Drew’s Amen Corner – Episode Two: In Which I Search For Music That Feels Like Richmond
Albums discussed this week:
Avail/Young Pioneers – The Fall Of Richmond split EP (Lookout! Records) (Spotify Link)
Avail – Over The James (Lookout! Records) (Bandcamp Link)
Young Pioneers – First Virginia Volunteers (Vermiform Records) (YouTube Link)
Young Pioneers – Crimewave (Vermiform Records) (Bandcamp Link)
Young Pioneers – On Trial (Lookout! Records) (Bandcamp Link)
In the summer of 1997, I was 21. I was living in a house full of roommates in Oregon Hill, on the corner of Pine and China Streets. There’s a fancy restaurant on that corner now, across the street from my old house. But back then, our cross-the-street neighbor was a redneck bar called the Chuck Wagon. Fights would spill out into the streets on Saturday nights sometimes, with the whole bar crowding around as two people rolled on the pavement, punching and biting.
That kind of thing felt like it was going on inside my head, too. My relationship had just ended after two years, and no matter how poorly conceived it was or how inevitable its ending had become, I was still crushed. I was struggling with a lot of other things at the time too, from a job where my hours were unpredictable and my paychecks kept bouncing to the way most of my friendships seemed to be falling apart. Whenever my paychecks did come through, I would go to the record store, seeking solace in music from the pain inside my mind and heart. I had credit cards back then, so sometimes I went even if my paycheck didn’t come through. That didn’t end well.
Most of the time when I was home, I was up in my room by myself, listening to music. My big thing at that time, before CD-Rs and the internet, was making mixtapes, most of which just ended up getting played over and over in my car. I did a lot of driving that summer in my rickety 1988 Pontiac LeMans (actually built by Daewoo, which explains a lot). I’d go out by myself around 9 PM or so and drive aimlessly around the city, until after midnight sometimes. It was a hot summer but thankfully I had a window unit in my room and my car’s mostly-expired AC system worked all right after dark. And back then, gas was around a buck a gallon, so it’s not like I was bankrupting myself. A new tank of gas was $8 or so, and hey… I could put it on the credit card.
Being in my car felt like a way to escape everything that was going wrong in my life at the time. In my car, I didn’t have to run into my ex and continue to try “remaining friends” (a doomed endeavor, because she didn’t want any more than friendship, and I did). I didn’t have to try and hash out the bills with my roommates, or continue trying to get flaky bandmates to commit to practice once a week, or balance my checkbook so I didn’t bounce the electric bill. I could just listen to music and try to tune it all out for a while. I say “try,” because my thoughts always ended up back at the same place.
A record came out that summer that really spoke to me. Called The Fall Of Richmond, it was a split 7 inch between two great local bands that I went to see every chance I got: Avail and Young Pioneers. The Avail side featured two songs that would eventually appear on their Over The James LP, “New #2” and “Lombardy St.” “New #2” was a speedy, melodic banger that slid slightly farther toward the hardcore side of the hard-edged punk/melodic hardcore divide Avail were always straddling. Lyrically, well, I don’t know if Tim Barry wrote it about a breakup, but so many of its lines spoke to me about the end of my most recent relationship. “I have given all that I can give,” Tim sang. “You have too, and still we pretend that this isn’t all just a waste of time.” Later: “Let’s burn the last of this to the ground. We’ll drop the seed and let it be.” This song coming up on the mixtape as I was playing in the car always led me to push the accelerator pedal down a little farther, even as I felt a combination of frustration and sadness well up in my guts.
Over The James wouldn’t come out for another six months or so, but I actually heard a rough mix of it that summer through a friend of a roommate who’d gotten a dub from someone connected with the band. I got to know the songs on Over The James from a very crappy-sounding fifth-generation dub, but it didn’t matter: I still loved it. I also learned from that crummy pre-production dub that the version of “Lombardy St.” on Over The James was different from the version on the Fall Of Richmond EP. The split EP version was mostly acoustic, with drums and electric guitars only coming in at the end, while the LP version was all electric and brought the rhythm section in halfway through the first verse. Word was that Avail modeled these corresponding versions on what the late-80s DC emo band Three had done with their song “Swann Street,” releasing an electric version on their LP Dark Days Coming and an acoustic version on the Dischord Records compilation LP State Of The Union.
Maybe that’s why it was called “Lombardy St,” but as someone who lived maybe a mile from the actual Lombardy St, to me it felt more like this sad melodic lament had a direct connection to my life. If “New #2” related to my recent breakup in that it expressed the frustration I felt to have a relationship I really believed in fail, “Lombardy St” was about the aftermath. “I’m walking through the alleys in the morning,” Tim sings, in the closest reference to any Richmond street, let alone Lombardy, in the whole song. “I’m trying to do some thinking. I’ve gotta know this time for sure. Tell me why I’m feeling pressured. Tell me why you feel all right but I still don’t.” That last line hit very close to home for me at the time.
That summer, I was finally really starting to learn all the nooks and crannies of the city I’d lived in for two years at that point. Between occasional late-night rides with my friend and then-bandmate Duncan, cruising through Church Hill and Scott’s Addition while blasting Hot Water Music’s new album, and the many trips I took on my own, I saw the place I lived reflected in the songs I listened to. Avail did a lot of that; that crappy pre-release dub of Over The James didn’t include song titles, but I later learned that there were songs on it called “Nickel Bridge” (we still called it that back then, even though the toll was 20 cents. These days it’s 35. I’m so old) and “Scuffle Town,” which featured a ton of references to Richmond circa 1997 that I’m sure baffled Avail fans from California, or Europe. (When Tim wrote, “Third per capita… next year, number one!” as a wry joke about Richmond’s murder rate, he was referencing the 1995 per-capita murder rate figure that had just been released. Sure enough, in 1997, Richmond was number one on the list of per-capita murder rates in American cities. That’s one prediction he’d probably rather have been wrong about.)
The tendency shown in “New #2” to push a little harder towards hardcore than previous Avail material held true through much of the album. “Scuffle Town” is a pedal-to-the-metal hardcore song, even as it slows down occasionally for the catchy melodic chorus. “It’s a beautiful day, and the sun is still shining over the James” was a perfect chorus to contrast with the many negative issues raised in the song’s verses, like VCU crowding out the traditional working class residents of Oregon Hill (24 years later I can tell you that none of my 1997 neighbors could afford to live there today — and neither could I) or Ethyl Corporation pushing homeless shelter The Daily Planet to move to a less visible location (Tim admitted to me in a 2019 interview that he had no actual evidence that this had been what happened, but it sure seemed plausible to all of us at the time). Indeed, that chorus was a great way to explain why, despite the danger, the racism, the hostility toward those of lower income, and the generally conservative attitude of the city government, so many of us Richmond punks loved our hometown and never wanted to live anywhere else.
The songs that have stuck with me the most over the years from Over The James, though, are not those fast, Richmond-centric tunes that got everyone singing along at the shows. They’re the more contemplative, emotionally driven songs. “August” is the one I go back to the most. It begins with a quiet, melancholy strum, then drops immediately into a chunky, powerful verse, before emerging into an intense, melodic chorus. And it sounds exactly like it was written in Richmond in 1997. “Broken glass from window panes fell down on my backyard,” Tim sings in the second verse. “And I cut my feet, got dirt ground in the wound.” Living in the Fan, where all the punk houses were in those days (imagine that; a time when you could rent one of those big old Fan houses, move six of your friends in, and split $650 a month rent between seven people), I’d had that same experience on multiple occasions in backyards I’d thought were safe to walk across. Though, with the friends I had at the time, it was often shards of broken beer bottles I was stepping on. And of course, the metaphor for frustration, failure, and continued fruitless struggling was obvious.
“Cross Tie,” with its moody bass and long, quiet stretches, was the song on Over The James that struck me most on first listen. It was a song about trying to escape your troubles by hopping a freight train like a Depression-era hobo (or Jack Kerouac). I never hopped a train in my life, and I don’t expect I ever will, but in the ’90s I had a lot of friends and acquaintances that lived that way, out on the edge with no money, crashing on couches and blowing town for months at a time. I was still young enough to believe in this lifestyle as a form of freedom, but thankfully never dove in myself — drugs and booze went hand in hand with that life, and a lot of kids I knew who were into it 25 years ago are dead now. But Tim Barry’s still here, and so am I. When he sings, “Rain on the face can cleanse so deep, it can bring a lost feeling right back. It’s safe to say that perfection is created — It perfectly scars and sinks deep under skin,” I totally get that, even if the closest I ever got to that kind of experience was walking home alone from Shafer Court to what is now known as the Museum District (we just called it the Upper Fan back then) in the middle of a driving rainstorm.
Back then, I felt like Avail was singing about the Richmond life I knew. Today, their split partners Young Pioneers feel a bit more relatable. Don’t get me wrong, I loved them just as much back then. Their unique take on punk rock pulled in musical influences from folk and country music and lyrical references from one hundred years of leftist anti-capital activism. Best of all, it rooted their protest against the dehumanizing state of the working class in America in the ’90s (yes, children, even in the Clinton administration things were tough) in a strong sense of Richmond, not just as a punk scene but as a city that actual people lived in. Singer/guitarist Adam Nathanson and drummer Brooks Headley (who is now a famous chef, weirdly enough) were transplants from New York City and Baltimore, respectively; they’d moved to Richmond in 1993 as members of early-’90s chaotic hardcore band Born Against. Born Against moving to Richmond feels in hindsight like a couple who has a baby to save the relationship, then splits up before the kid can walk. They played exactly one show as a Richmond band, then broke up. Singer Sam McPheeters spent the next decade or so doing Men’s Recovery Project, a band that at times feels like the sound of someone losing their mind.
Maybe I’ll write about that someday — it’s certainly a fruitful topic — but for now we’re talking about what Adam and Brooks did next, which was to recruit Avail’s Tim Barry as bass player and write an album’s worth of power-trio punk that sort of sounds like Woody Guthrie trying to write a Clash record. Adam frequently played harmonica during instrumental breaks, and pretty quickly began singing through a vintage harmonica microphone, to which he’d attach chains with harmonicas on the end of them. The harmonica would dangle down by his hands, so when the time came for him to play a harmonica solo live, he could quickly turn down his guitar’s volume knob, grab the harmonica, play a solo, then drop the harmonica as he cranked his guitar back up and went into the next verse. It was something I’d never seen a musician do before, and it had a big impact on me when I saw him do it live. It also made the Young Pioneers’ sound unlike any bands who were active at that time, in any genre. Adam’s decision to play his guitar with no real distortion other than the crunch you get from a loud tube amp, and the way he integrated a Jimmie Rodgers-style high-lonesome howl into his singing, only made Young Pioneers even weirder. A lot of people didn’t know what to make of them at the time, but I loved them.
The Young Pioneers song that first caught my attention in this respect was “Food Stamps,” the opening track on their 1995 debut LP, First Virginia Volunteers. I’d call it punk rock because of the no-frills three-chord power-trio structure of the music, but Adam’s voice immediately pushes it into a different territory. Then on the chorus, when he and Tim join together and sing, “My food stamps ain’t no badge of honor,” it really stands out. At this point in Young Pioneers history, Adam hadn’t started bringing the harmonica mic into the studio, so you can mostly make out what he’s singing. Following the big singalong chorus, he continues, “Hum the satisfaction of progress halted dead in its tracks, with boards across windows.” Then there’s a harmonica solo, after which he sings, “I can see the stains on the pavement from the heavy crimes on my way to work, or walking the dog behind empty buildings.”
I remember, when I first heard this song in 1995, feeling like this song indicted me a bit. I struggled for money a lot, had trouble keeping bills current and making ends meet. But I never needed food stamps, never had to live in a neighborhood with blood stains on the pavement, didn’t have abandoned buildings in my immediate vicinity. At the time, living with six other people in a $650 four-bedroom house so that all of us paid under $100 a month in rent, turning what were intended to be the dining room and the living room into additional bedrooms and blatantly ignoring the part in the lease where it said only four adults could live there, felt like an adventure, not a struggle. But I was 21. Adam was older, and he might very well have had more money than me. But he couldn’t split a room with a friend, or have five roommates to keep the rent down. He was trying to make a life for himself and his partner. At 45, I’m in the same position now. And no, I still haven’t gotten food stamps. But it isn’t for lack of trying; at the height of the pandemic, I applied and got denied because I somehow missed an interview I never was even informed about. Did they randomly call my phone and I didn’t answer the unknown number? Who knows? Thankfully we’re eating good right now, so I don’t have to panic. But I might again in the future. This isn’t something I could imagine when I was still a kid, never thinking about where I’d be in a year. Back then, I really might have seen food stamps as a badge of honor, a way to prove you really were struggling. Now, I’m just thankful I don’t need them right now.
The first Young Pioneers album was pretty good, and had a few downright great moments besides “Food Stamps,” but I feel like the band really came into their own about a year later, once Tim had left due to pressing commitments with Avail and Marty Key had replaced him on bass. This, to my mind, is the prime lineup of Young Pioneers, the one that did all their best work. That starts with Crimewave, a 12-song release that doesn’t count as an LP because it was too short to be one — all 12 of the songs blow by in less than 14 minutes. The vinyl release was actually a 10-inch EP rather than a 12-inch, which makes it look pretty neat even if it doesn’t make any financial sense (10 inch records cost more to press than 12-inch LPs).
The brevity of Young Pioneers’ overall approach on Crimewave is clear in the music. Back in 1980, Black Flag’s Greg Ginn told Decline of Western Civilization director Penelope Spheeris that, while Black Flag songs were short, it was only because of how fast they play. “If you take the amount of verses that they have, they’re as long as any other songs,” he says in the film. This explanation is not true of Young Pioneers circa Crimewave. Opener “Great White Hope” gets through two verses, two choruses, and a very brief instrumental bridge in under a minute — and it isn’t even particularly fast. “Pioneers Liberation Radio,” which follows immediately (the two songs were often run together during live performances) has a short instrumental intro, one verse, and one chorus, and lasts just over a minute. “Fascist Snowstorm Disaster” starts with a brief harmonica solo, then gives us three verses with no choruses before quickly running into “We March,” one of the only three songs on the EP to break the 90-second mark.
This kind of thing continues throughout the EP, and it’s accompanied by lyrics that make constant reference to left-wing political movements and slogans, often rooting them in geographical and cultural references to the Richmond area. “Siege Museum” is named after a large antebellum office building in Petersburg, 45 minutes south of Richmond, that commemorates the year-long siege the city experienced during the Civil War. I went to middle school in Petersburg, and attended multiple field trips to this museum, where we always watched the educational film, made in 1976 and featuring second-most-famous Petersburg native son (behind Hall Of Fame basketballer Moses Malone) Joseph Cotten narrating. Petersburg fell on April 2, 1865, a week before the legendary Fall Of Richmond (after which the Avail/Young Pioneers split was named).
Honestly, I wish I could tell you how the lyrics to the Young Pioneers song relate to the place it’s named after, but I don’t have my Young Pioneers records anymore (getting through my gender transition without ending up homeless meant I had to sell about 90% of my records, as many of you know — take good care of them, y’all) and, unlike Avail, Young Pioneers are obscure enough that their lyrics have never been uploaded to the internet (I found the lyrics to “Food Stamps” appended to an obscure YouTube upload). Adam’s vocals are so distorted by the harmonica mic he was bringing into the studio by this point in their career that only certain phrases jump out at you. I can’t make out a single word of “Siege Museum,” other than the title and the phrase “inbetween wars.” It’s a rocking song, though — and of course, it’s over in 45 seconds.
The chorus of “Unforgettable 1380 AM” is more audible: “Unforgettable 1380, Pearl Harbor.” This might be confusing to modern-day Richmonders, since these days 1380 AM is Radio Poder, a Spanish-language station. Back in the ’90s, though, it was an “adult standards” station with the slogan “unforgettable.” Adult standards was a format designed to appeal to older listeners, which at the time consisted of people born between the World Wars, the vast majority of whom are dead now (as is the “adult standards” format). The reference to Pearl Harbor makes total sense in light of that generation’s history, but what it meant in a larger sense, well… I used to know, but I can’t tell you anymore. What I can tell you is that 1380 AM is one of Richmond’s oldest stations, started by an auto parts dealer above his shop at West Broad and Laurel streets — the exact corner on which the Metro, the most active punk rock club in Richmond when I moved here in 1993, was located. It later moved to what we now know as Scott’s Addition, and added an FM radio station (98.1, the adult contemporary station that airs Delilah these days) and a TV station — WTVR, “the South’s first television station” — to its operations in 1948. 1380 AM is long gone from that Scott’s Addition location, but Channel 6’s huge broadcast tower is still there.
So you see, Young Pioneers knew Richmond’s history beyond the rather self-contained punk scene; not bad for a couple of transplants who’d been in the city for less than a year when they formed. Adam Nathanson was also pretty involved in the city’s activism scene, taking a lead role in the local Food Not Bombs chapter and working for a variety of left-wing causes — which makes the references in Young Pioneers lyrics to Zapatista homeland Chiapas and notorious left-wing terrorist Carlos The Jackal make even more sense. Live, Adam would often dedicate non-LP single “Martyr To The People” to “our beloved revolutionary hero, George Jackson,” which was what led me to discover the Black Guerrilla Family founder and prison activist who was sentenced to life in jail for sticking up a gas station when he was 19, and died in a prison riot at the age of 29. In 1997, I was just starting to experience the political awakening that ultimately led me to democratic socialism, and Young Pioneers had a big influence on that.
But I started this wanting to talk about their connections to Richmond’s history and culture beyond just the punk scene, and the best place to go for that is actually the EP they released just before The Fall Of Richmond split in 1997. Entitled On Trial, this EP was released at vinyl’s lowest ebb, and therefore I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that it was almost twice as long on CD. However, for whatever reason (mostly poverty — and the fact that I was too busy buying records to upgrade my sound system), I didn’t own a CD player at that time, and I bought On Trial on vinyl, so to me, the five songs that made the 7-inch EP are the important ones. In particular, “Fuck The Labor Pool” made a big impression on me. The first, which spools out from the introductory “Pioneer Worker Pact” with a bouncy bassline that drives the entire upbeat song, starts with the line “Standing on the corner of Two Street in Jackson — 1970,” a line I soon learned was a reference to Jackson Ward’s history as a vibrant Black cultural district. By 1970, that time would have been ending, with the carving of Interstate 95 through the northern part of Jackson Ward significantly diminishing that neighborhood’s status. But at 21, when I barely knew about Jackson Ward as anything other than a “rough part of town;” Young Pioneers helped bring its history to my attention.
I had a more personal reaction to “Fuck The Labor Pool.” I don’t know if anyone involved in youthful music culture today knows what this song is really about; I may just be an out-of-touch old lady, but I don’t feel like nearly as many Richmond kids are finding themselves in need of the immediate cash infusion that can be provided by things like plasma centers and day labor. Back in 1997, I had a whole bunch of friends who were struggling to pay their bills and regularly ended up at Labor World, Labor Pro, Labor Ready, or any of the other labor-pool businesses around town. Those were places you went before sunrise to get whatever sort of unskilled work people needed done that day. By 6 or 7 AM, you were digging ditches or picking up trash on the side of the road… whatever they had for you. You got paid with a check that had taxes deducted from it at the end of every day, and back then, those checks were around $37 once taxes were taken out — even less once you cashed them at the grocery store because you couldn’t get a bank account. And unless you saved every pay stub from every day labor gig all year, you’d never get any of those taxes back on your IRS refund, because labor pools don’t send out W2s.
Adam Nathanson clearly knew this struggle, and to document it, he wrote the most straightforwardly rockin’ Young Pioneers song ever. “Fuck The Labor Pool” could absolutely have been a radio hit, if you ask me — that is, if it hadn’t featured an F-bomb in the title and chorus, and if it hadn’t been sung through a harmonica mic. Brooks Headley’s drumming is on point, with a pounding tom intro and snare rolls strategically punctuating the frustration Adam puts into his vocals. And by the way, I still remember most of the words by heart, even if I can’t understand Adam’s singing. I rarely read lyric sheets more than once, but I read this one enough to memorize most of it. Like I said, it made a big impression on me. I didn’t ever work the labor pool myself; I preferred fast food, where even if you didn’t get paid that day, you at least knew you’d get to eat (apparently fast food jobs don’t even give you shift meals anymore — what kind of barbaric shit is that?). But my best friend and frequent roommate often resorted to labor pool jobs during that era in order to stay afloat during rough times, and I saw the toll it took on him. He’d come home with his 34 measly bucks and half the time all he could think about was getting a cheap pizza and a six-pack to drown his sorrows. So long, half his day’s pay — but I understood completely. The fast food life was tough too, but at least I wasn’t digging ditches. (By the way, these days that dude lives in Missouri and works as an accountant, so he found his happy ending.)
“Buddy went down to the labor pool Monday,” Adam sings. “Daily work for daily pay.” He then enumerates the litany of questions Buddy had to answer: “Can you work the night shift? Lift 50 pounds? Got convictions? Got a car? Can you be here at 5 AM?” The pained contempt in Adam’s voice is clear even as he finishes that first pre-chorus, and he obviously sympathizes with Buddy in the second verse, when he sings, “Buddy walked off the labor pool Tuesday, tore the ticket up and threw it away.” The ticket in question was the slip they gave you at the end of the day, giving you first dibs on the same job you’d had that day when they put out the call for it the next day. That is, unless you hadn’t made it there by 5 AM when they opened. At the end, the song breaks down to a stomping chant, as Adam and Marty raise their voices in unison: “Fuck the labor pool! Fuck the labor pool! Fuck the labor pool!” In a time when the labor pool has been reinvented as apps on your phone that don’t even guarantee you’ll make 34 measly bucks a day, this song may need a bit of revision, but the judiciousness of its sentiment still comes through loud and clear.
One real shame about On Trial being so much shorter on vinyl is that if, instead of pressing one side at 33 RPM and the other (the one with “Fuck The Labor Pool”) at 45, they had made it a 33 RPM record throughout, they could have gotten two of the four CD-only tracks onto the vinyl with ease. And if you ask me, “We Ain’t Even Married” and “Lovers On Trial” are way too good and important to have been relegated to bonus tracks. The first is a harmonica-infused dirge in 3/4 time that could, in a more stripped-down format, have come off some old 78 from the backwoods hollers of Appalachia a hundred years ago, and is every bit as emotionally affecting as the best Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers sides, even as the production (and that harmonica mic) replicate the scratchy distortion of a hundred-year-old slab of shellac. “Lovers On Trial,” on the other hand, is another uptempo rocker with a similar energy to that of “Fuck The Labor Pool,” while retaining the brevity of the best Crimewave-era material.
Back in 1997, I was much closer to Avail’s view of the city where I lived. I was 21, I knew the places I went and the issues that affected me directly, and that was pretty much it. My main concern at the time, to be honest, was my emotional state — which, as you might be able to imagine, was bad. Along with all this other stuff, 1997 was the year I bought a copy of Sex Changes by Patrick Califia at Tower Records and started really contemplating whether or not I was a woman after all… but it took me close to another 20 years to really figure it out. 1997 was the year that my emotional state got so bad that at the end of September, I lost it, left town, and spent two weeks on the road — driving across the country, sleeping in my back seat, and living off credit cards. It was a long time before I got to the point where Avail’s emotion-centric take on Richmond wasn’t my default understanding of the city. Now, in my mid-40s, after spending a decade as a city-centric journalist with a steadily growing awareness of local politics and culture throughout the city and not just among my peer group, I am much more likely to see Richmond through the music of Young Pioneers.
But is there music being made today in Richmond that speaks as strongly to a sense of place as those ’90s punk bands did? For a whole lot of reasons, it seems a lot harder for musicians today to establish a sense of place in their music. That said, I think there is still music being made here in what we now call RVA that puts forth a real sense of what it’s like to live here in 2021. But I’ve been writing forever, so this stuff is all going to have to wait until next time. See you then.