Can we talk?
I'm almost a year into my tenure as music editor, and I feel a long-overdue clarification session is in order. The inspiration for this little heart-to-heart is the overwhelming response to my most recent column. Only a few hours after last week's issue hit the streets, my voice mail was deluged with calls about "Bash & Pop," and the lead item regarding the Surf Ballistics' new CD, Dichromatic, which I characterized as a "mindless, sound-alike funk-rap-metal hybrid."
Save for a message from my aromatherapist confirming my weekly appointment, my mailbox was full of angry and, in some cases, disturbing messages from fans, band members and others in the Surf Ballistics "camp." A sampling of the wit and wisdom found in just a few of them:
8:52 p.m. -- Anonymous caller: "So, motherfucker, you think you're a real smartass saying shit about the Surf Ballistics? Huh, motherfucker? Well, you're a dead man now, motherfucker. You understand me? Your motherfucking ass better get a bullet-proof vest 'cause you're gonna get a bullet in the motherfucking head, motherfucker."
8:56 p.m. -- Anonymous caller: "You think I'm fucking kidding, motherfucker? You say a buncha bullshit about the Surf Ballistics. You think you're gonna fucking live after that shit? Your ass is not going nowhere, motherfucker."
9:01 p.m. -- Anonymous caller: "All day, all night, every day 'til I get an apology, motherfucker. Or you get some shots in the fucking head. Better get yourself a bullet-proof vest, 'cause you're dead."
What can we glean from all this? Well, aside from the caller's mastery of the English language and low view of me and my mother, I think we can safely assume that this series of messages was designed to intimidate me, evoke some sort of retraction. Unfortunately, threats of violence are nothing new to our paper, especially to those of us here in the ol' music section.
Hell, one of my predecessors actually had to go into hiding after making enemies out of a local rap outfit. Yet another one of our scribes has been unable to get anywhere near a health-food co-op since he wrote a piece suggesting Barney the dinosaur as an ideal replacement for the very frumpish and very dead Jerry Garcia.
No, no, threatening my life will get you nowhere. Because, dear reader, despite the bluster and decibel level of that particularly irate Surf Ballistics fan, his threats pretty much pale in comparison to the ones I've received from disgruntled local musicians in the past.
After authoring a cover story on the Gas Giants last year, the group's lead singer Robin Wilson threatened to "get medieval" on my ass if I ever wrote another word making fun of his "bawdy striped pants."
Of course, that wasn't as harrowing an experience as my life-threatening brush with former Refreshments singer and current Peacemaker front man Roger Clyne. After running a record review that was mildly critical of his vocals, Clyne vowed that I would "rue the day I ever crossed him," promising to use his "overwhelming power to unleash a whole army" of his worshipful minions against me, who, he threatened, would poke me to death with their frat pins.
I faced an equally horrific fate at the hands of Clyne's fellow Peacemaker, Steve Larson. Larson recently told me he would put on his roughest pair of boots and "stomp you like a narc at a biker rally" if I didn't make favorable comments about his guest guitar work on the new Ghetto Cowgirl album. Suffice it to say, Larson's contributions to that record were, as always, impeccable.
Yet none of those episodes were nearly as frightening as the time I mocked former Satellite singer-songwriter Stephen Ashbrook's "blue-tinted eyeglasses" and "pedestrian" lyrics. Cornering me at a bar one night, Ashbrook menacingly told me that he would take said glasses and stab them through my heart if I ever "stepped" to him in print again. Then, flashing a 9mm pistol, he added that our entire music staff was "a buncha mark-ass bitches" and that if Brian Smith, Serene Dominic and I weren't careful, he'd put caps in all our asses, throw us in an oven and "bake me up some three-bitch pie."
(For those unfamiliar with the concepts of humor and sarcasm, the preceding paragraphs were an example of both. Astute readers will no doubt have recognized the above claims as fictional because, a) Everybody knows Stephen Ashbrook really isn't a tough-talking gangsta, but rather the whitest man in America; b) Roger Clyne is too big a star to speak to a lowly local reporter; and c) Please. As if Robin Wilson could really "get medieval" on my or anybody else's ass. The bit about Steve Larson was also made up, except that he is kind of scary and I'm genuinely afraid he might actually stomp me like a narc someday.)
After getting more calls of a similarly ominous nature, I received a pair of messages from a despondent-sounding Danny P., the Surf Ballistics' lead guitarist.
11:56 p.m.: "This is Danny P. I play with the Surf Ballistics and I just wanted to say thank you for using no Vaseline on me. My God! Did you have to be so harsh, buddy? I guess any press is good. But damn, man, we're just a local band. Jesus Christ! Later, bro."
Feeling that he had perhaps forgotten to underscore some of the more salient points in his initial argument, Mr. P. called back a couple hours later, leaving behind this insightful tidbit:
1:44 a.m.: "Hey, Bob, this is Danny P. again. Dude, we're just trying to get a few people to our CD release party. I really don't know. Did I do something to you? Did one of us do something to you? 'Cause that is completely wrong. I read it again and I just can't believe some of the shit you said, man. It's completely wrong. We're just a local band trying to get some people at our show and you're dogging us -- you've never done that before. You will be hearing a lot from us, sir."
Just for the record, I don't know, and to my knowledge have never met any of the members of the Surf Ballistics. I bear no ill will toward them as human beings, nor do I have any ax to grind with them, their management or their record label.
But I do have to take exception to Mr. P's factually inaccurate assertion that we've never written anything negative about local bands. Even casual New Times readers can attest we have lots to say about local music -- plenty of it good and plenty of it bad, some of it downright vicious. But all of it, in our view, deserved.
Mr. P. protests that I should have tempered our criticism because he's "in a local band." It's an oft-heard plaint, but that doesn't make it any less ludicrous. Local-music criticism is just that -- criticism. Not boosterism, not patronage and certainly not charity.
The first duty and responsibility of this section is serving readers. Our job is to inform, entertain and help guide them toward things worthy of their time and money. We try to follow those tenants as closely and even-handedly as possible. Do we rib? Sure. It's all part of the give and take, and it would serve most "artists" to take themselves and their work a little less seriously.
I doubt many local musicians, including the Surf Ballistics, worry about sparing feelings or "taking it easy" when we eviscerate Garth Brooks, the Backstreet Boys, Ted Nugent or any of the other fevered egos we regularly deflate.
Local or national, the standards should be the same. Why break out the kid gloves just because you might be a native? To paraphrase Tom Waits: If you're listening to a really bad band, and someone leans over to you and says, "You know, these guys are local" -- does it really make what you're hearing sound any better?
Many of the calls and e-mails I received in the wake of the story echoed Mr. P.'s belief that somehow my "attack" on the band was personal. Let me assure you that it was not.
Not once did I mention anybody's appearance, age or ethnicity. I never talked ill of the band members' mamas, grandmamas, nor in any way, shape or form cast aspersions on their genealogy. All my criticisms were based solely on the music and lyrics found on the 11-song CD.
If I write a review of your album saying your singer has a lousy voice, that does not constitute a personal attack. You might take it personally, but that's your problem. If I claim your singer has a lousy voice because he was conceived of a weak seed -- that would qualify as a personal attack. But that's not how I approached the Surf Ballistics album, nor any review.
I know it must be difficult for the Surf Ballistics to believe there's a method to my critical madness. It's a hard reality to accept, but artists who thrust their work out there for public consumption must inevitably face the fact that some people (gasp!) may not like what they're doing.
After a new edition of New Times comes out, I invariably find myself swamped with correspondence about how lame my writing is, that I have my head up my ass or that I like to take it up the ass. I don't call anyone to whine, and I certainly don't find it necessary to threaten them with bodily harm, regardless of how tempting such a prospect might be.
I can dish it out. And I can take it -- up to a point.
If bands like the Surf Ballistics want to avoid criticism, they shouldn't subject themselves to any. No one forced them to send four copies of their CD to me. Sure, the band only sent one or two copies, their label another, and the venue hosting their release party yet another, but they knew the chance they were taking when they sent off the first press packet marked "For Review." And honestly, guys, you would have gladly accepted any praise we might have offered, so why not take your lumps like men?
But above all else, spare us the "damn, man, we're just a local band" moaning. It's puerile and more than a little bit pathetic. (Not to mention that your own press release suggested that you were a national presence on college radio and that you had sold several thousand copies of your previous disc, presumably to folks outside the Phoenix metro area.)
For the rest of you, please don't draw any unintended inferences. I'm not saying you shouldn't send your CDs for consideration. I'm not even saying you shouldn't send more than one copy. We'd like to see more submissions from bands and artists around town. Consider this an open invitation to all aspiring musicians in the Phoenix area -- amateur or professional -- regardless of genre or style, to show us their wares. We welcome the opportunity to hear what you have to say. Put all submissions to my attention, c/o New Times, P.O. Box 2510, Phoenix, AZ 85002.
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Don't get me wrong. This doesn't mean that every yob who's ever made a bedroom boom-box recording of himself jamming to "Sunshine of Your Love" will get a three-page spread. But we do want to make this as democratic a music section as possible, and if you're willing to submit, we're willing to listen.
And as for my new pals in the Surf Ballistics, c'mon guys, let's end the bullshit -- and the annoying phone high jinks. It's bad enough I have to field calls from smarmy publicists pitching me Tommy Lee's latest project. And after all, you're not really pissed. You've gotten more press out of this than you probably ever will, and certainly more than your CD deserves.
Contact Bob Mehr at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org