the most uncomfortable conversation ever.

I had to, eventually, discuss the seven-inch with Footstone.

I had multiple phone conversations with Ralph and Mark, and just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  Finally, I just invited them to our apartment.  I figured if they were right in front of me, I would have to do it.  They needed to know that I couldn’t put out their record because it was bad, and, even more importantly, as a friend I had to tell them it was bad.

So I invited them over.

Mark couldn’t make it, so Ralph came by himself.  Sandy, chicken that she was, wasn’t there either – I can’t recall if she went to bed, or went out, or what.  All I know is that it was just Ralph and me, drinking beers and listening to music, while I let myself get sufficiently lubricated so that I could break the news.

Finally, he asked me: “So, what did you think?”

I hemmed and hawed a bit.  I waffled.  I stammered.  I said “I’m really much more of a pop guy, so when I listen to a band like Footstone, I want to hear pop songs, maybe punk songs.”

Ralph responded.  I have no idea what he said.

I tried again.  “I think the songs could be better.  I think, for a first try after losing Guy, they’re not half bad.”

He said something again.  I can’t remember what.

I said “I think the songs are really long.”

He said something else.  Who knows what it was?

See, here’s the thing: you will never meet, in your entire life, someone more likeable than Ralph.  He’s genuine, funny, generous, a great conversationalist – the kind of guy who makes you feel like you’re his best friend, every single time you talk.  He’s self-deprecating, in an absolutely hysterical way.  Anyone reading this blog who has ever met him will vouch for that.  He was my favorite Dromedary guy.  He had become my friend.

I did not want to tell him this.  It went way beyond not wanting to offend a band; this was a matter of not wanting to offend a friend.

I was also sure that “Belly,” with it’s “We don’t like you anymore” lyrics, was written about me.  So I was totally insecure.  And so I decided to change the subject.

“Hey, what is ‘Belly’ about?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s about my belly,” Ralph said. “We were all sitting around, talking about my gut.  I didn’t always have it; I used to be in good shape, I played soccer and baseball and stuff.  My gut – it’s pretty new.  And we decided that none of us like it.  So I want to get rid of it.”

He was full of shit.

The intro to the song sounded too much like the intro to “Feed The Tree” by Belly.  The song was named after the band.  It had to be.  The lyrics, though, were obviously about a person.  The answer he gave me was the alcohol I needed.

“Ralph, I can’t put this record out.”

He was quiet.

“I just don’t like it.  I don’t like either song.  I think they’re too long, and really monotonous.  There are instrumental passages that are just unnecessary.  They both really drag.”

“Is it that bad?” he asked.

“Yeah.  I’m sorry.  I love your band, and I feel horrible.  I’m rejecting a band I love, and turning down a record I’m not even paying for.”

“You must think it sucks pretty bad if you’re not going to put it out even though we’re paying for it,” he said.

“I’m sorry.  I’m really sorry.  I wanted to put it out.”

“Did Ray like it?” he asked.  I think at this point, Ralph looked up to Ray.

“He didn’t offer an opinion,” I lied.  “He was too concerned with the production.”  There was no reason for me to kick a guy when he was down.

“If you had to pick one thing wrong with them, what would it be?” he asked.

“Ralph, there’s not one thing.  They’re boring.  They’re monotonous.  Lyrically, they’re repetitive.  They’re too long.”

He was quiet for a minute.  I could tell that this was stinging him.  I felt awful. I got up and went to the bathroom, and found myself lingering there, staring at myself in the mirror, whispering to myself about what an asshole I was.

I left him in the kitchen, where we were sitting and drinking McSorley’s.  McSorleys’ that Ralph brought.  Jesus, he brought the beer.  When I came back, he was still sitting in the same spot he was in when I left.

And then he did one of the most awesome things.

He looked at me and said “I can fix it.”

“Fix it?” I asked.  “How?”

“I think I can go back into the studio and add some finishing touches,” he said.  “I was going to bring in Bill from American Standard to put down some backing vocals.  We can do that, too.”

“Ralph, I’m really not sure that ‘finishing touches’ is what we’re looking at, here.”

“Just let me go back in for one day.  If it sucks when I’m done, then it sucks and we don’t put it out.  I thank you for telling me it sucks, and we go back to the drawing board and try and write better songs.”

I thought for a minute and decided there was no way I could lose, and it might make the whole situation a little more palatable for everyone.  So I agreed.

Ralph thanked me up and down, as if I had done him some great favor.  I felt awful.  He wound up spending the next half hour consoling me.  I yammered on and on about how awful it made me feel to say no to this record, and he kept telling me how thankful he was that he had someone who could be honest with him about his music.

Eventually, he left.  I just sat there in the living room for a while, listening to Buffalo Tom and thinking about what I had done.

The next day I got right on the phone and called Ray.

“Do me a favor?” I asked.

“Sure.  What do you need?”

“I need you to let Ralph back into the studio for a day.”

He was quiet.

“I told him last night that I couldn’t put out the record,” I explained.  “I was really clear with him why.  He asked me for the chance to ‘fix it’ in the studio, so I told him that would be okay.”

“Okay,” he said.  I have no idea if Footstone was paying Ray for his studio or production time, all I knew was that Ray had lined up some production work with some great bands, and he was squeezing in Footstone to begin with.  To let Ralph back in for a day – especially when time was valuable since Ray had a dayjob – was pretty cool.

Now, there’s another version of this story.  It’s the version where Ralph had every intention of going back into the studio to tweak the originals, and had actually already planned the date and cleared it with Bill from American Standard.  In that version of the story, Ray already had booked the date, and only reluctantly agreed with me for effect.  I heard that version of the story months later, and I have no idea if it was true, or if someone was trying to paint a better picture of the situation so that nobody looked bad.

I don’t care.  I like my version of the story better.  Because it really was the most uncomfortable conversation I’ve ever had, and I’d hate to think that I had the conversation for no reason.  Because I felt truly awful about it.  It was the first time I felt like I would never be the guy with the cigar in his mouth, sitting behind a desk at Big Huge Records, turning down bands.  I didn’t have the balls.

What is absolutely amazing about the whole thing, though, is the fact that about two years later, I had to have the exact same conversation, under the exact same circumstances, with a different band.  So, in a way, I have Ralph to thank for prepping me for that conversation, which turned out to be far less uncomfortable as a result.  I guess you get desensitized to it.

~ by Al on February 26, 2009.

3 Responses to “the most uncomfortable conversation ever.”

  1. OK, should I be scared that I have no memory of this so called “conversation”. Have we been reading a bit too much Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Is this “magical realism”? Where are the unicorns? Where’s that confounded bridge?

  2. You don’t? It totally traumatized me. It’s the only time with the label that I felt like I knowingly let down a friend, and you were so cool about it that it made me feel even worse.

  3. […] a place to release music if they wanted to – still guilt-stricken over the debacle with our seven-inch, I didn’t want to sting the band’s feelings […]

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