The first song on Oasis' first record is called "Rock And Roll Star." I guess they didn't become brash when they got success. Heading into the chorus, Liam Gallagher sneers, "In my mind, my dreams are real." For some of us, the dream of being a rock star just can't be fulfilled with fake instruments plugged into our television screens.
Some of us still daydream of an alternate universe where if we'd only practiced a little harder or started a little younger, our path would have led us to a stage in front of thousands, playing our songs for an adoring crowd waiting to explode with ecstasy and adulation. Then we wake up. Switching bands and continents, former Semisonic drummer Jake Slichter had the dream, realized the dream, and then he, too, woke up. He's written a memoir of his journey, offering a sobering yet pleasant reminder that even our fantasies come with small print.
So You Wanna Be A Rock And Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful Of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer's Life is our invitation to follow Slichter from an Ivy League education that didn't lead to a lucrative or fulfilling career — at least not one that could compete with "the dream." Before, during, and after college he never completely loses hope of finding a career in music even if he wasn't always sure how to find it.
Enter Dan Wilson. Wilson was a former college mate of Slichter's who was already in a band with John Munson called Trip Shakespeare. TS had a good run in Minneapolis and in the indie circles, but their run was coming to an end. As Slichter tells it, Pleasure — the band that would later become Semisonic — forms almost by accident, or at least without a lot of planning and forethought. The trio begins by doing some loose jamming and over time begins generating some new material. Using the knowledge and contacts of their Trip Shakespeare years, Wilson and Munson begin the process of shopping this new band to record labels.
Slichter is experiencing this ride for the first time, and it's through his eyes we get a glimpse of the music business. It turns out that all the stories we've heard about it are true. The unspoken but implicit rule of the industry seems to be this: if an artist gets paid by a record label, it has to be a mistake and may very well be a fireable offense. His ability to explain the confusing and often corrupt practices with good humor rather than bitterness makes this an informative read without turning into a pity party.
We all have our ideas of what the rock and roll life will be like and we may not be entirely wrong, but there is a lot we don't see. Slichter takes us behind the curtain and shows us a world of dive bars with nowhere to change or shower, living on a bus with nothing to do but get in the way when opening for another band no matter how nice they are, clueless DJs, double-talking radio program directors, and low-level music industry peons who alternately follow the rule from the higher ups and have their own agenda.
I can't help but thinking Slichter might have benefited from an eBook reader, which is how I read this book. Slichter describes trying to find ways to keep himself busy during long stretches of time while on tour with nothing to do but wait. The ability to carry around a few hundred books on a device weighing barely more than a pound and taking up practically no room at all would have helped fill a few of those hours.
Semisonic experiences highs and lows, recording three albums. They are courted and dropped and signed again before their debut record is released. They see dismal failures in the music marketplace and taste bursts of success when "Closing Time" becomes a major single in between never-ending stretches of monotony and failure.
What Slichter shows us — even if he doesn't come right out and tell us — is that it's a wonder more bands don't implode, it's a minor miracle that any artist ever does get their record heard, and you have to hunger for the dream to the near exclusion of anything else just to survive, to say nothing of actually succeeding. I'm still crazy enough to think I'd want it and I have a new respect for those who have tried.