Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
“I’m pretty sure I know exactly who it was that wasn’t wearing panties,” my sister-in-law Nichole told me. “And I’m pretty sure Tommy Stinson might have had something to do with that.”
This juicy bit of gossip wasn’t the reason I called her. I had a very specific question about her wedding, or more specifically, the band at her wedding reception. But then we got to talking, and we laughed at how the dance floor was soon monopolized by her surprisingly athletic guests, most of whom were quite adept at flinging each other through the air (sometimes clinging to nothing but a waist) despite the heroic amount of brown liquors in their respective bellies. One of us — probably me — recounted how a female guest flashed the entire reception hall when her partner lifted her into the air for a spin and it became suddenly apparent that she wasn’t wearing panties. At the time, it just seemed like another badass detail of a generally badass wedding. But here I am today, five years after the fact, just learning that Tommy Stinson, former bassist for the Replacements, one of the greatest bands of the 20th Century, and a “plus-one” at my sister-in-law’s wedding, may’ve been responsible.
The weird thing is, I never would’ve learned about any of this if it wasn’t for The Real Housewives of New York City finale.
As a general rule, I try to avoid things like The Real Housewives of New York City. Because watching that sort of TV drivel always makes me hate myself. It’s like eating a bag of Doritos in one sitting; it tastes fantastic, but it’s just not worth the guilt and greasy s****. But sometimes I can’t help myself. My wife is obsessed with the show, and the finale seemed too irresistible a pop culture event to miss, like a Super Bowl done entirely with cattiness. Most of the finale was unsurprisingly smug and awful and made me want to punch strangers. And then Natalie Cole made a cameo, and it was like taking the worst vacation of your life and accidentally meeting the woman of your dreams.
It’s not what you think. Let me explain.
I’m going to assume, because you’re on this website, that you enjoy pop culture trash and you’ve probably seen this episode, so I won’t insult your intelligence by rehashing the Natalie Cole segment. If you haven’t seen it, here’s all you need to know: an obnoxiously rich woman has an anniversary party on her yacht and hires Natalie Cole to sing an excruciating duet with her. It was the most awkward, uncomfortable, unnecessary thing I’ve ever witnessed on television, reality or otherwise, and I say that as somebody who is not, in any way shape or form, a fan of Natalie Cole. I recognize her name, and I know she did a creepy duet with her dead dad in the early 1990s and sold a bajillion records and won a bunch of Grammys, but I don’t have anything approaching an emotional attachment to her. Seeing her on The Real Housewives of New York City wasn’t like seeing an artist I admire demean her creative legacy. But I couldn’t shake the very question that brings me here: how did she, Natalie Cole, wind up here, on a boat, with boatloads of reality tv trash?
There are so many more productive ways I could’ve spent my day, but instead I devoted it to Internet research on Natalie Cole. I needed to know, what exactly does it cost to hire somebody with nine Grammy awards (one as recent as 2009) to come on your boat and sing to your smirking and white-wine-bloated rich friends? TMZ reported that Natalie did the boat gig as a personal favor, because she’s a “huge fan” of the New York housewife celebrating her anniversary, which I don’t believe for a second. It’s as sincere as the washed-up rock star headlining the county fair greeting his audience with “I’m so thrilled to be back in Lancaster, Ohio!” No, you’re really not. But you appreciate the bus fare.
I had no luck finding useful information on Cole’s official website. I tried calling one of those online services that claim they can book minor celebrity performers for corporate events, and they came dangerously close to giving me a quote, until they realized I was a journalist and not actually interested in hiring Natalie Cole, and then they hung up on me like I was a plain-clothes policeman asking for “extras.”
I was rapidly running out of options. And then I thought of Nichole, my sister-in-law. To the best of my knowledge, she’s the only person I know who’s ever paid for a celebrity Private Dancer (“a dancer for money, I’ll do what you want me to do”). When she got married to Jess, my wife’s brother, in Chula Vista, California in 2005, the entertainment at their reception was … well, I could’ve sworn it was Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the swing band from the Jon Favreau movie Swingers, but it was actually Royal Crown Revue, the swing band from the Jim Carrey movie The Mask. The aesthetic difference, at least to the untrained ear, is probably negligible. But there is a difference in cost. Royal Crown Revue is considerably cheaper. “They cost us $5000,” Nichole told me. A huge discount when compared to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, also a contender for their wedding gig, who offered to play (what I can only assume are mostly the same tunes — how many swing songs are there?) for a staggering $50,000. Royal Crown Revue also had the best concert rider. Their pre-show amenities, according to Nichole, included “a case of non-alcoholic beer, six pairs of black socks, towels and Nutter Butters.” They didn’t, however, get the best introduction. If memory serves, I was asked to announce them to the wedding crowd, and in my drunken haze, I believe I said something along the lines of “Your ear hole is about to get really happy, please join me in welcoming … the Royal Crown … Revue? Revue!”
My reminiscing with Nichole soon led to a discussion of Tommy Stinson, who was an inexplicable guest at her wedding, the date of one of Nichole’s Michigan friends. I recognized Tommy immediately, or at least immediately after the groom pointed him out and then we did a Google image search on our cellphones just to make sure. I spent a good portion of the reception trying to muster the courage to walk over and introduce myself. But what do you say to a guy who helped create some of the best music your ear hole has ever heard? Did he really need to be cornered by a severely inebriated fan in a tuxedo telling him why Let It Be was goddamn life-changing? I did briefly consider asking him, “What’s it like to play with a guitar legend like Buckethead?” But even if he realized I was kidding, there was a pretty good chance he wouldn’t find it funny. If I’ve learned nothing else from years of interviewing musicians, it’s that they’re rarely the most self-deprecating person in the room.
There was a photo booth at the reception, and after enough free booze, it was easily the most popular activity of the night (aside from, as I witnessed firsthand, bare-assed swing dancing). Tommy Stinson ventured into the booth alone, and based on several accounts, he came out, examined his photos, and loudly announced that it would be “the cover of my next album.” Turns out, not so much. His last (and first) solo album, Village Gorilla Head, came out in 2005, a full year before the wedding took place. And since then, he’s played in bands like Guns N’ Roses and Soul Asylum, who likely had no use for a photo booth self-portrait of their bassist. But after a little digging, I learned that Tommy has a new album coming out this summer, on August 30th, called One Man Mutiny. And like any self-respecting music nerd who recognizes an opportunity when he sees it, I made inquiries.
“Talk about random,” Stinson told me in an email via his manager. “That was a lifetime ago. Wow! I didn’t end up using the photos but remembered that the photo booth was cool.”
By all accounts, it was a series of dead ends. I never found out how much it costs for Natalie Cole to pretend she’s friends with rich white people, or if Tommy Stinson actually had something to do with the disappearing panties at my sister-in-law’s wedding. (His manager declined to comment on Tommy’s behalf, but he did tell me that the story was “pretty hilarious.”) And yet somehow, it still seemed like a victory, because now I know that Tommy Stinson has a new album coming out this summer, and there is absolutely no reason I would’ve known about it otherwise. Without watching a terrible show like The Real Housewives of New York City, in which Natalie Cole made a terrible career decision, which resulted in me asking questions about a five-year-old wedding to my sister-in-law, who happens to be so cool that she has friends who have sex with people like Tommy Stinson, my life would have one less piece of awesome music in it.
I know that’s presumptuous, because I haven’t actually heard Tommy Stinson’s new album yet. It may be as awful and unlistenable as Chinese Democracy. But I’m going to buy it anyway, and give every track a decent chance to make my ear hole happy. Because I’m proud that I have the kind of music heroes who don’t go on reality shows and pretend to be friends with vapid rich white people on their yachts because it might sell a few records. My musical heroes promote themselves the way god intended; by waiting for you to remember the time when they removed your sister-in-law’s friend’s panties during a wedding and, depending on who you believe, still hasn’t returned them. If that’s not worth my $11.99, I don’t know what is.