In looking over yesterday’s entry on Dale Lawrence, the Gizmos, and me, I realized a bit of clarity on the information I’m presenting here might be of value. Today, I correspond with Dale via email semi-regularly, and probably could have peppered him – or others – with numerous questions to establish a baseline of recollection against which my tattered and speculative historical narrative could be measured.

I might even do so one day. However, these essays are an attempt to accurately depict my current and evolving beliefs about Dale’s music career rather than an attempt to craft an objectively reported and fact-checked account. As I noted yesterday, my relationship with Dale’s music began in a vacuum – the music could only reflect back what I brought to it, and this is the basis of my powerful connection to it.

Knowledgeable and independent observers of the events and periods I describe are welcome to comment, of course. Today, I’m writing to cover the prehistory of the Vulgar Boatmen as I understand it to have been.

In 1983, Dale had returned to Indiana and was playing in various lineups, essentially looking for the post-Gizmos project with which he could focus his developing songwriting skills. At some point, dale had begun writing songs in partnership with a friend from his college days at IU, Robert Ray. I don’t know when exactly this began, but I suspect that sometime around this period is when it became an established creative practice. Because my awareness of it at the time was nil, I won’t devote significant time to discussing that aspect of the Boatmen.

I have two sets of demos from the 1982-1983 period, or to be scrupulously accurate, that I believe to be from this time. One set of about six songs is acoustically recorded and includes only Dale, an acoustic guitar, and a bass that I believe played by Billy Nightshade of the Gizmos. When I first heard them, however, I was told that the bass was played by someone else. I’ve had this tape since I was a teenager as well, and the songs reflect the songwriting sensibility seen in the 1981 demos, but the outlook has moderated.

Among these songs is “Please Panic,” and an early driving song, “Miss my Car,” about being stuck far from a loved companion. Where the 1981 demos (released as “the Midwest can Be Allright” in 2001) share a celebratory spirit tempered by homesickness and the first twinges of adult doubt, these demos feature the themes that would become the central feature of Dale’s songwriting subject matter from then on – doubt, loneliness, and frustration in a pure pop song structure.

The other set of tunes I have from this period of time is credited as “Satellites” demos, and combine the trademark mix of obscure pop covers with the first versions of music that would later become known as Vulgar Boatmen songs. The production on these demos emulates the classic radio-pop sounds of the early sixties, with sharp, clearly etched parts and deeply worked vocal harmonies. The sound is brittle and in my copies of the material high-end tinniness has crept in via dubbing, emphasizing the artificiality of the style.

To my ear, while the informal acoustic demos are among my favorite of the unreleased material I am aware of, the material on the Satellites demos has an inherent tension between the increasingly grown up subject matter and the spun-sugar commercial production. Additionally, the emphasis on this carefully constructed sound has the effect of minimizing the raw quality of the Gizmos-era performances.

Despite this, I strongly suspect that this material was very important technically to Dale’s aesthetic goals as a musician and songwriter – the production is very accomplished. I don’t know if the material was studio-based or recorded on four track, but it’s very polished material. Dale has had a long, long association with respected sound engineer Paul Mahern, and at the time they were living in Indianapolis and very much part of the same music scene; it’s possible that Paul may have had something to do with this set of recordings.

Nonetheless, the incarnation of Dale’s combo known as the Satellites was not ling for the world. I believe I saw them perform two or three times at an all ages club in Bloomington, Ricky’s Canteena, that between December of 1983 and summer 1985 or so was a hub of alternative music activity, hosting countless local bands and among others JFA, the Sun City Girls, Seven Seconds, and Samhain, Glenn Danzing’s post-Misfits band. Among the local bands I saw there was a teenage outfit called My Three Sons which featured a gifted young bassist named Jake Smith.

I have two songs of what may have been the first performance by the Satellites at Ricky’s, a December appearance possibly from that first 1983. The songs are the encore and may charitably be described as weakly executed. About this time, I have a recollection of attending a show in which Dale solicited names for the band. The name suggested and accepted was either the Satellites or Right to Left, and I do not recall which.

By the summer of 1984 (I think), the combo had stabilized personnel changes. I suspect that this lineup is who I started seeing appear frequently enough, still at all ages venues, as I would not be twenty-one until the spring of 1987. I think the lineup was:

Dale Lawrence
Erik Baade
Matt Speake
Shadow Meyers

This lineup should ring a bell – it’s all people who later played in the Vulgar Boatmen. Shadow was also the original Gizmos mk.II drummer, although he does not appear on the 1981 demos. My understanding is that he was in Austin, Texas; however that bit of recollection comes from an offhand remark at a party by Frankie Camaro in the summer of 1984, so I could easily have misunderstood or misrecollect.

Once these changes had stabilized, the band began playing regularly in Bloomington. I’d estimate I was aware of a show performed by them about once a month for the next few years, although generally those shows were in bars and not at the all-ages venues. The music that Right to Left played in concert was reflective and controlled, the sound supporting the subject matter of the songs.

As a teenager myself, this turn was not one that tickled my hormonal urges, and so it was sensible for the band to seek venues with older audiences. While it’s quite possible to imagine Right to Left opening for, say, the manic hardcore of the Vandals in this period, it’s probably just as well that to my knowledge that didn’t happen.

On the rare occasions that RTL would play an all-ages show I and others would inevitably call out for certain beloved Gizmos numbers – for me personally it was “Crime,” (“My Baby Loves Crime”) a song sung by Dale; others would call out for songs sung by Billy such as “Lightweight.” It was extremely rare for Dale to accede to such requests.

Sometime around 1986 or 1987 Right to Left released a cassette demo that was sold at shows, “Right to Left On Tape.” The recording artists are the lineup seen above and the production credits list Paul Mahern and Dale Lawrence. The songs are credited to Dale and Robert Ray – “University of France BMI,” it says, yet the copyright and date are lacking. This is a tracklist:

Morgan Says
All of My Friends
Drive Somewhere
When Company Comes
Change the World Around
I Like You

In everything but name, this is a Vulgar Boatmen release.

As it was made available, those of us who had been vigorously attending hardcore and punk rock shows began to hit twenty-one and become accustomed to the subtler performances and wider range – if less experimental and unpredictable in intensity – of styles seen on the Midwestern alternative music circuit, at that time still a barely-extant thing. Cover bands ruled the roost, and for many years there was only one place in Bloomington to see original music that served beer, the sainted Second Story.

Approaching adulthood and its’ lessons – friends jailed or maimed in car accidents, heartbreak, circumstance, cut off from you – combined with the less frenetic environment of a performance-oriented bar to permit a re-evaluation of the music that Dale was performing. It was still too sad, to defeatist, to devoted to the worship of the frozen and alienated relationship to appeal perfectly; yet it was also beautifully constructed, uncompromising, and clearly the result of a directed creative vision. Worth some work, in other words.

Over time, as I recall it, the stage performances of Right to Left became less shoe-gazing exercises in the recital of the music and much more like the rock shows I wanted. Yet, the glorious wail of uncontrolled feedback and atonal freestyle soloing was something I still didn’t get and didn’t expect from this band. It remained a topic of discussion and desire in my peer group: why won’t Dale cut loose?

While this much is accurate, I don’t recall ever engaging Dale in discussion on the topic, save as energetic audience member pushing the band to go farther, to return to the, ahem, rockist paradigm. All during this period, I duplicated The Gizmos Story with fervor, pressing them on the merely disinterested, preaching the import of understanding local music’s heritage and depth, and on and on.
Others also continued to carry a torch for the Gizmos of yore – ex-Panic John Barge among them. John cycled through a wide number of combs before sometime around 1987 settling into a very long run with the never-ever-toured Walking Ruins. Even before the Ruins played together, though, John was known to cover the Billy-penned song “Lightweight” about the perils and pain of being a teenage diabetic:


Billy’s a lightweight cuz he’s got diabetes
Can’t take a hit cuz he’s gotta take a shot
Wally’s fucked up and Party Marty can’t drive
Wally don’t got no will to survive

Help me – I’m fucked up

Help me – I’m fucked up

There’s hippies on the road
and along comes Party Marty
Makes Wally sorry that he owns a car
Party Marty goes fast and wrecks the (? sayers?)
[frantic unintelligible screaming]

Help me – I’m fucked up

Help me – I’m fucked up


Help me – I’m fucked up

Getting rowdy with stupid hippies
Listen to Boston yeah rock and roll
Ignorance is bliss and these hippies are happy
With their drugstore lives at home

Help me – I’m fucked up

Help me – I’m fucked up

Help me – I’m fucked up

Help me – I’m fucked up

Wally – Wally – Wally WALLYY!!!

Finally, in the summer of 1988, rumors began to circulate that a Gizmos reunion was in the offing for Second Story. The rumors were true, and that summer, the four Gizmos mk.II took the stage for about ninety minutes, reprising pretty much all the songs I’d come to know and adding one or two I’d never heard of. It remains the best show I’ve ever seen at Second Story. The Walking Ruins opened, and by the time the Gizmos actually walked out I recall a full dance floor.

A fascinating personal memory of the show is hearing all around me people singing along to certain of the songs, even the unreleased ones, due to the by-now-locally-widespread circulation of The Gizmos Story. I have a tape of the 1988 reunion, and I can hear the crowd vocals like a whisper track coming in and out of focus behind the driving, redlined roar of the band.

It was the first time I can recall seeing Dale onstage with the happy, dazed look that can overcome a performer when experiencing the unequivocal, enthusiastic approval of an audience. At many of the Right to Left shows leading up to this period, I recall a sort of tension, as might be expected from a performer who’s made a conscious decision to move on to a new style of performance when asked by fans to provide the old.

At Right to Left shows after that, for about the next year, the audience’s desire for rock and roll intensity was more often indulged than denied, at least at shows that I attended. As the year rolled on, the introduction of huge crescendos and the directness and intensity of rock into the songs and performances of the band gradually became more controlled and less organic.

That’s not to say that they weren’t kept as a part of the band’s arsenal; they were. But they were used in performance in increasingly formal ways, as I recall.

In 1990, I moved to Seattle. I believe that at about that time, the band I knew as Right to Left changed its’ name to the Vulgar Boatmen.

The period from 1990 to the present contains what the majority of today’s Boatmen fans think of as the highlight of the Boatmen’s career, the busy touring period of the early nineties and the recording and release of three albums, selections from which will appear soon on Wide Awake. Because my contact with the band – and even the released recordings – in this period is minimal, I won’t have much to say about it, with the exception of discussing live bootlegs, the songs, and the released recordings.

In 1992, I did see them at the Crocodile, here in Seattle – mis-booked with a frat-boy cover band, possibly the Hit Explosion – and finally made a point of buttonholing Dale after the set and chatting. I recall him shading his eyes onstage, looking out into the lights with surprise at my call of “Crime!” during the set, him remarking, “Wow! You must be a long way from home. We never get that out here! Can we play Please Panic instead?”

Tomorrow I’ll talk about Dale’s music and the recordings themselves. The series will close on Wednesday with a discussion of Wide Awake.

2 thoughts on “Dale Lawrence, part two

  1. Wow, this I swear this is the only Right To Left mention on the internet. My time in Bloomington, particularly Second Story, would explain how, now after relocating to San Diego, a sunny afternoon finds me relishing the discovery of this band in my iTunes (due I’m sure to some random sharing with various friends of local tendencies). Long live the Bloomington music scene, and the friendships that evolve from the same.

  2. i desperately need the satellites demos circa 84 – songs like
    fallen down, stop alternating, tilt-a-whirl, northwest passage, you look like sheila, and then covers like im in love with a girl, and you were on my mind. my dub, which i had since ’84 was mistakenly taped over by a friend of mine in ’95 who was stoned at the time and she put my tape on the wrong side of the dubbing deck! fortunately, i still have 4 songs left on a tape, including hall light, out of my bed (?), which were probably recorded in ’85 or so. dale has promised to run off a copy on CDR for me but that seems a far off prospect at this point…

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