Chapter Twenty-Six

My solo career as a humble bard was fun, but it was utterly off the media's radar screen. Even local Bay Area publications ignored my creations and performances. After a couple of years of anonymity, I grew antsy to return to the cultural wars with more intensity. I felt I wasn't living up to my potential.
There was one very auspicious development during my sabbatical from rock music, however. As I worked to refine my analysis of "entertainment crime," I felt I was making myself immune to its ravages. Maybe, I reasoned, I'd even become savvy enough to save my own soul no matter how symbiotically I joined with the corporate beast. I fantasized that I could remain a dionysian clown-priest even in the face of enormous record sales, splashes on the covers of national magazines, and relationships with hordes of lawyers, accountants, bureaucrats, and journalists whose values were as different from mine as the Dalai Lama's are from Bill Gates'.

Buoyed by this vision, I decided I would launch a band and snag a record deal perfectly tailored to my vision. I would trick the corporate beast into selling us to the mass audience with the very same machinery that I satirized and howled about. What a coup it would be. I would exploit the entertainment criminals for my success at the same time that I educated our fans about how evil they were. I would outwit their ability to turn everything they touched into neutered simulation, and bring the people of Earth crafty celebrations that inspired spiritual awakening and smart love. I would gain all the advantages of being a rockstar without turning into one of those ghastly monsters.

Thus was spawned World Entertainment War, my band and performance art support group.

Our songs wrote themselves. Our stage show evolved and matured with breathtaking artistry, and in close alignment with the vision I'd formulated from the beginning. I felt like a magician returning from exile, like an orphaned genius who'd finally found his long-lost family. Soon we were headlining weekends at the biggest club in Santa Cruz, the Catalyst. Next we made the leap to the greater Bay Area and built an underground following in grassroots clubs like Komotion and the Paradise Lounge. It wasn't long before we were headlining major venues like Slim's and the Great American Music Hall and the Kennel Club.

Finally, I felt, record companies were ready to hear what we could do. With nine thousand dollars from a benefactor, we crafted an eight-song masterpiece in a San Jose warehouse studio, working exclusively during the graveyard shift to save money. Soon I was sending out our newborn artifact, along with my poetic propaganda disguised as a bio.

WORLD ENTERTAINMENT WAR is as much fun as you can have during a riot. Rhythmically outrageous, melodically potent, vocally incendiary, this band of entertainment guerrillas incites its listeners to simultaneously think and dance and kick their own asses.
"Theater" is too wimpy a word for what happens at their live shows. Imagine instead a pagan revival meeting mixed with a dance therapy session and a cynics' pep rally and a tribal hoedown and a lecture at the "Anarchists Just Wanna Have Fun" Think Tank.

Likewise, "rock opera" is too pretentious a category to describe their new CD. Imagine instead a collage of eight killer songs interwoven with a conceptually rich musical tapestry of sly subliminals, hilarious media critiques, satirical commercials, and snippets of benevolent propaganda.

Soon the favorable reviews began to bubble up from both the alternative and mainstream press. One of the first was by Gus Stadler in the San Francisco Weekly:

They pack their songs full of enough heady words and phrases to fill a Greil Marcus-style rock critique. But World Entertainment War reminds us that smart music need not be the prisoner of rock academia. It's a stirring, entertaining band with a smooth, funky sound and a loose, punky attitude.... They succeed at wresting "smart" rock out of the critics' hands.
Shortly after we finished our eight-song album, a mysterious figure started showing up at our gigs and dropping portentous hints. Smart but evasive, half-Basque and half-Mayan, Daryl Stackman never looked me in the eyes and never appeared without his Mayan cloak draped around his shoulders or waist. "I'm gonna make you guys famous," he assured me. A little research about his background convinced me he was a legitimate, if modest, player in the music business. We agreed to let him represent us to the record companies.

A few weeks later, while World Entertainment War was doing a spate of gigs in the Pacific Northwest, I picked up a voicemail from Daryl.

"I signed a deal with CBS," he said. "We're ready to go. Forget that low-budget piece of junk you're trying to peddle. CBS is gonna give us a six-figure advance to do it up right."

All my previous records had been recorded at mediocre studios by inexperienced engineers in the middle of the night, which was the only time the rates were cheap enough for me to afford. But our first opus under the aegis of CBS unfolded luxuriantly in a state-of-the-art studio with a producer we loved and trusted. For weeks we spent thousands of dollars a day in a perfectionist zeal to get the exact sound we wanted on every song. CBS bureaucrats and bean counters were nowhere to be seen. We played and sang and composed and messed around according to no other specifications besides our own.

The CBS suits never meddled in the design of the cover art and insert for our CD, either. Which was saying a lot, considering the fact that the format I cooked up with our graphic designer was complex and voluminous: a foldout booklet which included a four-page full-color collage and four pages of lyrics and rants and poems.

Then there was the promo package. That's the stock info about a band sent out with every CD. Typically, this is either a facile grab-bag of smarmy clichis or a smart-ass, content-free assemblage of one-liners and soundbites. In either case, it's almost always penned by a record company hack. In our case, though, CBS made an exception. In an alleged bow to my writing skills and well-wrought vision, some vice-president or other made the decision to let me create the bio. No guidelines. No censorship. No questions asked.

I was thrilled. Gosh, I thought, those enlightened CBS folks are really on my side. I gave them a slightly edited version of a piece I'd written a few months previously.

Meanwhile, we of the World Entertainment War tribe also signed up to be managed by a company founded by rock demigod Will Boehm. Boehm may not have actually invented the San Francisco psychedelic music scene of the 1960s, but he was the guru who turned it into a world-famous, money-making institution. When we met him, his was a multimillion-dollar empire that had made more than a few musicians wealthier than the ancient kings of Babylon.

The relationship did not start through my instigation. Boehm found out about us accidentally. One of the many minions who worked at his vast corporate headquarters had seen us getting crazy at a San Francisco club called the Paradise Lounge. This spy reported to Will that he'd witnessed the second coming of the San Francisco music scene: a fresh eruption of the primal spunk that Will had exploited to launch his career a quarter-century earlier.

In his first and most dramatic act of seduction, Will invited me and guitar player George up to his private Valhalla in the hills of Marin County for a catered tête-à-tête. There he confided to us, in a tone as gushing as his tough-guy persona allowed, that he hadn't been as boyishly excited about any band since 1969. As he proudly led me past his souvenir cases, which included slippers once worn by Janis Joplin and a stuffed bear stabbed in the gut by the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards, he casually mentioned, "One day your jock strap'll be in here."

I was a skeptic in the beginning. I felt that if anyone was going to manage World Entertainment War other than myself, it would have to be a smaller company than Boehm's, more familiar with so-called "alternative" rock, and more in sync with my secret plans to forever be more of a dionysian clown-priest than a real rockstar.

But Will was unflagging. He booked us to open a show with Blues Traveler and cornered me in the dressing room to whisper more sweet nothings. ("I'm personally writing a letter to the executive producers at MTV," he said. "I'll contact REM's Michael Stipe, see if he'll plug you, help you. Let's try to get you a spot opening up for Soundgarden on their next tour. I'll make this thing happen no matter how long it takes.")

Later he summoned me twice to the inner sanctum at his sprawling offices in San Francisco for private confabs. By then he was selling himself as my mentor. ("I'd like to see you do a little less of the androgynous thing on stage. Be a warrior from the steppes of Russia now and then, a big bad daddy panther. And don't be so goddamned goofy all the time. You've got to make it easier for people to see you as Everyman. Put a hatrack on stage with five different hats. Change 'em from song to song. You've got the acting ability to change identities as fast as you need to.")

In the end, more than half-convinced he loved us for all the same reasons we loved us, I signed us up.

"We're going to make you the Grateful Dead of the 1990s," he confided.

So there we were: under contract to be managed by a rock legend, having completed a fabulous album under the auspices of a conglomerate whose ability to distribute, promote, and hype our product made Goebbels' propaganda techniques look like the equivalent of a scraggly hobo walking a sandwich board down Main Street.

I might have been forgiven a bout of megalomania at that point. My master plan, I felt, was unfolding with impeccable grace. As a dionysian clown-priest plotting to slip the masses a big dose of poetic music that would delight their souls and martial their imaginations, I was about to strike a blow against the vicious homogenizing power of the entertainment industry. Against all odds, I had bamboozled the corporate beast into hawking us with the very same machinery whose danger to the imagination we so lyrically articulated in our music.

I can remember, when the recording process was freshly completed, envisioning the process by which the company's marketing team would make World Entertainment War a household name. I pictured Daryl Stackman circulating around the central CBS offices in Los Angeles, piquing the interest of the publicity team and the marketing people and the distribution crew. "This is the Grateful Dead of the 1990s," he would rave about us. "We've got to make sure that every radio station, every music magazine, and every record chain knows that."

In a massive, coordinated assault, our CD and publicity package would arrive in the mailbox of every music journalist and radio programmer in America. All of these industry VIPs would soon receive follow-up phone calls from CBS publicists and independent agencies hired to promote our record. Our reps would try to arrange phone interviews with me on radio stations and in newspapers. To reinforce the impact, the CBS marketing team would buy ads for our CD in major music magazines and local newspapers.

Meanwhile, the distribution arm of the company would make sure that our product began appearing in all the record stores of North America. In the chains, like Tower Records, CBS would arrange for prominent World Entertainment War displays, complete with, say, a six-foot cardboard figure of a rainbow-uniformed, TV-headed soldier kicking her own ass.

But everything I just described never actually happened. Not even a little. From what I've been able to piece together in retrospect, less than four thousand CDs and cassettes ever made it into stores. MTV never called to beg us for a video. Spin magazine never called to implore me for an interview. A grand total of three radio stations put us on their playlists.

Why? I'll probably never know the exact story of how and why our luck finally expired, because researching the true feelings and actions of both Daryl Stackman and the CBS brass was harder than extracting a straight answer out of the CIA.

But I believe every conceivable scenario probably involves some or all of the following factors:

1. The marketing arm of CBS (as at all record companies) is only marginally in sync with the arm that signs and develops new artists. Just because some young turk gets excited about an act and brings it aboard doesn't mean the old boys are going to love it with all their hearts.
2. Daryl Stackman did something -- or many somethings -- to piss off the execs at CBS. He was a kind of weaselly, annoying guy, after all, who always seemed to be scamming even when he wasn't. With him as our representative, we didn't exactly have a master communicator and people pleaser.

3. As in the publishing and film industries, if a product doesn't explode into prominence within three weeks after its release, it's regarded as stillborn. The money people immediately decree that the thing has more value as a tax write-off than as a continuing cash drain for the marketing department.

4. Bureaucracies can conspire to sabotage greatness even when they're not trying to conspire. It's in their nature to be dumb and oafish.

5. When World Entertainment War, at WBM's urging, made a pilgrimage to Los Angeles to visit the CBS headquarters for the first time (after the record was already recorded), the execs saw that I wasn't exactly a spring chicken. A previously unheralded rockstar over thirty releasing his first major-label CD? Yeah, right. Not in this universe.

6. Perhaps in a previous incarnation I was a heartless highwayman who incurred so much karmic debt by robbing helpless victims that there was no other way for the cosmos to pay me back than by playing a really nasty trick on me.

Just kidding about that last one. I think.

The abrupt and brutal reversal of World Entertainment War's long good luck streak did not end with CBS' mysterious sabotage of our beloved CD.

One rainy autumn night, before Will Boehm could live up to his promises to me, he dematerialized. On the way back to his Marin home from a Huey Lewis show in the East Bay, the helicopter carrying him slammed into a utility pole in a driving rain. I woke up crying at 3 a.m., eight hours before I officially heard the news. In my dream, Boehm had come to me, holding his severed hands in the crook of his arms, and said mournfully, "I'm sorry. I can't finish the job."

I might have been able to love the music biz a little more if Boehm had survived. He was a pushy asshole, but he had soul, he had balls, and he was just enough of a madman to understand the full complexity of what I was trying to pull off. On the other hand, there was no way, in light of the passionless, bumbling strategies Will Boehm's lieutenants plotted for World Entertainment War in his absence, that I could survive the music biz, let alone love it. And even their sabotage looked positively benevolent compared to the cryptic evil perpetrated on us by CBS.

Yet I can't in good conscience condemn Boehm's lieutenants or the CBS executives to the seventh level of hell. They're merely the human administrators -- hence, victims like me -- of the same machine that came so close to mangling my metaphysical huevos.

Easy for me to say now. During the first flush of disillusionment with my two multinational allies, I came dangerously close to violating my pacifist Gurdjieffian-Buddhist-Qabalistic vows. In an embarrassing spectacle unmatched since I was four years old, I actually screamed bloody oaths at one of Boehm's lieutenants for fifteen minutes straight. (Sorry about that, dude.)

But the ripest target for my anger was of course myself. I could hardly believe that after so many years I had managed to sustain a level of naive idealism more appropriate for a kid launching his first garage band.

My spacy fantasy: that in a gift of love to Will Boehm's memory, the company that lived on after his demise would rise to the occasion, calling on previously untapped reserves of ingenuity to spread the word about World Entertainment War with an inventiveness and intensity that would top anything Boehm himself could have pulled off.

The crushing reality: Without the maverick charisma of Boehm pervading the place, his management team slumped into a glazed lethargy, carrying out cautious strategies by rote.

My deluded fantasy: that our music is so brilliant and unique and well-played that even the corporate drones at CBS would undergo a religious conversion in the presence of its redemptive beauty; that they would transcend their plodding, one-size-fits-all approach to marketing in order to come up with an imaginative strategy for making World Entertainment War a household name.

The scalding reality: CBS is a soulless assemblage of businessmen and bureaucrats committed solely to advancing the bottom line with products that slickly embody the cultural clichis du jour. It's true that from time to time there emerge in the lower rungs of the CBS hierarchy a few passionate idealists who yearn to unleash gifts of great art on the mass audience. One of them, after all, coaxed the big money people to sign us up in the first place. But he was probably axed from the company well before the divorce of World Entertainment War and CBS was final.

What was most humiliating, demoralizing, and downright unredeemable, however, was not the way the stinky brains of CBS sabotaged my baby. How could I expect them to be anything other than themselves? What hurt most was this: Ever-so-subtly, ever-so-creepily, I had begun to buy into the rockstar persona and lose my own private vision of how to pull it off. I had actually, I'm ashamed to admit, begun to do things I hated -- sucking-up behavior I'd spurned all these years, craven acts I'd always felt were symbols of selling out.

I mean, it's difficult to have accomplished the feat of being nothing more than a cult figure in the Bay Area despite having performed highly original, well-executed music for more than a decade. My failure to become a mega-bestselling rockstar was actually a stellar accomplishment. I attribute it to the fact that I'd steadfastly refused to ham it up with radio interviewers who thought "genocide of the imagination" was a board game for five-year-olds; that I'd refused to tone down the quirks in our music in order to impress and yet not overwhelm the polite lemmings at music conventions; that I'd refused to change the lyrics to our song "Marlboro Man Jr." so as not to risk a lawsuit from the cigarette company; that I'd refused to make our music less melodic and chipper so as to pander to the pop-nihilists who dominated the "alternative" music industry; that I'd refused to spend every waking minute selling myself to the legions of promoters, radio programmers, booking agents, record company executives, and music journalists.

And yet when our CBS-financed record was finally released, I found myself, at the urging of WBM and CBS, bucking my own hallowed traditions. The gigs they booked for us were laughable: a poorly advertised concert at a cavernous auditorium in Ventura, California, better suited for productions of "My Fair Lady" than for World Entertainment War throbathons; a barely advertised show in sparsely populated Fresno at a tiny restaurant filled with rednecks who walked out when we played "The Wonderful World of War," our reverse paeon to the history of CIA-aided coups d'itat all over the Third World; an off-the-map show in an obscure Los Angeles club that was so empty that the Mexican family having a birthday party in one of the back rooms comprised half our audience.

Did WBM or CBS place us with a real booking agency, one with the clout to ally us with touring big-name acts? No. Were ads taken out or promotional appearances arranged in any of the cities where my previous musical efforts had received airplay? Nope. Were we blessed with even a fraction of the funds Will Boehm himself had promised to lubricate our career? 'Fraid not. Or with even one one-billionth of the vast fortune megaconglomerate CBS had at its disposal? No chance.

Instead, I did interviews with a reporter for a college newspaper from southeastern Texas who wanted to know what my favorite flavor of Pez candy was. George the guitar player and I were invited to decorate the side window at a tiny San Francisco record store in the style of a World Entertainment War altar. The manager of the store took down our installation after three days because it was "too arty." Darby and I appeared on a cable-access TV talk show (probably watched by a total of forty people) side by side with a man dressed as a giant turtle who retracted his head into his shell and blew soap bubbles out, plus a woman wearing a diaper and bandaids across her nipples who could not only put her whole fist into her mouth, but could also sing "Swanee River" while it was in there.

The first shame was that we had placed ourselves in a position to let this happen. The worse shame was that we didn't rise up and follow a more righteous path, but endured it like well-behaved death-row prisoners.

And with every act I took to violate my own principles, the fortunes of the band sunk lower. The CBS record sold less than three thousand copies, a showing so dismal that only the most untalented, inauthentic, unseasoned bands could rival our failure. The CD got on the airplay list of only one major radio station, a renegade outfit in New Jersey run by pagan warlocks. Mysteriously, after a long series of fabulous articles about us in the Bay Area media, we couldn't even manage a single review of the album, let alone a positive review. It was eerie, almost supernaturally improbable. It reminded me of those poor souls who have reverse psychic abilities. A statistically implausible percentage of the time, they're incorrect when they try to guess what card the psychic researcher is holding in his hand. That's what World Entertainment War had become. Our CBS project demonstrated more than a lack of good luck. It reeked with the most fetid, rotten, weirdly awful luck I'd ever experienced in my entire life.

Worse yet, I found myself one dragonish day actually contemplating what I'd have to do to compose a song with more of the standard pop formulas -- a song that people would buy in droves.