EXPECTING TO FLY
WILL FAME'S PRICE TAG GROUND THE JAYHAWKS BEFORE THEY CAN TAKE OFF?
Tomorrow the Green Grass
Dark, ominous clouds hover in the Virginia sky, blocking the late-afternoon sun. A storm is fast approaching from the north, but the crowd of die-hard fans remains clustered outside the backstage entrance of the mammoth Richmond Coliseum, anxiously awaiting the arrival of their hero. And make no mistake: That would be Tom Petty, tonight’s headliner, and not his opening act, the Jayhawks. As the latter five descend from their tour bus and file into the Coliseum, you can cut the apathy with a knife. u Such are the burdens of the musicians’ musicians. Minneapolis’ Jayhawks may be hailed as heroes and mentors by superstars like Soul Asylum and the Black Crowes, but the praise has never translated into sales. In 10 years, the band has released four critically acclaimed albums of country-inflected, harmony-drenched white soul music, and not one has sold more than 225,000 copies. Tomorrow the Green Grass, their latest, could be the charm. Although it has peaked at only 92 on Billboard’s Top 200, it’s already sold 65,000 copies in its first two months, and a new single, ”Blue,” is finding a home on Top 40 radio. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, like many of today’s bands, the Jayhawks are deeply in debt to their label. In fact, the extent of the Jayhawks’ debt-approaching $1 million-has made the band a music-biz litmus test: In a high-profit industry, how high is the cost of success? And can a band like the Jayhawks fly out of such a financial bind on the strength of talent alone? The road is not inspiring a lot of confidence. This six-week stint opening for Petty is another stab at broadening the Jayhawks’ fan base, but it’s turning more into a lesson in humility. Easily able to pack small clubs on its own, the band is now playing half-empty arenas; Petty fans, too busy beering up or finding their seats, barely notice the Jayhawks as they kick through their 40-minute set. ”Maybe we’ll get some of these people to check us out when we come back on our own,” says singer-guitarist Gary Louris, not sounding terribly convinced. ”But it’s strictly business. Certainly it’s not the place of choice. Arenas were made for sports, not music.” As if on cue, the band finds its Coliseum dressing room, a cavernous and dank locker room, so ripe with the sweat of frequent hockey games that they must fire up incense before settling in. ”At least it’s got a door,” rationalizes Louris. ”Sometimes you get put out in the hall.” Founding band members Louris, 40, singer-guitarist Mark Olson, 34, and bassist Marc Perlman, 34 (drummer Tim O’Reagan and keyboardist Karen Grotberg recently came aboard) find some consolation in performing. ”It feels good when we’re up there playing together,” says Olson, who shares songwriting duties with Louris. ”What I don’t like about these tours is the pressure to make some sort of an impression, to sell ourselves night in, night out. I’m not even sure I want to be doing what this, in theory, is leading to. I don’t want to be playing arenas.” Then again, they don’t want to relive their early days, either: For the original three-acquaintances drawn together by similarly eclectic musical tastes-life in the mid-’80s consisted of playing three sets a night in such Minneapolis dives as the 400 Bar; releasing their eponymous debut on their own label in 1986; touring in cramped, heater-free vans; sleeping on the floors of friends and strangers; working day jobs and dragging themselves to rehearsals at night. What the Jayhawks definitely do want is some financial security. The college-educated band members have never managed to put aside more than a few hundred dollars a week. At the moment, not only are they nearly broke, but there’s that aforementioned debt to their label of five years, Rick Rubin’s American Recordings. In an arrangement typical of the music industry, much of ^ the money invested in the band by their label-to finance recordings, videos, tours-becomes debt, recoupable expenses siphoned out of album sales receipts before the band sees any profit. Like taking any chance, the bigger the gamble, the bigger the possible jackpot-and the deeper the debtors’ dungeon. Unfortunately, winners along the lines of Pearl Jam and the Rolling Stones are the very rare exceptions, not the rule. To understand how this kind of debt can accrue, consider the expenses the Jayhawks incurred for their first album on American, 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall: $250,000 for four months of recording studio time; $150,000 for three videos, half of which the band is responsible for; and $200,000 for a lengthy tour with the Black Crowes. Hollywood’s sales of 225,000 barely cut into the debt. Tomorrow the Green Grass, recorded over three months in L.A. with Hollywood and Black Crowes producer George Drakoulias, cost another $300,000 in studio time. They made a video for ”Blue,” are about to shoot another clip, and are spending about $1,500 a day on the Petty tour. ”I suppose we could hop in a van with no crew and sleep on floors,” offers Louris, ”but we just don’t want to do that anymore.”
Tomorrow the Green Grass