BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
For a moment, I thought it was a joke.
"Hi, Thomas, it's Frank Black," said the voice on the
phone that morning. "I'm at my manager's house, and I'm
making some calls this morning, and I saw you on the list
for interview requests, and I just thought I'd call and see
if you wanted to set something up."
An artist doing his own schlepping? Sounded fishy, to
me. Sounded like my friend Robert, too, who also happens to
be a fairly rabid Frank Black fan. I nearly laughed aloud.
As the conversation trickled on, though — this
actually was Frank Black, former lead singer of the Pixies
and now slightly less manic solo artist. We arranged our
interview for the following week, and I voiced my surprise
at his grassroots service.
"Well, I'm just a regular guy," he said.
"As a fan of your crazy music for the last 10 years, I
somehow doubt that, but we'll talk more later," I said.
On the appointed day, I called him at 8 a.m. Not exactly
a rock star hour. Maybe he's a regular guy, after all.
"My mornings are pretty regular guy-ish," Black said. "I
get up, give various animals a treat. If I'm in a coffee
streak, I'll make coffee. If we have nice foodstuffs in the
house, I might prepare myself a gourmet breakfast or skip
it altogether. Then I make phone calls."
The Pixies re-established the chaos at rock's core,
laying the foundations for '90s modern rock with their
serrated guitars, sloppy playing and Black's alternating
mischievous irony and brain-curdling shouts. Listening to
them rage through such visceral, subversive rants like
"Gouge Away," "Debaser" and "Bone Machine," sunny mornings with
breakfast and puppies are not exactly how I had envisioned
Black greeting each new day.
The years have mellowed Black, though — not to mention
the distance from the Pixies' former glory. The group
disbanded in 1993, and Black took off on a solo career
portraying himself as an average suburban nobody with
unexplained obsessions. The sales have shrunk ever since,
and so have Black's notions of how to conduct business.
"I was calling you because it's just easier for me to get
things done when I have the chance," Black said. "The band
has decided to do this next leg of the tour without a crew,
without even a tour manager. It's my job to advance the
shows. We've been in constant downscaling mode for the last
couple of years ... We're enjoying becoming more
self-sufficient. The more we do it, the less we need. I
don't freak out if we show up to a gig and the monitors
sound horrible. We booked the gig, and people are there.
The only thing that really bugs me is a messy, dirty
backstage men's room."
Black's latest record illustrates the new stripped-down
approach, as well. "Frank Black and the Catholics," Blacks'
fourth solo release and the first to bill his new backing
band, was recorded directly to two-track digital tape. No
multitracking. No overdubbing. No studio trickery or
polishing. In fact, the album they released was intended to
be a mere series of demonstration recordings.
"We were really just making an expensive demo," Black
said. "We had booked four days in a studio that was a
thousand dollars a day. Time itself said to forget the
multitracking and play live, which we'd never done ... I've
been in a pattern of writing in the studio, of building a
backing track and worrying about the lyrical content later.
We couldn't do that here. After the second day in the
studio, we realized it sounded good, familiar, like we knew
we sounded in a club."
The Catholics include bassist David MacCaffrey and
drummer Scott Boutier, formerly the rhythm section for
Conneticut's Miracle Legion. The eponymous new album
features former Bourgeois-Tagg guitarist Lyle Workman; on
tour, though, Rich Gilbert, from Human Sexual Response
among others, handles the guitars.
Black's first couple of solo records were largely
collaborations with Eric Drew Feldman, a one-time veteran
of both Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. Though
Feldman still contributes on occasion, he backed away from
the projects as a tighter band began to gel around Black.
Black said Feldman still may join the Catholics as a
keyboard player, but he's busy producing PJ Harvey at the
The return to the band construct has streamlined his
sound, Black said, and he's glad to be a member of a posse
"It's hard to miss the Pixies when we've got another band
dynamic going," Black said. "It feels more band-like now. The
choice of bandmates is more mature, too. You sort of fall
into a situation with a bunch of people when you're
younger. That had no experience behind it. This has 10 to
12 years of experience behind it. Now it's more possible to
be the Rolling Stones when before we were more like the
Monkees. There's something to be said for experience. It
creates a groove of its own, which I think is heavier."
Heavy grooves are certainly what Black enjoys. The new
album is fairly typical and full of them, though the live
recording keeps things moving briskly. The groove is the
easy part, Black said. It's the lyric writing he dreads,
which may explain a good deal of his, um, bent verses ("My
Fu Manchu / Is a hard-earned way / Occidentally tic-tac").
"The easy part is strumming the guitar and getting that
first lump of clay that looks like a song. You shape it,
figure out the chord progression, and the melody comes out
of that. The next part is pushing myself to write the
lyric. I have to push," Black said. "It's like an algebra
assignment. I'm not looking forward to it, and I put it
off. Once I get into it, I enjoy it, but there's a mental
block to that point. It's the scholarly side of
songwriting. It's about having words rhyme together and
having the song make sense, even if it's just to yourself.
It's puzzle solving.
"At this point, I'm not worried about what the song's
about yet. You can write a song about anything. It's about
putting words together. I get out dictionaries and
reference books, geographical dictionaries, rhyming
dictionaries. There's language in these books, and that's
what it's all about. I'll get to three notes in the melody,
and I'll think, 'Here, I want to go wah-wo-wah.' What word
sounds like that? I'll stumble on a word for it. It might
be obscure, but it will set off a flurry of activity. Then
it's, `Oh, this will be a song about that.' "
One thing Black does not write about much, though, is
himself. No confessional singer-songwriter stuff here.
"I don't get too caught up in that whole diary rock
thing, when you have to write something from the heart.
That's icky," he said. "You will write from the heart,
whatever you write. There's a lot of fake stuff from the
heart. People get caught up in striking a certain kind of
pose, and it makes for some lame songs."
Frank Black and the Catholics
When 8 p.m. Saturday
Where Cain's Ballroom, 423 N. Main St.
available at The Ticket Office at Expo Square, Mohawk
Music, Starship Records and Tapes and the Mark-It Shirt
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. — You could hurl a chunk of the
native limestone just to the north and east and hit a small
child in Branson, Mo., but that entertainment boneyard
culturally is worlds apart from this charming hamlet in the
Sure, Eureka Springs gets its share of buses packed with
sightseeing seniors, but these same Ozark hills serve as
neat dividers, organizing the area into distinct cultural
compartments. You can visit whichever part of Eureka
Springs you want to visit — hibernating in your B&B or
exploring the ridges and restaurants. Best of all, even
after its recent growth spurts, you can soak up the town's
tightly woven community spirit without once feeling like
the yokel tourist. Most of the buses stay out on the
highway, dumping the polyester press at the ham-n'-beans
"kountry kitchens" and sub-Branson hootenannies like the
Ozark Mountain Hoe-Down. The real treasures are in the
heart of the historic old town — treasures for those seeking
a romantic, easygoing getaway that is wholly organic and
adult. Let the families meander the topography to find the
Great Passion Play or the surreal and dinky Dinosaur World.
The heart of Eureka Springs, though, beats with a truly
romantic and natural pulse. Exposition
The unique character of Eureka Springs is easily
explained by its history. As the name suggests, this
particularly picturesque area of northwest Arkansas first
lured visitors to its natural springs. Indians said the
waters bubbling from the rocks had healing powers, a claim
white settlers latched onto in the late 19th century.
During the Victorian era, the city blossomed around the
construction of numerous bath houses and sanitoriums, where
desperate health seekers came to "take the cure" of the
As modern medicine developed, water cures became quaint
and fell out of favor. Two world wars and the Great
Depression took a heavy toll on Eureka Springs, and many of
its grand Victorian buildings were torn down to salvage the
lumber. The town quickly became a relic, full of abandoned
mansions and unkempt springs.
In the '60s, though, two distinctly different groups
came together to recover the area. As explained in "How We
Got This Way (The Short Version of a Very Long Story),"
published on the web site for the Eureka Springs Tourist
Center (http://www.eureka-usa.com), the two groups had
different ideas of what it meant to restore Eureka's "sacred
ground." Groups of artists, writers and nature advocates
collected in the historic district, restoring the old
architecture and opening bookstores, galleries and
restaurants. Out on the highway, Christian visionaries
Gerald and Elna Smith created their own tourist mecca: the
Great Passion Play, with nightly dramatizations of Jesus
Christ's last week on earth.
It's the same dichotomy that makes Tulsa such an
entertaining place to live — the high concentrations of both
liberal, civic-minded people and conservative,
religious-minded people. The diversity is rich and makes
the place difficult to market.
And isn't that what you want most in a vacation spot --
something that's difficult to describe, tough to drape with
splashy advertising and full of surprises? Sounds like
heaven, and Eureka Springs is more than a little slice of
it — a la mode.
Autumn is the ultimate chance to take in Eureka's
splendors, too. The dollops of tree-covered peat that
carpet the area transform into a rainbow of color each
October, like Magic Rocks in a goldfish bowl. This year's
summer heat may soften the autumn palate a bit, but it's
still the ideal chance for adults to get away, take stock
of time and have a cappuccino while the newlyweds clatter
down the brick streets in horsedrawn carriages and Ford
Escorts strung with soda cans.
Here are some suggestions for a lovers' weekend away:
Don't miss Autumn Breeze, home of one of the finest
meals I've ever enjoyed. This simple, elegant restaurant
just south of U.S. 62 on Arkansas 23 (past the Bart Rocket
show, thank heavens) bills itself perfectly as "A Dining
Pleasure." As you gaze upon the lit-up woods behind the cozy
restaurant, enjoy the coconut beer-battered shrimp — with a
heavenly orange-horseradish sauce — before a wholly
satisfying meal. The Veal Olympic swims in an angelic
lobster sauce, and the Beef Wellington is baked to
perfection. The crowning glory is the famous chocolate
Still feel like Mexican food? Avoid the poor service and
reheated chow at Cafe Santa Fe and opt for innovative
vegetarian fare at The Oasis. Hidden down a set of stairs
on Spring Street, this tiny kitchen — and you eat
practically right there in the kitchen — creates tasty and
fiery new combinations from the same old formulas.
Enjoy fine continental cuisine at Jim and Brent's
Bistro, on Main Street south of the museum. The cozy
cottage high on the bluff also offers a breezy deck for
relaxing outdoor dining. Don't skip the cheese loaf as an
As autumn breezes grow crisper, duck into the Mud Street
Espresso Cafe in a basement at the first bend in Spring
Street. It's a clean, well-lighted place with a kitchen
open late, but the creative coffees and sinful desserts
(from peanut butter-chocolate cake to sweet potato pie) are
the main attraction.
Devito's, on Center Street just past Spring Street,
balances elegance and ease, all the while serving
magnificent Italian food. It's just far enough removed from
the bustle to make it both accessible and peaceful.
Before you depart, make the brunch at the Cottage Inn,
west on U.S. 62. Recently featured in Bon Appetit magazine,
this airy abode serves a divine midday meal, from the basic
pastries to succulent polenta cakes. Be sure to get the
banana nut bread, too.
Whether you drop in for drinks or stay for the grand
meals, Rogue's Manor on Spring Street is a captivating
rest. The giant panes in the Hideaway Lounge gaze onto the
vertical cliff against which the curiously designed B&B was
constructed. The view only gets better with each sampling
from the bar's wide array of single-malt scotches.
Bring your Visa card
The cool shops are centered in the old downtown area,
along Main Street and up Spring Street. Even the T-shirt
shops lack the overbearing kitsch of most tourist traps. In
fact, seek out one T-shirt shop, in particular:
Geographics, "Purveyors of Decadence in Academia." They print
just about anything you can dream up to put on a T-shirt
and are far more clever with their designs than those who
give too much away by wearing "I'm With Stupid."
Many of the most clever shops can be found along the
high and low ends of Spring Street. Women will enjoy
Charisma, 121 Spring, an arty closet featuring earthy
designs by local artists. Its sister store just down the
wooden stairs is the Back Porch. It's heavy on teddy bears
but keeps the precious quotient palatable by including some
smart antiques and colorful china and stemware.
Antediluvian decorators will love the shop next door,
Garrett's Antique Prints. The bins are full of matted
prints, maps and etchings, many from books, dating back
into the 16th century — many surprisingly affordable.
Down the hill are some intriguing
candles-clothes-and-oddities shops. Crazy Bone, 37 Spring,
has a unique line of hardwood wall clocks with handpainted
faces, in addition to its array of funky furnishings and
Brighton leather goods. New Agers will have to pace
themselves among the street's numerous retailers brimming
with candles, bath salts, aromatic therapies, herbal
remedies, native drums and a geologist's archive of
crystals and stones. Magic moments
Some recommendations for non-billboarded attractions,
treats and oddities:
The city is named after its waters, and there are 63
active springs within the city limits alone. Many of them
are on private property, but pay attention as you stroll
along streets in the historic loop for the dozens of small
parks surrounding some of the springs. Most are planted
like cottage gardens and make sweet moments of quiet
Several local churches make for profound or merely
curious stops. Thorncrown Chapel, off U.S. 62 West, is a
breathtaking example of architecture incorporating nature.
It's high-paned sanctuary transcends the boundaries between
indoors and outdoors and is liable to bring out the
gooseflesh no matter what your spiritual beliefs. St.
Elizabeth's Catholic Church is worth a look-see, too. It
made "Ripley's Believe It or Not" because it's the only
church known that you enter through the bell tower.
After a long day of exploring and climbing those
Arkansas hills, treat yourself to a massage at the Palace
Bath House, 135 Spring Street. This local monument is the
oldest Eureka Springs bath house still in operation. Though
the minerals are now added to the water, the service and
treatments available are exceptional, peaceful and
Mushy couples should pack an old pair of shoes and head
down the Beaver Dam scenic loop off U.S. 62 West. Keep your
eyes peeled for the infamous Shoe Tree along the side of
the road. You can't miss it — it's a towering oak and it's
absolutely covered in old shoes. The origin of this oddity
is rooted in a legend of young love: apparently, about 15
years ago, Billy and Becky went for a ride after a local
hoe-down and wound up in the back seat along the side of
the road during a violent storm. In a fit of glee, they
took off their shoes and ran about in the rain. Billy
lovingly joked about Becky's ratty, old work boots, and she
dared him to fling them into the tree. He tied the laces
together and hung them on a branch on the second toss.
Since then, couples have tossed their own shoes into the
tree as a sign of flowering affection. So far, the
sneakerosis has led to no lasting botanical damage.
For the night
Though I could find no official designations, surely
Eureka Springs in the bed-and-breakfast capital of the
world. It seems as though 90 percent of the town's
Victorian homes — from the cottages to the sprawling barns --
have found new lives as boarding houses.
The two hotels looming on the town's physical and
cultural skylines are the Basin Park Hotel — built on a hill
so that every floor is a ground floor — and the Crescent
Hotel — complete with a documented ghost.
On our most recent visit, we tried something different.
The Enchanted Forest is about two miles north of town on
Arkansas 23, and it features three spacious cabins high on
a hill and deep in the woods. Despite the steep drive up
the hill (bring your SUV), the silent seclusion was welcome
after each day of hiking busy streets and trails. Each
cabin features a full kitchen and a hot tub, plus a roomy
deck with the ultimate view of the coming fall foliage.
Rates are amazingly reasonable. Call (800) 293-9586 for
information and reservations.
IF YOU GO
Information: For all the information you will ever need
about Eureka Springs, dial up the web site for the Eureka
Springs Tourist Center, http://www.eureka-usa.com. Really,
this site has everything you need to know about where to
stay, where to eat, where to go, where to shop, how to get
there and how everyone else got there. You can even fill
out a form requesting specific information and receive a
reply via e-mail.
Where: The easiest way to get there: head east on U.S.
412, which branches off of U.S. 44 just before Catoosa. The
road becomes the smooth and scenic Cherokee Turnpike before
cutting through Arkansas. At Springdale, head north on U.S.
71 about 20 miles to Bentonville. Turn east onto U.S. 62
and wind your way to Eureka. Be warned — the curves will tug
at your stomach. (You can also continue east through
Springdale and weave your way through state highways to
Arkansas 23, which approaches Eureka from the south. It's
much more scenic, but slower.)
Accommodations: In choosing someplace to stay, consider
what you will be doing there. If you plan to spend most of
your time strolling around the historic district, ask your
B&B if they're on or near a trolley route. It's a charming
town, but cramped, so parking can be problematic. Even so,
the trolleys don't run very late at night, so make sure you
won't be caught walking up those steep hills on a stomach
full of rich food and spirits.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.