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The Order of Oddfish

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Dawn Heath’s Odd-Fish art, and Ted Leo’s “Broadway musical”

August 24, 2010

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We had a raucous time at Collaboraction‘s Dome of Doom in Logan Square on Sunday! As soon as I get the video and pictures, I will post them. Thanks, Collaboraction and Unity Park Advisory Council!

In the meantime, check out some more great art from the Order of Odd-Fish art show back in April by Dawn Heath. It’s Jo’s first morning in Eldritch City, when she and Ian are riding an elephant down to the Municipal Squires’ Authority. I love the lush, medieval feel Dawn gives Eldritch City, and the colorful jumble of architecture, especially the bulbous Russian-style onion domes! Thanks, Dawn, for another fantastic piece.

In case you missed them the first time, here’s Dawn’s other two paintings for the art show: the Grand Feast of the Odd-Fish, and Jo with her father’s manuscript in the archives (click on the images to get a larger version).

And at last, before I sign off for today, I’d like to share something special by an old college chum Ted Leo.

Ted and I both attended the University of Notre Dame. I first heard of him when I was a high school senior, mulling whether or not to go there. I’d signed up to visit campus overnight, and was assigned to stay in the dorm room of someone named Bob Eberhardt.

Bob was part of a music scene that centered around the campus radio station WVFI. The day before, Bob had gone all around the university, scrawling “FREE TED LEO” with chalk on the sidewalk. (He was also scrawling things like “HAVE A DUODENUM? CALL x4561”). I’d never heard of Ted Leo. Bob told me that Ted was in an incredible campus band called Chisel, but he had been kicked out of school. People wanted him back.

I picked up the Scholastic, the weekly student magazine. In the back was a review by Jeff Jotz of an album called Spiderland by a Louisville band called Slint. I bought the album and I was astonished. Who were these WVFI people, who knew of such amazing music? Who was this Ted Leo, who inspired such devotion?

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I decided to enroll at Notre Dame. However, when I got there, I was in for a rude awakening. Notre Dame was nothing like the mecca of punk rockers and indie aesthetes I’d expected from my brief visit. It was a pretty conservative, football-driven place. (Duh. What did I expect?) However, there was a very small, enthusiastic, supportive music scene. Ted Leo indeed came back, and I saw Chisel at a Halloween show in 1991. It was like my skull had been ripped off. I had never experienced anything like it. Whatever was going on, I wanted to be part of it.

And so I started being in bands. I was no musician. It doesn’t matter whether my songs were good or bad. They were probably all bad. That wasn’t the point. There was something about the 1990s that encouraged the inspired amateur. It was liberating. And the music scene was small enough that the barrier to entry was low. Anyone could do it, and everyone in the scene supported each other. I’m certain that it never would’ve happened if it wasn’t for real musicians like Ted Leo, who created a context for it. That group of people was, by far, the best thing about my four years at Notre Dame.

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That’s Chisel. From left to right, that’s Ted Leo, John Dugan, and Chris Norborg. I became good friends with Chris. (Indeed, I ended up marrying Heather, his sister.) After university, I moved to Washington, DC and lived with Chris while Chisel was making a name for themselves. They broke up in 1997, but not before unleashing a series of incredible albums, culminating in 8 A.M. All Day and Set You Free.

I remember coming home from Chisel shows and writing for hours. I kept thinking to myself, “Ted and Chris and John have their thing, what’s my thing?” Seeing them perform inspired me to try harder at writing, to take it seriously. If they could make such electrifying music, why couldn’t I at least try to write novels?

Also, I never danced so much as I danced at Chisel shows.

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Now it’s years later. Ted has had a successful post-Chisel career in his band Ted Leo & the Pharmacists. My favorite Pharmacists album remains 2003’s Hearts of Oak, but right now Ted is promoting his latest, the pretty great The Brutalist Bricks.

One of the things that was always admirable about Ted was his punctilious sense of punk rock integrity. Nowadays, it’s a category that some feel has become quixotic. But in the nineties, it was everything. The idea of selling your song for use on a commercial, while grudgingly accepted nowadays, was anathema back then. The ideal was Fugazi: cheap, all-ages shows, lots of touring, living sustainably on a modest income. You wouldn’t become a millionaire, but you could eke out a living making music with integrity for the rest of your life.

For various reasons, that model has collapsed. (For instance, people were actually asking Ted on Twitter where they could find pirated copies of his new album.) There was a much-talked about article in the Village Voice about Ted Leo’s “retirement.” Then, on his blog, Ted started to say mysterious things about perhaps reconciling himself to what used to be called “selling out.”

That all led up to this video, which showed up on Funny or Die yesterday. It’s about Ted taking his music to Broadway. I really don’t know what else I should say about it, other than I giggled maniacally. It’s got Paul F. Tompkins and John Hodgman in it, and it’s directed by WFMU’s Tom Scharpling. If those names mean anything to you, you’ve probably already seen it. But if not, please enjoy. (The song’s good, too.)

It’s refreshing to know there are people who stick to their ideals. It’s even more refreshing when they have a sense of humor about it. Stay gold, Ponyboy.