He is the walking dead, a corpse who roams the earth long after his time ran out. He has died twice now: first, when the world discovered he was a fraud and a liar and abandoned him to making films with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; the second time, when he released an album that went wood, selling so few copies you almost felt sorry for him. Robbie Van Winkle has been allowed more chances to come back than the Messiah himself. By all rights, he should have disappeared in 1991, when Van Winkle--Vanilla Ice, he called himself, stamping his own forehead with a bull's-eye--became the first rapper to hit the top spot on the Billboard charts. He should have taken his one hit, "Ice Ice Baby," and his ridiculous haircut and returned home, wherever that was--the mean streets of Miami, he said, though we all knew it was the soft pillow of Carrollton--to count his counterfeit millions in contented anonymity.
Yet Van Winkle insisted on pressing the point--making films so hysterical they should have come with laugh tracks, releasing a live redux of the debut (the SBK Records-released To the Extreme, which sold more than 13 million copies worldwide), allowing an "autobiography" so phony, it was printed in disappearing ink. And just when it seemed as though the pest problem had been taken care of, he peeked his head out from beneath the refrigerator and scampered across the floor one more time. This time, in 1994, he wore dreadlocks, begged for forgiveness, said he found God, insisted his old management forced him to pocket the loot and proliferate the lies, and swore the new Ice was the Real Ice. His record was called Mind Blowin'; it wasn't--well, except for the fact that it was actually released.
That should have been that. Vanilla Ice, it appeared, was properly disposed of, taken out to the dump and placed on a trash heap with Gerardo and New Kids on the Block and so many other early-'90s idols who stopped selling once their audience members' voices broke; make room for the Backstreet Boys. It was kind of funny when Van Winkle attempted his first comeback, really--the boy had balls, for sure, rearing his ugly head when all anyone wanted to do was shoot it off. During an interview with the Dallas Observer back then, he was so contrite and arrogant, a kid who knew he had sinned but enjoyed it so thoroughly, he grinned through his apology. He talked about the Lord...and said "fuck" a lot. Something about the boy breeds hostility and not a little pity.
So when he calls again, four years later, to discuss his second comeback--this time, as a rap-metal musician with close-cropped hair and tattoos covering so much exposed skin--it's even harder to hate him. He's delusional, yes: Van Winkle genuinely believes his new record, Hard to Swallow (he is the master straight man), is "revolutionary," though it sounds just like Korn and Limp Bizkit and so much other top-of-the-pops "Adidas rock." But what major-label act isn't demented? That's why they sign to major labels. What's the point, really, in hating the guy? Despising Vanilla Van Winkle is a waste of time; he's no more abhorrent than Celine Dion or Shania Twain or most any other prefab superstar, no more contrived than Barenaked Ladies, no more foolish than the Backstreet Boys...or even Korn, who could suck oil out of the ground.
He has a label deal in 1998 precisely because he's such a soft-spot novelty, the Zelig of pop culture who reinvents himself every few years. Hard to Swallow even features an "Ice Ice Baby" redo titled "Too Cold"; same lyrics, only this time the "Under Pressure" sample has been replaced by a goosestep beat and growling vocals. Rap yesterday, metal today--most likely he'll go swing before the millennium is up.
No musician has been vilified so much for having done nothing more than selling a few million records. So he lied about being from Luther Campbell's high school and being stabbed by gang members and winning motocross awards when contest organizers said they never heard of him. So he really went to R.L. Turner, sold beer out of the back of his Camaro on Forest Lane to underage high-schoolers, and proved to be the Pat Boone of hip-hop, using his white face to sell black music. Big deal. Like the man says, "I am not what you need to focus on. You need to focus on the music. This crowd that embraces me is not the pop crowd or the black crowd. It's a college crowd with mosh pits, body-piercing, tattoos--they're crazy white boys. It's great, because that's me. That's fucking me. I am catering to people who do appreciate what I am doing. To the rest, they're not going to buy it, so I don't let it bother me. I accept that role. I will always have critics. You can't please everybody."
Van Winkle is still the same guy he was eight years ago, when I first interviewed the then-21-year-old for the Dallas Times Herald--perhaps a bit more obeisant, but no less unctuous. If anything, he is a bit more open about his life: He talks about having attention deficit disorder (one track on Hard to Swallow is titled "A.D.D."), about how the man he never knew as his father beat his mother while she was pregnant with him (a subject dealt with in the song "Scars"), how he's a manic depressive on medication even as we speak. Perhaps that, too, is a cynical ploy, as contemptuous as concocting a street-tough past to make him seem more credible eight years ago; nothing garners sympathy faster than sad-sack tales of an abusive parent and a near-death experience with drugs.
"I was at a party in Dallas a few years ago," Van Winkle recalls. "I was on some heavy shit and found myself on the floor with my friends dumping ice water on me, trying to keep me from vomiting and convulsing. I came out of it alive, and I was like, 'Whoa.' I made a complete turnaround. I got rid of my old friends and promised God I would never turn around. He's blessed me. Fuck the music--I mean my personal life. He blessed me with a beautiful wife and a 1-year-old girl named Dusty Rain, the love of my life. The music is a gift from God."
And he now likes to tell interviewers that the lies he promulgated during his heysecond were foisted upon him by his label, SBK, and his manager, the Plano-based Tommy Quon, who owned City Lights nightclub during the late '80s and early '90s and signed Van Winkle to his Ultrax label. He says he sold out for money, that he was a willing participant in a shell game run by men offering millions in return for his soul. Van Winkle will forever claim he traded in his credibility for some baggy pants and hair clippers set on ugly. "You would have done the same thing for all that money," he insists.
Van Winkle keeps insisting this new sound--which has been around ever since 1993's Judgment Night soundtrack, which paired Helmet with House of Pain, Slayer and Ice-T, and Sonic Youth with Cypress Hill--is the "real me," something he has been searching for ever since 1994. He found it last year in California, when he hooked up with Korn producer Ross Robinson, borrowed members of Korn and Limp Bizkit, and went into the studio to mimic their baggy-pants rock.
"This whole record is not about financing," Van Winkle says from a studio in Miami, where he and his band are rehearsing before beginning a new tour. "I am set off my first record; I made smart investments. It's more about expressions. This is what I do. I take full, full blame for how I was perceived [in 1990.] I can say, 'Fuck, Vanilla Ice sucks.' When I was with SBK, they were making a lot of decisions for me and manipulating me with money. I was some 'Egyptian Lover' kid hanging out in the West End, a roughneck white kid. They wanted to clean it up and play to some teen market. I played all the black clubs, and all of a sudden it worked--I crossed over. I was like a puppet on a string.
"They would say, 'We want you to wear these baggy pants and clean up your look and release the slow song because Hammer has one.' I said, 'No fucking way, that shit ain't me.' They said, 'Will you do it for a million dollars?' and I said hell yeah, because I was five payments behind on my car. Anybody would have sold out. It worked because we sold 15 million records. It was not what I wanted to do. I got overwhelmed with the money, and I let it influence my decisions. But that's the cool thing about this record, because I have seniority over the decisions. The whole thing behind it is expression."
It's likely Van Winkle has been allowed back in the game because he is novel enough to appeal to the nostalgia-starved and, having copped Korn's sound by borrowing the band's producer and blueprint, his "new sound" will indeed appeal to the white schmucks on dope who listen to this stuff in the first place. What's the difference if it's the Deftones or Korn or Vanilla Ice playing this, er, music? It all sounds the same anyway: It's music for guys who can't play guitar, can't sing, and are mad that their million bucks ain't two million. The personality behind the music is almost meaningless.
That Van Winkle even got to release another record says all you will ever need to know about the music business. One local musician theorizes that Republic Records (a subsidiary of Universal) signed Ice because the industry is so lost and desperate, it's willing to bet everything on a nothing. He reasons that record-label executives are panicking as we stumble toward the year 2000 with no new trends in sight. The days of a punk or hip-hop or grunge or even an electronic-pop revolution are long passed; the future now lies in the recycling of the past. So swing makes a comeback, ska bands sign for millions, a Bob Dylan record recorded in 1966 is hailed as the record of 1998, and a joke named Robert Van Winkle gets yet another shot performing a "revolutionary" brand of music that's five years old now. It's rather astonishing that record buyers still don't believe how much record labels hate them. Oh, that's right--they still go see Berlin and the Fixx and Depeche Mode and even Vanilla Ice when they come through town at places like the Galaxy Club and the Groovy Mule. Forget it.
Van Winkle says he thought, for only a moment, about releasing the new record under his own name instead of Vanilla Ice. Then he reconsidered, knowing he can avoid his past but never completely escape it; hence, the inclusion of "Too Cold," proof that what doesn't kill you only makes you...Vanilla Ice.
"People said, 'Change the name,' and I said, 'I ain't running from shit,'" Van Winkle says. "Everybody knows who I am. I am Vanilla Ice. And I am Robbie Van Winkle, I've got a family, and I smoke a little dope every once in a while. It's nothing fancy. I put my heart and soul into this, and I take it day by day. I don't want to expect too much, because I know what happens. I am on medication for depression, so I take it day by day. Whatever happens, happens."
Polka your eyes out
Carl Finch has been making music for squares for more than two decades now. Nobody, save for a few of the revered veterans of foreign-music wars, has done more to keep polka on life support than Brave Combo's founder, who has been playing this stuff for so long, he's seen it go from forgotten traditional music to post-modern kitsch to Drew Carey Show hip. Twenty years ago, Finch and the band called their sound "nuclear polka," turned Jim Morrison into Frankie Yankovic, and made it cool to be so, well, not. Now, he's the respected elder, so much so that Time-Life has signed Finch on to assemble its forthcoming double-disc polka retrospective. It will be "the ultimate polka collection," Finch promises. The mind reels (but in a good way).
Brave Combo is also featured on the just-released Here Come the Polka Kings Volume 1, released on the Our Heritage label out of Cleveland; also featured are such revered masters as Yankovic (who died last week at the age of 83), Kinky Friedman (performing "Who Stole the Keeshka" with Frankie Y.), Eddie Blazoncyk, the Fred Kuhar Orchestra, and 25 other acts you've never heard of, you disrespectful kids. The Combo's track, "Flying Saucer," is an outtake from the band's nice-price Polka Party, a live disc Rounder Records released in April. "It really does feel like, for the first time, there is this sense of: We need to make people aware of this great music," Finch says of polka. To that extent, he and Brave Combo are performing at a "polka awareness" party on October 23 at the Czech Club on Military Parkway. "It's a where's-polka-at, the state-of-polka thing. With swing music being so hot these days, we're encouraged, because the whole idea of couple-dancing has been reintroduced," he says. "Polka still doesn't have the across-the-board hip thing that swing and rockabilly do, but it will get there."
In the damn-that's-odd category, Our Heritage is a subsidiary of Steve Popovich's Cleveland International--the very same production company-label that signed Dallas native and Thomas Jefferson High School graduate Marvin "Meat Loaf" Aday and released his, um, immortal Bat Out of Hell way back in the day (not to mention Ian Hunter's "Cleveland Rocks"). Popovich, who worked A&R for Epic and myriad other labels back when such things mattered, restarted Cleveland International a few years ago and has since released 21 albums, five of which are polka discs. (Yankovic's Songs of the Polka King, Volume 1, features a monster duet with Drew Carey, "Too Fat Polka.")
"I first saw Brave Combo in Nashville in the 1980s, and I've been a fan of theirs for years," Popovich says of his involvement with the band. "I had been into their music and tried to find some way to get a young generation interested in polka. Young people go to Brave Combo and love it. They feel what they do. They go, 'Hey, let's have fun.' They've been the hippest thing in polka. But, hey, Willie Nelson started in a polka band...People always say to me, 'How can you do Meat Loaf and Frankie Yankovic?' I say, 'Hey, good music is good music.'"
Never let it be said James "Big Bucks" Burnett isn't a genius; even The Mighty Thor can't deny his greatness. Burnett's new album isn't even out yet, and already there's a, well, tribute band honoring his work. When Burnett's group, The Volares, debuts its new album The Night We Taught Ourselves to Sing from 8 to 10 p.m. October 21 (this Wednesday--hurry!) at Club Dada, also on the bill will be The Aspens. They are, as Bucks refers to them, "the world's first nearly all-girl Volares tribute act." The Volares also will perform, in case you get a hankering for the real thing--and you should. The record's rather wonderful, just what you'd expect from a Jimmy Page buddy who spent too much time sucking in the '70s with all them eight-tracks...
Speaking of treats, here's your chance to purchase Reed Easterwood's much-beloved (well, around here, anyway) solo debut Absolute Blue--which, till now, has been available only to his pals. Easterwood will be selling CDs and cassettes of the disc on October 23 at the Gypsy Tea Room, when he and his once-and-future band Junky Southern headline an all-Reed bill. Also performing that night will be The Poor Devils, featuring Easterwood and Chad and Reggie Rueffer (ex of Spot) and Scott Johnson, and Meredith Miller's band (featuring Easterwood and Bryan Wakeland--and they, too, will be selling tapes of their most recent work)...
KNON-FM's (89.3) Down By Sound local hip-hop collection ranks among the year's best releases; released in August, the disc proved Dallas ain't East Coast or West Coast--but it's the Best Darnedest Coast there is! On October 23, the community radio station releases its second local-music compilation: Texas Renegade Radio: A Country/Americana Collection, featuring the likes of Cowboys and Indians, Donny Ray Ford, Mark David Manders, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Tommy Alverson, and Ed Burleson. Most of the songs have been previously released, but there are a few rarities to be found on its track listing: Austin's Kimmie Rhodes' "Just to Be Near You" was recorded at KNON's studios, and Ford's "Cowboy Boots" dates back 11 years. KNON will press only 2,000 copies of the disc, which will be available (as part of the 10-buck ticket price, no less) when Alverson, Ford, Brian Burns, and the Front Porch Boys perform at the Sons of Hermann Hall on October 23 to celebrate Texas Renegade Radio's release...
Speaking of Cowboys and Indians (and when are we not?), the band has set November 7 as the release date for its second album, Big Night in Cowtown. The band will salute the release with a performance the same night at the Sons. CDs will be available at the show, and "we'll be selling 'em like mad," jokes frontman Erik Swanson...
As far as gimmick records go, this one doesn't turn my stomach as much as, say, a collection of Saturday-morning cartoon-show themes redone by alternarockers. Tripping Daisy covering "Sigmund and the Sea Monsters?" Now that was frightening! Rob Zombie's Halloween Hootenanny isn't so horrific; it's just a nifty little post-rockabilly monster-mash featuring the likes of Reverend Horton Heat doing the Jim Heath-penned "Halloween Dance" (better than anything on the Rev's most recent disc), Los Straitjackets ("The Munsters Theme"), Rocket from the Crypt ("I Drink Blood"--well, lovely), and Mr. Zombie himself. Horton hears an ooooooohhh, scary!...
OK, so they can sometimes sound like the Doc Severinsen-era Tonight Show band--that new version of Jimmy Webb's camp classic "MacArthur Park" makes showtunes sound like hardcore punk--but the biggish-band Dallas Jazz Orchestra is often capable of swinging like a 4-year-old on the playground. The proof is on the band's brand-new compilation Scrapbook, which contains the greatest bits from the Orchestra's myriad releases since 1975's Hey Man!; among the highlights are "Moten Swing" off 1993's Turnin' Twenty and the lovely "Poet" from 1984's unfortunately titled Fat Mamma's Revenge. The disc is being released in conjunction with the DJO's 25th anniversary, which they're celebrating on October 25 with a concert at the Lakewood Theatre. Also performing on the bill is the Bill Tillman Band, which is appropriate, since Tillman used to play with DJO...
For those who like their jazz more gritty than pretty, Dave Zoller has just released his second disc, 3x4x3, which features some of the finest jazzers this town has to offer: bassists Fred Hamilton and Mike Davis, saxmen Chris McGuire and Wayne De Lano, and drummers Dennis Durick and Mike Drake among their esteemed lot. But this is Zoller's show: The pianist not only pays homage to the likes of Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols (who are represented here with a handful of tracks, including Monk's immortal "Misterioso" done up Bourbon Street style), but also gambols his way through four self-penned compositions. The highlight is Zoller's noir-jazz "Bossier City," which has more funk than a pair of year-old socks. A serious hook-up for the bop fetishist...
And a hearty mazel tov to Toadies frontman Todd Lewis and The Bride Formerly Known as Beth Clardy. They were married October 10, and a more rocking couple we've never known.
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