James told me he was reading “You Never Give Me Your Money”, the story of the Beatles and their business. And when he was done telling tales, with a gleam in his eye that made me want to read the book, I asked him why no one ever employed the Beatle formula, good singing with tunes featuring not only catchy choruses, but bridges.
James said it was just not that simple. Where are you going to find two people who hate each other, who would not be friends if not for this band, who inspire each other to greatness?
Hate may be a strong word, but without the Beatles, Paul McCartney and John Lennon would probably not have hung out. But Paul had an incredible sense of melody and white bread lyrics and John criticized and worked with him until Paul emerged triumphant with classics he has not equaled since, and having maligned his fellow Liverpudlian, Lennon had to dig deep and deliver edgy classics, just to maintain his position as the all-knowing expert, the cool dude Paul wanted to impress.
I never thought of it that way. Really, neither did anything quite as good in their solo years, was James right, was it all about this tension in the original band?
But even though the Beatles had two songwriters, Elton John was a solo act. Sure, Bernie wrote the lyrics, but not only did Elton compose the tunes, he fronted the music on stage. What about Elton? Why was he successful?
He’s a gay guy, closeted and uptight, so he covers it up with flamboyant outfits and outrageous stagecraft so you won’t look too deeply, so he won’t look too deeply himself.
I realized that was the secret. Nobody had a run like Elton’s. Multiple records per year, all good, most fantastic until ’76′s “Blue Moves”. He didn’t labor over albums, he went in and banged them out. Hell, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was a double. Somehow, by avoiding his demons, Elton created masterpieces. He was constantly working, rarely thinking, and that’s why he was so damn good. He was the pilot running on instinct.
So now I was flummoxed. I had no idea people still thought that hard, theorized about what was good and bad and why. I’d just been on the phone the night before with a friend who told me she was addicted to four new albums… I’m addicted to the Internet, music not so much, not too much reaches me, then again, this woman and I have one act in common, Ryan Adams.
And when I brought up his name to James he said Ryan was BROKEN! That all great artists are BROKEN!
James spoke of this band that came into his studio, with a song that was good enough to make him feel inadequate, made him wish he’d written it himself. Should he cast aside other obligations and dedicate himself to helping this band make it? He decided not to. Because no one in the band was broken. They were too normal. And we’re not interested in normal.
James recited the names of some of the people he’d worked with. From Trent Reznor to Perry Farrell. They’re not like us. But you knew that. But he also mentioned Bonnie Raitt. I know Bonnie. Whoever you think she is on stage, in person she’s this strange amalgam of passion and irreverence and you say to yourself “I just haven’t met someone like this before.” Hell, she didn’t even write most of her material and we’re still listening, because of the way she delivers it, making it all about the art as opposed to the money.
Broken people are oftentimes depressives. Frequently perfectionists. Oftentimes they’re impossible to work with and you wouldn’t even want to go to dinner with them. But you can’t stop listening to their music.
James analogized it to films. His favorites tended not to be perfect, it’s just that they had something… That explains the success of “Harold and Maude”, but it also explains why I love “Something Wild”. I can criticize it, but the tension, the truth spoken by Jeff Daniels, the lies, the juxtaposition of the nerd and the free spirit are such that I will never forget it.
And I’m thinking about today’s music scene. On one hand, you’ve got Top Forty stars. They want to be rich and famous. Most do not sustain, but somehow Britney Spears does. Is it because of this same broken quality?
And then there are the alternative acts. You know, the guys with mediocre voices and guitars. Oftentimes they’re just doing it for a couple of years after college, if they don’t get traction they’re going to go to graduate school. Broken people can barely graduate from high school.
And now, more than ever, broken people are not executives. The suits hate broken people. Because they don’t show up on time and you never know if they’ll deliver. They want music made on an assembly line, on time and with no surprises. But the greats always surprised us.
Like Pink Floyd. Their legendary period was when both Gilmour and Waters were in the band. Waters had contempt for Gilmour. Almost wouldn’t write lyrics for “Comfortably Numb”. But when he did, they had to be better than David’s music, to show him up. And isn’t it interesting that neither has scaled the heights without the other. They can call all the shots, but they’ve got nothing to prove. And if you don’t think Roger Waters is a fucked up guy…
Broken makes it interesting. These people look at the world differently. They’re willing to take chances, both creative and business, because they’ve got little to lose, they don’t fit in, they’re not sacrificing much, it’s not like they’re going to be purged from the game…THEY’RE NOT IN THE GAME!
And that’s why music is in the doldrums. What kind of person makes a deal with a corporation? Leave out the money, how many corporations can you believe in, aren’t they what’s wrong with America? Tom Waits just got inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He never had a hit, never had a monster album, but he’s an original, who wouldn’t dare tie up with Procter & Gamble or any other man. I remember running into him at the Troubadour in the seventies, when he was living at the Tropicana and we’d all had too much to drink… He was an asshole then, and for all I know still is one.
You can’t tell an asshole what to do. Principle is more important. Think of John Fogerty. He wouldn’t play the Creedence hits just to fuck with Saul Zaentz. He’d rather hurt himself than benefit a prick who screwed him. Huh? Meanwhile, you’re reading business books about how to get ahead in the organization, what to wear, how to hold back your emotions.
And speaking of broken, is there anybody more broken than Axl Rose? How about Sly Stone before him?
Music is an incredibly powerful medium. But as a result of MTV and the CD replacement business, all the money, risk was eviscerated from the mainstream, broken people were excluded. Ever wonder why there’s never been another Van Morrison? Hell, Prince got into a war with Warner Brothers because he wanted to release more music! And the aforementioned Ryan Adams released so much music that we stopped paying attention. But not completely, we’re always interested, you never know what he might do.
But Vanilla Ice is gonna do nothing. Nor is J. Lo. They’re just too normal, and also not talented enough.
I believe the classic rock era was like the Renaissance. Happened once in history and that was it. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been great painting and sculpture since. Stop quoting grosses. Stop saying today’s music is as good as that of the past. Have you ever hung with Joni Mitchell? One of the most fucked up people on the planet. Talk about broken… Hell, she sacrificed her newborn baby to save her marriage and career. But in the history of rock and roll, there’s never been anybody better than Joni. She can sing, write and play. And all the difficulty you experience off record somehow does not make it on. We’re always interested in what Joni has to say. We don’t care what today’s hitmakers and wannabes have to say. Which is first and foremost, SHOW ME THE MONEY! Be great. Be unique. Be an individual and the money will come. Assuming you don’t need it. Assuming you can’t stop being who you are. Assuming you’re sitting at home wondering why no one’s inviting you for dinner even though you want to go, not knowing that you can be intolerable. Assuming you’re unfiltered and unfettered enough to lay it down on wax.
Hell, is there anybody more broken than Don Henley? He’s got a thin skin, he’s opinionated, he’s rarely nice. He leads with his talent, figures that will open the doors.
And you hate him for it.
That’s a rock star. That’s why he and his band own the best selling record of all time. We’re interested in people like that. We’re not interested in you.