Die young, make money

The Grim Reaper is the perfect salesman – that became obvious not only with David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister or Glenn Frey, but might come true for Dr. John as well. It’s a strange dynamic that once inspired Bill Drummond, former KLF mastermind and manager of the Teardrop Explodes, to write a very sarcastic song.

You get a strange feeling when stars who provided the soundtrack to a substantial part of your life (either as idols or objects of contempt) suddenly die, usually too soon. Of course I know: The death of a VIP can’t compare to the death of a close relative or good friend. But even a star who has passed means that you lose something central to your daily life. The world will never be the same again, memories of your youth re-surface, long-forgotten hopes and desires, wonderful moments, perhaps some broken dreams. If nothing else, you become aware of your own mortality.

Collective grief, a uniting consolatory event
Even more disconcerting than the death of a VIP is the PR surrounding it. Especially impressive was what happened after Mr. Motörhead Lemmy Kilmister died at the end of December 2015. It was rather bizarre to see all the people who suddenly claimed to be hardcore fans and sang songs of praise about brute rock. Very nice and decent folks, whom you would rather think would be part of the Roxette universe, wrote weepy social media posts and demonstrated a toughness and wickedness they obviously had hidden for a long time. Conservative newspapers honoured Kilmister as a ”noble savage“. Even public service broadcasting celebrated the heavy metal pioneer and his sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll-lifestyle almost as passionately as former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who had died a few weeks before. Everybody was on first name terms with ”Lemmy“ – as if this Lemmy had always been his or her best mate. Against the backdrop of horrible daily news from the fields of economics and politics, the collective grief for a deceased star, whom many people had rejected during his lifetime, seemed to become a uniting consolatory event.

The fuss about David Bowie was similarly strange. Of course his death was very bad news for pop music, i.e. for fans and fellow musicians around the world. But the way radio hosts uttered their distress for hours and hours (and then managed to play only the two more than obvious Bowie hits Space Oddity and Let’s Dance) was kind of embarrassing. Posing is an art David Bowie himself mastered much better. The almost biblical exaltation columnists around the world voiced was just as cringey, as were the relentless posts on social media. These took on a life of their own as sheer nerd competitions, according to the motto: Who can post an even more obscure Bowie song or an even more bizarre cover version?

The reactions to the death of Eagles cofounder Glenn Frey were a bit more restrained. Nothing more than friendly words – although there was a time when the Eagles were considered the epitome of rock star decadence. It’s always the same: A star dies – and a pseudo-community comes together to celebrate itself.

I never cared much for Lemmy Kilmister and Motörhead. All the stories about vast amounts of alcohol and drugs or about the women Lemmy had “traded” with his own son didn’t do it for me. The same is true of Mr. Kilmister’s singing style, his songs, and of the extremely high volume at which he played them live. But I was impressed by one or two of the interviews he gave, e.g. to the German magazine ”GALORE“: To my surprise, Kilmister turned out to be incredibly astute and cynical, and he took a clear stand about current events. What the fans loved, of course, was this nonconformism, the aura of danger surrounding him, and his ”Kiss my ass!“ attitude. He represented a boldness that ordinary fans lacked. His open machismo, his irresponsibility, and a certain amount of self-destructive behaviour, that is: the personal tragedies behind the mask, were things these fans ignored. I was much more into Bowie, although in my opinion he had released too many mediocre albums with only a few highlights. No hard feelings, of course, for Bowie had recorded many epochal songs and exerted a huge influence on rock music during the first decades of his career.

Becoming Nr. 1 with impenetrable songs

Now I would never think of buying a rock star’s CD just because s/he died recently – let alone that star’s complete back catalogue. That’s why it never fails to astonish me that the Grim Reaper always turns out to be the perfect salesman. A case in point: Bowie’s rather impenetrable album Blackstar, which was released at almost the same time as his death, made it to Nr. 1 on the US album charts – the first Bowie album ever to do so. And after Lemmy Kilmister died, three of Motörhead’s albums even entered the German charts, while Ace of Spades, Motörhead’s signature song, entered the Top 100 of the German singles charts for the first time ever.

And there are more examples. In its Elvis Presley biography, the internet platform ‘laut.de’ sums it up: ”The king is dead – long live the king! That was the melancholy media cry on August 16, 1977. Elvis had already sold 600 million sound carriers with his voice till then. After his death, 200 million sound carriers were added to this within a short period of time, and in the year 2002 their number had reached 1.6 billion.“ About another king, the ”King of Pop“, Wikipedia writes: ”Due to his death, 29 million Michael Jackson albums were sold in less than six months.“ The same internet encyclopedia writes about Austria’s biggest popstar: „Only a few weeks after Falco’s death, his album Out of the Dark (Into the Light) was released and became a huge commercial success. The album entered the Austrian charts at Nr. 1 and remained in the charts for the following three months. In Germany, the album maintained its position in the Top 100 for almost a year. In Germany and Austria alone, the album sold two million copies, the single Out of the Dark sold more than 3.5 million copies”. But did the same apply to rock group Queen and their frontman Freddie Mercury? It sure did, according to the web platform ”SPIEGEL Online“: ”After Mercury’s death, the turnover from Queen CDs quadrupled. Bohemian Rhapsody again reached the Nr. 1 position in the charts. And even a remixed Mercury solo album, featuring old flops pimped with a disco beat, became a moneymaker.“ The Grim Reaper as the perfect salesman – this is also true in the field of independent and alternative rock: In the year 1980, after Joy Division singer Ian Curtis had committed suicide, their Single Love Will Tear Us Apart was rereleased and became a worldwide hit. It follows the same principle every time: Unknown acts become famous – famous acts become legends.

Where were all the posthumous fans when their stars were still alive?

Which leads us to the question: Where were all these fans when their stars were still alive and could have personally profited from their enormous affection? And I’m asking myself: What is it that makes deceased stars so irresistible? Is it their morbid charm? The alarming insight that even idols are only human beings and that we are still alive? Do we celebrate an early death as the inevitable dramatic climax of this almost mythical game of “sex and drugs and rock and roll“, as a supreme discipline, so to speak? Or is it the feeling of holding a great legacy in one’s hands? Do fans suddenly feel the breath of history when the works of a deceased artist begin to transition into their museal state?

”Bill Drummond said …“

Whatever the case may be: Artists themselves are more or less aware of the sales- and fame-propelling power the sudden death of a VIP can have. Among the rock masters who explicitly and creatively adressed this mechanism is Bill Drummond. He was at the center of that Liverpool scene which caused a sensation during the late 1970s and during the 1980s. Post Punk and New Wave were happening, and Echo & The Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes were the biggest Liverpool bands. Members of both outfits had been playing together in other bands before. For example, Julian Cope, singer with Teardrop Explodes, and Ian McCulloch, his counterpart in Echo & The Bunnymen, had been members of The Crucial Three. The ”Bunnymen“ and the ”Teardrops“ were signed by Zoo, an indie label owned by David Balfe and, yes, Bill Drummond. Balfe and Drummond, in turn, knew each other from playing together in the relatively unsuccessful band Big In Japan and  contributed substantially to the fortunes of their Zoo label fosterlings: Balfe was an occasional member of Teardrop Explodes, and Drummond worked as a manager for Teardrop Explodes as well as for the Bunnymen. During the first years of both bands, so the story goes, all participants were said to have constantly quarreled about which band should get the most promotional power – they were all friends, of course, but they were also jealous of each other. Whereas Ian McCulloch and his bandmates are still active today, Teardrop Explodes broke up in 1983 – because of these oft-quoted ”differences of opinion and taste in music“. Bill Drummond would later team up with Jimmy Cauty to realise art and music projects like The Timelords, The Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu and, most notably, The KLF – a step that earned him world fame. David Balfe, lastly, founded record label Food which also released some KLF records, of course.

Avantgarde art and marketing strategies

Legend has it that, back when Drummond was managing Teardrop Explodes, he and singer Julian Cope were constantly quarreling. Some people claim it was a downright feud. That may very well be true, because Cope was an egomaniac and eccentric who experimented with drugs, whereas Drummond had a passion for avantgarde art and marketing strategies. Drummond proved how seriously he took his idiosyncratic ideas in e.g. 1992, when he awarded Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread the „Worst Artist of the Year“ award of his K Foundation, including prize money of 40,000 GBP. A year later he participated in the public burning of – believe it or not – one million GBP. Although Teardrop Explodes started out well, they never made it to stardom, and one can assume that Drummond blamed their failure on poor musical and marketing decisions.

No wonder that one of the songs Julian Cope released on his 1984 solo album Fried was called Bill Drummond Said. It’s a catchy song that featured cryptic lyrics. But even if you don’t get the whole picture, you can pick up on the fact that Julian Cope blames the Teardrops’ failure on manager Bill Drummond. And that’s not all: He even suggests that Drummond ruined the band on purpose. The song characterizes him as a stone-cold manager who positively destroyed the delicate structure of the band by pushing the artists too hard towards success and maximum turnover. But did Julian Cope’s song really offend Bill Drummond? Probably not, because it is neither particularly pithy nor aggressive. On the contrary, it fuels the Liverpool scene myth of the 1980s, celebrating its creative masterminds, its libertines and eccentrics, its ”larger than life“ characters.  

Why Julian Cope had to die

You can draw the same conclusion from Julian Cope Is Dead, a song that was released two years later, in 1986, by – guess who – Bill Drummond. The charismatic heavy hitter had been working as an A&R manager for the record company WEA for some time. Now he returned as an artist with his solo album The Man. Julian Cope Is Dead is everything but a deadly serious retaliation song about the former Teardrop Explodes singer. Music and vocal style echo the good old folksong genre, and born Scotsman Bill Drummond sings with a strong Scottish accent. It comes across like a rude drinking song from ancient times, author unknown. Everything we hear sounds just like a fairytale, whispering: No need to worry, it’s only folklore.

The lyrics also don’t sound very trustworthy: ”Julian Cope is dead, / I shot him in the head“, Drummond cheerfully sings, ”if he moves some more, / I’ll kill him for sure. / Now, Julian Cope is dead”. In contrast to Bill Drummond Said,the narrator’s perspective in this song is clear. InJulian Cope Is Dead, only one single person is singing, who turns out to be Julian Cope’s former manager, Bill Drummond. “I shot Julian Cope”, the manager claims, but the singer doesn’t seem to be dead because he can still move. However, and that’s what counts: The public thinks that Julian Cope is no longer alive. In the further course of the song we learn what happened in detail and what the manager has in mind. In short: The Teardrop Explodes was a a superb band, no question, and had some very good songs in their repertoire, but they never managed to leave their mark on rock history. They were just a footnote. Which is why the manager – for the band’s sake as well – came up with a smart plan: Let’s fake the frontman’s death and make the band bigger than the Beatles, let’s create a cult around the Teardrops, which will help to massively increase their record sales: ”Jules C. just follow me, / have your interests at heart. / Now take this knife, / And write to your wife. / Tell her it had to be. / Now Julian said no, / He didn’t want to go …“

An excellent idea: Kill the frontman, then you’re ”bigger than the Beatles“

But the singer, who according to this plan would have had to lie to his wife, didn’t want to join in. So the manager reached for a gun and wounded Julian Cope to keep him from sabotaging the plan: ”Now, Julian Cope is dead, / I shot him in the head, / He didn’t understand / The glory of the plan, / Now, Julian Cope is dead.“ Towards the end of the song the speaker imagines his future success and how he shows off to the neighbours: ”We’ll have platinum records, not gold / To hang on our walls at home. / When the neighbours come round, / I’ll always break down, / repeating the stories of old.“ We can assume that the singer is being hidden somewhere, because the song addresses him again during the finale. That’s when Drummond ridicules Cope’s posing as a martyr, but he also makes fun of the media who are constantly looking for savior figures: ”But who is this man / With holes in his hands, / A halo round his head. / That Arab smock, / And golden locks, / It can’t be, it could be, it is!“ The fact that the initials J. C. apply to Julian Cope as well as to Jesus Christ, plays into Drummond’s hands: ”J. C., please, you’ve got to see, / I was doing what a manager ought. / The records weren’t selling, / And Balfie was drooping, / And Gary had a mortgage to pay.“ The bottom line is that the manager just did his job.

From mate to saint

Aside from the suggestion that Julian Cope just lacked the necessary savvy for generating commercial success, Drummond uses his song as a vehicle to explain a ridiculous marketing strategy. At the center lies the insight outlined at the beginning of this article: The death of a rock star sets an unbelievable process in motion: Record, CD, and DVD sales skyrocket. In an interview Drummond himself reminds the readers of Ian Curtis, whose suicide turned indie heroes Joy Division into global superstars – and helped launch New Order, the subsequent project formed by his ex bandmates. In November 1998 Drummond talked to the internet platform ‘intro.de’ about his song Julian Cope Is Dead and said: “Do you remember Ian Curtis? Joy Division was friends with us, and when Ian died, the media stylised him into something like a Messiah. Of course I knew that death can turn pop musicians into something special, but to watch someone I knew quite well being transformed into a saint was a very intense experience. I then suggested to Mac (= Ian McCulloch) to fake his death. I told him to stay away from the public for two months to see what happened. But he didn’t want to lie to his family. So in the song I replaced Mac with Julian Cope.“

We can’t be sure if this story about Bill Drummond and Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch really happened – but it’s a very nice story for sure, contributing perfectly to the myth around the Liverpool scene of the early eighties. Drummond achieves the same thing with his song Julian Cope Is Dead: It turns the (not authenticated) conflict between the Teardrop Explodes singer and his manager into a legendary anecdote. As a sideline, Drummond puts forward an ironic commentary about the mechanisms at work in the rock business. And who knows what will happen when Drummond himself bites the dust some day.

Cashing in on Sugar Man?

First belated fame, then the award-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” – and now a book is out on the search for the legendary 70s songwriter Rodriguez. Does the “Sugar Man” deserve that? And: Aren’t a few self-promoters just repeatedly fuelling the myth they have created?

Just to be clear: I think the long-forgotten 1970s
singer-songwriter Rodriguez and his songs are really extraordinary. And also
extraordinarily good. But I belong to the growing number of sceptics who have
been uncovering more and more holes and weak spots in the hype surrounding
Rodriguez that has prevailed for the last several years. This criticism is
directed less against the artist, whose demeanour has certainly been reserved,
if not downright modest, than against those who have capitalised on his
miraculous rediscovery and are still capitalising on it. These include South
African record store owner Stephen Segerman, journalist Craig Bartholomew
Strydom, also from South Africa, and Swedish documentary filmmaker Malik
Bendjelloul. Segerman and Bartholomew Strydom have recently published their
book Sugar Man – The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez. In
it, they describe once again how they set out in the 1990s to search for the
songwriter – who was believed to be dead – finally tracking him down and
helping him to his well-deserved fame after a quarter century’s delay.

This search and Rodriguez’s incredible
subsequent success are also at the heart of the film Searching for Sugar Man,
released by Malik Bendjelloul in 2012, which in 2013 earned him the most
prestigious award a director can receive: an Oscar. Bendjelloul committed
suicide in May of this year, allegedly he was depressed. Not least because of the
publication of Segerman and Bartholomew Strydom’s book, I was motivated to finally
watch the highly acclaimed film, the DVD of which I had put on my 2014
Christmas wish list. At first glance, it is a really beautiful, touching film.
It tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American songwriter who
released Cold Fact and Coming from Reality in the early 1970s,
two fantastic psychedelic folk albums with great melodies and unusually
profound lyrics. The tragedy: Both albums, although praised by the critics,
were total flops. Which is why, the film continues, Rodriguez withdrew
completely – unaware of the fact that in the 1970s and 80s his music became
extremely popular in South Africa, of all places. Via audio cassettes brought
into the country by tourists, as well as through bootlegs and later re-releases,
Cold Fact and Coming from Reality became the soundtrack of the
South African anti-apartheid movement and were sold hundreds of thousands of
times. But also because of apartheid, established facts about dissident artists
were rare on the ground and at some point, rumours spread that Rodriguez had committed
suicide on stage at one of his concerts.

Some people said he had set himself on fire,
others that he had shot himself. Which of course strengthened his mythological
status. Until two South American fans, the aforementioned Segerman and
Bartholomew Strydom, laboriously tracked down Sixto Rodriguez in the late 1990s
and brought him to South Africa for a highly acclaimed concert tour. So in the
end, the film concludes, the whole world got a chance to hear about this
extraordinary artist.

According to the film, the two protagonists
took three paths, among other things, in their tear-jerking search for
Rodriguez. Firstly: They tried to follow the flow of money. Because, they
reasoned correctly, whoever has sold that many records must have been paid some
kind of royalties. But the two men quickly reached the limits of this line of
enquiry and met dodgy ex-label bosses who stonewalled them. Hmmmm, very
suspicious! Secondly: They used the emerging internet and created a website
called “The Great Rodriguez Hunt” where they encouraged people to hunt for Rodriguez
and asked fans all over the world to help them. And thirdly: They carefully listened
to Rodriguez’s songs again. Where, in the piece Inner City Blues, they
came across the magic line “Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o’clock this
morn / A cold fact”. The film revels in once again setting the scene where one
of the two heroes, as if electrified, reaches for the atlas to find out where
Dearborn is. And – what a surprise! – Dearborn turns out to be a small town
southwest of Detroit! Which finally leads to a turn of events. Eventually – the
film implies that the search took several years – all the different paths
finally converge: Our South African heroes find one of the producers of
Rodriguez’ first album, and the singer’s daughter actually gets in touch via
the website. Rodriguez is said to be alive; he lives right next door in
Detroit. And one day, this moment is also recapitulated in a highly dramatic
way, Bartholomew Strydom and Segerman finally get to talk to the man himself on
the phone.

Gosh, golly, gee, goose bumps!!!!!

But this is the point, if not sooner, at which
I began to have doubts. Not about whether the two had even contacted Rodriguez,
because that was indisputable. No, I had doubts about the way they said they
had tracked Rodriguez down – about the supposed detective work, about all the
crime-story elements that the film presents in such a compelling way; about the
glorification of these two fans who purport to have done something amazing in
order to look behind the myth, in order to help their idol to his deserved
fame. One aspect in particular made me wonder: Every record contains
information about the authors of the songs and about the producers in the
studio. And even the most obscure records are listed in telephone book-like
directories with every label number, which applies both to the original
releases and to re-releases, even when the labels switch. How was it possible
that a record store owner and an investigative journalist of all people, even
if they worked in restrictive South Africa, shouldn’t have been able to take
the simplest path in such a case? To consult catalogues or simply search directly
for the producers listed on the record covers? Mind you: The process of liberalisation
and the transition from apartheid to legal equality for blacks in South Africa
had already begun in the late 1980s, with Nelson Mandela elected president in
1994. Therefore, the country was no longer isolated during the search for “Sugar
Man”. And in the meantime, the internet had also been born and was available!
Plus: At least one of Rodriguez’ producers was a known entity.

We are talking about Dennis Coffey, a session guitarist of those Funk Brothers who worked for the famous soul label Motown. It was Coffey and his partner Mike Theodore who produced the first Rodriguez album, Cold Fact, in the heart of America’s music industry! They had discovered the artist in his native Detroit, and, looking at the issue today, it seems like a bad joke that the two South African master researchers, after a long and arduous search, finally, well, tracked Rodriguez down exactly there: in his hometown Detroit!

To put it simply: Why didn’t they go through the labels and recording studios? Why didn’t they just call the Detroit city council and/or Dennis Coffey or write a letter or an e-mail and inquire about Sixto Rodriguez?The Swedish documentary filmmaker Bendjelloul only appeared on the scene in 2006, when the whole thing had actually been over for years. Rodriguez had already performed in South Africa in 1998 after his rediscovery. But now a really big spotlight was trained on everything that was happening. After all, there were still a lot of music lovers all over the world who had never heard of Rodriguez before. The film’s enormous impact seems even more grotesque the more you find out about Rodriguez and his career afterwards, quite simply through various newspaper articles. Because in all those years, the artist had by no means been as obscure and forgotten as Searching for Sugar Man so strenuously implies to cinema and DVD audiences. Apart from the fact that Rodriguez had even campaigned to become mayor in his hometown of Detroit in the late 1980s, he had also had some success as an artist beyond the 1970s. A household name not only in American and European indie circles for several decades, he was also a veritable star in New Zealand and Australia. Down Under one of his records had reached gold status, and in 1981 he toured there with superstars like Midnight Oil. Of course he was somewhat forgotten in the 1990s – but someone who was really interested in him, especially if he was a record store owner or an investigative journalist, should have found it easy to quickly discover the basic facts. Even from South Africa.

And let’s be honest: A rock star who self-immolates
or shoots himself with a gun on stage – is anyone really supposed to believe that? If
something like that had actually happened, wouldn’t it have become one of the global
stories of the century? It’s a bit silly to build something up that big and
then spectacularly prove the unbelievable opposite against all rumours… So all
those years it must have been crystal clear that Rodriguez was leading a pretty
normal life somewhere. The whole fuss might have been totally unnecessary. Against
this backdrop and in hindsight, the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man
seems increasingly annoying to me. I’m joined here by a number of journalists
and film critics, especially from the English-speaking world, who have expanded
on the film’s gaps and inconsistencies. A typical example is Bill Cody’s
January 21, 2013 article on ‘comingsoon.net’, in which he sceptically asks
whether Bartholomew Strydom and Segerman really seriously searched for
Rodriguez and how much artistic freedom is allowed in a documentary film that is
supposed to reflect something like the truth: “Is it okay to bend the truth in
order to make the story better than it really is?”

One of the movie’s weak points, apart from all
the facts being withheld and the dramatizations, is that it asks the right
question about the unpaid royalties and implies many heinous things, but doesn’t
ultimately offer satisfying answers. The same way that the film actually raises
more questions than it answers. Because it focuses on all sorts of narrative
strands and hardly ever finishes any of them. Least of all about Rodriguez himself.
Highly mysterious smokescreens are created, and complicated explanations touted
in view of the different names “Sixto Rodriguez” and “Jesus Rodriguez” in the
song writing credits, which can somehow be explained at the (long-winded) end. People
from the music business talk, the feverish seekers talk, then the daughters of
Rodriguez, one of whom – yet another touching story – fell in love with a crew
member and promptly started a family, and also two incredibly eloquent
Rodriguez colleagues and friends from Detroit, who describe their buddy “Sugar
Man” as a noble hero. Were they the only two people from the artist’s circle of
friends that the filmmakers could find? Rodriguez himself only speaks in a few
scenes – in other words, it is ironic that we learn least about the main
character.

If we really needed another book on the subject at the moment, then it should be an
(auto-)biography about the artist or the true story from Rodriguez’ point of view. Or an investigative report that really uncovers where the money went, so that the songs’ author can finally get his well-deserved royalties. But instead, Messrs. Bartholomew Strydom/Segerman go centre stage again, with the same old story. And if you glance into the book, you’ll be amazed at the style: the two authors write about themselves in the third person! That leaves an impression not only of extreme self-absorption and artificiality, but also of blatant profiteering.

The site ‘sugarman.org’, which calls itself
the official Rodriguez website, is also significant in this context. It starts with
movie posters and record covers, followed by a 360-degree view of “Mabu Vinyl”,
Segerman’s book and record store in Cape Town, as well as announcements,
interviews, and reviews of the new book by Segerman and Bartholmew Strydom.
Other questions arise, e.g.: What does ‘sugarman.org’ say about the legal
disputes that have arisen in recent months, because after the success of the
film all sorts of people suddenly came out of the woodwork to find out whether
they too could earn some money? And what does the artist himself say about all of
this? Here, too, it’s striking: It’s all about the researchers presenting
themselves – if you want to discover anything new about Rodriguez, you have to
click through for quite a while to learn just a little bit. It almost reminds
you of the brilliant but psychologically unstable Beach Boy Brian Wilson, whose
career was steered by psychotherapist Eugene Landy for a few years. It seems as
if the movers and shakers have primarily created their own profitable myth.
Whether any of this ties in with Bendjelloul’s suicide is not known.