"At last, all of a sudden, we stumbled into this thing. So it's going to be interesting, to see how people react to that."
Van Duren is reflecting on the corner his life and performing career have turned since he received a call a couple of years ago from Australia. It was from Wade Jackson, a musician based down under who had only recently discovered Duren's debut album, Are You Serious?, long since out of print.
In 1977, when the record came out, its combination of Beatle-esque songwriting and hard-hitting hooks and harmonies stoked hopes for career-making acclaim. The interest expressed by Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones' original manager, didn't hurt either. But by then, disco had already nudged Duren's type of music out of the limelight. While he's made a decent career in music, it's been more low-profile than he once hoped.
- Van Duren
Cut to the current era, when Jackson's discovery of the album led him to recruit Greg Carey as the co-director of a documentary about Duren. Their final product, titled Waiting: The Van Duren Story, had its world premiere at last year's Indie Memphis Film Festival, where it won the Hometowner Feature award. Mixing contemporary footage of the filmmakers' quest to find Duren with archival images that chronicle the making of the album, the film goes a long way in recreating the '70s milieu of Memphis power pop.
"Jody Stephens and I were friends since 1970, before Big Star," Duren recalls. "John Hampton and I went to high school together. I graduated with his older brother Randy, and the three of us had a band together for years, Malarky. Maybe the best band I've ever been in. Those two brothers, man — extremely talented and smart." Malarky occupied Duren while Big Star's fortunes rose and fell, after which he played for a time with Stephens and Big Star founder Chris Bell.
"Chris was no angel, but I enjoyed the short period of time I got to work with him. It was me and Jody and Chris and Randy Hampton. We called it the Baker Street Regulars. That lasted about 6 months."
- Van Duren in the 1970s
Duren continued to play around Memphis with others, culminating in his move to the New York/Connecticut area to record his debut and tour professionally in the Northeast. But with the musical tides shifting, his record failed to gain traction — a tale, with some twists and turns, detailed in the film. The music has lived on in increasingly rare reissues, and now, thanks to the new documentary, on this year's Omnivore soundtrack compilation of the same name, which has several of the debut album's tracks. Like Big Star, the Hot Dogs, and other Memphis bands defying all Southern rock expectations of the time, the songs are pure rock and pop magic.
"When Emitt Rhodes' records came out, the thing about him playing all the instruments, including all the drums, fascinated me. And Todd Rundgren. Huge influence from the first Runt album. This is when I started really trying to figure out how to play piano. As a result, when we get to '77 and cut the first album, about half the songs are piano-generated songs. So that was my path."
Ultimately, Duren returned to Memphis and has been a fixture in the region for years, beginning with his band Good Question. "That band went for 17 years," he recalls. "We did really well in the '80s for a few years. And we played all the time. That was my re-connection to Memphis."
Now, he and his longtime musical partner, singer Vicki Loveland, are set to explore wider horizons, as the film begins screening more widely. This Wednesday, it will be shown at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, and at London's Soundscreen Festival on Friday. Soon after, a series of screenings in Australia will fuel some live shows there. "There's quite a buzz in Australia. Several people have asked me, 'Are you worried about playing these songs from 40 years ago?', and I say, 'Well, the truth is, I've been playing these songs all this time, but nobody's been listening.' That's the only difference!"