Music News

Hoax, Lies and Audiotape

For a media whore like John Vanderslice, 15 stinkin' minutes probably aren't enough.

"I think a lot of bands are afraid of publicity," says the 33-year-old indie rocker from Bethesda, Maryland, who presently resides in San Francisco. "[They're] afraid that they're prostrating themselves. Like they're not supposed to be looking for press. Like it's not a pure thing to do. I think that's ridiculous! Seeing your own private fiction in print is a pretty powerful thing."

It's also pretty unnerving -- especially when such flights of fancy involve "death threats" aimed at the planet's wealthiest resident, Bill Gates, in addition to an entire web of conspiratorial deceit. To put matters into context, Vanderslice issued his own solo debut, Mass Suicide Occult Figurines, last year to respectable smatterings of critical praise. One song in particular stood out: "Bill Gates Must Die," a scorching little number with a title as innocuous as "Surrender Dorothy" in soot-colored exhaust across the Oz skyline.

On one hand, the tune is nothing more than a lonely narrative told from the perspective of a hopeless Internet-porn addict with a twisted taste for kids. "Teeny tiny little teens/Keep pouring out of my machine/I just typed a word/I just pressed return," Vanderslice laments with mounting hostility before reaching the punch line. "Someone made this easy/Someone made this inevitable/So, for bringing me here/Bill Gates must die!"

Subtle as a hand grenade, the joyless ditty nonetheless burst with marketing potential. Taking a suggestion from promoter and friend Josh Bloom, Vanderslice mailed an advance copy of the disc to Microsoft in November of 1999 in the hopes of receiving an angry letter or a threatening phone call -- anything to generate some kind of buzz. No one bit. He then drafted his own bogus letter on Microsoft stationery (from one K. Judith Yearling, the fictional vice president of corporate communications) and faxed it to several papers in the Bay Area. "Recently a copy of your CD, which features the song 'Bill Gates Must Die,' was brought to our attention," the letter reads. "I have since forwarded this to our legal department, which will in turn be sending you a cease-and-desist letter by certified mail. We receive many death threats for Mr. Gates, but I must say this song deeply offended me, and I will personally make sure all remaining copies of this record are destroyed."

Using the phony missive to launch his promotional efforts for Mass Suicide -- an otherwise fairly soft-spoken, piano-based album of skill and wit -- Vanderslice expanded the hoax nationally. He mailed out packages, complete with a disc designed to look like a software installation CD, with artwork spoofing Microsoft's Windows logo -- something the letter addressed as a serious trademark infringement. Vanderslice also included a fictitious first-person account of the strange things he'd begun to notice in the letter's wake: tapped phone lines, a sabotaged home server, and mysterious late-night calls from the 425 area code in Redmond, Washington -- home of Microsoft, among others.

"The Guardian and the SF Weekly and the Chronicle all picked it up locally. But CD All Star ran it nationally," Vanderslice says. "And Internet news is fast. They picked that thing up in like an hour. Someone [from All Star News] called me at home and said, 'How are you feeling about having Microsoft down your throat? Tell me about all these noises you've been hearing on the phone.'"

Vanderslice responded with some half-assed hogwash about eerie radar signals that go blip in the night.

"I was just riffin'," he says. "Makin' stuff up. And they were printing it! And I thought, my God, these guys are not even coming from a position of cynicism. I felt bad. People are so nice. They're gonna take your word and they're gonna back you. And here you are, just pulling the wool over their eyes. But I did it anyway."

Privately bursting with astonishment and outright glee, Vanderslice managed to keep a straight face, even when deluged by curious newshounds for more than three weeks. Something Orwellian was afoot, he insisted.

"It's spooky: The thought of an unknown indie rocker writing a song about Bill Gates, and then all of a sudden, he's got some multinational corporation stalking him," Vanderslice says. "It was a creepy story. It had legs. And it resonated with a lot of people."

Scores of Web loggers were chiming in on bulletin-board sites like Evhead and Bifurcated Rivets to bare their souls about the injustice of it all. When the national cable station ZDTV broadcast Vanderslice's Web address during a five-minute news segment in mid-December 1999, he says he was besieged by hundreds of e-mails a day and countless hits.

"I'm trying to keep a lid on my paranoia," he told the curious well-wishers via his Web site. "Though all of the stories people have sent me regarding their own struggles isn't helping! For the good news: My server is more stable, we still haven't seen another letter from Microsoft, and I have no pro bono lawyer."

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John LaBriola