SO YOU WANNA BE A ROCK & ROLL STAR
How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales From a Drummer's Life
By Jacob Slichter. Broadway. 286 pp. $21.95
There's an old rock & roll joke:
Q: What do you call a guy who spends a lot of time hanging around rock musicians?
A: The drummer.
Judging from his likably self-deprecating memoir, Jacob Slichter would get that joke. Slichter was the drummer for Semisonic, the Minneapolis alterna-pop trio whose "Closing Time" became one of the ubiquitous theme songs of 1998, its sadsack yet sing-along chorus ("I know who I want to take me home . . . ") echoing in barrooms, at high school proms and in baseball stadiums throughout the land. It was Semisonic's single moment of glory in the pop music marketplace, which makes the band what some would classify a "one-hit wonder" -- a despicable condescension, when you consider how difficult it is for pop artists to score even one hit.
If you don't know how hard that is, consult So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star, the best insider's account of indentured servitude to the music industry since Danny Goldberg's essay "The Ballad of the Mid-Level Artist" and Courtney Love's "Dear Fellow Recording Artists" letter. Working from journal entries, Slichter recounts in painful detail his band's arduous ascent, brief stardom and long decline, dogged at every step by an incompetent record label, savagely competitive radio stations and capricious MTV executives. By the end of the book, that one hit seems a wonder indeed.
Slichter admits he was a most unlikely rock star. A bookish Harvard grad whose musical career had peaked in high school, he was in his early thirties, operating a photocopy machine and "running out of time, hair, and dignity," when singer/songwriter Dan Wilson and bassist John Munson (veterans of the Minneapolis group Trip Shakespeare) asked him to join their new band in 1992. Slichter portrays himself as Semisonic's Ringo, the hard-working slogger overshadowed by more glamorous, experienced bandmates. "At thirty-two," he writes, "I imagined I was the oldest tenderfoot in the history of rock and roll." Well into Semisonic's trajectory, he was still panic-stricken with stage fright at many performances. (His mother sent him a three-pack of Rolaids before the band's first appearance on Conan O'Brien's show.) On the road, he eschewed the usual perquisites of rock stardom, more apt to curl up in his hotel room with Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy than to party with groupies. Besides, when groupies approached him, it was usually just to ask him to pass love notes to Wilson, the handsome frontman.
Semisonic had much going against them. Their strummy, Beatles-ish tunes eluded the rigid classifications of radio programmers -- too soft for rock radio, too clean for alternative playlists, yet too edgy and moody for mainstream pop. Wilson's lyrics were adult, literate and introspective: more trouble. And, with all three band members in their thirties, they were at an age when pop stars' careers are usually winding down, not gearing up.
With persistence, they landed a contract with Elektra Records and had recorded half an album when a change in the label's management left them orphaned. They switched to MCA, whose terrible record of promoting its rock and pop artists earned it the industry nickname "Music Cemetery of America." Its inept handling of Semisonic more than lived up to that dire moniker.
Slichter explains in chilling detail how the standard major label recording contract reduces artists to "rhinestone sharecroppers." The label effectively owns a band for as many as six albums, yet can terminate the deal on a whim. The label agrees to help the band record and promote its music, but all the expenses incurred in doing that are charged against the band's future earnings. This includes everything from studio fees, promotion costs and producing videos to hotel charges, gas for the tour bus, and the lavish baksheesh labels must still spread around to recalcitrant radio station managers in this ostensibly post-payola age. After toiling for years in this plantation system, even a band selling millions of records can be in perpetual debt to its label.
In return, with a lot of work and luck, they get to be pop stars. After failing with three singles from their first album, Semisonic astonished themselves and their MCA bosses when "Closing Time," a track from their second album, "Feeling Strangely Fine," rode a grassroots groundswell to No. 1 on Billboard's "modern rock" chart in May 1998. The song became a national pop anthem that summer, propelling the album to platinum sales. Six hard, demoralizing years after forming, the band enjoyed the giddy rush of "Tonight Show" spots and playing to stadium crowds who knew all the words to their hit song.
The euphoria was short-lived. Like many hit tunes, "Closing Time" became so pervasive it began to grate on nerves. Rotating management at MCA left the band without support. Radio was cool to follow-up singles; a third album stalled on the charts. The band struggled for two more years before MCA dropped it.
Admirably, Slichter makes no play for pity. Unlike countless other wannabes, he actually experienced a moment of pop stardom. He got to quit his day job. Semisonic, now men in their early forties, occasionally reconvenes to play small gigs for the faithful, where, Slichter says, he takes as much joy playing for 200 fans as he did basking in the flickering adoration of 20,000.
Still, his book's an instructive cautionary tale for all aspiring pop idols: Be careful what you wish for. And be prepared to pay a lot for the rhinestones. *
John Strausbaugh is the author of "Rock Til You Drop."