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The best of happy endings: the rediscovery of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s Dreamin’ Wild

Two generations after their record sank without a trace, Donnie and Joe Emerson’s music has finally found the teenagers it was written for.

The artwork for Donnie and Joe Emerson's “Dreamin’ Wild”

Last year, a book called Enjoy The Experience was published which highlighted the world of private pressings, albums which were often little more than vanity pressings, that flourished in the pre-CD era. Records were expensive things to record and produce back then – you had to be driven, you had to really believe in your vision to make it worth all the effort. Many private pressings were made with the highest hopes; one such was Donnie and Joe Emerson’s Dreamin’ Wild from 1979. Their parents, who believed totally in their sons’ musical ability, took out a second mortgage on the farm and invested $100,000 in building a recording studio and cutting the album. With sickening predictability, copies gathered dust, and the family had to sell most of their 1,600 acre farm in Fruitwood, Washington to cover their losses. Joe helped out with the family business, while Donnie briefly attempted a solo career in Los Angeles before returning home, bruised and beaten, his wild dreams now hidden away in a bedroom drawer.

Jump forward to 2008, when a record collector called Jack Fleischer discovered a copy of Dreamin’ Wild, with its distinctive cover featuring the brothers in home-made white jump suits, in a Spokane thrift store. He loved it, shared his love on the internet, and the album became an underground sensation. The highlights were long atmospheric pieces, seemingly recorded in a summer dust-storm; one track, “Baby”, was covered by Ariel Pink and the album was reissued in 2012 by Light In The Attic to much acclaim. Pitchfork described it as a “a godlike symphony to teenhood”, while the New York Times flew out to the Emerson family farm where both boys, mother and father were still located.

So what had happened after Dreamin’ Wild? The Emersons had just kept writing and recording and, more than three decades on, we have Still Dreamin’ Wild (with a rotten title, but lovely artwork), the pick of their Fruitwood recordings from 1979 to 1981, all previously unreleased. We now know they bought a drum machine and stepped gleefully into the American new wave era. Later, Donnie had a short stint in LA, trying to get an industry break, but otherwise the Emersons’ career – if you could call it that – seems to have added up to little more than selling their own cassettes and CDs door-to-door.

The lost-in-the-rain feel of the debut is replaced on Still Dreamin’ Wild by a clean streamlined synth backing. Anyone expecting more extended weird-outs like “Give Me The Chance” may be disappointed on first listen but this album is adorable, and somehow timely. The tremulous vocals are still there, always giving an impression of melancholy, no matter how upbeat the lyric, as is the circular, repetitive nature of their songwriting (try out “Since You Been With Me”). On the whole it’s far stronger melodically than Dreamin’ Wild, and suggests – which, hand on heart, I couldn’t say on the strength of the first album – that they were unlucky not to score a hit or two.

I’m assuming Rick Springfield and Hall & Oates were on heavy rotation on the radio in Fruitwood while these songs were coming together. I’m also reminded of the Searchers’ two late-bloom albums for Sire. On the whole, this is synth-driven powerpop, exemplified by the 1980-moderne “Stand By Love” (“with a click of the switch she’s on stand-by”). The production on the terrific “Don’t Fight” is reminiscent of Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks”, while the primitive rumble of “Big Money” sounds like the Emersons were maybe the only people who appreciated Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk first time around.

“One True Love” sounds like a Christopher Cross demo, sure enough, but melodically and sonically – in its airy, clipped way – it takes no great leap to imagine it playing today on 6Music, or even on Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 show. In the sleevenotes, Donnie Emerson describes the song as “the city as imagined from the farm”. It’s hard to imagine just how isolated the brothers were from the Burbank of Christopher Cross, or even how different theirs was to a regular suburban upbringing – Donnie had never even been on a bus at the time he wrote these songs. It was all one step removed, coming from a place where a kiss at a stop light, or even a simple bus ride, sounded impossibly romantic.

Like the strangest and most individual privately pressed albums, Still Dreamin’ Wild has an irrepressible self-confidence. In most cases this is due the artist having some unshakeable religious belief, or sheer mental blindness – few of the musicians could have written a Top 40 hit. In the case of the Emersons, though, they clearly had the ability, and knew it. Their naivety may be what gives their music its lightness of touch, but the same naivety meant few people outside of Washington State ever heard them until recently. Their rediscovery means they are now playing shows to appreciative crowds, mostly the teens and twenty-somethings that the songs were originally written for – only two generations later. It’s the best of happy endings.

Still Dreamin’ Wild is available from Light in the Attic on CD, LP, and limited edition blue vinyl LP with a bonus 7”

Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder