22 Years Ago: Paw Make Their Debut With ‘Dragline’
Time has a way of flattening things out. If you didn't know any better, you'd think every teenager during the '60s was a flower child and every kid danced like Molly Ringwald during the '80s. (Note: The latter is kind of true, but you didn't hear it from me.)
This is particularly true of musical trends. Sgt. Pepper is the only psychedelic album many can name, for example. If I say "disco," the Bee Gees probably pop into your mind, maybe the Village People.
So it is with grunge, the genre that equates not only to a single city in the collective imagination (that would be Seattle), but to a short list of bands so commonly cited that I've given them their own acronym, SNAP: Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam. I love all of those bands, but the grunge landscape was much more vast than SNAP.
In fact, grunge may have been the last gold rush in major label history. Even A&M -- the label founded by trumpeter Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss-- got in on the action. Keep in mind that A&M was the home of acts like Burt Bacharach, the Captain and Tennille, and the Carpenters, though in all fairness in the '80s they were home to the Police and Oingo Boingo, so the roster wasn't all soft rock acts. Still, when Soundgarden signed with A&M they found themselves label mates with the likes of Amy Grant and Blues Traveler. Weird scenes inside the goldmine, indeed.
With Seattle tapped out, the majors sent their scouts elsewhere. Some of those non-Seattle acts enjoyed significant success -- England's Bush, New York's Helmet -- others almost grabbed that brass ring, but not quite.
Enter Paw, a four-piece band formed in 1990 in Lawrence, Kan., home at that time to both Beat writer William S. Burroughs and the University of Kansas. The band featured Mark Hennesy on vocals, Fitch brothers Grant and Peter on guitar and drums, and bassist Charles Bryan, who left the band in 1995 and became a successful professional skydiver.
By early 1992 the band played a showcase at SXSW and featured prominently in a Newsweek article entitled "Searching for Nirvana II." Drummer Fitch is quoted in the article regarding all of the attention that Paw were attracting: "We didn't ask for this. We don't want it."
The band signed a three record deal with A&M, the home of Soundgarden (or Sheryl Crow, if you prefer), and set about making their debut album, 1993's Dragline. It's as good as any record released in a year that saw new albums from Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney. Lead single "Lolita" shares with Paw's Seattle contemporaries the same juxtaposition of infectious riffs and disturbing lyrics:
The album didn't chart, but it did pretty well with the critics. Spin magazine featured the band in their August 1993 issue, touting Paw's melodicism and Hennessy's "full-throttle throat," describing the band as "muscular but never bullying." In the same article, Grant Fitch explained that the album is named after George Kennedy's character in Cool Hand Luke. "That was the movie my dad and I watched at a time in my life when we couldn't communicate," Fitch said. "It gave us common ground."
And what of "Jessie," the best known cut from Dragline? It's a song about a lost dog, of course, and perhaps the only grunge song ever to feature a lap steel:
An opening slot on Tool's '93 tour took the band to the U.K., which may explain why Spin caught up with the band in Amsterdam. Allegedly they were back in England in '94 playing the Reading Festival, and if this is correct, the festival's official website has unintentionally omitted Paw from its 1994 roster.
By the time Paw released their second album, Death to Traitors, in 1995, A&M apparently lost interest in their "next Nirvana" investment. The album received very little promotion and support and vanished without a trace. Shortly thereafter, the label dropped the band.
Paw stuck it out until the end of the decade, releasing Home Is a Strange Place in 2000. Since then Hennessy has published a book of poetry and taught at the University of Kansas, Bryan has set a speed record for a human in free fall and the Fitch brothers have continued to make music. Last year Hennessy released an album with his latest band, Godzillionaire.
It never happened, but for a short time it looked like Paw might take over the world, or at the very least hang with the big dogs. For a brief, tantalizing moment they were right there, the band that almost added a second "P" to SNAP.