Back to the Basics

Danville Days

Nick Hornby, in the movie adaptation of his book High Fidelity, posits that a record collection can be “sorted autobiographically” — that is, if you look at a music collection from its inception to its present state of affairs, the record enthusiast can tell you how “I got from Deep Purple to The Soft Boys in twenty-five moves. ”

My personal tao of music would include tales about how I got from the Beatles to KISS, from Adam & the Ants to the Jesus & Mary Chain, from R.E.M. to the Hoodoo Gurus, from the Minutemen to Uncle Tupelo, from John Coltrane to Lyle Lovett, from Steve Earle to Guided By Voices, from Nick Lowe to Jorge Ben Jor. All of these bands have held my attention, have blown my mind, and each one marks a milestone in my life.

But all of it would be incomplete for me without the Basics.

Long-time and/or extremely attentive readers may know this already. In many ways, I feel as though I have worn their influence on my sleeve. However, like the tell-tale heart of old, the faint beat of the Basics is one which is only apparent to me, even if it sometimes feels like it should be obvious to anyone.

Ultimately, I guess, you had to be there, as the saying goes.

The Basics and I share something of a common history. We both hail from Danville, Illinois.

Today, the experience of being in Danville is almost always melancholic, and in that mode of state-dependent recall, I can drive the streets and see the route that I took to walk home from school, and where I used to go to buy Jolly Ranchers for a penny apiece, or where I’d go tearing around the block on my bike, or that intersection where I wiped out that one time, or where my first girlfriend lived, or where my best friend used to live, and how I felt every step of the way at school the first time I got that measles booster in 5th grade and passed out in class, or the crap scores I used to get in the Presidential Physical Fitness trials (that sidewalk there was where we used to run the 50 yard dash), and hey, that’s where I saw the first live performance by a rock band in my life.

(Take this trip with me three times, and I guarantee that I will eventually repeat several of these stories, thinking that I haven’t shared this already. We will land again at the doorstep of the Basics, and I will pick up the story where I last left it off. Where were we again? Ah, yes. Danville.)

I was an introverted, polite, book-smart, and sheltered child who had an exceedingly hard time integrating into new situations. My hippie parents split when I was pretty young, but I was raised by both of them to believe that the world was basically a decent place. That did not always square with my experiences. I found that my bookish and introverted nature was not quite to the liking of most of my peers.

As such, my greatest solace was found in music. Entering my teens, I acquired a furtive yen for acquiring tapes, since I could take them anywhere and sit down with a set of headphones to listen and drown out the outside world. I came of age when the Walkman rose to prominence, and I was Sony’s target market.

Still, I had little conception of what it was like to see a band, other than the ones that came around courtesy of the Army every now and again, or the local symphony. Yes, Danville had a symphony. One of the remarkable things about Danville is that they really did put considerable effort into public arts and public facilities. A couple blocks from my house, there was a grand public park where there were big ancient oak trees, a public pavilion, tennis courts, and a concession stand. There was even a scale miniature Danville called “Friendly Town, ” which is where “Officer Friendly” would conduct driving school. There was also a band shell, which is where I saw the Army Jazz Band — and where I had my first experience of live rock ’n roll.

I first saw the Basics perform here. My dad took me. He was the features editor for the local daily, and a patron of the local arts scene.

The Basics played funny-looking guitars and wore cool clothes and sang catchy, original songs about things like love, smelly junk collectors, and 80-year-old men on bicycles. Two blocks from my house, here was a band that sounded as good — maybe better — to me than anyone I’d ever heard on the radio, on TV, or on ancient, hiss-laden, hand-me-down mono dubs.

I was a goner, instantly.

They also played songs by the Cars, Missing Persons, the Shoes, the Beatles (a particularly good cover of “Misery, ” if memory serves) and some other bands who I would come to know with every spare $8 I could take to the local record store. I was also lucky enough to get the opportunity to see them perform at a private party, and once at their practice pad. My dad did what he could to promote them, and at the newspaper, one of his co-workers had an inside track to a couple of the band members.

Sitting in their practice pad made me the envy of a few of my peers, and for me to talk to these people who I had idolized made a definite impression on me. I bought their first release (actually a glorified demo cassette), which they called Off the Record. I have played it so many times that I long ago lost count. I agitated to see them whenever I could, which was unfortunately not very often, since I had moved from Illinois to Kansas at about the same moment that they began their brief rise to recognition. They were on an MTV ’battle of the bands’ segment, and I did get to see their first video broadcast; I pressed the few friends that I had to stuff the call-in ballot box for them. I don’t remember if it did any good, but at least I tried. Eventually, I heard that they broke up, but knew no details. I knew that a couple of the band members got married and started another music project on a major label, although in which order these events transpired, I have no idea.

I can go on at length, but honestly, you really had to be there.

First loves tend to be like that, though. They hold great power, and almost mythical self-significance. Then again, even the guy or girl with whom you first took the plunge of passion probably remembers it far differently than you do.

It might also be an unrequited passion, such as the fanboy love for a live performance of a local band and a few bits of inspired original songs, not-so-indelibly encoded on a strand of cheap normal-bias cassette tape. Most artists probably would never even realize that you were that one gawky kid in the velour shirt and the ill-fitting glasses. Maybe they never took notice of you at all.

And maybe they never would have, save for the fact that I professed them as a huge influence and a first love of mine right here in the High Hat, issue #4.

Several months after I wrote the article about my love for cassettes, the editor of the High Hat forwarded me a note:

Date: October 15, 2004 4:09:48 PM CDT To: editors@thehighhat.com Subject: [HighHat Editors] Andy Wilson (Please Forward)

Please forward this message to Andy Wilson. I read his “Pops & Clicks” column in High Hat issue #4, in which he mentions a band, of which I was once a member.

Andy,

I was in “The Basics” in Danville Illinois in the 80’s. I was the tall, skinny geeky-looking one, singing and playing the guitar. (Although that describes three other band members as well.)

Imagine my surprise to see you still have a copy of one of our tapes. I believe we made less than 50 of those. However, my memory is not good. In fact I don’t remember you. Are you writing under a pseudonym or did I just have too much fun back then?

Matt doesn’t remember an “Andy Wilson” either. He suggested we retroactively un-invite you to all “Basics” practices. While thoroughly embracing the idea of retroactive dis-invitations in principle, I’m not sure this is an effective way to quell my curiosity.

So maybe you can help me out with this. Who the hell is Andy Wilson?

— Joe (formerly of “The Basics”)

Naturally, I responded to this existential query.

I got in touch with both Joe Legg and Matt Sigmon, both founding members of the band, via e-mail. They had run into my article by way of an idle Google session, which is the same sort of search I have conducted looking for free-standing remnants of my own past a number of times. I have often looked for other first loves, but it was the first time one of my first loves found me.

Matt later caught me up with his wife (and former Basics member) Julie, and he also let me know about a couple of creative endeavors he was working on. One was a zygote of a podcast that he dubbed “The Real Happy Hour”; the other was an autobiographical album tentatively entitled One Opens Up. He forwarded me a rough copy of it, which was the first rock album that he’d put together since his early 20’s, when he and his wife were the core of Rain People, whose one and only album won critical success (albeit seeing limited sales as a result).

I got the preview copy of the new material, and I fell in love all over again. I offered to give him a few notes, and to promote the album among some of my friends around the country. Since that time, Matt has self-released One Opens Up, a record for which he did nearly all of the songwriting, performing, and engineering as well as the sales, marketing and promotion.

He sent me a little box full of shrink-wrapped CD copies to distribute. I took one for myself and popped it into the stereo. As I listened to the polished final product for the first time, I began reading the liner notes.

At the end of the “thanks to” section, I saw my name in print.

It has been a long road for the both of us in our respective lives, but here was a guy — who had been very much larger than life to me — acknowledging a contribution that I made to his music, which I imagine to be one of the first loves of his own life. I consider myself blessed to count Joe, Julie, and Matt among my closest friends today.

Still, in my heart of hearts? All things considered, I would have been satisfied just to have been there to see them that one time at the Lincoln Park band shell in Danville, Illinois.

They were that good.