byJohn P. Strohm
I guess we’re all more or less wired to apply a soft-focus filter to our memories to dwell on the joy and filter out all the anxiety, stress, anguish, and crushing boredom of the actual experience. My memories of touring with Blake Babies during our busiest stretch in 1990-91 are mostly happy ones of community, adventure, and transcendent, out-of-body onstage moments. But when I spend a few minutes sifting through the actual narrative of the whole thing, the joys—though heady and thrilling at times—were the fuel that kept us pushing through the miserable, monotonous slog of van life, shitty food, empty rooms in tertiary towns, and just being sick of each other’s shit.
I recently wrote about our edge-of-panic 1990 run in a barely- and eventually non-functioning van (https://www.talkhouse.com/the-van-from-hell/). Quarantine lockdown had me feeling nostalgic and I’d joined a Facebook community of people sharing stories about their shitty tour vans. I’d been touring in barely functioning vehicles around an ever-increasing geographic area since my high-school hardcore punk days (WHAT were my parents thinking?). Sitting unbelted atop a pile of heavy music gear at 80 mph across the desert felt more like a necessary minor risk than a death wish. Juliana drove. Freda rode shotgun. That’s chivalry, right? It’s really a miracle any of us survived.
The slow-burn thrill of the time was that the further we drove, the more people came to the shows, the better the conditions became (eventually a new van, a crew guy, another guitarist, eventually even some motel rooms), the closer we came to our originally stated goal of actually connecting with a real audience. The anxiety came with the growing success because we all knew the band was doomed.
We actually decided sometime in the middle of touring behind Sunburn (1990-91) that we would not continue as a band. Freda and I, high school sweethearts from age 15, eight years into a dysfunctional relationship, would soon break up. The road would continue for each of us, but it would fracture. Juliana would continue down the road we set out on, toward major success and a lifelong career of making music on her own terms, as we knew she would. Freda would be fine because Freda is a survivor with a driving ambition to succeed at whatever she does. I had no idea what lay ahead for me.
At the end of our 1991 run, Freda declared that she wouldn’t play any more Blake Babies shows, ever. The label wanted us to go to Europe as a tour opened to kick things off—basically for Juliana’s solo career and, to a lesser extent, for Freda’s and my new band Antenna. Over the summer we were offered the opening slot of the first leg of the world tour for one of our favorite bands, Nirvana. We also knew that we could open a tour in early 1992 for our friends Buffalo Tom. At that point Buffalo Tom was actually the slightly bigger act, and we knew we’d have to find a drummer to fill in. So, we declined Nirvana’s invitation.
I don’t have a lot of regrets in my life and, honestly, I don’t even really regret passing on the Nevermind tour opportunity. Juliana and I each got advances of Nevermind just after we passed on the tour and the regret hit hard as I instantly knew we would miss a world-changing moment in music and culture. Truth is we had a blast with Buffalo Tom that winter, even though it was really and truly doomed at that point with our respective next projects already released on the label. The Nirvana tour had ended so recently that we saw posters in many towns with our name as the opener. I ridiculously felt guilty for cancelling so late, fearing we’d inconvenienced one of my favorite bands. I wonder how the path of my own life would be different if we’d done that tour, if opportunities had come through that that would have affected my choices. But I don’t dwell in those thoughts, because my life since that time has been so rich and satisfying in so many ways, particularly with respect to my family. Any choice that would have led to a different future than having my family and the life I have now is simply unthinkable. It was all necessary, and the lessons all made me the person I am today.
I’ll admit it was hard at the time to watch Juliana and my former Lemonheads bandmate Evan Dando reach such heights of success during a time I felt adrift. We all used to see each other every day in the ’80s, as our little bands found our way. It felt like a death to move on from trying to make a life as a full-time creative musician, but I quickly discovered that I’m happier and much better at supporting creative musicians in the various creative and business capacities I’ve pursued. Evan kindly invited me back into the Lemonheads during their most successful run in the mid-’90s, and I discovered that even mega-success didn’t suit my life. My hat is off to anyone who can weather the storm year after year of a life in creative music, or any sort of creative profession. I’ve worked with enough successful musicians over the years to know it’s never easy, even with success. The same stresses, anxieties, and crushing stretches of boredom seem to nag nearly everyone, at every level.
Juliana, Freda, and I have reconnected after a few years of distance in a way that has been meaningful and satisfying to each of us in many ways. We occasionally find time to get onstage together and play the old songs, and after we shake off the cobwebs it always feels like no time has passed. I can still lose my sense of time in a moment onstage. The connection returns and we lock in, and it feels as good as it ever did when people smile, sing along, and move with the music.
Music is still my life, now more than ever. But playing my own—our own—music in public is a delicious luxury to savor once in a while, the sweet icing on top of a rich and satisfying life. And when we lock eyes onstage, it’s a telepathic message we exchange: It was worth it because we can still do this. And somehow, somewhere, people still give a shit.
JOHN P. STROHM is a musician, lawyer, and music executive based in Nashville, Tenn. John grew up in Southern Indiana, where he cut his musical teeth playing hardcore punk. In Boston in the ’80s, he formed the band Blake Babies with Juliana Hatfield and Freda Love. Through the ’90s he played music full-time, including several stints in The Lemonheads. After leaving full-time music, John became an entertainment lawyer, representing many musical acts including Phoebe Bridgers, Alabama Shakes, Bon Iver, and Sturgill Simpson. He is currently a hobbyist musician and president of Rounder Records, a 50-year-old folk music label that has won 56 Grammy Awards, including two just this week. Heather Durham photo.