Liner Notes

House Lights... The Concert's Over

by Christopher Thelen

It's only appropriate that I choose the headline I did -- a quote from Frank Zappa to cut short a disastrous concert in 1982, when idiots were pelting the stage with all sorts of stuff -- to take a final look around the offices, a la Barney Miller, and share with you some of my thoughts before I hand over the keys.

You see, nearly nine years after starting this website and reviewing hundreds (if not thousands) of discs, this will be my final scheduled piece for "The Daily Vault." A few months ago, I made the decision to give up ownership and total control of this site to Jason Warburg, who has been running things day-to-day for two years, and who will be keeping the site going for many more years to come. I am remaining on board as a "contributing writer," meaning I'll still submit reviews when the muse moves me to -- though after going through over 60 Zappa albums in a short period of time, I think my muse has filed a grievance against me.

So, if you'll bear with me just one more time, I'd like to share with you some final memories before, after all these years, I bring the curtain down on this stage of my life. And it all begins with the demise of a rival site...

Does anyone remember "Hits World"? Back in 1995-1996, they were the site for us wanna-be critics who missed the day-to-day grind of being part of the respectable media. I had done my time in college media, and even had launched a successful music review section in The Flyer, the college newspaper of Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois. Upon graduation, I fully expected that I'd land a job with either of the major Chicago newspapers as a music journalist -- but that dream was quickly shattered. Even local papers didn't want to bring me on. It seemed like my time as a music critic had passed.

That is, until Hits World launched a music review section, under the guidance of one Jung-Bum Hur. You may recognize his name -- more on that a little later. Despite being on opposite ends of the planet, we struck up a friendship as I kept submitting review after review, and even got the chance to start a column called "The Vault," which was supposed to focus on forgotten albums from groups everyone knew about. That lasted all of one column...

And then, came the crash. No, not the "dot-com" fallout -- that was a few years ahead -- but a hard drive crash which ended up being the death blow to "Hits World." After a few months of waiting for the site to come up, I notified the webmaster I was packing my reviews and column and leaving... but for what?

Flash forward to the night of my 26th birthday -- December 27, 1996 -- when my cousin Bill Ziemer and I, after countless discussions of starting a business together that we never followed through on, made a decision. We were going to launch a music review website. Despite precious little knowledge of HTML and no idea of how long it would take to get a site up and running, we tentatively set April 1, 1997, as the launch date.

This was, quite possibly, the only time we were ahead of deadline. Building the site was a breeze; getting hosting space even easier, courtesy of my father. Bill -- under the pen name of Larry "Duke" Williams -- and I (using my old Hits World pseudonym of "Robert A. Pierce") quickly built a staff of five, which included an old college friend who had taken over the music review section of The Flyer (and, sadly, never did contribute to the site), a co-worker at my paying job (who, like me, is still there) and one fellow ex-patriate from Hits World... Jung-Bum Hur, now known to us as "AlwaysJB." It still amazes me that, after a decade of working together, JB and I have never had the opportunity to meet face-to-face. Some day, I know that will change.

And the rest, as they say, is history... though now AlwaysJB is the final member of the "original five" left on the active roster. (Bill found greener pastures elsewhere and has since started a lovely family in Chicago, and the woman I still work with just seemed to lose interest in the site. I never did talk to the fifth member, Jim Caswell, again -- damn shame, really, since he was one of my best friends in college.)

I've told my fellow staff members over the last few weeks that what I've been able to do in the past two decades (and especially in the past nine years) has been to live the dream of millions of music lovers worldwide. I've gotten the extreme honor of getting to meet many of the musicians whose music shaped my life when I was growing up, such as Blackie Lawless of W.A.S.P., Angus & Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson from AC/DC, Billy Sheehan, Christopher Cross, Glenn Danzig, Melissa Etheridge, Todd Rundgren and Chip Z'Nuff. Of these, I cannot say enough kind things about Chip, who, despite the fact I haven't spoken to him in many years, proved himself to be one of the nicest people I have ever had the privilege of meeting anywhere. Chip once called me on my cell phone to make sure I was coming out to a concert they were playing at a bar in Mundelein (I think that was the city), and when he saw me backstage, greeted me with a bear-hug. I swear, if I could do anything about it, I'd make Enuff Z'Nuff a top 10 band tomorrow.

I could bore people to tears with the stories I could tell. I could tell about the time I interviewed Don Dokken following Dokken's show at the House Of Blues in Chicago, and even though I had finished my questions, continued to engage me in conversation for well over an hour. I could tell about how Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, upon hearing I planned to give a book of newspaper front pages documenting World War II from D-Day to the end of the war to a roadie (because I didn't have a backstage pass), personally put me on the V.I.P. list, and how I was able to hand him the book with an inscription thanking him for providing me with the soundtrack of my life. I could tell the story of how I was waiting for a phone call from Ronnie James Dio for an interview, only to have the phone ring and find myself speaking with Bruce Kulick -- unfortunate, since I hadn't received his most recent disc to review. (I never did get to talk to Dio, by the way.) Or, how after cancelling out of an interview with Bruce Dickinson due to a family emergency, I ended up getting the call anyway (apparently no one told Bruce the interview was cancelled), and having Bruce ask me if everything was all right.

I could tell the tale of when I sat in the House Of Blues restaurant with Doug Pinnick of King's X and his roadie as they ate dinner and Doug granted me an interview, unafraid to touch on any subject matter. Or how I sat backstage with Fleming McWilliams of Fleming And John, right at the height of their popularity and discussed, of all things, children. (Fleming was nice enough to take me to the edge of the stage while sound-check was going on -- that is the closest I've ever been to being on stage.) Or how a fellow critic, Steve Huerta, and I met up at Martyrs in Chicago where Niacin was playing, and we ended up closing the place down just standing around the bar swapping war stories. (Someone said we sounded like the Siskel and Ebert of music criticism, when I said -- no disrespect meant to Steve -- "Yeah, but neither of us is skinny enough to be Siskel.")

There are, of course, dreams of mine that I never did get the chance to fulfill. Despite being fortunate enough to get backstage passes to many concerts, I never was lucky enough to land an "all access" laminate. I never did find out if roadies delivered a copy of my interview with Johnny Van Zant to him -- the publicist never did tell me that the band did the meet-and-greet while the opening acts were onstage. Or if a roadie ever delivered copies of my reviews to Rick Wakeman when Yes was in Chicago a few years ago, and I was doing "Wakeman Wednesdays" on the site. (I think Rick would be an absolutely fascinating person to interview -- get the DVD of him performing solo in 2000 and listen to the stories he tells.) Or if Charlie Benante of Anthrax ever received my questions for an e-mail interview we were supposed to do. (Or, for that matter, if anyone told Charlie I still owe him a beer the next time he's in Chicago -- I may be leaving the site, but that offer is still valid.) I never did get the chance to meet all of Rockapella or Anthrax, and I never did shake hands with Joe Satriani or Johnny Van Zant.

But quite possibly my best memory came not in a crowded stadium, but in a small performance hall in Libertyville, Illinois. I was invited to hear two fingerstyle guitarists, El McMeen and Larry Pattis, perform at the David Adler Cultural Center, at a concert shortly after 9/11. After each man performed separately, the two joined forces and played their version of "Ashokan Farewell" -- the unofficial theme song to the mini-series "The Civil War." I sat there, watching these two masters of their instruments playing some of the most beautiful music known to man, and I'm not ashamed to admit I sat there with tears in my eyes, knowing at that precise moment how important music was in my life. (El and Larry have since become friends of mine -- I obviously never listened to Lester Bangs's advice of not making friends with musicians.)

Music still is important to me, but I've also learned how important family life is -- and that is why I made the difficult decision to walk away from my own creation and allow it to continue with life on its own, much like my own children will eventually have to do. Fortunately, that time is not upon me yet, though I'm sure I'll find out how quickly it comes up on you.

Interestingly enough, well after the bulk of this column was written, opportunity has knocked on my door once again. While I hadn't planned on continuing a career in music, I've accepted the position of Music Director at WRLR-FM, a 100-watt low-power radio station based out of Round Lake Heights. So, if you're ever driving through western Lake County, Illinois, between 9 pm to midnight on a Tuesday, tune in to 98.3 FM, and you can hear yours truly. I had wondered what my post-"Daily Vault" life would be like -- and while taking this position means more time away from my family (the whole reason I gave up ownership of this site), I'd be a fool not to accept the challenge.

To everyone I've worked with over the past nine years -- all the writers past and present for "The Daily Vault," all the publicists, all the artist relations people at labels (including some great labels who we outlasted), all the musicians I've had the pleasure of seeing perform, and all the artists I've had the great pleasure of being able to speak to or shake hands with -- well, I guess "thank you" just isn't enough to say, is it? To every single person who has taken the time to visit this site -- even if they were so outraged at what I wrote that they never came back -- thanks for giving us a chance, I hope you've enjoyed it and will continue to enjoy it.

And so, it comes to that awkward and often maudlin final paragraph. Instead of saying something philosophical (like I did after four years of writing a humor column for The Flyer), I'd prefer to go out the way the Grateful Dead used to close some concerts -- getting the audience so worked up in a rendition of "Not Fade Away" that, even as the band left the stage member by member, the audience kept the chorus of the song alive for long after the show ended. I can hear the tambourines and the drums beating out the rhythm even now, and the voices chanting, "Know our love will not fade away" -- bump, ba-bump, ba-bump -- "know our love will not fade away" -- bump, ba-bump, ba-bump...

Keep that rhythm going... I'll check in again someday soon...

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