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Soul Asylum Finds Success

After 11 long years of virtual obscurity, Soul Asylum finally hits it big with Grave Dancers Union

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Soul Asylum in Concert at Waterloo Village,1993.

Steve Eichner/Getty

June 15, 1993, Miami It’s Day 9 of the Alternative Nation Tour, but for Soul Asylum, it’s feeling a bit more like an alternate universe.

Sure, some things never change. Onstage singer Dave Pirner is spinning out of control, dreadlocks and sweat spraying from his head in an enormous, umbrellalike arch. Safely at dreads’ length, Karl Mueller is strolling back and forth, leisurely playing his bass and soaking up the spectacle, while guitarist Dan Murphy – perched on the drum riser – pounds his guitar with the same vehemence that Grant Young uses to punish his drums.

Yet outside this island of normalcy, things are getting weird. Very weird. Forget for just a moment that the band is currently playing to more than 10,000 screaming Floridians. The weirdness begins stage right. Here, tucked in front of the Screaming Trees and various Spin Doctors, who sit watching more like attentive fans than tour mates, stands the bottom line personified – Sony Records president Tommy Mottola – watching the Soul Asylum gig with one enormous, shit-eating grin. The band slugs its way through song after song from Grave Dancers Union, the album that has finally made the masses start pricking up their ears after years of critical reverence and the minimal album sales that usually accompany such acclaim. The boss, meanwhile, peers from the wings, periodically checking his investment and then immediately glancing at the crowd full of 15-year-olds diving toward the stage like salmon swimming upstream.

You see, over their 11-year existence, Soul Asylum have been called many things: Americas best live band; music-industry misfits; punk poets; insightful adults trapped in terminal adolescence; the last great gasp of life from the early-’80s Minneapolis music scene. They’ve even been toe-tagged as dead and gone. No one, however, has ever tossed around the word marketable.

But the bottom line is beaming, and – as everyone knows – there’s no ignoring the bottom line. And then, of course, there’s the screaming. Between songs, the June night is filled with the distinct mating cry of the adolescent female – a piercing wail straight out of British Invasion-era soundtracks and horror flicks – which hovers like a cloud in the Miami air. For a band that once kept playing a Tucson, Ariz., show until it had finally chased the last person from the bar, this is certainly a new wrinkle. After the show, Murphy grabs a beer and sinks into the dressing-room couch. “There were all these shrieking girls,” he says with a sip and a shit-eating grin of his own. “I thought my monitor was feeding back.”

Because Soul Asylum have grown up loud and alone – singing about disenchantment and alienation to anyone willing to listen – they haven’t necessarily endeared themselves to the music-biz brass. More than a decade after the band first began pleading its case to the world, the group of rank outsiders is being told that it belongs after all and is taking the news with all the trust of a kid who has been beaten up on the playground for 10 straight days. On the 11th, he still expects to get smacked. Nowadays, when the music industry offers a congratulatory shake of the hand, Soul Asylum flinch.

“It’s not verbalized that it’s us vs. them, but we always have that mentality,” says Murphy. “If I look at the Top 50, I feel like we’ve worked harder than all those bands. Damn right. You can’t say, ‘Who are these guys?’ Fuck that. You can go to Tulsa, and there were a hundred people who saw us one time and maybe went out and bought a record. It’s not just some new advertising campaign kicking in.”

Advertising campaign or no, there is an incredible amount of activity whirling around Soul Asylum. It’s no wonder. While their last album, 1990’s Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode In On, sold fewer than 70,000 copies, Grave Dancers Union has gone platinum, and the band is being treated to all the trappings that million-selling records bring. After making their network television debut last November on Late Night With David Letterman, Soul Asylum suddenly find themselves flooding the airwaves. Since Letterman, the band has played The Tonight Show, MTV’s Inaugural Ball, Spring Break special and Unplugged and Saturday Night Live. And now, with a moving video for its new single, “Runaway Train,” which features public-service-style listings of missing children, the band has become a legitimate news story – garnering segments on Today and CNN.

“I knew the ‘Runaway Train’ video would generate some interest,” says Mueller. “But this has been pretty incredible.”

Almost as incredibly, Soul Asylum will play close to 230 gigs this year, including a recent stint opening for Guns n’ Roses in Europe and, now, the 44-city Alternative Nation Tour.

When one reels off changes, however, Grave Dancers Union is the most obvious starting point. While the mood of the album is just as desperate as records past, the presentation is more diverse and, in many spots, decidedly toned down. So while hard-core fans scream that the band has sold out, a whole slew of kids buying the album are talking about the brand-new group they’ve just discovered.

In truth, Grave Dancers Union is just one step past Soul Asylum and the Horse They Rode In On, which itself was one step past 1988’s Hang Time (which, therefore, was a couple steps beyond 1986’s Made to Be Broken). The true importance of this most recent step, however, is that it’s not necessary to use the fast-forward button when listening to Grave Dancers Union. On past albums, Soul Asylum often followed their songwriting peaks with very abrupt valleys. Luckily, these days, the road is remarkably even. The topics are still personal or allegorical tales of strangers in familiar lands, the guitars are still distorted, and the tunes still rely on Pirner and Murphy’s vocal chemistry. Now, however, in between the feedback screeeeech of “99%,” the punk-and-circumstance stomp of “Somebody to Shove” or “Get On Out” and the metal-tinged posturing of “April Fool” come beautiful acoustic ballads (“Runaway Train,” “Homesick”) and songs whose urgency is balled up in one midtempo package (“Black Gold,” “New World”).

“We wrote a really cohesive record, kind of by accident, and it sounds really good,” says Murphy matter-of-factly. “I don’t think it was what people expected to hear. And the thing is, I think our band has changed quite a bit in the last five or six years.”

Pirner sees even less of a difference between Grave Dancers Union and the group’s 1984 debut, Say What You Will. “I sort of think that it’s all folk music, whether it’s really fast or really slow,” he says. “You’ve got three chords, an attitude, a story. I always thought punk rock was folk music. But when I started singing, there was no monitor, it was a million miles an hour, loud as all fuck. Everything got screamed. That was the only way it could fit. And that feels great. But it gets old. You have to start figuring out how you’re going to express other parts of your personality.”

Luckily for everyone involved, Pirner’s songwriting and voice – an instrument that can waver from sappy innocence to a bluesy, gin-soaked scream – seem to be gaining focus and confidence at an astounding rate. “We’ve lived the same life for the last 10 years,” says Young. “Dave is good at vocalizing what we’re feeling.”

If that’s the case, the overriding emotion for Soul Asylum these days seems to be vindication. “When I was very young, I always thought there was something about me that made me different and made me right,” says Pirner. “I went through my life being teased. My sensibility was skewed. I’ve always been very affected by what goes on around me. So now for the first time I’m feeling like I am OK. I’m not totally crazy. I was onto something. It’s just that nobody ever told me I was. I was always just this outcast in a rock band whose parents were embarrassed about him and all the other kids thought was a freak. So there is a good quality of ‘fuck you’ involved in all this now.”

Of course, the journey to “fuck you” begins with a single step. So, in order to folly understand the Soul Asylum story, it’s important to retrace our tracks….

September 4, 1992, Minneapolis People are sprawled across Karl Mueller’s living room, trying to talk him into singing his rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Grave Dancers Union has yet to hit the streets, but tomorrow night the band is opening up for Bob Dylan at home in Minneapolis, and the timing seems right for Mueller to break out the now-infamous, twenty-minute cover version he once sprang on a very unsuspecting audience. But despite the party atmosphere, persistent begging and two coolers full of beer, he’s not biting.

Instead, as a nervous calm hovers over the house, the band is alleviating the anticipation of the album’s release with a brief history lesson. “It started off kind of funny,” says Murphy. “Karl and I were roommates. He was Mr. Punk Rock in Minneapolis. He had this rockabilly hairdo, pierced ears, the whole fucking nine yards. He wasn’t very musical, but I just thought, ‘This is a guy who should be in a band.’ So I thought: ‘Get him a bass. It’s four strings, it can’t be that hard.’ We bought a bass, and within two weeks we did our first show.”

That show, as Loud Fast Rules, featured Murphy, Mueller and 17-year-old Pirner – swiped from a local high school band, the Shitz – playing drums. It didn’t take long to toss a guitar on Pirner (adding drummer Pat Morley) and, in turn, for Loud Fast Rules to start making noise.

After their first release, 1984’s Say What You Will, released on Twin\Tone Records, Morley left, Young joined the fold, and Soul Asylum’s current lineup was firmly entrenched and on one seemingly endless tour. If you live in the United States, Soul Asylum have probably played in your town. Twice. Meanwhile, sprinkled in between the journeys across America in dilapidated vans, the band managed to crank out seven releases of anthemlike insights into an outsider’s mind, delivered with Murphy and Pirner’s pitch-perfect punk harmonies. It is the blend of professionalism and slovenliness, boyish mischief and wise-beyond-years intuition that has defined Soul Asylum for the last decade. Once you dismiss the band as punch-drunk, it offers something profound.

“I think it’s ingrained in the personality of the group that we are who we are,” says Pirner. “We live and die by our reputation, and it’s too late to change that. Somebody can’t turn us into a perfect fucking group.”

In the past, however, Soul Asylum were often simply dismissed as yet another replicant band in a Minneapolis cloning experiment.

“When we started playing, there were all these bands, and none of them are around anymore,” says Murphy. “Who would have thought that we’d outlive them? We used to get this ‘Hüsker Dü Lite’ shit. And now there are all these bands that get this ‘Soul Asylum Jr.’ tag. At least what comes around goes around. But I feel terrible for these bands.”

March 2, 1993, nearing the Canadian border Someone is vacuuming the Soul Asylum tour bus. It’s been about a half-hour since the sunrise cast a harsh glare on the poker game and boozing that began just after the bus lurched out of Chicago at 1 a.m., and now – while band and crew try to crash for the hour or so before the border crossing – the vacuum shriek is echoing through the bunks like the soundtrack of one vivid communal nightmare.

It is true that this is a bus that could use a good tidying. After opening for Keith Richards in Chicago, the band logged a few bar hours before boarding the enormous vessel and commandeering it to a local convenience store to stock up on beer for the journey. Six hours later, a few empties here and there, the wear and tear of the group’s touring schedule seems etched across the ’70s-style mock-wood paneling and ultra-ugly deep-ply carpet like character wrinkles on a face.

No matter how you want to slice it, it’s been one long, long ride for Soul Asylum. And now the Hoover is wailing like a siren, signaling the looming border guards who perhaps may not have any dogs capable of sniffing through vacuum bags.

Patrol in sight, the now-immaculate bus settles to a stop and opens its doors. Band and crew file out, breeze through immigration in record time and shuffle back without so much as one Canadian official bothering to search for guns, drugs or nontransportable fresh fruits and vegetables.

Outside the customs office, Pirner – who did his part for the cleanup by gulping the remnants of mushrooms left on board – is smiling like a kid who just found out he has a snow day. “Mornin’,” he says, ignoring the freezing temperature. “Great day to leave the United States, huh?”

Better stated: “Great day to do anything.” World-weary as the band may be, Soul Asylum carry with them the attitude of accident survivors, simultaneously cursing the mishap and thankful to be alive. After leaving Twin\ Tone Records, the band signed with A&M Records for what turned out to be a short-lived romance. Of course, it didn’t help that the band’s last release for Twin Tone was Clam Dip and Other Delights. Forget the fact that the six-song EP was a painfully uneven production that saw the band venture somewhere into the heart of Dokken; the real problem was the album cover – a shot that mirrored A&M boss Herb Alpert’s own famous album Whipped Cream and Other Delights, featuring a shot of Mueller smothered in a mountain of clam dip.

“That was a terrible record to put out at the time, not just because of the cover,” says Murphy. So, after two records and virtually no sales on A&M, the band faced a period of reckoning in which Murphy founded an antique business, Mueller went back to his day job in a restaurant, and the group considered calling it quits. “We went through that period where we all had to decide if we could live without this, and we all said no,” says Pirner. “It was a satisfying moment.”

And just as label indifference didn’t tear apart Soul Asylum, the band members swear they have never let their vision be blurred by their reputation for forever being a half-step away from a number of 12-step programs.

“What did Winston Churchill say, ‘I only drink for occasions, and sometimes I drink when there’s no occasion at all’?” says Pirner with a laugh. “I think we have to be a little bit self-conscious and aware that we are going to get nailed with that. But we couldn’t have lasted this long if we had no fucking focus.

“To a certain degree it can be a problem,” Pirner says, “and to a certain degree it’s nobody’s business. I hate seeing people exploiting their drug habits in the press. If somebody had a real problem, we’d be there for each other. We wouldn’t skirt the issue.”

Murphy sits up in his chair to try to explain further. “Booze is a queller of self-consciousness,” he says. “That’s a real important thing. This band is self-conscious about a lot of things, and it’s a lot easier to have a few beers.”

For Soul Asylum, the choice to prevail is thrust forward by Pirner’s dedication to an artistic ideal, however romantic. While the other members might be devastated if the group disbanded (“It would definitely put an anvil on my penis for a week or two,” says Mueller, “but there are other things I could do”), Pirner would be crippled.

“The fact of the matter is, everybody I know is second string to music for me,” says Pirner. “I cannot explain to anybody, including the closest people in my life, how music is more important than all of them.”

March 4, 1993, Toronto It isn’t worth explaining why Dave Pirner’s pants are resting near his ankles. What is important is that he is conducting an interview with his bass player. At the moment, however, it is Mueller who has the question: “Am I supposed to sit here and answer questions with your winky hanging out?”

Yes, the interrogation is getting off to a slow start. And while it certainly isn’t your typical interview situation, to be fair, the aforementioned winky is neatly hidden inside Pirner’s green polka-dot boxers.

PIRNER: How do you feel about the fact that when it comes down to it and we get all fucked up, I’m the one who has to deliver? I basically have to be a spokesperson for the band after you guys are too wasted.
MUELLER: That’s never been true.
PIRNER: [Waving his hand in the air] OK, OK. Let’s refocus. What about your out-of-body experience?
MUELLER: I really did have one. I was playing along, and all of the sudden I was above the stage, looking down at myself, and I fucked up the song incredibly.
PIRNER: Oh, I hate that.
MUELLER: Yeah, what can you do? There were a lot of times where I wished I could have been out of my body, but that’s the only time it actually happened.
PIRNER: You know, nobody understands what makes this group work. It’s not a face-value equation. It’s a functioning group.
MUELLER: [Scooting forward to emphasize his point] The other three guys, they understand. I’m just not sure that the people that are going to read an article about us are going to understand. Think about how fucking long we’ve been together.
PIRNER: Karl is the anchor of the band because nobody really understands what he’s all about. Karl maintains this mystique.
MUELLER: It’s no mystique. I have no fucking idea where I’m coming from. Not at all.
PIRNER: Karl, are you crazy?
MUELLER: [Laughs] You know, I just don’t know.
PIRNER: I don’t think you are, clinically. And that’s good because none of us would have money for the clinic. The crux of the issue is that Karl Mueller is one of the most intriguing characters I’ve ever met in my life. How many people do you know can get through an entire crossword puzzle in cutting-edge time and then sit down and actually read a Mod Squad book? I have the perfect bass player. I’m stating that as fact.
MUELLER: [Grinning lovingly] Dave, if I didn’t have to pee, I’d give you a hug.

March 20, 1993, New York City The mode of transportation is limousine. The drink of the moment is champagne. As people continue pouring into the Saturday Night Live cast party, the members of Soul Asylum are sitting around a huge rectangular table with friends and family in a cocoon of relative calm. Just a couple of hours ago the band was careening across the NBC soundstage delivering urgent versions of “Somebody to Shove” and “Black Gold” to a live audience as well as a few million viewers. Now, however, all the outbursts of action seem to be transpiring around them. The band’s manager is making a toast, and the atmosphere has the air of an enormous holiday dinner.

“It was a conscious effort on this record to let everyone know we’re a group,” says Mueller of Soul Asylums interaction. “It’s not Dave and three hacks. It’s not a group that some manager put together.”

Young interjects. “I had a really hard time making this last record,” he says. “I confronted everybody, and they all made me feel that we’re all in this together and we’re all equally important to each other. To me, that’s what this group’s about.”

For his part, Murphy agrees. To a point.

“Everybody thinks there’s great camaraderie in bands, and there is to a certain extent in this band,” says Murphy. “But when we have time off, it’s definitely time off. I think what gets left out about us is obvious. We’re four very different people.”

OK, point taken.

The day Mueller was born, his father said: “He has big hands. He’s going to be a bass player.” For Mueller, one of his greatest regrets is that his father didn’t live to see his prediction come true, so when he got married four years ago, his band mates gave him an upright bass as a wedding gift. (“I saw the reaction,” says Pirner. “It was the perfect gift.”) But while Mueller can come across as the quietest, most no-nonsense band member, he hopes to someday open a bar (Karl’s Krazy Lounge) and spends his band downtime reading Hawaii Five-O and Mod Squad books and tending to his two collections: a rude-food collection that he plans to build an extra shelf for and a collection of 80 snow domes.

Young is the member of Soul Asylum most likely to miss the comforts of home but also point out the positive aspects of life on the road. “Grant is kind of an explorer and somebody that really is always looking to find something beyond what’s laid out for him,” says Pirner of his drummer. And while in that way Young is credited with being the least realistic member of the tribe, he also carries the burden of being the most “regular guy.” Murphy, Pirner and Mueller register in hotels under assumed names. Young registers as Grant Young. Not that regularities impede creativity. When Young got married last Halloween, he threw a costume reception.

It is Murphy who most feels the strain of life on the Soul Asylum treadmill. Recently married, Murphy also continues to run his antique business and has a 3-year-old son from a former relationship. If the band broke up tomorrow, Murphy might just be relieved and would certainly run screaming from the music business.

“I’m starting to appreciate it,” he says. “It feels different to me now. But you have a lot of different factors tugging at you. It’s real hard. Kids are so innocent. They reduce things to the lowest point. They say things like ‘When you’re far away, I really miss you.’ And you just say, ‘Wow.’ ” And then there is Pirner. With his lion’s mane and impish grin, he is the one Soul Asylum member who is instantly recognizable.

And as the band’s main songwriter, he also possesses its vision. As yin to Murphy’s yang, Pirner lives his life on the border of control. We do know that he possesses a train fetish (each Soul Asylum album has featured at least one train song) and that he doesn’t own a television or a CD player – instead opting to read underground comic books. Keenly intelligent, he’s also not afraid to play the dumb blond, using his lovable fuck-up persona as a shield.

“I hide my intelligence well, huh?” he says, with a little embarrassment. “Playing the fool. Sometimes it makes it easier for me. People let me do whatever I want because they assume that I’m out there and can’t be helped. I have better things to do with my time than trying to convince people I’m not what they think I am. It goes way back for me.”

April 21, 1993, New York City Grant Young is beaming, staring at his reflection in the gold record he received just a few hours ago. It’s a little past midnight, and Soul Asylum have just finished taping an episode of MTV Unplugged. Back in the dressing room – the spot where the band was surprised with its first gold record just moments before taking the stage – no one feels like leaving.

Across the room, Danny Murphy is hugging a friend.

“What a night,” he says, finally. “I tell ya, we walked out on the stage, and I was so choked up that I didn’t think I was going to make it through the first song without crying.”

June 16, 1993, Tampa, Florida “I’m a mess,” says Dave Pirner, by way of introduction to his current personal life. “I feel like I’m at the most insecure time of my entire life, and it feels good. My whole life is completely up in the air. I don’t have a place to live. I don’t have a place to go. I don’t know where my friends are. I’m just living on the road and trying to make it more of a home than ever.”

Proof positive exists in a letter that Pirner has just written to a fan: “I’ve lived on a bus for the last six months. I’m having a bit of a breakdown, and everything seems so superficial.”

The major source of Pirner’s current upheaval is his breakup from his girlfriend of 13 years – a split forced by his current relationship with actress Winona Ryder. And as attested by the old rock cliché of dumping the lifelong love for a movie star once fame is achieved, Pirner is struggling to figure out which aspects of his new-found status as artist, commodity and sex symbol to buy into.

“I am having a bit of an identity crisis, but it’s a very strange identity crisis because people are telling me who I am all the time,” Pirner says. “And what they know about me is pretty much who I am. I feel like I have to change my life and make it new again.”

And if changing your life after finally arriving at the destination you set out for seems a bit rash, Pirner swears he’s not quite ready to tell anyone “I told you so.” “My parents always hated the whole thing, and I think they’ll probably have the last laugh,” he says. “My dad showed me this postcard that he got from one of his friends. The gist of it was that my dad had been talking to the guy about what a loser I was, then I showed up in Newsweek, and the guy was making fun of my dad. I had a good laugh. But I think they will have the last laugh.”

For the moment, however, Pirner is living in the moment, however grueling the consequences. And in this moment, he finds himself perilously close to the alternative-world’s version of walking a Tiger Beat. As anyone who’s ever sweated through a Soul Asylum show knows, along with the band’s touring grind comes plenty of bumps and grinds from the hips of the group’s frontman. “I can’t deny that there’s a real sexuality about music that I’m totally addicted to,” says Pirner. “It’s not ‘I wanna go get fucked’ sexual. It’s an animal magnetism that you just feel. But I think I have to deal with the fact that it’s going to backfire when I say that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the music I write, and I don’t want that to be trivialized. I know I come off as very sexual onstage. It’s definitely more so than I can pull off on a daily basis.”

But before the spotlight on Pirner threatens to cast a shadow across the entire band, it is important to remember that it is very much a four-headed beast. It’s the interplay of Pirner and Murphy, in fact, that most clearly defines the precarious balance of responsibility and recklessness, immaturity and imagination, that keeps Soul Asylum pointed down the highway – even when they continually seem to swerve into ditches.

As the band’s primary navigators, each member of the pair has a job in keeping the train moving forward: Pirner loses the keys; Murphy finds them. Soul Asylum wouldn’t be the same if both things didn’t happen. “What makes our relationship work is the fact that he has his feet on the ground and has a different sense of reality,” says Pirner. “Danny is really making an honest attempt to have a life. I’m a little bit more of a champion of the cause, if only because I have to write the goddamn songs. I feel like I’m a goalie. If you lose the game, its your fault If you win the game, it was just your job.” Pirner stops and blurts out a laugh.

“The goaltender of rock & roll,” he says, rolling his eyes. “But if Danny decides one day that this is bullshit, I’m not going to tell him it’s not. He’s a smart guy. He has to do things on his own terms. It’s a double life, especially for him.”

And if Murphy represents the musical and emotional anchor of the band, he also provides flashes of songwriting brilliance. Though he’s only written a handful of tunes, for those of you scoring at home, he has penned a few of the band’s crowning achievements, including “Cartoon” (Hang Time), “Can’t Go Back” (Made to Be Broken) and “Gullible’s Travels” (And the Horse They Rode In On).

“It’s frustrating in a way, but I think if I wrote more, I’d get more songs on the records,” says Murphy. “No one ever says, ‘We’re only doing Dave’s songs.’ But in a way I guess I do get kind of an attitude toward it. I feel like I try really hard on Dave’s songs, and I expect him to work really hard on my songs. If he fucked them up live, I’d be really mad.”

But now, one week into the Alternative Nation Tour – which will probably place the band in front of three-quarters of a million people this summer – Soul Asylum seem very much at home. Even accustomed to the rigors of touring, the band still has a limit on its stupidity intake.

“We did this interview with Miss Hawaii,” says Murphy, “and she said: ‘Hey, I’m talking to Soul Asylum, I hear you guys do a lot of pro-choice benefits. Why?’ And Dave goes, ‘Duh.’ That was the end of the interview. It was definitely the right answer.”

Pirner laughs. “I didn’t feel like I said too much,” he says. “I didn’t feel like I said too little.”

Even overtures from Lollapalooza met with a polite “no, thank you” from the band, paving the way for the Alternative Nation Tour. “I don’t feel indignant about it, but I don’t feel like we have to kiss up to what’s trendy,” says Pirner, explaining why the band rejected Lollapalooza. “We’ve been acknowledged and ignored by every movement – the new romantic movement, the hardcore movement, the new sincerity movement – they’ve all ignored us.”

And with that, for the final time, Murphy leans forward to put Soul Asylum in perspective.

“We were on an airplane and drinking a few martinis, and there was an ad that chronicled the trendy drinks of the last 10 years,” he says. “It started with Jim Beam and went through the fuzzy navel and then all these umbrella drinks and ended up working its way back to Jim Beam. We thought it should be the new Soul Asylum ad campaign.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Soul Asylum


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