“And we just keep on keeping on.”
— Curtis Mayfield
A muggy night in late May, odd for the season in Columbus, Ohio, and the cramped listening room of the Treehouse is even swampier. Formerly owned by local DJ “Andyman” Davis and Quinn Fallon of the X-Rated Cowboys, the bar was one of the last in Columbus to give up the ghost of the smoking ban, and the scent of stale cigarettes still clings to the room where the bands play, a room centered by a three-foot-thick silver maple emerging out of the floor and rising through the roof. The wood paneling recalls your dad’s best friend’s rec room — you know, the guy in his late 40s who’s still unmarried and gets the Playboy channel — and tonight, flush against a wall covered in bumper stickers, shimmering in this appropriately left-of-center venue, is Wussy.
You might remember Lead Singer No. 1, Chuck Cleaver, from the Ass Ponys, an indie Midwestern rock band from the 1990s who made at least two great albums, Electric Rock Music and Lohio. Built like a defensive lineman, Chuck’s stage persona is the stoic, worldly cynic, the taproot of the band, while beside him, grinning in the jangly swirl of music, is Lead Singer No. 2, Lisa Walker, the optimistic foil, tattooed and rascally. At the moment, with bandmates Mark Messerly and Joe Klug, they’re revving up the intro to “Yellow Cotton Dress”, and as Chuck launches into the verse, landing with something like glee on the first breakdown — “It becomes a motherfucker / When you fill it out” — we aging hipsters in the Treehouse can’t help but bounce. Here in Columbus, it takes a lot to get the hipsters bouncing.
It’s magical enough to get me thinking about the uniqueness of the night, the show, performance — of any performance, partly because I am a person given to such thinking. So much works against the urge to keep writing, recording, and playing music: catching up on those reruns of Lost; pleasing your parents, who after all helped get your besotted self through college; fitting in with the leaping, joyful people in those Target ads; paying off your student loans. Yes, every 16-year-old sits down with a beat-up Fender knock-off and pens odes to Connie Hegedish and her baleful blue eyes, but why exactly do some of us keep at it once we get to 30? Especially if we are not Super Rich and Famous.
The challenges facing the non-Twittering working musician rarely involve spectacular drug overdoses or charges of child molestation; instead, they’re the pedestrian, crucial worries about health insurance, paying your bills, and losing another relationship because you’re not around enough. You’re a self-employed, by-contract worker who never knows for sure where the money’s coming from. And so you work a day job, which needs to be flexible and not soul-sucking. If you’re lucky, you get health insurance from that. If you’re lucky and persistent, and maybe talented, somebody notices what you do. Maybe. There are no guarantees. And maybe you can sustain that for, well, how long exactly?
“I’ve thought about bagging it more times than I care to admit,” Cleaver tells me awhile after the Treehouse show. “A lot of the reviews that Wussy and my previous band Ass Ponys have gotten say things like ‘under-rated,’ ‘criminally ignored.’ I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but it does catch up to you.”
Wussy started in 2001 with Walker joining Cleaver for some impromptu backing vocals. They released two full-lengths and an EP — Funeral Dress (2006), Left for Dead (2007), and Rigor Mortis (2008) — before offering their latest, self-titled album. Considering that Cleaver’s work goes back into the early 1990s, that’s roughly two decades of dank studios, vans, and bars.
Walker notes that “trying to keep up with everything, being in a band, making a living, having a life at all, can drive you crazy.”
Lindsay Lohan crazy? Not quite, and that’s what I find so damn appealing about Wussy. They haven’t crossed over to the dark side, which is available to even the relatively unknowns. It’s not just actual fame and commercial pressure that can crush you, but yearning for those things, keening for everything you do not have. Wandering into Walter Mitty Land is not terribly difficult when you have amplifiers behind you. And sometimes, to feed this need, you whine about the sacrifices you make.
But Cleaver puts it bluntly: “I’m over the ‘sacrifices’ thing. We’re doing what we want, and it’s starting to get recognized outside of the critical realm. What more can you ask for? Besides, it’s all we really know how to do.”
“I don’t know how to give it up,” Lisa adds. “I tried once, it didn’t work.”
* * *
So perhaps the question isn’t why “keep on keepin’ on,” but how? You can begin by making a record as good as Wussy, an effortless-sounding album full of spit, regret, and, at times, a damn-near spiritual beauty. It’s a record of oppositions: for every jangly guitar line, there’s a chewy bass line stretching underneath; bells ring and a distorted guitar screams; Cleaver sounds downright peppy singing “Happiness bleeds…” as Walker adds oh-so-sweetly, “…all over.” On “Death by Misadventure”, Cleaver’s vocals syncopate over propulsive guitar riffs, and Walker’s backing vocals chime in neatly… until the song’s final verse, when she starts singing different lyrics, lyrics that wink at the new chaos going on here — “Now the kudzu covers all the trees and creeps up on the Queen Anne’s Lace / I’m tangled in the vines that hold me up, but I’m not exactly stuck” — winding and curling until coming back around to meet Cleaver on that final word, rhyming when he sings “The smell of you in lavender comes at me like a truck.”
The album ends with the vivid “Las Vegas”, a lilting waltz above which Walker’s voice floats with understatement and resignation: “We hung around for better days and unimpressive light displays / The promise of it anyway”. Her vocals on Wussy have a flexible and expressive charm, bouncing between cool and shrill and manic, elsewhere seductive, angry, and what Nick Cave called “guilty-sad”.
Wussy reveals little secrets, reveling in a rural grotesque only a few hit-and-runs shy of Flannery O’Connor, a style that combines childlike wonder with an adult’s irony. And here we may have stumbled onto Wussy’s secret Manner of Getting Along and Staying Sane: cultivate your own quiet weirdness.
During our conversation, I ask what they think of that oft-paraphrased Flaubert quote, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois that you may be violent and original in your work.” Good advice, I asked them, or dead wrong?
“I think you should strive to have as regular a life as you possibly can in order to create,” says Cleaver. “Why would you always want your life to be constantly on display? I think it’s important to have a normal life in order to have a creative life that goes a little bit beyond. If everything’s always on ten, you’re going to burn out. People that are in-character 24 hours a day — it’s just bullshit, a facade. In order to have longevity… you have to find a reasonable place to land.”
Walker adds, “There’s a lot of work involved in what we do. If my head’s not together, I can’t concentrate properly. It’s crucial to have as normal an existence as possible. There’s a wealth of things to write about in the world without having to go insane to do so.”
Accepting that the work might not lead to adulation is another key. “Playing music is like being a potter or teacher or anything else that people are compelled to do,” Cleaver says.
“It’s the only thing I know how to do,” says Walker. “I always knew I’d do it. Chuck’s the same way. We knew from a very early age. And notoriety really has nothing to do with that. If you do well, have a stroke of luck, it might be part of it.”
Cleaver adds, “You don’t do it because people notice or because you’ll make money. Some people notice, but we certainly don’t make any money. If we were in it for that, none of us would be doing it at all.”
“Hell, a lot of the shit I listened to growing up was by people who had long been obscured from popular culture,” says Walker. “I never had a notion that music equaled fame. I didn’t know until later what the American Breed looked like, I didn’t have any troll-ish Eric Burdon buttons. Although I would have loved that. I just knew all the words to the songs.”
* * *
A month and a half later, following an afternoon downpour, Wussy is back at work, finishing off a summer tour by once again visiting Columbus, this time for Here Comes Your Weekend, an all-day outdoor party put on by the Columbus Music Co-Op to benefit their musician assistance programs. Protected from a burnished sun by the tent, Cleaver and Walker run through stripped-down versions of “Little Paper Birds” and “This Will Not End Well”, among others. Even without their rhythm section, Walker and Cleaver are explosive and, to borrow from the name Tom Waits gave to his latest tour, shining in glitter and doom.
Something even stronger is going on here than what I felt at the Treehouse, maybe because it’s daylight and the crowd is only halfway drunk. Or maybe because it’s just Chuck and Lisa. Or maybe because in their performance there’s a kind of gentle resistance, a balanced willfulness, that this crowd in particular shares. (Throw a rock in this gated-off parking lot and it’d bounce off of at least three lead guitarists.) Sooner or later, you have to reconcile what you want and what the world impresses on you, and it’s not easy, even if you’ve cultivated a quiet life, a searing imagination, and a dedication to the work, even if it’s all you know how to do.