Cleveland may actually be the punkest city in the world. Think about it: What makes someone punk? In many ways, the term emerged as a manner of reclaiming the language bullies use against people they see as poor, worthless, powerless, or uneducated, and Cleveland is a city which is put down by the entire world—and the poorest of the big cities in the United States. But history definitely supports the idea that a lot of the greatest music comes from hard-hit people in hard-hit places. As a result, Cleveland possesses a distinct kind of wealth despite its poverty: brutal honesty, enormous resilience, and incredible music. Few people personify this spirit better than Mark Edwards.
A lot of people have never heard of Mark Edwards, because he’s spent a lot of his career performing as a one-man band called My Dad is Dead—a name which might also function as a deterrent for some. Before that, Edwards played drums in Thermos of Happiness and Riot Architecture, bands that were among the earliest in Cleveland to be inspired by post-punk coming out of the UK. Tired of his bands imploding before ever releasing anything to the public, Edwards decided to go it alone: writing his own songs, using a boombox to record some of them, bouncing those tracks down to a second cassette deck while recording vocals on a handful, and self-releasing a couple of cassettes of half-formed songs in the fall of 1984—the same year his father died after a prolonged battle from complications of chronic illness. Edwards had already lost his mother in 1978, and he blamed his father’s poor treatment of both her and himself for exacerbating her health issues. Tired also of not knowing what to say when people expressed sympathy about the death of a man with whom he had a complicated relationship, he named the band after the simple and direct acknowledgment his girlfriend at the time suggested he reply with. While the name cost him opportunities and attention from the media and major labels, Edwards believes that it’s also possible that in the unbridled noise of the burgeoning indie rock scene of the ‘80s it may have helped him stick out. Furthermore, he aimed to make people uncomfortable with the blunt and intimate nature of his songs, putting unsettling truths and observations to hummable melodies, so the negative responses only reinforced his sense that he’d made the right choice.
Edwards had loved music since he first received a small transistor radio, which became glued to his ear by age five or six. But he didn’t attempt to make music until he was 18, at which point he acquired an old Slingerland drum kit in white sparkle from a neighborhood kid’s dad who had passed away. After that, he spent a lot of time with his friend who lived down the street, “drinking 3.2 beer and trying to learn impossibly complicated parts of prog rock songs,” he says.
When he started college at Cleveland State University in the late 1970s, Edwards was still into metal, hard rock, and prog, but things shifted considerably when he applied to work at college station WCSB and met future bandmate and guitar mentor Tim Gilbride. Gilbride had a show in the afternoons called Difficult Fun where he played a lot of new wave and weird local stuff, and he tried to get Edwards to appreciate new music from bands like Gang of Four, Magazine, Pere Ubu, Residents, Human Switchboard, and Devo. Things didn’t really click for Edwards until Gilbride played him Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. “After years of listening to music that I had no chance of being able to play, here were some bands whose guitar, synth, and bass lines I could imitate almost immediately,” Edwards says. “It was inspirational to me that complexity wasn’t required to make interesting music.”
Like Edwards, Gilbride also didn’t read music, so he didn’t “teach” Edwards as much as show him examples of how to play certain chords and encourage him to experiment—and experiment he did, after picking up a hollow body guitar for $25 and a small amp. Gilbride opened Edwards’s eyes to many different tunings, which ended up being a hindrance during early live performances, since many of the best songs he composed would require 10 guitars to play live. “I didn’t own a tuner until the late ‘80s, so I often tuned the guitar to whatever was the easiest to play simple chords in,” Edwards says. “When I wrote the songs for the first LP, I had to find ways to adapt them to a more consistent tuning, and most of those songs are either in standard tuning or my favorite drop D tuning, DADGAD.” (Edwards was doing a lot of drop D tunings before it became popular within indie music, mainly because it made bar chords easier to play.)
While Edwards’s music didn’t take a lot of sonic inspiration from Cleveland, it was influenced heavily by the city’s environment. “Cleveland was an industrial city at the end of its run, with lots of abandoned factories, decrepit housing, uncontrolled pollution from the factories still operating, et cetera,” Edwards says. “It contributed to a post-apocalyptic atmosphere, where it was everyone for themselves.” Growing up in an extremely poor neighborhood and living within the city limits until his thirties, it was not unusual for Edwards to hear the fire of automatic weapons at night, encounter street fights, or deal with break-ins and other property-based crimes which are always high anywhere there are a lot of people struggling to survive. Edwards grew up so poor that he felt like much more of a social outcast than most of the people in his musical peer group in Cleveland; no one from his neighborhood got into punk rock or played in bands. As a result of these surroundings, his songs are often character studies of people who are “‘broken’ or being pushed to extremes by societal pressures,” Edwards says.
Punk music culture is largely organized around the idea of being a community of misfits, but in the ‘80s, performing as one guy singing and playing guitar with a drum machine, dressed like someone’s CPA gone broke in his button-down shirt, tie, and vest? That made Mark Edwards an extreme outlier. Outside of projects like Big Black and Bastro—who both still had two or three people playing live—he was completely in his own isolated lane, far outside the norms of punk, hardcore, and indie rock at the time. He developed a thick skin for heckling and quick reflexes from glass bottles whizzing by his head so close he could read the labels, particularly when playing larger events, opening for bands like Modern English, Butthole Surfers, and even a Pixies arena tour in 1990. You would think that growing up around a father who would fly into abusive rages and being bullied constantly at school would make Edwards afraid of everything—he was deeply anxious about a lot of things—but it also made him desperate to find a kinder environment. Though performing was a way to seek confirmation of his value and to come out of his shell, his early life had already prepared him to survive any abuse he may encounter along the way from audiences.
“There is a bias against longevity in indie rock,” Edwards says. “There are very few bands from my era that made a successful transition from indie to major and continued selling new music at the same rate as the old, and many found themselves back on indie labels after initial contracts expired.” Despite the lack of real financial benefit, he managed to put out an enormous amount of music over a career spanning nearly 40 years. A true lyrical genius and hero of working-class people in places that “could kill your dreams,” Edwards is always reminding us how totally understandable that would be if they did, while highlighting alternate possibilities.
Here are 14 albums showcasing the enormous ingenuity, wild talent, and persistence in the face of extreme challenges that all makes Mark Edwards one of independent rock music’s most brilliant and inspiring songwriters.
My Dad is Dead
......And He’s Not Gonna Take It Anymore
2 x Vinyl LP
The recent 2xLP expanded edition reissue of the first My Dad is Dead album on Scat Records arrives just as fans were beginning to wonder if the MDID discography would soon be given the reconsideration it deserves. When it was first released in 1986, the initial pressing of 1000 on St. Valentine’s Records sold out the following year. This edition includes an extra record containing songs recorded on a self-titled cassette in the spring and summer of ‘85, many of which serve as demos for a lot of tracks that ended up on …And He’s Not Gonna Take It Anymore, though nine songs from this tape were never issued on any record. While at times Edwards’s voice can sound blunt and harsh on these early recordings, they make it quite clear that his unique aesthetic was on full display from the very beginning.
Following a show he played in Boston sometime in 1986, Edwards was contacted by Fran Miller, who was a member of the Wild Stares and ran a small label called Birth Records. Miller was wondering what he might have up his sleeve for a second album. At the time, Edwards had nothing, but in his excitement to have a label to pay for recordings and pressings, he rushed into the studio to record some drum tracks he had been messing around with. The tracks became the foundation for several songs, including “Force Feed,” “Babe in the Woods,” “Your Love,” and “Like a Vise,” all songs which feature a new way Edwards discovered to get a super thick drum sound (by distorting the output of a TR-606 and backing it with live drums). For the other songs, he recorded more conventionally, playing guitar parts along with a TR-505. Songs like “Breakdown,” “Fireball,” and “Open Wide” showcase well the thread running through his recorded history of songs about people being seriously damaged and pushed to great extremes by society. The cover art featuring a young Charles Whitman holding two rifles “was a nod to how early exposure to firearms can enhance the notion that those feelings can be addressed at the barrel of a gun,” Edwards says.
“My most vivid memory of this LP is of sitting on my front porch, smoking cigarette after cigarette and listening in headphones to rough mixes of the first four songs I had recorded: ‘Baby’s Got a Problem,’ ‘Put It Away,’ ‘Lay Down the Law,’ and ‘Boiling Over,’” Edwards says. He realized he had something special—something that vastly exceeded his expectations for something he could come up with on his own. These songs possessed an expansive quality, with room to breathe, and less of the anxiety-ridden vocal sound that was present on …And He’s Not Gonna Take It Anymore, which he had released only a little over a year previously. “It was shocking how far I had progressed, not to mention Chris Burgess’[s] engineering skills,” Edwards says.
He sent those first four songs around to record labels and (for the first time) received almost immediate interest from several of them. He was invited to play at the fall CMJ conference at CBGB’s, sharing a bill with Big Dipper, the Clean, and another Homestead Records band at the time. Homestead manager Gerard Cosloy took Edwards out to Homestead on Long Island the next day and offered him a three-album contract. “Of course, being naive to the business end of things, it wasn’t a great deal for me,” Edwards acknowledges, “but the promotional heft of the label rocketed the ‘band’ to national attention quickly and I saw the album on the cover of industry trade magazines. It was a bit disorienting, to say the least, but for the first time I saw a path to actually making MDID an ongoing concern that could one day pay my rent.”
The highly positive response to Let’s Skip the Details and a budget to work with had Edwards booking as much studio time as he could. He enlisted the aid of his bassist friend Jeff Curtis to add his unique melodic style to several of the songs and they began performing as a duo. “This was undoubtedly my creative peak in terms of how many songs I churned out in a short period of time,” Edwards says. “We ended up recording over 25 songs, far too many for a single album, even after editing. I approached Gerard with the idea of a double album, usually something only very established bands were allowed to do, but once he heard the rough mixes of ten or so songs, he gave the green light. The recording process was messy, with many of the songs starting out with just a bass or guitar line, and we bounced around from song to song as we came up with additional parts and vocals for each.”
“Nothing Special,” which is often recognized as the most popular song from this album, was entirely made up on the spot in the studio. When Chris Burgess mentioned they had a few minutes left at the end of one of the 2-inch tapes, he asked if they “wanted to put something silly on there.”
The finished album came out in the late spring/early summer of 1989, coinciding with their very first European tour, sharing a bill with Bastro and the Happy Flowers across Germany and the Netherlands mostly, with a few shows sprinkled elsewhere. Scott Pickering (Spike in Vain, Prisonshake) and Burgess (also of Prisonshake) provided the rhythm section for that tour. Edwards’ part-time job at the time allowed him to take five weeks off, which he was extremely grateful for, particularly since they returned without any money. Despite this, Edwards insists the experience of being in Europe for the first time was irreplaceable and that if it wasn’t for the band, he doubts it’s something he would have mustered up the cash and courage to do. It also enabled them to record a Peel Session.
With the release of Taller…, Edwards’s obligations to Homestead were satisfied. Leader of Prisonshake Robert Griffin (also of Spike in Vain) had started a label for the release of his own records and others, and he approached Edwards about doing a tour with Prisonshake as the backing band. They hit the road sometime in 1990—only this time, Edwards’ day job wasn’t as forgiving, and he bid farewell to gainful employment for a while. Prior to going on the road, the group worked up Prisonshake-backed versions of several of the songs. They perfected them playing them night after night, so Griffin suggested they record and release them upon returning. Edwards had always wanted to do a 45, so he agreed. Since he had a couple of acoustic songs leftover from earlier sessions, this turned into the Shine® EP 2×7”. (The version here on Bandcamp includes the expanded version of this later released on Emperor Jones Records in 1996.) “It served to get something out in the public eye as I started negotiations with Homestead over a contract renewal,” Edwards says. “Unfortunately, Gerard [Cosloy] had resigned from the label, complicating that process, as he was always a strong MDID advocate.”
In June of 1990, MDID were given the opportunity to tour Europe again on a new batch of songs that would become Chopping Down the Family Tree. There were already several songs in partial stages of completion, including a couple of songs with John McEntire (Bastro, Tortoise) on drums, who had briefly joined for a short time for some live shows. Personnel shifted for this second tour, with Tim Gilbride joining on lead guitar, Burgess remaining on bass, but Doug Gillard (Death of Samantha, Nada Surf, Guided by Voices, Cobra Verde) joining on guitar and drums. Gillard and Edwards switched off during the set, so for half of the songs Edwards played drums and sang. “I was skeptical at first, but Doug turned out to be a great drummer who meshed well with the drum machine (an Alesis HR-16) we had along to enhance the drums,” Edwards says.
The band recorded the new songs as soon as they returned to the United States. The album also includes previously recorded songs, plus a few additional acoustic tunes Edwards had composed prior to the tour with Jeff Curtis. “So, it was somewhat of a patchwork, with songs recorded over a period of two to three years at different times with different folks,” Edwards says.
In the late summer of 1990, Frank Black requested MDID open the first leg of the Pixies’s U.S. tour that fall. Some shows worked out better than others. “I remember being highly appreciated in Detroit, Chicago, and Denver, but the Canadian cities, not so much,” Edwards recalls. “The Pixies played crazy long sets, sometimes up to 30 songs, but this was the highlight of their career—around Bossanova—and we were all fans, so it was a great time for all to see them night after night.”
That winter, upon submission of the mixes for Chopping, the new offer from Homestead was underwhelming. “But frankly, the label had lost a bit of the clout it had from having so many huge bands release records on the label in the early ‘80s that had moved on,” Edwards says. “So, Robert and I got together and decided to put the next record out on Scat.” It was released in the spring of 1991, and they decided to tour the record that fall, again with Prisonshake as backing band.
“After the 1991 tour, the players I had engaged for the last few years drifted off to their own projects,” Edwards says. “I put the word out a few places that I was looking for people to play with and received a postcard with a contact number for Matt Swanson (currently with Lambchop), who had just left a broken up Clockhammer.” Out of Sight, Out of Mind was originally mixed with an extreme pan on the bass and guitar without Edwards being made aware of it, so he didn’t notice until he got home and listened to the record on a big stereo system with speakers far apart.
“For some, it’s their favorite MDID record, but for me, the cheery, high-pitched vocals never seemed to match well to the very dirty guitar and the hard R/L pan made this impossible for me to listen to in headphones,” Edwards says. “So, when I had the opportunity to restore the original 16 track recording I added a cleaner guitar to a few tracks and attempted a remix to remove the panning and make the whole thing more consistent overall.” This remix album has the added bonus of a couple of studio recordings with Prisonshake as the backing band.
1993-1994 was a relatively quiet period for Edwards musically: he focused on his new marriage and building some financial stability, after many years living on the edge of eviction and starvation trying to devote himself to music. But he continued to record demos on his four-track cassette deck, and by the middle of the year had enough of these that he was itching to get back into the studio to record them. “I phoned up Matt and Scott again and we headed down to Nashville for a week of booked time at Castle Recording Studios,” Edwards says. “With an illustrious history, this proved the perfect backdrop for the most fun I ever had recording an album. The prevalence of country [and] gospel music recorded there added to an overall sunny quality for the record, which ended up being one of the most ‘accessible’ MDID albums.”
While some say this should have been the record that launched MDID into the mainstream, Scat felt the material was too upbeat for their imprint. The band sought a label extensively for several months: one major label ‘enjoyed’ the record, but they couldn’t get past the name. At long last, Craig Stewart of Trance Syndicate in Austin offered to start a whole new label for them, which became Emperor Jones. They released three records for the label before the band took a long hiatus after 1997.
Even the Cleveland Indians reaching the World Series for the first time in 41 years in 1995 couldn’t ease the sting of Edwards’s wife making a surprise announcement that she wanted a divorce. A year passed before he recovered enough to even write about it, so in 1996 he wrote most of what came to be known as his “divorce record.” “It’s obviously not my favorite subject matter to look back on, but it’s probably the tightest and punchiest record I’ve ever done, and it definitely helped me close the book on that era,” Edwards says of Everyone Wants the Honey But Not The Sting. “It was also the tightest and most confident I’d ever felt playing live, so people who saw the shows on that tour probably saw the peak of the live MDID experience.”
At the very last show of the Everyone Wants the Honey… tour, in Chapel Hill, Edwards met the woman who would become his second wife. After a couple of years of driving back and forth occasionally to visit, Edwards moved to Chapel Hill in 2000 and devoted most of his time to finishing the accounting degree he had abandoned in the ’80s. He had purchased an eight-track digital recorder along the way, building up song ideas he was in no particular hurry to record. 9/11 influenced some of the songs on this album: “All We Want,” “Sleight of Hand,” and “Winners and Losers.” Around this time, Edwards was asked by Steve Stone of Vital Cog Records to participate in a singles series he was doing. Edwards contributed “Memory of Your Kiss,” which resulted in an agreement to release a full album. “It was an experiment of sorts on my part, recording and mixing an entire album by myself for the first time and with heavy use of synthesizers, with the results being equally experimental,” Edwards explains. Having never been satisfied with the final mix on the release, Edwards remixed a version he likes much better before parting with his eight-track.
Focusing mainly on his new marriage, job, and establishing himself in North Carolina between 2002 and 2004, Edwards was pretty quiet. But the 2000 election, Iraq War, and re-election of George W. Bush shocked him into a state of increased political awareness, so many of the songs he began writing had a more political bent. Others reflected the relative stability of his personal life at the time, though it was always “tinged with the background anxiety I’d carried all of my life at that point,” Edwards says. He called up the old crew one more time, embarking back to Cleveland to record at Don’s 609, with Pickering, Burgess, Scott Lasch, and Gilbride all contributing to A Divided House. Edwards thought “Oasis” and “My Safe Place” should both “have been huge hits in some indie rock alternaverse.” A few live shows were done post-release, with Swanson joining again, along with Pickering on drums.
Many years passed before Edwards returned with a more rock-sounding record, thanks in great part to the addition of Billy Buckley on bass, who came from a harder noise rock background. They enlisted Pickering again on drums and Brian Paulson to produce at his Carrboro, North Carolina home studio. “The ever-increasing tribalism of our national discourse was becoming increasingly evident then,” Edwards says. Songs like “Tribal Blood,” “Rising Tide,” “Indefensible,” and “Might Have Been” all reflected “the angst over that direction and knowing what it would eventually lead to.” But Edwards is quick to point out that A New Clear Route wasn’t all doom and gloom—songs like “Carolina Blue” communicate his happiness with his move to North Carolina, and songs like “Walls” and “Manifest” allow space for the possibility of positive change in our social fabric.
Made For Better Things
For the first time, Edwards recruited only musicians from his new home state for this record—Buckley on bass, Rob Koegler on drums, and Zeno Gill on lead guitar. While Made For Better Things began as another MDID project, it quickly became clear that the songs coming out of these practices were not cut from the same cloth. The New Clear Route tour in 2009 suffered from poor attendance and low album sales, so it seemed like the concept of MDID had played itself out. Edwards felt that with a new sound and players, it was time to move on. They decided on the name Secular Joy, in reference to “He’s Frank” by the Monochrome Set, but the name was also a kind of “pushback against an increasing movement towards a theocratic state,” Edwards says. While the band didn’t last long, this album contains some of the most mature songwriting Edwards has ever done and he is as proud of it as any MDID record.
Following the dissolution of Secular Joy, a second divorce, some life-threatening health issues, a third marriage, and a very recent job loss, Edwards has put aside new music for the time being. However, he invokes the immortal words of Romeo Void: “‘Never Say Never.’ I’ve never had so many guitars and so much time on my hands, so who knows.”