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."
During his Denver stopover, O'Connor sounded more like a Zen Buddhist. He rambled poetically about topics such as logic and koans and worked hard to establish the profundity of his most popular song. "The whole concept of the phone booth within our culture, it's a pretty heavy metaphor for a lot of things," he claimed. "Superman goes in and transforms himself. It's a point where we connect with people. And so it's that whole picture of having money and wanting to connect, but you can't because circumstance or fate or whatever doesn't let you."
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He added that one of the key lines in "Phone Booth"--about Mother Theresa joining the Mob--could be viewed as a statement about society. "Like selling freedom and goodness for security. Ma Theresa's a symbol of pureness, an ideal. The American public is dangerously concerned about..." After a pause of fourteen seconds, he admitted, "Well, that's too far of a stretch. It's like we're just so afraid of everything. We're afraid of getting things ripped off, and we buy insurance and we're afraid of dying. We have all these diets and stuff, and everybody's just so fucking wigged out. You're going to fucking die--there's no way around it. But people are desperately clutching their security. We could stop all automobile accidents by saying you don't have the freedom to drive a car. It's really scary to see people jump on that bandwagon of buying into all these laws that are directed towards ideas like, 'We're doing this for your safety. We're doing this for your health. We're doing it for the children.' You know? And it's all just more and more control, and people are accepting it and, in the process losing what it means to live, to experience life and have fun."
O'Connor frequently pontificated in this manner--but when it was suggested that he was something of a philosopher, he offered a passionate denial. "That's the thing about music and rock that I just can't stomach anymore. The arrogance of some fucking little twenty-year-old kid who reads a book on philosophy or economics or something and thinks they can change anything is just full of shit. You can't change anything. The Sixties didn't change a fucking thing, and politicians for the last 4,000 years haven't changed a fucking thing. The world is what it is--always has been, always will be."
Later O'Connor conceded that his own situation proved change was, in fact, possible. So how was he able to simultaneously agree with two opinions that seemed diametrically opposed? By embracing contradictions like the one that led to his reflective opus being forever linked with the star of Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. "It's paradoxical," O'Connor stated, "yet it makes sense."
Primitive Radio Gods, with Patti Rothberg. 9 p.m. Friday, November 22, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $12, all ages, 830-