Da Doo Ron Ron - LA Weekly

DA DOO RON RON

Pay-To-Play may rule on the Sunset Strip, but would-be rockers will be glad to hear that there’s still one Hollywood hotspot where the gigs are free, easy to book, and where an enthusiastic crowd is guaranteed.  Sound like a rock & roll heaven on earth?  Actually, it’s the Scientology Celebrity Center (5930 Franklin Ave.), where every Sunday night at 7:30 you can find an open-mike talent show that ain’t fooling when it boasts “Everybody Is Welcome.”  Whether you’re an Operating Thetan or just a pre-clear wanna-be with some excess charge and a song in your heart, Scientology Talent Night may be the gig you’ve been looking for.  The only connections you need to get on the bill are the kind that get measured on an E-meter, and heck, everybody’s got those.

The two of us went to Scientology Talent Night last weekend, curious to see whether this showcase might finally break us out of our negativity.  (We only know three guitar chords; neither of us can sing.)  And we’re happy to report that, a minor case of stage fright aside, it rocks.  You can’t imagine a more non-judgmental crowd, one about 40-strong and dressed down for the occasion (no big hair or Melrosewear to speak of.)  No matter what you do, the smiles on the faces of both the audience and the regular performers (a lot of them do this every week) let you know that they’re just glad you’re here.

It’s a good thing we didn’t have to follow the 5-year-old who sang “My Favorite Things” a cappella; our two-song acoustic set had a few rough spots.  We opened with “Walking in the Rain,” a heart-rending original written just for the occasion and sprinkled liberally with words like “lonely,” “out of place” and “sad and blue,” feelings we hoped would alert the staff to our particularly receptive state of mind.  It worked.  By the time we reached the middle of our cover of “Purple Rain,” we had the audience, our new friends, waving their hands sympathetically back and forth over their heads.

Oddly, it wasn’t until after we’d finished our less-than-sparkling set – the audience seemed disappointed that we never delivered a punchline – that a cheery fella named Greg approached to ask if we were familiar with the center’s activities.  Nope, came out starry-eyed, eager-to-be-stroked reply.  Greg, noting that we were clearly “creative” people, explained that one of the main purposes of the Scientology Celebrity Center is to “help artists” such as ourselves.  He even offered to administer a test to see whether we might be in a position to benefit from…

Had to go, you know?  Still buzzing from our moment of musical glory (where’s an E-meter when you need one?), we ducked out with the promise to come back next week when we’d have more time to take that quiz.  Might even do it, too.  Where else are you going to find such unquestioning approval and such endlessly forgiving smiles?  How else might we hear again the generous applause that followed our horrifying crescendo of squeaky “ooh-ooh-ooh-ohha” at the finish of our acoustic Prince cover?  Think they’d be so nice at the Whisky?

If live performance is not your style, you can enjoy the sounds of scientology from the safety of your own stereo.  The current issue of the bridge, one of several Scientology periodicals available at the center, contains a list of cassettes that can assist in your understanding of the applied religious philosophy’s finer points.  Titles include “Man and Unfathomable Music,” “The Auditor’s Code Music” and “How the E-Meter Works Music.”  Perhaps most interesting is “The Road to Freedom Music,” a “dazzling collection of rock songs” written by L. Ron himself (before his untimely alleged death a few years ago) and performed by Frank Stallone, John Travolta, Karen Black, Chick Corea and others.  According to the catalog, these tapes will assist the aspirant on his or her trip across “the Bridge,” which is “a broad and fast highway” leading to “a higher state of existence” and “total freedom.”  From the commanding heights of this Bridge, we assume, both the Stairway to Heaven and the Highway to Hell look like mere side streets.

…David Carpenter & Tim Kirk

4/25/92 – L.A. Weekly

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Narcissus Article

Bargain Debasement

Only $525 per rock band for the thrill of being exploited

By David Carpenter & Tim Kirk

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“Mirror, mirror on the wall

Who’s the bitchenest of them all?”

— Narcissus “Song in the Key of Me.”

My band played at Gazzarri’s on a Friday night!  That’s right, the same place where all those amazing L.A. rock like Van Halen and Poison and I think even the Doors and LOTS OF OTHERS go their start.  I played lead guitar!!!

No big deal?  Well, it was for me.  You see, we’d never played anywhere before.  We’d practiced once, and only the drummer and bass player actually knew how to play their instruments.  But thanks to the pay-to-play policy currently in place on the Sunset Strip, we got a chance to get up there and rock just like the big guys.  And it only cost $525!

Here’s how it works: promoters demand that bands sell a predetermined number of tickets in order to get on a bill; if the band doesn’t sell enough tickets, it has to make up the difference with its own money.  This ensures that promoters don’t have to risk a penny.  Of course, bands often go broke trying to buy their own gigs.

A lot has been said about this system: that it exploits bands, is unfair to musicians and turns promoters into money-grabbing, equipment-confiscating assholes.  The musician’s union of the AFL-CIO asks that its members boycott pay-to-play dates; grassroots organizations have sprung up to protest in front of pay-to-play venues; the press everywhere – even abroad – has picked up the story.  But there’s another way to look at rock’s equivalent to a vanity press.  Let me tell you how I got to live out several of my rock & roll fantasies, all for one low price.

THE IDEA

It’s late one night when my buddy Tim calls with an idea.  He’s been thinking about the pay-to-play thing, and the way he figures it, this is our BIG CHANCE.  We don’t have to be good, he reassures me, we just have to pay.  With one foot still in dreamland, I imagine rockin’ my heart out, leaning way back and making my guitar scream.  A full house cheering me on.

All we need is a band.

GETTING THE GIG

We find the number of a pay-to-play promoter in an ad in BAM.  You may have seen it: “Blah blah is currently booking bands for the month of  blah blah.  Call blah blah.”  The ad is in almost every issue – call ‘em yourself, it’s fun!

The conversation goes something like this: “Our band’s called Narcisssus, and we rock,” we tell the smoothie who answers.  “We’ve been playing lots of places, and we’re dying for a gig in Hollywood.”

“Then you’re talking to the right guy.”  Smoothie starts to give us booking information; then, almost as an afterthought, he asks, “So what’s your sound like?”

Uh-oh, hadn’t thought about that.  Time to improvise.  “Oh, you know, like Poison, Crue…but we’re, like, all over the place.  Zepplin, Nazareth, you name it.”  This sounds lame, even to us.  Better go for broke.  “You know that San Francisco band Dragon?” – no such thing – “People say we sound like them.”

“Sure, Dragon, I know them.  They’re great.  I’ve got the perfect gig for you.”

Just like that.  No demo tapes, no references.  Just one call, and the gates of rock & roll fantasy swing wide.  The price is $525 (we are obligated to sell 75 tickets at $7 each) for an opening spot at Gazzarri’s on a Friday night.

Tim and I spend the rest of the day practicing air guitar and growing our hair.

ASSEMBLING THE BAND

Tim says he’s always wanted to be the man on the microphone.  Myself, I’ve yearned to play burning lead guitar.  But two dudes do not a rock band make.  Tim remembers his friend Ryan has a cool-lookin’ guitar he doesn’t play much.  We give him a call; he’s in.  Next, we need a drummer.  I know this guy named Ian who’s one year out of high school.  I met him in front of a Sav-On.  We call him; he’s ready to rock.

Finally, Tim says we oughtta ask Matt to be in the band, because Matt’s a real musician.  He is a country musician, but he has real long hair and probably a couple amps…he can play bass.  “But I’ve never played bass before,” says Matt.  “Don’t worry about it,” we tell him.

Three calls, three yeses.  Narcissus is born.

THE PHOTO SESSION

Part of our deal with the promoter is that we get a free print ad in Rock City News and our picture in Gazzarri’s showcase window for a week.  So, like any great rock band, we need pictures.  Ryan says he knows a good photographer and can borrow some wigs; Matt knows a place to get fake tattoos; Tim rips his T-shirt; Ian brings his drumsticks.  I borrow a friend’s leather jacket – she says it makes me look like her.

The photo shoot goes well.  We strike poses and practice our swagger in front of a burned-out building.  The wigs Ryan brought are really fake-looking, made out of orange yarn and silver plastic, but the photographer assures us no one can tell that in b&w photos.  We feel like a band, and we must look like one, because at one point a couple of kids walk up to us and say, “hey, are you Guns N’ Roses?”  Maybe they were joking, but maybe not.  The band shares some high-fives.

PAYING OUR DUES

Narcisssus has now been in existence for two weeks.  We haven’t had a chance to practice yet, but we made a bunch of flyers with our picture on them.  It’s time to sell some tickets.  We make a list of all the people in town who would pay to see us rock.  Optimistically, it looks like about 35 people – we are, after all, an unproven commodity.  Suddenly $525 seems like a lot of cash.  We call around to explore other options.  It turns out there is a pay-to-play scale: a gig at the Anti-Club costs $100, the Whisky about $325, the Roxy even more than we’re paying.  Tim convinces me that Gazzarri’s on a Friday must be hot.  We’ll just have to sell a few more tickets somehow.  And if we can’t?  Well, dreams are priceless.

SIGNING OUR CONTRACT

When the contract arrives for us to sign, there’s some confusion.  We sent in a $200 deposit, but the contract says we’ve only paid $100.  These guys wouldn’t be trying to scam us, would they?  The thought is exciting: ripped off by management. Doesn’t that happen to all great bands?  Happily, the promoter assures us there’s been a terrible mistake and tells us to cross out the $100 and write in $200.

There are also some troubling clauses about how bands aren’t allowed to play thrash or speed metal.  Since we haven’t practiced yet, we’re worried – what if we start playing and it comes out speed metal?  Could they sue us?  We decide we’re safe, since the contract says nothing about just sounding bad.

THE REHEARSAL

Five days before the gig, we figure it’s time to practice. We borrow some amps and gather in Ryan’s apartment.  Tuning his guitar, Ryan stumbles across a lick which, repeated, becomes our theme song. Tim makes up the words as we go along; stuff about life on the road and how rough it is being in a rock & roll band.  It sounds great.

Happy with that one, we move on to a cover of “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room,” since it’s such a great song and, after all, Motley Crue covered it.  Then, because it’s de rigueur, we write a ballad.  Finally, I argue for “Train Kept A-Rollin’.”  It’s a timeless tune, it’s easy to learn, and I already know the chords.

In less than two hours, we have our set.  It’s rough, but it’s enough.

THE GIG

Tonight’s the big night!!!!  We pull up outside Gazzarri’s and look up to see our name in lights.  Unfortunately, they’ve mis-spelled it: Narcissus.  Matt boasts that, after tonight, they’ll know how to spell our name.  Another round of high-fives picks our spirits back up.

Inside the club, the stage looks huge, and we try to look tough and bored.  The stage manager introduces herself and asks for the rest of the money.  The sound check goes well, except for when the soundperson tells Tim not to hold back on his vocals.  Tim has been trying his hardest, and looks hurt.  We hurry through a blues number, looking professional by twirling the dials on our amps.  Tim coaches the woman who’ll be introducing us on how to pronounce our name, and then we get off stage.  So far, so good.

Hanging out in the club, fighting down nerves, I worry that people will notice my wig.  It’s from a cheap Halloween costume – Bride of Frankenstein, I think – but no one says anything.  The wig is hot, and the elastic band hurts.  My sunglasses make it hard to see in the dark.  This rock stuff is hard work.

Backstage we chat with the other bands on the bill.  We talk about other gigs, and how hard it is to sell tickets, all the time trying not to let on that we’ve never done this before.

And suddenly it’s 8:30 – Showtime!  Tim adjusts his sleeveless Levi’s jacket, and I stuff my black jeans carefully in my boots.  We check out wigs and dark glasses for the last time.  On our way through the stage door our new friends cheer us on:  “Go out there and rock!”  “Yes,” we assure them, “we will.”

It’s hard to explain the intense emotions we experience during out set.  There are so many ghosts in that club, and we are joining them.  The songs seem to fly by in a wash of sound (a wash of bad sound, I’m later told) and a blur of images:  Tim asking for a sea of hands, and getting a few raised fists; Ryan pulling the cord out of his amp as he swings his arm like Pete Townsend; the big guys up front, who’d been eyeing us suspiciously, cheering for Ian’s five-minute drum solo; trading licks with Ryan, prompting Tim to scream about what rock & roll animals we are; jumping in the air at the end of every song.  The ballad sounds great, but I blow the intro to “Train Kept A-Rollin’.”  Nonetheless, our friends in the audience cheer us on.

Heading offstage into the wings, we face the moment of truth.  Having unmasked ourselves as an utterly talentless farce, we now have to face the club’s management and the people who booked us.  Out in the audience, our friends are still cheering hysterically.  “Well,” smiles the stage manager, gesturing to our fans, “why don’t you go back out there and play another one?”

We have succeeded!  Unfortunately, we don’t know another song…

Narcissus2

About 14 years ago, I heard Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” on WPLR in southern Connecticut.  Something about Joe Perry’s riff near the end of that song made me stand up and, without knowing what moves to ape, being to play my first air guitar.  I was only 11 years old, but I was good, man.  I didn’t know yet that you’re supposed to reach high on the neck for screaming leads and way down low for power chords.  I sure didn’t know about hair-flipping.  But I felt the groove so strongly it didn’t matter.  I didn’t imagine I was playing Joe Perry’s guitar.  I knew I was.

Me and about 100 million other kids.  In the years since pop music stole the Church’s patent for coining idols, we’ve looked to it for our most treasured images of what it means to be young.  The desire to live up to those images – to become, for example, your own rock & roll star – has fueled some of the most vivid aspirations of American adolescence.

But a new breed of promoter has discovered a way to turn these daydreams into cash.  You don’t have to be good to play at a great club anymore, you just have to want to be good, and have the money to prove it. Unfortunately, the Roxy, the Whisky, Gazzarri’s and other L.A. clubs currently enforcing pay-to-play are venues that have seen an incredible amount of rock history pass across their stages.  Several generations of L.A.’s rock scene, on the most important in the world, have been born and bred here.  There was a time when just entering one of these clubs meant taking part in the ongoing glory of live music in Los Angeles.

However, an era of banality has now descended on the Sunset Strip, and not just because on any given night it might be Narcissus up there.  These days, if you go into a club on a pay-to-play night, chances are you’re a friend of one of the band members – or at least an acquaintance whose arm as within twisting range.  Where there was once the semblance of a coherent scene, there is now only a battle to see who has the most friends and the biggest mailing list.  Not every rock group that purchases a spot on a pay-to-play bill is a joke; a lot of good bands do it, and they’re serious about it.  But pay-to-play promoters aren’t promoting good bands; they’ll book anybody.  And they make the most and easiest money off bands who wouldn’t be able to do the rock & roll thing any other way.  Sadly, in a pay-to-play world, Narcissus is the perfect band.

A few days after the gig, I called our promoter to see if he had any feelings about our set.  I half expected him to hang up on me.  He didn’t.  “It was great working with you,” he assured me instead.  “I think the show went great.  I’ll be glad to book you guys any time.”

1/20/90 – L.A. Weekly