Missed in Action
"It's impossible to be a competent popular music critic," writes Dave Marsh, generally considered one of the top rock journalists in the land. So Dave, why don't you get a real job?
That's the problem, Marsh argues in the March issue of Rock & Rap Confidential: Being a competent crit is more than a full-time job. Reviewers typically receive 40 CDs or tapes each week; just to listen to all of them would take the equivalent of a full workweek. To actually write about one requires additional listens. And if the artist is an established act, time spent with previous work is necessary, too.
By way of example, Marsh, who authored the definitive Bruce Springsteen biography and sequel, admits he hasn't found time to hear Bruce's Unplugged EP. If the number-one subject of American music criticism gets such short shrift, what about all those "undiscovered" artists out there?
Take a guy like Tom Manos. In July 1993 he released The Emperor's New Song, a classy mash of original music that he wrote, played, arranged, produced, packaged. A paralegal by day, Manos had put out some demos, even had a hit on Latin radio with the Spanish-language novelty "Adi centss Fidel!" But The Emperor was an album A his manifestation of North American pop rock, a slab of such high quality the major labels would be proud to issue it.
No one noticed.
So in October he re-released it. Releasing the CD meant little more than consigning it to a few mom-and-pop shops, sending it to some record labels, mailing it to the press and radio. Re-releasing it simply meant writing a letter stating "It's being re-released." That didn't work, either. So he re-re-released it.
"I think musicians tend to look at it backward," Manos observes. "Like it's a foregone conclusion that you'll make it. But finally it dawns on you that you won't have a house on Star Island. Ultimately you will have rejection and you will be depressed. It used to be that a rejection letter would ruin my day, devastate me. Now it doesn't faze me. There's more to life than chasing that dream -- success is being happy with your music."
A Miami native, Manos began his musical career in high school after picking up a guitar at age ten and using his five years of piano lessons to imitate the Beatles. He played in a series of bands, including one with Mavericks drummer Paul Deakin. "The problem with the scene is you have to have a band to be out there playing," he says. "I've done that. I got tired of drunks telling me how great I played. The president of Sony isn't going to walk in off the streets at 3:00 a.m. in one of these dives. I'd rather be writing music, being with family, enjoying life."
Of course he also needed to make a living. "I saw an ad for a law firm and thought the legal world might be interesting," says Manos. "I took a paralegal course. I was working and going to school, but I graduated with a 4.0. It took away from my music."
Now it's putting back. At his house near the Falls, Manos built a recording studio. "The technology was intimidating at first, now it's become second nature," says the one-man band. "I bought a synth, went through a crash course in MIDI. Technically, all the demos I did [Manos had recorded some demos in the late Seventies while working at Henry Stone's legendary TK Studios in Hialeah] helped me learn my way around a studio. After 'Adi centss Fidel!' -- it was neat to hear it on radio -- it started dawning on me that I was not being taken seriously. I was losing credibility in the market I wanted to be in, and I was never taken seriously in the Latin market. (I hate that word, 'market.') I'm making progress. I have an A&R list, contacts, how it's all structured. Because I'm at a law firm, I can do it the correct way, by setting up a corporation and so forth."
The Emperor, certainly, was done the correct way, from the recording and mixing to the graphics and packaging. Picky critics might find it too mainstream, which is why it's the sort of record that should get the attention of an A&R person. A critic might be put off by the electronic -- that is, techno-enhanced rather than human-handed -- drive behind "The Power of Suggestion," the lead track on the second side of the cassette. That's a damn shame, because Manos does this sort of thing better than Transformer-era Neil Young. A tough-minded confessional, the tune sums up Manos's current status in the pop world. The slickness is superseded by the clever character development and even stronger comments about an original musician's inevitable dilemma, but with a bottom line that registers pure hope and the persistence that goes with it. And if they can't sell "Power," they could stock their coffers with the the radio-ready (sizzling-like-a-grease-fire guitar rips included) title cut.
Overall the album boasts an invigorating diversity of song structure and lyrics that deal with big themes like love and sociocultural concerns. Nonetheless, Manos reports, radio has turned a deaf ear to Emperor. "WVUM won't play it. They have a hipper-than-thou attitude, which is just as bad as the people in commercial radio. They won't play it unless it's 'alternative.' That's the problem I have with them. I'm an original artist, I'm local, the stuff is good, so it's like reverse discrimination -- 'alternative' discriminates against stuff like mine."
It's not just radio. "I sent this record to the Herald and to New Times, plus magazines and trades. No one has reviewed it. I don't understand it -- it seems worthy of review."
It's not just press. "The labels send me rejection letters. What hurts is when you put your heart and soul into a project, and they stop the tape during the first chorus of the first song and say, 'No. I don't hear a hit, babe.'
"Record industry people can't tell a hit record from a shot put," Manos remarks. "But I'm optimistic. I don't care if they don't like it at this point. I like it. Even if I can't get anybody to even acknowledge this thing exists."
But maybe this year, maybe soon, the skies will open and the powers will beam their mighty light on Manos. He's not sitting around waiting. He has already moved on to his next album, due out in a few months. One of the tunes is a potent ballad with a title that makes for a nice description of the music biz: "A Game for Fools." But it's the title song of the record that sounds like it ought to be a monster hit, a striking song you'd think radio (and the press and the labels) would suck up like honey. Title: "The Real World."
It hasn't dawned on Gigi DeNisco that she won't have a house on Star Island, not that such lodgings would suit the down-to-earth Miami native. Performing in a little club with nothing more than an amplified acoustic guitar and a small mixer (the knobs of which she must twist herself between tunes) is not foreign to her. Her life is dedicated to music, has been since she was a child performer in a sibling trio, since she picked up guitar at age nine and began writing songs at fifteen. "It bothers me to be overlooked," she offers, "but it doesn't bother me. I'm confident in what I do. It's going to happen sooner or later. I have a feeling this is going to be the year."
Judging by the sound of an advance copy of her new full-band album, DeNisco has every reason to be confident, but then again, she's been playing rock-edged solo-acoustic originals around South Florida for a decade without so much as a how-da-ya-do from press, radio, and the labels. "No Miami Rocks, no 'Best of Miami' A I can't even get booked at the Talkhouse," she says, shaking her head and grinning the grin of the over-it. "I hate the whole Miami thing. That's why I play in the Keys so often."
This month she's spending Thursdays at the cocktails-and-seabreeze institution Lo-re-lei's on Islamorada. She has found many venues in the Keys with receptive management and delighted audiences. This past September she opened for Willie Nelson at Plantation Yacht Harbor, with about 8000 in attendance. "I had Jimmy Fiano [on guitar] and we played an hour set. I guess [Nelson and his band] liked us, because they thought we had a deal," she recalls. "They asked us where we were touring."
Though there's nary a countrified bone to dig up in her sound, it's not hard to imagine that this glowingly strummed guitar and precise, powerful voice belong to a major-label act with a nationwide following. Put it this way: If Melissa Etheridge can do it, Gigi DeNisco can. Equal passion of voice, equal potency of guitar, equal sparkle of songwriting -- DeNisco, though, is able to cover more ground in less time.
That doesn't put gas in the tank, but the praise is deserved nonetheless. With help on the new album from a number of stellar players, including Allan Kendall and George Chocolate Perry (both of Bee Gees fame), DeNisco has crafted a work worth the long wait. "I'm finally ready to shop this stuff," she says. "I held some of these songs for a while. When you're not rich, it takes a while. I have a good team behind me A a couple of people who are helping me. I waited so long, I figured I might as well get nine songs out as a cassette."
Nine fine songs, highlighted by the provocative and perfectly arranged "Fading Dream," a track whose title belies DeNisco's enduring potential for stardom. With an occasional Stevie Nicks (minus the candles and gauze) inflection and a downright roar when necessary, the song justifies its gunshot backbeat with a depth and resonance Fleetwood Mac would've killed for.
The automatic hits can be found here: the percussive and ethereal (but not the least bit vague) "Here Comes the Rain" and the intriguing "Mystic Tune," to name two. Who knows how many A&R geniuses get down to the Keys, or to rustic Miami venues such as Tobacco Road, but DeNisco isn't holding out for external validation. Her music speaks louder than any chart report. "There are moments where I get down," the scene veteran admits. "But they don't last too long. If you believe in yourself and what you do, they can't keep you down."
What this music biz needs is an all-knowing God. David Reuter wasn't searching for the Holy Grail, just some gigs, when he moved to Miami in 1978. Born in South Carolina to a military family, he first dabbled in music during high school in Maryland. "Up north it's even more seasonal," he says of employment for players. "It gets cold and everything shuts down. There was work here back then, and in some ways there still is."
Like DeNisco, Reuter often performs in the Keys, where his jazz-drenched original pop can fulfill the tropical expectations of umbrella-drink tourists while also stimulating laid-back locals. ("The tourist crowd asks for certain artists and I say, 'No.' People in the Keys don't want those covers.") So far, the president of Sony hasn't walked into the shade of the thatched-roof patios or ceiling-fanned rooms. "I hesitate talking about the industry overlooking people," Reuter says amiably. "I wouldn't want them to think I have an attitude problem. There's plenty of talent A in this city alone A being overlooked. I see this [his March 1993 album Conversations of the Heart] as my first project, not my last."
Conversations, a charming, acoustic-driven, keys/sax-bolstered cassette, sold a few copies and drew a review in Jam, as well as a radio interview. Reuter expects to have new material out soon. "I felt I was ready to do something more than what I've been doing," he says. "It's always been a dream of mine to be involved in writing and singing. I've learned plenty, including technique, and I like to think the past fifteen years haven't been in vain. I'm a long way from where I want to be, but I'm a lot better than I was."
The album contrasts Reuter's live work, which is mostly solo acoustic or in a sequenced duo with guitarist Willie Vega in which Reuter plays bass and sings. For Conversations, Reuter enlisted a vocalist, two keyboardists, and such stars as Vega, Marc Berner (playing sax, beautifully), percussionist Steve Kornicks, and drummer Jack Kurtz. The results reflect the talent behind these highly accessible and brilliantly played cuts.
Reuter's are untroubling tunes, although "The Worst Thing That Could Happen" offers a bleak perspective on a busted relationship. "Heart Beat," an urgent tension-and-release soca-style song, better displays the upbeat nature of most of Reuter's work. There's joy to be had here, and Reuter is less than worked up about any neglect. "Hey, we all feel like we're beating our heads against the wall," he says with a smile. "I send stuff to friends in Germany, figuring something might happen over there. I play acoustic, in all kinds of venues, and Willie and I average three to five nights a week as a duo, as long as we can work out our schedules."
When he talks about his album, Reuter echoes the sentiments of Tom Manos. "This is it, this is what I'm up to. And having something out always helps, I'm moving up more and more. I use agents, it's a little easier that way and I've been pretty fortunate with that. Since I've been doing it a while, there's word of mouth, and it's usually me being approached [to perform] than me having to approach them."
The musician is not about to wait for the labels to approach him. "I'm just waiting on a reply from ASCAP," he says, "and then I'll be starting my own label, Al-Basir, which is Arabic for 'all-perceiving.' The business has got to have somebody like that."
Alas, it doesn't.
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