ctan: So, it’s Web Serial Writing Month, and we promised readers not only three posts a week this month, but two liner notes! So here’s the first one. At the point we are in the story, it’s the very end of August 1989.
Daron: Okay, how about today let’s talk about some folks who were hitting the big time in 1989 and who now are elsewhere in their lives or careers.
ctan: Only if you’ll give a disclaimer this isn’t foreshadowing.
Daron: Oh, yeah. No. This isn’t foreshadowing, I promise. The guy I want to talk about was in Nirvana and Soundgarden but went on to do something I would never, ever do. Which is be a Special Forces soldier in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
ctan: What? Who?
Daron: Jason Everman. Here’s the link to the story in The New York Times: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2013/07/02/magazine/evermans-war.html?from=magazine. To quote:
[The sergeant] was reading a magazine, when he slowly looked up and stared at Everman. Then the sergeant walked over, pointing to a page in the magazine. “Is this you?” It was a photo of the biggest band in the world, Nirvana. Kurt Cobain had just killed himself, and this was a story about his suicide. Next to Cobain was the band’s onetime second guitarist. A guy with long, strawberry blond curls. “Is this you?”
Everman exhaled. “Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
ctan: Wow. Here’s the piece that got me: “The first time I met Everman was also the first time I ever stepped foot on a tour bus. It was 1989, which was a confusing time to be in a rock band.”
Daron: Well, it was a confusing time.
ctan: The writer of the article, Clay Tarver, was in the band Bullet LaVolta. He writes “Our kind of punk rock was all about creating your own place, doing music for its own sake, usually the opposite of what was popular. If you wanted to “make it,” you played pandering cheese-metal like Warrant or Slaughter, the bands on MTV. They were bad. We were good. It was all so cut and dried.”
Daron: Why am I not surprised you noticed the writer? Wait, Bullet LaVolta? We totally know those guys. They’re not from the Seattle grunge scene. They’re from Boston! I think it’s funny he called them “punk rock” though. I always thought of them as post-punk hard rock verging on metal. But maybe that goes right along with what I’ve been saying all along about Moondog Three, that the divisions between punk and metal were really false and were created by record companies who needed to know which bin in the record store you went into.
ctan: Wow. I think I blocked the memory of Bullet LaVolta out of my mind. I had to have seen them in the days when I was managing Sexploitation.
Daron: You promised people in a liner note more than three years ago, back in 2010, that you’d tell more about Sexploitation at some point.
ctan: I did, didn’t I.
Daron: Go on.
ctan: Okay, so the short version of the story is this. I met Jonathan Kelley on Landsdowne Street at one of the clubs in 1990. It might have been on a Sunday night at the Citi Club, which was “gay” night, and they’d connect Citi and Axis together into one mega-club. I don’t know. I had just moved to Boston, didn’t have any friends yet, and being me, liked to dress up in some genderbent fashion and go dancing.
Daron: And so the two genderbent people in the club got together?
ctan: Basically. I can’t remember if we danced together first or talked first. He lived in a swanky apartment building that overlooked Landsdowne. When the clubs closed we went back to his apartment and talked all night about art and music and whatever. Jonathan was one of those incandescent personalities it was hard to get enough of.
Daron: Gee, I don’t know anyone like that…
ctan: And for those who are going to ask, no, he wasn’t the basis for Ziggy, because I’d already been writing Ziggy for years at that point. But he and Ziggy definitely came from the same planet where charismatic outrageous flamboyant lead singers come from.
Daron: Amen to that.
ctan: Anyway, as I was heading home at the crack of dawn he said “Hey, I’m in a band, come see us this week.” Now, you know what it’s like. Everyone who’s in a band is like “come see us.” But I went to see Sexploitation a few days later, and then the gig after that, and the one after that… Here’s a video from 1992 to give you an idea what they were like:
Daron: Is Jimmie playing the guitar he built himself?
ctan: Yeah. Jimmie is on the right in the video. You’ll note he was wearing a kilt before kilts were cool–he often wore one to gigs. Jonathan is the singer in the middle. Gabe’s on the drums, and Michael is playing bass. Everyone is painted for this show and I think Jonathan’s also covered in baby powder, hair and all? I think by this point in the show he’s also covered in stage blood. You could never predict what Jonathan was going to do.
Daron: What is Jonathan wearing?
ctan: That’s a woman’s vintage camisole, but he’s wearing it as a skirt… upside down and backwards. Those dangling things at the top are the garters. (This whole set is on Youtube for anyone who wants to see the whole thing. Here: http://www.youtube.com/user/mansevenseven/videos). To hear the music better, check out the band’s MP3s up on Myspace. You don’t have to have a MySpace account to hear them. Just click play: https://myspace.com/sexploitationboston/music/songs. I’d start with Sequin Syringe there, and then Garlique. You get a great sense of Jonathan’s vocal range and their musical style.
Daron: I can see why you say you must have crossed paths with Bullet LaVolta.
ctan: Yeah. Sexploitation played hard rock that wasn’t punk but wasn’t what I’d call “metal” either. Their closest musical comparison in the major labels was Jane’s Addiction. I loved it. I loved their sound, I loved how it challenged categories, and, well, Jonathan was a walking challenge to categories. He was a gay man with long hair so he was totally rejected by “clone culture,” but he wasn’t a drag queen either…though he would often wear a sequined miniskirt. Onstage he would sometimes pull it down but hide his dick between his legs so his pubic hair made it look like he had female parts…
Daron: Did he ever get arrested for that?
ctan: I think there were a few warnings from the police but no arrests, as I recall… Although I think one of his “wardrobe malfunctions” got them banned from the Rat, and I am pretty sure there was a run in with the police at Derringer’s in Brockton… Anyway, after I was showing up at all their gigs for a while, Jonathan said “I want you to be our manager.” They had nobody at that point. They were so new. I actually told him no, I’m not equipped to be your manager, but I will be your publicist. They still called me manager, though, and so did everyone else. A lot of the photos you see on the band’s Facebook page were ones I took.
Daron: And you quit managing them when?
ctan: After I started grad school in ’92. I had done as much as I could do. They needed someone who was actually in the industry. They got a booking agent but he wasn’t really a manager either, he never made it happen for them. I’ve forgotten his name now. The thing I remember most about him was he had a crappy toupee.
Daron: What was the most fun you had with them?
ctan: Probably the College Music Journal festival in New York? That was the conference where we played not one but two showcases, one at the tiny tiny Pool Bar–which was a real place and that’s why I set chapter 41 there–and one at the huge Limelight where we were on the bill with the as-yet-unknown “Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids.” Since we were all broke–my salary at that point was $15K a year–we stayed with my parents in New Jersey and the entire band slept in the screen porch in the back of the house.The CMJ itself was kind of stressful but exciting. I mean, everyone there is trying to get signed. Thousands of musicians are walking around with demo tapes in their pockets, hoping to corner an A&R rep in the bathroom and be a Cinderella story. One of the panels we went to was called The Demo Tank. Every band in the room put a tape into a big plastic box, and then a panel of industry execs would critique a couple of minutes of whichever tape they pulled out of the “tank.” I put a tape in, of course. The rest of the band had gone to a different panel, or maybe just Gabe was there? Well, 20 minutes into the panel I was sitting in the back of the room thinking there is no way they are getting to ours, which I could see was near the bottom. I had printed the tape inserts myself on Day-Glo paper with SEXPLOITATION in bold letters. So halfway through the panel, I stand up in the back of the room, saunter straight up to the box and drop it in. Jimmy Iovine of Interscope Records was the big name on the panel, and he looks at me, looks at the tape, and says, “Oooh! Sexploitation! I want to hear this one!” And pops it into the tape player. I don’t remember a thing he said now about the tape. What I do remember is every other guy in the audience said to the guys in the band afterward, “Dude, your manager is awesome.”
Daron: Your Carynne moment.
ctan: Exactly. But it wasn’t enough. They never connected with a label and eventually the band fell apart. Jimmie, the guitarist, took a vacation to Seattle… and never came back.
Daron: Did he hook up with a grunge band there?
ctan: Actually, no. I ran into one of the other guys some months after he’d left, who told me Jimmie was actually playing trumpet in a band and had cut his hair. So… not grunge. Jonathan moved to New York City. I made him come get the DX7 of his that I had been babysitting for YEARS when I moved out of 11 Queensberry Street, and I think that was the last time I actually saw him. I talked to him on the phone a few times after he moved, though. He would call out of the blue and we’d talk for hours. Jonathan told me about fighting drug addiction, problems with his very Irish conservative family (disowning him for being gay), and how he was working in New York as a horseback riding instructor.
Daron: You’re crying.
ctan: I am. Jonathan died in 1998. I didn’t hear about it right away. I had lost touch with the guys and that was before social media. So some time had passed by the time I heard. And then when I heard I couldn’t even process it. “Jonathan Kelley is dead.” Does not compute. It was like I couldn’t even handle knowing it so I blocked it out of my mind. I’ve blocked it so completely I am not even sure who I heard it from. It must have been Michael but I can’t even remember him telling me, like it was such a shock to the system that it erased itself. But I knew, in the back of my mind. I think the news came when I was already in the midst of a depression and not coping…? It’s all a blank. But. When I wrote that liner note back in 2010 where I first talked about The Pool Bar and Sexploitation, I thought about him and it was like it really hit me for the first time. I’ve been grieving him ever since. I cry every time I think about him. A light went out of the world.
Daron: I’m sorry.ctan: He was a sweet soul and a basically good person fighting an uphill battle with a judgmental family. He reveled in being the black sheep, but it hurt him, too. I should really call Michael one of these days, though. We cross paths on Facebook once in a while. After Jonathan’s passing, Michael went to college, gat a degree in chemistry, then to grad school in organic chemistry.
Daron: You did say he was the brains of the band.ctan: Yeah. These guys were all so young when they were trying to make it. Gabe was so young that when they did their cross-country tour to Los Angeles, playing gigs along the way, there were places where he had to sit outside until the time of the set because he was too young to be allowed inside the bar.
Daron: Well, and you were, what, 23?
ctan: Yeah. I was fresh out of college and working my first day job when Jonathan and I met. I had just started working in book publishing, but right until the month before I graduated college I’d thought I was destined for a job in “radio and records,” as the music biz was sometimes called then. I’d started working in radio in high school, remember, and then I worked at WBRU FM all through college. Tons of my peers from WBRU went on to work at MTV and for record companies. Lars Murray went to Ryko. Karen Bryant went to MTV. (Interestingly enough, the ones who stayed in radio and went to NPR are pretty much still around: Monica Brady Meyeroff at WBUR here in Boston, and Doug Mayer working for Car Talk.)
Daron: Why did you decide to quit the music industry?
ctan: Well, for one, I realized since I was a writer that the book industry would be way more useful to me than the music industry. The other was I thought I would get tired of the music business pretty fast. I thought “in five years this might still be fun, but ten years from now? Ehhh.” I had the realization I think I gave to some character in your book that to succeed at any job in the business, to be good at your job, you HAVE to lie. Even disk jockeys have to be liars. It’s completely endemic to the business and the way it works. I had a feeling that was going to get tiring Real Soon. In the book business, on the other hand, lying is pretty rare overall.
Daron: It sounds like you made the right choice.
ctan: I don’t really have a choice. It’s write or die. I’m happy with that, though. Can we quit talking about me now, though, and talk about someone else?
Daron: Here. This will cheer you up. Have some photos of kittens in punk rock jackets.
ctan: Okay, you’re right. That cheered me up.
Daron: Who else do we have on the slate of Where Are They Now?
ctan: Have you followed the whole Michelle Shocked saga?
Daron: Haven’t looked at her in years. I liked her whole story about being discovered on a creaky cassette by an A&R rep (The Texas Campfire Tapes, recorded without her consent but it went to #1 on the indie chart in the UK) and I admired that she set her own terms with her record company on Short Sharp Shocked, giving them a ten-year license instead of the usual lifetime license to her songs. Back then, that was unheard of. But I stopped paying attention to her in the 90s when the story went around about how she fired a guitar tech because he couldn’t keep her strings from squeaking.
ctan: You don’t think that was a sexist story trying to paint her as a hysterical female?
Daron: All I thought was: any player who doesn’t understand that it’s their own damn fingers that make the guitar strings squeak…? I’ve got no respect for them. First off, don’t blame things on other people that are your own doing, and second, know your instrument, for fuck’s sake. It goes up there with Prince having a tantrum because a limo was the wrong color when he was filming a black and white movie. I have no patience for “rock star” stupidity like that. At any rate, in my mind that was the point where I put her in the category of people with very little grip on reality. What’s the saga and why is she relevant to us? Is she a lesbian?
ctan: Well, that’s a subject of some debate. I think a lot of people assumed that she was a lesbian in the 80s and 90s. (Plus look at all the other women who have come out since: Joan Jett, Melissa Etheridge, the Indigo Girls…) Far as I can tell she never came out officially, but she does seem to have danced around the issue in interviews. At one point she said she would be “honored to be considered an honorary lesbian.” In another she said she practiced her own form of “sexual McCarthyism” as if saying the word “homosexual” and accepting that label was a bigger crime than actually being one…? She also released an album after divorcing her alcoholic, overbearing husband entitled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Daron: Really. Speaking as the king of self-denial, that really looks like a cry for help to me.
ctan: Well, get this. The latest twist is in March she was onstage in San Francisco when she told the audience to tweet “God Hates Fags.”
Daron: … For fuck’s sake.
ctan: As you can imagine, this didn’t go over well.
Daron: But it matches my impression that she has little grip on reality.
ctan: Apparently she’s a born-again Christian.
Daron: Why am I not surprised. But are people sure she wasn’t just doing it to get publicity? I mean, her name is “Shocked.”
ctan: If it was to get publicity for her musical career, I’d say it backfired. Her entire tour was canceled, and she had planned a free “I’m sorry” concert for Pride weekend in San Francisco, but the plug was pulled on that after there was (predictably) huge backlash. (Viz: http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Shocked-to-return-to-S-F-for-Pride-4608213.php) There’s a long recap of her career and life here by John Cody: LeeAaron.com. Complicated doesn’t begin to cover it.
Daron: So you’re saying… don’t be a dick. Even if you’re a female folksinger.
ctan: I’m saying in 2013 it isn’t all champagne and roses out there in celebrity-land when it comes to gay issues for famous musicians. And some of the born-again stuff you and Chris had to deal with, well, if it could get Michelle Shocked like this, the guys from Miracle Mile aren’t much of a stretch.
Daron: Yeah, wow. And if she’s actually a lesbian and trying to wish it away with prayer…? If that’s the case, well, sister, I pray you find a less hateful way to be. “Anchorage” is still a great song. In happier gay musician news, remember Steve Grand’s video that was at 200K views on YouTube when I posted about it, and I said it should have had two million views? Was at 400K a few days later, was up to about 700K by July 10, and then I saw he posted on Facebook that he was quitting his job as a piano man in Chicago. He’s long since passed two million views and he was on Good Morning America.
ctan: Do you remember when you were on GMA?
Daron: Only when you force me to. Thinking about that week in New York really makes me think of what an idiot I could be.
ctan: According to some musicians, things haven’t changed that much today from the industry I walked away from in 1989. James Brooks, of Elite Gymnastics, blogged recently: “the music industry is widely and accurately viewed as a safe haven for immature white men to act out their anarchic fantasies of hedonism and substance abuse rather than succumb to societal pressures to grow up and take on adult responsibilities.” (Link to his full rant: http://deadgirlfriends.tumblr.com/post/55474844727/extremely-long-and-unpleasant-post-about-the-music)
Daron: Well, when you put it that way… yeah. I love this part: “Things like a lack of job security and the necessity of faustian bargains with gross crazy people are [considered to be] acceptable occupational hazards for a job that gives you the option of living in a patriarchal utopia where you get to live in neverland with keith richards and the rest of the lost boys, blowing lines off rainbows and tossing off groupies like disposable, single-use chattel.”
ctan: “Lack of job security” and “faustian bargains with gross crazy people” sounds pretty relevant to the recent plot developments with your record company.
Daron: Yeah. My only option in 1989 was to go back to the street corner. At least nowadays artists have a way to reach fans directly.
ctan: I might know something about that… Speaking of artists and fans, did you see this story about how Dave Matthews was picked up by a fan in her car when his bicycle broke down on the side of the road? Link: Dave Matthews found standed on side of road by fan
Daron: Okay, what I think is the cool fact here is that Dave Matthews goes on a bike ride before a show.
ctan: Carynne would probably kill you if you tried to.
Daron: I don’t see myself on a bicycle. Not for me. When I start needing exercise on tour I don’t know what I’ll do, but I don’t think it’ll be that.
(And have some more random Sexploitation photos…)