Where In the World Is Juju B. Solomon?

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There are perfect songs (depending on one’s taste, perhaps “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Crazy,” or “Paranoid”) and there songs that become so in context (seeing a tubercular Jeff Tweedy croak his way through “Misunderstood” in Columbus in 1999 or putting “Head On” in to the tape deck of a new used car). “Punk as Fuck” by Juju B Solomon falls into the latter category; it showed up on a Pandora mix a year or so after I had moved to Atlanta and was still unsure of my new surroundings and my waning prospects as a writer. Solomon’s casual  observations were a lifeline in my new community.

After a year in the suburban wilderness, my wife and I had made the move inside Atlanta’s perimeter, which was key to our perception as youngish, hip, exciting people. The only place I really went was The Earl to do interviews and on Fridays to eat a burger and do the crossword in Creative Loafing. It was living, but I am not sure you could call it the life. There were high points: introducing myself to Vic Chesnutt, who I mistook for a panhandler, or a rare trip downtown to interview Bootsy Collins at the W, where I waited for thirty-five minutes past our scheduled time while he and his wife prepared themselves in nearly identical outfits.

More often, though, it was recording, transcribing, and then constructing something usable from musicians who were barely hanging on to the dream and tried to make me an accomplice; others deemed themselves too big for the venue and the school teacher who had hustled over after work to squeeze in twenty minutes before soundcheck. Words were said; words were typed; words were uploaded. Sometimes I would stay and see a little bit of the show, sheepishly checking my name with the promoter who persisted in the belief that I was a master criminal whose main heist was beating a ten dollar cover. More often I would offer my basically sincere thanks and scurry off to begin writing.

There’s always plenty of work for those willing to work cheap , and the small check, combined with a few comments saying something other than how badly the piece sucked, was enough of a dragon to chase. I had been on the wheel for four years, producing the obscure content that powers the Internet. Eventually, one piece began to bleed into another and more ambitious proposals to Paste and Creative Loafing continued to be rejected quickly, if acknowledged at all. Though I had carved out a comfortable niche, the acclimation to my new city and the forward progress of my writing career had reached a dead halt. I basically knew the way from my computer to a bar and back.

It was around this time I heard “Punk as Fuck” for the first time, probably on a Nick Drake mix, as I was one of the many people who discovered him through the magic of that  commercial. The quiet, plucked melody fit perfectly into the stream of Songs Ohia, Damien Jurado, and Red House Painters, but I immediately took notice of the opening lines:

I dyed my hair pink

So everyone would stare and think

That I was punk as fuck

But bad luck, bad luck

The bleach out got fucked up

And I had to shave three quarters of my head

Raw patches of red skin and little tufts of pink  hair

People definitely stared

I was doing eight other things while listening, but, particularly after of a couple of hours of the most mournful sentiments set to music, Solomon’s tone was arresting. There was also the immediate, sweaty hit of recognition: I had done a lot of stuff over the years in hopes that people would think that I too, was punk as  . There was the unfortunate trench coat phase, the smoking years, and my refusal to wear anything purchased from retail throughout my college career. My default setting is to tamp most of my past way down, until something unavoidable comes up and I have to audibly say “Leave me be,” so as not to be haunted by my bandwagon Beastie Boys fandom or the earring I wore for two weeks until I didn’t anymore.

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The reaction was so immediate and profound that I considered downthumbing the song and never having to hear it again, but the chorus kicked in and Solomon observes “there’s that thing that barks in all of us to be punk as fuck.” The tethered profundity and stupidity of that line hooked me. I was going on this journey, no matter how excruciating.

The second verse outlines the protagonist’s adventures on a fixed gear bike. This gave me a little distance, as my own uncomfortable bicycling experience hinged on my roomie borrowing my bike to go on secret trail rides with my then-girlfriend. I was able to fully engage schadenfreude mode:

He bought himself a fixed gear

And conquered all of his fears

And went out solo riding

No brakes

White lining and giving head fakes

To SUVs and MARTA buses

Yee-haw

I fucking love this life

I’m fucking never going to leave this life

This is the true new me hardcore style life

He was doored on Peachtree Street by a Buckhead wife

Knocked out of his reverie

Carted off to Grady Hospital

With a broken arm

One eye swollen shut

Jagged question mark shaped cut on his forehead

His friends came they all said

He looks punk as fuck

The second verse resonated just as strongly, even though my own early twenties embarrassing bicycle experience (and we all have one) was leaps and bounds from this daredevil, who at least used his brakeless contraption. I needed another listen before I made the connection: Solomon was singing about Atlanta. I now lived in Atlanta. I was able to pick these details out of the song and actually picture the scene, however gruesome, occurring in the city in which I lived. I became obsessed.

The deep dive was immediate and brief. Solomon released one eponymous album in January 2007, containing “Punk as Fuck” and other, mostly quieter, songs that range in content from Solomon’s time spent working in the textile industry in India to a cutting examination of his family’s Mormon faith. Though none of the songs hit me as immediately, Juju B Solomon was placed on heavy rotation. I learned 2007 was the year of Juju B. He was named songwriter of the year in Creative Loafing, covered on NPR, and did an interview with the staff blog of the DeKalb County Public Library. There was talk of preparing another record to be released later in the year, and then everything stopped dead.

I was initially bummed that Solomon had such a small musical footprint, but I became more interested in what happened to him after his golden year. This sound like a real-life Eddie and the Cruisers, a movie which I had considered renting many times. I pitched the story to the editors at the website I wrote for regularly and sent out inquiries to a couple of local outlets, including Creative Loafing. Nobody seemed interested in what happened to Juju B Solomon. Maybe everybody in Atlanta knew and just wasn’t telling me – I did an obituary search just in case. Investigative impulses stymied, I took his album at face value and moved on to the next assignment, talking with a noise band who never played the same song live twice because they didn’t really know how to play their instruments.

In the intervening years, the website I was writing for shut down, but by that time the first kid was on the way and my focus shifted to more pressing matters. Trips to The Earl were replaced by handoffs at the house or pick-ups at daycare. Time spent typing was repurposed to washing and hanging diapers or catching up on the thousand little things that fall by the wayside when tending to the welfare of your first child. In a blink, it had been a couple of years since I had shoveled any coal into the teeming furnace of the Internet.

I eventually carved out a little time to write and did a few new pieces. Out having a drink to celebrate some choice trolling on a piece I wrote about J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, the subject of the demise of Creative Loafing’s weekly edition came up, and I related the boring, but hopefully brief, story of Juju B Solomon and the feckless end of my search for him. I lamented that I never found out what happened, and in a larger sense, all the stories that I pitched and never got to write and probably never would now that the market was quickly collapsing. My drinking partner shared my sorrow at the state of local independent journalism, but also suggested that this was the perfect time to write the piece.

I didn’t want to admit it, but the prospect still excited me. I have always been a sucker for the last ride narrative. Even though I don’t want to hang out in a bar at five o’clock waiting to interview the Tuesday act, I don’t want to never do it again. The impulse to create, even if it is just a typed interview with a self-absorbed singer who called a waitress a nasty name for observing that no outside food was allowed at the venue, never fully gutters out. Doing one more rock interview – that’s a little punk as fuck.

 

MB: First of all, let me just say that I am blown away to be finally talking to you. I guess the easiest place to start is where are you physically? What’s going on?

 

JBS: I am currently in Salt Lake City Utah. I teach at a community college called Salt Lake Community College. I teach writing, rhetoric, composition and creative writing. I’ve been teaching here for four years; we moved to Salt Lake about five years ago from Atlanta. Both my wife and I finished grad school. I went to Georgia State for a creative writing degree in fiction writing and it was about that time that I stopped doing as much music. Once we were both finished, we were also sort of fed up with Atlanta and had just had a child, so we moved here where I had some family. I totally didn’t think we were going to stay here, but we ended up liking it a lot, so here we are in Salt Lake. We’ll probably stay here for a few more years. I really like my job. Working with college students is a joy and a pleasure, and though it can be stressful and sometimes difficult, ultimately it’s very satisfying work.

MB: You said you were fed up with Atlanta. What specific parts?

 JBS: We lived in Reynoldstown, and we had a house there, and I love the Reynoldstown and Cabbagetown neighborhoods, but there was a lot of crime. I don’t know what it’s like now, but a friend of ours was a victim of sexual assault there, and there were also some drug gangs. That was one one aspect, and then there was just the big city-ness of Atlanta. I got stuck in so many traffic jams, but that was just a part of the larger disfunction. It seemed so hard to get legislation through. The BeltLine seemed like kind of a boondoggle, and there were just so many elements that made Atlanta so stressful and hard to live in, so we began to wonder if it could be easier to live anywhere else. Even though, I do and will always love Atlanta. There are so many amazing artists and musicians there. I really don’t think my album would have been the same if I had recorded it anywhere else. Atlanta is definitely about the people.

MB: How is living in Salt Lake different than living in Atlanta? Are you fed up with stuff there too?

JBS: It’s a little bit hard for me, because I feel like I’m living a different life here than I did in Atlanta, although I did have a kid there too. But Salt Lake is almost entirely white. There is a growing immigrant population here – people from various different Latin American countries and people from a variety of different Asian countries, and some Polynesian countries as well, but there’s less of a synergy of minority cultures connecting or really interacting at all. In some ways, segregation in Salt Lake is similar to Atlanta, and in other ways it’s different. The culture here feels very homogenous; even the white culture. There is a huge Mormon influence here and therefore a conservative presence, but in some ways Salt Lake is a lot like Atlanta in that it is a liberal outpost in a largely conservative state. Maybe that’s part of the reason I felt at home here. There’s also a better functioning city government, more bike paths, and access to the mountains. I think one of the best benefits of Salt Lake is the nearness of nature. Atlanta sort of has its nature right there in the city and you have to drive a couple of hours to be in the mountains, but here I can be in the mountains in fifteen minutes. I don’t really know much about the music scene here, but I doubt that it’s one tenth as vibrant and busy, alive, and complex as Atlanta’s.

MB: When’s the last time you’ve been back to Atlanta? 

JBS: I haven’t been back since I left. I feel very much in Salt Lake right now. I mostly think about Atlanta when there is a free way closure or it snows and gets national coverage. I used to live near this amazing place in Decatur called Creaky Shoal or Shoal Creek, and I saw some pictures of it covered with snow, and it was just beautiful.

MB: Well, there is still a lot of discussion around the BeltLine. It’s still divisive, but there are a lot of good points.

JBS: I have heard that the Beltline has progressed and some of the areas that have opened up are really great. Don’t get me wrong – I think the Beltline is an awesome idea; it’s exactly what Atlanta needs.

MB: As you left Atlanta, you also seem to have left music. What precipitated that?

JBS: Yeah, I can talk about that. The shift happened for me some time around 2008 when I got accepted to Georgia State in the creative writing program. Along with that came a teaching assistantship. There was actually a real job that was paying me some money to teach classes in addition to getting my degree. At the time I was getting close to thirty, which is a time that people are thinking of shifting gears a little bit, and beyond that thinking about the realities of being a touring musician and needing to support myself, it got a little terrifying. Performance and booking shows and self promotion were never my strong suit. I put the Juju B Solomon album out on New Street Records, and a lot of the people there were my friends. I had a lot of support, and I might not even have released the album without them. I didn’t relish the idea of becoming a touring, or really even a frequently performing, musician. I didn’t really want to go on tour, didn’t want to book shows, got nervous before shows a lot. And I found myself playing in a lot of smoky bars, like the Star Bar for instance. It’s a great venue. It’s a fixture. It’s an institution in Atlanta, but I would find myself playing shows in those environments and wondering how my very thought-stoking, confessional, personal music style fit into venues like that, and it seemed like those venues were most of what was to be had. You could play at coffee shops or something like that, but those venues were a little uncomfortable for me as well. I couldn’t find the proper venue for my music; I know there’s a way to take it into a live show, but I never really made that connection. And then at the same time I began to get very invested in fiction writing, and the path to do that, through grad school, seemed to be the more interesting way to explore my passion for creating and for writing. I didn’t necessarily want to stop making music at the same time, but if you listen to my album, those songs were written from a place of solitude.  Over there (India), it was just me; back in the states I had a long-term girlfriend who is now my wife and I have a daughter, and that time of solitude and introspection for songwriting, when I was able to get it, was being channeled into writing fiction.

MB: And as someone who writes and has a family, the good thing is that you can sit down and write any time. With music it seems that there is a lot more of a production involved, and you’re forced, particularly in performance, to work around the schedules of other people.

 JBS: You have to live a certain lifestyle, right? I know people who are able to subvert that, like Bill Taft of Hubcap City. He was actually in the MFA program with me at the same time, and he is someone that is really able to exist in both worlds. Hubcap City was playing around Atlanta for many years, but he was also working as a writer and he was a father and able to maintain a life in the band. He was an amazing example, but for somebody like me I didn’t feel like I could create the space for a small child in the kind of ambitious writing that I wanted to do and also play music. But part of me misses making music, for sure.

MB: Have any of your students ever made the connection? Are you waiting for that day?

JBS: That would be funny. I have a lot of extra CDs that I would give them if they ever showed any interest. Most of my students aren’t in my classes because they want to be in a writing class, so no, none of my students have made that connection. I would be sort of shocked and surprised if they ever figured that out.

MB: To transition just a bit, if I was going to make a list of the songs that sum up Atlanta for me as someone who has lived here a few years, “Punk as Fuck” would be right up there. Even now, a decade out, it still feels so current. How much of that song is true for you? How much did you make up?

JBS: So, I did dye my hair pink, and the bleach job did get fucked up, and I did have to shave all my hair off. That part is true. I did not get doored on Peachtree Street by a Buckhead wife, but it was sort of loosely based on stories that I had heard from friends who were bike couriers in Atlanta. I was a bike courier in Atlanta for a couple of years on and off, so I had a lot of interactions with the bike riding culture. That was sort of a composite of other people’s experiences, but there was this one courier who got totally fucked up in some kind of accident. He was on a fixed gear and he got hit in an intersection. His whole face was changed after that. His was completely distorted, but he went right back to bike couriering, and then eventually he became an EMT driver, so it sort of had a happy ending. I didn’t put that in the song directly, but it’s that sort of willingness to fuck yourself up that I saw among these couriers, to put yourself in intense personal danger, young men in their early twenties doing it consistently, either to be cool and to see themselves in pictures or because it helped them feel alive. It was a sentiment they had, for what it’s worth, that I’m going to do this crazy thing to be as “punk” as possible. Even at the time I was writing that song it seemed like the word punk had been emptied of meaning. I don’t even know what it means to be punk as fuck, but that’s kind what I liked about that title. People are searching for it. What does it really mean?

MB: That’s the part that keeps coming back to me. It’s meaningless, but in a very profound way. As we wrap up, the one thing that follows you around other than your record is that you were Creative Loafing’s 2007 songwriter of the year. How did that work? Did you get to go to a party? Was there a show to play?

JBS: The whole time I was in Atlanta, Creative Loafing was immensely supportive of me. I don’t think there was a show. They just gave me the award and maybe Chad Radford interviewed me. After that, though, they accepted two of my stories for second place in different years’ fiction contest. I guess they are still doing that. That’s one of the things about Salt Lake City; we have an alt-weekly here, but it’s not nearly as good as Creative Loafing. But I really don’t remember much about that artist of the year thing, other than they did it.

MB: You mean you don’t have a plaque hanging on your wall somewhere?

JBS: There was, for the fiction prize, a little framed plaque of some sort, but for that there was no plaque, no flowers, no box of chocolates, just the honor itself.

MB: I guess the last question has to be, do you miss it? Is there ever the impulse to come back to Atlanta and play some shows?

JBS: I don’t know. I want to pick up music again. I would have to really get back into recording first. I have a few songs and if I could put an album together then I would definitely come back to Atlanta to do some sort sort of reunion or concert or something. Atlanta is intricately woven into my music.

***

            The circle closes. It’s not that romantic: Atlanta musician prioritizes family and embarks on new career. Beloved alternative weekly goes from bestowing awards and making taste to reformatting with interns and freelancers. Writer recaptures heady days of the late indie music Internet and then takes three months to complete a draft. Maybe one of Solomon’s students will find it and get a free CD. I hope so, because Juju B Solomon is a pretty good album, and I might get a comment other than “This sucks.”

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