A History of Radicalism with David Dondero
Music is a loser’s game. But don’t despair, with the right luck, the right look, a trust fund and the unhinged belief your message needs to be heard by the masses you too can comfortably navigate the music industry as an ‘artist.’ Corporate sponsorship and an unwavering allegiance to one of the big three genres, pop, rock, or hip-hop will carry you as far your management’s talent can go. Just follow the trends, don’t be over thirty, unattractive, politically aware, or socially conscious.
Of course none of that is true, but commercial radio reinforced all those lessons on my drive through the darkened heart of Florida to interview Mr. David Dondero. The musician meets exactly zero of the criterion listed above and has little hope for rotation on any of the stations so nobly informing the culture-hungry citizens of towns along the route like Palataka, Bunnell, or San Mateo, Fl.
Touring in support of his tenth studio release, ‘Inside the Cat’s Eye,’ Dondero has made a career of one night stands in towns from South Miami to Fairbanks over the course of the last twenty years and his music reflects that. Tonight is something of a homecoming for the musician, he’s playing the legendary Hardback Café in Gainesville. A stalwart of Florida’s radical community, the Hardback is run by Alan Bushnell, a man whose commitment to social justice runs so deep in his mid-thirties he temporarily gave up the Hardback for a law degree and career as a public defender. The venue is an appropriate setting for Dondero, whose lyrical narratives detail the hardluck love-lives and majestic struggles of working class characters. Much of that is reflected in the musician himself. Dondero’s will to persevere despite the diminishing returns of the music industry is unwavering, and as a solo act he travels light making fair time over long distances in an effort to… what?
“Why do this?” The question surfaces over and again as I survey the lush and radiant foliage of a Florida spring through the windshield of a Honda born on the wrong side of the millennium. Behind the wheel and trying to stay ahead of the storm, the radio anthems encourage me not to worry, to party more, to pursue women and wealth, to accrue status as I monitor the rattle from the wheel-well knowing the budget unequivocally prevents replacement or even repair should anything happen. It’s easy to question in such situations whether or not the risk is worth the reward. So why do some make a life of it. Why compose songs few will hear with the absolute knowledge it will not create the lifestyle we’re told to covet so much? Why do we cling to art the way we do? Is music a loser’s game?
I hope Dondero has answers because I sure don’t as I await his arrival on the Hardback’s balcony. Bushnell is inside, behind the bar he caters to a modest crowd of students and locals, radicals the lot. He’s charming in his disposition. He has an inviting ear and displays the type of quiet confidence that disarms perfect strangers into speaking more than they normally would. Dondero emerges from within where he’s been listening to the opening set by a local act. We shake hands and his eye contact is hesitant. He doesn’t look nervous so much as weary from the travel and he quickly asks why I would want to interview him.
Dondero has been described as a folk singer, as a singer-songwriter and all those other coffeeshop terms denoting marketability. But underneath it all, there’s a fair bit of firebrand and as the discussion turns to punk rock and other forms of radicalism his eyes become alert and he speaks with enthusiasm. “The original Hardback was where the Boca Fiesta is now. [Currently operated by ex-Against Me! percussionist Warren Oaks.] It was a legendary spot for Gainesville punk.” Dondero tells me as his thoughts drift back twenty years in time. “The Hardback was the hub of punk rock in Gainesville. Just coming through with Sunbrain and getting to play there was a pretty big deal for us. It was the ties to that club that kept bringing us back to Gainesville. Sometimes we’d go over to the bigger venues but it was always the Hardback we wanted to play. I came through in the late 90’s with This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, and I think we played it once in 96 or 97 but after the Hardback closed we’d play the Covered Dish, or the Wayward Council.”
After the references to his former bands we discuss punk for a long while. He talks about his young manhood in Atlanta with a touch of romanticism, describing the clubs he played at and frequented while working at Tortillas, a burrito joint infamous amongst survivors of a misspent youth during a time when Atlanta was still dirty, dangerous, and unwelcoming. It’s clear Punk holds a soft spot for a musician whose tunes would now fit in better on Adult Contemporary channels as I shift the conversation to his most recent project.
“The latest record is called Inside the Cat’s Eye. It was recorded in Austin at the Cat’s Eye studio by Doug Walseth. The guitar, bass, drums, and vocals were all recorded live onto tape. There was no overdub for any of that stuff. I think [drummer] Cully Symington did wonderfully. We had one day of rehearsing and the next day went in and recorded. John Windsor really filled it out with the bass.” His eyes go soft and Dondero looks away. “I took a pause for putting Cat’s Eye out in John’s memory because he passed away last year. He played wonderfully and I miss him. It was my dream to have him come on the road with Cully to have a rock n roll trio. But it wasn’t to be. Cat’s Eye was put out by Koschke Records, a label started by my friend Bill McCanless just to get the record out there. Bill’s a very old friend of mine, we went to school together.”
When asked about the evolution of his career, Dondero removes the blue and white striped train conductor hat from his head and laughs. “Cat’s Eye is my tenth record and I’m proud of it. I consider it one of my favorites. It’s one that’s just kind of…” His demeanor changes though, and his voice trails off. “Since what happened to John there’s a darkness to it and I have a bittersweet feeling about it.” He takes a moment for himself then continues. “I don’t know how I feel about the progression. It’s just a continuation, I don’t know if it’s made any progress or regression. I see the record as being what it is for that particular time frame. It’s a reflection of living. It’s not better or worse than anything else.” He laughs. “The process just kind of happens. I don’t really know why.” Then he repeats the last line as if genuinely searching for a solution as opposed to delivering a stock answer for the stock interview question. He repeats, ‘I don’t know’ a third time.
I’d been thinking about my own pursuits all day and when the opening came I asked too quickly, ‘Why do you do it, then?’ without much consideration. “Sometimes I wish I didn’t do it.” He says in a revelatory tone that is at once intimate and conflicted. “Feels like I just keep banging my head against the wall.” He pauses and looks at me as if I hold any type of answer. I sit there mute, there’s probably a dumb expression on my face when the tension is broken by his laughter. “Why do it!? A guy asked me this months ago. Why on earth would you do this? I guess I’m just trying to connect to an audience who for some reason showed up to see me. That’s why I do it. That and because of the friends that I make, the bands I get to see and the chance to feel the energy of the music, too. I do it because I’m addicted to travelling. I love to travel the country over and over again and it never gets tiring to me. I love Florida, I love Ohio, I love all the towns I stop in and I just like looping around. It’s always exciting and I always want to see what’s around the next corner. To see whatever crowd, no matter how small the attendance is humbling. If I can connect with an audience, to see people happy or sad or whatever I dig it. I want to feel something with people. It’s certainly a lifestyle choice to live this way, but I like it.”
The honesty was refreshing but it wasn’t the answer I wanted. Dondero was set to play and so our interview ended. I suppose I wanted some encouragement or a hint that all my own work was building up to something bigger. I was looking for purpose in seeking out this sage, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise I was confused by the mysticism to his answer. David Dondero has reached a point of self-realization that retards in most at a certain stage of development. If there’s happiness there, a sense of enthusiasm for his life’s work, then Dondero has achieved a rare thing despite the illusion of hollow promises propagated by the music industry.
‘Is music a loser’s game?’ I continued to question that night alone in a forty dollar cold water motel room. Perhaps the poverty, the poor relationships, the lack of stability means for me it is. But for Bushnell who fosters the spark, for Dondero moving ever onward, no less the legions of musicians who bravely carry the torch to better illuminate a perilous path, certainly not.