November 25, 2004
Heart-Shaped Box: Wherein Josh Jabcuga hangs backstage with an American Idol or two, and cleanses his palette and regains his dignity by listening to the recently released Nirvana box set, With the Lights Out.
This past summer, I was fortunate enough to have a backstage pass presented to me for a CLAY AIKEN concert. Let me make it perfectly explicit that I’m using the word “fortunate” sarcastically, in case you can’t see the sneer on my face as I write this, which means you’re also probably not aware that I’m sitting here in nothing but my boxer-briefs with a lukewarm can of Diet Vanilla Coke. The backstage pass wasn’t given to me in any capacity for my writing at MoviePoopShoot; instead, the all-access badge was actually a necessary evil for my day job, the one that’s a hell of a lot less cool than being able to rant in nothing other than your boxer-briefs while sipping on Diet Vanilla Coke. (As far as details about said day jobby job job, those’ll just hold the story up, and don’t worry, my day gig ain’t that glamorous, FYI.)
Let me share with you the first thing I learned about CLAY’S fans: Most of them are ancient, as in, probably old enough to be CLAY’S granny. When entering a room full of Claymates, as they’ve taken to calling themselves, don’t be surprised to catch a strong whiff of moth balls and urine-stained Depends, that fanciful blend of aromas usually reserved for bingo parlors and retirement homes. Even though he fell just short of taking home the big winner prize on AMERICAN IDOL, AIKEN has managed to one-up super heavyweight champ ala mode RUBEN STUDDARD by capturing that ever-elusive KATHY LEE demographic. To be fair, though, I don’t think AIKEN has earned the respect of the Soul Train crowd, like RUBEN has, but I digress.
The other thing about Claymates, they love to wear garish, homemade T-shirts, innocuous but still bizarre for anyone to be sporting, let alone blue hairs in walkers, that read “I voted for Clay” or “Sing to me Clay,” with the letter “A” in CLAY’S name being replaced by the symbol of a valentine heart. Usually the Claymates are wearing oversized white Fruit-of-the-Loom cotton T-shirts, with the lettering done in that puffy day-glow paint that your kid sister used to decorate her L.A. Gear-brand sneakers with in the late '80s, back when Urkel was still cool and the Olsen Twins were only multimillionaires.
It’s only half-coincidental that I drop a FULL HOUSE or an ABC TGIF reference: AIKEN has a lot in common with the ABC network’s Friday night line-ups: His shtick possesses about as much resonance as a flaming cheese puff. I don’t know what airs on those time slots now; I think one show actually stars another LIVE WITH REGIS co-host, the annoying uber-MILF, KELLY RIPA, but back in my day, when such things actually carried some degree of significance in the junior high bubble I occupied, STEVE URKEL was all the rage, even if he was the black man’s PEE-WEE HERMAN, minus the material or talent to carry it off.
So there I am, back on an overcast August day, clutching my all-access CLAY AIKEN pass. The walk-up crowds started forming early in the day, since much of the venue was general admission. I wanted to be a total dick and wear my pass around my neck and do a few laps through the throng of Claymates, just to rub it in (or take some girl’s virginity as trade…kidding, kidding), but I held back. It was too much fun as it was seeing the great lengths people go to just to get near a celebrity. And God, I thought to myself, just a year ago AIKEN could have been standing right next to me and no one would have given two shits.
The truth is I’m a fan of AMERICAN IDOL. It has that weird train wreck appeal, the kind that seems to have escalated as a result of the realty TV craze of the past few years, with the notion that says some people can be famous for no other reason than for making complete fools of themselves while in the presence of a TV camera. AMERICAN IDOL, of course, at least carries the prerequisite that its cast members must possess at least a modicum of talent, although that’s certainly subjective, isn’t it, MRS. PAULA ABDUL?
Folks, let me save you a little trouble, some money, and a lot of aggravation. Celebrities won’t eat the food you bring them. Not a crumb. Supposedly one of CLAY AIKEN’S favorite foods is Krispe Kreme donuts, known on the streets as Rosie Crack. So there I am, when a gaggle of grand dames notice me and my backstage pass, and insist that I must know CLAY because of this thing, which in all reality was a cloth-like sticker that one would fasten onto a visible area of their body. And they asked that I see to it that CLAY gets his donuts. I informed them that I didn’t even know if I’d run into CLAY backstage. Still, I was probably their best chance. These women proceeded to carry in about seven or eight dozen donuts. Standing before me was this leaning tower of white cardboard boxes, full of glazed donuts. It was almost sad to think someone went to the trouble to spend all this money for someone they didn’t even know, and it’ll all get wasted in the end. Did the sugary snacks get tossed? You’d better believe it. Some of the stage crew feasted on the donuts, but at no point in the night, to the best of my knowledge, did CLAY even get within twenty feet of the food, like it was Anthrax or something.
Once I made my way backstage, I was immediately taken by all the presents for CLAY. There was a whole array of plush animals (two of which I rescued from the garbage, sort of as an odd souvenir), carefully penned letters, flowers, clothing, gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Oops, wrong idol). I watched as his personal bodyguard inspected the letters, first carefully opening them, and then taking the time to actually read many of them while CLAY was performing on stage. One of the other crew members opened up a gift bag, dug out a pair of boxers and exclaimed, “Cool, I need a new pair of drawers!” There was also a jar of salsa (even the roadies didn’t dare touch that), and a beautifully painted portrait of CLAY, which was later discarded. As a friend of mine, who stood next to me surveying the treasure trove of swag pointed out, why would you give anyone a painted portrait of themselves? How vain would the recipient have to be to plaster it on their walls, celebrity or not? And uh, isn’t such a gift immediate grounds for a retraining order?
In case you’re wondering, yeah, I got to hang out around CLAY, and yes, he seemed like a nice, albeit goofy, redneck kind of kid (well, probably not much younger than you or me). The one thing that sticks out in my mind is this goofy kind of laugh he had, like something you’d expect the cartoon donkey on HEE-HAW to make.
There was one point in the evening, after the concert, when I was sitting next to CLAY’S guitarist. Really, I didn’t know what to say to the guy. What’s worse than CLAY AIKEN’S music, you ask? The dude who sold his soul to churn out bland guitar solos during CLAY’S sets, the kind that have all the fiery punch and originality of a karaoke backing track (And yes, CLAY even did a cover of MR.MISTER’S Kyrie a Laser; two MR. MISTER references in this column in as many weeks, natch).
Here’s the extent of my extremely intelligent conversation with CLAY’s guitarist, one that was more for my amusement than anything else:
Me: So, how’d you land this gig?
CLAY’S guitarist: I did some recording for some of RANDY JACKSON’S sessions, and he recommended me.
Me: Cool, cool. (Uncomfortable pause.) Hey, I hear SIMON COWELL really likes getting lap dances. I always thought he was gay, but I hear he loves the ladies.
CLAY’S guitarist: (Uncomfortable pause.) Yeah, I don’t really know anything about that.
Me: OK, nice meeting you, take care.
In the back of my head, I’m pissing my pants laughing, like some high schooler smoking a joint in the bathroom, wondering at what point security will usher me out. Sadly, I was never asked to leave. And it never even occurred to me to ask CLAY’S guitarist if he ever heard of names like JIMI HENDRIX or RANDY ROADES, or if he simply sucked on the teats of soft-rock icons like CELINE DION and nu-school ELTON JOHN his entire life.
I went home that night, with my backstage pass, er, sticker, and my two stuffed animals meant for CLAY nestled underneath my arms, wondering what ever happened to good music, and at what point it would be resurrected to cast away the ASHLEE SIMPSONS and the GOOD CHARLOTTES of the world, scurrying them away into the darkness and obscurity that has claimed the likes of MILLI VANILLI and VANILLA ICE and THIRD EYE BLIND and 4 NON BLONDES before them. Different decade, same shit.
Just when you thought this tale of AMERICAN IDOL would come to an end, alas, I’m haunted by the sight of another loser: JOHN STEVENS. For those of you not keeping score at home, he was the literal redheaded stepchild from last season that covered the old standards like “Mack the Knife” and other songs you can snap your fingers to, as SIMON COWELL so perfectly nailed it.
JOHN STEVENS is from a suburb of Buffalo, -Amherst, New York-, one of the wealthy areas of the city, and just another reason for me to hate him. Plus, he can’t sing for shit. Over the weekend, I was at the mall doing Christmas shopping (a necessary evil for any guy that wants to continue to get laid, unfortunately), and there was a filming taking place for some local cable access show. God, it was terrible. Thing is, I love cable access. There can never be enough of it, in my opinion. Give some idiot a chance to make an even bigger idiot of himself in front of a 1984 camcorder for public consumption, and you’ve got something unique (not unlike this column you’re reading now, sadly).
JOHN STEVENS was signing autographs and chatting up giddy school girls, and, to my chagrin, he seemed like a genuinely unaffected and affable young man. The main draw of my attention though, was the show itself. Apparently there is a local voice coach (I guess that’s the terminology that’s used), who is capitalizing on the IDOL craze and giving singing lessons, and then driving her students to these AMERICAN IDOL-sponsored try-outs they have across the country.
There I stood, rather unabashedly, if I must say so myself, as I watched the hot girl in the tight pants sing NORAH JONES better than NORAH herself. Then I watched the teenaged girl plastered in make-up sing a WHITNEY HOUSTON cover.
And then it dawned on me: These kids aren’t learning to sing; they’re not learning to play; and they’re not even learning to entertain. They’re learning to imitate. All across the nation, voice coaches are harvesting an industry of Las Vegas impersonators that would put RICH LITTLE to shame (Who the hell is he? Never mind…different decade, same shit).
I insisted on watching JOHN STEVENS perform, just so I could heckle him in front of the camera with my two middle fingers raised in victory (I keed, I keed), but my girlfriend didn’t trust my promise of good behavior, so she dragged me away by my collar, before mall security might get the luxury.
Still, I walked around the mall that evening, much like a numb-skulled zombie from GEORGE ROMERO’S Dawn of the Dead (for reference, kids, see the original, please), with a blank, washed-out look in my eyes. Just last Christmas, this JOHN STEVENS might have been the kid working at Old Navy who I asked if they had the black cargo corduroys in a size 32-34, and here he was now, signing autographs for a line of admirers. Next year, well, that’s a different story. Hopefully he left Old Navy on good terms, because losers only go so far, just ask JUSTIN GUARINI.
That’s the other sad irony about music and performers these days: They can all be easily replaced and repacked with a few minor tweaks, just recycled and replayed. Different decade, same shit, indeed.
During the drive home, I thought to myself, when will the next NIRVANA come along to shake things up? Remember when they were saying that about THE PRODIGY a few years back? Oh, Electronica is gonna be the next big thing. Uh-huh. And then there was the whole deal with THE STROKES, something I’ll never understand. Yeah, they pretty much vanished into thin air. Now all the talk is about FRAN FERDINAND. I’m not seeing it myself, sorry.
Nothing will ever come close to matching the power of NIRVANA. They had that sound, that raw, distorted, feedback laden sound. It may sound like a cliché, but it was one of those things where it stopped you dead in your tracks the first time you heard it.
I can vividly recall the first time I heard “Smells like Teen Spirit.” I was a freshman at Canisius High School in downtown Buffalo. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was taking a break from wrestling practice. The whole varsity squad was in the weight room, gathered around the drinking fountain, taking turns getting some water for our cotton-dry mouths. There was a stereo playing in the background, and Nirvana’s trademark hit was playing. One of the guys said, “I love this song.”
“What is it?” I asked, puzzled by the strange noise my ears were receiving.
“They’re that new band, NIRVANA,” the kid, Mike, a junior, replied.
I’ll never forget that moment. During the course of high school, oddly enough, I wasn’t that into NIRVANA. Their punk sound, and more specifically, their punk attitude and D-I-Y ethics were a little too advanced for my tastes and level of coolness at the time (or lack thereof…I was a complete and utter D-O-R-K; I was still wrapping my ears around the BLACK SABBATH catalogue, a sound, which, served as more of a blueprint for NIRVANA than for MARILYN MANSON).
NIRVANA came and went like a lead zeppelin, burning brightly and brazenly, but never ever truly fading away (or however that phrase is supposed to go). And we need them now more than ever.
Alas, the release of the much delayed, eagerly anticipated NIRVANA box set, With the Lights Out. Three discs, one DVD, a beautiful booklet, and gorgeous packaging await the NIRVANA fans. Was it worth the wait? If you’re a NIRVANA fan, this is pure heaven. If you’re like me, a guy who was never too into them, but always respected them nonetheless, this is a true eye-opener, and a welcome sign of relief in an age of out of sync lip syncing and poorly crafted pop…pop…pop music.
The set starts with a cover of “Heartbreaker,” from the band’s first show in ’87, and ends with a solo acoustic performance of “All Apologies,” undated, but more than likely from ’94. The box consists of a plethora of solo acoustic performances, demos, B-sides, outtakes, and radio appearances. The sound quality is secondary, and plays second fiddle to the actual rarity of these recordings. It’s not something you can blast from you car stereo, which by all means lends itself to closer scrutiny, and that just helps in bringing out the detail, and the genius that was KURT COBAIN (that phrase serving as another cliché, in many ways).
The box set is like listening to bootlegs, which is definitely an acquired taste. Either way, it should not stop you from purchasing this release; just know you’re paying for the content, which is of the highest quality, and not necessarily the level of recording, which at times is equal to if not worse than something from a beat-up Radio Shack tape recorder found at a garage sale. Still, I’d take a scratchy-sounding NIRVANA demo over an SACD of BRITNEY SPEARS any day of the week.
The DVD in the box is extremely fascinating; most of it is rough footage of NIRVANA’S garage band days practicing in bassist KRIST NOVOSELIC’S mother’s house in 1988, to when the band morphed into a hulking giant that was bigger than even their wildest dreams (and nightmares), seen in footage filmed in 1993 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, many miles away from Aberdeen, Washington.
In some ways, it is the same shit, different decade, but in this case, that’s not such a bad thing. And after listening to the box’s contents, I finally learned the answer to my question: When will another NIRVANA come along to save the day? Never, because the old NIRVANA, the only NIRVANA, never went anywhere. And if you can’t begin to grasp that, and if you think all music is interchangeable and replaceable, well, then, whatever, never mind.
When not preparing to text message his votes to American Idol, Josh Jabcuga can be found writing Squib Central, published every Thursday, exclusively at www.moviepoopshoot.com.
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