Standing in a dark corner of the basement, I observed The Connells crowd. It was most notable, for me, because of its diversity. I had come to Raleigh from Washington, D.C., where the reign of local hardcore bands was just beginning to decay, but there had been a real rigidity to the scene and genre-crossing had been pretty rare both on the stage and off. And yet here they all were, amiably pogoing together: hippies, hipsters, punk rockers, that particular variety of Southern preppy New Waver and the ever-present girls from St. Mary's.
The 1980s were an era when the traditional epicenters for the arts in America (New York, Los Angeles) became too expensive and difficult to conduct struggling-artist activities, with rents skyrocketing, and apartments and practice spaces hard to find. At the same time, really good music seemed to be spilling out of every college town in America, stuff that rivaled anything cooked up in an East Village club. R.E.M. was obviously on the forefront of this, being the longest lasting of these bands, but the B-52s, Love Tractor, Gaudalcanal Diary, Replacements, and The Connells all helped to establish the fact that there was vitality and innovation in the provinces. Between college towns there developed a network of clubs and spaces where the bands could be heard. Suddenly it seemed like there were many possibilities to make music, if one wanted to. There had been few great successes then. But I like to think that, at the time, great success was not the goal.
Having tea at my house the other day Mike Connell told me that success was not what he was thinking about when he formed The Connells and began writing songs. A law student at UNC-Chapel Hill, he felt more that playing music was a kind of antidote to the severity of study. This seemed, he said, like the last chance he would have to fulfill a fantasy most boys have, playing guitar in a band. The first version of The Connells, which consisted of Mike, his brother David on bass and filmmaker John Schultz (Bandwagon, Drive Me Crazy) on drums, practiced in a basement in Chapel Hill. Unwilling to sing his own songs, Mike decided he needed a singer. Eventually, Doug MacMillan, then a student at ECU, got the job. Peele Wimberly replaced John Schultz as the drummer and George Huntley, boyhood friend of the Connell brothers, chimed in on second guitar.
Tom Carter, a friend of Mike's from UNC, became the band's manager. Tom was strong, determined, well-organized and greatly impressed Mike by seeming to sail through law school without much bother. Tom took his management cues from the example of Jefferson Holt, R.E.M.'s former manager, sometimes calling Jefferson when he had a particularly difficult problem or decision to make. Tom pushed the band to play out and they did, though Mike says now they weren't quite ready to do so. At the time of their first shows they knew only seven songs and, when required to play more than one set, they simply rearranged the order of the songs and began again.
A snippet from a 1985 interview with The Connells in a local fanzine reveals their grand plan. When asked what life was like as Raleigh's new pop sensation, Peele Wimberly responded with "When did we get that title?"
Doug MacMillan added, "The Spectator said we were interesting. We'd like to be interesting."
"Where," the reviewer asked, "is this tape you are making going to go?"
"We're going to try to make a record out of it," David Connell answered.
"Well," Mike Connell said, "that's the platonic ideal."
They eventually did produce a record out of their tapes. In 1985, Darker Days was released on The Connells' own label, Black Park, named for the tangled disorderly wood in Cameron Park at the edge of which stood their grandparents' house, the house in which they practiced every day. Then came Boylan Heights, made at Mitch Easter's Drive-In Studio. At the time this was a bit like recording in New Music Nirvana. This was the place R.E.M. had made Chronic Town and Murmur. Doug MacMillan remembers it as a wonderful experience, though they were crowded in a room at a shabby motor court near the studio, recording in shifts. Mitch Easter and his band, Let's Active, was as much a part of the The Connells' legacy as was another Southern boy, Alex Chilton, tragic hero of modern rock. Big Star, Chilton's band with Chris Bell, was considered to be a seminal influence by many '80s groups. The Replacements wrote a song about him; The Connells covered his songs. And his commercial failure, despite brilliant promise, critical attention and extraordinary recordings, made him as romantic as any poet dying young.
Just previous to the release of Boylan Heights, the impact of leaving their hometown and, subsequently their own realm and becoming part of the greater music business, dawned on The Connells. It was the beginning of the end of the platonic ideal. TVT Records determined that they had to remix one of the songs from Boylan Heights, "Over There," to be a single. There was nothing inherently wrong with the song requiring that remixing had to be performed, like surgery. Remixing, when done under those circumstances is, I think, more like a cat pissing on something to mark it as his. The band hated the remix and fought to have their original version put back on the record. Although they prevailed, Doug MacMillan told me that it marked the beginning of a long argument with the charismatic (and somewhat mad) owner of the record company, an argument that would continue for the next 15 years, until The Connells eventually left TVT in 1999.
The Connells had to make their own way in the world, had to find suitable places where their music would be heard. As anyone who was in a touring band or went to see live music in 1985 knows, Monday night was New Wave Night, across America. Most things that did not sound like Nantucket (the band) were relegated to the category of New Wave. Sometimes this was referred to as New Music. There was a difference between these two things--New Wave being more pink and green, more cat-eye glasses, slightly spunkier than New Music. Doug MacMillan reminisced about touring schedules in those early days. Thursday through Saturday, you played at parties, fraternity houses and, if you were lucky, opened for better-known bands at larger clubs.
Monday you played New Wave Night, which most musical venues in college towns sponsored. That was the night that people actually came to the club to see you. It also meant that on Monday night, you would probably have a free place to stay, usually someone's floor. The bands of that era seemed more ready to befriend each other, exchange shows with their out-of-town counterparts, and be sympathetic to the small budget most touring groups had. The Connells formed alliances with Minneapolis (Soul Asylum) and Boston (Lifeboat, Dumptruck) bands that fostered this kind of exchange program.
There was a real work ethic involved in the musical efforts of that time. In the 1985 interview of The Connells in Southern Lifestyle, a Raleigh fanzine, The Connells didn't talk about fame and fortune as a reward for their work. Instead, their fantasies involved traveling, the opportunity to play their music everywhere. Their interpretation of the height of success was to play in England. The self-release of The Connells' first record, Darker Days, and their readiness to do this again with their second release, Boylan Heights (although it was eventually distributed by TVT Records), also spoke to their understanding that there would not necessarily be gigantic immediate rewards for what the group was doing. Music was their enterprise, and arduous practice and touring part of the work. Fifteen years later, this ethic has not diminished. This fall, The Connells will be releasing their own record, for the first time since 1984. "We are ready to have our independence," Manager Ed Morgan says. "We feel we have come full circle."
The Connells were good at being a local band. They happily invited younger local starting bands to open for them, even if the music was not necessarily complementary to what The Connells did. And they remained always grateful and modest. In a way, though they would not necessarily be identified as such, they were the beginnings of what later came to be called indie rock.
I think we all collect a soundtrack of our lives as we go, and the music of The Connells is part of mine. When their first full-length record, Boylan Heights, came out, I had just settled in Boylan Heights. The neighborhood still had remnants of its former self, some of the houses still inhabited by the original owners. Up the street, they had a fish fry every Saturday night, an older couple would drag a card table out onto the lawn and you could hear them cackling about something far into the night. So, in the winter of 1989, it was with great curiosity that I watched from the balcony of a packed club in New York City the crowd below bawling the name of my little corner of the world. "All the way to Boylan Heights I'll walk youuuuu-ooooh." It was the moment I realized that we were going to have to share The Connells with the rest of the world.