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Meet John Oszajca

By Gary Susman

MARCH 13, 2000:  Let's get the obvious joke out of the way first. John Oszajca -- a heretofore obscure singer/songwriter catapulted into fame by his engagement to Lisa Marie Presley, the announcement coming suspiciously close to the release of his major label debut, From There to Here (Interscope) -- has a song called "I Might Look White." This might have been a good song for Lisa Marie's ex-husband, too.

Well, if you don't take Oszajca (rhymes with Frère Jacques, his publicists helpfully point out) too seriously, that's okay, because neither does he. He has a long history as a self-styled outcast and put-on artist. Growing up a white guy in Hawaii -- he resembles fellow Hawaiian Keanu Reeves -- he endured the taunts of "haole" until he escaped to Seattle, where his multi-instrumental acoustic work didn't exactly fit the grunge-band aesthetic. He moved to Los Angeles and started a sham-glam band called Popism as a joke, only to draw crowds of hundreds to hear the band's deliberately wretched music.

The King's future son-in-law seems finally to have found his calling as a purposefully ironic troubadour who tosses into the mix all the styles of his past -- from earnest acoustic folk to slashing grunge to glittery glam crooning to shuffling LA white-boy hip-hop -- and grins sardonically all the while. He's obviously listened to a lot of Beck, as well as Mr. Hansen's high-modernist forefather in ethnomusical anarchy, Bob Dylan. But he also can't stop snapping his fingers to David Bowie and T. Rex. And he's haunted (if that's the right word to describe the brain smog that lingers from tropical-drink hangovers) by the undead spirits of '70s-LA cynical hedonists like Warren Zevon and the Eagles, romantic moralists who condemned the shallowness of Southern California while tanning to the point of heatstroke at poolside.

Oszajca kicks off the disc with "Back in 1999," a slim piece of instant nostalgia for the days when the Dow soared above 11,000. It's done in a catchy glam style, with guitars crunching into chirpy female back-up vocals, shades of Lou Reed's deliberately spurious "colored girls" on "Walk on the Wild Side." Although the glam arrangements will pop up occasionally later on the album, the singer's long nails remain unsheathed throughout. He's a busy man with a lot of targets to claw at; the name-dropped include Alanis Morissette, George Bush, Jesus Christ, Saddam Hussein, Nostradamus, and assorted others from the area code 310 white pages.

Then there's Bob Dylan, whom he kills with kindness. Oszajca enumerates a litany of personal woes worthy of a country song (lost girlfriend, lost job, etc.) on the second cut, "Where's Bob Dylan When You Need Him." I suppose the singer needs Bob to transform personal misery into art. (He gets him, or at least a few wheezing syllables of him sampled from "License To Kill," on the pointless Wyclef Jean remix that closes the album.) Oszajca also pays tribute to Dylan on the unironically titled "Valley of the Dolls," a virtual rewrite of "Desolation Row" (even keeping Dylan's chord changes), only moved from Greenwich Village to the San Fernando Valley and ladled with weepy mariachi brass. His magnum opus (it's supposedly about a porn star he once dated), the song is as spectacular and as horrible as you might imagine.

The rest of the album seems like novelty material, especially the slow-rapped "Bisexual Chick" (not the only number that claims a predilection for bisexual girlfriends), "I Hate You (My Friend)," a venomous kissoff as sung by the Archies, and the aforementioned "I Might Look White," an acoustic talking-blues laundry list of grievances. He even tries his hand at a country song, though his penchant for joky irony spikes his beer not with tears but with applesauce.

Now that Oszajca is going to marry rock's most famous heiress while angling for his own major airplay, he can't really claim the wry outsider stance that defines his music. Maybe he'd argue that joining the establishment and indulging in its tawdriest perks will make him an even more trenchant critic, since he'll know from personal experience what he's skewering. (Hey, that trick has worked for Michael "Nothing's too good for the working class" Moore.) Maybe he'll become a fabulous derelict like Zevon -- at least if he ever latches onto a style robust enough to carry the full weight of his bitterness. No one likes a half-assed misanthrope.


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