July 9, 2004
Rocking, but not rolling
By Edward Nawotka, Special for USA TODAY
The popularity of American Idol may have given the Average American Joe the impression that rock stardom is within easy reach. After reading Jacob Slichter's So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star, memoirs of his days as the drummer for flash-in-the-pan pop trio Semisonic, you'll think differently.
Semisonic's single Closing Time hit No. 1 on Billboard's top 40 at the end of May 1998 and became that summer's anthem. Slichter makes clear that this single victory, which propelled the group's album Feeling Strangely Fine to platinum status, was a combination of musical acumen, persistence and no small amount of dumb luck.
Though a Harvard grad, Slichter was a 32-year-old temp living in Minneapolis and playing occasional open-mike nights. A couple of pals from the semi-successful art rock band Trip Shakespeare asked him to sit in as drummer during a gig at a friend's college graduation party. The three clicked, and Semisonic was born.
Slichter documents in great detail the roller-coaster ride of recording and releasing a major-label record. Using personal journals to spur his memory, he re-creates nearly every communication and meeting that the group has with record execs, producers and radio station managers leading up to the release of their debut album, Great Divide, and its prophetic first single, Down in Flames.
His description of the band's struggle to be launched on national radio is particularly vivid. Slichter recounts endless "suck up" meetings with radio station program directors, the station execs who determine how many times a single gets played during a week. He is especially vexed by the vast quantities of money spent — including payola to program directors from independent music producers, and perks such as fancy catering and limo rides — all of which is billed directly back to the band as "recoupable debt."
By the end of the first album's run, Semisonic owed its record label, MCA, more than $1 million. The band's subsequent codependent relationship with MCA is the dramatic heart of the book.
One might think the ultimate success of their second album makes this angst moot, and in some ways it does.
Soon, Semisonic is opening for Matchbox Twenty, touring with Sheryl Crow, being interviewed by Conan O'Brien and Howard Stern, and schmoozing backstage at the Grammy Awards. But rather than portraying himself as a superstar, Slichter is self-effacing and dwells on such obstacles to achieving rock-God status as his colorblindness (he can't pick out his own clothes) and stage fright, which he manages by chowing down on packs of Rolaids before shows.
The one time he throws his drumsticks into the crowd after a rockin' set, he hits a woman in the 10th row.
The fairy tale ends in 2001 with the band's third album, All About Chemistry. Floundering, the group reconsiders its future.
What's refreshing is how, through it all, Slichter staves off bitterness and remains a music fan and an optimist. His attention to detail and his wit make the book a pleasure to read. "To submit a single with a track length of 4:01 is as foolish as pricing kitchen knives sold on television at $20.01," he jokes at one point.
With its emphasis on reality and hard-won insights into the record biz, this un-ironic tale should be required reading for anyone aspiring to pop stardom.
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