Every city in America seems to have a cliché that summarizes it. Just before the industrial age joined the list of eras past, Carl Sandberg defined Chicago as the city of meat cleavers and stevedore-sized employment opportunities. San Francisco was designated by 1960s counterculture spokespeople as the place you go to wear flowers in your hair. I have my own system of categorization that I have employed over the years while watching my friends embark for one city or another, in hopes of manifesting some destiny there. New Orleans is where you go when you want to go down in flames. New York is a kind of Darwinian role-playing theater/stadium. And Los Angeles is where you go to become famous.
The urge to become famous is common enough. It is even fairly easy to become famous these days; opportunities for even the measliest notoriety exist. Becoming famous on a grand scale is of course far more difficult, and all but the most monomaniacal must realize, from a distance, that not only is it a long shot, but there is something vaguely unseemly about it. How many of us, really, think it would be a good idea to be Regis Philbin? Because fame exposes us to danger, not just from the occasional stalker, but a more profound psychic danger. It is one thing to be Regis Philbin. It would be another to know you were Regis Philbin.
My first trip to Los Angeles was undertaken in the interest of fame. In the mid-1990s I had already spent seven years as a member of blackgirls, one of the first bands signed to the now-defunct Mammoth Records. We had recorded and released three records that had brief but respectable life spans, and had a small collection of good reviews and pictures of ourselves in newspapers and magazines. I had conducted much of the band business and had learned a bit about record contracts, royalties, booking gigs, touring and other mysteries. I had formed alliances with a few people in the music business, some decent, some dishonorable. For the most part I felt blackgirls had stumbled onto our small successes. Eminence might have been a nice byproduct of our diligence, but we didn't seek it and never got very close.
What this all means is that I was not a complete innocent when I, as part of two Triangle bands attached at the hip and heart, was summoned to Los Angeles to be romanced by some big record labels. It was just after the success of Nirvana, and the atmosphere was a combination of incredible greed combined with a wild feeling of speculation, like a stock market boom before a big crash. Everyone was scrambling for the next band that would sell 13 million records. The Triangle was being scrutinized by the record business. Dish, my band, and Motocaster, our guitar player's band, were part of a feature in Seventeen magazine (CUTE BAND ALERT! it said) on up-and-coming bands of the Triangle. That sort of sealed the fate of everyone and got a kind of feeding frenzy rolling. Dish was certainly not the main focus of the attention; it was Motocaster that garnered the most interest, but we were nonetheless swept up and into the fray.
There was a buzz about us, to use industry jargon. "Buzz" means that only people in the record industry have heard about you, but since they are the most important people in the world, their attention has special powers and ramifications. And on the strength of that, we were going to California to schmooze and be schmoozed, to discern the best course of action, to see which personality from which record company was the most appealing. After this, it was understood, we would sign some big deal and then, if we were lucky, become famous. It was not generally acknowledged that chances were we would not be lucky. Pursuit of fame requires a stalwart faith that the shot into the darkness will undoubtedly find its mark, and it is better to just keep going rather than stop and see how your target is faring.
That summer there was a North Carolina showcase at the New Music Seminar at Brownie's (in New York). Most of the bands were from Raleigh and everyone had everyone else's equipment in their vans, and we were all sharing guitars and bottles of Jack Daniels and generally being cooperative and helpful to each other. By the time Dish was up, the place was packed with industry people. We had one of those miraculously (and inexplicably) great shows. Afterwards we hid in one of the Raleigh band's vans drinking beer and giggling at the A&R (Artists and Relations, kind of glorified talent scout) guys from the record companies as they stood in front of the club with their ponytails, cowboy boots and $100 white cotton V-neck T-shirts. But there was great elation that night. And I remember being truly hopeful and happy.
When we got back to Raleigh, A&R people from various labels started coming to town "just to visit." They had, I thought, a limited arsenal of tactics. "I'm a real fan," was one of their catch phrases, disingenuous and meaningless when you began to probe the depths of what they meant, since most of them did not know that much about music. The other term very much in vogue when we were being courted was organic. Everything was going to grow in an organic way. Our music was really organic, presumably because it was heartfelt and earnest and real, and we would be developed in accordance with our organic nature, in a timely, natural fashion. There is only so much of this you can sit and listen to with a straight face.
The characters we met, however, were amazing. They were essentially salespeople, but obviously socially inept, gauche even. They would say unforgivable, tactless things and then not notice that they had offended you. The A&R person from A&M (whose claim to fame had been signing Guns 'n' Roses) told our guitar player that she didn't understand his music or even particularly like it, but since everyone was after it, she thought she would try as well. We went our for beers with the reps from Island, Jimmy (an Irishman, all too conscious of his charming accent) and Rose, his girlfriend, who had a charming British accent of her own, though we later discovered she was from the Bronx and lived in the same apartment complex as my Uncle Morris. They talked about the organic power of music. They told us all about Nine Inch Nails and the wonderful organic violence of their live performances. They kept saying "violent" in the same way most people say "beautiful," with a kind of awe. Later they took me aside and told me that they didn't really like Dish, that they really wanted to sign Motocaster. (At this point, we were kind of a package deal.) They made me an offer; they would give me anything I wanted--money, anything--if I could convince Motocaster to sign with them. I got kind of drunk and was really rude to them.
There were more showcases that upped the ante again, and the more labels that got interested, the more frantic the interest became. The second showcase was the oddest. This time label presidents came. The heads of A&M, Capitol, Interscope, and really high up A&R people from Warner Brothers, Virgin, Epic and Geffen, I can't even remember who was there. The parking lot of the Brewery, that tiny squalid hole-in-the-wall on Hillsborough Street, filled with rented limos.
The president of Interscope had flown in the day before and taken us all out to dinner in Chapel Hill. He had been a famous producer (Patti Smith, Springsteen, U2, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks and the list goes on), a Brooklyn-born aging urchin with a disarming kind of honesty, a mouth like a sewer and 1,001 great stories about every one of your heroes. He was a tiny man who never removed his wig or the baseball hat he wore over it. His partner, the owner, the grandson of a department store magnate, had inherited $350 million when his grandfather died and parlayed it into $750 million. He had been implicated in the Heidi Fleiss sex scandal, was reportedly this amazing pervert who paid to be shat on by fashion models and had five children with five different women. He had initially run away from his responsibilities as a captain of industry and had formed a world famous car-racing team, but a terrible accident had burned and disfigured his left hand, which he wrapped in leather and kept hidden in his pocket. A withered hand, a slight stutter, ponytail, expensive shoes. If he had had a dueling scar it would have completed the picture. These were the people we eventually decided were right for us.
It was our first trip to Los Angeles where things became distorted beyond recognition. The record company flew the two bands out and put us up in the Mondrian Hotel, where rock stars come and go. My first night there I fell asleep and woke up to the phone ringing. My mother had somehow procured the number for the hotel, and I heard her hissing worriedly on the other end as I answered, "What are you going to do when the earthquake happens?" Of all the things I had been worried about, not having the right clothes, being fat, being unprepared, being taken advantage of, this was one danger I had not considered.
A dinner was arranged at the president of Interscope's Malibu mansion. We got lost and drove up and down the Pacific Highway looking for it. We finally located it at the top of a cliff, beyond a huge electric gate and a winding drive up the side of the mountain. The closer we got to it, the more fabulous and vulgar it became. A fountain with winged cherubs flying all around it came into view. When the butler answered the door, we all burst into spontaneous nervous laughter.
Throughout that first trip to Los Angeles, we were plied constantly with food, alcohol and flattery. And undoubtedly it was the flattery that disabled our judgment. I felt that so much of Dish's success, not business success but musical success, which is a very different thing, depended on the friendship and love we all had for each other. That was what made us real or true or organic or whatever. And I also knew, though I wished I didn't, that that love and friendship would not hold up under the strain, the onslaught of attention, expectation, pandering and deception that we encountered.
A deal was made and we went off and made our respective records. We worked hard, did the best we could and luxuriated in the time and money a big record contract afforded us. We squabbled with the record company about many things. Their view was that something that had been successful once should be imitated, and they tried resolutely to impose someone else's aesthetic on us. When the Dish record was finished and turned in, the record company sent us back to the studio. It didn't sound like something else and they wanted us to fix that. At the studio waiting for me was a package of records by the prevailing female artists of the day, Tori Amos, Kate Bush, Natalie Merchant and others. "Can you make the record sound like any of these?" the vice president of the company questioned.
"It didn't sound like any of those things when we recorded it," I explained as if I were talking to a child. "We can't make it sound like any of those things now, and furthermore I don't want to sound like any of those things."
"Well" he asked in exasperation, "who do you want to sound like?"
"Dusty Springfield?" I said hopefully.
A second trip to Los Angeles left me seriously doubting the sanity of our A&R rep. Perhaps it was that time I was sitting in the back of her car in some barrio neighborhood in East Los Angeles watching her as she stood in the street screaming at her boyfriend about where to procure heroin (for him, she claimed) that undermined my confidence. When I got back to Raleigh I made the unusual demand of asking to work with someone else. The reaction was like the medieval church's to a modest heresy committed by some provincial cleric. Though eventually my request was met, I was made to understand that I had done something improper, and it would not be forgotten.
During a third trip to Los Angeles I was brought again to the president's office. This time it was concerning the making of a video. I had not wanted to make a video at all, in fact. All our choices for producers that we knew (most of them local Triangle people and friends) had been vetoed by the record company. They agreed to allow a filmmaker from New Zealand to make the video but then hated the outcome. It was too violent, they said. This from the people who had just released a video of Dr. Dre standing on top of a mountain of skulls rapping about how he would have killed O.J. Simpson's wife, too, if he had the chance. By way of example I was shown an uncut version of a Nine Inch Nails video in which a monkey is crucified. "Now that's a fucking video," the president exclaimed triumphantly, slapping me on the back.
Release of the record was delayed and delayed. If music had been the focus, it was no longer. We were bombarded with demands for the kind of accessories it was felt we needed: a powerful manager, the right booking agent, more glamorous photos, an invented biography that would make us more intriguing. Each time we countered, a lecture followed. Did we not want to become famous? Were we going to compromise what had been invested in us? They knew best. If we knew best, we would already be famous.
When the record was finally released, it was oddly anti climactic. We were given four weeks to appear on a radio chart somewhere. When that didn't happen, the hustle and bustle that had been apparent during the preparation for release was silenced. There was no trip to Los Angeles then, only a phone call from the office of the president. "I keep throwing you the ball," he said, "but you never catch it." I was mystified by this metaphor, but it was the last time I would ever speak to him, so I could never ask him what it meant.
The thing was essentially over. Though it would drag on for another year and a half, and all the rest of our money would be wasted on lawyers and pointless demos for records we would never make, we had become what most bands in our situation become: a tax write-off. All that was left were the should-haves ... should have moved to Los Angeles, should have tried to write a hit song, should have ... been someone else. Implicit in this was blame. It was our fault. And that failure was, on the whole, like the wages of sin, something you brought upon yourself. As I write, I wonder if this will be the perception of some who read it--that our expectations earned us our downfall. There are days that I certainly believe this myself.
I sound terribly ungrateful. Perhaps I should have been flattered (I was), perhaps I should have gotten all the enjoyment out of it I could (I did), perhaps I should not have taken myself so seriously (nice work if you can get it). If it is too bitter, too silly or sad, well, think of it as a story of unrequited love. Or just keep in mind that this is actually a story of someone who does not become famous.