The secretaries were not as fawny as the last time I had been here, but then that time had been preceded by a lot of hype and there was the little matter of the unveiling of the gold record. Or maybe it was just that Ziggy wasn’t here this time.
Some junior publicist sat me in a conference room with a can of Pepsi. Doesn’t anyone drink Coke anymore? I wondered. Or was it that BNC had so many artists with Pepsi endorsement deals? Mills and Digger were both late. I wondered if Mills had met Sarah yet and what he thought of her. I wondered if I could put in a good word for her or what.
The meeting room had a windowsill that ran the length of the room and was pretty much covered with music trade magazines. I thumbed through Cashbox.
About 45 minutes later, they came in. They were together and it dawned on me that maybe the meeting with Sarah happened somewhere else–Digger’s office?–and then the two of them came here together. I still hadn’t been to Digger’s office. It was in the same building where Nomad had their rehearsal space, but I only had a vague memory of where that was.
Mills shook my hand then excused himself to “get something.” Digger sat down across the table from me, leaving the head seat for Mills.
“How’s it hanging, kiddo?”
It was high time for a new answer to that question. “Loose as a goose, old man.”
He cracked a little smile at that. “You get that background music work done?”
“Yeah. In fact, they paid me by check.”
“I can put it in your account for you if you’re not heading back east anytime soon. Are you?”
“That probably depends on what happens tomorrow.”
“Oh, you mean with Ziggy? Yeah, they’re springing him. I’m supposed to pick him up.”
“Where are you taking him?”
Digger snorted. “You sound like something out of a B-movie thriller. Like I’m kidnapping him or something. ‘Where are you taking him…’ Calm down, kiddo.”
“I am calm,” I said, but you know, whenever you have to say that…
Mills came in and handed a couple of pages of something to Digger and sat down with his own pages at the seat we’d left for him. Digger examined the sheet on top.
“What’s that?” I asked.
Mills was wearing a beige leisure jacket over a salmon polo shirt and had a pair of sunglasses still perched on his head. His voice was serious. “Latest sales numbers. Let me tell you, they don’t look good.”
I blinked at him for a couple of seconds, then rose partway out of my chair to snag the paper he had in front of himself and pull it across the table to me. Did he think I couldn’t read? Or was the artist not supposed to look at numbers? It seemed pretty stupid to me he hadn’t copied it for me to see, too.
Of course, when confronted with the columns of numbers, I didn’t know what I was seeing.
Digger acted like he didn’t either, but I had the feeling maybe this was his way of saving face for me. Nicest thing he ever did for me, really. “This one here, is that how many units shipped? And this column is the breakdown to each market?”
Mills took a pen out of his pocket and went into detail, then. “Yeah. This here…” He circled a number on Digger’s paper and I found it on my own. “That’s the net. And here are the sell-through percentages.”
The names on the rows were familiar enough. “So you’re saying Tower is selling the shit out of it, but Sam Goody isn’t.”
“That is one takeaway from these numbers, yeah. It’s baffling. Tower’s presence is heaviest on the West Coast, but you just played many more and many bigger venues in the east. The carryover into eastern and midwestern retail just isn’t there.”
“That’s because the initial inventory was way too low,” Digger said. “Looks like Newbury did all right.”
“They do a lot with Boston local bands.” Mills shrugged like it didn’t matter. Maybe it didn’t. “We have a problem. A really big problem.”
“I’ve been telling you this since the prerelease buy,” Digger said.
“It’s not the prerelease buy that’s the problem. The problem is that you just did one of the biggest, highest profile tours of the summer and the record is still selling for shit. That means one of two things. Either the record is shit–which I will say before you get me wrong that it most certainly is not— or you’ve got some other PR problem bedeviling you. And like I said, the record’s good. So that isn’t it.”
“What kind of PR problem?” I asked. “Is this back to that stuff about category? The whole question do they even have an ‘alternative rock’ shelf and if they don’t, are we buried between Metallica and Motorhead?”
“But the radio play’s been so strong,” Digger added, “across all categories. That has to have an impact.”
Mills was stony-faced. “Radio play doesn’t always translate to sales. Maybe radio guys like it better than the general public does. Wouldn’t be the first time. And sometimes people like something on the radio, but they lose interest for some other reason.” He tapped his pen against the fake woodgrain of the table. “A PR reason.”
So it was back to that. “Some other PR reason,” I repeated. “You mean… like Ziggy being in rehab?” His picture hadn’t been on the cover of any of the tabloids in the supermarket the other day, but I hadn’t been watching TV, hadn’t been reading the news or magazines lately, so maybe there was some trainwreck going on that I missed.
“That is the sort of thing that can have this sort of effect, yes,” Mills said somewhat vaguely.
Digger shook his head. “You know how many celebs he’s up there with right now? A ton. I don’t see most of them tanking their careers.”
Mills shrugged. “With actors, it’s all about convincing a director to take you on despite the drugs. Actors can do that. Music’s different. This is the American consumer we’re talking about. They’re a much more Puritanical bunch than the people who run the industry, you know.”
The back of my neck began to prickle. “You still haven’t said what you think the problem is with Moondog Three,” I said.
“The problem is that you’re under water,” Mills replied, looking me straight in the eye. “You haven’t earned back the advance we paid the band, and frankly, I don’t think there’s more we can do to boost album sales at this point. Maybe, just maybe, we’re going to see a bump when this movie with Ziggy comes out, but I’m skeptical about that. If sales keep up at the low rate they’re at, then maybe we’ll see it recoup in another year to eighteen months.”
Under water. I was suddenly really glad Carynne had run the tour on an absolute shoestring, meaning we actually made money on the road instead of blowing it all in the service of boosting album sales. My hackles rose as shock and panic flashed across my skin. Being labeled “unrecoupable” was far worse than anything else I could think of, including being called gay, honestly. And that’s what he had just said, though he hadn’t used the word yet. He’d said “under water” and “recoup” and that was what he meant. “Unrecoupable” was the record company equivalent of “unredeemable failure.”
“We can hit the road again,” I said, trying to scrape whatever I could to salvage things.
“Can you? You weren’t even out eight full weeks and your singer landed in the loony bin,” Mills snapped. “Shed and festival season’s over. You’d be back to smaller venues and you wouldn’t have the publicity push of a new record anymore. The videos are falling out of heavy rotation.”
“I thought we were going to make another one. Another single.”
Mills shook his head. “Throwing good money after bad. If the band wants to spend the dough to do something, we can talk about it. But at this point BNC won’t be putting you any deeper in the hole than you already are. Moondog Three is officially unrecoupable.”
There it was. He said it. Rage and fear now battled each other, turning my stomach to knots and my face red. The loony bin comment made me want to slap him. I felt, basically, like he’d kicked me in the balls already, and he knew it, which made the loony bin comment totally uncalled for.
Digger, the useless sack of shit, had clammed up. He’d left me to be the one to get in the ring. Fine. I didn’t have a comeback at this point. “Unrecoupable,” I said, forcing myself to say the word.
Mills nodded, leaned over and flipped the paper in front of me over so I could see the next page. He pointed at the number at the bottom. “That’s how much you owe us.”
Just kick me in the balls again, why don’t you.
I put my hand over my eyes like I couldn’t stand looking at it anymore. Digger finally said something.
“What about the re-release of Prone? Where are those numbers?”
“That includes those,” Mills said.
“Oh.” That’s all Digger said. “Oh.”
It filtered through my brain what that meant. If Digger wasn’t going to do this, then I had to. “Are you saying that even when you factor in what Prone made, the combined amount still isn’t enough?”
Mills nodded and cleared his throat. “You got a single advance that included both records.”
“No, we didn’t. You made a payment to Charles River for the rights to Prone to Relapse, and they paid it through to us. The deal for 1989 was a separate contract.”
Mills shrugged. “We can move the money around like a shell game but then all it will mean is the unrecoupable amount is even higher.”
If he could be stone cold about it, so could I. “But it might mean a royalty check on the sales of Prone and ‘Candlelight,’ unrelated to the sales, or lack thereof, on 1989.”
“That’s not how we do things here,” Mills said, his voice rising a little. “Your product nets are ganged together. That’s just how it is.”
There was too much static in my head, worrying over whether I was really that stupid to have signed something that said that, for me to clearly remember what the entertainment lawyer Watt had referred me to had said about that. I decided I was better off bluffing than showing fear. “That’s not my interpretation of what I signed.”
“That’s certainly what’s in our standard boilerplate.”
“I didn’t sign the standard boilerplate,” like a chump, I silently added. “We made a lot of changes.”
Mills sat back in his chair, which I took as a sign I’d made a wrong move. He gave a nonchalant sniff. “The contract’s back in the New York office or I’d show you what you signed.”
I’d have Carynne look at my copy as soon as I could. “You know there’s no way I’m accepting these numbers as fact without an audit,” I said. I definitely remembered our lawyer putting in something about that. One audit per year, I think.
Mills shook his head. “You’ll just be wasting your money on the auditor.”
“I’ll be wasting even more if it turns out you underreported the net on Candlelight singles,” I shot back.
Mills then gave Digger a look. “You better tell your boy here what reality is.”
Digger, to his… credit?… tried to weasel out. “That contract is from before me. I don’t know what it says.”
“I mean, this audit business.” A chummy laugh escaped Mills. “Seriously.”
Digger now gave me a look, and it was one of the most pathetic expressions I’d ever seen on his face. Like he was trying to tell me not to shoot the messenger. “Oh, yeah, total waste of time and money if you ask me,” he said weakly.
Of course he was going along with Mills, I realized. He had either just signed Sarah that morning for big money or he was still in negotiations trying to. He had to play nice with Mr. Magic Pen.
I didn’t. Mills had basically already taken the gloves off and told me my band was less than worthless to him at this point. I had nothing to lose. I stood up. “Expect a call from my lawyer. And my new manager.”
Digger sat upright then liked I’d just kicked him in the balls. Which I suppose I had. “Are you kidding me?”
Mills gave a dismissive snort. “Not that you’re going to need much managing anytime soon.” He leaned back further in the chair, pressing the pen between this two index fingers. “Another company can’t touch you now. May I remind you of the exclusivity and option clauses, my friend.”
Ever notice the only people who call you “my friend” are the ones who are not your friends? Exclusivity, that was the clause that said I couldn’t start another band and sign somewhere else. Whatever. I had no intention of starting another band when I had put so much into this one. The option clause, on the other hand, was the thing in the contract that said BNC had dibs on the next Moondog Three record. It had seemed like a good thing to sign at the time. “Are you saying we should do another album?”
“No. I’m saying we won’t commit to another album.” Mills gave me a little smile, like he was trying to be nice, like maybe if I sat down and worked with him instead of against him, he’d come up with an answer. I wasn’t buying. He went on. “But if you make one on your own, contractually it’s ours. Its sales will go toward recouping the old advance, of course. But you’re wasting your time and money if you don’t solve your PR problem.”
Wait, back to that again? I took a step back from the table, backtracking in my mind as well. He’d never come out and said what the PR problem was.
By now, I knew whenever there was something that no one would talk about, whenever there was something making people act weird, or suddenly turn into jerks…? Well, I knew what that thing was.
Which only made me more determined in that moment to make him say it. “What. PR. Problem.”
Mills made another one of those condescending snorts and put both his feet on the floor. “This is the really wrong time for it. AIDS hysteria is only going to get worse. In a couple of years, don’t be surprised if you don’t see internment camps.”
I played dumb. “For AIDS victims? I don’t have AIDS, Mills.”
“You don’t have to. You know what the public calls it, right?”
“What they call what?”
“The Gay Plague.” There. He finally said it.
I was surprised to hear myself say, “So the fuck what.”
At that point he shook his head sadly, like I was a cancer patient arguing with my diagnosis, and reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out an envelope. He stood up to look me eye-to-eye. “I paid a paparazzo for these this morning to keep them from going to Us or People. His negatives, too. Your auditor will find a line item for it.”
He tossed the envelope on the table and walked out. A handful of photos spilled partway out. I pulled them free of the envelope and looked at the small stack.
Me and Jonathan getting into the truck together in the parking garage of the Bonaventure. Me and Jonathan walking into the Whiskey. Me and Jonathan at the Front 242 show. Me and Jonathan getting into the truck together in some other random parking lot, probably outside the party where we’d met Sarah for the first time.
The next one was me and Jonathan holding hands… outside the doorway of the gallery where Matthew’s photo exhibition was in New York. Who the fuck was this photographer? I half wondered if the next one was going to be us in a full lip lock on a loading dock in Atlanta.
It was worse. It was me and Ziggy at the Palladium, Ziggy with his arms around my neck. I nearly sat back down because my legs didn’t want to hold me. But I didn’t. Instead I looked at the next photo, the last one in the stack.
Another one from New York. From an odd angle but zoomed in and clear as day. Ziggy lying on top of me–half naked and between my legs for chrissake!–on the floor backstage at Madison Square Garden. His back was glistening with sweat and my hand was planted between his shoulder blades. My face was visible over his shoulder.
I hadn’t noticed Digger had come around to my side of the table so he could look at the photos in my hands.
“I tried to tell you,” he said.
I really really wanted to belt him right then, but I didn’t. Knowing that I had just fired him felt like armor. His “I told you so” didn’t get under my skin. “Tried to tell me what?”
“This is your fault,” he went on. “You didn’t think someone was going to notice? What the hell were you thinking catting around Hollywood with your boytoy every night?”
I nearly smacked him then, too, right in the mouth, because insulting me was one thing, but insulting Jonathan I wasn’t going to stand for. “Jonathan’s done more for the success of Moondog Three than you ever did,” I said.
“Oh, so that means he can flaunt planting his flag in your ass every night?”
Was I justified in hitting him that time? Was I? I don’t know. It was like at that point the only thing I could do to fight back against vile words was to smack the mouth that spoke them. Bam. I used my open hand, right on his lips, and from the way he reached up quickly and grabbed his own chin, I would guess I loosened his jaw.
Digger didn’t hit back. He just stared in shock.
“Are you going to tell Ziggy the good news or should I?” I snapped.
“I… I don’t know,” he said, blinking.
“Give him Remo’s number. That’s where I’ll be.” I didn’t wait around for Digger to get his head together. I didn’t wait around for anything. I got in the car and did what everyone in L.A. seems to do all the fucking time. I drove.