A Conversation with DL Marble & Marc Norman
I was sitting with my wife in Tempe Tavern listening to DL Marble play for the first time. We had come because the Tavern is a great place to hang: it has great food, great music, and the price is right – plus, my wife may have a teenie, little crush on Marc Norman. Anyway, so we are sitting watching these guys play this carousel of an alternative, outlaw country show weaving DL, Marc, and Steve Larson into and out of vocal sets and guitar parts, and I am listening to DL give an intro to “Drag Me Back” about being drained of money, paying child support, and hearing Roger Clyne on the radio and writing a song. It was a good story, and certainly one that resonated in my own experience, but it instantly made my mind make interesting leaps – as is often likely to happen in my particular case.
Some years ago, I was really digging on a lot of what the Austin, Texas band Blue October was releasing. Some radio hits had put the band on the national road map, and commercial success had obviously giving Furstenfeld some clout – which he answered with the heartfelt, painfully tragic, “Any Man in America”. The album explores, in some songs such as the uptempo, hip-hop inspired, title track, much more raw that others, the pain a father suffers from losing his children in a court system that favors women a vast percentage of the time.
Fatherhood/ marriage leads to alimony and child-support, and in many ways, Furstenfeld’s album voices deep concerns and frustrations many fathers in America feel. Blue October has a certain audience, and the album was their least successful to date. I loved it, and felt that it was much more raw, real, and progressive than their previous releases, but the masses of younger generation, mostly childless fans, did not get the message.
Juxtapose this with the general demographic of just about any country music show. If a guitar picking, outlaw poet, strumming in a bar avoids songs about pain, loss, and the scorn of love, that poet would be out of a job. Certainly, raising this question, immediately leads to cliches about country music played backwards, getting your dogs, women, and trucks back, and redneck honky tonks. However, that does not make it an invalid question.
The deeper understanding here is one of audience. Pop music, as defined as “popular” music so as to be more accurately all-encompassing, deals, at least in broad strokes, with a certain sense of escapism. Heavily dramatic acts in the world of music have shown this across genres: Eminem, KISS, Marilyn Manson, Public Enemy, Ozzy Ozborne, Ghost, and a host of others have all been very successful at portraying, and or using, characters and over-the-top theatrics to exaggerate a sense of disconnect from reality, a place where certain questions can be asked, certain indulgences can be openly acknowledged, and people like Marshall Mathers can come out to play.
But to say their fans are going to immediately run out and become Satanists, shoot up their schools, bite the heads off of bats, or try to copycat fictitious role models is to say that music is the cause of most of all of these social ills. That is certainly not the case, nor the argument that I am presenting.
Whereas country poets, like DL Marble, embellish and hope to create an understanding and kinship with their audience through the reality of their music. “I feel everything”, he said to me as we drank beer at the bar listening to Darci Carlson play a raucous show at Chopper Johns in Phoenix. “I feel the conversation in the next booth. And then I write a song about it. I feel too much, and I want you to know it. I want the audience to feel it too.” This sense of commitment to audience, this desire to connect to the world in a way that resonates with real people, creates a place where a guitar-man brings people into his world, and shows them that he feels what they feel, and is trying to express it the best way that he can.
Both forms of entertainment are awesome, and DO NOT get me wrong; I am a proud holder of Iron Maiden and Metallica tickets and I am beyond stoked! However, I also do not in any way expect to sit and have a beer with those guys and talk about life. That is what I am trying to describe, and it is that pulse of humanity that country music attempts to understand. When it is done badly, well…. every pop-county song on the radio tells that story, but when it it is done well it will make you feel just a bit less alone on a road that is really damn hard in a world that can be too damn big.
As the discussion turned towards popular country music, I mentioned how interpreting where real country was happening was an interesting discussion. Willie Nelson left Nashville, finding that Austin, Texas was the place for the singer/ song-writer guitar-man more-so than a place designed to pair the best singers with the best songs and the best musicians. One was designed to create hits; the other was designed to inspire poetry. “And Waylon Jennings and Marty Robbins both chose to close out their days and be buried in Arizona. Why?”
“You tell me”, I countered. “What makes Arizona country different from that of Texas or Tennessee?”
“We are the last outlaws. Arizona is the last “real west”. DL downed the last of his beer, “Arizona still has outlaw gangster status. It’s like Arizona was still holding out and shooting out the OK Corral when the other western states were trying to clean up and be civilized. It’s in our blood; it’s an native Arizonan kind of thing. When it comes down to it, I feel that Arizona country is just more about real life: less from the studio, more from the wild wide open.”
I think I have a sense of what DL was trying to say. He and I have one other thing in common; we are both native Arizonans. Arizona is a place that defies just about everything. Living in this heat alone defies reason. There is still a sense of that Old West in Arizona, there are still places like Crown King, and The Blue, and the vast expanse and mystery of The Grand Canyon. Hell, for folks that don’t do it often, The Salt River Canyon can take a few years off of anybody who has shallow nerves.
Living in a place that is inhabited by so many people from so many other places, it is easy to see Arizona being able to maintain its mystique. Those who have lived here, worked here, sweat here, and played here long enough to know many of its hidden gems, are few, and most others in a transient population have no idea at all the depth of history lurking all around them. In that sense, Arizona is a truly outlaw land, with an outlaw outlook on life, an outlaw outlook on authority, a sense of outlaw ownership of its legends, and a deep running thread of outlaw in its music.
One of the things that does immediately come to mind, sitting in a room, talking, drinking beer, and laughing with the Casa Music Group guys, is that in many ways you are in the presence of outlaw Arizona music royalty. When one thinks back on the explosion the Tempe music scene back in the mid 1990s, many of the men in this room were there, among the early rabble rousers. DL has surrounded himself with a group of trusted friends, that go back twenty five years, and share among themselves a collective history of a different time. Members of Dead Hot Workshop, The Pistoleros, the enigmatic Marc Norman, and several other icons of Tempe are represented in this close circle. The question was bound to come up, but sometimes talking about the local success story creates an interesting tension.
“What is it like, living, working, creating music, in what in many ways must seem like the shadow of Roger Clyne?” A hush fell over the few of us, like I had traversed across some invisible line that was better left undefined. It should be noted here, that talking about Roger Clyne in 2017 is very different than talking about him 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, The Refreshments were walking away from Mercury Records, and Roger was getting ready to go 100% Independent. It was a very gutsy and risky move, and for myself, as an aspiring artist, Roger became the number one example of an entrepreneur that got it right. And here we are , twenty years later, and Roger is still not having anybody else sign his paycheck. It is inspiring; especially when one comes from an outlaw state, like Arizona. True independence is an ideal very few people attain. How does one have a music conversation with these guys at all, and not have that come up?
What came out were two very different, but related answers, at two different venues. At Tempe Tavern, Marc Norman was sitting across the table from Steve Larson, and he nodded to the stellar Johnny Cash impersonator, “I think it was Steve that said this to me years ago,” Marc began. “The best place in the world to be is Almost Famous. Obviously you don’t want to be down here,” he motioned as low as he could reach from his bar-height chair, “but if you are all the way at the top, the only way to go is down. Nah, right at the cusp, right there, but just not quite…. an artist can ride that for twenty years.”
Featuring the antics of Marc Norman and remnants of The Pistoleros, and Dead Hot Workshop, this band is a true Tempe original!
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Later, at Chopper John’s, I asked DL, “So what is being indie now?” I have really been throwing that question all over in my mind, really ever since the Wyves article. The music industry has changed, and changed almost completely in a very short amount of time. Honestly, I wondered if Roger Clyne would even be able to do it, walk away from a record contract and completely make it, as an independent. I often ask myself the same question. When I wrote my book Grave Whispers and it was released with Black Bed Sheet Books, small, yes, but a publication company all the same, I thought that I had arrived. I thought all I had to do was show up and start signing autographs.
Obviously that is not how it works, and to cut a long story short, I am back in the writing ring, but this time I am the captain of my own ship, hoping to navigate those oceans of independence. If all of a sudden Arizona Central or Arizona Highways called and wanted one of my articles, would I say, “No. No thanks. I am indie?” I am not sure, really. What would Roger do? So in that respect, that was the root of my question to DL Marble. “Is Indie even a thing, in itself, or is it just the label people give themselves while they are waiting for a label?”
“Nobody is independent. Everybody is beholden to somebody. Being independent is not worrying about the future.”
“So what is the role of Casa Music Group?”
“Casa is me. Me and Paulie. When I left Dirtbag Records, after my first record, I met Paul Williams. Paul was the bassist in a heavier rock band also signed to Dirtbag, and it was he that first informed me that Dirtbag was cutting ties with many of the bands. Paul, who is one hell of a bass player and plays on a variety of different instruments, including a small, ukulele style bass, which was Sick! has been an Angry Seahorse ever since, and along with Matt Rupnow and a somewhat revolving ‘drummer’, DL and the boys set out to reconfigure themselves as an Independent band under Casa. Later, back in Arizona, Marc Norman and Ruppy were brought on, and rounded out the ‘house’ at CASA music.
“If a larger label is interested in me, Casa comes with it. If the money wants me to be Eric Church… I can be Eric Church, but I am going to play my songs. I am going to play a few Ray Wylie Hubbard Songs. I am going to play a Roger Clyne song. There are no sell outs; I have kids. Nobody is going to walk away from a paycheck, it is a matter of how you hold on to who you are when you are taking that paycheck. That is independence.”
I could not argue. I am forty-three years old. I work harder, physically, at Costco, than I really ever thought I would have to by this age in my life. I pursued college, I attained degrees, but life happens, and we roll with those punches, and we try to keep the greasy side down. Now, however, now I am a middle aged man, hanging out in bars, watching more concerts than I watched in my twenties, and in general really just having a hell of a great time. When I talk about what I am doing to my friends at work, they usually ask two questions: first, “how much money are you making?” To which I laugh and say, nothing, not yet. To which they follow up, “well, are you just having a midlife crisis?”
I laughed. A lot. Out loud. But those are not bad questions, and now, sitting there with DL Marble, thinking back on my other music articles, and thinking about my own writing dreams, I was deeply and fondly reminded of one of my all time favorite stories to teach. In Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin, an older brother: a teacher, a father, a military man, is talking to his younger brother, who is a recovering heroin addict and musician. The older brother asks:
“Doesn’t all this take a lot of time? Can you make a living at it?” He turned back to me and half leaned, half sat, on the kitchen table. “Everything takes time,” he said, “and—well, yes, sure, I can make a living at it. But what I don’t seem to be able to make you understand is that it’s the only thing I want to do.” “Well, Sonny,” I said gently, “you know people can’t always do exactly what they want to do—” “No, I don’t know that,” said Sonny, surprising me. “I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?” “You getting to be a big boy,” I said desperately, “it’s time you started thinking about your future.” “I’m thinking about my future,” said Sonny, grimly. “I think about it all the time.” – JAMES BALDWIN
This is really the only answer. DL Marble is an artist. He is a father. He is a hard working, Arizona outlaw. He is doing exactly what he wants to do with his life, pursuing something from within himself that fuels him with a desire to put something back into the world. So am I. I am a writer. I am a father. I am a hard working Arizona outlaw who just wants his passion to be contagious. There is no midlife crisis. It is all about the need to create. It is all about the need to put something back into the world, and that desire does not have an age limit. We are thinking about our futures; we are thinking about them all of the time.
Finally, in the end, I told DL, “I have one final question. One other small insight that I am curious about. We lost Chris Cornell this month, much has been said about Eddie Vedder really being the last of the grunge icons left… all the rest are dead, and all by suicide. That forces some hard pondering. I am curious as to what your answer to The Poet’s Curse is?” I then went on to explain my nerdy fascination with Hamlet, and the idea that poet’s are cursed to feel the world in a way that most don’t, that is how they are able to create what they do, but it also opens them up to very dark things.
“I feel everything. I feel the conversation in the next booth. And then I write a song about it. I feel too much, and I want you to know it. I want the audience to feel it too. The problem is that we feel it, and we want you to understand how much were laying down up there. I bleed for you up there. I come down, and need a drink, need a smoke, people want to talk immediately and sometimes they don’t understand that I just can’t. I left part of myself up there on that stage, and I need a minute.” It is a hard thing to describe, many might see the world of the rock star as glamorous and full of friends, but history shows that there is much darkness and many shadows. Perhaps it was said best, by another Arizona legend, as he sings about knowing the difference between a gun to finalize everything, or another drink might make everything just ok enough. DL Marble should cover Stephen Ashbrook’s Scotch and a Handgun, and dedicate it to all those who got lost in the black.
I guess, really, the nature of music itself is of an outlaw nature. Music as a convention has always bucked the system, thwarted the establishment, and progressively marched towards change. It is a rogue enterprise, but some people fit that outlaw roll better than others. In the end it is about connection. Connection to your audience. Connection to your home. Connection to your own pulse, feelings and limitations. Connections to your own sense of self and identity. In the end is about how honest we are, in the way we project the person that we want others to see and the person we know looks back at us in the mirror. In the end it is about allowing ones self to be vulnerable, publicly, and having the balls to do it again. In the end it is about being real, and being true…. to the world and to yourself….. and staying the course long enough to have that outlaw passion…. pull itself from a bottle of Mexican Moonshine and become the stuff of legends.
Keep the Greasy Side Down My Friends !