By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Inkoo Kang
By Dave Herrerra
By Josiah M. Hesse
By Britt Chester
By Noah Hubbell
At this writing, Rocket, the debut album by Primitive Radio Gods, is no longer among the 200 best-selling albums in the United States according to Billboard magazine. Nor does the publication list the hit tune "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" among the country's 100 hottest singles. Furthermore, The Cable Guy, the Jim Carrey film whose soundtrack included "Phone Booth," is ready to board the video express.
Just a few months ago, however, things were very different. "Phone Booth" was zooming up the charts, The Cable Guy was doing decent business despite horrible reviews, and hopes were high that Rocket would blast off. So positive were executives at Columbia Records, the band's label, that they sent head God Chris O'Connor on a nationwide publicity junket. During his Denver visit, he looked every inch the rock star: long, uncombed hair, a white V-neck T-shirt and a black leather jacket worn in spite of nearly triple-digit temperatures. Between interviews at a trendy LoDo restaurant, he downed beers and smoked cigars--and since he knew that Columbia was picking up the tab, he ordered the overpriced lobster pot pie.
In short, times were good. Nonetheless, O'Connor wasn't exactly bubbling over with enthusiasm. When asked to provide some background about himself, he responded like a sociologist reciting someone else's case study: "Seventeen years old, stepmother and father didn't get along, had no money, couldn't afford college, didn't want to stay in a small town in central California, joined the Navy, lived in Chicago for a while."
The Navy, in O'Connor's words, was "a no-brainer. I pretty much hated it the whole time. But an important part of becoming a complete human being is learning to do things you don't like." He described his release from the armed services to be "the happiest day of my life" but acknowledged that he learned a marketable skill while in uniform. Specifically, his Navy experience led to him being hired to work as an air-traffic controller at Los Angeles International Airport.
When O'Connor wasn't doing his best to prevent jets from crashing into each other, he was playing bass with a band called the I-Rails. During the late Eighties, the group (which featured Jeff Sparks and Tim Lauterio, who, along with guitarist Luke McAuliffe, make up the touring version of the Gods) issued four albums but never made it past the local stage. O'Connor subsequently took a break from the Rails to make the solo project that became Rocket. He cut the recordings with no outside assistance in a friend's garage for around a thousand dollars, and when they were completed, he sent out samples to a handful of companies. To his profound surprise, one of the addressees--Columbia--responded positively.
"Somebody at the U.S. office heard 'Phone Booth,' liked it, and wanted to put in on a soundtrack," he remarked. Soon thereafter, the script for The Cable Guy arrived in the mail--but O'Connor was far from thrilled by it. "Initially, I read it and I thought it was bad. I just didn't see the connection between that movie and my somber song. It belongs more on the soundtrack to Leaving Las Vegas or something." He went on, "I was all worried about getting involved in a bad project. I was looking at these soundtracks to shitty movies, and there's all these supposedly credible bands on them."
Eventually, Cable Guy director Ben Stiller was dispatched to convince the stubborn artist that his effort would work within the context of the movie, a darker project than Carrey's previous efforts. Obviously, Stiller was right: "Phone Booth" got played to death on the big screen, and radio stations in a variety of formats followed suit. Indeed, the number received so much attention that the other offerings on Rocket were hardly noticed. There's a reason for that, of course: Most of them just aren't as memorable or effective. "Women," for example, is smooth and catchy, but lyrics such as "She's like a gong/You've got to bang her" raise misogynistic flags. In conversation, O'Connor did his best to deflect criticism of the aforementioned lines.
"I was pretending I was Prince," he said. "My whole life, I'm the guy that gets shit on by the chicks, and I thought I'd pretend like I fucking get to shit on chicks. I was just having fun. Cool women get it. What it comes down to is, men are slaves to women, not the other way around. Women have all the control." He was less defensive when quizzed about "The Rise and Fall of Ooo Mau"; he declared it to be "kind of like 'Ziggy Stardust.' It's about the beginning and end of rock decadence, cutting and sarcastic." When he noted that the track "hopefully will be autobiographical," he didn't seem to be joking. Today this comment seems more prescient than ever.
Another piece, "Are You Happy," gave O'Connor a considerable headache when it came time to get permission to use a sample that originally appeared in it. "I sampled this TV preacher called Bob Tilton--this totally psychotic, out-of-control dude," he revealed. "At the time we went to get clearance from him, he was under federal indictment; he's probably going to be in prison forever. His people thought, 'Oh, rock and roll, this can't help us.' So they said no. I had to go back and re-create that. So basically what you hear is me trying to be a TV preacher."