Van Duren was 24 years old in 1978, the year he released his debut album, Are You Serious? Ignored at the time, the album’s reputation has continued to grow among power pop aficionados, many of whom now hail it as a classic. Nevertheless, most music fans have never heard of the album or its creator, but all that may be about to change.
Waiting: The Van Duren Story is a new Australian documentary made by first-time filmmakers Wade Jackson and Greg Carey. Three years ago, the two friends had instantly fallen in love with Are You Serious? and they were dumbfounded that such a great album could be virtually unknown. Why wasn’t this guy famous? There had to be a story.
After three bottles of wine and despite neither of them having any filmmaking experience – Jackson is a musician and Carey is a band manager – they decided to make a film, an attempt to draw attention to an exceptional artist who had somehow slipped through the cracks of history.
Last week, I interviewed Jackson, Carey and Van Duren while the three were in London for the documentary’s British premiere. A native of Memphis, Van Duren sprang from the same “outsider” music scene that spawned Big Star, another act whose records were spectacularly unsuccessful. While Alex Chilton and Big Star finally started to receive their dues in the 1980s, as this film’s title suggests, Van Duren is still waiting for his.
Musically, the parallels between Van Duren and Big Star were what first caught Wade Jackson’s attention. It was “Grow Yourself Up” from Are You Serious? that he came across on YouTube. “It just had everything I love in a track,” Jackson said. “The production immediately was great, the chord progression, and then his voice just blew me away.” He hunted down an illegal copy of the complete album online. “I was absolutely floored by it,” he said, “You know, from the first track, ‘Chemical Fire’, right until the end … it was just that perfect crossover between [Todd] Rundgren, Big Star, [Paul] McCartney and, yeah, it was a perfect record for me.”
Six months after the fateful, boozy night when Jackson first played Are You Serious? for Carey, the two were on a flight to the United States. They had picked up some rudimentary knowledge about how to operate a camera, and put together a list of 27 people to interview, but still had no clear idea what they were doing. “At the start of this project we thought it may be a 40-minute YouTube video,” Jackson told me. “We really didn’t know what the end result was going to be.”
The final film is a remarkable piece of work – part road movie, part quixotic quest – that is grounded in a deep love and respect for the music of Van Duren. Carey told me one thought drove the documentary’s production, even at its lowest moments: “We’ve told Van we’re doing this doco, even though we’re completely out of our depth. We can’t let this guy down. We have to follow through no matter what.”
Trod Nossel Productions and Recording Studios and the characters around it form the core of this film. Owned by Thomas “Doc” Cavalier – a former dentist with no teeth who died in 2005 and who was, by all accounts, a very colourful character – the studio and its related record label are also the key to the mystery as to why Van Duren’s career failed to take off. Duren had been signed to Cavalier’s in-house label, Big Sound, in 1977 and recorded Are You Serious? and its superb follow-up, Idiot Optimism, at Doc’s studios.
In our interview, the singer didn’t mince words about Doc Cavalier. “I’d never seen anything like it. Talk about shyster, boy!” Duren said. “He always seemed to have plenty of money, but the studio was rundown, and everybody was working for nothing and, meanwhile, he had a really nice 30-something-foot boat that he used to go out on, you know?”
One of the film’s most heartbreaking moments comes when it’s revealed that not long after the release of Are You Serious? Cavalier had been approached by RCA Records, which offered him a deal to release Van Duren albums through RCA. It would have been a win-win situation for all concerned. Instead, Cavalier insisted the recording giant also sign Big Sound to a label deal, rather than Van Duren alone. By doing that, Cavalier would have been able to keep the signing advance to himself rather than share it with Duren. RCA only wanted Duren, not his label, so they rescinded the offer. And with that, Cavalier cost himself and Duren a lot of money, as well as the chance of a lifetime.
In Connecticut, Jackson and Carey tried to film at Trod Nossel studios. The owners not only wouldn’t let them inside to film but also took out a restraining order against Jackson, threatening him with arrest if he tried to enter the property again. They also refused to license the filmmakers any of Van Duren’s early recordings of Are You Serious? or Idiot Optimism for use on the soundtrack.
It was a blow for the filmmakers. They had only just started production and already the project faced collapse – getting these songs was crucial if they were going to be able to tell this story, so they decided to change tack and direct their efforts to getting these tapes. This “meta” storytelling device actually works well in the documentary. At first, I wondered why the film was so focused on Carey and Jackson – it was jarring to see them on-screen. It ends up paying off though, as by the film’s conclusion, their fate and Van Duren’s become inextricably intertwined.
The decision to make a film about themselves making a film about Van Duren wasn’t the pair’s original plan – it came from editor Jonathan Sequeira. When they got back from filming in the US, Jackson and Carey recruited Sequeira to help them work out what they had, if anything. He took away a hard drive containing everything they had shot and a week later he came back with a surprising verdict. “The story is about you guys,” he told them. “You know, following Van. So, we’re gonna use that footage and weave it into the story.” Carey told me, “We looked at each other and kind of shrugged. ‘Sure. We don’t really know what we’re doing, so go for it.’ ”
Van Duren’s Are You Serious? is a great album but its failure to make a commercial impact was probably mostly due to being released on a small label without any clout on radio or decent distribution. It was a terribly unjust fate for such a wonderful record but, as Big Star showed a few years earlier, that has happened before and, no doubt, many times since. The real tragedy – and weirdness – is what happened to Duren next.
Six months after the release of Are You Serious? he was given the go-ahead to record a second album. Waiting: The Van Duren Story details a lot of the drama going on at Trod Nossel during the making of Idiot Optimism, including questionable accounting practices and the unwelcome intrusion of Scientology into the day-to-day business of the studio. Jon Tiven, who features prominently in the film, was a partner with Cavalier in Big Sound and it was his idea to sign Duren in the first place. When he quit the label, Tiven tried to persuade Duren to leave with him, to no avail. Already halfway through recording Idiot Optimism, Duren felt he couldn’t go, though how he was able to knuckle down and complete the record with all the lunacy surrounding him boggles the mind.
I’m glad he did because in many ways Idiot Optimism is a superior album to Are You Serious? It is more ambitious and diverse musically, and it sounds more vibrant. Duren himself believes it is his masterpiece. Sadly, it is even more obscure than Are You Serious? and only came out for the first time in 1999 on a small Japanese label. Back in 1979, after more financial shenanigans, Cavalier had refused to release the album, so for 20 years the only evidence Duren had that the album had ever existed was a cassette he had saved of the final mix.
I asked Van Duren after Waiting’s British premiere how he was able to cope all those years afterwards, knowing his masterpiece was shelved seemingly forever. “I can’t even describe to you,” he replied. “It was shattering. It really messed me up for a long time, deep down inside … You soldier on and hope for better things.”
In 1981, Duren returned to live in Memphis and started back at square one. He had some local success with a band called Good Question, which is also covered in the film, and he continues to perform, write and record to this day. “There have been another 10 albums since [moving back],” he told me. “Different albums, solo albums, collaborations, group albums, so it’s been continuous. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of everything.”
I asked Duren if, after all this time, he ever wished he’d left Trod Nossel with Jon Tiven and saved himself a lot of heartache. “I had to get that record onto tape and make sure that it didn’t just die and go away forever,” he replied. “Because my viewpoint at the time was, ‘I can’t lose this energy. It won’t be the same if we start over somewhere else, it just won’t be the same’, you know? So that’s why I made that decision and I stayed through it all to get it finished. The story’s in the film, of course, but I don’t regret that for a heartbeat.”
Spoken like a true artist.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 6, 2019 as "Two men and a Van".
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