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Calvin Johnson reflects on the history of Neo Boys / by Katie Alice Greer

I've recently wondered a lot about musical fandom. Who truly likes music anymore, why, and what are the rewards and frustrations of such an interest? Calvin Johnson is one of my favorite music fans. His deep and abiding passion for favorite records and bands is infectious and inspiring. This week I spoke with him about one of his favorite bands, the Neo Boys, who recently released a posthumous collection of material on Calvin's own label, K Records. As a huge Neo Boys fan myself, I sent Calvin a daunting number of questions:  When did you first get in touch with the band? How many shows were you able to see, can you tell me about them? What was going on with K when the Neo Boys were active? What did members of the band do when Neo Boys broke up? How did this compilation come together, what was your role in putting it together? Is a fan more or less helpful in this kind of process? Where were the tapes? Do you think Kim Kincaid and D.Boon sing and write in a similar way? Are Neo Boys indicative of their time, or do they contrast with a lot of what was happening in Portland at the time?

It can be difficult to ask about specifics when all you really want to demand is, "Tell me everything!" Below is Calvin's very generous recollection of Neo Boys' history, from a fan's perspective. 

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"In the '70s, '80s it was common to write directly to bands. Reviews of underground 45s often included addresses since these records were rarely available at record stores. Direct contact was the only way to obtain (or hear) the music. In the letter referenced (I was 17 years old at the time) I ordered the Neo Boys “Give Me the Message” 45 from Trap Records, a label run by Greg Sage of the Wipers, who also produced the EP. A few months later I began attending The Evergreen State College and spoke to Pat Baum on the telephone a few times about hosting the Neo Boys on campus, but the band was in one of their guitar player-less moments and nothing ever came of it. They did play Olympia on New Year's Eve 1981 at a downtown restaurant called the Gnu Deli. Unfortunately I missed that show because I was out of town. I wouldn't have been able to attend anyway because it was a 21+ event. So bogus. My only opportunity to see Neo Boys was when they played an art gallery in Seattle. It was well worth the wait! Quite magical. It was near the end of their time, during the build-up to the Crumbling Myths EP: they evoked a stately presence as they reeled through their deceptively simple tunes, Kim's eerily plaintive vocals floating above the spellbound crowd. Enchanting.

The music and the lyrics of Neo Boys are evocative of their time, in that folks in the punk world were experimenting with other voices and perspectives, ideas and directions, within the context of a “punk” or “pop” song. Personally I find Kim’s words much more effective than anyone else’s from that time in transporting one to another world, one that can be cold, comforting, angular, inviting, difficult, beautiful, harsh or obscure. Her abstract imagery tell stories that leave a lot of question marks to the listener. Someone should put out a book of her words.

K began right about this time, Autumn, 1982. Our first releases were cassette-only, and Pat Baum was running a cassette duplication company called Studio Services and made our early tapes for us. We stayed in touch over the years as she played in several bands and had her own cassette label. We distributed her tapes through our K News, and even had copies of the Neo Boys records for a while in the late '80s. I was always in awe of Pat and the Kincaid sisters because the Neo Boys music was so powerful and important to everyone I knew. Older pals of mine from community radio station KAOS started talking about the Neo Boys almost from their origination as a band; the first word of them circulated around Olympia in late 1978, early 1979. There was a sense that the Portland punk scene was an ideal local community spawning unique, expressive bands, earnest in their approach to creating a new audio culture. It is hard to describe the overall sense of self-consciousness pervading many nascent new wave scenes at the time, but Portland was able to retain a sense of humour without everything being a complete joke. This made their underground music world breathe while others seemed constricted, allowing complete musical novices like Neo Boys the opportunity to grow and thrive.

By the time the Neo Boys 45 came out on Trap I was living in the D.C. Area, thus I ordered the record through the mail (west coast punk/new wave was completely obscure and invisible on the east coast until hardcore came along). By the time I was back on KAOS in Sept. 1980, the Neo Boys record was one of a handful of NW releases getting a lot of airplay (others were Dishrags, Wipers, Blackouts, Anonymous, Pointed Sticks, Subhumans, the Rats). There weren't a lot of NW records out at the time, so anything was received eagerly at the station.

During the period 1980-83 I was working with Bruce Pavitt on hisSub/Pop fanzine, and he of course was a big fan of Neo Boys. We included the band on all three of our cassette compilations, Sub/Pop 5, 7 and 9. So we knew there was a lot of recording going on, and were psyched there was a Neo Boys album coming out. When Crumbling Myths arrived we were thrilled but disappointed that after "all this time" (it had only been a couple years!) it was an EP, not an album. Also, the band immediately dissolved. We were devastated! Alan Larsen (ofSome Velvet Sidewalk) was living in Sherwood, OR and was a big Neo Boys fan. He spoke of the anticipation for the Neo Boys album amongst his friends, and similar disappointment by the brevity of Crumbling Myths. He had been waiting for a particular favorite song from their live set to be available for home listening and was bummed that it was not included on Crumbling Myths. In the mid-'90s I was at Tom Robinson's warehouse (Tom produced Crumbling Myths) in Portland and saw the master tapes on a shelf and noticed the reel-to-reel tape included several songs that were not on the 12". Tom said that it was one of the worst days of his life when they received the acetate for Crumbling Myths and while listening to it all together each band member had a song they felt was not showing the Neo Boys at their best, so this handful of songs were cut from the final version of the record.

In the post-Neo era I kept in touch with Pat, and she knew a lot of my friends through her film work. Meg became a prominent singer-songwriter, so she was in the music news occasionally, but the Kincaid sisters retired from music. One caught glimpses of them through the years at a random event or in a crowd, but they remained ever elusive.

Throughout the '90s and early double-0s Pat and I occasionally talked about the idea of releasing all the Neo Boys recordings on K, but the band already had plans to work with a Portland label. This was fine with me, as long as the music was made available. The other label folded and eventually Pat approached me about K releasing the album. K has released albums by two Seattle bands from the same era, Beakers Four Steps Toward a Cultural Revolution [KLP163] and Blackouts History in Reverse [KLP164], so I was aware that the process involved with making these works available to the world could take longer than that of a new artist.

Because Pat and Tom Robinson had been so thorough in documenting the various stages of the band there was a wealth of recordings from demo sessions, rehearsals and live shows, besides the material from the 7" EP, Crumbling Myths (and it's out-takes) and other unreleased studio sessions. Pat had boxes of tapes in her parent’s basement and it was really exciting to go through this treasure trove of Portland punk history. It was gratifying to hear some of the other punk style material, and the Crumbling Myths era music that had never seen light of day was equal to or better than what had made it onto the 12”. Initially my favorites songs were “Running in the Shadows” and “Nothing to Fear”; now that I’ve heard all of it so many times I can no longer pick favorites. Initially the band had a low opinion of the relevance these songs and recordings may have in anyone’s life today. My role was to keep encouraging them to make the important decisions. Sorting through the tapes and choosing the versions of songs that everyone felt were the most dynamic took a few years, but here it is, Sooner or Later [KLP242]. Yay!"

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