A Separate Peace

When Trip Shakespeare broke up, Matt Wilson marched off to war against his muse. Five years later, this exacting songwriter returns from the front with his first solo album.

Why do we still do it? Why do we leave our tidy quarters and private corners to stand rib-to-rib in a Marlboro smokehouse? Why does the P.A. system always play the Replacements' "Unsatisfied" between sets? What correlation does this have with our frequent dissatisfaction at show's close? How many fleeting pupil-locks can you make with the PYT across the room before flirtation becomes lechery? Whose hand is that on my thigh? Why does the squat frat boy always try to carry n +1 beers, with n representing a whole number equivalent to the digits he can manageably drape into sudsy plastic cups and +1 representing the beer which I end up wearing?

Cutting to the chase: Where is the fucking band?

Enter Matt Wilson, drummer, guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer, and one-quarter of the late, great Trip Shakespeare--or to put the case in the present tense, 100 percent of the new Matt Wilson.

G., who knows everything, says that since the band broke up in 1993, Matt Wilson has been a lost soul. G. says that Wilson's new album, Burnt, White and Blue, has been five years coming. G. says that Wilson has musical standards that no one can meet--including himself--and that his perfectionism has been crippling. G. says that his voice is delicate and raw. G. says that he needs to wash his hair more often.

G. says that when he used to play with Trip Shakespeare--alongside his older brother Dan, the two-meter-tall bassist John Munson, and the stand-up drummer Elaine Harris--the stage would emanate exuberance and that the concerts have a luminous half-life in her memory. G. says that Trip Shakespeare was the answer to the question of why we still do it--why we come to see bands, and what they give us in exchange for the stiff-limbed discomfort and the respiratory distress and the gropes and the jostling and the beery humidity of bodies.

On the night of April 4, a Saturday, I go to the 400 Bar to watch Matt Wilson play--to see if the rumors, any or all of them, are true.

Trip Shakespeare formed as a three-piece in Minneapolis in 1986, and they played at the best-new-band showcase at the Entry that year on the same bill as the Blue Up?, Run Westy Run, the Gear Daddies, and TVBC. After Trip Shakespeare self-released two albums, A&M Records signed the band and spent about half a million dollars in the studio creating Across the Universe and Lulu, which, combined, sold roughly 70,000 copies. The label dropped Trip Shakespeare in 1993 while they were completing an EP of cover tunes, their final album. The band subsequently went on a six-month hiatus after which they permanently dissolved. Trip Shakespeare played approximately 450 live shows in their seven-year existence, and many of them were received enthusiastically. None of the band's albums is currently in print and in some empirical sense Trip Shakespeare has ceased to exist.

That's one version of the story of Trip Shakespeare, and it has to its advantage both accuracy and concision--virtues that I consider overrated. For the band obituary is a bloodless creation, a generic tale with 10,000 unknown names and 100 interchangeable cities. If you don't own any of Trip Shakespeare's five out-of-print albums and you failed to attend one of the approximately 450 shows, there might be no point now in trying to convince you of what was lost. Because, really, there's too much loss in the here and now to wallow in nostalgia like some emotional dilettante.

But if you would wallow with me--I'm a pro at it, you'll see--we might try to conjure the splendor of Trip Shakespeare's songs, songs celebrating snow days, magical pants, charmed guitars, dependable cars, and the redemptive powers of music. Laments about girlfriends, girlfriends becoming ex-girlfriends, and ex-girlfriends who with the right words and luck may yet become girlfriends once more.

Wallow with me as I recount the brave desperation of "The Crane" off Across the Universe, the defiant yawp of a boy and his wheels: "When the dogs of the bank are upon me/And they've come to repossess my car/I'll be found at the base of the canyon/I'll be torn from the wreck of the motor." The sentiment is Springsteen, no mistaking it, but the song is bereft of macho bluster. For better and worse, this is no E Street Band; the vocals are too pretty, the harmonies too ornate.

The same is true of "Drummer Like Me"--a musician's siren song to a wary woman ("You've been living with your mom/That's living to me")--which replaces the balls-out ebullience of Springsteen's "Rosalita" with an appealing, honest reticence: "Got a friend with a drum machine/He's got rhythm and taste/Says I live in the '70s/And I can be replaced." Unlike "Rosalita," there's no label-signing at the end of this tune; instead, the drummer quietly concedes, "You could lose your luck with a drummer like me."

For a time, Trip Shakespeare were the poet laureates of the unlucky (and the self-made luckless). The band cast its narrative sympathies with the drunk at the wedding who watches his former girlfriend walk down the aisle ("Reception"); or the pickup driver who turns his four-wheeler over to hauling jobs ("Two Wheeler, Four Wheeler"); or the boyfriend who helps move his estranged girlfriend out of their shared apartment ("Today You Move")--only to try to wheedle his way into the new one at the end of the song.

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