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
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
Thursday, July 18, 2002
David Baerwald plays KGSR's free "Unplugged at the
Grove" tonight at 8 at Shady Grove, 1624 Barton Springs
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
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
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
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.
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
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,"
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.
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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." •