Second Set: Dear John's 45 rpm Love Letter to St. Louis
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 12, 2012 - We’ll consider this one a testimony to the power of delayed reactions.
Way back in 1981, the local power-pop trio Dear John released a vinyl single on 45 rpm, featuring the single “Frustrated Conversation” backed with “I Don’t Want Her to Know.” As I was turning 13 late in that year (listening to little more than Star Wars soundtracks, Al Stewart’s "Year of the Cat" and various, home-made cassette tapes recorded from the radio), I didn’t pick one up on AKA Records back then. So unhip was I to the St. Louis new wave scene!
Fast-forwarding 30 years, the local BDR Records crew — namely the duo of Jason “Rerun” Ross and Matt Harnish — re-released the old AKA 45s of Dear John, the vintage vinyl packaged inside newly minted covers. Offered at a tribute/reunion show that featured early ‘80s luminaries such as the Retros, the Zanti Misfits, the Camaros and Antimation, on Dec. 23, 2011, the 45 was part of my purchases — along with some Antimation vinyl and the brilliant BDR release of the Retros’ Inner City Rockers.
Curiously, though intrigued by the 45, it sat on top of a stack of singles for several months, getting no love on my turntable. I didn’t even put the 45 to work after realizing that Dear John (or a two-thirds approximation of the band) was signed to play Record Store Day at, appropriately enough, Vintage Vinyl on Saturday, April 21. As I visited with vocalist and songwriter Robert Kuhlmann by both telephone and e-mail, I still hadn’t found the time to flip the doggone vinyl on. Yikes. Instead, I wound up exploring the Dear John release via YouTube, the same method Kuhlmann says his daughter uses to discover music, instead of relying on record stores.
We all have our moments.
Right now, the moment belongs to a portion of the original lineup of Dear John: LA-based Kuhlmann and drummer Larry Wilke, a St. Louis city police officer. Unable to perform at the December reunion gig, the pair are reuniting for the Record Store Day show without bassist George Schneller, who can’t make the show from his Florida home. In his absence, Retros bassist Bob Chekoudjian will be handling those duties. Because of Schneller’s absence, Kuhlmann goes to great pains to mention that this isn’t a Dear John reunion, though he understands why Vintage Vinyl would advertise it as such.
"It wasn’t planned as a Dear John reunion,” Kuhlmann says. “I knew that when they put the schedule out that it might say this; no one’s going to know about a ‘Bob, Larry and Bob’ show. But to do a Dear John show, it wouldn’t be right to do it without George, for the people who liked George. His bass lines were a big part of what we did, his background vocals. It’s not really the same without him. It’s like any band, really. It’s not the same without the original members. It’s like Van Halen touring without a Van Halen brother ... not that I’d compare us to them!”
Interestingly, for a band born of a very different time, the members of this show are relying on no small amount of modern technology to pull their set together.
“I was just online, adding some chord sheets,” Kuhlmann said over the weekend. “We’re using Dropbox to send files. It’s been an all-online process, using Dropbox to share information and Facebook to send messages. I haven’t actually talked to Bob, it’s all been by Facebook. I’ll fly in on that Thursday, and I’ll go right into to a rehearsal. We’ll go unplugged for a couple of hours. I think we’ll work up anywhere between eight and 10 songs, to be able to play for an hour, or so. It’ll be cool if we can pull it off. Larry and I have played this stuff before. But we have some new stuff we’ll never played before. Some of the songs have been written since I’ve been in LA.
“One rehearsal, man. It’s one of those things. Plus Bob hasn’t played bass in a while, I’d heard he was playing more guitar recently. When he responded to me on Facebook, he said he hadn’t really played bass in 25 years. Really? ‘Uh, Bob? You said yes to this?'”
Of Peaches and disco balls
While Chekoudjian never played with the group directly, he was a contemporary of Kuhlmann, Wilke and Schneller, making him a natural fit for this gig, despite his time away from the bass. In different forms, they were all part of the birth of the new wave scene in town, one that saw bands creating opportunities from little more than scratch. Record stores were a huge part of putting that scene together and one of the iconic stores in store, Peaches at Hampton and Chippewa, was in some respects the birthplace.
Kuhlmann and Wilke worked there and, in time, Kuhlmann started spinning records across the street, at a club called Kelley’s Stage Left. The club came complete with a disco floor, featuring glowing lights, atop which Dear John would set up for gigs, taking a Monday night residency after Kuhlmann settled in as a deejay there. For their year-and-a-half together, that was one of their homebases, along with midtown’s famed Billie Goat Hill and a spot “near SLU called Dr. Munchies.”
Like a lot of bands at the time, the group scrambled up gigs in rooms that didn’t necessarily feature live music, especially not “new” or “alternative” music, the kind that Dear John was serving up. Mixing in covers, though, groups like Dear John found enough of a foothold to not only play out, but to record a few tracks. In 1981, Dear John headed into a studio called Sugar Creek in Fenton, where it laid down six tracks, including the two heard on the AKA/BDR single.
Kuhlmann feels that the single made this quasi-reunion stuff possible. The 350, or so, discs that remained in storage provided the catalyst, along with the burgeoning Record Store Day concept that’s exploded over the past few years.
“Jason and Matt were selling that 30 anniversary package,” Kuhlmann says, “and I’m an old record store guy. I spent 15 years working in record stores in LA and St. Louis. I loved the concept of Record Store Day; and when I saw that there was something going on with this, I reached out to Jason and Matt and said, ‘Hey, I know I have just a few singles left. I don’t know if you’re interested, maybe on Record Store Day, we could release a few additional track and I could even fly out from LA to do an acoustic set.’
"It was too hard to do a quick-turnaround set for the Retros show. And I didn’t want to commit to a full band reunion for this. I initially was going to fly in, borrow a guitar, not even pack anything. Just do acoustic set, play old songs, see friends, played some new stuff," Kuhlmann sad. "But after some back-and-forth with our drummer, wondering if he could anything for the set, I knew that he wanted to be involved. Then, we just needed a bass player. I reached out to Bob. I’d never played with him, but had known him for years. When he said ‘sure,’ it was just that easy.”
Celebrate good times, come on
With only a few copies of the single remaining — hey, blame those buyers in Japan for the shortage at home — BDR plans to up the ante one more time, offering a CDR of the “other” four songs from their Sugar Creek studio sessions, offering up the full Dear John in one fell swoop.
Jason Ross says the Dear John project was a unique one and, in some respects, that was quite pleasing.
“As far as working with the Dear John 45, it was far different than other releases in that we didn't actually press the vinyl,” Ross says. “We had been in contact with Bob Kuhlmann in our very early-on BDR fact-finding mission, but that was to use a song for an aborted compilation we had begun assembling at the time. Bob was aware of the BDR releases, and he had shown his support via FB. On a trip to visit his mother in St. Louis, he and I got together for lunch. When he was back in town a couple months later, he was rooting around his mom's house and located the boxes of the Dear John vinyl. He offered to see if we could find a way to market the leftover records. So, instead of us seeking out the band, to see what recordings they may have available to release ... Dear John contacted us!”
It turned out that the piece wasn’t a just a feel-good release, either. It had retail legs.
“It was really a no-brainer to offer to produce a new sleeve and offer the leftover records for sale,” Ross says. “The original copies with the original picture sleeve have been known to fetch $40-50, so being able to offer the original vinyl at a ‘new release’ price was a real treat. We ended up being able to offer 350 copies, which only took about 12 weeks to sell out. We reserved the final 25 copies for the limited Record Store Day edition to coincide with the RSD/Vintage Vinyl appearance. The limited RSD edition will be signed by Bob Kuhlmann and Larry Wilke of Dear John, and it will also include a bonus CDR that has the entire, six song recording session from 1981 that the two 45 songs were taken from.”
Harnish remembers things similarly, saying, “Well, since we didn't have to do any of the actual record pressing, it was our easiest and least expensive project yet! There weren't any more of the original covers, so that was our contribution to the thing. Well, that and all the distribution worldwide (literally! we've sold a bunch to stores in Japan). All we had to do was have dinner with the dudes for a loose interview, from which we drew the liner note info, then Jason whipped up some artwork (mostly from photos and fliers, etc. supplied by Bob), arranged the download thing and we were done.”
BDR, which distributed the Ross’ Rerun Records, has shown a willingness to tackle tougher projects, too, ones that can take a year, or more, to put all the elements in place. To date, they’ve offered items in various formats, featuring groups like the Retros, the Welders, along with the classic Test Patterns LP, re-released after years of out-of-print glory. And their release shows have universally been great.
With Schneller and guitarist Randy Erickson, Kuhlmann formed the group Page 3, which lasted until 1985, when Schneller and Kuhlmann pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles. There’s been more than a little bit of talk about Page 3 being another BDR project down the road. That’s something that obviously delights Kuhlmann, who is proud of his involvement in the development of St. Louis alternative/original rock culture. And he’s happy that the material’s getting a new life.
“I booked Heartbreak Hotel and Billie Goat Hill, so I was involved on that level,” he remembers. “I was part of the whole thing. It was interesting to watch what happened with the December show, how it kept morphing. I wanted to go, just to see the show! All of a sudden, you had Antimation and everybody else coming out of the woodwork. Must’ve felt like old home week from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s punks, who were a part of that early scene. It’s good that we’re all still connected, even if it’s just on Facebook; guys like Steve Fairchild (of the Retros) I’ve known since high school. It’s weird that we’re connected, yet are all doing different things, out in the real world with jobs and kids. But we still gravitate together to do stuff like this.”
And, yet, there’s maybe just a hint of unfinished business, both with Page 3 and with a full, all-hands-on-deck reunion of Dear John. For now, Record Store Day’s 1 p.m. set at Vintage Vinyl will fulfill a lot of wishes.
“It’s not a Dear John thing, not without George’s bass lines,” Kuhlmann insists. “We were a power pop trio, and it was marked by the three of us. Without one of the parts, we’re just celebrating the songs. To me, it’s all about Record Store Day. I saw that somebody at Vintage or Euclid, where I know a lot of the guys, used the phrase, ‘tribal holiday.’ And that’s what it’s about. Someone asked me why I was going to St. Louis, to play with guys I haven’t played with in 30 years. It’s a celebration; it’s not even to sell records, because Jason had to hold back the little that was left. It’s about the celebration of the mentality of buying records. Now it’s a dying breed. The young people into music are finding it on YouTube. It’s cool that my daughter finds new music there, off-center stuff, indie artists. That’s very cool, but isn’t the same thing. I’ve taken kids to Amoeba Records, to show them what a record store means and they didn’t really get it.
“It’s important to me to be a part of Record Store Day and to be able to play these songs for anyone who might still care,” Kuhlmann concludes. “For people who were at Kelley’s Stage Door in ‘81, or who had the single back then. Maybe I’ll see some friends that I haven’t seen in years. When we left town, it was of kind of a different thing, we just left and were gone. So this’ll be a celebration of that time, the single, bringing back the whole vibe from back then.”