Then there was the day Jordan and I had a fight.
That day we had moved from the regular studio where we had been working over to Electric Lady, which if you don’t know it is pretty awesome. The Jimi Hendrix connection isn’t just the name: he actually founded the place shortly before he died. I promise this isn’t a chapter about musicians dying from drugs so don’t read anything into the Hendrix reference. No, this is a chapter about the creative process.
If I hadn’t made it clear before, Jordan and I were doing two things basically for the time I was in New York. One was building up an inventory of demos he could shuttle to various artists while they were trying to put their albums together. The other was going in and fixing various people’s albums that were already in progress. Sometimes the two things kind of meshed together though.
This particular day had started with a postcard from Ziggy. A literal postcard from England, mailed to me at Jordan’s address. Zig had drawn a sketch of himself licking a rather phallic-looking Big Ben and written “Wish you were here!”
“What’s he doing there again?” Jordan asked.
“I have no fucking clue. Wish I knew.” I stuck the card into the Ovation’s case.
The band we were working with that day was a four-piece from Galveston, Texas who sounded basically like The Pixies but who were trying to break into the mainstream. The first fight of the day took place between Jordan, their A&R guy, and their manager, before I had even unpacked a guitar. They played us a couple of songs from their previous album, by which I mean we listened to a CD, which had been a minor college radio hit. Then the band played us three songs live that they had been working on.
This is the gist of the argument, which took place in the control booth while the band stood around on the other side of the glass.
Jordan: I like this new direction.
A&R Rep: Well, I don’t.
Manager: You have to understand, though, it’s an authentic image they’re trying to project here.
A&R Rep: I’m not getting any image though other than these guys live in their mom’s basement.
Jordan: Oh come on, it’s garage band. It’s REM but with louder guitars.
A&R Rep: I think if we’re going to take this mainstream we need to tone down, not up.
Manager: What do you mean by that?
A&R Rep: I mean, you know, not so loud.
Manager: You mean, make it more like REM?
A&R Rep: No. No that’s commercial suicide right now. Alternative is dead. Quirky doesn’t work.
Manager: Quirky, where are you getting quirky from?
A&R Rep: Come on, the song about the bicycle? These guys aren’t that clever. Stick to songs about pussy and beer. And okay, maybe make it loud, but the image needs to have a harder edge then.
Jordan: I’m more concerned with the sound here than the image–
A&R Rep: Exactly. I need it loud but all the edges planed off. Straightforward loud rock. Out of the garage and into the arena. It needs to be more like…Aerosmith.
A&R Rep: Punk is over and these guys are never going to make it as poodle hair power ballad metal. That’s where all the money is in metal.
Manager: Okay, but then…Aerosmith? I don’t understand what you mean.
A&R Rep: You have to get out of the college rock ghetto. That means up the production values, up everything. Loud, okay sure. But you have to go all the way to the arena level, that’s what I’m trying to say.
Jordan: So you’re saying not The Pixies–
A&R Rep: Definitely not.
Jordan: But yes Aerosmith. Hm.
Manager: What are you thinking? What are you thinking?
Jordan: This is the thing. I’ve been saying this for a while. The wall between punk and metal has to come down. I hear a band every week, I swear, that has loud guitars but isn’t metal, isn’t punk. It’s rock, it’s rock—
A&R Rep: Exactly. That’s what I want you to do.
Jordan: Except I don’t think you know what I’m proposing. All I can say is… it won’t sound like Aerosmith.
At which point they all stared at each other for a bit and then the A&R rep said he trusted Jordan as a hitmaker and as long as there was one hit on the record he didn’t “fucking care” if the rest of it sounded like a different band altogether, and then he walked out. I was sitting there on a couch this whole time listening to the “debate” and then I felt gut-punched when he walked out of the room.
The manager walked stiffly into the men’s room and we could hear him literally screaming in frustration. He just…let it all out. Jordan leaned over to the mic and potted it up to tell the band, “Um, take ten, guys.”
Then he looked at me. “Thoughts?”
“Did that asshole really just say we should make a hit and he didn’t care if it was a bait and switch on the album?”
I felt green around the gills. I mean, on the one hand it was almost? nice? to know that Mills wasn’t a unique asshole, he was just one of a type? But on the other hand, motherfuck. This industry. “Is that what we’re going to do?”
Jordan was his usual cool-as-a-cucumber, poker-faced self. “Maybe. I’m hoping there’s a happy medium here somewhere. And you are going to be a big help with that.”
“Yes. Because you can work fucking magic with six strings and you don’t give a fuck if we call it metal or punk or alternative or whatever.”
“Of course I don’t. This is what I’ve been saying forever.”
“I know. It’s why you and I get along.” Jordan sat down in the engineer’s chair and swept his hand over the row of controls. “Well, one reason of many.”
“The whole industry has this blind spot,” I said. “I don’t understand it. There’s so much music in that hole. And they want to pigeonhole everything, though, into these two categories where it doesn’t fit, and at the same time he’s basically admitting that those two categories are dead. I don’t understand it.”
“Let it go, D.” Jordan put his hands in the “namaste” pose and blew out a breath. “All it is, you know it, is the industry gets onto certain formulas, and it grinds them until they quit working. Some of them never do quit working, while others eventually hit bottom. And yeah, a tiny percentage of what they do is listen for what could cut the next big, deep channel that all the money’s going to flow into, but most of what they do is just keep cutting the channels they already got deeper and deeper so anything new is going to run bone dry.”
I rubbed my eyes. “I know that. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“The industry’s always been like that. You just have to accept it and do what you can.”
“That’s the thing, though! That’s what fucking ‘alternative’ is! It’s cutting across the channels. It’s saying I don’t give a rat’s ass what categories you want, I’m this other thing. And that other thing is what rock and roll is supposed to be about. Rebellion. Freedom.”
Jordan nodded. “I know. And that is what rock and roll is about. But it isn’t what the music industry is about, which has been around a lot longer than rock and roll.”
Somehow that hadn’t hit me before then. Of course. The industry had been built for classical and for popular music. The Andrews Sisters. Benny Goodman. “But that’s why college radio proves there’s so much more out there.”
“And anything that’s really ascendant in the gestalt will get commodified by the industry, and as a result some folks will make fucking millions, while others continue to toil in obscurity.”
That’s how Jordan always talked. Ascendant in the gestalt.
“Okay, whatever. What are we going to do for these guys?”
“Good question. They’re not as good as the Pixies, don’t have the panache of Throwing Muses. God, Aerosmith, can you believe that?” He rubbed his forehead. “Go in there and talk to them a little while I think, all right?”
“All right.” That wasn’t the fight, by the way. That was the part we agreed on.
(Reminder: two weeks to get any fanworks in before I start posting them! Memes, art, song mixes, poetry/lyrics, songs, fan fiction, drabbles, stuff I haven’t even thought of yet? Send something in or post it somewhere and send a link and you guys will get first dibs on the swag I have left from the Kickstarter! Who wants to write me a story about what would happen when Adam Lambert met Ziggy? It doesn’t have to be an adults-only story, you know… -ctan)