manager has been informed of. But Pirner has a little problem: “I always manage to be somewhere else or out of town whenever I have to move. My friends get mad at me about this.”

The problem with moving is not laziness but Pirner’s addiction to the road. “With Soul Asylum, I learned to be on the road,” he says. “And now, more than my friends, more than my band, I trust the road. If I lost everything, if my girlfriend dumped me and the band got rid of me, you know what I’d do? I’d just travel around like Woody Guthrie, doing solo concerts. And in the middle of a show, I’d ask if anyone had a place to stay, and even if there were 40 people there, some 50-year-old guy or some 16-year-old girl would take me in.”

Pirner’s home is the hotel, any hotel. Propped up against various surfaces in this particular hotel room are black-and-white postcards of such musicians as Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. Pirner takes them wherever he goes, setting them up in each hotel suite so that the rooms all have something in common that is personal to him. The Miles Davis postcard always sits on Pirner’s bedside table. This glimmer of a desire for stability is a strange vestige of Pirner’s relatively balanced upbringing.

“My parents are kind of high-concept working people,” Pirner says. “My dad was a salesman, and my mom was an artist. They set me up to be the most even-keeled, most normal, natural person that anyone could ever be. I’m not saying my parents were less fucked up than anyone else’s parents, but they were devoted to their kids. And I am reaping the benefits of that. To think that they had four kids in the family” – he pauses and stares at the ceiling – “Oh, Christ, I’m talking about my family.”

Pirner continues after he’s convinced that his family is pertinent to who he is as an artist. “My relationship with my family was something totally different 10 years ago,” he says. “Ten years ago I would have said, ‘Dysfunctional family. Worthless, middle-class, boring American family.’ We didn’t hug, we didn’t say we loved one another, we didn’t have any of that. Now I look back on my family almost like I’m ready to re-establish my relationship with them. My dad just retired, and I had strong differences with my dad. Now he’s got enough time on his hands that he’d want to talk to me. I want to change my dad’s ways, I want to talk to him about the stuff we disagreed about when I was 18. He means a lot to me, and he didn’t mean anything before.”

Pirner’s love of music started early, thanks to his mother, who insisted that he take up an instrument. “She preferred the piano,” he says. “But I wanted to play trumpet because it only had three buttons, and the piano had seventysomething. It was a totally self-defeating proposition, because here I was thinking I was going to master the trumpet because it only had three buttons. But the less buttons, the more interpretative physical things you have to do to coax notes out of it.”

Pirner joined his middle-school jazz band, where two different trombonists tried to turn him on to rock & roll. One had a Todd Rundgren record, the other had a Hendrix record. Pirner learned to love rock & roll via the latter.

When it comes down to it, Pirner says, his two biggest influences were not Hendrix and his mother but his high-school English teacher and the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. “As a lyricist, I owe more probably to my ninth-grade English teacher than I do to anyone,” Pirner says, snacking off a tray piled with room service’s finest delicacies. “And, of course, she was the meanest, hardest teacher, and everybody thought I was a total square for taking her class. But she was also very passionate about what she taught, and my older sister said, ‘If you want to understand the language, Dave, you should check this teacher out.’

“I remember one day somebody asked her what she did on her summer vacation,” says Pirner, “and she went into this thing about sitting on a tree swing. She described it in this way that was so passionately literate and made the moment so magical, and she got teary – and she’s, like, this 65-year-old woman. It just made me understand why she was so hard on her students, because she was trying to make them understand the power of the English language and poetry. And it appealed to me in a way that I will never forget because nobody had ever illustrated anything to me with that kind of passion.”

The effect didn’t sink in immediately, however. With his high-school band, the Shitz, Pirner wrote his first song ever. “It was 99 percent attitude and 1 percent what the fuck am I doing,” he says. “It was called ‘Screw, Screw, Screw’ and it was the only song I’ve ever written about sex. And I got it out of the way from Point 1. And now I don’t write songs about sex, I don’t write love songs, I don’t write songs about being on the road because it’s all been beaten mercilessly into the ground.”

Pirner, believe it or not, was once somewhat of a jock. He played hockey for 12 years as a kid and football in high school. He is probably one of the few popular rock songwriters who can proudly say that he was never a loser in high school. But, he says, “I never thought that I was an appealing individual until I wrote an appealing song.”

Pirner leaves his hotel room to take in a concert by the Washington, D.C., hardcore pioneers Fugazi, during which he inches up to the fourth row without being recognized (or at least acknowledged) by Fugazi’s high-principled fans. After the show, he closes a local bar and continues talking about how he aspires to have Fugazi singer Ian MacKaye’s credibility, Bob Dylan’s credibility and Miles Davis’ credibility.

“I met Bill Clinton,” Pirner says. “And I do think my aspirations are fucking higher than his, man.”

Back in the hotel around 7:30 a.m., something very strange happens. Pirner and I have been in his room with no one else present for more than three hours, and the only mind-altering substance he has had (to my knowledge) is alcohol. Suddenly he asks, “Who were we just talking to?”

The answer, of course, is no one. But Pirner persists: “It was somebody that was totally busting my balls for the past three hours. It wasn’t even you, man. I remember watching you actually explaining to the other dude how you had to leave. And I was totally uninvolved in the whole thing.”

The facts are that I have to go, and maybe Pirner is in denial. He keeps hitting me on the knee when he’s talking, as if to jolt me into complete consciousness. I try to escape, but Pirner’s not having any of it. He offers every temptation to keep me in the room. First he starts firing off provocative statements about how he’s the most important songwriter in the world right now.

“Challenge me!” Pirner says. “I dare you to challenge me on anything! I want to be challenged! I am so fucking credible! Name one way in which I’m not credible.”

Housecleaning knocks on the door. Pirner sends the woman away and pulls out all the stops.

“Fire any question at me, man,” Pirner insists, rapping my knee. “I can answer any question. Ask me anything. Go ahead. Right now. Ask me anything you want, and I’ll give you the best answer I could ever give you.”

I could ask him why he’s so insecure about saying his girlfriend’s name, how his girlfriend feels about his lifestyle, whether his alcohol intake worries him. But the answers are obvious. So I leave Pirner at 9:30 so he can enjoy the Pyrrhic victory of being the last one awake, though I really do have one question I’d like to ask him: “Are you afraid to be alone?”

Soul Asylum: 2. Rolling Stone: 1.

The battle is over, but the referee has not yet announced the victor. In a surprise decision, the following night Soul Asylum’s manager, Danny Heaps, announces that what seemed to have been a decisive victory for Soul Asylum in Round 3 was actually a tie. “I went to wake up Dave at 1 o’clock today,” Heaps says.”It took me an hour. But when he finally opened his eyes, the first thing he said was, ‘I think Neil beat me, man.’ ”

Soul Asylum: 2. Rolling Stone: 2.

In This Article: Coverwall, Soul Asylum


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