[15 September 2009]
I’m torn between giving Rick Rubin: In the Studio the benefit of the doubt and crushing it.
On the one hand, its author, Jake Brown, has 20 published books to his credit, including works with or about such superstars as Prince, Dr. Dre, Mötley Crüe, Rick James, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (more on them in a bit, much more). From the looks of things, he appears to be a musician himself—his bio features a picture of him posing with a guitar—and he is the proud papa of a 10-year-old record label, Versailles Records, whose catalogue swells with “Millennium Tributes” to Stone Temple Pilots, Kiss, Guns ‘N’ Roses, The Cult, Bon Jovi, and not only Van Halen but also Sammy Hagar and David Lee Roth, the latter two presumably drawing from their extensive solo material.
Clearly, Brown has parlayed his passion for music into a career, which, after all, is what it’s all about. If all of this doesn’t exactly make him untouchable, it at the very least endows him with a ready-made rebuttal when I slam him: “So, you don’t like my book, huh? Remind me again how many you’ve written”. Talk about getting crushed.
On the other hand, one would think that 20 publications would eliminate sentences like this: “After a year of writing produced 150 completed demos, by the band’s count [Linkin Park’s], Rubin proudly felt, heading into principal recording, ‘These are really beautiful songs. They’ve outdone themselves’”. Or this: “It’s not easy to peak Rubin’s interest”. Or, finally: “Self-described as a music fan, Rick Rubin’s own distaste for his industry had the potential to change it from the inside”. At times I felt like I wasn’t reading a book so much as I was working through practice questions for the SAT: The best revision of the sentence above is (a) Self-describing himself as a music fan, Rick Rubin’s own distaste for his industry had the potential to change it from the inside; (b) A music fan by self-description, Rick Rubin’s own distaste for his industry had the potential to change it from the inside; (c) A self-described music fan, Rick Rubin had the potential to change his industry from the inside; or (d) leave as is. (Correct answer: C.) I proofread enough during my day job. I’d rather not be required to do so when I’m off the clock, as well.
Part of my antagonism toward the book stems from my feeling that it’s not so much as “written” as it is “researched”. I lack the scientific proof to support this claim, but my hunch is that, proper nouns aside, the most popular phrase in the book is “according to”, which is then followed by “MTV”, “VH1”, or Rolling Stone, to name a few of the bigger sources, or Blabbermouth, Papermag, or Guitar World Acoustic, to list some of the lesser known.
As you can probably tell, “.com” often appears at the ends of these titles, which prevents me from defending Brown by falling back on a romantic vision of him spending late nights at the library scrolling through the microfiche. Instead, I’m left with the all-too-mundane image of him clicking through fan sites and poring over “Slayerized.com” (a fine site, I’m sure, so settle down all of you Slayer fans, and don’t make me quote the beginning of Reign in Blood). In fact, though, drawing from Slayerized isn’t the problem; the problem is that he lets Slayerized do the work for him.
Rick Rubin: In the Studio is a cut-and-paste job, a stringing together of long quote after long quote, the insights from the author few and far between. Flipping through the book even now I’m hard pressed to find a noteworthy passage that isn’t ensconced in quotation marks. Oh, wait. Here’s one that’ll have to do. On page 137, he refers to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication as “disarming and brutally beautiful”. That didn’t require any kind of acknowledgement.
The appeal of the rest of the book depends on how old you are. As a man in his mid-30s, I was most drawn to the section on the ‘80s, which covers the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Public Enemy, the Less Than Zero soundtrack, the Cult, Danzig, and, yes, Slayer. Rubin’s own insights throughout this section are the most revelatory, particularly this little nugget about how he (in cahoots with the Beasties, Run DMC, and the Ladies Love Cool James) altered the rap game for all time: “Before Def Jam [Rubin’s label that he started with Russell Simmons], hip hop records were typically really long, and they rarely had a hook [think Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”].
These songs didn’t deliver in the way the Beatles did. By making our rap records sound more like pop songs, we changed the form”. Like most lasting observations, this one is both profound and simple, a point that I’ve long taken for granted and one that I will think about now every time I listen to Jay Z, Q Tip, or Eminem, who have all profited mightily from Rubin’s innovation.
The section on the mid-to-late ‘90s also delivers, driven as it is by a (relatively) lengthy treatment of the career-reviving work that Rubin did with Johnny Cash. But, even so, if you’ve followed Rubin or Cash at all, there’s nothing new here. Rubin made Johnny believe in himself again; they painstakingly chose songs that Cash could internalize; they recorded and recorded and recorded and only settled for the choicest cuts. Cash’s myth reiterates itself, but it hardly grows.
I’m going to sound like an old fogy, but the rest of the book won’t interest many people who were born before Reagan’s second term. Do we really need the inside scoop on Audioslave, Weezer, System of a Down, or Linkin Park? OK, so Tom Morello believes that as good as Rubin is at producing, he “has never understood what I do as a lead guitar player”. That’s almost interesting. But to devote eight pages to Audioslave’s first record and scarcely three to the Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way demonstrates that Brown’s priorities are out of whack.
Full disclosure: I’ve never actually heard Audioslave’s first record or Taking the Long Way, but I know enough to know that history will treat Audioslave as a footnote to Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine, and Taking the Long Way will be remembered as three women’s courageous response to the jingoism that threatened their career. Which is the story that you would rather hear? Here’s a hint: It’s not the one that Brown would rather tell.
Which brings me to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. You really have to like the Red Hot Chili Peppers to invest in this book. And I mean really like them. Rubin has collaborated with the Chili Peppers on five albums, and Brown extensively sites sources about each and every one (yes, even One Hot Minute). Pages about the Chili Peppers account for just over 20 percent of the book’s total. This is great if you’re a fan, but if you lean toward “eh” when it comes to Anthony, Flea, and the Boys, it’s hard to get all jacked up for a chapter about By the Way, especially when it includes such scintillating detail as this: “Using various Taylor acoustic guitars for the album, [Chili Pepper guitarist John] Frusciante’s amplifier rig included a 200-watt Marshall Major and a 100-watt Marshall Super Bass, one of which he usually ran in a stereo setup with a Fender Showman Blackface guitar amp pushing the Marshall”.
And if I had to read one more time about Anthony Kiedis advocating for “good energy in the universe” I was going to chuck the book across the room. What does any of this have to do with Rick Rubin? That’s an excellent question.
In the end, the book does score a few points for being current. The last album discussed is Metallica’s latest release, Death Magnetic, a record that I was disappointed with the first time around. After reading all about it in Brown’s book, I realized that I was probably right and didn’t bother to give it another listen.
The real question is, now that Rick Rubin: In the Studio is in the rearview, can Versailles Records’ “Millennium Tribute” to Metallica be far behind?