If you sense a theme in this week's music section, it's unintentional, though not entirely unexpected. As Robert Wilonsky points out in his piece ("Flanagan's Wake"), the world of major record labels -- the established music industry as a whole -- is in a state of flux, even decline. That, along with the growing chasm created by current consolidation and new industry economics -- one that has left a world in which an artist sells either 12 million records or 12 -- has affected what we do here.
Time was even if you scribbled for some second-rate rag, you could eat, drink and be merry on the record-company dime, tearing up Trader Vic's with Slade or getting into all-night pissing contests with folks like Lou Reed. Those days, however, are long gone. Sure, some fortunate souls like Rolling Stone's Neil Strauss get to contemplate the meaning of life while lying in bed with Jewel or talk about, um, like, really cute guys with Christina Aguilera. But for the most part, lesser talents like myself spend their days doing long-distance phoners with obscure bands named Bevis Frond, Neutral Milk Hotel and Slobberbone -- groups whose career takes are probably less than Ricky Martin's weekly eyebrow-waxing bill.
Worse still, being stationed in a non-industry outpost like Phoenix means that the opportunities to bask in the radiant glow of "genuine" rock stars comes but once in a blue moon.
However, we were recently blessed with the unexpected -- a call from the local Warner Bros. representative inviting us to a special VIP meet-and-greet with Nina Gordon, solo artist and former front woman for Chicago alt-rockers Veruca Salt.
The affair was held at a posh downtown Tempe eatery, where there wasn't a trace of fried food or watered-down beer to be found. No sir, the Wabbit was shelling out the big bucks for top-dollar ales and eats -- Bucatini al Arrabbiatta, Pollastrino alla Diavola, Salsiccia di Cinghiale and a whole host of other ridiculously overpriced, unpronounceable Neapolitan delicacies.
Juxtaposed against this lavish backdrop was a crowd composed mostly of scruffy record-store employees, the occasional business type and a few random nubiles, invited, no doubt, to spruce up the scenery a bit. All this in addition to the usual disturbing cadre of men with health-club physiques, Banana Republic credit cards and tanning-bed complexions; such creatures seem to perpetually hover over this kind of event.
Since you, the great huddled masses, may never get the chance to partake in the staggering glory and opulence that is the rock 'n' roll "biz," we offer the following narrative of our experience. In the process, we hope to provide some helpful rules and recommendations, on the chance, however slight, that you might someday make it to "on the list, plus one" status.
After repeatedly confirming that all the booze is free -- and earning a big roll of the eyes from our server, a woman who correctly senses this crowd of freeloaders won't be tipping very well -- Bash & Pop places an order for three beers. This is the first and most important rule of the VIP event -- order as much free liquor as possible.
You never know how long the complimentary libations will flow, so take advantage. If they cut things off early, you're well-stocked and probably completely bombed, anyway. And, if they keep the tab open all night, we recommend bringing along an Igloo Port-a-Cooler, to squirrel away those extra bottles. Most important, always order up. If you're normally a Bud Light person, try a Steinlager. If, like us, you prefer Miller High Life ("The Champagne of Beers," it should be noted), then go all chichi with a cold Hacker-Pschorr. Remember, foreign beers won't kill you, and if you drink enough of them, even world music starts to sound good.
A brief how-d'-you-do with the Warner rep, who despite his errant fashion sense (sockless loafers, jeans with creases sharp enough to slice bread), turned out to be far less unctuous than the standard industry reptile. Warner Man discreetly gives Bash & Pop an advance copy of the entire album, not just the single being handed out to the other partygoers. This is rule No. 2 of the VIP affair. Even under circumstances where technically everyone is a "special guest," recognize and exploit the subtle hierarchy, one in which the writer sits atop the proverbial food chain. Unless, of course, there's a radio jock in the house, at which point we plummet to second fiddle.
Surprisingly, Gordon's meet-and-greet time is actually spent meeting and greeting. Unlike most male artists, who usually don't deign to cast their gaze upon anyone not bearing silicone torso torpedoes, Gordon makes it a point to chat up everyone in the place. She even goes as far as to learn and remember the name of each partygoer -- a schmoozing technique no doubt gleaned after ordering one of those late night "Mega Memory" programs.
Barely past the midpoint of the party, and the bar has already run out of our drink o' choice, Newcastle Brown. Instead, we have to settle for a slightly cheaper (although, technically, it's all free) brew. Before bringing us the requested import pint, the waitress suggests we try a domestic brand. Bloody savage.
Gordon, looking quite foxy in an all-white ensemble topped with a Sophia Loren-as-Che Guevara baby tee, works through three fairly tepid songs off her new album, tonight and the rest of my life. However, the live acoustic versions are a marked improvement over the recorded ones, which have been pumped over the makeshift public-address system since our arrival. The difference can be attributed to the overwrought production of schlockmeister Bob Rock -- the only man who can proudly list both Loverboy and Bon Jovi on his c.v. Rock's work is normally about as subtle as a butter knife through the thorax, and the Gordon record is no exception (anyone who's ever heard the maestro's knob-turning skills knows why we shall henceforth refer to him as BOBROCK -- all caps, baby, 'cause that's how his records sound). Savvy music fans will recall that BOBROCK was also responsible for applying the blinding sonic sheen to Veruca Salt's last Gordon-recorded long player, 1998's Eight Arms to Hold Me.
That's not to say the savage blandness of the album is his fault exclusively. Gordon's songs -- once the epitome of postfeminist cool and pop culture-inspired cleverness -- have given way to a pedestrian sentimentality that sits up and begs to be loved. What else could account for the strained flippancy and let-me-suck-on-my-thumb-and-look-coy quality of lyrics like: "He likes to try on all my clothes but not my underwear" and "He calls me on the phone and he's got a special ring" -- both from the album opener "now I can die."
The remainder of the songs in her set (and on the album) alternate between daft clichés ("Baby that's the way it goes/from my head to my toes") and wince-inducing narratives ("I count the streetlights, I count the stars/I make a wish and wonder where you are"). It would be easy to go on and pitilessly trounce every aspect of Gordon's "new" direction, but suffice to say the same woman who once snarled "Keep her down, boiling water/Keep her down, what a lovely daughter," has written an album so trite and bereft of challenge that it makes a typical Wilson Phillips puff platter sound like Metal Machine Music.
As she gets to the final song of the set, Gordon watches some of the crowd slowly squirming in their seats, visibly unnerved at the prospect of the former "Seether" turning into a timorous Lilith Fairy. Sensing this, Gordon jokes: "I hope you all don't think I've suddenly turned into Jewel. It's just that most of these songs were written on this guitar in my bedroom. I . . . uh . . . I kind of wish we were in my bedroom right now."
The final comment causes the inebriated male interlopers in the crowd to nod profusely in agreement. As visions of a negligeed Nina dance through their collective heads, we are reminded of rule No. 3 of the meet and greet -- never try to hit on the "artist." Not only is this bad form, but you also don't have much of a chance of making it with the "talent" anyway. This is especially true if you're a rock critic. Aside from the fact that most music scribes are either grossly overweight or underweight, they also tend to be horrifically pallid, a complexion resulting from far too many hours spent in front of a computer monitor or stereo. (As it happens, Bash & Pop is the rare exception, a bronzed Adonis with dark eyes, sultry lips and the powerful, brooding countenance of a young Al Pacino. But I digress.)
After Gordon finishes, Bash & Pop confers with "Jeff," a longtime friend who's been at our table throughout the performance. Jeff is a punk-rock zealot and record-store clerk -- kind of a taller, skinnier, meaner version of Jack Black's character in High Fidelity. Sitting in his regular uniform -- Ramones tee shirt, hitched jeans, Chuck Taylors -- Jeff is the kind of guy who considers the Buzzcocks easy listening; not exactly a cat who's into the SoCal singer/songwriter zeitgeist that Gordon is trying to tap into.
After explaining that he found her music to be absolute "shite," yet confessing that he'd still love to "do" the comely Gordon "barbarian style," we agree that the evening has been a total bust.
Drunk and rambling, we both admit to feeling cheated by the saccharine pap we've been forced to endure, that the whole affair was an utter waste, that Gordon has sold out, that rock 'n' roll is dying, that blah, blah blah, blah. Buoyed by a sense of righteous indignation (and Guinness), we loudly pronounce our time would have been better spent listening to Leave Home or watching Rude Boy -- again.
Then we calm down and order up more free beer.
The crowd slowly thins out. All those exiting make it a point to be polite and offer a bit of gratitude to their hosts. Dutifully, we do the same. This is rule No. 4 -- no matter what you really think, be gracious. On our way out, we thank the Warner reps for their hospitality and even compliment Gordon on the set and her forthcoming album ("Gee, Nina -- I can't wait to hear the record!").
Some would look at such duplicitous insincerity as unspeakably whorish behavior. But what they fail to understand is that, as with all things relating to the music biz, it's part of a much bigger game.
Local VIP receptions are about pushing artists and products, sure. But they're also opportunities for Warner Bros. to pay reparations, a music biz penance system, if you will. Inviting folks like Jeff and me -- giving us drinks we wouldn't normally buy and food we could scarcely afford -- is a tacit apology from Warner for forcing him to sell and expecting me to write about crap like Brougham and Static-X.
An outrageous tab at an upscale joint is a small price to pay for their sins -- they owe us at least that much for ignoring the Muffs and pushing Paula Cole, dropping Van Morrison, making the Barenaked Ladies famous and putting out another Don Henley solo album.
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The wabbit is relatively innocent when it comes to music industry transgressions -- at least the label still has Neil Young and Robyn Hitchcock, Wilco and Built to Spill, and a decade of good karma for supporting the Flaming Lips. Which all adds up pretty nicely on their side of the ledger -- the City of Angels soundtrack notwithstanding.
Warner is a mere delinquent compared with an archcriminal like, say, Jive Records, which inflicted on us Flock of Seagulls, Billy Ocean, Shaquille O'Neal, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and 'N SYNC.
Imagine what Jive will have to spring for to atone for that litany.
I get thirsty just thinking about it.