Steady Soul

After 35 years of rocking Richmond’s music scene, Dean Owen isn’t letting up.

With the sudden, shocking death of Richmond music and cultural legend Dave Brockie, you kind of have to feel around for the pulse of our scene for reassurance.

And there you find a pulsing legion of the always faithful, whose hunger and love of music and drive to perform have been a constant heartbeat for a solid generation. Names like Jim Wark, Ed Trask, Tommy Rodriguez, Greta Brinkman and Wes Freed, to name a few.

Then there’s Dean Owen.

“The rockingest fucking hippie this side of the Mississippi!” as Richmond punk legend and noted guitar-maker Rodriguez says.

The Dean’s list of bands in which he’s drummed, strummed, or sang, screamed or crooned numbers 35 or so — and counting.

“Dean throws as much energy from the stage at an audience as anyone I’ve ever seen,” says local guitar monument Jim Wark, a former publisher of Style Weekly. “Offstage, he’s the sweetest guy you could meet. The guy loves to play.”

Longtime Richmond music writer Mariane Matera, known for her sharp wit and rapierlike pen, gets a little soft about Owen, whom she considers to be one of the area’s top unheralded songwriters.

She met her husband while passing out Owen’s cassettes in Moondance, she says, and got her current job because she knew the layout software Quark from the discs he gave her. “He changed my life,” he says. “He is also an immaculate housekeeper, good cook, and loves his dog. If I had money, I would adopt him.”

“Well …,” Owen drawls in his distinctive, raspy voice when we talk about his tenure and tenor on the scene. “Not everybody would say that.”

Owen is a guy who enjoys laughing. And listening. A guy who cares with a childlike honesty. It’s genuine.

“Dean is a sweetheart.” Richmond underground icon Dirtwoman says. “That’s why I’m having his baby.”

He’s both the shirtless rock star in tight, sequined pants and matching platforms, and at the same time the heavily pimpled teenager who started playing drums because he couldn’t get a girl otherwise. “You can see the scars,” he says, stroking his neck. “I’m 50 years old and still have acne.”

And unlike many Richmond musical figures who came here for college at Virginia Commonwealth University and stayed, Owen is a local. He grew up near Tuckahoe Middle School with kids like Dana Frostick and Buddy Corbett. His dad had a sporting goods shop and his mom was a deputy at the City Jail. “She had to fire her gun and everything,” he says.

His parents split when he was 13. Owen stayed with his mom until the neighbors grew fatigued with the ADHD kid incessantly pounding on the drums. Then he moved in with his dad. (“The neighbors were complaining at my father’s too,” he says.)

By then, age 15, he’d stumbled into his first drumming gig, the Justin Time Band.

“The drummer didn’t show up for a party right down the street from my house. I went and got my drum set,” he recalls. “It was awesome! That’s where I met my first girlfriend. I accidentally hit her on the hand with my drumstick.

“From then on, I played anywhere, with anyone.”

Music became his family.

The bands clicked along like billboards on his long musical journey: Slipknot, the Flipside, Indianah Owen and the Assbites from Hell. The girlfriends have lasted longer. They’ve been his main chapter headings. He went where they wanted to go until it fell apart and the music called again.

When he wasn’t playing, he was cooking at places such as the Stonewall Cafe, where he worked with the drummer for the Dave Matthews Band.

He toured for a while and stayed in Athens, Ga., as a percussionist for Widespread Panic. He spent some time in Southern California with another girlfriend shipping pot.

Then he began his long remodeling career by figuring out how to fix up his first house, a dilapidated shack at 1312 W. Grace St. That neighborhood got into his blood. (He’s rehabbing another house just down the street from the Cary Street Café, a place he’s played countless times. Steady girlfriend Charlene is there, and of course Rufus, the much-loved dog.)

Through all these years, the bands have played on — reggae, funk, jam-band, hippie stuff (lots of that) and finally punk after running sound for a show that featured Dave Brockie and other early Richmond punk purveyors.

Perhaps you recall some of the band names on the Dean’s list: Stack House, Thelma Shook, Cashmere Jungle Lords, Vapor Rhinos, Ultra Bait, Nancy and the Knockers and many others. And there are the tribute bands: Tiny Tim, the Village People, Neal Diamond, R.E.M. and the long-lived local legends Brown Sabbath and, of course, Dean’s alter-ego band, Iggy Plop and the Spooges.

There he is, gyrating shirtless, sequined, writhing on the floor, crawling under the stage, falling down — whatever it takes to make the crowd buy into the show.

“It should be a show,” he says. “Even if you’re a genius, if you don’t move, you suck.”

Holding back isn’t rock ‘n’ roll, Owen says. Even if it means playing the fool.

And always this extra earnestness, like he’s thrilled to be in the band, never too cool for school. (Keep an eye out for shows featuring Owen’s current bands, Barstool Heroes, Quantum Mechanix, Diamond Heist, Brown Sabbath and Iggy Plop.)

Recently, he was talking after he got down off a North Richmond roof for a lunch break during a recent remodeling job. He puffed cigarettes with his kind of shaky, arthritic hands and pulled on a giant Big Gulp. The death of Brockie was still new and raw for both of us.

It was reassuring to listen to all that history without hearing a single negative word about the hundreds of people Owen’s played with, run sound or booked shows for at places like Twisters.

Reassuring to hear how all these musical paths intersected and connected, knowing Owen played the background beat for so many musical dreams, coming to practices and shows on time, putting all his heart and energy into someone else’s vision.

Reassuring knowing that for all the rising and falling of the big names, the tragedies and slow deaths, the opening and closing of venues, the shifting of the RVA scene, there are those steady souls like Dean Owen, keeping us safe in sound. S


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