Once he was the King of Spain

Moxy Fruvous was a tight little band, and many of their recordings are top-notch, and should always be among my favorites.

There’s been a lot of conflict over the last 18 months, though. And it points to a more widespread problem.

I was introduced to Fruvous (the fans’ shorthand – it honestly feels awkward to refer to them by their full name) with the release of “You Will Go To the Moon,” provided for me via cassette by my friend Tom Weber, who by that time had been mailing me the gift of music via tape for a decade. He is responsible for being first to hand me Adam Schmitt’s “World So Bright” (No. 2 on The Big List). For as much as I appreciated Tom sharing, neither of us could have guessed what would happen in the next three years.

Tom was a club-goer with me in Minnesota. We weren’t out nightly, weekly, or even monthly. We both had jobs and responsibilities, and we lived about 75 miles from the club most directly aimed at our tastes. I don’t think Tom ever saw a show at Minneapolis’ Sam’s, or Uncle Sam’s. I’m not even positive which name the place had the first time I saw a show there, Squeeze, in 1981. “Sam’s” and “Uncle Sam’s” seemed interchangable. But I was a mere downstater, an ourlier.

The place was called First Avenue when we saw Husker Du and Peter Case there right after “Warehouse” came out. We brought Greg Gilman with us to that show, and between a long day of work, Peter Case just playing acoustically, and Husker Du deciding to play “Warehouse” start to finish, and that was it, Greg fell asleep.

And Tom and I were there twice for Robyn Hitchcock. (If Tom had liked Shriekback, we’d have more First Avenue memories.) I saw some other great shows at First Avenue. In fact, about every one was fantastic, as long as I could ignore C.S. Angels, whose extended conclusion of one song found me yelling at the stage, “Who do these guys think they are, Uriah Heep?” Oh, and ignore the band Breaking Circus, although they had one song with the beautifully memorable line, “I feel like a piece of burnt toast on a wire.”

(I turned to my brother-in-law and said, “Did he just say he felt like a piece of burnt toast on a wire?”)

(I know, I know – I’ve told that story before. Sue me.)

I was immediately taken with “You Will Go To the Moon.” What was not to like? It starts with “Michigan Militia,” which appropriates the lick from “Last Train to Clarksville,” plays it on a banjo, and frames lyrics about a group of proud yet self-aware survivalists. Sing partially through a megaphone. And it’s funny, so long as you can chuckle at lines like “in a couple of days, we’ll be free or we’ll be dead” and “now they got us on TV, makin’ us look stupid.” (It turned more delicious live, when singer Mike Ford would occasionally deliver lines in William Shatner’s voice.)

Then there was the Beatles-alike “Get in the Car,” the left-wing hilarity of “Your New Boyfriend” (whose next words were “a bit of a right-wing shit”), the pot anthem “Boo Time,” and the irresistible “Kick in the Ass,” which just lists people who deserve to be, well, kicked in the ass.

The album was No. 3 on my year-end list in 1997.  And then I saw them in person.

They played Decatur Celebration, a street festival that at the time offered nostalgia bands that aspired to the state fair level of bands, and also some weird things that might or might not be worth your time. I had no idea of Fruvous’ live reputation. For all I realized at the time, I had been listening to their debut album. I sat through as much as I could of an insulting phoned-in performance by Chuck Negron, formerly of Three Dog Night, and pondered whether I even wanted to go see Moxy Fruvous, so annoyed was I by Negron’s performance.

But Fruvous caught my attention right away. By halfway through their set, I wandered near the stage, and before long found myself at the front. These four talented guys were smart lyrically, musically, and theatrically. I was fascinated. I stayed after the show to buy a CD and make sure I talked to every member of the band. It was such an experience that I remember the t-shirt I was wearing. One of the band members asked me about it (a St. Paul Saints logo shirt), and we spent a couple of minutes discussion independent professional baseball in the United States.

I was intrigued enough to do some more research, and I found a thriving online community. “Fruheads” were people who’d travel show to show, and rush to report show info to the rest of the community. Fortunately for me, the band had enough of a following that they could draw reasonable crowds in any number of nearby cities.

I wound up attending Fruvous shows in Decatur, Champaign, St. Louis, Chicago, Bloomington (Ind.), West Lafayette, Milwaukee, Madison and their hometown of Toronto. I was in Canada to attend “FruCon,” an organized gathering of fans. I was stunned to see the band show up and offer us a short set.

By the end of 1998, I’d attended more Moxy Fruvous club shows than the total number of club shows I’d attended the previous 10 years combined. I saw them 28 times in a three-year stretch. They only played one song at every show: “Michigan Militia.” They did great originals. They did fun covers. (At the second show I saw, they had a stage sound malfunction, and almost without hesitation went into The Beatles’ “Please Please Me.” They explained that the immediate move when something goes wrong on stage is to go into a Beatles song. That fixes everything. I don’t know whether I saw the first time they put the theory into practice, but I know I saw them do it again.) And they did brilliant medleys. Fans will remember the “Dancing Queen” medley (although I’m certain there was a more clever name for it) of “Dancing Queen,” “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Angel of Harlem.” (Puts a whole new spin on ABBA, doesn’t it?) “Billie Jian” (“Jian” is Fruvous’ drummer, and the main reason we’re here at this point, but we’re getting to that part) mashed “Billie Jean,” “Lovefool” and “A Message to You, Rudy.” They based bizarre medleys around “Signed Sealed and Delivered” and “Love Potion No. 9.”

And they had a relationship with their fans. I’ve seen more of it since, but I’d never seen anything like that previously. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose, but when I joined the group of fans the band acknowledged by name, I at once thought “This is kinda cool” and “Maybe I need to cut back on the travel.”

They were terribly likeable, terribly talented, terribly clever and terribly friendly.

People would ask me where to start with listening to Fruvous. I’d generally tell them to start with “Bargainville,” especially if the person had seen the band perform. “Bargainville” always figured largely in their shows, and with good reason. I’ve always thought “King of Spain” is a natural entry point for the band’s style and antics. “My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors” is short, catchy and clever. “The Lazy Boy” is, I believe, the only pop song with a furniture joke. It’s at No. 299 on The Big List, and it probably should be higher.

They broke up (although they called it a “hiatus” for years) in fall 2000. The last show I saw was June of that year. I reluctantly admitted to a few people that I thought the band would break up by the end of the year.

One of the fascinating things about the fan community was the different types of people attracted. There were star-crossed young women who made moon eyes at the guys. (And who knows what else? But I can honestly say I spent a long time hanging out after a lot of shows, and anytime any of the guys escaped early, the reason could be reasonably attributed to fatigue or illness. They were never in a hurry to get away from a club that I saw.)

There were smart, independent, opinionated women who were getting something I couldn’t quite figure from the band. Smart, liberal, non-sexist men? Possibly. But were there so few of those kinds of men in the U.S. that someone in the Midwest had to rely on men from Canada traveling through to provide it? They were appreciative enough of the music that I could always converse with them.

As opposed to the first kind of women. The group I ended up in was the guys who were terribly geeky about their music, and were thrilled to find Fruvous shared the geekism. We’d compare notes about the way and reason things were played, and we’d share the information with one another. The first time I heard someone in the group refer to the moon-eyed women as “fishgirls,” I laughed at both the audacity and the accuracy. As a group, their lips seemed poised in pre-pucker. “Fishgirls” (which sounds far more cruel now than it did then, even though I don’t think many intended it as pejorative) weren’t disagreeable. They were just there for a different reason than the rest of us.

I’d occasionally check in on the band members via the Internet. The community stayed alive for a few years, but fizzled as their interest in keeping alive the memory of a dead band became tiresome. The band became, for me and any number of others, one of those pleasant memories from the 90s.

That all changed a little more than a decade later. A Facebook friend first sent me a link to a story about the first accusations against Fruvous drummer-turned-radio host Jian Ghomeshi.  It’s important to note the linked story was written a little more than a week after the story broke. Ghomeshi was being accused of unnamed inappropriate sexual acts. Ghomeshi didn’t wait for any speculation to begin. He issued a statement that made “he said/she said” a reasonable position to take.

In my miniature version of a discussion that inflamed media followers in Canada, I found myself defending Ghomeshi and the band. I wasn’t dismissing the accusations. But I wanted more than one person’s words. I wanted them backed up by other observations, other suggestions of which person was closer to telling the truth. Some convicted or exonerated the man immediately. I waited, and admittedly leaned toward the side of the celebrity who might have been guilty, but might also have been a target for malicious rumors.

Then more and more reports came out. More women making similar accusations, describing troubling similar non-consensual encounters.

My interest in college athletics decreased as I became more exposed to the underbelly of recruiting, the race to acquire slave labor with skills. My interest in the National Football League dropped as it became clear the league had covered up studies indicating the potential debilitating results of head injuries. It dropped further as players abused animals, women and their children.

You reach a line at some point. I reached mine, and was pushed well past it.

Dealing with the fallout of the Ghomeshi issues was troubling. (And he was eventually found not guilty in Canadian court.) My troubles grew as I saw stories featuring interviews with fans from the Fruvous days. I was numb when I saw an extensive set of quotes from one of the fans with whom I spent a lot of time, waiting in line outside shows, hanging out in corners of clubs, waiting for one of Fruvous’ awful opening acts to conclude their set (honestly, Susan Werner was the only opener whose talents attracted my attention), trying to figure out how to acquire tapes of shows we didn’t have.

In the story, my acquaintance essentially said he wasn’t surprised. He’d seen questionable behavior from Ghomeshi all the way back to the Fruvous touring days.

Seriously? With the fishgirls? And I’d actually spent a moment defending the guy?

I was having trouble listening to Moxy Fruvous’ music, even in those rare instances where it was coming my way. It’s easy to tell the quartet’s voices apart. Ghomeshi sings on almost every song. As he should. He had the most pleasant voice, and manipulated well within the band’s requirements. Hearing his voice, though, was making me feel about the same way I felt watching the third act of the film “Man of Steel:” Mental anguish and nausea.

Yet if you’re going to apply moral judgment, you need to show some consistency if you’re any kind of person at all, right? Personal heroes Frank Zappa and John Lennon didn’t exactly set examples for the world to follow in their personal (and some of their professional) relationships.

And all I can say about that is I’m working to separate the art from the artist/individual, as much as I don’t like to do that.

I don’t like to apologize for liking art. There’s enough of it that doesn’t touch me at all that I want to embrace the stuff that does.

I’m just learning to acknowledge the flaws while I listen to “King of Spain.”

It’s quite a good song, you know.


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