Anyone remember Milo Binder?
Among the many folks across the blogosphere who chimed in to express their sadness at the passing of guitarist and songwriter Duane Jarvis a few weeks ago was a name I hadn’t come across in quite some time: Milo Binder. “I never meet a person who knew Duane who didn’t like him. He was simply the most easy going and positive guy theoretically possible,” Binder wrote on his MySpace blog, and I think he’s right on the mark with that assessment.
Jarvis played on a track from Binder’s self-titled 1990 debut album; if allmusic.com is correct (which it occasionally is), that was one of Duane’s first credits. If you were trolling the American music underground for up-and-coming singer-songwriters in the late ’80s and early ’90s (as I was), it’s possible you may remember Binder’s disc, which came out on Alias Records, a modestly vibrant Bay Area indie label at the time. If you didn’t come across that album, you’ve almost certainly not heard of Binder, because he never made another one.
And yet…that lone record is worth going back to. While we’re not necessarily talking Willis Alan Ramsey level of one-album wonder here, Binder’s disc had some memorable tunes – most notably “Father Of The Bride” (with a charming vocal cameo by Victoria Williams) and the opening track, “Donald Thorn”, an anthem for a hard-luck character who “was never born.” (The one other place you might have stumbled upon Binder was a 1992 Pravda Records compilation of indie artists doing ’70s pop covers; Milo turned in a delightfully off-the-cuff acoustic reworking of Abba’s “Dancing Queen”.)
Many years ago, in March 1991, I sat in a hotel lobby with Binder during Austin’s SXSW confab and talked with him about his then-budding career. (I have a vague sense that he revealed his real name to me that day, but I find no mention of that in the interview transcript I managed to dig out of mothballs this morning, so maybe not.) We spoke partly about his album, and his aspirations – which were pretty modest, really – and also about several other artists with whom we were both familiar or were fans of, from Jon Dee Graham to Willie Aron to Peter Case. Something he said that day about Case stuck with me for a long time afterward: “Time’s gonna bear Pete out,” Milo contended, when we were discussing whether Case was getting his proper due as one of the finest singer-songwriters of his generation. I thought about Milo’s quote many times over the ensuing decade and beyond, as Case’s star seemed to fade more than it rose – but there seemed to be a certain redemption of Binder’s prophecy when fellow artists teamed up for the three-disc tribute album A Case For Case, released in 2006.
So we know what happened with Peter Case…but whatever happened to Milo Binder? Turns out that a year or two ago, he decided it was time to answer that question, for folks such as me who might have wondered. Though I just last week stumbled upon his MySpace page, it was actually in the fall of 2007 when Binder wrote a couple of blog-entries that laid out what had transpired over the past couple of decades. The two “chapters” (as he titled them) are really well-written and I’d highly encourage reading them, whether or not you heard Binder’s music back in the day. I’ll leave the full story for him to tell, but it involves the tragic deaths of two close musician friends, the blossoming of a family life that included an against-all-odds blessing with one of his kids, and finally a recent return to the stage – opening a show for, as fate would have it, Peter Case.
There was one particular passage in his second chapter that I found to be one of the best expressions I’ve ever come across of a reality that I suspect most songwriters eventually must confront: The effect of contentment – and especially romantic contentment – on the creative process. It can be a hard notion to come to terms with, the idea that you might not be as prolific of a songwriter once you find your soulmate. I think the artist’s instinct is to believe that you can return to the well more or less at will, no matter your domestic circumstances.
Milo had met his wife-to-be shortly before a national tour to support his 1991 album, and he recalls that it had an effect on his musical aspirations. “One of the prime motivators any songwriter has for writing songs is a desire for love and intimacy,” he writes in his blog with admirably succinct and direct language, in explaining that being on the road now threatened to take him away from what he had found.
This is different, I belive, than the common “I joined a band to meet girls” motivation expressed by many rockers who recount what got them into playing music when they were young. Not that those reasons aren’t equally valid – but I think what Milo’s talking about here, with songwriting and “a desire for love and intimacy,” is really another matter: It’s the idea that the songs themselves are important creative outlets for the expression of that desire. Many a memorable composition has been written by songwriters in pursuit of such passion…and if/when it is attained, it may not be so easy to connect with that muse again, or at least not in the same way.
The truly great songwriters no doubt still find viable avenues for expression, and continue to create quality art. But I think there are plenty of very good songwriters who may struggle to come up with emotional subject-matter when they no longer have to worry about “one of the prime motivators.” That’s most certainly all well and good, to be clear: As Binder concludes, “So here I am today. Beautiful wife. Two beautiful daughters.” And many years of, quite understandably, drifting away from those artistic impulses.
And yet it’s equally hard for any artist to ever really shut off that faucet for good. “It has only been in the last few months that I’ve allowed myself to consider the possibility of making music again,” Binder writes. “Where that thought will lead me, I still don’t know. I still find that picking up the guitar brings up a lot of demons for me. But I am picking it up again. That’s a start.”