When Medicine Show was released in 1984, the Dream Syndicate turned from affectionate adulation to despised sell-outs for many of their fans. It was a noticeable departure from the Velvet worship of their debut Days Of Wine And Roses and Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn seemed to be trading his Lou Reed affection for Neil Young. In fact, the closest Wynn gets to Uncle Lou is with a sarcastic “You know I couldn’t hit it sideways, baby!” during “Armed With An Empty Gun.”
There’s a lot of references to guns, death, and character flaws types throughout Medicine Show; it’s almost like Wynn is contemplating killing the career of his band with what was their first major label offering. To me, Wynn finally takes notice of his Southwest U.S. surroundings and decides to kill off the N.Y.C. distractions instead.
Medicine Show takes a while to gain speed, but by the time side 2 rolls into town with its three-song punch, it’s hard to resist. Wynn virtually assured his place in rock history with these three songs full of shady figures with unspeakable secrets buried in their back yards.
Mach two Dream Syndicate is straight ahead Crazy Horse slop, with slashing guitars, extended solos, and familiar ebbs and flows while the band lights their fuse, only to blow it out before the fireworks get out of hand.
While all of this should be enough to make Medicine Show required listening, the record is also notable for refueling So-Cal’s roots rock during a time when glam-metal and psychedelic pop were more prevalent around the Sunset Strip. Shortly after its release, you began seeing other bands tracking in their own desert sand-one of which, the Long Ryders, used to play with Wynn and who ultimately became So-Cal’s sole Gram Parsons torchbearers. But compared to the Dream Syndicate, they all felt like weak revivalists and it was all because they lacked one vital thing: Steve Wynn’s verses of awesome descriptive narrative.
The band at this point (documented in the live e.p.This Is Not The New Dream Syndicate) had begun re-working their older material, to the point where the dual guitar V.U. workouts were supplemented with pianos and organs and Wynn delivered his lyrics like a saloon confessional.
Fans revolted. Critics who once deemed the Dream Syndicate as the second coming of the Velvet Underground now began to question their own praise. Even the band’s decision to sign with A&M fueled lazy accusations of “sell out.” In a bit of strange irony, Medicine Show‘s producer-Sandy Pearlman found himself one again bearing the brunt of a lot of the criticism, just like he did for the work on the Clash‘s second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope.
Truth be told, Pearlman should be chastised for the embarrassingly dated drum sound that taints Medicine Show‘s grooves, but he redeems himself somewhat for leaving the record with plenty of guitar feedback.
“I know it’s hard to be a reasonable man/When you start looking for reasons for everything” Wynn declares on the title track, and indeed, to find the reasons why he abruptly changed direction with the Dream Syndicate is one of the Paisley Underground’s great mysteries. Maybe it was with the restrictive nature of that genre, or with the press’ expectation on the band. Had Medicine Show been the album where the world was introduced to the Dream Syndicate, there’s the possibility that we’d all be unanimously declaring its importance instead of talking about its divisiveness.
There’s an even greater possibility that I wouldn’t have discovered it either: because Medicine Show was both a critical and commercial failure, it provided record stores with an infinite number copies that languished in the cutout bins. It was because of these bargain prices that I bought a cassette copy of it, without ever hearing a note of the band’s previous material.
Thanks to that cheap introduction, I went farther, learned about the band’s previous incarnation, and could appreciate why so many caused such a fuss when Medicine Show was released.
But what I didn’t understand was how those same distracters couldn’t hear how good of an album Medicine Show was underneath that dust-covered swagger. Because ultimately, the paisley underground was built on the foundation of a bunch of old-west unpredictability and the Dream Syndication were merely singing the real songs about the days of wine and roses.