Scribes Sounding Off: Dirty Work

by Chris Estey

The axiomatic secret of the music business is that in whatever capacity you may be employed in it, you’re going to be working really hard. And that should be the first thing you tell the co-worker or intern or fellow fan who admits they want your job (because there are many who do, which is why you’re busting your basket at whatever you’re doing).

This week in SSO we look at work, not aesthetics, because without executives, publicists, and “rack jobbers” sucking in their souls to provide you with a steady stream of product (and even in a bad economy, something must be “in the pipeline”), or Poison Ivy Rorschach funding the purchase of amplifiers for The Cramps as a dominatrix when the band began, you don’t have a music business. And some people think that’s (very) OK, but then some people haven’t thought everything through very well.

There have been some really good novels about “the biz,” notably “A&R” from the 90s, which occluded some obvious targets who needed rubber-soled interventions, but author Bill Flanagan was too loving to get too honest, I mean, mean. I read that book about Whitney Houston’s plane-wreck lifestyle just before Mariah Carey asked for too much money to be let out of her record company contract, and the once “maverick indie” label I slaved for axed a few positions, including mine.

Non-fiction works since then have been indispensable reads, including Mansion On The Hill by Fred Goodman (a young Springsteen looking more like Ronald McDonald than Pete Seeger), So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star by Jacob Slichter (watch as his band Semisonic are charged by their label several million dollars before they actually have their “one hit wonder”), and Rock On by Dan Kennedy (The Donnas drop by Atlantic where he works and take pleasure in humiliating him for no apparent reason other than he works for them). All three are highly recommended, and probably in the remaindered bins.


I also strongly endorse another new novel, Kill Your Friends by John Niven (Harper Perennial), who wrote a 33 1/3 book that actually holds its own as superb fiction, “Music From The Big Pink.” This does not read like the idealism gone sour journey of a label exec once dreamy about organic rock like The Band — which it pretty much is — but as a cynosure wide-screen PTSD examination of the inception of post-human pop, insane collective greed, and personal moral corruption at major labels in the late 90s, an era I’ve defined as “mainframe pop” (we’re all connected, take everything you can before the imminent Y2K).

Niven’s razor-thin veiled and razor-sharp observations describe the coarse machinations of hack musicians sucking the bloated teat of people with too much money who had either long ago forgotten how important promoting good music was, or never really knew good music in the first place. I worked for the same parent company as Niven, and was one of the peons lost in the chang-snorting, wanna be-banging, technologically changing landslide, causing shivers to run up and down my spine every time he describes the emotional torture of underlings and confounded old-timers. There’s an American Psycho plot-line going on that I feel is pushing it a bit, but really, it was all about (at least psychic) “murder” then, and I actually remember a few corpses from that period (hello again, cocaine). The just-released trade paperback has an excellent, blunt interview in the back pages conducted by Julie Burchill, though I didn’t need it to confirm the actuality of the violent black humor and satirical alacrity of what came before. It’s some of the very best music business and black comedy I’ve read in some time.


Speaking of people with low social status, the rock life has often been financed by people in really challenging occupations, from supportive girlfriends of guitar players to sweet souls like my own writing mentor in pre-hardcore NW punk days, who was lead singer in the OG incarnation of Sado Nation and danced naked for men in downtown Portland. “We Are All Prostitutes,” the Pop Group once sang, and Soft Skull Press has just put out a remarkable work memoir by sex workers and a couple of guys who help them maintain their dignity and health despite the lifestyle, and it’s no surprise that Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys is often an outstanding self-expression of the underside of people beneath the music scene.

Edited by David Henry Sterry (who scribed the praiseworthy Chicken: Self-Portrait Of A Young Man For Rent) and R.J. Martin, Jr. (an activist who helps sex workers with their trauma, abuse, and addiction), the anthology puts together work from contributors such as “sex positive” activist Annie Sprinkle, I Was A Teenage Dominatrix Shawna Kenney (who wrote a very rocking memoir under that title a few years ago, which many rock fanzines and websites covered), educator/porn star Nina Hartley, and even a section for “anonymous writers.” The vivid recollections of rough employment in an outlaw but billion dollar industry, like the music business now also struggling due to the Internet and the state of the economy, is a provocative read that trades revelation for empathy. Some tales are a little unexpected, like David Henry Sterry’s I Was A Bithday Present For An 82 Year Old Grandmother,” but like Kill Your Friends, sometimes the imagined glamorous life turns out to be less dazzling than you’ve imagined.

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One Comment

  1. Posted August 22, 2009 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    I love this anthology! Thanks for reviewing it and for mentioning my memoir:)

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