Boxers, ballplayers and musicians all struggle with when to call it quits. When does practicality outweigh the passion? If My Dad is Dead, the name for the longtime project of Chapel Hill-via-Cleveland songwriter Mark Edwards, were a fighter, it'd have graduated from punch-drunk to brain-damaged long ago.
A fine mid-'80s post-punk band that combined the lift of Joy Division, the jagged pulse of Wire and the steely apocalyptic presence of The Birthday Party, My Dad is Dead will finally press Stop after a quarter-century's quixotic pursuit this weekend. Edwards and his full band will play a final pair of shows in Chapel Hill and Cleveland, and be done. That Edwards has persisted this long is either a testament to his resilience or foolhardiness or—in the classic sense of Cleveland as a city where hopeful persistence in the face of bleak prospects and never-ending disappointment remains a longtime hallmark—a little of both.
My Dad is Dead almost became a big deal in the late '80s. Edwards enjoyed significant critical approbation in that emerging independent underground, building a hardcore early indie rock following. The band signed to Homestead Records, then under the stewardship of future Matador Records owner Gerard Cosloy. Homestead helped pioneer the era's noise rock scene, releasing albums by gritty acts like Big Black, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. For most, though, My Dad is Dead remains a footnote, a strangely still-extant relic of that era.
At an early age, Edwards identified with Joy Division, especially the intensely personal tenor of Ian Curtis' lyrics. An untrained amateur musician, Edwards could even pick out some of Joy Division's guitar leads the first time he picked up the instrument. That discovery gave him hope that even he could write songs. Music soon became a great outlet for his tumultuous emotions.
"I was not a happy person in my 20s," recalls Edwards. "I had issues with depression and tended to look at the dark side of everything back then. You can hear that in the songs and the lyrics and stuff. A lot of that was more personal for me—my lack of good relationships and problems with my parents, women and whatever."
Edwards' downcast lyrics possess a level of self-awareness not unlike Morrissey, another patron saint of the miserable. He sees his music's mix of hope and dread as endemic to the character of Cleveland.
"I'm certainly aware of the fact that the songs I'm writing are often gloomy and depressing. I play with that and I enhance that sometimes," Edwards says. "There does seem to be this Cleveland attitude that's a strange mix of low self-esteem but extreme pride. There's this unique downtrodden attitude that still retains an optimism that next year is going to be better."
My Dad is Dead's music reflects this duality, vacillating between dark, claustrophobic ambience punctuated with slashes of guitar and brighter moments that allow the melody in like fresh air. Edwards considers himself a fan of happy pop songs and dour, aggressive music—"I love the Go-Betweens as much as I loved the Cows," he notes.
Fittingly, Edwards began the band alone, in 1985, playing guitar into a cassette deck. The one-time drummer now accompanied his guitar live with a drum machine. He wanted the name to be honest and perhaps a little off-putting; he succeeded. At the insistence of Homestead's Cosloy, who saw the early solo incarnation at New York's CMJ Music Marathon and signed the band for 1988's Let's Skip the Details, Edwards expanded My Dad is Dead to a full touring outfit.They started touring regularly and released three records on Homestead, highlighted by 1989's double album The Taller You Are, the Shorter You Get. His appeal and reputation were growing.
But Cosloy left shortly thereafter. Edwards tussled with the label's management, who refused to honor terms of his contract. He released his next album, 1991's Chopping Down the Family Tree, for the Cleveland label Scat. A surprisingly upbeat album, it epitomizes Edwards' terrible timing, as it was released the week before Nirvana's Nevermind, which elevated misanthropy to a product.
"My timing and commercial mind-set were always horrible. But obviously you're never going to name your band My Dad is Dead and expect to be commercially successful," says Edwards, cracking into a laugh.
That release began a steady downward path that culminated with 1997's Everyone Wants the Honey But Not the Sting, a record that corresponded to a divorce and signaled the temporary suspension of the band. He finished college, an on-again/off-again pursuit that stretched across two decades. He eventually got a degree in accounting and a job that demanded 60 hours of his week.
"I was again in a financial pickle. Being in poverty, and not being able to really generate enough sales to live off that, got in the way of taking that any further," he says. "I was getting close to 40 with nothing in the bank, no real assets of any kind. It just got to the point where I had to focus on things that could help me survive into my 50s and 60s."
That change was a rather disconcerting turn of events for a lifelong artist, but there was a silver lining: On the last show of the final tour, at the Lizard & Snake in Chapel Hill, he met his current wife, Jeanne. He moved south to join her in 2000. Other than a hodgepodge of tracks poorly recorded at home on an 8-track and self-released in 2002 as The Engine of Commerce, Edwards quit making music.
"I was living the happy, newly married life. Not being depressed or angry about anything, I sort of lost interest in making music," he says. "Then George Bush got elected. And I had something to be pissed off about again."
Edwards hit the road again after releasing 2005's politically charged A Divided House. It felt good to be back with a band, and he plugged that rediscovered energy into 2009's A New Clear Route. But as happy as he is with those two releases, the bell was beginning to toll for My Dad is Dead.
"I'd turned 50, and it was increasingly silly to have a band called My Dad is Dead," he says. "Secondly, I started playing more with some local folks. It was sounding significantly different than what MDID was, and I didn't want to drag all the new band members into my 25-year-old baggage. It seemed like a good time to close the door on that and move forward. It's not like the last couple records were doing gangbusters."
The quartet, called Secular Joy, includes Durham producer Zeno Gill; they've already written and recorded 10 songs. Edwards is still unsure if they'll try to release it properly or just post it for free online. The band is much proggier than MDID, he says, less tied to verse-chorus-verse structure. One comparison, he notes, is early Pink Floyd.
Life's undoubtedly more journey than trip. Here, at the endpoint of one voyage, Edwards suggests he wouldn't write "Anti-Socialist" again.
"I don't think I'm quite the hermit or the locked in the house guy I was," Edwards offers. "I definitely have more hopefulness about people than I did in my 20s. I really had a pretty negative view about people in general, but I met enough good people over the years that I have hope for the human race."