Anyone who has played the music journalism game, no matter how briefly, will tell you the kiss of death for an article happens the second a PR type only gives you interview access privileges to a band’s drummer. This happens whenever the music rag you’re working for is too small or too regional for a band’s britches, or whenever you have a band whose lead singer is way too unpredictable and volatile to be speaking to the press.
Drummers and, by extension, bassists, are a safe interview from a PR perspective. Unless his name happens to be Neil Peart, drummers are often shut out of the main songwriting and album production processes and usually know absolutely zilch about the inner-workings of the very band they’re in. Instead, they tend to stay occupied counting off time at the back of a stage, hearing and seeing no evil beyond the tips of their drumsticks. When it comes to the rock star interview, they honestly and openly speak no evil, either — especially when they talk in sound bites. So it should be pointed out that the book up for discussion is not only a memoir of a life lived in the music biz penned by a drummer, but the drummer of Semisonic. Remember them? If you do, you’re probably asking the very same question I initially asked myself upon seeing the advance copy in the mail: Could there be a more useless book ever published this year?
I wasn’t asking myself that because Semisonic was a band I disliked. (I found them mediocre at best, but I never heard an awful lot of their stuff beyond what got played on the radio.) The reason I asked myself the question was that, in the 2004 musical landscape, Semisonic is largely an irrelevant proposition. Along with Tonic, Deep Blue Something, Fastball, Dishwalla and a host of other sound-a-like ’90s pop-rock bands, Semisonic’s career rose and ebbed on the floodtide of a single song — in this case, 1998’s Closing Time (though that’s to say nothing of Secret Smile, their only hit in the UK). For that reason, this book practically reeked of desperation before I even opened the cover, though I was pleasantly surprised once I started reading. Still, I’m guessing Rock & Roll probably had its genesis when drummer Jacob Slichter decided he needed something to augment his probably by-now measly income for food and board.
Writing this book must have come quite naturally, seeing that it’s a reformatted road diary first posted on Semisonic’s official Web site and later read on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. In fact, Slichter seems to have cleverly rewritten his material in the apparent hope that it can be used as a textbook by burgeoning young stars to slip past the Simon Cowells of the music world. But here’s the shocker: It actually succeeds rather admirably on that level, and it might just resuscitate his career like American Idol renewed media interest in Paula Abdul.
In Rock & Roll, Slichter gives readers a chapter-by-chapter, blow-by-blow about the business side of the rock industry, using Semisonic’s history as a ultimate template for a do’s and don’ts of how to become a rock star. Chapter three will tell you how to and how not to make your first record, based on what Semisonic did creating their largely unheard debut album, Great Divide. Chapter seven will provide guidance on making your first video, based on how Semisonic did theirs. (Tip: Don’t use fire in your video when MTV is in the middle of a controversy about the use of fire in one of its original TV shows, in this case Beavis and Butthead.) And chapter 14 will give you the low-down on handling your first international tour and tackling foreign-language interviews, should you ever be lucky enough to get that far.
Because the book also charts the band’s misfortunes and fortunes chronologically, the first half of the book is pretty much dedicated to Slichter’s screeds about the evils of the recording industry: how young bands get weaseled out of making money on their records through recoupable debt; how a band’s image is shaped by music bigwigs more concerned about their own bottom lines than the quality of art being produced, and so on. About halfway in, the book’s tone shifts into hit-making mode and backstage pass-like accounts of life on the arena tour and late-night TV circuits, followed the rapid fall from grace that nearly everyone saw coming — except, it seems, for the band and its now-defunct major label.
While Slichter has his share of vitriol towards certain practices of the marketing side of the recording industry, he isn’t out to burn any bridges with this book, either. (His list of acknowledgements in the advance copy ran four pages long.) While this ass kissing might seem like a bad thing, journalistically, Rock & Roll actually comes out of the wringer being a pretty balanced and refreshingly bang-on first person perspective of the music biz: Sometimes you’re walking down the red carpet, sometimes you are the carpet. For that reason alone, the book winds up being fairly entertaining on a voyeuristic level.
However, anyone expecting to hear Semisonic’s dirty laundry aired publicly — assuming anyone still cares — is going to walk away a bit disappointed. There isn’t a whole heck of a lot about the relationship between Jake and his bandmates here, or the inner workings of the band, aside for the occasional interesting diversions, like the hint of a back-stage blow-up between Semisonic’s manager and Slichter after the latter giggles through a key Howard Stern Show interview. There’s an irritating dropped thread about Slichter’s need to visit a therapist to overcome his almost-crippling stage fright early on in Rock & Roll; the issue’s never really brought up significantly again after the opening chapter. This is a smidge frustrating since Semisonic would go on to play the holy trinity of late night TV — Conan, Leno and Letterman — and this reviewer was curious as to how one goes from a Rolaids munching nervous wreck to a world-renowned pop star well at ease behind the sticks in front of millions? Ah, yes. Uninformative Drummer’s Curse strikes once more.
Another slightly more grievous strike is that much of the ground Slichter covers here about the evils of the corporate music biz has already been written about elsewhere, and with more swagger, too. Chapter two, about the perils of record contracts, is a glorified retread of Steve Albini’s now infamous 1993 essay, “The Problem With Music“, which at least dared end on this oft-quoted caveat: “some of your friends (in signed bands) are already probably this fucked.”
The problem is that the people who probably need to most hear this message — your average suburban ‘tween and teenager — isn’t going to read a book written by someone from Semisonic. (1998 is practically half a lifetime ago for someone who’s 14.) I worry that the only people who will read the book are those who are already fans of Semisonic, or older, already-converted readers looking for pointers for breaking in or fly-on-the-wall gossip on the music industry. It’s too bad. They should start using portions of this book as a media studies text in high schools, as far as I’m concerned.
I would also urge older non-fans of Semisonic to pick this book up, as they will probably be utterly charmed and won over by Slichter’s accounts, as I was — even if some of the rants come off as being fairly obvious. Rock & Roll is propelled by Slichter’s albeit selective honesty and bittersweet sense of naïveté, and I often found myself feeling sympathy for the narrator. Heck, I even found myself wishing that his band had found even greater success, even though I’m not sure this book will make me rush out to the mall to get some Semisonic CDs for my collection.
While Slichter might not be the most talented drummer in rock history, after reading Rock & Roll I also can’t help but wonder if Slichter isn’t one of the most interesting, intelligent and articulate mainstream rock personalities around. Some people march to the beat of their own drum, and it turns out that it’s an utterly fascinating process watching them do it. I guess some drummers do have something to say, and it turns out Jacob Slichter is certainly one of them. Cripes. Who would have ever thought?