Smile Politely

A dream sequence featuring the Vertebrats

(Ed. note: this is from Jason Zylka, who submitted it on Thursday, before the Vertebrats shows happened. We didn’t get it posted, and that’s our fault, but it’s a good story, so better late than never, right?)


I hate listening to people’s dreams. It’s like flipping through a stack of photographs. If I’m not in any of them and nobody is having sex, what’s the point?

— Dennis Reynolds

The Vertebrats came to me in a dream. I know, that sounds totally ridiculous, but it’s the closest I can come to accurately describing how I found them, or perhaps how they found me.

One night I dreamt that I was watching Paul Westerberg at the Courtyard Cafe. Why Westerberg was playing the Courtyard Cafe is completely beyond me. Midway through the set, he looked into the crowd and shouted “All right! We’re going to do this like we used to do it back in the day! We’re going to Mabel’s!” at which point he leapt from the stage and led the throng of fans down Green Street to Mabel’s, which had miraculously reappeared leaving Brothers nowhere to be found. Westerberg took the stage at Mabel’s and was joined by the rest of the Replacements and they launched into Alex Chilton just as my alarm went off.

I’ve been around long enough to remember Mabel’s, but most of my memories of it were of a place that was well past its heyday. I honestly can’t recall if I was ever inside of it for more than a few minutes during my sophomore year in college. Most of the people I talked to in those days acknowledged it wasn’t the best, but if I could’ve seen it 5 or 10 years before, it was a totally different scene. Eventually, Mabel’s closed its doors and there was a fair bit of mourning from members of the local scene while inevitably life went on.

Why I dreamt of a place I had rarely been watching a band I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing live was baffling to me. Perhaps it was a sign of some kind? So, puzzled by such a vivid dream, I was determined to find out if the Replacements had ever played Mabel’s. A quick search on Youtube for “Replacements Mabel’s Champaign” didn’t turn up anything by the Replacements. However, the first result was a song called “Left In The Dark” by a band I’d never heard of called the Vertebrats. Sheer curiosity led me to click the link. 10 seconds in I could tell they had a catchy intro to their song. By 30 seconds in I could tell these guys knew how to put the pieces of a good song together. After a minute, I was convinced that they were really, really good. By the end, I was certain that I had just heard a work of minor genius. It wasn’t flashy, gimmicky, or overly complicated. Just a few guys who knew their instruments and how to achieve the maximum effect with the tools they had. I was hooked. Sometimes the elegant simplicity of a good garage rock band can hit with the same sonic force of a band of far greater musical complexity and production values.

I listened to everything I could find on Youtube that day at the office and later that evening wandered over to Parasol Records after discovering that the Vertebrats were a local act and had a couple of CDs available through our local neighborhood record label. I found it a fitting end to the day as I was heading home with a Vertebrats greatest hits CD entitled “A Thousand Day Dream”. It was the last in a string of odd coincidences that happily left me with a great new band to enjoy.

The Vertebrats are a significant part of the musical history of Champaign-Urbana. But I’m encouraging you to ignore that for a moment. Don’t treat the upcoming Vertebrats shows like a museum piece. Go see them because 30 ears later the songs are still catchy and the band still knows how to play. I’m going to be there, and this time I’m going to be sure to be wide awake.

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