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For the Record 

The life and premature death of Mary’s Danish

Wednesday, Mar 24 1999
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Photo by Debra DiPaolo

I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

—William Butler Yeats

The pizza could have been caviar, the round of Cokes champagne the day the six members of Mary’s Danish passed around the pen that first bound their dream to law. "It was like a marriage," says singer Gretchen Seager, "everything was so blissful." They sat in a big room flanked by the officials of Chameleon Records, the band members holding tight their Social Security cards. Around them, a jittery halo of hope and an innocent cool as they joked nervously with the label executives, keeping the serious act of signing light with the quick banter of rock sarcasm.

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"We had no idea what we were getting into," says Julie Ritter, the band’s other singer. "We knew nothing about the music business. We honestly didn’t even know what a producer did. But we were so hopeful and excited we just trusted everything."

In the label photograph shot against the skyline of Century City, the band is half-smiling as if reckless joy could be totally contained in the fist-hold of rock disdain. Eight record executives are circling the band with full-teeth smiles, some with hands dropped low in their pockets. Gretchen, tucked into the middle of the group, looks both the most innocent and the most questioning with her pixie bob and wondering eyes, arms held behind her back so that her T-shirt is stretched across her boyish chest. If it were a family portrait, she’s the kid who would grow up to write a book about the rest of them, a book the uncles in the back would likely denounce as lies.

"I really want to be in a rock band," Gretchen wrote in her diary at the age of 12 — in particular, she wanted to be Elvis Costello. Eight years later, in 1985, she was at Berkeley, studying French with plans to spend sophomore year in France, when she met Julie over dinner and found a common love of poetry, the French language and music, as well as an equal distaste for Berkeley’s slacker-protest scene. Back home in L.A. over Christmas break, Gretchen and Julie had a simultaneous epiphany.

"We were at an X concert, standing there watching them, when something happened," says Julie. "It was so inspiring we went back to Berkeley and immediately put in for a transfer to UCLA — to get back to L.A., where the music scene was happening and where we could start a band." After that show, nothing else mattered — Gretchen’s dream of mastering the subjunctive was replaced by one of mastering an album, France a place she wanted to see only on tour.

Back in L.A., the band’s formation was typically incestuous and makeshift. Julie was dating a guitar player, David King, who knew bassist Chris "Wag" Wagner. One night when Gretchen and Julie were trying to get a poem into song and somehow stumbled on the nonsensical "Mary’s Danish," they called David up late, giggling, to share. Soon after, David had a slew of drummers lined up, Spinal Tap–style, and Gretchen and Julie and David and Wag became Mary’s Danish.

Their first show in a seedy Valley club was more of a showcase for their parents and friends than a public debut. "We went on real late after this horrible Led Zeppelin cover band," Gretchen giggles, "and we weren’t much better." Though a multiethnic, multigendered, multi-influenced collage, the band still sounded too much like a poor imitation of their inspiration — X — and not enough like Mary’s Danish. "The first show was pretty pathetic," admits Gretchen. "But we were so psyched. We existed."

That existence was tenuous — the band was playing together, but wasn’t altogether together. Not yet. Then came drummer James Bradley Jr., a child prodigy who had been on Johnny Carson as a kid, whose dad had been one of the Ink Spots, and who was sick of playing R&B with Anita Baker and Chuck Mangione and wanted to rock. Bradley was followed by a second guitarist, Louis Gutierrez from the Three O’Clock and Salvation Army. By early ’89, a year and a half after their inception, Mary’s Danish finally felt — and played — like a team.

"We’d do everything together," says Gretchen. "Go to shows, even have Christmas parties together. We’d rehearse basically every single night — we were obsessed — and then afterward we’d go back to someone’s house in the Valley and just hang around and smoke cigarettes and drink coffee till all hours. And then Julie and I would scramble to drive back over the hill to make it for class the next day."

It was all garage-simple then. "We thought, oh man, if we could just get a few gigs, that would be a gas," says Gretchen, but then one night after a show at Raji’s, the thing that every once in a while happens, happened. "Ken Fusion from KROQ came up to us and was like, ‘I love that song "Don’t Crash the Car Tonight" — do you have a demo?’ It was mind-blowing." Within three weeks, the song was getting airplay. "I’d be driving and it’d come on the radio. My parents were getting calls like, ‘Is that Gretchie?!’"

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