…But I Know What I Like

“Winter is icummen in,” quoth Ezra Pound, “Sing: Goddamn.”

Actually, winter has been so goddamn icummen that cabin fever is about to drive me as insane as poor Ez. Sick of huddling indoors staring at the same walls, I switch to staring at the TV — and suddenly, salvation. An ad for the Collectors Art Sale (Sunday Only!). “Original Art” for less than the cost of a lube job. That’s it: Art — the perfect mid-season pick-me-up.

I trudge through the melting muck into the Gaithersburg Holiday Inn half expecting acres of sad-eyed cats and gaudy-colored clowns. Still, I am unprepared for the first image encountered: a painted trio of grinning harlequins, each bearing an uncanny resemblance to Ed Meese. Quickly, I turn away.

And stare across a meeting room packed with stacks of canvases, ten deep in places. A few dozen average Joes, Janes, Jorges, and Lu-Tans quietly browse amid the very faint smell of linseed oil. There are no velvet ropes to impede their quest; this is hands-on experience.

Donna Bower stands intently before a large rectangular framed canvas of a purplish Alps-scape. “This one keeps drawing me back,” she says in a reverent whisper. Donna lives nearby and has a lot of wall space to cover. The two smaller works she’s already bought aren’t quite up to the task, but the $495 price tag on the Alpine village is a budget-buster.

“You have a big sofa?” a clerk asks, giving voice to the cliche. “A big, big sofa,” pipes in Donna’s friend, Don. “It’s a sectional,” explains Donna.

The discussion moves to frames, which rather greatly affect the picture prices. In fact, there is so little talk of aesthetics and so much of frames, one suspects that this is actually a frame sale. G.K. Chesterton once remarked that the most beautiful part of every picture is the frame. I don’t think he’d seen these purple Alps when he said it, though.

Where does all this…art…come from? I ask Lisa Kellum, the representative of Collectors Art, Inc., the Chicago-based company hosting this event. Kellum’s business card reads: “Fine Art Consultant.”

“They are professional artists from all over the world, as well as American artists,” Kellum is cheerful to divulge. Before I can form a new question, she rushes to quash the rumor that these paintings are the work of mere students. Collectors Art acquires only the output of trained professionals, she insists. A sign behind her states that if one believes he has the ability to produce collectible art, one may submit photos of such work for consideration. Later, as I leave, a matronly Asian woman is eagerly inquiring about this policy.

Noting the wide range of prices, Kellum points out the “gallery setting” on the far side of the room, where art is priced “according to the artist.”

Thus, if one cares to own an original “Simpson” — in this case a triumphant portrait of Napoleon on horseback — one must pony up $695. If your wall cries out to be adorned with frolicking nymphs in the Titian, excuse me, “Richard” style, prepare to part with $1,200. Some works are twice that.

I have been searching for a Bob Ross. Ross is the fuzzy-bearded, brown-afroed, whisper-voiced host of TV’s Joy of Painting who spends less than 30 minutes to create paintings that look much like the ones displayed here — lots of pallet-knifed tree trunks with sponge-applied foliage below towering, titanium-white-capped implied mountains. Or mighty, translucent waves crashing upon craggy beaches (your choice, dawn or sunset). Sadly, there are no Bob Rosses.

Though the average price seems far above the promoted $45, business appears brisk and no one’s yelling “bait-and-switch.” (A call to Collectors Art honcho Martin Hancock a few days later reveals that one unsatisfied customer complained that his painting smelled like fish. This is apparently not an industry-wide problem, and the customer received a full refund. Otherwise, Hancock is tight-lipped about his business, offering only that D.C. is “sometimes a good market and sometimes isn’t.”)

In two corners of the room stand black tents where individual works may be studied without distraction. A young man in stonewashed jeans contemplates an Impressionist-style street scene with one of the staff. Apparently unaware that the man wearing the name tag — EDWARD — is not an art historian but a temp worker hired for the day to help move the product, the customer openly seeks advice: “Tell me what you think.”

Edward gives a small laugh, then turns to assay the canvas. “It’s a good painting,” Edward says. “It’s a fine painting,” he says, a bit more forcefully. Finally, Edward sums up the work: “It’s Paris.”

Ah, Paris! To have been there in the ’20s, wandering through piles of freshly-minted masterworks by Picasso and his pals. To pick up Nude Descending a Staircase for 45 francs (frame not included)….

That brief fantasy is quickly shattered and one is brought swiftly back to Maryland by a quarrel erupting over a picture frame. A man has chosen a “gold” frame for a sofa-worthy seascape. The temp is trying to explain that the frame was misplaced in the wrong — less expensive — stack when Mr. Short-fuse Art Patron instantly escalates the dispute with the loud line: “Are you calling me a liar?” Clearly not being paid enough for such a debate, the temp walks away with a disgusted wave of her hand.

But I shan’t let such boorishness ruin my mood. I shall stick by 19th-century English critic John Ruskin‘s assessment: “They are good furniture pictures, unworthy of praise, and undeserving of blame.” Always a sucker for the heady fumes of Art, I succumb to its spell and pull plastic to acquire a small mountainscape by — guessing here — G., or A., Whitman. The first pink light of dawn is upon the peak and with it, I’d like to think, Spring.

Now, all I need is to find a brown easy chair — with just a hint of azure — to match.

Reprinted from Washington City Paper.

They’re Playing Our Song (to Death)

Who Killed the Jingle? How a Unique American Art Form Disappeared

By Steve Karmen

Hal Leonard, 184 pp., $22.95

STEVE KARMEN’S TITLE ASKS A FAIR QUESTION: How did the once ubiquitous advertising jingle come to die? And, as the People-proclaimed “King of the Jingle,” he brings an informed perspective to the quest for an answer. Now retired, Karmen is fiercely proud to be responsible for such instantly recognizable tunes as “I Love New York,” “This Bud’s for You,” “Nationwide Is on Your Side,” and many dozens more pieces of musical Americana. If he doesn’t name a particular murderous “who,” his book is yet another chapter in the “why everything is going wrong” casebook.

Though many occupations and products have disappeared because of technology, we can’t blame the Internet or digitalization for the loss of “Oh-oh, Spaghetti-Os.” The real culprit in the case of the vanishing jingle and its replacement with rearranged or simply appropriated popular music is that, as one composer told Karmen, “No one thinks anymore. Imitation is the sincerest form of not having an original idea.” And no one wants to stick his neck out.

Underpinning the unoriginality, of course, is fear. Karmen spoke with many people in the biz for his book, and nearly everyone reflexively declined to speak on the record, no matter how inoffensive the quote. Fear grips ad people from inside and out, because they’re at the mercy of forces they can’t control: Advertising is neither art nor science, though it pretends to both. Despite the fact that Ridley Scott directed it, that 30-second minimovie fails as art because the product is always the star. And if you want to talk market research, I have two words for you: New Coke.

Coca-Cola’s CEO in 1984, Roberto Goizueta—one of the smartest businessmen of the time, with untold millions to spend—made the decision to change the formula of the beloved soft drink because he read the numbers wrong. And he read the numbers wrong because he and his marketing team erroneously believed that numbers held an answer to the question of why people enjoy sugar water. Karmen doesn’t talk about this case, loaded as it is with irony: Part of the reason people had bought oceans of the drink over a century was jingles—which the marketing teams of the world were by then rejecting—from “It’s the Real Thing” to “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”

So copywriters and art directors who fancy themselves artistes must live with the knowledge that they are frauds. (Yet in no other field is the term “creative”—as in “He’s in creative” and “She’s a creative”—heard more frequently.) And data-oriented ad reps must realize that their dazzling presentations are smoke and mirrors built on housing developments of cards. And all because they can’t say no to a client. Refuse to put a talking dog in the commercial and the client just goes next door, where the new agency will gladly take his money and produce the all-too-common least-common-denominator piece of junk.

So it is an old anxiety that has driven a media-saturated new generation of ad whizzes to seek refuge in the prepackaged popularity of hit songs over the unpredictability of original compositions. And this easy way out is also, of course, a failure of creative nerve. Why wrack your brain composing a fresh jingle when you can just swipe from your iPod and edit out-of-focus footage around the tune? The desired result, as too many addies told Karmen, is a spot that’s “cutting-edge.” Edge-cutting is what the highly compensated creatives are concerned with; damn the product.

“In their quest to be perceived as art, and not commerce, Madison Avenue succeeds in just being bad commerce,” writes Karmen. Bad commerce is spending millions to promote a product without telling people what that product is. Didn’t someone at HQ notice that the mopey Britpopper mumbling in the car commercial never actually mentions a car?

The trend away from product-specific jingles is so heedless, so underthought that the song “My Way” has already been used to hype eBay, Mercedes-Benz autos, and an insurance company. Karmen quotes an ad exec dismissing any concern about any dilution of branding engendered by duplication by saying that as long as his client was happy, it didn’t matter. Another name-withholding ad man justifies his company’s use of catchy but vague tunes with a dazzling piece of illogic: “What we’re doing is original in its own way, and it’s what everyone’s doing.”

And so instead of having earworms such as “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” and “My bologna has a first name…” fill their brains, today’s TV and radio consumers are treated to the experience of hearing their onetime favorite song splattered with the muck of SUV ads.

But the intended customers aren’t quite the suckers that self-satisfied marketers imagine. They know that the Zep lyrics Cadillac’s agency cut out of the commercial speak of a “lonely, lonely, lonely time.” They understand that, no matter how many flags wave in the Wrangler-jeans ad, Creedence‘s “Fortunate Son” is the antithesis of a patriotic anthem. Possibly the stupidest match is Iggy‘s drug-debauched “Lust for Life” with a luxury cruise line. The inevitable line running through the heads of TV watchers is not Damn, I’d like to travel on a Royal Caribbean ship but How stupid do they think we are?

Yet another reason that songs have replaced jingles, of course, is that they represent found money for avaricious copyright holders. “When pop-music publishers and the newly conjoined record company conglomerates realized that they could offer their songs at a competitive price with custom-made tracks—and still make a fortune—the advertising industry had finally become the marketing arm of the record business,” Karmen perceptively writes. And, yes, you can buy CD compilations of pop music from commercials. Songs in the key of commerce, let’s call them.

Of course, Karmen would not have minded grabbing some of that found money. He recounts his nearly 20-year losing battle with ASCAP to get jingle writers royalties comparable to those of pop songwriters. Part of the reason he fought so long and so hard is that he conducted research that found that jingles were 41 percent of the music heard on TV and 12 percent of the music heard on radio, but paid a measly 1 percent royalty rate from ASCAP—peanuts compared with pop-song cash. Karmen, a sought-after freelancer, had the audacity and the clout to rework the standard contract so that he kept the rights to his own music. Because he owned the notes to the Budweiser Clydesdale Christmas spot, he got paid every year, whether the score was re-orchestrated or not. This arrangement proved lucrative, but it would have been much more lucrative had he been paid at the level of Paul Simon or Hoagy Carmichael. (In a rather sad epilogue, Karmen reveals that he’s still battling corporations that want to use his music without paying.)

Of course, arguing for back-catalog integrity among pop stars (or the owners of their copyrights) when the near-death Rolling Stones are back on tour and the hope-I-die-before-I-get-old Who are licensing their songs for TV themes is futile. Just as futile as pointing out the irony of heroin-chic anthems’ being used to sell luxuries. Or arguing for the creativity of the jingles of yore. Your raft of an argument will only be obliterated in the deluge of repurposed rock.

Sure, even at their best jingles are simplistic and cynical. And by definition, they’re tainted with the intrinsic BS of adspeak. But ask yourself which is worse: sitting through another chorus of “I’m Chiquita Banana” or hearing the song that was playing during your first kiss now selling you toilet paper? Yeah, thought so.

Tiki Tiki Boom Boom

It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Boink

Space Age Bachelor Pad Music
Esquivel!
Bar None

In considering the work of Mexican arranger/composer/bandleader Juan Garcia Esquivel, one is reminded of the words of Edd “Kookie” Burns, who said it best when he remarked: “Wowsville, daddy-o!”

Simplemente Esquivel

Of course, he was speaking in an entirely different context, but the sentiment remains apt. The 14 tracks on Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, a reissue of some of Esquivel’s most distinctive recordings, are stubbornly resistant to categorization. Even Esquivel has trouble describing Esquivel! music; one of his three originals is titled “Whatchamacallit.”

It is appropriate during this so-called “easy listening revival” that Esquivel’s genius should be finally recognized. While such trend-spotters as Newsweek have proclaimed that a “cocktail nation” is bubbling away among disaffected grungers, most of the bands comprising it seem to be under the misapprehension that merely donning evening dress and turning down the amps is all that’s required to be considered a happening sophisticate. Even a cursory listen to Bachelor Pad should reveal that being “easy” isn’t that easy.

A contemporary of that avatar of exotica, Martin Denny (whose 1957 hit, “Quiet Village,” with its human-produced jungle animal noises and Polynesian instrumentation, began the craze for hypnotic “tiki” sounds), Esquivel released a series of instrumental albums beginning in 1957 and continuing through 1968. While this era coincides with rock ‘n’ roll’s wildest pre-teen years, you wouldn’t know it from listening to this record.

Most of the songs on Bachelor Pad were familiar middle-of-the-road standards long before Esquivel got to them. His versions, however, are at once familiar and utterly foreign. In Esquivel’s hands, “Harlem Nocturne” sounds as if the arranger took the A train uptown via Saturn — for some reason, he thought to add Star Trek-style female vocalizing to the mix. The Glenn Miller chestnut “Sentimental Journey” boasts a merry whistler amid blaring brass. Surely the Beguine was never begun like Esquivel begins it. Throughout Bachelor Pad, incongruous choruses of “cha-cha-cha” ‘s, “zu-zu-zu” ‘s, and similarly unorthodox instrumental flourishes jump from the speakers.

And though Connie Francis‘ tearfully over-the-top “Who’s Sorry Now?” remains the definitive version, Esquivel’s rendition must be considered a model of elegant weirdness. In extracting most of the lyrics and replacing them with occasional phrases and choruses of “boink-boink” over minimalist, low-register piano, he has deconstructed the tune to the point where only the “duh?” remains.

Mixing howling swing band horn charts with jew’s-harps, sci-fi theremin’s, and the odd, harpsichordish Ondioline, in arrangements that constantly fluctuate over sudden dynamic extremes, Esquivel gets your toe tapping even as your head shakes in disbelief.

While it may be useless to try to explain or even describe the Esquivel touch, the key lies in the fact that he is first and foremost an arranger.

It’s a job title nearly extinct in today’s music industry, but prior to rock’s takeover, arrangers wielded considerable clout. Many versions of the same song might hit the market simultaneously; it fell to savvy arrangers to figure out the most compelling orchestrations and pair them with the appropriate singers. Think of Nelson Riddle‘s work with Frank Sinatra. Or the swing era’s Fletcher Henderson, who was probably more renowned for his arrangements than his band-leading.

Arranging is largely an intellectual process, done with no musicians in sight. Working with a pencil and blank sheets of staff paper, the arranger draws in trumpet notes at the sixth measure, eases violins out by the twelfth: It can be as passionless as a mathematics problem. As his unorthodox sonic combinations reflect, Esquivel clearly brought intensity to the task.

In his excellent book, Elevator Music, Joseph Lanza defends — nay, passionately proselytizes — the much maligned Muzak and its historical kin. He dismisses any easy dismissal of easy listening as the result of knee-jerk cultural prejudice, laying particular blame on the snooty music press for encouraging an unjustified superior attitude. He writes that “[a]fter decades of rock, rhythm and blues, folk, heavy metal, and rap, a desensitized population seems to assume that if music is not hot, heavy, bubbling with jackhammer rhythms and steaming with emotion or anger, it is somehow less than good or (worse) less than art. Not every artist should be obliged to reassure us that we are not zombies. There is also a place for music that is subdued, unobtrusive, even remote or alien.”

Lanza, who can see similarities between Mantovani and Philip Glass, must appreciate the cocktail nation movement. As our increasingly distressing and dangerous information age hammers us with nonstop nihilism, it is perhaps not surprising that a mood music renaissance has arisen. New age and trance are part of it, as are retro-visionary bands like Combustible Edison.

Lanza speaks glowingly of mood music’s utilitarian function, calling it “perhaps the twentieth century’s most authentic music, tailored exclusively for the electronic revolution.” The rise of postwar suburbanization and its attendant consumerism, the advent of stereophonic sound, along with the American public’s desire to put the hard years of Depression and war behind them, created a climate for recordings designed to “fully exploit the intended use of the hi-fi and stereo as domestic appliances with all of the environmental controls of thermostats, air-conditioners, and security systems.” Esquivel grasped the concept early and eagerly, filtering his songs through echoplex machines and other sound-bending technology — the mood Esquivel most often captures is otherworldly rapture.

Says Lanza, “[Mood music] can enchant us with exaggerated dreamscapes of order and happiness.” Esquivel’s exaggerations verge on the absurd while still managing to conform to easy listening standards. Muzak likes to bill itself as “more than music” — that’s also a fitting description of the Esquivel! experience.

Reprinted from Washington City Paper.

Battle Axes

The Art of War Meets the Art of Noise at the Battle of the Bands.

IN THE NARROW CONCRETE HALLWAY, thick-muscled young men wrestle heavy, sophisticated equipment into position. Pulses quicken as they work against the clock. They are only too aware that out there, in the dark, eyes are watching…studying…waiting for the first misstep. There will be no second chance tonight. Victory or defeat. A tall, lean figure straps on his hardware and steps into the light, preparing to take the first shot:

“Test. Testing one two. More guitar in the monitor.”

The battle is under way.

Though a life in music is usually considered a gentle calling, there is a history of bitter conflict alongside the sweet harmonies–trumpets raised in anger, sounding the charge for the Battle of the Bands.

Competition is very much a part of the arts: Sculptors, painters, classical pianists, all compete for grants and awards. But these honoraria are never referred to as combat medals. So, why in the pop arena are such contests branded with the mark of hostility and bloodshed?

Seeking clarification of such semantic distinctions brought me to Virginia last Thursday night to witness the George Mason University Ninth Annual Battle of the Bands. Sponsored by the Student Program Board as a showcase for campus talent, each musical group must claim at least one registered student. (Tonight’s event sports ringers as old as 35 and even a resident of West Virginia.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention that I am a survivor of such musical militarism. The third gig I ever played–LBJ was still in office–was a CYO dance organized as a Battle of the Bands. Against a sartorially coordinated, betuxed and behorned soul “revue” (i.e., they had dance steps) and a band of older and better musicians, my ragtag combo, The Fifth (“Music for Every Occasion”), emerged victorious. This was due largely to the fact that we played last and performed our “show-stopping” cover of James Brown‘s “Try Me.” (Picture our singer, a pudgy P.G. County white kid, doing the drop-to-your-knees, feign-emotional-agony bit for a roomful of pubescent Catholic girls.)

These curious clashes have been occurring since at least the swing era. In fact, the night of May 11, 1937, has been called one of the “key jazz events.” That was the date when the mighty, mighty Benny Goodman Big Band marched into Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom to cross horns with the house orchestra led by a tiny, hunchbacked drummer from Baltimore, Chick Webb. Though Goodman’s arsenal included ace drummin’ man Gene Krupa, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and vibes master Lionel Hampton, by all accounts Webb’s outfit dethroned the King of Swing that evening. (The Variety headline, “Call Out Riot Squad to Handle Mob at Goodman-Webb Battle,” was apparently factual reporting. Police and firefighters made the scene as well.)

This George Mason clash is less about acclaim than moola–the spoils total a cool thousand bucks. The Program Board had to wade through 20 demo tapes to choose the six bands that will duke it out tonight. So, how battle-ready are the troops?

Backstage, the Kniphler Brothers, a rockabilly band, who are–shockingly–not related, tune up. We discuss strategy. I wonder if they’re familiar with The Art of War by Sun Tzu, the 2,500-year-old treatise still used by military and business leaders to plot success. Yes, they are. Guitarist “Rupert Kniphler” (his nom de rock) claims to keep a copy in his bathroom, filled as the book is with “bite-sized nuggets” of wisdom easily digestible in that chamber. Which particular advice nugget will the Kniphlers call upon tonight? Rupert calls out a quotation I don’t remember finding in Tzu’s text: “Rock like fuck.”

Taking the stage they do, but they also step on a musical land mine–a broken bass string–which cripples bass player “Declan Kniphler,” and brings their act to an uncomfortable halt. (The skillful general does not waste time in waiting for reinforcements: Sun Tzu.) The self-proclaimed band “that goes to 11” doesn’t make it to three. Though Rupert stalls amusingly with a “dinner jazz/tribute to Earl Scruggs” medley, defeat is in the air.

BUT JERRY, THE JON BON JOVI LOOK-ALIKE drummer for the Bon Joviesque Islander, is not gloating. He seems genuinely bothered by the competitive nature of this event, regretting that he must take up sticks against friends in other bands. His brother and fellow band member, Jeff, is more pragmatic, predicting the outcome will depend on “how organized you are.” (The general who wins a battle makes many calculations before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few: Sun Tzu.) Islander is quite organized. The only group with a dark-suited agent in tow, they’ve also mustered a phalanx of Farrah-coiffed girlfriends who are carrying band-logo-embossed binders and passing out fliers.

Onstage, Tainted is playing a cover of R.E.M.‘s Vietnam War-inspired “Orange Crush.” To rally the crowd to the proper spirit? Perhaps, but their next song is an original and “probably our only dance number.” An undanceable dirge begins, with the lyric “Trip through the emotions with me….” (He wins his battles by making no mistakes: Sun Tzu.) I trip backstage.

Mick, the drummer for Calibra, is in the hospitality room, planning to take all the ice. When grilled on band tactics, he seems puzzled at first, then offers: “Full-force energy for 20 minutes.” Good plan. (When utilizing combined energy, fighting men become like rolling stones: Sun Tzu.)

In fact, Calibra brings out the first heavy artillery of the evening: ominous black Marshall stacks flanking a huge set of drums. One bass drum head reads “Suck,” the other, “This.” (Make much use of drums and banners; a whole army may be robbed of its spirit: Sun Tzu.) Calibra has clearly spent many hours watching MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, for their show most resembles video antics. Four simultaneous-head-bobbers are maniacally hair-whipping and churning out very tight, very enthusiastic, very loud Speed Grunge Death Metal. Or maybe it’s Metallic Power Pop Funk.

Whatever classification, Calibra seems to have the same effect on the crowd as every other group–hardly any. The 80 or so students comprising the audience sit at large, round tables as if stunned. There is little motion during the music, no dancing, and tepid applause after each act. Queried about the concept of the Battle of the Bands, most say it’s “not fair” and the acts are “too diverse” to legitimately choose any winner. These compassionate pupils were drawn here not by the spectacle of conflict, but because, on this school night, there’s “nothing else to do.”

Another table of people with apparently little else to do are the five men judging this event: three music teachers, a rock columnist, and a jazz bandleader. Most have played in band battles and several profess “mixed emotions” on the battle concept. While competition is deemed healthy, one judge admits the idea is “kinda strange.”

“It’s almost as bad being in one as judging one,” says guitarist/teacher/judge Danny Leonard. After sitting through six sound checks, an understandable sentiment. (If victory is long in coming, men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be dampened: Sun Tzu.)

The judges have been given score sheets and asked to rate each band on a one-to-five scale in such categories as: Selection (Entertainment Value, Challenge Level); Showmanship (Movement, Appearance); Dynamic Range and Drive; and Originality. Two of the judges dictated comments into recorders while the bands blasted away in front of them. The tapes were passed to the musicians. Listening to one such appraisal proves unenlightening: distortion…”garble”…more distortion and feedback…”very”…garbled distortion. Nice idea, but one gets more intelligible information at the Wendy’s drive-thru lane.

The final band, THEdeepEND, features the only woman to take the stage. Their Edie Brickell neopsychedelia manages to stir the crowd to what seems like the most enthusiastic response of the night. And then, it is over. After four hours of combat, peace–and quiet–have come to George Mason. As the judges total the scores, bands intermingle, enemies no more. The singer from Tainted congratulates a Kniphler Brother for “working that broken bass string.”

Then the “winner” is announced: Calibra. Having heard from Calibra’s bass player that one of the judges is his old music teacher, I am not surprised. (Spies are a most important element in war: Sun Tzu.)

What has been learned from this “battle”? The musicians earnestly study their score sheets, seeking insight among the rows of 2s, 3s, some 4s. Me, I leave this hallowed ground with a weary mind, for I know that next week history will repeat itself. I have volunteered to be a judge for another Battle of the Bands. War is hell. My ears are shot.

Reprinted from Washington City Paper

The Tale of the Tape Box

Does the writing on a decades-old reel-to-reel container spell the end for Ian MacKaye’s reputation?

dischord mystery tape

Ian MacKaye is on the phone with his mother. His reputation is also on the line. I have come to his Arlington home to confront the well-known indie avatar about his past.

In MacKaye’s hands is a cardboard box, the type made to hold reel-to-reel recording tape. The 7-inch-square container has been packed away among my possessions since 1981 or ’82, years when MacKaye was playing with Minor Threat and starting up Dischord Records, two of the most influential punk institutions of all time.

His fingers slowly trace the words on the box. In the middle is a manual-typewriter-written Avery label. A handwritten return address sits in the upper-left corner. The addressee is “Mr. Walter Yetnikoff, CBS Records, 51 W. 52nd St. New York, N.Y. 10019.” The sender? “MacKaye, 3819 Beecher St. NW, DC 20007.”

That latter address, of course, is for MacKaye’s boyhood home and the original Dischord headquarters. It still appears on the label’s records and Web site. Clearly, I had no idea of its significance at the time, or I wouldn’t have smacked a sticker of my own over part of it so cavalierly. In 1981, I had no idea who Ian MacKaye or Minor Threat was.

So…this must be MacKaye’s box, right? But why would the fiercely independent MacKaye ever want to traffic with CBS Records? MacKaye denies having any knowledge of the answers to these questions: It’s not his handwriting, either, he says.

But he thinks it might be his mother’s. Right now, he’s trying to describe it to her: “I’m looking at it and…there’s no ‘Washington,’ and the seven is hatched—it’s got a cross through it. I called [my sister] Katy, thought maybe she might have sent a tape—it might be a demo tape—to CBS Records. I was thinking, Maybe the Tom Ladamierszky tape? Is that possible? Does this sound at all vaguely familiar to you?”

“Never?” MacKaye turns to me: “She never crosses her sevens. Wow. The mystery deepens.” He then promises to bring a copy of the box to his mom. “Maybe it will jog your memory,” he says into the phone. “It’s completely mysterious. The tape that’s in there is Dave’s tape. At some point he made a recording. The recording is a guy doing a Donald Duck impersonation.”

Let’s stop here a moment. The recording currently inside the box is not in question. The “guy” doing the very convincing Donald Duck impression is local musician Jon Carroll, who was still a member of the Grammy-winning Starland Vocal Band when he deigned to lower his standards and record with my non-Grammy-winning comedy troupe, Travesty Ltd. The recording is a sketch called “Donald Dearest.” It’s a takeoff on the infamous Joan Crawford bio, wherein a young Huey Duck dishes the dirt on his unca’s dark side. Quite droll. Dr. Demento played it.

mystery tape box

The track was recorded for Travesty’s 1982 album, Teen Comedy Party, though infighting among us comic geniuses resulted in its being left off the record in favor of a cut not written by me. So the tape—and its box—went into storage.

Two years ago, those members of Travesty still on speaking terms decided to re-release Teen Comedy Party on CD. In the search for “bonus” tracks to add to the digitized album, I went back to the dusty boxes in my archives. By this time, naturally, I was familiar with the MacKaye name.

But I had no idea of how it came to be sharing a box with that of a creature such as Walter Yetnikoff, the hard-partying pal of Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, and so many more exemplars of mainstream pop. A self-described “shmoozer, shmingler, and bingler” who was also called a “high-handed vulgarian” by critic Robert Christgau, Yetnikoff enjoyed a career that would become emblematic of the excesses of the music industry throughout the ’70s and ’80s. You can read about it in Fredric Dannen‘s well-known 1990 book Hit Men: Power Brokers & Fast Money Inside the Music Business. Here, for example, is Yetnikoff recounting his first meeting with Cyndi Lauper: “I said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re out of your mind.’ I said, ‘You see over in the corner, a pile of hay and straw? Go sit on it, have your period, and come back when you’re finished!'” Charming man.

After negotiating the disastrous sale of Columbia Pictures to Sony in 1989, Yetnikoff was shown the door. He hasn’t really been heard from since he sold his subsequent label, Velvel, to “major alternative” KOCH Entertainment in 1999.

Did an angry young Ian, like many an ambitious lad before him, desire a record deal and decide to go right to the top? And did the fact that Yetnikoff was too busy with his many “shiksa mistresses” to appreciate the cultural import of a song such as “Bottled Violence” turn the plucky kid into a DIY Scarlett O’Hara, furiously shaking his fists at the sky and screaming, “As God is my witness, I’ll never sell out again!”?

“Don’t put any speculation in there or I’ll be pissed,” MacKaye warns.

The other members of Minor Threat also deny any knowledge of the box. Jeff Nelson, Dischord co-founder and Minor Threat drummer, offers only puzzlement. Brian Baker, who played bass and guitar in the band and is currently a member of Bad Religion, offers little more: “I didn’t send it,” he e-mails. “Try Lyle.” Guitarist Lyle Preslar never responds to queries—but nobody thinks he’s a likely suspect.

“My younger brother and sister have been in bands,” MacKaye says, musing about who else might have written his surname on the box. “But anything they’ve recorded, I’ve been involved with. And they would certainly never send anything to CBS. My older sister never recorded music. I was the first one in the family to do that.

“I know I’m the most likely candidate, because it goes with your weird concept,” MacKaye eventually concedes. Then he offers up a weird concept of his own: “Tom Ladamierszky was a Hungarian guy who lived on Beecher Street two doors up. And he was the lover of Mrs. Whitley. Mrs. Whitley was a widow, and then this guy Tom Ladamierszky moved in. They were in their 50s, 60s. Tom was a piano player and a member of ASCAP and very proud of it. Matter of fact, somewhere I have his ASCAP membership certificate framed.

“And he was very old-school, a tunesmith guy. You’d hear him all summer tinkering away at the piano. But once I got involved in music, he was like, ‘Oh, you have to help me!’ ‘Cause he would send his songs off to people—but he couldn’t sell his songs. I think he sold one or two, maybe. But he was a pretty crazy guy. Definitely the neighborhood letch. Like, he would lay out naked on his front porch. Just a kook…

“Anyway, he died. Probably 1984, ’85. But toward the end of his life he really became fixated on trying to get his songs sold and published. That’s why I thought it must be Tom Ladamierszky, because he’d always bring me cassettes and want me to ‘Put out these songs on your label.’ I couldn’t explain to him—at all—that this was just two different worlds.”

We pause to consider the infinite cosmos. MacKaye looks down at the box again. “This is a really good mystery,” he says. “This is exactly the kind of thing I need in my life right now.”

mystery tape box

[NOTE: The typewritten label has faded since this article was first published in Washington City Paper. If you click the image above, you will see that I have added a typeset layer that aligns with the original text.]

MacKaye decides to go across the street to the Dischord office. “[Ladamierszky] may well have supplied [my mother] with the tape, and she may have sent the letter,” he says as we get up. “I wish there was some other clue in there….My mom played piano, but nobody recorded music, ever. We never had a reel-to-reel tape deck that I recall. Actually, I do remember that we had one that my brother and I used to do pottery on. Because it would spin, y’know?

“But I never came across such tape boxes until I was in the studio with Don [Zientara, who recorded Minor Threat]. That’s why I can’t imagine why my mom would have it. It’s totally bizarre. It’s completely bizarre. Well, let’s go copy it.”

MacKaye runs off some copies of the top of the box.

“That’s my mother’s handwriting,” he announces after a few minutes. “I’m sure of it now.” Then he eyes the unpostmarked box again: “It wasn’t mailed. That’s the thing that’s weird.”

Maybe it was mailed in another envelope?

“But why would Walter Yetnikoff send it back down?”

Dead end apparently reached, MacKaye mentions that he’s leaving for a Fugazi tour of Europe and promises to get back in touch after he returns.

When we finally hook up again, he has changed his mind about blaming his mother: “My mom looked at it and said it’s not her. She’s completely baffled by it….My mom just kept saying, ‘Well, how did he get it?'”

The short answer is I don’t know. I might have picked it up from the studio where we recorded “Donald Dearest,” a Rosslyn postproduction house called Musifex. Our producer and engineer, Rich West, was a partner in the firm, so we could sneak in nights and weekends and make duck noises into some pretty expensive microphones. Good times.

West, however, swears that he has no recollection of any young kid named Ian hanging around or recording any demo tapes. “No. To my knowledge, no,” he says without hesitation. “That’s not something that ever happened.”

And because Musifex was not a music-recording studio, there would be no reason for Minor Threat to work there. But for a handful of exceptions, MacKaye did all his work at Inner Ear with Zientara.

Another plausible explanation is that the box came from the Earle Palmer Brown advertising agency in Bethesda, where I worked in the early ’80s. Like most ad agencies, EPB championed throwaway culture, and the media department would regularly toss out the many audition tapes, focus-group recordings, and old jingles that accumulated. Being a cheap scrounge, I would collect them from the trash and reuse them.

MacKaye draws a blank at the mention of EPB, as does his mother: “We don’t know anybody in advertising at all,” he says, rather surprised at the very notion.

I haven’t kept in touch with most of the folks from EPB since I slammed my hand on the boss’s desk and shouted, “Fuck you! I quit!” And Earle Palmer Brown went out of business in October 2002. But I do manage to locate Jill Flax, who worked in the media department with me, to ask her about the MacKaye box.

“It doesn’t ring any kind of bells,” she says.

Back in MacKaye’s living room, the questions are going around in circles and the answers seem farther away. After a while, MacKaye looks for closure.

“I would say [Ladamierszky] is definitely the most plausible,” he says. “It just never occurred to us to send [Minor Threat’s music] to anybody for any reason. We were never thinking in terms of making it at all….I’ve never thought of being signed. It just never occurred to me. Ever. So I would never send a tape to Yetnikoff.”

After a moment, MacKaye adds softly, “Tom Ladamierszky, bless his heart, rest in peace, it must be on him.”

I point out that blaming it on the dead guy is the most convenient solution. Of course, in this case it’s also the only explanation that comes close to making any sense. And it’s comforting to continue believing that MacKaye was never eager to be co-opted by a major label. But he rejects my notion of selling out.

“Sending a tape does not mean selling out,” he argues. “People send me tapes, it doesn’t mean they’re selling out. The idea is, you’ve made the music, now what? Which is how Tom Ladamierszky was. He wrote songs. And he didn’t know what to do with them. He had no idea. But he had music inside of him that was coming out. So he joined ASCAP. He tried to do it proper.”

“But there’s a lesson here,” MacKaye adds with a grin. “The proper way is not usually the most effective one.”