Dan Sartain

Dan Sartain: A Friendship in 12 Pieces of Music

I met Dan Sartain at the merch table after his November 8, 2004 show at the Magic Bag in Ferndale, Michigan. I bought two copies of Sartain Family Legacy 1981-1998 and we made small talk. He complimented me on the suit I was wearing (I’d come straight from my grandpa’s funeral) and me saying I wanted to put out a single with him on my label,k Cass Records. He was into the idea and scribbled his contact info on the sleeve of one of the copies of Legacy I’d just bought.

He’d email me later with the idea of doing a goth covers single, suggesting a song by Bauhaus and another stereotypically “goth” song the name of which has been forgotten to the ages. I politely shot down the idea and he responded: “Fine. But just know that you made these kids really mad.” Along with a pic attached that might as well have been the first Google image result for the term “stereotypical goth teenagers.”

Eventually, he sent me the three songs that would end up on the single, cut by Ron Murphy in Westland, Michigan, becoming one of the first 7-inches pressed at Archer Record Pressing in about 10 years. I’d spoken with Mike Archer earlier to confirm that a 7-inch press from the Universal plant was on its way to the lovely cinderblock walls on Davison.

Dan was slated to open for my band, the Dirtbombs, on April 10, 2006, at the Magic Stick in Detroit; the idea was that it would serve as a de facto “release show” for the single. He didn’t show up and didn’t even call to say he wouldn’t show up. He later told me that a wheel flew off of his car while he was driving. To this day, I am still not sure if that actually happened or not.

It would be years before I located the unauthorized sample of Ghostface Killah’s “Run” on “When You See Me Coming,” even though Dan told me straight-up it was on there when he delivered the masters.

After meeting Dan in 2004, I absolutely begged him for guidance in helping me find a copy. None had ever been sold on eBay and a database like Discogs wouldn’t contain a listing of it for years. I nagged him for a while until he eventually (and graciously) sent me what he said was his last copy, which he had to snag from his parents’ house.

Dan self-released this, juxtapositionally confident and vulnerable — as perfect a debut artistic statement as I could ever imagine. Manufactured at United Record Pressing in Nashville, the master was cut on approximately June 4, 2001; 100 copies were pressed on June 14 and Dan would’ve picked up those records sometime between then and June 19. He was just 19 years old.

Side A is literally flawless. The one-two garage blues wallop of “Walk Among the Cobras” and “Right Inside My Pocket” are such stinging observations from anyone, let alone from a kid who wasn’t even 20 years old at the time he wrote ‘em. Followed by a bouncing cover of T. Rex’s “Telegram Sam” and the slow death march of “Box Cutter In My Boot” and wrapping the side with the exposed emotionality of “Up The Wall” and what you’ve got is an as impeccable side of music as has ever been.

The flip side is a slightly different vibe, equal parts wholesome and winsome and as if it was the most logical pairing in the world. I love the overuse of the rubber stamp here. I love the free 3D glasses. I love everything about this album.

As a result of handing of copies of both Crimson Guard and the CD follow-up, Romance in Stereo, to John “Speedo” Reis of Rocket From the Crypt, Dan ended up signed to John’s label, Swami Records. The resultant release of Dan Sartain Vs. The Serpientes would become my introduction to Dan. Oddly, it took a review/interview in the final issue of au courant British music mag Careless Talk Costs Lives for the album to cross my radar. I was just struck with the undeniable urge of “I need to hear this record” and, once I heard it, “I need to meet this guy.”

If you only ever listen to one record by Dan Sartain, I think the consensus would be that this should be it, a stellar standalone cursory projection of the man, his music, emotions, and the intersections of all of them.

When Dan called me in July 2007 to ask if I could play drums on the second leg of his run of dates opening for the White Stripes, I was flattered. I guess the guy who played the first run was complaining? Or ungrateful? I don’t know exactly, but I do know that Dan sent him home. In hindsight, it’s a pretty boss move. Anyway, on that phone call with Dan, just going over logistics, running down a list of songs to learn, I sheepishly mentioned that in an effort to spread the word, I had given away my CD copy of Serpientes and doubted I could get my hands on another in time to learn from it. Dan’s response was, “Well, I hate to sound like Mr. Capitalism over here, but you can just download the thing on iTunes you know?” So that’s exactly what I did, the first album I ever bought via that platform.

The shows were fun, lighthearted, seemingly low to no pressure on my end. My favorite memory of the actual performances was the drop-tuned “bwoooooooow” sound of Dan’s guitar on the song “Leeches Pt. 1,” and that while on that trip, Dan, Dean Reis (John’s brother, on bass), and I began to recite the lyrics jokingly as “You leeches …. you son of beaches” in that brainless “we’re on tour together” sort of joking manner, where the dumbest things get said and repeated and then imprinted onto the firmament of your being. Fourteen years later, I still cannot hear this song and not sing to myself “you son of beaches.”

I picked up Ben Swank from the Detroit airport sometime in late 2005 or early 2006, and he handed me a CD of what he was told was the new Sartain album.

It started off wonderfully with a stunning cover of Frank Stallone’s “Take You Back” as featured in Rocky. Dan’s version, all sloppy handclaps and rough doo-wop swagger, is — while still unreleased — downright riveting. Dude was at his comp-up moment, and he was this close to opening his record with a song that just about everyone in the world had previously sworn off as cheesy or maudlin.

But I bet you it would’ve played wonderfully had he done it.

The rest of that CD, seemingly recorded by Dan with Ra-Jaan Parmely on drums and done on the fly in Alabama, appears to be largely (entirely? vaguely?) unheard and unreleased. Dan would end up re-recording the tracks at Toe Rag Studios in London.

After our final show opening for the White Stripes, Dan mentioned that he really appreciated me filling in on the drums with such short notice. He said I was easy-going, no drama, and had a passport, and that basically put me at the top of his list for musicians he would reach out to in the future. I didn’t expect anything to come from it.

Early 2008, the Dirtbombs were planning a West Coast tour and looking for support acts. The inquiry went out to Six Organs of Admittance, Magik Markers, Awesome Color, and Wooden Shjips, and none of them could do it. Those were all bands I just really wanted to see. In an effort to change my approach I reached out to Dan as someone I wanted to hang out with over the span of three weeks and whose music I was into. He said yes, and a few weeks later he called me up saying, “Hey man, I’m trying to do things simple, gonna do the tour as a two-piece … are you cool to play drums?”

Some folks may have felt put out being asked to play a second set every night … but this was Dan, I loved playing with the guy and a 30-minute warm-up would probably only make my playing in the Dirtbombs set that much better. I signed on instantly.

“OK, cool,” he said, “Since you’ll be playing drums, you think it’d be alright if I just ride in y’all’s van? I’ll give you $100 a day in gas money and keep my mouth shut.” With a 15-passenger Dodge, that gas stipend was more than worth it, so Dan rolled with us.

As part of that tour, I pressed a merch table exclusive tour single, featuring the Dirtbombs, Sartain, and first of three openers, Terrible Twos. Dan’s track was a live take of us covering Chris Isaak’s “Voodoo” live in Wilmington, Delaware, from the Stripes tour the previous year. To kick off the 2008 tour, Dan and I played a last-minute gig, a house party in the basement of in Detroit. Couldn’t have been more than 30 people there. I was only recently reminded of the limited one-one version of the tour single we made that night. Looks almost quaint in hindsight.

Best memories of the 2008 tour:

  • When I decided not to take a shower one morning and instead opted for the hotel pool and waterslide combo. Dan observed that men will use swimming as a reason not to shower, whereas women will use swimming as a reason to have to shower. He wasn’t wrong.
  • From “Cobras 2” to “Telegram Sam” to “Metropolis” to a cover of Rufus Thomas’s “Tiger Man,” Dan had absolutely no problem throwing a song at me that we had never previously played together. After the second time, I started to absolutely revel in it.
  • Dan ordering a “sweet tea” and the person at Tim Horton’s in the middle of nowhere Canada just giving him a 20-ounce bottle of Lipton Iced Tea. He took a sip, said incredulously “What the f*** is this s***?” and then forcefully threw the bottle to the ground where it exploded.
  • At the Creepy Crawl in St. Louis, it felt like time stood still while Dan and I were lubricated with rocket fuel. I nailed all my fills — hard. He grooved like everything in the world depended on it. We ended with a song that was just made up on the spot, Dan all kinds of hiccupping Gene Vincent vocals over a forceful slop-a-billy beat while we’re both bathed in sweat and laughing our asses off. As we walked offstage, my Dirtbombs bandmate Patrick Pantano commented, “You guys were like the Flat Duo Jets up there tonight,” and I felt completed as that was secretly the only compliment I was hoping for the entire time I’d drummed for Sartain. Mission accomplished.

Third Man Records started up in March 2009, and by July, Dan had been invited to come up to Nashville and knock out some songs for a Blue Series single. He did two wildly different versions of both “Bohemian Grove” and “Atheist Funeral.” One of each was pretty straightforward rock and roll, while the other version of each song was slower, almost jazz, more vibey. Us folks at Third Man liked the vibey versions better, so we decided to roll with those, and Dan would re-record and release the “rock” versions soon thereafter.

The record came out, and as with most of our early Third Man releases, a lot of people paid attention. These folks not only were made aware of Dan but became die-hard fans. Felt like a great project — hell, in less than a year, we pressed five different versions of the thing, including a glow-in-the-dark variant for a Halloween pop-up shop in London and an 8-inch variant for our South By Southwest pop-up shop in Austin, Texas in 2010.

By late 2011, Dan reached out to me asking if I would oversee a repress of Crimson Guard on Cass. I was, again, flattered. Being that I had a great working relationship with United Record Pressing (I was visiting there almost three times a week at this point) and we didn’t need to cut any new lacquers and I already loved the record, it was an easy decision.

I had United press 200 copies utilizing the original metalwork from 2001. Each chipboard generic jacket from Stumptown Printing in Portland, Oregon had no less than 10 specific rubber stamp impressions all done on the hardwood floor of the house I was renting at the time in Nashville.

When considering ink pad to record jacket, that’s a minimum of 4,000 stamp impressions. That shit begins to make your arms burn after 50. Looking back on it now, I should’ve just paid to get the things professionally printed.

Upon receiving his share (including some of the 30 copies I’d surreptitiously had pressed on red vinyl), Dan responded: “Looks nice! I wonder how it sounds! I’ve not listened to this in 10 years, I’m scared to :)”

I told him that I thought it holds up and the fans tend to agree. He responded, “Puberty was hell.”

Dan implored me to repress Crimson Guard again in 2014. This time, I used black jackets with a white sticker on the cover, festooned with rubber stamps. I had to rush copies to Dan so that they showed up before a gig he assured me was important. When I asked how it went, he said, “Pretty nuts. Kids throw the best parties cause they don’t worry about money. They just wanna fuck and do molly and wear Buddy Holly glasses.”

Overcome with emotion to the point of nearly breaking down, Dan told me that he literally could not go forward writing songs from his heart. That his emotions were too much and it was too painful to write with them in mind. So what did he do? Dan just reverted back to his earliest form of simplicity, the earliest framework of songwriting and playing guitar. He leaned into the fact that when he was younger, he’d wholly absorbed everything about the Ramones. He coupled that with lyrics devoid of just about any emotion or sentiment and instead just put in lyrics that were, on their surface, mindless. Placeholders almost. And guess what? It’s my favorite record he ever made.

“Fuck Fr*day” (notice where he intentionally placed the asterisk) to “Now Now Now” to “I Got Insurance” — all are just quintessentially golden songs, fresh as ever almost a decade later. While seemingly an aberrant career pivot, I can’t help but draw the comparison that Too Tough Live, the only album that doesn’t depict Sartain on its cover, seems like he instinctively knew the record would stand alone from everything else he would ever do. The most punk record of the past decade? I’d argue so.

Dan Sartain Sings the Dead Milkmen (Unrecorded)

In November 2013, Dan sent me an email titled “How Do You Feel About the Dead Milkmen?” in which he expressed his desire to record 10 or 12 covers of Dead Milkmen songs. He asked if I would release it on Cass. I told him that I wasn’t terribly familiar with their work, but if I could at least hear the songs before committing I’d be that much more likely to do it. The idea was never spoken of again.

Meet Me in the Barnyard (Assumed Unrecorded)

Dan emailed me in September 2018 to tell me he was signing a lease on Hippodrome, the oldest barbershop in Birmingham, Alabama. The previous owner, Vincent Oliver, played on records by rock and roller Phil Cay in the 1950s. Dan’s idea was to record a cover of this Cay song and have the original on the flip side. I was mere days away from the birth of my third daughter and the financial ramifications of it all had me politely turn down the idea, all while we got sidetracked into talking about how, at the time, I was contemplating ending my weekly hot towel face shave at a Nashville barbershop because of the expense. When he saw that my shaves were $45 a pop, he told me if I came to Birmingham he’d charge me $15 and promised, “You’d never want another from anyone else.”

Arise, Dan Sartain, Arise (Unreleased as of April 2021)

Dan hollered at me out of the blue over last summer and it felt like the first time we’d really talked in ages. He said the COVID BS of the past couple of months had him reevaluate who was important to him in his life. He said, “Your name is on that list,” and I didn’t take it lightly. He was spending a lot of time in Huntsville and said that it wasn’t too far from Nashville, that he’d like to visit. He teased the idea of just dropping in for dinner on a Thursday in July, which I politely declined. He responded that my rain checks were good with him. Later that month, he was flying to the West Coast out of Nashville because flights were cheap, asked if he could leave his car with me on a Thursday in October. By the time I responded on Sunday he said he was already in Seattle … and wanted to hang the following Friday.

Looking back, it feels like sand slipping through my fingers.

In September, Dan shared with me recordings for his new studio album and asked if I would write “liner notes/synopsis or whatever it is that people put on the back of albums.” I put it off and put it off and put it off again. What was originally supposed to just be a Bandcamp release had been optioned by Dan’s previous label, One Little Independent. That bought some time.

Dan wrote to me again in December when I asked for guidance. He said, “Just speak from the heart. We’ve known each other for like 20 years. You know who I am. No need to feed you any information. It’s your insight that I’m interested in. I could just write it myself otherwise.”

As if to lighten the mood from that, he quickly followed with “Although it wouldn’t break my heart if you referred to me as the Elvis of my generation. LOL.”

I had a deadline of Christmas, and to be honest, I didn’t think too hard about what I wrote and just approached it as “first thought, best thought.”

I delivered on December 23, saying, “On my end … it’s just my honest feelings about you dude.”

Dan responded on December 24 with, “Perfect. There is a reason I asked you to do this. Thank you so much for doing this.”

That was the last I ever heard from him. Dan Sartain took his life on March 20, 2021.

While it hurt like a Mike Tyson punch to the chest, as I sit here and listen back to all sorts of different recordings of him, I can’t help but smile. The records legitimately make me happy. The live shows are a hoot. His laugh — my god, his laugh — it still fills up a room. His smile, which sweetly stretched from ear to ear, so undeniably honest and pure. Even in death, I still just want to tell the entire world about Dan Sartain.

I want everyone to know his seemingly untold appreciation for The Beatles, only now realizing that his early records include covers of “Mr. Moonlight” and “Besame Mucho,” two songs the early-form Beatles covered.

I want everyone to laugh about when, at Sloss Furnaces, onstage before a crowd of 2,400 in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, he asked, “So, how many genuine Alabama rednecks we got here tonight? Well, you made my life a living hell for 26 years. Thank you.”

I want everyone to repeat Dan’s take on overzealous and slavish dedication to vintage guitars, amps, etc.: “Those guys just look like Civil War reenactors. I can’t get into it. I’ll just be over here comfortable wearing Adidas.”

I want to know if anyone else remembers an offer (was it on his website?) where, for a fee, Dan would draw a portrait of you in his hyper-specific style (as depicted prominently on the Crimson Guard record). I have a vague recollection of asking Dan about it and him shrugging it off like no one ever took him up on it.

The joy of the mere recollection paired with the heartache of the missed chance. This is how Dan Sartain leaves me.

In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. The Crisis Text Lins can be reached by texting HOME to 741741 in the U.S., 686868 in Canada, and 852598 in the United Kingdom. Find a Helpline and SAVE list more resources by country, including helplines, chat services, and crisis centers. 

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