WHAT A HOOTIE!

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The Independent Culture
IN THE GOOD old days, we used to have a sort of unwritten Faustian or shamanistic agreement with our rock stars. It said, OK, you can have it all: the cash, the sex, the drugs, the hair - as long as you live hard and fast, go careering off the rails, deteriorate physically before our very eyes and die young in squalid or mysterious circumstances.

It was a good arrangement. By and large everyone benefited. The rock stars led brief but fairly exciting lives; and the man in the street's fond conviction that money won't buy happiness was vindicated when yet another deceased rock star's autopsy came out in paperback.

But times have changed. Today it is we, the general public, who live like rock stars: obese, priapic, pilled-up, in and out of therapy; and it is the rock stars who lead the kind of clean, healthy, hard-working lives many of us can only envy.

So I arrive in Manhattan, by limousine, with this PR woman just as it's getting dark. In spite of my haggling like hell with her all the way from London, this PR woman says she wouldn't sleep with anyone for less than pounds 650, which is a bit steep if you ask me. We check into our separate rooms at the Omni Berkshire, then go straight back downstairs to board the Hootie van, which is waiting outside.

The Hootie van is full of Hooties, Hootie aides, and Hootie wives and supporters. I climb aboard, shake hands all round and give a little regretful wave to those I can't reach. I'm Mr Genial Limey. I sit next to Dean Felber (bass), who budges up to make room. I sink into the seat feeling tired, somewhat overwhelmed by New York, nervous about having to make conversation with a famous pop group, and old. Then, as I'm wondering what to say next, some ministering angel passes me a joint - a little one-skinner of grass, no roach, almost finished. I have one good toke on it and offer it back from whence it came.

I do not normally smoke the old Mickey Duff. I'm schizoid enough as it is, without all that to contend with. But when in Rome, I thought, and I made an exception - and five minutes later I'm completely off my face. Bollocksed. I only have one drag on it, and I think I can feel the top of my head is going to come off. Maybe it wasn't grass at all; maybe it was gunpowder we were smoking. I don't know. All I know is one minute I'm giving it "Hello how are you?" times 10, and the next I'm sitting there like I'm training to be a wood-carving.

The inside of the Hootie van, a big, black Ford Triton V10, was like a great big mobile lounge. Everything was luxuriously carpeted except the windows. The driver was relaxing in an enormous winged armchair in front of a panoramic blue- tinted windscreen. Blue, red, yellow and orange lights winked cosily up at him from a glamorous dashboard. Try as I might, I couldn't hear an engine - we just sort of quietly surged everywhere. It's like I'm in a ruddy film.

I peered out of the nearest blue-tinted window. We were still in Manhattan. We had stopped at a red light beside a row of brightly lit, immaculate little shops: a florist, a patisserie, an art gallery and a deli. They were still open, and still conducting a little unhurried business at eight o' clock at night. The pavement in front of the shops was smooth and immaculately clean and lit like a stage. Amber light from streetlamps filtered down through the spreading foliage of the roadside trees. Calm, immaculately dressed men and women were passing to and fro in front of the shops.

The cleanliness of the pavement and the neatness of the shops and the calmness of the people and the quality of the artificial light suggested a higher degree of urban civilisation than I had encountered elsewhere and made me wish I had my watercolours with me. Then the lights changed and we were on the move again.

The smoke had made me paranoid as usual. I was convinced that everybody in the van thought I was some sort of a joke. I engaged Dean in an unambitious conversation about the weather (which led in fact to one about dolphins) so that I could prove to the bus that I was in fact quite a serious guy. But unfortunately the things I heard myself saying made me realise that I was even more of a joke than even they thought I was, and I had to pack it in.

By the time we got to Yankee Stadium, I'd got over it. The baseball match was already under way, and a star-struck platoon of New York's finest led us through the crowd and up into a hospitality suite overlooking the floodlit field of play. After a gassy beer or two, I accompanied the Hooties while they did their "doody" by going and sitting for 20 minutes in a seating section that had been reserved exclusively for Hootie fans and competition winners. Then the star-struck platoon took us all back to the van, exchanged high fives with us as we climbed in, and it was back to the cocktail bar at the Berkshire for a nightcap.

In 1994 a little-known, four-piece rock band from Charleston in South Carolina called Hootie and the Blowfish put out their first album. It was called Cracked Rear View. It did well. In fact it did extraordinarily well. All told, Atlantic Records managed to shift over 15 million copies of it, making it one of the biggest selling debut albums of all time. Darius Rucker, Mark Bryan, Jim "Soni" Sonefield and Dean Felber had been flogging home-produced singles from the back of their tour bus. Suddenly they had hit the big time.

Before Cracked Rear View, Hootie had been on the road together for 10 years, since college days. In that time they had gone through the usual students-with-no-money-on-the-piss phase, had their ups and downs, and finally grown up a bit. By the time Cracked Rear View went massive in '94 they were approaching their thirties. They had already got most of their bad-boy stuff out of their systems, and were settling down to being a fairly successful touring band who played golf together in their spare time.

However, the glittering success of a 15-times platinum first album attracted the critical eye of certain cynical sections of the US rock media. The Hooties' friendly, all-American, clean-cut, golfing image seemed to get a lot of people's backs up. The Hooties were accused of being "bland" - which in rock and roll terms is about as insulting as you can get.

After Cracked Rear View, Hootie and the Blowfish released a follow-up album, Fairweather Johnson. Detractors said it had been cobbled together and released too soon after Cracked Rear View. The slightly raunchier sound was pandering to their critics, said the critics. The Hooties were questioned closely as to the meaning of their album titles. Was Cracked Rear View an oblique euphemism for "arse"? And what about Fairweather Johnson?

To the undisguised glee of the dissenting voices in the US music press, who snobbishly resented the fact that the Hooties were now dominating the airwaves with what was sneeringly referred to as "frat-rock", Fairweather Johnson sold a comparatively modest 4 million copies. The Hooties were not only "bland", they were one-hit wonders.

Last week, Hootie and the Blowfish released their third album. It is called Musical Chairs. Obviously Musical Chairs is a reference to all those wife-swapping parties that the boys like to go to. To mark the occasion Hootie kicked off a US tour with a gig at the Roseland in New York, followed by a celebrity party at Howard Johnson's Restaurant on Times Square. I was invited to join them the day before, at a New York Yankees v Boston Redsocks baseball game, and to "hang out" with them at the launch the following day.

I knew nothing about Hootie and the Blowfish before I went except that a characters in Friends had brought the house down during one episode by rushing in and announcing that she'd just "kissed a Hootie". (Actually, I thought she'd said she'd just kissed a Hutu and that they were called Hutu and the Blowfish, after the Central African genocidalists, until I saw it written down later.) It was my first visit to New York.

Back in the Berkshire's cocktail bar, after the game, I was chatting to Dean again, and we got onto Jack Russell terriers. He's got one and he's very fond of it.

"How much was it?" I asked him. (I had been looking at the price of Jack Russells in the New York Times and was amazed to see that they were asking for anything up to $700 each. Where I live you can get them for 30 quid, sale or return.) Dean said he wasn't sure. It had been a present. But we both agreed that considering the size of their brains they were remarkably intelligent and have a keen sense of humour too.

I talked to the Hooties' manager, Rusty Harmon, about children. (That morning his wife had found out that she was pregnant with their first child, and Rusty, a tall man anyway, had been walking around with his head in the clouds all day.) Back in Charleston Rusty and his wife keep Australian sheep dogs, to which his wife is devoted.

I also talked to Soni. When Soni was at the University of South Caroline he took a degree in soccer and he and I talked football. He'd been at the World Cup in France, where he enjoyed corporate hospitality right through the tournament. I told him I had gone to France but couldn't afford the tickets at pounds 300 a throw. "It's rich bastards like you who are responsible for hiking up ticket prices for the rest of us," I said. We also spoke about Rupert Murdoch's bid for Manchester United and about Musical Chairs, the new album. Although it had only been released that day, there had already been one or two disparaging reviews in the papers. How did he feel about that?

"I'm not going to lose any sleep over it," said Soni, "but sometimes you just want to smack somebody. Sometimes we just get ripped because of all the negative hype that surrounds us. We're just a whipping post for these guys sometimes."

Then I talked to Gus, the Hooties' affable lawyer. You'd like Gus; he has one of those faces that looks surprised even in repose. He confided in me that he liked to read books. What is more we discovered that we both had The Grapes of Wrath in our all-time top three favourite novels.

"How have the boys changed since they became successful?" I asked him.

"They're just the same," said Gus. "They just play bigger golf courses, as badly, that's all. Do you play?"

"Certainly not," I said.

"And perhaps when they boycott courses that don't allow black members, it gets a little more publicity than it did before."

My mouth fell open. I really had no idea they still had institutionalised segregation in the Land of the Free.

"Oh yes," said Gus. "There's Cypress Point and Pine Valley, to name but two top courses the boys won't play on because of their racist member- ship policy." Lead singer Darius Rucker has also received death threats after speaking out in favour of a suggestion that the confederate flag be removed from the South Carolina State House.

After a few more drinks, photographer Greg Williams and I tried to get the Hooties to come to a lap-dancing bar that Greg knew about and was frightfully keen to revisit. But they were tired, they said. They had to be up early in the morning. It was going to be a big day tomorrow. So me and Greg went on our own.

The following evening, Hootie and the Blowfish played the Roseland gig. The Roseland is one of the top rock venues in New York. Its faded grandeur reminded me strongly of the old Kursaal ballroom at Southend-on-Sea. There was nothing faded about the Hootie fans who packed in to hear their idols though.

It was a very well-dressed, white crowd. In fact everyone appeared to be wearing brand-new clothes. Perhaps people who live in Manhattan only wear their clothes once then throw them away. I don't know. Lots of the men were sporting that weird little George Michael beard and moustache arrangement - plus Cargo shorts and the reversed baseball hat. And it was tiny black designer dresses for their babes, many of whom were most excellent. It was a cool, undemonstrative, but affectionate crowd who greeted their idols.

Hootie and the Blowfish make a smooth, tight, distinctive sound. Now I've heard them play, if a two-second snippet of any Hootie number should come on the radio as part of a phone-in competition, I would recognise them immediately.

It isn't the kind of music that makes you start head-butting the air the moment you hear it though. Neither does it make you want to go outside and start throwing bricks at the police like some rock and roll does. If anything, the sunny, slightly folky vibe combined with the inoffensive lyrics and the soothing vocal harmonies make you want to pop down to the bank in your new convertible and make a large deposit. It is music for playing over the Tannoy at the leisure centre on Saturday mornings. It is friendly, unassuming, no-message, out-of- town music for people who are tired of being sophisticated.

The most distinctive ingredient is Darius's nimble, authoritative baritone. At Roseland he sang mainly about how he yearns for this particular lady or that one and how, for one reason or another, he has to face another lonely night without her and go to bed early with boxing gloves on.

Supporting Darius's lyrics with his creamy, just-so guitar licks is lead guitarist Mark Bryan, who also writes some of the music. (Major musical influences, he told me, include Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Police, Bruce Springsteen's early stuff, and Pete Townshend.) Solid on bass guitar is Dean Felber, and slapping away at the drums is Jim "Soni" Sonefield. They did a couple of encores and afterwards we legged it over to Howard Johnson's for the launch party.

I had that recent Channel 4 documentary about Studio 54 on my mind still, and was confidently expecting a coke-fuelled occasion. I had made a serious misjudgement. It wasn't that sort of party at all. Although there was a bar, most people were drinking milk-shakes or nibbling at ice-cream sundaes. It was more like a Sunday-school picnic than an album launch.

On the way back to the Berkshire, I passed a man holding up a cardboard sign that said, "Need money for beer, pot and hooker - just kidding!" !

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