At least a couple of times during his recent performance, Dexter Romweber suddenly stopped mid sentence and looking out into the audience told us “You get it, right? I don’t need to go on with this one.” It’s hard to discern whether he was unfocused, uninterested, deeply anxious or truly worried if the audience was bored.
Dexter often seems as if he’s channeling something most of us can’t see or hear or feel. It appeared during the early part of this show as if the signal he was receiving got scrambled, or grew so weak the antennae lost reception. While singing “Smile, though your heart is breaking” he abruptly halted and told us he just couldn’t go on. At the urging of the crowd, he did manage to complete the song. Listening to him croon his way to the finish, after he’d announced earlier that he was in a hard spot in part because a girlfriend had recently broken off a long term relationship, left me feeling like a disingenuous cheerleader or worse yet a soulless voyeur.
I’m late to the Dexter Romweber universe. I missed him in the 80s and the 90s and have only seen him a handful of times in this millennium. Therefore I knew that I didn’t have the backstory to understand how much of his shtick was harmless stage antics, and how much of it was ‘honest-to-god I’m falling apart before your very eyes folks’ reality.
His guitar was dusty. He looked truly uncomfortable with himself. Unkempt comes to mind, but again, unkempt is sometimes just a ‘look.’ In between being mesmerized by his music and magnetized by his larger than life psyche, I did sometimes wonder if I was being conned.
I stayed up late when I got home from the show, jotting down what I could remember about what he said, and what he played. My husband, a music connoisseur and veteran Romweber fan attempted to give me some framework to process what I’d just seen and heard. Dexter was 14 years old the first time my husband saw him play in 1980 on the campus of UNC in Chapel Hill.
To long time followers, none of this will be news, but here’s some of what has stayed with me from the show. Dexter did a song called “Paradise” which he learned from the Dick Van Dyke show. He doesn’t know who wrote it, or who performed it. He learned it from a 1960s television show. He gave us “Blind Man.” He played “Dark Night.” He delivered a several minute monologue about an idea that had just come to him about a painting that he was going to do when he got home from the show. Said he was going to title it “Den of Demons” and it would portray him amongst all his heroes, many of whom have passed on early. The main message he seemed to want to convey was that he was no longer afraid of his idols.
On one level he appears as to be tied up in his own mythology. On a more mundane level, it’s possible that some of what he’s coping with is the classic mid-life crisis. He’s facing his fiftieth birthday, which often comes as quite a shock whether you’ve known the thrill of fame or labored in complete obscurity.
Dexter was confessional throughout the show, revealing and wrestling his demons, and apologizing for not having practiced enough. He compared himself to Rod Abernethy who curates the once monthly series called “Music From Downstairs” at Neptunes in Raleigh where we were all gathered. Rod had just surrendered a polished set to open the evening, combining a few new originals with some hard hitting, thought provoking vintage tunes. He brought us everything from Dylan’s “Oxford Town” to an original called “Pleasant Street.”
Dexter too delivered a mix of covers and originals, but trust me nothing he sang or played took place anywhere near Pleasant Street. Announcing his tune that includes the lyrics “Sharks flying in from outer space” he informed us it came to him once when he was somewhere between Virginia Beach and Hades.
He kept his body turned from the audience much of the time preferring to gaze into his amplifier. He stepped on and off microphone at seemingly random times, and on and off stage at will, dangerously dragging his guitar chord which might have been the only thing tethering him to this realm. At times during the twang filled licks and riffs, he dropped to his knees as if asking forgiveness.
A friend of Dexter’s once described him as being in a “perpetual state of penance.” I gleaned that from spending several hours today watching “Two-Headed Cow” the 2011 documentary by filmmaker Tony Gayton, which beautifully captures the chaotic rise to fame of The Flat Duo Jets. More importantly the film follows the aftermath of the break-up of the famed duet.
The film leaves the viewer with the question of what is more important – fame, or legend.
There’s no other way to describe what we witnessed and heard last night from Dexter Romweber as anything other than legendary. After he finally got out of his own way, knowing the agony of performance was drawing to an end, he let go with almost five minutes of the rawest rockabilly this side of the 1950s. A stew of gospel surf with a big dose of alien spaceship sputnick-spewing blues. The signal was coming in loud and clear at that point.
Near the end of Two-Headed Cow, a younger Dexter seems to predict some of what we observed on this night. He says “I know what it’s like to be free, and I know what it’s like to be encaged. And when you’re playing music you want to be free, and some nights you feel like you’re caged, so you’re fighting your way out.”
Dexter, you got another serious fan in me. I sure hope you keep on fighting your way out.