July 27, 2002

Battery Acid Blues: Writing Wretched Breakup Songs

Keir DuBois might be famous. (Originally published in the Artsweek section of the UCSB Daily Nexus on 5/8/97).

The Clap is usually a very prolific bunch of players in the studio. We bust out tunes from our little four-track like there's no tomorrow. Our recording session the night after the U2 show was no exception; we got eight full songs out of those three hours, and now the only hard part will be deciding which ones to put on the demo that we have to circulate and revive our career.

Most of the songs are group efforts, and the best ones, like “Long Black Leather Boots” and “FM Blues,” came in only a few takes. Our frontmanly guitarist/vocalist Adam and I hashed together a messy but fun cover of Tom Petty's “Zero From Outer Space,” and that took up probably two-thirds of the time spent on everything else.

Another thing that took longer than we'd expected was finishing some lyrics I wanted to set to a great tune my brother Bryn had written a few weeks ago. I wanted to see if I could write a good pop breakup song. Since there are so many out there I knew this one would have to be good to compete with, er, radio darlings like Jewel. Then again, maybe I didn't have to try that hard after all.

I got my initial inspiration from a bummer of a story e-mailed to me by Jacob Zachary, a friend of mine who works in the lower echelons of A&R at Capitol Records, the celebrated label initially reponsible for unleashing the Clap on the world. They’d dropped us after our original lead singer hacked and sputtered his way to an embarassing, decadent death in the middle of a high-profile press conference. Jake had argued passionately against our expulsion from Paradise, and paid for his loyalty with a demotion and slashed salary. Now, on top of all that, he’d been brutally dumped by his longtime girlfriend.

It was a twisted, pathetic tale, and it had everything- lust, betrayal, superficiality, cheap controlled substances, dumb jealousy, vindictive manipulation- the works. It had threatened to suck everyone within a 200-foot radius into its putrid, festering maw, what with the rending of garments, pulling of hair, and throwing of previously cherished possessions off fifth-story balconies. Jake had even called me up a few times amidst the concurrent saga of The Clap’s crumbling record deal, simply to blubber and moan about how unfair it all was, and he was so consistently unintelligible that I couldn't tell if he was talking about the band's rejection or his blasted relationship. Ultimately, I guess it didn't matter; he ended up in therapy, his ex was confined to rehab, and we came in a distant and hapless third. I pretended to care, but secretly I cursed the whole awful situation for alienating other labels, whose erstwhile interest in The Clap might have precipitated conspicuous and flashy bidding wars.

That’s a cruel thing to say, but the whole thing was just too ridiculous for me by that point. As everyone knows, I refuse to overanalyze things like this, so most of the time while I was reading his letter, I was either laughing or gagging. Still, I thought to myself that this might make great fuel for a pop song since those things are inherently melodramatic and self-obsessed, and that's why radio stations play them and people buy those singles like there's no tomorrow, even though they can hear the ditty on the radio and see the video on MTV in heavy rotation.

I fought with this concept for hours, and I couldn't compromise it with the premise that I was essentially creating a very stupid, trashy, throwaway thing that might nevertheless sell umpteen million copies and might even make me famous.

Adam tried to help by repeatedly strumming some really cheesy chords he'd lifted from an awful Richard Marx song. After about eight bars of this crap I had to severely restrain myself so as to not replay John Belushi's guitar-smashing scene from “Animal House.” Adam got the point; seeing that his new $800 Gibson might have a very short life, he did a complete 180 and instead played a really nasty E-minor blues progression. Bryn soon followed with his own axe, answering Adam phrase for phrase.

This was perfect, I thought. If I could make a cloying, selfish lyric to go with this... now that would be a great song. I jumped in on bass, and we slowed the tempo down to a crawl so the music sounded like a lumbering dinosaur. Nope, we decided, too Zeppelin, too obviously derivative. It needed grace, so Bryn switched to piano and bingo- we had our tune. We recorded this thing for ten minutes, with induldent solos all around.

As the others started editing, whittling the track down to size, I took all the sappiness of my poor friend's story and melded it with what we'd recorded and presto- three verses of a blues song emerged from my brain in as many minutes. I called it “The Worst Way,” as in “leaving someone in...” and then Adam overdubbed a vocal on top of our music tack and that was that. This session wasn't going to get any better, so we stopped there with some very, very good songs under our belts.

Look out America- here comes The Clap... again.

July 20, 2002

Battery Acid Blues: Bargain Shopping at PopMart

Keir DuBois catches U2’s latest tour in San Diego. (Originally published in the Artsweek section of the UCSB Daily Nexus on 5/1/97).

Where were we?

Oh yeah, following the death of our lead singer, we in the blues band known as the Clap have stagnated, voiceless, save for the gritty baritone of guitarist Adam Hill. Adam, my brother Bryn and I puttered around the studio this last weekend, drained of all creative processes. We knew all too well that if we were to hit the coffee shop circuit this June we absolutely have to record a good demo on our beat-up four track.
Well shee-oot, it’s the damnedest thing when someone dies; even if that person is fictional, there’s still some perverse sense of loss lingering. We knew that we couldn’t get anything done in this condition, and our fearless and faithful non-profit legal and logistical organization evidently realized this too.

Jen Abrams, the woman running our financial wing, sought to drag us from the doldrums by getting us tickets to see a performance of that giant behemoth of a rock institution known as U2. She figured that we would be perked up by seeing a band who were insanely more popular than we ever were trying to put on a gazillion-dollar show and knowing that they’d have to do it 98 more times over the next twelve months and subsequently age eight years in one, risk their marriages, lose all sense of real world time, and totally lose their minds in the craziness of attempting to exercise such an endeavor. We jumped at the chance to go, excited by the prospect of cheap stadium beer, and enthusiastically assured Jen that her job was secure.

The PopMart ‘97 Tour came to San Diego on April 28, and all of the Clap except our prodigious drummer Kevin attended. We also made sure to bring along another good buddy, guest guitarist and proud classic rock fascist Jason Ross. He got us our fist gig, playing on the deck of a boat in Newport Beach in a freezing Orange County December, and we thought it was only fair to return the favor, so, all clad in Magnum P.I. Hawaiian shirts and ripped, faded jeans, we trekked to the old Jack Murphy Stadium to spend money, get blasted, and rock out.

When we got there Jen remembered that she forgot to remember to tell us that one of the tickets represented a seat that was way far away from the rest of us. Being the good Americans we are, we drew straws at In-n-Out Burger, and poor Adam ended up with the bum seat.

We scattered through the zoo of cars in front of the stadium and then through the zoo of bloated concert-goers who were wildly contorting in front of two occupied portable toilets. Soon Adam departed for his nosebleeder seat, saying “Ye shall know me by my loud shirt alone! Synchronize your watches!”

“Cool,” I replied. “You’ll know me by my loud shirt and my goofy walk!” We got to our seats just in time to witness opening act Rage Against the Machine play “Bulls On Parade,” the final song of their set, which was weighted heavily on Tom Morello’s Hendrix-like fretboard excursions, which more than made up for lead screamer Zack de la Rocha and his repressed Irvine pedigree, but we slammed away nevertheless, all except Jason, who refuses to rage to anything he deems uncool.

U2 took the stage to mass hysteria, entering from the back of the stadium and shimmying toward the stage like the techno-mavens they so want to be. We were already slightly sloshed and gladly took part in said madness, though we were wrong in thinking that we would be the most inebriated- as U2 strode fearlessly down the aisle next to our seats, drummer Larry Mullen noticed a toasted male yuppie two rows in front of us putting the moves on a gorgeous but unflattered girl next to him. Before all of our eyes in eye-popping video techno-color, Larry put on his sheriffs badge and became John Wayne, taking the drunk yup by his nose and beating the crap out of him as we all cheered with vicious bloodlust.

“Wow!” exclaimed Bryn as he high-fived Adam, who had eluded security to return. “So that’s why they’re the rock stars!”

They opened their set with “Mofo,” an openly blatant electronic opus that still rocked. Bono, dressed as a hooded boxer (including the fake-muscle shirt), threw the show’s first curve ball when he sang the opening bars to “I Will Follow,” U2’s golden oldie from 1980, as only the second song of the set.

The band alternated hits with new songs for almost the whole show, but at some points U2 lost some energy from working out the kinks on this, only the second show of the tour; after the new “If God Will Send His Angels” petered out halfway through, Bono asked, to no one in particular, “What the hell song are we playing now, anyway?”

Guitarist the Edge responded, saying that it was “time to cut the crap and really rock” and then led the whole stadium in a karaoke version of the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer.” Oh, how the Velveeta flowed. The Clap answered by adding an ugly, high-pitched “oo-a, oo-a!” on every beat, creating a monster in the process, as every Bic-toting teen in the place copied us ad nauseam. During “Please,” Bono sang the title and then held out the mike for the fans to sing it after him. Confused in the din, our little entourage answered “please” like we were taught, with a strong, assertive “Thank You!”

When the first encore came, U2 re-entered the building in a UFO disco ball, and as they segued into “Discotheque,” I watched proudly as my brother calmly took on Travolta-like airs while dsco-dancing his way across the stadium. Stationed all around the Murph were monstrous spotlights, and as Bryn passed each one it shot a brilliant beam of brightness towards heaven, unintentionally accenting every two-step he expertly executed.

As U2 closed the show with “One,” Jen was apparently so moved that she began sensuously massaging our remaining all-male party. We forgot to tell her about our horrible sunburns from the previous day’s trip to the beach, but there was no pain- she’s a genius.

In the end her whole pal worked. We came home and recorded six new songs and two covers in three hours. Rock’n’roll is so much fun that it’s contagious, and seeing a good show like this one is enough to energize even the most stubborn of pricks.

July 18, 2002

Pulling Off The Perfect Con

Review of U2's Achtung Baby, eleven years on.

One of the main reasons U2's Achtung Baby album is so great (and maybe better than the band that made it) is that U2 pulled the biggest con on people who fell for it- that is, they figured no one (or at least none of their fans) had discovered irony til they had, and then (thank you Randy Newman) "the scales just fell from our eyes!" What I mean is, the notion of marrying rock guitars to electronic hip-hop beats wasn't that new or original per se, but when music like that was made by a traditional white arena-rock band like U2, the result was better than the summed parts.

It made everyone think U2, terminally uncool (and rightly so), had finally gotten over themselves and became jaded cynics like the rest of us, whatever that means. Lots of this had to do with the fact that underneath the supposed sonic veneer of co-producer Brian Eno's supposed "electronics" (and to its credit it's never felt coldly electronic to me) are the same old U2 chord progressions. What's different in most cases here are Bono's lyrics. The guy finally learned how to be lyrical- think about it- he went back to, or rather "discovered," the hackneyed relationship breakup theme but added a few extra levels to it. The themes ended up being the internal struggles of U2 at the time (resulting in "One") and the whole Berlin-European disintegration thing, in addition to Bono's epic Biblical allusions, here reaching their apex in "Until The End Of The World," "Ultraviolet," and "The Fly." Our open-hearted hero is an alien to the world of mean-spirited paranoia and changing channels around him, and the only way he knows to deal with this is to just give in to it like a bizarro St. Augustine and enjoy himself.

The main lyrical themes of the album have been described by various band members as "love, betrayal, loss, and faith." A prominent example of this is "Ultraviolet"- superficially a love song but also a yearning give-and-take between God and Satan- like Satan begging for forgiveness, and if not that, being nostalgic for when "your love was a lightbulb hanging over my bed." It's all about loss, and fixation on that loss -remember, the devil is always fixated on what might have been if he'd not been usurped by Jesus in God's love, and that drives everything he does. I think it's basically about how the devil can't get over his own fall, despite outward appearances. According to the narrator, God's love is played out, "like a secret been passed around," and the expensive price of love is always loss. Besides, ultraviolet is a light you can't see, much like how many people feel God's love. You can't see it or touch it, but you can feel it- just don't get too close- like UV light, it burns!

Lines that increasingly identify with other bad guys accentuate this. "Until The End Of The World" is the prime fine example here with its Judas to Jesus dialogue (and bizarre oral sex double entendres). Equally incisive or at least appropriate for the music are the travelogues and bumper stickers in "Zoo Station" ("I'm ready to let go of the steering wheel!") and especially "The Fly" the anti-hero of which "shines like a burning star falling from the sky," similar to the previously mentioned fallen angel. The sleeper, lyrically, is "Mysterious Ways"- a well placed bouncy sex lyric (ostensibly about John the Baptist!) for a song that sounds like that, delivered by that big dork Bono, of all people. Perhaps his only misstep is the vapid question in "Wild Horses" of "Baby... can we still be friends?" Call me a cynic, but with a buildup all the way through the bridge I was expecting him to turn into, uh, Elvis Costello instead of reverting to the treacle and sentiment of "Drowning Man" (off their 1983 War album).

Achtung Baby is sequenced like a vinyl album, with the perfect round number 12 songs, not excessive like the 80-minute monsters out there now, and not too slight like some of the albums from the vinyl era (or the punk-vinyl era). I think what really happened was that the band was fucking desperate, and they stole what sounds/ideas they needed, perhaps knowing that their own creativity (and back catalogue) would fill in the gaps. In doing so, U2 behaved just like a sampling rap group- let's say that they slummed, but mostly innocently, for this record. It's almost like inverse development of the stereotypical rock-star ethic- U2 were socio-politically conscious first (however childlike and sincere) and then applied what they learned from that to their material on a more personal level, in effect creating an album more human and arguably easier to relate to.

Also, this album has as one of its central traits the only really good thing about "postmodernism"- the placing of the individual's needs above any desire to universally emancipate mankind. It may be a coldhearted gesture to many, but it reminds the person doing this of who they are and who they can become. Last but definitely not least, there's great playing on this record too. U2 are almost universally reviled by "real," "professional" musicians for simply getting so much mileage out of a few chords and ideas, but that is, of course, complete crap. Edge's solos on "The Fly" and "Acrobat" sizzle, and the slide touch on "Even Better Than The Real Thing" is excellent. Adam's bass line on "Mysterious Ways" is a simple masterstroke, though I don't think his thick dub-inflections throughout the album were mixed high enough. I guess finally I would say that the reason the album succeeds is that it emphasizes the beat- the rhythm and the sex of rock, better than U2's subsequent 90's work, because this album does it dirtier.

July 14, 2002

Battery Acid Blues: The Bouncing Black Lung

Introducing a new weekly rock column by Keir DuBois. (Originally published in the Artsweek section of the UCSB Daily Nexus on 4/24/97).

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a documentary video release from the summer 1995 tour of a band called The Clap, quite possibly one of the greatest blues bands to ever rock the world. Unfortunately, they are no longer with us; the death of their lead singer in the incident described below relegated the remaining members of the band to playing backup gigs on the oldies circuit. Still, they were a phenomenal band during their two-month heyday, and the following is but a slice of their meteoric career.
“Yeah, yeah it’s like that!” The bass player looked up at the crowd after the band took the bottom out from underneath the last song of the set. “The last song, dammit,” he thought to himself.

“There, you dupes,” he thought. “You wanted your damn hit song, didn’t you? Well, tough shit. We wanted to play some other stuff first, stuff that you didn’t like and didn’t want to hear, even though it’s on the same album as that damn hit song, even though it’s been on all of our last five records that none of you bought; so your sorry asses had to sit through the whole two hour show and six encores before you got to hear that song. Happy now?!? Ja-heez-us, whoda thunk that a silly knockoff called ‘Your Mama’s a Ho’ would be a million-seller? Yeah, it was nice to beat the shit out of that Boyz II Men record and have them kiss our asses and all, but it’s a song, for cryin’ out loud, just a song, and we get to be immortal musicians of the world? God, we can’t even read music.”

In the dressing room he looked in the mirror and tried hard to avoid the image in the corner of his eye of the drummer on the floor behind him being smothered by three groupies at once. “Well,” quipped the bassist to his reflection, “if we are immortal musicians of the world, then we should at least get our own dressing rooms.”

Outside his brother the guitarist was signing his extended name onto the left cheek of a female fan. The fact that she was screaming with ecstasy while he was trying to do this severely hampered his penmanship.

When the deed was done she promptly fainted in his lap. This would not have been a problem if she had not weighed three hundred forty-four pounds and twelve ounces. Of course, to him it felt like more, but that was only because he was barely one-third of her tremendous volume. “Damn,” he squeaked as nineteen of the road crew pulled him free, “they grow ‘em big in this neck o’ the woods, don’t they?”

Later during the press conference the band was asked if they had known that a heart attack had taken place at the location of their show. “Now wait just a minute!” croaked the singer, whose strained voice by now was practically inaudible, so that once it could be determined by everyone else of his intention to speak due to his wildly flailing hands, the band, their manager, and their lawyer had already vigorously denied the incident. By now the conference was silent. They craned to hear his wisdom. “Yeah, there was a heart attack, but so what? With all the junk that gets injected around here, she was lucky it was just a heart attack!”

The congregation was stupefied. “Yeah, uh, yeah,” he continued, but that was as far as he got before collapsing into a coughing fit that during its course deposited at his feet his left lung, which, as soon as its nicotine-darkened sliminess hit the floor, slid down the ramp, gaining velocity until it sped along the tile and out the door before screeching to a halt and disintegrating from exhaustion, nearly one hundred eighty-three feet from its gasping owner.

All along its path the bouncing black lung had caused silent, open-mouthed stares from the entire press corps. As the lung gurgled its last it was beheld with extreme curiosity by all, none of whom thought for a second about the man from whence it spewed, including himself, until he realized he could not hold his breath any longer. The loud gagging of the singer brought everyone back from their own personal surreal universes, but not quickly enough for anyone to save him from his own excess.

The guitarist spoke first; “Well, evidently we’ll be needing a new vocalist, preferably a non-smoker. For all preening premadonnas interested, um, I guess auditions will be held tomorrow. Right guys?” This evoked muffled affirmation from his bandmates. Gradually the press corps came back to its previous buzzing activity, and as the body was removed, the questions came again, and the room now regained the decibel level of the dull roar it had achieved prior to the incident. While the other two group members and their legal and managerial cronies began spin control in earnest, the bass player quietly slipped out.

“Wow,” he thought. “This is what we get for opening a tour in Las Vegas.” He recalled the maniacal antics of the promoter. Sure, they could fill Sam Boyd Stadium on the strength of one hit song, a fluke b-side from a neglected single, sure. It’ll happen when Hootie flies. That evening they were all baffled to see the members of Hootie and the Blowfish on TV fly and subsequently crash and burn in quite possibly the worst video ever made. “What the hell,” thought the band. “Let’s pack ‘em in.”

Of course, it was all different now. The Clap would have to change their image, their sound, and their underwear, just in an effort to get future singles played on the air, sandwiched between Dishwalla and Celine Dion, just so the band could continue to eke out a rock and roll existence in some godforsaken corner of L.A., next door to an oil derrick and around the corner from the charred foundation of the Epitaph Records building, which The Clap had burned down in protest to the existence of the Offspring. “Oh well,” thought the bass player. “At least we got to play Isla Vista.”

July 06, 2002

Name Droppings: All-Access at the Grammys

Keir DuBois goes backstage at great personal risk. (Originally published in the Artsweek section of the UCSB Daily Nexus on 2/27/97).

What would you do if you had an all-access backstage pass to the Grammys? With whom would you schmooze? What post-show bash would you attend? Well, by the grace of power, ego, and a whole lot of Monopoly money, my fearless editor acquired me a pass to the underground, backstage, and soft white underbelly of what the music industry calls its “biggest night.”

“It’ll be fun,” she said unconvincingly. “Good old rock & roll you, on the loose in Madison Square Garden with all those superstars? How awesome is that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, they’d probably smell my uncool-ness from miles away. Besides, the flight’s at LAX in less than two hours, and I don’t even have a room waiting in New York.”

“I’ll take care of it,” she reassured me. “Just get your bags togethger and get on that plane. I conned some poor Geffen lackey out of all his arrangements, so your trip is basically in the bag.”

It wasn’t, of course, but the terrifying Ramada I crashed in, as well as the scary cabbie who leered at me through his rear-view mirror all through Manhattan, and a galaxy of other inconveniences I dealt with, is definitely another story. I was there to see the famous and talented fellate each others’ hubris, so the rest will have to wait.

Anyway, when I got there and stepped out of the taxi, dressed in my grubby black beatnik turtleneck, a roar of appreciation erupted from the star-hungry crowd, and it was so loud I was sure it was for me and me alone.

I was let down when several screeching bohemianettes ran toward me with eyeliner dripping off their brows like molasses. “Billy!” they screamed. “Billy! Billy Corgan!!!” Oh no, not this again! “Help!” I squeaked. Being mistaken for a rock star is one thing, but I didn’t know I looked as bald as the Great Pumpkin.

Another quick look at the oncoming throng startled me into action. I ran toward the last vestige of daylight that I saw, tearing across the red carpet faster than an incontinent toward the can.

I ran blindly, my eyesight now totally destroyed by the piercing haze ahead. The next thing I remember is crashing head-on into what seemed like a brick wall and falling to the ground without even making a dent in whatever it was I hit.

I came to in a few seconds and as I looked up I saw the face of the real Billy Corgan, as tall as Lerch and just as good-looking. It was then I realized the lights I saw were the flashes of the surrounding horde of cameras, reflecting off the shaved pate of the Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman. Reminded of the onslaught of feral groupies behind me, I got up quickly without warning Corgan of his imminent inundation and slithered inside the Garden.

Trying desperately not to bring attention to myself in such a pathetic way again, I promptly plunged into the crowd of luminaries headed backstage. As it turned out, my pass was unnecessary; no one noticed me, as I was inadvertently squashed between Aretha Franklin and Luciano Pavarotti. Suffering in that position was enough to make every one of my organs explode, so I slouched aside and bumped into Sting.

Irked at undergoing such brutally physical trauma, I got very cheeky with Mr. Sumner and asked him the way to the loo. He was not amused, and effortlessly shoved me in the direction of the polka band coming offstage. The accordion player showed me mercy, though, and I followed his directions to the bathroom.

Emerging from the shrine, I was immediately swept up again in a new tide of the music biz- this time it was a herd of suits. Before being trampled, I recognized Celine Dion, her hair full of Crisco and bigger than the ‘80s, riding sidesaddle over this stampede of men who were either the entire Montreal hockey team or the twenty-odd producers of her most recent schlocky album. It was a heady combination of contemptible pain, and I passed out again.

I regained consciousness again and found myself strapped to a makeshift gurney in one of the many dressing rooms that were, incidentally, segregated between MTV and VH-1 artists (those who fell in either camp dressed in the hallway). My only companions were several TV monitors on which I could see Gwen Stefani, ten pounds heavier, strutting her stuff onstage in pants six sizes too tight while the rest of No Doubt bounced giddily behind her. The mere sight of the former Queen Of All Abs with flubber rolling over her belt on every screen within sight was enough to make me black out again, but only long enough to purge the wretched image from my brain.

I was half asleep in some morphine-induced haze when an usher rolled up another bed beside mine, occupied by none other than Beck Hansen.

“Beck!” I gushed, jive-less. “Man, where it’s at!” to which he replied, “I cut my lips on the microphone!” while clutching his newly won Grammy like a teddy bear.

“Wow!” I thought. “What a great interview opportunity! The Nexites will be so proud of me!”

I promptly produced my trusty tape recorder and talked with the injured Beck about anything and everything until he was wheeled out again, leaving me alone with the TVs, which now showed Lyle Lovett pissing off the entire Nashiville industry by accepting his award for Best Country Album. As the interview tape rewound, I pushed “play” laughing out loud at Lovett’s pompadoured Afro and goofy smile.

I stopped laughing when I realized that my recorder had been low on batteries and had taped the interview I’d just finished at half speed and even less. My first question rambled on for way too long, especially considering that the tape delay caused my voice to sound like a tranquilized hippo. Beck’s responsde, played back by the powerless machine at about two revolutions per minute, echoed through the room a garbled “Msadcb&$f#$sF$%dvmmnS#!%***.”

“Damn,” I sighed. “There goes my career in rock journalism.” Aside from all of those unfortunate incidents, my little trek to the Grammys wasn’t a total washout. Later that night I found out in turn that Tracy Chapman wears hair extensions, two of the Fugees have fake green cards, Dwight Yoakam will beat the shit out of anyone who tries to take off his hat, and that Brandy and LeAnn Rimes are both nymphomaniacs.

Well, maybe it was a total washout. There’s always next year, I guess. Maybe I’ll sneak into the Espys or something.

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