Hunkered down in his state-of-the-art downtown Lancaster music studio, Live guitarist Chad Taylor takes a break from sifting through track mixes and fiddling with equipment to talk about the glory days.
Down the street from this bunker-like rock factory, Taylor notes, are two Lancaster landmarks instrumental in his band's ascension to international rock stardom: the Chameleon Club and the downtown apartment Live inhabited 10 years ago.
"'Throwing Copper' was written two blocks from here," Taylor said in early August.
Taylor dug deeper, drawing memories of Live's impressive 20-year history -- touring with other acts featured on MTV's "120 Minutes," rubbing elbows with yet-to-be-discovered bands such as Nirvana and Soundgarden, and writing the songs for "Throwing Copper," the band's seminal multiplatinum album.
Oddly, only a few of those memories involved York, the hometown of Taylor, singer/guitarist Ed Kowalczyk, bassist Patrick Dahlheimer and drummer Chad Gracey.
And the ones that did weren't painted as the sunniest of days.
Looking back to his late teenage years, Taylor recalled when the boys -- all 1989 graduates of William Penn Senior High School -- decided to forgo college because they felt their band, then named Public Affection, and their brand of modern rock was special.
Like many high school bands, they wanted to be rock stars, but the town where they were raised didn't have many musicial outlets or people who encouraged the young musicians to follow their dreams, Taylor said.
In a matter of years, the four young men went from playing steady gigs at Lancaster's Chameleon Club and other venues as Public Affection to generating a buzz on college radio and MTV with their debut album as Live, "Mental Jewelry."
They went from small-town nobodies to instant success and embarked on their first national tour in 1992, ripping up colleges and clubs across the United States, packing fans into their shows and reeling in critical acclaim.
Taylor recalled how that tour brought them back to their hometown, where a gig at York College's Wolf Gym was expected to draw loads of people. The town was known for making Harleys, but more and more people were coming to know the town as the place where Taylor, Kowalczyk, Dahlheimer and Gracey penned their first songs.
"We thought a homecoming to York would be really special," Taylor said. "And there were about 50 people there."
Fast forward to May 28, 2004. Live had toured the world multiple times, conquered MTV's hallowed "Unplugged" show and its buzz bin, sold almost 20 million albums, and become a household name for just about anyone who listened to a radio in the 1990s.
They hadn't played in York County since that poorly attended York College gig. Yet here they were, returning as veritable rock gods to play a 20th-anniversary show at their hometown's principal entertainment venue, the recently refurbished Strand Theatre.
The 1,200-some tickets sold out within 24 hours. People couldn't keep quiet waiting for the show to begin. Most of the fans were locals, but one fan traveled from Massachusetts for the show. Another traveled from Iceland.
Many fans had been with the band since the beginning. If the pre-show buzz had anything to say, it was that this was going to be a wild, fan-driven show.
But there seemed to be a disconnect between band and audience during the first half of the set. Maybe Live's decision to kick off the show with unfamiliar songs "Like I Do" and "The Sanctity of Dreams," both from the recent "Birds of Pray," had something to do with the lack of audience enthusiasm. Maybe the crowd felt stifled in the ornate Strand, where chairs and plush carpeting could douse potential rock 'n' roll flames.
This reunion at the Strand between prodigal sons and hometown should have detonated an explosion of sing-along euphoria. Surely songs like "All Over You," "Selling The Drama" and "The Beauty of Gray" would have triggered a near riot of people jumping on chairs.
Instead, it was just Live playing to a deadened crowd, a crowd that put more hands in their pockets than in the air, a crowd that gave light applause even when the band played some of its most popular songs. "As we were playing the show, we felt onstage that the audience was a little muted to start out with," Gracey said in July. "And, you know, who knows why that is?"
That question just can't be answered without taking a look into the distance between York and Live: those blank stares and folded arms greeting Live as the band played songs at spiritual capacity; the controversy kicked up 10 years ago from Live's infamous ode to York, "Shit Towne"; and the town's music scene that has gone mostly untapped for the past 20 years.
Charlie Robertson, who became mayor of York in 1994, the year "Throwing Copper" was released, said he tried to get Live to come back and play but didn't have any luck. He said if the four guys thought York was troubled, they could have returned and offered some assistance.
"You don't stomp on us all the time," Robertson said last August. "You come back and help us."
And yet, this scene -- the hard feelings, the cold reception of the Strand crowd and Live's response to those gathered at the May 28 show -- just seemed to fit perfectly into the Live story.
In an absurd way, it felt like they were home.
"York never embraced us, so why should we embrace York?" Taylor said. "To me, I'm eternally proud that everywhere we traveled in the world, that people who know us know that York is 'Shit Towne.'"
Before the release of "Shit Towne" and "Throwing Copper" widened the gap between York and Live, the band's roots took shape through a positive influence in the mid-1980s.
In fifth grade, Dahlheimer took upright bass lessons from Don Carn, a middle school music teacher at Edgar Fahs Smith Middle School in York. Taylor took guitar lessons from Carn.
Gracey switched from tenor sax to drums, and the trio played a couple of school events together. One gig was as the house band for a rap act. They also performed at a talent show -- again, sans Ed, also a student at Edgar Fahs.
Carn signed up the trio for the talent show in sixth or seventh grade because he could see that there was something special going on musically.
When Kowalczyk joined the band as the singer in 1985 and they seemed dead set on being rock stars, Carn gave them a push.
"I told them, 'If you have a goal, and you're focused on the goal, you go for it,'" Carn said. "And that's what they did."
But Carn was one of the only supportive voices. Gracey said the more the band gained confidence and swagger, the more walls they hit in the York community.
"It was always like, 'Oh, whatever, you guys.' You know, 'First of all, you're crazy for even thinking that you could be in a rock band,'" Gracey said on the phone from Santa Monica, Calif. "And this goes into our school teachers, and just very basic levels of relationships that we had over the years when we were starting our band. I mean, that's one thing that York seems to have a lot of, is skepticism, about anybody getting out of there and doing anything positive."
And to make it out of York, bands like Live and acts that came after them would need places to perform and build a buzz.
York's nightclub scene was thriving as Public Affection was taking shape. Ironically, it started to die out just as the most popular band to come out of York began to play live shows.
Case in point -- one of Public Affection's first big gigs took place at Zakie's, a nightclub with a capacity of 1,000 off Market Street between Beaver and George streets. Zakie's, which was owned by Duncan Schmidt, was one of several hot spots downtown that also included The Golden Bear, Granfalloons and First Capital Dispensing Co.
"There was just something so special about that performance," said Sheryl Schmidt, Duncan's wife, who saw Public Affection's 1989 gig at Zakie's. "I heard a lot of live bands in there, and I never thought they'd go beyond what they were doing -- except for Live."
Not long after that gig, things started to change and the nightclub era neared its end. After folding Zakie's and later selling off a second club at 25 W. Market St. in 1992, Duncan Schmidt -- who now lives with Sheryl in Mill Valley, Calif. -- moved into the real estate field. The closing started a domino effect and other clubs started to close. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the city's powers that be -- Mayor William Althaus and city council members -- began emphasizing historical preservation over a thriving nightclub scene.
What this meant for Public Affection was that York was a town with no opportunities for a rock band. It was a dying downtown.
To them, it was a "Shit Towne."
Either out of choice or necessity, they played York sparingly.
Of the 42 shows Public Affection played in 1990, only eight were in York. In 1991, only three of the band's 49 shows were in York. In May 1991, after losing a "Battle of the Bands" contest at the York Fair to a band called Hyde Your Daughters, the band didn't return to York County until after the release of "Mental Jewelry."
Lancaster became the band's principal stomping grounds -- and new home -- after changing its name to Live by picking the name out of a hat. Rich Ruoff, who owned the Chameleon Club in Lancaster at the time, said Live might have steered clear of York because they couldn't land any gigs in the White Rose City.
"They had to go to Lancaster to get a gig," Ruoff said. "It's funny that a community made up of Amish and Mennonite people was hipper than York. And more cutting edge."
Over time, rumbling across the Susquehanna to see Live play in Lancaster became something fun for kids in York to do, Ruoff said.
"It was their idea of fun -- 'Let's get out of this beat town and go to Lancaster,'" Ruoff said.
Live then expanded its scope some more. In addition to the Chameleon, Live started playing at the 9:30 Club, a hot spot in downtown Washington, D.C.
"If you truly want to get your music out there, you have to get out there yourself," Taylor said.
Even after Live began to generate a buzz, the band's music would still be a tough sell in York County, which has always had more of an interest in heavy metal and country music than cutting-edge rock, Ruoff said.
There's a reason why the powers-that-be at the York Fair traditionally fill most of the grandstand lineup with country stalwarts Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, Alabama and Lonestar -- it sells (which makes it even stranger that Live will play the grandstand on Saturday). Tickets for Live are selling fairly well, fair officials said, but Live has some catching up to do with Lonestar and Brooks & Dunn.
The poorly attended York College show in April 1992 would be the band's first in York County as Live.
It would also be its last for the next 12 years.
Young enough to sell
It wasn't as if some in York didn't try to get the prodigal sons to return.
Robertson said he called Live's management in the mid-1990s and asked if they would be interested in playing a benefit at Farquhar Park that would help the city rebuild the park's band shell.
"They were busy touring Europe," Robertson said. "We never got a response."
If Kowalczyk, Dahlheimer, Gracey and Taylor had personal reasons for not returning to York as a band after their 1992 York College show, they had a better excuse that made it so they certainly didn't need to.
The video for "Mental Jewelry's" first single, "Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition)," received significant airplay on MTV. In 1993 and 1994, Live toured extensively across the United States, in most cases headlining shows at large or revered venues like the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia, CBGB's in New York and several spots in California.
They opened several gigs for punk legends The Ramones, and a little band called Weezer actually opened for Live on several dates. They played some huge festivals and shows, too, touring with Peter Gabriel and Midnight Oil on the WOMAD tour and also playing 1994's Woodstock II.
By the time Live recorded "Throwing Copper" in 1993, the path to stardom was about as clear as a CD jewel case.
So maybe the quartet was feeling a little heady when they laid down the sweet chords and bitter words to "Shit Towne," the eighth track off that album. The song paints the picture of a town where common folk like "the Weavers" live on the same street with "the crackheads" and the people keep to themselves. They wrote the song after their tour for "Mental Jewelry" took them around the world.
"Just seeing a whole bunch of different things that, you know, that a lot of people in York would never see, or even care to see," Gracey said. "And 'Shit Towne' was sort of an ode to that, to the fact that, you know, we've seen a lot of things, and it seems like York's a little closed off here. And no one really wants to change it, or they seem like they don't want to."
While the April 19, 1994, release of "Throwing Copper" was a watershed moment for the band, it only served to damage relations between Live and their adversaries in York.
Robertson said he remembers some hard feelings about "Shit Towne," but that he never heard the song himself.
Carn also recalled the song causing a stir, but he said he didn't think Live meant anything mean-spirited by it.
"I think that bothered a lot of people," Carn said. "I like the song, but I think the reaction was overrated. Because they're nice guys, they wouldn't do anything to piss people off. They were young, and they're moving on."
Robertson also recalls a flap between the band and then-York County Commissioner George Trout. Trout was upset with Live because there had been some damage to Rocky Ridge County Park after the band shot the video for "Selling The Drama" there, Robertson said.
"He told them not to come into the county parks any more," Robertson said. "He told them never to come back again, but that didn't involve the city."
Trout did not return several phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Gracey comes back to York several times a year to visit his parents. He said "Shit Towne" was one song written when the band was at a particular place and time.
"'Shit Towne' was always, you know, if you don't understand 'Shit Towne,' then you don't understand 'Shit Towne.' You know what I mean?" Gracey said. "It was never mean-spirited. It was more of an observation of a small-town mentality that sort of pervades York."
Taylor took it a little further. There are people in York who know they identify with the song but don't say it, he said. So do people across the world that aren't proud of their towns and want to move, he said.
But Taylor also acknowledges that Live wrote that song from the perspectives of dudes in their early 20s. Now that he's in his 30s, he wouldn't describe York with the same words used in "Shit Towne." In fact, Taylor said he now holds no grudges against York.
"I think York is a great, blue-collar, hardworking town," Taylor said. "And I'm not saying you can't have a good life there. It's just hard to change something that doesn't want to change."
Old enough to repay?
During a phone interview in which he discussed songwriting, playing the drums and Live's recordings, Gracey was chatty and spoke in a manner that's not unlike his rapid-fire drumbeats on Live's uptempo songs.
But when asked if York appreciated Live, Gracey slowed down and measured his words.
"Yeah, I think so," Gracey said. "It's not just the city itself, it seems like a lot of the people. You know, a lot of people love us. And that's great. It's just . . . I don't know. It's just . . . very complicated."
But is the tattered, tangled web that represents the relationship between Live and its hometown entirely the fault of York and its unwillingness to embrace those who achieved success?
In the song "Tell Me Why," from Neil Young's classic 1970 album, "After The Gold Rush," the singer lamented the struggle boiling inside an artist who has become rich and successful while he's still young: "Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself/ When you're old enough to repay, but young enough to sell?"
Live is still young enough to sell, and they have repaid plenty, donating money and gold records to William Penn.
But could they do more?
Calvin Weary, lead singer for the York funk-punk-rock band Edenpark, said Live could do a lot to close the gap between the band and its hometown.
The town needs the band's help, Weary said.
"I think the band should come back and build the town. Individuals create the society; society doesn't create the individuals," said Weary, who also teaches drama at William Penn Senior High School. "It's all about being humble. I have to look at it from a music standpoint. I need to do everything I can for my community . . . no matter how big I get."
But Live needs York, too. The band's disconnection from its home seems to have affected its music, Weary said. Kowalczyk lives in Los Angeles; Taylor lives in Lancaster; Gracey shuttles between Portland, Ore., and Santa Monica; and Dahlheimer has been in Miami Beach, Fla., although word is he's moving back to York.
"Being a band guy, (and) seeing a band do as well as they did, and not having any connection back to home, I can't imagine doing it," Weary said. "I am proud of them, (but) their music has lost something along the way."
But Taylor doesn't see the separation as hurting the band's music.
He said he sincerely believes "Birds of Pray," which didn't have anything close to the chart or cultural impact of, say, "Throwing Copper," was a success. All four members are still maturing as best of friends and musicians, Taylor said, and that only bodes well for Live's future output.
"I'm curious to what the next Live album is going to sound like," Taylor said. "As long as you stay in touch with that inner source of music and energy, your music is still going to be important."
Taylor also said the band has talked about possibly opening a music club in York. He said there's nothing concrete, but the guys have had conversations about it.
And Gracey said he has been impressed with the recent revival of York's downtown music scene -- which includes the Hardware Bar, the Rain Lounge and the Vertigo dance club -- which he surveyed during trips to visit his parents in York.
"It's changed in a lot of ways, and in a lot of ways it hasn't," Gracey said. "This rebirth of downtown is definitely very cool to see. And different from anything I've seen in a long time, as far as anything sort of in the pop-culture realm."
At the very least, the two 20th-anniversary shows in York County this year -- May's Strand show and Saturday's concert at the York Fair -- are signs that Live might be willing to soothe its ongoing estrangement with York.
Ruoff said both Live and York could do more to close the gap. He's not sure if the shows represent a magic olive branch, but they're a start. York might start to show its appreciation for Live by, say, naming a street after the band, he said.
Maybe both sides could take something meaningful from "The Distance," a song off Live's 1999 album "The Distance To Here."
"Oh the distance, it makes me uncomfortable/ Guess it's natural to feel this way/ Oh, are we locked into these bodies? Let's hold out for somethin' sweeter/ Spread your wings and fly."