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Reading List: Michael T. Fournier's Hidden Wheel

Michael T. Fournier's Hidden Wheel

Back in high school I absentmindedly plotted out the Slint / Rodan / Tortoise family tree in the margins of my notebooks. Slint was always the epicenter, but Rodan and Tortoise had an ever-growing number of branches. I practiced this history in isolation, since my geographical location (near Poughkeepsie, NY) might as well have been the moon in comparison to Louisville and Chicago. Thanks to my age and location, I hadn’t actually seen any of these bands yet, if they even still existed by that point. But my obsession willfully ignored this outsider status. Even if Poughkeepsie didn’t have a burgeoning scene, I could memorize the bands, labels, venues, and people of Louisville, Chicago, Champaign, D.C., and Chapel Hill.

Unlike the hard-and-fast plots in my notebooks, scenes don’t linger in stasis. This point was made clear my first night in town upon moving to Champaign for college when I attended Braid’s (then) last show. A week later, I missed C-Clamp’s last show in town, hearing about it a few weeks later. Castor was gone, Hum was effectively gone, Honcho Overload and Love Cup were long gone. The scene wasn’t dead—my first English class was taught by Matt Mitchell, the guitarist for Rectangle (a band I’d later see almost a dozen times and help with the artwork for their sophomore release)—but there was no doubt it had changed. I knew this fact going in, but I learned it fresh again and again as new bands formed, old bands broke up, venues opened and closed, labels went dormant, record stores closed, and, most routinely, people moved away. The names change, but the pattern remains.

Michael T. Fournier’s debut novel, Hidden Wheel (named after a Rites of Spring song), runs on this pattern. An art scene pops up in the university town of Freedom Springs, fueled by a few genuine talents, a driven promoter, some historical ties, and an underpinning of second-tier bands, sketchy venues, and outside fascination. The specifics merit a family tree of their own: former chess prodigy (and dominatrix) Rhonda Barrett creates enormous autobiographical canvases, which are then promoted by Ben Wilfork, a former Chicago scene kid who opens an art gallery / performance space. In turn, bands like Stonecipher, a collaboration between an ex-Dead Trend bassist (more on them later) and quickly improving drummer Bernie Reese, and artists like Max Caughin, who paints on discarded CD cases, gain interest. This scene is documented via interviews, journals, tour diaries, press clippings, and show flyers in an academic overview some 300 years later (!), with footnotes explaining what these archaic physical and digital formats were.

That’s admittedly a ton to process at first, like being introduced to the Rodan family tree with an Everlasting the Way single and knowing you need to hear everything else, too, but it’s important to get to the details. As you might expect from someone who taught punk rock history at Tufts, Fournier drops in enough wry references to connect Freedom Springs mythology to the larger world. To wit: Dead Trend was Freedom Spring’s founding hardcore group who went through constant line-up changes (six bassists, three drummers), evolved into a “Buddhist rap-metal” group, and went back to the basics for their reunion tour. The book includes a few flyers for their shows, including a Photoshopped billing with Operation Ivy that recalls a similar move in Jud Jud’s liner notes. Dead Trend is fictional—mostly—but it’s hard not to read Bad Brains and Black Flag into their history. Nautically obsessed math-rock group Coxswain is a proxy for June of 44, with mock lyrics like “Stem and stern! Cape of Hope! Humble spice! Periscope!” jabbing at “Sharks and Sailors.” Venues like Chicago’s Lounge Ax and Cambridge’s Middle East are worked into the story. Even recent Boston band Ketman gets a quick nod.

Fournier also excels at depicting the daily grind of scene life. Living in communal houses, working shit jobs, eating at ill-maintained burrito huts, having brief romantic relationships with other members of the scene, conversing about the importance of vinyl, scraping together enough money to record an album that people are just going to steal off the internet anyway—the names and places in Hidden Wheel may be fictional, but those points will be familiar to anyone who’s attended a show in the basement of a punk rock house.

Hidden Wheel could have simply been a de facto memoir, smudging the details on Fournier’s time at Three Wadsworth in Allston via Bernie Reese’s journals, but two things keep it closer to fiction. First, Rhonda Barrett’s artistic output is the center of this scene, not Stonecipher or Coxswain, and the drive of the narrative is seeing how the events of her life brought her to create her autobiographical canvases and why future scholars would still be interested. Second, those footnotes from the future add a perspective beyond merely commenting on the changes in content delivery. The idea of people still caring enough about this scene 300 years after the fact to document it (noting that the Library of Congress has a copy of the Stonecipher LP in its archives) is a slick validation of this sub-culture.

One intriguing wrinkle: ostensibly fictional band Dead Trend isn’t that fictional after all. Fournier plays drums in the group, who’ve posted some acoustic demos of their vintage ’80s hardcore songs on Bandcamp and have an official 7” coming out soon. Less surprising: they hate Reagan, love the Minutemen, and, in true ’80s hardcore fashion, will likely fit eight songs on that single. Whether they stick around long enough for a Buddhist rap-metal phase is up for debate, but the real-life existence of Dead Trend makes Hidden Wheel an open dialogue on scenes like Freedom Springs. It’s part promotional gimmick for the novel and part DIY statement, recognizing that you can always switch from outsider to insider.

Hidden Wheel is a compelling complement to Michael T. Fournier’s enthusiastic and informative 33 1/3 on the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime. Whereas Double Nickels is a factual account of one band, one record, one town, Hidden Wheel generalizes the appeal and histories of scenes like Louisville and D.C., recognizing the familiar pattern driving those DIY spaces and local record labels and recreating it as a narrative. Fournier recognizes that scenes are forged by the energy of the people involved and remembered by the artistic tomes they leave behind, and nails both perspectives. It's managed to make me excited about albums both real and fake, which is no small achievement.

Keep an eye on Fournier’s Tumblr for upcoming Hidden Wheel readings and Dead Trend live shows. The latter will be at O’Brien’s in Allston on April 28th; don’t miss the chance to be a part of semi-fictional history.