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Encore: Times Beach, Blank Space, deja vu

timesbeachencore.jpg
Scan of concert poster
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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The move of my office wasn’t such a big deal. My whole operation fits into a large backpack, after all. Of late, my portable office has found a new morning home at the Mud House, in the eastern, antiques district of Cherokee Street. A worker just asked me what I wanted “today,” that word said with a bit of emphasis. As if I were expected “today.” As I should be expected today and probably tomorrow and so on. It’s a beautiful arrangement, hot tea and words both flowing easily here.

On the wall next to me, as I type, is a large wraparound bit of wood paneling. It’s one of the places for bands and artists in South City to tack up their posters, those little, paper emissaries telling you what’s cool in St. Louis this week/month. A particular flyer, attached for the last two weeks, continues to strike my attention.

Five bands are advertised on the piece: Merchandise (from Florida), Wet Hair (via Iowa) and three local acts: Kisser, The Thumbsuckers and Times Beach. The show will be July 24 at Blank Space, just up the street, in the heart of the Cherokee arts district. At Second Set/Encore headquarters, we’re always looking for ways to tie the new into the old; and this poster has elements of both, in multiples.

See, in the 1980s, a band called Times Beach enjoyed a short run around town. It recorded a demo cassette in 1985, a five-song, self-titled tape. A few years back, Jason Ross of BDR Records gave me something still treasured: a home-burned CD of demos by Times Beach, Aviation Club and Fun & Anguish, three bands that zipped across the local club scene immediately before I started going to see and hear local acts. The Times Beach cuts are quite righteous, a new wave/pop concoction that sounds strangely current.

Blank Space was another group that enjoyed a late ‘80s run, though I was able to catch that band a time, or two, before its dissolution into other projects like Filet of Funk and The Unconscious. I reached out to co-founder Dave Simon; he’d mentioned in the past that his considerable (and important) personal archives had been damaged by a flood that struck his house. All Blank Space materials, save for a photo, or two, were wiped out.

Over the past couple weeks, I couldn’t get past this basic math: (a new) Times Beach was playing at (a new-ish) Blank Space. There used to be bands called that. Isn’t that all a little too ironic? Yadda-yadda. I even dreamed of hanging out at the upcoming show with a member of one of the original bands. But e-mails to original Times Beach and Blank Space members went unreturned; it’s cool, people have lives beyond the self-promotion of long-dead musical projects. And attempts to get ahold of folks from the new Times Beach and Blank Space were running into more dead ends.

Then Monday happened.

So, this is Blank Space

Walking into Blank Space on Monday afternoon kicked in the smallest of memory-makers. In the past, the building at 2847 Cherokee was run as an art space called Cranky Yellow. It sold locally made arts and crafts and held music events, too. The business ceased in late 2011, and Blank Space took on the lease on Jan. 1, 2012. Billed events took place as early as March 2012, though some licensing issues put a three-month hold on events. In the summer of 2012, the space “re-launched,” as primary organizer Kaveh Razani told me on Monday, meaning that it’s been in continuous operation for about a year.

During that time, he’s built up two collections for sale: about 2,000 used records and 2,000 used books are on premises. The expansive, open first floor’s being turned into a full-service, locally sourced coffeeshop and tea house, with plans to roll out that part of the operation by late summer. A subscriber concept will also kick, in which supporters will invest a set amount to enjoy later discounts at the venue. As additional aspects come into being, the musical programming continues to roll along.

Razani says that “about six monthlies” take place in the room, with set, monthly programming booked around DJ nights and poetry/spoken word readings. On Wednesday nights, local barman-about-town Johnny Vegas has moved his long-running Stag Night to Blank Space, meaning another four nights of reguar entertainment. On Sundays, Blank Space is generally closed and Monday is the venue’s official day off. (Though, it should be noted that people were all over the space on Monday, reading books and listening to jazz, a bit of ‘50s Paris on contemporary Cherokee.) On the remaining nights of the month, the 10-12 people who chip in on Blank Space’s daily upkeep have a degree of free rein to book shows. And even as touring bands have put a stamp on the place over the past year, Razani’s vision is a hyper-local one, seeing Blank Space as a canvas on which local promoters and supporters of the room can place their own imprint.

“We were taking everything we could, to populate the space,” Razani remembered. “For four, or five, months it was just touring bands. But we also have the six monthlies. And those are all close connects, or are from people who came in with big concept meetings. A small percentage of the shows we book ourselves, but we’re going to take a more heavy-handed role in booking our shows through the people involved in the space. Local music works way better than touring bands. We not equipped to handle all the needs of touring bands quite yet.”

In time, Razani hopes to fully incorporate all levels of Blank Space into the programming, but he and his cohorts are working through the system slowly to make that happen. The second floor, for example, is one he sees having potential for more art events, or recording, or things not yet envisioned, per se. Potential, in fact, is what made the whole thing happen.

His first visit to the room emptied by Cranky Yellow, he said, came about by happenstance. A friend was looking for an apartment on the block; and Will Lieberman, one of the key property holders on the block, told the friend he could have a whole building, if so desired. They decided to check out the space on a whim and Razani was blown away by the building’s small touches: the expansive basement, the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf on the first floor, the finished rooms of the second floor, the millwork along the interior stairwell.

“Seeing the space empty ... it was just beautiful,” Razani said. “There was exposed brick, this amazing trim, massive windows with an attached window bench. Sunlight goes a long way for me. And there were all these aesthetic elements. I didn’t expect it to be so well put together. I wanted to utilize all three levels.” 

All good things will come in time. Of that Razani’s sure. This place will grow, will happen, will root.

So, this is Times Beach

And speaking of time, it sometimes pays to have Johnny Vegas pop up in your life. On Monday, as he rolled into Blank Space to drop off papers to Razani, he was told about the whole Times Beach/Blank Space alterna-world, the new bands and old and so on. Hearing Times Beach, he mentioned, almost off-handedly, that the group was playing that very night at Firebird, one of three local bands supporting the touring group Lemuria. I hustled down to the show, walking in on the first group and being introduced to guitarist/vocalist Mark Plant just as the opener finished. He said he’d have time to chat after their own set and that’s how things went down.

Times Beach is a three-piece including Plant, Ben Osborne on bass and Travis Dettmann on drums. In past lives, the three co-mingled in other groups, playing both hardcore and pop-punk. These days, the group’s settled into a self-described “hard pop” sound, which had only been played out about three, or four times before Monday’s gig. Maybe it’s their familiarity with one another from past projects, or a simple case of musical chemistry, but the three seemed to have that innate “feel,” a sense that all three members were sharing that much-desired, collective mind.

It was a tight, if short, set, maybe 20 or 25 minutes on a crowded bill. While spotting in more sets during the rest of summer, the band’s also working on a true, self-released record, which Osborne is recording. To date, the group’s recorded output is small a two-song cassette that Plant says “was done so we’d have something to sell at our first show” in March. (If your tape player’s no longer in operation, you can find the songs on bandcamp, too: http://timesbeachsongs.bandcamp.com/.)

I first asked Plant what caught his attention with the Times Beach. He said the group was unsatisfied with everything they’d chosen, but hearing about the doomed town in the western St. Louis suburbs, the group became hooked on the idea of Times Beach as their own flag. “It’s named after the city,” he said matter-of-factly. “My theory is that if I’ve never heard of a band name and I’ve done the search, then it’s free game.” Like Razani at Blank Space, Plant was unfamiliar with the older model, the ‘80s group that shone briefly and brightly.

Asked about photos or a bio, Plant struck a sorta punk rock tone, noting “it’s not the kind of thing we’d do.” I’d suggest they consider getting both. After all, this is a young group with talent and, seemingly, goodwill with other groups and venues around town. Its sound’s going to stick, and press will come around for reasons well beyond the naming quirk. (And let me say it, at the risk of singling someone out: this old drummer, years removed from actual play, is really struck by Dettmann’s skills; this young cat’s got some chops and fast, fast, fast hands. Bravo, Travis.)

Back to Simon: He mentioned that friends had seen posters from Blank Space, the venue. They’d asked about his group, of course, but were totally confused by the recurrence of the name. He said that, in the early days, he never actually like the name, but that Razani’s re-use of the name Blank Space made him like it today. Relayed this story, Razani smiled.

Times Beach and Blank Space were fine bands, back then. And the new projects with the same names seem to be off to a great start. In 20 years, some young people should excavate the names again. Assuming the continued of the existence of the world wide web, I’ll go ahead and tell them “hello” and “good luck.”

About this series

For the past two-decades-and-change, Thomas Crone has covered alternative music and culture in St. Louis for the St. Louis Beacon, Riverfront Times, Post-Dispatch and St. Louis magazine, along with a host of smaller, deceased titles like Jet Lag, 15 Minutes and his own zines Silver Tray and 52nd City. He's co-produced the music documentaries "Old Dog, New Trick" and "The Pride of St. Louis," along with several shorts. He's currently pre-producing the web series "Half Order Fried Rice," while teaching media writing at Webster University. And a lot of his memorabilia is available to the public at www.silvertrayonline.com/

The "Second Set" series highlights known and unknown stories of St. Louis musicians, deejays, promoters and gadflies. Each week's edition will showcase artists, albums and songs that collectively make up a fascinating Midwestern musical culture, one filled with both major successes and vexing could-have-beens. Combining personal recollections with interviews of the principals, these articles will put into context the people, recordings and venues that have informed St. Louis' recent rock'n'roll and pop music.

"Encores" follow in the spirit of the earlier series as Crone and The Beacon roll out an ebook that developed from Second Set. Read Second Set columns.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.