My assignment at the marketing agency was a three-week test phase, after which they would let me know if they wanted me back. When the three weeks were over I flew to Michigan for a reading at the Kalamazoo Public Library. I was happy to be back in the Midwest and feeling like a writer again. The reading was a blast — turnout was great, and there was a great Q&A. My friend Fran Dwight was on hand to take photos. She had also arranged an after-party of sorts at the Old Dog Tavern. Dave Grant came to both.
Dave and I are friends now, but I met him initially as his fan. In the '90s, Dave played guitar and sang in a band called Rollinghead. I saw them for the first time on 3/28/92, when they opened for the Pixies at the State Theater. I was an avid Pixies fan, primed to ignore their opening act. But I watched Rollinghead with growing interest. This one song stuck out. I couldn't decipher any words beyond the brutal chorus: "I still blame you." A couple months later I was at a party, and a guy I knew sang a bit of one of their songs. "Saw my friend last night with a killer, a perfect screaming machine, he said her eyes could save him, her faith could raise him, if he could only get her to believe." I went out and bought their CD Daddyhorse. It hit me as hard as other great records of the era, the ones that meant the most to me: Doolittle, Nevermind, anything R.E.M. did in the '80s. Within days Rollinghead was my favorite band. Daddyhorse remains one of my favorite albums of all time.
Kalamazoo's early-'90s music scene was a special thing. There was an astonishing number of bands playing in a range of genres: post-punk, neo-hardcore, neo-emo (more Rites of Spring than the Promise Ring), scum rock, math rock, college rock, indie pop, shoegazer, avant-garde improv, art metal, metal metal. With the possible exception of college rock (in the mid- to late-'80s sense of the term), Rollinghead didn't belong to any of these scenes. They had more of a classic feel. Their music was singer-songwriter in origin: Dave Grant writing on an acoustic guitar. On record and live, it derived its tension from the interplay of three guitars layered over counterpoint bass lines and strong, simple drumming. A fair comparison is Sweet Oblivion-era Screaming Trees, partly because of Dave's voice, which calls to mind Mark Lanegan's. But Dave's voice is more agile, and he has greater melodic gifts. Lyrically, he's essentially in a league of his own.
I've loved a number of bands with inferior lyricists. Scott Weiland wrote bad lyrics, though I maintain that Stone Temple Pilots are the most underrated mainstream rock band of the last 20 years. Still, for me to really love a band, they have to have sharp lyrics. And when I heard the lyrics on Daddyhorse, I knew they were going to stay with me. It can be a gamble separating lyrics from their context. Nevertheless, here are a few favorite lines, picked almost at random: "I don't mean to correct you/I don't need to be right/but that isn't a star, it's a satellite/and I'm waiting to be wrong about this too," from "60 Seasons"; "What's the matter, man?/It's a terrifying sideshow/Caught between the dust and the what are you here for?" from "Favorite Killer"; "I'm a sweet, sucking teenage memory," from "Na Na."
I was 17 when I got into Rollinghead. I went to every show that I could. Twenty-one-and-over shows required a certain amount of scheming. When they played at Harvey's, a classic, old-school Kalamazoo venue, my friend Paul (also underage) and I would arrive hours early and nurse a plate of nachos. Eventually a bouncer would pull up a stool to check IDs, not thinking to check ours since we were already sitting there. Paul and I would then drink pitchers of beer until we were half-blind, staggering. Harvey's would be packed and sweaty, and the crowd would sing along with every song, as if we were all in some alternate universe, watching the biggest band in the world play a surprise gig at a bar.
Eventually, just from my being around constantly, I made friends with the band, which in addition to Dave consisted of Dean Van Dyke and Bill Fergusson on guitar, Dave Van Dyke on bass, and Willi Axe on drums. Sometimes they let me tag along with them to out-of-town shows. I was excited to go on those trips, but also hugely self-conscious, afraid to say something dumb. The fact that a band that great not only lived in my town but also let me hang out with them never stopped blowing my mind.
Rollinghead released two other records, Long Black Feeling and Volume 3 Live, before breaking up in 1994. Since then they've played a handful of reunion shows, only one of which I made it to, back in 2001. After the KPL reading, Bill Fergusson joined Dave and me at the Old Dog. We got each other up to speed on what's going on in our lives now. Part of me was still awestruck. Time collapsed. The Bell's Two-Hearted Ale I was drinking had a Proustian effect. I looked over at my friend, this guy that I've known for half my life, who also happens to have written a handful of my favorite songs, and I thought, Jesus, I can't believe I'm hanging out with Dave Grant.
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To listen to Rollinghead, click here. Daddyhorse actually begins with Track 3, and the songs are as follows: "Terrifying," Strangle You," "Pain Under My Skin," "60 Seasons," "Favorite Killer," "Take My Place," "Skinny Vein," "No Time," "Movies," "Krik Wisslers."