Enter the Cavedogs.
Even though I knew Soul Martini and thought it wasn’t a bad record, it didn’t prepare me for finding out about the brilliance of Joyrides for Shut-Ins, which I didn’t even know existed until, during my first year of university studies, I wound up befriending another college student from Washington, D.C., while surfing Usenet during one of my stress breaks on the campus computers. This young woman had been originally from Boston, and had a copy of the very album that I spoke of. She wound up sending me a dubbed version of the record on blank cassette, and would eventually send along other tidbits like the (now, alas, impossibly hard-to-find) Six Tender Moments EP. She even wound up wandering into some Washington record shop on a Saturday, and found a bona-fide cassette copy for Joyrides for Shut-Ins in its Enigma Records pressing for something like three bucks, and so I became the recipient of that. Eventually, I would find my own used copy of the album on CD, which, yes, means that, at one time, I actually had three physical copies of it in my possession—although the tapes have alas disappeared with the obsolescence of cassette technology, and I think I’ve thrown them away.
I cannot recall my first impressions of Joyrides for Shut-Ins, but I do remember this: images of listening to the album in headphones in my parent’s basement that summer, and making it a fixture of the cassette deck in my parents’ car, which on a couple of occasions I got to drive into the mill on those rare days when my dad wasn’t to go into work. I do distinctly remember playing the album full blast, driving into work early one morning at 6:30 a.m. as I drove the barren, desolate highway on the way to my mill of horrors. It must have been in mid-August, with my career as a lumber mill wood piler reaching its wane, as I felt utterly triumphant listening to that album. That little tender moment is my fondest memory of working in the mill, and I wasn’t actually even at work yet. It is just something that sticks out in my memory as a moment of utterly transcendent joy and pleasure, and as I probably closed in on the mill’s coordinates, I probably felt that if I could just make it through the day, I would have Joyrides for Shut-Ins to listen to all over again on the ride back.
There are a few reasons why that particular album resonated with me during this dark, troubling period of my life. First of all was the title. I was a shut-in. I would go to work, put in my 10 hours, and then come home, shower, eat supper, read the newspaper, and then retreat to my bedroom, which wasn’t even my bedroom at all but my sister’s old room. There, I would usually listen to music, and, some days, pen lovelorn letters to a girl I was trying to woo in university. I don’t think I went out during my weekday evenings while working at the mill—I would only leave the house on weekends to catch a movie at a cinema that was an hour’s drive away, or go to the very occasional house party hosted by people I’d graduated from high school with.
The second reason why the record stuck with me was because there were aspects of it that, at least on a subconscious level, really had something to say about the predicament I was in. When guitarist/vocalist Todd Spahr sings on album closer “La La La” that “We’re just three white rich kids bitching ‘bout the world / We think we’ve got problems—we ain’t got problems,” those lines could have very well applied to me. My hell would only be temporary. I might have thought I had problems, but, in the fall, I would be back at Carleton, and I would have the comfort of knowing that the worst that the journalism program could throw at me was probably behind me as most second years would go on to complete the full degree, as the grade requirements were pretty much by the wayside from thereon in so long as you passed.
That said, the album spoke to me in darker tones, too. When Spahr sings the chorus of album opener “Tayter Country” (which is actually a dig at the cliquish nature of the Beantown music scene), “with a machine guuuunnn” over and over, I probably had visions—albeit, trust me, not serious ones—of doing everyone in at that mill in such a fashion. As well, the very nature of the song “Leave Me Alone” could have been applied to how I felt towards many of my co-workers at the time, and my personal wish that they would do exactly that.
Another reason that the album was so important to me was that it was mine, all mine. Something to call my own. Nobody else had heard of the Cavedogs and nobody else cared about them. I suppose that was an early sign of hipster authoritativeness rearing its ugly head, but I wound up constructing my own mythology and history of the group in my head back in the days when the Internet had yet to come to small towns and you couldn’t do research with a click of the mouse. For the longest time, I suspect because I didn’t bother consulting the album’s liner notes, I thought drummer Mark Rivers was actually in Todd Spahr’s role. And I thought that bassist Brian Stevens, who shares an uncanny resemblance to John Lennon on the songs he sings, was actually the drummer, pounding away and singing just like Grant Hart in another of my favourite bands of the time, Hüsker Dü. All in all, the Cavedogs were a band that I treasured and cherished for simply being so obscure.
In addition to my championing of a band that had been overlooked, I found that the Cavedogs had a bit of a sense of humour. In the liner notes to Joyrides for Shut-Ins, Brian Stevens is noted as playing “bass, vocals, harmonica, coffee”. One of the tracks on the album, a love song actually, is titled “Baba Ghanooj”, after the Arabian delicacy. The record closes with an unlisted cut that’s a faux commercial in the vein of the Green Giant TV jingles. What’s more, the band even performed a non-ironic cover of Tom Jones’ “What’s New, Pussycat?” on the Six Tender Moments EP, which showed that the group had a fun, playful side. This was a band that had a vibrant, buoyant aspect to them—bits of Soul Martini not withstanding—and I think that had a positive impact on my psyche while working in that mill. But you know what? Have I even talked about the songs yet? The songs really make Joyrides for Shut-Ins truly something.
While I had my favourites back in the day, and there were certainly tracks that I fast-forwarded over, I don’t think there’s a truly unmemorable song in the batch of 11 main tracks that comprise the album. Album opener “Tayter Country” is kind of what you’d get if the Who had crossed paths with Big Star, though I didn’t know that back in 1995 as Big Star was a band that I’d heard of, but hadn’t actually heard. It starts out with a cascading drum fill before just launching into hyper-stellar overdrive and it is just a damn catchy number. There’s “Proud Land”, which features a complex military-like rhythmic pattern with shifting time changes, before settling into a chorus that is as rousing as anything the Beatles did. “Right on the Nail” is an absolutely lovely acoustic guitar ballad with some stunning fret work by Spahr. But you know what was my ultimate most beloved song on this record, though? The aforementioned “Baba Ghanooj”. It’s a shimmery song that just begs you to sing along to it—even if you can’t nail the high notes that Stevens hits, as I couldn’t (and can’t). If you look it up on YouTube, you’ll see that someone has soundtracked the song to videotaped drag racing footage from (presumably) the ‘90s, which is apt as this is a track you just want to put the pedal to the metal to.
Truth be told, until recently, I hadn’t listened to Joyrides for Shut-Ins in quite some time—years, perhaps. It has nothing to do with not loving the album anymore or being sick of it, for when I was listening to it again in preparation for this feature, I found that the album holds up quite well, and it might be even better today than it was some 15 years ago when I first caught wind of it. I guess I’ve never listened to it recently because I’m in a pretty good place right now, and I simply didn’t need the soul food that encompasses Joyrides for Shut-Ins. As a contractor, I tend to be finding work on a regular basis and people like what I’m doing for them—I’m defining my job role now on my own terms, more or less, and choosing whom I go to work for. Just, overall, I’m content, and I think Joyrides for Shut-Ins is the kind of elixir for the times when you’re down and out, and need a life raft to hold onto. Like I did back in the summer of ‘95.
The Cavedogs, as I mentioned before, have played the odd reunion show here and there, and the band’s members have gone onto either solo careers or tenures in other, even lesser known and almost invisible bands. Drummer Mark Rivers arguably had the most success, having written the theme music for the influential sketch comedy series Mr. Show. For the large part, though, the Cavedogs elicit calls of “Cave-who?” from the masses. Taking on my stance in 1995 to let as many people know about what I feel is a seminal power pop band, I would argue that this needs to change. Some retro record label—Rhino, I’m looking at you—needs to pick up the ball and get a Cavedogs revival going by reissuing their two LPs, and the various odds and sods that were released either as EPs or CD singles. It’s just not enough that the only way you can hear this band, aside from scouring eBay, is hunting down RAR files through the Web and Rapidshare. People should have the opportunity to discover for themselves what a wonderful entity the Cavedogs really were. Why? This band could save your life. God knows, in 1995, they certainly saved mine, and I’m all the better and eternally grateful for it.