A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine invited me out to an author reading for a book by a guy named Dan Kennedy called Rock On: An Office Power Ballad.
What appealed to me about this — aside from an excuse to quaff a few cold ones with a buddy I hadn't hung out with in awhile — was that the book dealt with the true-life experiences of a guy who stumbled into a "dream-job" in the record industry.
Like my own experiences in the nineties (which we'll get to in a minute), Kennedy arrived just in time to see the "big show" he'd grown up dreaming of being a part of, reduced to a revolving door of corporate buyouts, downsizing, and layoffs. The party of the sixties, seventies, and eighties was just about over, and the hippies had long since left the building.
I haven't read the entire book yet, but what I've glossed over so far rings true in the most hilarious, yet bittersweet sort of way.
Like Kennedy, I too experienced those unbearable corporate boardroom meetings. I didn't ever mistake the manager of Duran Duran for a band member like he did. But I do remember many afternoons spent hiding in a corner of that ominously dark room wishing I was anywhere else, but having to justify why I sent more promo copies of the latest Barkmarket CD to retail, than the band actually sold that week.
Just to be clear on this, if I'd sent just ten promos out, they'd be asking the same questions.
I may or may not review Kennedy's book at some point here. But I will say that I found it pretty damn hilarious, even if my recommendation does come from a unique sort of "been there, done that" perspective.
Anyway, reading Rock On got me to thinking about my own experiences working for a big time record label in the nineties. I haven't talked about my time working at Def American Recordings a whole lot here. But the two and a half years I spent working there in L.A. have yielded a lifetime's worth of memories, and some great stories to match.
A lot of it was really good stuff too.
For example, I met Johnny Cash face to face in my tiny office. After Rick Rubin introduced me to his newest signing, I nearly pissed myself when he extended his hand and said "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash". Later that night, I saw him play accompanied by nothing but his acoustic guitar at the Viper Room.
I also went to the Grammys with Sir Mix-A-Lot when he got nominated for "Baby Got Back." I even attended a celebrity studded party for Mick Jagger at the home of Heidi Fleiss, the infamous Hollywood Madam. So, if I ever should happen to meet that special someone willing to bear my children, at least I've got some great stories to tell.
Aw hell, who am I kidding right?
More often though, I spent my days trying my best to fly under the radar, and dodging the corporate ax that was sure to fall once the folks at Def American realized that the kid from Seattle was pretty much in over his head. One particular boss I had there (who shall remain nameless here), sat directly across from me in the office and would spend entire mornings staring a hole right through me.
Every once in a while though, I would come up with a great marketing idea that would save my ass for that particular week.
Like the time I thought of doing a "concert kit" for the seventies styled "boogie-rock" band Raging Slab, and their album Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert. We had to nix a few items — like the bong, the bottle of Ripple Wine, and the tube of glue. If we shipped these things together, it would have been prosecutable by law as a bomb. We finally did ship a "concert kit" to retail though. It included the CD, a T-shirt, some rolling papers, and a dime to call a cab. It even made promo item of the week in Radio & Records magazine.
So like Dan Kennedy in his book, I arrived for my own dream-shot in the big-time music business of nineties L.A., just in time for the whole corporate shenanigans that had everybody ducking for cover. The firings and layoffs that came in the wake of a downturn in business that hadn't quite yet become the tidal wave it is now still had everybody in full-on "cover your ass" mode. The fact that even at thirty-something years old, I was still a wide-eyed, somewhat green, starstruck kid in the biggest candystore on Earth didn't help matters much either.
But the other — and probably most curious — thing to me about my two years in the big-time record biz, was how little so much of what actually went on there had to do with actual music.
One of the things that sticks out to this day in my mind, was this weird trend happening at the time where it seemed the coolest thing in music — at least at our label — was self-mutilation. Now, I'm still to this day trying to figure out what sticking things through your skin actually had to do with making records. I just can't seem to make the connection between sticking pins and studs through your face, your tits, and worse and a good guitar solo. Go figure.
But at my label, we were all over it.
For starters, we had the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow signed to a video deal. For those who don't remember, Rose led a traveling sort of freak show during the grunge era, where they would do things like eat glass, hang weights from their nipples, and regurgitate various items through their noses at rock events like Lollapalooza.
We particularly championed this sort of thing at American. One day, Jim Rose himself even showed up at one of our staff meetings to perform something called the "Dick Circus." In this one-man show performed for our staff, Rose pulled down his pants and proceeded to bend and stretch his dick into all these un-godly shapes and things.
Being the squeamish sort of guy I've always been, I felt myself getting sick about a minute in, and had to flee the room. My already mildly "un-cool" image at this point ( I was about ten years older than most of the other staffers there) had now became a curse I would never be able to reverse.
And it would only get worse…
Not long after the "Dick Circus," we were treated to a video from the goth-metal band Danzig at another meeting. Glenn Danzig himself was a pretty creepy character when you met him up close and personal. He was a short, sawed-off sort of guy who dressed all in black, and who pretty much lived his onstage "I 'Yam Evil" sort of image offstage as well. Despite his modest height, Danzig was also a muscle-head built like a brick outhouse, whose silent sort of weirdness made your arm-hairs literally stand on end when in his presence.
I tried to bond with the guy once, figuring the fact that we shared the same first name might help. It didn't.
So Danzig had this video for the song called "Mother," that we were going to use to promote a live EP called Thrall: Demonsweatlive. The video starts with some dungeony black-and-white images that fans of Nine Inch Nails might recognize. So I'm watching this thing thinking to myself "yeah right, I get it…Danzig is one evil sumbitch…yawn!" When all of a sudden, out of nowhere comes this scene where a guy is getting a nail hammered through his penis.
This inspired a quick package check of my own right in the middle of the meeting, followed by an overwhelming urge to puke my guts out.
What is it with these guys I work with and the need to do terrible, un-natural things to a guy's most precious, umm…"thing," I thought to myself. Unfortunately, my fate at the label was now pretty much set. And my days there were likewise numbered.
In fact, the very next day when I showed up to work, I had a present waiting for me at my desk. It was — you guessed it — a big, rusty nail. No one ever claimed credit for the gift, but I have my suspicions.
Not long after that, I got the "nail" for good from Def American. But that's another story…