Selling Out or Buying In? Or How I Lost My Soul And Made a Fortune in the Process
I just listened to the last but unreleased Broken Spectacles album, the one called Aftermath. The one that took us two years to make, a year and half of which was building the recording studio. Recording the album probably only took us a few months at the most. I hadn’t heard it in 15 years. The Grey Wolf just sent it to me. All I could do was cry cry cry… I had totally forgotten how quirky weird and special we were. Broken Spectacles is the real name of the band that I have been referring to as Shattered for the last fifteen years in these Transcendence Diaries and other places.
What a sad beautiful trip that just was. Grey Wolf aka Donnie J Groovemaster Jam, has just recently unearthed a treasure trove of master tapes from those six years and had them digitally remastered. He sent me one CD of the “old stuff” and one CD of the never released last album we recorded called Aftermath. We may need to change that title since it’s a Stones album already. I don’t believe we knew that at the time. Grey Wolf burned the CDs all wrong so it’s just ONE big hour long song per CD, which is classic Groover. He’s going to do it over again he tells me. That I assume will take another fifteen years. I have a lot of the old songs already mastered and ready to go, but only the ones that I wrote, for the Spectacularly Broken compilation album… But now I am rethinking the idea and wanting to do a WHOLE Spectacles compilation instead of just Ed Hale songs… Would take all four guys agreeing to that… That’s the problem. Bands are tricky.
Today I only listened to Aftermath… The first song that came on was called “LOVE”. Fans won’t even know the song because Aftermath was never released and unlike most of the songs on the album, we never played the song “Love” live, not even once. That one was a Toad song. We all contributed to each others songs, adding various instruments as we saw fit and vocal harmonies along with background vox. By the time we got to Aftermath we had been together for five years. So Toad and I were still working together very closely, but not writing together as much as did in the beginning. More like coming in with completed songs and then just assisting each other with suggestions and musical additions. There are some horn and string parts I added to this one along with my usual backgrounds and harmonies, but for the most part it was all Toad. And it was utterly transcendent. I couldn’t believe it. What i was hearing. Now. Fifteen years later. It felt like a different life. A lifetime ago. Truly.
In that moment it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. Reminded me of George Harrison. I didn’t remember it at first. Couldn’t place it. I didn’t understand why it was there. It wasn’t part of the album was it? Wouldn’t I remember that? Turns out that it was. I had just suppressed the memory I assume. And for good reason. There was always a tense and bitter but beneficial competitiveness between Toad and I by the time we got to the recording of this album. Who was the better writer? Who was the better singer? Who got more girls? Who got more press? Who got more positive reviews? Who knew more? Who played their instrument the best? Who played the most instruments? Who wrote more songs? Who was deeper? Who sang more like John Lennon? Who was as multi-talented as Paul? On and on. (Funny right? I know… But bands are like that when they first start out… It’s cute when you think about it…)
I cannot help but think that one of the reasons why Broken Spectacles was so good was due to this very intense but loving competitiveness between the two of us. Always pushing ourselves more, to be the best we could be in order to outdo the other. But we were also best friends, beyond brothers. With an infinite love between us, one that I have still not to this day experienced with any other man, perhaps not even any other human being. A lot of water has passed under that bridge.
Listening to it this time, anew, I was flabbergasted by its beauty. Astounded. Couldn’t stop crying. And then in comes Coon’s “KALEIDOSCOPE” with the most amazing triple lead guitar harmonies “Freebird” style ending. And on and on it went… “AINT IT HARD”!!! Another masterpiece. “Nature Boy”, “Wrong Again”, “I Want Blood”, “Going Nowhere”, “Aftermath”, “Your Face Ain’t That Pretty”… Every guy was doing such a good job at what they were trying to do. I was so impressed with the musicality of it all. Couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps I had somehow sold my soul over the last fifteen years since those days… Just to get more success and make more money. We now don’t make anything like this kind of music I was hearing from this strange glorious mess of an album.
Princess Little Tree couldn’t believe that it was us she was hearing. She had never heard the band before. Only knew the Transcendence and the Ed Hale solo stuff. Had only heard me talk about Broken Spectacles. All the stories… She was impressed by the variety of vocals. Had never heard Toad or Coon sing. Never heard all three of us sing together before, one of the things that really stood out about that band, three lead singers, oftentimes singing at the same time in all the songs. It was special. But here’s the coup de grace… the last song Grey Wolf put on the album for some reason was “AND I GO”. A mega monstrous masterpiece, an epic anthemic musical gift from God the likes of which I’d never heard before or since. Like a thunder bolt straight out of heaven into your ears and your soul. I could not believe what I was hearing. What a freaking masterpiece. Of course it’s a Toad song too. I always hated being in a band with him. As much as I loved it. (to be fair he claims the same thing and for the same reasons… just goes to show…) I was such a shite singer back then compared to now (which isn’t saying much I know). But holy crap what a monstrously gorgeous song that is. Toad could die tomorrow and his legacy will forever remain top tier due to the four songs he contributed to this album. Same with Coon. His are equally epic and brilliant.
I could not stop crying. First just sobs like with the other songs… Little baby tears. And then by the time we get to the “I want you to go deep…” breakdown of this song, I was full on sobbing like a baby, like a mental patient, face all scrunched up. Tears shooting out of my eyes. I seriously don’t think I can ever listen to that song again. It’s just too good. It’s frightening how good it is. I have no idea what happened to me, but it was one of the most cathartic events of my life. Cathartic in how emotional I felt, how completely moved in so many ways… Up, down, sad, happy, amazed, traumatized, relieved, proud, regretful… over the top emotion anguish and expression. I couldn’t help but feel this deep sadness and fear that over the last few years I had just completely sold out as an artist. Compared to what I was hearing on this album, recorded when we were just kids, but so unique and special.
I so wish I could post this song for everyone to hear… the whole album. But it’s all up to Grey Wolf at this point. And getting an agreement from all the members of the band. I don’t actually have a real copy of this album. Haven’t had one in over 15 years. If ANY of YOU have a copy of THAT album in any form let me know. Perhaps we can speed this process up. Also — if ANY of YOU have high quality PHOTOS to use as artwork for the release, let someone know. Once we schedule this, we can commission someone to do the artwork. We will need REAL PHOTOS to scan. I have no idea if I have any pro-grade or high quality ones really. Just scanned in low quality ones. But that’s what we need here to take it to the next phase.
I believe that more than anything what affected me most about hearing this album from start to finish like this for the first time in so many years was that number one, what I was listening to was old. I hadn’t heard it in a long time, so like seeing someone you love, like a family member, for the first time in over a decade, that’s just going to get to you regardless. Number two though, as a work of art it’s absolutely BRILLIANT. It’s big brash experimental avant garde. Epic and all over the place stylistically… And yet it has a very distinct sound all its own due to the fact that the same four guys recorded it in the same six month period using all the same gear and in the same two rooms. It has a mythic quality to it. We were peaking artistically as individuals and as a group when we recorded it (but then again when are we NOT peaking. I have yet to experience “writer’s block” or any “down time” as an artist… I guess that’s lucky. Or maybe that’s just how it is for all artists…) What it’s not is commercial. It’s entirely NOT commercial.
Moving as all hell. But just not commercial in any way. And see that’s the thing… We used to not give a shit about being commercial. That was never our aim. Never the goal. I mean, I honestly don’t think we even thought about it. And the music shows that. It’s extraordinarily amateurish in many ways. But you can’t help but be blown away by how mammoth and ambitious it sounds as well. Walls of noise really in some parts… On the one hand Broken Spectacles had some of the most exciting and advanced musicianship you could hear anywhere. On the other hand it had a very weak sort of chock full of mistakes sound to it as well… go figure. But that was us.
A few years after The Specs broke up I reverted to my real name, Ed Hale, laid Eddie Darling down for good and formed the band Transcendence with Infinito; first time I played with anyone besides the other three guys in the Specs in seven or eight years. We’ve recorded and released nine albums since then. Right out of the gate we experienced a ton more press, airplay, sales and critical acclaim than we ever did back in The Specs. For many reasons. Older, wiser, more experience, more money. But more than anything else I think it was because I understood that making music for me at least couldn’t just be about doing whatever the hell I wanted anymore. It had to include a measure of financial return to it or I was going to be forced to stop doing it full time. Besides, I wanted to make money with it. I wanted to experience what we call success, in the traditional sense. And we did. Thank God. I haven’t sat down and counted, but off the top of my head we’ve charted about ten songs on one chart or another over the last ten years. Sold a hell of lot of albums. That number would be triple that if I weren’t always trying to reach so much artistically… I know that. But still, we do make music that is commercially viable for the most part, at least compared to what we were doing in Broken Spectacles.
What I notice from a lot of my peers from that original music scene down in Miami when we all started out as teenagers and others I connect with all over the world still is that they’re all still making the same kind of music that they made way back when. They do what they do and they don’t change. And that’s a big problem. They expect that the industry is going to come to them. That the listeners are going to come to them. But it doesn’t work that way. Not even a little. Sure you can innovate here and there. But it has to be within the confines of what is happening within the music business and what is happening in pop culture now. There is a flow to it all. A flow of what’s hip cool popular modern happening. That’s popular culture.
Every now and then we get lucky and we may happen to be at the front end of that curve when the music is about to take a hard right or left… The way Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Smashing Pumpkins were when hair metal was at it’s peak and everyone was desperate for it to die. Or the way that Radiohead and Muse and Travis and Ours and Mercury Rev were when we were all looking for grunge to die off. But hell, who can really say that Nirvana innovated that sound when we all know they really didn’t? They became the poster child for it for a while. (which sucked for some of the better bands, no need to name names…) But it wasn’t just ONE band or artist that did it. It was a wave of them.
And what I find today amongst many of my peers in rock is that they aren’t on the cusp of any wave at all. They aren’t even riding a wave. They’re just making the same old music that they’ve always made. Expecting people to like it. That’s music making as a hobby. Not music making to be a professional. You try to explain to them that they need to focus on using sounds that are modern or current or contemporary, their drum sounds, their guitar sounds, the way their voice is recorded… even the arrangement of the song itself… and they either argue the merits of what they’re doing or they just go blank and don’t understand. And yet we can’t argue with reality. With results. If you’re not experiencing the kind of success and popularity that you desire, then SOMETHING is wrong, or at least “not right” about what you’re currently doing.
I can’t sit here and say that I completely changed spots and switched to totally making commercial music all of a sudden once we formed Transcendence. I didn’t. Especially considering that the original idea for the group was to create a world music meets modern rock sound that no one had ever heard before and have me sing in four or five different languages sometimes within the same song. That first album, Rise and Shine, was phenomenally eccentric. I know that. And hell, most of the guys in Transcendence are still pissed at me for how much I’ve switched genres over the years with the release of every new album, and how much I’ve focused on “creating art” or making artistic statements over the years. In fact, The ex Norwegian sent me a Fb post TODAY admonishing me to “PLEASE not worry about creating art” and just this once try to make all these songs commercially viable so we can make some money. He’s referring to real money. Big money. Not $1 or 200,000 a year money. But $1 to 10,000,000 a year money. I want the same thing. We all do.
We came damn close on the last solo album. But then I flipped it all around with the next two releases that we did with the group, All Your Heroes Become Villains and The Great Mistake. Both evidently were on the extreme and eccentric side compared to the solo album. At least that’s what we were told. But to everyone’s defense, I have to admit if backed into a corner that I did have major concepts and agendas when making the All Your Heroes album. Super focused. Hyper-focused. I mean, it was meant to be a giant concept… high art… an amalgam of statements all tied together to create one bigger statement. Something final and permanent. A mark. A sculpture. Solid and lasting like a castle or a mansion. ONE big piece. NOT merely a collection of songs. There’s a difference.
Contrast that with what constitutes hit songs in today’s market, or in any age’s market… What happens in those cases? The hit songs end up eventually losing their original home, whatever album they happened to be released on, people forget, and that album goes out of print. The song may last forever, eventually gaining the moniker of “classic”. But the album that it came from is lost forever to most people. THAT is exactly the opposite of what we’ve set out to do in Transcendence. Every album (except perhaps for The Great Mistake, which really is just a collection of songs…) was created as one cohesive work of art, to stay together and last forever. Pink Floyd is a great example of this. Animals, Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall… albums. Permanent cohesive entities in their own right over and above the hit singles they may or may not have had. Zeppelin, same thing. People say the album is dead ALL the time. They’re wrong. (To a certain degree anyway. Save for another post…)
I can’t complain that All Your Heroes wasn’t accepted as a huge commercial success compared to our previous one. It is dark and moody and insanely complex, wildy emotive and overly noisy in some areas, and more than anything it’s entirely dependent on being an ALBUM. It’s not really singles based at all. Hell, all the songs ram into each other and then flow into another song. I don’t think there’s ANY empty space on the whole album. I know. I think we all know. It wasn’t created to be a commercial thing… But the important thing is that I can die happy with it as an artist. Over the last two years since the release of that album I have felt very very good about it. I will die with a smile on my face when remembering it, when contemplating what we intended versus the final result.
And therein lies the eternal struggle. There’s a balance there that we constantly have to be considering when creating. Do we sell out with a song or two? And still try to preserve a great album in the process? Do we sell out entirely, just create the whole album as one sixty minute collection of unrelated mainstream pleasing current sounding tasty pieces of ear candy? How far can we swim out into the popular music sea once we jump overboard before we get lost and are unable to ever return to the comfort and safety of the artists’ artist boat?
And vice versa, how far off into left field can we ride that beast of innovation and experimentation and doing whatever the hell we want to before we are lost forever to the popular music loving masses? Some say it’s ALL selling out as soon as you begin to contemplate such matters. I say bullshit. If you don’t ever think about your art, about what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, the possibilities, the various different styles and arrangements and directions you’ve got before you, then you’re just winging it. I’ve been there before, when you’re young you think you’re just going to wing it. I know that terrain well. Did it for years in the Specs. Refused to think about what we were doing. It ALL had to come spontaneously, like magic. No thought about the expression. It had to flow out naturally. It’s an artistic mindset. But it’s only ONE mindset. In a world where there are infinite mindsets one can occupy. One day I just decided to deliberately occupy a different mindset and see what would come of it.
Ballad On Third Avenue was not the most successful album we ever released contrary to what most people believe. Sleep With You was a much bigger seller (so too in fact was Nothing Is Cohesive — which also still to date is by far the most critically acclaimed album any of us have ever been associated with) and had several big hits at Alternative Rock radio. But Ballad did have one thing that none of the other albums had up to that point: a verifiable Billboard Top30 hit song. Two of them. All the other hits were on different charts or specialty charts or college radio charts or made it to the Top 100 but just never got into Billboard’s Top40, let alone the Top25 like “Scene in San Francisco” and “New Orleans Dreams” did. That was something different. And it made a HUGE difference. Worlds of difference. In many different areas of our lives. For one thing we made a lot of money. And that was a very good thing. The songs still bring in a lot of money.
But it also had its challenges. The cons. Creating those songs was not just “hey let’s just create whatever we want to and see how people like it” as in times past. The songs were run by a seemingly endless string of consultants and then remixed and remixed again until every last one of them at every level of the industry was satisfied with how each song sounded. See, this is something that I NEVER would have done fifteen years ago when we were in Broken Spectacles. We were offered it sooooo many times. And every time we fought it and instead just created total chaos and confusion. I’ll never forget Toad telling the head of A&R at Island Records to “fuck off! We don’t need your advice about OUR music!” That’s how we did things…. We thought we held the whole world in our hands. And to a certain degree we did. Creatively we were an amazing unit. But we were young and green and stupid. We’d make sure we were always tripping on something whenever we had a meeting or a showcase with any major record label executives. Just to show them how little we cared. We weren’t going to change anything for anyone regardless how “big” or wealthy they were.
We had the opportunity to work with two of the biggest producers in the business. No need to name them here because it’s common knowledge. But in both cases, looking back, these were men who absolutely dwarfed us in terms of their experience and achievements in the music business. And in their abilities as musicians. And in both cases we played the fool every day we showed up. We KNEW what we wanted to do, knew what we wanted to sound like; we knew what was best. Or so we thought. So… why bother to have producers then? Well that’s the million dollar question isn’t it? We’d get excited to be working with a big name… And then when push came to shove and we got in the studio we always thought we knew best and fought with them. We were real shits.
Those were big mistakes. Looking back I can see WHY we did what we did. Why we acted the way we did. Our biggest fear –though at the time it was probably unconscious to any of us — was to ever consider that we were sell outs or selling out in any way. Pandering to the mainstream masses for money or fame or popularity. It just wasn’t who we were> in fact it was the exact opposite of who we were. We knew that. Being in that band, at that time in music history, at that point in our lives, at that age, the mentality and the sentiment and the statement was as important as the music.
The reason you made music and the kind of music you created or DIDN”T create was as important as the music… It was an elitist purist idealist state of mindfulness. Beyond arrogant. With pride in that arrogance. Very similar to what Vancouver is expressing now. Poor bastard. His “I’ll only play with acoustic drums and never drum loops or samples or synth beats” when everyone in the industry does it for very specific reasons — they sound badass — is precisely what makes his music sound so dated and local. And he SO wants to be liked and wonders why he isn’t. It’s curious, intriguing, perplexing really.
But I can relate. Because I suffered the same mental illness back in the days of The Specs. Granted, in our defense, we were 18 years old at the time. Vancouver is like thirty-something so he really has no excuse. But still, I can relate. The key for me, what changed, was that eventually I realized that I really did want to make popular music. And money. And if it was “I” who was making it, in the end, I would still probably like it in the end. Or so I hoped. On top of that, when you make popular music, you can generate enough money that you can then afford to make more avant garde or eccentric music in addition to the more popular music that you’re also making.
If I was to be honest with myself I think that underneath it all, at least for me personally, was just a fear that perhaps I really couldn’t create popular music… I was so focused on innovating all the time… But innovating is easy. you’re not going up against anyone when you’re always innovating. You’re only competing with yourself. Against whatever YOU consider your last great work of art. And that’s a really groovy place to be. Honestly that’s the world I’d like to live in as an artist ALL the time… But I also recognize the benefits of competing for commercial viability too. They both have their merits. It’s fun to popular and famous and successful and have money. And the competitive nature of it compels us to higher levels of greatness.
In any case, after all I’ve been through as an artist over the last ten years, all the hard work to create great works of art that were also somehow commercial and popular, listening back to this simple yet profoundly complex and beautiful Broken Spectacles album Aftermath really got me. I haven’t cried like that in years. Decades. That was a different world back then. We hadn’t a care. We were happy to be one of the “most popular local bands in our town”. That seemed like a big deal at the time. Our eyes and our dreams were bigger than our potential perhaps, or bigger than our willingness to stretch and grow…. I was happy to hear what we had created back then. To hear how incredibly good and ambitious it was. Nope, it would never yield the kind of commercial success we’ve experienced over the last ten years as Ed Hale and the Transcendence. It would never be played on commercial radio stations. But we were very very proud. We walked around like roosters on ‘roids, heads cocked high. And for good reason. We were fucking great and we knew it. Just not commercially successful great. But there’s something to be said about that kind of attitude.
Unlike a lot of artists in popular music, I personally have no big dream to dominate in the realm of most chart toppers or most #1 records or hit albums, nor that nagging fear that I am losing my grip as a key player in the pop world who is always on the Hot 100 with a Top 40 song. I see that kind of success and the money from it as a tool that can be used to allow me to do both: create popular hit music AND more eccentric and innovative works of art. THAT is where my dreams and fantasies of domination lay. How deep, how relevant, how innovative, how prolific, how intelligent, how thought provoking, how moving, how much new ground can I break… That’s what keeps me up at night and gets me up in the morning. Not the stats or the numbers. But the hearts and souls and minds that are deeply moved, called to act. Like that. So it’s a balancing act. These next six to twelve months, recording these new albums… It’s going to be fun. Tricky, but in a fun way.
Alright, I’m out. 4800 words with no break. My fingers are killing me. More on this topic later for sure.