Friday, October 23, 2020

The $64,000 Question: When Is The Dream Over?


From the moment I first picked up an instrument in high school and decided that rock & roll was going to be my life, my social life immediately began to suffer. Friends with whom I had spent countless days, months and years playing sports or talking about girls were the first to notice my sudden unavailability after school.

Within weeks, they had developed new friends, eventually no longer thinking to ask if I might have wanted to join them on their trips to the mall, movies, or concerts and I still sucked at playing drums, yet I persisted, knowing that the trade-off for becoming a decent drummer might be that my ability to relate to my fellow teenage high school knuckleheads might suffer.

Even though I was aware of this trade-off and made my decision willingly, little did I know just how much I would lose my ability to relate to "the real world" once I became part of "the entertainment industry".

You see, the fact that this "rock & roll thing" had absolutely nothing to do with the real world was a large part of my reasoning for choosing that particular path in the first place. It was a decision that was made, quite frankly, not too long after my parents informed me in no uncertain terms that I'd be turning 18 soon and, therefore, would be an adult soon.

In other words, according to my very traditional parents, it was time for their oldest kid (me!) to become an adult and join the gruesome work-a-day world.

As you can probably imagine, I was not thrilled.

After all, my parents hadn't exactly made being an adult look like any fucking fun at all, what with all the moving from one town to another for some soul-sucking Sears & Roebuck manager gig. When he wasn't off "making some bacon", the one image I have of my father is of him walking in the door, kissing my mother, and then promptly collapsing in a heap on the couch from total exhaustion and being dead to the world for much of the rest of the evening.

If that was adulthood, I wanted no part of it, yet there he was letting me know that the time had come for me to be as miserable as him.

That's when I informed him in no uncertain terms that if he thought I was going to stumble down that very same path, he had another thing coming. 

No, music was my bag and my only goal in life was to be a working musician and recording artist.

The look on his face when those words entered his ear holes was one of complete dismay, as if trying to understand someone speaking to him in a foreign tongue and deciding that they must just be an idiot for not speaking English, like him.

I don't think we ever saw eye-to-eye about anything from that day until his death, some twenty years later at the age of 59.

If anything, his early demise only instilled in me a desire to cram as much fun as possible into one lifetime as I possibly could because there were no guarantees that any of us might live long enough to enjoy retirement.

Thing is, by that time, the wheels had already come off what remained of my rock & roll dream, which, by the ripe old age of 37, consisted mostly of rowdy bar gigs and dealing with sketchy weasels at all levels of the industry. The major label deal I had sought for so long had come and gone with jack-shit to show for it and I could no longer even remember what I'd spent the $150k in combined advances on.

My fellow musicians would laugh when I said such things and tell me that part of not knowing where all the money went meant that I must be doing something right, HAR HAR, and I believed them for a good long time. But then one day I realized that the stunning, and admittedly bat-shit crazy, rocker babes I had been attracting since my very first Chicago club gigs had disappeared and all that remained were the crazy ones.

The worst part was that I looked every single minute of my 37 years on this planet and yet I was still convinced that my life and career was progressing just fine. Also, by remaining in L.A., I could continue to bullshit myself that I was nowhere near as bad as a lot of folks in that town who had actually tasted fame and were still desperately seeking another dose, even as Father Time landed one knockout punch after another.

Hilariously, it would take moving back to my favorite city (Chicago), putting together the absolute
best version of my band (with Ted & Mike from Material Issue), and attempting to re-establish myself on the Chitown rock scene for me to realize that this wasn't a career, it was a fucking rut.

Even now, some ten years after that realization, I still find the pull of potential fame and fortune to be the drug I can never completely kick and that even casually strumming a guitar or busting out my favorite synth soon has me noodling on a new song that I immediately begin thinking could be "the one".

I've heard kicking heroin is tough, if not near-impossible, but it has nothing on the teenage dream of fame and fortune that lives inside most musicians. Just when you think you've kicked it once and for all, gotten your life back together, and rebuilt all those bridges you once burned, a buddy asks you to fill in for his drummer for a few gigs or help them cut some new tunes in the studio...you know, what others might call "harmless fun"...and the next thing you know, you're rocking out to a packed house and dreaming of turning in your two-weeks notice at work, leaving a loving spouse behind to hold down the fort while you hop aboard some fucking pirate ship with a bunch of lunatics.

When is the dream over, you ask?

Never.

For better, but mostly worse, rock & roll is a young man's game; a life sentence that never ends well for those who give their heart to it, but, if I may interject, getting there is never, ever boring.



Wednesday, October 21, 2020

A Friendly Reminder From Someone Who Cares: Stop Giving Your Music Away For Free!

Does anybody else remember those halcyon days when, as a musical artist or band, you could make enough cash from mp3.com downloads to MAKE A LIVING MAKING MUSIC?

I know that I'll never forget those days because they helped keep my boat afloat at a time when labels transitioned almost overnight from signing "challenging alternative artists who wrote and performed their own material" to doe-eyed bobbleheads like Britney Spears and the Spice Girls.

As a result, not only did the label interest I had been courting for the past couple years suddenly evaporate, but so did much of the money I'd been making from CD sales.

Thankfully, interest in my music on mp3.com led me to get an overdraft notice from my bank one day and notification that a direct deposit in the amount of $4,000 had just hit my account.

As you can imagine, this immediately changed the way I viewed digital downloads and the effectiveness of such a site as mp3.com.  


Granted, the pioneering music website's business model left a lot to be desired, but they did manage to do what few sites have done before or since: PUT THE ARTISTS FIRST! By doing so, of course, the site earned the furious scorn of an industry that would rather sue the future into oblivion than embrace an idea that they, themselves, did not formulate.

You see, even though the internet had become part of the global consciousness by the late '90s, the music industry was still in complete denial of the oncoming train heading straight in its direction. Convinced that they could merely litigate it and all other music sites out of existence, the major labels would then be completely broadsided by Napster a few years later, proving that the people now had the power when it came to the sharing of music over the web.

Fast forward to the year 2020 and we now see that the very same major labels who saw Napster as a threat to their very existence at the turn of the century have now gotten into bed with the likes of Napster co-founder Sean Parker, who now represents Spotify's interests.

What changed the minds of the likes of Jimmy Iovine and Irving Azoff, among others, you ask?

Plain and simple, money.

In order to gain access to the vaults of every major label, Spotify gifted shares of their company to the likes of Sony, Interscope, and others to get them to "play ball" and, as a result, labels now derive a majority of their annual income from this arrangement.

Mind you, it is nowhere near the billions upon billions they used to rake in from CD sales, but
once the labels found out that the artists would be making little to nothing from this Y2K union of snakes and cockroaches, the major labels couldn't sign fast enough.

Meanwhile, those music fans who UNDERSTAND THAT ARTISTS NEED MONEY TO MAKE MUSIC have led a resurgence of both vinyl and cassette sales in recent years.

While that is great news to those of us who still value the experience of immersing ourselves in both the visual as well as the aural experience of a physical release, the fat cats at UniSonyScope records are laughing their way to the stogie store over the fact that 60% of their yearly revenue stems from subscriptions to the streaming services, while only 4% comes from sales of physical product.

See, once you no longer have to pay artists, you'd be amazed at how far $11 billion will get you, as opposed to the $15 billion the industry was raking in as recently as 1998 when 4 billion went towards royalties and other contractual payouts to artists.

When I am reminded of the two-year period between 1998 and 2000, when I was regularly making between $2,000-$4,000 via the site, it is STUNNING to see fellow artists paying a site like CD Baby or Distro Kid up to $69 per project to make their music available for streaming, knowing full-well that they won't come anywhere near recouping that small amount, much less recording costs.

While most musicians these days are too young to have ever known the exhilaration that comes from making a living from the sale of their music, that does NOT give the labels and streaming services the right to continue profiting from the hard work and boundless creativity of the most important content creators on this planet: Music artists.

If you agree, all I ask is that you consider defending your art the same way you'd protect a large stack of $20 bills that represents your living expenses. Just because the entities now attempting to steal those twenties also have the ability to SIGN YOUR BAND does NOT make them any less worthy of scorn and derision for this current system of digital theft that they have concocted.

What can you, the artist, do to defend yourself against those who want you to sing and dance for fractions of a penny per stream?

1. Avoid giving away your music at all costs, and, yes, placing your music on Spotify IS the digital equivalent of sending a free CD of your music to anyone who wants one. 

2. Work only with sites that allow you to control pricing for your music, such as Bandcamp.com, which also allows you to control the level of free streaming before a listener must make a purchase. Note: If the thought of holding your own music ransom (until someone who has listened to the same song three times finally reaches for their wallet) seems unthinkable in this day and age, well, you need to get over that in a hurry or the next income you'll see is when you sell all your music gear to make rent. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

For Early Gen X'ers, Van Halen Was Our Nirvana!


In a way, I still think of the year 1978 as being in black-and-white, like TV's in the days of "I Love Lucy" or "The Dick Van Dyke Show". About halfway through Van Halen's self-titled debut album, though, a funny thing happened: hard rock's black-and-white world suddenly burst into full technicolor and, in doing so, became irresistible to the masses.

Make no mistake, hard rock/heavy metal was already a burgeoning genre full of great bands, but no single band carried with it the potential of reaching a mainstream audience the way Van Halen did so effortlessly.


Because they made it look so easy, other metal bands initially accused the band's members of being  fake-metal carpetbaggers, much like The Police had been in UK punk circles at roughly the same time, but, sadly for such vocal critics of Eddie & Co., such purity tests proved unpopular as die-hard metal fans forgot all about Sabbath, Purple and their ilk when the mighty VH mothership landed.

Prior to VH getting signed, Kiss frontman Gene Simmons had made a serious play to get Eddie to join Kiss, who would have replaced a hard-drinking Ace Frehley, whose days in the band were numbered.

Of course, to build trust with Eddie, Gene had produced Van Halen's demo on his own dime, but when no record deal materialized, Simmons would then console Eddie by offering him the gig in Kiss. Who could resist such a set-up, you ask? Eddie Van Halen, that's who.


Whether Eddie eventually saw through Gene's actions or not, his decision not to don Kiss make-up for a fast buck, the maturity and confidence that Eddie showed by turning down Mr. Simmons would ultimately seal both men's fates.

For Gene, luring Eddie into the band would have been a much-needed shot of adrenaline for Kiss, whose ginormous fan base was growing older and starting to look for less cartoony musical thrills. Eddie, meanwhile, had to deal with the many "What if's" of his decision to turn down the coveted guitar slot in one of America's biggest bands.

As a result, according to producer Ted Templeman in a recent Billboard magazine interview, Eddie Van Halen was "pretty damn serious" during the recording of Van Halen.  You would be too if you'd turned down the biggest gig in rock to make a record with your own then-unknown band. EVH knew that if he didn't put everything he had into that record, turning own the Kiss gig might haunt him forever.


Thankfully, within weeks of Van Halen hitting record store shelves, such frivolities would haunt him no more.

In fact, the arrival of Van Halen's debut album upon an admittedly stagnant musical landscape in February of 1978 was a seismic event that changed the face of rock music almost overnight. Releasing the album in the quiet months of winter was also a masterstroke because most major acts were scheduling their next releases for spring and summer. This gave kids four months to become acquainted with the band before summer hit, at which point Van Halen-mania absolutely exploded.


For those not alive at the time, the closest comparison that can be made to Van Halen's meteoric rise would be that of Nirvana, whose rise from near-obscurity to mega-fame came after the release of "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

While both bands redefined rock music in the wake of their massive success, only Nirvana's fame seemed to force every other band on the planet, regardless of genre, to conform to their musical aesthetics, whereas when Van Halen rose to prominence in '78, the industry did not pressure non-metal acts to conform to the "hot new sound" VH was peddling.

That's not to say that Van Halen's sound wasn't influential.

In fact, within a few years of their success, the first wave of hair metal bands inspired by Van Halen began releasing their own debut albums and creating a movement of their own.

For better or worse, it would be Nirvana's landscape-changing success that would force many of those very same bands to trade in their skin-tight leathers and lipstick for some flannel in order to survive the '90s.  
 
By then, Van Halen had become a worldwide juggernaut that had survived the dismissal of Roth and the addition of Sammy "I Can't Drive 55" Hagar and, while they almost didn't survive the addition of former Extreme singer Gary Cherone a decade later, reuniting with Roth in recent years brought the closure that both fans and band members needed, albeit minus bassist Michael Anthony.

Sadly, we would learn after Eddie Van Halen's death last week that the band had almost reunited with Anthony for a world tour last year, but plans were nixed when Eddie's cancer diagnosis stopped everything and everyone in their tracks.


Monday, October 12, 2020

How Jack White Completely Changed The Narrative of Last Week's SNL Musical Chairs!


First off, it must be said that Morgan Freeman, or whatever that schmuck's name was who somehow landed a coveted slot as musical guest on Saturday Night Live and then lost it after breaking COVID-19 safety protocol in order to shove his tongue down the throats of some off-duty mall teeth whiteners down at Coyote Ugly.

What struck me was how much fucking press Morton Downey Jr. or whatever his name was got from not only being careless, but also fucking up an opportunity thousands of other artists would kill to have fall into their laps. 

Making matters worse was the fact that the likes of "The Today Show" and other major media outlets actually chose to interview Morgan Fairchild or whatever his name was, giving this rhinestone doofus even more free publicity.

Upon first hearing the story, I admit that my first thought was that none of us would ever hear from this Maura Tierney fellow ever again, but once I saw that someone had pulled Lorne Michaels out of storage, it dawned on me what was starting to happen...



Those smarmy motherfuckers at NBC who only care about ratings noticed that this story now had legs and, as a result, their thinking quickly shifted from kicking an unknown country singer to the curb to talk of re-scheduling Morley Safer's musical appearance because, sigh, doing so would practically ensure an entire week of breathless media hype and sky high ratings.

But then a funny thing happened: Michaels, or whoever he'd entrusted at SNL to "fix this" made a grave mistake by recruiting a well-rested Jack White to step in as that week's musical guest. 

Now, I'll be the first to offer that White is a popular and energetic performer of some acclaim (!), but the former White Stripes singer/guitarist is a "legacy act" these days and, despite his continuing influence as an arbiter of cool, we know what we're getting.

The Jack White that hit that SNL stage this past Saturday night, however, was a wild animal freed from its cage after months of captivity.

Within seconds of White tearing at the custom graveyard blue guitar Eddie Van Halen had gifted him, the entire audience was in the palm of his hands and, with each passing second, you could see the narrative of the entire week changing on a dime and by the end of the first performance, Jack White had made every single person in this country forget all about ol' what's-his-name and, for that, we should all be thankful.

After all, how long has it been since we didn't have to turn the channel whenever the latest gaggle of lip-syncers and backing dancers made us question why we continue tuning in to what is often a weekly celebration of craven mediocrity at all.

Will SNL still bring back the bro-country douche who made this all possible? 

Probably, but something tells me that when they do, Morgan Stanley will no longer be the subject of the same breathless, week-long media spectacle without the media also reminding us how Jack White stepped in and showed the folks at home how a professional operates.


Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Shit On My Mind: Shirley Manson's Bush, Buying Office Supplies At 3AM With Eddie Van Halen, and More!


FASTER THAN GOD

Recording has gotten too easy:  

It should not be possible to create a five-minute drum track in less than five minutes, period. These days, you cut and paste two bars of the solo drum intro to "Living After Midnight", clean up the start and finish points, copy and paste the fucker a few hundred times, and, BAM, you've just created five minutes of awesomeness in less than thirty seconds and beaten "God" in a foot race.

SHIRLEY MANSON'S BUSH

For some reason, I doubt I will ever forget about reading an interview with producer Billy Bush (Garbage) in TapeOp magazine (subscribe to this cool producer-and-studio-intensive bathroom browser if you don't already! It's FREE!). During the delightfully nerdy interview, Bush chuckles about the time that he found using an Abbey Road plug-in during a recording session AT ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS!

Ha ha ha, who hasn't? Happens to the best of us. 

Here's where Billy Bush and I differ, though: I would never *forget* I was INHABITING the legendary Abbey Road recording studio, where the motherfucking Beatles and producer George Martin did their thing, especially when using an Abbey Road plug-in.

See, that would be like playing a video game called "Pandemic" during a pandemic and never once noting the irony.

Did I mention that Bush is married to garbage singer Shirley Manson? Do you hate him now, too?

(some days I'm kidding, others not so much) 

TELL US ABOUT THE DINOSAURS, GRAMPS!


You know you're old when there are videos on YouTube of millennials losing their shit while trying to understand how good ol' fashioned tape recorders work. 

That was nothing compared to the week I spent trying to learn Ableton Live before finally setting it ablaze and, in doing so, regaining my love of both music and FIRE!

MY THOUGHTS ON EVH  (AND STAPLES)!

The passing of Eddie Van Halen has come as a devastating shock. Fuck cancer.

Even more unbelievable than bumping into Eddie Van Halen at a Studio City, CA Staples store at 3AM back near the turn of the century is the fact that Staples was ever open 24 hours, but that was the world we lived in pre-9/11, my friends.

Most unbelievable of all would be that the legendary heavy metal guitarist, almost unrecognizable for a variety of reasons at the time, would engage you in conversation whilst waiting in line to pay for his items and, in doing so, begin a conversation that would end with the two of you exchanging phone numbers after EVH offered you - free of charge, no less - the remaining studio sound-proofing tiles from a recent install at his 5150 studios.

Keep in mind that Eddie did not know me (and thank goodness for that considering the ink I got from offering copies of my CD in exchange for unwanted copies of VH3 a year or so prior to that) and, truth be told, was probably happy just to get rid of the stuff, but the gesture itself struck me as incredibly friendly and outgoing.

Granted, it was a tad obvious Eddie was buzzed, but so was pretty much everyone else at a Studio City Staples store at three in the morning is tripping on something. 

I will say that once you trade phone numbers with Eddie Van Halen at a Staples store, every other trip to pick up toner cartridges will be disappointingly uneventful by comparison. Hell, I could find a bone-dry Benjamin on the floor of the men's room and still have a case of the "yeah buts" in the parking lot.

Rest in peace, Eddie. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Cheap Trick's 'Dream Police' Turns 41!

On this day 41 years ago, kids all over the country flocked to record stores to pick up the new Cheap Trick studio album, Dream Police, in hopes of hearing more of the hooky, guitar-driven pop that had turned "I Want You To Want Me" into a global game-changer for a band that, up to that point, had been relegated to club and/or opening act status; two roles the band relished.

It was their role as rock & roll spoilers that made such gigs especially incendiary because, in most cases, kids who saw the band open for the likes of Kiss and Kansas never knew what hit them while older fans who'd already heard the band and went specifically to see them in a club setting still wound up having their collective asses handed to them when the band's live power proved even more substantial than expected.

After all, Cheap Trick was the ultimate band for stumping those who judged bands based on album covers. Sure, the two poster-worthy rock stallions - singer Robin Zander and bass player Tom Petersson - looked the part, but Rick Nielsen and Bun E. Carlos were total wild cards and could have anyone convinced what they were staring at might just be a comedy album.

Song titles like "Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School" or "He's A Whore", both from the band's debut effort, did little to dispel such assumptions, but those who ventured beyond such red flags were no doubt floored by what they finally heard.

Obviously, the ginormous success of "I Want You To Want Me" had resolved the band's identity problem and increased their name recognition ten-fold, but was the Budokan success just a mad fluke or did the band have plenty more hits in their arsenal?

Since it was finished before At Budokan had even been released in the States, and further delayed by the live album's completely unexpected success, Dream Police had been recorded, not in the wake of their first major commercial success, but in response to the admittedly lackluster reception the band's Heaven Tonight record had received in their homeland.,

Sure, the band were teen idols in Japan already, but watching three albums chock full of high-octane, radio-ready hooks fall flat in the U.S. must have been a head-scratcher for the band. They'd gone the dark, subversive route on their debut, done a complete musical one-eighty for In Color, and then settled for a sound that was somewhere in the middle and, still, nothing had clicked with radio programmers. 

As the band entered the studio with producer Tom Werman, the man behind their last two records, at least one of them had to be wondering what else could they do to get America's attention. Main songwriter Rick Nielsen's response was to create the premise for what could have been a Pink Floydian concept album a la The Wall, but wound up limiting the concept to a single song that, despite the success that it received, should have been a bigger hit than it was.

"Voices", the emotive power ballad that wore its Beatles influences on its sleeve, sounded destined for the top of the charts, but, again, was stopped shorter than anyone who actually heard the song expected.

In fact, anyone who heard the album at the time would have agreed that Dream Police was the sort of album that should have built upon the success of At Budokan. Instead, two sure-fire hit singles had petered out in the lower reaches of the Top 40 and the band began seeing attendance at headlining shows start to dip.

If this had been the response to All Shook Up, the band's next album, such developments arguably could have been expected, but Dream Police is arguably their most solid studio album, both production-wise and from a songwriting aspect.

This is pretty damn remarkable when you consider that, after the band's three previous rock-solid studio albums had gone commercially unnoticed, Rick Nielsen must have had little confidence that his label could do anything with these new ones, either, yet he somehow reaches back and finds another gear.

To this day, song-for-song, it remains his most ambitious work and one the label completely botched.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Triumph In The Hall, Bandmates With Tattoos, and Do We Keep The Guy With The Flying V? Doctor Rock Answers Your Band-Related Questions!


Every so often, our resident "Rock Doc" stops by to answer a few questions from readers just like you. Enjoy!

Q: Since you're known for championing bands that deserve to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, why is there never any mention of inducting Canadian hard rock act Triumph?

A: Is that you, Jeff Turnbow? Boy, I sure don't miss those 10th grade Civics classes where you constantly kept pulling my attention away from the teacher with talk about how great Triumph were and how they were going to change the world. 

Precisely what was it about my Devo and B-52's textbook covers that made you think I wanted to hear about your favorite Canadian mullet-rock trio?

Though I can barely remember my own social security number, thanks to you, I can still name all three members of the band, despite numerous attempts to delete such info from my head's internal hard drive.

Having said that, they're not the worst band in the world, but ask yourself, "When's the last time another band mentioned Triumph as an influence?" 

Q: We're a relatively new band still getting our feet wet on the local scene and a local booker who we're trying to work with has suggested that we "get a chick in the band". What do you think?

A: I have a few responses to choose from, take your pick:

      1) Easier said than done. You see, you can't just go out and find any "chick" to be in your band. This isn't Hollywood, where you just call down to Central casting and ask them for one Susanna Hoffs-type and a Zia McCabe knock-off.

      2) Feel free to grovel, beg, and lie to land that coveted club gig but NEVER, I repeat, never listen to club talent bookers. 

      3) Has any all-female band ever been told to "get a dude in the band", I wonder? I ask only because, deep down, it is every dude's dream to be the only guy in a band full of gals. In fact, some of my rock idols are those who have managed this rare feat, like Joe Vincent from NYC band the Prissteens (a band Joey Ramone LOVED!)

Q: In this pandemic age, what recommendations can you make to musicians eager to find new revenue streams?  

A: Buy one of those old ice cream trucks that used to drive through our neighborhoods when we were kids and instead of blaring that cheesy carnival music, blast tunes from your album, which you can then sell to the kids who come flying out of their houses. It might also help to actually sell ice cream, or tacos.

Q: Did any band do more coke in the '80s than Toto?

A: No.

Q: I'm the only member of my band that doesn't have any tattoos and am constantly being pressured by the rest of the band to get some ink, but thus far I have refused. How would you suggest I handle this moving forward?

A: You can either quit the band and be done with those losers or, better yet, fight fire with fire.

 It may take a little doing, but, if at all possible, show up to your next band rehearsal with your face full of satanic tattoos and piercings that are painful just to look at. As they begin to avert their eyes, say, "Your move, bitches". They won't bother you after that.

Q: I'm in a goth band and we recently auditioned a guitarist who was everything we had been looking for - very tasteful player, awesome stage presence - but he insists on playing a Flying V guitar. What should we do?

A: Seriously? Even if it was one of those cheesy Charvels with the pointy head stock, I wouldn't give it a second thought. Hell, they could show up to gigs wearing a flaming tutu and I'd be completely okay with it if they were everything else I had dreamed about in a band member. If this is the biggest problem you've got, buy a lottery ticket. 

Wait, on second thought, can you gimme their number?