Photo by Debra DiPaolo
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
—William Butler Yeats
The pizza could have been caviar, the round of Cokes champagne the day the six members of Mary’s Danish passed around the pen that first bound their dream to law. “It was like a marriage,” says singer Gretchen Seager, “everything was so blissful.” They sat in a big room flanked by the officials of Chameleon Records, the band members holding tight their Social Security cards. Around them, a jittery halo of hope and an innocent cool as they joked nervously with the label executives, keeping the serious act of signing light with the quick banter of rock sarcasm.
“We had no idea what we were getting into,” says Julie Ritter, the band’s other singer. “We knew nothing about the music business. We honestly didn’t even know what a producer did. But we were so hopeful and excited we just trusted everything.”
In the label photograph shot against the skyline of Century City, the band is half-smiling as if reckless joy could be totally contained in the fist-hold of rock disdain. Eight record executives are circling the band with full-teeth smiles, some with hands dropped low in their pockets. Gretchen, tucked into the middle of the group, looks both the most innocent and the most questioning with her pixie bob and wondering eyes, arms held behind her back so that her T-shirt is stretched across her boyish chest. If it were a family portrait, she’s the kid who would grow up to write a book about the rest of them, a book the uncles in the back would likely denounce as lies.
“I really want to be in a rock band,” Gretchen wrote in her diary at the age of 12 — in particular, she wanted to be Elvis Costello. Eight years later, in 1985, she was at Berkeley, studying French with plans to spend sophomore year in France, when she met Julie over dinner and found a common love of poetry, the French language and music, as well as an equal distaste for Berkeley’s slacker-protest scene. Back home in L.A. over Christmas break, Gretchen and Julie had a simultaneous epiphany.
“We were at an X concert, standing there watching them, when something happened,” says Julie. “It was so inspiring we went back to Berkeley and immediately put in for a transfer to UCLA — to get back to L.A., where the music scene was happening and where we could start a band.” After that show, nothing else mattered — Gretchen’s dream of mastering the subjunctive was replaced by one of mastering an album, France a place she wanted to see only on tour.
Back in L.A., the band’s formation was typically incestuous and makeshift. Julie was dating a guitar player, David King, who knew bassist Chris “Wag” Wagner. One night when Gretchen and Julie were trying to get a poem into song and somehow stumbled on the nonsensical “Mary’s Danish,” they called David up late, giggling, to share. Soon after, David had a slew of drummers lined up, Spinal Tap–style, and Gretchen and Julie and David and Wag became Mary’s Danish.
Their first show in a seedy Valley club was more of a showcase for their parents and friends than a public debut. “We went on real late after this horrible Led Zeppelin cover band,” Gretchen giggles, “and we weren’t much better.” Though a multiethnic, multigendered, multi-influenced collage, the band still sounded too much like a poor imitation of their inspiration — X — and not enough like Mary’s Danish. “The first show was pretty pathetic,” admits Gretchen. “But we were so psyched. We existed.”
That existence was tenuous — the band was playing together, but wasn’t altogether together. Not yet. Then came drummer James Bradley Jr., a child prodigy who had been on Johnny Carson as a kid, whose dad had been one of the Ink Spots, and who was sick of playing R&B with Anita Baker and Chuck Mangione and wanted to rock. Bradley was followed by a second guitarist, Louis Gutierrez from the Three O’Clock and Salvation Army. By early ’89, a year and a half after their inception, Mary’s Danish finally felt — and played — like a team.
“We’d do everything together,” says Gretchen. “Go to shows, even have Christmas parties together. We’d rehearse basically every single night — we were obsessed — and then afterward we’d go back to someone’s house in the Valley and just hang around and smoke cigarettes and drink coffee till all hours. And then Julie and I would scramble to drive back over the hill to make it for class the next day.”
It was all garage-simple then. “We thought, oh man, if we could just get a few gigs, that would be a gas,” says Gretchen, but then one night after a show at Raji’s, the thing that every once in a while happens, happened. “Ken Fusion from KROQ came up to us and was like, ‘I love that song “Don’t Crash the Car Tonight” — do you have a demo?’ It was mind-blowing.” Within three weeks, the song was getting airplay. “I’d be driving and it’d come on the radio. My parents were getting calls like, ‘Is that Gretchie?!’”
The record companies heard too. Quickly, the band was offered a modest advance from Chameleon Records, an indie label known for being cool years before an ear for experiment was codified into an Alternative industry. While most bands were signing away perhaps a decade of their lives to recording six albums with their labels, Mary’s Danish got a prized “one-off” or one-record deal distributed through CEMA (Capitol, EMI, Virgin, Chrysalis, et al.) and was able to jump right into the studio to record two new songs and remix the rest of the tracks from demos. Over the next 11 months, helped along by a tour with Stan Ridgway and KROQ’s plugging, Chameleon sold 70,000 copies of the album There Goes the Wondertruck, â prompting a fierce bidding war for their song-publishing rights. MCA won with an offer of $250,000 for co-ownership of the songs. Along with providing each band member $900 a month to live on for a year and giving their manager, lawyer, booking agent and publicist their cuts, the publishing moneys also went to upgrade equipment and pay off members’ debts.
Chameleon, meanwhile, lost its distribution deal and thus had no way of getting records into stores. So at the urging of their new manager, Peter Asher — who also represented big names like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor — Mary’s Danish showcased around town. Capitol executive Tom Whalley expressed keen interest in signing them, but changed labels before an offer was finalized. Epic’s courtship also offered major-label allure, but it had just signed Michael Jackson for a sum equal to the revenue of a developing nation. The smart move, everyone but Julie agreed, was to go with Morgan Creek, which was an upstart label born out of a film company and newly adorned with the likes of former Capitol executives and co-presidents Jim Mazza and David Kershenbaum and such acts as Eleven, Janis Ian and Little Feat.
The band, giddy with the taste of four-star entrées and shmancy wine, was romanced by the sweetest of band pickup lines: “‘Don’t go to the big label where you’re gonna be a small fish in a big pond ’cause you’re gonna be our big fish here,’” Gretchen mimics. “‘We’ll make sure that Mary’s Danish is our priority.’” In low voices, the execs bragged about their success stories — Kershenbaum had produced Tracy Chapman, and the new label was $1 million strong. They invoked phrases like well-endowed, artist-oriented and long-term development, appealing to the band’s poverty and fears. “It felt like having gold dust thrown in your eyes,” says Julie.
“What they did,” says Gretchen, “is roll out this long red carpet that we couldn’t not walk down. They did everything — wined and dined us, took us to the premiere of their movie Robin Hood at Mann’s Chinese. It was super glam. They offered us a ton of money, too — $250,000 up front — and said we’d be featured on one of their soundtracks.”
Two hundred fifty thousand dollars did provide for a healthy recording budget of roughly $120,000, but like their other deal, it sounded better than it actually was. After 15 percent to their manager, 5 percent to the lawyer, several thousand to an independent publicist and equipment purchases, once again the money left for the band to live on was not enough to raise their standard of living — about $800 a month for each member. Still, it did make life feel kinder. They opened a Pro Account at Guitar Center, David splurged on a new stereo, and Julie’s closet got fuller. Nobody moved out of their little apartments in North Hollywood or Hollywood, but everyone spent less time in their kitchens. “We went out to eat a lot,” says Gretchen, “and when you’re 20, that’s a big deal.” They lived the long, hard hours of recording with delight, traversing the L.A. rock scene with what seemed like E-tickets to success tucked safely in their pockets. “Just being signed has a way of making you feel rich, even if your car needs new tires,” says Gretchen. “You feel blessed just to be on that road.”
Only several months after signing with Morgan Creek, Mary’s Danish hit that road with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, on the Mother’s Milk tour. “The Peppers hadn’t had a hit yet,” says Gretchen, “but three weeks into the tour they were suddenly planning their next one in arenas. You could see them hitting it, and you think, ‘This is gonna be us next. We’ve got all our ducks in a row.’”
We made it . . . and then we got signed.
—Kurt Neuman of the BoDeans
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, a relic-packed shrine to life backstage, claims to hold the true story of our nation’s rock history, but something is missing from its rockographic chronicling: To its rooms and rooms of drumsticks and Stratocasters and the sequined gowns of the rock elite should be added a wing for all those musicians injured or exploited, robbed of success or too naive to hold it — a sort of Vietnam Wall–style accounting of the industry’s screwed. Call it the Anti–Hall of Fame. Among possible names: Meat Loaf, Michelle Shocked, Agnes Gooch, M.C. Hammer, Gwen Mars, Tim Buckley, Organized Konfusion, Boxing Ghandis, The Knack, The Rugburns, TLC, Psychotica, En Vogue, Jonathan Brooke, K-Borne, Toni Braxton, Donna Summer, Momma Stud, The Geraldine Fibbers, Extra Fancy, Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, Sublime, New York Dolls, Tom Waits, Big L, The Hangmen, Freestyle Fellowship, Suddenly, Tammy!, The Ronettes, The Nymphs, X-Members, Eric C, China, Black 9.
It’s likely that such a list would read as exceptional, but in fact it’s more often the rule. As the lucky one band signed annually in this country for every 300 that exist, Mary’s Danish was right to feel blessed. What the wooing label executives neglected to mention was that, according to Pollstar, only 225 of the 4,500 to 6,000 active artists being promoted and distributed each year will ever make any real money for their record companies — let alone for themselves. In an industry with $6 billion in annual record sales, 90 percent of all acts signed to major labels will be dropped — which translates to a one-in-3,000 chance of sticking. Even for the lucky musicians, it’s hard to understand that no matter how much the record company inflates their dreams, how savory the $250,000 advance sounds, the vast majority of them will never rise above the poverty line.
Yet it’s not the inherent bad odds that lie at the heart of the musician’s plight, but the record companies’ cruel habit of forcefully backing — and then so easily abandoning — their clients’ dreams. Toss a bunch of them up against the free-market wall, they reason, and see what sticks. And why not?
Musicians are us unplugged, we think — voracious in sexual appetite, jet-set in altered states, fingers up their noses to everything that makes us comfortable. We expect the smashing of guitars, the ODs, the girl going off in a four-letter flurry as she receives her Grammy. They speak for every syllable — every injustice — we swallow; where we have whispers, they have amps. (The Beastie Boys in concert to free Tibet, Rage Against the Machine doing the same for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Ani DiFranco, Tom Waits and others for the Dead Man Walking concert.) Nothing gets sublimated as it blasts out of a Marshall stack, least of all injustice.
So why does a little story about dropped bands tie up the tongues of musicians, lawyers, music journalists and record executives alike? Why would a band that was fucked, literally — all members coerced into having sex with their A&R lady and then summarily dropped from the label — refuse an interview? Why would my buddy who has had five record deals in the last eight years, who has seen the ball dropped on his career over and over in swindles, label mergers, and executive power plays, and is now a year into waiting for a bankrupt indie label to release him from contractual bondage, pass on the opportunity to speak the truth? Fear, of course. He, along with the majority of dropped musicians, wants to work again, and in this town, breaking the Mafia-style code of silence means underlining your name on a blacklist that already has you listed as a damaged dream.
But some are beginning to speak up and be heard, among them Chuck D of Public Enemy, who laments in “Swindlers Lust,” “either you own the master or it owns you,” and Michelle Shocked, who sued Mercury citing the anti-slavery 13th Amendment. Imagine, in that â Anti–Hall of Fame, a series of TV screens playing video shorts of Shocked and other recording artists relating just how they got screwed.
We’d see Jen Trynin, a week after her homemade album is released and she’s taking phone calls from 21 major labels. Flown out from Boston in private jets, she begins an endless executive song and dance that culminates in one of the fiercest bidding wars in recent history. She signs a three-records-firm deal for $350,000 with Warner Bros. Within three months, Trynin goes from touring Australia to being dropped by the label, phone calls not returned. “People should know about this to burst their rock-dream bubble,” she says. “The record companies don’t understand art, they don’t give a fuck. It’s all about each other and who’s impressing who . . . it’s like eighth grade.”
Or there’s rap artist Damone Bush. In the space of two years, he goes from working in a lab testing for STDs to recording Anotha Level with Ice Cube and the Pharcyde, to partying in Vegas with his Priority label staff, selling 120,000 records, then being dropped, in debt, and being forced to take a temporary delivery job where he has the humiliating task of delivering a Christmas basket to an MCA executive who knows him as a professional rapper. His disillusion is so deep, he says, that for a year all he can listen to is Alternative.
Of the 20-some bands contacted for this article, Trynin and Bush were among the very few who would discuss what had happened to them. And then, of course, there’s Mary’s Danish. In the vast arena of silenced or exploited musicians, where bands tend to swallow life’s hardest lyrics and their museum dedicates millions to stories that reflect the experience of so few, their story emerges as a universal portrait of the music industry at the end of the century that gave birth to the record deal.
Every day, to earn my daily bread
I go to the market where lies are bought
I take my place up with the sellers.
—from “Hollywood,” by Bertolt Brecht
By the fall of 1992, Mary’s Danish had entered the zone — the catbird seat of breakthrough beginnings, the fantasy scenario that makes students at the Musicians’ Institute of Technology drool off into space. They had recorded and sold 55,000 units of their second album, Circa, then, only three months after its release, were rushed back into the studio to record American Standard (for which they received an additional $250,000 advance). They were packing shows, indulging in the delicious mischief of backstage parties, speeding out of town in a souped-up tour bus. They were reeling with thanks as David Letterman’s Thanksgiving band, patted on the back by Jay Leno after a hometown performance with friends and family hooting loud, and they were inches away from landing the feather-in-the-cap of all American bookings, Saturday Night Live.
In Rolling Stone and the L.A. Times, they were hailed as L.A.’s “great white hope.” The Weekly urged readers to attend a series of shows at the Troubadour “guaranteed to blow the minds of all lucky audience members,” and the now defunct Village View put them on the cover with the headline “GREAT DANISH: Don’t Tell Mary’s Danish They’re ‘The Next Big Thing’ — They’d Rather Forge a Lasting Career.” When bassist Wagner needed a costly hip operation, a benefit concert for him at the Hollywood Palladium featuring the Beastie Boys, Thelonious Monster, the Chili Peppers and Roseanne Barr brought in $70,000. “It was staggering,” says Gretchen. “You’re like, holy shit, how great! We had worked so hard — rehearsing five to six days a week — because we really wanted it to work. And now it was.”
They were on the road in the Southwest when they got the dream call: Jane’s Addiction, one of Gretchen’s favorite bands, needed an opener for a short tour. Immediately, they interrupted their headlining tour and flew to St. Louis. They played through frazzled nerves to a packed house, managing the rare feat of getting the audience to temporarily forget the band they had paid to see perform, meeting backstage afterward to compare ecstatic notes — the center floor suddenly combusted into a swirling mosh that had hands clapping and cupping bodies, suggesting to Mary’s Danish that soon lighters would be sparked in a wave of authentic support. When Jane’s Addiction went on, Gretchen slipped to the side of the stage — as she would every night of the tour — studying, admiring, feeling the chills of all-access privilege, the close-range fantasy of this all being hers. “At that moment it was this overwhelming ‘Oh my god, this is great, this is what it’s like to be really successful and really happy doing what you dreamed.’ I couldn’t have been happier. I thought, yes, this is exactly how I imagined it.”
But weeks later, back on their own tour, they arrived in Baltimore to find the club plastered with posters of only the opening act, a band with the ironically ominous-sounding name of Failure. In fact, Morgan Creek had sent nothing ahead to the club. Maybe Baltimore wasn’t on the label’s list, the band reasoned, or maybe a new batch of posters had been held up at the printer. And what’s a rock tour without fuckups, anyway?
Columbus, Ohio, was harder to dismiss. They were met by the same label field representative from Baltimore who said he would follow them across half the country in a rental car. On their previous tour, there had been a different tour rep in each town who had a special rapport with each local club and radio station. Now they had a guy fumbling with maps, promising them he’d find the radio station in time, leading them cold to DJs who had never received their bio. And on several legs of the tour, claiming he couldn’t afford his rental, the rep had to hitch a ride in their bus. Gretchen began to have anxiety attacks in her bunk.
When the band reached Chicago, no one was there to meet them. “It didn’t matter that we were selling out theaters,” she says, letting out a shaky exhale of bad memories. “We’d show up in a record store and there’d be no records. We were doing better and better, but there’d be no field representative, or if there was, we’d be like, ‘We’re starving, want to take us to dinner?’ And they’d be like, ‘Sorry, there’s no budget for that.’”
At the height of their success, a nasty faultline split through the estate of their good fortune: On one side, the resounding calls for encores; on the other, the nagging complaints of the label accountant that the band should just live off pizza. When they asked a field representative if he could find them a place to watch the rough cuts of their video — which the director had overnighted for their final approval — he told them to go down to Sam Goody’s and pretend they were testing a VCR. When they arrived at a record store to perform, they discovered that no one there was expecting them. Several radio stations were also surprised at their arrival, and had to rearrange airtime to fit them in. When the woman who ran their fan club ran out of photos and called Morgan Creek for more, she was told there would be no more printed. And each time the band called Morgan Creek in L.A., fewer and fewer of the people they knew and counted on were still employed. The remaining few hemmed and hawed. The greatest surprise came when the group was asked to open for the Stone Temple Pilots’ tour, and Morgan Creek refused to fund it. The label that had pledged to make Mary’s Danish its priority had clearly pulled the plug.
Still, the band soldiered on. What else could they do? They borrowed money from manager Asher to self-finance their touring, living in large part off the sales of
T-shirts. But now even that was up for grabs: In some small Eastern town, they got a call from a Morgan Creek operative saying that if the band was going to continue â selling the T-shirts (which Mary’s Danish had paid for and printed at their friend’s company, Billabong), they would need to pay the label $8,000 for the rights to the artwork — or cut it in on the profits. It didn’t matter that the T-shirt image was taken from an old photo of Louis’ uncle, or that the income from their tour and in turn Morgan Creek’s record sales were bolstered by the sale of merchandise. Morgan Creek offered a deal: Stop selling the shirts, or have them made by the merchandising outfit operated by the son of president James Robinson — at twice the cost.
“At that moment,” says Julie, “we were no longer a team. We were trying to keep the boat afloat, and now they were drilling a hole in it.” The band reached their nadir at a show in Washington, D.C., when Robinson’s merchandising son appeared and promptly called Daddy. Soon after, they heard from Asher that Morgan Creek was itching to sue.
In a motel room in Phoenix, Mary’s Danish received a phone call from Asher, his voice low. Surely they were getting dropped, or the label had filed litigation over the damned T-shirts. What they heard instead was the cruelest surprise of their careers to date: Morgan Creek had decided to exercise its option to renew their contract. The band had hoped to be free agents again, to take elsewhere whatever momentum they had built. But now they learned that the company that had prematurely dropped the promotion of two albums despite decent record sales (109,307 on Circa and American Standard), that had abandoned them on the road and that had recently threatened them with a lawsuit, wanted them back. Mary’s Danish was trapped.
They ply their saws, and timber and proud oak are reduced to sawdust.
“The band was dead,” says Gretchen. “They wouldn’t send us on tour, so there was no money coming in. The money from the last album was gone. Our lawyer and manager called the label almost every day pleading, saying, ‘This is ridiculous, these people are starving, this is their livelihood, please let them go.’ But they wouldn’t.”
Asher, now senior vice president at Sony, remembers a face-to-face meeting with Morgan Creek chief operating officer Gary Barber. “I recall saying that this is really unreasonable, if you let us go now we can probably get this album a home elsewhere — it wasn’t dead yet. But they didn’t care. When I made the point that Mary’s Danish was suffering, Gary was entirely and transparently unsympathetic. He didn’t even try to conceal it.”
Label president James G. Robinson had made his money selling Subaru dealerships and in film and, some say, couldn’t understand why, when you released a record, it didn’t have a blockbuster weekend like a movie. Wanting to turn a quick and relatively easy buck as he had on the Robin Hood soundtrack — which went platinum — he skimped on band development and support. And now, in 1993, the label was like a vacant car lot that still owed its distributor. Maybe it wouldn’t let Mary’s Danish go, as one former Morgan Creek employee suggests, out of spite for the T-shirt incident. Or maybe it was simply because the band was the one Cadillac left in the yard.
Meanwhile, Gretchen and the others were undergoing the depressing transformation back into civilian life. Working as a secretary at a law firm, she exchanged Doc Martens for flats, jeans for the mummy tubing of pantyhose. The only public airing of her lucent voice was telephonic, in the insipid greeting “Morgan, Louis and Bockius, please hold.” She fingered paper clips, White-Out and the dead-skin film of faxes with the bewilderment of a veteran musician newly back from the mosh trenches. When her co-workers offered their saccharine condolences, she wore the coma smile of shame. This was not at all how she imagined it. The others, too, were doing time in reality — Julie called up nearly forgotten French verbs and attempted some translations, Louis thumbed nervously around the house while living off royalties from co-writing the Bangles’ “Walking Down Your Street,” Wag and James did their best to drum up studio gigs. But what they weren’t doing was recording a new album.
Few bands in contractual purgatory hold out longer than a year. It was months into their waiting when David King came to the band with a do-or-die proposal. They all had been playing in side projects just to keep their musical organs pumping — Gretchen and now-boyfriend Louis formed Battery Acid — but David was explaining that his new band, Rob Rule, had a deal on the table.
“It was the worst day ever for all of us,” Gretchen recalls. “He came to us saying, ‘You guys, we’re all starving here, and I don’t know what to do. Music is my life, and we’ve been rotting for a year.’”
There was a collective urging to just keep holding out — “They can’t keep us for another year, we’ve worked too hard to kiss it all goodbye now” — and they looked at their options: They could declare bankruptcy, the way Concrete Blonde had unsuccessfully tried to get out of their contract, or they could stay together and replace David, an essential songwriting member, and still they would be legally bound to a label with no future in sight. “We all firmly believed that Mary’s Danish would do something and be successful,” says Gretchen, “but at that point we were so frustrated after so long. Our worst nightmare was coming true.”
Morgan Creek’s Cadillac had rusted in the empty lot, the radio antenna bent, the tires deflated. July 14, 1993 — Bastille Day — four years and four months from the day they had executed their first contract with Chameleon Records, the band members passed around a pen to sign an agreement stating that Mary’s Danish no longer existed, that the dream was hereby, irrevocably, foreclosed.
Today, Morgan Creek’s Robinson recalls very little of it. He doesn’t recollect that the band was held in contractual limbo, that Morgan Creek renewed a contract to record their third record and never responded to the band’s recording budget, that his son was ever involved in the T-shirt issue, or that the band was forced to break up on his watch. “That they broke up is news to me,” he says over the phone, voice indifferent. “I probably met the band once. Why am I supposed to have some type of feeling or emotion about them? I run the film company, and that’s where I spend all my time.”
When it’s suggested that he might conceivably share some responsibility for the fate of Mary’s Danish, he snaps, “I don’t think they’re playing for the love; I think they’re playing because it’s a way to make money . . . Everybody’s always got a story why they fail. I’m not insensitive to failure, but I don’t accept it . . . I’ve played games with a broken collarbone, a knee blown up the size of a football, broken teeth. I’m not trying to get sympathy here, but it’s a matter of determination.”
He pauses, impatient. “Let me give it to you straight: Maybe they weren’t good enough. Now maybe that isn’t news, but obviously we had confidence in them and obviously the public didn’t appreciate their music. We failed because we picked the wrong bands.”
But past employees of Morgan Creek see it differently. Matt Aberly, the band’s A&R rep at Morgan Creek and now president of A&R at Warner/Reprise Records: “To say that Mary’s Danish is a band not liked by people is ridiculous. They had all the potential in the world and deserved to sell more records. They certainly seemed well on their way to being successful and got stopped short. It was very upsetting, very sad.” Former Morgan Creek publicist Cary Baker, who is married to a Weekly staffer, also faults causes other than the lack of fan support: “I think that Mary’s Danish coming off ‘Don’t Crash the Car Tonight’ had everything it took . . . But development takes time, money, strategy, tour support, advertising — and these things were frowned upon at Morgan Creek.”
To give Robinson his due, he did spend a decent amount of money on Mary’s Danish, and the notion that the lack of label support led to the band’s demise enrages him: “We fulfilled our obligations, but if it didn’t work, it didn’t work. It was a dead loss. What am I supposed to do — spend another half million dollars?! Where do I get my money, my cash? I wasn’t born with money and I don’t get a check from the government, therefore where do I get the money to fund various bands? From record sales.”
Chris Kerr, the band’s hands-on manager under Peter Asher, finds Robinson’s comment laughable. “Well, you have to have records in the shops to sell ’em, don’t you? Every time I was in some city with Mary’s Danish, I would get out the Yellow Pages and start calling record stores to find out if they had it in stock, and they rarely did. In my opinion, the band was treated very badly. But then [Morgan Creek] treated all their bands that way. They could have been a great independent label just based on this one band, but they blew it. They didn’t understand music, and they didn’t treat musicians as if they were people.”
Baker thinks the fall of Mary’s Danish offers a kind of warning for the rapidly changing industry: “With the Seagram’s mergers, there will be a whole new crop of entrepreneurs starting record labels, and all I can hope is that they get their money from sources that understand two things: talent and development of said talent. Mary’s Danish wasn’t a failure; Morgan Creek was just a totally flawed experiment — a record company owned by a movie company that often had the mentality that â 34 opening box-office weekend is what matters. They didn’t realize that it’s very often a long haul. And it should have happened with Mary’s Danish, because so much was right there.”
The sharks I dodged
The tigers I slew
What ate me up
Was the bed bugs.
In November 1996, the only mosh pit going on at the Battery Acid show was in Gretchen’s eighth-month belly. The child kicked in time with the bass drum, thumping up under her ribs, and Gretchen was screaming the lyrics over the chatter, wishing that the lights at the Garage would block out the emptiness. There was the thin rattle of applause after each song, there were the dead-dream faces of her band, and nothing about any of it provided an incentive for an encore. She unplugged her mike, retracted the cord and walked away.
In the year after Mary’s Danish broke up, Gretchen and Louis wrote 60 songs for their new band, Battery Acid, and got a record deal with Geffen on the heels of only their second show. But a month before the release of their record, their A&R lady, Debra Shallman, was fired. For nine years she had been a secretary to the Geffen bigwig John Kalodner, and he had finally given her signing power. But soon after he left the label, she was fired. And all her bands, Battery Acid included, were considered the (after)taste of a gal who had the mark of a coffee pourer. Label politics, only second in band dangers to label finances, had slung a noose once again around Gretchen’s dream.
“You know, I talk to other musicians and so many feel cursed,” she says flatly. “We went through so many bumps. You think, I’m not going to do the indie thing again, what happened with Morgan Creek. It’s major or broke. And then to have the Geffen thing so harsh with Battery Acid — a month before your record comes out, the artwork’s done, you’re just waiting all hopeful, and then your A&R person is fired and you’re dropped out of nowhere. It was the final straw.”
Well, almost. Gretchen and Louis scrambled, diving back in the studio to write a more radio-accessible song for the new A&R team. But as Gretchen explains, the Geffen monster couldn’t be sated: “It was a hard[-edged] record, but we thought, let’s just give them their one pop song. But when we gave it to them, suddenly they wanted the whole record to be like that song. I’ll tell you what,” she says, “what made me feel slutty was having written that one pop song. It felt then like we weren’t doing it for the art but just to survive. And we were booted anyway! It’s at that point that you realize there is nothing you can do but walk away. You feel robbed, broken.”
Tonight, Gretchen looks at home in a quaint South Pasadena restaurant with trophy gold records framed on the walls. She has swapped Chili tours, backstage bashes and a road-hungry tour bus for a cottage in Pasadena, a real estate license and a Volvo. Baby bottles have replaced microphones, and she shuffles through escrow papers instead of set lists. She and Louis — married now, he’s a stockbroker — have stored their combined 23 years in music together in scrapbooks, somewhere, she says, deep in storage. They have made a decision they’re proud of — to be responsible parents — but she has in her voice the discomfort of having come to the masquerade in the wrong costume.
Gretchen doesn’t want to sound bitter — she feels blessed, she says, to have traveled further than most in music. She got to see much of the world, spend eight years of her life in the company of creative folk and flirt freely with the endless seduction of rock glory. And while Gretchen laughs at how conservative her outward life has become, she holds on to the notion that one is not only what one does. The other members of Mary’s Danish are still pursuing music — Julie, Wag and David doing music for TV, James Bradley last seen on tour with Slash; all but Julie have kids, and they are still great friends. Gretchen still writes poetry, is still the fragile, lyrical soul who could lift you from a dull place. But music is now a private act.
“The whole Geffen thing seemed so unreal,” she says. “Geffen, I thought, was one of the best — they had Beck, Sonic Youth — but I remember the day our manager called. I just went in my room, laid on the bed and cried. I couldn’t believe it. Mary’s Danish had just gone through the full nightmare, and I thought this was finally going to be it. I just cried and cried. I totally lost the desire to make music again.”
Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” is playing loudly now over the diner’s speakers. Gretchen nods to a gold record on the wall, cups her pregnant belly and attempts a smile: “It feels good to be anonymous now. Even if that isn’t what we wished for.” A second baby will soon make its debut, and Gretchen’s private joys will continue to fill her public void. And perhaps a softened version of “Don’t Crash the Car Tonight” will be just the right memory to send her child into a brighter, more permanent dream.
Roughly 340,000 Mary’s Danish records were sold; not one member has to date received a penny of royalties.