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An Interview with Mary Donnelly, author of "Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes"

Mary Donnelly, author of "Boys Don't Lie: A History of Shoes"
20 August 2013

I first heard about and ordered this book last summer from author Mary Donnelly’s web site, PurePopPress. Mary received a work promotion that prevented the book’s publication until this month. It is now available to order, and Mary kindly consented to expound a bit on this exhaustive and comprehensive book.

When and how did you first become a Shoes fan?

MD: I was raised on the music of the British Invasion. It wasn’t something I discovered: it was the air I breathed all day, every day. I have a whole passel of older brothers, and so The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Kinks: they’re all mother’s milk to me. I could sing every word on every song off Rubber Soul by the time I was 9; my eleventh birthday present was a trip to see Beatlemania. I saw Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band— the one with Peter Frampton and The BeeGees—in the theater. (We can debate the wisdom of all these choices, but they’re just facts.)

But I can trace my Shoes obsession to one moment I recall vividly. I was twelve-going-on-thirteen in the fall of 1979. My eldest brother and chief musical mentor, Paul, had heard “Tomorrow Night” on our local FM AOR station, and had bought the record based on that single song. But he was obviously trying an experiment: he sat me down on the floor of his attic apartment and turned my face away from the record player. Okay, I was to be flying blind. I think all he said was “I think these guys sort of sound like The Beatles.” He began by playing me a song I knew well: The Beatles’ “The Night Before.” I said: “That is The Beatles.” He replied, “Wait.”

Then he put on “Tomorrow Night.” I said “Oh, that’s not fair. Anyone can sound like The Beatles if they cover them.”

Then he handed me the sleeve, and I started really listening. I was totally blown away. After “Tomorrow Night” came “Too Late,” if anything, an even stronger song. I think it’s pretty fair to say that I’ve never recovered from that particular one-two punch.

I bought my own copy of Present Tense with my birthday money that fall. I went back and hunted down Black Vinyl Shoes, got Tongue Twister the day it was released. I couldn’t believe the world didn’t hear what I heard here.

But like a lot of Shoes fans, I got used to the deafening silence in public about my faves: they became my secret little thing, and I rarely discussed them with anyone.

Have you ever had the chance to see them live?

MD: Not until recently. In 1990, I had just had a baby during the east coast leg of their tour. In 1994, I drove into town literally 24 hours after their last show.

But by far the worst was Millennium Park, 2007. It was my wedding anniversary, and my gift from my husband was a round-trip ticket to Chicago to see Shoes. We were on vacation in Burlington, Vermont, and he dropped me at the airport on the morning of the show. I was beyond excited!

The plane never came. There was weather somewhere: not where I was, and not in Chicago, but the plane to take me to see the show was bogged down elsewhere. I was heartbroken.

I finally got to see them this year. Before they went to SXSW this March, my husband and I went to Racine, WI to see Shoes play at a club called McCabe’s. It was extraordinary. Packed to the rafters, with fans young and old, the crowd was on fire. It was wonderful.

When did the idea of writing a book occur to you?

MD: I wrote a small web zine piece on Shoes in 2003, just about what they had meant to me personally. On a lark, I sent it to the Black Vinyl Records email. I don’t even know why: I guess I thought the writing was okay, and it might entertain them.

Imagine my shock when Jeff Murphy responded! We corresponded irregularly for several years, and in that time, I filled in holes in my Shoes catalog. One of the CDs I was missing was As Is, their 1996 retrospective. In the booklet for that, there are tons of little anecdotes about production and their development. Jeff had shared some funny stories as well. And when his 2007 book (“Shoes: Birth of a Band, the Record Deal, and the Making of Present Tense”) came out, I ate it up. I also had lots of old interviews with them, clippings from the fan club, old Trouser Presses, that kind of thing.

Anyway, the feeling was growing on me that this story was big, bigger than anyone knew. They were everywhere in the music business, and they literally never stopped. Their story was one of grit and hard work and talent, but also the story of one small boat buffeted by huge waves of change. There was obviously a lot here.

I’m a college professor, a literary scholar. I knew what a serious critical biography looked like, and I wanted to see one for Shoes. So in early summer 2009, I simply proposed it to them, out of the blue. They were a little hesitant: aside from Jeff, they didn’t know me at all, and there are aspects of their history which are pretty painful for them, so I can understand their hesitation to revisit all that. But I think they also saw the potential in it.

It’s kind of ironic: they began making music because the things they wanted to hear weren’t on the radio. I wrote this book because I wanted to read one like it, but there wasn’t one.

Describe the writing process. I understand your project started out smaller in scope and then became more than just a book about the band.

MD: Well, I began by rereading everything I had, and setting up the dreaded timeline. (They still cringe when I mention it.) I went out to see them twice in that summer of 2009. I formulated a basic organization for the book, logged hours and hours of interviews with them and people they worked with, and then wrote and wrote.

I mostly communicated with Jeff via email, with John Murphy and Gary Klebe on the phone in hours-long conversations, sometimes several nights a week. We got to be good friends, as well as working together.

The first draft was done in April 2010—when I brought to them, I broke my arm in a hailstorm. I look at that first draft now, and it seems so clumsy. But for the last two years, I’ve been chasing around missing people, refining and refiguring, correcting and arranging. My editor, Moira McCormick, has been invaluable, and I’m giving her co-credit on the book: it’s only fair. It’s a fundamentally different document than we started with.

When I began the process, I thought I’d have a 200 page manuscript by the end of that summer. Gary Klebe said, “No, this is going to be like a Shoes record. It’s going to take longer than you thought, but it’s going to be better than you thought.” He was right. Three years later, it’s a 500 page, wide-ranging consideration of the entire music industry over the last 40 years. Not what I envisioned at first, but much better.

Will your book be available at the usual outlets (Amazon, Barnes and Noble) and only as a print edition?

MD: Yes, I have plans to release it through all the usual online outlets, and will reach out particularly to the power pop community via blogs and festivals. With their new record, it should get a little attention.

But I think releasing something in only hard-copy is short-sighted now. The ebook for something like this has tremendous potential: think of reading a story about the production of a specific song or video, then linking immediately to the song or video! The ebook will be a whole different, enhanced experience. And the technology to do so is really not that complicated.