All the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll (plus some petty hang-ups and tawdry gossip) that MAGNET didn’t find fit to print are now declassified, courtesy of our longtime cover-story operative. Thrill as we try to guess Kim Gordon’s age and gasp as R.E.M. kicks us out of Conan O’Brien. By Jonathan Valania
As Donald Rumsfeld once said, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Truer words have never been spoken, although in many corners of the world, Rumsfeld is regarded as a war criminal, so take them with a pinch of salt. Be that as it may, it’s the latter, the unknown unknowns—things you didn’t even know that you didn’t know—that concern us today. None of the gruesome facts I’m about to reveal to you rise to the level of high crimes. Mostly they are low misdemeanors, sins of convenience, vanity, venality and high blood-alcohol levels that, taken as a whole, fall short of the spirit of generosity toward your fellow man we associate with likeability. In other words, they either made me or the people I was writing about look bad, so the powers that be decided to excise them from various cover stories I wrote for the magazine over the years and lock them in a basement vault at MAGNET HQ with a time-release lock set for 2077, when all the primary figures would be reasonably expected to have left this mortal coil. We got the idea from the Kennedy assassination.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to 2077: I got bored. Turns out waiting for 75 years to pass is a lot longer than I thought. Besides, you bitches love this tawdry tell-all shit about Sebadoh ‘94 and Jeff Tweedy ‘99. Which brings me to my final qualifier in this intro. A lot of this happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—the 1990s, to be exact. Record companies were still capable of selling CDs, marketing budgets were flush, and airfare was cheap. It was a smarter time, but we worried about dumber things: whether the president got a blowjob, who could refrain from self-abuse the longest (Jerry, George, Kramer or Elaine) and how many Bud Lights it takes to journey to the center of Robert Pollard’s suitcase of songs.
Sebadoh was kind of a spent force by the time I got to them, but Lou Barlow’s soft and gooey bedroom pop was the toast of indiedom for a while in the mid-’90s. I remember hanging with Lou in Boston. It was on this assignment I discovered that beer—and lots of it—was a powerful interview tool. Lou and I pounded innumerable pitchers of suds at some bar off Harvard Square, and over the course of several hours, he vented about getting kicked out of Dinosaur Jr and the night a drunken Courtney Love crawled onstage during a show in London, clung to his lower leg like a dog in heat and tearfully proclaimed him The New Kurt.
THE JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION, 1997
There was a time when the Blues Explosion carried a wallet that said BAD MOTHERFUCKER, as anybody who ever saw Jon Spencer and Co. live could attest to, and I tagged along for a few days on the road so I could testify firsthand. I remember being a little surprised at how easily Spencer’s pride could be wounded when I inadvertently let slip in a taxi that the only reason we were putting the Blues Explosion on the cover was that a Sleater-Kinney piece fell through. After the gig in Boston, we went out for drinks with Rivers Cuomo, who was on hiatus from Weezer and working on a degree from Harvard, and I don’t remember him saying more than three words. After closing a couple bars, we wound up back at the hotel with some girl from the gig. We were all pretty liquored up, her especially. Judah Bauer and Russell Simins talked the girl into a little striptease, and they wanted the MAGNET photographer to take pictures. Soon they were badgering the girl. This was not cool. This was the first serious questioning of my journalistic ethics: If I left, I was willfully turning my back on a telling episode in the life of the subjects I had been assigned to write about; if I stayed, I’d have to write about it, even though Bauer and Simins would surely beg me not to when they sobered up. Mercifully, she called the whole thing off after removing her blouse.
SONIC YOUTH, 1998
I remember trying to determine Kim Gordon’s age being a sore point between me and the band. Which, of course, I kept poking and poking and poking.
TOM WAITS, 1999
Tom Waits pantsed me. Sort of. I made the effort to dress sharp in honor of Mr. Waits, the quintessential hipster clotheshorse. Cranberry leather coat, porkpie hat, turquoise wraparounds, smartly tailored thrift-store trousers. By the late ‘90s, Tom had ditched the Cuban-heeled boots and sharkskin suits of his New York days in favor of a denim-and-workboots look better suited to his country squire life in the wilds of Northern California. After conducting an interview over breakfast at Tom’s favorite greasy spoon, we headed out to the countryside with the MAGNET photographer to take some cover shots. We wound up in a spooky orchard of gnarled trees straight out of The Wizard Of Oz. Tom posed gamely for a while, shooting glances my way between shots. “That’s a good look, that’s a good Philly look,” he croaked in approval. “Lemme see those shades.” I handed them over, and he posed for a few shots. “Lemme see that hat.” Again, I handed it over, and he posed for a few shots. “Lemme see that coat.” Next thing I knew, Tom Waits was wearing my clothes for the cover story I was writing about him.
BRIAN WILSON, 1999
Talk about surreal. The day after I interviewed Waits, I was sitting in Brian Wilson’s Beverly Hills mansion waiting for an audience with the maker of Pet Sounds. Inside I was sweating bullets; I was in the depths of a rather obsessive period of Brian Wilson worship. “It could last 15 minutes, it could last five minutes,” his publicist warned me. “If he is uncomfortable, he will just get up and walk away.” He never did get up and walk out, but he was plenty uncomfortable. At one point, I found myself reassuring my hero that people were not, in fact, trying to kill him. I brought along a cassette tape of outtakes from the then-unfinished 1966-67 album SMiLE. Back then, Wilson was understandably loath to talk about the record that cracked his psyche and broke the back of his career. I coaxed him into listening to a few tracks, and then something fairly miraculous happened. As the gossamer choral strains of “Our Prayer” blared out of the boombox, all the tension left Wilson’s face, he settled back into his chair and smiled while swaying his head in time to the music. “Man, this is great!” he said.
“Yes, Brian,” I replied. “It is great.”
ELLIOTT SMITH, 2000
I miss him more than Kurt Cobain. I spent a week with Elliott Smith on tour and at his home around the time of Figure 8, the last album he would live to see released. On the last day I was with him, we sat outside his bungalow, tucked away in a leafy section of L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood. I asked him a lot of pretentious big-picture questions about love and death and God. At one point, I asked him if he thought suicide was courageous or cowardly. “It’s ugly and cruel and I really need my friends to stick around, but dying people should have that right,” he said. “I was hospitalized for a while and I didn’t have that option, and it made me feel even crazier. But I prefer not to appear as some kind of disturbed person. I think a lot of people try to get mileage out of it, like, ‘I’m a tortured artist’ or something. I’m not a tortured artist, and there’s nothing really wrong with me. I just had a bad time for a while.” Even then, I could tell he didn’t really believe that. It sounded like whistling past the graveyard. Tragically, things did not work out. I don’t know if he stopped insisting that they would or if he stopped believing what he was saying. Either way, 34 years was all he could stand. We just have to respect that. After all, he made it clear from the very beginning: Sooner or later, the world will break your heart.
The cover story that never was. Circa Reveal, I believe. Even though I had already done all the interviews with each band member—including record shopping and bar-hopping with Pete Buck—the cover story got scuttled because the band failed to follow through with a promise to sit for a photo shoot and insisted that we use a stock shot for the cover. Also, for reasons I still don’t understand, the band ejected me from the green room of Late Night With Conan O’Brien. One minute, I was on the couch next to my good pal and drinking buddy Pete Buck, reading the New York Times and trying not act like I was eavesdropping on every conversation; the next minute, the group’s tour manager was escorting me to the elevator and thanking me for my time.
I saw R.E.M.’s world up close, and it’s all five-star hotels that recycle and solar-powered limousines. I’d never begrudge those guys the right to get stinking rich from the high art they were capable of transmuting rock into when they were at the height of their powers—or even just stinking drunk on airplanes. But they’re millionaires locked in a bubble of climate-controlled luxury, far removed from the heat and friction of ordinary lives that make for music worth listening to. In the end, you have to choose between the mansion on the hill or the art in the streets. And the only time the twain shall meet is when art is hung over the sofa in the mansion on the hill. That’s a gross overstatement, of course, but that doesn’t change the fundamental fact that when you get to a certain tax bracket and the zip code that comes with it, you can’t go back to Rockville again.
THE BREEDERS, 2002
Kim Deal wants to kick my ass. Which kinda sucks, because I love Kim Deal. I was one of those folks who always said the only thing wrong with the Pixies is Kim Deal doesn’t write and sing more of their songs. I loved the Breeders and was super-jazzed when Kim’s sister Kelley named Feel Nice, the debut album by the Psyclone Rangers (my band at the time), as one of her top 10 faves of 1993 in the pages of Rolling Stone. My fellow Rangers and I met up with Kelley backstage at Lollapalooza the following summer and a plan was soon hatched to have her sing on the follow-up album we were going to record that fall in Memphis. Unbeknownst to us, Kelley had developed a heroin habit in the interim. I remember long, drowsy phone calls with her from the control room of Ardent Studios, wherein she would say she still wants to come but she is feeling poorly. One day, we were sitting in the TV lounge when an MTV News Special Report announced that Kelley Deal had been arrested for accepting a FedEx package of heroin.
Fast forward four years or so, and I was in New York with the Flaming Lips. During a smoke break with drummer Steven Drozd, he casually mentioned that the last time he was in New York he was in bad, bad shape. With some gentle prodding, he mentioned that he was playing on a Breeders album (which ended up never seeing the light of day). It was around this time, as you may recall, that Kim Deal went off the rails, going through drummers faster than Spinal Tap and finally deciding to teach herself how to play so she could get the sound and the beat she was looking for. Drozd described the recording sessions as a druggy trainwreck and told me he packed up his kit in the middle of the night and left without saying goodbye. Some variation of this was included in MAGNET’s Flaming Lips story, and it eventually got back to Kim Deal.
Fast forward to the spring of 2002. The Breeders were back, everyone was clean and sober, and there was a decent new album, Title TK. MAGNET arranged for me to do a phoner with the Deal sisters. It was pretty rough going at first; Kelley was friendly, Kim was surly and had been drinking. Kelley got angry with Kim for being rude. I decided to play the chaos card, and it went downhill fast:
MAGNET: I heard Steven Drozd played with you guys for a while.
Kim: [Annoyed] No, he didn’t play for us, dude. I know him, he’s a friend. He came up to New York because I asked him to work on some songs. He did so for about 10 days, and then he left. He never played for the band.
MAGNET: OK, I guess I heard wrong then.
Kim: Yeah, you did!
Kelley: God, Kim.
Kim: This is the dude that wrote that crap that Steven … Whatever, man. (Sonic Youth drummer) Steve Shelley was not in the band, either. I don’t know if you thought that—he was just a friend also.
MAGNET: I never thought they joined the band, that they just—
Kim: They didn’t join the band!
MAGNET: Can I ask a Pixies question?
Kelley: Jonathan, I’m gonna hang up.
Kim: No, I’ll shut up.
Kelley: I don’t want to talk about it … It was nice talking you, Jonathan. [Hangs up]
Kim: Kelley just got mad and hung up.
MAGNET: Is she mad at me or mad at you?
Kim: She’s mad at me. What’s the Pixies question?
MAGNET: If Charles Thompson called you and asked—
Kim: Shut up! Go away! Pass! What’s the next question?
MAGNET: Uh …
Kim: Dude, I’m out! Bye! [Hangs up]
I have beaten this horse fairly extensively. (Google “what it feels like when the band you love hates you” for the gruesome details.) But there is one last dodgy Wilco anecdote I never published: Wilco tries heroin.
I won’t reveal my source, except to say it came directly from the horse’s mouth. Understand this was back around the time of Being There and Summerteeth, when the band was still relatively young and dumb enough to believe you had to repeat the mistakes of rock elders in order to breathe the same rarefied air of greatness. There isn’t much to say, really, other than everyone wound up vomiting profusely and more or less vowing never to do it again. So now you know.
Actually, there’s one other Wilco-related anecdote I was sworn to secrecy about. I remember a disturbing phone interview with Howie Klein, who was the president of Reprise Records for the better part of Wilco’s tenure with the label. It was shortly after Klein’s somewhat forced departure from Reprise that the great Yankee Hotel Foxtrot soap opera began, all documented in painful detail in the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. Klein basically went on a tirade about how, in the wake of all the mergers and acquisitions of the ‘90s, nearly all the music men had been forcibly removed from the executive suites and replaced with accountants, people who saw music not as art or a source of pleasure but a commodity, and an under-performing one at that. “These people hate music,” Klein stressed. “And they hate artists.” Wow, I thought to myself, this is just the sort of thing Steve Albini warned us about, but it’s pretty explosive stuff coming from a guy who was, just a few months ago, the president of Reprise. I said as much to Klein. “Oh, you can’t print any of this,” he said firmly. “I signed a confidentiality agreement.”
Jonathan Valania is the editor of Phawker.com