The Butcher and the baby

My, how time crawls. It seems like only yesterday when we first heard that a 15-year-old kid from Greenville was going to save rock and roll. Perhaps we first read about it in The New Yorker; maybe it was in Billboard or some other trade publication. But we heard all about it, loud and clear, as though blasted over a thousand megaphones.

Indeed, we never really even heard the music over the roar of the hype machine rolling through town. We were too busy listening to Mercury Records president Danny Goldberg promising us he was going to turn a child from North Texas into tomorrow's Kurt Cobain; we were too busy reading aloud the stories of how young Goldberg signed an unknown quantity to a three-record, $2-million deal and how little Ben Kwellar was hanging with Madonna and Tom Petty, wowing middle-aged rock stars with his prowess and youth.

For Ben Kwellar, April 1997 seems like forever ago. Exactly one year ago, Mercury Records released the band's major-label debut, Restraining Bolt, only to find the world wasn't much interested after all. All the hype in the world didn't matter: There wasn't much room left for another grunge band, no matter how young and adorable and affable the lead singer-guitarist-songwriter. Radio and MTV decided they could do without Radish, and according to SoundScan, which keeps track of record sales, so could the kids with allowances to burn. Only 13,000 copies of Restraining Bolt have been sold to date--far, far fewer than what Goldberg promised and everyone else expected.

"Things have never been better for me as a songwriter and as a person."
Surprise. That's Kwellar today, now a 16-year-old still living with his family in Greenville. And there's not a drop of cynicism, not a hint of anger in his voice--which is still very much the voice of a child.

"I'm so happy," he says, not at all trying to convince. "Things are looking up. Sure, there was so much hype, because I was young. I'm still young. Fuck, man, I'm 16. Everything happened the way I wanted it to. I knew and management knew if we became superstars off Restraining Bolt, it would be kinda like a double-edged sword. People would say, 'They're only big because he's young.' But now I feel like I ducked the Hanson, teenybopper thing, and I have credibility."

There is perhaps nothing worse than having to grow up in public, especially when a child is trying to make a career out of rock and roll. It's like listening to the sound of your own voice break as you try to find out who you are and what you aren't. From the start, Kwellar never had a chance: Radish was doomed before Restraining Bolt was even released--doomed to suffocate underneath the hype and expectations created by others, doomed to be tagged as has-beens before they ever were.

From the moment Goldberg signed Radish, the former manager of Nirvana heralded young Ben as the second coming of Cobain, which is the worst thing that can happen to a young man just learning to speak. Kwellar's father, a frustrated musician himself, didn't help matters much by buying into the hype, letting his son live out his vicarious fantasy. There wasn't even time to create any backlash; before anyone knew who Radish was, they had all but disappeared.

Which, believe it or not, is fine with Kwellar.
"Sure, I think any artist wouldn't mind having a big record, but at the time, I don't think we were ready for success," he says. "It was our second record, our first major-label record, and we wanted to take baby steps. Now, if we do become successful off the next record, I feel like I could handle it. I played every shitty club in America and toured in every shitty Dodge van. People gave us shit for not paying our dues, but we have now. No matter how old you are, being on the road from April to March is a long time."

A few months ago, Kwellar learned just how much those dues cost: Spin recently ran a piece about the band titled "Disappearing Act: Reintroducing Radish, the little band that couldn't." Keith Moerer wrote of how Mercury released three singles from Restraining Bolt--"Little Pink Stars," "My Guitar," and "Simple Sincerity"--only to watch them all fail to chart or land on MTV. "Radish are a textbook example of the publicity machine gone awry," Moerer wrote. He also noted that perhaps it was only appropriate that Mercury's other fresh-faced act, Hanson, would garner the kind of fame that eluded Radish from the beginning. "MMMMBop," after all, was the very antithesis of Radish's dated arena rock, and audiences only proved the long-held belief that grunge was dead and buried in Washington state.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky