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Some Memories on the Making and Promoting of World Suicide
World Suicide/Freeze Please page - hear it, read the words
World Suicide attracted more attention than any song I've ever done. That's not saying much but relatively speaking it was a big deal in my life. I didn't even intend to record it. It was just one of many songs about the threat of nuclear war that I'd written. [See Nuke Songs]
In late 81 and 82 I'd been helping to get the Nuclear Freeze movement going in Northern California. It was started by Harold Willens, an anti war and peace activist, a wealthy businessman who as a Marine had seen both Hiroshima and Nagasaki soon after they were nuked. I got a grant from friend John Steiner to do anything I wanted for six months and John was very involved at a high level with anti war and anti-nuclear activity. So I thought that I'd do something that pleased us both. And it did. I did a bunch of networking, grunt-work, and arranged some events for the Freeze, one being a presentation at the SF Zen Center's Greens Restaurant where I'd been the host for the first two years, 79-81. Pacifist businessman Ian Theirman and son Eric showed their film, the Last Epidemic about a PSR, Physicians for Social Responsibility, conference. Astronaut Rusty Schweickart (who later became my father-in-law) gave a talk as did Willens. It was an exciting movement and California voters passed the resolution. A lot of people in the ZC were involved. It was a movement that united a disparate conglomeration of supporters - peaceniks and lefties, retired military and prominent Republicans, anyone who thought that the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR should freeze and reverse. A businessman named Albe Wells came to Green Gulch and, on a walk to the beach, offered me the position of head of the Californians for a Bi-lateral Nuclear Freeze in Northern California. I told him I was flattered and wanted to continue helping, but I said that you don't want me in an office and I don't want to have to be too respectable. Best to let me do ad hoc stuff, specific tasks, behind the scenes - you don't want me up front, I told him.
There were other ways I was involved that were outside of what the movement organization had in mind. For instance, I wanted to do a musical on the subject and a theme record album. I'd made a demo tape called The Missile and the Rose (see Four Nuke Songs). I was trying to raise some money toward these goals. At a party I played the tape to a woman who worked for Mother Jones and she suggested that maybe their foundation would help. We had a lunch at Greens to discuss it. On the way to the restaurant I dropped by a friend's place and he offered me some hashish which he said was super strong. I didn't want to reek of the smoke so I ate some as he urged, "No not that much" and I said, "Oh don't worry." He was right. By the time my attractive and well-dressed Mother Jones luncheon dates arrived I was so stoned that it was all I could do to walk with them to the table and sit in the chair. They seemed to be genuinely interested in my project and wanted to help out. I appreciated that and was also fascinated with the way they seemed to ripple with the background and I found myself staring at one of their creamy fingernails. The woman from the foundation then got my attention by placing a thick loose-leaf bound book before me. She said it was the sort of proposal that I should put together to get funding from them. It looked to me to be about the size of a San Francisco Telephone directory. Up to that point I'd had a number of worried thoughts about the impression I was making as I was incapable of speaking more than occasional polite utterances. But when I saw that giant proposal I instantly realized with great relief that we had no business together. They left soon after eating and were visibly disappointed with the outcome of the lunch - not the food. They enjoyed that part. I did end up getting some money, but from interested individuals who gave it with no strings attached. That's not entirely true. I remember one woman quite senior to me who donated some money to my fiscal sponsor (a community theater that Doug McKechnie hooked me up with). Within a few days she called me up and asked me if I'd escort her to a party which seemed to be some sort of society shindig. I told her my girlfriend wouldn't let me go out at night and called John Bailes at the ZC. He was SF president of the Freeze (I think) and liked hobnobbing. So he took her out. Thanks John.
The nuke musical was still in the works. I knew actor Kent Minault through Peter Coyote [cuke link]. Kent was to write the book for the musical. I was to raise a piddling $300 a month for him. We had come up with a story involving two kids who were into computers, one of them American whose parents worked in the State Department maybe and one the son of the Soviet consulate. I'm straining to remember the details but it involved the kids stopping a nuclear war through their computer skills. We were very excited about it but two things happened that thwarted our plan. One was there was an article in the SF Chronicle about a movie being made in Hollywood named War Games with a very similar story. The other was that I didn't raise enough money to both keep my music production efforts going and to give Kent enough so he could work on it. I remember feeling bad that I'd not lived up to my end of the deal.
I could have raised more money if I'd been more together, dignified, been willing to write things up the way money givers wanted. And I'd do stupid things like modestly brushing aside requests of well-connected people to buy like 100 records and World Suicide Club memberships to pass out to their influential friends. I said like I still do that I don't sell things myself - they'd have to go to stores or order in the normal way. What was I thinking of? It sort of embarrasses me to think about it and see how confused I was to not go along with some helpful offers. Or to prepare poorly. I remember visiting a wealthy older couple I knew who had been quite involved in anti nuclear power work and I saw them in the morning after staying up all night working on music and I think I feel asleep while we were talking. The woman was also a client of my body-worker first wife who told me that Rita (the woman's name) had asked her if I was a heroin addict. One of the women from Mother Jones asked their non profit tax attorney and my friend Tom Silk the same thing.
Working on more nuke songs with John Blakeley at his studio in SF. A friend of named Franis from Bolinas played some of the tracks for an engineer named Randy Rand who worked at the famous Record Plant in Sausalito and he offered to engineer for us. That was a big help and allowed Blakely to concentrate more on playing instruments and producing. On song we worked on was an attempt at a nuclear freeze anthem, a purposely goody-goody song called Freeze Please.
We were taking a break and pretty out of it on various substances, and I said, hey listen to this one, picked up Blakeley's guitar and played World Suicide which was pretty rough and over the top sinister. After I was through Blakely looked at me and said, "That's your song." I said oh no, that it was just a joke I'd done for fun. He said no, that's your song. Randy agreed. Drummer Scott Mathews was there and he agreed.
The project was costing so much I couldn't pay to do a whole album and so in time we concentrated on doing a single with Freeze Please backed by World Suicide which became World Suicide backed with Freeze Please.
World Suicide opened doors. Terry Delsing was manager of the Record Plant in Sausalito at the time and Randy told him about World Suicide and that got me in there at a significant discount to do the final tracks and mixing. John Blakeley did a great job with the basic tracks as producer and guitarist and bassist. Scott Mathews did an outstanding job on the drums. Tim Gorman who was playing with the Who that year did some neat keyboard work. Richard Schoenherz's additional synthesizer propelled the song into a new realm. Randy Rand had done a great job engineering. Chris Rand introduced me to legendary producer Bob Johnston ("Is it rolling Bob?") who was enthusiastic about World Suicide (he said that Freeze Please should be used for an advertisement called Cheese Please). Before I knew it we were back in the studio with Bob and engineer Tom Flye to redo the final mixes - for which I paid him two joints. They are also credited as executive producers, something Bob suggested. Rand and Blakeley were supportive of Johnston and Flye getting involved.
A whole bunch of stuff followed from that including the creation of the World Suicide Club with a newsletter, tee shirts, bumper stickers, and a decal to go with the record. That got the interest of a lot of people, especially some who didn't like the peace movement. A woman I knew who had an anti-war table she'd set up at various places around the North Bay said that the WSC material caused a lot of people to stop who used to pass her by. Sold a lot of tee shirts. Got accused occasionally of ripping off the peace movement though the profits could hardly buy lunch. That sort of perverted politically correct or something thinking boggled my mind. I'd refused a paying job in the movement and spent $30,000 of my own money working for the Freeze and making music about the threat of nuclear war. I remember a young woman in the University of Minnesota bookstore refusing to sell the single because "where do the profits go?" I was sort of stunned and told her there were no profits, just expenses and the store could keep the money. No way. I was an evil capitalist. I picked up a pencil the store was selling and asked where the profits from it went. Didn't get across. Oh well.
The Freeze movement refused to have anything to do with the record unless I took World Suicide off it. It was like a litmus test for people in the movement. Seemed to me that half or so thought it was cool and the other half or so thought it was terrible. Someone in non profit PR firm in San Francisco was helping me to promote the song and club and all till the head of the group told her to stop. I remember that Jerry Mander thought maybe it was counter-productive though he liked my song Shootin' the People in the TV Adds. He gave me a copy of his book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television with an inscription "One good song deserves another." Jonathan E got it on a bunch of club play lists, and not just the Bay Area. I remember him inviting me into his glass enclosed DJ room at a club where he played World Suicide. He put it on and everyone was dancing to it which was neat to see and then one young woman stopped in shocked recognition of what it was saying, went up to a speaker, and stood there giving it the finger and yelling at it. I played it for very conservative Fort Worth (my home town) businessman Charlie Hillard (King Charlie) who was on the local super-hawk Air Power Board and it shook him up. He said he was worried I was right. Dick Raymond whose Portola Institute had sponsored the first Whole Earth Catalogue said the whole trip was homeopathic and that social movements and causes benefited from Swiftian humor.
The experience of writing and getting feedback on all those songs helped to show me that people don't like to be told what to think. I'd sit up with friends and play them these songs and I noticed that the ones that were playful or whacky or not so literal were better received. People much prefer to be entertained. It doesn't have to be dark humor but something in the realm of art, theater, dance - not lecturing. I've written didactic songs and they're a little creepy to me now. But I keep them in the archive, in the lists. They're part of the whole sandwich here at Defuser Music dot com. I throw it all in.
Bob Johnston told me that if the Who had put out World Suicide that they would have sold twelve million copies but that I wouldn't even be able to get a label. My high school friend and conservative Republican (Bush ties) Roger Wallace (head of Protocal section of State Dept as I recall) was visiting me when I met with the rep from Landslide Records, a punky twenty year old with a torn tee shirt. Roger was excited to be there for the pitch and positive response. Maybe he was the catalyst that made the chemistry just right. Later he was moved to tears speaking about the dangers of accidental nuclear war as he'd heard about it from esteemed diplomats and technocrats.
Bob Johnston was blown away when I got a label and full of joy at holding the first record. I remember him standing in a room full of gold and platinum records on the walls and asking me to autograph it for him when it finally was done. He still calls it an unreleased recording though because the word never really got out. I hired that rep for Landslide records and he ran off with a bunch of money. I would be surprised if he were still alive. He was enthusiastically gay and going for his first thousand sexual encounters at the time. I hired another promoter and I don't know what he could have done more than he did. I really got a first hand experience of how big the market is. Trying to promote something in the entertainment world is like trying to impress the ocean with a squirt gun.
Some people at KQED, the local public TV station wanted to do a feature on it but finally the word came down that "they don't want to hear from nuclear." I ran into that a lot. I gave every employee of Tower Records in SF a copy of the 45 and everyone I sent there said they couldn't find it and nobody's heard of it. I gave a copy to Prince at the First Ave in Minneapolis and they played it in their annex. I felt honored that Dirk Dirksen (the Pope of Punk and nephew of US Senator Everett Dirksen) used to play it at the Maybuhay Gardens. It got to the top of some college station playlists but like Bob said, if the records aren't in the stores, people ask once and then forget it. I couldn't get the local college station to play it. I ran into a lot of unfriendly people whose clicks I obviously didn't fit in. I've seen a lot of unbelievably nasty behavior in music studios. The writing world has been a lot nicer. If people don't like what I have to offer there they almost always express themselves in a courteous manner. Anyway, I realized that it's much harder to get a record played if you don't do two things - have a live band with a following and pay off key people in the radio world. I worked on an event with Joe Balin, Jefferson Airplane then Starship lead singer Marty's dad and one day Joe said to me he'd just put out $25,000 to several key people to get Marty's new single on playlists around the country. Music lists were pretty formatted. DJs were loosing any say in what was played.
Not that the record was necessarily worth more success than it got. I don't know. People tend to be prejudiced about their own music. It didn't get many reviews. The only one I remember is Bruce Dancis from the SF Bay Guardian. He's quoted on the illustration for World Suicide Two on Music for a Comic Book Video: "singing stinks, music nondescript." That's show biz.
And it was all fun, I'd always written songs and recorded them for fun and that's what I've continued to do. I like to create but I don't like to sell. I love the Internet though cause I can put stuff up here and not worry about a thing.
Now whenever I do anything that involves some sort of expectation, whatever happens I may say, "That's show biz." You never know what's going to happen. An acquaintance of mine from Fort Worth, Sherwin Goldman, produced Porgy and Bess as an opera back in 1977. He and some friends came up with the money to do it as a labor of love, because it had never been done as an opera the way Gershwin had written it. Sherwin told me they didn't expect it to be a hit but it was an enormous success and has had successful revivals. After that he said they backed a musical that they knew was going to be another big hit. It was called Clytemnestra. It flopped. His point was that you can never tell what's going to work and what isn't till you've put it out there. That's show biz.
People are always telling me that it's time to get the WSC going again, that the world is on the brink of self-destruction and that I should redo the whole thing in light of what's happening today. It would be fun. All I'd have to do is to enthusiastically support what I see as threats to the human race and higher forms of life and support it rather than opposing it. It is fun. It's fun to see people who get it and it's fun in a not so nice way to see it make other people squirm. I'll do it if others do all the work and I just get to direct and not spend any money.
And the whole idea of helping anything by making music or selling tee shirts is sort of silly. The whole idea of trying to do good period is flawed it seems. But still I have found that I have to try to do something to express myself about things I feel strongly about if only out of compulsion. I don't think I've ever really helped anything. I went to Mississippi in 1964 to try to help the Civil Rights movement and worked with SDS later to try to help the poor. I've gone to many peace rallies and marches and helped to get guys out of the draft during the Vietnam War. Stuff like that and some environmental work and the Freeze. And Zen stuff. I don't think I've helped anything but I'm glad I did it. But who knows. Right before I went to Japan in early 1988 I passed Mark Kasky [check that link out], director of the Fort Mason Foundation, on my way to a farewell lunch with my sister at Greens. Mark thanked me in so many words for reducing the risk of nuclear war. What? I said. I didn't do anything. Yes you did he said. Reagan and Gorbachev had just signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) that was maybe the most important thing that Reagan did (according to my way of looking at things). Anyway, Mark said that was the result of the efforts of many people through the years including the work I'd done. Ah gee. Thanks Mark.
Read about the making of Music for a Comic Book Video which also had an anti-nuke origin.
This posted also in dchad misc for 5/14 on cuke.com
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