There was a night in October 2002 I was recording in South Philadelphia with Radio Eris keyboardist/utility producer Matt Stevenson. What we were recording became the spoken word album Raw Rainy Fog. I have described in detail elsewhere precisely what Main Street West (aka Webster Street Studios) at 11th and Webster in South Philadelphia was like; to nut-shell the thing, a lovable hovel. I had picked up some Paisano red wine, because we were to have guests that night- Mary Harju and Abby Heller-Burnham. As of autumn '02, Mary and I were entrenched, and Abby was our constant companion. When they arrived, we smoked the requisite bowl (Matt's weed) from Matt's little marble-textured piece, and I poured the wine. This was, I laugh to remember, rather a mistake- Mary and Abby, together or separately, could hold their pot but not their booze. So, Matt was forced to watch, in semi-bemused fashion, as the two painters disintegrated into cacophonous incoherence and tantrum-like upset. They were a tumultuous pair; and, a few months after that (February '03), they moved into a two bedroom flat in a complex on 42nd Street off of Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia, where Mary had lived for a few years already at the pictured 4325 commune. I was Mary's hubs, and there constantly.
One nuance to remember about Mary and Abby, as a Dynamic Duo- Mary, through a rigorous and rigorously enforced regimen of scant eating, was always perfectly thin, if still rather more big-boned up close than one would think; Abby Heller-Burnham's weight was always fluctuating between extreme thinness and chunkiness. Her quandary was clear- the better she was painting, the more she liked to eat. Mary had a height advantage, as well- her Grace Kelly-like near 5'8 to Abby's elfin five feet even. The flat itself was nondescript- a large kitchen/living room space (the kitchen had an island), flanked by bedrooms on either side. No serious painting could be done there- Abby and Mary both had studios elsewhere. Because Mary had a hubs, she was given the larger, master bedroom, as we alternated apartments night by night as usual (I was still at 21st and Race). An important facet of Abby's personality which became visible at this time was her slow-burn Virgo temper- she was pissed at Mary's marriage to me, and harbored a secret grievance that she (the reason wasn't important) deserved the master bedroom. It's just that they both knew by then (without necessarily verbalizing it) what it would take me a number of years to realize for myself- Abby Heller-Burnham was a greater artist than Mary Harju. She was more inventive, imaginative, and formally rigorous, building on French Neo-Classicists Ingres and David from a firm base of solid contemporary engagement, while Mary settled for aping the Renaissance and hoping for the best. What was simmering in them in '03 was a congeries of all these issues.
We all enjoyed ourselves in that apartment for a while. We could all sing, so that spring we conceived the idea of writing and rehearsing some tunes. Perhaps Matt could record us at Main Street West or we could play a few clubs. The material we compiled over a few months was intriguing, including a nod to Sister Lovers-era Big Star called "She Slit Her Wrists." We managed to play out together, sans name, precisely once in the summer of '03. It was upstairs at Book Trader, then still at 5th and South, at an event coordinated by Brian Patrick Heston, who was a benevolent presence for us then, and his posse. I'm sure we sounded like lunatics, but a good time was had by all. In the middle of all this, On Love and Hamlet On Pine Street appeared in Hinge Online; Mary and I were still studying at Penn; I did several readings at the Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus (all taped, and tapes which may still exist); and Mary and I were planning our trip to Montreal. I was moving, in my writing, away from the Romantic pastiches of '01/'02 towards a kind of groping around for a resolutely contemporary voice yet mindful of Romanticism's lessons. Abby, who had then begun The Skaters, was performing roughly the same aesthetic task.