The life, death and afterlife of Dreamin’ Wild, an album recorded by two teenage farmers in 1978 and then lost for decades
The city of Missoula, in western Montana, sits in an old lakebed at the intersection of five mountain ranges. The surrounding geography makes it prone to ‘inversions’ — the atmosphere literally inverts, blanketing the town in fog as clouds form on the ground . Missoula is the state’s second largest city, yet has a population of less than 70,000. Logging dominated its economy for over a century, until the 1980s recession revealed the structural weaknesses of one-industry towns, weaknesses that have left other parts rural America scattered with abandonded settlements. To avoid the same fate, Missoula diversified. It became partly a university town, driven by a renewed focus on luring environmental enthusiasts such as Jack Fleischer out to its secluded setting.
Fleischer has three loves: film, music, and the outdoors. It was the latter that brought him to the University of Montana, which, by the time he enrolled in 2008, was one of the nation’s top-ranked schools for forestry studies. His love of film had already seen him attempt and then abandon a career that culminated in a single feature, Joaquin Peso. The slapstick genre throwback was well received by those who saw it, but left Fleischer overwhelmed by the movie-making process and underwhelmed with his own abilities.
Throughout this, his love for music had provided him an income of sorts for years: whether it was skill or just persistence, Fleischer has a knack for finding rare vinyl, which he sold to record collectors at sometimes staggering prices. Still, the rural northwest of American isn’t exactly a goldmine for records. Arriving at the start of semester, direct from a roadtrip through Mexico, Fleischer had modest expectations for his growth as a music prospector. But just a few months after settling in, the chance discovery of a dust-covered record in an antique shop would result in a small community of collectors dragging two brothers and their music from the past.
Fleischer grew up mostly in Vermont, but had moved around enough to get a feel for the rest of the country—enough of a feeling, at least, for how differerent Montana was. “It’s like a piece of Alaska lodged in the Northwest,” he says. His mother was from Montana; he’d visited her family there in the past, but was still surprised at how hard it was to connect with the people when he settled in semi-permanently. “It has a real distinct personality. No bullshit. Lots of drinking. Hard ass dudes,” says Fleischer. “Fences make good neighbours.”
The bifurcation of industry in Missoula was evident in its population: stalwart, old-school loggers and cowboys rub up against younger and often idealistic students; those who once made their living by exploiting the land live side by side with people who are passionate about conserving it. The town has a campus area, complete with its own postcode, where many of the students live and bond, but Fleischer was a bit older than the teenagers on the typical college track. Instead, he opted to live by himself in a cheap housing project next to a poorly maintained public golf course. It wasn’t exactly inspiring, but it’s what he could afford on the money he made from his vinyl arbitrage. Soon enough, however, the reason for his displacement into this foreign region, his studies, started to prove just as uninspiring.
Through this reasonably bleak period, his love of music provided more than just financial support. Fleischer had been something of a fanatic since discovered his parents’ Beatles records at age eight and, and was drawn to psychedelic and underground rock during his teenage years. He soon realised just how much undiscovered stuff was out there, and became attracted to the “idea of a collector as some kind of curator or amateur historian of overlooked and underappreciated periods.” Before the move to Missoula, he’d spent eight years building up a personal record collection that was now locked up in storage back in Vermont. His only connection to the rare music scene was an active participation in several online music communities.
He found one such community was at the site Waxidermy.com, which, as hinted in its name, is about “obscure and out-of-print vinyl.” The biggest feature of the site is its message board, where people share music, sell their findings, and organise mixtape swaps. Digging for old, undiscovered records had been going on for decades before the internet — ever since there was a large enough back-catalogue of contemporary music through which obsessive collectors could trawl — but online communities like this proved to be a real watershed for the scene. For all the prophecies of the internet ruining the future of music, it’s been pivotal in preserving and growing its past.
Fleischer joined Waxidermy in May 2006, just five months after it launched, and was a highly visible member on the forums. He was primarily a consumer, checking out recommendations and requests from others that he’d keep an eye out for while mining garage sales and thrift stores. He never spent much time making those initial discoveries himself, but was constantly energised by friends he’d made through the site and their dedication to the search for new sounds. Now, eighteen months after joining the community, and with the extra time on his hands afforded by a nonexistent social life and a dwindling interest in his studies, Jack decided to up his involvement. He was going to find albums others would talk about, taking his place among the amateur historians he admired. Even from as unlikely a place as Missoula.
Fleischer’s quest for new and undiscovered sounds began taking up more and more of his time — the searching, the listening, the discarding. While most records have something, however small, noteworthy about them, you have to go through a lot of junk before you find something special. He quickly exhausted local sources of secondhand records and began taking longer and longer trips up to places like Kalispell and Whitefish; on one of his more successful outings to the latter he found a rare 7” northern soul single in a church basement worth $1,500.
Spokane, in Washington State, is a two-hour car ride from Missoula; a beautiful drive that sees you winding through stunning but deadly cliffs as you negotiate through narrow passes. Spokane is far from a metropolis, but is still about four times bigger than Missoula. Spokane-based writer Jess Walter notes that it’s “sometimes called the largest city between Seattle and Mineapolis, but this is only true if you ignore everything below Wyoming”. It was one of the relatively close towns to which Fleischer expanded his search. In the spring of 2008 Fleischer made his third trip out there. On his drive out of town, he spotted an antique shop he hadn’t not noticed before. It was his last stop of the day.
Fleischer’s quest for new and undiscovered sounds began taking up more and more of his time.
Though mostly full of homewares, the shop had a small record section in back. Before he could even begin rummaging through the crates, Fleischer noticed one album on its own, propped against a lamp on a bureau at the front of the store, separate from the others. Its cover become clearer as he moved towards it – a pair of what seemed to be twelve or thirteen year-old kids posing in Elvis-style white jumpsuits, leaning awkwardly, with the kid in front pretending to be playing guitar. It looked like a costume family portrait from a supermarket glamour shots studio. The record itself was still sealed and in good condition, but looked like it hadn’t been moved in years. It cost $5—$4 more than any other record in the shop, and more than Flesicher would normally spend on an unknown record. “I guess I was kind of taking a chance for $5,” he says. “But as any seasoned digger will tell you, sometimes you just get a light that goes on in your head that says ‘Buy this.’” It was the only record he bought there, and the next time he was in the area, he couldn’t find it again. It was gone, he says, “like from a mist.”
He played this record first when he arrived home that night, mainly out of interest than from anticipation of quality. “I collect a lot of conventionally ‘bad’ music — and pretty much anything made by kids — so I would have been somewhat excited either way.” But when Fleischer placed the needle onto the album he didn’t hear conventionally ‘bad’ music. He didn’t even hear music that sounded like kids. “The songs were original, and there is this totally jarring maturity to some of the love songs that really grabbed me.” After just one listen, he was floored. It was the kind of record that he’d helped share around online, like those underground hits that others in the community had discovered. It was the kind of record a crate digger could spend their lives seeking, another level up from your standard find, one that held its own outside the generous context of obscurity. The record was Dreamin’ Wild, by Donnie & Joe Emerson.
About ninety minutes north of Spokane, in Stevens County, Washington, is the town of Fruitland. Even more sleepy than Missoula, Fruitland sits in the middle of a sea of farmland, with a population that hovers around fifty or so families. There are no streetlights and only a few paved roads, with gravel-topped capillaries ending at small farmhouses clustered with barns, garages and workshops. Technically it’s not even a town since it has never, in its 150 years, set itself up as a municipality. Fruitland is basically an ad hoc community joined by people’s proximity to one another, held together through shared business ventures and its church.
In the 1970s, teenagers and fourth-generation farmers Donnie and Joe Emerson worked on their family’s 1,600-acre property, hauling hay and fixing fences and irrigation pipes. There was no school in Fruitland, so they had to travel ten miles north to Hunter, where Donnie’s class had just fourteen people in it from a whole range of nearby towns. Neither brother had ever been to a big city, and television and radio reception was spotty. “The world, to us, was here,” recalls Joe. Donnie Emerson was a small kid with shaggy brown hair, big lips, and thick eyebrows – as though he was waiting to grow into his face. He learned the clarinet through the school music program when he was young, and was writing his own tunes on the instrument by the time he was nine. As a child, Donnie was closest to his younger brother, Dave, but a shared love of music bonded he and his older brother Joe as teenagers. Joe was two years Donnie’s senior, taller and with a longer face; his fair skin held no traces of their mother’s Maltese roots, which came through in Donnie’s darker complexion.
It was Joe who, as a teenager, first began subscribing to the Columbia House mail-order club, through which he would acquire tapes by the likes of Steely Dan, ELO and Fleetwood Mac, sharing the sounds with his brothers. Prior to that, their exposure to music was mainly through the church, the school’s music program, and television variety shows. There was nowhere to buy records in Fruitland. The closest place was about sixty miles north in Colville, while the closest radio station was back in Spokane, about seventy-five miles southeast.
He sat in the tractor eight hours a day, listening.
In 1977, when Donnie was fifteen, their father, Don Sr., bought a new Case tractor with a built-in radio. It was the best radio on the property, capable of picking up the weak frequency from that Spokane AM station. Donnie was quickly engrossed by this new channel for consumption. He sat in the tractor for eight hours a day, listening. He knew nothing about the bands he heard — sometimes a name, or where they hailed from, but often not even whether they were black or white — but for a boy who already knew farming wasn’t for him, it fed the inspiration to try something special.
Donnie didn’t pick up the guitar until he was a teenager, by which stage he’d already mastered the trombone and piano alongside clarinet. Joe also played guitar, and together they formed a band with local kids Dion Bischoff and Eldon Kemmer. The Emerson family home was a small farmhouse, already full up with the family of seven, and yet its living room managed to host the boys as they played in between school and chores. Eventually, to the benefit of both band and family alike, Don Sr. helped them line up a rehearsal space in a community hall in the Valley.
Donnie and Joe were already taking their music seriously, but having this rehearsal space was a further nudge in that direction. The extra effort now required for practice—commuting, setting up, and packing down the equipment every night—naturally elevated it from a leisurely pursuit to something more. In late 1977, the band headed into Spokane to record two of Donnie’s original compositions for their debut 7” single. It was done in a single afternoon, taking only an hour of playing. While they “probably held back a bit too much,” recalls Joe, the fifteen-year-old Donnie had nonetheless committed his first songs to tape.
There’s not much to do as a teenager in Fruitland. Chores and school sports occupy most, while some, like their bandmates, turned to music. But it was different for the two brothers, and especially for Donnie. This wasn’t just idle distraction for him, not a way to pass the time but to almost keep time moving, which his parents recognised. Writing and playing became an obsession, and for his parents, that obsession soon became an investment.
Don Sr. was a lifelong farmer and logger. He was solidly built, with receding hair and thick, black sideburns to match his thick, black glasses. He knew life on the property was tough and wouldn’t make Donnie happy. When problems arose around the boys’ rehearsal space owing to a small scratch left on the floor from packing up, he sat the boys down in their wood-panelled living room. He had a proposition for them, a big one that had occurred to him only a month earlier, but it made sense. He would build them a recording studio on their property as long as they agreed to something.
“I don’t want to just buy you instruments if you’re going to do other people’s music,” Don Sr. said. “I want you to do your own music and see you guys make a record.” Don was naïve about the music industry, but he had enough sense to know that there wasn’t much of career to be made from being a cover band. “I want you to do something you can make a living at.”
He took out a loan against his land. The same land that had provided his family’s livelihood for generations would now, he hoped, provide another, totally different livelihood for his sons. With help from neighbours and logging contacts, the studio was standing in less than a month, located in a wooded area about half a mile from the family home on a flat piece of land where Don had envisaged having his workshop. Such was the pace of its construction that they didn’t wait to dry out the logs as they stacked them into the walls of the cabin. As a result, mushrooms grew out of the cracks and crevices throughout the first year, even peeking around the edges of the bright shag carpet Don hung for acoustic treatment. The space was fitted out with a range of instruments and high-end gear, including a pair of state-of-the-art TEAC 8-track tape machines and a Polymoog synthesiser, reportedly worth over $10,000 alone. Don even agreed to pay the other band members for practice time, which covered gas costs and the effort of getting to the remote cabin.
With help from the boys’ school music teacher, “Mr. T.,” Don wrote up an agreement outlining how everyone would split the profits from any recordings made in the cabin. Don, his sons, and the other band members all signed it. When a band member left, as Eldon Kemmer did after buying a logging truck for a new interstate job, he would sign off.
The following year, their studio — ‘The Practice Place’ — was ready to go. Donnie, who was already churning out songs seemingly every time he sat down with his guitar, started turning his attention towards other technical aspects of making a record: the arrangements, production and mixing. He worked hard on the farm, but his allergies usually led to him knocking off earlier than Joe, who’d continue bailing hay while his brother ran off to the studio.
Work started on the album in the fall, although it’s hard to pinpoint an exact starting time since there was no plan— no tracklist, or even a clear understanding of the personnel. The original band never disbanded, but with the studio so close by, it was Donnie who ended up spending the most time in there, working late into the night as he figured out how to capture the sounds he heard in his head. Joe, being his brother and with equally convenient access to the studio, was naturally the person who’d be down there with him the most, which was how the billing as a duo informally began.
It was Donnie who ended ups pending the most time in there.
A lack of guidance on how to use the professional-level equipment ensured a long process of trial and error at the start. A frustrated Donnie would often bring tapes up to the house and play them for Joe and his parents, struggling to articulate what he was trying to do and how he could achieve it. Mr. T. would also drop by on weekends to check in on their progress and offer advice. The album was a unique project for kids in the area; Donnie was certainly the only student Mr. T. had seen with this level of dedication, let alone the resources to back it up.
After a slow start, the final eight songs that would comprise their debut were recorded “within about six weeks”, Joe thinks. Just as no one recalls the start of the process, no one recalls a specific moment when the album was finished. It was sometime in the spring of 1979, roughly six months after the studio was standing, and involved the input of Mr. T., Donnie’s hands-off but influential mentor. After consultation with Donnie during a progress check, he helped select eight especially strong songs. It was agreed that the recording process was done; the album was complete. Having no idea about sequencing or pacing, and with broad musical styles these eight songs covered, the final tracklisting was almost equal parts luck and a reflection of the playlists that Donnie might have heard on the radio.
Opener ‘Good Time’ is an impressive recreation of classic AM rock that inverts its title into a bittersweet juxtoposition against its melodic bass line through lines like, “Did you have a good time as long as it lasted? / Because I know I did.” Next is ‘Give Me the Chance’, a shuffling funk number that is unexpectedly bisected by a space-rock synth solo. Both tracks are equally capable of impressing the album on the listener and inviting them to commit, but its the third track, ‘Baby’, that elevates it beyond the reaches of most seventeen year-olds. A keys-led soul ballad that floats between affecting and cheesy, replete with talk of sandy beaches and walking in the moonlight, ‘Baby’ is nonetheless buoyed by a chorus so successful in its simplicity — its lyrics consist entirely of “Baby / Yes, oh baby” — and by Donnie’s strongest vocal performance on the album. Just over half an hour later, after a piano ballad (‘Dream Full of Dreams’) and an instrumental yatch rock-style number (‘Feels Like the Sun’) comes album closer and equal highlight ‘My Heart’: an eight-minute psychadelic jam anchored by a lumbering, distorted bass line, and sees the boys’ musicianship near collapse as they tread through pining, plaintive lines such as “I know you said as well as I do / So why is it you’re never there?”
Donnie, having figured out how to multi-track record, ended up playing almost every part on the album. Joe contributed drums to a handful of tracks, having switched after the band struggled to maintain a permanent stickman. The only sounds on the album not belonging to either Emersons are backing vocals on two tracks: one belonging to Edlon Kemmer, and the other to Donnie’s school friend Duane Etue, who died in a car accident weeks before the album was finished.
All up, Dreamin’ Wild is slightly more than forty minutes of original music, stitched together by the strong and unique tone of Donnie’s voice and a consistent atmosphere that reflects the rural, isolated circumstance of its creation— as though the tape player somehow managed to capture the sound of endless Fruitland hills and wooded farmland. Suitably, the name Donnie chose for the album almost perfectly reflects that rural setting and heart-on-sleeve yearnings of the lyrics, as well as the ambitions of its main architect.
With the music recorded, the Emersons headed into Spokane to get the last thing they needed before it was pressed: an album cover. Local company Stylebuilder measured the boys for their costumes — white jumpsuits with high collars, designed by Donnie to emulate Elvis — while Lockwood Portrait Studio handled the photo shoot itself.
As well as the cover image, the shoot also produced the individual portraits that appear on the back cover, images that aptly portray the differences between the two brothers. In the lower left is Joe, grinning and leaning forward in his white jumpsuit. He shows no sign of any pressure or pretension; he’s just a kid excited to be at a photo shoot. Donnie, in the upper right corner, is earnest and bolt upright plucking his guitar and gazing off as if oblivious to anything outside his own soft-focussed world.
Don Sr. flew Mr T. and the tapes down to Los Angeles to get the record pressed. Mr T. designed the type on the front cover while down there, so the boys weren’t entirely sure what they were getting until he arrived back with a test pressing. The family crowded around and listened to it, a proper album, with a cover and everything, and the first released through the family’s own Enterprise & Co. label. During the summer, months after the photo shoot, Joe drove out to Mr T.’s to pick up the bulk of the records. It was an exceptionally hot July day, and a good few of the 1,000 copies warped during the long drive back home, baking in the back of his ’68 El Camino. The boys were already back in the studio by this time, continuing to write and play, taking their next steps toward stardom. They had to be ready. Surely, Dreamin’ Wild was only their first step on a long path to fame.
But if the excitement stirred up by Dreamin’ Wild in the community was intense it was also surprisingly short-lived. This was technically ‘released’, with no fans waiting to embrace it, and an industry oblivious to its existence. Donnie and his mother, Selina, drove around their county trying to peddle copies directly, which was about the only strategy available to a band without any sort of distribution mechanism. Even if they managed to get it into general stores (accounts on the matter differ), copies certainly didn’t make it as far as Spokane, let alone Seattle, probably the only place in the Washington state where a grassroots fandom could conceivably have grown. Those outside the family who acknowledged the album also quickly forgot it. Even the boys’ classmates seemed uninterested. Most of the boxes Joe collected that hot July day would remain unopened.
“SET SALE: Donnie & Joe '79 DIY teen funk New MP3s.” So read the title of an 12 August, 2008, post on Waxidermy by high profile member Will Louviere. “Super cool and undeniably odd new find from rural Elvis Knievel teen farm boys who wrote and performed all their own original material back in '79 hoping to hit the charts,” he wrote in the space beneath. The post featured links to music clips of some album highlights – ‘Good Time,’ ‘Baby,’ and ‘My Heart’ — to give other Waxidermy members a taste of the music itself. This was probably a wise move given the impressions left by the album cover alone. “These are still-sealed but all copies have a crease/bend to one or two corners from Mom Emerson’s packing job.” Beneath that post, Jack Fleischer chimes in that the record is “the best thing i dug up this spring”.
After spinning the album just once a few months earlier, Fleischer could feel that he was onto something. “I knew a couple heads that would explode upon hearing it if I could just rustle a few more copies from the band.” One of the heads he correctly predicted would explode belonged to Louviere, author of the above post on Waxidermy, with whom Fleischer had recently been mailing records back and forth.
Needing additional copies to send out, Fleischer decided to find the Emersons. It was one of the first times he’d attempted to track down an artist of a record he discovered. The album’s liner notes stated that it was recorded at “The Practice Place, Fruitland, WA” — a lead, although not exactly hot, since thirty years had since come to pass. Still, he made for a pulbic library to find a phone book for Fruitland, Washington, figuring it was a goog place to start. Right there, in the most recent edition they had, was a listing for Emerson.
Fleischer got straight through to Don Sr., who was nonchalant despite this being the first call he’d received in decades about the hundreds of copies of Dreamin’ Wild still boxed up on their property. Fleischer arranged to send through a money order in return for some additional copies of the album, and would soon be contacting the Emersons again, this time with Will Louviere, a recipient of one of those records. Louviere bought an additional one hundred copies to sell on through channels like Waxidermy. “Will is a friend and is a bigger dealer than me; he talked up the record and gave it a real buzz,” says Fleischer. “I was happy to share the score with him.” The records were shipped in two lots to Louviere, packed tight with egg crates.
Louviere’s post on Waxidermy started to gain attention. “THIS RECORD RULES” says one reply to Louviere’s post. “this things a winner” reads another. “I would never pick something like this up based on the cover alone,” says another, urging others to listen to the clips posted. Word of the album spread online and offline, throughout blogs and collector communities. People started calling up the Emersons directly, some of them record dealers, some just wanting to buy extra copies for friends.
“THIS RECORD RULES”
“There are a lot of amazing LPs out there, but few are so through-and-through sincere as Donnie and Joe,” said Flesicher. “It’s as if they were too young to entirely know how much they put of themselves hanging out there on the line.”
Louviere briefly entertained carrying out a proper reissue of Dreamin’ Wild through his small label, Show & Tell Records, but the idea fell to the side as other projects filled his time. Crate diggers and their communities, driven as they are by a passion for the new and undiscovered, moved on to the latest finds. Fleischer, who’d rescued the album from total obscurity, would grab some extra copies every now and then, but he too moved onto other LPs and tracking down other artists. The album wasn’t forgotten, just settling into the background; it was an underground hit, and likely to stay that way. The relatively few decent copies seemed destined to be occasionally traded or plucked from vast libraries by collectors for years to come. That was, it seemed, the end of an already unlikely second act in the story of Donnie & Joe Emerson and their Dreamin’ Wild.
In April of 2010, music historian and reissue producer Andy Zax invited a handful of friends over to listen to records at his house in Hollywood. It was laidback, organised at the last minute. Five or so people were there, including Zax and his wife Lisa Jane Persky, an actor. Zax is one of the most successful reissue producers going around, having worked on high profile boxsets for Talking Heads and Woodstock: 40 Years On, as well as reissues for bands like Television, Rod Stewart, and Echo & The Bunnymen. You may have seen him on television — he was the music expert panellist on Comedy Central’s 2001-2002 game show Beat the Geeks. One of the guests at Zax’s home that night was Matt Sullivan, owner of reissue label Light In The Attic.
Sullivan, thirty-four, with hair in tight brown curls and a big smile filled with big teeth, grew up up in Seattle in the 1990s, and interned at seminal indie labels like Sub Pop and Loosegroove. He’d been running Light In The Attic since losing his job at Rhapsody, the ill-fated online music venture of Real Player just before 9/11— just before “things got bad”. Around that time, Sullivan found himself in possession of the 1970s self-titled debut album by The Last Poets, known as arguably the first ever hip hop group. For over a year he would work on reissuing that record, and its follow-up, This Is Madness, which would together comprise the first release by his new label in October 2002.
There’s no shortage of reissue labels, but the idea had stuck with him ever since he was teenager. Light In The Attic would develop a reputation for telling a good story about their releases, and that is no less true about the label’s origins. The “official history” claims that Sullivan started interning at Madrid-based reissue label Munster Records after a car accident with the label’s owner Iñigo Pastor while backpacking through Europe. In truth, he’d already organised a homestay in Spain, where he planned on working at a local radio station until someone at Sub Pop suggested he reach out to Munster and see if they were looking for interns. Regardless, the experience left an impression him. “Since I was sixteen I really wanted to do a label, that was my life goal,” he said. “I didn’t really think of older music. When I went to Spain, it opened up my mind to a whole other world.”
By the time he was sitting in Zax’s living room, eight years after starting Light in the Attic, his label would be one of the bigger ones focussing on reissues, with offices in LA and Seattle. It had gained a solid following thanks to its consistently well-curated output and high-quality packaging, helped along by several well-received releases such as Rodriguez’s Cold Fact — whose rise from obscurity has since been captured in the Oscar-nominated documentary Searching for Sugar Man — and Kris Kristofferson’s Publishing Demos collection.
That night, Sullivan was explaining an idea for a new project. “I always thought it would be fun to make a compilation with kid or teenage records, but they would be very mature songs,” said Sullivan says. “Not quirky kid songs like ‘Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round’ or Sesame Street songs, but actual, mature songs.” It didn’t take Zax long to pluck the perfect match from his encyclopaedic knowledge of music. He pulled out his original copy of Dreamin’ Wild. At the sight of the cover, Sullivan burst out laughing, but Zax insisted Sullivan check it out.
It’s only in retrospect that this moment gained significance. At the time it was just another in a long line of albums passed between friends, so the details are hazy. Sullivan doesn’t recall whether they put on a couple of songs that night or whether he tracked down a web rip back home. What remains clear is the excitement from listening to it straight through for the first time. “At that point I was fully committed to reissuing the album.”
What remains clear is the excitement from listening to it straight through for the first time.
Zax passed on contact details for Douglas McGowan, from whom Zax — and, subsequently, Sullivan — each purchased their original copies of Dreamin’ Wild. McGowan, owner of his own label, Yoga Records, had also been entertaining the idea of reissuing it himself for some time, although that idea was stood down when he got the call from Sullivan. If you care about the artists, he reasons, you have to at least consider stepping aside when a label like Light In The Attic comes calling. “They’re going to get more attention for the record, period.” Sullivan and Zax’s copies came from the same batch of Dreamin’ Wild that McGowan had acquired through a record swap when Jack Fleischer had stayed at his house for a week (the two had met through Waxidermy). McGowan also put Sullivan through to Louviere, who could put Sullivan in touch with the Emersons.
Louviere was surprised a label as big as Light In The Attic was interested in the album. He told Sullivan he’d have to check with the family before he passed on their details. Sullivan knew from experience that initial contact could often take upwards of a year to make, so was pleasantly surprised to be talking to the Emersons within a week of having first heard of them. There was just one other thing, Louviere told Sullivan before handing over the family’s details: the Emersons were already talking to other labels. Competition between reissue labels is friendly but often fierce, especially when regarding a record with serious buzz. Sullivan was nervous. He started to lose faith that the reissue would happen — at least with him — but he had to try. He wanted this one.
Don Sr. was his usual polite and warm self when Sullivan called. He confirmed Louviere’s news about the other labels. The Emersons were, in fact, close to settling on one – Secretly Canadian, a sometimes-reissue label, but best known for its current roster of artists, including Yeasayer and Antony & The Johnsons. Sullivan, who made the call with already diminished expectations, was even less confident afterwards. Still, he took down their address to send through a package for them to look over. Included in it were a number of his favourite Light In The Attic releases, plus a letter explaining why he thought his label was the best home for Dreamin’ Wild.
Unknown to Sullivan, the Secretly Canadian deal was falling through. The label had sent through a contract, which, according to Don Sr., was “too complex.” He refused to sign it. He was still naïve about the music business, but this time he had the scars from past mistakes to remind him of that. A few years after making Dreamin’ Wild, the family decided to do something big to help the boys with their careers. The pair had already recorded some of the songs for their follow-up, but it needed to be bigger. Though more culturally aware by this stage, they still had no concept of how the music industry worked. This blind ambition took them to North Hollywood, where they splashed out on expensive musicians, a professional studio, and producer to work alongside Donnie, convinced this was the pathway to radio play.
Neither money nor its attendant pressures led to the album they wanted. The bank account Don Sr. set up for them was emptied. With no experience to draw from or agent to represent their interests, the boys were vulnerable— financially and artistically. They wanted a hit album; they came to Hollywood to get the high production values they couldn’t get on the farm. But the result of these sessions was something that sounded like Christopher Cross, whose self-titled commercial soft-rock album and its hit single, ‘Sailing,’ had just taken out Album, Record and Song of the Year at the Grammys. Donnie was upset that the recordings had strayed from his vision, and would eventually redo a lot of it with Joe in a small studio in Winlock, Washington.
By the time this second album, Can I See You, popped out the other end of the creative process, it had morphed into a solo project for Donnie. Donnie, now a man with a lean, muscular frame, was the kind of heartthrob MTV were fawning over. The album, while not what he’d envisaged, at least sounded like a major label release on the surface, but it became tied up in arguments with those involved with the original recording sessions about control over marketing, publicity, and distribution. Ultimately, like its predecessor, it failed to be picked up by a label. The family self-released again, this time with only 500 copies pressed, and only one child’s name on the cover.
It was a blow. While Dreamin’ Wild hadn’t been a cheap album to make, the family had funnelled serious cash into Can I See You and barely raised an eyebrow. Don Sr. soon defaulted the loans he’d taken out, and the family’s property was sold off, piece by piece, eventually downsized from 1,600 acres to just 65. Things had been tough for the family for a while. Any profits from the logging business were generally funnelled into the farm, where the light soil made it difficult to raise quality crops. Still, Don scraped together enough for this shot at stardom, while Dave and even Joe grew increasingly concerned at the money being ploughed into music. At times, with the investment increasingly unlikely to be recouped, Don Sr. was so stressed he was physically ill.
They had bet big on Donnie’s talent. And it hadn’t paid off.
No one in the family talks about the albums as being failures — no one even expresses regret — although the whole experience certainly took its toll. The boxes of unsold records sat there, a constant reminder of what could have been — that dreaming wild isn’t enough.
They had bet big on Donnie’s talent. And it hadn’t paid off.
Donnie stayed on in L.A. after Can I See You’s release, mingling with musicians and models, before winding up in Spokane a few years later. In 1988, he and his wife Nancy, an actress he’d met on a blind date, moved down to Las Vegas. They made a good living performing as a musical duo in casinos for five years, but eventually returned again to Spokane to raise a family. He continued to play music full-time — always playing, always writing songs — and made enough money to pay the bills. After over a decade away from the recording studio, Donnie made a pair of country pop albums in the mid-90s, one of which scored some top ten spots on country radio charts in Europe, leading to a small tour of the continent. A “surround sound” windchimes album made around the turn of the century, inspired by massage therapy music, also went nowhere. He steadily lost the energy to record, to go through that process again. Soon, he stopped touring even regionally, staying in Spokane to be near his family, and occasionally supplementing his local performance fees with work on corporate jingles and advertisements.
After L.A., Joe returned to the farm. He’s remained there ever since, building himself a house right next to the studio, ‘The Practice Place’, and driving up to his childhood home for breakfast with his parents every morning. They don’t farm anymore, having sold most of their fields, but they still have their woods, where Joe works with Don Sr. and Dave running the log skidder. In recent years, without much money to be made from firewood, the family started collecting and selling scrap metal. They were content, but also, in a way, scrambling.
They were content, but also, in a way, scrambling.
This was the situation into which Secretly Canadian sent through their “complex” — in their defence, probably standard — contract. This was the situation from which a wary Don pushed back.
These paperwork problems were wearing away enthusiasm and momentum from the Emersons just as Matt Sullivan’s package arrived. Joe was impressed. “The one that struck me and made me think, ‘You know what, I think this is the one we want to go with’ was the Kris Kristofferson record,” says Joe. “If he looks after these guys, he’ll look after us.” Plus, Light In the Attaic had an office nearby in Seattle.
Don Sr. and Joe felt a certain closeness with Sullivan over the phone, a closeness that had been missing from the other callers. “He seemed to be really sincere,” says Joe. “That’s one of the things that gave us a gut feeling, dad and I both.” Don Sr. invited Sullivan to send up a contract, but warned him to make it simple— “simple people need simple things,” he declared. Sullivan obliged, but the process was far from over.
“Every release is a saga unto itself, inevitably marked by numerous hair-pulling obstacles,” Sullivan wrote in an article about a previous reissue. “Everything from legal wranglings with grumpy old copyright holders to artists suffering from years of failure and schizophrenia— each of which impacts a project’s timetable. By the time we finally release a title, the process might have taken several years.” The Kristofferson project was six years in the making. Rodriguez was three. Dreamin’ Wild was released quickly by comparison, although it still took about ten months from Sullivan’s first call to the Emersons for proceedings to really get going. That time was partly spent courting Joe and Don Sr., partly on a futile effort to find the master tapes of the album (Joe doesn’t think they ever got them back from the pressing plant), and partly on trying to get Donnie on board with the concept of a reissue at all.
Some record dealers had managed to contact Donnie directly over the previous few years while looking for extra copies, but he’d handballed these well-wishers on to his parents. “I told my parents about it and I said, ‘Look, I’m going to stay out of this thing and let you guys handle it,’” he said. “I’ve got to live my life.”
“I’ve got to live my life.”
Sullivan was in contact with Don Sr. and Joe every few weeks, but it was a while before they put him in touch with Donnie. At Donnie’s urging they remained the gatekeepers, and that’s how the reissue process was run. Donnie showed little interest in the project. But as things began to get semi-serious, his father and brother figured it was time to loop him back in.
Donnie’s hesitancy to be involved, and part of the Emerson’s cautiousness about bringing him in prematurely, wasn’t just his lack of interest. There was a certain sensitivity to Donnie, one to which Joe and Don Sr. were finely tuned.
“Over the years, we were all so involved with this music career of Donnie’s,” says Joe. “You could see that there was some friction in the family.” Joe believes Donnie’s skepticism about the emergence of the record was because it reminds them all of what they’d given up for it— for him. He was the bet that didn’t pay off, and this album an artefact of that failed bet. “He just didn’t want to see us rekindle something that might end up being destructive,” Joe says. “I think that’s why he held back.”
It was an uphill battle for Sullivan. Although he forged a strong connection with Donnie, occasionally spending hours discussing music, Sullivan’s doubts would persist. “He wrote the majority of those songs. The lyrical content is so deep and he really put his heart into that thing. Having that fail was tough,” says Sullivan. “He probably has a hard time believing, ‘Can this really be happening’, and also, ‘I have this whole other life that’s happening right now, do I really want to revisit this again?’" This is actually a common reaction from the artists that Sullivan tracked down. Despite his sincere intentions, sometimes an artist just isn’t receptive. “They went through that failure, so it might not be such an exciting thing for them to dig back up. It takes time for people to get comfortable.”
“It was scaring me, actually,” says Donnie. “I didn’t know what to do.” Donnie remains as sincere and serious about music as the teenager pictured on the back cover of Dreamin’ Wild. He’s an artist who’s battled with his own limitations and a quest for authenticity for decades. When the first wave of recent interest in Dreamin’ Wild came he dismissed it as “just another thing” that was going on, but as the reissue moved closer to reality, the impact became clearer. It wasn’t just the tension in the family that held him back. It was the tension inside him, between wanting to create and wanting to be authentic — “pure,” as he says repeatedly — and the desire of others for him to be just like his teenage self. “I knew if I was going to do it then people were going to stereotype me and want me to play just like that. But there’s no way I can,” he says, sighing, as if the weight of the decision is still bearing down upon him. “I wanted it to work out, but I wanted it to work out to where it was going to further my career and what I’m doing now.”
Sullivan can’t recall the exact moment they — every member of the Emerson family, and Light In The Attic — all agreed it would happen, but he suspects that, in the end, Donnie came to accept what he’d always known deep down. As Sullivan put it to him: “You’ve created a real piece of art here. Just because it didn’t take off then doesn’t mean it shouldn’t now.”
“You’ve created a real piece of art here.”
With Donnie on board, the process continued, driven primarily by Don Sr. Donnie wouldn’t be pulled in again until Sullivan — as well as blogger Dave Segal and a cameraman — visited Fruitland to work on the liner notes and a short promotional documentary for the release. It was an emotional day for both brothers.
“Donnie and I, we had tears. Even when I talk about it now,” says Joe, his voice breaking up. “We could see that these people really loved this music that we did back then, and it felt like were going back into that time when it was created and finally someone is showing some appreciation. Finally maybe dad and mom will have their due reward. I think that was when it first struck Donnie that it was a good thing.”
Eighteen months later, in October of 2012, Light In The Attic were celebrating ten years since the release of The Last Poets’ records. As part of the anniversary the label organised a pair of gigs— one for each of their offices. It had been a big year for Dreamin’ Wild. All 500 limited edition copies of single ‘Baby’ on seven-inch baby-blue vinyl sold out on pre-orders, and the song was even licensed for use in the indie romantic comedy Jessie and Celeste Forever. The album itself had been selling steadily on the back of strong reviews in influential publications like Pitchfork. The New York Times sent two writers out to the farm for a feature about the story behind the record. An Oscar-nominated screenwriter had reportedly even approached the Emersons about adapting their story for film.
Matt Sullivan was aware of Donnie’s lingering ambivalence about all the attention, but thought it was at least worth asking them if they’d like to play the Seattle concert— who knows, he thought; they might get a kick out of it. He pitched the idea to the brothers on a conference call. “I know it’s a big ask,” he says. “You should do it because you want to do it and not because you feel obligated.” The response was hardly encouraging: they had to think about it, they said, almost downcast.
Sullivan assumed it wasn’t going to happen. Neither of the brothers especially wanted to do it. Joe, who considers the album’s resurgence a blessing, didn’t know if they’d be able execute it properly and was worried about disappointing the audience. Donnie had similar concerns about their ability to recreate that time and feeling, plus extra concerns that even trying to do so was exactly the regression he feared the reissue would bring. How could he be “pure” while trying to please others? He was frustrated from talking to press on and off for months, talking to people who wanted to discuss an album he made thirty years ago, who had no interest in anything he’s done since. He was now a ‘Don’ himself, not ‘Donnie’. At fifty-one years of age, he’d written well over a thousand songs, and yet all people cared for were eight he wrote as a teenager. “It was like I did that album and must’ve died.”
“It was like I did that album and must’ve died”
In the end, Joe had a change of heart. Despite Sullivan’s insistence that they do it for themselves, Joe thought that they owed it to Light In The Attic. It was their anniversary, and the least they could do was play some songs. Joe, along with Dion Bischoff, the pair’s original bass player, started driving out to Spokane for rehearsals with Donnie and his wife Nancy, who contributed percussion. As expected it wasn’t a smooth process. Donnie was still playing a few of the songs in his sets, but they’d morphed over the years as his musicianship improved.
About a week out from the gig, the band experienced a breakdown. Donnie was paralysed by his perfectionism, by his desire to recreate the sound of his past accurately and his almost equal desire not to regress, to do something new. It was a tense moment in the rehearsal room. Don was silent. Joe could feel the likelihood of their performance becoming more remote.
“Joe,” Donnie said to his brother. “I didn’t really want to do this, but you wanted to do it, and so I’m doing it because of you.” There was a fondness in this statement, but also a subtext of finger-pointing. Donnie had been playing music with his wife for twenty-seven years, and now she was side-lined so he could reconnect with Joe, someone he’d barely played with for over three decades. They were brothers and were still close, but their musical dynamic was off.
Joe figured they’d have to call Sullivan and tell him the bad news, especially bad since the posters with their names on it were printed and everything. Then, in perhaps the lowest moment in the oscillating process, he rallied. “Matt said we didn’t have to do this,” said Joe. “But we’ve made a promise to go and we’ve made a commitment to go. So we’re going to go.” Donnie claims he always knew they would make the gig, that Joe had forgotten the pressure he puts on himself and his work. They agreed to continue with the performance as planned, but as a result of that pressure they pull back on rehearsing. “We’ll just go and do the best we can,” was Joe’s parting advice that night. That’s what they did.
What happened on the night of the Light in the Attic celebration wasn’t a totally accurate recreation of the sound— it was never going to be, and aiming for it was setting themselves up for failure. A few snippy remarks appeared on Waxidermy and other forums in the days after, such as the Emerson brothers “seeming like a donnie and joe cover band”. But then this made sense when you consider that they both described their teenager selves who made the album as people separate from themselves, like strangers. It’s hard to know what those teenage strangers would have thought, whether this was a acceptable climax to their wild dreams. But for these two fifty-something brothers, the gig exceeded both their and Matt Sullivan’s expectations. Their original white jumpsuits were displayed proudly on hangers by the merchandise table, and Joe was pleasantly surprised to see Donnie bantering with the appreciative crowd. “I wish you guys could be with us over in Fruitland,” Donnie said during the middle section of ‘Baby’. “I know you guys would fit right in, we’d have a blast.”
While the two brothers came together that night, the inspiration that each took from it further highlights their differences. Joe is currently sifting through all the tracks recorded at ‘The Practice Place’ before and after Dreamin’ Wild, digging through their past to see if there’s anything else there that can be sent out into the world. He’s even found tapes of about half the songs on Can I See You, recorded by themselves on the farm, before they went to Hollywood, and those who’ve heard them agree that they’re superior— the product of their isolation, of the purity that Donnie has since strived to recapture, before they were affected money and commercial pressures and outside advice. If he can find enough stuff for a compilation, there may even be another Donnie and Joe Emerson released after all.
Donnie meanwhile has found the energy to record again, and is taking five months off to work on a new album. He keeps his gaze on the future, while trying to recapture some of the magic of those early days. He’s built a shed on his property in Spokane modelled on ‘The Practice Place’, with carpeted walls and a high ceiling, and is excited to find his new sound, one with Nancy. “No one is doing it like we’re doing it,” he says proudly. There’s already even talk that a record label who lost out to Light In The Attic for Dreamin’ Wild will release the new album, although it’s still early days.
Donnie meanwhile has found the energy to record again.
Donnie is so sincere and invested in his music that he can seem like totally different people depending on how its going. On one occasion, after a difficult night in the studio that extended until 4am with little to show for it, he sounds genuinely beaten down. He’s struggling, again, with the almost antithetical process of slaving away to squeeze out something “pure”. At times like this, he seems to view Dreamin’ Wild as a monolithic monster, one that casts a huge shadow from which he’s trying to escape. On a separate occasion a week later, the recording is going much better. Donnie’s is more enthusiastic, still prone to get lost in his own thoughts, but is more than happy to chat about the past, to reflect on the good times and even laugh at Dreamin’ Wild’s cover and the outfits he designed. “It’s just so weird,” he laughs.
It’s natural to wonder whether this new album will catch the wave of hype surrounding the Emersons, and what will happen if it doesn’t. Will Donnie be happy with what he accomplished as a teenager, that at least those eight songs received some recognition? Or will his feelings toward it always be complicated? “Absolutely, I’ll be happy,” he says. “I just hope they give me a chance, and give the new record a chance.”
Just before Christmas in 2012, Jack Fleischer drove through L.A. late at night to meet some friends. He’d moved twice since his time in Missoula— first to Texas, and then here. He’s still an active member of Waxidermy, which remains relevant and influential in the reissue world.
Fleischer spoke to the Emersons for the first time in a while earlier that year. He’d heard whispers of the reissue of Dreamin’ Wild from other collectors, and eventually caught up with Matt Sullivan to tell him how he fitted into the story, before stepping out of the limelight, where he seems more comfortable.
He scanned through the radio frequencies as he drove, pausing on KROQ, one of the biggest stations in America; something grabbed him. The song sounded familiar but slightly off: it was Ariel Pink, a successful indie artist, covering ‘Baby’. Pink had heard about the Emerson record years before through his band’s guitarist, and boasted that ‘Baby’ had appeared on “just about every playlist/mixtape I’ve assmbled in the past three years”. He was originally approached by Light In The Attic to cover the song for a series of limited edition seven-inch singles to be released around the time of their anniversary, but Pink liked it so much he also put it out as the lead single from his next album, Mature Themes.
Fleischer was a fan of Pink’s music, and hearing the cover was almost as surreal as exciting— one of those times when his role in preserving the past and connecting it with the present suddenly came into focus. Fleischer views his part in the improbable chain that led to this moment modestly, but he was crucial— you could essentially trace it all the way back to that antique store in Spokane, where he gambled five dollars on an album with a hilarious and hilariously misleading cover. Sure, a few other collectors later emerged and said that they’d picked up copies of Dreamin’ Wild in the past, but it was Fleischer who’d shared it, who’d tracked the Emersons down, who’d gotten the album in the hands of people like Will Louviere. “I’ve never been a big fan of collectors who get off on obscurity as a prominent badge for a record’s merit.”
You could essentially trace it all the way back to that antique store in Spokane.
“Fortunately, guys like Jack and Will aren’t hoarders,” says Matt Sullivan, who relies on people like them as much as his own research for discovering new Light In The Attic projects. “They realise that Donnie and Joe made that record so the world could hear it. It wasn’t made for a bunch of nerds in the basement. I love those nerds, but these records are a lot more than that. These artists are a lot more than that.”
Fleischer eventually switched from forestry to sociology, which he enjoyed much more. Even so, he found himself drawn back to his filmmaking dreams, ending up in L.A. as a candidate for a Masters of Fine Arts at the prestigious Calinfornia Institute of Arts. He still supports himself by collecting and re-selling records, but to reduce his relationship to these old records and the artists who made them, who he spends his free time tracking down, to one based on finances understates the impact they’ve had on him— from his friends, to his outlook on life, which had brought him back here, ready to give film another go.
“Dreamin’ Wild gives me faith in my own creative process,” says Flesicher. “People like to clown on dreamers, and it’s almost a passé thing at this point—like being ambitious or too eager to make something great is foolhardy and naïve in these deeply ironic times. But look at how a record like this registers in a way, because it’s a reminder of how beautiful it is to be creative and put something out there no matter how deafening the silence. That’s probably been my biggest take away at the end of the day from all of my involvement with tracking artists and digging up old music— that the well is deep, and that creativity and art can happen anywhere and at any time. It’s completely inspiring, and I’ll probably never stop going back to that aspect of it.”
This piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #17: The Music Issue.
Notes: Since this piece was originally published, Light in the Attic has released a second album of songs recorded by Donnie and Joe Emerson at ‘The Practice Place’, Still Dreamin’ Wild: The Lost Recordings ’79–82.
Jack Fleischer is still based in L.A., working as a filmmaker and music journalist. He wrote the liner notes to Still Dreamin’ Wild, and directed the clip to its lead single ‘Ride the Tide Again’.
Matt Sullivan still runs Light in the Attic, which continues to give obscure, unappreciated or underappreciated artists their due through popular, carefully curated reissues.
Joe Emerson remains on the family farm with his parents, Don Sr. and Selina Emerson.
Donnie Emerson still makes music. He’s not yet finished his new solo album.
Matthew Hickey is a writer, editor and critic who splits his time across New York, Sydney and Brisbane. His work has been published by The Lifted Brow, The Big Issue, Voiceworks and The Drum among others.