If you don’t remember the 90s band Semisonic, then you will at least remember their mega-hit, “Closing Time,” which played on alternative rock radio about every 3.5 seconds in 1998. It was a good song, yeah, but come on! Talk about killing a good thing.
So whatever happened to Semisonic, anyway? They were a band with several songs that reached #1 in several different countries, including the two biggest markets: the US and the UK, both where they’d also gone platinum. They’d gone gold in Canada. Rolling Stone called Feeling Strangely Fine [MCA Records] one of the best albums of 1998, and they had a grammy nomination. What does all that add up to? Try FAILURE by today’s music industry standards.
So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned A Roomful of Record Executives And Other True Tales From A Drummer’s Life [Broadway Books] is a memoir by Jacob Slichter, drummer for Semisonic. No dummies, these boys, this trio of Harvard students entered the scene determined to be artists and not follow trends. When the book opens we learn of their growth as musicians, especially Jake’s, from uncertain jazz/funk virtuoso to a full-on rocker who’s drumming has ‘finally arrived.’ The most endearing moments of the book are Jake’s insecurities; about his clothes, about his lack of celebrity, his lack of confidence and the fact that no one really cares all that much about the drummer in photo shoots and during the filming of MTV videos.
More of a factual exposé than a revealing confessional, So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star is curiously devoid of the usual sex, drugs and rock and roll shenanigans that hitch along with even the best-behaved bands. Slichter and his Semisonic pals were evidently well-behaved, wide-eyed innocents in a world where the head of the record label is nicknamed ‘Dr. Evil’, lets his teenage son pick the next single and, well, ultimately decide their fate. The clever, hooky pop of Semisonic never really found a solid footing in the aggressive American modern rock radio format of the day. This book teaches us the ins and outs, ups and downs (mostly downs) of industry payola, recoupable debt, and, as Slichter puts it, the jargon and crass measurements of the business: phones, research, and SoundScan. Egos abound, corruption is rampant, and they tolerate abuse from DJs, PDs, CEOs and MCA (which rightfully earns its nifty insider’s acronym of ‘Music Cemetery of America’).
And then even the fans, whom he prayed for in the beginning, begin to irritate him. A Japanese woman traveled from Tokyo to London, especially to see them, and he finds himself saying, I was starting to regard such extraordinary expressions of adoration with impatience. Why were our fans a select group of considerate and sweet people who went out of their way to see us and bring us gifts from afar? Why couldn’t they be the dull-witted masses who pumped their fists and shouted, ‘I did it all for the nookie’?
You’d think that this book would scare anyone away from the business, but at the same time it’s clear that, like a stealing, cheating, woman he can’t get out of his heart, Slichter is in head over heels in love with performing. The reader knows it when he writes about his live shows. In these moments, his writing really shines:
Over the course of the set, I build the groove into a wave where I can surf. I like to lie back where the top of the wave curls over me—the pocket. On my best nights, I am lord of the pocket, the wave, and the ocean. With a large and spacious fill, the wave becomes fifty feet high, and I glide along the top, enjoying the ride as I send it crashing down, a rush for the audience. At other moments, I still the water and skim over its glassy smoothness. Drumming is a game: Make the audience shimmy and shake, then knock them over.
Then we unleashed it. Pandemonium. The loudest chorus of our lives. A raging, jumping, screaming, stomp-box-crushing, guitar-scrubbing, bass-thumping, cymbal-smashing, drum-pounding, crowd-surfer-tossing, stage-shaking, football-field-quaking triple chorus—twenty-four bars of rock-festival bedlam. Finally, blessedly, the song washed into its soft coda. As the last chord rang out, Dan waved and shouted into the mike—“Thank you”—detonating a final explosion of white noise from the crowd that thundered up through the upper decks of the stadium and showered down upon us as we walked off the stage.
Sure, it’s an evil business. But for experiences like that? Sign me up.