Sunday, June 14, 2015

Teresa Gunn

“Hey Teresa, can I buy you a beer?” This was a safe question in the mid-eighties. Beer was cheap. Miller or Bud, maybe a Heineken for an extra fifty cents. No getting blind-sided with a Dogfish Head IPA or a Troegs Mad Elf at eight bucks a bottle. It was a simpler time. Beer was refreshing, maybe a way to a buzz. For flavor, you ate food.

Teresa was a rock-star – at least to me. A staple of the DC punk band circuit. Leader of the Teresa Gunn Group. She was hot. Pretty, womanly, worldly. Eight or ten years older than me, in her mid-thirties. I had a huge crush on her. My ex-girlfriend had shared a joint with Teresa in the bathroom at her most recent show. Now this was my moment to bask in Teresa's glow. It didn't matter that I was on a date. That date was disintegrating anyway. I was drinking too much.


Part Blondie, part Patty Smith with a sprinkling of jazz thrown in. I never understood why Teresa didn't break out into a national act. Her recordings were clean and professional. Her stage presence, charismatic and assured. She was the real-deal. And she was playing in a shitty little bar to forty people. Half of them the group I came with. She was about to call it quits. But right now, she was having a beer – with me.

Before she packed it in, she rebooted. She took one last shot at stardom, at a music career. She created Urban Burlesque. An attempt to catch that metal/punk wave swelling at the end of the eighties. Bands like L7, an all-girl heavy metal group with a strong punk following. Joan Jett, rising from her ashes with yet another hit and now a heavy metal sound. Teresa put out a single, a pair of songs clearly worthy of airplay. She moved to California to make it big. And I never heard of her again.

Until recently.

And not for lack of effort.

Once the world wide web was up and running, anonymity became difficult. Everything is on the web. Anyone with any notoriety at all is on Wikipedia. My father, a mid-level government appointee for a few years under the George H.W. Bush administration has a Wiki page. Anyone who ever recorded anything, including my 9 year old son, is on Youtube. When I google myself, my life comes up. Past jobs, my resume, road-race times, quotes made to the newspaper. But not Teresa Gunn. Until very recently. It took almost two decades for her to show up.

Four years ago, I was certified as an indoor cycle instructor. I started an early morning spin class at a local fitness center. This entails coaching a one-hour workout two mornings per week, plus uncounted (and uncompensated) hours pulling together play-lists of songs for my classes. Mining through thousands of songs from my music collection, trying to create a fresh and motivating set of music. At age forty-eight, I was suddenly re-immersed in music in a way I haven't been for decades.

In the eighties – in my twenties – tape-mixing was one of my favorite pastimes. Hours spent splayed on the floor in front of my stereo. Recording songs from diverse bands in unrelated musical genres that nevertheless flow. Songs, once paired, seem as though they they have belonged together for eternity. Mixes to distract me on my morning commute. Mixes to keep me company on road-trips. And mixes to energize me on the way to races.

Over the past four years, I have sifted through and incorporated a vast and eclectic library of music. Pop hits, punk classics, country twang, classic rockers, show tunes, even kids' music. It is only natural that I would want to include some of my favorite songs from the eighties DC club scene. Songs that few have heard, yet remain some of the best music I know. The Slickee Boys' Jailbait Janet; Tru Fax and the Insaniacs' King of Machines; Martha and the Muffins' Echo Beach. These songs I've used. I bought them on Amazon.com. Teresa Gunn? She's not out there. The only Teresa Gunn songs I listened to for more than twenty years was the music I owned – that one Urban Burlesque single. And I've only listened to those two songs over the last few years. After I grabbed a turntable out of a recycling pile.

So she's been lost – at least to me. Each time I googled her name, I wouldn't find anything useful. A couple of old reviews, positive reviews, from DC's city paper. That's it. No videos on Youtube. No followup band. No greatest hits CD. Not even songs for sale on Amazon.com.

My assumption is that at the promising start of her career, Teresa expected fame and fortune. She expected to become a rock star. A real one, with more than a small local following in Washington, DC. She was doing more than creating art, more than jamming with her friends in a bar. She was living a lifestyle. Creating an image. She was hard at work, and watching less talented acts “make it” instead of her.

I know this feeling. My “art” is writing personal essays. Taking an arcane topic – like Teresa Gunn – and poking at it until it gels. Until it paints a picture. Often a picture of society, or a bit of society, but invariably a self-portrait as well. It's a popular format for long-form magazine articles, which is what I aspire to write. Frequently, I'll read an article and think “I can do better than that. I have done better than that.” Like most artists, those of us who never transcend the art-as-a-hobby-phase, I wonder why a few break out, while I'm forced to keep my day job.

I'm not looking for fame or fortune. But I would like to make my living doing something I truly love. Change my avocation into a vocation, as the saying goes. I won't do this as a spin instructor. The ten or so people who regularly take my class cannot possibly support me and my family. But as a writer? Maybe that is a reasonable goal. And so I write.

This is about more than making some money. At age fifty-two, I'm feeling mortal. I'm wanting to leave a mark on the world. My footprint so far is very small, and not so deep. A wife, two children, small extended family, a handful of friends. Some, especially my wife, would argue that my dedicated career as the finance manager of a non-profit community center is enough of a mark to leave behind. That I have impacted a whole town. But to me it feels more like a job than a calling. Maybe I'm important to the organization, to the town, but I'm certainly replaceable. So I write.

A year or so ago, I found Teresa. Well, I found her website, and then I found her. We exchanged a few emails. I asked her where I could find her digital music. During this exchange, I learned about what she was now doing with her life. Because it is well written, I'm not going to try to improve on her biography:

In 1998 Teresa turned her artistry into social action through the founding of Musicians for Education, a collective of artists of the same heart and vision. She developed an original music program called "Street of Dreams". Street of Dreams has become a fully accredited high school to college bridge program for kids who are trapped in the juvenile justice system due to the generational effects of drug addiction, alcoholism and poverty. The children served by Street of Dreams come from homelessness, incarceration and foster care. Gunn's devotion to providing creative and educational support to children in the "system" has produced a highly innovative and successful arts-education model.

Failing as a rock star has let Teresa become a true star. The most important person in the lives of the kids who have graduated from her program. I still love her music, the few songs that I can find. Teresa pointed me to a handful posted on Youtube. One of my favorites, Sister Digs the Sharpies, has made its way into my spin class. My riders haven't commented on it yet, but in time they will. One of them will ask about it, and I'll spout off about how the great Teresa Gunn Group was the best that DC had to offer in the eighties. I might even mention Street of Dreams.

The lack of Teresa Gunn Group and Urban Burlesque on the internet is proof to me that Teresa has found something more important to her than her music. As a blogger, I understand self-absorption, self-promotion. This is where I live. Teresa doesn't do this, not with her prior rock-star life. She has moved on to something bigger, more important, more impactful. I doubt this is where she thought she would land, just as working in a community center isn't where I expected to be at this point. While I would love more Teresa Gunn music to listen to, Street of Dreams is clearly more important.

Check out the Music for Education/Street of Dreams website.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    I worked with her band for about a year
    ('78 or '79"?) and the problem was they needed
    a competent manager, and none were around D.C.
    at the time. By "a competent manager" I mean someone who can say "No". If you were there for the "Adams Morgan Street Festival" performance,
    that's the time I'm referring to. Lots of potential, that's why she got great players. But you can't wait forever...

    ReplyDelete