BAD MEDICINE SHOW “There’s elements of sexual dysfunction, arson, violence and mayhem,” says Wynn of his 1984 Dream Syndicate album.
At the end of 1983, I was writing for Boston Rock magazine, and in one issue, we predicted the defining releases of the year to come. These included one recent single, Grandmaster Flash's "The Message," and two albums that were due: R.E.M.'s Reckoning and the Dream Syndicate's Medicine Show.
Unlike the other two choices, Medicine Show didn't wind up making anybody rich. Did it define the year? Sure, but who couldn't relate to an album that's equal parts wild joy and desperation, paranoid musings and triumphant chord crashes? Some fans couldn't forgive the band for ditching the obvious Velvet Underground influence of its cult-classic debut, Days of Wine & Roses. (Leader Steve Wynn even razzed those fans by quoting a VU lyric in Medicine Show's opener, "Still Holding onto You.") But Medicine Show is really an album out of time: its American Gothic scenarios and proud classic-rock leanings set it apart from the mid-'80s indie world. Which may well be why it sounds so good right now.
Out of print for two decades, Medicine Show has just been reissued (with the addition of a 1985 live promo album) on Water/Universal, and Wynn and his current band, the Miracle 3, will play the full album at Church this Friday. With any luck, the new line-up will re-create the hair-shaking mania that the Syndicate displayed when they opened for R.E.M. at the Orpheum on the 1984 tour.
"It was pretty funny that we played that way, in light of the fact that we were opening for R.E.M.," Wynn recalls from his home in New York. "A smarter band would have played to their audience. But that was the feeling we had at the time, the sense of us against the world. And I think it's the feeling a lot of bands have when they make their second album — or when Nirvana were making the follow-up to Nevermind: 'Oh, you liked that? Well, see if you can handle this!' That kind of confrontational defiance."
It didn't help the album's commercial chances that its catchiest song, "Daddy's Girl," might have been about incest. "Put it this way," says Wynn, "Linda [Pitmon, the Miracle 3's drummer and Wynn's wife] refused for years to do that song because it gave her the creeps. There's a lot of things like that on the record — there's elements of sexual dysfunction, arson, violence, and mayhem. And mostly it's about people confronting situations that frighten them."
Wynn has turned out high-quality work ever since. He and the Miracle 3 are about to release Northern Aggression — a more varied disc moodwise than Medicine Show (highlight "Cloud Splitter" is one of his rare flat-out uplifting songs), but one whose two-guitar foundation and psych overtones hark back to Syndicate days. He has a grasp of melody now that he didn't have then, but Medicine Show was the album where he began putting characters in metaphorical situations instead of writing outright confessionals. After all, why write about being in a rock band when you can write about being purified in a voodoo ceremony?