Gabriele Gruenwald was an elite middle-distance runner who discovered she had cancer early in her career as a student at the University of Minnesota. She documented her fight with the disease while competing at the highest levels of sport. Gruenwald won the national championship in the 3000-meter race at the USA Indoor Track and Field Championships in 2014. She almost qualified for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and was training for the 2020 Olympics when she died of complications from cancer in June 2019. She was just 32-years-old. Grunewald was known for her bravery and indomitable spirit. She wore her scars proudly, including a 13-inch one that snaked down her abdomen and another that impacted her smile because of a damaged facial nerve.
Joe Puleo is, among other things, a runner. He wrote the words to a song about Gruenwald. Although he’s part of the band, Bannister Effect, he felt these lyrics needed a different context. Puleo connected with singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer, Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, Big Star) who put the text to music. The two men continued to collaborate at a distance during the pandemic, and with the assistance of Posies drummer Frankie Siragusa, have just released a five-song EP called Ten Years to Home: Ken Stringfellow Imagines Puleo.
The song about Gruenwald, “Not Today”, lies at the heart of the record, although it comes last. The lyrics capture the “Be brave like Gabe” spirit. The phrase “Not today” was what she said in response to finding out she could die at any time. The song begins with Gruenwald’s clear, strong voice proclaiming, “I hope people can see that you can still make something beautiful and powerful out of a bad situation.” Stringfellow keeps the production simple and basic. This is guitar-based rock with strong drumming like one would hear on old R.E.M., Bob Dylan, and Uncle Tupelo records. He sings with his mouth not quite wide open to create a hushed tension. You can understand all of the words, but they are mushed together to create a sound rather than stand on their own articulateness.
There is something kind and beautiful about remembering Gruenwald’s presence on the planet. Puleo’s words and Stringfellow’s music remind us of this, and hence our humanity. During an age where the phrase “Be Best” became debased thanks to a First Lady’s program to defeat bullying while married to the nation’s biggest tormenter, it’s important to remember the message itself as embodied by the late runner.
The four other tunes on the EP have their charms. “Overcoming Gravity” philosophically ponders ways of living to a catchy beat. “The Strongest Man” judges the push/pull of life and love while noting the value lies in the struggle itself. “Measured in Threes” is a piano-based tune about looking for love and finding whatever’s out there might not be enough, but what else is there. “My Odyssey” is both more whimsical and cynical as we search for the place inside of us we can call home. These songs have their merit. They are clever and appealing. But Gabe’s spirit hangs heavy over this project, and we are all the better for remembering her time with us.