It has been said that pop music is ultimately disposable, but I can think of no group that was utterly rendered irrelevant faster that Boston’s the Cavedogs. The trio released just two full-length records — 1990’s Joyrides for Shut-Ins, released first on the indie Enigma Records label before the band’s contract was absorbed into the Capitol Records stable due to the distribution agreement the major label had with the smaller one, and 1992’s Soul Martini — but success seemed to elude them and they called it a day in 1993. Thus, by 1995, the year that Joyrides for Shut-Ins would impact me in ways that would affect my very soul, you simply couldn’t find any Cavedogs product on the shelves. They were already out-of-print, deleted, rendered forgettable, and the only place you could get your hands on their records was through the Internet and by scouring the bins of used CD stores — and that was if you were lucky.
Honestly, I can’t think of a group with lofty power pop ambitions and a knack for a great melody who were forgotten about and swept into the dustbin of pop culture history with such damning swiftness than the Cavedogs. True, there are those who strive to keep the legacy of this, in my mind, important and relevant group alive. The band, for some reason or another, has a MySpace page, despite the fact that they’ve been largely inactive for nearly 20 years, save for the very occasional reunion gig here and there. They also have a website dedicated to their memory called Tayter Country, after one of their songs, but even that has been inactive since 2001, save for a perfunctory post in 2004 to note that the site was on permanent hiatus. (At least, someone is still paying the web hosting bills.)
However, most people who knew about this band have moved on. You can buy a CD of Soul Martini for a measly buck on eBay, and, during a current search of that online auction site, found that only cassette tapes (and not CDs) of Joyrides for Shut-Ins are available for the slightly more pricier $8.39. There are no copies of these long lost albums selling in the $100 range that an out-of-print Dream Syndicate or Tommy Keene album would command. This is a shame, really. The Cavedogs really got the short end of the stick somehow, but I’ll tell you one thing: I care about and love this obscure band. It just may be that I’m the Cavedogs biggest fan, and maybe I’m the only die-hard fan left — particularly in the wilds of Canada, where I’m from, hundreds of miles removed from their home base in Massachusetts.
You see, I care about this band, even to this day, because Joyrides for Shut-Ins was a life preserver for me back in the days where I first discovered it, circa 1995. I particularly consider that album to be just an exemplary distillation of power pop, one that kept me from going off the deep end one particularly long hot summer when I worked, making money to pay my way through university, at a lumber mill.
I actually knew of the Cavedogs well before 1995. A couple of years earlier, a guy I went to high school with named Jake happened to loan me the Soul Martini CD that he’d acquired, which I promptly committed to blank tape as I often did with such loaners. I’d seen a profile of the band on MTV — my parents had a satellite dish, so we were able to, at the time, pull in programming from the States. However, the Cavedogs was a bit of an unusual selection from Jake as he, like most of the academically inclined students of that small-town high school, was listening to some pretty heavy stuff at the time: Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, and on it goes. I’m not sure why I was gifted the album by Jake to listen to and tape, seeing as though that when I was 10 years old, when we were both attending different elementary schools, and we were both playing floor hockey during summer recreation events for youth hosted at the local high school, I got mad at him and managed to smash his head in with my hockey stick — which resulted in an injury where Jake needed to get stitches to his forehead as he’d been bleeding quite profusely. I can say that I’m glad that, in high school, Jake had let bygones be bygones.
I don’t recall my initial recollections of Soul Martini though the second half does boast some glorious pop gems as “Sonny Day”, “I I I”, and “Tarzan and His Arrowheads”. It’s a bit of a dark record, perhaps as a result of the grungy alternative rock climate that Nirvana had ushered in, and perhaps as a result of the conditions and dynamic in the band at the time: I’ve read somewhere online that even though the Cavedogs were on Capitol Records, they were still being forced to sleep on the floor of fan’s houses and apartments after shows on their tours, which had to be a frustrating experience. Soul Martini tends to get a bad rap these days, with Allmusic.com stating in a two-and-a-half star review out of five that “the album is just slightly too glossy to be entirely entertaining, particularly since the Cavedogs’ brand of guitar pop needs a few rough edges to really make an impact. If this album’s flaws were just due to the production, that would be one thing. Unfortunately, the trio’s songwriting isn’t quite up to snuff.”
I honestly think that’s a bit of an unfair review, because even in its glossy sheen the album isn’t quite as mediocre as this critic makes it out to be. Sure, it’s a much more brooding affair than their previous full-length, but, despite not being a perfect album, there’s still a great deal of winning, singable songs on Soul Martini. Even the plodding anthems like “Sorrow (Boots of Pain)” are made tolerable by the mere fact that they are infinitely more listenable to than the sludge of crap of the likes of Candlebox and Collective Soul that followed the Cavedogs in the apparent alt-rock sweepstakes. I liked it enough that when I found the album later on for sale in an Ottawa CD shop for just a couple of bucks, I gladly shelled out for a pristine copy of it.
However, as much as I liked Soul Martini, I more or less forgot about the band. That is, until the spring of 1995. At the time, I was a first-year journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa. Carleton had, at the time, a rep for being “Last Chance U” for letting high school students into its liberal arts programs with a grade as low as 65 percent, but the journalism program was on the other end of the spectrum. It was harsh and cut-throat: basically, only half of the more than 200 students who had made it to the first year of the program would go on to get the necessary (high) grades to make it into second year. Needless to say, the program was hellish. In fact, the final exam in English Lit (one of the courses I was studying) in April 1995 was a particular doozy, as students had to come up with three essay questions of their own and then answer them — and you would be marked on how good your questions were and how well you answered them. I suppose this is just a long way of saying that by the time school ended in the spring of 1995, I was a real mess, a bundle of nerves. I’d just spent the past eight months studying, as opposed to partying my ass off like most of the rest of the student population, and the very last thing I wanted to do with my summer off was work. I just envisioned relaxing at home and paying off whatever debt I had incurred at the end of my studies by getting a plum job at a daily newspaper.
My dad had other ideas.
My father had worked (and still does) in the lumber mill about 20 minutes west of the small town I grew up in since circa 1979. He had attained the position of being a yard foreman, driving around in a beat-up truck and checking on how things were progressing on the yard each day. I suppose that through his connections and his managerial position, he was able to get me a job working in the yard at the mill. The thing was, he never told me — at least until I got back home, about a two hour drive northwest of Ottawa, for the summer. And even then I think he never really came out and told me. I have the distinct memory of wandering through my house on a Sunday evening only to discover a pair of beat-up steel-toed work boots and used gloves sitting a pile by the door. They were not my father’s. I think, just after that, my mother wound up causally asking me if I was going to go to work with my dad the next morning. And that was that. The question wasn’t really a question. It was a demand. So that’s how I wound up being shaken awake at 5 a.m. the very next morning by my old man, and starting a four-month career as a lumbering 19-year-old lumber piler in the mill, five days a week, 10 hours a day, starting each day at 7 a.m. sharp.
It was a pretty brutal existence.
Admittedly, the actual job in and of itself wasn’t really that bad, although it was a dirty job and I did get the occasional wood splinters in my scuffed hands. (Your gloves would have a habit of falling apart every other week or so, and that’s not counting the pine gum you got all over yourself if you happened to be piling softwood that day.) At the very least, I can honestly say that the job built character, if not brute physical strength. I went to work in what was known as the “hardwood shed”, which was an old, wood-build dilapidated building with a tin roof in the middle of the yard. The wood of the building was so old that it was practically a blackish-grey colour, and it came with a small workroom where you could have lunch on a long bench that covered the length of the room’s three walls. I should also say that the term “hardwood shed” was a bit of a misnomer, as we were usually piling softwood that summer, usually pine.
While I did say that the job wasn’t bad in a sort of turn-your-mind-off-and-just-pile sort of way — and it, at least, wasn’t tree planting, which I hear is a much worse, dirtier occupation — it was still very taxing. I recall coming home during the first two weeks of working at the mill to supper prepared by my mother, and having my hands in a vice-grip clamp shape, frozen to the precise same size of the thickness of the lumber that was piled that day. I also had to suppress the urge to take my knife and fork and start arranging them into a sort of pile of their own — no joke, I actually nearly did this. At night, I would dream about piling the previous day’s worth of lumber, only to be awaken at 5 a.m. with the intension of going back and doing it all over again. So it went for four absolutely gruelling months.
What made the job a mere unrelenting hell was, first off, the sheer loneliness of the position, being that the mill was located literally in the middle of nowhere. During lunch break, when the sawing and the sounds of chains moving came to a virtual standstill, you could almost hear a pin drop on that yard. It was the quietest place on the face of the planet, even with a radio blaring in one of the nearby sheds. I was just overcome with the inability to handle that solitude, especially during those first few weeks, considering I had just come from the hustle and bustle of Canada’s capital city. When our shed’s radio was tuned into the fuzzy, static-filled rock station from Ottawa — and that was the merciful exception and not the rule, as there were two country stations that the dial would often get turned to – I would be listening to the station’s advertisements and promises of a better life and just recall feeling a sort of emptiness wash over me. (And let me just say I heard the Rednex’s cross-over country-techno hit “Cotton Eye Joe” so much that summer that I honestly wanted to poke my ears with wood splinters.) I was here, doing a job that I honestly really didn’t want to do, and not there, enjoying what the sights and sounds of the big city had to offer. I have to admit that I was almost, at times, reduced to breaking down into tears as a result.
However, what really made the job unbearable were the people, who were about as redneck and White Trash as they came. That statement might come as a bit of a shock, considering my journalism background and the fact that, in the role of a reporter, you have to talk to people of all stripes and backgrounds on any given day. What you have to understand is that the mill was populated with, essentially, high-school drop-outs. These were people with whom I relished with glee when they did drop out of school because they were the ones whom tormented me growing up. These very people — whom were given the nickname of “grubs” in high school for their mullets, non-ironic use of flannel and backward dispositions — spat on me when I was drinking out of the water fountain at school, called me “city slicker” (or much, much worse) for the fact that I had a brain and no secret disposition towards using it. These were the people in my small town that I thought I was escaping by going away to university, people that I gave a rat’s ass about, and, here I was, working amongst them. And I can tell you that no matter what I did — no matter how fast I piled, no matter how even and flush I made my piles of lumber — I got no compliments for my work.
Perhaps some of that had to do with the fact that my dad was their boss, and they didn’t want to acknowledge that I was merely OK and adept at what I was able to do in order to concede power to my father. However, I think it was more than that. Despite living in that small town for more than 15 years, I was still, in very many ways, an “outsider”. Someone who was merely paying his dues to go on to bigger and better things in the city, not someone earning a keep to feed and raise a young family. Needless to say, that only just added to the loneliness and isolation that I felt.
So, that was pretty much the private misery that I’d been consigned to by my father, a job in which I wound up, sometime in mid-May of that year, looking at the calendar in the lunch room and counted up all the working days until the start of the next school year. (I would learn later that summer that I made the cut into second year, which was one of the few things I would celebrate during that period.) I recall driving home with my dad in his pick-up truck one Friday after work, and exclaiming, “I can’t believe I have another 44 working days of this living awfulness to go through.” To which he replied, “Just be glad that it’s only another 44 days”, which, in retrospect, summed up his attitude about his own job. Anyway, I had no salvation at work, other than to mentally segment the days into manageable quarters to get through and somehow get past the awful New Country crap they were often gleefully listening to there. That salvation ultimately came in the hours when I didn’t have to work in the form of my own music collection.
Enter the Cavedogs
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.