You shouldn’t learn about the death of someone you knew at a birthday party.
Last night, I was at my friend Fern’s 40th birthday party, held at eVocal, a local venue/art gallery that is one of her spiritual homes, a place where she regularly reads her work. It was my first time there after having heard much about it, so I was wandering around, looking at everything, when a flyer up in the window caught my eye.
I moved closer.
With Jello Biafra and Kevin Seconds, huh…wait, hold a minute, M.I.A. had broken up years ago. Something doesn’t make —
Then I read more of the flyer and something hit me:
For the family of Mike Conley…Mike’s dead?
I didn’t know who to ask but Brett, one of eVocal’s main folks, was around, and I walked up to him and asked. I vaguely remember feeling shocked. Brett confirmed it and we talked a bit about it — I could tell it had hit him hard as well.
Was this huge news? How had I missed this?
As the party started filling up the venue I withdrew to the side and started scrounging for information via the iPhone, and found stories like this one, written by my editor at the OC Weekly, Dave Segal, some days after it happened — which makes my ignorance of his passing until now all the more inexcusable. The actual event and initial reports had happened on the crazy-full weekend of my birthday and good friend Stripey’s and my mind was very much elsewhere, but to have missed Dave’s story on it a few days later in a paper I write for…self-pity isn’t an attractive quality, but I was damn ashamed of myself, angry at myself, to have blanked on this, still am. I will say no more on that front.
But I searched for a few more stories, read some comments, and quietly, I began to grieve.
In late 1992, as part of my initial arrival at UCI, I sought out both the radio station KUCI and the student newspaper, the New University, the latter with a vague idea to do some sort of regular music coverage. I had barely any review experience or interview experience as such, but I knew I wanted to do something, even while going to grad school — it was an interest I really wanted to pursue for some time but, in my own fairly slack way, I hadn’t sensed how best to do it. (The idea of doing a fanzine on my own or the like never occurred to me — I think in the end I am and remain someone who finds larger contexts to work in.) But since the New University, unlike UCLA’s paper, didn’t require you to be part of the journalism program one way or another — handily, since in fact UCI had no such program (for better or for worse!) — I pretty much walked in, indicated my interest, and was immediately made an intern. I can live with that.
How it happened I’m not sure — I must have mentioned I was interested in music and all — but shortly thereafter, not on the first day or anything (I think), this had arrived in the New U mailbin:
You can find my thoughts on this release, Naked Soul’s debut EP Seed, at the All Music Guide, but those were written many years later — at the time, I knew of M.I.A. a bit and in reading the press guff that came with the CD I learned the connection and was intrigued. I forget how it happened — my interest, the label’s, my editor’s — but I arranged to do an interview with Mike and Jeff Sewell, Naked Soul’s bassist, near UCI.
You won’t find the story anywhere online to my knowledge — though if it has surfaced, I’d be pleased to know. I was still months away from hearing the term ‘web browser’ for the first time and the New U wouldn’t fully go online until the mid-nineties, and its archives start from around that time. So I have no story to refer to, beyond guessing it’s probably an embarrassment of an effort on my end, fairly obvious in its line of questioning and general approach. There’s a lot of woodshedding I’m content to ignore.
But that means instead my memories are about that first meeting — dim, but for a reason as I’ll explain. Jeff was cool enough, but I remember Mike being very friendly, a warm and heartfelt guy. He matches well in my memory with someone else I interviewed and first heard soon thereafter, O from the band Olivelawn, who had just started his own new band fluf around that point. Two different people but both allied to anthemic and heartfelt rock and roll that had grown out of the 80s punk/alternative/whatever you want to call it scene they’d grown up in and been a part of. The world had turned — slightly — towards their musical view on life and they were out to make the most of it.
The point is, though, that I sensed Mike was a good fellow, from the start. Nothing earthshattering about this, nothing that changed my life in a singular fashion, just that you knew, here was a good dude. I’m sure he spoke a bit of his happy pride in his young daughter, pictured there on the cover — surprising to realize now that she’s 18 years old — and what he hoped things might lead to. He’d already done a lot so he had no illusions I’m sure — he just wanted to make music and see what would happen. And in combination with the interview and the EP, I became a Naked Soul kind of a guy — for me, Mike was identified with that, not with M.I.A.
The story doesn’t end there, though. Now let me stop and say this right now: I will never claim to have been Mike’s friend at this time, close or otherwise. But we were friendly — over the next couple of years, we struck up an acquaintance, built in part by circumstance and in part by luck. He lived and worked nearby, and I got to know him in the same way that I got to initially know someone like the Detroit Bar‘s Chris Fahy, say — someone on the scene and getting involved while I was off torturing myself over obscure theorists. But I played Naked Soul’s music on my show and covered it for the New U and while I showed nowhere near the focus on local things that I could have done, there were folks I did follow a bit and shows I did see and people I talked to, and Mike was one of them. I remember seeing a Naked Soul show up in LA — the first time I think I saw them do their killer cover of the Replacements’ “Answering Machine” — and played cuts on my show from the EP.
Some months later, they ended up booked to play a show at UCI’s old Pub venue, now somewhat resurrected in the new Student Center there. At this point the show booker for a lot of things at UCI from 1992 to 1994 was another KUCI DJ — my friend Jen Vineyard, who was able to get in a huge number of stellar acts on the road during those years, big and small. That’s a story in and of itself, and I can talk about everything from seeing Tiger Trap doing an afternoon show in the Pub to the Melvins blasting a huge wall of noise across campus to seeing the final Unrest tour with an opening act on their own first American tour…Stereolab. And more, and onward — but the point was that Jen also kept her eyes and ears out for local bands all the time, booking them in for shows, and so Naked Soul got their own headlining gig one night.
Now, I don’t remember how this happened. I don’t even remember why. But I think — maybe — that Mike had always remembered the story I’d written and thought it was really nice, and we were all talking before the show or something. Again, I don’t remember — when I say things are dim from that first meeting, it’s that we met often enough than things blend into each other, and that I can’t be sure of what was talked about at each time. But he really wanted me to introduce them that night at the Pub.
I’m sure I was pleased, flattered, but also surprised and maybe a touch nervous. But I remember agreeing, and I dimly recall stepping on the stage, looking out to the crowd and into the stagelights (and thus not seeing the crowd), saying…something and happily introducing the band, I trust. And then I got off there as quickly as I could! Hey, they weren’t paying to see me.
As it turns out, there’s a video of a performance from that show on YouTube. Just one cut, but a good one — their fine rip on the Who’s “So Sad About Us”:
I wonder if there’s more of the show out there somewhere. Hopefully so.
I kept running into Mike after that, very randomly — and bless his soul, he always seemed to recognize me first. I only just remembered that, typing this now. I remember running into him at Lollapalooza 1994 at the water tent, he was all smiles, having the time of his life — god knows what we talked about, but I have that memory of him just having a ball, totally up. I want to say there were a couple of other encounters along the way too, out and about.
I think I recall the final time we talked, though, and I’m going to have to do some scrounging later to see if I still have the tape. What happened was that Naked Soul had released their full album, Visiting Your Planet — and as this AMG review says (not by me, but by a fellow fan), it’s a secret treat of an album, not earthshaking but sounding great still. I ought to know, I’m playing it just now.
Anyway, we had agreed to set up an interview…for the paper? for KUCI? I don’t recall now, I don’t even know if it was tied into the album release at all. It was just Mike this time, because the band had either gone through a lineup change or was in some instability — there wouldn’t be anything else from the band in the end beyond a small-release single, so perhaps it was all just starting to wind down. One thing I do remember, though, is that I’ve got the interview on tape somewhere — I’ve got a big mess of random tapes like that and I really should go through one of these days and digitize them. I don’t think they’re any great classics missing in them, but they might be of interest (and I know that among them is my Ian Crause interview but that’s very much another story).
I can’t say I recall much about this interview but I remember Mike being a little more reflective, not quite as up — not depressed, I should say, just simply reflecting what had to be a stressful period with the band, possibly with the label, possibly something else too. But it wasn’t a bad conversation or interview, so I hope, and he was as friendly as ever; given I was going through my own ups and downs around that time I wouldn’t be surprised if I came off as a bit mercurial to him in turn, reading things through our own lenses. We ate some pizza as we talked, parted with a handshake and hopefully a promise to catch each other as we could.
To my knowledge, that was the last time we spoke. Somewhere in 1995 or so, I’m pretty sure.
I don’t mention this to speak of it in a dramatic sense, though I’m sure it comes off that way. Rather, I think from there we just carried on as we did, busy with our own lives and own experiences. He had the eventual breakup of Naked Soul to deal with, not to mention the daily living of family and fatherhood and the workaday world to address; I was only a short year or two away from the decision to pull the ripcord out of grad school and, as a result, stopping my writing work for a bit until a fortuitous exchange of e-mails with Steven Thomas Erlewine led to the All Music Guide work and all that followed after it. My knowledge of local bands grew a bit hazier as my interests went elsewhere, I put down deeper roots of friendship with others…a not-unfamiliar path.
And Mike? He kept on keeping on — and learning that he did and I somehow missed it all, well, like I said, I’m trying to avoid self-pity, but again I’m kicking myself a bit, just for simply not being aware, not knowing or asking or putting the pieces together — we were, after all, in the same area still. But among other things, he started a new band, Jigsaw, and once again took to the road and stage and studio doing what he loved. Here’s the video for their song “Sour”:
Meanwhile, he made a hell of a mark in recent years via his ownership of a great bar that I don’t go to often enough, the Avalon Bar. Located near the Detroit Bar (and eVocal), it’s a dive in the best sense — not scummy, but comfortable, the type of place that has its own feeling and loyal clientele. But again, I don’t go there often enough, obviously — because if I did, at some point I would have found out he was the owner, or run into him even. Now I’ll never claim he would have recognized me again then out of the blue, after so many years. But if he had — well, I wouldn’t have been surprised. And that would have been great.
It really would have been great just to say hi again one more time, that’s all. It would have given me the chance to apologize for losing touch, to say something like, “Man, I am a TOTAL goof, I didn’t even know you ran this place!,” to ask after everything. It would have been fun.
But there again, I protest too much — because, after all, those who did know him far better than I, his friends — his family — those are the ones who truly want to say hi to him again one more time, and more. Because you don’t expect to see your buddy, your boss, your husband, your dad go off on a trip somewhere for work and wish him well and then get a phone call or a message…
No, you don’t expect that. You just don’t.
The birthday party was a blast and I concentrated on the moment. There was music and poetry and catching up with friends who showed up later on in the evening and more. Fern had a wonderful time and it was a pleasure to meet her children and her family and friends. Yet in a weird and slightly reversed way, I thought of how I was now in a reverse position from three years back, where I came to London on a long-planned visit only to have it happen the day after the Tube bombings, and for me to find out that an acquaintance who was a dear friend of many of my friends there was one of the victims. As I sadly and ruefully summed it up at the time, I came out for a party and ending up crashing a wake.
But this time around the wake was in my head, and the party was all around me.
The Mike Conley Family Fund has been set up to take donations — there is a memorial T-shirt available for purchase, and as that flyer notes up top, there’s a show coming up a week from Monday — and that’s one amazing lineup.
For now, though, simply this, belatedly and with honest sorrow: thanks Mike. The memories are warm and I always knew you were ‘good people,’ as they say. From everything else I’ve read so far over the last twelve hours, it only just reconfirmed that. It’s a little comforting to know that whatever else my faults in learning too late and all that I’m not the only person who thought that about you, and knew it, and said it.