The second thing you notice is the massive line of bodies winding around the stanchions in front of the Fenix Underground.
Inside, it's a PG-13 orgy. Hundreds of drunken and soon-to-be drunken young people, bursting with hormones, stuffed into ball caps and madras shirts and hoisted into thongs and camisoles, ride herd in a mammoth, blacklit dungeon of brick and metal where the music is louder than Blue Angels on maneuvers. Making a lap of the entire 18,500-square-foot facility, past plasma screens and go-go cages, I can't help feeling like a grandpa at a laser show--alternately overwhelmed by all the stimuli and disgusted by all the canned decadence. (And yes, okay, maybe, just maybe, jealous that some portion of these body-shooting whippersnappers are likely to be going home to a marathon of filthy aerobic sex.)
When the Beatniks mount the stage for their second set of the night, I'm standing off to the side of the main stage area, nursing a very expensive vodka soda. The house music fades and the band members, dressed casually in T-shirts, jeans, and sweats, step casually out of the back room and pick up their instruments. It's a very normal-looking group of guys, visibly older than the audience. They proceed with the confidence of seasoned musicians, starting things off with a high-energy rendition of "Hard Day's Night" that segues right into "Get Off of My Cloud." Though the Beatniks play loud--nowhere near as loud as the house music that preceded them--you can hear the shouts of recognition as the classic rock radio staples begin and end. Their renditions of other bands' songs are faithful but not note-perfect (the lead guitarist bungles George's so-familiar-you-can-hum-it solo in "Hard Day's Night," for example). Once the burst of recognition shoots through the audience, however, the patrons' attention turns away from the musicians onstage, and back to the more pressing matters of Blow Jobs and Buttery Nipples, yelling, laughing, dancing, and making out with strangers. A few lonely guys (one of whom is wearing a Beatniks T-shirt) are watching the band, but for the most part, the Beatniks--who are now busy adapting the theme from the Monkees into "Hey hey, we're the Beatniks!"--are relegated to the background.
As they launch into Simon and Garfunkel's "Cecilia," for which the drummer smoothes out the complex conga and handclap polyrhythms of the original to a straight-up martial shuffle, I begin to make a mental comparison of this performance with the shows taking place tonight at, say, the Crocodile. The first obvious difference is that the band is playing covers. They draw on a repertoire of great songs that are instantly familiar, and play them well. The second most obvious difference is that people are dancing. They might not be dancing gracefully, but people--a lot of them--are dancing to the music. And though not all the dancing is pretty, it's refreshingly confident; they may be young, drunk, and suburban, but they know where all the breaks fall, and they know all the words to the choruses.
What you typically see from the stage at a place like the Crocodile, is a sea of people with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, watching, listening, and sometimes, if they really get into it, bobbing their head in time with the beat. Sometimes, a hippie will start dancing in the front, to the silent derision and mounting annoyance of those standing around him or her. Occasionally, there will be room for people to do a little self-conscious half-pogo. But for the most part, a silent film of the audience at a typical Seattle rock club would look like a dimly lit, standing-room-only convocation of fashionably dressed alcoholic surgeons intently observing an open-heart procedure.
You certainly wouldn't mistake the patrons of the Fenix for doctors. If you looked at a silent film of this audience, you'd see a boisterous and horny gaggle of suburbanites let loose in a city. Even without sound, they'd look loud and garish and wasted; in other words, deeply uncool. In another stark contrast to a typical night at the Crocodile, or Chop Suey, or Graceland, or Neumo's, no one at the Fenix seems to be hiding behind a mask of world-weariness, of seen-it-all blasé, of darting eyes, thwarted lust, and emotionless indie rock autism. They're just out. Drinking. Dancing. Flirting. Having fun. It's what you do. What the Beatniks do is appeal to a big crowd by playing music that people know how to dance to. Fenix owner Rick Wyatt explains that "you have to have a certain quality in order to entertain that many folks. A band that can make 50 or 60 or 80 or 100 people happy, well, that's a certain kind of band. But someone who can do the same thing for 600 or 700--it doesn't matter whether they're playing cover songs or original songs. They've got to be a certain kind of band."
The Beatniks are that kind of band.
Even though most people don't seem to notice them playing, the audience cheers madly at the end of every song. After spending a moment feeling bad for a band stuck playing to this kind of crowd, it suddenly occurs to me that to most pro musicians, the kind of crowd this is is a paying crowd. And at a $12 cover, with a 1,000-head capacity that turns over as many as three times on a good night, and drinks that start overpriced and get upsold from there, the pay must be pretty spectacular. And tonight is just one gig for a professional band that plays 200 four-hour-long shows a year; a band that has been around for a lot longer than most of the artists whose songs they cover. Hey hey, they're the Beatniks. And when it comes to their 14-year career, they do not monkey around.
Just Like a Band
"Which show did you see?"
I'm interviewing Beatniks bassist/co-lead singer Rick Lovrovich at the offices of Machine Entertainment, the company that manages all aspects of the band's business.
"Mardi Gras," I tell him. "At the Fenix."
"Oh my God! Awful," he proclaims. "That show was fucking awful. Miserable. Awful. You gotta come see us again."
Laughing now, Lovrovich, who is wiry and tall, with rugged features hidden under a baseball cap (he actually looks ever-so-slightly like a young Jeb Bush), shrugs the performance off with the air of a veteran.
"A show is a show is a show," he chuckles.
The Beatniks got together in 1990, when the Seattle music scene was just about to slip through the looking glass. Their beginnings were as humble as any band's: The original drummer's boss offered him a free practice space in exchange for a performance at his daughter's wedding. So the drummer called a few friends, threw together a set of familiar tunes, and without even rehearsing, the Beatniks played their first show. The lineup was Lovrovich on bass and vocals, Bobby Beaulieu on guitar and vocals, Mark Nelson on lead guitar, and Mike Staehli on the drums. Remarkably, this cast of characters has remained intact ever since, with the exception of a rotating group of (you guessed it) drummers.
"We played three hours of material without ever having rehearsed," Lovrovich says about their first show. "And it was okay.... But there was a photographer at the wedding who took a shot of us and we looked at it and were like, 'Hey, we look like a band! We should do this!'"
Not long after the wedding, the band was installed in a weekly Tuesday-night slot at a bar in Kirkland called Papagayo's. "It cost us money to do it," Lovrovich says with a smirk, "but we played every single week. We were very adamant about being there, and people could count on us being there. On a Tuesday night, if there's nothing else to do, you can come see the Beatniks. And it really spawned from that."
Within a year, the band members were making a living, and as grunge rose and fell, the Beatniks never stopped working. The band's success is largely attributable to the hard work of manager Dean Zelikovsky, who booked the Beatniks' very first fraternity party, and has been working with them ever since.
Seattle rock is littered with nickel-and-dime amateurs masquerading under the title of "manager." In most cases, these people exist only to further the delusion among small-time bands that they are getting somewhere. For a band like the Beatniks, however, which could have easily wound up as the house band at Papagayo's, the booker/manager relationship has proven essential to building a lucrative career.
"I told them," the rangy, sweet-faced Zelikovsky remembers, "that if they let me represent them, I'd make them the number one band in the area."
He might have pulled it off.
With his booking and management company Machine Entertainment, Zelikovsky has built something of a cover-band empire, representing eight of "the Northwest's premier party bands" for a corporate client list that includes everything from AT&T to Washington Mutual. Each act on the Machine roster fulfills a niche--the Beatniks play "timeless rock 'n' roll hits"; Hit Explosion plays disco classics; the Retros play '80s favorites, and so on--and all of the bands work a busy schedule of club dates and private events. But the Beatniks are the jewel in the Machine crown, the band whose success rescued Zelikovsky from the doldrums of working in what he calls the "original music scene."
After studying poli-sci at the University of Washington, Seattle native Zelikovsky, who favors track suits to business suits, became disenchanted with working on political campaigns. Working to elect the state superintendent for public schools, as well as an association with the state Democratic Party, taught the young man "how ugly [politics] was and how my innocent ideas about making a difference for people were a little naive, to say the least."
But with the world of Seattle rock burgeoning all around him, Zelikovsky's eyes opened to a whole different possibility. "All of a sudden," he notes, "I started realizing, 'Gee, I could use these tools--instead of for a candidate, for a band!' Same tools, same technique. I guess some people call it marketing; I don't really call it marketing, 'cause marketing to me is a much smaller version of this. It's more of...." He pauses. "Taking something really good and taking it to the next level, so that people don't just think of the band, they think of the experience associated with the name."
Anyone can play covers, Zelikovsky frequently reminds me. But not everyone can "emote an energy to an audience." An inveterate salesman, the manager characterizes his flagship band's enduring appeal--between talking up their appearance on VH1 and their shows at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas, the Hard Rock Cafe in Cancún, and at the opening of Bruce Willis' new club--as a matter of chemistry. "It's just like a band," he explains. "You can take each individual and they can write their own music that's great or whatever, but for some reason, you get some bands together and there's a unique energy that occurs. And it's bigger than any words can describe."
As the Beatniks' career grew, Zelikovsky began branching out, from working as a local independent show promoter to handling a stable of original bands, including Medicine Hat, Silly Rabbit, Pop Sickle, and others, landing them regional tours, shopping their demos around to major labels, and, in his words, "coaching" them to become more powerful performers. And though his bands met with some success, none was able to truly connect with national audiences. When I ask him why he stopped working with original bands, Zelikovsky's response is refreshingly frank.
"Two things," he explains. "One, I went broke. Two, I was going to L.A. and New York and seeing what the original music scene did to original bands." The portrait he paints is a familiar one: corporate mind games, shuffling personnel, and unfair contracts that combine to kill bands' spirits. Returning to what he knew best, Zelikovsky found that by handling cover bands exclusively, he and his clients could make a nice dollar while retaining a modicum of self-respect. "At least in this environment," he notes, "the musician can get paid, stay in the music industry, not have all their rights go away, and just have a good time."
But before they can do any of those things, they must pass the most important test of life as a professional musician: They have to learn to get over the need for respect.
It Don't Come Easy
Every Saturday, from 3:00 to 6:30 p.m., the Beatniks can be found onstage in the ballroom of the Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn. The gig is remarkable not only for the turnout--the octagonal room, ringed by slot machines, bars, and big-screen TVs, is enormous, and full of people--but also for the level of excitement the band is able to generate. Passing through clouds of second-hand smoke, I follow the strains of "Bad Moon Rising" to find the Beatniks playing hard and loud to a sunken dance floor packed with average people taking a break from gambling. Faced with a more attentive, appreciative audience, the band's performance is a vast improvement over the last time I saw them. They blow through a set heavy on Beatles and Beatles-related material, including "I Saw Her Standing There," "Eight Days a Week," and, by request ("We don't do '50s," Rick protests), a medley of '50s songs covered on the first few Beatles records.
The atmosphere is inescapably cheesy; it is, after all, a casino. Vegas-style light displays compete with 16-screen monitors and keno readouts. But the crowd, which ranges in age from late teens to early 70s, is all about the Beatniks. The dance floor empties as they strum into Cat Stevens' "Wild World" (another request), but the drunken secretaries at the table in front of mine begin to weep along with the tune's misty nostalgia. Soon enough, however, it's back to the Beatles. These songs are not easy to sing, it occurs to me as I notice Bobby Beaulieu's neck veins bulge with the intro to "I'll Cry Instead," without a pause after the end of Badfinger's "No Matter What" and just before "We Can Work It Out."
Outside of the casino, the sun is shining. Inside, the processed air is filled with smoke and sweat, and a band is competing with the PA's announcement of food specials in honor of Muckleshoot Casino's ninth anniversary. As the Beatniks kick into "Tequila" for what must be the millionth time in their careers, the weepy secretaries leap from their chairs. They wiggle their denim-clad asses and shout "Tequila!" between drags on long white cigarettes.
Respect or no respect, this is hard work.
No matter what anyone says about the imminent demise of the record industry, or the death of guitar-, bass-, and drums-based pop music as a relevant form, the rock 'n' roll dream is still a palpable and glorious phenomenon. At its purest level, it's a kid standing in front of a mirror, strumming a tennis racket and lip-synching along to a Beatles record. A little further along, that kid might trade the tennis racket for a guitar and learn a few chords, maybe even write some songs, get a four-track, start a band, play some shows, whatever. But there is no perfect band. There is no freedom from compromise. The dream itself is the only thing that remains undiluted. And of the millions who strive for it, only a scant few ever attain the combination of skill and luck that grants them not only the opportunity to play in front of people, but earn a living wage doing it.
For the members of a successful cover band, the rock 'n' roll dream is even more complex. Viewed from one angle, they've got it made: They're onstage, night after night, playing great songs together in front of big, appreciative crowds. Seen from another, it's a very specific circle of hell: They might as well be invisible, because it's the song and not the singer that the people are responding to, and they didn't write the song. They're living the dream, though, if a lesser version of it. Even though they may reside in a cultural ghetto, even though they don't get respect, the Beatniks are in no danger of running out of audiences. Every Saturday afternoon, they play to packed houses at the Muckleshoot Casino. New Year's Eve will find them at Caesars Palace in Lake Tahoe, playing songs that everybody knows how to dance to. In between, there will be 100 shows or more.
The Artist Thing
Giving the people what they want is not a tenet many people would associate with Seattle rock bands. Legendary Seattle producer Jack Endino broke the issue down definitively in the brilliant Northwest rock documentary Hype!: "A lot of bands have a shtick, if you will, an act. They're entertainers.... Some bands just come out and they rock, and you can tell the difference."
For the Beatniks, whose busy schedule has them playing to a broad cross-section of the public--from beer-guzzling frat kids to white-collar corporate raiders; from Seattle Mariners to Muckleshoot Casino gamblers; from the Bite of Portland to the Bite of Seattle--being entertainers is the point of the whole operation.
Back at the Machine offices, Rick Lovrovich explains it this way. "If we can entertain people, and they walk away feeling like they got their money's worth, then I'm happy."
Dean Zelikovsky frames the discussion a little differently, explaining that "the protocol, when we go play a private party, is that the party's about the people who hired us, not the band. It's hard to do that with an original band because, inherently, it's about the band. Some corporations will pay a lot of money for some big bands expecting that the bands are gonna be all about the company because they paid a lot of money, when actually it's not set up that way."
Just hearing him say these words, I consider what my rock musician friends--particularly those from Seattle--might make of such a statement. Things may have loosened up a little in the past few years, but the idea of a band being anything less than a pure zone of independence, in which no one but the members themselves have control over any aspect of writing, performance, and presentation, remains anathema to the spirit associated with rock 'n' roll. But what if that control comes at the expense of finding an audience? What if the whole premise of the band is flawed? According to the Beatniks' Lovrovich, most original acts miss the whole point of live performance to begin with.
"They don't get it," he says, shaking his head. "It's because they have a problem with 'the artist.' So they're not going to compromise their 'art' for their audience. Why're you stabbing yourself in the foot?"
This is not to say that the Beatniks are slaves to their audience. "When we're onstage," the bassist affirms, "we're in charge, but we do feed off the audience, and if we can't get the audience to give back to us, then we haven't done our job."
This notion stands in stark contrast to the big "fuck you" that lies at the heart of the average rock 'n' roll band. Still, writing and performing are different muscles for musicians. "Some people are really good songwriters," notes Zelikovsky. "Other people in the band didn't write the songs, they just play with them. Does that make them any different from a person who plays in the Beatniks? I don't know. Writing your own music is a talent that stands on its own. But you can't really compare it--I mean, you can, but I don't know if it's really fair to compare that to the talent to emote energies to make people feel good."
The Beatniks were founded with what Lovrovich calls a "lackadaisical" attitude with regard to the kind of technical perfection most people associate with note-perfect cover bands. "And it just worked," he laughs. "We play songs that we know and we like. If we don't like the song, we're not going to play it."
Once again, I am reminded, this time by Lovrovich, that there are "lots of bands who play these songs. I'm not quite sure exactly what it is we do," he muses. "If you ask me, I would say we have quite a cavalier attitude about it. We don't give a rat's ass one way or the other. We do care enough to be professional, but if it doesn't go well, and we break down in the middle of the song, that's just part of the act, you know? A lot of the original guys take it so seriously that they've lost the spirit of what rock 'n' roll is all about.
"Maybe that's why the cover bands don't get respect. I'm not saying they should have any respect, but they're certainly looked down upon by original acts. I've been in both and I totally understand it, and it's like, once you get over that, you know what? You're home free. You start to find it comical. But it took us a long time to get over it."
Lovrovich laughs. "I've got a friend who hated us; he was in an original band, doing his own thing. Now he's dying--he'd cut off his left ball--to be our drummer. He's over that whole 'artist' thing."
The Grunge Years
For the Beatniks, a key part of the process of getting over the "artist thing" was making a record--not of covers, but of their own material. It's not hard to imagine that being a popular cover band in early-'90s Seattle might have been a bitter pill to swallow. As the world lined up to pledge allegiance to every flannel-shirted arriviste with a soul patch, the Beatniks were drawing huge crowds by playing tunes by the Beatles, Stones, and Monkees. In a culture increasingly defined by a DIY aesthetic (real or imagined), they were getting famous for doing other people's hits. So the band headed into the studio with soon-to-be-famous producer Don Gilmore (Linkin Park, Avril Lavigne).
Eleven years later, Lovrovich laughs the project off as "the most ridiculous thing we could've done; a big mistake. Gilmore saw us, saw the crowds we were drawing in, saw the energy, and said, 'You guys need to make a record to capitalize on what's going on in Seattle right now.' So we made our 'grunge' record."
The record failed. Nobody, not even the band, seemed to like it.
"It was actually crap," Lovrovich says. "We just realized: We couldn't care less. Our hearts just weren't in it. We just thought we had to do it; we had to have some street credibility, and we all learned a lesson from that: It doesn't freakin' matter. What matters is, you're doing what you like to do, you're having fun, and if it isn't fun, forget about it. Would I like to be in a band that's creating music that I love? Hell, yes. Have I found people to work with who can do that? No."
One Beatnik who has found other people to work with is drummer Jon Bolton. Touted by many as the highlight of the band's live show, Bolton nonetheless left at the end of last year to pursue a career as a solo artist. "My favorite thing to do is write songs," he said in a phone interview, "and I finally found the ideal people to collaborate with. Unfortunately, they all live overseas."
So, Bolton--at 29, the youngest member of the band by six years (he became a member in 1998)--intends to split time between England and Seattle. It's clear, talking to him, that he has no intention of getting over the artist thing. "I think if you're the sort of person who wants to play gigs every now and then, but you don't want to take a big risk, it's great," he says of his time in the band. "But if you have the desire to create things, it's tough. I never wanted to be in a cover band. I did the Beatniks mainly for experience. I love those guys, and it was really a fantastic job if that's all you want to do. But I want to make records like all my favorite bands, and I figure it's now or never."
The Measure of Success
Cover bands and tribute bands have gained a bit of cultural currency in the past few years--what with the likes of No. 13 Baby, Hell's Belles, 70 Proof, 80 Proof, and others paying homage to their musical heroes in formats that are approved for hipster consumption--but it's also no secret that, again, cover bands remain the opposite of cool.
It is, however, much easier to make money playing covers than it is playing your own stuff. And as any musician who has ever quit a day job will tell you, once you start making money playing music, it's hard to go back. Though the manager won't divulge any actual numbers, the kind of shows the Beatniks play lead me to estimate that they grossed somewhere in the middle six figures last year, a range Zelikovsky confirms. Not bad for a cover band. Not bad for any band. By contrast, most original artists, even popular, hard-working ones with independent CDs on the shelves and solid clippings in the press kit, are lucky to make a tenth of that amount in a year.
This strikes many musicians as a cosmic injustice, and drives many more to double duty in bands that play and bands that pay. According to the owner of the Fenix, which hosts all manner of musical acts, it makes perfect sense.
"Cover bands actually serve a major function with the people who go out to clubs," says Rick Wyatt. "If you have a full segment of the population in a 360-degree range, the people with particular musical tastes are only slivers. The greater body of that population doesn't have such a discerning sense of music, so they tend to just want to hear popular things, things they can recognize."
That's why Machine Entertainment bands have been a staple of the Fenix's calendar for as long as both companies have existed. "The Fenix," Wyatt explains, "requires more zeroes than a smaller venue, so I have to go for a larger body of a potential customer base." Cultivating a more exclusive clientele is a luxury the Fenix not only can't afford, Wyatt makes clear, but doesn't seem to care about.
"The stigma attached to cover bands only exists among the sliver of the few people with 'discerning' musical tastes," says Wyatt. "The stigma doesn't exist with most of the people who are out there. They're coming in large numbers--with credit cards, mind you. [And] there's a lot more folks coming to see the Beatniks than there would be to come see a band that would require a more 'discerning' taste."
So while rock bands that play their own material get all the press, all the airplay, and all the love, cover bands appeal to a far bigger slice of the population--and, consequently, can make more money.
Rick Lovrovich, who is 44 and has been playing music for more than 30 of those years, can remember a time when a band he was in once scraped out "a very paltry living. Now I own four houses, a topnotch studio, five cars," he tells me. "I know musicians who think they're making good money making a couple hundred bucks a night and they're really happy about it, and I am just appalled. Jesus Christ, I am so freakin' lucky. I don't tell them how much I make, 'cause I don't want them to feel bad. I just say, 'Great.'"
He pauses to let me know he's uncomfortable talking about money this way. But he's not being crass. He's just being honest.
"If your toys are a measure of your success, then we've been a very successful band," says Lovrovich. "But do we get a lot of respect? I don't care. Trust me. What's important to me is that we connect with the audience. And if it's doing someone else's material, who gives a rat's fuck?"
Living the Dream
Downstairs at the EMP, the Beatniks are getting ready to play their second show of a long Saturday, a private party for a major Seattle law firm. Drummer Jon Bolton is sitting in tonight, as he occasionally still does for selected corporate gigs. The vibe around him is a little weird, since he has officially left the band, but the other guys would clearly prefer if he stayed. Everyone has told me that with Jon around, it's a different band, and though I still haven't seen them play together, it's certainly true in the dressing room.
The four band members get a bit nostalgic, trading memories of favorite and least favorite shows ("...the one with all the doctors where we played T. Rex all night"). The energy is wistful and positive; talk centers around rock. Bolton is under the weather, so Beaulieu recommends a remedy of scotch and hot water. Lovrovich checks with the stage manager to make sure everything's on schedule; there's karaoke going on upstairs, so the show is pushed back 15 minutes. Nelson talks about their original drummer, who went to work at Microsoft. Et cetera.
The Beatniks are like every band in every dressing room in the world. Then, it's time to go on, and we ride the elevator up to the Sky Church, only to find that the karaoke contest isn't quite over. We enter the room and find a lawyer geeking out to the Doors' "Touch Me" in the middle of the huge stage. If cover bands are one step up from karaoke, as some say, it's a huge step. And the show the Beatniks play tonight is a quantum leap over the others I've seen. With Bolton in place not only as a rock-solid drummer but also, thanks to a high-seated throne, as the visual focal point of the stage show (à la Keith Moon) and frequent lead singer, the Beatniks are on fire--not just a cover band, but genuinely inspired performers. The lawyers who hired them fall away as the band pounds into "Come and Get It," "Brown Sugar" (a racy choice given the clientele), "Maggie May," and onward. Watching them, it's easy to enter the dream that this 14-year-old cover band that makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, gets no press, will appear on no music magazine covers, and is guaranteed never to be memorialized in the very museum in which they're playing, is the most rock 'n' roll thing in the house tonight.
The Beatniks play Fri June 18 at the Fenix Underground.