That’ll Learn Ya and The Beer Summit
I know I promised to regale you with a Bonnaroo story, suffuse with Bruce Springsteen, Al Schnier and Triumph The Insult Comic Dog passed out in the press trailer but alas that will have to wait because I have a couple other things on my mind (and my back, as you’ll see).
In addition, before I pick up momentum, let me state that the title, That’ll Learn Ya and The Beer Summit references two discrete subjects. Come to think of it though, I recall a New Paper article circa 1988 or so in which the band I’ll describe shortly downed their fair share of Rolling Rocks (a beer which had its brief moment of PBR chic in the mid to late 80s and is infinitely preferable to what President Obama was drinking on the White House lawn last week).
Okay, clearly I have malt beverages on my mind so let’s start with the Beer Summit.
I was out for a sunset-inspired run two weeks ago, cycling through the FM dial when I heard, “Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has been taken into custody by the Cambridge Police…”
For our purposes here today, I’m not going to take up the issue as to whether Skip Gates was wrongfully belligerent to a police officer. What I will say though, in a somewhat related context, is that many of you Tourheads out there likely have had the experience of being singled out by the police simply because of the way you dressed, the sticker on your car or because you made the tragic error of telling the official at the border that you were headed into Canada to see Phish (A mistake I made only once).
I simply want to vent briefly on the subject of Skip’s character. There were any number of suggestions made about his prejudices and predilections but let me just state for the record that I took multiple seminars with him, he served on my General Examination Committee when I was completed my masters degree and was one of three readers who signed off on my doctoral dissertation. In many years of interactions, I always found him to be generous, good-hearted and supportive.
Oh yes, can I remind you that I’m about as white as can be? Actually, I’m as white as can be except for the lower right corner of my back but hang on to the postscript for the details.
My recollection is that Skip arrived at Harvard around the same year that I did (fall of 1990) although it is possible that the announcement he would be joining the faculty came later that year and he didn’t actually begin teaching until 1991. Some of my favorite Cambridge classroom memories were in his graduate seminars (my soliloquy on the Hayes-Tilden compromise is a personal favorite but alas, I guess you had to be there). Sitting in his office, on a given afternoon, waiting to begin my directed study while he wrapped up an interview with Time magazine also proved amusing and that happened more than once.
I also should point out that after my Phish book was published in late 1996, his treatment of me remained consistent. By contrast, I can still remember being called into the office of another Harvard prof who up until that time had been the lead adviser on my dissertation committee. I think the Crimson had published a brief interview with me and this individual had a copy of the book, took a look at the Hyperion/Disney imprint, briefly flipped through the pages, sighed and explained that some people were destined to write operas and others were destined to write show tunes. I’m not sure sure if he was referring to Phish or myself but shortly thereafter he resigned from my committee.
Again I was in (semi)regular contact with Skip until I finally finished the darned dissertation in the spring of 2000. Yes, yes, I know, if you’re scoring at home that’s a decade. I would point out that between, say, 1996 and 2000, I had a heavy teaching load and published another book. Oh yes, during that period, I founded this site as well (which in turn led to my gig at Relix- Gee, do I sound defensive about those ten years in grad school? If so, let me just say that it was a glorious stretch, full of wonderful colleagues and quality music).
Anyhow the point of all this is to underscore my respect and admiration for Henry Louis Gates. Other folks can make whatever charges and assertions they wish (particularly on those late night syndicated FM talk shows) but I can tell you from experience that they have it wrong.
Frankly, the revelation I probably find most unsettling in the wake of the Summit, is President Obama’s beer choice. Really, Mr. President, Bud Light? Although my wife tells me that’s the most popular beer in America, so perhaps that’s the politics talking, not the taste buds. I’m hoping that when the doors to the Oval Office are closed and its after hours, he tips back something with a bit more flavor.
All of which, I suppose, can serve as a ramshackle segue to That’ll Learn Ya.
It’s amazing how this whole World Wide Interweb thingie works because a few days after the incident in Cambridge, I received a number of emails informing me about That’ll Learn Ya’s new Facebook page along with the groups purported plans to reunite after more than 15 years.
My last That’ll Learn Ya show was at Club Babyhead in Providence, circa 1991 or so (the same place I once enjoyed a delightful chess match in the midst of the scrum at a Neutral Nation gig- a story for another day). Anyhow, I remember that we’d pounded our share that night (no Bud Lights although back in 1991 Rolling Rocks were fair game in that setting, particularly if Haffenreffer wasnt available). Along with my running buddy, Mr. David “Manny” Saslavsky (now of Chicago and Umphrey’s/Biscuits/Phish/Dead fandom fame- how many of you have seen a least 100 shows of each of those bands), we ran into some people we knew from high school and the night eventually turned into a hometown throwdown/hoedown. I recall we ended up walking out of there buzzed and limping from opposite sides following our share of slamming to “When I Go Down” or some other That’ll Learn Ya live staple.
You see at a time when I was flying all over the country to see the Grateful Dead (Phish was still local), That’ll Learn Ya was my hometown crush. They were my default band on just about any evening they were in town. Headlining gigs, openers, it was all the same. I can recall one evening when they were a last-minute fill-in at the Rocket (which became Club Babyhead), listed in the New Paper ad only as TBA, which is what they called themselves that evening to the nearly empty room- I can’t remember how we found out about the gig- probably through a friend’s sister who was dating the drummer, Dave Harris.
I was there to cheer them on at the old Living Room when they finished second at the WBRU Rock Hunt. That’s a sore spot for them I know, because the winners (bop) Harvey were carpetbaggers from Michigan. Truth be told though, (bop) was an entertaining band in moderate doses who ended their run in 1994 with a performance on Late Night with Conan OBrien (their dreadheaded lead singer then known as Wordsmith, has since shorn his locks and his Jamaican accent to perform as Smokey Carter in The Harvestmen, a honky-tonk/bluegrass band back in Lansing, while bass player and fellow songwriter Dan Stechow is co-founder of the Select-A-Branch ATM Network, responsible for the growth and management of the S-A-B’s financial institution network participants, the network’s media channels and day-to-day operations. Indeed.)
Okay enough about (bop) Harvey. Just like they purportedly hijacked that Rock Hunt with their Michigan license plates, I’m not going to let them hijack this piece (however, since I’m all over the place today, for those of you who enjoy questioning the veracity of Wikipedia- they have it wrong on their Rock Hunt page. I assure you That’ll Learn Ya didnt win in 88, they finished second to (bop) in 89. It was a cool final though. I recall the Philtres were in it but I can’t remember the fourth band).
As for That’ll Learn Ya, they really just scratched an itch at a time I was listening to any number of bands but most commonly, the Grateful Dead, the Replacements and Elvis Costello. Their music certainly owes much more to the Mats and Elvis than the Dead (with some R.E.M. jangle thrown in as well) but there was a bit of hippie freak on the side. I was always up for their rousing, rowdy take on the Velvet Underground’s Rock and Roll, a song which became a bit better known in these parts after Phish covered on Halloween and added the tune to their rotation. I never heard it but I was also told once that on rare occasion That’ll Learn Ya covered Miracle Legion’s “The Backyard,” which to me was the definitive yearning song of the era.
I still possess my That’ll Learn Ya cassettes, their lone vinyl offering (a 7” single Pulling Up The Night b/w Blood On Me), a live set from WRIU recorded in March 1986, a tape of their Rock Hunt appearance, the T-shirt that promoted one of their releases…
I used to run into drummer Dave Harris a bit through that friends sister and every couple of months, I couldn’t refrain from asking, So are you guys signed yet? I’m sure this was frustrating and annoying to him but I honestly believed it was imminent and wanted to share congrats. My recollection (and I could be off here) is before they called it quits, That’ll Learn Ya recorded some stuff with Paul Kolderie (or perhaps an associate) in Boston. Kolderie, to remind you, produced Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression, Radiohead’s Pablo Honey and most recently, Portugal. The Man’s The Satanic Satanist.
Anyhow, it’s been quite some time since my last That’ll Learn Ya show and I’ve never written a word on the group until now. I have been dealt a sweet hand and gone on to interview those other artists who commanded my turntable during that era: Elvis, Paul Westerberg and every member of the Grateful Dead, save for Jerry, who passed before I had a chance. On rare occasion, I have tossed on an old That’ll Learn Ya tape but I have yet to convert the files to CD (I’ve thought about it, though). I do recall though that when I was in the final stages of putting together the Wetlands movie, I scrambled to see if perhaps they had played a showcase there, with the intent of dropping in some live music. Alas, I never found anything (and again to digress, for those of you who keep asking, Wetlands Preserved will be back on the Sundance Channel in September- it’s slated to air on 9/1, 9/2 and 9/6 with more likely to come- they stil own the rights for a year).
Frankly, all in all, I had thought there was something rather fitting about having my final Thatl’l Learn Ya memory be of that night limping out with my childhood friend. However, I have to believe I’ll end up at the reunion gig (Manny, consider this your invitation to join). Who knows how they’ll sound and what their intentions might be. If they are even moderately serious about all this though, it should be quite a hoot to revisit that local crush fifteen years later. And who knows what might follow.
Later days and peace,
PS. Right, you want to hear That’ll Learn Ya. Check out the Facebook page that went live around the time that Skip was taken into custody. Some of the music and production is slightly dated but I’d suggest When I Go Down, Robert De Niro Movies, Murder of The Speed King or any other song title that intrigues you
P.P.S. For those of you still with me, you may recall I mentioned my back. Well as it turns out, I’ve contracted the lovely lyme disease (again). Check it out
My doctor tells me this is a textbook case of the lyme disease bullseye pattern. I couldn’t be prouder.