This one time, in 2005, I interviewed Jay Farrar and told him of the story of how I met him in 1986 when I was friends with his drummer’s sister, and he laughed. It involved a trampoline and popsicles.
Along with this site’s founder, Jason Green, I worked for a local arts magazine by the name of Playback from 2004 to 2009. Jason and I didn’t know each other when I started, but once we met at a writer’s meeting, we quickly bonded due to our love of geek culture and our shared geography: we both hailed from the great state of Illinois, specifically Belleville. Well, actually, I was from Swansea, but the village is surrounded on three sides by Belleville, so essentially, I’m from Belleville. Despite attending different high schools, we had several friends in common and we both were connected to the local music scene. We also shared a love of our local alt-country-rock heroes Uncle Tupelo. But I had a slightly closer connection to them than he did. Growing up, my neighbors across the back alley were the Heidorns, and their first-born son Mike was the original drummer for this storied musical act, and I was friends with his sister.
1986. Summer. It’s hot. I’m nine going on ten. The Heidorns have a trampoline in their backyard. And not one of these “safe” trampolines with netting and padding. No, this was 1970s old school awesomeness: two-inch steel tubing circling an area as big as a small above-ground swimming pool with rusty springs holding up the bouncy canvas. If you miscalculated and bounced yourself off the thing, you plummeted 15 feet to the unforgiving hard ground below, and then you climbed back up and tried to see how many forward somersaults you could do in midair, disregarding the fact that you might have just fractured a bone or two. And if you really got hurt after landing on the ground, your friends would run away in terror and leave you there, broken.
So, there I am, blissfully bouncing up and down, trying to give Suzie Heidorn a nice bounce pattern to launch her in the air so she’s able to do a proper backflip. After mastering our high-flying act, we both grow tired from the sun and she suggests that we abscond to her basement to dig on some popsicles out of the deep freeze and cool off a little. It’s about 101° outside, and I love popsicles, so I say “yes.”
As we’re descending into the basement, Suzie turns to me and says, “oh yeah, my brother’s band is rehearsing. If you want, we can watch them for a little while.” I had no clue that I was walking into an Uncle Tupelo rehearsal.
These guys—Jay Farrar, Mike Heidorn, and Jeff Tweedy—were barely out of high school. They hadn’t become the local darlings of the St. Louis music scene just yet, but within two years they would end up becoming one of the most important and influential bands of the 20th century.
As I sat there with my Bomb-Pop, savoring the Cherry, Blueberry and Raspberry juiciness, I was in awe watching these dudes play music. I honestly have no recollection as to what they were playing. It very well may have been the nascent stages of No Depression. I’m not entirely sure. All I know is that at one point, Jay Farrar unceremoniously stopped whatever song they were playing and complained to Tweedy that the band really needed to add a second guitar player, because he felt that the song called for it, and he couldn’t swing the backline bass and rhythm guitar parts at the same time. His irritation was palpable. He then suddenly shot a look at me that was as icy as the Bomb-Pop in my mouth and he asked me if I could play music. Now, at this time, I had just picked up playing saxophone for the High Mount Elementary school band, and I kind of knew how to read music, but I could not play the guitar. Hell, I couldn’t even play air-guitar at that point. But that didn’t stop me from maniacally responding “YES!” to his question. What was I gonna do? Say no? Screw that! I wanna be cool!
Farrar takes off his guitar and hands it to me, along with a pick, and says the words you’d expect to hear in some fantastical Disney movie about a guitar prodigy: “Let’s see what ya got, kid.”
I then attempt to murder his guitar by death-gripping the neck and hammering at the strings while making noises even Yoko Ono would cringe at.
It literally took 1.5 seconds before Jay realizes that I’m not an ingenue or some miracle guitar kid. He quickly grabs his guitar and sternly tells me, “NO!” Literally shaking a finger at me while doing so. “NO!…. No…. just… no.” and after taking back his instrument, he then quietly repeats the name of the song they were rehearsing, counts it off in a 1, 2, 3, 4…. And they play. I quietly finish my popsicle and don’t say a word. Ten minutes later, Suzie and I got bored and went back outside for some more sweet, sweet trampoline action.
Flash forward to 2005. Uncle Tupelo is no more, but they have left an indelible mark on the music scene. They split in 1994, becoming Son Volt (Farrar & Heidorn) and Wilco (Tweedy). Son Volt (minus Heidorn) was set to release a new album that was promising to be as big as their debut, Trace, from ten years prior. The album, Okemah & The Melody of Riot, was a solid collection of new material and due to my position at the magazine and the Belleville connection, it afforded me the opportunity to interview Farrar. We spoke for about 45 minutes about his new album, but honestly, that part of the interview is irrelevant. I had been sitting on the story of our first meeting, trying to choose the right moment to bring it up, and right before I let him go, I told him this story by starting it off with, “You probably won’t remember this, but…” Turns out he did remember. And then he laughed, boy did he laugh. He then apologized and told me that he knew he was a little bit of an asshole at that time in his life, and he hoped that it didn’t sour me on music. I simply said, “Well, I’m interviewing you now, aren’t I? Besides, I was a dumb kid killing your guitar.” He chuckled, and we ended the conversation shortly after reminiscing about some Belleville West High School teachers that we had in common.
There’s no point to this story. As with Farrar, I just wanted you to have a sensible chuckle. | Tyson Blanquart