This mind-melting curation of early live recordings by The Dream Syndicate is testimony from a witness: Los Angeles writer Matthew Specktor. He has created three live albums that carry you from the band’s first show, through “The Days of Wine and Roses,” and into a full live preview of “The Medicine Show.”
If you’ve ever been to Los Angeles as a visitor you know how hard it is to estimate distances. Like any city, perhaps, LA is small only to those of us who live here, whether because we’ve hacked the shortcuts to avoid traffic or because we’ve constricted our private map of it enough to make it feel convenient, but when I was a boy, growing up in Santa Monica, Hollywood was the back of the moon. Punk rock, which happened to hit just as I reached puberty, was hardly accessible. The Starwood, the Vex, the Whisky—places where bands like X or The Germs were playing on the regular—felt far away, never mind that it was only a matter of a handful of miles, and so those bands were alive on my turntable but no more present to me as “local” than the ones I was listening to from England.
But there was a club on Pico Boulevard called the Music Machine, which happened to be reachable by bus. It was almost in Santa Monica, in a liminal zone that bleeds closer to Westwood and Mar Vista, and if it wasn’t a punk venue exactly, it was likewise punk-adjacent. The Gun Club played there, and paisley-revivalist bands like The Three O’Clock. And also one, erroneously lumped in sometimes with a scene called the Paisley Underground (which was probably an erroneous category to begin with; the bands involved sure didn’t sound alike, and seemed to share in common only a more affectionate awareness of rock history), called The Dream Syndicate.
There’s really no way to explain what it was like to walk into the Music Machine on a fall evening in 1982 and hear the Dream Syndicate live for the first time. I’d read about them—an article in the LA Weekly had alerted me that they may have sounded a bit like the Velvet Underground—and I think I’d purchased an EP at Rhino Records in Westwood by then too, but to be confronted by the band’s full-on trebly, howling, feedbacking glory in the flesh was a whole other matter. It’s difficult to explain because it wasn’t just the music, or even the presentation (sure, they were cool as hell, and they looked it, but there was some other factor involved here, a gestalt that meant they weren’t trying to look that way at all, the way other bands did).
It was a cohesion expressing itself as an argument: four musicians who absolutely belonged together, but who also (in musical terms, I’m talking; I have no idea what the interpersonal dynamic was like) cannot possibly agree. It gave the music a force, a vitality, a second-to-second spontaneity like nothing I’d ever then witnessed. I fell in love on the spot.
I’ve gone searching for that feeling everywhere ever since, and so I was shocked when I discovered recently that there are dozens of early Dream Syndicate shows that were recorded, whether by audience member with a Walkman or posterity-aware sound engineer or radio station, available on Archive.org. What shocked me isn’t so much that the shows were recorded—of course they were recorded; anyone who heard them for thirty seconds knew this was something to be preserved—but that the quality I describe above is absolutely legible in the recordings.
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