Nick Stompanatas understood people; he played them as if he were a musician. Like an instinctive animal he sensed their fears and wants and acted on them.
He knew Alex Skarski was afraid of failure and success both.
He'd been there. . . . Fear of failure was mostly fear of the proverbial wolf at the door; those moments of real hunger when you're completely broke.
Success, for those who've never seen or experienced it in their families or their world, could be more daunting. The thoughts: "How do I not blow this?"; "What do I do now?"-- the sudden responsibilty of new choices; the racing heartbeat in the middle of night as your head plays your options back over and over. Sometimes better to lose all-- the endless thinking is done.
He knew Alex Skarski and knew her background. He offered her a way to submerge herself into Melissa's dawning success; her ride to the top.
Alex had the talent to stand alone but not the stomach for it.
She met the other Bluebirds at Melissa's San Francisco condo. Chic white buildings could be seen outside a large window framed by giant green rubber plants. The living room was comfortable. To Alex, used to cubbyhole rooms in low rent hotels, it was huge. Rich girl, Alex thought to herself.
The two Bluebirds sat reverently on the shag-carpeted floor in front of the plants. Alex was expected to join them. She did, then Melissa played a few songs for her, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, her fingers accurately moving back and forth among the frets. Her pretty voice was so quiet, Alex had to move closer to hear it. She stood up and bent down to listen. They were pretty songs. Amplified on a stage, or more, in a studio, it would be an effective voice. Alex noted the girl's total belief in herself.
The Alex Skarski difference was evident at their first practice session together. Alex played bass guitar, which took immediate control of the pace of each song. Her driving bass line turned what might've slipped into easy listening pap into a facsimile of rock n roll. Alex's playing put backbone behind Melissa Bluebird's ethereal musings. The combination worked.
In one of their first performances, at a sparsely attended open-air concert for office workers sponsored by a bank in Chicago, the sound system went out for several minutes. Speakers arrayed around the space between business towers went silent. Melissa could scarcely be heard at all.
The four-member group suddenly looked small and vulnerable beneath the bank's intruding banner. People snickered in the audience. A businesswoman in front laughed. The keyboardist and drummer Bluebirds looked concerned. Alex Skarski stepped forward and shouted the words until the problem was solved, in accompaniment to Melissa, who continued playing and singing as usual, oblivious. Melissa appreciated that Alex knew the words to the song.
Melissa inspired the need to protect her, or follow her. She came off as an otherworldly creature who may well be a rare and precious bird. She carried the atmosphere of airy Renaissance; a young woman from a Botticelli painting, lost among the flowers.
Alex was happy enough to be an unobtrusive sidekick, a uniformed nonentity like the generic back-up musicians in an Elvis movie. Melissa Bluebird was the star; Alex Skarski's job was to make her look good. Strangely enough, Alex wanted to do this.
There were rock precedents. Think of James Burton's work with Ricky Nelson. Or if you can, try to catch film footage of Gary Lewis and the Playboys, one of the best pop-rock bands of the 1960's when rock was approaching its zenith. Watch for the amazing licks of the guitarist, the forever-unknown musician hired to support the limited talents of the famous comedian's son.
At the end of a successful song, in the pleasant afterglow of reverberations as their hearing and minds recovered, Alex would glance at the ever-confident Miss Bluebird.
"The Bluebird goddess," Alex would say in a mocking yet admiring tone.
If Melissa heard such expressions she never gave notice, beyond a quick smile as she prepared to begin the next tune. "One, two, three, go."
Not that all was sunshine and lollipops. The three original Bluebirds had to adjust to the occasionally explosive Alex; her sudden rants; after concerts, her frightening, inexplicable drunks. What demons from her past Alex contended with at those moments were beyond their knowing.
"Aren't you happy?" Melissa would ask.
Alex went obediently silent in the presence of Melissa.
When the band performed in New York at a fundraiser for a fashionable charity, Uncle George brought journalist friends by to say hello. The other members of the band had never heard of these strange men; Melissa doted on them. They were important editors and journalists; for all their gaping self-satisfaction and shallow remarks, lauded as the best writers around.
Shortly thereafter articles began to appear in the lower level New York newspapers and glossies about the exciting new band. Not by the famous journalists themselves, not yet, but word had been passed to their followers.
The girl-group ethos, dating back even to the chauvinistic Phil Spector-dominated Crystals and Berry Gordy-created Supremes of the 1960's, has always been about feminist freedom. In Cyndi Lauper's classic words, "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."
Freedom, feminism, and fun are the point about singer Melissa Bluebird and her band, the Bluebirds, who make their Philadelphia debut at the Penn rock club The Underground this Saturday. A DIY icon, college dropout Melissa proclaims her style of independence with a series of catchy pop tunes set to infectious music played by herself on lead guitar and her three nerdy-but-cool looking bandmates, all of them in short skirt baby blue outfits.
Melissa herself is a pretty picture with the stance of feminist strength as she cavorts with her friends on stage. No Berry Gordy around here, thank you-- the girl herself is in charge. Ironically, the Bluebirds cover of "These Boots Are Made for Walking" owes more to the Supremes go-go recording than to the more stripped-down Nancy Sinatra first version. The rest of the songs are Melissa Bluebird-penned originals.
Sixties girl pop with a late Seventies punk edge. These women are going places. Check it out.
That the band was a combination of contradictions, as evidenced by this review, added to its appeal.
As this and other laudatory pieces were being written, Nick had already assigned Dennis Deniczek to manage and produce their first album. Deniczek was an alcoholic ex-rock musician and songwriter who'd fight to give them an edge. If some of Dennis's own crustiness rubbed off on them it could only help.
Deniczek turned out to be a control freak semi-burnout authoritarian who threw chairs around either because he hated chairs or for effect. The band formed a collective hatred of him.
Periodic conflicts arose while recording the album.
Melissa described how she wanted the recording produced, the mix of sounds matching what she envisioned in her head.
"That's the problem!" Dennis yelled in exasperation. "Produced. Produced! Rock n' roll wasn't meant to be produced. It just IS. It's meant to BE. You play the damn song with as much emotion as you can put into it and turn on the fucking microphone."
"We're crafting art," Melissa patiently explained to him.
"You don't 'craft' anything. Art is genuineness; it's . . . truth. What do you think punk was about? You parade yourself as some kind of punk princess but you don't know anything about it. Put your SOUL into the music, if you have one, and then you might create something great. This isn't paint-by-numbers. It's not connect-the-dots. It's not reading sheet music and playing the fucking notes. It's putting forth from your heels and your bowels and your heart everything you've got. Everything! Ask Alex. SHE knows."
Yet Alex's eyes lit up with anger at Dennis.
"Don't-involve-me-in-your-stupid-nonsense," she sneered, then punched him twice, hard, in the chest. Dennis punched her back. Alex swung a fist into the side of his face and he staggered.
"Enough of this!" Melissa screamed.
In embarrassment and disgust, Dennis stalked out, one side of his face red. "Tell Nick Asshole I quit," was his parting comment.
Dennis walked to the closest bar to get drunk. Alex was in the same bar shortly thereafter with the same purpose. They sat at opposite ends of the bar and glared at each other while knocking down shots. The next day Dennis un-quit. The album was soon enough finished.
Whether because of Dennis, Melissa, Alex, or accidental luck-- the blessings of the music gods above-- the finished cd sounded good. That it'd been recorded in a small urban studio with a uniquely raw sound helped. That Melissa's simple songs had been transformed into tight explosions-- mini-explosions, mind you; firecrackers more than bombs-- amazed more than alarmed her.
With ample behind-the-scenes aid, including an extensive marketing campaign with a lavish ad budget, the cd climbed up the charts. Major articles appeared in major magazines about the new star.
With the cd's release: the predictable tour.
Too many stories have been told about too many rock tours to go into much detail here. One could say the tour "bonded" the group or one could say it made them overly-familiar with one another.
Dennis booked them first at legendary CBGB's on the Bowery in New York. From there they headed west by bus, exhilarated at the start by the freedom of the open road. After several weeks of stifling travel the exhilaration had gone.
At the start was the adventure of getting to know one another-- long conversations as the bus rolled along. Who was the dominant personality, Melissa or Alex? Both had their influence on the others, who began unconsciously copying Alex's unique facial gestures: the sneer; the tilted-down head when glaring at someone. The sudden earthy outbursts so opposite to Melissa's effect. They even tried appearing tough-- until Alex with hands on her hips and a mocking smile told them, in Melissa's presence, "You can't live another person's life." They went back to being Bluebirds.
Melissa herself, though, thought she could borrow from Alex's life: her rock authority; her hard-earned street cred. For Melissa, appropriation was appropriate. Her life was built on the assumption that she could do anything she wanted. Freedom meant owning the world: that was her feminist ideal.
She was too much a planet unto herself to be overawed by anyone, but Melissa found herself impressed with Alex's strength and her craziness. She was fascinated by Alex's oft-stated hunger for stability-- "I'm not going to blow this gig, Melissa; I'm a hungry mouse ready to leap on any crumb"-- and by Alex's impulsive recklessness; her lesbian affairs and druggie boyfriends.
After shows Alex devoured groupies; male and female alike. Melissa indulged also, but not always, and was selective about which boy she relaxed with. He had to be cute! She also had a boyfriend in San Francisco to worry about.
Alex's behavior was out-of-her-mind, bang-your-head-against-a-wall carnivorous lust.
Melissa Bluebird, angel of music but also sex-- the number of fans in love with her exponentially growing-- briefly wondered why Alex never hit on her. Everyone else-- but not her. In fact Alex Skarski had a mad, terrifying crush on Melissa Bluebird which she kept to herself.
The best part of the tour were the concerts. The four Bluebirds gained a joyful high being on stage. Melissa fed on an audience, found energy, identity, purpose. Alex enjoyed herself while out there but had to undergo certain preparations first, such as consuming ecstasy, or vomiting.
The best part for Alex was performing her role in support of the star of the group. She loved this. The loyal soldier, upright and steadfast on bass guitar. Sometimes Melissa allowed Alex to play lead-- Melissa had pride in her own playing but realized Alex was very good; unusually good.
After the song Alex would be only too eager to return to her usual part.
One night, a particularly good show: Alex and Melissa chugging beers backstage to come down. The room was small, with sunken sofas and sallow green walls. Alex had a boy waiting.
"Why him?" Melissa asked. "He seems awful."
"That's not who I want to go to bed with," Alex rumbled.
Melissa was drunk. She pouted: "Ask him if he has a friend."
They fucked together, each with her own partner, in the same room, but their looks and thoughts were on each other.
With the release of a second cd a year later the Melissa Bluebird hype machine crescendoed. This album had been produced by Melissa herself, who announced at the outset while standing in the state-of-the-art studio provided by the record company-- key component of a gigantic media conglomerate-- that she had the final say on every aspect of the product. Including the cd's artwork and liner notes.
"I want this to go triple platinum," she buoyantly proclaimed.
It didn't. Bigger sales came from related Melissa Bluebird products. The Bluebird name appeared on t-shirts and key chains; on colorful pen markers and children's make-up. There were Melissa Bluebird lunch boxes, coloring books, and dress-up dolls. Briefly, a Melissa Bluebird comic strip. Her smiling image was displayed on the back of cereal cartons; thousands and thousands of them produced from a factory then packed into larger cartons and shipped throughout the country.
She wasn't big enough for McDonald's, not yet, but Nick cut a deal with a low-rent hamburger chain in Ohio-- "Simpy's" or some such-- to promote the product. Small Melissa Bluebird dolls came free with soggy hamburger and fries. On the drawing board: a Melissa Bluebird cartoon TV show planned for Saturday mornings: Melissa and her companions solving mysteries, saving the planet and battling crime.
Needless to say, there were scores of Melissa Bluebird fan clubs and web sites, not all of them created by the record company. There was even a Bluebird daily diary on-line which fans could read to find out Melissa's most personal thoughts and activities-- "Tonight I got to perform in Kansas City. It was so cool! I met so many amazing way cool people!" A writer was employed full-time crafting and posting the vacuous gushings.
Soon, most of Melissa's time went to appearing as a guest on daytime children's TV shows-- engaging in serious conversations with big plush pink or blue furry creatures: "Yes, Moppy, we have to stay away from drugs of all kinds!"; or as a presenter on any number of TV awards shows.
Maids, schedules, drivers, and various other flunkies became part of her daily life. She traveled in cars and planes within a cocoon of planning. Upon any momentary delay people cringed to her: "Sorry; sorry." Melissa Bluebird was no longer a person, had become a star; a creature apart from normal criteria.
The band itself was on hiatus. One evening Alex Skarski fell down a flight of stairs and broke her arm-- the guitar playing one. This made the gossip columns for one day. Nick sent her flowers and signed Melissa's name. Alex went into detox and was out of the band indefinitely. Melissa didn't learn about the incident herself until weeks later.
Meanwhile Melissa had a new boyfriend, and up-and-coming young artist named Brent Botherwell she'd first met a year ago at a party. Melissa was in love! "I feel like I'm dating myself," she confessed to a magazine. "We're so much alike."
Brent was the offspring of a brief marriage between a Canadian TV game-show personality who wore corsages on his wide lapels and an award-winning university professor novelist who wrote books about the trauma of being female in contemporary Toronto society. Brent had lived most of his life in L.A., to which his mother retired from the rigors of academia and the weather of Ontario at the age of forty.
Like Melissa, Brent was considered talented at everything-- he wrote, composed, shot video-- but had settled on painting, for which he'd received from the art world official acclaim. To top it off he was photogenically handsome; his head looked like it'd been crafted in a woodworking studio and varnished. He was not tall-- appeared to be when seated in a restaurant with his large head until he stepped up-- or down, in some cases-- from the table-- but Melissa, though nearly his height, was petite, so they appeared well-mated. In appearance if not ability they both could have stepped from a Renaissance-era time machine.
Brent was the contemporary bourgeois male: hollow to the core; with style and manners but no integrity or will. A collection of attributes. His ethos was self and the moment's expediency.
From an Interview with TEEN POP BEAT MAGAZINE:
TPB: "Will you collaborate with Brent? Your collaborations like with the Bluebirds have worked very well for you."
MB: "Oh, I think collaborations are for collaborationists. I've always even from the start totally wanted to follow my own muse. Totally. Creativity is so cool, so liberating. I have to have freedom. So I started the Bluebirds. The rest is so, you know, history. Rock history. I mean, things went well."
TPB: "You enjoy overcoming limitations."
MB: "Yeah! Because that's so creative. Give me a paintbox with one color. You know? We weren't this big orchestra but that's the way I felt. But I've always had to feel in control. The conductor. That's so profound to say that but I really think creating art is so important. Whatever you do."
TPB: "What's your next project?"
MB: "Just to go beyond everything I've done. But I don't have this, like, schedule. I just do it. I'm eclectic that way, you know? One day I could be painting my walls just to do it then the next day I say, hey, there's the car, you know? Let's paint that! Art is so doing whatever you want whenever you want to. As long as you're fulfilling yourself. I mean, there's the audience, sure; I love my audience, but my own muse comes first. So when I do something it's so totally right. It's so DIY because I'm doing it."
One afternoon lying on her sofa after a busy week, Melissa daydreamed of the forest, its dark and restless beauty, dangers lurking outside. She felt the comfort of the cool and lush forest. Within she was safe. Above, through the columns of trees appeared the moving planets shuffling about in madness; red, blue, yellow, bouncing around the sky in a carnival dance-- then suddenly the glowing moon, gigantic, impelling itself into her mind. She sat up in fright, exhausted and shaking.
She'd fallen asleep; it was twilight. A full moon burned outside the window amid the arriving stars of night.
Beach folics and trips to Europe with Brent. To free herself from artistic stagnation Melissa began work on a solo album, what she'd always wanted to do anyway.
Listening to the finished product by herself on her stereo, Melissa was satisfied. The music fit her inner vision.
She promoted the cd's release with a select number of personal appearances in intimate settings. Reviews in the usual mainstream publications were kind. This was a more individual, introspective Bluebird. Some called it art. They could've called it solipsistic baby-talk: her guitar and an orchestra string section backing a small voice overladened with sincerity; tame playing with sudden two-second bursts of life at the end. Possibly not art. Definitely arty.
The last song finished. In the room: silence.
Nick Stompanatas noted the mild sales, a drop-off from the second album, which had been a decline from the first.
Because of continued fan clubs and articles, Melissa still believed she was a star-- and she was-- but Nick knew she could quickly enough drop off a cliff into the oblivion of a has-been.
The cultural universe was in constant flux. It was continually expanding. An act had to expand with it just to keep up. To remain static was to fall behind.
He'd noticed recent articles in obscure fanzines and music journals crediting Alex Skarski for much of the group's success. Her reputation among critics and cultists as a guitarist and performer had grown.
Nick looked around himself. He sniffed the air. He had to remain adaptable, malleable, if he were to survive as well. Was there change in the air? Had a subtle shift occurred in the Universe? How should he react? What should he do?
For two more weeks he studied sales figures before deciding his move.
(To Be Continued.)