The Fairy Tale Ending Took A Very Long Time: Van Duren On The Return Of His Two Classic Albums

Fans of 70s  Rock music may well have heard of the artist Van Duren, his Memphis origins and overlap with the member of the band Big Star, and even about the recording and release of his critically acclaimed album, Are You Serious? It's less likely they know why that record became extremely difficult to find and that there was an entire follow-up album, Idiot Optimism that never saw widespread release.

The story behind these events may sound typical of the record industry, with disputes involving a studio and an artist's agreement being changed or compromised in a way that made them feel like they had to exit the deal. However, the human element in Van Duren's story is particularly moving, the context particularly odd, and the music concerned quite outstanding.

Fortunately, after many years, this story has a happy ending. In 2016, Van Duren had an indie documentary made about his work by a pair of Australian fans-turned-filmmakers, and not only did Van Duren regain the rights and the tapes to the albums, this month both are being issued by Omnivore Records.

Van Duren spoke with Tower's PULSE! about the early days of his music, his experiences getting into professional recording, and how he's feeling now with his landmark albums on the verge of getting the release that he's always wanted for them.  

Hannah Means-Shannon: Are you from Tennessee or is it just your home?

Van Duren: Yes, I was born here.

HMS: I actually grew up in Memphis, too, until I was about ten years old. Do you think that it influenced your musicality at all or your move to get into music?

VD: Yes, I’m sure it did. When I was a kid growing up in the late 50s and 60s, obviously technology had not arrived. We weren't distracted by so many choices, so I fine-tuned through the AM radio, and the few national TV shows, like variety shows. The Ed Sullivan show, where you could see some music groups. I remember, as a kid, seeing people like Elvis and Nat King Cole and a lot of the black artists who were on the radio.

Like millions of other kids, it all started for me in February of ’64 with The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

HMS: Wow! You were tuned in?

VD: It was like a light bulb going off. Yes, that was something. As soon as I realized that all of the females loved those guys, I thought, “Maybe being a baseball player isn’t the answer.” And it changed my life, it really did. There was something different about what those guys were doing, it was like a whole different world, even with the musical instruments, wondering, “How are they doing that?” And here we are, all these years later. I’m still going on.

HMS: Did the sound of their music seem strange or out there to you? How did it compare to what you were already familiar with?

VD: Obviously, back in those days, Memphis was divided between white and black music, and that was reflected in the radio stations. My parents were blue collar, but they both worked, and they could afford a housekeeper. I was fortunate enough to have been raised by an African American woman, really, who listened to those radio stations all day long, every day. It was also my introduction to Civil Rights. But the bottom line was, white radio was Elvis, this being Memphis, but the black radio stations were Sam Cooke, James Brown, The Four Tops, Motown stuff, and the list goes on.

When The Beatles came along in my life, it was unlike anything I had ever heard before, though, and it led to the British Invasion and all the other American groups following in their wake.

HMS: I’m going to avoid asking you a million more questions about this, even though I find it fascinating to hear about what was going on with music at that time.

VD: Well, I’ve been persuaded to write a book about it, and I’m on the last edits of it, though I don’t know if it’ll ever see the light of day. But I have two grown sons, and at least they’ll know the full story. It’s all part of how I came to be who I am, and there’s a lot of detail in the book about this.

HMS: That’s wonderful! I would be delighted. I love reading music bios. It’s keeping me somewhat more sane to read them during this time, particularly.

This has got to be a very big month of your life right now. On the one hand, there’s tremendous positivity in re-releasing Are You Serious? and in releasing Idiot Optimism for the first time. On the other hand, there’s got to be a lot of emotion behind this and it must be intense. Maybe even more than during the time of making the documentary.

VD: By far, yes, because this was the goal all along. Especially with the second album that was never properly released for 40 years. My goal all along was to have both of the records, but especially Idiot Optimism see the light of day. And I wanted it to sound great. And they’ve done that. In a way, it’s like closing a big chapter for me.

HMS: Due to the Covid restrictions, I don’t know if you’ll be able to walk into a record store and see them on the shelf, but I hope someday you can.

Was there a particular strategy in releasing them at the same time?

VD: It was Omnivore’s idea, and they really wanted to do both at the same time, so I said, “Sure”. I wasn’t opposed to that at all. It is interesting to see it all come out at the same time.

HMS: I think it can make a lot of sense since Are You Serious? is one that folks might remember from music history and Idiot Optimism is so much part of the same context for audiences.

VD: I agree with that.

HMS: That’s a lot of great music with the two albums combined!

VD: My philosophy has always been, all along, that God help me if anything gets past me that I’m ashamed of. All these years later, I can say that some are better than others, but I’m proud of everything. I’m happy that it’s finally seeing the light of day in a proper fashion.

HMS: Me too. I love this story. I don’t love the hard aspects, which I’m sure were pretty brutal, but I love this end result.

How much did you have to do in terms of mastering and handling the files for this release, and was that any different between the two records?

VD: We went to the original tapes, which were in really bad condition. As a sidenote, the filmmakers in Australia are still seeking a streaming deal, so they’ve asked me not to reveal some of the story behind the tapes. But having said that, we had to “bake” the master tapes. We did that at Ardent in Memphis, where the Big Star records were done.

My good friend Adam Hill, who worked there at Ardent, was the archivist with Omnivore, who worked on all the Chris Bell and Big Star reissues. He was the protégé of the original owner of Ardent, John Fry. He’s the guy who went with me and transferred all these tapes. We spent 19 hours over two days transferring all these tapes.

HMS: Amazing.

VD: Then we had the multi-track on everything, as well. Which was astonishing because at the Trod Nossel Studio, in Connecticut, where these were cut, usually the next act that came in recorded over the previous act’s two-inch tapes. So I just assumed that’s what happened. But there they were. We finally decided not to go back and remix anything, since it would be such an ordeal, and such a strain financially, to do so. And the mixes were not bad. We went with the original mastering of Are You Serious that Bob Ludwig did back in the ‘70s. Omnivore then put their magic on it.

With Idiot Optimism, the previous mastering on the album had been done by studio, and it was horrible. But I was not in control of all that. This time, I discovered that we had the master mixes from before the mastering on that album, and I was completely ecstatic. So that’s what they used, the master mixes.

HMS: That’s outstanding.

VD: They were pristine. Then our friend here in Memphis, Jeff Powell, is a vinyl mastering guy who works at Phillips Recording, and he did the vinyl mastering for both records. They’ve been remastered all the way. I’m so amazed by all their work. It sounds better than I could have hoped for.

HMS: I’m geekily happy to hear that the same person did the vinyl mastering on both because to me that means it’s going to have that continuity of sound.

VD: I agree with you. I’m fortunate that was able to happen. Jeff and I had been acquainted since the 1980s. He’s worked on a lot of unbelievable stuff, including Jack White’s albums. But he had never heard these recordings. But when he started mastering these, I got a phone call from Jeff, saying, “Holy crap, man! Why didn’t you tell me about these recordings?” It was pretty funny and rewarding to get that reaction from him. I’m a person who’s always looking forward, and I don’t look back too much, but it’s fun for a guy who’s that talented to say, “This is amazing!”

HMS: That’s so validating. You know you’re getting a very direct and honest reaction, too.

One thing I don’t know a lot about is what your musical life has been like in recent years. Are you someone who has been performing in your area?

VD: Yes, prior to Covid shutdown in March, that’s basically how I made my living. I did a solo gig at a place here for eight and a half years playing once a week, at a restaurant and bar that’s owned by one of Chris Bell’s sisters. I’ve seen people come in there from all over the world.

As for recording, the past seven or eight years, I’ve been working with the vocalist and songwriter Vicki Loveland. She’s a good friend of mine and last month we just finished mixing and recording our third album. It’ll be out in late January or February on vinyl. I’m really proud of it. It’s a collaboration where we both sing, and some great players came in.

Prior to that, I did two additional solo albums, and I did a couple albums with the singer/songwriter Tommy Hoehn back about twenty years. I’ve done a couple of other collaborations, and back in the 80s, I had a band called Good Question, which was a big, live band around here. We put out a couple of records as well, some of which is featured on the soundtrack to the film.

These reissues are somewhere around numbers 14 and 15 in terms of releases. Again, I’ve been moving forward.

HMS: I’m so happy to hear about all the wonderful things you’ve been doing, and it’s really inspiring that both live performance and studio recording have continued to be part of your life. It would have been understandable for you to have given up in disgust after the things that happened to these albums.

VD: I just didn’t think I had an alternative. It didn’t seem like I was going to go and be a plumber or something. In which case I’d be rolling in dough! It seemed obvious to me. I didn’t have a crisis of confidence. If I finished one thing, it was time to start the next thing.

HMS: In the liner notes to Are You Serious?, there’s a line that interest me. You say, “I was a recording artist”, something you realized once you started to hear yourself on the radio. What does that idea and experience mean to you, personally? That term has changed so much over the years.

VD: Well, the whole reason that I started out when I was a kid was because of the recording artists who I admired and who blew me away. The Beatles were way at the top of that list. I grew up in a world where there were three Beatle album a year for a while, and every one of them was different, and better than the one before. And I thought, “Hell, that’s what you do!” It was like a magic show and I wanted to find out how they did it.

Then, as you get a little older, and you’re playing live, but you can’t get into a studio, I had a tough time. That’s why I left Memphis for the Northeast. I was up against it. I lost my apartment, I was broke, pretty much. I had one opportunity left, and that was with Jon Tiven and that new label in Connecticut.

To do that, with a one-way ticket, and accomplish that record when I was pretty much making it up as I went along, getting past all that and having that vinyl in my hand in March of ’78 meant, “This really happened. I am a recording artist.” I was still only 23 or 24 at the time, but it had been quite a journey to get there. But then it started getting airplay and getting great reviews. That’s what it meant, that I was a recording artist. That I was legit on that level. If nothing else ever happened beyond that, I’d done that.

HMS: Thank you for that explanation. So, it’s not only being able to write the songs, but to get them down in a professional way, recording in a studio, and out into public channels? That whole process was something you had been able to break into.

VD: Right. Whereas for so many years now, it’s DIY. I’ve done a few of those, and most of them haven’t been released. But back in those days, you went to a studio, and there was no alternative, unless you had a home studio. Back then you had to find a studio that would give you a chance. The world is so different now, but back in the late 70s, that was the name of the game.

HMS: I’m assuming that the financial side of it was prohibitive, essentially, that it was so difficult for anyone to manage to get studio recording time due to the expense, which is still a problem these days for many people if you want to use a studio.

VD: Jody Stephens and I met 50 years ago, when we were 16, before Big Star. [Jody's] girlfriend at the time was singing in my bad. A few months later, they put Big Star together, and I heard the magic of a world class studio where they put those albums together. Jody and I got together and wrote some songs and did two or three rounds of demo tapes there at Ardent, so that was my first real recording experiences.

So the point is, I had been at one of the top studios in the world to start off. When I had the opportunity in Connecticut, it was an old-school, 16-track studio, and we had a great engineer, but there were no alternatives. But I had been in a world-class studio where Led Zeppelin III was mixed, for instance.

But when I went to Trod Nossel Studio in Connecticut, I signed away my life just to make an album, but that’s another part of the story. The fairy tale at the end is that I got them back, but it took a very, very long time.

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