Jeebus. When did this website turn into a bunch of reminiscences about dead musicians and friends? Life seems to be gunning for all of us. You'd think we're all not going to make it, in any sense.
Chris Cornell was the Real Deal. This is a guy who had a voice like a dirty Los Angeles angel, could play guitar like Ziggy, and wrote songs that managed to be both hooky, weird, and heavy. Rush couldn't even wrangle that.
Cornell's band Soundgarden went from indie darlings to major-label successes. Cornell's good looks gave the band the final thing they were missing, allowing them to roll on with the rest of the Grunge Class of The Early 90s: Nirvana (singer Kurt Cobain, dead), Alice In Chains (singer Layne Staley, dead), Mother Love Bone (singer Andrew Wood, dead), and Stone Temple Pilots (singer Scott Weiland, dead). PS Most of them are dead from drugs and/or complications from same. Don't do drugs.
But like pretty much every act that manages to "make it" to the big time, the big time eventually runs out on you. You can dodge the Smack Reaper, but you can't dodge the fickle Fan Reaper.
One day your new records stop selling. Eventually your old ones stop selling, too. Your band breaks up. Maybe you go solo. If/when that doesn't work, maybe you try to start a new band. To prove that it wasn't a fluke, or that you've still got it, or just because you're bored and have no idea what else to do with your life.
Then the entire genre you work in stops being cool. The kids are all listening to some new shit you don't understand. Maybe you try to update your sound with a hot producer. This almost never works, but again, what are you going to do? This is your career. You have people to take care of.
And I tell you what, it feels really, really good at first. When you get back on stage and start ripping through the hits, you remember how good it can be. There are still some hot people out there in the audience, and they seem reasonably interested in hearing a new song or two. Everybody's excited. YOU'RE BACK, BABY.
But after every show comes the Big Letdown.
It's well-known among performers. Being on stage is like a drug, and the comedown is terrible. It's depressing, hollowing, dark. Part of why bands string out long tours is to push off that comedown as much as possible. Sooner or later the show ends, or the tour ends, or both.
After the show, you're back in your hotel room, sweaty and tired and alone. Once you're at a certain age, you're almost certainly too smart, too married, or too scared to get tangled up with groupies. You just want some food and maybe a drink and a good night's sleep.
So you're there in your hotel room, by yourself. Maybe you look in the mirror and notice your thinning, graying hair. Or wrinkled skin. Or your paunch, which just don't seem to be going away no matter how much cardio you do or how few carbs you do. You wonder if your fans notice, too.
Your back hurts. You wonder if you're going to make another record, and if the best you can hope for is that people say it is "better than they expected" it to be.
That's all on top of whatever other damage you're carrying around by then, whether it's bad tattoos or bad memories or a bad childhood or bad relationships or all of the above.
Most people don't become musicians and artists because they're well-adjusted folk with stable lives and mental well-being. They do it because they're messed up in one or more ways, and making the art and finding validation in crowds of strangers is how they get by, if not get paid.
I can't say for sure why Chris Cornell took his own life. Or why my friend Gary did. Or Michael Hutchence. Or Michael Jackson. Or (arguably) Prince. Or any number of other people and musicians and artists you've never even heard of.
But I can imagine some scenarios, and I may have had a few long nights of staring into that black mirror myself, hoping that something would change in me or that someone would change me. And realizing it just wasn't going to happen.
The Show Must Go On. Until one day it just can't.
Thank you for the music, Chris. I miss you already.
Soundgarden's best qualities are all on display in "Fell On Black Days", perhaps my favorite song by them, and sadly prescient. And by the way, this is a live in-studio performance, not a recording. Hear how great Chris was:
Whatsoever I've feared has come to life Whatsoever I've fought off became my life Just when everyday seemed to greet me with a smile Sunspots have faded and now I'm doing time Now I'm doing time 'Cause I fell on black days I fell on black days Whomsoever I've cured, I've sickened now And whomsoever I've cradled, I've put you down I'm a search light soul they say But I can't see it in the night I'm only faking when I get it right
'Cause I fell on black days I fell on black days How would I know That this could be my fate? So what you wanted to see good Has made you blind And what you wanted to be yours Has made it mine Don't you lock up something That you wanted to see fly Hands are for shaking No, not tying, no, not tying I sure don't mind a change 'Cause I fell on black days How would I know That this could be my fate? I sure don't mind a change
...and here's Chris doing one of his solo songs, the deep and powerful "Can't Change Me". People think this is a song about resilience. But it's really about resignation. He's NOT happy that he can't be changed. He's lamenting it. Again, solo, live, one take. There aren't too many people with these kinds of skills.
Look, I don't "do" politics. I ain't the brightest tool in the deck, for one thing. Also, my manager tells me it ain't good for business.
But still. Gotta few things I gotta say.
If you haven't done your homework, you really shouldn't be voting. Just don't. Don't grab someone else's guide, or blindly vote a party ticket.
Except for one thing: Vote for Hillary. If you vote for the other guy, you're saying you don't believe in a bunch of core American things. I don't have time to go into it.
More important: Beware of any political party that wants to restrict what you can say and what words you can use, what you can do in your bedroom, how you can rock, how you can pray (or not pray), what kinds of thoughts are acceptable.
You should be free to say and do what you want. That doesn't absolve you from social responsibility and consequence (if you're an asshole, don't be surprised if people point and say "that person is an asshole!"). But the choice should be yours.
The right is pretty bad about this, particularly the wing that wants to prohibit all the good stuff in the bedroom.
But I'm old enough to remember when Al Gore's wife (and the rest of left) was crusading against music, and the fantastic supergroup coalition of Frank Zappa, Dee Snider, and John F'ing DENVER convened to fight 'em. (They...and we...lost, but what a fight it was).
There's always some group wanting to clamp down on what you're allowed to say, what's OK to say, and what's cool. Stay vigiliant, stay loud, stay free.
Mark Ronson likes to mine the past for inspiration. He's been pretty outspoken about how he listens to old records and frequently tries to emulate them. Not straight-up copying, but copying the vibe. Like all musicians, he's got a deep appreciation for, and encyclopedic knowledge of, music.
Talented dude, and his production and skills resulted in great albums for acts including the late, great Amy Winehouse and the still-great Duran Duran.
He supposedly recorded like 3 complete versions of "Uptown Funk" that didn't work before the version he did with Bruno Mars blew up and became a hit.
So of course, Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars have been sued over "Uptown Funk". Again. (This Pitchfork article sums it up well).
The meat of the argument is copyright violation. There's some bad knowledge that "8 notes in sequence" have to be lifted. This isn't exactly true. It's a lot more complicated. But basically you should be somewhat original when it comes to composition (there's absolutely NO middle ground on sound recordings, though. If you use any tiny sample of someone else's record, you are infringing).
Given all the ambiguity, and how weird music is to begin with, there are always accusations of "you're copying my song" when what is really meant is "that sort of feels like what I did". This is also aggravated by musicians constantly listening to each other and the market and trying to figure out what's popular or will be popular. (Hint: It's very similar to what already is or was popular, except when it's not).
This isn't new. Every. Single. Musician. does this: copies other musicians. Hell, every artist does this. Every human.
In fact, if big successful bands were mean and/or had more lawyers and free time, they could make a very small fortune by going around and nailing all the up-and-coming bands that are ripping them off right and left trying to hop on the bandwagon. (If they'd been smart, RHCP and Jane's Addiction could have made a mint from early-90s Los Angeles). But that's sort of punching down, and not worth it, because most musicians have nothing to sue for.
But the upward suit, of the nobody or dead star's "estate" against current hitmaker/star? All good. And this has become a big deal in the last few years. I think it's because of a few factors:
1) The continuing decline in music industry revenues means that old bands (or more frequently, their "estates") are seeking new sources of revenue, so they're going after the crummy new acts taking what little money is available.
2) Studio technology and internet knowledge have made it easier than ever to find cool stuff from the past and figure out how to superficially and near-exactly replicate it (see also: the extreme hype around the "Stranger Things" 80s synth soundtrack, Adele, etc.)
...and you can do it without sampling, which as we all know was the subject of many lawsuits both valid and stupid.
Anyhow, let's listen to a few of these. Here's the Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson jam:
Now here's "Young Girls" by Collage, from 1983:
Like Mark Ronson, I am an artist who dissects, copies, pastiches, and, uh, collages for a "living". Yeah. There are clear similarities. Clearly Ronson and Mars heard this and said "let's do one like that".
So you get a similar tempo. The big bass hit on the one. The razor-sharp Strat chords. The vibe.
But what about the Gap Band? They sued over the same song, claiming it was close to their own "Oops Upside Your Head" from 1979:
...or this song, "Funk You Up" by The Sequence, also from 1979?
The Gap Band won. The Sequence chose not to file. Does that mean Collage should also be sued by The Gap Band and The Sequence? (For what it's worth, I think Collage has a much stronger case than either of the other two bands.) I mean, I don't really hear what The Gap Band is so upset about.
There are a whole grip of early 80s electro-funk soul tunes which are also amazing and also likely sources of inspiration. When you listen to a playlist of this stuff, what starts to strike you is not "what a spectacular range of creativity" but rather "wow, this all sort of sounds like the same song. It's a really GOOD song, but..."
You start to see how every scene and genre in pop music is variations on a theme, usually empowered by some new piece of technology, whether it's a Moog bass synthesizer, a vocoder, a Fairlight CMI, ReCycle, the Sherman Filterbank, the Akai S1000 and MPC, or Antares AutoTune.
The last time this happened, it was Miguel's "Adorn" vs. Marvin Gaye's estate. This is because "Adorn" is pretty much "Sexual Healing", but not as good, and also because Marvin Gaye's "estate" are a bunch of litigious jerks.. Hear for yourself:
You already know "Sexual Healing", but c'mon it's so good:
Here's Miguel's bad Xerox:
It's beyond obvious that "Adorn" came out of the gang in the studio saying "we should make something like 'Sexual Healing'", and then they did the dumbest possible thing: They made something that literally sounded like "Sexual Healing".
It's also super-obvious that "Adorn" sucks.
They copped all the right sounds: 808. Synth bass. Organ-y synth for chords. But they left out some crucial ingredients.
For one, while Marvin Gaye's lyrics for "Sexual Healing" aren't exactly Bob Dylan-level, they're passable, internally consistent, and have a few good moments (the "I got sick this morning..." verse, for example).
"Adorn", on the other hand, is pretty dumb throughout, and like most modern pop songs, flits from one idea and metaphor to another, without any intention whatsoever.
Most importantly, while Miguel is a technically fine singer, he is no Marvin Gaye when it comes to delivery. As caveman as "Sexual Healing" can be (it's basically a song that says "I'm horny, so fuck me before I lose my shit" and literally says "no, masturbation's not good enough"), Gaye's singing totally sells it in a non-creepy way and makes it loving, tender and even hot.
Ain't nobody playing Marvin Gaye on radio, and Miguel sold 500K copies - GOLD! - on the strength of his Gaye-giarism. Plus the Gaye people did pretty good in wailing on the also-terrible "Blurred Lines" for similar crimes.
These suits are not uncommon. Led Zeppelin just got hit by some band that claims Zep "stole" key pieces of "Stairway to Heaven". I can't remember the band's name, and neither can you, because even if Zep did cop the vibe, the forgotten band didn't actually write fucking STAIRWAY, Led Zeppelin did.
George Harrison got sued over "My Sweet Lord". He lost the suit, and then bought the rights to the song that won.
Perhaps the best and best-known of these suits is from the 80s (of course), and that is Huey Lewis and The News' 1982 smash "I Want A New Drug" vs. Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters" theme from 1984.
This case was particularly notable because, unusually, BOTH of these songs were huge chart-topping smashes, endlessly played on radio at the time.
Here's "I Want A New Drug":
...and here's "Ghostbusters":
So what happened? Huey Lewis won, and big time. Part of this was that Lewis had been approached by the Ghostbusters producers, who said "please write us a hit song for the movie". Lewis was busy (writing hit songs for "Back To The Future") and he passed.
So the producers then went to Ray Parker Jr. (why???) and said "hey, can you write us something for the movie kind of like 'I Want A New Drug'?" and Parker said "sure thing".
Kaboom. Documented. Done. Payment made. Also a pretty obvious and hacky copy. Parker is a very gifted guitar player, but that is some lazy songwriting (to say nothing of his somnambulent "singing"). Didn't matter. Was still a big hit.
And Parker had some literal payback when Lewis broke the confidentiality agreement around the settlement many years later and Parker sued him.
But if you look at radio play these days, well, they're still playing "I Want A New Drug". You'll maybe hear "Ghostbusters" during Halloween and everyone will groan and say "can't you just play 'Monster Mash' again?"
Sorry. let's wrap up here.
Thing 1, the plaintiffs: There's a reason you haven't heard most of the songs claiming to be "ripped off" by the bigger hits. And that is because those songs weren't hits.
When you go back and listen, compare them to the hits, you can hear why. Mostly they're boring. Sometimes they have good vibes or a decent hook but the rest of the song is just lame or uninspiring.
The argument made in court is frequently "look, if this song was any good, it would have been a hit on its own. Whether my client listened to it or was inspired by it or not isn't the question. It's 'did my client infringe?' Success isn't illegal."
And it's true. Copping a vibe isn't illegal. Copying more than 8 notes is. Unauthorized sampling is. Most of these suits are sour grapes squeezed by resentful bitter old musicians and the lawyers who fight for them.
Even if you write a great riff, if you can't figure out what to do with it, don't be too upset if someone gets close to it and does better. There's only 12 notes, and only a few ways they go together without sounding weird.
Thing 2, the defense: There's a bigger issue here. There's an inverse relationship with how closely you duplicate an inspiration and how vital, useful, or necessary your own work is.
The closer you get to making a perfect copy of someone else's work, the more your own deficiencies or differences will stand out.
I go back to that Miguel track and I don't think "wow, Miguel is so good". I think "Marvin Gaye was great, and Miguel is a bad karaoke impersonator who was afraid to do a straight-up cover because he knew he couldn't compare."
I listen to "Uptown Funk" and I think "this is obviously derivative of 80s electro-funk-soul, sounds like a million other songs, BUT there's something about how Ronson and Mars did it that feels fresh and fun RIGHT NOW. Probably won't hold up as a classic, though...because it's not really adding anything."
If you're going to put on someone else's leather jacket and credibilty, you need to add something of yourself, put your own spin on it, highlight something we didn't see. At the very least make us look a that old stuff with fresh eyes, not just nostalgia.
"Talent borrows, genius steals", said Picasso. And by that he meant "if you're going to cop someone's steelo, best do it so well it becomes yours." Or else.
First oh shit is this my fautl did I jinx it? I am so sorry, no, I was wrong. Me, take me. Leave him.
Man, I hope his peoiiple don't come after me. I loved him, I loved his music. I made out with so many girls while his stuff was playing. Purple Rain. The Beautiful Ones. I played "Controversy" over and over and over and over.
Here's one for you. True story.
It's 1986. Been trying to get back into music and figure out what the hell is going on for 2 years. I'm barely 18. Sitting in outside in Los Angeles in a cafe in Beverly Hills, pouring my heart out to a friend, probably a cute girl. Having a coffee, enjoying the day.
I'm talking about music, and about how difficult it is tryign to write hits and please the public and all that. About how crummy the music business is and how f'ed over I've been by my record company.
it's all true, and a pretty good rap for creating sympathy with the hot girl. But I'm seriously frustrated by all of this.
Since I'm 18, I'm pretty self-involved, and not really paying attention to much of what's going on around me, or who's around me or any of that.
But I am really struggling inside. How do you create something that's good? That pleases the public? That pleases yourself?
And as I'm working through all of that, I smell flowers and citrus wafting by. Even over the L.A. smog and magnolias.
I look up, and it's Prince. I guess he was sitting nearby and overheard something. Somehow, even dressed in whatever crazy suit he was wearing, he managed to be inconspicuous. Being tiny helps.
Anyhow, I sense he's there and I turn and look. He looks me straight in the eye, and says in that sort of low-voiced drawl of his "You don't ALWAYS have to give them what they want", and then he turns and walks away, vanishing into the L.A. day.
I'm not sure if he was talking to the hot girl or me, and if he meant it about people or fans or what, but it was the perfect thing to say, on that perfect day.
Now I'm sitting here in the dark, again, drinking, again, playing his records over and over. I just don't want to believe it's true.
WTF universe. This is not cool, not cool at all. Bring him back right now.
Tracy died soon after a long fought civil war, Just after I'd wiped away his last tear I guess he's better off than he was before, A whole lot better off than the fools he left here I used to cry for Tracy because he was my only friend Those kind of cars don't pass you every day I used to cry for Tracy because I wanted to see him again, But sometimes, sometimes life ain't always the way Sometimes it snows in April Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad Sometimes I wish life was never-ending, All good things, they say, never last Springtime was always my favorite time of year, A time for lovers holding hands in the rain Now springtime only reminds me of Tracy's tears Always cry for love, never cry for pain He used to say so strong I'm not afraid to die Unafraid of the death that left me hypnotized Now, staring at his picture I realize No one could cry the way my Tracy cried Sometimes it snows in April Sometimes I feel so bad Sometimes I wish that life was never-ending, But all good things, they say, never last I often dream of heaven and I know that Tracy's there I know that he has found another friend Maybe he's found the answer to all the April snow Maybe one day I'll see my Tracy again Sometimes it snows in April Sometimes I feel so bad Sometimes I wish that life was never-ending, But all good things, they say, never last All good things, they say, never last And love, it isn't love until it's past
Oh jeeebus. I'm a little drunk, so bear with me here.
Bowie? Come on, not Bowie. There are so many other peoiple we could give up. I know it's sacrilege, but I'd giv up Prince (PRINCE!) before Bowie. Robert Plant. Keef, even.
I'm not supposed to say this, but yeah, I did meet him. Once.
This was not long after "Let's Dance". We ended up at the same restaurant. I was drinkin g more than I shoud, especially since I was not 21. Bowie was not. He was drinking sparkling water.
I told him that I really liked his stuff, sure, who didn't? So many amazing songs. ZIGGY! "It's not the side effects of the cocaine, I'm thinking that it must be love".
But what I really liked was what he had done with Iggy Pop on "The Idiot": "Funtime" to be exact.
Bowie smiled briefly and said "Jim's my friend, I really liked making that record." We talked some more. About drum sounds and movies and women.
HGere's what I really remember about Bowie; He was a goo dfriend. He helped make Iggy's solo career, with producing his records and stuf.f But if you know anything about Iggy, you know he has struggled to breakthrough to the mainstream and HAVE A HIT (ahven't we all?)
And in the 80s, Ig was having a tough time. No money. Living in NYC and having bad habits will do that to you.
So Bowie says "well, Jim, I'll cover one of your songs on my new record. I need material anyhow."
So he puts "China Girl" on "Let's Dance". Long story short: BIG hit. Bowie gets a "free" hit single, Iggy gets some money. We get Bowie's China Girl, adn everybody wins:
Still, Iggy's hurting. So what does Bowie do on the follow-up to "Let's Dance"? 5 of the 9 songs are either written by Iggy Pop or co-written by Iggy Pop. The album is guaranteed good sales even if it's terrible (it's not terrible, but critics are not kind). It's not exactly charity, as Bowie wasn't writing much, but he could have made more...commercial choices.
And even the record after that, (the also not well-reviewed) "Never Let Me Down", he thro0ws ANOTHER Iggy song on there ("Bang Bang"!, 1987).
And right before that (1986), he uses all of his newfound commercial wisdom (and Duran Duran's drum machines) and produces Iggy's best "pop" record, the oft-overlooked "Blah-Blah-Blah". He sings backup on it (it's obvious when you listen), too (and co-writes some of it)...but he doesn't make a big deal out of it. Because it's Iggy's show, and he wants his friend to succeed on his own terms.
What a friend. What an artist.
I'm super sad.
I'm sad because this genius musician is gone. And I'm sad because he's gone too soon. He just put out a record, had a birthday.
It's hard to believe he didn't really enjoy his life in the last bunch of years, but it seems like he should have had like a decade to just goof off and watch Netflix and play video games or whatever he does for fun. Go see his son's movies. Eat lasagna.
But really? I'm sad because I think about the kind of man Bowie was -- a guy who'd do anything to help his friend make it, and have fun doing it. I wish I had known him more than the records and our brief intersection at that restaurant.
I am sad because I wanted a friend like that. Who wouldn't?
His music said "you're not alone", and when he sang or looked at you with those beautiful eyes, you knew he meant it.
Goodbye. and thank you thank you thank you. Goddamn it. Well, how come you only want tomorrow With its promise of something hard to do A real life adventure worth more than pieces of gold Blue skies above and sun on your arms strength in your stride And hope in those squeaky clean eyes You'll get chilly receptions everywhere you go Blinded with desire I guess the season is on So you train by shadow boxing, search for the truth But it's all, but it's all used up Break open your million dollar weapon And push your luck, still you push, still you push your luck A broken nosed mogul are you one of the new wave boys? Same old thing in brand new drag comes sweeping into view As ugly as a teenage millionaire pretending it's a whiz kid world You'll take me aside, and say "Well, David, what shall I do? They wait for me in the hallway" I'll say "don't ask me, I don't know any hallways" But they move in numbers and they've got me in a corner I feel like a group of one, no no they can't do this to me I'm not some piece of teenage wildlife Those midwives to history put on their bloody robes The word is that the hunted one is out there on his own And you're alone for maybe the last time And you breathe for a long time Then you howl like a wolf in a trap And you daren't look behind You fall to the ground like a leaf from the tree And look up one time at that vast blue sky Scream out aloud as they shoot you down No no, I'm not a piece of teenage wildlife I'm not a piece of teenage wildlife And no one will have seen and no one will confess The fingerprints will prove that you couldn't pass the test There'll be others on the line filing past, who'll whisper low I miss you he really had to go well each to his own, he was Another piece of teenage wildlife Another piece of teenage wildlife
I get to the rehearsal room a good half-hour before everyone else. I hope I brought the correct key. It's been over a year and a half since I even set foot in here, the last time being when I loaded gear back in after our show with Madam and The Ants. That was in December. Of 2012.
A lot has happened since then. Births, deaths, illness, catastrophe. Dubstep. Lorde. Thurston and Kim breaking up.
I fumble for the light switch, and as it snaps on, I feel like I was just here. The cheap industrial carpet is still disintegrating into curly strings, and sprinkled with segments of guitar strings, broken picks, and bent beer caps.
Our PA is still there. A few minutes of searching behind piles of gear yields my mic stand. Ha! Hard to believe the gear hasn't been thrown out or broken.
I reach into my bag and pull out my Shure SM-58 Beta microphone. This was the mic I bought myself when I first started to get serious about singing. I've had it for almost 25 years.
Still here. Still working.
I find bags of coiled cables. Definitely ours. A backpack with cables and a tuning pedal. Is this ours? Hmm. Not sure. Some of this stuff...I just don't know. Maybe?
I clear some space and think about where everyone is going to set up. I plug in the PA and start tuning the EQ for the room. I never have enough time to do this.
Dante arrives next. He sees the drum kit of the band we share the room with set up and says "that's not going to work for me." He sets up his kit. I point at his Rototoms. "You should play those." He says "Are those mine?" Yeah. I saved them. Rototomswere very coolfor a while, then super-uncool for even longer. But like a lot of things with a similar trajectory, I expect them to make a Halley's Comet-style return any day now. I also have 9 cowbells of his in my recording studio.
The rest of the gang rolls in, one of them stepping out of a black Lincoln Towncar. Hiatus has been good to some of us, I guess.
They've all forgotten stuff. Straps. Picks. Cables. Batteries. Songs. Keys. We start 40 minutes later than planned, after lots of fumbling around. Tuning. Spilling beer. Catching up. Hugging. "It's been too long."
We play the traditional set opener, "Baby Space". It's not too terrible, and like a camera being pulled slowly into focus, by halfway through the second verse, most of the band has mostly remembered how this one goes and it starts to sound like music.
The rest of the songs materialize in similar fashion. As I call the titles, everyone gets a look on their face like they were hoping the teacher wouldn't ask them to hand in their homework. But as Dante counts off each one or plays the drum intros, memory kicks in. The terror, confusion, and embarrassment give way to big smiles when things go right and laughs and winces when we hit the wrong notes.
Foxxx Trottt yells out the chords, or at least shortcuts and cheats like "this one is mostly D. There's a lot of D in this song." I am pretty sure (but not certain) that at least one of the guitar players knows which chord is D.
We play our big hits. We avoid the tricky tunes tonight. Gotta walk before you run. But really, at this point, I don't even care how it sounds. There's time for that later.
Yeah, you know, I miss the fame and fortune sometimes, and the fancy hotel rooms and groupies and all that. But I also remember how dismal it all seemed when we weren't having fun, and how quickly all of that faded. The good parts were the result of playing with my friends, and when we stopped that -- when we stopped playing and started treating it like WORK, and when we stopped being friends and started being business associates or colleagues or whatever -- that's when it all fell apart.
I look around the rehearsal room. I see my friends. My BAND. They're smiling. They're laughing. We're having fun. We're playing music. We're together.
I look at the mic in front of me and I think "Still here. Still working."
PS we're looking for gigs. And I'm gonna write a new song or two.
The phone rattles and hums. It's like 2 am. I roll over and fumble for it.
It's Bono. Great. Gotta take this one.
I unlock the phone. "Hey, mate, what's up? You know it's like 2 am here?"
Bono is super-excited. He wants to play me some tracks from the upcoming album. Apparently he's been doing this a lot. He says "Check this out!". I guess he's holding his phone up to the stereo. I can't hear anything, it just sounds like white noise (which I suppose is a rather succinct, if harsh, review of U2's last couple of records).
Or maybe he's been listening to a lot of Jesus and The Mary Chain. I dunno.
After skipping around and playing bits of other things, I tell him it all sounds great, and that it's good that U2's trying to write their own songs again, instead of rewriting other people's. He laughs and says that's pretty rich coming from me.
Bono gets a bad rap. There's all the G_d jokes and the constant piss-taking in the media and elsewhere. But the fact is, he's a really nice guy in industry full of total jerks. He's still married to his girlfriend. He hasn't broken up with his band and/or made self-indulgent solo albums. He'll put you on the guest list.
Let me tell you a story.
This was a couple years back (like, 10), when The Pants were just about to start their comeback. I had been having kind of a rough time, problems with my voice and being in shape and life and love.
I ran into Bono in London. He drags me into a pub and we talk. He's actually a really good listener. He gives me some advice, and one of his private numbers and says "look, CALL ME if you need to talk." He meant it.
I asked him "Hey man, how do you put up with all the criticism? I mean, people are always trying to beat you down for, I dunno, everything. Your last album. Your glasses. Project RED. Your VC firm. Your good works. That's a lot to take, right?"
Bono chuckles. He looks down at the table for a few minutes. He gets kinda quiet and puts on his Serious Bono face. He looks at me and says, all with that charming accent:
Sid, everybody's got problems. Everybody. You just sat here and ran me through some of yours, and some of those seem pretty tough.
The thing I realized a while back was that it's not what your problems are. What matters is how you deal with them.
I don't mind people making fun of me. Where I come from, that's part of how people show they love you. Or what they do before they punch you. It's just part of life. If I was worried about what people said, I'd have never got on stage the first time. Or the second. Or in front of the 20,000 people that saw us play last week.
As for why I do it, well, it's like Archimedes said about levers. We're all tryin' to move the world a little bit every day. Some people are moving it to make a bit more money or be a bit less sad. A few even try to make things better (as they define it) for other people.
I've got a pretty big lever. Bigger than most other people's [and he winks at me]. And I believe I have an obligation to use it. Do good works and all that. I'm tryin' to make the world a better place. Tryin' to be a better person. Tryin' to make a good record. Tryin' to have a good time doin' it.
Now, the thing about that big lever is that yeah, I can move the world more than most can. But that also means if I make mistakes, they're bigger, too. Bigger fuck-ups, bigger problems. That's what I have to think about all the time. It's not easy, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
What's my alternative? I could retire and do nothin', I guess. People would eventually leave me alone. But how could I live with myself, knowing I had that rare opportunity to try, to do something, and I let it pass?
Besides, at some point I'll have to retire anyhow. God will take that lever away. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe if the new album flops. There's plenty of time for doin' nothin'.
I sat there for a minute or two, turning over what he had said. I was just getting ready to reply when his minder found him and he left. As he got up to leave, he gave me one of those winks of his.
I wish I had a chance to tell them all, back in the day, how much they meant, the impact they had. To tell them what a revelation it was to look beneath the shiny plastic and see the inner workings of people who got it, and weren't afraid to scream and shout it. About how stupid everybody was.
Those videos and songs were funny ha-ha and funny strange. And disturbing.
So clever. And then to wrap it up in a kind of sick candy (s)hell? In some ways, it made them critic-proof. If you hated them, you didn't "get it". And if you loved them (for the wrong reasons), you also "didn't get it" in a worse way.
The music business chewed them up and spat them out. They ended up OK, or most of them did. As you do. They made a couple of brilliant records and a few limp ones. People think of them as a 1-hit wonder, with that one song. (Those are also the same people who can name the one "famous" painting by every artist.) They are WRONG.
When you see Devo as most of us saw them - for the first time, on network TV, back when Saturday Night Live was dangerous (as opposed to the bloated, soulless Harkonnen machine it is today) - as a kid, a "young alien type", you see...genius.
Wow, Bob, Wow. Thanks for the music. You will be missed.
Twist away the gates of steel Unlock the secret voice Give in to ancient noise Take a chance a brand new dance Twist away the gates of steel
Twist away Now twist and shout The earth it moves too slow But the earth is all we know We pay to play the human way
Twist away the gates of steel A man is real Not made of steel But the earth is all we know We pay to play the human way Twist away the gates of steel
The beginning was the end Of everything now The ape regards his tail He's stuck on it Repeats until he fails Half a goon and half a god A man's not made of steel
Twist away Now twist and shout The earth it moves too slow But the earth is all we know We pay to play the human way Twist away the gates of steel A man is real that's how he feels
Someone forwarded this to me. yEAH, big surprise. If you put on a show, people like it better than if you just stand there.
If you wanna be all "serious" about your "art", you better be really really good. Like, The Cars good:
They didn't have to move to be awesome. But there's still some guitar face, and their songs are so good they can't help but get into them a bit.
But you know what, it wouldn't have hurt them to throw some rock jumps in.
I'm not saying you need coordinated dance moves like Prince makes his people do (and by the way, he is ruthless about that - he expects you to nail your parts, play with heart and soul, follow his every move, AND you have to dance...)...but come on. People come to see a show. You better put one on.
Look, it ain't easy. especially as you get older. You can look back over the history of pop stars, and nearly every big shot today has photos they wish they'd never taken, but at the time looked AWESOME.
Go take a look at any band from any era. Ridiculous.
There's very little difference between this:
At the same time, you gotta NOT look like you just walked out of the crowd and got onstage.
Unemployed, I guess. Or "funemployed", as the kids say. Ain't much fun about watching your bank balance go down while you can't do anything about it.
Short version is I couldn't sing for the last 4 months or so. Looks like I'm on the mend, but sorta like breaking your leg, you don't get the cast off and start running marathons right away.
By the way, I've also been running a lot. I'm in great physical shape, so i fit right in today's pop landscape: Look great, can't sing so good!
Anyhow, gonna be in voice training for a while, trying to figure out what I've got left here.
I can tell you this: being on the sidelines, benched, gave me a new appreciation for the game. I wanna get back in, blow you all away, and have a good time doing it.
My buddy and ace producer Chris Fudurich is still tweaking some mixes. Here's the latest versions of Automatic and Drives.
We're gonna finish that album.
We're gonna play some shows.
I will keep writing, too.
I'm too much of an entrapreintrepr businessman to sit around doing nothing. I've been working on various projects and talking to various companies about being a creative inventor spokesperson like some of my contemporaries.
I'll keep ya posted. Stay young, fans. Life is short.
If not, you end up dead in some shitty hotel room, your last meal cheap booze you snuck in, your last sight some fake impressionistic hotel art.
Or you end up unemployable, wandering around the last town you thought might be fun. People stare at you every now and then, but instead of the glint of "aren't you famous?" it's the pity/laughter of "weren't you famous?". What are you going to do, be an accountant? Get a law school degree? Invent some kind of stupid internet thing?
Regardless, Bowie's a master. Absolute master. I guarantee this new album is more compelling than anything the Rolling Stones have released since about 1983, and more adventurous than Johnny One-Note acts like AC/DC (who create nominally "new" albums to ever-decreasing effect).
Bowie has also resisted the lure of the cash-in tour. He could have reformed The Spiders From Mars and made a mint wheeling out Ziggy in a wheelchair. Or played nearly any of his albums in entirety. I sure would have paid bank to see that, and not for reasons of snark or throwing tomatoes or subpoenas.
Like all of us, Bowie is vaguely ridiculous at times. Like all of us, you'll really miss him when he's gone.
But unlike all of us, he is a true artist, and knows how to write songs.
"All my life, all I ever wanted to be was a rock and roll star...I got an electric guitar [and started a band]. That was 20 years ago. Today, and god knows how many bands later, not much has changed. Not the gigs, not the clubs, and not the money. Tonight we made $13.50 each..."
The movie's a bit too slick. The performance aspects aren't authentically grimy enough - the stages are way too big and well-lit, as is the "rehearsal warehouse".
The performances too clean, tame, and under-powered (I'd have tracked/filmed it all live, clams and all), and the songs commit the cardinal sins of being preachy, boring, or both.
The ladies are too pretty to sell things quite right, but many of the other details are pretty spot-on.
The hoofing of the gear. The porch and the house. The drinking and cans of beer. The smoking. The drugs. The weird manager guy. The hope and desperation and professionalism and naivete.
If you can look past the TV-movie sheen, excessive lighting, soundstage vibe, flat and clunky dialog , some awkward performances, and the ridiculous ending, this is about as good a movie as you're likely to find about being old and not making it.
Plus, Gina Gershon.
"It never occurred to me that I might make it...at what point do I become a joke? In 2 days, I'll be 40. Surprise, surprise, I ain't no rock star. I could quit and become the bitter old bitch who devoted her whole life to rock and roll and never succeeded...or I could stick with it and become the bitter old bitch who refused to give up... Either way, 'bitter' and 'rock and roll' end up together."
Not as good as the stellar and highly recommended "Still Crazy", which was about being old having made it once (all of my "peers" doing victory laps and playing their 30-year-old hits should see this).
Not as disturbing as "Hard Core Logo", either. And certainly not as intentionally funny as the Ur-film, "Spinal Tap".
But it helped pass the time.
"Do you ever think about quitting?...being 50 or 60, hauling our gear around, fighting with the bartenders and sweating the rent?"
For all its significant flaws, it was written by someone who understands/understood band life.
"It all comes down to these few minutes of playing live..."
NAMM. For a few years, I was in it. I was in the shit. Good men died, and bad men prospered. It was a jungle. The noise was deafening, and it left you with nightmares and the shakes.
But the merchants prospered. This article gets it pretty much right: A wonderful hell.
I miss it, and I miss lusting over gear and being pretty sure that if I just bought that sampler or that drum machine or that Fender Custom Shop Tone King Amp for $2,000 ($4600 in today's dollars) that of course, my art and career would totally take off.
That's never the case, but that doesn't stop an army of longhairs and wannabes and has-beens and the occasional "holy crap is that STEVE VAI?" from turning up at the show to marvel at the latest batch of noise makers, and pick up both promotional materials and 8 different infections diseases. As well as every knob they can pry off of a piece of gear.
Yeah, I even worked at NAMM a couple times. Standing in a bootth, looking cool. I thought I'd been hired as a gear endorser, and showed up ready to meet my adoring public. Turned out my manager owed the vendor a favor for oneof his other acts that had an endorsement deal, and "free labor" - specifically my free labor - was part of the deal.
I walked away that day a wiser and richer man. The vendor tipped me a hundo. And I tipped myself a pedal or two when they weren't looking. I would tell you what they were, but I only endorse gear when I'm paid! DRUMROLL! Thank you!
Anyhow. Yeah This Year's NAMM has some things I'm definitely intterested in, notably the new Prophet-12 synthesizer:
I (and pretty much everybody else) used a Prophet-5 back in the 80s. This is at LEAST 7 better. Plus it looks rad.
I'm also probably going to get one of these Fender VI reissues. Steve Kilbey from The Church played one on Priest = Aura and Robert Smith of The Cure used 'em a lot on Disintegration.
Go buy some records so I can afford this stuff, please!
Gear gets stolen. That happens a lot. Doesn't matter whether you're us, Sonic Youth, or Duran Duran (sorry guys, that keyboard is MINE now...)
I saw a band called XOXOXO a few years back while I was playing synth for Luxxury. On stage, this 3 piece had probably $20,000 of vintage synth gear. It was astounding. It took them a long time to load in. I saw a Moog Voyager, a Jupiter 6 or 8, and a bunch of other real analog synths. For a band that used a lot of sequences and backing tracks and MacBooks.
It didn't make sense to me - would have been smarter to bring cheaper virtual analog gear or use software on those computers. But I guess that doesn't look as cool or something.
If I were those guys, I would have been crazy worried about all that stuff getting stolen or broken or beered. Then gain, if I were those guys, I would have had great gear and been 20 something and WOOO WHO CARES ROCK AND ROLL!!!
Still, no matter how young and hot you are, that sinking feeling you get when you walk back to the van in the morning and see a broken window and/or door ajar is awful.
You can avoid this by not being lazy. Don't leave your gear unattended, ever. Don't leave it in the van overnight unless there is someone sleeping in the van or near the van. Load it out into whatever place you're staying. Yeah, it's heavy and yeah, you just played a kick-ass 60 minute set after waiting around for hours and now you're drunk and horny and it's 2 am. But do you really want to wake up tomorrow to no gear?
Good but rich musicians get insurance. Through ASCAP, for example, you can get full replacement insurance at a 1% annual premium (you tell them how much your gear is worth, then pay them 1%). That seems high until you realize they cover you for everything, more or less no questions asked.
Popular bands can get a roadie/thug to watch their gear. The pro here is these people usually work for no money. The con here is these people sometimes ARE cons. In every sense. Maybe they're casing you guys for one big score. Or maybe they're...obsessed...with you. And will talk to you. A lot. Regardless, it's one more farting bag of meat to shove in the van and eventually, you will want to leave them at the Denny's in Tempe, AZ.
A better solution would be some sort of tiny RFID thing that you stick INSIDE the gear. Hard to find, easy to detect with a reader. Vendors at shops could wave an RFID gun over the gear and see if it comes up on a list of stolen stuff or not. I guess I should say "ethical vendors", because there's always someone who will do the wrong thing.
A low-tech solution is to tape a business card inside the gear somewhere. Most thieves won't open up all the gear with a screwdriver to check for such a thing.
Unfortunately, none of these options will deter people from taking your gear in the first place.
My take has always been "don't take anything on the road you don't mind losing". The world is a scary and unpredictable place. Unless you're top-of-the-world level and you can hire a minder for your favorite instrument, don't leave home with it. Keep it safe and secure. Get a stunt guitar or double for it. You'll thank me later.
This has been another Rock Life Tip from Sid Luscious.
The rehearsal space is an unpleasant hole in a not great part of town. Inside, I find our rock cell and undo the multitude of locks on the door.
I step inside and close the door behind me. It's mostly quiet, save some metalhead shredding down the hall. I like this time. It's a brief moment of calm before the storm. I close my eyes and try to relax.
I assess the situation. Guitar player 1 has his gear packed and ready. I disassemble Guitar player 2's rig. Most of the cables go into the rack with the effects unit. I bring his guitar and his backup.
I coil up the cables for my microphone and effects. Pro tip: always bring your own mic. It won't smell too bad, is unlikely to give you a social disease, and you know what it sounds like and whether or not it works.
I finish as the keyboard player arrives. It's just the two of us.
I am reminded of my first few teenage shows, loading all the band's gear into the back of my car. As we're finishing, the drummer arrives. He loads up his items and heads out. I lock up and head for the venue.
II. "Two minutes until Pants time!"
We've been here for 2 hours already, mostly sitting around waiting. There's a lot of waiting in the rock life. We watch the headlining band make typical musician jokes while the sound team fiddles with the PA, snake, and various microphones.
Now we're backstage. This is perhaps the nicest backstage area of any of San Francisco's clubs. There's a couch and some drinks and it's almost cozy.
The band talks nervously. These moments before we start seem to last forever.
The band files out onto the stage and launches into "Baby Space". I hang back in the dressing room, as much to savor this brief moment as to make a grand entrance.
I pull open the stage door, smiling, and leap onto the stage. I wave at the crowd. The venue seems full - it's hard to tell with my sunglasses on. (I do wear my sunglasses at night.)
I grab the mic and pull it from its clip, and stomp the effects box to life.
The next 45 minutes are typically something of a fugue state for me. I know my voice is strong and the notes ring out true and clear. The band sounds great. I move, I dance, I sweat, I talk, I sing, I entertain.
People don't dance. That's not unusual. I hope they are at least having a good time.
...and then suddenly it's over. No encore when you're opening. Which is fine.
While the adrenaline is still online I hoof as much of our gear off the stage as I can.
I move back into the crowd. I talk to my friends, to my fans, to the club owner. The headliner goes on. They sound great. Very professional.
III. I've returned all the gear to the studio with the rest of the band. Pretty sure we didn't leave anything at the club.
I drop Guitar Player off at his house.
The fog is rolling in. I'm tired.
At home, I park the car and listen to the hissing of the air at 1 am. I sit in the dark, a drink in my hand.
Being in a band is hard, hard work sometimes. Leading a band, moreso. Hard to understand unless you've done it.
The wind blows, and the windows rattle.
I don't know how much longer I can or want to do this. But I sure am glad I did it tonight.
There's few things that scare me more than having one of the Pants tell me they bought a new piece of gear. This recently happened. I was terrified that Dante was going to take up the guzheng in a bid to get out from behind the drum kit.
Instead, Pony said he bought a new guitar. It looks like this:
STEWART COPELAND, The Police: I grew to understand that videos were mainly about getting our singer's face out there. Because it was so pretty. That's the way it goes. Drummers learn that lesson pretty early in life. Guitarists never quite learn that lesson. Drummers and bass players, we're over it.
So true, so true.
Anyhow, this book is highly recommended. You'll note a shocking lack of stories about Yours Truly within - the product of the continuing industry omerta about Sid Luscious and The Pants, and what they did to us!