Being Cool: A Musician's Delimma
By Jerry Flattum - 07/14/2006 - 01:20 PM EDT
I have always wondered just exactly what was the impetus behind big band breakups, from the Beatles to Pink Floyd to the endless East Coast/West Coast wars in rap. Having never risen to the upper echelon of commercial success, these superstars and their relationships to each other remain as illusive to me as if I were a small town fan instead of a songwriter with big dreams. My experience has been in the trenches.
I've never known anyone famous, with the exception of having worked at CBS Music Operations and the Harry Fox Agency. As a freelance writer, I've met a smattering of B-level stars and once sat with Tony Bennett at a table a few hours before a concert. At the Harry Fox Agency, I met some of the biggest names in music publishing (that's another story).
But other than the above, the musicians, songwriters and recording studio owners I've ever known or worked with were small time, almost exclusively associated with local original and cover bands. It is from this experience I draw my conclusions about the Lennon/McCartney, Waters/Gilmour and similar fueds I've only heard about in the media. Money and fame aside, I have many suspicions that what I've seen behavior and personality-wise in the lower rungs of the industry are not all that different than what goes on at the top.
Let me start at the top:
Dynfunctional families, drugs, booze, poor education and all the other factors that contribute to social stratification are no different for musicians than any other segment of society. Musicians are people too, to use a silly cliche. But the reason for this exploration into what I can only describe realistically as a bunch of assholes and pricks--to put in it street language--is that I hold musicians to a higher standard.
Our mission--collectively--is to unite. You could argue our mission is to entertain, and I'd be hard pressed to disagree. But whether it's a local dive in a small town, a stadium in a major city, or a televised concert in front of millions, people come together to hear music. Music is a shared experience, despite the iPod marketing emphasis on an individualized listening experience. Our job...is to bring people together.
What is idealistic is a far cry from the realities of what really goes on in the music business. It's competitive and cut-throat. Music divides, not just across black/white lines, but also male/female, young/old, and even ugly/beautiful.
Music is NOT a universal language, even if it is found universally.
The horror stories of superstar behavior is nothing short of unbelievable. Sid Barrett, a founding member of Pink Floyd and who recently died, was notorious for strumming one chord for the entire duration of a concert. Sly Stone simply never showed up for scheduled concerts. You could argue that was a long time ago. Fast forward past Pete Townsend's crazed smashing guitar antics into the 80s and 90s metal and punk era, behavior gets even more psychotic. Now, we're biting the heads off bats, destroying hotel rooms and laying claims to having screwed more than a 1000 groupies.
Music is definately not about love. It's not even politically rebellious or socially conscious. It's beyond decadent. And here are the fans, adoring these whackos and turning them into millionaires. A music industry, owned by conservative corporate giants, all bent out of shape over illegal piracy, has no problems supporting this kind of behavior--especially since it sells.
Rap took psychosis to a whole new level: to be a good rapper, you need a rap sheet. Jail time is mandatory. Credentials include pimp, thief, drug dealer and the ultimate, although never officially admitted to, murderer. In a previous article on the Musesmuse site, I wrote an article on rap murders--and the list is beyond shocking.
These kinds of behavior have nothing to do with rebellion or even "alternative life styles." It's a world of decadence glorifying fame and wealth, infused with violence, misogyny and boundless self-indulgence.
Am I some sort of purist? No. I'm not even a Christian, despite my upbringing. Christian music has some of the best produced and engineering recordings. The singing and musicianship is excellent. But the push towards a harder-edged/metal-esque sound creates a neurotic paradox. Christians do not conform to the life styles found in the pop and rock worlds. Yet, here they are, adding a distortion stompbox to a guitar and screaming about Jesus. What's the goal? Is it to celebrate God's love, or is it a vain attempt to appeal to the pagans and heathens of the rock world? Is it a distorted proselytizing attempt to increase the Christian ranks?
George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," the Doobie Brother's "Jesus is Just Allright," Bob Dylan's schitzophrenic born again/"God On Our Side," and Kayne West's recent "Jesus Walks," all point to a history of some kind of dysfunctional relationship between Jesus and decadence. Maybe not as individuals, but as collective members of the rock/pop/rap mainstream, such celebrations of the God life just don't seem to jive with what really goes on behind and in front of the scenes. Call it polarized. Call it neurotic. Or, were/are these artists trying to change things?
Back to the trenches:
I've walked into music stores, recording studios, clubs and auditioned for bands, and can't believe the way I was treated. Should I expect any different kind of treatment from, say, interviewing for a job, buying a car, walking in the wrong neighborhood? Not any more. Musicians and songwriters are no more elevated saint-types than street muggers, telemarketers or stone-cold government agency workers. They're jaded, neurotic, insecure and definately not happy people...unless happiness comes from hurting or mistreating others. They are certainly not on a mission of peace. They're not trying to unite anyone and I've never been treated as a "brother."
What is it, the applause? I know what it is to hear huge crowds applaude for me after a performance (by huge, I mean in the 4000 range). It's a high beyond any drug I ever experimented with. I've had my share of women too, certainly not in the 100s or 1000s, as some superstars have claimed. But the groupie thing was illusion. What ever mythical character they saw on a stage quickly faded once real life encounters became more frequent.
Unless you're commercially successful, most musicians are poor. Rarely is their education more than a scattered few courses at a community college. Some own homes, but how they qualified for mortgages was due to other factors that had nothing to do with being a musician. The same bank managers that hang out in bars listening to bands are the same bank managers that know how flaky musicians and artistic types can be when it comes to pragmatism. Being a musician is not an honorable position in society. In many circles, it's not even recognized as a legitimate occupation. Yet, they are glorified beyond sainthood, in spite of goofball, anti-social behavior, once they become commercially successful.
But the individuals I'm talking about aren't commercially successful. Some of them manage to work consistently in coverbands, even traveling state-to-state. A few band leaders I've known were even pulling in upwards of 6-figure incomes. Original bands rely on self-produced CDs to boost their egos rather than steady gigs at local bars.
So what makes them think they are so cool? Is it the sheer fact of being on a stage and being watched by others, even when the music coming out of the speakers sucks? Is it the power of a power chord or the boom of a bass drum through a JBL dual 15-inch that somehow magically transforms them into mythical Gods?
Most male musicians I've known always have a girlfriend, but that doesn't speak of the one they just broke up with and the one yet to follow. Some of them are married...to women who are nothing more than a groupie they met during a gig. I've seen horendous fights during breaks in-between sets. I know sound engineers who got slammed into anger management classes for beating on their girlfriends. I've seen the needles and the pills and the bottles of Jack Daniels. I've seen cars break down and tons of equipment sold to pay the bills.
So, is this a form of invective? Am I ranting on how I've been mistreated, abused, looked down upon? Yes, I guess I am. I was never shocked to receive this kind of treatment form the politically conservative establishment. Being a musician, even when behavior is not extreme, is living on the edge of society by default. So I've gotten used to being looked at in a slightly askewed way.
And just what does that mean to be living on the edge? Well, it was supposed to mean living for ideals--like love and justice--that regular everyday common working folk forget about. Musicians are supposed to remind people there is love and beauty in the world, that life is not just about paying bills and living in suburbia.
But that's not what I've seen. What I've seen is meglo-maniacal assholes who think women are nothing but "chicks in a bar" and if you're not in the band, you're not in the clic. I've seen drug addicts and alcoholics who are clueless about the war on terrorism, global warming, corporate greed, or polical corruption. They could care less about pollution, disease and hunger or any other social crisis. What they care about is how cool you think they are.
Back on top:
Some of the richest most adulated persons on this planet are musicians. They party all night, don't pay their taxes, snort cocaine like breathing the air, declare bankruptcy after selling millions of records, and spit in the face of the audiences who cheer for more.
Never more will I associate the music business--bottom or top--with the universal quest for love and peace. Bandaids and Loveaids and Bono's well-publicized walk through the hell of Aids-torn Africa will not blind me to the self-indulgence and utter lack of respect for the dignity and sanctity of life I've seen from local bars to worldwide media events. Janet Jackson's breasts? Her brother's endless child molestation court battles? The latest rap murder in the shooting of rapper Proof, Eminem's cohort, killed on 8 Mile Road? Phil Spector awaiting trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson? Britney Spears, now a mother, sings about toxic love? A local musician makes a $100 a night?
And we think we're so cool.
One of my favorite quotes: "You may have the peacefulness of a dove, but you must also acquire the wisdom of a serpent."
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