O.K., I admit it—I still owe Michael Dean 20 bucks. See, way back in the misty, mohawked recesses of time (like, 1984), when I was but a wee, dog collar-sportin’ Downtown Mall rat, Dean was the lead singer of Baby Opaque, the hands-down best band in Charlottesville at the time (sorry, Indecision fanatics). A completely improbable trio fronted by the cherubic, occasionally unhinged Dean—who played bass like Hüsker Dü’s Greg Norton and sang like Bono on a helium-and-codeine bender—Baby Opaque also featured a kick-ass guitarist named Todd Wilson and a drummer my friends and I referred to as “that UVa professor dude,” but who was actually Michael Bérubé, current Penn State academic star, liberal blogging sensation, and one of David Horowitz’s “101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.” Who knew?
Anyway, the local scene was in the midst of a small punk rock boomlet of sorts, with loud ’n’ lewd bands like the Landlords (whose best-known tune was titled “Nuns in Black Leather”) and Richmond art-rock stalwarts Death Piggy (later to mutate into the fearsome Gwar) stinking up Trax and Muldowney’s, the sole gay bar-slash-punk club in town, on a semi-regular basis. Into this sleazy stew, Baby Opaque had just released a superb five-song EP called Pain, Fears and Insects.
A heady, chaotic blend of scattershot rhythms, reverb-soaked melodies and Dean’s stream-of-consciousness caterwauling (typical lyric: “We’re all equal in the end, we’re all guilty at McDonald’s”), Pain was a jazzy blast of originality in a town best known, at the time, for the cookie-cutter guitar theatrics of TR3.
So it was that, at one post-show party or another, I found myself drunkenly praising Dean for his off-kilter musical vision. Before I knew it, the ever-enthusiastic Baby frontman was pushing 10 copies of the freshly pressed 45 into my grimy hands, and telling me that I should sell them to my friends and send him an Andrew Jackson when I got a chance.
Well, to my everlasting shame, I never sold a single copy. Instead, I gave them away to like-minded friends and musical cognoscenti from Florida to California, evangelizing the band even as I failed to put so much as a penny in Michael Dean’s pocket.
Unfortunately, the band only put out one more disc after that—an equally ambitious, if slightly less inspired full-lengther called Fugue in Cow Minor—and broke up soon after. But on the plus side, both Dean and Bérubé went on to bigger and better things. (Sadly, I have no idea what happened to Todd Wilson.) Even better, Dean has recently made the entire Baby Opaque catalog available for free on the Internet (at babyopaque.com), thereby rescuing a vital piece of Charlottesville’s indie rock heritage from the cut-out bin of history.
So go take a good listen, why don’t you? And, if the spirit moves you, why not send Michael Dean a few dollars for me? I figure, with interest, I probably owe the guy a couple hundred bucks by now.