In Search for the Soul of Rock’n’Roll: SPIN’s 1991 Feature, ‘Northern Exposure’

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In August 1991 — a palindrome year incidentally, the only one possible in the 20th century, if you’ll forgive the digression — we published a special issue dedicated to the deliciously impossible search for the soul of rock’n’roll.

The idea was inspired by watching the eye-bleeding tedium of the Grammys “live” on TV. (I quote mark “live” because I think there is more life in the deepest, darkest nothingness of the farthest reaches of space than in any Grammys broadcast. I went once. It’s worse in person, FYI.) I thought to my agonized self, before turning the broadcast off, this can’t be what it has come down to. I flipped channels and saw MTV, and the car and beer commercials using their faux, de-blooded rock music and knew that, in fact, this was what it had come down to.

So the next day I told the editors and staff writers that we were going to go look for music’s soul. It was clearly in hiding — if not worse, extinguished. Then I told them I would assign each of them to somewhere in the country, to look for the soul of eternal and purposeful defiance and personal and cultural evolution, for which rock, at least then, was the glorious soundtrack.

Then I told them I wasn’t actually going to tell them where they were going until the morning they were leaving. This was not met with universal enthusiasm, but I wanted them to arrive somewhere with no leads, contacts, preconceived notions or biases and, essentially, no idea of what to do. This would ensure, I told them, a fresh and open-eyed way of approaching the mission. We met at New York’s La Guardia airport at 9:00 one early summer morning and I handed each of them tickets and some cash, and the first they knew about where they were each individually going was when they opened the envelope. One editor, a perpetual pain in my butt, I thought really should see Alaska…. (He did a tremendous piece there, and, unless it’s a trick of my memory, was less of a pain thereafter.)

So now we’re posting some of those articles; we’ve already run Jim Greer’s report from Tulsa, OklahomaCelia Farber’s piece on Indianapolis, Indiana, and Richard Hell’s vision of Rapid City, South Dakota — here’s Mark Blackwell on Anchorage, Alaska.

Everyone found the soul wherever I sent them. Turns out, it was with them all along.

— Bob Guccione Jr., founder of SPIN, October 15, 2015

[This story was originally published in the August 1991 issue of SPINIn honor of SPIN’s 30th anniversary, we’ve republished this piece as part of our ongoing “30 Years, 30 Stories” series.]

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I wake up my first morning in Anchorage, Alaska, sick, lonely, depressed, and jet-lagged from the 13-hour trip the night before, thinking, “Why the hell am I here?” Oh yeah. I remember. No matter how I feel, I’m determined to get out there and search for that ever elusive soul of rock’n’roll. No problem. Piece of cake. I just have to follow the clues.

Clue No. 1: Spit

Looking out the motel window I see a beat-up brown car, practically dragging the ground from the weight of the furniture and boxes haphazardly roped to its roof, idling in the parking lot across the street. “ANCHORAGE OR BUST IN A STUDEBAKER” is scrawled in huge black letters across the back window. This looks pretty rock’n’roll to me, so I rush outside. By the time I get downstairs, however, the car’s gone. Something splatters on the pavement and I look up just in time to see two Eskimo girls trying to spit on me from a top-floor window of the motel. Maybe this isn’t going to be so easy after all.

Clue No. 2: Rice Cakes

Back in the room I figure the best way to get started finding the soul of rock’n’roll anywhere is to check the yellow pages. Immediately one listing catches my eye: Mary Lou’s Fun House/Mary Lou’s House of Liquor and Fun Gifts. There must be rock’n’roll somewhere around there. So the quest begins. Mary Lou’s is apparently 20 miles southward, so I get to take a nice scenic drive. One thing that you can say about Alaska is that it’s really beautiful. It’s also cold, especially if you’re too stupid to bring a coat. On the way out of town I’m delighted to see my first real rock’n’roll reference. Someone has spray-painted “VOIVOD” all over an Alaska Railroad locomotive exhibit. Maybe I’m on the right track.

Nah. I see a lot of snow-capped mountains and a couple of eagles, but I can’t find Mary Lou’s. So I decide to head back to town and check out some record stores. The first one I come to has a “For Sale” sign in the window. The second one’s turned into the Korean Rice Cake Company. No, this isn’t so easy after all.

Clue No. 3: Moose

The next afternoon I find a record store that actually exists. By this time I’ve been around long enough to discover that the radio stations, clubs, and jukeboxes in town all pack a wallop of classic rock. It’s as if they stopped sending records north after Van Halen’s 1984. So I’m happy to arrive at Mammoth Music, which has posters of Jesus Jones and Sisters of Mercy in its window. I ask co-owner Forest Jackson about the classic onslaught.

“Sometimes it seems that the Alaskan state band is Lynyrd Skynyrd,” Jackson agrees. “But lately people are pushing for more new music.”

Jackson points out that the local college radio station just got an FM license, and a new music club called the Underground has recently opened. After an enlightening conversation, however, I’m still no closer to my goal.

Cruising down the highway later I have to slam on brakes to avoid colliding with a moose. “Hey moose!” I shout out the window. “Is the soul of rock’n’roll anywhere around here?” Being a moose, and therefore not able to reply to my question, he disappears into a reedy swamp next to the road. Perhaps he has understood and wants me to follow, but I opt not to.

Mary Lou who became a local hero in 1984 for outrunning a grizzly bear, is very proud to show me her jukebox, and plays some local music, including “The Coyote and I” by Hobo Jim.

Clue No. 4: Variety

Soon I catch a glimpse of the word panties in the corner of my eye. Looking in the rearview mirror I realize that I’ve stumbled upon Mary Lou’s. “MARY LOU’S: T-SHIRTS, PANTIES, HARDCORE ALASKAN GIFTS” reads the sign.

“You in some kinda rock band or something?” queries the country-singerish lady, as I enter the small building.

“Something,” I answer. The lady, who turns out to be Mary Lou Redmond herself, tells me that the last people to whom she asked that question turned out to be members of the Allman Brothers Band. In such good company, I take her question as a compliment, and explain my mission.

“How old do you have to be before you can sing?” Mary Lou asks.

“What?”

“My grandson is two now, and I’m planning on making him a singing star. His name is James Harvey Redmond. You better remember that name.”

The cluttered place is empty this afternoon except for Mary Lou, one of her five sons, and Bill, Mary Lou’s 90-year-old neighbor who’s wearing a cap that reads “WISCONSIN: LAND OF COW SHIT AND BEER FARTS.” Mary Lou, who became a local hero in 1984 for outrunning a grizzly bear, ran her Fun House bar for 40 years before closing it in favor of the gift shop and liquor store. She’s very proud to show me her jukebox, and happily plays some local music, including “The Coyote and I” by Hobo Jim. She also plays a song by Gary Strenulson, a singer from Montana who stopped by one day and then sent her his single, “She Broke My Heart (And I Broke Her Jaw).” Mary Lou tells me that she thinks the soul of rock’n’roll is centered around stars like Elvis and Creedence Clearwater Revival. She says that now it just seems like something’s missing.

“Looka that jukebox!” interjects Mary Lou’s son. “That’s variety for you! Some goddamn variety is what they need these days!”

Clue No. 5: Bird

“You ever seen our state bird?” asks the bartender of the Birdhouse, one of the weirdest places I’ve ever set foot in. The walls and ceiling of this small rickety shack, standing since 1903, are covered with thousands of business cards, and more strangely, hundreds of autographed bras and panties. The bartender pulls out a tattered postcard with a picture of a ptarmigan bird on it. “We raise ’em here. You wanna see one?”

“Sure,” I answer, as “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw” plays on the jukebox.

“Well this is their calling whistle,” he says, producing an elaborate gold flute-like device. “Put your fingers over the holes and blow, and they’ll usually come up to the window.”

Turning toward the tiny floor-level window labeled “Fire Exit,” I cover the holes and blow. A huge gust of white powder billows out of the “whistle” all over my face and into my hair.

“It’s funny,” says the bartender. “That whistle always seems to attract more turkeys than it does ptarmigans.”

This ain’t getting any easier.

Clue No. 6: Mars

Anchorage’s KWHL Radio claims to be “Alaska’s Home of Rock’n’Roll,” so I figure I’d better give them a call. I’ve somehow avoided seeing any bands while in town, so the station’s music director, Kimi Stevens, invites me to a show at the Undergound.

“People underestimate the music scene here,” Stevens says that night. “We’re in Mars as far as the rest of the world is concerned.”

The music director turns out to be the organizer of a series of local band contests, the most recent of which received entries from an impressive 33 groups, mostly metal, of which only “five or six” are what she refers to as “bad.”

Tonight a band called Hyperthermia is playing. If you play at the Underground, you have to wait till all the customers are gone from a restaurant called the Beef and Sea, which the Underground is actually under. Hyperthermia does this, and then stalls as the power goes off three or four times, but finally kicks into gear. The band, surprisingly, is well worth the wait, thrashing out a tight, loud, frenzied, hair-let-down, ballsy, Metallica-like set. This is definitely rock’n’roll, so I’m pretty happy on this night. And if you’re ever stranded around four in the morning somewhere outside Anchorage and you can’t find your car, just call Hyperthermia guitarist Zallman Shedlock. He’ll know where it is.

“Anything from the heart can be the soul of rock’n’roll.”

Clue No. 7: Heart

Browsing through the local section of a bookstore I find some stories by Tom Bodett, the guy who does all those cool Motel 6 radio ads. Motel 6 is pretty rock’n’roll, I guess. It turns out Bodett lives way down south in Homer, so I decide to pay him a visit. The next morning I find myself in his studio, luckily on a day that he’s recording some commercials. After hearing Bodett say, “We’ll leave the light on for you,” about a hundred times, I talk to him about rock’n’roll.

“I used to be infatuated with blues players like Blind Blake, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Mississippi John Hurt,” he says. “They’d sit around joints in New Orleans and listen to the piano players and then go play it on guitar. Jellyroll Morton — his stuff was rock’n’roll. Those were the guys that people like Chuck Berry listened to. The soul of rock is right there. Anything from the heart can be the soul of rock’n’roll.”

Clue No. 8: Earth

Taking one last drive before splitting, I stop at a scenic point on the highway. I think about all the cool stuff that I’ve done and seen, way too much to write about, and I realize that you can pretty much find the soul of rock’n’roll in just about anything, anywhere, even someplace 3,569 miles from home.

I’m about to freeze, but I take a look at the little scenic display before I leave. And there it is on the sign in black and white: “The dramatic landscape with its rugged peaks, nearby active volcanoes, and frequent jarring earthquakes are continual reminders that in south central Alaska, rock’n’roll is here to stay.”

Turns out to be pretty simple after all.

IMPACT

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