Live: Surviving the Whirlwind
by Natalie Davis
The Music Monthly
I'm psyched. Appearing at Max's this evening is probably the most talked about new
alternative rock band of recent memory. This group is made up of four young - and I mean young - guys who've been the beneficiaries of a big, wet kiss on the lips from Lady Luck. And best of all, they're from our beloved Mid-Atlantic region.
A little over two years ago, the members of Live were a garage band, and not all that different from every other teenage combo in the country. Today, not only is their first video making waves on MTV, but the clip has wrangled a spot in the music video channel's highly competitive Buzz Bin -- all this before their heralded chart-climbing debut LP was even released. Their mugs can be seen all over the music trade papers and fan mags. And the band even snagged a spot on MTV's "120 Minutes" Tour featuring Public Image Limited and Big Audio Dynamite II. Meanwhile, across the country, Live is packing in standing room only crowds. Not bad for four fresh-faced college prep-types from Pennsylvania.
With all of this media attention and constant adulation comes a great deal of pressure. Can these kids cope with what lies ahead? Can they live up to the industry's monumental expectations? Can they make their parents proud? Is all of the hype to be believed?
Upon entering the band's dressing room in the upper reaches of Max's, I encounter three-fourths of Live having a quiet discussion about the drive down from York, PA. Actually, this threw me a bit -- I had expected to find the guys nervously contemplating the evening's performance, not blithely comparing notes on the sites along 183.
Two days beforehand, Live were in Nashville. On the preceding day, they did two shows -- one in Baltimore, one in Washington, D.C. They rused back to York, got next to no sleep, and had to come back to Baltimore for an early set-up and soundcheck at Max's. Then a quick dinner -- the fourth member of Live is still at the restaurant -- and interview with Maryland Musician -- the Music Monthly, and another one with a local cable TV crew. Then, if they're lucky, they may get a chance to see a bit of Suddenly Tammy's opening set before they go on. Wouldn't it be easier to bunk in a hotel and use the driving home to rest? "York's only about 45 minutes away," explains 20 year-old drummer Chad Gracey "so it's simpler to drive down." "Besides," bassist Patrick Dahlheimer (also 20) adds, "we want to go home and sleep in our own beds whenever we can. It isn't often though." Living with the never-ending schedule that goes along with being the industry's new band sounds tough. "Yeah, but it's all in a day's work," sighs Chad Taylor (one of the "old guys" at 21) the band's guitarist and seeming spokesman.
Actually Live have put in a lot more than one day's work. The band was born as Public Affection, a collective of three friends from Edgar Falls Smith Middle School in York, PA. "We were all about 13 and 14 at the time," speaks Taylor of the band's 1985 beginnings. "We've been friends since sixth grade -- we were friends before we were a band. The three of us got together to do our middle school talent show -- that was in eighth grade." Was the performance successful? "We won all the money -- $20!" exults Taylor. "We spent it all at the local arcade."
A little about York, PA for the unitiated: This little town of about 60,000 residents is a little less than an hour's drive away from Baltimore, but this is no quaint village with rolling hills and pastoral splendor. And if that's what you think about York, think again. In fact, you're more apt to find apartment buildings and asphalt than country vistas and farmland. "We're city kids," attests Gracey. "York's not a big city, but it's a nice place to visit." According to Taylor, "When you're on the road touring, it's a great place to come home to. Our actual homes now are hotels across the country. And now it's going to be the tour bus, I guess." Won't that be depressing? "Kinda," he admits.
"No, man," shouts Dahlheimer, indulging in a little youthful fervor. "I've always wanted to live on a bus!"
Back in '85, the only bus the members of Public Affection were thinking about was of the school variety. The boys were all very good students who, following their success at the middle school talent show, had an unusual extracurricular pursuit.
"The band was, initially, the three of us," says Dahlheimer. "We didn't have a singer. Ed [Kowalczyk, 20, the band's singer/guitarist/lyricist, who is out enjoying brick oven pizza] joined the summer before we went into ninth grade."
With the addition of Edward Kowalczyk, the band perfected its craft by playing cover songs in the Taylor family basement. "We didn't start writing our own tunes until about 1987," reveals Gracey. While Kowalczyk writes the words, the entire band pitches in to compose the band's quirky alternative-pop music. According to Gracey, "It's a total collaboration."
A visitor walks into the dressing room -- none other than Ron Furman himself, the man responsible for bringing many an up-and-coming act to his stage at Max's.
"Congratulations, guys," Furman tells the band. "Things are really starting to happen for you!"
"Absolutely," says Taylor, who's obviously becoming a pro at handling the oft-thrown compliments and accolades befitting the industry's hottest new band.
"Scary as sh*t, huh?" laughs Ron.
"Almost," replies Taylor. "Not quite."
"I remember the last time you guys played here," Furman continues, "there was like, nobody here and it was real sunny out. It's gonna be different tonight!"
Taylor nervously laughs. "Yeah, it's our triumphant return."
The club owner embarks on a sentimental journey. "I was thinking about it -- last night, the Judybats were here," he says. "I paid 'em $50 as an opening act for Sunday Cannons in 1990. Nobody knew who they were. Last night, you couldn't get into the room, it was so packed."
The members of Live and yours truly are hanging on to every word by now, so he goes on. "And Matthew Sweet -- he was here with Lloyd Cole four years ago. Nobody knew him -- maybe a few Golden Palominos fans knew who he was. It was like, 'Who is this solo guitarist?' Now, it looks like [Sweet's] gonna sell out when he plays here in a couple of weeks."
Dahlheimer, while plucking his bass strings distractedly, comments, "I guess you know how to spot up and coming talent."
Ron smiles at the band and after a few more compliments, takes his leave.
"He's really a nice guy," says Taylor. "I'm surprised he remembers us."
"How old were you guys when you really started playing? 13..14? It's unREAL!" David Taylor has just entered the dressing room. Taylor isn't dressed much differently from the band members -- he's in a comfortable casual shirt, jeans, running shoes. In fact, his style of dress is the same as Live's young fans. The difference is that the man is almost 43 years old, despite his big teenager persona. And if that's not enough, he happens to be the father of Live's Chad Taylor (and a surrogate dad to the other band members), and the one person who has put it all on the line since day one.
The elder Taylor has thousands of stories from the early days of Live, back when they were still Public Affection. One reminiscence is about their first gig playing originals at Saint James Church in Pennsylvania. "That was a HAPPENING!" Taylor crows. (You'll notice that Chad's dad tends to speak in intermittent capital letters.) "With that dance, nobody danced. The people in the audience were sitting around LISTENING to the music! At that point -- all of a sudden -- you realized that the band had changed." Taylor smiles the proud-dad smile and shakes his head. "That was REALLY interesting."
What's really intriguing is that since the band started writing its own songs in 1987, the members -- and specifically lyricist Kowalczyk -- have not fallen into the usual trap of writing about girls, cars, girls, partying, girls, and, uh, girls. Despite their clean-cut and fun-loving demeanors -- which is completely appropriate for young men who've just entered their 20s and, I must add, totally appealing -- this foursome is serious about its music and the idealistic messages they send out to listeners. Live's songs stress individual responsibility and social consciousness. As Kowalczyk -- who has yet to appear -- is becoming famous for saying, "We are the products of 10,000 years of recorded knowledge. And still, the world is a complete mess. Obviously, the thinking and ideas that have been handed down aren't working. It's time for people to learn to break old patterns of thought and start to think for themselves, to come up with their own new ways of living and relating to each other and solving our problems."
In a way, Live are similar to the young U2. Both bands are intense and passionate about their music and determined to be heard. Both bands have four members, and both feature talented singer/lyricists with incredibly powerful and resonant voices. Also, both bands vigorously promote messages of unity and idealism. The main difference is that U2's lyrics, Paul Hewson (you know him as Bono) is strongly identified with the teachings of Christianity. Live's Kowalczyk believes we can find the answers and the truth within ourselves.
As Ed tells me later, "Nationalism, racism, war -- these are products of our history that we hide in. Rather than coming up with our own solutions to the world's problems, we raise the flag. Rather than teaching ourselves to appreciate and deal with people of other races, we retreat to accepting old and untrue -- but safe -- prejudices. That sort of thinking is wrong. It's a cop-out."
"I don't see anything positive in tradition," Kowalczyk continues. "I don't think you can properly address a problem while holding on to ancient ideas."
Is the young lyricist suggesting that we wipe the slate of history clean and begin anew? What would be left? "That's what we have to find out," he admits "But until we let go of useless traditions and 'isms', we just compound our problems. We've got to think for ourselves. Pretty literature and flag-waving aren't going to solve anything."
Back in the here and now, Dave Taylor, the unofficial "band dad", has his own ideas on what makes Live special. "Lyrically they're going down a little bit different road -- not that it hasn't been traveled before," he admits. "Their music doesn't have all the sex and the drugs. They're trying to sell people... there's a certain amount of wholesomeness about them. There is. I mean, when you look at "Pain Lies on the Riverside" [a cut from Mental Jewelry"], it says that life's tough. You're constantly being baptized when you're out on the bank. It's rough."
I note that it's refreshing to see a parent so enmeshed and well-versed in his child's rock band. "Well, I've always believed that my boys, as I call 'em, had something different, something special," Taylor says. "That's why I've come out to their shows, that's why I've helped 'em buy equipment, that's why I've carted 'em here and there."
"And that's not all," says Chad Taylor. "You ought to hear my grandma get into it. It's like that all the time."
Dahlheimer agrees. "[Our parents] are our number-one fans."
It wasn't always that way.
When Public Affection practiced in the Taylor basement and played out as high schoolers, the members' parents didn't mind. the boys were good students and college-bound -- music was a good, fun activity for them. But nobody -- except for Dave Taylor -- wanted them to take it further than that.
Says Chad Taylor, "We got serious about our music around graduation time, in 1989. We were college-prep kids, and I guess we shocked our folks when we suddenly announced, 'Hey Mom and Dad, we're not going to college -- we're going to do the band full-time.' It was a big shock."
"They were disappointed once the shock wore off," Dahlheimer relates. "I mean, we had been college-bound all our lives."
Ed Kowalczyk has finally arrived, extolling the merits of brick oven pizza. When filled in on the gist of the conversation, the lanky 20 year-old adds a similar story. "College was pretty much expected of me, but eventually, my parents came around."
With parental units suitably informed of the boys' post-graduation plans, the newly-christened Live got to work. Kowalczyk picks up the story. "During our senior year, we were recording an independent release (financed by selling $10,000 worth of bonds), The Death of a Dictionary. We took the release and started shopping it to record companies. We actually picked up the finished master tape on the day we graduated from high school," he says.
Between the summer of 1989 and September of 1990, Live performed largely at the Chameleon, the renowned Lancaaster, PA night spot. Toward the end of that period, the band was spotted in a showcase performance by a representative of Giant Records. "He was a business associate of a friend of our manager's," explains Chad Taylor. "It was sort of a favor."
A favor that turned out to be a big one -- the Giant rep signed Live to, as the band calls it, a "demo deal." Essentially, the deal outlined that Giant Records would finance the recording of Live's demo and would get first crack at signing the fledging foursome to a record contract if Giant liked the tape.
The deal signed, Kowalczyk, Taylor, Gracey, and Dahlheimer went on to the next logical step -- their first big-time recording session. Handling producer chores was seasoned pro Jay Healy, who's worked with R.E.M. in the past. In retrospect, the band doesn't look back on the project too fondly. "It didn't really capture our sound," says Kowalczyk. When the tape was complete, Giant decided not to sign the band. According to the singer/lyricist, "They chose Color Me Badd instead. But it was cool 'cause we got a free demo out of it."
One of the coolest things a young band can do, according to a number of musicians who live within 1,000 miles (give or take a thousand or so) of New York City, is to play at CBGB's -- Manhattan's lower east side hell-hole (I mean that affectionately) that is legendary for bringing then young bands like Blondie, Talking Heads, The Ramones, and countless others into the spotlight. Thanks to the attention garnered by Live's Death of a Dictionary and the Giant-financed demo, the band was able to book a gig at CB's in 1991. Unfortunately, the band found that the club's reputation is a lot more romantic than its reality.
"The first time we played there wwas for a matinee," Taylor remembers. "It was the last Sunday they [offered] a matinee show in the afternoon." His father recalls the experience being every parent's nightmare. "My God, there I was with my 19 year-old son and his friends, walking in this FRIGHTENING PLACE! We were walking on Broadway. We came up an alley and there were cars parked on angles, PUNKERS all around, car hoods up... they had everything but FIRES GOING!"
Chad continues the tale: "We went in, and there was a guy on stage screaming at everyone. I went up and he yelled, 'GET THE F--- OUT!' I tried to tell him that we were playing there and he yelled, 'I DON'T GIVE A F---! GET THE F---- OUT!'"
Dave Taylor says his son came back terrified. "Everybody, the staff, the audience, was kind of rough-looking. Punkers. Chad came back to me and said, 'Dad, they're gonna kill us!' and I'm thinking, the band has this song 'Ball and Chain' that's kind of on the punky side. And the boys said, 'We can play that!'"
By turning up the distortion on their amplifiers, Live were able to successfully maneuver through their first show at CBGB's. It was an experience they repeated several times. Looking back, Chad Taylor now says, with not a little bit of pride creeping into his voice, "It was nice. Eventually, we got used to it. I would actually be sitting there and there'd be a rat right next to me and it wouldn't phase me. It really wouldn't."
CBGB's offered Live a valuable lesson in performing under combat conditions -- it also helped to get them noticed by Radioactive Records. The combination of performing at CB's and the Giant-spurned demo tape put the band high on the list of potential acts for the small label, which is distributed through MCA Records. In February 1991, Live finally got its record deal and the real whirlwind began.
First, there was the mental whirlwind. "All of a sudden, we started to worry -- what if someone says we sold out? They're giving us money, getting us out on the road...at first, it was a lot for us to take in," says Chad Taylor.
"But this is what we wanted, this is our career," reasons Dahlheimer.
"We are who we are -- whether this all works out or not, we'll be the same sweet kids we always were," laughs Kowalczyk. "Seriously though, we take the music seriously. The rest of it is smoke and mirrors. It's not real, it's a game. So we just do what we have to do and have fun with it. Otherwise, you'd go insane."
The next whirlwind consisted of leaving their soft, snug beds in York to go to work. "We were signed by Radioactive Records in February, 1991. In March, we were in the studio," reports Kowalczyk, and working with another veteran of CBGB's Jerry Harrison has achieved notice as a producer through working with alternative rock darlings like the BoDeans, the Violent Femmes, and the aptly-named Psychefunkapus.
"The boys really liked working with him," says Dave Taylor, once again emitting that 1,000-watt proud-dad grin. "Yeah," adds Kowalczyk, "but the album still doesn't really sound like us."
Even so, the resulting products, the EP Four Songs and the album Mental Jewelry, tickled the fancy of both the industry and fans alike. When recording ended in April, 1991, the band took a short break before shooting a video for the EP's first intended single, "Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition)" and hitting the road.
To give you a feeling of the ridiculously brief time span with which we're covering, dig this: Four Songs was released to general acclaim in August '91. Soon after, MTV received a copy of the "Opeeration Spirit" clip. Buoyed by a vigorous sales push by Radioactive and MCA Records, the music video network decided Live's video would score big with viewers and placed it in the Buzz Bin of its alternative music program, "120 Minutes". In late fall, Mental Jewelry was released to even more acclaim from the music press, and to swift sales by the record-buying public. (It didn't hurt that the boys' cute faces were practically MTV staples by that time, thanks to the video.) Live, appearing to the MTV powers-that-be as a good shot, were tapped for the "120 Minutes" tour.
Of course, the band was busy performing all over God's creation -- throughout America, in Canada, England, and Scotland. The members say -- and I believe them -- that they didn't realize they were generating so much fuss. "It was cool when we started playing to full houses, and when people would come up to us saying how much they like the records," says Gracey. "But I had no idea..."
Chad Taylor agrees. "It's weird when we're travellig ... going cross-country," he explains. "Say we're in Minneapolis. I'm talking to somebody. Eventually, it comes out that I'm in a band, and they go, 'That's you? Oh, wow! I just bought that record!' That's pretty cool.
The members of Live say their burgeoning success finally dawned on them through the music industry bible, Billboard magazine. "One week, the album was at 200 on the charts," says Dahlheimer. "Two weeks later, it was up to 99."
For all their youthful enthusiasm, Kowalczyk, Taylor, Gracey, and Dahlheimer know full well how precarious Live's position is. This week's media sweethearts can easily wind up as the lead item in next week's "Where Are They Now?" piece. The young men seem to be doing their best to maintain an air of normalcy during their rare times off, playing Game Boy and indulging in what Gracey calls "good clean fun". And while they eschew the trappings of stardom, the band is all too aware that music is a business.
"Sometimes it can be nerve-wracking," allows Kowalczyk.
"That's true," agrees Chad Taylor. "I've counted -- we've only had 12 days off since October. We'll be running straight through with this mini-tour, then right into the 29-city MTV tour, then two months in Europe. Then, we'll probably come home and tour for at least another three months. Pretty intense. It'll be some time before we see even a week off," he says.
"Hey, guys," a stocky, young, dark-haired man says, having entered the dressing room. We all chime out with the hellos, in and out of unison. I remind the band that yet another interview awaits.
"Oh, right -- the TV interview," remembers Gracey.
"Geez," sighs Chad Taylor. "I was hoping to have a chance to sneak downstairs to see some of Suddenly Tammy's set. They're friends of ours from Pennsylvania and they're really good."
Sometimes you gotta sacrifice when you're living in a whirlwind.
I ask the guys what they do when they're not involved in touring and promoting themselves and doing interviews. "We go home to our folks," says Gracey. Still in the nest, huh? "Yeah, and we're thankful for that," Dahlheimer says reflectively. "Without the support of our families, it wouldn't be possible to do what we do."
After a brief discussion of the bottled water we're drinking, the "cable guy" returns to inform the band that it's time for their next interview. The members politely pose for a few photographs, offer some sincerely good-natured good-byes ("You will come to our Hammerjacks show, won't you?" Dahlheimer shouts at me. "Come and hang out -- maybe you can meet Johnny Rotten!") and depart.
I'm left in the dressing room with Dave Taylor, our photographer, and a couple of friends who popped in during the course of the just-completed interview. I notice Dave looking a bit wistfully at the now-closed door.
"I like to say they are all my boys," he starts quietly. "Chad's my son, but they're all my sons in a way, and I'm really proud of them. But, I worry, you know? They're good kids. They work hard, they're talented, they don't deal with drugs, and they all get along. They've all come from good homes and good families -- they have values. I just hope they'll be able to keep themselves on the right path. There's a lot of bad stuff out there, so many things -- groupies and such -- that could turn their heads. And right now, everybody wants a piece of Live. I just have to hope and trust that they'll hang in there and be true to themselves."
Taylor's right. It's a jungle out there, and the music industry could very well be the darkest, most dangerous jungle of them all. Getting through it unscathed, particularly with the amount of attention with which Live have been (and will be) deluged over the next few months (hell, years, if the hype proves true and the band maintains its popularity), will be enormously difficult for them. Still, I can't shake the feeling that these boys -- these young men -- will do just fine. And if they entertain people and open some minds along the way, so much the better.
With any luck, Live will emerge better for the experience.
And with any luck, so, too, will we.