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Van Duren

Part of the same Memphis underground pop scene that spawned Big Star and Chris Bell, Van Duren is an enduring cult hero among power pop enthusiasts, and he has recorded a handful of records that earned him a loyal following. Heavily influenced by the Beatles, Badfinger, and the Raspberries, his 1978 debut, Are You Serious?, revealed him to be a songwriter with a strong command of pop hooks and estimable instrumental skills, but various setbacks prevented him from releasing a follow-up until 1999's Hailstone Holiday, a collaboration with Tommy Hoehn. Nevertheless, Duren continued to be a presence on the Memphis music scene in a variety of acts well into the 2010s, and at the end of the decade his life and music were explored both in the film Waiting: The Van Duren Story and its accompanying soundtrack of the same name. Born in 1953 in Memphis, Tennessee, Van Duren, like a generation of rock & roll fans, had his head turned when he first saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. He soon picked up a guitar and, at the age of 12, formed his first band, the Manor Serfs. Throughout college, Duren divided his time between music and academics, but after a short spell at Memphis State University studying history, he dropped out. While he was working on a rock-oriented adaptation of the musical The Fantastiks, he met Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, whose girlfriend was in the cast. Through Stephens, Duren became acquainted with the fellow pop obsessives who congregated at Memphis' Ardent Recording Studio, and in 1975, he auditioned to play guitar in Big Star following the departure of Chris Bell. The band soon broke up, though, and he didn't get the gig. That same year, Duren began recording demos of his songs with Stephens on drums. Andrew Loog Oldham, who was an early manager and producer with the Rolling Stones, caught wind of Duren's music and ended up producing several tracks for him. While shopping his tapes to several labels, Duren joined a band called the Baker Street Regulars, whose lineup also included Stephens, Chris Bell, and Mike Brignardello; the latter would go on to join the band Giant and had a long, successful career as a session musician. Duren would also play with Brignardello in a band called Walk 'n' Wall, which featured producer and engineer John Hampton on drums. In 1977, Duren finally found an interested label in Big Sound Records, a new imprint founded by producer Jon Tiven. Duren moved east, and working at a studio in Connecticut, he cut his debut album, Are You Serious?, playing all the instruments himself except for the drums. Big Sound released the album in March 1978, and it received positive reviews and scattered airplay as Duren and his band toured North America in support. He began work on a second album in 1979, but by the time Idiot Optimism was complete and ready for release, Big Sound had been absorbed by another label, which declined to put it out. The album's existence was rumored among power pop fans until a Japanese label gave it a belated release in 1999. With his second album stuck in limbo, Duren returned to Memphis and formed a band called Good Question, who played regularly in the Bluff City for close to two decades and would release two studio albums: 1986's Thin Disguise and 1991's Chronicles. In the '90s, Duren also began writing and recording material with songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tim Horrigan; the ongoing project resulted in the album Her Name Comes Up, released in 2012. In the late '90s, Duren put his focus on another collaboration, working with longtime friend and fellow Memphis power pop cult hero Tommy Hoehn. The pair cut two albums at Ardent Studios -- 1999's Hailstone Holiday and 2002's Blue Orange -- but a projected third album never happened after Hoehn was sidelined by health problems; he succumbed to cancer in 2010. Duren returned to recording solo for two albums, 2005's Open Secret and 2010's Resonance Road, which found him exploring less pop-oriented and more experimental avenues. He next formed a duo called Loveland Duren in tandem with vocalist and songwriter Vicki Loveland; they performed regularly throughout the South and issued a pair of albums, Bloody Cupid in 2013 and Next in 2016. After decades as a local legend and hero to power pop collectors, Van Duren seemed poised for greater recognition when a pair of Australian music fans, Wade Jackson and Greg Carey, heard Are You Serious? and Idiot Optimism and wondered how a world-class talent could have failed to find a mass audience. Their curiosity led them to make a documentary film about Van Duren's long, strange career path, and Waiting: The Van Duren Story began playing at film festivals in 2018. Omnivore Records released a soundtrack album, featuring studio cuts and rare live recordings, in February 2019. In 2023, Van Duren offered a glimpse of what he sounded like on-stage with Good Question on the archival release Cartwheeling: Live in Memphis. The album documented an intimate January 1992 performance that included songs penned for the unrecorded follow-up to 1986's Thin Disguise, as well as a sampling of tunes from throughout Van Duren's career and a cover of the Beatles' "Got to Get You into My Life," which the group worked up at a rehearsal the day of the concert.
© Mark Deming /TiVo


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