When an artist becomes a part of your life, you remember the first time you hear them. Junior year of college, delivering copies of the Brockport Stylus in my 1978 Chevy Malibu, the band Dreams So Real jumped out of the car stereo and suddenly demanded my attention. Based in the college rock feel of fellow Athens, Ga., band R.E.M., Dreams So Real also brought influences of southern culture and a touch of psychedelia that somehow sounded unlike anything I’d ever heard.
The song was “Rough Night in Jericho,” the title track to their irrepressibly compelling 1988 major label debut and their biggest minor hit (#28 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Chart and earning MTV airplay). The song opens with singer/guitarist Barry Marler and bassist Trent Allen encircling each other’s driving riffs and a propulsive drumline by Drew Worsham. Then Marler’s vocals hit, growling yet melodic, and I was hooked.
The band’s debut album “Father’s House” caught a little bit of attention, and they appeared very briefly in the documentary “Athens, Ga. Inside/Out,” then Arista Records signed them. “Rough Night in Jericho” was the culmination of their five years of playing together and the pinnacle of their success. While obscure, it remains an iconic part of the late 1980s music scene to the lucky few of us to discover it.
It sounds strange to say of an environment surrounded by people, but going away to college was one of the loneliest times in my life. I hoped to expand my horizons, learn as much as possible and maybe meet the right girl. Two out of three, as Meatloaf once said, ain’t bad, but when you’re a shy, awkward, smalltown boy with bad hair, acne and no self-confidence, you can feel outclassed when you step into a campus filled with people who all seem so much better looking, more confident and more affluent.
People seemed to pair up quickly, and I felt like an outsider looking in, a stranger in a strange land. Music was perhaps never a more important solace to me than it was then, and suddenly the car radio delivered me this band that immediately captured my interest.
I went to Brockport’s now-defunct Main Street Records, bought “Rough Night in Jericho” on cassette and it played nearly non-stop in the car most of my junior year, when I wasn’t playing it anywhere else I was.
The title single and its follow-up, the hypnotically catchy “Bearing Witness,” are (imho) simply two of the best forgotten songs of the late 1980s. They are mesmerizing and mysterious, borne by Marler’s strong yet quavering vocals, carried with tight musicianship and filled with obscure religious references. And while they provide the blueprint of what made the band deserving of much greater airplay and recognition, other songs on the album forged a more personal connection.
“Heart of Stone” seemed to apply to people I met at college who seemed unaccepting of others because they were into their own thing. “California” was a wonderful bit of yearning both shimmery and cloudy, with the wonderful couplet “When California falls in the sea/That’s when she said she’d come back to me.” “Distance” applied perfectly to a girl I met from another college who I fell for … for about a week. “Melanie” was about the joy of meeting the girl of your dreams (dream on).
Closing out the album (and providing a phrase inspiring the name of this blog), “Love Fall Down” brought it all together, the desperation of longing, the vague spiritual allusions and a feeling that hope would chase away the despair, asking “Will love fall down from the clouds today?” The Cure and The Smiths are all fine and dandy, but it’s hard to imagine any album could have provided a better soundtrack to my college years than Dreams So Real’s “Rough Night in Jericho.”
While “Rough Night in Jericho” was a minor commercial and critical success, it proved impossible to recapture, let alone top. Followup “Gloryline” in 1990 was a disappointment commercially, critically … and to me, one of the band’s biggest fans. “We Have Danced the Night Away,” “Overton Park/Faith” and “Here Comes the Train” showed they could still create outstanding songs, but most of the album didn’t rise to that level.
The passion so evident in “Rough Night in Jericho” seemed lost somewhere in the shuffle and many of the songs were simply unremarkable. In a time of televangelist scandals, Dreams So Real alluded to some of this and other politics, but very opaquely. Perhaps worst was inserting a cover of Badfinger’s “Day After Day” in what some A&R man thought was an attempt at a hit, but it seemed so out of place of what the band represented and was executed very ordinarily.
To perhaps nobody’s surprise, Arista discarded the band soon after and for all intents and purposes, Dreams So Real dropped off the map. But they had at least one final gift for their most ardent fans.
I sent fan mail to the band, Marler in particular, at some point. I’m not sure if any official response came because I moved a few times right after college, but somehow I made it onto their fan mailing list for a wonderful piece of news around 1992: Dreams So Real planned to release a collection of outtakes and rarities, “Nocturnal Omissions,” available for a mere $10.
Ordering that was one of the easiest decisions you could imagine.
The “Noctural Omissions” compilation wasn’t something that would overshadow “Right Night in Jericho” but its 20 tracks painted a marvelous tapestry of the band’s career arc. Their debut single, “Everywhere Girl/Whirl,” provided a reference to their earliest sound, coupled with five tracks that appeared in various forms on “Father’s House” to show their early days — with “Maybe I’ll Go Today” a marvelous pop/rock nugget that foretold their ability to craft such wonderful short stories in music. “Please Don’t Cry,” probably their best unaffiliated track, headed a mixed bag of outtakes from various recording sessions that nonetheless were all very listenable.
The liner notes by Allen tell a tale of the band taking bad advice for the sake of expedience. Two songs recorded with saxophonist Randall Bramblett — “And So We Love” and “Open Your Eyes” (a version of which appeared on “Rough Night in Jericho”) — show a lot of potential if the band had decided to go that direction. “We were delighted by the sax on both songs, but our publishing agent with CBS was adamant that the saxophone would confuse record companies and insisted we record a guitar solo,” Allen wrote. Of the songs “In the Garden” and “Egypt” not appearing on “Gloryline,” Allen tellingly observes: “Their omission, in hindsight, was another example of an essential element of the group being discounted.”
The compilation includes a pair of Christmas singles, “Red Lights” and “Just for Christmas.” The latter, with Marler’s yearning vocals and a plaintive mandolin, has actually become one of my favorite Dreams So Real tracks. The record closes with a comically bad rap song, “Eppy,” poking fun at their manager. In addition to musical value, “Nocturnal Omissions” provides a much more encompassing look into the band’s influences, experimentation and history.
An intriguing footnote is that the limited-edition pressing, available for a mere sawbuck at the time, is now worth hundreds of dollars on the resale market. Apparently a small but dedicated fanbase shows this obscure band still has some value.
The trio long ago went on to work day jobs and generally put music behind them, although they have played a handful of reunion shows in Atlanta and Athens. A relaunched website shows nothing since spring 2012 — be we merry few fans can dare to dream.
A few months ago, I came across a vinyl copy of “Father’s House” selling for a mere $4.39 (plus $4 shipping and handling) and made the easy decision to complete my collection. It shows the band’s early days as fairly limited in that they had a sound that they didn’t stray far from, but it’s all enjoyable. The song “Canadian Girl” — an obscure track on a very obscure recording by an obscure band — is a new favorite, beautiful in its simple lyrics, arrangement and trademark feeling of longing.
I am miles and decades removed from the life I had when I discovered Dreams So Real. But their music — especially the “Rough Night in Jericho” album — took me through a, well, rough time in my life and on some days kept me going and inspired. Dreams So Real is the epitome of an obscure band that shone briefly and brightly, but listening to their music in another time and space can still immediately make me smile and sing along.