Find me a better band name than Soul Asylum and a more extraordinary album title than “Grave Dancers Union.” Go ahead; I’ll wait.
The 80s act that blossomed into a 90s alternative rock force held significant influence over droves of Gen Xers, even if Soul Asylum is not as cool to reference as Nirvana, Peral Jam, Blind Melon…or any other of their chart-sharing counterparts. Soul Asylum’s hit single “Runaway Train” was a massive success, reaching number five on the Billboard Hot 100 and winning a Grammy for Best Rock Song.
And perhaps that was the problem.
The band’s album, the aforementioned “Grave Dancers Union,” the sixth studio album from the Minneapolis natives, was also a critical and commercial success, reaching number two on the Billboard 200. GDU was a solid album from tips to toes–with several lyrical gems.
The “Grave Dancers Union” album cover features the photograph “Fate Descends Towards the River Leading Two Innocent Children” by renowned Czech photographer Jan Saudek.
“Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd” has always stuck with me.
It’s simple logic, but a similar thought bounced around my brain two years before I heard that line right before a seminal junior high school moment.
Punches thrown. Blood and bruises! A full-blown, real-life fight involving your humble narrator.
It all started innocently enough, just a quiet day at school, and maybe that was the problem. We were sitting in math(?) class. The cold of the morning had the steam radiators pumping on overdrive as if the school’s custodian was being paid degree-by-stifling-degree. The teacher, Mr. B, was calling up kids one by one, handing back a test that we had taken.
One of the students, Mike, strode by to pick up his graded test. I didn’t know him well. But he stepped on foot as he passed by. I’ll assume it was an innocent mistake. Did he not say ‘sorry?’ Was I wearing a new pair of sneakers that I felt the need to keep immaculately clean? Who knows. But I sprung from my chair as if someone purposely spat on my mom and gave Mike a hard shove into a bunch of people and desks. He was probably a solid 4″ to 5″ taller than me, but I didn’t give a shit. I was so pissed and inexplicably offended that I exploded.
Hormones, maybe? I have no idea what this kid ever did to me, but it was on. As Mike and I came back together in the center of the classroom, our teacher, Mr. B, responded like a WWE referee. Despite his small stature, teach got between us and gripped my arm with the might of a thousand blood pressure cuffs. It was as if he was waiting years for a reason to exert his “adult” strength on us kids, and here was his moment. He didn’t look the part; I was impressed.
In typical Junior High fashion, this classroom altercation would have legs. The rumor mill started to churn out all kinds of nonsense. And every “friend” I had, anyone who knew my name, urged me to “finish” the job at an after-school fight. There was a surge of energy behind me; as the “cooler” kid out of the two of us, I was all but assured of victory.
Junior High School fights took place at the “Highway Deli,” located alongside the Long Island Expressway. I was familiar with the deli; I had seen a few skirmishes there. I might have also occasionally treated myself to a #11 (Ham, Capicola, Ham, Genoa, Provolone on a hero with lettuce, tomatoes and oil & vinegar), but I digress even further.
That afternoon, as I sat through science class, trying to quiet the growing noise and pressure bubbling inside me–and probably thinking of a way out–a note arrived. It wasn’t the neatly folded notes I’d occasionally get from girls, this one was loosely crumpled. Its contents? A rudimentary sketch of an armored mask and the words: YOU WILL NEED A MASK WHEN I AM DONE.
I looked up and was met with a stare of death from Mike. It was a look from him that I hadn’t seen before; I knew the fight was on. Perhaps I would need a job with the “Grave Dancers Union” by the time the fight was over.
I started to think about fighting in front of a crowd. As one who has always shied away from attention, the thought of a group performance sickened me, regardless of the outcome. And I already instinctively knew, “Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd.” So I decided to get there early and start fighting before a considerable audience could amass. It was a pretty big risk to assume that Mike would get there early, too–but he struck me as being reasonably pragmatic.
Before I packed my gear and made my way to throw down, Ray, a kid who once accused me of “tagging over” him on a school desk (I did not), stopped me. “Yo, you probably got this, but if not, I got your back.”
“Uhhhh, thanks man.”
I dismissed the offer of aid and put my winter jacket on and strapped up my backpack. Then, I took the short walk to the nearby deli. Looking back, how utterly lame to be one of the first people to show up for your own fight. Thankfully, Mike showed up pretty early, too. Score one for guessing right.
A few people were standing around, and rather than wait, allowing my nerves to get the best of me, I jumped right in, lunging at Mike, throwing a right hand as if I was throwing a fastball. For anyone who has been in a fight where you go toe-to-toe with someone, you learn quickly that you are not Mike Tyson. And while it’s not that hard to send somebody reeling backward, it is hard to lay them out.
I think there might have been a couple of more wild swings. But my next vivid memory is Mike grabbing my jacket with one hand and punching me with the other, connecting a few times.
Fucking jacket. I unzipped the brand-new brown leather bomber with the sheepskin collar and threw it down to the ground. A mere few days earlier, I had pleaded for the jacket while shopping at House of Jack’s with my mom. While squeezing through the narrow aisles of dark gray suits in this old-school clothing store, the premium jacket caught my eye and had to be mine. And it was, well, for 72 hours at least.
At this point, the jacket is strewn somewhere on the ground, and my nose is bleeding, but back in these days, a stiff wind could make my nose bleed, so I wasn’t concerned.
We square off again, and this time, as Mike backs up, he hits his head on an air conditioning unit that was jutting out of a window. The Highway Deli is connected to a row of attached brick houses. I hear a jolt of laughter from the crowd, which has now grown substantially. Plenty of people to dance on our graves should we choose to make them. I use the opportunity to close the distance and swing at the side of Mike’s head and connect.
Now, with blood streaming from my nose, I see something out of the corner of my eye flying toward me. It wasn’t a punch from Mike; it was Ray, the graffiti-loving hoodlum who came outta nowhere with a big right hand against Mike’s face.
The next thing I know, I am grabbed by somebody, yelling, “that’s enough.” It was a UPS driver who was likely heading into the deli to make a delivery. I wrestled myself free from his grip like a caged animal instinctually demanding freedom, snarling, “It’s NOT enough!!!”
He replied, “You have had enough.”
I was offended by the words, but I couldn’t survey my own face at this point.
As simple as a crowd can attract a crowd, crowds can disperse relatively quickly, too. Disappointed that the action was over and the sound of sirens in the distance that I was oblivious to, people started to stream away in different directions. I remember leaning against a car, using my white shirt to sop up my bloody nose. As I stood there cleaning up, two friends from elementary school emerged; I saw genuine concern. My words still had bravado, and I assured them that I was OK.
And I was, until the cops came.
And I was, until my new jacket was stolen.
And I was, until the police contacted my parents before I got home.
And I was, until I woke up the following day, embarrassed to go to school because of the damage on my face.
The police officers repeatedly asked me if I wanted to press charges, which I found utterly ridiculous given that I was the aggressor. But now, I started to worry if I would need to wear a mask to hide the damage. But one fear loomed even larger: how would I tell my parents that my brand new expensive jacket was MIA. I took the long walk home to kill time to stall the inevitable. My steps were slllooowwww.
My parents flipped out on me for several reasons:
- They didn’t know where I was (pre-cell phones). So hearing from the police that I was in a fight and then taking my sweet ass time to get home put them into a panic.
- How could their nice quiet boy be in a fight?
- “Where is the jacket? Your new jacket!? It’s gone?!?!”
After I took verbal licks from my folks which were far more painful than the physical ones I received a few hours earlier, we moved on to the next day and how I would ask the school to put out an APB for my jacket.
Oh shit. Did I need to go back to school? I was “cooler.” I was expected to win. And at best, I turned in a draw. How could I show up to school with a cut on my right cheekbone and a slight black eye on my left? My mom was OK with me playing hooky. But my dad was adamant that I go to school the next day. It was one of the few times I recall him being unmovable, not negotiable.
I vaguely recall losing the battle, going to school, and being petrified of humiliation–but it was lessened by the fact that Mike had skipped school. Lucky for me, his dad, in this instance, was more flexible than mine. And hot damn, was I relieved to see Mike show up to school the next day with his full ear the color of an eggplant.
The reality was, there wasn’t much dialog about the fight…except for the rematch. Perhaps I was scared. Or humbled. But I recall being satisfied that we both took some hits, and was ready to put the episode behind me. There might even have been a brief conversation between my adversary and me, agreeing to just let it be and let everyone else talk themselves out.
I think back on “The Fight” fondly. It was a lesson that helped me with decision-making from that moment forward. It forced me to better regulate my emotions, reminding me that if I didn’t, the consequences could be real. But it didn’t change that I spent much of my early teen years looking for somebody to shove. And we come back around to the “Grave Dancers Union” album that dominated the charts during the first half of the 90s and resonated with the 16-year-old me.
Those opening guitar notes could cut through anything. And the sing-songy verse and aggressive chorus were a pleasure to sing (or shout!) along to.
These were the words of an anthem that captured the attention of hormonal teenagers everywhere. Frontman Dave Pirner was giving us the permission that we desperately sought.
But my favorite song was “Black Gold.” I’m a sucker for storytelling. And it’s another tie back to my brawling days.
As you likely already know, “Runaway Train” put Soul Asylum on a rocket ship to mainstream success, garnering airplay on every station on the dial. The song became inescapable, which ultimately made it insufferable during the mid-90s. The video, which profiled missing children in an attempt to bring them home, helped take the song to another level. But the incessant airtime, everywhere from supermarkets to dentist officers, turned Soul Asylum into “mainstream,” and that was the Gen X kiss of death.
After their fame had cooled down, I caught Soul Asylum performing between Semisonic and Matchbox 20, two groups that were riding red-hot alternative radio streaks. Meanwhile, Soul Asylum was touring in support of their eighth studio album, “Candy From a Stranger,” and any success they had achieved earlier in the decade might as well be from a century ago.
A relatively thin crowd at Jones Beach used the band’s set as an opportunity to grab drinks before Rob Thomas and his bandmates took the stage. However, the performance experience of Dave Pirner was evident. Making the most of a relatively short set, I’ll never forget how the band won over the crowd, demanding attention through tight/aggressive musicianship and storytelling. It was one of the few live performances I can recall where a band turned a crowd from disinterested to engaged without resorting to desperate tactics. And while “Runaway Train” ironically stole the show, the band certainly earned respect from the jaded NY crowd.
Soul Asylum Hits With Peak Billboard Position
1. Runaway Train – #4
2. Somebody to Shove – #12
3. Misery – #10
4. Stand Up and Be Strong – #16
5. Black Gold – #27
6. Can’t Be You – #23
7. Without a Trace – #25
8. The Hardest Part – #14
9. Blackened Prayer – #35
10. Let Your Dim Light Shine – #40
As 1993 unfolded and “Grave Dancer” stayed on top of the charts, the album became my soundtrack to the World Trade Center getting bombed, Waco under siege, and Monica Seles getting stabbed. If you were a teen during these years, you might think of other bands first, but take a moment and dive back into the album and pay your respects to Soul Asylum; you can thank me later.