Friday, July 17, 2009

What’s Wrong with the Music Business?

I Just Wasn’t Made For
These Times

August 10, 1999

By Brian Bentley

Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys in 1966, around the time of Pet Sounds

God Only Knows how much I'd love to see Brian Wilson write just one decent song again. His new album, Imagination, is pretty much devoid of it, and the guy seems only slightly less sad than the state of popular music as we close in fast on the millenium.

Music (or is it the music business?) has been going down faster than Monica Lewinsky on a three day pass to Camp David. But, as any rehab counselor knows, it's necessary to hit rock bottom before you can crawl back up. That's why they invented the blues. And if you don't think the blues can still rock, check out the latest Mudhoney album.

A look at the industry big picture is enough to make anyone refill their Zoloft prescription. Many record companies pay only lip service to "artist development," trying to convince us that bands like Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind are actually focusing on "careers." Today's post modern, one-hit, radio rock wonders quickly become yesterday's Verve Pipe, with no safety net to catch their fall – like a bottle rocket that plummets to earth the instant it peaks.

According to my industry sources (who will remain anonymous for their own peace of mind), approximately 28,000 records are released every year. That's a staggering amount of product to find shelf space. Less than 5% of these albums achieve sales of 10,000 units or more. Is it any wonder that a major label like Columbia can't afford to lose Celine Dion because she literally keeps the checks and advance money flowing to develop the next Beck? Cost effectiveness translates to survival. But what's the value of a great idea – especially one that won't turn a profit until the third or fourth album? Can a label of any size afford to wait that long?

Since Nirvana's breakthrough is generally credited as signaling the start of the last great commercial rock era, it's interesting to note what happened next. While Nevermind was the single most influential rock record of the 90's, its mammoth sales weren't as important as its cultural impact (like the buzz Hendrix and The Who gave our forefathers at The Monterey Pop Festival).

Nevermind as well as Pearl Jam's Ten, changed the way record people regarded their profession. The workplace became exciting again. But the minute Seattle was besieged by A&R scouts desperate to sign anyone in a flannel shirt, Grunge headed south. The polarity and suffocating trendiness of present day society only fanned the winds of change. With Kurt Cobain's shotgun providing the final ringing note, Grunge left the building with no encore planned.

Today, any hard rock group with a guitar, bass and drums line-up that seriously expects to succeed would be best advised not to quit their day jobs. As for Seattle, it's becoming a disturbing new verse for "The Needle and the Damage Done." Layne Staley, lead singer of Alice in Chains (much like Stoned Temple Pilot, Scott Weiland), is a drug vegetable, a dead man walking. His co-dependent bandmates have been forced into half-baked solo records and assorted side projects. Aside from the A&M brass who pressured him to fold Soundgarden, does anyone give a damn about a Chris Cornell solo album?

Now go figure the Screaming Trees. In 1996, they released one of the best albums of the year, the quickly-brushed aside, Dust. By 1997, the band was on "hiatus" while Mark Lanegan dried out in L.A.., a modern-day Lizard King, complete with damaged vocal chords from booze and heroin. Meanwhile, Mercury Records' new A&R temp, Courtney Love, helped sign Radish, a much-hyped Midwest band who produced a dismal first record. After the mean-spirited frenzy of the Grunge crash, will anyone care to listen to their second?

The astute reader might ask the inevitable question, "So What?" For starters, just turn on the radio or MTV. Are either as good as they were five years ago? Now ask yourself. Is it because there's no more challenging music, or is it because good music has even less chances to be played? As playlists on both radio and MTV tighten and liquor conglomerates buy labels that have already amassed huge debts, diversity becomes the unheard music. When an over-the-hill dinosaur act like R.E.M. is guaranteed upwards of 100 million dollars, is there any money left to develop and promote Grant Lee Buffalo?

It's a complicated issue made up of simple choices. Will today's multi-talented, 18 year-old start a new band or a film production company? One thing is certain. If every man, woman, and child launched their own record label or pirate radio station, it would be a mess. One big, beautiful mess. Like Brian Wilson used to be – when he still took risks. But then only a fool takes risks when all you have to do is shut up and play the game.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Life Expectancy of a Homeless Jaywalker

Running Into Strangers
March 23, 2009

By Brian Bentley

Getting hit by a car while drunk is maybe better than getting hit when sober

Last Saturday night, I was waiting to get into the Echoplex to see a show by a psychedelic rock band called Black Mountain. I was standing near the back of the line that formed on the sidewalk on Glendale Boulevard, about a half block south of Sunset. A transient in a sweatshirt with a hood over his head came up behind me and gave me a hard shoulder into the middle of my back, with about the force one would use in a bar if you wanted to start trouble. I turned around and he was just staring blankly ahead, right through me. It was a dead eyed stare, the expressionless look of a haggard and lost soul. There was a Grim Reaper vibe to him. The bearded man was white and average height, somewhere between 45 and 55 years old. Though he was typically wino-lean, the guy seemed taut and muscular. I ignored him, as any sort of reaction to an individual like this can have significantly diminishing returns.

The man also said nothing. He just stood there, about two inches to my left side, for a moment like he was trying to communicate something. Maybe any kind of physical engagement was better than the usual night of stumbling around in the dark alone. With the entire sidewalk of concertgoers watching, he turned to cross the street the way bums lurch into traffic like they don’t give a fuck, like they are daring somebody to hit them, as if life has so stripped them of power that they’ve sunk to grabbing little pieces of it when they can from intimidated motorists with no choice but to yield.

I turned to the guy next to me. “Check this dude out,” I said. “He looks like he wants to get hit.” “Yeah,” he replied, “he may get his wish.” One car blew its horn, then another. The jaywalker was inching closer to the forbidden zone, that point of commitment where there is no turning back, and that point where 99% of drunks will stop in their tracks. There was a silver luxury car in the fast lane that had slowed a bit, but was still cruising along at about 20-25 miles per hour – no horn, no brakes. The walker made his move, stepping right in front of the vehicle. The headlights illuminated his lower half. The onlookers gasped, confronted with the kind of drama you can’t buy with a concert ticket.

There was this sound upon impact, a horrific crunch, loud enough to be mistaken for the collision of two cars, not several thousand pounds of metal, rubber and leather slamming into flesh and bone. A couple of women screamed. The jaywalker bounced off the bumper and to the car’s right. He didn’t go airborne and he didn’t go under the car. I turned back to the guy next to me. “Did you see that?” I asked. “Unfortunately yes,” he sighed. “I saw it coming from the minute he stepped off the curb.” We both agreed that the bum’s reaction upon impact and his resulting flight path were fairly athletic, almost stuntman-like in their agility. Maybe alcohol had played a part in keeping him loose enough to roll with the blow.

Twenty cell phones simultaneously dialed 911 and the paramedics arrived within two minutes. The guy was motionless, lying on his back with his eyes open, an old hippie with that dead confederate soldier in a field of grass look to him. “He’s fucking toast,” a punker said a few feet away. The driver of the car that hit the wino was a very large black man in his late 20’s in shorts, and the passenger was a dapper, grey haired gent who chain smoked and looked vaguely like someone who was late for a meeting. It was an odd couple whose origins one could only guess upon.

“He could have avoided that guy,” someone said. “He had all sorts of time.” On the other hand, most drivers would have expected the jaywalker to stop before he crossed that imaginary line in the asphalt. Even a suicidal transient has his limits.

Finally the cops trolled up and leisurely started getting witness statements. The driver was helpful and polite and everyone did their job trying to stabilize the flattened man, whose complicated and sad life was now even more wretched and broken. Eventually he slowly moved both his arms and legs and somebody gave him a cigarette. “How bad off can he be if he’s smoking?” I said. “Funny you should mention that,” a girl next to me offered. “I once saw a bar fight where a biker was stabbed in the head with a hatchet and he was dancing around in the street afterward, laughing and smoking and then he just died.”

I will never know if internal injuries killed the guy lying here tonight. Maybe even his family, if he had any left, would never know either. Once, he had been someone’s son, somebody’s boyfriend, but now he belonged to the street. After awhile, the ambulances were gone and the boulevard was cleared and the people saw their rock show and life went on. When I called the local hospitals to find out if the man survived, all they could tell me was that without his name, they had no way to trace his fate. I got a creepy feeling when I realized that if the dude was dead, then I was the last person he touched on this mortal coil. Now I wished he’d bumped into someone else. I even thought about how my reaction to his unwarranted shove could have saved his ass. If I had thrown a vicious right hand to his head, he would have been left lying on the sidewalk instead of maybe the county morgue. It’s funny how life can turn on a dime, or even a bump, a zig and a zag.

Melevolence: Riding Shotgun with Mel Gibson

Last Call for The Road Warrior
August 8, 2006

By Brian Bentley

Mel Gibson at the bar in Malibu, the night he was arrested for drunk driving"What Jew Lookin' At?"

Last Saturday morning, around 3 a.m., I had an epiphany of sorts. I was driving near Malibu at 85 mph. on Pacific Coast Highway when the face of Mel Gibson appeared in the clouds above. At first, I did not recognize him. Once, he had been young and invincible. As the leather-clad vigilante cop from Mad Max, Gibson was a punk rock superhero gazing out across apocalyptic landscapes with a heartless, blank stare of nothingness and rage. Now he appeared before me as an old man, a despondent Charlton Heston playing Moses. Still it was undeniably the voice of Mel that thundered down from the heavens.

I had to be hallucinating. After all, I was stoned on various substances, cranking the tune “Freebird” and determined to wrap myself around a telephone pole at the exact moment the song reached its three-guitar crescendo. I’d finally made up my mind to copycat Allen Collins (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s driving-challenged guitarist) and end it in a blaze of twisted steel. Life had become a bipolar mess. The pillars that propped me up had dropped one-by-one, like soldiers on the beach at Normandy. The night before, while watching Vanishing Point, I found myself actually laughing as Barry Newman, bathed in white light and smiling in mad anticipation of his deliverance, smacked head-on into destiny and a tractor-filled CHP roadblock, turning a perfectly good 1969 Dodge Charger into an exploding fireball.

My mind was made up and now Mel Gibson was ruining everything. His words shook the floorboards. “My son, you are special. I cannot bear to see you suffer like this any longer.”

What a time to start hearing voices. “Leave me the fuck alone,” I screamed out the window as the face above the highway kept pace with my front grill. Panicked by this unexpected development, I began reciting Gibsonian dialogue. “I am the Nightrider! That’s right, you shitfaced psychopathic aborigine… I am Peter Fonda … I am Adam Roarke! I ride the Night Sky straight into hell … you of all people should understand!”

Mel’s florid mug hung closer to the ground and I could tell he had been drinking. “Do not do this,” he implored. “You still have much to accomplish, don’t let them win, keep fighting, like I did in Braveheart. Drive a sword through those who would destroy you.”

The car began to shake violently like the wheels were coming off and then it seemed the vehicle was almost flying on rails, an amusement park ride, maneuvering on its own accord, effortlessly handling each hairpin turn, nearly leaving the ground. Suddenly, at the speed of computer graphics, Gibson morphed from specter into human form and then he landed right in my passenger seat, a very suicidal Martin Riggs, sporting a Lethal Weapon mullet and trying to wrestle the wheel out of my hands.

He was bellowing into my ear like a madman. “You want to die fucker? You really want to die? Are you really ready to do this? Hey mate, I’m the one who wanted out and now, they’ve delivered me to a fate worse than death! My life is truly, truly FUCKED!”

I tried to straighten the front wheels but Gibson was literally on a roll. “I could have stayed behind at the bar, gone home and spent the night with that waitress, and now, it’s the whole world that wants to screw me. Sanctimonious swine! What skeletons they got in their closets, eh mate? I know. I know they’re going to tell me, ‘Mel, you must go on Diane Sawyer, you must do the full confession to People. Get on your knees and pray for a second chance and please, dear boy, would you mind wearing a beanie for the cameras while you’re at it?”

It was at this moment that I realized I was dealing with a guy who was even crazier than me. He jammed his left foot down on the accelerator. The car jacked up on its two right wheels and when it found its four feet again, I mashed the brake pedal to the floor. The vehicle skidded for quite some time and then went end over end, landing miraculously in one piece without as much as a scratch.

Adrenaline and sheer terror can be a mother and like electroshock it snapped me out of my terminally depressed state. I felt different. Something elemental had changed.

By this time, Gibson’s booming baritone and whisky breath were wearing thin. He was giving me a splitting headache. I thought of pepper spraying the blowhard bastard with my free hand, but finally gave in and let go of my grip on the wheel as he gently steered us into a parking lot off PCH.

On the car radio, “Freebird” had segued into a .38 Special song and the mood was forever broken. Something very paranormal had just occurred and it made me realize that there are some fates worse than death. One of them is to be trapped in a car with a drunk Mel Gibson.

Looking at him now, it was hard to believe that just eight short days ago, he had been a respected, Teflon-coated box office superstar. He had boozed and brawled but still walked on water – a guy’s kind of man and a pin-up boy for suburban hot tub mamas everywhere. But in the age of instant information, eight days is an eternity. Now the good guy story was old news, now he was damaged goods.

Credibility is like virginity, it’s an innocence lost that can never be restored. The cottage industry that thrives on celebrity crucifixion made sure of it. The self-righteous players surrounding the movie studios, all the industry rats who reap enormous profits from exploiting the darkest sides of human weakness had circled their wagons around the “J” word and in these “sensitive times” (you mean 24/7 World War?) Gibson’s soggy soliloquy to the traffic cop was the dumbest, most ill-timed career move since Hugh Grant stopped along the Sunset Strip to roll down his window.

At least for the time being, Mel Gibson was an outsider, just like me. And for that reason only, I decided to finally forgive him for making What Women Want.

“Dude,” I told him, “thanks for stepping up like that … nobody else bothered to.” “Not a problem mate,” he replied. He reached into his pocket and produced a golden whisky flask. “Want a snort?” he offered.

“No thanks,” I said. “I’m driving.”

Gibson stared off into the night and his eyes began to mist and glow. “You know,” he intoned, “Jesus Christ was all about forgiveness. But religion, religion isn’t about forgiveness anymore. It’s all idol worship, my idol against your idol, my God against yours. Besides, they got it wrong. I never said I actually owned Malibu.”

The question was begging to be asked. “Mel,” I said, “Why the fuck did you pick on the Jews? Jesus man, what were you thinking? Couldn’t you have ranted on about despising Paraguayans or loathing Turks or disemboweling Canadians? I mean nobody gives a pine tree about a Canadian…”

My words trailed off and Gibson shook violently for a moment. His physical form began to change dramatically. His face became a face without pity, the face of Officer Mad Max Rockatansky, a face who had seen hell and lived to make others regret it. There wasn’t a trace of forgiveness in those cold blue eyes. In the end, I guess, life has a nasty habit of grinding all of us down. For years, Mel Gibson’s hubris had been a shovel and he had finally dug his own grave with it. Like Max, the circling vultures could smell his blood, the scent of fresh road kill.

It was obvious that the incredible death-defying evening had come down to this one defining moment. His eyes narrowed. He stared at me with malevolent intensity. I could see this one coming long before he opened his mouth.

“Why do you ask that?” he said. “Are YOU a Jew?”

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