It's easy to analyze the song as a clever update of Carl Sandburg's awe-struck poem that dubbed Chicago "hog butcher to the world," but "Empire Builder" is also a succinct slice of buried history and cultural codes. Since no one's bothered to break down the city's character and past with the reverence and insight that Mike Davis' City of Quartz brought to Los Angeles (with the exception of Dan Clowes' brilliant depiction of his Chicago upbringing in an early edition of his comic, Eightball), you may as well take the signposts where you can find them. And really, it's all here: A tribute to the massive urge to produce, "Empire Builder" establishes Urge itself as the product of a city that, in its heyday, thrived in its role as goods supplier to the world.
Making the indie world safe for conspicuous consumption is a large part of the Urge Overkill story, though the narrative's been getting a bit hard to follow lately. As the band and its coterie glumly camp out in the New York headquarters of Geffen for yet another day of trying to convince the world (and themselves) that the tepid new Exit the Dragon is some kind of milestone in the ongoing quest for Urge world domination, drummer Blackie O (formerly Onassis) and multi-instrumentalist Eddie "King" Roeser are working hard to keep it real.
"All we ever did was give ourselves silly names and wear interesting clothes, which is nothing more than a million bands before us did," laments Blackie, in reference to the way their image has somehow come to supplant their, I dunno, "message."
"People always say, 'Oh, there's no way that someone called Blackie Onassis could possibly have talent.' Well, I got news for you -- there is a possibility," he continues.
"The whole idea was supposed to be subversive, I guess," adds Roeser. "We were making fun of indie style before anyone even gave a shit about it. But we became less interested in what was happening at the time around us."
"When we first started doing this, there was no such thing as a rock band like us," Blackie claims. "We were all about giving America its culture back, trying to bring back all the things about rock 'n' roll music that made it important in the first place, which I think, in 1989, were largely going by the wayside."
"And for what?" Roeser scoffs. "Naked Raygun?"
"They had their place," Blackie continues," but you couldn't be Naked Raygun in 1989, because they were Naked Raygun in 1985. Rock had to go someplace new."
This sort of goofball hyperbole raises the by now familiar Urge question: Are they serious, or what? In the late 1980s, before the widespread corporate appropriation of alternative music, rock's perennial place atop the American pop cultural scrapheap seemed like an increasingly rarefied notion to the indie crowd. For a band like Urge to forswear its post-punk environment and associate itself publicly with a larger, mainstream tradition seemed like a daring move, or at least a good, cheap trick. It certainly made 1991's The Supersonic Storybook one of the most rewardingly strange rock albums of any era. In one sense a compendium of rockist gestures, Supersonic features shout-outs to the kids, a Hot Chocolate cover, and references to jet-setting Asian vacations and funky bionic men. What's more, it carried it all off in a stately manner, as if rock history were just a deserted beach to lazily comb with a metal detector in a search for gold medallions.
Roeser attributes much of the record's resounding weirdness to the fact that the songs were written spontaneously while under the influence of Artane, a "really fierce muscle relaxant" prescribed to coma patients (and immortalized in "What Is Artane?"). He thinks the issue of irony was raised the first time Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman" made it into an Urge set. "It's a songwriter's song [that] can be taken on the level of great artifice, but it's really moving, too," he says. "We never saw our shit as [only] a joke. I mean, 'I'm on Artane'-- that's a bummer. There are people who are on that shit now as we speak. It's not fun."
But was it inevitable that ironic and real tribute conflate until the band lost any true sense of identity? And what is Urge's role now, at a time when sanctioned "alterna-types" are making similar but less self-conscious arena fare to the benefit of lighter-wavers everywhere? Once the trio entered the big-ticket world of major-label rock, they apparently began to regret the swank image they've always cultivated.
"They haven't even mentioned one song yet," grumbles Blackie as he turns the pages of a large SPIN feature on the band. "All this guy's interested in doing is getting to our 'real human personas.' " Of course, this griping is a bit disingenuous; why agree, for example, to yet another Details feature hooked on sending a journalist out to get tanked with the boys? "[We're] the most photogenic band in rock, and there's a picture this big," Blackie complains, holding up his thumb and forefinger. "For a magazine like Details, we should be custom-made for their whole modern honky fashion sense, but all they want to do is write about what lushes we are."
OK, then, let's talk about the music. "To make an album like Exit the Dragon requires a great deal of personal sacrifice," Blackie sniffs. "I won't get into details, but the average joe walking down the street cannot do it." This may be true, but me and the other average joes I know are also having trouble listening to it. A friend mentioned that it sounds a lot like Eddie Money, which seemed a good enough explanation for its shortcomings until someone else sagely countered that the last record -- the supercharged and eminently preferable Saturation -- also sounded like Eddie Money. Inventing some aesthetic criteria for Mr. Money's body of work is, quite frankly, beyond the realm of my abilities, so I'll leave this conundrum to future historians.
And ultimately, I relinquish any ability to discern where the joke ends and the craft begins with Urge. In particular, Roeser's portrayal of the whiny, grumpy rock star seems a tad overdeveloped today to be a mere act. "I would like to leave this building as soon as possible," Roeser implores, as his manager hustles him to a meeting with their lawyers. "This is just stifling."
Urge Overkill plays Tues, Dec. 5, at the Fillmore in S.F.; call 346-6000.