David + David’s album Boomtown turned 30 this summer.
I was 15 when I bought Boomtown on vinyl in the weeks following its July 7, 1986 release. My family had just informed me that, by November, we would be moving 50 miles away from the only home I’d known.
By that summer, Boomtown had already been well-bolstered by MTV’s gradual, fluke embrace of its lead single, “Welcome to the Boomtown,” which would chart at #39 by the coming December. Boomtown would crack the Billboard 100 three times and eventually go gold. Robert Christgau gave it an A-.
1986 was a swelltastic year for records. My $9.99 in lawn mowing cash wouldn’t fail me with Lifes Rich Pageant, Skylarking, So, Graceland, The Big Heat, The Queen Is Dead, Candy Apple Grey, The Colour of Spring. Yet I’d get burned, too (Prince’s Parade). Although I wanted to hear more of David Ricketts’s guitar, who knew if the rest of the record wasn’t polka covers by his grandmother. Buying records in 1986 was less of a gamble if some generous radio DJ spun non-single album tracks at 2 am, which they often didn’t. Plus, David + David fit neither outsider free-form formats, nor commercial pop formats, nor FM AOR classic rock tastes.
I ponied up when I realized Ricketts’s twisting e-bow centerpiece solo on “Welcome to the Boomtown,” like J. Mascis playing a Big Country riff, was a sort of sonic sarcasm, a tongue-in-cheek heroism playing off David Baerwald‘s verses depicting characters who “deal dope out of Denny’s,” and a chorus that sneers “all that money / makes such a / succulent / sound.” Maybe Baerwald, a former roadie for the Weirdos and guitarist for the very X-like The Spastics, was the show. Would the other songs feature rich lyrics, or sound like Men Without Hats? My little clique of Replacement-fan, suburban brainiacs made fun of “Welcome to the Boomtown” lyrics, to each other, but we knew it was good. We hadn’t read Nathanael West yet, but we would.
I don’t remember the exact moment I bought it; I don’t remember the exact moment I first gave it a listen-through. But I do recall immediately thinking 1) almost all of these songs are as good as the single and 2) some are better and 3) this is some sad, bleak shit and 4) this is some angry shit.
Yet, I could see then, and can still see now, how Davitt Sigerson’s production sheen could turn some people off. But with a careful listen, you’ll notice he leaves Baerwald’s singing, as well as Ricketts’s fret flourishes, alone, because they’re the best two things. And anyway, loads of high-profile, rock-leaning pop records sported the same sheen in 1986. On Born in the USA, Springsteen dressed up many of his songs, for better or for worse, in machine-like percussion and overproduction garnishes (also because he’s a Suicide fan). The year before, Dylan had dropped the overdressed but underrated Empire Burlesque. It’s a sound now consciously used as an impressionistic brush by bands like The War on Drugs, Future Islands, or Lower Dens. If Bill Callahan collaborated with any of those bands, you’d have something close to Boomtown. In 1986, the only thing close was Stan Ridgway‘s phenomenal solo debut The Big Heat.
On the other hand, Sigerson’s production sounds glorious on vinyl. I’m not an audiophile, but I do listen for tone, and this album is rich in it, from the treble of Ricketts’s e-bow to the snap of the drums, programmed and not. I also now suspect that Boomtown‘s studio mastery was part of the joke, too; that the overproduced percussion, the addition of crack session hands like Paulinho de Costa, the drum treatments squarely set in 1986, were all a way of saying, this drum sound is all we need to get this on the radio because the lyrics are about dreamers becoming drug dealers and prostitutes. It worked, given two more singles cracked the Billboard 100.
One of those singles, “Ain’t So Easy,” hit #51 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #17 on the Billboard Top Rock Tracks chart. It has to be one of the more sinister tunes to ever chart. By song’s end, after Baerwald has wooed you with his honey-tongued vocals and rich melody, and after Ricketts’s then-girlfriend Toni Childs takes you out with her husky singing, you recall the song’s fifth line, back where the narrator told his lover, “I’m sorry about your eye.”
Or, if you were listening carefully to begin with, that line stopped you as cold as it did me when I was 15. Like its manipulative narrator, the song itself is bringing listeners into the cycle of abuse. You like the song. But he’s the song. Sweet-talking, he asks her to “forget the past,” and that’s what he’s acknowledging isn’t “so easy.” And maybe the title refers to leaving him. Like an afterthought, at the end of the bridge, Baerwald almost mumbles “And where would you go anyway?” And lest you think Baerwald is endorsing domestic assault, or is a monster for taking on an abuser’s voice, consider how other lyrics prove that the narrator isn’t too bright. Which triples down on the song’s title.
25 minutes into an excellent 2013 interview on a Popdose podcast, Baerwald explains the origins of the song, and how it was inspired in equal parts by Ricketts’s synth line on a Roland Juno 60, Lou Reed and Randy Newman, the Danny Aiello character in Purple Rose of Cairo, and Baerwald’s parents’ divorce (although his father was not physically abusive). Baerwald adds that much of Boomtown concerned his parents’ divorce one way or another, although he hadn’t admitted that to anybody until now, not even Ricketts.
“Ain’t So Easy” received a promo video starring no less than Gabriel Byrne and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer. Youtube cautions against sharing it, but it’s too great not to:
The other song to chart, “Swallowed By The Cracks” is a rewrite of Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” (come to think of it, GnR would try to rewrite “Welcome to the Boomtown” as “Welcome to the Jungle”) but David + David’s version goes one better because it goes further: Rather than looking down his nose at hometown failures like Bruce’s successful narrator, Baerwald’s narrator, a former dancer fallen on hard times, refers to himself as a “drunken old whore,” confirming the song’s opening hint that he might be a street drunk. He spins a tale of his ambitious circle of friends – his girlfriend (actor Eileen) and her brother (his best friend and writer, Steve) who achieved none of their dreams, and by the song’s present have either disappeared (Steve) or work in a dead-end job (Eileen). Baerwald’s narrator has no sympathy for himself, making his unsparing criticism all the more angry and heartbreaking, and includes himself as one of “those clowns begging bus fare back.” Most unlike Springsteen, he doesn’t even have sympathy for the memory lane stroll itself:
Swallowed by the cracks, our pride worn down
Talking times gone by like everybody else
I’d completely forgotten they’d made a video for “Swallowed by the Cracks.” Knowing MTV, it’s possible it ran only once.
Other songs also delivered, like John Doe backed by Avalon-era Roxy Music, especially on “A Rock for the Forgotten.” Only “All Alone in the Big City” fell flat, a repetitive vamp that got nowhere. On “River’s Gonna Rise,” Baerwald spins an impressionistic apocalypse scenario (hey, it was the cold war; shit was real) with track stoppers like “they’re dragging a man by his insides / through the broad daylight” and Ricketts letting loose with distortion pedals and clustered notes by track’s end. Two songs chronicle decomposing relationships in antipodal ways: “Swimming in the Ocean,” during which Baerwald effects a solid falsetto – which he never really uses in his career again – and boasts that “just for tonight / I’m gonna watch from above/the too late rite / of a long dead love.” It all sounds like Curtis Mayfield collaborating with the The, complete with Toni Childs playing the Neneh Cherry role on backing vocals. Or it could be Camille Henry on backing vocals. My vinyl copy’s inner sleeve doesn’t specify.
Taking a more straightforward tack in the much prettier, reggae-ish “Being Alone Together,” Baerwald sings sweetly, depicting the chill of domestic bliss going quietly wrong:
good morning honey, did you sleep okay
it certainly looks as though it’s gonna be a beautiful day
By the way, can you see that I’m slipping away?
pass the sugar darling
I can’t leave today
Ricketts holds off for most of the song, lightly riffing away with barre chords and un-distorted flourishes on the bridge and chorus, but by about 4:30, he lets loose with the type of e-bow solo heard on “Welcome to the Boomtown,” tastefully restrained nonetheless.
It seemed a wonderful time for David + David. The album was critically lavished, and influential LA peeps began circling, with movie stars attending D+D shows, according to a People Magazine article at the time. For former house painter Ricketts and doughnut-clerk Baerwald, life changed.
And then it fizzled out. From interviews with Baerwald, it seems he was too good of human being to play the bloated ego-game required for stardom. During a high-profile European tour with other mid-80s pop acts, he simply up and left. Check David + David out on Spanish TV, obviously hating it. Short of contacting Baerwald and Ricketts, I’m unsure why they never made a follow-up record as David + David until now. I couldn’t find an interview where Baerwald comments on the duo’s collapse in any detailed fashion.
Ricketts continued to make records with Toni Childs, notably Union, about the end of their romantic relationship. He moved on to work with Meredith Brooks for her blockbuster Blurring the Edges album in 1997, and then did some film and television soundtrack work. In 2004, he wins an Emmy with Childs, along with Eddie Free, for their song “Because You’re Beautiful,” but by the mid-OOs Ricketts seems to have left the west coast for Philadelphia, as far as I can tell from the Internets, although the recent Facebook page dedicated to the re-convening of David + David describes him as LA-based.
Baerwald’s subsequent, 1990 solo album Bedtime Stories aimed for a more classic singer-songwriter vibe. While some songs were solid, the overall standard, MOR arrangements disappointed. Blatant attempts at car-commercial placement, like “The Best Inside You” were downright inexcusable, and not even Joni Mitchell appearing on “Liberty Lies” could save it. 1992’s Triage was miles better, Baerwald back to his acerbic best, eschewing broad-stroke clichés and safe instrumentation for insightful, angry narratives and adventurous turns to brass (“A Secret Silken World“) or treated, angry vocals (“The Got No Shotgun Hydrahead Octopus Blues“). He experimented with film, too, and it was at least as interesting as anything he’s done:
In 1999, Baerwald was tapped for the Hurlyburly soundtrack. After 1999’s excellent and criminally out-of-print A Fine Mess, and then 2002’s decent Here Comes the New Folk Underground, he seems to have stopped making albums of new material, at least commercially, in favor of becoming a very successful songwriter alone, his music covered by everyone from Waylon Jennings to the Yoshida Brothers. He reportedly worked a few years as an investigative journalist, and possibly made bank by penning “Come What May” for the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack. In 2014, C2 Editions released his collected lyrics. Find his interviews online. They’re always good, and his particular insights on the mid-eighties music industry aren’t to be missed.
For David and David’s highest profile, post-Boomtown moment, head back to the early nineties for their involvement with Sheryl Crow, for whom Ricketts and Baerwald wrote a rough draft of “Leaving Las Vegas” while tripping on LSD in her studio. Meaning, they thought they gave her their B-list stuff, which was then turned into a hit because Crow was easy on the eyes and talented just enough. D+D’s loose conglomeration of jamming friends, known as the Tuesday Night Music Club, were assuming they’d become Crow’s touring band, given she’d named her debut album after them. But she fired them soon after the album’s release. To say she never did anything nearly as listenable, after that album, is true, but also assumes I’m a fan of that album, which I’m not.
Recently, I discovered a David + David live set, recorded in late 1986, that surfaced online in 2007. Other than Boomtown, it’s the best encapsulation of what was. For a picture of what could have been, check out this solo Baerwald live set from NYC’s Bottom Line in 1990, mixing D+D songs with material from his next two solo albums. There’s a slew of additional live shows over the ensuing years for free stream listening here.
Had there been a second David + David album, in the years immediately after 1986, it’s difficult to guess what might have been. I don’t see Baerwald wanting to stick with Ricketts’s Fairlight and drum programming. Fleshing themselves out with a full band would’ve been nice to see, especially if Ricketts guitar skills were given space to get messier. From the live sets in 1990, Barewald’s solo material, like “Liberty Lies,” certainly gained a harder sound, to the songs’ benefit.
Something I think about all the time: before the speed and cheapness of recording in the digital age, how many bands would’ve stayed together, at least functionally? I remember reading in the 90s about how exceptional it was that Pell Mell had recorded an album (Interstate? Star City?) by mailed cassettes while members were diaspora-ed into their careers around the US. Nowadays, unless you simply hate someone in your band (and maybe even then), or unless you’re clinically lazy, you can still take two weeks out of your solo career and do an album with the old gang. In 1993, Thom Yorke would have had to leave Radiohead to make solo records with any dedication. Now he probably saves ideas to the cloud while he’s at the hotel and then finishes tracks when he gets home. Same goes for Animal Collective, Colin Newman, Mac Mccaughan, and so on and so on.
So now, with the ease of the cloud, daily life can wait more easily than it had when it was offline. But time does not wait. According to the bio on David + David’s Facebook page: “The duo has rejoined forces to and is planning their sophomore release.” Posts indicate they’re crowdsourcing recording funds, and a single might be nearly done. They’re being cryptic about the whole of it, and posts stopped in March of this year, but Baerwald seems to be running the Facebook account himself.
I hope they hurry. After 30 years, cracks can swallow without warning.