Run its Course

A decade later, Course of Empire utters its last words

It's not how they planned it, bidding farewell in the margin of an advertisement. But there it was last week, buried in the Trees ad found on page 97 in the Dallas Observer. On July 18, reads the ad, Course of Empire will play its "last show ever." The announcement is not in bold type, not blown up to broadcast the end in grand fashion. The phrase "last show ever" is in fact hidden in the fine print, the words in parentheses next to the band's name--almost like a whisper on the printed page.

"Does it really say that?" asks Course drummer Michael Jerome, when told of the ad's content. He laughs in disbelief. "He didn't want it to say that."

He in this case is Course of Empire frontman Vaughn Stevenson, who has decided to end the band he co-founded a decade ago with guitarist Mike Graff, bassist Paul Semrad, and drummers Chad Lovell and Anthony Headley (he was later replaced by Jerome). Stevenson, who had planned to circulate fliers the week of the final show, says the end--which comes almost exactly 10 years after the band made its local debut on July 4, 1988--was just inevitable after all this time. He is, plain and simple, too exhausted and disappointed after a decade of selling records by the handful to carry on.

"You know how hard it is to have a relationship with a girl for 10 years?" Stevenson says. "Try having it with four guys." He laughs, insisting he's neither thrilled nor disappointed in the breakup, simply resigned to it. "But we're all right. I am sort of the one who brought it to a head, but everyone I think feels similarly."

Indeed, only Jerome is disheartened by the decision--he refers to it as "disappointing"--but Stevenson says that's just because Jerome hasn't been in the band since the beginning. "He's not as beaten down as the rest of us," the lead singer jokes. "He's younger than us and tends to look at things on the positive side."

Stevenson's decision to end the band comes after six months of nothing but disappointment and bad luck. The year began with the release of the long-delayed Telepathic Last Words, which hit with all the impact of a melted snowball: Save for some airplay on KTXQ-FM (102.1), the single "The Information" failed to get played on local radio; KDGE-FM (94.5) and KEGL-FM (97.1) virtually ignored the song altogether--so much for that local radio playing local rock fad. Then came an aborted tour with the band Two, fronted by former Judas Priest singer Rob Halford. The tour, which began in the spring and was supposed to last more than a month, didn't make it past the third week; Two's label, the Trent Reznor-run Nothing, wanted the band to play in Europe and stop wasting its time and money playing the States.

When the tour ended a month ago, Course returned to Dallas with the vague feeling that the end was near, says their New York City-based manager Jerry Jaffe. Jerome says he took two weeks off to go on vacation and returned to discover that Stevenson was ready to call it quits. "When I left, I hoped things would change, and then I found they got more solid on where they stand," says the drummer, who now plans on going back to school and disappearing for a while. "So you move on."

Jerome, Jaffe, and execs at TVT Records (the band's home since February 1997) wanted Stevenson to wait it out a little longer. They had hoped he would give "Captain Control," the second (and most radio-friendly) single from Telepathic Last Words, time to make a dent on radio. But Stevenson's a smart man: He knows radio doesn't give you a second shot these days. Either a record breaks, or a band breaks up.

"In my mind, this was sort of the last record anyway, but I was willing to try to give it a full shot if that's what everyone wanted to do," Stevenson says. "Although I've changed my mind in the past, I was convinced this was it."

The end of Course of Empire "was always a possibility," says Jaffe, who has managed the band since 1994. "It's always a possibility when you realize your record is not going to go gold. There's a certain inevitability about it if you don't reach a certain success level. It's not like one day someone from the band calls and says, 'Guess what--we're breaking up.' It would be a shock if we were selling three million records and Vaughn called and said that. Then I'd be like, 'Oh, no! I'm having a heart attack.' But it's not a surprise."

And so Course of Empire becomes one more local band that disappears into the ether like so much smoke and empty promise. They add their names to the growing list of Dallas-based bands who sign to major labels and then wind up writing their names in the history books in invisible ink--see: Jackopierce, the New Bohemians, Tablet, the Buck Pets, Vibrolux, Funland, and so many more. Some were good, some were bad, but all were once hailed as the next big something or other once upon a time. They sold their souls for living-wage advances to Mercury or Island or Arista or A&M, and we applauded their signing on the bottom line, so desperate were we to get a band on the charts and help this city's so-called music scene get over its inferiority complex. Now, all these acts stand as proof that getting signed is indeed the worst thing that can happen to a musician; any band that hasn't figured out by now that it's better off recording and pressing and selling its own CDs is dumber than it looks.

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