You better be good, for goodness’ sake: A rock ‘n’ roll parable

Ruth Ruth, Uninvited

Ruth Ruth in the ’90s. Mike Lustig is at top left.

[Editor’s note: My brother Mike is a member of the Jersey band Ruth Ruth, which released major label albums, toured nationally and had a hit single, “Uninvited,” in the ’90s. He also writes occasionally for NJArts.net. Here is an article that I think is particularly appropriate for the holiday season, though it may not seem that way at first. — Jay Lustig]

For decades, there has been a running joke in my band Ruth Ruth about how we are too nice.

As fame and fortune would elude us time and time again (especially fortune), we’d jokingly blame being nice for our troubles. We’d show up on time for gigs and meetings, we were polite, and we talked to fans as much as they wanted to talk. We were never assholes to anyone.The joke was that after some bad news would come in, like a radio station dropping our song from rotation, we’d say, “If we had shown up for that interview an hour late and puked in the studio, they would have loved us.”

We heard stories all the time about bands more successful than us being outrageously obnoxious or inconsiderate, and people always told those stories with reverence. But that kind of behavior wasn’t in our DNA. Nice guys finished last, we thought, and we were hopelessly and incurably nice.

Even the one time we were mildly obnoxious, it had to be planned out ahead of time. A morning “shock jock” (does that term still exist?) in Chicago named Mancow loved us, or at least he loved our song “Uninvited,” and had us on his radio show over and over. We hated going there. You had to get up at 5 a.m. to get to the studio, usually after a late night of playing, and once you arrived you never really got to talk. It was a screaming match of bad morning radio clichés that amounted to torture for us.

Yet we returned every time we were in town because, frankly, we thought it would be good for the band and maybe get some people down to our show. That never happened. I don’t know that our Mancow appearances resulted in a single new fan for us. We guessed his audience and ours were worlds apart musically. Or that nobody listened to him, which was in many ways easier to imagine.

Mancow Muller is still in radio, with a morning show on WLUP (97.9, The Loop) in Chicago.

Regardless, at a certain point we figured we were done with Mancow, but instead of declining the latest invitation, we decided to get as drunk as possible before going on the air. We thought either we’d get banned, or at least it might become one of those legendary stories you hear about Keith Richards or The Replacements, perhaps finally getting us some cool rock ‘n’ roll notoriety. So, we never went to sleep the night before his show. Instead, after driving from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Chicago, at 3 a.m. we started drinking as much Jim Beam as we could stand. By the time the person from RCA Records picked us up around 6 a.m. to drive us down to the studio, we were fully in the tank.

When we got there, Chris, our singer, was lying on the floor of the office lobby, uncontrollably laughing at nothing. I was laughing at him. The other guys, who had also smoked a joint right before we left for the show, were dead quiet and, I guess, either just trying to remain standing or suffering from that horrific anxiety that only pot can bring on.

After a while they brought us into the studio, and we were told that Kenny Aronoff (at the time, a member of John Mellencamp’s band, and one of the most revered drummers in the world) was there and would be playing live on the air with us.

That threw a wrench in our plan. We weren’t jerks enough to drag a well-known musician down into the gutter with us, so we reverted to being relatively agreeable. Mancow wanted us to play “Uninvited” on acoustic guitars with live drums in the room. We said “okay.”

The results were musically disastrous. “Uninvited” is a loud, fast song, and we’d only ever played it with electric guitars at full volume. It’s the kind of song that you’d have to rearrange in order to do it with acoustic guitars. But we were either too drunk or too stupid to think of that, so instead of doing something cool like playing a Hank Williams song, or trying to make up “Uninvited Blues” on the spot, we played it just like we always did — really fast, and with Chris screaming the chorus.

We sounded terrible. There was no rehearsal: Aronoff played along to whatever he could hear in his headphones. We couldn’t hear a thing with the drums drowning us out. Chris, who was as drunk as I’ve ever seen him, could barely sing, and his microphone was bone dry, with no reverb to mask the slightest imperfection. It was easily the worst performance of our lives.

Ruth Ruth opened for The Descendents at The Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, Dec. 2.

Even the on-air conversation before and after the song went horribly wrong. Chris kept cursing and telling Mancow how great he was (which was an obscure inside joke between him and me that nobody listening would understand). I fumbled to say anything intelligible, and the other two guys were useless, stoned lumps.

We succeeded in never getting invited back, but we sounded like idiots instead of sounding cool. Our record company didn’t see it as a cool rock ‘n’ roll story, either — they saw it as us blowing off one of our most prominent supporters in radio. Whoops.

So, we never tried anything like that again, and went back to being ourselves, for better or worse. But even though we never made strides in our career by showing up hours late or being too high to play, the rewards of being good to people still appear from time to time to this day.

In the last couple years we’ve been invited to play a lot of shows that young bands would kill for, including opening for The Descendents at The Starland Ballroom in Sayreville just a couple weeks ago. We still are lucky enough to have remained friends with some great people we’ve worked with, whether at record companies, on the road, or in studios. I fully believe this good fortune in life is a kind of karma for not being assholes.

The most recent dose of karma came to me just the other day, and frankly, it has me floored.

Back in the ’90s, as much as we dreaded Chicago because of Mancow, we also loved it because we usually had good shows at The Metro, a large club near Wrigley Field. A lot of people would come out to see us, and there was one high school kid named Micah who was among them.

“Springsteen on Broadway” is currently the hottest ticket on the Great White Way.

This particular kid found us and asked if he could record our set a couple of times and we said that would be fine. We gave him access to make a soundboard tape, and we hung out with him and were nice to him, as we always were.

Now, I wouldn’t have remembered any of that, but that kid is now an adult and he recently friended me on Facebook. It turns out that he now works for nugs.net, a company that records concerts for bands that are on tour and releases the shows digitally. We even met for coffee once when he was in town recording Phish at Madison Square Garden. We discussed those times at The Metro, and it seems my band was one of his earliest experiences in what would become his career.

So, what does this have to do with karma?

Well, I am a Bruce Springsteen fanatic and have not yet seen his show on Broadway. I had given up even trying to get a ticket, but then Micah sends me a message that he got a pair of tickets through his job and asked if I wanted to go. Stupid question. The answer is, “Fuck yes!”

He can’t understand how excited I am to see this show, and he certainly can’t know how thankful I am. There have been very few Springsteen shows that I’ve wanted to see where I haven’t been able to get a ticket. The idea of getting shut out of months of shows on Broadway seemed ridiculous, but I was starting to accept it as a reality since I was unwilling to pay through the nose on StubHub.

So, to anyone who thinks that nice guys finish last, I can tell you that’s bullshit. If you’re good to people, it will come back in ways that are beautiful and unexpected. You won’t be as cool as Keith Richards, but you’ll be all right.

Happy holidays!

4 thoughts on “You better be good, for goodness’ sake: A rock ‘n’ roll parable

  1. I have a story that doesn’t have as happy an ending, but it’s a great example of what being a small band on a big label was like in the Nineties. One member of Ruth Ruth always played in another band, Eve’s Plum. Michael has a twin brother, Ben, and it turned out that the twins and I worked in the same NYC skyscraper at our respective day jobs. I usually minded my own business but it is pretty hard not to notice when you are riding the elevator with identical twins. Well, one night I was at CBGB at one of their usual 8-band bills, and lo and behold the twins from the elevator showed up in one of the bands. I really liked their set too, so after the set I introduced myself, told them the weird circumstances, and asked if they’d like to do an interview for my fanzine. The band was signed at the time to Epic Records, which seemed great for them, and they told me to call the label and their “people” would set something up.
    So I called Epic in New York, talked to half a dozen people, and nobody had heard of a band called Eve’s Plum on the label. So I called Epic in L.A. … and got the same results. I started to realize that being on a major label wasn’t maybe as great as bands thought it might be. Right around that time, I was in D.C. hanging out with Jawbox and their friends Shudder To Think announced they were signing to Epic. I told Nathan Larson my Eve’s Plum story and the guy just laughed, saying that would never happen to them. Needless to say, Shudder To Think had a horrible experience on Epic, released two excellent albums that never found an audience. Larson quit and the band broke up. At least they’re making money now on the reunion circuit.

  2. I have a story that doesn’t have as happy an ending, but it’s a great example of what being a small band on a big label was like in the Nineties. One member of Ruth Ruth also played in another band, Eve’s Plum. Michael has a twin brother, Ben, and it turned out that the twins and I worked in the same NYC skyscraper at our respective day jobs. I usually minded my own business but it is pretty hard not to notice when you are riding the elevator with identical twins. Well, one night I was at CBGB at one of their usual 8-band bills, and lo and behold the twins from the elevator showed up in one of the bands. I really liked their set too, so after the set I introduced myself, told them the weird circumstances, and asked if they’d like to do an interview for my fanzine. The band was signed at the time to Epic Records, which seemed great for them, and they told me to call the label and their “people” would set something up.
    So I called Epic in New York, talked to half a dozen people, and nobody had heard of a band called Eve’s Plum on the label. So I called Epic in L.A. … and got the same results. I started to realize that being on a major label wasn’t maybe as great as bands thought it might be. Right around that time, I was in D.C. hanging out with Jawbox and their friends Shudder To Think announced they were signing to Epic. I told Nathan Larson my Eve’s Plum story and the guy just laughed, saying that would never happen to them. Needless to say, Shudder To Think had a horrible experience on Epic, released two excellent albums that never found an audience. Larson quit and the band broke up. At least they’re making money now on the reunion circuit.

    • Jim – I love that story. I have a million of them. Here’s a quick one: We were playing in Boston at The Paradise with Tripping Daisy and Eve’s Plum (the tour where we met Michael Kotch and the rest of the band, all of whom I still count as friends). Our radio song was in the top 5 most requested songs on whatever the big rock station there was – BCN I think. So, before the show we go to Tower Records in Cambridge. There is a big window display of our band, which we paid for. We were happy to see it. Then we go inside, and there are no CDs of ours. Not one. But, there also isn’t a Ruth Ruth section in the store. So, we ask the manager “did all our CDs sell out?” and he says “no, we never got any”. We then call the record company and tell them to get some CDs to Boston as soon as possible, and they made excuses, saying we are a new band and it takes time and there’s a problem figuring out which warehouse has all our CDs… It was a nightmare that never ended. And when radio stations play the crap out of your song and they see it doesn’t result in sales, well, that is the end of your life on the radio.

  3. I have been the nice guy my entire life. The pricks increase their bz with high pressure and illegal sales tactics, the assholes crap on their gfs and they stay for the abuse and I am still working making an honest buck and the nice guy , alone , cause maybe I am just to transparent and out my heart out there too frank , too bad…B

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