Soul Driver Remembered- Part 2, The History

(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.)

So, once I’d been introduced to Soul Driver, in the manner of all great obsessives, I had to find out everything I could about the band. Immediately, I was presented with two problems: 1. There was a limited amount of internet information about the band (because there was a limited amount of internet information period at the time) and 2. no one had yet written a definitive history of the group. So it became like a treasure hunt to find what tidbits I could. Fortunately, my high school girlfriend, Lisa, not only introduced me to the band’s music, she was a bit of an obsessive herself. So I at least had a pretty solid starting point.

First, I was delighted to find out that the band was local. (Well, local in the sense that they were from Minnesota. To a high school kid from the North Shore, that was close enough.) All four members were from Forest Lake, a little town about a half hour north of St. Paul. While in high school, lead singer Steve Jones and drummer Greg Stanton formed a band called Garage Rot while guitarist Brian Douglas and bass player Cale Allen were in a band called Release. In the manner of most high school bands, neither one appears to have made much of an impression, musically. Garage Rot was noteworthy because 1. they allegedly had to change the name from Crotch Rot in order to get into the high school talent show and 2. Jones opened their talent show performance of MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” by screaming, “Kick out the jams, motherf**kers!” (His defense that he was just quoting the original record fell on deaf ears. He was suspended for a week, but became a legend at Forest Lake High.) Both bands fell apart before high school was over, but an enterprising mutual friend introduced Jones and Douglas. They were impressed enough with each other to form an entirely new band.

When I moved to the Twin Cities, I spent some time hitting Soul Driver’s old haunts, trying to dig up information on them. I talked to people at the clubs they used to play and even found the owner of a house they once rented on St. Paul’s East Side. What I got was the picture of a group of hard working, hard living, hard-headed young men whose sole focus was their art. Meaning they were dirt poor. Jones himself once said in an interview, “Poverty is a f**k of a weight loss program.” I talked to a club manager who remembered bringing some fast food over to the band’s place and watching it disappear in a cloud of dust. “Like throwing raw meat to dogs” was how he described it. The landlord remembered them being perpetually late on the rent and fielding constant complaints from neighbors over the band’s rehearsing (which they did frequently and often late into the night.) He remembered Cale Allen being the most mature and Brian Douglas being the nicest. He described Jones and Stanton as “a couple of a**holes.”

But one image that emerged from this was a band that quickly came into its own. Within a year and a half of graduating from high school, Soul Driver had acquired a manager (Bob Kirken) and were signed to a tiny local record label (St. Paul Records.) Their four song demo tape was re-recorded as their debut, self-titled EP. It was quickly followed by the live EP “No Bulls**t.” Both EPs, bolstered by the band’s growing reputation as a live act, sold out quickly. With St. Paul Records deciding to divert their meager funds to backing an album, both EPs didn’t receive a second pressing for a number of years, making them collectors’ items among fans. By the time I came along, both EPs were widely available. I managed to once get a glance at one of the original pressings and it was tantamount to looking at the Ark of the Covenant.

That first full-length, Front Street, came out the year after the EPs and began to give the band traction on the national scene. Smaller alternative and college radio stations embraced the album and helped promote the tour that followed; the first national tour of any kind for Soul Driver. Consisting mainly of college theatres and small clubs, it brought the band’s stellar live reputation (part kick-ass chops, part complete unpredictability) to the national stage. Somewhere in the basement of my parents’ house, there’s a box with music magazines from that era, many of them declaring Soul Driver as a Band to Watch.

By this time, the Jones/Douglas writing partnership was beginning to gel. When the Front Street tour concluded, the two quickly produced enough material for a second album, Murk. It was a less successful effort than Front Street (less immediate, too many songs that dragged on too long) but it showed growth in Jones’ lyrics and a willingness to move slightly away from Jones’ previous “one guitar, one bass, one drum, one voice” ethic. It was a necessary bit of growing pains before the band reached its peak.

River of Doubt, the third Soul Driver album and their last on St. Paul Records, deserves a blog entry of its own and it will receive one in the future.  But suffice to say, it was the band’s quantum leap forward and remains a classic album to this day. Allen and Stanton had tightened into one of the best rhythm sections in rock. Jones’ lyrics remained funny and cutting, but began to take on an intensely personal edge. Douglas pulled Jones’ simplified musical edict into new territories, flavoring the mix with additional instruments and the occasional overdub. But never getting too far away from the raw power that was the band’s calling card. All of it added up to a sound that Douglas himself called a “trashcan opera.” River of Doubt topped nearly every Best Of list at the end of the year and is perhaps Soul Driver’s defining album.

And it sold pretty well, too.  But the band finally realized the limitations of working with St. Paul Records. The band’s national reputation had grown, thanks to favorable press and constant touring. But record sales still lagged, due to St. Paul Records’ lack of funds to press and publicize the material. Wanting to take their music to the next level, the band made the difficult decision to sign with major label Coast Records. It was, with the benefit of hindsight, the beginning of the band’s end.

Judging from the magazines in my collection, the band’s signing with a major label was met with a hue and cry among their growing fan base. Fears abounded that the band was going to sell out, too much tempted by the drug of celebrity. While it couldn’t be said they were famous (River of Doubt didn’t even break the Top 100 on the album charts) they certainly enjoyed their notoriety. Jones struck up a friendship and later a romance with Maria Branden, lead singer of another fast-rising band called Border Patrol. He and Douglas contributed songs to Border Patrol’s debut album. Rumors of Jones’ and Stanton’s carousing in night clubs began to reach the back pages of the tabloids. More ominously, there were reports in the music press that recording of the band’s new album–their major label debut, no less–was not going well. They abandoned their original sessions after two months and went on hiatus for another three. The album took over a year to finish, by which time they had lost a lot of the momentum from River of Doubt.

If you love Soul Driver, you’re in one of two camps regarding Uncle Bob’s Condo, the band’s fourth album. Either you think it’s a work of brilliance, on the level of River of Doubt and clearly one of the band’s two best albums. Or you dismiss it as a commercial sellout and a betrayal of everything that made you love the band in the first place. Nobody seems to sit in the middle on this one. It’s Soul Driver’s version of Dylan-gone-electric.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m in the former category, regarding Uncle Bob and River of Doubt as the peak period of a terrific band. (Then again, I came to the party late, so I had no preconceived notions of what a Soul Driver album was supposed to sound like.) But I guess it’s up to me to be the attorney for the defense in the case of this album.

First off, the notion that it’s a commercial sellout is rather ridiculous. Uncle Bob’s Condo is actually a double album, containing 25 tracks. Not the sort of thing you foist on your average teen’s disposable income. The songs on the first half (or first disc in a pre-streaming era) could have come from any of the earlier Soul Driver albums. There’s the same crunch, the same power, the same passion, the same pivoting away from expectations at crucial moments. While both the songs and the band are clearly tighter, the first half is actually LESS musically adventurous than River of Doubt. It’s the second half of the album that sets things apart.

Like River of Doubt, Uncle Bob’s Condo will someday get its own blog entry. For now, let me say that the second half of it is a complete departure from what Soul Driver had done before. Synthesizers, multi-layered effects, hints of reggae and zydeco in the beats. A more complex and polished approach than the band had ever done or even hinted at. And yet it retained all of the power and passion of the earlier material, just presented in a different package. It’s this part of the album that creates the greatest amount of controversy. It was either the moment the band reached its creative zenith or the moment of its utter destruction. As I’ve said, nobody views it from the middle ground.

What is indisputable, unfortunately, is that Uncle Bob’s Condo was not a success. As you may have gathered, critical opinion of it was sharply divided (though, it’s warmed a bit over time.) Commercially, it sold about as well as River of Doubt. But given a major label’s distribution and marketing reach, that could only be considered a major failure. The album yielded no hit singles and the accompanying tour was a disaster.

They were first sent out to open for Korn, a pairing that lasted all of eight dates and ended with Jones telling an indifferent audience, “Go f**k yourselves” right before walking off stage. Jones later said, “I’d rather play tiny clubs for people who WANT to be there than play a big arena for people who don’t give a s**t about us.” A series of headlining club dates were hastily arranged, but those wound up being a shambles as well. By this time, Jones’ and Stanton’s substance abuse issues were affecting the band’s once-stellar live shows. The tour ended with them cancelling the last six dates amid rumors they were about to be dropped by their record label.

It would not, however, be the end of Soul Driver. A year after the tour ended, the band released Circle Back; for all intents and purposes, their final album. Shockingly, it yielded their one hit single, Broken China Doll, which reached the Top 20. And this, as you’ve read, is where I enter the story. While it’s become fashionable to bash both the single and the album (for some, it’s the nadir of Soul Driver’s sellout phase) I remain a defender of both (to Lisa’s continuing chagrin.)

To be certain, Circle Back is commercial friendly; a collection of jangly rock tunes designed for pop radio. Jones himself has dismissed it, saying it’s really Brian Douglas’ first solo album. Indeed, Douglas has never shied away from claiming credit for most of the songs, even if they still bore the Jones/Douglas label. With Jones and Stanton in no condition to work most of the time, Douglas frequently used studio musicians to complete the tracks. Despite the dismissal of fans and band members alike, I will admit to being a fan of Circle Back. Broken China Doll might have been designed to create a hit, but it was certainly a cut above most pop records with the exact same goal. While Douglas might not, at this phase of his career, been on Jones’ level as a lyricist, songs like The Bridge and Fellow Traveler show a depth of feeling that ranks right up there with the best Jones had to offer.

Certainly, Circle Back is not a masterpiece. In fact, viewed in the larger context of Soul Driver’s history, it sounds remarkably like the work of a spent force. But I find it in my streaming rotation more often than most Soul Driver fans do.

Sadly, the tour in support of Circle Back was as problematic as the previous tour. The band rejected the idea of an arena tour opening for another act. The smaller venues, however, often went half-filled, as both disdain for the previous two albums and a bad reputation created by cancelled and compromised performances finally caught up with them. The tour seemed to further alienate them from people’s memories.

Unfortunately, not even that indignity was the end of the band. Shortly after the tour ended, it was announced that Brian Douglas was leaving Soul Driver. Cale Allen was quick to follow him. Though Jones crowed in interviews that he had fired both of them, the departures still seem a bit mysterious. Douglas had virtually taken over the band by this point and was certainly seen as its leader. That he would leave and sign over ownership of the name to Jones has never been explained. It’s actually a mystery even to Allen, who has always maintained that he left because he couldn’t bear to think what would become of the band with Jones and Stanton in charge. Jones quickly hired a replacement guitarist and bass player and went to work on a new album (the success of Broken China Doll having convinced Coast Records to give the band one more shot.)

Because I’m nothing if not a completest, I DO own a copy of Control, the Soul Driver-in-name-only album that is the last thing the band recorded. I can’t say it’s a complete disaster, but it’s not really a Soul Driver album. As quick as Jones was to dismiss Circle Back as a Brian Douglas solo album, he commits largely the same “crime” with Control. Worse, even in the larger context of Jones’ disappointing solo career, it’s not a particularly good Steve Jones album. The first single, Monday, is the album’s highlight, a sprightly combination of rock crunch, synthesizers and reggae influence that proves Uncle Bob’s Condo was not completely the work of Brian Douglas. Beyond that, the music is sluggish and uninteresting and Jones’ lyrics are uninspired. It’s a sad end to a band that, for a moment, reached such dizzying heights.

Coast Records dropped the band after Control did it’s predictable commercial disappearing act. Another shambles of a tour followed, with most of the dates being cancelled.  When it was done, Jones took a six month vacation and then went to work on his first solo album. The rest of the band was informed via email that Soul Driver was finished. It was more than its few dwindling fans would get. It was as if the band simply passed away in its sleep.

And that, unfortunately, is where the history of the band comes to a halt. I continue to buy all of the band members’ solo releases and avidly read every interview I can get my hands on. Every now and again, I’ll punch “Soul Driver reunion” into a search engine to see if there are even rumors to that effect. Sadly, it only brings me a handful of hopeful fan sites. Given that neither Jones nor Douglas, for all their past closeness, have ever had anything nice to say about each other in interviews, the prospect of a reunion has always seemed less, not more likely.

So you’ll understand why I’ve been skeptical of recent reunion rumors. Maybe I have to be honest with myself. Maybe I don’t even want the reunion to happen. For all the joy Soul Driver has brought me, there’s an equal measure of disappointment and sadness. And I can’t escape the feeling than an ill-thought-out reunion will simply add to that score. I don’t know. I guess I’d have to see it happen first.

In the meantime, there’s no shortage of memories to delve into.

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