by Rosemary Passantino, Spin, July 1989
Talkin’ about a sexual revolution, onstage in Ann Arbor, Michigan, The Pursuit of Happiness edge in to their set. Backup singer Leslie Stanwyck transposes Exene and Martha Graham, street walking and snake charming. Drummer Dave Gilby and bassist Johnny Sinclair, built like brothers, throw thug weight into the backbeat. Kris Abbott, a hippy-cowgirl-punk beneath blonde waves, transverses all axes, shaking more sugar into the harmonies, tossing her hair AC/DC style, shoulder to shoulder with Moe Berg’s fierce, ethereal frontline persona.
Midway through the set, the sell-out crowd is clamoring for the headlining Replacements. Oblivious, an internally fueled machine, TPOH solder metal leads to Raspberries melody. A cheer finally rises when Berg breaks to blaspheme MTV. "They don’t play my video. Guess I didn’t make enough rock faces. You know, the kind Eddie Murphy calls fuck faces".
Rough enough to attract Axl Rose to their shows in Los Angeles, bubbly enough to satisfy a stadium of Duran Duran fans in New York, Love Junk, The Pursuit of Happiness’s Todd Rundgren-produced debut, finesses the subtleties of adult romance: loving, fucking, getting fucked and growing up to reckon the difference. Berg’s passionate scenarios are shot through with infidelity and communication breakdown, but even when wiser means warier, there’s no escaping desire. His lyrics - sensitive, sultry, explicit - strobe whte hot, exposing lust unbracketed by age. In "Beautiful White" he chronicles the excitement of watching a true love casually strip. Familiar details - "The sweater I gave her last Christmas fall to the floor" - heighten the anticipation. "Hanky Panky" is a favorite TPOH encore.
"I’m An Adult Now," The Pursuit of Happiness’s hit single, documents a moment rock has persistently avoided: the “oh shit” sensation when the teen fairy tale ends and the rent comes due. Generational barriers fall, rebels without cause find themselves grounded in legitimate disgruntlement, defiant adolescent thrills become shared escapes. There’s no longer any reason to hide the bottle. "I’ve got my own reasons to drink now, think I’ll call my Dad up and invite him," Berg snarls, a hint of boyishness persisting through the angry litany of complaints. For the first time, aging becomes imaginable, women can be too young, music too loud. Jackhammer rhythm and searing guitars deny the content, arguing anywhere there’s discontent, rock will serve.
TPOH has been called "thinking people’s pop," a label Berg deflects. "I’m not an intellectual. This is the first time in my life I conceptualized something and made it happen." Luminous and slight, his blue eyes beam ultra-violet behind owlish glasses. Offstage, he’s understated, polite, prefacing comments with modest disclaimers. "I wanted a rock band that would play real loud pop songs with strong backup vocals, and lyrics that take a 29-year-old’s perspective. As people grow older, music doesn’t speak to them anymore and they find themselves listening to songs geared for teens. The worst part is when 30- or 35-year-olds get into those songs. It’s a romantic notion, rock will keep you young forever. It’s kind of foolish."
As a teen in Edmonton, Canada, Berg memorized the Top 40 - "artist, song title, label." He admired guitar heroes like Van Halen, Jeff Beck and Johnny Winter and watched his father play in country bands. He modelled his lyrics on the honest, sharply drawn commentaries of Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell and Pete Townshend. "They taught me the words have to be as good as the music." After gaining a local reputation in bands like the punk bubblegum M.O.R.ons, he moved to Toronto with drummer Gilby. Toting his guitar and amp around the burgeoning Queen Street club scene (spawning ground for the Cowboy Junkies and Blue Rodeo), Berg showcased his material solo, until he met bassist Sinclair, and TPOH began to fuse. "I didn’t know how this would go, a confessional lyric style with hard rock," Berg shrugs. "The combination certainly wasn’t prevalent."
A month after Stanwyck and Abbott completed the present line-up in 1988, TPOH journeyed through western Canada, often driving 24 hours straight between clubs. "You figure out pretty fast that way if it’s going to work," notes Abbott. Stanwyck, an accomplished pianist with ten years of conservatory training, had never been on tour before. "I was terrified. One van, all these strangers. I had just broken up with my boyfriend and was crying my eyes out. Then I sat down and found Dave had slipped a whoopee cushion onto my seat. By the time that was over we were family."
Getting the band "roadworthy," as Abbott puts it, eased their first formal studio experience. Love Junk was recorded and mixed in three weeks. "For the most part the LP is live with some guitar solo overdubs," she recalls.
"We had some fears going in," interjects Gilby. "We had read all these reviews with XTC’s Andy Partridge about what a problem Todd was." Even Berg, a Rundgren fanatic, got "cold feet." "I was apprehensive because of his reputation, but as soon as we met, all those feelings went out the window. I can’t imagine a more ultimate experience for a band doing their first album," says Stanwyck. "I don’t think there’s anything about it we would change."
Saturday night, Chicago. Backstage, Berg down aspirin and gargles with Listerine. The bus gave out near the Canadian border in sub-zero weather about a week ago; a nagging cold is being passed around the group. "We always have a good time when we’re on, no matter what," Stanwyck reassures. "That hour, nothing can touch us. If I’m feeling down or tired I can tell Kris let’s play on each other. It always lifts my spirit." Between Berg and Gilby, no discussion is required. When the band hits the stage, it’s clear the machine has been slightly re-tuned to give Berg more support. The rhythm section adds oomph, while Berg stabs his guitar neck at the pressing fans and sings with as much abandon as he can allow. During the last song of the set (two encores will follow), a couple who say they came to "get away from the kids" dance next to a strapping brute in flannel and leather, while behind them a nerdy mirror image of Berg bellows along with "I’m An Adult Now." It’s an unlikely party, full of people who probably wouldn’t meet otherwise.
"Happiness means something different to everyone," Berg says. "It’s about seeking pleasure, and it’s something everyone can relate to."
"Happiness," wrote Colette, in an era when contentment and the avant-garde weren’t mutually exclusive, "is a kind of genius."