Maria McKee: Life Is Bittersweet
Originally aired on Dutch TV
February 19, 1996
Annotated Video Timeline
Thanks to longtime Adios Lounge reader, Marc Nichol, for recently turning me onto this Dutch documentary about Maria McKee. (Oh internet, is there anything you can’t do?) It serves as the third part of my Maria Trilogy, following my post on early Lone Justice and my recent tribute to her 1993 album, You Gotta Sin To Get Saved. Broadcast by VPRO Television in the Netherlands in February 1996, and directed by Bram van Splunteren, it was part of the great music series, “Lola Da Musica.”
In hindsight, what’s interesting about this doc is that though she’s only three years removed from You Gotta Sin, it’s like it never happened. Of course, her comments about pleasing father figures (see 19:21) leads me to believe that the album might not have completely been her idea. As you can hear in the video, this submissiveness kind of sabotaged the first part of her career in that key decisions were being made by people not named Maria McKee. So, from a personal and professional standpoint, a good case can be made that the second act of Maria’s career really begins with Life Is Sweet. Maria was pretty much in full control of her sound from this point forward and this video tells the engaging story of how she got from a cowpunky point A to a Mick Ronson-y point B.
:23 – Intro featuring recorded version of “Life Is Sweet.”
1:11 – Live excerpts of “Life Is Sweet” and “Human.” All these performances were shot at the great Paradiso club in Amsterdam.
3:26 – Maria: “The only record I could make was (Life Is Sweet). I had no choice. It was either gonna be no record or this record.”
4:27- Tex And The Horseheads reference! Tex was Miss Texacala Jones, founding member of the Horseheads, along with the late, great Jeffrey Lee Pierce of The Gun Club. When Pierce got too busy for the band, he was more or less replaced by Mike Martt, who later joined my beloved Thelonious Monster. In fact, like the Monster’s magnum opus, Stormy Weather (1989), the best Horseheads album, Life’s So Cool (1985), was produced by John Doe of X. Little bit of LA cowpunk trivia there for you. Speaking of which …
4:33 – “John Doe from X, he’d sing old hillbilly songs. He was my hero growing up. He and Exene (Cervenka) were my favorites of anybody. I noticed him wearing a George Jones T-shirt one night and I was sort of going like, ‘Hmmm.'”
5:06 – Maria: “We (Lone Justice) were signed 6 months after our first gig. So we didn’t get a chance to be part of (the LA cowpunk) scene because we were already at Geffen Records recording an album in New York with Jimmy Iovine. We sold out so quick.
van Splunteren: “How old were you then?”
Maria: “I was 18.” [makes face indicating that being an 18-year-old girl in creepy, shark-infested music industry waters was probably not conducive to a healthy self-image]
5:37 – Maria sings “Rattlesnake Mama” in her hotel room. Sweet Jesus. I’m pretty sure I could listen to this performance every day for the rest of my life. Stunning, lowdown gutbucket blues. If you saw Maria in the hotel lobby, you’d NEVER think this voice could come outta that body. But here we are with the chicken skin. Glorious.
7:26 – Maria: “I was talking about John Doe earlier. I’ll never forget, he grabbed me by the scruff of my neck one night at one of my gigs. He said, ‘Look, DON’T believe the hype. You listen to me when I’m talking to you! [laughs] If you turn into an asshole I’m gonna beat your ass!’ And I was like, ‘Fuck you, man!’ because I was 18 and I didn’t want to hear it. Jeez, I should’ve listened to him.”
van Splunteren: “You did believe the hype.”
Maria: “When you’re 18 years old and Dolly Parton comes down to see you play in some club and sits in the front row and starts screaming and hollering at you …”
van Splunteren: “And this is when you had your first Lone Justice record out, I guess.”
Maria: “No, it was even before we had a record out! There was a bidding war and we had to choose which label we were gonna sign with. So, we signed with Geffen and then everything sorta changed.”
8:22 – Excerpt from the “Ways To Be Wicked” video.
“It was just an absolute free-for-all, you can’t even imagine what sort of bloodbath it was.”
9:01 – van Splunteren: “I talked to a promoter right after that first record was out and he said that this contract you signed with Geffen was gonna put so much pressure on the band because the first album didn’t sell as well as they expected.”
Maria: “It was just an absolute free-for-all, you can’t even imagine what sort of bloodbath it was. Never in rock ‘n’ roll history. [laughs] The band just [blew up]. We were out on tour, people were being fired behind my back, people were told they couldn’t write songs anymore for the band, I was told I had to work with this person, that person, you’re too fat, you’re too this, whatever, write songs with this guy, write songs with that guy, so and so’s gonna produce your record, this is what you gotta sound like, this is what you gotta look like, it was the ultimate cliche. [snaps guitar pick in half]”
10:28 – “By the time we went in to make the second record the whole band had been fired except for me. I just made it by the skin of my teeth. There was nobody left … except me. I was surrounded by strangers. One of them [gestures behind her] being Bruce Brody who’s no longer a stranger after 10 years. I was just completely confused and had no idea what was going on. It turned into this huge arena rock project. Within weeks of the album being out I was devastated by it and hated it, and I had go out and tour it, and it was just a nightmare for me.”
11:19 – “I guess I was going through this sort of Waterboys/U2/Stevie Nicks thing, I don’t know. I was confused! I was 21! And I was trying really hard to please Jimmy Iovine, who was my manager and my producer. I just wanted to be the girl that he wanted me to be. I wanted to be the female Bruce Springsteen, really bad, for him. So, I tried everything, I tried everything, and nothing worked because I was miserable. And I didn’t realize that I was this person who had all this music inside of them. And it’s so evident when I would walk out onto a stage and perform. It was all there. All my references and influences, all the records I’d listened to. From Edith Piaf to Patti Smith to Tom Waits to Bill Monroe to Howlin’ Wolf to Stephen Sondheim. It was all inside here [points to heart] and when I would perform a lot of times I would feel this stuff welling up inside of me. But, whenever I’d go into the studio to make a record there’d always be these bozos hanging around telling me, ‘Whatever, that’s fine for that and you can do that at home and you can leave that record at home, thank you very much. But, when it’s time for you to make a record, nobody wants to know about that, trust me.'” [stabs picture of Jimmy Iovine]
12:31 – Incendiary live excerpt of “I Found Love,” the leadoff track on Shelter, where it was lifeless and neutered because that was HUGE in 1987. You can actually get a taste of that here with those goddamn ’80s drums. Why were producers so scared of a fat, warm drum sound? What were they running from? Did they not get enough hugs as a child? Was it the cocaine? Was it constant exposure to pastels? For future generations, I’m at a loss. I can’t explain ACTIVELY pursuing that shit sound.
“From Edith Piaf to Patti Smith to Tom Waits to Bill Monroe to Howlin’ Wolf to Stephen Sondheim. It was all inside here [points to heart].”
14:19 – “Dave Stewart, Annie Lennox, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Steve Van Zandt. [Geffen] tried every combination of people and influences to try to get Lone Justice to happen big. Didn’t leave one stone unturned. Bob Dylan wrote a song for the record! [laughs] If Bob Dylan writes a song for the record and you still don’t have a hit record, then maybe you’ve tried everything, short of I don’t know what, Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf doing a duet? I mean, I don’t know what’s left after that, what’s left? Get The Beatles back together to back you up, I don’t know.”
14:55 – “After that I just felt like, ‘This is a lie, this isn’t a band. I’m just gonna go solo, fuck it.’ So, that’s when I ditched the band name and kind of did a reactionary left turn from the whole arena rock thing and made a very quiet, sort of mature record (Maria McKee, 1989). Which I love, I love that record.”
15:38 – Maria performs a solo piano version of Richard Thompson‘s “Has He Got A Friend For Me,” also found on Maria McKee. I guess this is OK if you like heartfelt music stripped down to basics. But hey, if you want me to get drum triggers and chorus pedals I can call a guy.
19:05 – First and only reference to You Gotta Sin To Get Saved. That the album receives such a brief mention, a mere three years removed from its release, is a bit disappointing, but not totally unexpected. But, this sort of dismissal is why I felt like I had to write about it. Lose-win.
19:18 – First proper reference to Life Is Sweet.
19:21 – “I have nothing left to lose anymore. Like I said, we tried every combination and I tried to please everybody. All the father figures around me, I tried to please them. And it’s my own fault! It’s my own weird, Freudian problem. It just got to the point where I have nothing to lose, but to just lay it on the line and also having the record company’s support. Bruce and I have been working together for 10 years and we’ve made demos not dissimilar at all to this record. For 10 years, in our living room, with the strings and the drama [gesturing dramatically, which is apt] and the whole thing. And we sent them to the record company and my A&R man at the time had ceremoniously refused them, every time. (He) sent me songs by other songwriters and records by other producers over and over and over again til we finally just went, ‘I guess we’re never gonna get to do this unless a miracle happens.’ And oddly enough, the miracle that happened was that he left the label and I got a new A&R man who liked our demos!” [laughs, flips mental bird to original A&R man]
20:28 – Live excerpt of “Scarlover.”
“I became obsessed with Mick Ronson. I stole these series of cassettes from a guitar player that I was working with at the time who was a huge Mick Ronson freak. And I just listened to it constantly.”
21:55 – van Splunteren: “When you listen to the record Life Is Sweet it sounds like you’ve been listening to a lot of English music.”
Maria: “Yeah, and I’m not ashamed to admit it! I’m not ashamed to admit I loved the first Suede record — [looks right at camera] I *LOVED* the first Suede record — I don’t care how uncool it is in the post-Suede, Blur/Oasis reign. I don’t care, I loved that record. It got me listening to Bowie again, that’s my favorite pop music in the world. And also the Mick Ronson thing was a big one ’cause he died literally during the first few months I started playing lead guitar and started to figure out that I could make melodies and had sort of an interesting tone. He died … so I became obsessed, and I’m very obsessive, so I became obsessed with Mick Ronson. And I stole these series of cassettes from a guitar player that I was working with at the time who was a huge Mick Ronson freak. And I just listened to it constantly. I was listening to it all the time and copying production ideas in the way the strings worked with the guitar, and the way the vocal worked with the strings, and the way the strings worked with the vocal and the guitar. The way it was all sort of layered together, and the way the drums were sort of in back, and the way the strings were kind of dry. I was just like [makes mad scientist face] I just became obsessed.”
23:09 – Live excerpt of “Absolutely Barking Stars,” a song that betrays the Bowie/Ronson influence in a totally cool way. Gotta love Maria’s late ’50s Gibson Les Paul TV Special, best known as the guitar of choice for Johnny Thunders (pictured above and on the New York Dolls‘ Too Much Too Soon). It’s worth mentioning that Maria covered “Pills” on the You Gotta Sin tour. Though written by the great Bo Diddley, her version was clearly based on the Dolls’ rendition from their self-titled debut.
Absolutely Barking Stars
“The bitch is quick I’ve tried to trip her up
She’s full of tricks and blends so sticky in my blood
But, she can fly and I can only run from everything and after her
I’m wired and tired and full of holes
And she plays Pandora with my soul
I’ll never let her go … it’s so quiet here without her
I don’t wanna feel myself”