You Only Live Twice (part two)

 

The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard-Katha-Upanishad (via W. Somerset Maugham)

The break-up occurred on May 10th, 1999.   Then the real break-up, “It’s over.  We tried it and it didn’t work,” took place about thirty days later.  Then I dropped thirty pounds in thirty days.  My friends came running, but I was too busy isolating to notice.  I sat at home listening to Moby’s Play the soundtrack to my heartache.  I didn’t start to cry until May 13th and then I couldn’t stop, just like that CD’s constant circling in its player.  But I went to work.  Work was my salvation the one place I always returned to.  Like home.

Sometime in 2001 we bumped into each other.  He was married, ran a marathon and had a dog.  These were all things I knew would happen.  I knew he would try to continue our legacy, but with someone else.  They were actions taken “at” me.  His appearance of a life fulfilled was done at my expense.  While he’d spent time revenge run rampant.   I just suffered.  I feigned happiness for him and his brilliant accomplishments.  At least by then I had put down the whip, picked up a fork and was living my life.  He never bore witness to my incessant flagellation.  2001 came in sharp contrasts, I realize for all, and yet my star had risen.  For me that was a very good thing, and not a thing he needed to know.  I walked away feeling good about myself, and that was a very good thing indeed.

Two months before we broke up, I was working late when a colleague cracked open a bottle of Patron.  I’d felt alienated after the merger.  Interscope was the antithesis of A&M.  I was swimming in the shallow end of unknown waters.  I so desperately wanted a friend to help guide me deeper.  My timing was awful, so was my methodology.  I eventually came home, but two hours late and excuseless.  The general hysteria that goes along with tequila incidents gone awry spewed out of me.  I puked.  I screamed.  I puked.  Why was he even with me?  I was too old for him!  He was a downtown hipster and, “I am totally uncool!”  He cleaned me up.  Put me to bed and left.  As soon as that hangover wore off the breakup was on.

“You can drink. You don’t have to change.  We’ll get through this.”  He claimed to have lost two relationships to AA.  Since I was his third the odds weren’t looking good.  He couldn’t watch me go through it.  “Too few people make it.”  A day later, “I can’t believe I found someone so perfect for me.”  A few days would pass, “I’m trying to work my way back to you.”  I was convinced the dream had shattered in a bottle of tequila, a pool of vomit, and a bed full of denial.  A close friend gently pushing me toward recovery, “Believe me he knows you’re an alcoholic and he’s known all along,”  He maintained, “I like the way you use alcohol.”  Solutions are rooted.  We felt unworldly.  Vaporous incapable of being trapped into something so solid.

On Place St.-Michel he pushed me.  Took two arms and shoved me as if I were a pickpocket caught in the act.  “Get off of me!”  Ten days in Paris, the city of love, we had sex twice.  Angry sex.  Naked and hit by a belt, yanked around the hotel room, completely dominated, left simpering in a corner, and going to sleep with our backs facing each other.  Years I fantasized over visiting The Muse’ Rodin with a lover.  Standing so close we could have stroked The Kiss, “Maybe I’ll get a sex change operation and move to Paris.”  Beaten down I was still trying to share even though he’d clearly decided there was no more “we” it would now be “I.”   Two months had passed since the tequila incident.  Sixty days I spent looking like a Camille Claudel sculpture.

 

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There’s only one in the bed… Or, how I spent my Paris vacation.

Making love in a rooftop Jacuzzi while Grammy night lights swirled around us, cuddling up to a fire place at Long View Farms studio while an ice storm raged outside talking about everything we hoped for us none of which was true, driving to Boston telling stories about the past while the The Idiot played on rotation and we tried to hold hands across a stick shift Barracuda named Bernadette, those days were gone.

Sobriety requires a relationship with something greater than oneself.  Over the weeks our conversations turned to seeking.  He was didactic, an excitable boy searching for something beyond the experience of reality.  I was often left mystified yet confused by his musings.  Frankly I often found them sophomoric, dorm room fodder.  Lacking clarity I did engage although I had spent far more time thinking about Led Zeppelin lV than about god.

Much earlier in the relationship he’d given me a copy of The Razor’s Edge.  Claimed it was his favorite, and inscribed with many declarations about my eyes, my breath, rain. The final lines read; With you there are no walls. Together we escape burden, and culminated with Debbi- you make me cry.  I read his page long benediction so often I never read the novel.  I couldn’t quite make sense of how making him cry was a desirable effect.  I decided the inscription had something to do with love, but he didn’t sign it with love.  He’d also spelled my name wrong.

Eventually I read it.  I indulged in anything, size don’t matter, he’d left me.  Obviously Larry spoke to him, “I want to make up my mind whether God is or God is not.”  I was an Isobel (is a belle), who wanted to meet interesting people, but not if it meant giving up her Chanel dresses.  Larry (I wish I could interpret that name as ‘liar’ but I don’t think Somerset Maugham would agree) knew she would only be experimenting with, “a sort of cultured slumming.”  Isobel could also give herself an orgasm just by staring at Larry’s arm.  She couldn’t have him.  She was forced to settle, and his would be a lone journey.  In the end Larry finds his salvation.  He escapes bondage.  Poor Isobel, well, you can’t have someone who isn’t there.  Dharma-bums, social strata, the ultimate question, none of that meant anything, the only answers I was seeking made habitat behind those blue eyes. Perhaps it should have been obvious that my boyfriend needed to find something, and he couldn’t do it with me.  But I didn’t read the book.

 

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I could always find my way back home.

In 2003 he called with an invitation to dinner.  He requested that I come that same evening.  So on an indifferently cold evening I walked west to east arriving at the same building.  He was cooking fried chicken and corn bread.  An aside, by the end we had both gained about 10 pounds.  We feasted on food instead of flesh.  We swallowed up all the truth so there was nothing to say.  Rib roast, homemade bread, macaroons one of my favorite things, were all forced on me.  I didn’t want any of it, except the macaroons, but I ate anyway.  I would take anything he offered.  I finally figured out what happens when you’ve been consumed, you start consuming.  Once you gain 10 pounds you get depressed and your doctor puts you on anti-anxiety meds, anti-depressants and sleep aids.  Then you refill those fuckers as often as you need.  By the spring of 1999 I was a beggar with an extensive medicine cabinet who could no longer fit into her jeans.

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When Ile St-Louis calls you go no matter how big your thighs have gotten.

Whatever this dinner was, it was not going to be a hostile takeover.  Thanks to a couple of green pills my emotions were well barricaded.  I entered the same building but different apartment.  That helped keep a few sensory triggers at bay.  His red hair was long, and greasy.  He was wearing some make-up along with tight red glam pants tucked into Paul Stanley’s boots.  The most striking piece of his countenance was the perfectly plucked eyebrows.  The brows becoming the entrance to his face, replacing what used to be blue eyes.  The lightening bolts on his cheesy boots were enough to strike me silent.

He fried up chicken and rambled on about his ex-wife.  She was now the dumpster for all his rubbish.  She wanted money and she took her dog.  Aside from the dog it seemed her best asset was the ability to apply make-up; then they would go out together.  I immediately imagined her in a suit and him in a dress.  Our gangster and gun moll act done in reverse.  I was thankful for her.  He no longer had a reason to do anything “at” me.  I snuck a peak into the bedroom.  It contained the double sized bed we’d bought together.  Seeing it there with the same headboard did beget sorrow.  I could still see my hands wrapped around the poles.  Still and all, we had been living perversely different lives for seven years.  I owned a new bed, an extraordinarily expensive one at that.

“I’m having a sex change operation.”  I don’t know why I was surprised.  It was in my face throughout our entire relationship.  In Paris he had said the words.  If that statement were spray-painted on the wall my reaction would have been, “Wall? What wall?”  Hear, speak, see…no!  If I had to be The Three Monkeys I would, and then swallow another macaroon.  My eyes welled up but I didn’t cry.  I squeaked out, “But why?”  This was his razor’s edge.

“I always knew I would do this.  That’s why I had to break up with you.  I knew you couldn’t live this way.  I knew you need a man.”  Larry needed to find truth.  Isobel needed to live within her comfort zone.  But we were not the characters Maugham created.  And it was never the tequila, and it certainly wasn’t a relationship that fizzled after the excitement of the first 60 days.  There was always a thread between us that we tangled up, like the necklace you carelessly throw into your jewelry box every night even though you put it back on the next day.  If you never pause to fix it eventually the chain breaks.

During the months our break-up dragged on, before, “It’s over.  We tried and it didn’t work,” he also said, “I know how I feel about you. I just don’t know how I feel about us.” “I’m trying so hard to work my way back to you.”  “I need to take a break from this relationship and I don’t even believe those are my words coming through me because I could never say that to you.”  I also wondered where those words had come from.  How could I know they came from she not he.  He said he couldn’t see himself in the mirror because I was standing between him and the mirror, “I have to remove you if I’m ever going to see myself.”  My boyfriend wanted to be me.  And thank god he managed to remove me, because eventually he decided to look like Brittany Spears.

I got to bear witness to some of the process.  Throughout the next year or so she helped me sell off some records, she helped me move some boxes.  When I lost my job her new girlfriend helped me look for a cheaper apartment.  She finally acknowledged my success when she started playing in a band that loved Queens of the Stone Age.  Gone were the days when my cell phone was an embarrassment.  I was even invited to the studio a couple of times.  The make-up, the breasts, the hair, the nails, never fully disguised the man.  Eventually I heard rumor that the transition had been wholly consummated.  Over ten years have passed since I last saw her.

“I knew you couldn’t live this way.”  I was never given a voice in the decision.  Maybe I could have.  Maybe I would have stayed.  At the least we could have tried to live in the truth.  Maybe I would have walked away.  Maybe I wouldn’t have made him cry, and he could sign a novel With Love.  I always wished him to be happy.  That was the unselfish piece.  I wanted him to love me forever.  That was selfish.  “I knew you needed a man.”  Well thank you for making the decision for me.  I’m not going to go on a tirade about gender specific roles.  I only know I’ve had plenty of men (and a couple of women) since, and not one has ever given me an ounce of what he did.  I’ll never know what she could have.

I silently mourned his death.  I didn’t starve myself, I didn’t over medicate, I didn’t worry my friends.  But, I did mourn.  I will never again see that blue-eyed boy I loved.  There was a time he came to me almost nightly in my dreams.  Like Peter Pan visiting Wendy. To be perfectly honest, fleetingly he still comes I wake up happy.  He managed to crawl up inside me.  Inside of me resides a beautiful blue-eyed boy who ate candy for breakfast and called me “Kitten.”  But outside there is no grave marker.  He simply faded away never again to be.  I miss him terribly.  Yvan-you make me cry.

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Addendum: For many years I wondered if this entire saga unfolded in my head.  One evening my intern entered my office and closed the door.  She was young, zaftig, with long black hair, punk rock clothes and a beautifully kind face.  She had a story for me, but she approached with caution.  This could be dangerous territory.  A few years after he and I broke up she walked into a bar on Avenue B.  He stared, and I have made it quite clear those eyes were no joke.  He appeared to be awestruck.  Once she settled on a barstool he said, “I’m sorry.  I thought you were someone else.”  I looked at her, yes, I could see it at a distance he would have seen a ghost.  He continued, “I thought you were a woman I had a relationship with years ago.  It was the most intense experience I’ve ever had.”  They chatted some.  Her drink was on the house.

-For Molly who got to live twice

Drug Farm

“Got a knife in my back got a hole in my arm when I’m driving the tractor on the drug farm” Lyrics Dave Wyndorf/ Photo: Michael Alago

 

Once again Gary Harris schooled me, “Debbie stop the bullshit! Get over it. I have never known an A&R person who had hits that didn’t get high. Debbie I have never known an A&R person who had hits that didn’t get high. I have NEVER known an A&R person who had hits that didn’t get high.” This A&R executive had mad crazy skills at both. *An aside-Before this roller coaster takes off, I must confess two important factors: I lived a life where timelines didn’t exist, and I spent many years picking up and putting down alcohol. 1989 through 2004 was a fast lane. Please be tolerant.

The late 80s came with Uncle Tupelo. East St. Louis may be the most depressing place in America. I think in order to live there, which they did, you were compelled to drink. “Whiskey bottle over Jesus.” Plus the beer at Cicero’s cost about fifty cents. Eventually I could outdrink Jeff Tweedy. Although chaotic and potentially disastrous the whole gig was fun. Teenage Fanclub and Uncle Tupelo played CBGBs. My red shoes ended up on the wrong side of the bar. Tony Margherita and I spent a good part of the night shouting for more beer, trying to retrieve my shoes and more often knocking each other over. Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression started a movement, and a magazine. CMJ ruled the 80s and an indie-hit record was still a hit.

While pounding down beers at Don Hills he spoke and I slurred about the Wilco masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Also, I may have fallen off my seat. Jesse Malin was so upset he thought the logical thing would be to tell everyone how worried he was. New York City rock & roll rumors do one thing, they get back to you. “I could think of only one person I would want to take to this show.” Jesse was offering to take me to see The Stones. “You’re telling people I’m on pills??? How dare you! I wouldn’t see The Stones with you if you were the last person alive.” I was too high and too arrogant to see my favorite band with one of my favorite people. I never had a hit record with DGeneration, but I did sign them to a major label and in turn they put me on the map below 14th St. the equivalent of a hit.

Around the time Andy Gould arrived, strip bars, the Cigar Club 666, The Ivy, The Palm, chic hotel bars, anywhere fun and everywhere we could drink became the norm. Andy was a combination of Arthur, and Austin Powers (and possibly any role Dudley Moore ever played). We worked ourselves to exhaustion. We drank and joked and danced. Andy even danced like Austin Powers, I had Axle Rose perfected. Andy helped me settle into L.A. The one where you drank Bloody Mary’s at Barneys for breakfast tablehopping to kiss-kiss. Drank Pina Coladas for breakfast while Andy Gould and Bob Chiphardi cheered on that nefarious Gene Simmons make out session. Martinis were as commonplace as naked pool jumping. I was scrupulous about keeping my clothes on, even though most of them were sheer and stained with red wine, they never got wet, and they always stayed on. L.A. is manifest for voyeurism. Andy ensured us a front seat. He was a genius, and I loved being Andy’s wingman. A cheeky twosome who shot for the stars, and every album, single and video we worked on together went big. Went larger than our collective malfeasance.

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Me and Andy Gould at The Four Seasons Hotel. Last call. Good thing my leg was there…

On “Black Thursday” I landed safely and securely at Interscope Records. Eventually Andy left me for Jordan Shure, and I filled the void with Queens of the Stone Age. I was signing the most important band of my career. I was also heart broken. That’s a story for another day, but involved vomiting a great deal of tequila on one of the cutest boys on the L.E.S. One bona fide fuck up. In absolution I gave up drinking alcohol and eating food. Instead I ate pills. When I walked my purse rattled. Still good fortune shone down on me. Black Thursday + a job = major hit.

Dave Wyndorf cornered me in a hallway at The Chelsea Hotel. “Are you on pills? You look terrible!!! You think you look junkie chic? You look fucking hideous!!!” (P.s.-I’m worried about you) Of course I was doing pills. I was eating pills all the time. My jumping off point were the sleeping pills I discovered that would get me through all the sleepless nights that finally gave birth to Power Trip. Having just been pierced from tongue to toe I did what any pilled, pained, pummeled waif would do ran down the stairs. Space Lord Motherfucker getting you through Power Trip almost killed me! By the way, once we had that hit record the drug farm seemed a very nice place to hang my cowboy hat with matching boa.

Another tour bus, another OzzFest, boys jerking off to another Pantera set, Ozzy performing night after night in those awful sweat pants with that stupid hose. It clicked, “What would Nick do?” WWND? “It must be five o’ clock somewhere.” That’s exactly what Nick Oliveri would do. I was still living in absolution for the tequila incident. So when that first beer got gulped guided by a handful of klonopin my body had a party. Rated R was rearing towards Gold. I was high.

Debbie Nick
WWND? Obviously I’d done the thing Nick would do. Photo: Lindsey Anderson

Those days felt magical. Josh and Nick showing up unannounced at my NYC office, “Let’s go do stuff.” Stuff got done. Me showing up at The Academy in London, while a still fully clothed Nick palmed off a handful of Percodan. “Want these?” Josh, his brother and Brody called from Niagara. “Okay, I’ll meet you for ONE drink.” Sitting down at the booth, Josh locked eyes, “I’m gonna get you so fucked up.” Next thing I knew it was 5:00 a.m. and I was barefoot hailing a cab. The February barefoot walk of shame is not pretty. We already had one hit and apparently I was dancing barefoot to another.

Somewhere in the midst of all this self-imposed chaos Asif Ahmed showed up dangling The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Some people black out and end up in Vegas. I ended up in Copenhagen. Asif and I wrestled on the floor of the Soho Hotel (an evil place). He broke bottles of red wine and drank from them. I drew a line. It was white. “If Jimmy doesn’t come to the L.A. show we won’t sign with you.” It takes a lot of sedatives and liquid fortitude to talk Jimmy Iovine into a rock club. “If you don’t come to the UK we won’t sign with you.” We shoved half eaten lobster shells into the Polygram executives’ man bags. Asif and I never walked into a meeting with anyone, not Jimmy Iovine, not David Joseph, not Lyor Cohen, without bringing bottles of red wine and demanding sandwiches. By this point I could lick my wardrobe and get drunk. However, somewhere between New York, Los Angeles, Lost Vegas and a whole lotta UK, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs signed with us. They delivered not just a hit album, but “Maps.” Fever to Tell made everything I did excusable (even though most of it was Asif’s fault).

QOTSA opened for the RHCP at MSG. It was Josh’s birthday. I drank magnums of champagne with Karen O and during the bacchanalia lost a couple of my hair extensions. One became the centerpiece of the big man’s b-day table. Asif notified me of the sad, sad, loss. Brody and I spent as much time in the Ladies Room as we did dancing and hugging. I was outlandishly skinny, I was highly successful and did not care that I was outlandishly high. Here’s the catch, other people did. Care.

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Me and Brody. If you’re lucky, and I am, you find out there’s a life filled with love outside of the Ladies Room. Photo: Lindsey Anderson

I fell down. A lot. I wrecked romantic relationships with my head in a toilet, a drunk- dial, or a temper tantrum. I threw money around like a member of G-Unit. I was always bruised. I wrecked thousands of dollars of Marc Jacobs clothing. Everything was excessive: dancing, sex, working, the number of people a bathroom could hold, shopping, exercising, apologizing, money, lack of money, travel, dinners, outfits, embarrassing myself…everything. But hey, I had hit records, Grammy nominations, charisma…Suddenly something stalled. I got tired. I got lonely. I’d had it with hits. I stopped getting high.

Sex, drugs and rock & roll compose a contract I signed with no legal representation. I made the mistake of believing the holy trinity must be grossly indulged. I would like to say the “Tractor” stopped there. Now and then there was a drought, or a break down. Finally the day came when the farm sold, and the tractor rotted.

Recently backstage at MSG, one of the most badass women to ever walk the earth whispered, “Debbie, sober is better.” Truth told not all A&R executives who have hits get high; it’s more like 85%. Gary knew I had something most don’t. Stories. When he demanded, “Debbie, stop the bullshit,” he was giving me permission to tell them.

-Dedicated to every person who came to my aid circa 1989-2004. Dave W, Phil C, Nicole H, Matt H, Jesse M, Danny S, Diane G, Steve K, Kristin H, Lisa B, Ellen M-P, Michael A, Thom E, Cid S, Asif A, Liz B, Julie F, Dana M, Mark W, David C, Jimmy I…more than I can list (or remember-oy the mind). I’m sorry if I’ve left you out, you are all my angels. Mom and Daryl you have the biggest wings, by far.

#bandaid

About a year ago Josh Homme said to the press, “Major labels give groupies credit cards and call them record executives.” I squirmed. I’m positive Josh wasn’t directing that statement at me. I am fairly positive Josh doesn’t think about me unless he’s talking to me. So, why squirm? Plus, I love groupies. If it weren’t for groupies our record collections would be terrible.

One evening over dinner a woman, who has been a booking agent for thirty years, got terribly distraught, “These girls today…they have no class. They’re all porned out. They aren’t like we were. I mean, we were the supermodels of rock & roll.” I giggled inside, it reminded me of that last bit in Almost Famous. While Sapphire shamefully picks at her plate she laments, “these new girls they don’t even know what it is to be a fan. Y’know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” Plus they eat the sirloin.

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1985-kinda ‘splains a lot. Partner in crime Juli Kryslur, she later went on to open Enigma Records NY office.

In the days of Rock Scene Magazine I thought about growing up and becoming a groupie. I loved rock stars. I quit Brownies because no one wanted to talk about David Cassidy. I don’t think it was ever a dilemma, but it also never transpired (except maybe that time I asked Gene Simmons to kiss me-story for another day). I have wrangled with the madness of Jeff Tweedy, Ryan Adams, Jesse Malin and Danny Sage, Dave Wyndorf (for a time I was his girlfriend), Karen O, Alain Johannes and Natasha Schneider, Joshua Homme and Nick Oliveri, and so on and on… I always wonder if life is irrevocable fate or if we make our own realities? Ultimately I grew up to be an A&R executive.

My job did furnish front row surveillance to groupies climbing the stairs of tour buses. I’ve seen mother/daughter teams, and twins. I have seen actresses, models and porn stars. Some of my bands share stories that would spin Jerry Springer’s head like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. I have accidently opened backstage doors that gave me a glimpse into a young boy’s wet dream. Ya’ gotta love Detroit. Climbing those stairs was de rigueur for me, but I always had my own bunk.

The more desirable commodity was having my own hotel room. I like potable water. Danny Sage from DGeneration got a kick out of knocking on my door at 8:00 a.m. Who the fuck is up at 8:00 a.m. during a tour? Danny. He’d lie down on a perfectly white bed with his smelly leather pants and muddy motorcycle boots on. It was innocent, and made me laugh. A few times I had to coerce security (that’s hard work and fast talking) to unlock Dave’s room only to find him sleeping, but like 10 minutes before set-time. And I’ve never gotten a speeding ticket. Once I let QOTSA use my room to shower. I’m the type of person who makes my bed before I check out of a hotel room. I never did that again.

In the 90s I wore leather pants, cowboy hats, boas, and great boots. Jesse told me I would win the Grammy for “The most leather wearing A&R person.” If style makes the groupie, than yeah, I’m gonna do a little squirming. Wetlands, October 9th, 1999. A line of Suits from Columbia Records marched backstage to meet Queens of the Stone Age. They didn’t look like groupies, they looked like lemmings with ties, but I think I might have. As protocol dictated I was wearing leather pants (they belonged to Dave Wyndorf, he’d thrown them at me before a Monster Magnet show in Boston) and a QOTSA baby doll t-shirt. Looking back I wish I still had those abs.

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I forgot to mention sunglasses (essential)

Eventually The Suits paraded out. We were closing this deal. The war had whittled down and I’d be damned if The Suits were going to win it. The president of Interscope Records wanted it done, and I wanted it done. I closed my deals. Sometime after the Wetlands show Josh and Nick laid it out, we looked at them and we looked at you. “Look how cool Debbie is.” We don’t work with Suits. I’d won. Leather pants and baby doll tee me, VP of A&R me.

Maybe you can’t look at the events of your life through one lens. Groupies follow bands. Groupies love bands. A really good groupie loves great outfits. I did too. I also put the pieces together; closed my deals, made lawyers return each others’ calls, assessed budgets, negotiated studio prices, secured recording dates, found producers/engineers, rented equipment, helped make decisions (should Dave Grohl be our drummer), edited singles, handled mixes and sequences, oversaw artwork, videos and marketing, dealt with managers and agents, checked in on tours. My life was music, conversations, business and laughter in no specific order. Josh and I are still laughing about my Olympic leap, the one that kept him from punching Jimmy Iovine in the face-story for another day. Though I carried one, my job wasn’t so simple as using an Amex card to feed musicians.

I lost my job in 2004. Napster arrived, and downsizing became the new black. As memory serves me, a dear friend went over to the dark side as Napster’s head of publishing (an oxymoron). At some point during her impressive career she dated a rock star, and had her portrait painted by Jon Bon Jovi. During the Lullabies to Paralyze tour Josh said, “Between art and commerce you leaned too far on the side of art. That might have been your undoing.” If I want to go deep, it was never about the leather pants.

Cut back to Penny Lane (I promise I will never reference this film again), “We are not Groupies. Groupies sleep with rock stars because they want to be near someone famous. We are here because of the music, we inspire the music. We are Band Aids.” I was never a groupie. However, for right or wrong my take on the job was undoubtedly unorthodox. #bandaid.

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2014 side of stage QOTSA- forever #bandaid

-For Deb B. with gratitude

 

 

The original “Debbie’s Song” published June 2010

The Original Debbie’s Songhttps://insideplaya.org/2010/06/19/debbies-song-3/

Debbie’s Song

The playa has worked with many artists, many executives, and many labels. One of the most interesting periods of a long and creative experience was the time I spent as a young A&R executive on the staff of the EMI Records Group. It was a time immediately after I’d experienced creative success on a world wide basis, when I’d led Giant/Warner Brothers Records into the Urban Music market by playing a significant role in compiling the soundtrack for the crack opera, “New Jack City.” For my efforts, I was rewarded by being shown the door. A former label mate provided an opportunity for me to continue practicing my craft, and I joined the EMI staff in early ’92.

Debbie Southwood-Smith was another young A&R executive at the label with taste, wit and style. We have been friends ever since we worked together. Please find below her brief first person account of her time spent in records, and her most recent career developments. Even though I know the story, I found it to be riveting. I hope that you’ll agree.

insideplaya

I was an A&R executive for about twenty years. I started directly after graduating from Emerson College in Boston, when I landed a starter-kit job with MCA’s regional branch in Woburn, MA. I worked as a promotional assistant, gathering data on radio adds, drops and specialty show plays. I could also be found packing up vinyl to be shipped out to Oedipus’ WBCN or Sunny Jo White’s KISS 108 as well as occasionally driving out to Amherst or Providence to deliver a record personally. After watching REM climb the top 40 charts with “Losing My Religion, I recalled that just a few years earlier I had watched them perform T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” at The Rathskellar. Michael Stipe’s back was to the audience – which had been scant at best -almost the entire set. I decided I wanted to help bands journey the path from almost complete obscurity to crossover and mainstream acceptance.

Michael Alago Little Steven Van Zandt Debbie Southwood-Smith

MICHAEL ALAGO LITTLE STEVEN VAN ZANDT & DEBBIE SOUTHWOOD-SMITH (THE AUTHOR)

I’m a Jersey Girl, having moved from Queens to Hackensack where I spent most of my formative years. In 1989, I went back to Queens and got an apartment that I shared with three boys, all of whom were upstarts in the music business. I got a job working for an independent label called Rockville Records. I signed a band called Uncle Tupelo, now considered pioneers of the alterna/ country movement. They later split up and Wilco was born from one of their branches. I caught the attention of Brian Koppelman and Fred Davis. (“Who is this girl who is everywhere, every night?”) Brian took me to see The Black Crowes right before Shake Your Money Maker was released, gave me Fred’s number and told me to call him directly. Fred was hiring for the newly consolidated EMI/ Chrysalis/ SBK label group and needed a street kid. My lucky number had been pulled. I did some stuff. I signed a crazy rock band from New York City named DGeneration, who were destined for greatness, but shit happens – and that’s another story for another blog. I signed Blessid Union Of Souls who had the #2 song in the country. I was 29 years old. That was cool. I left EMI and went to A&M Records. Fred said, “People in the business like you, but now you need to have some success,” so I made a gold record with Monster Magnet who tore up rock’s airwaves and created mayhem on every tour stop. A&M was my family until it was kinda torn apart, and the remains absorbed by Interscope Records. Many reading this will remember it as Black Thursday- my ass landed at Interscope. Dazed and confused, I got up off the deck, ignoring the horrible things people were saying about “girls being kept on because we were paid less” – a fact, yes, a reasonable one, no.

I got busy. It was 1999 and I had places to go, things to do and bands to sign. I signed Queens of the Stone Age who had gold records followed by a platinum record. I signed The Yeah Yeah Yeahs who had a gold record and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. I got a new boss. We didn’t see eye-to-eye and things got tough. But I still remember Interscope marketing overlord, Steve Berman referring to me as their golden girl. (“What are you going to do next? Everything you touch turns to gold.”)

Debbie's Back

THE AUTHOR

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THE YEAH YEAH YEAHS

Eventually Interscope cut my position in 2005. I had a deal on the table for TV on the Radio, but I couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to me. I had gone from golden girl to lost and confused girl. An antiquated business model that had everyone running on fear threatened all the record companies. There were a whole lot of people out in LA trying to decapitate each other; the whole situation had changed into some sick joke that had something to do with Machiavellian laws, which frankly, I don’t play by. I couldn’t survive in that environment. I did yoga everyday, for crying out loud, I was like all “Om” and shit. In 2005 I was unemployed and completely lost. My identity as “Debbie from Interscope” gone. I did some totally dumb things like giving up my Greenwich Village apartment on Christopher Street, where I had lived for 16 years and moving to the Massachusetts countryside and trying to work at Long View Studios, thinking about many possibilities, none of which worked out. I ended up in Jersey City contemplating my next move while the music business, as I had known it from 1986-2005 was laid to rest. I believe in survival of the fittest, yet even so, I can’t help but feel a tad bitter about being dismissed from a life that I poured my heart and soul into. There will always be a part of me that cries out, “Why me?”

Here, the story takes a turn. I decided to teach. I’d taught a class on A&R for Baruch College on and off for five years. During that experience I had learned that no matter what subject you are teaching, what you are really doing is trying to help people make sense out of life, and in turn those people helped me understand my life, little by little. It was the only time in my life, since I had started working in the music business that I was doing something selflessly, because believe me honey – no matter what your federal or state government is telling you – teaching is never about the money.

I enrolled in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Master of Education program. I graduated (with a 3.89- ahem) in 2009 and was hired by the school in which I completed my student teaching internship. The high school where I am currently employed as an English teacher is James J. Ferris High School in Jersey City. It is located under the NJ Turnpike overpass in the center of the Montgomery Projects. It is truly what in PC terms is referred to as “an inner city school.” These are the schools placed in minority districts. No matter what your property tax is, I can guarantee that these schools are not receiving your tax dollars in any significant way. These are the buildings in which our black, Dominican, Pakistani, Filipino, Puerto Rican, Haitian and any other economically challenged minorities are placed. Why am I there? Because you go where you are needed.

THE AUTHOR

My students love music. They all have mp3 players of some make or model. They have sneakers and most have cell phones. What they do not have is a future unless they are the few who are determined against all odds to create one. My students are mostly 16-18 year olds who are in their sophomore year. In the record industry we had a term for the second record “the sophomore slump.” This applies to high school as well. The students read and write on a grade level ranging from third to sixth grade. Rare are the kids who are “on track.” Even my honors levels classes are filled with young people who have never been taught how to properly conjugate a verb, capitalize a proper noun, or insert a paragraph. They do not understand the definition of simple words, such as refute, contagious or sinister. They don’t know that Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden are related. They are completely unaware that there is an enormous oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico that will somehow affect their lives in years to come. What they know is the ghetto in Jersey City.

Many of my students don’t live with their parents, or perhaps they live with one parent. They have been handed off to guardians because their parents are still in the DR or Haiti or wherever, or their parents are on the streets, or dead. There might be a myriad of other reasons for the lack of adult guidance in their lives. Every kid has a story and most of them are very sad. Many of my students are gang members, or their blocks are under the control of a gang. An enormous majority of the girls will not graduate before becoming mothers. The kids who make it to college usually attend the community college, an extension of the “inner city schools” they are a product of, and drop out after a year or maybe two. My students live with very little hope for a future that doesn’t involve government assistance.

THE AUTHOR SURROUNDED BY THE STUDENTS OF FERRIS HIGH SCHOOL

When I worked in the music business I always had a bag packed in my living room. I had frequent flyer points on almost every airline. I traveled to and did business in almost every state in the union. I spent time in the UK, and considered myself “bi-coastal.” I wasn’t a girl from Hackensack, NJ anymore. I was exposed to so much, and my life in the Big Apple was filled with art, adventure and people from every walk of life. I knew arty hipsters like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I knew important, wealthy men like Rick Wake, Jimmy Iovine and David Anderle. I rubbed up against artists who were nuts and fun and forever creating – such as Josh Homme, Michael Alago, and Ryan Adams. I had friends who were traveling, working, and on the cutting edge of everything, like Marilyn Manson, Natasha Schneider (RIP), Jesse Malin, Ken Friedman…and the list goes on and on. The point that I am making is that many of you, who are reading this, have had experiences very similar to mine and the call I am making to you is to please, go where you are needed and share what you have been blessed with.

I bring to my students, a BIG, juicy life. I bring color, personality, the lesson behind every fire I have walked through and all that has brought me joy in life. In turn they give me love. These children from our ghettos are not to be feared. They live in fear and vulnerability and seclusion. Our at risk kids, living in shelters, living in public housing, living with their uncle the block’s crack dealer, or a tragically addicted mother, or grandparents who are tired, and they need to see us. If they don’t know that people outside the Montgomery Housing Projects exist, they will have nothing in their lives to aspire to. The messages of Albee Al and Joe Buddens are all they will know and it is not enough. I certainly am not asking all of you to drop what you are doing and become teachers in the ghetto. I am asking you to find a place where you are needed, a place where there are children, and do one thing every year to help them. Come speak to the kids in my school. Donate books, technology, or money to a community center, but more importantly donate your time. Spend one hour a year sharing your experience, strength and hope.

I miss the music business. I miss the rewards of hearing a record I worked on being played on the radio; I miss the constant travel and the shimmer of the offices, the free tickets and glamorous parties. Of course, I do, I’m human. However, teaching at James J. Ferris High School is the most fulfilling job I have ever held. Much like the rock & roll that I grew up on, it is filled with chaos, drama, and stresses that I never imagined, but mostly it is filled with love. These children, are our future, and they need us. What we get in return is almost more then my heart can hold. Please share it with me. It’s an hour out of your life. They need you.

Debbie Southwood-Smith

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