Sure Thing

by Mike McDowell
issued on Blitz #45 March/April 1983

cover of Blitz magazine; photo by David Arnoff

"Pre-motorcycle accident", reads the inscription in the vinyl adjacent to the label on The Days Of Wine And Roses, the new album by Los Angeles' eclectic (yet highly original) Dream Syndicate. The cryptic reference to the 1966 collision that sidelined the career of Bob Dylan for over a year is but a marginal assessment of the aesthetic impetus of the band, whose aforementioned album is meeting with substantial critical and commercial acclaim.
Fronting the Dream Syndicate is rhythm guitarist/lead vocalist Steve Wynn, whose professional musical career began in 1973 (at age 13) as rhythm guitarist with Sudden Death. "We had a two-show career", recalls Wynn, whose musical talents are equalled only by his sardonic wit. "The first show was at talent night. The second show was at the girls' field at Emerson Junior High School. We played four Rolling Stones songs, Brown Sugar, Jumping Jack Flash, Sympathy For The Devil and Angie. We also did Pinball Wizard, Southern Man and an original that the other guitarist had written. I didn't sing at all. I played rhythm guitar".
The demise of Sudden Death shortly thereafter stopped Wynn's musical pursuits for half a decade. "The lead guitarist freaked out", he explains. "I used to go to his house. I was 13, and looked about nine. He was 13, and looked about 25! He would sit in his room, play Neil Young songs and say things like, 'My grandfather killed himself'. He ended up in an asylum. After Sudden Death folded, I quit playing guitar for five years. I became a sports writer. I didn't play sports much, but I bowled a lot! In fact, I was the sterling star of the Dream Syndicate, Bangs and Salvation Army softball game on Catalina Island last June. Those bands were so embarrassed by the way the Dream Syndicate beat them, that they had to change their names!"
As the daughter of a career naval officer, bassist Kendra Smith was subjected to a nomadic rearing, which included tenures in such diverse locations as San Diego and West Germany. Prior to her partnership with Wynn, Smith's sole musical experience was as a member of her church choir.
Said partnership began in 1978, when Wynn and Smith were attending college in Davis, California. "We met in a class in college", Wynn remembers. "I was a rock critic. There were maybe four people in the entire city at that time who knew who the Jam were. We were two of them! They were going to be playing in town in a couple of weeks, and we got to talking about them".
Smith continues the story: "I had read Steve's articles as a rock critic. He and Tom Grayson had written some articles in the local paper, and I liked them as a whole. When the professor was doing roll call, I heard him mention Steve Wynn. So I pulled Steve aside after class. We had a long discussion about rock music".
The discussion led to the formation of the Suspects that same year, with Wynn as rhythm guitarist and Smith as lead vocalist, augmented by guitarist Russ Tolman, bassist Steve Suchil and drummer Gavin Blair. The band recorded a pair of Wynn compositions (Talking Loud and It's Up To You) at BSU Studios in San Francisco. Co-produced by the Suspects and Jim Keylor, It's Up To You and Talking Loud were issued as a single on Suspects Records at the end of 1979. Despite being afforded moderate airplay on several local radio stations, the band was unable to gain enough momentum to realize its full potential. "We slithered to a very sick end", says Wynn. "The last Suspects show was in March, 1980. It ended with Russ smashing his guitar on stage, Kendra deciding to move to Los Angeles and me retreating into bitterness for nearly two years". After the Suspects' career folded, Wynn performed with Go Dee Dee and Jane And The Cage, and formed the Long Ryders with ex-Unclaimed guitarist Sid Griffin, leaving the latter band after one month.
However, the musical chemistry between Wynn and Smith meant that a professional reunion was inevitable. Curiously, there was a time lapse of nearly two years between the collapse of the Suspects and the birth of the Dream Syndicate, which Smith attributes to: "Broken hearts. Steve and I knew that we still wanted to do music together. But playing music together fucked up our friendship. And he was still up in Davis at school, while I was in Los Angeles. Right when the Suspects broke up, just before I moved to Los Angeles, Steve and I formed a band called the Icons, with some girlfriends of mine singing acapella. Steve played guitar. I picked up the bass for the first time. We made some demo tapes, but that was about it. It was real spontaneous and free-form, very close to the Dream Syndicate. That sound was closest to the way that Steve and I wanted to sound. When I got to Los Angeles, I started developing an interest in the bass".
The Dream Syndicate formed in October, 1981 with Wynn, Smith and lead guitarist Karl Precoda, the latter a veteran of both the Strap-On Dicks and the Johanna Went Band. "Steve began playing with me separately and with Karl separately", Smith relates. "I finally heard them play together, and I thought, 'It's wonderful! My ineptitude won't show!!' So I joined them and recruited Dennis. I didn't know how to approach Dennis, as I thought he might not like their sound at first".
The "Dennis" to whom Smith refers is Dennis Duck, former drummer with the Human Hands, who released a single on I.R.S., a posthumous album and several tracks on compilation albums. "I stayed with Human Hands until December, 1981", adds Duck. "I decided at that time that I still wanted to be in a band. Kendra was the only one I knew. She was a big Human Hands fan. She used to come to all of our shows. The band had broken up, and I wasn't doing much of anything. I ran into Kendra in San Francisco. She told me that she was playing in a band with guys that had really weird guitar sounds. She said that they were looking for someone to play drums".
The sound and direction of the Dream Syndicate in those early stages was quite different. Wynn explains: "Our initial goal was to be a Pebbles cover band", in reference to the ten anthology albums of classic garage band rock, released in 1979-1980 on the BFD label. "I made a tape for Karl of all kinds of rare and obscure garage band records, and told him to learn how to play them. But we were real bush league!"
The Dream Syndicate's so-called "bush league" status changed within weeks, when Wynn's songwriting talents began to resurface. Wynn: "Soon after, I wrote Some Kinda Itch. We did a 45 minute version of that, and a 45 minute version of Suzie Q. So that made up two sets! We had another drummer at that time. When we recruited Dennis, he was a little worried about how prolific we would be. So Kendra told him that we already had two sets!"
To which Smith adds: "In fact, when Dennis heard these two songs, he winced and said, 'Do you think you'll be writing more songs?' And Steve answered, 'Sure, two more!'".
Wynn's songwriting capabilities were deftly preserved on the band's debut mini-album, The Dream Syndicate (Down There DT-2). Therein, Wynn contributes three of the record's four songs (That's What You Always Say, When You Smile and Some Kinda Itch). The cryptic lyrics and loose structures allow the band to execute the material with the wreckless abandon characteristic of rock and roll's finer moments. "We made the EP sound as bad as we could, so that the live shows would sound better", muses Wynn. Rounded out by Sure Thing (a Karl Precoda composition, reminiscent of the finer moments of the C*nts or the Fugitives), The Dream Syndicate was recorded on 31 January 1982 at Southwest Sound in Pasadena. It has since sold 3,000 copies, and is now out of print.
Though the band prefers to rely on original material for live performances, past Dream Syndicate shows have featured faithful covers of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues, the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Foxy Lady, the Move's Do Ya, Erma Franklin's Piece Of My Heart and Bob Dylan's Outlaw Blues. A bootleg cassette of a live Dream Syndicate performance in San Francisco brought the band to the attention of Slash's subsidiary Ruby label, who released the first full-length album, The Days Of Wine And Roses, in October, 1982.
Recorded in September, 1982, The Days Of Wine And Roses supplements re-recorded versions of That's What You Always Say and When You Smile with seven new Wynn compositions that evoke glimpses of everyone from pre-motorcycle accident Bob Dylan (Definitely Clean and the title song) to the Q65 (Tell Me When It's Over). Despite the obvious influences, the disjointed phrasing, passionate delivery and wry humor of the lyrics give The Days Of Wine And Roses a stamp of originality that speaks well for the potential of the band. Wynn elaborates: "We went into a studio that was charging $100 an hour. We were told that we wouldn't have to pay for it. So we figured that we would spend as much studio time as we could, spend all the money we could, and just play until we dropped! I told the band to keep playing the song The Days Of Wine And Roses until they collapsed, which was seven minutes and twenty-nine seconds. But the EP was done with our money, so we were real concise. I thought Sure Thing and Some Kinda Itch on the EP were perfect. I would never re-record them". Produced by Chris D. at Quad Teck Studios in Los Angeles, The Days Of Wine And Roses has since become a substantial local airplay favorite, selling in excess of 10,000 copies nationwide to date, as a result of Slash's distribution muscle.
The success of the Dream Syndicate has not prevented Wynn from pursuing extracurricular activities, which include maintaining the day-to-day operations of his Down There label. "I'd love for people to send in demo tapes to Down There", Wynn urges. "I'll never write you back, but at least I'll have something to listen to in my car! One thing I would like is for people to send in their old Impulse label albums, so we can get ideas for album covers. The cover of our EP on Down There was taken from the cover of an Archie Shepp album".
Amongst Down There's most notable post-Dream Syndicate accomplishments has been the signing of the highly promising Green On Red, whom Wynn discovered at one of their performances at Hollywood's Cathay De Grande. "Green On Red is a big tax write-off", jokes Wynn. "Seriously, there are a lot of amazing bands in Los Angeles. But Green On Red is one of the few that I can say is truly great".
Wynn also maintains an active role as a producer, having performed those services for Sacramento's True West (which features ex-Suspects guitarist Russ Tolman and drummer Gavin Blair, the latter now on vocals) on their 1982 cover of Pink Floyd's Lucifer Sam (also recorded by Los Angeles' Three O'Clock) on their own True West label. "I used to produce all of the Suspects' demo tapes", explains Wynn. "When Kendra and I were in school at Davis, we worked at a radio station that had a production room with a two-track tape deck. We used to sit in there night after night and experiment. I'll produce bands whenever I can. I love it. I'm producing the next Green On Red album. I was going to be helping the Long Ryders. But I think they will go with Earle Mankey, because he's worked with Sparks".
Working with such diverse bands as Green On Red, the Long Ryders and the Suspects has helped Wynn maintain a healthy affinity for a wide variety of music. "I love all kinds of music", he adds. "Garage bands, country music, Abba. I could play any kind of music, and I wouldn't feel as if I'd sold out. Maybe that's why we're doing as well as we are, because we're doing exactly what we want to do. We've done some absolutely sick shows, and people would come up to us and say, 'You bled all over the stage and you were out of tune. You were wonderful!' When the Dream syndicate started, I had absolute contempt for music and bands. I detested the concept of bands learning their songs and going out and losing the element of fun by playing the same set night after night. So we decided to just play half-hour songs".
Smith echoes Wynn's sentiments thus: "I don't think you can enter a band with the idea of pleasing the audience, because then you lose the fulfilment of the self. If the audience likes what we're doing, then that's wonderful. But we didn't want to just sit around and think up ways to please people".
Being faithful to their own values has paid off for the Dream Syndicate. The band undertook a successful tour of the southern states in November and December, and plans to enter the studio within the next few weeks to record a new album of all original material, scheduled for summer release. The positive developments in their career have exceeded the aspirations of at least one member: "My expectations with this band in the beginning were so minimal, that everything that's happened since then has been like dessert", adds Kendra Smith. "But the more Baked Alaska we get, the more we want!"

photo of The Dream Syndicate by Tom Jamison

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