(BLOGGER’S NOTE: In the face of rumors about a possible Soul Driver reunion [a thing I look at with very mixed feelings], I’ve decided to begin an occasional series of remembrances of my all-time favorite band. I’ll be doing these every now and again until either the band gets back together or I just forget the whole thing.)
The first time I heard Soul Driver was when their only Top 40 single, “Broken China Doll” hit the local pop music radio station. My true introduction to them, though, came through my high school girlfriend, Lisa. And our first date, no less, which may be why I’ve always tied the two of them together.
Lisa’s family moved to my hometown of Porter’s Bay the summer before our junior year. Her father was a dentist and had always wanted to come back to his hometown to raise his daughter. He largely missed the raising part, but managed to get Lisa back in time for them share an alma mater. Lisa and I had a few classes together our junior year and we both worked on the school newspaper.
I noticed her almost right off the bat and not just because she was the new girl in school. At a time when everyone seemed to be trying to create a persona, Lisa had this amazing ability to simply be herself. She was pretty, but made no effort to attract others. She hid her bright blue eyes behind wire rim glasses. She corralled her long, wavy black hair into something resembling a ponytail. She dressed for comfort, preferring plaid shirts, ripped jeans and sneakers. But more than all of that, she was funny and composed and confident. She knew everything that was going on the news and generally had a wisecrack for or an opinion on everything she read. At lunch, she was just as inclined to sit by herself and read a collection of Flannery O’Connor short stories as she was to socialize. She could quote Monty Python sketches and lines from “The Simpsons” off the top of her head. And she generally gave off an air that she didn’t care what you thought of her. Not that she was confrontational about it. She just had the kind of self-awareness and self-esteem that you don’t generally find in a seventeen year old. Or really, in most people of any age.
If I had one hesitation about asking Lisa out, it was that she intimidated the hell out of me. I found myself scouring the news every day and checking a volume of Flannery O’Conner out of the library just on the off-chance she’d go out with me and I’d need to make conversation. (I’ll be honest, I didn’t do that much preparation for the SATs.) During the winter of our junior year, I spent more and more time in the school newspaper offices, just to chat with her. Finally, after three weeks of that, Lisa turned to me and said, “So are you going to ask me out or what?”
Well, if she insisted….
The date itself was your typical tentative good time. We went to a movie and then stopped at Artie’s, a local hamburger joint, to grab something to eat. We were tentatively chatting about subjects of mutual interest when music came up. (Looking back at how much both of us loved music, I still can’t understand why it took THAT long to come up. I’ll have to consult my notes.) When I mentioned liking that new “Broken China Doll” song, Lisa stopped a French fry just short of her mouth. The look on her face could only be described as “sour” and for not the last time in my dating life, I wondered what I had said wrong.
“You like that song?” she said.
“I just…I thought it was kind of catchy.”
“You haven’t really listened to Soul Driver, have you?”
Truthfully, I knew nothing about the band. If someone had told me they formed five minutes before recording “Broken China Doll”, I would have believed it. And even in those days, I was normally inclined to try and bluff my way through something I didn’t know. But I got the feeling Lisa wouldn’t buy it and then the date would take a REAL turn. So, I admitted I had not really listened to Soul Driver and braced myself for the worst. Fortunately, Lisa smiled. She tossed down her French fry and said, “Grab a to-go box. We’re going back to my house.” Then she wagged a finger at me. “You’re going to school.”
With that, we paid for the food, hopped into my car and found ourselves at her place about ten minutes later. My introduction to Lisa’s parents (a friendly middle class couple not unlike my folks) was Lisa dragging me through the living room and saying, “Hi Mom and Dad, this is Joe. We’re going up to my room to listen to music.” They gave me a slight wave before I disappeared up the stairs. Lisa, apparently, was allowed to have boys upstairs as long as she kept the door to her room open. (They would eventually relax that policy because, for reasons passing understanding, Lisa’s always trusted me. Which, depending on their views of Lisa’s virtue, may have been a mistake.) So there I was, having just turned seventeen, finding myself in a pretty girl’s room on the first date.
But all we did was listen to music. And in view of how many hours of joy I’ve gotten listening to Soul Driver over the years, that may have been the best way for the evening to turn out. (Besides, no matter how many locker room stories I had previously told about girls I knew in Canada, at that point in my life I was in no way prepared for sex or anything close to it.)
Lisa immediately tossed her coat on the bed, took a seat next to it and waved me into a nearby chair. I noticed the stack of five Soul Driver CDs sitting on top of her collection, as if they held a place of honor. I picked up the CDs and held up one called “River of Doubt.”
“This looks interesting,” I said.
Lisa gently took the CDs from me. “No, no. Not yet. You have to walk before you can run.”
She opened the top CD, called “Front Street” and popped it into her player. She then sat on her bed and crossed her legs like a Buddha. I noticed she was looking at me rather than the CD player. To avoid the scrutiny, I looked at the floor. And then the music started.
If I expected the same sort of edgy pop that put “Broken China Doll” on the radio, I was corrected right off the bat. The first song, “Starlight” didn’t so much start as it came right at me; screeching, wailing guitar that could have easily come the middle of a solo, a rumbling bass, drum fills that raced back and forth across the kit. Then, just when I thought I had a handle on what the song was all about, everything cut out and was replaced by a jangly, almost spritely guitar line. And the vocals, a macho growl that wrapped itself around the words, slipped in.
“Screaming, droning night, Davy’s in the light,
Got his horn, got his snakeskin boots,
Crowded tumbling square, fever in the air,
The mob it bursts and shoots.”
And it continued like that; a jumble of seemingly disconnected images that somehow made up a complete picture (later, I would learn to call this Dylan-esque.) A statement of passion and longing told by a singer who seemed both bemused by and invested in the swirl of emotions. All of spit out as if the words were coming faster than the ability to articulate them. The band raced to keep up with the words, but didn’t seem to be struggling. Untamed emotion and complete confidence working side by side. Who the hell were these guys?
The second song, “Hand in Hand”, threw me off in the same way. A guitar rush of quick, but delicately-played minor chords and crashing drums over a bass line that seemed to hold everything together. And then, into this rush of hard rock came, of all things, a harmonica. When the singer set the harmonica aside, he took up a tambourine and pitched his vocals slightly higher, gliding along with the music rather than driving it. A completely different guide than the one who took us through the first song. Again, the singer seemed to walk the line between living in the moment and commenting on it. The lyrics describe a beautiful afternoon between two lovers which, in the end, turns out to be nothing more than an illicit one-off between separate married people, designed strictly to satisfy their curiosity.
“Down at the Old Town” seemed like classic rock, driven by a rumbling guitar and a propulsive rhythm section, setting the stage for another round of macho swaggering. Instead, it delivered the sort of “Nothin’s working out” lyrics that could have come from any George Jones tune. They served as a counterpoint to the swaggering, almost sexual drive of the music. It summed up how the singer would love to feel if only his life would allow him.
And on the tracks rolled, confounding expectations at every turn. The almost spritely “Vicious Rake”, which gleefully described a dandy who doubled as a serial killer. “Tara on Front Street”, a largely acoustic song that discussed the hopes and dreams of a prostitute. The ominous “Highway Man” whose slow, forbidding beat built as epic imagery described a mass knife fight between two motorcycle gangs. Straight-head, thrashing rockers like “Riot” and “Front Street Trash”, which spoke to the frustration of a dead-end existence contrasted by the almost-sentimental high school remembrances of “Back When” and “Sometimes”. Sometimes the contrasts could be found in the same song, like “Prince of the City”, a bouncy tune in which the main character deceives himself into thinking he’s got a future as a drug lord, or “By The River”, a rocker involving a group of disparate characters throwing an impromptu party only to experience the discovery of a dead body and the disappearance of one of their guests.
And lest everything seem like doom and gloom, there were songs like “16A” and “Hell’s Angel” that spoke of looking for greater things, whether through love or money or status. Though the characters were grasping at straws, their ability to keep grasping is the point. Redemption isn’t found in the achievement. It’s found in the ability to keep dreaming.
There was no way to describe this music. It was simple and raw. There were very few overdubs and, beyond the occasional harmonica or tambourine, no additional instruments. Just guitar, bass, drums and vocals. The sound was modern, certainly, but it didn’t seem to belong to any time period. Rather, it was a combination of many time periods and styles, all mixed together until they created something unique and timeless. It was too edgy to be pop, too weird to be rock, too spontaneous to be progressive, too calculated to be punk. The band seemed to delight in taking every expectation they created and flipping it around until it landed on its ear. And it all moved with a kind of reckless abandon. It left you feeling that these guys weren’t plotting in advance. They were making it up as they went along. But brilliantly, as if they had total faith in their ability to come up with something unique off-the-cuff.
As I listened, I opened the CD and took out the sleeve. Lisa offered no objections. In fact, I thought I could see her smiling from out of the corner of my eye. I found a picture of the band and quickly connected them to their credits.
Front and center was Steve Jones, the band’s lead singer and lyricist; a leather-encased tough whose sneer was mitigated by a pair of soft blue eyes. For a guy who didn’t have an immediately arresting voice, he had a surprising range, moving from an almost-bluesy growl to a soaring, fragile lilt.
To the right of the lead singer was Brian Douglas, the guitarist and Jones’ songwriting partner. His shyness was immediately evident. His eyes were cast down, not quite meeting the camera. His good looks were hidden behind shoulder length black hair and a full beard. His playing was incredibly versatile, moving from power cords to jangly rhythm to delicate plucking.
Cale Allen, the bass player, stood behind and a little to the left of the lead singer. His arms were folded across his t-shirt and his hawk-like nose and forbidding eyes invited nothing and gave nothing away. He was nearly as versatile as Brian; his bass both holding the sounding together and propelling it along.
Greg Stanton, the drummer, leaned over Allen’s shoulder, flashing a mischievous grin. He was a slightly chunky guy whose brown bangs and wire rim glasses didn’t quite hide an overly large nose. Listening to Stanton was to feel sorry for any drum kit he came across. His playing was loud and crashing, shooting around the drum kit, but always, somehow, finding the beat. Restraint was never his strong suit and when the drums needed to be toned down, the band usually opted to switch to a tambourine or hand claps or simply eliminate the drums all together.
When the final number, “Front Street Trash”, finally faded out, I found myself mumbling, “Holy crap.” Lisa informed me I had said that at least once during every song. But I didn’t have anything more eloquent to add. In the space of thirty eight minutes, I became completely sold. I now understood why Lisa was so contemptuous of “Broken China Doll” representing her favorite band (though, to her everlasting chagrin, I never stopped liking that song.) I handed her back the CD cover, still trying to wrap my mind around what I had just listened to.
“Let’s listen to the next one,” I said.
Lisa shook her head and nodded toward the open door; an indication of her parents downstairs. “It’s getting kind of late,” she said, “We can listen to it next time.”
I have to confess: I was so cluelessly disappointed that I was halfway down the stairs before I realized I had just secured a second date with this girl. Lisa walked me to the front door and managed to find a spot just out of her parents’ view. She slipped a hand behind my head and gave me a quick peck on the lips. I was so surprised, I could only mumble, “Thank you.”
Lisa met that with an embarrassed little laugh. Then she smiled and nodded. “It’s okay,” she said, “You kind of scored points tonight.”
And that left me to drive home, thinking of the girl and the band and humming every tune I could remember.