By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Before the interview is to begin with Knack frontman Doug Fieger, the man would first like to ask his own question. "I was wondering, why do you want to do an interview with me?" he says, his voice full of anger and confusion. Because, I tell him, I love the Knack--or at least I did 18 years ago, when I was 12 and didn't know any better. OK, so I don't tell Fieger the last part of that sentence, but he doesn't buy it anyway. "I find that hard to believe," he says, his voice full of hatred and bitterness.
Fieger then proceeds to recount several things I have written about the Knack over the course of the past several years. If anything, I am less astonished that Fieger read--and recalls--what I penned about his band than bothered by the fact that I have indeed written about The Knack on more than one occasion. (I wonder at this point whether I need to consider other career options. My grandfather, a hard-working immigrant from Lithuania, would not be proud.) Fieger mentions one instance when I allegedly compared him to Los Angeles rock-scene skeleton Kim Fowley, the former Runaways producer who always shows up at South by Southwest and tries to convince the local yokels he is still somebody. Fieger showed up in Austin a couple of years ago--during one of Fowley's rare absences--and I recall wondering in print whether there was an L.A. has-been quota at the music-bizzers convention. This might be what he is referring to.
"I've read some things you've written about me specifically that were really snide, unfun, unfair, unnice--and I've never even met you," Fieger says, his voice full of rage and scorn. "I've gotten calls from friends of mine saying, 'What does this guy have against you?' When I got the call from my manager saying, 'Robert Wilonsky wants to talk to you,' I wanted to talk to you and ask you why you would write stuff about someone you don't know. I really want to know."
The conversation continues like this for a while--with Fieger's demanding to know why I would write such nasty things about the Knack (well, duh), and my trying to defend myself against one of the most reviled lead singers in all of rock-and-roll history. The fight is fixed.
But it is one Fieger has been engaged in for most of his professional life; he simply has not been afforded the opportunity to attack his attackers, to lash back at those who have derided the Knack ever since the release of Get the Knack in 1979, when the band sold more than 500,000 albums in two weeks on its way to becoming one of the most successful debut acts of all time. If not on me, then Fieger's bound to let loose on some other schlub who touted the party line for years. Fieger, who refused to talk to the media during his moment of fame and then couldn't find a microphone after the spotlight burned out, has 20 years of resentment stored up inside him. Who can blame him for exploding? Just stand clear of the mess.
History would lead us to believe that the Knack was loathed almost from the moment the band formed in 1978; the history books have reduced them to a sarcastic footnote, at best. In his 1996 L.A. music history Waiting for the Sun, Barney Hoskyns refers to the band--singer-guitarist Fieger, guitarist Berton Averre, bassist Prescott Niles, and drummer Bruce Gary--as four "aging musos riding the retro-pop bandwagon" who sat atop the pop charts for five weeks and then slid into the ocean of scorn and obscurity; no matter that they were in their mid-20s at the time. Hoskyns portrays the band as one-and-a-half-hit wonders who scored with their "nauseating" single "My Sharona"; indeed, his contempt for the band is almost palpable, though perhaps one should never trust a Brit to define America's pop passions.
Yet there did not always exist such hatred: During the late '70s, the Knack and Los Angeles were like young lovers flush from a new romance. The band played the Troubadour and other near-dead discotheques; they shared stages with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty and Ray Manzarek; they were beloved power-pop heroes in a punk-rock town. Rolling Stone even profiled the band before they signed to Capitol Records. The magazine celebrated them, hoping to steer the bandwagon.
But somewhere between anonymity and instant stardom, the Knack became detested enemies of the state of rock and roll. Get the Knack was released at the beginning of 1979, and within a matter of days, it was certified gold; weeks later, it was dipped in platinum. On August 25, 1979, "My Sharona" became the No. 1 song in America, and for six weeks, it sat atop the Billboard charts. And for their success, the Knack was rewarded with some of the most vicious rock-and-roll criticism ever leveled at any band. They were labeled lecherous old men writing songs about wanting to screw teenage girls; critics pointed to songs such as "Good Girls Don't," "(She's So) Selfish," and "Frustrated"--the teen-beat anthems about doin' it to your girlfriend while Mom and Dad were out of the house--and condemned them as "nasty" and "mean-spirited."