The Right to Suck
You can't keep a bad musician down
By Walter Jowers
JUNE 12, 2000: Some years back, I sold musical instruments at Jay's Music Center, in Augusta, Ga. Jake Roseman (Mister Jay to his customers) was always looking for an advantage over his arch-rival, Schneider's Music Center. So Jay bought one of the very first Moog synthesizers and set it up in the front of the store so everybody could see it.
I was the only musician working in the store, so all three Rosemans (Jake, wife Betsy, and daughter Vera) expected me to demonstrate the thing to everybody who walked in. Lucky for me, a musical boy could play a Moog with just his right hand, using just the white keys. The left hand stayed busy twiddling the knobs and switches.
As soon as I plugged the Moog in, I knew it was a bad day for American music. That's because I, a non-keyboard-player if ever there was one, could make fascinating noises all day long, with no keyboard skills whatsoever. The bomb noise was way cool and worth the $1,200 price tag all by itself.
Sure enough, people started coming to see the Moog. I met 'em at the door, cheerfully switched on the amp, and suggested that they start with the bomb noise. After that, they moved on to the ray-gun noise and then the surf sound. A few of 'em even tried to play a tune, usually "Heart and Soul," or the theme from Hawaii Five-0.
As it turned out, no actual keyboard players were interested in the Moog. Only nerdy lookyloos and gangs of shoplifting speed freaks ever asked to touch the thing. I put up with their brain-rattling noise for about three days, then decided that hopping a freight train to hell would have been a vacation. So I started asking people for their licenses.
"Can you hook up the Moog?" a customer would ask.
"Sure," I'd say. "Show me your license."
"Uh, what license?"
"Your Moog player's license. No license, no playing the Moog."
"I didn't know there was such a thing. How do I get a license?"
"You get it from me. Go over there and play the Fender Rhodes piano for 15 minutes. Stun me with your talent. Then I'll give you the license and turn on the Moog."
Well, that just made people mad, and they walked out. Looking back on it, I guess I did Mr. Roseman a disservice. We sold the Moog months later, at cost, to a teenager would could play a little piano. I'm pretty sure the thing never left his bedroom. In my defense, I can only say that I kept the Moog out of the hands of a performer. Right now, a bunch of 1970s loungegoers ought to drop to their knees and thank me for sparing them one more lame-ass bar-band rendering of "Roundabout."
Which brings me to this: As of last week, singers and dancers in Vietnam can't get onstage without a license. And not just anybody can get a license. Hundreds of would-be performers have failed their government-imposed tests, according to Reuters. The sorry-ass performer problem is particularly acute in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where nearly 300 acts flunked out.
Official Vietnamese papers didn't explain the sudden need for licensing. However, Vietnamese politicians have been complaining about "polluting" foreign influences and low-quality music performances in recent years.
This puts me to wondering: Just how bad does an act have to be to flunk a test in Vietnam? If a guitar player can't play the opening lick to "Tush," he ought to be tossed out on his ear. But how about a singer who can't hit the high notes in "Stairway to Heaven"? Robert Plant can't hit 'em, either. How about a lounge act who leads a cute sing-along on the hook line of the heartbreaking ballad "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town"? Kenny Rogers does that.
There's a part of me that applauds the Vietnam Commies for trying to weed out lame music acts. But it won't work, for several reasons: First, people actually prefer lame acts. Second, people can walk out on an act they don't like, even in Vietnam. Third, there's serious free-market money to be made in the lame-act business. Right now, we have a fair-size industry of chair-dancing, soft-singing, slicked-back, moussed-up, electronically-enhanced boy bands. I'd stuff my ears with thumbtacks before I'd listen to any one of them. None of them could get a license from me. But there they are, vacuuming the pockets of millions of teenage girls and making boatloads of money for record company execs. When one big-time music producer builds a house, the trim carpenter who saws up his staircase will make more money than the whole population of Vietnam.
So, you Commies, listen to me: Let the lame acts play. I tried my damnedest to keep synthesizers out of the hands of keyboard players. I fought disco, drum machines, wah-wah pedals, and phase shifters. Did all my hard work do a lick of good? Nope. Some forces are too powerful--the Judds, for instance. Sometimes you've just got to know when you're licked.
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