Tara Jane, her journey and mine
It’s the spring of 1994. Some of my friends and I have trundled into a van driven by the grandfather of my buddy, Pat. As punk-rock skateboarders from Monterey, Ky. it’s like our patriotic duty to make the trek to the Machine to see hardcore shows every weekend.
Some guy with black hair and intense looks hands us a circular. “Come see our band,” he says. “We could kind of be described as loud but quiet.” It’s Rodan. According to legend put forth by my friend, the poet Ron Whitehead, Rodan had played its first show in Louisville earlier that spring at an insomniacathon organized by the Literary Renaissance to raise money to bring poets Eitne Strong and E. Ethelbert Miller to town.
It’s the spring of 1995. As a fledgling poet, I’ve joined a caravan from Louisville to New York to participate in a tribute to the Beat Generation billed as “Rant Eats New York Eats the Beats.” It turns out to be a financial disaster, and for my part I read my poems to an empty auditorium at New York University at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Rodan also makes the journey, and many years later I can distinctly recall seeing them play for a near-capacity crowd at the Knitting Factory. They have just released their first and only full length, Rusty, an album that will become something of a classic.
It is a thrilling moment. Tara Jane O’Neil stands in the middle of the stage like a monument loosing propulsive sinews of electronic noise from her bass. With her hair falling over her forehead her eyes are hardly ever visible. As the music careens through dynamic shifts, O’Neil leans into the mic whispering feverish vocals in complement to the singing of guitarists Jeffery Mueller and Jason Noble.
The music indeed evolves unpredictably from a sonic torrent to a delicate symphony. Here is a band from Kentucky jumping in front of the art-noise movement led by Sonic Youth, the gold standard of the New York avant-garde. The Knitting Factory audience, like typical New York hipsters, maintain a cool reserve, but they’re nodding and smiling.
It’s the fall of 2006. O’Neil has a new album out on the Quarterstick label out of Chicago. It’s called In Circles. It’s her fifth or sixth full-length solo album since the turn of the millennium when she concluded her participation in Retsin, a collaboration with Cynthia Nelson that followed the brief supernova that was Rodan. O’Neil’s work these days resonates with quiet introspection, obscure warmth and the delicate interplay of acoustic instruments.
O’Neil answers her cell phone from the upstate New York interstate.
“I know you,” she says. I feel somewhat dubious given the rock-star regard in which I hold her, but I decide to take her at her word.
She makes her report from a rest stop. “The tour’s pretty good, mostly gallery shows, which is awesome,” she says. “I could have played in any grimy rock club, but it wouldn’t be a special affair. If I’m at a bar trying to battle the people in the back of the room getting drunk I can’t focus on what I’m doing. At a gallery you present what you’re doing and everybody’s in it together.”
A friend hands her a cup of coffee.
“I hate Starbucks,” O’Neil says, “but it’s beautiful to have a Starbucks coffee in this nice weather.”
She confirms to me that she now makes her home in Portland, Ore., even though her cell phone retains the familiar western Kentucky “502” area code.
“When I was living in Manhattan that was no way to live,” O’Neil says. “Portland reminds me a lot of Louisville. You should check it out sometime. You can hide and be slow, or you can leave your house and go out, and there’s a lot of things going on. So it’s the perfect solution for me.”
I keep coming back to Louisville and Rodan, the touchstones of my youth.
“Louisville in the early nineties was different because we were all friends playing,” O’Neil says. “It was not about a body of work or a career. It was a small group of people playing in each other’s bands and having a good time.”
Then, she pauses for a moment.
“That was a long time ago.”
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