This is the first guest post on Your Older Brother’s Music blog! Joshua R. Kraemer is here to tell us about R.E.M., pro wrestling, and his Older Brother – Dean.
I grew up in Virginia watching Mid-Atlantic Wrestling. If it wasn’t wrestling, it would have been NASCAR. Most everyone that I grew up with loved each of them, but I had to turn my back on one. If I had chosen both, I’d still be there. Choosing only one gave me a way out.
It was an easy decision, with all those midnight grocery store trips with my mother. She’d leave me in the magazine aisle for an hour and I thumbed through the color photos of bloody, barbed-wire death matches from Texas or some other exotic place, the store’s fluorescent lights glaring off the glossy pages. But what I also found while sitting there was Circus Magazine. Music moved into my ken, and wrestling began to fade like an old pair of denims.
As I grew older, music became even more important. R.E.M. resounded from my stereo speakers and into my vocabulary, with its imagery of folk-art and kudzu and the jangle of a Rickenbacker plugged into a Vox AC-30. Through R.E.M., my life had a steeled focus, a musical solidarity between four guys from Athens, Georgia and me. The world of thrift store boots and flannel shirts led me to start my own bands in the vain of “Chronic Town” and “Reckoning.” It was, for me, high art. There was no looking back.
In August 1991, I started a band with an artist friend. He insisted that we invite his friend, Dean, to practice with us. Dean was an art school drop out from our old high school just back from Richmond. Little did I know that the afterburners of my musical life were about to ignite, singeing everything in its wake, like Sherman’s march to the sea. I’d found my musical mentor and my “older brother”.
He arrived at that first practice with cheap Ben Franklin slip-on shoes and an ill-fitting pair of shorts bought on sale fifty pounds earlier. All the paint from a week’s worth of summer work in a screen-printing warehouse was flecked on him. He was built like a football lineman. Dean pulled out his bass, an Ibanez Roadstar II, the same model as Husker Du’s Greg Norton. He didn’t have a pick, and all he said was “Fuck it. Let’s rock.”
We played to the beat of a Boss “Dr. Rhythm” drum machine. Dean played as if he was about to combust, and with the angst of someone who’d lived in Richmond, Virginia when it was the murder capital of the United States. He had the artistry of Tracy Pugh playing bass with hacksaws and at the speed of “Zen Arcade.” After the third song, I noticed the blood from his strumming hand, all over the pick guard. He caught my eye and in his best Ric Flair voice, he said: “That’s right, baby. Wooooo!” I was in the right band. It was a catharsis, like a character from a Harry Crews or Barry Hannah short story in the flesh. We’d grown up in the same area, years apart and now were in a rock band. My musical education was now in hyper-drive.
For the next two years, we hung out. We drank and listened to a lot of music. It wasn’t always a case of beer. Sometimes it was a case of Diet Shasta, when Dean was on the wagon. But there was always the music. There were old shoeboxes full of unmarked cassette tapes. He’d listened to the tapes so many times, he knew what was on each one. He’d fast-forward and rewind, telling me stories about Josef K., the Embarrassment, and Squirrel Bait. In those pre-Internet days, it was almost impossible to know about these bands, and that’s why you worked at, or were friends with folks who worked at college radio stations. And you went to every show you could and met the bands. You shared information. It was how you learned. You listened to everything and distilled the best.
Dean taught me how to be a performer. He taught me to just go out there and play. If there were only five people in the audience in Hartford, Connecticut, then you gave them the same performance that you gave a crowd of five hundred in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
Dean actually started the most successful band that I was in, Ultracindy. He met two guys through friends at a bar, they drank and decided to start a band. I think that’s how most bands start. I took him to that first practice. And I sat and listened for a few minutes then Dean suggested that I get my gear. He was with us for the first year and he introduced us to a lot of people who’d later record us and put out our material. And he was a hell of a lot of fun to tour with.
Years later, I dropped by to see some old friends from Boston play in New York City. We’d spent some good times with them, hanging out and playing festivals. We swapped stories and found out what everybody was doing, and they asked me how Dean was. I told them that he’s fine, living outside of Richmond with his family. They said that some of their greatest memories of touring were when Dean turned into Ric Flair. They said they’d never laughed so hard.
The two years hanging out with Dean, the older brother I never had, was like watching wrestling on Saturday afternoons. You knew that you were going to be entertained. If Ric Flair came on the screen, you’d learn about life. And nothing was certain, until the referee counted to three. Wooooo!
Playlist for Dean
1. “Sex Beat,” Gun Club
2. “Sun-God,” Squirrel Bait
3. “I’m a Don Juan,” The Embarrassment
4. “That’s How I Escape My Certain Fate,” Mission of Burma
5. “Erica’s Word,” Game Theory
Not all of the above songs are on Spotify, but close!