Steve Wynn, frontman of seminal Los Angeles indie band the Dream Syndicate, has two significant memories of Cleveland from the 1980s.
“The first time we drove into Cleveland on tour we had this really great experience,” says Wynn, calling from his home in New York City. “We had the radio on WMMS and we just happened to hear our song ‘That’s What You Always Say’ seguing into Free’s ‘Mr. Big.’ I remember thinking this was a really big deal.”
Wynn’s other vivid Cleveland memory also involves WMMS.
A year or so after their first visit, the Dream Syndicate was given the rare opportunity to play a WMMS Coffee Break Concert in June, 1983. They were probably the most underground band to be asked to take the Agora stage for the legendary series that featured such acts as John Mellencamp and Peter Frampton.
“We met a lot of people in Cleveland and they liked us and they booked this show,” says Wynn. “Then we played the show, and the fallout was they said we were terrible and noisy and we were out of tune and had a lot of feedback and they got complaints from callers.
“We were sad, they said ‘we’ll never play your music again. It was sad, but that’s life. Years later, I finally heard the show and it was great, it was the band in fine form. It just showed how unprepared people were at that time to hear that kind of thing, guitars and feedback.”
Cleveland musician Dave Swanson, who was at the show, agrees.
“They were absolutely great that day,” he says. “Raw and very energetic.”
The Dream Syndicate formed in 1981 in Southern California as part of the Paisley Underground movement. They became known for their driving guitars and almost dreamy feedback, paired with Wynn’s poetically angst lyrics. In short order they moved from college clubs to a major label, touring the world with R.E.M. and U2, and getting mainstream radio attention, as with WMMS.
But despite the harsh words after that fateful concert, WMMS couldn’t break the band’s spirit.
“The reaction was a disappointment to us,” says Wynn. “When we were together would see the Bangles and R.E.M. and bands we had come up with getting more popular. But, we didn’t feel we weren’t getting our due. I felt like we were living the dream and making records and touring. We were designed to be a cult band, our heroes were the Velvets and the Gun Club and Modern Lovers – bands who never made it that big.”
“The only time we derailed is when we had aspirations beyond our design.”
He’s referring to 1984, when the band temporarily broke-up after the release of their major label debut, “The Medicine Show.” It failed to achieve the critical success of their lauded 1982 guitar epic “The Days of Wine and Roses” — or commercial success. They eventually regrouped, but without founding bass player Kendra Smith and guitarist Karl Precoda.
The Dream Syndicate went on to release two more studio albums before finally disbanding in 1989: “I just felt it had become the same thing over and over again,” says Wynn.
Now, “the same thing” seems new again. Cleveland, you see, has another significant role in the history of the Dream Syndicate. It’s one of only four American cities who will see a reunited Dream Syndicate , when the band plays the Beachland Ballroom at 8:30 p.m. Friday.
“I wouldn’t call it a reunion tour,” says Wynn. “The Dream Syndicate doesn’t tour. We just get together and do shows that seem like they’ll be fun. We take it gig by gig, and I love the Beachland.”
The line-up will not include Smith, who Wynn is still friendly with, or Precoda, who he says he has not talked to in years.
“There’s always a protectiveness of the original lineup and I get that, I’m a music fan too,” says Wynn. “But the only two people in band whole time have been me and Dennis (Duck). Not once have we played and have said someone say ‘Wow, that was OK but I wish it was the original lineup.”
Wynn says he didn’t take the idea of reuniting lightly, though.
“I’m really proud of the Dream Syndicate and our role in music history,” he says. “It makes me think it’s a shame if someone hadn’t seen us. But it would also a shame is someone would see us and say ‘What was the fuss all about?’
“We did something at the time that almost nobody was doing, doing music with a guitar was kind of a radical crazy thing . … The nice thing about the reunion is that in the ’80s we were trying to evolve and get new fans. We don’t care about that anymore. We just want to make ourselves happy, and our fans happy. We are what we were.”