ESQUERITA: THE LAST OF THE WEIRD?
A while back I was watching MTV (we needn't go into why) when I heard the news that Geffen Records had been sold to MCA (parent company of Universal Pictures) for a sum slightly in excess of the gross national product of several Third World countries.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not about to launch into some weepy old Bolshie-rock-critic harangue about corporate greed and people starving in Ethiopia. As far as I'm concerned, there's absolutely no reason a (still young) former William Morris Agency mailroom worker like David Geffen shouldn't be allowed to get stinking rich in the record business. Even if that means he releases three-disc boxed sets by the late Tommy Bolin.
Still, when I heard the news I found myself muttering "Uh-oh," like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Because if Geffen, the last really big independent pop label is being swallowed up by a major conglomerate, it means the record business -- worldwide -- is now controlled by only six or seven humongous companies, an unsettling turn of events if you believe the record business differs (or should differ) on some fundamental level from, say, the soft-drink business.
But back, however obliquely to MTV, itself a wholly-owned subsidiary of one of those aforementioned mega-companies. Now, there is much to be said about MTV, some of which I will say someday in another column. But this particular time, after staring at the screen, glassy eyed and sweating, for a couple of hours I came away with a fairly depressing insight -- that the Sex Pistols were right when they said there's No Future.
What brought on this epiphany? Simple: I suddenly noticed that just about nobody on MTV these days -- of any gender, in any genre, from dance pop to rap to heavy metal to college-radio rock -- seems to have the slightest shred of originality, personality, or any artistic ambition beyond getting stinking rich in a hurry.
Think I'm being overcritical? Okay, consider if you will a random example, like say Paul Abdul. Regardless of your opinion of her records, you'd be hard pressed to make a case for her as much than a Las Vegas showgirl who got lucky. Janet Jackson, anybody? C'mon -- a Disneyland animatron; you can almost see the money they spent on her dance lessons. New Kids on the Block? The Partridge Family come to ghastly contemporary life. And the list goes on and on.
Anyway, that's all an extremely roundabout way of getting to my real worry, which is, simply put, that because the vast sums of money to be made in the record business today have raised the corporate stakes so precipitously that no future performer who is not on some level a clone of an already established star is ever going to get a chance in front of the public again. Okay, okay, I'm deliberately overstating my case. But face it: It's not altogether alarmist to worry about whether the space for the emergence of a genuine against-the-grain weirdo -- the kind of misfit/genius who has fueled rock-and-roll from Buddy Holly and Elvis on down -- has been permanently foreclosed.
And so, lately, I've been thinking a lot about Esquerita, an obscure Fifties rocker whose work was recently exhumed on a remarkable Capitol CD. This was a guy who never sold many records, and judging from some of the tracks on this "Best-Of" collection, that's no particular mystery Simply put, the man was either years ahead of his time -- an impossible cross between Sun Ra and Little Richard on acid -- or else an out and out nut. Song after incredible song here finds him raging seemingly out of control, whooping in estrogenic falsetto at the most improbably moments, banging out what should be conventional rock-and-roll piano parts with so many wrong notes you have to assume they were planned, while his band -- featuring crack West Coast session cats -- abandons any attempt at keeping up with him. By all objective standards, this is preposterous, perhaps deranged stuff. And yet, and yet...weirdo or not Esquerita was onto something, and somebody was willing to give him a shot at expressing it.
Of course, that was back in 1958, when record industry rules were still made to be broken, and I suspect that if a contemporary weirdo, an Esquerita for the Nineties, is lurking out there in the darkness, he or she is not about to land a deal with, say, Geffen Records. Stranger things, of course, have happened, like an ex-mailroom guy selling a company for half a billion dollars. But if you think this situation bodes well for the state of music in the declining years of the twentieth century...well, then its time for you to check out the ship movements in the vicinity of Fantasy Island. In the meantime, get the Esquerita CD and prepare to have your life changed. or at least your speakers.
Obviously, a lot has happened since I wrote that, and equally obviously none of my specific end of the world predictions came true in precisely the way I feared.
On the other hand, the music biz actually is now pretty much controlled by an even tinier handful of mega-companies than it was in 1990; younger readers will have to take this on faith, but the idea that RCA Victor and Columbia are now the same record label would have, with justification, been greeted by music fans of the day as a sure sign of the End Times.