The Vulgar Boatmen, annotated 

The Vulgar Boatmen compilation album Wide Awake is 21 songs and 75 minutes of Indiana rock at its best. Alternatively enigmatic and evocative, it traces the history of the group while sounding quite contemporary.
Dale Lawrence, left, and Jake Smith.

Says Vulgar Boatmen songwriter and co-leader Dale Lawrence, “The records don’t sound dated because we weren’t really chasing any sounds at the time. I don’t think they really sound like they were recorded in the early ’90s.” He adds, “Because we weren’t trying to sound contemporary at the time, they kind of sound more modern now.”

The compilation features the best of the band’s woefully hard-to-find albums, along with an essay from Greil Marcus. It also has a summary of the group’s quite complex history, which involves Indiana and Florida versions of the group, two great songwriters (Lawrence and Robert Ray) and some of the most expressive music ever created in the Hoosier state. Lawrence sat down the other day and discussed Wide Awake, track by track.

“Change The World All Around” That’s one of the remixes. I’ve always thought it was one of our very best songs, but I never thought it came across on the first album. It always sounded a little thin. We really overhauled it. I re-recorded one of the guitar tracks for it and we looped a whole new introduction. I never thought we quite got it before but I’m really happy with it now.

“Drive Somewhere” That song’s probably the reason we’re still a band. It was a legit hit on WXRT in Chicago in the summer of 1990. It was in their top five most requested songs that year. Chicago really underwrote our career for a long time. We weren’t expecting it to become a radio hit; for one thing, it’s so long. Our old bass player Erik Baade used to say he spent a third of his life working, a third of his life sleeping and a third of his life playing “Drive Somewhere.”

“Margaret Says” It started off being inspired by a niece of mine. When Robert started adding to the song, it became more about his daughter and thinking back to his own adolescence. That’s another one that was a good song but never sounded right. The remastering makes it sound so much fuller.

“Mary Jane” (Electric) “Mary Jane” started off as a ballad and was turned into a rocker in the recording process. That stutter drum beat was the invention of Jonathan Isley. When I hear that track, I hear that drum. We always obsessed over the snare sound more than any other sound and that was the best snare sound we got. We got it accidentally. When we recorded the drums, we did it with a scratch guitar and a scratch vocal track. When we played it back, we found that a lot of the good drum sound came through the scratch vocal mic. When we took the scratch vocal out, we lost a lot of the good drum sound. So we left it there. So that’s the scratch vocal on the album. Luckily, Robert sang the whole thing.

“The Street Where You Live” That’s Robert’s song. I really didn’t have much to do with it. It’s a good ballad. Live, it’s a showcase for Matt Speake. At the end, he plays the most soulful feedback solo I’ve ever heard. On record, what I find myself drawn to is the dissonance between the two guitars and bass. One of them doesn’t quite get there. It’s just a fraction out of tune and sounds great that way.

“Calling Upstairs” That’s one of the few songs Robert and I actually wrote sitting in the same room together, as opposed to sending tapes back and forth. What really makes the recording is the great brush work, which completely sets up Robert’s guitar and makes it sound very languid.

“We Can Figure This Out” That was a song that was constructed during the recording process. We were trying to combine “Shake” with another song we had called “You’d Fall,” but it turned into this song instead. That’s me playing the heavily compressed guitar. With fingerpicking, no less. We always went for the compressed guitar when we wanted the guitars to sound weird, rather than distortion. It gives the track a real smoky feel. Robert always said, “It’s as close as a bunch of white guys are gonna get to John Lee Hooker.” It has a good late-night, kind of smoky feel.

“Anna” That’s an old song that we’d come back and tinker with over and over. We finally finished it with Paul [Mahern]. That one also has the heavily compressed guitar.

“Allison Says” That’s one of our most popular songs, and I think the recording works really well. Matt Speake’s guitar is a big reason why that song works so well. It locks in so well with Robert’s rhythm, especially on the bridge, where what he’s playing is really kind of off the beat and unexpected.

“In A Station” I remember when I first started that one. It was inspired by first hearing the Silos song “About Her Steps.” It took a long time to finish it because of the words. The resolution I came up with was “... on Indian time,” which sings really well but makes no sense and, in fact, just sounds goofy. It took a long time to come up with anything that sang anywhere nearly as well and didn’t seem so embarrassing. Years, actually. For a while, we sang it as “It’s gonna be all right,” which is better but kind of boring. We settled on “Just pretend it was mine.”

“You Don’t Love Me Yet” A lot of people claim that as their favorite Boatmen song. I wrote it in a car while I was driving, although it evolved over time as well. I’m always hesitant to talk about what songs mean, because it always seems presumptuous to me to claim they mean anything. I just write something that sounds good to me and I hope the notes and words sound good. I’m usually thinking about something, or I’m inspired by something, but I’m not sure that’s the same as what the song is about. Mostly I just hope that the songs end up meaning something to somebody.

“There’s A Family” That might be my favorite Boatmen song. A really nice melody that keeps circling back on itself. Good words, and I like the arrangement a whole lot. It’s almost just two chords, which is our ideal. The viola part sounds so rich and thick. It’s one I can listen to and enjoy apart from thinking about having had a hand in it.

“Wide Awake” It’s a song that we had for quite a while and went through a lot of changes. Originally, “wide awake” referred to not being able to get to sleep. In the song, it ended up as having to stay awake driving home from Chicago in the middle of the night, which we have a lot of experience doing.

“I’m Not Stuck On You” Another remix. It’s a song that’s a particular favorite of Robert’s.

“Fool Me” It’s the opposite of “Mary Jane.” When I wrote it, it was a faster song. I went to demo it at Hit City and Mark Cutsinger happened to be there, and so I thought I would take advantage of his being there. We slowed the song down and made it more of a Southern soul ballad and that’s where it stayed. On the album, John Isley’s drumming and J.D. Foster’s bass playing really make that song.

“Cry Real Tears” That’s almost the first song I ever wrote. It’s the second song I wrote in the Gizmos, in 1977. Twenty-six years and the arrangement has hardly budged. It’s pretty much the same arrangement as ever. The Gizmos version of the song was recorded live at Max’s Kansas City to an audience of zero on a cassette deck with a built-in mic, one channel of which was really fried.

“You’re The One” The Boatmen in full Buddy Holly mode. What I’m drawn to is Robert’s rhythm guitar. It’s super-casual and super-perfect, I think.

“Decision By The Airport” That was our first attempt to write a song to a gospel beat. It’s one of those more oddball songs. We were amazed how many people requested it. It doesn’t seem like a big crowd-pleaser, but we still get requests for it. It’s one of our most enigmatic songs, which I guess is really saying something. (Laughs)

“Heartbeat” That’s another Gizmos song, but one which changed a lot more over the years. When I originally wrote it, I was thinking specifically of trying to write a Troggs song. I think, inadvertently, I swiped a lot of the melody from “Blitzkrieg Bop.” I’m still not sure it’s the best it could sound, but there it is.

“Mary Jane” (Acoustic) This is closer to how the song was written. I’m glad we did this. Kathy Kolata’s viola gives the song a dreamlike feel.

“Traveling” When I first started writing it, I was trying to write a ballad version of “Decision By the Airport,” but it quickly turned into a more personal song. That guitar line was contributed by our A&R guy at Warner Brothers. That’s very cool, I think. Wide Awake is available at Vibes, Indy CD and Vinyl and other purveyors of local music. It’s also available through

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