This morning, a blog post appeared on the website of the revered indie music magazine, Paste, in which Austin L. Ray gives faint praise to Ryan Gosling’s band, Dead Man’s Bones, stating that even if the music is “just kind of there”, at least 10 other actors have had music projects that were “way worse” than Ryan’s. The very first piece of evidence on the list is P’s 1993 SXSW performance of Mumble. This is followed by YouTubes of Russell Crowe, Jared Leto, Keanu Reeves, Joey Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Costner, Billy Bob Thornton, Steven Seagal, and David Hasselhoff. I suppose the point in this exercise is to prove that nobody can be creative enough to both act and play music, or at least they’d better not bring both to the public eye. If you go to Paste’s About Paste page, they state that the magazine is “for people who still enjoy discovering new music, prize substance and songcraft over fads and manufactured attitude.” The blog’s implication seems to be that if an actor makes music, it must be a gimmick– it’s artificial, it’s a manufactured product intended to make a quick buck and capitalize on the star’s fame. Even if that’s not what they’re saying (though it sure as heck seems it is), we’ve all heard this argument before. A True Music Fan wouldn’t consider an actor’s music worthy.
I dunno. Okay, I can’t really say I’m a particular fan of all these actors’ music. Barring Johnny, I’m not even all that familiar with most of it. But except for David Hasselhoff, who I believe has been wildly popular in Germany, I don’t think any of these guys have had a whole lot of commercial success. I had to look up Steven Seagal on Wikipedia because I honestly didn’t know he was a musician, but for him and certainly for all the others, their musical turns have not just been some fly-by-night thing. They’ve all been at it for some time, and yet it doesn’t seem like any of them have been hawking their CDs very much in the mainstream. I know the Bacon Brothers have played quite often in my area, in a little club without too much hoopla. And didn’t Joey Lawrence pretty much grow up singing and dancing?
So is this music just a fad? Is it just something manufactured by the film studios? Or does it just show that these guys need music in their lives, just like so many of us do? Is it wrong for them to find a creative outlet? Isn’t the very notion of rock ‘n’ roll to sing and play your heart out, no matter whether your music is accepted by the Establishment or not? Does Paste now become the Establishment? Assuming that an actor will suck at music is the same as assuming that a musician will suck at acting; maybe there isn’t a great deal of awe for David Bowie’s or Tom Waits’ acting abilities, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying a number of their performances on film. It is possible to keep an open mind.
The blog’s inclusion of P’s Mumble as one of their arguments for “way worse” music is amusing on many levels. First and foremost, Mr. Ray makes a point of Gosling’s music being influenced by today’s indie rock, yet he doesn’t mention, or doesn’t realize, that Mumble is a clear tribute (or ripoff, depending on your point of view!) of one of rock’s great legends, Link Wray. For better or for worse, Gibby Haynes added some lyrics, irreverence, and attitude, and made the song P’s own; at least they should get credit for sheer rock ‘n’ roll chutzpah. Second, P never appeared to be primarily Johnny’s band– Gibby was pretty much the one in the spotlight.
But mainly, P never tried to take themselves too seriously. By all accounts, P was born out of a love for cooking: while Johnny was filming What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in the Austin area, he and his childhood buddy Sal Jenco hung out with Gibby (of the Butthole Surfers) and roots rocker/songwriter Bill Carter to prepare gourmet meals. But when the SXSW organizers approached Gibby about booking the Butthole Surfers for their festival, Gibby suggested his “other band.” In an Austin Chronicle article, Bill Carter explains: “It wasn’t a band. [Sal Jenco] wasn’t particularly a drummer — he’d played years ago or whatever. And I’m a songwriter, not a guitar player’s guitarist. Johnny [Depp] can actually play guitar better than I can, but he didn’t want to feature it at all and be the actor-turned-rock-star for the evening. So just the fact that we actually did it was kind of amazing to me. We weren’t really good, it was just fun.” You only have to give a quick listen to their songs to know that it’s at once just tongue-in-cheek, while also giving a tip of the hat to a variety of musical genres.
As for P’s studio album, which was released in 1995, Johnny’s 2008 interview in Rolling Stone tells his version of the story: “P was a group of friends who were given the opportunity to make a bunch of noise together and document it. For some reason, Capitol Records wanted to do it, and that was the most surreal part. We said, ‘There will be no photographs, there will be no tour, there will be no videos, there will be no bios, there will be nothing.’ And they agreed to it! We didn’t let them in the studio when we were recording the record. There’s a lot of really funny shit on it. Gibby was on fire. He’s a genius. And so after Capitol Records listened to the record, they just went, ‘What is this?’ and buried it. Which was not even the slightest disappointment.” Doesn’t seem like they were aiming for a marketable product to me; seems more like an example of good old rock ‘n’ roll brazenness. The original release went nowhere on the charts, and a 2007 re-release on Caroline records didn’t have any promotion whatsoever, despite the fact that Johnny is a much more bankable star now than he was in 1995.
So what’s my point? I guess that as long as Johnny, Ryan Gosling, Kevin Costner and Billy Bob Thornton aren’t constantly barraging me with their music, I celebrate the fact that they could create some fun music that could be enjoyed by their fans. If it’s not your cup of tea, that’s fair, but don’t begrudge them, or anyone, the chance to make music. For me, I would be thrilled if Johnny were to play again with P, or with The Kids, or with any group of musicians. Nothing wrong with making music, even if you’re a film star who might be a target of some ridicule from True Music Fans.
P.S. While I was a little turned off by the arrogance of the blog I wrote about, I do have tons of respect for Paste Magazine, and I have them listed in the Credits and Fine Print section of my website. They are currently running a campaign to save their mag, which like many print publications is in financial trouble in this day of the Internet. Even a small contribution will help, and will also allow you to download some great tracks as a thank you for your support. So, if you love music and want to support a great music magazine, check out Paste’s campaign page to find out how you can donate!