Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
The story of late-80s Windy City band the Veil has all the hallmarks of a rock ‘n’ roll epic—triumph, tragedy, mind-boggling coincidence, even an unexpected happy ending. And because the roots of the Veil extend deep into the city’s early punk scene (and beyond), of course the Secret History of Chicago Music was gonna get involved.
When the Veil broke up 1989, they hadn’t released any music formally—unless you count a four-song cassette they put together themselves and sold at shows. That set the stage for a fortuitous discovery in 2018, when music enthusiast Eric Clements strolled into a local thrift store and spotted a large collection of cassette tapes. He bought the entire lot, around 120 tapes, for a whopping seven dollars, and when he got home, he discovered some music he didn’t recognize among familiar stuff by the likes of the Stooges and the Velvet Underground: eight cassettes by a band called the Veil.
The material was a mishmash as far as recording quality went—it included rehearsal tapes, demos, and first-pass studio mixes—but Clements was impressed by its glammy, jangly blend of postpunk and power pop. He could barely find any documentation of the Veil’s existence online, but he did locate surviving member David Thomas. Thomas, who once worked for the Reader, is probably best known these days for codirecting the rapturously received but barely distributed 2002 documentary MC5: A True Testimonial (the Reader covered the film’s complicated, frustrating story in depth in 2004). Once Clements and Thomas started messaging, things got positively spooky—it turns out they went to the same Saint Louis-area high school, and Thomas had been childhood friends with Clements’s dad! They’d played high school baseball together in 1974, and Clements found family photos of them hanging out. Thomas also dated Clements’s aunt for two years.
Thomas also had plenty to share about the Veil, and explained that he’d been working intermittently on a retrospective release that had yet to come to fruition. Clements was primed to make that release happen—but we’ll get back to that.
The focal point of the Veil was front woman Lorna Donley, but her voice is missing from this story—she died much too young in 2013. (I attended her wake, and it was one of the sadder days of my life.) Donley and Thomas had previously played bass and guitar, respectively, in beloved darkwave-slash-postpunk band DA! (sometimes billed simply as Da), whose story I told in Secret History ages ago. Donley started the band at age 17 in 1977, and the best-known lineup—including Thomas and guitarist Gaylene Goudreau—came together not long after. They opened for the likes of the Fall, DNA, Bauhaus, and Mission of Burma, but by the time their Time Will Be Kind EP came out in 1982, they’d broken up, with Goudreau moving to New York to start the band Bag People.
Donley formed a new version of DA! for a few gigs in 1982 and ’83, then played a few more with a short-lived group called Silent Language, with drummer Jed “Djed” Fox and guitarist Philip Galanter. Around the same time, Thomas was playing drums in the equally short-lived Terminal Beach with guitarist and vocalist Steve Bjorklund (former Strike Under, future Breaking Circus), guitarist John Haggerty (future Naked Raygun, Pegboy), and a bassist who went by “Mousetrap” (aka Scott Harris). Terminal Beach played only a few shows (though they did cut a demo), and Thomas moved on to play guitar and sing with the Interceptors, alongside future Big Black guitarist Santiago Durango.
“Around ’84 Lorna and I had patched things up and became romantically involved,” Thomas recalls. “At that time she was playing, briefly, in El Sexo Rojas, who later morphed into the Slammin’ Watusis.” Thomas and Mousetrap had left Terminal Beach and formed a weird performance ensemble called A Mason in Ur, which helped set the stage for the Veil—between roughly 1984 and ’87 the group’s constantly shifting lineup included, at different times, Thomas, Donley, Fox, Haggerty, and Doug McCombs (Eleventh Dream Day, Tortoise).
“We evolved from standard instruments to sculptural ones built largely by Mousetrap, garbed in masks and costumes and performing ‘ritual music’ (a la Harry Partch and Moondog),” Thomas says. “We were banned forever from Club 950 and Cabaret Metro for what were deemed ‘subversive art actions.’ Unfortunately, no concrete record of A Mason in Ur (also variously known as Nga Jiwa and Purple Sherpas) exists. It was from this rich and heady stew that Lorna and I eventually birthed the Veil, a more traditional rock band.”
The Veil came together in 1986, after much trial and error. “Lorna and I had hunted for the right chemistry to complete the Veil for almost two years,” Thomas says. They tried playing with former DA! drummer Bob Furem (who’d previously been in Strike Under and Trial by Fire), as well as with Therese Drda, who’d drummed in Book of (Holy) Lies; they also auditioned Galanter on guitar.
“We really liked Therese’s drumming, but she had other commitments,” Thomas says. “We ran ads for a drummer, finally finding Mike Ebersohl, who we seemed to click with. He was from Carbondale and had played in several bands—including Vision, whose guitarist Robbie Stokes guested on a couple of Veil tracks.” As a three-piece, the Veil began writing and rehearsing. They made their first recordings at Dress Rehearsals studio on West Hubbard, working with Metro Mobile Recording owner Timothy Powell, who’d already engineered some of the most important records in Chicago punk.
- This new video for the Veil’s “The Crown” is constructed from vintage footage of the band (among other things).
“We brought in my old pal Joe Haynes to lay down some lead guitar, and he joined us permanent-like,” Thomas says. The two musicians had a long history—back in Saint Louis, Thomas had played in Haynes’s earliest bands, covering the likes of Mountain, Bowie, and Zeppelin in high school gyms. “I ‘sang’ (haha) because I was the guy that knew the words,” he remembers. “Around 1978 Haynes had a punk cover band called Bad Habits, the singer of which was a 17-year-old Michael Stipe (yes, that Michael Stipe). Shortly after that he and I had a power-poppish band called Cool Jerk. When that broke up, I immigrated to Chicago.”
As a four-piece, with drummer Andy Wahl replacing Ebersohl, the Veil hit the studio again in late 1988, this time at Short Order Recorder in Zion, Illinois, owned and operated by power-pop legends Shoes—in fact, Shoes guitarist and singer Jeff Murphy engineered the sessions. Thomas and Donley had chosen Murphy thanks in part to a recommendation by their friend Jim Ellison of Material Issue—they also liked the sound of the first Material Issue 12-inch, which Murphy had produced.
The Veil’s first live gig was in May 1988, according to Clements. They’d go on to play local joints such as Batteries Not Included, the Vic, Medusa’s, Club Dreamerz, and Biddy Mulligan’s, as well as at street fairs and in parks. They opened for beloved touring bands, including the Godfathers and Galaxie 500, and for local legends the Elvis Brothers and the Mystery Girls (an early band led by Kevin Junior of Chamber Strings). And they spray-painted their logo all over town.
Their music was equally indebted to glam rock, the British Invasion, and gothy new wave. When I ask Thomas about the Veil’s influences, he recites quite a list. “The Who, Troggs, BÖC, Parachute-era Pretty Things, T. Rex, Wire, Slade, books about symbolist painters and kamikaze pilots,” he says. “Lorna was reading Georges Bataille and Leonora Carrington; we watched Doctor Who on Channel 11 every Sunday. Frequent MDMA excursions, leather and motorcycles, and Siouxsie always.”
- A new video for the Veil’s “Gunpowder Mouth”
The Veil had hoped to attract a major label, but in 1989, Donley and Thomas broke up, and the band followed suit. “It was a pretty great band for a minute or two,” Thomas says. Inspired by a DA! reunion and reissue in 2010, he and Donley, who’d long since mended fences, began working on a belated Veil release. “You started the ball rolling with the DA! SHoCM piece and the Chic-a-Go-Go appearance,” he tells me. (Yours truly booked DA! on a SHoCM episode of cable-access dance show Chic-a-Go-Go in 2008.) “So after the DA! reunions and LP (Exclamation Point: [Un]released Recordings 1980-81 was issued in 2010), she and I had started to pull these tracks together, as we always knew this deserved a place in the lexicon.”
Donley’s death derailed those plans, of course. “A few years after she passed, my wife Laurel and I were moving,” Thomas recalls. “We did a major purge of possessions, and in what turned out to be a magickal moment, I dumped my entire cassette collection at a thrift store—including numerous Veil tapes (copies, mixes, demos, rehearsals, et cetera)—and said to my wife at the time, ‘Maybe these’ll mean something to somebody someday.'”
They definitely meant something to Clements, whose cassette archaeology has prompted him to start his own label, Dim Dim Dark Records, and release the brand-new Veil anthology Time Stands Still. Compiled with Thomas, its ten songs include six from sessions with Powell and four from sessions with Murphy—all sourced from the old tapes Thomas had unloaded. The album also bills the band as Lorna Donley & the Veil, to give their amazing front woman her due. Stripped-down pop tunes “The Crown” and “Hold Me” easily could’ve charted alongside Blondie and the Go-Go’s, and the harder-edged “Serpent’s Eyes” and “Gunpowder Mouth” show off Thomas’s Motor City-indebted riffage.
Time Stands Still should secure the Veil a spot in the canon of great Chicago bands and earn Donley overdue recognition as one of the great women in rock. Though she also had a career as a librarian, her pursuit of music didn’t end with the Veil: in the 90s she fronted the noisy Hip Deep Trilogy, and in the late 2000s she worked on a dark art-pop project called Twilight Furniture with Dan Burke of Illusion of Safety. Clements says further Veil-related projects are in the works, but he can’t share more right now—with luck, though, the whole world might soon become aware of this formerly forgotten band. I couldn’t be happier about it, and I hope Lorna is smiling from above. v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.
- Time Stands Still includes ten studio recordings from the Veil’s late-80s sessions.