Until last year, Memphis musician Van Duren and his legacy would be the domain of fans of obscure music trivia and nothing more.
Forty years ago, Van Duren was tipped to be the next Paul McCartney, having garnered the services of Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham after joining forces with Big Star ex-members Chris Bell and Jody Stephens and becoming regulars on the 70s Memphis bar circuit. But instead of finding fame, Van Duren faded into obscurity
Four decades later, an Australian band manager (Greg Carey) and musician (Wade Jackson) chanced upon Van Duren’s lost album and fell hopelessly in love with his music – which led to them questioning why Van Duren was not a household name.
‘Waiting – The Van Duren Story’ does much more than just tell Van Duren’s story. It’s a love letter to the artist that could have helped to define a generation were it not for the unfortunate decisions others made on his behalf.
When I asked Greg Carey how their discovery of Van Duren’s music came about, he explained that he and his mate Wade had both been through some tough times. Relationship breakup, major surgery, business partners leaving. Usual life challenges.
“Basically we were just two guys, fairly down in the dumps,” Greg said.
Wade had connected with a guy called Drew on Twitter and a month later that man tweeted that he was listening to a long-lost artist from the 70s – Van Duren.
“We listened to one song on Youtube and said ‘this is incredible’. We were comparing our stories – him and his wife, me and my broken leg and business partner and I was like ‘Who is this guy? Is it new, is it old? It’s amazing’.”
“It’s that real nostalgic thing,” Greg explained, when I asked what it was about the music that they connected with so deeply.
“I’m in my late 30s, Wade’s in his early 40s. We grew up listening to our parent’s records. He sounds like McCartney, he’s got these beautiful lyrics and the production is amazing. It just sounds like you’ve heard it before.”
“We’d had three bottles of wine and tried to find this guy and we were like – we should make a documentary. We are huge fans of ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ and what it did for Rodriguez.”
“If Wade had still been married and had Joel not left the business, we never would have had that conversation.”
“We just had this yearning to do something creative,” Greg explained.
The product of that creativity is an 80 minute film that will have its Australian premiere at Gold Coast Film Festival this month.
The pair did a heap of online research without yielding any results before resorting to social media and tracking Van Duren down that way.
“Wade wrote to him. And I always said to Wade, let’s tread carefully because his music’s so good there has to be a story. Let’s be really respectful.”
And so they did tread lightly, in the process finding out Van Duren had been ripped off by others promising big things. When they finally got him on the phone, they booked flights to the USA the very next day with nothing organised.
“We just jumped into it,” Greg said.
It’s clear talking to Greg, that neither he or Wade really had any idea what they were in for and it’s a “really convoluted story”. They did find out that Van Duren’s manager at the time – Andrew Loog Oldham – was “fucked up on drugs and alcohol”. So much so that he doesn’t even remember being in Memphis in 1975.
Greg says, it was just a period where all these “colourful characters were being promised the world, having all the songs and talent” but that those negotiations were also full of dodgy people.
They found Doc Cavalier, who owned a studio in Connecticut, who “had given a lot to artists, but on the other hand was a dentist who had no teeth,” Greg said.
“We know there was money made, but this guy, he stole all the money. This Doc Cavalier guy. And it never went back to the artist. Scientology got involved too.”
Van Duren recorded a second album after good momentum on the first and major labels wanted to sign him direct. “Doc wouldn’t do it,” Greg explained.
“Van is just a music guy with not a lot of music business acumen and he couldn’t afford to have a lawyer,” Greg said.
To cut a long story short, let’s just say that when Greg and Wade started to dig a little deeper, they found serious issues around the ownership of Van’s music and without giving too much away about the film, it’s safe to say their work has helped to resolve this issue.
“Whether the film is good from a film critic’s point of view, it’s what we’ve done for this guy that we’re super proud of. I think that’s why people have enjoyed watching the film so much,” Greg said.
And it seems that’s an understatement. The film sold out three shows at its global premiere in Memphis in November 2018. The entire theatre gave a standing ovation at the end.
“Whether or not they like the film, they understand what we’ve done for this guy and that’s the part I’m stoked about,” Greg said.
The good news doesn’t stop there. Van Duren had two dreams – one was to visit London. And the other is to visit Australia.
Greg and Wade travel to London with Van Duren this April. And he’ll be here on the Gold Costa for the film premiere. They’re all thrilled the film is premiering at a major screen industry event.
“I think for filmmakers to have that buy-in from a festival just legitimises things for us,” Greg said. “We’re stoked that the program team got the film and understand.”
_ _ _
‘Waiting – The Van Duren Story’ has its Australian premiere at Gold Coast Film Festival on Monday 8 April from 6.45pm and the filmmakers and Van Duren will be in conversation after the screening. Tickets on sale now via gcfilmfestival.com. Prior to the film, there’s a music industry networking event (RSVP essential) with Greg Carey speaking about his experiences as a band manager.