Tales from the Music Biz: The View of a Guy in Pittsburgh

Prologue

I

This is the first part of a series. Please forgive the sin of using "I" to start sentences, but this is as much a monologue as anything else.

I often tell stories from my days in the record industry. I have a somewhat unique perspective in that I have been a performer, a music critic, interviewer, photographer, and a media buyer for the Major Labels. I see things with a rather wide perspective.

That said, I am usually recognized most from my time interviewing rock stars. Let's face it, fame rubs off on us when we're around it long enough, and I was very fortunate to have been on the radio and television, which dramatically raises one's profile.

The downside is, people expect you to be that person all the time.

I have hosted many live events, and I am always jovial and engaging, both on and off the stage. It's not an act, either. I truly love it, but it's not who I am, all the time.

Some days, I'm just a guy whose girlfriend is pissed off, or I just want to sit at the bar and watch a hockey game, and not talk about music at all. Or maybe I ate a bad taco the night before and I feel like shit, but I had to run to Giant Eagle to get some Alka Seltzer and now I'm running into people who want to talk.

slash portraitGod forbid I'm distracted and don't want to talk because I feel a really loose poop coming on. Now, I'm an asshole, all because I just don't want to shit myself at the checkout. This is a side of being famous no one really considers. No one dreams about their idols having diarrhea. Well, almost no one. And I'm not really famous at all. I am, at best, a 'local celebrity' of minor stature. Imagine what it's like for someone like Slash (my doppelganger).

Paul Reubens, aka; Peewee Herman, is a great example of being typecast. He grew so exasperated, he took an admittedly ill-advised path to exploding that public persona with a very public display (yeah, I said exploding) and yet, all these years later, he's back being Peewee Herman. Tell me that's not fucked up.

Being typecast is often the tragic result of fame. "Fame" being relative, of course.

Doing something you love is wonderful. If it's something that involves an audience, and applause, it's incredibly wonderful.

Being expected to do it, night after night, regardless of how you feel that day, can be difficult, to say the least. For people who have a day job, a family, obligations and responsibilities, it's a dream life. For those who do it, it often becomes their worst nightmare.

Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Layne Staley, Kurt Cobain... the list of young stars that went supernova is a tragically long one. It provokes many feelings, not always the same. For many people, it is tragic, sad, a loss to art and life. But for some, it angers them because it's beyond understanding in ways that no one could ever really explain. How could a rich rock star be unhappy?

When a rock star OD's, people think they were at a party, having way too much fun. They don't see the isolation, the withdrawal from life. They only see the videos and the photoshoots. Everyone looks like they're having fun making videos and photoshoots.

It's a sad truth, but bands whose early careers included a ridiculous amount of decadence, and hit songs, almost never reach those creative heights in later years, due either to the early demise of a key member, or the inability to accept the business aspect, which often waters down their creativity and leaves them a reflection of themselves.

There is a downside to fame, and that is perhaps the most profound thing I learned over the years.

II

Keeping it Real

Dave Mustaine dave mustaine 31417468 493 750"Heavy Metal is based on being angry, and you can only eat so much lobster before you're just not that pissed off anymore." -- Megadeth's Dave Mustaine, reflecting on his band not releasing an album for ten years.

Megadeth had much success, especially for a metal band, back when MTV still played music videos. They were angry and aggressive. Dave Mustaine could do a hair tossing, head banging, blistering metal riff like no other, but you know, 'lobster'.

When the 80's metal anger gave way to 90's alternative angst, Mustaine and company didn't implode, and go through the motions of trying to prove they could do what others could not. Instead of having a total meltdown and blaming the fans, they took a break. Mustaine didn't try to force it. The creative process he had built his career on was dormant, commercially speaking. He also respected that he would never be an angry young man again, and it was time to experience being a grumpy old man in order to be creative again.

Perhaps it was Mustaine's earlier bout with alcohol abuse that gave him the presence, the peace of mind, to recognize a situation he had no control over. He was patient with the world as it is, despite what it was.  Certainly, having some money in the bank helps, but clearly, money in the bank was not enough to compensate other stars like Cobain.

alicecooperAlice Cooper is another example of an artist who has been able to maintain his career, but has never equaled the creative achievements of his early years. Although Alice Cooper has released many albums, none have come close to creative genius of early records like Killer, Billion Dollar Babies and School's Out. Albums that were written and recorded in the midst of decadence. The same is true of Aerosmith. Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin...

This phenomenon is not limited to music, of course. John Belushi made us laugh, yet literally killed himself slowly, through a life numbing process of drug abuse. He had money. He had fame. He had titties whenever he wanted!  How could you be unhappy with titties on demand???

Yet, he was.

That's the explanation that makes sense to anyone who has sat in a motel room alone, in a strange city, mere hours after being on top of the world.

He was lonely.


III

My Taste of Fame

Not to imply I had achieved the fame of a rock star. In fact, I had to give up my rock star dream, because I got hooked on the high that was, "The Biz".

Drugs can't touch "The Biz" for psychological addictive qualities. For those who are truly addicted to "The Biz", drugs are just a sideshow. Something they do at a party now and then. Their high is the power.

People often dream of being backstage with their favorite rock star. It's easy. They rarely dream about being the person who decides who gets backstage at all. That's beyond the scope of their imagination. That's power.

Having been a person who has made those decisions, I can't deny the appeal. To be the guy who waves the wand and says, "You may enter" is a remarkable feeling. "How cool am I?!"

And the wonderment! It's like turning water into wine! You are truly the backstage King of Kings!

johnpauljonesThis is not hyperbole. Getting up close and personal with a real, honest to God, saw them on MTV rock star is a religious experience for fans. And despite my professional credentials as a jaded and cynical music journalist, sometimes I was also a fan, and I won't lie; it's really fucking cool to meet them.

In my case, I get to have conversations with rock stars I grew up worshiping. It's hard to not be awestruck.

When I interviewed John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, I held it together, but inside, a part of me was like a girl in the audience at a Beatles concert. Frankly, as professional as I am, I doubt I could interview Jimmy Page without cumming half way through. He is my personal Guitar God.

IV

Backstage: "You know, on the Bus".

Of course, the best part were the times we actually connected. The times it stopped being an interview with some hack in Pittsburgh and became a conversation between two people. A stimulating, and even intimate chat, ranging from guitar playing and favorite movies to the meaning of life.

daveabruzzezeDave Abruzzeze, the original drummer in Pearl Jam, had a really bad case of stage fright. He really opened up to me about getting fired because of it (I almost always connect with drummers) and it got personal and intimate. It was a moving experience for me in many ways.

Neil Innes, the man behind so much of the music in Monty Python's Flying Circus-- we just hit it off from the start. We talked for over an hour, and could have kept going. He was stunned that I had actually listened to his CD-- which had nothing to do with Monty Python-- and that I wanted to talk about his music. Apparently all his other interviewers wanted to talk about John Cleese and Eric Idle and the Holy Grail.

Eventually, we did talk Python, but only after he brought it up. He was touched that I liked his music for itself, and it made him trust me.  In fact, Neil trusted me so much, he gave me his home phone number so we could just chat 'without all the bother'.

Allen Woody, of Gov't Mule and I immediately hit it off, which I knew because eventually he said, "Man, we gotta get high together."

And my favorite moment, when Alex Lifeson, of Rush, showed me marriage is marriage, whether you're a bricklayer or a rock star.

Those were the times I was truly backstage.

Actually, in retrospect, we were nowhere near the stage at all.


Part One: Alex Lifeson

Taking out the trash.

Alex LifesonBack in the mid to late 1970's, when I was in high school, Disco ruled the charts. Finding a new rock band was like a gold strike. Finding any rock band that was progressive and had commercial appeal was almost impossible.

Enter RUSH.

Here was a band doing something different, something intellectual that rocked. It was not pretentious. It actually rocked. Sure, the band had an amazing drummer who wrote prolific lyrics, and a bassist who could sing and play keyboards with his feet, but they had something previous progressive bands lacked: They had a rock guitarist who could shred with no regard for the technical aspect of playing guitar. He could play the scales, the arpeggios, etc., but more than that, he made beautiful noise.

The electric guitar is not just a musical instrument. It is a physical melding of wood, metal and electricity. Who can resist that? It makes noises that have no musical reference-- they can't be written down in sheet music or tabs. It makes explosions and gunfire, screaming orgasms and sweet love. It speaks to us in ways that go beyond form and function.

Alex Lifeson, like all of my personal guitar heroes, embraced and embodied that. And I believe that is what set RUSH apart from all other progressive rock bands. They always kept that rock edge because of him.

At this point, it's pretty obvious a chance to interview him was like a meeting with the Pope. Yes, a religious experience.

He called me from home, which is actually noteworthy because I think he was more relaxed than say, if he had been at an office at the label or a hotel room.

One of the advantages of being a guitarist interviewing a guitarist is, I understand what he does for a living. Not just being a guitarist, but doing it for a living. I can hear the cacophony of voices out there saying, "I'd play anywhere, anytime, etc, etc." Does that include when you have the trots and are spending three days running from bed to the bathroom? Does that include the week your wife, husband, GF or BF is on the warpath?

Believe it or not, there are times when being a rock star is like a job. Photo shoots, making videos, doing press functions, getting up at 6am to do the morning show on the radio, and yes, even playing. It's an obligation that has nothing to do with how you feel that day. And it wears people out. They have to balance their personal and professional life at a very intense pace.

Anyone who is in a band and a relationship will tell you, it's a real high wire balancing act. But hearing it for myself, live, was a moment I'll never forget.

Lifeson and I had been going on and on for a while. The interview part-- the questions I'm supposed to ask-- was long over. We were talking about all kinds of things. Cartoons, guitarists we loved, whatever.

Suddenly I heard a very angry woman's voice in the background. "Goddamit, Alex!"

He said, "Vinni, hang on a minute" and cupped the phone so it was muffled, but I could still hear enough to know she was pissed.

After a minute, he got back on the phone as the angry woman voice receded and a door slammed, and he sighed --heavily. I was stunned. I know that sigh!  It was the same sigh I make when my girl is pissed at me! I could hear it. Then he said, "I'm sorry man, my wife is pissed. I forgot to take out the garbage."

I didn't know what to say. I was floored. Here was a certified rock star, indeed one of my personal guitar heroes, having a Homer Simpson moment, and I was a party to it. Then, suddenly, I just laughed, the way I would with one of my friends. "It's cool man" was all I said.

Our interview had run far longer than scheduled, so his promise to take out the trash 'in a couple minutes' didn't happen. I felt bad for him, but we started chatting again, and I could tell if we kept going, his wife would be even more pissed, so I finally said, "Hey man, I don't want to get you into trouble with your old lady." He laughed and agreed and we cordially ended our interview.

We never spoke again, but I like to think that he might actually remember that moment, when we were just two guys with pissed off old lady stories.

[v]

Category: Main Stage