Certain Songs

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Two weeks back. I take my daughter to see Alvin... Trailers. “I love trailers, Dad.” Next up, Definitely, Maybe, some father-daughter divorce romcom, starring Ryan Reynolds and the girl from Sunshine. Sure. But then, just as the third act of the trailer starts, the part where Ryan’s on the upswing, a needle-drop hits over images of him hugging various women (including little miss...). I hear David Gray’s voice—strong, intense, with a Welshman’s lilt—and I no longer care whether Ryan or his daughter are ever going to really find happiness. Instead, the music becomes a wormhole—as music often does for me—and it’s 1993.

I’m sitting in my office and I get this call from Mark Spector, Joan Baez’s manager. He’s dialing from London, and there’s an urgency in his voice. Neither the international call, nor its temperature, is typical for my friend Mark, who is frugal and calm by nature. “Brian,” he says, “go to a record store tonight, TONIGHT!, and find an album called A Century Ends. It won’t be easy, it’s on a tiny British indie, but you need to get it. This guy, David Gray, opened for us last night. He’s real. Real. Go get the disc.”

Now, my friends and I have turned each other on to new music since we were kids, but my interest in what Spector has to say isn’t an enthusiast’s. It’s professional. I’m an A&R man for EMI records, and this is business. I need to find the thing. There could be money in it.

I track it down at Rebel Rebel, a West Village store specializing in vinyl. I get home, put on the first song, “Shine.” It plays. Ends. I stand, go to the turntable, put the song on again. And again. Then I let the rest of the album play. All of the songs are potent. Modern Irish folk, but marked by a punk spirit and the boozy melodic structure of mid-period Van Morrison.

Spector’s right. And even though I try and listen dispassionately, I can’t. This guy is singing with too much force, and his words are too strong. I am moved. I resolve to sign him to the label, to get his music out to the rest of the country, to launch his career. And although I succeed at the first part, signing him to his first American deal after a year-long courtship across Europe and the U.S., I fail miserably at the rest of it, and later come to mark this moment, hearing his first album, as the beginning of the end for me as a music business pro.

I’m still thinking of all this as my daughter and I leave the theater, Alvin and the Chipmunks having been no distraction at all to my inner thought process. I’m remembering how the experience of trying to get David’s music across personified all that I had come to hate about my old job, but more than that, how it had almost changed the way I had felt about music itself.

Thing is, I grew up around the business. My dad was a music publisher and producer. He brought home plenty of free records, but still, from 12 years old on, I spent just about every dollar I had at the Record World store a couple miles from our house. New albums came out on Tuesdays, then as now, and each Tuesday after school I’d be at the shop, going through the bins, checking out the cover art, asking all the sales guys if they’d heard anything good since the last time I’d been in. There was nothing more animating to me then a great new song, or finding out about a band I’d never heard of before. It was this passion to search for the next astounding artist that led me to find and work with Tracy Chapman while I was at college, which led to my getting hired by Elektra in my first real job. That first year working as a scout was tremendous; I couldn’t get over that I was getting paid to listen to music.

I kept up that level of enthusiasm for my first bunch of years on the job, through leaving Elektra for Warner/Giant and EMI. But even before hearing A Century Ends, the passion had started to erode. There was one afternoon when a coworker brought me into his office so he could play me a demo of an unknown band he’d come across. The band was Counting Crows, and the song, “Round Here.” By its second line, I knew “Round Here” was a classic and that whoever wrote it was in for a long, successful career. But the emotion I felt was not the joy of discovery. It was envy, rage, that someone else had gotten there before me. Rather than being my escape, music had become work.

When David Gray’s first EMI album Sell, Sell, Sell, came out, it sold 2,000 copies total. I had promised him a marketing and press campaign that would put him in magazines and on television, a radio promotional campaign that would have him on alternative stations in every market, and a retail campaign that would ensure his album was stacked front and center of every chain store in the country. None of it happened. The company didn’t believe in him, and I couldn’t do anything to change it. When he’d call me from the road, wondering why he couldn’t find his CD in any shops, why there were no reporters at his shows, I didn’t know how to answer him. And when I would hear his music coming out the speakers of a neighboring office, it sounded like an accusation to me.

Soon after, I had the good fortune to find my way out of the business by writing a screenplay that sold. But it took far longer for me to be able to listen to music the way I used to, like a boy.

I can now. And I do. That’s why I’m so excited to be writing this column. Because I need to shout about music again. Need to be searching for it, reading about it, bullshitting with friends about it. Now, when I hear a band like The Hold Steady, or Band Of Horses, or The Hellacopters, or when I hear the next David Gray or Counting Crows, I have someplace to talk about it, someplace to remember how it feels when certain songs hit you in that certain way.

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