In a 35-year career in the music industry, local musician and songwriter Van Duren has seen more than a fair share of ups and downs. But now, in the wake of the recent deaths of his contemporaries Alex Chilton and Tommy Hoehn, the under-appreciated Duren has emerged as something of a power-pop survivor, and his persistence may be beginning to pay off.
Duren's career began in 1975, when he collaborated on a batch of demos at Ardent Studios with friend and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens. Those recordings eventually found their way to Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham.
"Andrew came to Ardent in November '75 for four days, and we cut some more demos," Duren says. "He attempted to get us a deal, but nothing happened. But Andrew was a great guy and a lot of fun to be around."
When that project fell through, Duren and Stephens formed a new band with former Big Star guitarist Chris Bell called the Baker Street Regulars. The group performed around Memphis sporadically throughout 1976.
"We were designed to play club gigs and did a wide variety of material, including some covers. But mostly we did songs from Big Star, Chris' solo material, things Jody and I had written, and my stuff. Nothing was written for the group in particular, and nothing was ever recorded," Duren says.
The Baker Street Regulars eventually went through lineup changes and fizzled out, and Duren decided his best move would be to take a chance on an offer from a Northeastern indie label called Big Sound Records. So in 1977 he relocated to New York's Greenwich Village, where label staffers put him up in an apartment. From there, he commuted daily to a Connecticut recording studio to work on what would become his most revered and widely circulated album, Are You Serious?.
Are You Serious?, bolstered by strong McCartney-esque hooks and Duren's soulful voice, was an underground hit, garnering positive reviews and nationwide radio airplay. It also attracted the attention of a major label interested in releasing the proposed follow-up album, Idiot Optimism.
"I thought it [Idiot Optimism] was my ticket to the next level, to a modest success," Duren says. "But two things happened along the way. First, RCA Records wanted to sign me as an artist. But the studio/management/record label — all the same people, really — insisted that RCA take the entire roster of artists or no deal. So, it was no deal.
"The second thing that happened was that almost every one of the principals in the label/studio discovered Scientology and pressured me tremendously to join. Weird, weird, weird. At the end of 1979, upon completion of the final mixes, I decided I had had enough, and I walked."
Idiot Optimism sat on the shelf for over 20 years until the Japanese label Airmail Recordings released it in 2000. It was finally released in the United States three years later by Lucky Seven Records.
After the RCA deal fell through, Duren hung around Connecticut for a while before finally moving back to Memphis for good in 1981. He formed an early version of the Van Duren Group but had difficulty getting gigs. So Duren turned to another group of working musicians to form a new band, Good Question.
"I had been gone four years, and no one knew me in Memphis. I was frustrated to no end," Duren says. "So I just went another route and joined up with some guys who had been playing the circuit around here and had gig connections. It was something I could lose myself in and just be a member of a band. And it was a really great band."
Good Question lasted for roughly 17 years with a rotating cast of local musicians alongside Duren, including current Lucero keyboardist Rick Steff, Ardent producer John Hampton, Ray Sanders, James Lott, and a host of others. The group's popularity peaked with the release of the 1986 album Thin Disguise, which featured the surprise local pop radio hit "Jane."
Good Question continued to gig throughout the '90s, maintaining a strong local following until personal illness forced Duren to disband the hardworking group in 1999. He continued to write, record, and perform in the 2000s, however, forming a partnership with fellow power-pop cult figure Tommy Hoehn for two studio albums (1999's Hailstone Holiday and 2002's Blue Orange) and releasing a new solo record in 2005 (Open Secret).
This week, Duren officially unveils his newest effort, Resonance Road. The album, possibly his finest since Idiot Optimism, is full of Duren's trademark sunny pop hooks but also bears the unmistakable mark of personal tragedy in the subject matter.
"The inspiration of most of these songs — a relationship ultimately doomed by severe mental illness — changed as the relationship ended. But I had to take it on faith that somehow these songs would resonate with people who had no idea what the inspiration was," Duren says. "So it seemed like, putting resonance together with the long journey I went on to get to the end of it, the title Resonance Road seemed to fit.
"I always think the newest songs are the best," Duren says. "But I've heard it a thousand times, and I think it is my best work. Of course, there are those who will never go beyond the first album. And that is fine. As long as someone listening somewhere likes at least one song, this hasn't all been for nothing."
Van Duren Resonance Road Album Release Show
Thursday, July 22nd
9 p.m.; free