• Oct. 16, 2003 | 11:20 AM ET
BOB WALKENHORST ON MUSIC AND LIFE
Back when I was practicing law in Washington, I went to see a show at the 930 Club, a little place that held a couple of hundred people. There were two unknown bands playing for five bucks. One was Steve Earle. The other was The Rainmakers.
It was one of the best nights of my life, and The Rainmakers were a major reason. (Steve Earle also put on a great show. And, interestingly, I found out recently that Mickey Kaus was there that night, too, meaning that the audience was at least 1 percent future Microsoft-paid bloggers. Who would have thought it?)
The Rainmakers went on to get a lot of attention, with a then-controversial song called “Government Cheese,” and a lot of other great tunes. I saw them a couple of other times and they were first-rate then, too.
It’s hard to explain what a breath of fresh air the Rainmakers were then, when hair-metal was the major form of commercially successful rock and roll. The Rainmakers’ main songwriter, singer Bob Walkenhorst, made a point of writing songs about the kinds of things that most people didn’t write songs about: Harry Truman and the A-Bomb, the Apollo 1 fire, the Biblical roots of rock and roll, and so on. And he did it very well. (The band’s website is here, and you can stream some music, and some music videos, here. Walkenhorst’s own website, with information about his new release and some streaming audio samples is here. Be sure you listen to Primitivo Garcia.)
The Rainmakers were big for a while, but never as big as I thought they deserved to be. When I mentioned them here a while back, I was surprised how many people e-mailed me about them, and even more surprised to get an e-mail from Walkenhorst himself. I found out that he had a new solo album out, called The Beginner, and I ordered it from Amazon. I liked it a lot - and the videos that come with it, as it’s an “enhanced” CD - and I emailed Walkenhorst to see if he’d be interested in being interviewed. He was, and here’s what followed:
Glenn Reynolds: The Beginner has a rather different sound from your work with The Rainmakers. Some of it is more bluesy, other material is more introspective. Is that a function of doing a solo project, or is it just a new direction for you in general?
Bob Walkenhorst: It’s a bit of both. I think when a songwriter is used to working within the structure of a 4-piece band, you get very used to envisioning your songs being played by that band, and, once you set out to create music without that band, it takes a while to hear it a different way. The Rainmakers always played with a very big sound and a lot of kinetic energy. It took me a while to hear my songs being played with a lighter touch and a less forceful delivery. But that seemed to be where my newer stuff wanted to go.
GR: The Beginner has a more stripped-down sound, too. What caused you to move in that direction?
BW: I did a lot of looking back at the music I loved, the music I grew up with, and I asked myself why it sounded so good. Particularly stuff like Buddy Holly and Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album and pre-Revolver Beatles. Why did that sound never cease to captivate me? And I think it’s because those very elemental bass-small drums-one acoustic guitar-no backing vocals songs just leave the singer hanging out there like a raw nerve. No place to hide. You better be delivering something worthwhile because there’s no decorations on the package.
GR: It’s an enhanced CD, with QuickTime versions of videos, song lyrics, etc. What led to to take that approach, and what kind of feedback have you gotten?
BW: I’ve been working in video production for about six years now, so I had all the tools at my disposal. And since it’s pretty impossible to find a broadcast outlet for independent videos these days, this gave me a way to directly give my listeners some videos to go with the songs. And there is one video track on the CD that is not one of the songs on the CD. It’s called Primitivo Garcia. I wrote the song with my daughter’s fourth-grade class. It’s the true story of a Mexican immigrant in Kansas City in the 1960’s who was killed when he rescued his English teacher from a gang attack. The video and song seem to move people deeply. It was a very meaningful project to work on with my daughter’s class, and a good way to keep Primitivo from being forgotten. The song is available for free download at rainmakers.com.
GR: You’ve experienced fairly big-time rock stardom - written about in Rolling Stone, having Newsweek compare you to Creedence Clearwater Revival, and having your song lyrics deconstructed in The New Republic— but you’ve kept recording in the years after that phase of your career passed. What’s the difference, from your perspective, in the two approaches?
BW: The Rainmakers had a very good, very positive major label experience. Sorry, we don’t have any good “Boy did-we-get-screwed-by-the-weasels” stories. We dealt with a lot of people in the industry who dearly loved music and worked very hard to let us be the quirky American band that we were. But the catch is, you eventually you have to sell a million records for a major label, or they just can’t afford to keep you around.The biggest difference artistically is that the label feels compelled to put you in the hands of an expert - the producer - to protect their investment. When the Rainmakers lost their label deal, and we started making our own self-produced albums, I think we were able to create a purer expression and a less polished final product. And that’s a good thing to me. And I’ve tried to take that a step further on The Beginner with a very retro type of production, or non-production.
GR: Any advice for other musicians out there?
BW: I know it’s cliche - but: Bloom where you are planted. Life is in need of music, and there are many ways to do it. Not everyone is meant to be a rock star. Apparently it was not MY final destiny. But if music is a part of who you are, find a place to do it and honor it.
GR: It’s a lot easier to make a record today, and to sell it, but harder to get attention. How does that relate to your strategy with this new release? Do you have a “strategy” with this release?
BW: I really don’t have a strategy. Having no expectations makes it all so much more enjoyable for me. It’s like putting the note in the bottle. It will go where it goes. But people seem to be finding my music through various channels, digging it, and asking for more, so - here we go.
GR: Some people credit ”Government Cheese” with being one of the things that led to welfare reform in the 1990s. Do you think they’re right? How do you feel about that?
BW: My song did that? Well, let’s not exaggerate here. I do think that song articulates a common frustration, then and now, about human weakness and the government’s inability to make social changes. But, 18 years after writing the song, I feel like it’s more important to be compassionate than to be angry.
GR: What’s more important - lyrics, or the tune?
BW: As much as I love lyrics, it’s the tune that wins out in the end. Where’s the hook?
GR Do you have a day job? What is it, and does it relate to the music at all?
BW: I first got involved in video production by composing music for several programs, a documentary, and about 20 children’s stories. The music work morphed into video work, and before I knew it I had a marketable skill.
GR: Judging by the videos on your CD, you look about the same as you always have. But I’m sure you’ve changed over the years. How? What’s different?
BW: I was very driven, very obsessed with being a success in the music business. When I was about 19 I said a prayer “Just let me be as successful as is good for me.” Man, if I just hadn’t said that prayer ... But now, for me, music is just one part of a much bigger picture. I do believe I got what I prayed for. The things I needed to learn in life, this go-around, require that music be a part, but not an all-consuming part of my life.
GR: I’ve been a fan for years, and judging by some things I found poking around the Internet, you’ve got quite a fan base out there despite not having a lot of commercial exposure or Big Media coverage. What’s it like to have that kind of a loyal fan base? Is it pressure, or is it reassuring?
BW: No pressure, lots of reassurance. The band used to joke that we had fans all over the world - one in every country. I think the surprise has been that our wide-but-not-deep fan base didn’t dispose of our music as time passed. They’ve held onto it and have sought out more of it. Releasing The Beginner and performing live again has made me realize that I’ve created something that people have made a part of their lives, part of the soundtrack to their memories. That’s a pretty sacred trust.
GR: What question should I have asked, that I didn’t? What’s your answer?
BW: Why The Beginner, you ask? There’s a Zen proverb that says, “The secret of the arts is to always be a beginner.” The challenge is to get better at your craft, but still approach it with the excitement and the wonder you had when you first started. I think I’m getting the hang of it.
AN ASNER-STALIN CORRECTION
In my post on Ed Asner, below, I relied on an interview by Kevin McCullough, originally linked by Andrew Sullivan. Now McCullough has retracted his Ed Asner interview report. (Scroll to the bottom).
In the new version, there’s nothing in the question about Asner playing someone he “respects” and Asner makes clear that he’s aware of Stalin’s murderous history.
I don’t know how McCullough could have made this mistake, but I want to correct this as soon as possible. As Sullivan notes in his own correction, “McCullough has a radio show. Let’s hope he doesn’t distort things as readily on the air as he does in print.”
At least with a weblog, things like this are easy to fix.
THEORIES OF POWER ETC.
I’ve had a stack of books on my desk, slated for mention here, for some time. Instead of spreading them out, I’m going to mention them all at once and thus clear off some additional desktop real estate — which will soon, no doubt, be occupied by other books.
Art Kleiner’s Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege and Success argues that organizations don’t exist to serve shareholders, members, or customers. They don’t even exist to serve management, exactly. They in fact serve the interests and desires of the “core group” that actually runs the place. These people may or may not occupy important positions on the organization chart, but they enjoy influence based on connections and personal qualities, and other people’s trust: “The core group won’t be named in any formal organization chart, contract, or constitution. It exists in people’s hearts and minds. Its power is derived not from authority, but from legitimacy.”
This seems about right, based on my experience with all sorts of organizations, at all sorts of levels.
David Bernstein’s You Can’t Say That! also rings true, unfortunately. Bernstein writes about the way in which anti-discrimination laws threaten free speech, as people argue that they have a right not to be exposed to views that they find uncongenial - and, in fact, demand a right to ensure that others aren’t exposed to such views, either.
It’s fashionable in some circles to say that political correctness is a myth, but it’s not — and Bernstein offers proof, along with explanations of the harm that it’s doing. Bernstein himself, unfortunately, became a victim of the very phenomenon he describes when the University of Alabama’s administration tried to block the announcement of his appearance on campus. Embarrassing for the University of Alabama, and troubling for the rest of us.
On a more cheerful note, Ethan Watters’ Urban Tribes explores the way in which groups of friends have, for a lot of people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, become substitute families. He wonders if this is why so many people he knows are putting off marriage. This fits my experience, as well, though people did eventually get married for the most part.
And finally, though it’s not a book, the film Burning Annie, which I mentioned here a while back, reminds me of some guys I know who took a long time to get married, in part because (like the protagonist in Burning Annie,) they got too many of their ideas about love and romance from movies. (And, worst of all, from Woody Allen movies!) You can see Burning Annie trailers online here, and you can see the film at the Hamptons Film Festival next week, if you’re in the vicinity of New York City.
I’ve seen it, and it’s the best romantic comedy I’ve seen in years.
• Oct. 13, 2003 | 11:20 AM ET
ED ASNER’S DOUBLE STANDARD
Andrew Sullivan notes that actor Ed Asner recently defended Stalin as “hugely misunderstood.” Stalin? Who murdered tens of millions in pursuit - and defense - of absolute power? If Stalin is misunderstood, it’s because too many people like Ed Asner think that there’s something good to say about him. (Asner was specifically asked about figures he “respected.”)
Unfortunately, that sort of historical amnesia is common today. A new book by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr,In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage, examines the phenomenon in some detail, and likens it to Holocaust denial. According to Haynes and Klehr:
“Defense of Nazi mass murder is not acceptable in the scholarly world, and shouldn’t be. But another species of historical revisionism, one that is equally repugnant, is practiced with impunity in the academy. The number of apologists for the former Soviet Union and its mass murders dwarfs the handful of aberrant pro-Nazi academics in America. Sympathy for the Communist project and distaste for attacking it are today fully accepted in American higher education.”
That seems to be the case. Oh, there are a few exceptions, like this observation in The New Republic:
“Now, we know - with a historiographical confidence that the great anti-Communists (liberal and conservative) of the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s could not have possessed - that the Communist regimes of the twentieth century were responsible for the murder of 85 million people. (That is the low estimate.) For those who defended and apologized for such systems, forgiveness?”
One might forgive those who didn’t know what they were doing 50 years ago. But today, we still see people who defend and apologize for Communist totalitarianism, past and present. And if I were to hang up a Nazi flag in my office, I expect that the reaction would be rather harsh; if I were to hang up a Soviet flag, on the other hand, I would be just one of many professors decorating his office that way. To me, both regimes - brutal police states that crushed and killed their opposition - are equally repugnant. Why don’t more people feel that way?
Part of it, I suppose, is that very few Americans have Nazism in their past, while many intellectuals and entertainers flirted with Communism at some point, making it hard for them to face up to its real horrors. Part of it is that the issue has been underplayed by Hollywood, for a variety of reasons.
Still, the truth has not been completely forgotten. You might want to read Anne Applebaum’s book, Gulag: A History, along with Stephane Courtois’ The Black Book of Communism to see the sorts of things that Ed Asner, apparently, doesn’t quite understand.
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