So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star, by Jacob Slichter
You may not know this literate rock & roll drummer by name, or even the name of his band, Semisonic, but if you were listening to the radio in the late 1990’s in the United States you certainly heard their massive airplay hit “Closing Time.” If you have a fondness for music history as well as a warts and all account of life in the music industry that is not too traumatic but tells it plainly like it is, then this book is a good one for you.
The book follows a very chronological fashion, from Slichter’s own background, to the circumstances involving the breakup of the previous band that this Semisonic bandmates were in, Trip Shakespeare, and their own development as a group. Most of the book is, in fact, front loaded into the description of how Jacob became more and more competent and confident as a musician and acclimated to the life of a moderate star, somewhere in the middle between a small-time indy band and a massively popular worldwide phenomenon. Existing on the margins between these two worlds, and given his own cultured and somewhat insecure personality, the book has a special resonance because it is told by a very self-conscious but largely invisible member of a fairly anonymous band with a fair amount of artistic pretensions. The fact that I am a particularly big fan of the band probably shows my own pretensions as well.
The chronological tale of the book is especially useful in untangling the drama involving record label politics. I stated in my post on power pop tragedies about the damaging effects that record label politics could have on a group , and this book demonstrates that even a band with some success and without the drama of drug abuse brushed close with tragedy, and ultimately lost their record deal after three critically acclaimed albums and a few worldwide hits. The book details the daily life of a rock & roll star, from the hours spent recording albums to the grind of life on a big arena tour as an opening act with a strict 30 minute time limit to the joys of answering odd-ball questions from tv and radio hosts and college newspaper reporters.
The result is a fascinating and detailed account of life as a mid-major band. The little details about setlists and favorite shampoos and little touches like the “Clearmountain Pause” at the end of songs (like “Closing Time”) help make this book a treasure trove both for fans of music as well as those interested in knowing a little bit about the business aspects of music as well. For example, the author fusses over album sales and frets over repaying the recoupable debt and is bothered that platinum status comes for a million shipped copies and not a million sold copies while trying to read serious material on a tour bus. The result is that the author, Jacob Slichter, sounds like a regular guy (not too different from someone like myself) who just happens to have been fortunate enough to have been in a successful band.
What makes Semisonic’s story so intriguing is that the band seems really normal, and filled with really great people–all of the band members seem like decent, cultured folks with a love of good music, a sense of warmth and personality, and a realness about them that shines through on the pages of this book over and over again. There are touching stories about the struggle of little Coco Wilson, of whom the bittersweet ode “Made To Last” was written, as well as the boldly generous offer of Dan Wilson, lead singer and main songwriter of the band, to divide publishing royalties in the band equally in exchange for creative control, leading to an immense spirit of loyalty within the band. Here is a band that did a lot of things right–which makes their tale an example rather than a cautionary tale.
What also shines through in the pages of this book is just how rotten and how corrupt a lot of the music industry is, and how amazing it is that Jacob and his bandmates did not get more cynical about the issues of recoupable debt, poor promotion of albums leading to disappointing sales despite critical praise, the dangers of office politics on the careers and lives of mucisians, and the sheer incompetence of people who are supposed to be experts at telling what a good single is and a good marketing strategy for a band and album are but who base their judgments on the opinions of their preteen children. If you want to know why the MCA label no longer exists, this book will give you the answer in spades. If you want to know why the music industry, from radio stations on up, is in real trouble, this book will at least start to provide that answer.
The band Semisonic is not the kind of band that will likely ever enter the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and they are probably likely to be considered by future generations as a one hit wonder group, but this book gives a reason why they should be remembered and cherished for their story, which is most notable for how three decent people and excellent musicians managed to stay sane and stay normal and relatable despite the crazy and dysfunctional nature of the music industry of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. If they can do it, there is some hope for others to avoid becoming cautionary tales on VH1’s “Where Are They Now.”