Today’s Guest: Details magazine contributing editor Rob Tannenbaum.
Originally Published November 4, 1996
In his fantasies, Details magazine contributing editor Rob Tannenbaum has a beautiful voice.
In reality, he has a beautiful . . . well, he types really well.
Have you ever read a magazine or newspaper story where a reporter steps into the shoes of someone in another line of work — as George Plimpton did, briefly playing for the Detroit Lions in researching his book, Paper Lion? The reporter naively suits up as a cab driver, pizza delivery driver or substitute teacher (three that Mr. Media tried as a young man), gets befuddled by the intricacies of the job, collects a few funny lines, writes a cutesy story and returns to journalism.
That was what Joe Dolce, Tannenbaum’s editor at Details, must have expected when he assigned his writer a first-person story about what it was like to start a band and try to get noticed. Little did either of them guess that a year later, Tannenbaum and his faux sextet would have played a live gig at the legendary CBGB’s nightclub in Manhattan, pressed a few
thousand copies of its original CD, “Everything is Fun,” and be considering offers from major record labels.
“In the usual Plimpton story, the writer takes over an unfamiliar job, fails and learns empathy for the professional,” Tannenbaum says. “The story is not supposed to work out where the amateur can actually do it.”
Now Tannenbaum, a singer in the band White Courtesy Telephone, is considering whether or not he should throw away his writing career to be one of the boys in the band.
“It’d be crazy!” he says. “I’ve got a lucrative job — would I want to trade this for five months of touring in a broken down bus with five guys with bad breath sleeping almost standing up every night? Well, I’m starting to think I’m crazy.”
What’s really crazy is that Tannenbaum, a former rock critic who started his career with the now-defunct Providence Eagle, has no musical aptitude whatsoever.
“I’ve never been accused of having musical talent,” he readily admits. “As long as I’ve had friends, they’ve begged me not to sing with the radio — which is one reason I’m doing this. It’s rock ‘n’ roll — you don’t have to be prodigiously talented to be in rock ‘n’ roll.
“Of course,” he adds, “if I took the same approach to being a sculptor, I’d be laughed out of the art world.”
At 35, Tannenbaum might seem a little young for a career crisis, but that’s exactly what he’s going through.
For years, Tannenbaum has made a name for himself profiling pop and film stars such as REM, Aerosmith, Brian Eno, Nicolas Cage, Sean Penn, Christian Slater, Julia Roberts, Heather Locklear and Uma Thurman. He wrote the first Rolling Stone stories on bands such as Guns ‘n Roses and Bon Jovi (in fact, Jon Bon Jovi used to thank him by ridiculing Tannenbaum during his concerts). He anticipated the Kiss revival in a GQ story two years ago. His Details cover story on Cindy Crawford became the best-selling issue in the magazine’s history.
Then one day he gets up on the wrong side of the bed and he’s writing and recording songs instead of reviewing them, hustling A&R reps from major labels and performing with White Courtesy Telephone at CBGB’s — “a momentous occasion” — mumbling, talking, shouting and spitting his lyrics on the same microphone as the Ramones, Tom Verlaine and Debbie Harry.
And how is White Courtesy Telephone’s CD, “Everything is Fun”?
It’s eclectic, loud, irreverent and a pile of fun — just what you’d expect from song titles such as “Stephen Hawking’s Wheelchair,” “Eat What You Kill” and Tannenbaum’s somewhat original composition, “Cobain(e),” which he executes to the tune of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine.”
“I was listening to the radio one day,” Tannenbaum recalls, “and ‘Cocaine’ was on. But I heard, ‘Cobain, dead rock star, dead rock star, dead rock star — Cobain.’ ”
And if there’s any doubt in your mind about Tannenbaum becoming a rocker, be warned that he’s already affected a misunderstood artist attitude. “People miss a lot of the subtlety of what we’re doing,” he says, “the literary references . . . ”
As in the rather crude ditty “Prison Wife”?
“You got me there,” he says, laughing.
The toughest part of being in a band isn’t the late nights, loud music, heavy drinking, groupies (he’s got one) or begging record producers to listen to his CD. No, the hardest part is going from a neatly organized life to one of total anarchy.
“One of the things I’ve learned,” Tannenbaum says, “is that rock bands don’t have plans. The notion of a six-month plan doesn’t happen in rock ‘n’ roll. So the other guys looked at me like an accountant because I tried doing all these organized things.”
The biggest difference between Tannenbaum and a true amateur is that the other guy couldn’t get his calls returned by the president of major record labels. Tannenbaum’s reputation as a reporter carries weight with these people — at the very least, they’ll humor him. Never know when he might be back on the music beat, profiling Alanis, Bono or Madonna, right?
“I have been able to get the CD to people who might not have been accessible to garage musicians,” he concedes. “And I don’t know how much they’re humoring me. Because I’m trying to get an honest response, I haven’t told a lot of people this is for a story.”
Tannenbaum’s report on the unlikely career of White Courtesy Telephone is slated for the January issue of Details. By then, his journalism career could be a distant memory. On the other hand, he still sings like a typist.
“This has been the most confusing assignment I’ve ever had,” he says. “I’ve had so much fun — anticipation, adrenaline, money lust — I’m unclear now which part is the story and which part is my desire and my fantasy. I’m not sure when I’ll get my life back. I’m not sure if I want my life back.
“If worse comes to worse,” Tannenbaum says, “I’ll tour for a year — then write about that.”