Wu Is Me

How one reluctant hippie embraced the smell of patchouli and the sound of Minnesota's preeminent jam band, the Big Wu

I hate hippies. I hate the swim dance strokes and the patchouli stank. I hate the dangerous notion that humor or puppets or blues jams or anything at all can turn Babylon into Utopia with no mess, no bad blood or bad vibes or bad things happening to good people. I hate this idea most of all because, deep down, I want to believe it, and I can't. And for this, I feel implicated in everything hippies oppose.

Which is to say, I am a hippie. And maybe you are too. Just a self-hating one.

Although America's largest generational subculture never actually levitated the Pentagon, the hippies did influence whatever group was fighting and frolicking through the long, 30-year decade of the post-Sixties. The media freak-out over the WTO/World Bank protesters merely revived anti-hippie sentiment. And it seized on the single grain of truth in the pepper-spray cloud of slander hanging over the demonstrators: Namely, that without some organizational grit, street theater has about as much practical impact on the rest of the planet as naming an ice-cream flavor after Wavy Gravy.

The Wu sell out: An army of peaceable hippies occupies the Fitzgerald Theater.Photo by Jason W. Weidman
The Wu sell out: An army of peaceable hippies occupies the Fitzgerald Theater.

Photo by Jason W. Weidman

Don't these kids know the Sixties won the cultural battle and lost the economic war? (To be honest, the economic war was probably lost in the 1860s, when the local agrarian economy yielded to full-scale global industrialism.) After Nixon, a generation reduced hippiedom to a punch line (swim dance strokes and patchouli stank) while filtering its core values--which are pretty much yours and mine, only more so--into a culture of enlightened consumerism. Now we recycle. We have neighborhood associations. We're wary of war, and, hey, we don't mind electing dopers.


All this rhetoric might seem pointlessly confrontational as a way into the Big Wu, perhaps the biggest hippie-friendly band ever to emerge from gentle Minnesota. But it would be dishonest to say I didn't fight off cynicism at first as I approached the band both figuratively and literally at their Fitzgerald Theater performance on the eve of Earth Day.

As you might guess, I never really got the Grateful Dead, whom the Big Wu at one point pretty much existed to cover. (That was back in their formative years in the early Nineties, as St. Olaf's favorite college band.) Yet without quite understanding the fascination with Jerry's comforting croak and blissed-out meandering, I've always had a grudging respect for this sole preserve of the counterculture, passed through generations without the taint of cynicism. (Actual item in the July Vibe: New York's "it" restaurant is Commune, N.Y.C., where "communal tables will have you rubbing elbows with fellow beautiful people in high style.")

In fact, the inheritors of American Beauty's beauty--the musicians lumped under the misleading rubric "jam bands"--represent a revolution that was never truly televised and never will be. Like the music's corresponding ideology--humanism of the hookah--there's a harmlessness to it all, which shouldn't be entirely confused with innocuousness. The living Dead represent a sunnier version of the communal catharsis rock 'n' roll promised, right down to its funk without sexual menace, its country jams without the alky melancholy, its jazz without soul. Even the smartest-sounding stuff--say, the intricate grooves of Phish--seems custom-made for shiny, happy people with a genetic resistance to irony.

The night of the Wu show, plenty of happy folks gather outside the Prairie homeboy's headquarters, which, I later learn, has sold out. Many of them run around the block to pick up trash off the streets and sidewalks. The gesture might be in the spirit of the calendar date--though "Every day is Earth Day" according to the bumper stickers leading my non-carpooling, smoke-spitting Dodge Colt to a parking space. There are red-eyed frat brothers milling about in the park across the street--all of them, I learn, are from out of town, some from as far away as Duluth. These kids trade and collect Wu tapes, Grateful Dead-style, they say, and have heard shows from around the country as a result. There's also a tie-dyed throng joining in what looks like a hug-in at the front door of the theater--a lot of old friends from all over the region reuniting, it seems. And as much as I search for all-hemp jumpsuits or a noteworthy head of six-foot locks, the kids seem united by mood, not trappings.

Breezing through the security barriers inside, I run into "Spike" (a.k.a. Andy Frey), the Wu's anomalous punk soundman, who sports a black tank top, spiked black hair, and black jeans with cell phone and wallet chain attached. When I make my way to the greenroom backstage, the band is gathered with friends around a table, everyone in tees or ponchos or Hawaiian shirts. One by one, they introduce themselves, making only a fleeting impression: boyish Chris Castino, dreadlocked Jason Fladager, surfer-blond Andy Miller, bearded Al Oikari, and darkly intense (and also bearded) Terry VanDeWalker.

They're friendly but preoccupied and guarded. Perhaps band members have been briefed by their manager about my jam-band prejudices. Perhaps they're cool toward a paper that has diligently ignored them for eight years. Perhaps they're nervous--this is their first show in the Fitz, and it's being recorded for a live album. Perhaps none of the above.

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