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Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Long Plastic Hallway (A Major Label Story) Part 3

Below is a blog I started a couple months back. Now that I'm back in the States, and have a little distance from my European adventures, I feel a lot safer putting this out there. It's hard to talk about the almost and what could have been with maturity and eloquence. Here's my best crack at it:

I've been back in NYC for three months now, through the summer and into fall and, the occasional overseas jaunt aside, I may be here for a while longer. It's a funny concept to wrap my head around, makes my time in London seem like a music filled dream of pubs and clubs, fried brekky and Wellingtons. These days I wake and find myself right back in my Red Hook stomping grounds, renting a dusty, floor-boarded apartment just a half a room bigger than the one I left two years ago. What happened? How did I get here? I never thought I'd find the answer in a Turner Classic Movies Murder Mystery DVD 4-pack at Barnes and Noble.
Lately I've developed a serious appetite for Bogart. His dry, pragmatic, pessimistic brand of optimism has pulled me in like magnet. The past few weeks I've scoured iTunes, renting any and all Bogart titles: The Big Sleep, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Key Largo. There's something so singular about his self-control; he never loses his cool, even when he's losing his cool (McQueen definitely took a page out of his book). And what a strange looking man for a movie star: a long, giant, stone faced mug planted a top a thin, wiry, body which at first looks awkward, but then moves with complete grace, taking guns from his enemies like a trained ballet dancer. And in no movie is the power of Bogart more on display then John Huston's masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon.
The story is typical noir: Bogart plays Dashell Hammet's finest creation, Private Investigator Sam Spade, who, in the pursuit of his partner's killer, is led down a continually twisting path, meeting all sorts of n'er do well miscreants along the way ala Peter Lorre and Sidney Greensteet. The cause of the commotion is The Maltese Falcon, a jewel encrusted bird lost since the 15th century and worth untold fortunes. All parties involved are after the bird, including Mary Astor, who is Bogart's love interest, and incidentally, (SPOLIER ALERT) the killer of his partner. What I found especially intriguing about the film, is how it's a direct parallel for the music business.

Standing at a fork in the road of my blog, I feel like Robert Frost, trying to muster the courage and take the road not taken, sidestep a bitter rant on the cruelty and injustice of the music business. We've all heard countless stories about major labels breaking the hearts of artists, shelving records for months, years, maybe even for good They lift musicians to the pinnacle of their profession, only to drop them out in the cold to fend for themselves. Sad to say I am another casualty, but rather than dwell in the darkness, I'm trying to see light at the end of the tunnel. And for me the light always comes in the darkness of a movie theater. Stay with me here, I'm going somewhere:


I remember peeing in KensalTown studios a couple years ago (Jason Mraz penned and recorded the international smash "I'm Yours" there, perhaps simultaneously while I was urinating). I had signed to EMI 4 months prior and was riding a high of accomplishment. It was in that toilet I first read Hunter S. Thompson's genius quote about the industry, scrawled on the wall by some musician who'd come before:

The Music Business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.

Those words cut right to my core then, and still hit me hard now. If I think back to when I started writing songs in my high school bedroom, more than 12 years ago, I never saw it as a path to fame or a career choice. I wasn't trying to be the guy in Billy Joel's The Entertainer, didn’t want to play all kinds of palaces and lay all kinds of girls. I was writing songs because it was the only way I knew how to make sense of the world, to ease the weight in my chest. And somewhere along the way, despite my best efforts, I ended up like all the other singing, songwriting hooligans, chasing desperately after the Maltese Falcon.
For the bulk of my twenties, I recorded album after album, went from manager to manager, signed one bad contract after the next, all in the pursuit of doing what I love. I thought that if I made uncompromisingly great music and performed it with all my heart, that everything would work out in the end. Plow straight through life in the carefree pursuit of your passion and at some point end up with a permanent smile over the rainbow. I wish that cherubic 18-year old had seen The Maltese Falcon. Maybe Bogart could have knocked some sense into that baby Rock Star with the handle of his revolver.
There is no Maltese Falcon. At the end of the movie, the bird turns out to be a fake, and everyone who pursues it becomes obsessed. The only character who lives by any moral code is Spade. In the final minutes he not only hands over the Falcon to the cops and gives back $1000 of bribe money, he also turns in the girl he loves (remember she’s the killer of his partner, and is trying to get Sam's to, in his words, "play the sap"). Spade refuses love, the realization of his dreams. As an explanation, he gives one hell of a monologue:

You'll never understand me, but I'll try once and then give it up. When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something. It makes no difference what you thought of him. He was your partner, and you're supposed to do something about it... and it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's... it's bad business to let the killer get away with it... bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere. I've no earthly reason to think I can trust you. If I do this and get away with it, you'll have something on me that you can use whenever you want to. Since I've got something on you, I couldn't be sure that you wouldn't put a hole in me someday. All those are on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. I won't argue about that. But look at the number of them. What have we got on the other side? All we've got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you. You know whether you love me or not. Maybe I do. I'll have some rotten nights after I've sent you over, but that'll pass. If all I've said doesn't mean anything to you, then forget it and we'll make it just this: I won't, because all of me wants to regardless of consequences and because you've counted on it, the same as you counted on it with all the others.

Let me make my metaphor as plain as possible:

The girl is the music business. Your partner is your art. The Maltese Falcon is the dream of success, and the detective/dreamer/singer songwriter is Spade. Every day I wake and hope for the strength to be like him. As I beat the streets of NYC once again, my mind lives in another city in the past; it's 1941 in San Francisco, it’s always raining and I'm wearing a trench coat with a .45 tucked in my pants. I've had to learn lessons I never wanted to learn first hand. The only advice I give to any aspiring acolyte is keep a good look out for villains, don't play the sap for anyone, especially yourself, and stay alive long enough to close the case and move on to the next one.

And write some good tunes while you’re at it. I mean, that's the whole point, isn't it?


jedodes said...

Damn well put. Fight the good fight, JV, and remember that whether or not it makes you rich and famous--and I hope and still believe it will--your music genuinely improves the lives of countless people (including mine). That's a rare gift, and if you'll excuse the bad pun, one you have in spades.

Also, for the record, your harmonium is no Maltese Falcon. It's real, it's beautiful, and as soon as we can hook up, it's yours again.


SteveFtGreene said...

I comment now because I was just listening here in Ft. Greene to my XM radio and heard "Joni" on the "Spectrum" channel. It was fun seeing your name come up on the display. I met you during the time you taught at BNS. I'm sorry that the music business has been unkind, but I hope you're finding some happiness in Brooklyn.

As for the "Maltese Falcon," who doesn't love that film? Direction and acting are all first-rate. At least Spade is a redeemable character, unlike the Fred MacMurray character in "Double Indemnity," my favorite of this type.

Anonymous said...

Hang in there, kid.