Off The Books: “For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: 25 Years of Paul’s Boutique” by Dan LeRoy and Peter Relic

A quarter of a century after the genius of "Paul's Boutique", Alex Dwyer serves as our literary eggman
By    October 6, 2014


Dweez feels saudades about ClayFighter 63⅓.

“In a world where secular culture provides its own objects of worship, we can say that in popular music there are many mansions as well — places like Paul’s Boutique — castles made of sand or air, creations that remind us simultaneously of the life we loved while we were imagining the life it described.”
-Dan LeRoy, For Whom the Cowbell Tolls, loc 3120

I take issue with nostalgia. It’s responsible for turning all of our warm, private childhood memories into sleek, million-dollar spectacles that we are expected to recognize with 3D glasses on. Nostalgia is a teenaged mutant indeed.

The other problem with nostalgia is that it weakens the older you are when a memory is nostalgia-ed. I can’t just go buy a toy this afternoon and expect it to replace my admiration for Donatello’s intelligence or my laughter at Leonardo’s loyalty or erase the association I have between antics and the color yellow. I can’t substitute the reoccurring dream I have of Master Splinter in a torn rag, staggering down a torchlit-medieval hallway with one of Squidward flipping crabby patties underwater.

The only place we can hope to marginally refract nostalgia’s wretched spell is in the realm of music. My 2014 summer will always sound like Anderson .Paak’s “Drugs” no matter what becomes of his career. It might not yet be as powerful as summer 2004’s “Get ‘Em High,” but at least music nostalgia is a muscle where I still have some say over the way it mutates.

Bloomsbury Publishing banked on these musical nostalgias for their 33⅓ book series. 10 years and nearly one hundred 100-150 page paperbacks in, these puppies are deep dives into single albums by a single author. I confess to never reading any of these titles. I’ve always associated these flimsily flap-jackets found on postcard racks in bookstore corners with cheap chain restaurants. That’s why when a book from the 66⅔ series (a twice-as-deep plunge into an album’s abyss) came across my desk I was hesitant, especially because Paul’s Boutique, the sophomore album from the Beastie Boys, is a release I hardly know.

In the end, as I tend to do with this little column, I decided it take the risk on For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: 25 Years of Paul’s Boutique. From what I gather, it’s an updated version of The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (33⅓) publication by the same author, Dan LeRoy. I figured the whole thing could be a nostalgic experiment — an effort to make my memory of Summer 2014 sound a bit Beastier.


What Works:

It’s a familiar tale: the genius album that didn’t make money when it was first released because it didn’t have a radio single. We’ve heard it before and I’m sure some semblance of it is woven through half the 33⅓ catalog.
In the prelude to this version of that story, the Beasties are chafed with boredom at having to reenact the “Fight For Your Right” personas embedded in their platinum-selling debut License To Ill night after night. Russell Simmons won’t pony up millions they feel they are owed in royalties. They have existential crises caused by subconscious realizations that their parents are art dealers, playwrights, and architects: they don’t just want to be nihilistic party rappers. Then, they exile themselves to Los Angeles.

“What I loved was the tension between art and commerce, ” said no one, ever, at this point in this familiar tale.
Except David Berman, the President of Capital Records in 1989, really did say that about why he chose the record business. Grilling Berman, along with nine other people at the label, four individuals who worked on Paul’s Boutique, and three fringe characters, Dan LeRoy goes Lester Freeman on Paul’s Boutique and outlines all the players as the West Baltimore Police Force would a Barksdale crime syndicate.

Chapter 2, “Risk, Ridicule, Redemption: Capitol Records and Paul’s Boutique” reads like a thriller. I’d hate to spoil any of the drama here but I will offer one example. LeRoy’s work tracing Capital’s signing of Bonnie Raitt in 1985 (as part of the genre diversification trend at the label that had a roundabout effect on them taking a risk with the Beastie Boys and Paul’s Boutique) and her subsequent success isn’t just impressive research but also weighty insight into this business that causes so many of its consumers and creators to cringe and slam their heads against the wall that prevents great art from reaching the masses. LeRoy reminds us there are many sides to that wall.

The story of Paul’s Boutique suddenly becomes a microcosm of the way the industry operates. It’s both absurd and impressive that LeRoy’s legwork to find and pin all the photos and thread the strings across the story’s corkboard is confined to Kindles and not a filing cabinet somewhere. Kudos to the author for diving this deep and emerging with such a succinct and compelling journey he manages to share with equal parts grace and gusto.

What Doesn’t:

Accompanying these mega moments of For Whom the Cowbell Tolls is plenty of MEGO (my eyes glaze over) fodder too. A good portion of the book is neat memorabilia for hardcore fans — old photos, studio relics, dusty objects — that operate as the equivalent to autographed sports gear in a man cave. Cool if you’re an obsessive, overboard and borderline creepy if you’re not.

The second half of the book is a tough swiping for the non-beast-mode Beastie. Each of Chapter 3’s nine sub-chapters is described in one sentence below:

– Photos of a physical rhyme book from the album.
– Interview with folk artist David Bromberg, the inspiration behind the song “Johnny Rydall”.
– Break down of every song on an old mixtape by a friend of Mike D.
– Profile of a close friend of the Beastie Boys by another one of their friends.
– Story of three DJ’s who took apart every sample of Paul’s Boutique and made this mix.
– Interview with a playwright who was inspired by the cowbell on “Hey Ladies.”
– Interview with a super fan who works for a minor league baseball team.
– Interview with a meteorologist who was featured on the album.
– Interview with two former U.S. Marines whose raps inspired Paul’s Boutique.

Besides the high school me wanting to thank David Bromberg for the brilliantly equating the sampling vs. real instrument argument to people complaining about photographers not having the talent to paint everything they see, there was not much in these chapters that rang a bell of any kind.

These are the funky exclusives promised in the press release but they wind up as forgettable party favors for the big event that is Chapter 2. The book would have been more viable as a whole if those sections were trimmed to skeleton status and the Capital Records story was slowed down and expanded.

The issue with this book is that it has a bifurcated audience: music lovers and Beastie devotees. It’s too well done and too smart to be a fanboy pickup (and as of now lacking the physical quality necessary to wedge into their shelf of Beastie memorabilia in their man cave in the hopes that it will be asked about later and serve a kind of tangible personality-reaffirming function) and too dense and trivial at times to hum through for the casual eBook buyer, who only wants it for the purposes of, well you know, reading.

But Should You Read It?

I’ve grown weary of reminding artist obsessives that they would enjoy something so detailed about their own favorite acts. I will forego that, expecting they can decide for themselves on this one. For the rest of us, non-Beasties (but not anti-Beasties) the second chapter is worth the eBook’s $6 cost all by itself. Yes it tells of how the Beasties went from almost being dropped to joining The Beatles and The Beach Boys as the alliterated third head of a billion dollar white-guy-group money making monster for Capital Records.

Yet it’s also the story of literal unsung heroes springing from the darkest corner of the record industry, the people that get all the blame when something doesn’t work and none of the praise when it does.

Maybe the lessons to take from the chapter aren’t reproducible as if record industry recipes but perhaps they can remind music lovers that the relationship between art and commerce gets grayer the deeper you dig, that coins are flipped by both artists and A&Rs, and that there is something as admirable, if not as beautiful, in those business risks as exists in the artistic ones.

There is no reason that a book about a classic rap album has to stop at nostalgia; especially if these classic albums are what LeRoy calls our secular culture’s objects of worship. What Dan LeRoy and Peter Relic did with the second chapter of this book is nothing less than the equivocal evolutionary step in writing record industry history that George R.R. Martin made from J.R.R. Tolkien in fantasy fiction. Martin explains in an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year:

“Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”

Do our books about music history push an agenda where the wise and good artists always prosper? Are all A&R’s orcs? If the independent artist model wins, do we kill all the orcs? Even the ones in their little orc cradles? LeRoy and Relic decided to ask these kinds of questions and humanized the record industry in the process. Their second chapter does the same thing The Wire did when it swiveled to see both sides of the crime equation.
“Do The Lester Freeman” could be the hook for this publication’s first single if only books had them. Maybe this one should. It would be a hell of a lot more interesting than mere nostalgia.

*Loc(ation) numbers are taken from For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: 25 Years of Paul’s Boutque, 2014 6623 Press. That was the edition reviewed.

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