Thursday, September 23, 2010
"WHY DIDN'T THEY BUY THE PRODUCT?!?!" --Phil Spector
Yeah, check out that photo of me to the left. Nice! "Take that man back to the mental hospital, stat!" Haha! Okay, so I better write something here every now and again or else I can't really claim to be keeping a blog. I guess I'll just ramble for a bit. So like I talk about in the liner notes of the reissue, the best story Moe Tucker told me during the recording of The Lives of Charles Douglas was how she knew Phil Spector in the 60's. She said that one day she congratulated him on how awesome "River Deep, Mountain High" sounded (which is indeed an awesome song, although famously it was not a hit in the US), and in response he suddenly screamed at her, "Then why didn't you buy the product?!?!?!" Moe was understandably horrified/scared/amused by his apparent bitterness. But I always thought that story was hilarious. So yeah, whenever I sit and reminisce about the good ol' days (which is rarely because they were so traumatic and awful, haha!) Phil Spector's quote comes to mind. But unlike Phil Spector, even though I'm definitely bitter and crazy, I've decided not to live in a huge mansion, get shitfaced every day on drugs and booze, and shoot people in the head! (it was a tough decision, though. I guess maybe if I had his millions I might have given it a try? But still, murdering people and running around a mansion all day sounds like a lot of work. It's entirely possible I'm just too lazy to be as insane as I want to be.)
Anyway, in terms of "River Deep, Mountain High," I understand where Phil was coming from! I mean, that's probably one of his greatest productions. It's totally huge and demented, and the work of a genius. But no one in America dug it at the time (because most people are stupid and have horrible taste in music, haha). But yeah, Phil asked a good question: WHY DIDN'T THEY BUY THE PRODUCT?!?!?! If they had, maybe he wouldn't have been forced to go crazy and kill that chick and do drugs! The public is at fault, you see. Not Phil Spector! ahahahahahaha! I wonder if people realize how much of an influence Phil was on the VU. I can hear him in there especially on the first VU album, from Moe's drums, to the production, to all the other cool, crazy shit that Lou and John and Sterling put in there. Lou Reed is a genius, right? I've only heard a handful of records that are as good as "The Velvet Underground & Nico" (and then on top of that, think of how many other great songs he wrote). But as an obsessive teenager, I realized that Moe's drums were definitely the secret weapon of the VU. Lou even realized that too, I think (which is why she plays on some songs on his boring 80's comeback album, "New York").
So yeah, what even are my fave albums? Might as well list a few... I guess The VU & Nico, Surfer Rosa, White Album, Computer World (gotta have some Kraftwerk in there), Dirty Mind, i mean really, anything between 1978 and 1988 by Prince is great.... Oh yeah, and there's so many great David Bowie, Rolling Stones, Nick Drake, Miles Davis, and Neil Young albums too... What about the obscure stuff, you ask? well, i guess it's not too obscure, but i really dig stuff like Beat Happening, Pastels, Unrest, Big Moe/DJ Screw ("City of Syrup" yeaaaah!), those Song Poem comps, my friend Manish Kalvakota's odd solo albums, i dunno, there's tons of great stuff out there... What new stuff do i dig? i guess typical annoying hipster stuff, like Dirty Projectors, etc. Oh yeah, I really love a band from Chapel Hill, NC called "The Strugglers" which is just the life's work on one dude named Brice Randall Bickford (great name--he should just record under that). Here's an as-yet-unreleased track of his called "On the Caesura of Paying Attention." If you're high and listen to the song like 26 times in a row, you'll start to understand that it's an amazing, complex work of genius (seriously). give it enough time, and his stuff will really grow on you. Of course the band is completely unknown, but that's because they're good, haha. Maybe a decade from now, people will be like, "Oh yeah, that Brice Randall Bickford dude is a great songwriter." But of course he has to find a way to fill the next ten years! Just don't go crazy, haha!
So how did I get Moe Tucker to agree to play drums on The Lives of Charles Douglas? people always wonder that. Well, she agreed to produce the record, and then when she showed up at the studio, there was no drummer. This was because we were all so high, we'd decided to use a drum machine (in emulation of Big Black, and all these cheesy disco records we were into at the time). But no one had actually brought the drum machine (or programmed it--i'm not sure we even owned one that worked reliably). So there was no one to play drums. So we just looked at Moe and I said, literally, "Oh, I guess we don't have a drummer. WTF should we do? This sucks. Would you like to play?" haha! And this was after she'd taken a 2+ day train ride from Georgia to NYC, etc. I'm sure she was really puzzled and confused (we had like 4 guitarists there and no drummer!) but of course being the sweet person that she is, she was like (after a few moments of internal deliberation) "Sure!" And then everything fell into place, because she is, truly, one of the greatest drummers of all time. I knew that with her on drums, we'd make a great album (or at least I hoped that we would--I was probably so drunk and high, I don't even know what I was really thinking. I remember one night telling Kurt Ralske who engineered and played on it, that I had seen a dog in the hallway, and the dog was freaking me out by its barking, etc. Kurt explained there was no dog--I was hallucinating. Haha!!! He had to take me into the hall and talk me down. I'm sure Kurt was overjoyed to have a bunch of crazies in his studio, but he handled it all with aplomb. Apparently we were saner than the previous bands he'd just recorded there--Laguna Meth, whose singer supposedly stripped and cupped his balls whenever he sang--and Adam Schlesinger's band Ivy, who drove Kurt crazy with their relentless, diva-like demands).
The craziest thing is that The Lives of Charles Douglas actually sold pretty well at first when it got released! But then the distributor/manufacturer (that would be Caroline Records, owned by Virgin Records, those bastards) didn't press any copies beyond the initial pressing. So the few thousand copies they pressed got snapped up pretty fast, and then it was over. Just like that! I learned no more copies equals no more sales. Pretty harsh! I guess it just wasn't worth it to them to press more, and the record stores that had ordered a couple copies (and presumably sold them) had made out ok, so without any sort of promotional push, no one was interested in doing anything else. I felt pretty let-down by everyone. I'd never even got paid a single penny (my promised "advance" never materialized, naturally). Even BMI screwed up the meager royalty amount I should have got for writing the songs (which was like, quite literally, eleven dollars, haha!). So really, I never got a single penny from it. The record never got released anywhere except for the US, so it didn't have a chance to get heard in the UK or Australia or Japan, etc. I was a failure, just like all the bands and artists I grew up loving. I supposed I shouldn't have been surprised! and in fairness, the A&R people behind the record at Elektra and No.6/Caroline, Terry and Bobby, both did their best, but they were both dealing with various issues of their own and would soon leave the music biz.
And at the time, US college radio was playing abysmal indie techno and hip hop music (remember when Matador Records tried to be an electronic label and then signed a bunch of unlistenable hip hop acts? I'm sure they try to forget that period in their history, but I remember it ALL TOO WELL!!! Gerard must have been smoking some serious crack for a couple years there. (Hi Gerard, I still love you, haha! don't be mad at me) But yeah, take a look at what was popular in the indie scene in '99 in the US and you'll see some pretty funny stuff (mostly garbage like Sixpence None the Richer, Squarepusher, etc, and again a bunch of bad faux electronica courtesy of Matador).
The reviews for The Lives were great. Pretty much everyone who heard it and liked indie rock music dug it. But no one (in those pre-YouTube/iTunes days) could hear it. I mean, I think Napster was around, but things were really primitive back then. It was possible to find/spread certain things online back in '99, but people were still buying most of their music on CDs and vinyl, etc.
Oh yeah, and then Christgau reviewed The Lives for The Village Voice but wrote something really abstract like, "Into the indie-rock mother drone we go, with mama Moe Tucker at the helm!" Which sounds cool, until you're like, WTF does that even mean?! And the record isn't drone-y at all! Like, Spacemen 3 are drone-y. Galaxie 500 are droney. (both in a good way). But my record sounds like The Ramones!!! It's the opposite of droney. It's just a bunch of raw rock songs. How is that droney, Christgau??? But I was happy at least he listened to it. Back then he was like the big NYC rock critic, so people said it mattered. But most of what people say is either incorrect or annoying, so who cares anyway.
So by the end of the 90's, I'd gotten myself into a big mess. What to do? i'd made a record I thought was great, but the world didn't notice it. I was headed straight for the gutter (indeed, directly after recording it, I spent some time sleeping on the floor of Penn Station). But of course the gutter can be a fun place to be. No one has much expectations for you anymore when you've hit that point! So then you can kind of step back and figure out what to do with your life, because no one's around to care or nag or point fingers, haha! But it's a long way back...
[TO BE CONTINUED]
Posted by Charles Douglas at 1:24 AM