It's 1:30 p.m. on a typical weekday afternoon. The phone rings. I shove breakfast aside and pick up the receiver.
"Hey, Todd. Michael Bolton here."
Right. The preeningest poseur of 'em all, the consummate, definitive white opportunist making a fortune by neutering, bastardizing, aping, and otherwise exploiting classic African-American soul singers, calling me, the music writer who hates his blow-dried guts. Having nothing better to do at such an ungodly hour, I play along.
"Michael, my man, Whassup?"
"Todd, I'm calling to thank you."
"'Zat right? Hey, my pleasure, Mike. See ya!" I slam down the receiver for emphasis and go back to my Pop Tarts. A second later the phone rings again.
"You don't believe it's me, do you?"
"No, I don't. And I would really like to get back to my Pop Tarts, which were warm a minute ago."
"Yeah, Pop Tarts. Starchy, sugary crap with no nutritional value that Americans often substitute for real food. Not unlike a Michael Bolton cover."
"Ouch! Give me a break, Todd. I told you, I'm calling to thank you. And to apologize. We both know I've done some horrible things the last few years, especially my latest abomination, Timeless: The Classics. But I've been doing a lot of soul-searching lately, and I've decided it's time to make amends."
"Mmm-hmm," I mumble skeptically.
My dog, Trigger, has wandered into the kitchen following the scent of fresh strawberry goo and pseudo-dough as my forever malfunctioning toaster reduces the chemical confection to smoking carbon -- Pop Tarts just the way I like 'em. A frightening, scratchy, ear-piercing whine screeches through the line. I extend the receiver to arm's length, quickly. Trigger cowers under the table, paws over his ears, whimpering. I can see the pain in his eyes. I realize that the next time I leave him alone in the house for any reason, the living-room sofa is meat. Then, as abruptly as it began, the racket subsides. For the first time I realize that I really am talking to Michael Bolton, the only pop star of the modern era who consistently whines in registers even Trigger cannot tolerate.
"Michael B! It's really you!" My mind races, but I can't think of one nice thing I have ever said about him. "Uh, Mike, you sure you got the right guy? I haven't exactly been your biggest fan."
He sighs. "I know. I'm sick of being called sexy, sweet, soulful, sensitive. Reporters from the tabloids asking me about Marla, Julia, Gabriela, Brooke, that kind of thing. You guys at New Times are the only ones who've consistently given me grief about my music. That means a lot to a guy like me, always being bombarded with underwear and room keys thrown by adoring women. You follow?"
"Oh, sure. I've been there. Tough gig. Nothin' you can do but gut it out."
"Exactly. I've painted myself into a corner. Couple years ago, I was a heavy-metal singer. Opened for bands like Ozzy and Krokus. Teenage boys with frizzy hair and bad complexions wore black T-shirts with `Bolton Rules' on the back. Musically, I was kicking butt and taking names. But financially I was hurtin', man, I mean really hurtin'. Checks were bouncing, eviction notices were coming in, and I had a wife and three daughters to support, you know? I'd been writing these schmaltzy ballads for a while, and giving them to other singers who were going out and pulling in beaucoups bucks with 'em while I played hide and seek with the landlord. Finally one day, back in '86 or '87, I decided to take a shot at singing some of the mushy crap myself, see if maybe it would work for me like it had for all those people I had given my songs to in the past. Next thing you know, I'm pocketing a Grammy, driving a Porsche, and outselling Springsteen. Before he died."
I'm thinking, "Bolton Rules?" What must that have sounded like? But I hold my tongue. It's his dime, after all. "Uh, no offense, man, but what does this have to do with me?"
"I was in serious danger of falling victim to the Elton John syndrome, where you start out trying to make decent music but find this incredible market for schlock that you can't pass up. The money's too good. But you guys always told it like it was. Kept my head on straight. You know, I feel just awful about butchering `Dock of the Bay' like that, but I really needed the money, and I figured, `Otis is dead. He won't mind.' Then I did `When a Man Loves a Woman,' and that sold like crazy, too. So I figured, why not, you know, just butcher a whole album full of classic R&B? No need to waste time writing songs, just churn out the product and bank a few mil. That's how Timeless Classics came about. And it's working great -- I'm flush, my kids are happy, and I'm thinking it's time to give something back. I appreciate your honest criticism over the years. I feel I can trust you. That's why I wanted you to be the first to know about the new Michael Bolton. I'm going to dedicate the rest of my singing career to cutting-edge, innovative music. I'm going to take risks and shoot for the moon creatively. No more maudlin ballads, no more gushy love songs. I don't want to be remembered as the Nineties version of Barry Manilow. Or Bread."
"Sounds good to me, guy. Got anything in the works? Irons in the fire?"
"Yeah, but it's real hush-hush at this point. I'm working on a couple tunes with some really avant-garde English songwriters, guys that I've admired for years but never had the opportunity to work with. These cats are heavy, and it's a big step for me, integritywise. You've gotta keep it under your hat."
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"No problem, man. Not a peep."
"George Michael and Rick Astley. Well, gotta run, man. Keep up the good work."
Dial tone. I look at Trigger. His ears have recovered and he is staring balefully at my smoldering blackened Pop Tarts.
"Here," I say, handing them to him. "I lost my appetite.