By Jack Spencer
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Midlife crises raise their graying gargoyles' heads a little earlier in musicians' lives than they do in "normal" people's existences. Musicians are expected to scale the peaks of their careers by the time the rest of us have landed our first minimum-wage-plus-$1 jobs after college. Kurt Cobain was 24 when Nirvana ruined his life by hitting it big; Ozzy Osbourne was 22 when Black Sabbath made it; Beck was 24; John Lennon was 23. Tony Bennett is 26. No, not that Tony Bennett--he's 76. The Tony Bennett fronting the Dames of Duluth is 50 years younger, and his own personal crisis has its genesis in the move he and Dames' drummer Mat Milinkovich made to Minneapolis from Duluth/Superior in the summer of last year. A couple of months ago, a homesick Bennett drove his gunmetal-gray '89 Buick Regal back to the windy shores of Lake Superior.
"We moved to Minneapolis in order to help our careers," he remembers ruefully as he talks into a cell phone while parked at a Duluth video store. "It didn't work, obviously." Maybe the move south didn't get the Dames where they want to be in the music world, but it sure made the drive to Minneapolis's AnalogElectric recording studios shorter. That's where singer-songwriter-guitarist Bennett, bassist Rusty Johnson (who moved to Minneapolis in early 2000), and soon-to-be-former-drummer Milinkovich recorded their new album, Divorce (Angry Seed), earlier this year.
"The name seems prophetic now, but it really wasn't meant to be when I thought of it," Bennett says of the title of the band's second release, a riotous marriage of metal and punk. "Pretty much everybody in our country's been affected by divorce, but no one talks about how bad it sucked because everybody's got the same story. It'd be like talking about going to the bathroom. There's no reason to do that. Maybe that's part of the reason the title appealed to me."
The parting of ways within the Dames is taking place because Milinkovich is unable to make his daytime job dovetail with his drumming. "We're cool," Bennett says of the split. "Mat's leaving is really depressing, and it's really exciting at the same time. It's an opportunity to do new things with our music. Hopefully, we'll find someone as good as he is to replace him." Milinkovich will play his last two gigs with the Dames at their upcoming CD-release parties.
Even after the drummer piece of the band puzzle has been found, Bennett will face another labyrinth: figuring out how to get from Point A (being a college student and part-time cameraman at the PBS station in Duluth) to Point B (making a living as a musician). "The odds of being a musician who can support myself are pretty bad," he admits. "You gotta be a commodity, and I don't want to be a commodity." He points disdainfully at "fake fucking grunge bands on MTV" as merchandise he won't buy or emulate. "They dance in front of wind machines, immaculately groomed, with hairy chests and shiny shirts while doing the Jesus Christ posing. Their eye makeup is supposed to mean something profound."
His response to those fake fucks lies in the confrontational riff squalls, amp abuse, and punkedelia of Divorce, a scorching cocktail of sound mixed from influences and kinsmen such as the Vaselines, Melvins, Monster Magnet, and Jucifer. Bennett's "The Masochist" lumbers to an Incredible Hulk/Black Sabbath start before coming to rest in a calming chime of his guitar and whispered lyrics about smiling and memories. For a moment it's almost as if the Moody Blues have come creaking softly up out of their musical coffins, but not to worry. The unsettling illusion is shattered with a crushing chorus of guitar and screamed vocals. It's impossible to discern what Bennett is singing, yet it's easy to assume that whatever it is hurts quite a lot.
If you're unsure of what to expect from the Dames, that's just the way Bennett wants you to feel. "Music to me is not fucking ENTERTAINMENT," he writes in his online journal (www.livejournal.com/users/ dametonybennett). "It's something more than that. A Sly Stallone movie is entertainment. A Fugazi concert is something deeper, and I aspire to be like that."
That desire to penetrate the psyche could be the force that keeps Bennett making music in the years ahead, even though he might well be out of the music business. "It's sad to see a 45-year-old guy covering someone else's songs at a little bar while thinking he's just about to make it big," Bennett says. He insists that he won't make the mistake of prolonging unconsummated dreams of becoming a financially self-sufficient musician. This musician's midlife crisis will be resolved long before midlife actually arrives.