Monday, January 4, 2010

Gnarls Barkley Was My Backup Band

Rolling Stone has just anointed Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" THE song of the last decade. To commemorate this momentous occasion, I am posting a piece I originally wrote for Bootleg back in August 2008. Special thanks to editor Brian Tucker for granting reprint permission.




I remember when…I remember when…


Brian Burton did not appear, at first glance, to be the stuff rock stars are made of. Tall, gangly, with the gray pallor of someone who rarely went outside, his most prominent trait was his all-consuming obsession with hip-hop. He talked a blue streak, but during those early conversations with him I never learned anything about his family or his past. Biggie and Wu-Tang were his family. His ethnicity was also a mystery. Apart from the crinkly hair (which he kept very closely cropped back then), it was difficult to ascertain which part of the melting pot he floated in. He certainly did not act “black” or “white” in the way that I understood those stereotypes.


We spent a good amount of time together back in ’96—Brian and I—in Myers Hall on the University of Georgia campus, where we both toiled as Resident Assistants under the iron heel of our maniacal shaven-headed boss. We bonded out of contempt for this fascistic dormland dictator--who reminded me of Blofeld from the James Bond movies--and frustration with the whole predicament of being in school (We would much rather have been empire-building in the music biz). I don’t know how many hours I spent, overall, in Brian’s room listening intently to his massive CD collection while he held forth on every aspect of the craft of rap, but it was time well spent.


Nowadays, Brian likes to regale interviewers with tales of how he grew up listening to all types of music: about how he was the kid “buggin’ on Beethoven.” That may well be true, but during the first six months I knew him, all he listened to was down-and-dirty 100% authentic hip-hop—album after album of it. Then, with his discovery of Portishead, the floodgates opened. My sole contribution to his musical education was to introduce him to the music of David Bowie (who is likely now on Brian’s speed dial). It was almost impossible to predict what artist Brian would fall for next, but when he fell, he always fell hard. Pink Floyd? He memorized every word of “Echoes.” Brit-rockers James? Their album Whiplash didn’t leave the CD player for a month. And then there were the Beatles. Always the Beatles.

I should have had an inkling that Brian would go far, based solely on how quickly he developed as a musician. When I met him he knew absolutely nothing about how chords went together. But one day he decided that he was no longer content simply listening to music—he wanted to make it as well. Then, through an act of sheer will, he wrested the tools of the trade from the very ether itself. And it wasn’t just skill that appeared out of nowhere; every week, new pieces of electronic equipment materialized in his room—all eventually coalescing into a trash-heap of wires, buttons, and turntables. I wondered aloud how he could afford this Eno-esque hodgepodge. He patiently explained that he had taken out five credit cards and was financing his new vocation with them. “Each bill is only about $35 a month,” he said, “and by the time they really begin to add up, I’ll be well on my way making money off of this. It’s a good idea for people like us—a good way to start out.” I followed suit, and I must say it’s the single most disastrous piece of advice I’ve ever taken. But it certainly worked for him.

He got good, really good. Really fast. He had a knack for stringing melodies together from unlikely sources (such as the soundtrack for Nixon)—creating ethereal sonic washes into which he would drop nasty, block-rockin’ beats. This remarkable growth occurred over the course of a single year.


…I lost my mind


So, was Gnarls Barkley really my backup band? Sort of. While the extraordinarily talented and larger-than-life Cee-Lo was still busting rhymes with Goodie Mob, Brian, or as he is now known, Danger Mouse, was playing keyboards and breaking beats in an ensemble I put together for a gig in Athens in October 1997. For a very brief, now-forgotten moment in music history, ½ of Gnarls Barkley was my backup band. But things quickly went pear-shaped during that performance. My amp wasn’t playing nice. And, when the girlfriend who had just left me so she could date women showed up with a guy (a gay friend, I belatedly learned), I had an Axl Rose-esque meltdown and stormed off the stage, leaving Brian holding the bag. Like a true pro, he just kept on playing. That was his first ever live performance. And it’s significant that the audience not only stayed but grew, everyone craning their heads over each other’s shoulders to catch a glimpse of the skinny kid who nonchalantly bobbed his head while he created a whole new musical form—a Frankenstein hybrid of post-punk, new wave, and old-school hip-hop—right there on the fly.

That was a defining moment: it separated the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys. It tells you everything you need to know about why Danger Mouse is now winning every award in the music industry, creating incredible art, and handling his success with true grace and humility.

I wish I could say that I saw it all coming back in those hazy days, but I really didn't have a clue. Does that make me crazy? Probably.