As many of you know, my favorite songwriter is Indiana’s Dale Lawrence, longtime bandleader of the Vulgar Boatmen and before that the most-recognized songwriter for the seminal Midwestern punk band, the Gizmos.

The Vulgar Boatmen are re-releasing a subset of their catalog, with the occasional new track, on July 19, as the CD Wide Awake. Dale kindly provided me with an advance copy some while ago. I have meant to write about my relationship to his music for ages and ages, but as you may know, it’s difficult to write about the things that are closest to you.

The CD release part is on the 19th at Schuba’s, in Chicago.

Writing about Dale’s music is complicated by the fact that much of the meaning the music (of the Gizmos in particular) has to me was constructed in a vacuum. I was building my relationship to the music free of the complicated, enriching environment of a scene in which the people in the band had either commercial or social relationships to me. After all, they had broken up before I had ever heard most of their songs.

Over the next few days, I’m going to work my way through Dale’s music up to the new record and in some ways beyond. I’d time this more closely to the record’s release, but I have another music-related piece I need to run that ends on the twentieth, timed to coincide with a local-area concert. As I think more of you read from the environs of Seattle than that of Indianapolis, just this once, Jason trumps Dale.

The Gizmos as a band have such a complex backstory that I can’t really disentangle it here. Suffice to say there were effectively two bands that shared the name and they have different places in rock history. For information on the Gizmos mk.I, I recommend turning to original Gizmo Eddie Flowers. The original Gizmos are not who I’m discussing when I refer to the band in this piece; I’ll refer to the late-period band composed (more-or-less) of Dale, Billy Nightshade, Tim Carroll, and Shadow Meyers.

This incarnation of the band released a five-song seven inch EP in 1978, Never mind the Sex Pistols, Here’s the Gizmos, a split album with Dow Jones and the Industrials entitled Hoosier Hysteria, and one song on their label’s ambitious compilation LP Red Snerts, The Midwest is Allright.

They also recorded a handful of songs in a studio in the vicinity of Hoboken, New Jersey, where they relocated in 1981, and promptly folded. Well, maybe not promptly, but soon enough. At any rate, by 1983 Dale was back living in Indianapolis, churning through a series of band lineups, names and sounds, in search of pop epiphanies as pure as Buddy Holly’s finest but incorporating the danger and ambiguity of punk.

It should be noted that roughly every piece of Gizmos material ever recorded in any form has been recently re-released by the returned-to-life Gulcher. Gulcher’s releases include all the Gizmos model one material, numerous practices, demos and outtakes by that lineup, and not only the studio releases of Gizmos model two but also the never-previously released Hoboken tracks. Here’s a list of the CDs at Gulcher’s online store (there is vinyl available as well):

Gulcher Records

Gizmos mk.I

1975-1977: Demos And Rehearsals: $16.00. This collects 54 rough tracks, as noted in the title.

1976/1977: The Studio Recordings: $12.00. This offers all the released pre-Dale Gizmos material, including the stuff that won notice in the rock press.

Gizmos mk.II

1978-1981: Never Mind The Gizmos Here’s The Gizmos: $12.00. This collects the 1978 EP, the Gizmos half of Hoosier Hysteria, and I believe a bit more.

1981 NYC Demos: The Midwest Can Be Allright: $8.00. My favorite. These songs were recorded in 1981 but sat unused, if not forgotten, until 2001. Beautifully recorded, this is some amazing stuff.

Just before the Gizmos moved to the East Coast, I had become aware of them as some older friends of mine made friends with them. While I never met any of the Gizmos mk.II at the time, they were valued friends of my older pals, who also had a band that recorded for Gulcher, The Panics.

Shortly after Gulcher released Red Snerts in 1980, my family moved to Europe for eighteen months, and during that time, the precious handful of vinyl we had from Gulcher and other Indiana labels – including Red Snerts and two or three miscellaneous proto-punk EPs including the very first Zero Boys release, a seven-inch EP called Livin’ in the Eighties – became precious writ to me and my sister. Along with a scattered few records lugged across the ocean such as the Clash’s 1980 experiment Sandinista! and the brilliant simplicity of the Ramones’ first album, the songs on Red Snerts were a lifeline to our home, proof that there was new hope for the wretched and an older generation of art-damaged rockers to befriend as soon as we returned from exile.

Inevitably, the single Gizmos song in that collection, The Midwest can be Allright, came, somehow, to sum up our idealized longings for things we’d never done.

The Midwest can be Allright

I like the Midwest in the afternoon
I’m walking around with nothin’ to do
Streets are all wide open nothing happens to you
I happen to like the Midwest I got nothing to do

Maybe nowhere special sometimes not much fun
But I like the Midwest because it’s fun to feel young – unh-unh-unh-unh-ung

Cruisin down the highway when it’s dark at night
Midnight and sittin’ close to someone – Midwest can be allright
No-one else is thinking – no-one cares at all
That I’ll be go-oin’ nowhere – let’s give them a call

Maybe nowhere special sometimes not much fun
But I like the Midwest because it’s fun to feel young – unh-unh-unh-unh-unng


Sometimes in the morning haven’t had much rest
Something’s really goin’ on – right in the Midwest
[elided vocals – years later, I still don’t know what Dale says here]
Dogs are barkin’ – happy that we met

Maybe nowhere special sometimes not much fun
But I like the Midwest because it’s fun to feel young – unh-unh-unh-unh-ung

[vocal outro]

The song, radically different in texture and tone from everything else we were listening to, appeared to come from a creative position on the other side of punk, not so much one that posited or even debated the idea of no future but one which having looked apocalypse in the face decided that the spectre of imminent doom did not necessarily preclude the pleasures of driving around on a sunny day, listening to the radio and breaking in a new pair of Chucks.

Musically, the song did this by rejecting the spit-n-snarl sound of the buzzcut guitar in favor of a sparkling pop production that – me all unawares – was a lesson in listening to Big Star and Buddy Holly, names I had only the vaguest awareness of.

By the time we returned to Bloomington, I was a leatherclad, spiky-haired punk rock kid, and man, I can’t even count the number of beatings I took. At the time punk was very strongly associated with homosexuality and the masculine identities of certain testosterone addled pituitary cases at my high school were sufficiently threatened that a backwoods psychology lesson was repeatedly enacted upon my face by Dr. Knuckles.

It was pretty clear to me that even though I loved the song, the Midwest was not Allright, but rather, completely fucked.

Despite this betrayal of art and propaganda, I had grown a set of big ears and was furiously listening my way through rock and pop history, frantically following the developments in punk rock, and anxiously wondering when Dale would deliver more of the magic I heard in that one song.

I eventually obtained either taped copies or genuine vinyl of the released Gizmos material, and while to this day I adore the ragged, passionate delivery of the songs on the Never Mind the Sex Pistols EP, the song-writing on that record is not the refined, distanced, deeply-developed skill that brought Midwest into being.

At long last, dear pal Seth White, another music hound with better connections than I, provided me with a tape he referred to as The Gizmos Story. The two-sided ninety minute tape contained about forty songs, assembled in roughly chronological order, beginning with the exhilarating opening chords of 1978 and continuing on through reasonably clean dubs of the raw mixes of the songs recorded in 1981 (not to be released until years later), including My Baby Loves Crime, Hard Hoboken Line, and Biscuits & Gravy.

Legend has it that Dale made the tape for a girlfriend about the time he returned to the Midwest. I don’t have a good idea of how accurate that idea is.

The whole tape fell into my ear like the word of God, containing the past and the future of rock, and I listened to it obsessively. Over time it became clear that another songwriter had contributed many of the songs as well – these songs were often silly, using ironic adaptations of outmoded pop vocal tricks to create a daffy, sped-up sound that anticipated hardcore but which was much, much less serious.

These songs included Dead Astronaut, Lightweight and Communists are Funny in the USA. As it turned out, many of the songs I was noting as being in a different style were written by Billy. The sheer intensity of the live performances on the tape, combined with the improbable mix of Billy’s silly, blazing fast songs bumping up against Dale’s developing songwriting hooked me unlike any other band has or will.

Additionally, I believe that Dale’s songwriting, as it developed in this period of time, was partly the result of very careful, highly analytic listening to the work of the cited songwriters. It’s a rake’s progress through a certain impeccable subset of pop-rock songwriters – Holly, Lou Reed, Chilton, others. I believe this partly because I learned to play guitar listening to Dale’s songs, and when I came to Holly and Reed in particular, I realized I already knew how they structured songs and sometimes even lyrics.

The Gizmos Story is the single most important listening experience I ever had with rock music, and just about the time I was beginning to worry about wearing mine out, Dale began to perform again in and around Bloomington, sometime in the winter of 1983, I think. I’ll pick up with that tomorrow.

[Tomorrow: post-Gizmos, pre-Boatmen Dale Lawrence anecdotes and vague recollections!]

3 thoughts on “Dale Lawrence, part one

  1. Shoot – I live down the street from Schuba’s and go there from time to time. One of my close friends used to work there, and I know some of the staff.

    Maybe I should check it out then. Hmm. Methinks you dropped the Schuba’s reference in the hope that some of the members of the Chicago Lodge might attend?

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