I’d never met Dave Schools before. Seen him play a couple of times at previous Widespread Panic shows, and I’d heard that the extraordinary bass player could be difficult. “He’s the rock star in the band,” someone told me, who added that Dave was once overheard to say, “fuckin’ fans.” So? Wasn’t sure how that translated to “difficult,” but that’s what I’d heard.
Shortly before Panic’s second show in Myrtle Beach (March 26), I sat down with Dave, and it was evident from the start that I’d been grossly misinformed. Here was a large prince, tall and wide, enthused, down to earth, basically a cool guy you’d like to sit down and have a beer with. Sitting with us, a couple of my friends, both longtime Panic fans, one of them — Bill — who has seen the band more than 200 times. First question I asked Dave came from Bill:
Why’d you move to Northern California?
Dave says, “I loved the culture and the music that came from there, it was part of what inspired me to play music.” Of course. This was a guy who used to be a taper at Grateful Dead shows. But I digress. Dave continues: “Whenever Panic played there, I always thought, ‘of all the places in the world, this is a place I’d like to live one day.’ So, I met my wife and she’s from Southern California, and she wanted to move up to the Bay Area. So I said, ‘fine.’
“I spent 25 years in the greatest college town on the face of the Earth (Athens, Ga.), and despite having to leave a bunch of my best friends behind, and a whole lot of the uniqueness that is Athens, it was time to make a move, so we moved up to Sonoma County, among the redwoods.”
I have to stop here for a second and say thank you to James Calemine, a great writer who has written many, many words about Panic (among others), which you can find at Swampland.com — check it out, it’s time well spent. Chances are, all the questions I asked Dave (and the rest of the band) are questions James asked long ago.
So I wanted to know about Dave’s early love of music, and the 45 of ‘Kentucky Woman’ I’d read about (song by Neil Diamond, this version performed by Deep Purple).
“I have that record hanging on a nail in my garage. It’s a token — no, actually, it’s a totem. My parents really encouraged the music thing, and back in the days when the record industry was king and 45s and AM radio ruled the roost, every store in the world sold Top 40 singles, and we’d go to Standard Drug Store once a month or so, and (my parents) would buy me a record. That copy of ‘Kentucky Woman’ is gray from being played so often. It did not leave the turntable.
“I remember my dad, whenever I’d play it and it would get to that middle bridge, a whole bridge that consisted of the lead singer — I can’t remember his name — screaming, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ over the organ solo, my dad would be reading the newspaper, and when it got to that middle part I’d see his fists clench as he pulled the newspaper tight. But he never said to turn it off.”
Dave also talked about how Panic built its early following on the road, planting the seeds that have grown into a thriving business, fueled by a wild and faithful, multi-generational following of fans called ‘Spreadheads.’ Tapers, like my friend Bill, would record live Panic shows back when the band was playing in front 100 people in local clubs. Those tapes had legs.
“The tapes made it across the Mississippi long before the band did,” Dave says. “We got out to California to play for the first time and people who had never seen us before knew our songs. I think we had a record out yet. But those poorly recorded tapes from places like the Little Five Points Pub and the Uptown Lounge made it out there.”
That’s when my buddy Bill pipes in, “I took a lot of them out there, from here to San Francisco. That would have been 1988.”
Dave looks at Bill and says, “Well, thank you.”
So tapes got around, word got around, and if it meant 10 extra bodies in a club in Asheville, North Carolina, that meant a little more in the band’s pocket. “Baby steps,” is how Dave’s bandmate, percussionist Sunny Ortiz, describes it.
The band is earning enough now to support a company of employees with health plans and salaries and profit sharing and so forth. And they’ve remained true to their longtime friends and associates, and to their musical ideals.
Dave: “We just never felt it would behoove us to bend our ideals to fit what was, in the late 80s, a very, very strict set of guidelines. The attitude of the music industry at the time, and MTV as well, and even radio, was basically, ‘there are plenty of people out there who would kill to be on our station or our label or our network, and they’ll do what we want them to do.’ And we’re like, ‘well fine, we enjoy what we do and we’ve had a modicum of success doing it. Why fuck with a good thing?’ So they said, ‘Whatever, see ya,’ and we continued on our merry way.
“And so our whole business model and the way we do things is really based on what we felt was right at the time.”
Dave and the rest of Panic don’t typically talk about the band in terms of ‘business models.’ But it comes up all the time. They’re artists who have surrounded themselves with people who understand how to make the numbers work.
Dave: “To be successful and continue what we do, someone has to look at it as a business. We would prefer not to do that, so we find people who excel in that, so we can have more room to just play music.”
As a band, Panic has famously supported numerous causes (quietly giving away a lot of money), and supported the friends who have stayed on the bus for these past 25 years, give or take. Dave remembers when Panic’s sound guru, Chris Rabold, was right out of high school, “and he’d bring his cool dog Bill, and drove our t-shirt girl around,” and he almost gets misty-eyed when thinking about the band’s crew and office staff: “That’s something I can’t put adequate words to. It goes beyond the concept of loyalty, there’s something deeper than a good paycheck and a steady job that keeps them here.”
Dave Schools is one of those guys that has to play. Music isn’t necessarily a choice, it’s something he has to do, so he keeps doing it. Used to play 250 shows a year. When he’s not playing bass for Panic, he’s playing in Stockholm Syndrome, the band he started with Jerry Joseph, an influential compadre of Panic’s over the years.
The band’s enthusiastic fanbase is all over the place demographically — not quite as hippy as Phish Heads, there is definitely a groovy element, and also a golf-shirt element, people who wear ties to work and tie-dye to a show, a mix of old frat and sorority kids, good-old-boys, 20-something hippies, even a few hellraisers who just can’t seem to contain themselves. At one point, might have been the third and final show of the Myrtle Beach weekend, some idiot tossed a beer bottle across the stage. And I was thinking, ‘Really? At a Widespread Panic show? Flying glass?’ And I had to agree with what Dave may or may not have said. Fuckin’ fans.
Sometimes, the customer just ain’t right.