It was the rock ’n’ roll reunion for the new millennium. Bigger than Styx. Better than REO Speedwagon. More anticipated than Blue Oyster Cult. And it happened one night last December at the Pizza Kitchen out on Northshore Drive.
Of course, it wasn't planned this way—few pivotal moments in music history are—but fate managed to screw things around so bad that it couldn't be avoided. Yet, there it was on a Saturday night in West Knoxville, amid tables of pizza-eating families and squalling kids: the rather sudden reunion of Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes.
Could it be? Knoxville's most storied band, road warriors of some 500 shows and four albums spanning over a decade, defunct now for the last seven years…together again at the Pizza Kitchen? Drummer Dug Meech was in town from his Nashville home, bassist Dave Nichols was visiting while on leave from the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, and guitarist Todd Steed… well, he's always around when he isn't in Indonesia or Africa or Eastern Europe. The friends had jammed together earlier that week at Steed's North Knoxville home, trying to warm up for the official reunion gig coming up at the Longbranch Saloon. Then they got the call from saxophonist Dave King, asking for a back-up band for his pick-up gig providing background music for pizza diners. What the heck, eh? Unfortunately, just as they headed out the door, King called again: "I can't come." Thus, Smokin' Dave and the Premo Dopes became impromptu headliners at a family restaurant.
In the clear spring light of the noon hour while recently lunching at Ho-Ho's (please note: Indonesian food is off the menu now; new ownership), the student advisor for the University of Tennessee's Center for International Education can only chuckle at the memory.
"When we walked in there, the (manager) said, 'The main thing to remember is to play as quietly as possible,'" Steed recalls, laughing at the mere concept. "The guys were looking at me like, 'Uh, oh—he is going to say something really rude on the microphone, because he doesn't like this.' But that was a different guy that they knew—that was pre-diplomacy. That was before I learned to make a distinction between on- and off-stage, which came fairly recently. So I went back there and turned my amp down really low and started tuning up like 'tink, tink,' and the guy went, "Turn it down!" I wasn't even playing yet, I was just tuning, that was it.
"And of course it was very strange—there we were after seven years, coming back in triumph and playing instrumental music very quietly and occasionally going to the microphone and saying 'ah, ooh.' It was very Spinal Tap, but it turned out to be really, really fun. By the end of the night, everybody had sort of loosened up. Then we circulated a rumor that Pat Head Summitt was there—I don't know why, but it sorta got the place all giddy."
All this begs the question: Why? Why do a bunch of guys in their middle years—who started playing together in 1982, for chrissakes—even consider putting themselves through the tribulations of playing in a rock ’n’ roll band? Isn't that for youngsters with hormones to burn and eardrums to ruin? Perhaps, but when you listen to It's All Our Vault, the Dopes' newly-released compilation of live songs, new numbers, and oddities (well, even more oddities than usual), you get the sense that time is not an issue when it comes to truly heartfelt rock ’n’ roll. This album is not only a capsule history of a fine local band, but an expression of affection for the very idea of being in a rock band.
Listen to track number two, the brand-new "Van Willin." Written in about five minutes ("That's the way Smokin' Dave is best"), it immortalizes the 1978 GMC van that transported the trio around the country to gigs—christened by the previous owner with a sparkly, purple license plate that said "Music Man." Over a Stonesy bluez groove, the tune recalls the roving lifestyle with ironic wistfulness ("We got a van/a brand new plan/so now we don't got to work for the man/Man, now life's a cow/we're gonna milk it till it's dry till the milk runs out/Van willin'"). Steed wrote the tune during the mini-reunion last December, after the guys had spent an evening laughing over old stories.
"So the next day, I was trying to carry on that feeling of being 26 and not giving an absolute damn about anything other than: 'We must get to Columbia, South Carolina. That's all we have to do. There is nothing else in the whole world,'" Steed says. "There were no cell phones in those days, no way for anybody to get in touch with us—there was a great feeling of getting away as soon as you got in that old van...and it always worked. The hard work was finding the club. That was the most difficult thing of the day—‘You must find the club.' Everything else was easy."
Rather than being a rehashed "best of" collection, Vault compiles the personal milestones and odd memories of a group that more or less defined the Knoxville "scene." Witty, self-deprecating, maybe a little sad, and always rockin', the Dopes followed their own talents, even if they inevitably led straight back to Knoxville. Their first single, "Ethiopian Jokes"—a bittersweet slam on mocking frat boys by someone who'd actually been to Africa—is on Vault with a soaring live version. At the time, around 1986, the tune seemed like it could be a springboard to fame, getting reviewed by Creem and plugged by critic Dave Marsh. But it turned into more of a lesson on how to stay true to yourself.
"Somewhere around three or four years into the Dopes, we realized 'Hey, we might be able to make a living out of this if we applied ourselves, like all our high school teachers said we should have.' So we were trying real hard to get a record deal and we were shipping out records to everybody. We were trying real hard to get a deal, because to me at that time that was the epitome of the music business—a record deal. But I saw so many people getting record deals and becoming miserable. And I realized that it's probably a really good thing for some bands, but for us it was the antithesis of what we were about."
At one point, Steed compared financial notes with some of the members of the JudyBats, a Knoxville band who had signed with Elektra Records in the early ’90s and went through the label's alternative band machinery. Despite building a strong following, the ’Bats ended up in debt to their label through studio time and tours.
"And so this was crazy—why do I want to go in debt to some big company that's going to hate what we're doing? No record company executive in his right mind would sign Smokin' Dave and take us as is," Steed says. "We had a couple of labels call us and they'd say 'Well, I really, really, like your energy and you've got some good ideas. Now, if you could just take the humor out; and I like these three songs, so if you could make all the songs sound like these three…' And it just wouldn't work. Take the humor out? That's all we got, man!"
Since the early ’90s, though, the alternative rock zeitgeist has gone from earnest, flannel anthems to a more varied sound that includes the same sort of personal, goofball rock that the Dopes pledged allegiance to. When you hear "Empty Glass" or even the rambling "Telephone Solicitor's Rap" (or especially the catchy stuff from Too Many Years in the Circus and Huh?), there's a temptation to call the Dopes ahead of their time. ("It doesn't bother me...If we had come out in the ’90s we would have failed just as much.") Have audiences only recently caught on to humorous rock? Not so, according to the former UT instructor in the history of rock ’n’ roll.
"Well, the Fugs were doing it back in the ’60s, and Flo and Eddy in the '70s, and Frank Zappa—there were people doing that kind of stuff before, but it never made a lot of money for anybody," says Steed. "I think our stuff was different in a way, because we really did have some musical aesthetic, as opposed to Weird Al just going 'If we changed it from virgin to surgeon, think of how funny it would be.' These were songs about everyday life and real things. Isn't everyday life, if you look at it right, pretty hilarious in a sad sort of way?"
But everyday life changes as you age (or, at least it does for most), and it becomes a bit painful to watch former ambassadors of Youth Unleashed like Aerosmith or the Sex Pistols still singing about boinking hot babes or bringing down the government. Fortunately, the everyday issues that the Dopes sang about are more internal and timeless: the feelings that summer conjures every year, obsessing over a new love to the point of forsaking masturbation, experiencing reluctant angst over being from Knoxville… But, still—getting up on stage and screaming your head off in a rock band isn't expected from most university employees.
"I keep thinking, 'Maybe I should be thinking "What am I doing?"' I think I should be thinking that, but it doesn't naturally come into my head, so I don't worry about it," Steed says. "I mean, seeing Bruce up there, he's 50 but you'd never know it—at the end of his show [in Nashville] he turned a cartwheel on stage. Neil Young or Loudon Wainright… There are some people who've made some of their best records who are 10 to 15 years older than me. So you look at that and say, 'That's what I want to be.' I don't want to be Kevin Cronin singing 'Big Wheels Keep on Turning.' I don't want to be that. There are two ways to go, so I'm going to go the other way."
And musically, that means quite a few projects for Steed. There's his "Nashville" band, Opposable Thumbs (with Paul Noe and Dave Jenkins); his "Knoxville" band, Apelife (with Ed Richardson and Matt Richardson); the studio/label/webpage/band thing that is Disgraceland (check out disgraceland.com for all sorts of MP3s from a number of Knox-related bands); and an upcoming audio ’zine on CD that'll feature interviews with local musicians.
Steed also wants to someday get the Dopes together again for another recording session to finish off about 20 songs the band fiddled with over the years onstage; it'll be difficult with Dave off in the circus and Dug building barns in Nashville, but, he says, "The band has never really officially broken up—it's just always sort of there in case anyone needs it."