Mark David Stewart and Bryan Pfahl grew up in Hanna, Alberta, a farm-and-oil town of less than 3,000 people that is not without a certain musical pedigree. “There’s a famous Canadian rock band from there,” Stewart explains. “We don’t want to give them any press, but they start with an ‘N,’ end with a ‘K,’ and have ‘ICKELBAC’ in the middle.”
An indie singer-songwriter himself, Stewart tends toward more refined fare than the music of his fellow former prairie-dwellers, who are often cited as the world’s most hated band (go ahead, just Google “Nickelback” and “hate”). His heroes include John Prine, Nick Cave, Richard Thompson, and Cincinnati’s own Chuck Cleaver. A friend played Stewart Ass Ponys’ breakthrough third album, Electric Rock Music, soon after it came out on A&M Records in 1994, and Cleaver’s songs and worldview struck a chord.
“It was like: I felt less alone in the universe,” Stewart says. He played it for Pfahl, who also found that Ass Ponys’ misfit tales of backwater Ohio—Cleaver grew up in Clarksville, and later lived in Bethel—echoed his experience as a teenage outcast in rural Alberta. “There’s kind of an Andrew Wyeth painting feeling about it all,” Pfahl says. “Very relatable on the surface, but with an undercurrent that’s difficult to express.”
Which is why, on the first weekend of November, Stewart and Pfahl travelled from Calgary to Cincinnati to see Ass Ponys play two sold-out nights at the Woodward Theater in Over-the-Rhine: the band’s first shows in over a decade. They built a little Midwestern vacation around the gigs, including a few days in Chicago and a side-trip to Bob Paquette’s Microphone Museum in Milwaukee. “Because, yeah, crazy to just fly out and see the show and fly back,” says Stewart. “People do that, I know.”
I came all the way from Portland, Oregon, so yeah. But hey, it was two shows. According my own limited survey of the “Ass Ponys Reunion Weekend” Facebook page and the Woodward’s ticket database, people came from as far away as Japan, Hawaii, New York City, and San Francisco, and as close as Columbus. “I travelled all the way from Bethel OH,” a fan named R.J. Robertson cracked on Facebook. “I safely made passage through Withamsville…”
The pilgrimage was not unnoticed by the band. “Y’all are motherfuckers,” Cleaver said from the stage on Night One. “Man, you came from everywhere to see us.” Pause. “I wouldn’t come!”
It was a hero’s welcome straight from Cleaver’s irascible, profane heart. Drummer David Morrison snapped a phone picture from behind his kit before the band had even played a note, and the crowd instantly revved into call-and-response mode for the set opener, “Hey Swifty,” the first song on the band’s first album, 1990’s Mr. Superlove. It was also a far cry from the band’s denouement, when they were quietly gigging around town, several years removed from their last record (2001’s Lohio), until they simply stopped booking shows and Cleaver turned his attentions elsewhere. The four aren’t even 100 percent certain when and where they played for the last time. “I have a piss poor memory for which shows and where but the other guys think it was some shitty club down on Main Street,” says Cleaver. “I do remember that there was hardly anyone there.”
But that’s how band reunions go. You play your last show terribly and/or with little fanfare, then return years later to find pent-up demand, rekindled sparks, and an upgraded, upsized venue filled with people of a certain age out past their bedtime, some of them trying not to spill that rare third beer onto their tucked-in shirts or blazer, others with fingers pointing and fists in the air like at a Springsteen or Guided By Voices show. “For a bunch of introverts, this is the weirdest thing in the world,” Cleaver said at one point from up on stage, before adding: “You’re probably introverts too.”
Both in the weeks leading up to and immediately after playing the two shows, Cleaver took note of a certain irony about the whole reunion thing: He’s not fond of looking back, even though he’s an obscure music historian, collector, and secondhand dealer of used records and vintage goods.
“For a person who has a house that’s like, a museum full of junk, I’m not really all that nostalgic,” he says. “It’s just like, ‘No, I need to move on, I need to work, I need to do things.’ ” Except making art of things that happened in the past is one way he moves forward. Cleaver’s songs, particularly in Ass Ponys, are full of memories and remembered details, reshaped and exaggerated into weird, sometimes pitch-black universal story-songs. Or as he put it at one show: “Songs that make you want to hug a towel and cry.”
The sentimental pull that brought fans to the Woodward was much broader: nostalgia not for the street Cleaver grew up on—or the “Banlon Shirt” of one of his most classic, thrashing songs (based on a story from bassist Randy Cheek’s childhood)—but for everybody’s own weird families, old friends or lost loves, and the Cincinnati music culture that brought them together in the ’90s, and together again in 2015. To an admittedly small sliver of people in the Queen City, Ass Ponys meant as much as Ken Anderson or Barry Larkin, even if, back in the day, The Cincinnati Post couldn’t bring itself to print the band’s name, opting instead for “Burro Ponys.” Much to Cleaver’s satisfaction, Ass Ponys are alive and kicking in 2015 and the Post is not.
“It couldn’t have happened without the Internet,” Cheek says. He wasn’t joking. Social media has recreated the network or indie clubs and college radio and tape traders and fanzines, while also reinforcing the original idea of punk—that there’s no barrier between the people on stage and the people in the audience. You might be friends with an Ass Pony on Facebook, and you can see their show, and you can tag them in your pictures. Facebook served to remind the band that they had fans.
“Someone told me it was like a high school reunion, but you got to pick the people who are there,” Cheek said.
“There should be a brunch,” Morrison joked.
Having only lived in Cincinnati for a little more than 13 months, my connection to Ass Ponys was formed elsewhere. Mr. Superlove was one of the first records I reviewed for the late, lamented indie music magazine Option. Over the rest of the 1990s, I crossed paths with them in New York and Austin and Seattle, and wrote about them several other times, including a review of Electric Rock Music for the late, lamented, semi-indie music magazine SPIN. When you’re a music person, you get to know a city through its bands. As a Pennsylvania native, I could have never considered living in a place as unfamiliar and far away as Texas if not for the post-punk and country records I loved that came from Austin. And when I moved to Cincinnati in 2004, it was a place that existed in my imagination and a place where I knew people, however slightly, because of bands like Ass Ponys, Afghan Whigs, and Throneberry. (Naturally, both the Whigs’ John Curley and former members of Throneberry were at the Woodward, too.)
Seeing the band play again, I was instantly reminded why Ass Ponys resonated far beyond the Queen City: Contrary to the reflexive self-deprecation that has always been a part of Cleaver’s stage banter, they were and are a great, almost entirely unique band. Despite the elements of alt-country in their sound, they were also always Ohio art-punk, discordant and hard and weird. If they were still playing regularly today, they’d probably open for Wilco (who are also alt-country and allegedly “Dad-rock,” but actually discordant and hard and weird). Cleaver’s singing may make Neil Young sound like Pavarotti, his yelps and gulps and hiccups as much high-lonesome heartbreaking as Captain Beefheart-eccentric. But underneath it all is a core of great songs. So many great ones that it almost didn’t matter what they played at the Woodward—you wanted to hear everything, and if they left out one of your favorites, there was another coming that was just as good. At one point I even thought they might omit “Little Bastard,” which had acquired novelty-hit status in 1994. “This is the one that helped us fart through silk,” Cleaver announced when they finally played it.
Cleaver made Ass Ponys a lyrics band in a way very few bands—as opposed to singer-songwriters, or a group of musicians backing a singer-songwriter—are. His most quotable lines are his funniest, wordiest, and most observational: “It’s a painted rock with google eyes/ it’s a matchstick cross where Jesus died/ it’s a plaque that says, ‘I heart my home’/ it’s toothpicks, felt, and Styrofoam,” from “Earth to Grandma.” Or “I’d write her name out on the road/ but I can’t piss ‘Denise’” from “Grim.” But there’s also sweeter—OK, bittersweeter—more direct expressions. “It’s hard to put into words what I was thinking then,” Cleaver sings on “Dried Up.” “I don’t know, we were alive or something.”
One fan, Harry Oesterreicher, showed up at the Woodward wearing a T-shirt he’d made for a show 15 years ago at the Mad Frog. “VEGETABLE OR VISIONARY?” it read, a reference to the song “Some Kind of Fun,” from 1996’s The Known Universe.
“I have this picture of me looking at Chuck Cleaver like, You’re my idol. Wearing this same T-shirt,” he said. Originally turned on to Ass Ponys by Neil Young fans, he almost didn’t come to Cincinnati because he’d just seen Young’s most recent tour 12 times. Money was tight. But Cleaver kept posting old Ass Ponys flyers on Facebook and the pull of the collective experience was too strong to resist.
“The payoff was immense,” he said. “The expectations were high, and they were met, and exceeded, by the music, and the power of the music to unite people, and the sort of regional culturalism that there is in music that’s so great.”
The Woodward shows were opened by a pair of new bands, Swim Team and Vacation, something of a self-inflicted shot across the bow, the idea being for Ass Ponys to challenge themselves to match the youngsters’ noise and energy. Swim Team vocalist Lillian Currens shared an anecdote that kind of owned the weekend. It seems that Currens’ mother saw Ass Ponys but a single time long ago, and they were all so drunk they couldn’t play their instruments.
Not so, Cleaver countered the minute Ass Ponys took the stage on Friday night. “We weren’t too drunk to play our instruments,” he said. “We just couldn’t play.” Perhaps that’s why the reunion shows felt so fresh and raw: Initially, they couldn’t play in 2015 either.
“The first rehearsals were awful,” says Cheek. “All of us just sucked. I didn’t know the songs, there was no muscle memory—it wasn’t like riding a bike.” But when technique trumps creativity, that’s the end of rock’n’roll. Ass Ponys were never short on craft or musical ability, but they broke up before they made a bad record, ran out of ideas, or became overly slick. “No danger of that,” Cheek deadpans.
At the Woodward, they played great, if not always perfectly. The weekend effectively eliminated Cleaver’s tendency to self-deprecate (or lash out at the crowd, as he was once prone to do). The love in the room robbed him of his smartassery. “It’s hard to give people shit when they’ve travelled thousands of miles,” he said. “I don’t really want to show any kind of negativity towards this, because it really was very emotional. I met people that are like, ‘Man, y’know, you got me through a divorce.’ ‘You got me through somebody dying.’ You’re just like, ‘Geez.’ You don’t know that.”
Active, touring bands say “thank you” almost reflexively, but every time Cleaver or Cheek said it, you could see how real the moment was. At one point, all Cheek could manage to get out was: “There’s nothing I can say.” And Morrison finished the weekend the way he started it, with a picture. “I think I dreaded the idea of the nostalgia of the whole thing. But there was a purity to that aspect of things that was really moving, and I needed to participate in it and acknowledge it,” he said. “Taking a picture was the way I made myself do it.”
It was particularly amazing to see John Erhardt—who left the band after Electric Rock Music but returned for the last couple of years before the breakup—claim and/or re-invent some of the material he didn’t originate in the studio, especially on steel guitar. That made the reunion even sweeter. “For me, it was a crazy kind of full circle thing,” he said. “Nobody gets three chances at something, but I did somehow.”
So how about four? Might Ass Ponys ride again? Having more or less ignored or deflected such inquiries before the weekend, everyone addressed it afterwards. “My only regret is that we didn’t have something new,” said Morrison.
“When we play it’s different,” said Cheek. “We have that chemistry.”
Cleaver was more definitive: “It’s inevitable.” His 2016 calendar is largely devoted to Wussy, who have a new record coming out in March, “but by the end of the year we may get together and make a record or something like that.”
“I used to be more, ‘I just have to do this one thing, I can’t do anything else,’” he says. “But you know what? That’s bullshit. I can do different things. I’m only gonna live so fucking long.” Ten-plus years after Ass Ponys gave way to Wussy, Cleaver’s ready to multitask.
Just as so many of Cleaver’s songs make something new out of his memories, the process of these four musicians coming together to play them is a form of forward motion. Great bands and great songs are always active, changing, beaten, bloodied. It’s the thing that makes rock’n’roll, and a rock’n’roll band, ineffable. Something that can’t entirely be quantified. Something that’s hard to put into words. They are alive or something.