In my ongoing and relentless research into modern, or what I call Stone Oregon, history, I often bump against people that qualify as so quintessentially Oregon that I feel compelled to exalt them.
Someone like the bad ass distance runner Steve Prefontaine, the greatest Oregon athlete of all time. Someone like Tom McCall, the maverick former Governor, the greatest Oregon politician of all time. And of course, Ken Kesey, the greatest Oregon writer of all time.
But what about the individuals who comprised the greatest Oregon rock band of all time? And by defining the greatest band, I mean, what band whose members were born and raised in Oregon rocked out with the most verve and Oregon-inspired originality?
Their names are John Moen, Jeremy Wilson, Eric Lovre, and Jim Talstraand and they were — or should I say, are — the Dharma Bums.
In late 1986, three lads from Silverton and one from Keizer, then living in Portland, formed the Dharma Bums. By the time they ended their spectacular run in 1992, I had seen them perform approximately 40 shows and played their three records an unknown but absurd amount of times.
The lineup was: Jeremy Wilson, lead singer and guitar; Eric Lovre, lead guitar; Jim Talstra, bass — all graduates of Silverton High School; and John Moen, drums, McNary High School. Despite their youth, all four had previous band experience in the Salem area and cut their rock and roll teeth by playing parties, taverns, and community halls.
By 1988 the Bums released their first album, Haywire, on Frontier Records. Soon they attracted a cult following because of their incendiary live shows and relentless touring that totaled 250 gigs a year. When the band's second album, Bliss, came out in 1990, the word in regional rock circles was that the Bums were the rock act to see in the Pacific Northwest. And I would know because I helped spread the word.
The Bums toured America four times, did a European leg, earned critical acclaim, sold a lot of records, got a video played on MTV, and had the major labels sniffing around. Then, in 1992, just as the Seattle Sound exploded, the band released their third album, Welcome, and broke up.
What did they sound like? Well, dig up their CDs and judge for yourself, but I would characterize their sound as pure Stone Oregon: organic, fresh, determined, twangy, progressively manic, and unpretentiously poignant. I claim about a dozen favorite songs, but "Aces" off Welcome might be the best rock love song about finding the right partner that mainstream America should have heard on the radio. One day, if I ever get married again, I plan on playing it at my wedding. It's that good.
I will never forget the last gig I saw the Bums play, their last gig, under the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, with the Willamette River flowing behind the stage. I didn't know it at the time, but it marked the perfect dénouement for a band whose members often drew upon their rural Willamette Valley upbringing as inspiration for their music. In fact, Bliss, widely regarded as the Bums best album (and my favorite), was recorded in the Silverton Grange Hall.
In 1990, the late great Seattle rock magazine The Rocket profiled the Dharma Bums to mark the release of Bliss. The critic wrote:
Somewhere out in Oregon, in the middle of a hayfield, in the middle of nowhere, is an old wooden Grange hall.... As you draw closer to this drab unassuming structure, you hear the sound. This is not a make-believe music video set, it is the very real place the Dharma Bums recorded their second album, Bliss...the record to show the world that Oregon is a place where the music is as rooted in its people as it is in the land.
I couldn't have said it better myself. And I wonder if I still followed Oregon indie rock and roll with the same fervor I exhibited in the Bums' heyday that I'd find a home grown Oregon band that played music, "as rooted in its people as it is in the land." Doubtful, but I am willing to have people turn me on to any group that at least tries.
The Dharma Bums never hit the big time, but all of them are still living in the Willamette Valley, still making great music, and making a living in the music business without selling their souls to do it. Really, all four of them helped sow the seeds that later grew Portland into the indie rock capital of the country. Over the years I've run across members of the band and begged for a reunion concert and a chance to hear old live shows and lost nuggets on CD. The Bums played a short, almost impromptu gig in Portland in 2008 that I didn't hear about until later and I was very, very upset.
But at long last the Stone Oregon gods have smiled my way on the matter of a Dharma Bums reunion. On Saturday, February 20, at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, the greatest Oregon rock band of all time will perform in a quintessential Oregon venue is there ever was one. If you miss this gig, you can't call yourself a hard core Oregonian.
I've even heard the band might play some new songs.