Photo: Seth Tiven

Lost Memphis Music Legend Van Duren Getting His Due With New Documentary (premiere)

Obscure even by Big Star standards Van Duren's legacy is one of heartbreak and setback. But as a new film and soundtrack reveal, there's plenty to celebrate about an artist who sounds fresh, vital more than 40 years after cutting his debut.

Memphis is one of the great music cities of the world. In addition to the household names and superstars synonymous with the place are a host of acts who have crawled from the cracks of cult status to become some of the most revered musical artists of the last 30 years. (Big Star et al.)

Van Duren is one of those artists whose name isn’t on the lips of kids picking up guitars in Ohio but soon will be thanks to a new documentary film titled Waiting: The Van Duren Story. The illustrious Omnivore Recordings will issue the soundtrack in early 2019, and early indicators are that this will be one of the most-discussed cult recordings in recent memory.

Van Duren’s biography itself stirs the imagination: Managed and produced by Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones), he joined up with Chris Bell and Jody Stephens in their post-Big Star outfit Baker Street Regulars. He wrote and recorded an album, Are You Serious? that found him being lauded as a new McCartney.

Then? Some would say that his trail went as cold as Lake Michigan in December. There were signs of life, however. He tracked a second album that, although shelved, did creep off the shelves in 1999. He recorded with the band Good Question and scored a regional hit with a song called “Jane” that almost landed the outfit a recording contract.

After more than 40 years two Australians (Greg Cary and Wade Jackson) came across Duren’s lost album and embraced with the same fervor that some reserved for Bell or Big Star. Their interest was unshakable, and so they set out on a simple quest: Find Van Duren and get the rest of the story.

Through the powers of Facebook, the pair found their idol and set about making a film about their idol despite having no prior experience. Their journey, it turns out, was a sometimes perilous one: Rock stars, Scientologists, a trip to the United States and encounters with a range of musicians who seemed doomed to obscurity despite prodigious talents. Discovering that Duren didn’t own his own music, the filmmakers deepened their passions and became determined to fight for those rights and to have the musician’s story told.

The music reminds us of Duren’s unshakable artistry and the possibilities of what might have been if fate was less fickle. Of course, the time is now ripe for fate to right those past wrongs as both Waiting: The Van Duren Story and its soundtrack wow a new generation of music fans with their poignant tales and raw artistry.

Listeners can hear Duren’s own artistry via the track “Grow Yourself Up”. It arrives at the intersection of the beautifully heartsick (and Laura Nyro-influenced) Todd Rundgren in his early days and the hazy, sun-tinted sounds emerging from American south in years after Beatlemania inspired a generation to seek out strange new sonic worlds. The production is unfettered by the trappings of the time as the song (and Duren himself) sings with a purity of spirit music lovers will instantly recognize as something singular, authentic.