Wednesday, June 25, 2014

RIP: Steve Ruppenthal (The Popes, Chapel Hill NC)

The Popes at their 2012 reunion, Steve Ruppenthal on far right 
Chances are you've not heard of Steve Ruppenthal or his tremendous Chapel Hill power pop band from the late '80's-early '90's, The Popes (no relation to and around long before Shane McGowan's band of the same name). Though our regular readers here at WYMA who love Guided by Voices, The Bats, Centro-Matic and the many power pop bands we cover here would certainly appreciate the EP Hi We're The Popes.

Ruppenthal drowned last Friday off the North Carolina coast.  This news has made me very sad, though brought back some fond memories too. 

I moved to Chapel Hill in 1988 just when Hi We're The Popes was released. I was so enthralled with that local Chapel Hill- Raleigh scene, I started writing about music for The Spectator and The Independent weekly. The Popes were one of the first bands I championed, and I went to every show of theirs I possibly could.

Thinking back on it all now,  of all the bands and great talent that was around during my time there (1988-93) - Flat Duo Jets, The Connells, The Woods, The Veldt, Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Polvo, Snatches of Pink (Michael Rank), Majosha (Ben Folds), Queen Sarah Saturday (Johnny Irion), etc. - the band I was the most staunchly loyal to and captured by was The Popes. They were the underdogs, the most modest, tried so hard, and put on the best live shows.      

Ruppenthal shared writing, singing and guitar duties with John Elderkin, and the two complemented each other extremely effectively, and together churned out intelligent 3 minute melodic gems that merged first generation British Invasion (especially The Kinks) with the Clash, Buzzcocks and XTC. But they made it their own, seen through the eyes of Southern college students, not sounding particularly like R.E.M. or The Connells, but coming from a similar place generally, another winning take on Big Star's basic approach if you will.

What set The Popes apart for me was their unabashed spirit and the sheer joy that came through the music. R.E.M. were once famously described as "The Ramones pistol-whipping the Byrds", so by that frame, The Popes were the early Clash pistol-whipping The Kinks. Ruppenthal was an encyclopedic rock'n'roll fan with great taste and a keen sense of humor. Their shows were a total blast. Ruppenthal and Elderkin were the nicest guys in a town full of them, and always remarkably appreciative of anything I ever wrote about them.

When R.E.M. hit it big and big record companies (still very fat and happy at that time) descended on Southern college towns looking for bands to sign, The Popes were on their radar and soon lost years on near deals, never released recordings, broken promises, and you know the story. And before you know it, the A&R types packed up and headed out to Seattle, and the Popes bouncy post-punk sounded out of step with the grunge of the day. The Popes window closed before it opened.  And they were just a few years before another Chapel Hill power pop-punk band, Superhchunk, figured out you that didn't need or even want a big record company.

Ruppenthal later relocated to the Washington DC area and formed other bands, notably The Public Good.  He never stopped loving music, being a fan, and being a great friend to the many people who have turned out in droves on Facebook and various mediums to praise him this week. And the most knowledgable music writers, club owners, and members of other bands in North Carolina have been speaking with great emotion about how much The Popes meant to them.

You can listen to Hi We're The Popes here and I insist that you do. That's Steve Ruppenthal singing lead on "Charmless". If you'd have come to a party at my house in 1989, you'd have heard "Charmless" before now:

We'll close with this beautiful eulogy from Steve Ruppenthal's dear friend and musical partner John Elderkin:

A note for Steve.
Steve's best songs are his funny and angry responses to the outside world, the world outside our bands, demanding things from him he has no intention of handing over—learning clever pick-up lines, getting a good tan, settling for a quiet life. My best are apologies to the world for never quite having the right stuff, otherwise I’d gladly comply. All the songs on “Hi” work that way, on and on through the final Public Good songs. That back and forth is what made our music go, I think.

I’ve thought about writing a song about my friendship with Steve, but I can’t see pulling it off without self-indulging in a “Edmund Fitzgerald” or “American Pie” style opus, maybe even a song so long it’d take up an entire album side, like the old Yes songs he despised. Steve wanted 2 minutes 30 seconds tops. Get in, get out, play the next song.

If I went ahead and tried writing a song anyhow, I’d definitely start out in the present. Get the listener right in the moment. I’ve been traveling since I got the news, and since then I’ve lost my wallet, left behind my quarterly supply of insulin, misplaced my blood monitor, and just today forgot my poor dog’s old bed when I left town. That’d be sharp—some solid lines to show where my head is. Then maybe I’d finish with the happy note that I’m obeying speed limits and have had no trouble with the cops while license-free. 

A second verse might give a run-down of our first meeting, when we argued Beatles v. Stones. Me Beatles, him Stones. This would be a good set-up for a possible later verse, placed in the last couple of years, when Steve disowned the Stones at the same time I was championing them. Haw haw.

We’re two verses in so I’d need a chorus here. This has been vexing me. If the rest of the song is bittersweet, the chorus should address our super-tight sense of humor. Some example of the caustic, doofus, private jokes that ran between us for 35 years. Most are inappropriate for radio listeners… I will leave this as a placeholder and mull.

Next verse: a teenage ride through Charlotte, taking all day to check out new arrivals at record stores, then hitting all the guitar shops the next day. 

Verse four: At the beach with our pack (to borrow Bill Trosch's phrase), Steve refusing to leave the beer-pong table to get even five minutes of sun.

Time for the chorus again. I am still mulling.

Next verse. If I can make it fit, I’d like to put in an episode with the Popes’ famous, giant double-headed dong, the size of a man’s arm, about how I discovered it picked up newsprint like Silly Putty, and how Steve sometimes came to the kitchen in the mornings to find me reading the news off the dong at the table, section by section, and how that’d set him off into hysterics.

If that’s too complicated to fit into a verse, then instead a few lines about how, during my months-long obsession with “The Executioner’s Song,” Steve told me seriously he’d move out of the Popes house if I didn’t shut up about it, so I drew pictures instead. He declared that a compromise he could live with but totally ignored my stick-figure art.

What the hell, I’d use both of these sections and knock out two verses that way. Like I said, this is bound to be long.

Back to the chorus, which I’ll definitely work on, later, for sure.

After all that, best to shake up the structure and subject matter with a break or a bridge. Surprise and delight the listener—that’s the goal. In this case, I’d keep it real and sing that we had some ugly battles, some of them downright mean, but hey, on the bright side, we only had one serious fistfight and that ended in a draw. Equals! (That’s pretty good. If I remain stuck, I might make this the chorus.)

Here I’d throw in a sweet major 7th chord, something Steve taught me, something we might’ve used better over time than anyone else, ever.

We’re nearing “Hey Jude” length by now, but if the melody is decent people will stick with it. And a few more verses are in order, starting with a scene from our Lovely Lads recordings. Steve sang all those songs and asked me to take over all the guitar leads, no matter who wrote what. A big change for us, and I still remember watching him sing my songs in the studio, “Daytime All Around” in particular, and feeling thwacked like a frying pan to my face. I’d have cried if I hadn’t been embarrassed. Steve and his force of personality. Incredible.

One last verse, because it’s related—a few lines about struggling with singing in the studio one afternoon with The Public Good, and Chris Garges defusing that by saying nonchalantly that Steve and I sang like brothers, which came because of shared DNA… didn’t we know that’s how great we sounded?

Finally, back to the chorus. That missing chorus. Something funny but family friendly. Or not. I just don’t know. If Steve were around, I’d pitch him the song as is and ask him to help plug the hole.

Speaking of filling holes, with a song this long there’s no reason to forego an outro. People will either be wanting even more at this point, or they’ll have switched over to “Inna Gadda Da Vida” by now. 

Here’s my outro: For the last few days I’ve walked around feeling like a chunk of the sky is missing overhead. Not a hole in my life, but a great big chunk of the sky torn out – the cloudy part with the light rain. The part that would cause Steve to look up and declare, “Ah, yes. It’s gonna be a beautiful day.”

-John E.


Kevin said...

Thanks very much for the remembrance Jim. John Elderkin steered me to your blog (huge GbV fan here) and this tribute is one of those things that is helping those of us who loved him get through this awful time.

Thank you - I really dig this post.

'Cousin' Kevin Ruppenthal

Anonymous said...

This is the best description of The Popes I've ever read.
Thank you for this.

-John E.

Jim Desmond said...

Thank you.
My thoughts and best wishes go out to you and all of Steve's family and close ones. It's really tough to lose someone so suddenly.

Unknown said...

Thanks Jim - A wonderful tribute to a one of a kind guy. He will be missed as songwriter, genre buster, and frankly good guy and friend with the driest sense of humor I have ever encountered. R.I.P. Steve. We love you!

Henry "Cheese Prophet" Pharr (Bass and bad jokes)