Friday, October 18, 2013

Nowhere So Fast: A Conversation with Mary E. Donnelly

In 1979, Zion, Illinois pop band Shoes were gathered at the Opium Den, a restaurant in London, celebrating the completion of their major label debut album Present Tense, when someone on the staff began playing a new single by this new American band the Knack. Over the course of a wildly drunken evening, "My Sharona" was spun ad infinitum, its riff and chorus scoring a reckless night of excess. Shoes guitarist Jeff Murphy drank so much that he slept through the Present Tense playback party. As Mary E. Donnelly pointedly observes in Boys Don't Lie, her terrific new biography of Shoes, "Jeff heard more Knack that evening than Shoes." It's a richly ironic moment: Shoes backgrounded by the Knack at Shoes' own celebratory evening. So went history: the Knack, skyrocketing, would go on to sell millions of records in 1979, while Present Tense suffered gravely disappointing commercial results. Of course, the Knack are fated to be remembered as a specific product from a specific time in history. Shoes—Murphy, his brother John, and Gary Klebe—survives.

Have you heard the story? Band forms, band flirts with success, band fails to reach that success, band is forced to redefine what success means, band soldiers on in the shadows, marginalized by mainstream tastes. Boys Don't Lie is thoroughly researched and deeply affectionate, but clear-eyed and smart, an epic account of how a band that relies on its own stubborn instincts and collective artistic rudder faces difficult choices in an inhospitable market. (It's a familiar and appealing narrative to me. I've been a fan of Shoes and their exquisite harmonies and fuzzy pop songs since the mid-1980s, when I first heard them.) Over the course of their four decades as a band—an arc beginning with small, self-produced, -manufactured, and -distributed albums in the mid-1970s, a graduation to a major label (Elektra) in 1979, and a return to DIY by the 1990s—Shoes has never wavered from its commitment to songcraft, pop aesthetic, and quality.

In another telling and hilarious passage in the book, Donnelly describes the unlikely, late-1980s mingling of Shoes and KISS's Gene Simmons, who was briefly but urgently interested in the band for his vanity record label. Shoes listened uneasily to some of the well-heeled Simmons's more craven suggestions—put a chick in the band; write more sexual songs that "make the girls wet," etc.—but, thankfully for all concerned, the relationship between refined power pop and calculated crotch rock was never consummated. These kinds of stories—and there are plenty of them to be found in this ambitious, sweeping story—remind the reader that, one, despite their sealed-off, finely-crafted cannon, Shoes doesn't exist in a vacuum, and two, of how difficult it is to live life by a creed when that creed is at odds with conventional thinking and taste makers. Shoes persisted, writing songs, layering and crafting them in their home studio, forging professional and personal lives that revolved around their love of music and recording. Boys Don't Lie narrates that story vividly and respectfully.

Recently I virtually sat down with Donnelly and asked her about the book.


Mary E. Donnelly
You stay pretty much out of Boys Don't Lie as an author and persona. What is your history with the band and what attracted you to telling their story?

I'm not cool. I'm pretty much the most ordinary person there is. My training is in literary scholarship (I have a PhD in English with a specialization in British, Irish, and Postcolonial Literature). I didn't belong in the book (except for the weird little coda); it's their story, not mine. All I want to do is help restore to them the respect I think they deserve, and I think I do that better by offering dispassionate analysis and explanation, rather than fangirling all over them.

My history with the band is pretty much nonexistent. (I never even saw them play live until this year.) I was a fan from the time, in the fall of 1979, my brother put on "Tomorrow Night" [single on Bomp Records, later re-recorded for Present Tense] for me and said, "I think you'll like this." I bought all their records, and evangelized like crazy, but no one else bit, and I came to think of them—as so many other Shoes fans have done—as my own private possession, this thing I got that no else seemed to.

In 2003, I wrote a small web piece about them, and sent it to Black Vinyl Records on a lark. Jeff Murphy answered me, and we corresponded, on and off, for years. But though that correspondence, and when I read the liner noted to As Is [1996 collection of Shoes rarities], and when I read Jeff's 2007 book on the making of Present Tense, I became convinced that there was a much bigger story here: with one thing and another, Shoes stood at all the important turning points of the music industry for over 25 years. So I proposed it, and they accepted.

Can you describe the publishing process? Did you approach established houses and/or agents at any point?

When you have a PhD in English, your go-to fill-in job is publishing, and over the years I worked for a wide variety of commercial and academic publishing ventures, from the most frivolous (a magazine dedicated entirely to honeymoon planning), to the most serious (a publisher focused on the socioeconomics and history of Southeast Asia). So I knew how books were made, what a manuscript looked like, the steps and safeguards you put in.

But at the same time, I knew that this was going to be a book with a pretty narrow focus. I did send out some halfhearted queries once or twice, usually coming back with the same "too niche for us" responses. Commercial publishing has a huge overhead, and need to expect huge sales to make it worth it even to read.

I expected, from the beginning, that Boys Don't Lie would be self-published. That's the beauty of the world we live in now: there's no need to sell 500,000 books to reach the audience you want to reach; make it, get news of it to the right people, and they'll find you. I founded a small press, and we have other books in the hopper, but I really don't expect to sell thousands of anything, It's more to help people take this genre seriously, to see it as a discrete artistic movement.

Shoes' career spans nearly four decades
Were Shoes behind the book from the beginning? Was there ever any resistance on their part?

I have to admit, when I first proposed the book, there were a few days of silence which really freaked me out. Shoes are nothing if not deliberate. But when they committed, they did so wholeheartedly. They have been extraordinarily generous with their time and support and friendship, really just nice, nice people. They were patient through the often excruciatingly slow process of building a history for which the source texts sometimes didn't exist, or had to be cobbled together from a multitude of sources. They had their perspectives, but they often didn't quite know why a certain event had unfolded as it did, and I was determined, as much as possible, to illuminate those corners. I would not say I faced much resistance, even when they thought I was missing the point as they understood it.

Some people will read this book as a heroic struggle to keep focused on your own vision through really difficult circumstances, and that's certainly one way to see it. Others will see it as as a tragedy, where that same focus led them to resist certain conclusions others might have reached sooner, ending in a series of pretty painful losses. That's also a decent interpretation. So it wasn't resistance so much as the pain of discussing unfulfilled ambitions, and the things they did to try and fulfill them. It was not easy for them to revisit a lot of these corners of their lives--I don't think any of us, including me, would want a "me" poking at our most painful memories to try and tease out root causes--but, to quote Jane Austen, they "bore it bravely, as no one could have borne it" and I think we're all pleased with the final product.

Shoes' story became as much a story of the shifting record industry as a story of a band. Did this surprise you?

When I started this project, in summer 2009, Gary Klebe said to me, in his half-amused-but-dead-serious way, "This book is going to be like a Shoes record." I asked how. "It's going to take longer than you think. It's going to be longer than you think. And it's going to be better than you think." At the time, my vision was 250 pages, done by the end of that year.

He was right. I was wrong.

What he knew that I didn't was the way in which their story intersected with some of the most major trends in the industry for the last four decades. It's not an exaggeration to say that these three men in this one little boat rode wave after wave of economic and technological and historical change. (Or, as John Murphy snarks, "Great. We're Forrest Gump.") But telling the story of Shoes is telling the story of this industry. And yes, no one was more surprised than I was at the amount of information I had to digest. I thought I knew this story: I was wrong. And usually, when we get this narrative, it's from the winners' point of view. Shoes, as longtime aspirants to the Big Time, have a fundamentally different perspective.

What was Moira McCormick's role in and contribution to the book?

Jeff referred me to Moira pretty early on, and it took some doing to find her. But when I did, it was love at first sight. In the first place, we are sisters under the skin: we got along like old friends immediately. In the second, she has exactly what I lacked with the band: length of time covering them as a writer. She's been writing about Shoes for 30 years. More than that even, Moira has a resume as long as her arm writing about rock, and she's been in every major Midwestern and national music publication. She's got a great eye and ear.

I knew they day we met that we were going to work together. Initially, we just had lunch and she showed up with files and files of material to give me; our first date was to a Kinko's. But before I left that day, I had asked her to edit the book and she agreed. There was almost no one who could both proofread and content edit a book like this. She could. She's literally one of a kind.

And as her queries got deeper and more perceptive, I began to realize that the book was changing shape. She pulled me back when I got too cerebral, and together we kind of forged this middle way between standard rock journalism and critical biography. I knew by early last year that we needed to be co-credited on the book, and have never questioned that decision.
Is Shoes comparable to other bands? In what ways?

I see Shoes along a continuum of pop-rock bands, as part of the genre called power pop (a term they're not crazy about). But those British Invasion-influenced, punk-flavored bands of the 70s and 80s have more in common than they do separating them. Shoes are part, then, of a movement they didn't know existed, and I discuss in the book how they stack up in relation to the Knack, 20/20, the Cars, Blondie, Paul Collins' Beat, the Romantics, etc.


At the same time, they are unique. They taught themselves to play. They taught themselves to write. They taught themselves to produce. They taught themselves to run a record label. "Independent" doesn't begin to cover it.

Moira once said of Shoes that they "willed themselves into existence," and I spend a lot of time in the book trying to set up the specific cultural and local circumstances that made that act so improbable in their case. A religious outpost that became a suburban backwater, Zion was a place to get the hell out of and never look back. And yet they didn't. They are rooted in a way I find very appealing, not just rooted to their town, but to each other. Even when they drive each other nuts, they stick together. Most bands, as you note, would have packed it in. They did not. Some of the bands I note above are still playing, but rarely with their original lineups. Even if Shoes stick together out of sheer stubbornness, that's still impressive. Jeff Murphy said to me once, "Shoes never really ends, we just go in and out of music-making phases," and I think it's helpful to see them that way. I can't think of another band like that.

Sound check, 2013
You ironically title one chapter "When It Hits," when, of course, it never really did for Shoes. The most interesting era of the band for me is the post-Elektra years, when most bands would hang it up. What era or eras of Shoes' career do you find most compelling?

Well, I actually meant the record (Present Tense) hitting the streets, but I think through that whole section of the book, you do get this sense of "when will it hit? when will it hit?" just as they did in 1979. Anyone who doesn't know their story is bound to think, over and over, "Is this it? Will this be the time?" and feel the pressure the band felt.

But I think, honestly, that while all of that 1979-82 stuff is intriguing, they really were just one of a number of bands who got signed by a major label, saw the businesses crash and burn in front of them, and got dumped.

I'm much more intrigued by the period 1988-96, which should have been different. They were on their own, there was a lively independent music scene, and they could/should have had it made. First there was all the comedy with Gene Simmons, which I think says a lot about conventional wisdom in the industry in that era. Then Stolen Wishes looked like it was going to set them up as a really solid independent entity: doing it their own way and being successful at it. Ultimately, that worked for a while, but they weren't able to turn it to their advantage (and indeed many studios and indie labels met the same fate). I think that was more heartbreaking for me because it did seem like, finally, they could chart their own course. Shoes against the world is an easy story; Shoes fighting among themselves was much harder to tell. But in some ways, the fact that they came through that says more about them as people and as a band than anything else.

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