I think most music fans want to have songs, albums, artists that they can think of as theirs. We can connect with music so deeply that we almost want to find a pathway to a relationship that feels a little reciprocal. This instinct, this desire leads to favorite artists, well-worn albums, cries of “that’s my song,” when a certain tune starts emanating from the radio or jukebox. We’re all people in the audience, watching Tom Frank sing “I’m Easy,” convinced it’s a personal message. That’s the extreme. There are levels to this, and one of the simplest (and safest) is when a band comes from your hometown. Music fandom mixes with civic pride.
During my late high school years, when I was just starting to extricate myself from a tangled mess of confused music listening to a taste more in line with the collection that currently sits on my home shelves, I was living just outside of Madison, Wisconsin, close enough that the capital felt as much like my hometown as the dirtbag suburb typed onto my Rolling Stone subscription address label. That’s where our radio stations broadcast from, that’s where the bands played when they came to town, that was the center of our small media universe. What we didn’t have was our own band, some collection of toiling musicians that spoke for us, lent us their cachet of cool. The couple of bands with Wisconsin origins that had garnered national attention in recent years were from the major metropolitan expanse to the east. There were a few local bands that made the rounds, even earning airplay on the one radio station in town with some interest in creating a playlist that represented original thinking beyond slavish adherence to national charts.
Then 1987 brought the release of In the Heart of the Heart Country, the debut album from a band called Fire Town. Among others, the band’s roster included Duke Erickson and Butch Vig, who had been working within the local music scene for a few years. They were signed to Atlantic Records, and the album and band seemed perfectly timed to take off. They had a touch of R.E.M.’s jangle, a hint of Bruce Springsteen’s anthemic potency, and a whole lot of John Mellenamp’s Midwestern earnestness at a time when all of those performers were at or near their commercial peak. Beyond that, the music felt right, it felt like us. That album title wasn’t just a statement of locale, it was somehow a description of the sound on the record. There was a lack of polish to the music and a directness to the songwriting that felt characteristic of the collective personality of the place it came from, the place where we lived. I’m undoubtedly extrapolating here, projecting a representative quality that’s not really there, but that was the way it seemed, the same way that R.E.M.’s chiming guitars probably felt like warm southern nights to Athens fans and Nirvana’s thick guitar assault stood in for Seattle’s gloomy walls of rain to those who called The Emerald City home.
The album and the band made only the smallest of dents. Before long, Vig would achieve added notoriety for his work as a producer and he and Erickson would join with Fire Town’s sound engineer Steve Marker to form a new band. They recruited Shirley Manson, in between stints as Angelfish lead singer and as a testy terminator, to stand in front of them and belt out the songs. Hit singles, multi-platinum albums and Grammy nominations followed.
I liked Garbage. I was excited that these Madison fellows had achieved enormous success with an album that was recorded in an unassuming block of a building just a few blocks down the street from where I lived at the time. Still, the band wasn’t ours the way that Fire Town was. Garbage sounded great, but Fire Town sounded like home.
(Disclaimer: To my surprise, In the Heart of the Heart Country is available for purchase. I genuinely thought it was out of print, and had written up about half of the above ramblings before I discovered my error. So you can go buy that, or their equally strong sophomore effort, The Good Life. Or you can buy some Garbage records. Shirley’s TV show did recently get canceled, you know. She could maybe use the scratch, too. Regardless, I’ll reassert my usual pledge that any request for removal of this track from the Interweb by someone with due authority to make said request will be promptly and willingly honored.)