Thursday, December 9, 2010

Managing your religion

Sparked by the inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis on Saturday, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 62, quite a few jumps down the road from my previous post, "Strangers in the village".

Managing your religion
By Chris King

Uncle Tupelo’s next boost into rock star orbit came that winter, 1991, when Peter Buck of REM expressed interest in producing their next record. The news spread fast around Cicero’s, stoking envy and admiration.

It was the best possible time for a band to be associated with REM. Their current record was Out of Time, which yielded their first mammoth radio hit, “Losing My Religion”. No post-punk memoir would be complete without some attempt to make sense of a Michael Stipe lyric, so let it be recorded that I thought the guy was pretty smart for becoming famous with a song about losing your cult status.

And I submit that my credentials for understanding Michael Stipe and "Losing My Religion" were impeccable in 1991, when I was running around the country singing “We’re not REM” and “I’m Not Religious”.

A year later would have been too late to benefit by association with REM and still look cool while doing it. Remember that 1992 would bring the world Automatic for the People. That record, damn it to hell, brought even into my local supermarket the treacly, Sting-esque “Everybody Hurts”, proof that everybody writes a crappy, sappy song sometimes. Everybody shits. Everybody shaves. Sometimes.

So Uncle Tupelo was going to make it. There was no doubt about it. But their success wasn’t turning into a magic beanstalk that kept feeding other bands opportunities for rock star climbing. It was looking more like a rocket ship, and it seated only four – the three guys in Uncle Tupelo and the man in the cockpit, Tony Margherita.

As a guy who wanted to be a singer but got stuck managing a band to do it, I was thinking a lot about Tony Margherita and the role of a manager in the trajectory of a rock band.

For all the musicians stunted by stupid deals, a savvy manager usually separates a worthy but unknown local from a band that breaks out. A band needs a manager, above all, because a manager gets almost nothing out of their music except a cut of the money. Musicians will leap at an arrangement that seems to further their dream but doesn't do them economic justice. A smart manager, rightly mindful of that take-home fifteen percent, and more learned in the art of the contract, will tighten the screws and sweeten the deal.

Uncle Tupelo had what it takes, all of it -- songs, looks, hooks, harmonies, chemistry, charisma, urgency, the absence of other options -- which is why a smart guy like Tony subjected himself to telephone neck on their behalf. But one of the very best things they had going for them was Tony on the phone.

For every Tony Margherita, there are a hundred knuckleheads with a Rolodex. Bookstore shelves sag under the weight of band biographies that feature a sleazy or fatally stupid manager. I can’t resist relating the one story I saw with my own two eyes.

I was hired to write band blurbs for the guide to a new music festival The Riverfront Times was producing. (With the success of South by Southwest in Austin, everybody got into the music festival business for a minute there.) My blurb chores were mostly an exercise in saying something nice when I had nothing nice to say, with one amazing exception. One tape -- a four song demo simply labeled SODA -- invaded the deepest reaches of my memory for the rest of my life.

I wanted to know everything about them, so I called the number on the tape. Their manager answered. Soda! Soda! What can you tell me about Soda?

He said there really wasn’t much to tell. They were four quiet guys from Milwaukee. They had been in other bands. You have never heard of their other bands. That’s about it.

I demanded some kind of a bio so I could write my blurb. In a few days, he faxed me a band bio. It said that they were four quiet guys from Milwaukee, they had been in other bands, no one outside of Milwaukee has ever heard of their other bands, and they like to fish.

I called the manager again. Soda! Soda! I need more Soda! Send more songs! He said they had recorded some other songs, but they weren’t as good as the songs on the demo. I insisted on hearing everything anyway. Send me Soda!

In about a week, I received a tape of some more songs. They weren’t as good as the songs on the demo. This manager had the capacity for hype of those eyeless fish that live at the very bottom of the ocean, but at least he wasn’t a bullshitter.

I went to see Soda at the RFT's music festival. Not a great live show. The lead guitarist, Charlie, had a way of closing one eye and popping the other hideously wide open when he sang a harmony. But it wasn’t bad enough to ruin my adoration for the four-song demo. I introduced myself to the band as the guy who wrote their festival bio, said I played music, too, and suggested a gig swap.

I had written (and they had read) the sort of hagiographic band blurb that tends to make you friends for life, but these guys shared their manager’s sub-oceanic level of enthusiasm for themselves. In fact, they looked like they would rather be fishing.

Nevertheless, a gig swap was orchestrated. Soda would open for us in Chicago on a Friday, and we would open for them in Milwaukee the following night. All the way to Chicago, we burned up that four-song demo.

At the gig in Chicago, there was no Soda. Just a bunch of guys we had never seen before, along with popeye Charlie, Soda's lead guitar player. His mood was in the dumps. “Soda is calling it quits,” Charlie said. “This is my new band. But come on up to Milwaukee tomorrow. That show is still on. It’s Soda's farewell gig.”

I can’t claim any connections to big rock stars with boldface names, but I can say that I was there in Milwaukee the last time Soda took the stage. I almost wept to see the drummer, Alan Weatherhead, positioned nowhere near a microphone, singing along to every single lyric. He was living it, every syllable of it, for the last time.

The afterhours party was a low-key affair familiar to anyone who has seen footage of the losing locker room after a crushing post-season defeat. I didn’t want to disrespect the dead by prying into the casket. But still, I wanted to know everything. Why? Why are you doing this to me?

The lead singer, Mike DeVogel, quietly outlined the story. Their manager – my low-energy friend from the phone – signed them to a development deal with some industry lawyer. I would say this manager was more of a fishing buddy than a businessman, because he stuck them with a stupid contract, but in fact, the guys in Soda were not notable fishermen.

"That was all for the bio," Mike explained, meaning the bio I had begged for. "He was looking for an angle. He knew me and Charles had gone fishing one time. He thought it was something the label scouts could latch onto. Soda. You know, the fishing band. The band that fishes.” Mike shrugged. “We don't have anything against fishing. But we're not avid anglers."

This manager, it turns out, was a nephew of the man who owned the Milwaukee Brewers. His uncle's ballclub had been mediocre, at best, since our Cardinals beat them in the 1982 World Series. The manager's attention to detail was perhaps a bit mediocre as well. He seemed to have missed the fine print that said Mr. Big the lawyer could write off to the band’s account his every expense associated with any travel on behalf of Soda. Once the ink was dry on that deal, Mr. Big went out and saw the world, one music festival at a time.

Let’s hope he had a good time, because his travels were a total loss as far as Soda was concerned. The closest they got was a meeting with a major label scout, who (my hand to God) presented them with an outline of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the Nirvana hit. Write songs more like this, he told them -- in the same breath that he urged them to write more coherent, less cryptic lyrics! For once, I wished they weren’t four quiet guys from Milwaukee, because never was a smart-ass retort more justified. “Write less cryptic lyrics? Like what? Like ‘a mosquito, my libido’?”

Then Mr. Big submitted his expenses. It was far more money than the band could make in a year. The lawyer threatened collection. Apparently, arrangements were even made to start garnishing their paydays every time they played a show – this bastard was going after them, one cut of the door at a time.

In despair, Soda laid down their guitars. The authors of the greatest four song demo of their day had to hang a “Gone Fishing” sign on their music career for lack of a savvy manager.


From And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore (unpublished).

Previous posts in this series

In the hothouse basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig
Opening for Uncle Tupelo
A meeting in Old Blue
Strangers in the village

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