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Living life beyond the 'Boomtown'

'I've always liked fringe dwellers: artists and jugglers and drunks,' says L.A.'s latest transplant to Austin. 'The lunatic frosting on the fallen wedding cake.'

 

onstage

Rebecca McAntee / AA-S

'Doing what we did with Sheryl, I will never, ever, ever do again,' says Baerwald, shown performing at Steamboat in Austin. 'It's just too brutal; it's too invasive. To do that, you have to just pummel somebody.'


AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Thursday, July 18, 2002


David Baerwald plays KGSR's free "Unplugged at the Grove" tonight at 8 at Shady Grove, 1624 Barton Springs Road.

When David Baerwald was about 27 years old, a mob of crazed Italian pop fans tried to tear off his clothes. It kind of freaked him out. Time to get out of the spotlight.

At 32, Baerwald made a very political record called "Triage" that boasted the following epigraph: "This record is dedicated to Dean Acheson, Paul Nitze, John J. McCloy, John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, Henry Kissinger, James Baker III, and George Bush in the sincere hope that there is a God and that He is vengeful beyond all comprehension." Time to break out the Freedom of Information Act forms.

The next year, a record he helped write and produce for an unknown brunette named Sheryl Crow went on to sell more than 7 million copies and win a few Grammys. Time to open a studio, write tunes for Sean Penn movies, do what you want.

When he was 38, he helped his friend, producer and mentor bury that man's 7-year-old son, who fell off a cliff. You know how there's a point at which you think you can't lose more innocence? Time to find out you can.

And as he was working on songs for Stuart Little to sing, David Baerwald watched on TV as a couple of planes hit the World Trade Center. Time to pay more attention to national politics again. Time to release some songs under your own name again. Time for a longtime citizen of Los Angeles to pack up his family and move to Hyde Park.

Baerwald walks into Steamboat alone. No label guys, no handlers, just him. This is his first show back at the club since he split a month ago on a brief tour to road-test songs from "Here Comes the New Folk Underground," his first solo album in nine years, released two days ago on Universal's alt-country subsidiary, Lost Highway.

He's got a build for which the term "rangy" was coined, and the stride, glint in his eye and disarming grin of an instinctive omnivore. A born storyteller, he is also whip-smart and unburdened by the flakiness that too many songwriters find cute (and, though they might not admit it, useful). He's also about as professional a tunesmith as you're likely to find. He can write for cartoons, he can write for himself, he can write for television and movies. He has written albums that fit with labels' desires, and he has written albums that don't fit with labels' desires.

Right now, he's about to see if there's an audience for his music when he writes for himself.

The Davids

Born in 1960 in Oxford, Ohio, Baerwald didn't grow up especially left-wing. "No, quite the opposite," he says, lighting the first of roughly a billion cigarettes. "My father was a Cold Warrior." Hans Baerwald, in fact, was a political science professor and intelligence analyst at Miami University of Ohio. But "my dad had the audacity to think maybe the Soviet threat wasn't all it was cracked up to be, that the books were being cooked a bit."

The elder Baerwald got an FBI file for his beliefs, which David eventually acquired via the Freedom of Information Act. It ran thousands of heavily redacted pages. "It wasn't John Lennon thick, but it was close," Baerwald says.

Hans moved the family to Los Angeles when David was 11, and became a well-regarded expert on Japanese politics at UCLA. But David believes his father was drummed out of the intel community. "My father held the possibly naive belief that the duty of intelligence operations was to collect accurate intelligence, not create a trillion-dollar Cold War budget."

But David's early influences were less political than artistic. "I just like boneheaded pop songs, but I like boneheaded pop songs that have a narrative spine to 'em," he says. We're in the writing studio behind the Austin home he shares with his partner, Sarah Reinhardt, and their 4-year-old son, Beker, who shows up occasionally to declare he's either a mean robot or Darth Maul. "I've always liked fringe dwellers — artists and jugglers and drunks," Baerwald says. "The lunatic frosting on the fallen wedding cake. Lou Reed's 'Transformer' and 'Berlin' were huge records for me. Lou Reed applied a rigorous journalistic ethos to what he did, but the areas he chose to explore were the transvestites and the junkies."

The other major influence on Baerwald was Los Angeles. No matter how long Baerwald chooses to make Austin his home, Los Angeles was, is and most likely always will be present in his songwriting. Distressed Angelenos like Joan Didion, Raymond Chandler, Nathaniel West and James Ellroy inform his work, and Baerwald prides himself on having friends in all strata of L.A. life. "I have friends who are musicians and friends who are anarchists and friends who are cops. You just have to keep them separate."

After kicking around in some L.A. punk bands, 24-year-old Baerwald hooked up with a slightly older songwriter named David Ricketts to form the duo David + David. Their 1986 debut, "Boomtown," was a determinedly literary, L.A.-focused album, but it generated a surprise hit in the title track. Like the tales of early success they wrote about in that song, the Davids found instant fame to be corrosive. They undertook whirlwind tours at their label's behest, and the claustrophobia was crushing. "I was just this screwed-up punk; there's was nothing in my life that could have prepared me for that at all," he says now.

The nadir might have been a massive pop festival in Bari, Italy. After being told it probably wasn't such a hot idea, Baerwald walked down to the bay and found himself pursued by "Italian teenyboppers." He made the mistake of hitting one of them when the mob got too close and found himself jammed into a collapsing phone booth as they got more violent. He had to be extracted by police. This was not what Baerwald had in mind when he set out to emulate Lou Reed and Randy Newman.

David+Goliath

In 1988, David+David entered the studio to put together a much-anticipated follow-up. But the sessions ended with the duo disintegrating. "Both of us were just so shattered by the experience that neither one of us could really face it," Baerwald says.

Cast adrift, Baerwald started doing a certain amount of, uh, investigation. "I kind of lost it. My ego had been inflated to the point that it just exploded." He started hanging out with the really, really famous and never-going-to-be-famous; movie stars one day, cops the next. "I was either deluding myself thinking it was research or just having a gigantic lost weekend."

As his longtime friend and collaborator Will Sexton puts it, "When I met David I was shocked to find he was that guy that was lurking in all of his songs. He's one of the few successful L.A. pop writers that was really living the downtown strangeness."

"It's like being a gold prospector," Baerwald says of having a hit record. "You do one of these things, and then you can explore other areas of your life."

As for his 1990 solo debut, "Bedtime Stories," well, that didn't quite turn out the way he imagined, either. "I didn't really know what the record company wanted from me. I think they saw me as a slightly edgier Jackson Browne, the poster kid for the new sensitive male. That record sounded like me in a very expensive and ill-fitting suit."

By this time, the bird's-eye view of inequity that came from observing the Los Angeles Police Department during the '80s and early '90s was a big part of Baerwald's psyche. He made friends with individual cops — "It's one of the worst jobs in the world. I have a huge amount of respect for cops that manage to keep their integrity" — but, like many liberal Angelenos, began to see the LAPD as an occupying army deployed against the powerless.

So it was perhaps no surprise that his 1993 album "Triage" was a meditation on power in all its forms, from the national security state to sadistic movie stars to the traumatic effect the Cold War had on his family.

"I was getting these huge checks and paying huge taxes, and it got me more political," he says. "So I just got heavily into the alternative history world. I was thinking of making fun of (conspiracy theorists) and suddenly here I am walking around with tinfoil on my head."

For all its topicality, Baerwald admits "Triage" was "ultimately about my family. To me, it's just about what happens a) to unchecked power and b) to a guy who's trying make sense of it, trying to make sense of an expanding knowledge of how things operate. It's me struggling to find some reason not to shoot a politician."

Eaten by Crow

The group that played on "Triage" was the core of what soon became known as the Tuesday Night Music Club. Centered around Baerwald, songwriter/producer Bill Bottrell, keyboardist/drummer Kevin Gilbert and bassist Dan Schwartz, the club became, in Baerwald's words, an "anarcho-syndicalist rock band."

"I thought we were guys fed up with the whole celebration of vanity and narcissism," he says of this collectivist effort. "Everybody sings. I write a line, you write the next, with a riff or concept on index cards floating around the room." Crow, then Gilbert's girlfriend, joined up. "When Sheryl came into the group, it was like, OK, let's be Fleetwood Mac, that's a perfectly valid thing for a bunch of L.A. (jerks) to do. It was like we'll do these simple grooves and it'll be jolly." But even Baerwald admits it wasn't all that jolly.

"Sheryl was definitely not like some kind of random waif. She's a focused, ambitious, professional lady, which was the complete opposite of the grotesque (screw-ups) that we were." Power struggles developed, and, according to Baerwald, the Club's songs were virtually forced down Crow's throat. "Doing what we did with Sheryl, I will never ever ever do again. Ever. Ever. As long as I live. It's just too brutal; it's too invasive. To do that, you have to just pummel somebody. I was just suffused with rage at everything."

One of the songs, "Leaving Las Vegas," was a tune Baerwald had co-written that was inspired by his friend John O'Brien, the then-unknown author of the book of the same name. (It was later made into the Oscar-winning film starring Nicolas Cage as a man who drinks himself to death.)

Everything went bad almost immediately after the album "Tuesday Night Music Club" was released in late 1993. Crow had made it clear the guys weren't going to be involved in the tour. Gilbert was devastated. The record started to climb the charts, and Crow went on David Letterman in March '94 to play "Leaving." When Letterman asked if the song was autobiographical, Crow said yes. Baerwald was furious; O'Brien was deeply hurt. As the album went on to sell millions, O'Brien, not known for a level emotional state, committed suicide soon after the Letterman show, which led many to the misguided notion that Crow had some sort of hand in O'Brien's death.

By 1996, an incredible amount of money was flowing into the hands of everyone who had been involved in the project, even though none of the participants, except the woman who's face was on the cover, seemed all that happy with it. Baerwald and Crow weren't speaking. Bottrell quit the sessions for Crow's next album. In May of 1996, Gilbert was found dead of accidental autoerotic asphyxiation.

Baerwald admits none of them dealt with any of this all that well. Crow "kind of got run out of (Kevin's) funeral. I feel really bad about that." That was the last time Baerwald saw her.

Back to the mine

Baerwald spent most of the next few years, as he puts it, "screwing around."

He sighs. "When John O'Brien died, I was riddled with shame and guilt and horror and sadness." Baerwald was still writing, but not really for himself. He did soundtrack work — "Grace of My Heart," "Hurly Burly" — which felt better than writing entire albums for someone else to sing. "Somebody says, 'We need a bookshelf built and we need it by Friday,' I'm your man. But if it's, 'I want you to write the jingles for my self-love,' I can't do that anymore."

Then in 1998, William Bottrell, the 7-year old son of "Tuesday Night" linchpin Bill Bottrell, fell off a cliff and died. This is still hard for Baerwald to discuss.

"It was the most horrible . . ." He stares into space. "That was it for me, that was the last straw. I was devastated. I had just watched my good friend and sometime mentor bury his son. I called Will and said, ' 'I'm wrecked.' I just wanted to play with people I could cry in front of."

Ah, Will. Will Sexton has become Baerwald's closest collaborator, and a figure in Baerwald's as-yet-unpublished roman ŕ clef, which details the time Sexton came to Baerwald's aid when the latter was tossed in jail in El Paso. "We just clicked the moment we met," Baerwald says, though neither can remember exactly when that was. Sexton, one of two famous Austin musical brothers — Charlie plays with Bob Dylan; Will has clocked time with Alejandro Escovedo — seems to be a stabilizing force in Baerwald's creative process. "Will Sexton has an almost too severe b.s. detector," Baerwald says. "I love his honesty; I trust him implicitly."

Sexton soon arrived in L.A., and Baerwald began writing and recording songs that eventually became, years later, "Here Comes the New Folk Underground."

These weren't soundtrack songs, they weren't written to record company spec, they weren't for someone else: They were merely what they were. They also didn't sound much like the tricked-out pop Baerwald had done previously. "There's gotta be some way of getting the directness and white soul of hillbilly music and the urban veneer of Curtis Mayfield, with some chamber music and German cabaret music (in there)," he says of this year's model. "This record is the opposite of cerebral. I had no intention at all that anyone would ever hear this."

But, soon after the sessions were winding up around Christmas of '99, Baerwald's mother found a Web site that was dedicated to Baerwald's work. "It was really touching, 'cause I really didn't think anyone remembered who I was," he says. Baerwald contacted the site, burned about 450 two-disc sets, one of the material that turned into the "New Folk Underground," another of demos and outtakes, and sold 'em through the site for cost, almost like a Christmas gift.

As luck would have it, one of these found its way to Luke Lewis, president of Lost Highway.

"I've always been a big fan of David's work," Lewis says. "There's so much depth and imagery to his writing, not to mention honesty. It's about time he had another solo project."

But Baerwald had other commitments, such as writing songs for movies like "Stuart Little," which he never did finish, and "didn't really put this on the front burner until September."

The velvet rut underground

Like many Americans, Baerwald was changed by Sept. 11. Suddenly the gun-for-hire stuff didn't seem so pressing.

"I needed to express myself personally more. There's a lot of stuff that I feel that there's no way I can put into a romantic love song."

He also felt it was way past time he leave L.A. "Since '92 I have had a pretty serious love/hate relationship with L.A. I miss my friends and certain restaurants and the weather. But there's a palpable feeling there was just a lot of unresolved issues between the LAPD and various socio-economic and racial groups," Baerwald says dryly. "There's something fun about being an urban warrior kind of person, but it gets old, and I couldn't see gating myself off in a golf community. That's just a disgusting way to live, for me anyway."

So it was off to Austin. Sexton is here, and Baerwald says he feels better about leaving Sarah and Beker for longer periods of time than he did in L.A. "Austin is a nice place right in the middle of the country," he says. "I knew this album was going to be about playing live, and there's more great musicians here than any other town I know of." Baerwald landed in January, and by April he'd locked down a residency at Steamboat ("best rehearsal hall I've ever been in," he says). He hasn't started writing about Austin, and he's still not sure what he'll do over the long term. "A lot of it really depends on if there's an audience for this record," he says.

But "The New Folk Underground" feels right at home in the town that brought you the Sextons and Toni Price. Sexton, playing bass, helped Baerwald assemble the touring band, which includes keyboardist Kevin Lovejoy, drummer J.J. Johnson and guitarist Darwin Smith. Of Baerwald's future as a long-term Austinite, Sexton has to laugh. "As far as Triple-A sounds (radio-industry lingo for Adult Album Alternative, the roots-rock style for which Austin is famous) David always seemed like that to me. There's very few people in L.A. who had the same heart and spirit as my pals around Texas." David Baerwald, in Sexton's estimation, is one of them.

Baerwald looks around his writing room. It's pretty far away from "Boomtown," paranoia, Tuesday nights and Daryl Gates. Beker wants to play with Dad, and some baseball seems in order. Professional songwriting is like modern art, Baerwald says. "Once you draw squares, you're pretty much obligated to keep drawing squares for the rest of your career. I don't know how Mondrian did it. I couldn't do what Jackson Browne or Bruce Springsteen does," making the same sort of music over and over again. "I would go nuts."

"I can say anything I want to now," he figures. "I won't necessarily find an audience doing that, but I can say it." •

jgross@statesman.com, 912-5926