‘Left in the Dark’ Lives On

‘Left in the Dark’ Lives On
The Vertebrats.
‘Left in the Dark’ Lives On
The Vertebrats.

‘Left in the Dark’ Lives On

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Palatine resident Ken Draznik goes to Champaign this weekend, where he’ll play two reunion concerts with a rock band he formed 30 years ago. The Vertebrats never made it big but one of their songs  has had a strange life of its own. For WBEZ, Robert Loerzel tells the story.

The Vertebrats Tonight at 9 p.m.
Cowboy Monkey, 6 E. Taylor St., Champaign;
Saturday, Oct. 3 at 8 p.m. at the Highdive, 51 E. Main St., Champaign. Tickets available at TicketFusion.

Odds are, you’ve never heard this song until now.

AUDIO: Opening of the original recording of “Left in the Dark” by the Vertebrats.

It’s an obscure old record you can’t even find on iTunes. But at least nine bands have recorded versions of it over the past three decades. This is one song that just won’t die.

DRAZNIK: I’m Ken Draznik. I wrote “Left in the Dark” and performed it with a band called the Vertebrats from 1979 to 1982. It’s basically a tale that came out of a relationship that ended, and I’ll just leave it at that.

Draznik, who says he’s happily married now, admits feeling a little weird whenever he sings this song about breaking up with a girl all those years ago.

DRAZNIK: I’m kind of sheepish about it now because you know, I probably overreacted. But when you’re young, you tend to feel things strongly. It was just an honest reaction to something that happened.

Jon Ginoli, a deejay at campus radio station WPGU, sent a tape of the Vertebrats’ recording to Bomp Records, which was putting together a compilation called The Battle of the Garages.

DRAZNIK: I don’t think I even knew about it. I think it was after the fact that Jon said, “Oh, by the way, I sent this off to this record company.” Lo and behold, not too long after that we got a letter on official Bomp Records letterhead that said “Left in the Dark” had been selected. We were fortunate to get it on that compilation, and from that, different bands heard it.

The Vertebrats broke up in 1982, but two years later, Draznik’s song showed up on a concert tape by the Replacements.

AUDIO: Live recording of the Replacements begins playing “Left in the Dark.”

DRAZNIK: They were kind of loose — kind of drunk, whenever they played, usually. And they played a lot of covers. That was part of their whole thing. They had heard the version of our song on the compilation album.

One night in November 1984, the Replacements played “Left in the Dark” at a club in Oklahoma City. A roadie grabbed a tape that someone in the audience was making. The Twin Tone label later released it as a cassette. Singer Paul Westerberg didn’t know all of the lyrics, but Draznik loves the way the Replacements rocked out on his song.

DRAZNIK: It is one of my favorite versions because the rhythm section just really kicks it into high gear and it just really, really drives the whole song. And I think their guitar playing really captures some of the angst that was intended.

That compilation record with “Left in the Dark” also ended up in the hands of Jay Farrar. And in 1990, Farrar covered the song with his band, Uncle Tupelo. Their recording finally came out years later.

AUDIO: Uncle Tupelo version of “Left in the Dark.”

DRAZNIK: It’s a lot more in-your-face kind of marching. Whereas the Replacements’ version has a little bit of leeway in the rhythm and it swings a little bit more, the Uncle Tupelo version is almost like a heavy-metal marching song, if you will. It’s very much “bang bang bang bang bang.”

Obscure bands recorded the song, too — D.T. and the Shakes, the Swales, the Coal Gems and a group from Australia called the Screaming Tribesmen.

AUDIO: Screaming Tribesmen version of “Left in the Dark.”

Draznik was surprised that so many people were covering his song.

DRAZNIK: I don’t know how to explain it. It must have hit a nerve with musicians and it was fairly easy to learn. I think that might have had something to do with it. Not too complicated. Keep it simple. And it expressed an emotion that a lot of people can relate to.

AUDIO: Courtney Love version of “Left in the Dark.”

Around 2001, Draznik got a call from James Barber, who was producing a record for Courtney Love.

DRAZNIK: He loves the song. He says that it’s one of his favorites of all time, and that he played it daily when he was disc-jockeying at Harvard. And so he introduced the song to her, got her to record it.

But when Love released her next album, “American Sweetheart,” “Left in the Dark” got left off the CD.

DRAZNIK: She sounds a little bit like Patti Smith when she sings it. Basically the same emotion but from a female perspective, and she’s really got the attitude for it, if you will.

New versions of “Left in the Dark” just keep on coming.

AUDIO: Prime Movers’ version of “Left in the Dark”

DRAZNIK: Prime Movers, a band out of Boston… It’s got some harmonica at the end, which is unusual. Very kind of hippie-hippie-shake flavor to it.

And in 2007, the song showed up on prime-time television.

AUDIO: The Leonards’ version of “Left in the Dark.”

DRAZNIK: That might be the weirdest story of all. A band out of Michigan called the Leonards had recorded it, and put it out on a self-released CD. And as it turns out, one of the members works as a grip on the “Ugly Betty” show. He convinced them to use their version of the song in “Ugly Betty…” The scene was Betty got set up for a blind date, and they went to a bowling alley. And her date kind of got cold feet. So he goes to the washroom, and as he’s coming out of the washroom, you can see the turmoil on his face and he decides to walk away. And as he’s walking away, they go into “Left in the Dark.”

Thousands of records come out every year, and most disappear without a trace. The fact that so many people keep recording “Left in the Dark” shows that there is something special about the song. But it still faces long odds in the crowded marketplace of all that music. Draznik, who works for the Riddell sporting-goods company, says he isn’t getting rich from royalties. But he is excited about reuniting this weekend with fellow Vertebrats Matt Brandabur, Roy Axford and Jim Wald.

DRAZNIK: We weren’t really into this for the money, anyway. My first and only goal was to get up on a stage one time and play in front of people. People liked us, and that was enough, really.

AUDIO: More of the original version of “Left in the Dark” by the Vertebrats.