An enduring cult hero among power pop enthusiasts, Van Duren was part of the same Memphis underground pop scene that spawned Big Star and Chris Bell, and he recorded a handful of records that earned him a loyal following among critics and collectors. Heavily influenced by the Beatles, Badfinger, and the Raspberries, Van Duren's 1978 debut, Are You Serious?, revealed him to be a songwriter with a strong command of pop hooks and estimable instrumental skills, but various personal and professional setbacks prevented him from releasing a follow-up until years later. Nevertheless, he continued to be a presence on the Memphis music scene in a variety of acts well into the 2010s. Born in 1952 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. Through 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, who 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, who declined to put it out. The album would be a rumor 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 an album, Her Name Comes Up, that arrived 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 through 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. ~ Mark Deming
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