[27 April 2008]
If you’re not familiar with musician Richard Barone, he made his big splash as the Paul McCartney doppelganger that sang lead and wrote songs for the Bongos. They were an inventive guitar-based combo from Hoboken, New Jersey, specializing in concise yet pleasingly odd-shaped pop songs, and they had their biggest hit with the haunting and brilliant “Numbers with Wings”, which topped many a college singles chart during the summer of ‘83.
After the group buckled under the weight of the excessive mid-‘80s, something Barone takes full responsibility for simply “allowing to happen”, he readjusted his priorities a bit but kept on pushing as a solo artist, releasing consistently high quality material and establishing himself as something of an everywhere-at-once figure in the NYC music community.
In a way, these post-Bongos years serve as the raison d’etre of his new book, Frontman: Surviving the Rock Star Myth, in which he addresses the following three questions: 1) How might a natural born “frontman” who almost made the big time (or, depending on your definition of success, really did make the big time) continue to nurture that mentality when the commercial glory years seem to be over? 2) What can an aspiring front person, who’s anxious to lurch forward into that great music biz bumper car ride, learn from Barone’s experiences? And 3) what has Barone been up to anyway, and how much of this justifies an entire book?
The odds are that these questions haven’t been troubling your sleep lately. And you may well approach this book skeptically, viewing it as a PR quickie or an exercise in self- absorption (he appears naked on the cover – you may wonder if this is bravery or exhibitionism). But if you’ve already taken the time to pre-judge it, then you might also go ahead and read it so you can see how much of a disarming little treat it is. As a “how to” book, Barone goes about much of his business with tongue in cheek (“How to Wreak Havoc Throughout Your School Years” is the subtitle of one chapter; “How to Self-Destruct” is another). But his “lessons” are useful enough to earn it a place on musicians’ bookshelves right next to Songwriting for Dummies or Making Money with Your Studio.
These lessons have less to do with music biz methodology than they do with attitude adjustment. And Barone presents all of them with an irresistible sweetness that suggests he’s really internalized what he’s teaching. A pretty clear demonstration of this is his acknowledgment of what every Barone listener thought when Nirvana hauled out their 1993 Unplugged cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”, a virtual retread of Barone’s own version of it on his 1987 Cool Blue Halo LP. Barone’s road manager and sound mixer had toured with the legendary Seattle trio directly after working on CBH, it turns out, and they had no doubt heard the record a time or two. I’ve read people make bigger deals over much less, but Barone’s reaction, as reported in the book’s lone paragraph about it? “I smiled.”
“Always be thankful,” Barone instructs his readers, and this is the moral of one of the book’s more touching and memorable stories, in which a young Barone and some friends are befriended by a past-his-prime Tiny Tim who performs a private, hotel room concert for them (which Barone recorded but has never released). All throughout, Tiny bookmarks his songs with historical expositions and peppers the proceedings with memorable words of encouragement to the youngsters, such as “you must believe in your dreams, not in your fears.”
Another equally simpatico lesson Barone drives home is the importance of the equation of “love + trust” in making music. Without love and trust, writes Barone, collaboration can’t exist, and without the true spirit of collaboration, there’s nothing worthwhile to “front” in the first place. This particular smiley face balloon – and I’m not trying to make fun here – gets a big lift from two of Frontman’s other defining features, which are its memorialization of Barone’s own networking prowess and the corresponding parade of famous names that populate his book.
He name drops with unabashed relish, but you would, too, if you met Lou Reed in a music shop and eventually became friends with him. Or wound up at a Quincy Jones house party. Or got the green light to organize and direct a star-studded tribute to Peggy Lee featuring the likes of Nancy Sinatra, Bea Arthur, and Rita Moreno – to name only a few – at Carnegie Hall. (The chance taxi ride with the Pope I was expecting, alas, never happens.)
Barone has earned these bragging rights, if you want to view them as such, because he’s apparently never quit making music in a personally rewarding way, no matter what the weather. When listening through the Barone catalog, loaded as it is with team-ups, production credits, and tribute album appearances, I’ve never gotten the feeling that he’s done any of it merely for a quick buck. And reading his book has convinced me further. Here’s a guy who’s never lost his giddy, formative fan qualities, and many of his musical endeavors – such as that Peggy Lee tribute – are clearly driven by these.
And that leads to his book’s true saving grace, which is that it’s really all about the music. Aside from the abundance of hat tips to his idols (Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Iggy Pop) Barone spends ample time on his own songwriting strategies, fascination with sound production and the recording process, and entertains his own musical gear fetish to the utmost. Especially because Barone writes so engagingly (he characterizes the strategy of major labels as taking you “by the hand to walk you into oncoming traffic”), his own enthusiasm is infectious.
He’ll most certainly have you digging up your old Bongos and solo Barone records, or have you reaching for your wallet, and that’s a smooth move on his part that you’ll be aware of every step of the way. But I’ll bet you my own newly-completed Bongos EP collection that you won’t complain.