We love rock & roll, but learning how it’s produced, marketed and compromised for mass consumption is a bit like learning how sausage is made or cloth diapers are laundered. Jeff Rougvie, a former punk rock musician, graphic artist and A&R executive for Rykodisc who worked with Bowie, Elvis Costello, the Misfits and others, has used his firsthand experience inside the rock & roll “kitchen” to create a darkly funny graphic novel called Gunning For Hits. Rougvie talked with PKM about how this all came about.
According to Jeff Rougvie, the rock music industry of the 1980s was a “horrifying neon wasteland.” Everybody in the corporate music industry (and some of the club owners) were either coked up, mobbed up or used up, and many were all three at once. Using his own insider knowledge as an executive producer of reissues for David Bowie, Big Star, the Misfits, Elvis Costello and others, and deep research into the subject, Rougvie has compellingly presented this sordid and entertaining tale in a series of graphic novels, “starring” a former contract hit man and now record company A & R guy named Martin Mills as the hero, or antihero (but definitely not a Marvel-like superhero). Mills is a hard-boiled wise-ass prone to calling the music industry “the only business dirtier than killing people for money.”
The art by Moritat and coloring by Casey Silver bring Rougvie’s tale alive on the page, and their combined work has now been collected in a handsome hardcover edition published by Image, entitled Gunning For Hits.
PKM spoke with Jeff Rougvie about how this series came about, where it’s going and what else is on his hot plate.
PKM: When you first conceived of writing about this subject, did you have a graphic novel format in mind?
Jeff Rougvie: Yeah, comic books fucked me up when I was a kid – this is my revenge. After Bowie died, I was feeling my mortality and thinking I ought to take some chances. I’d been toying with this idea since the late ‘80s, when I was too busy to do anything with it. Unsure if the world was ready for a comic about a sociopathic hitman music executive, I found a series of comics about IRS agents. If there can be 30+ volumes about forensic accounting, a graphic novel on the music business doesn’t seem like a stretch.
PKM: What led you to the graphic novel format in the first place? Were you doing these before Gunning for Hits?
Jeff Rougvie: There’s something about the graphic novel that lends itself to serialization, and I have a long game here. Volume one can be read as a standalone story, but there will be more volumes that eventually will tell a larger saga spanning 40 years. Comics were my original career plan as a teenager. In high school I wrote and published a very Punk-inspired fanzine that was full of comics. I went to art school, but after two years I was bored and dropped out for a music job in Minneapolis circa 1984. It was a great time to be there – Prince, the Replacements, and Husker Du were taking off, there were crazy gigs all the time and the people were super-cool, so no regrets – I had a great time and got back to comics eventually!
PKM: You will get little argument from PKM readers about the wasteland of the 1980s, with MTV pushing image over substance, the stupidity of things like hair metal, the mediocrity of nearly everything. Obviously you were immersed in the scene yourself, working with Bowie, Elvis Costello and the Misfits. What did it look like from their perspectives?
Jeff Rougvie: No matter how shitty pop culture seems at any given moment, there are always cool things happening – you just have to find them. The 1980s were a hot mess, but kinda cool in that they embraced their plasticity in full-on Warhol style. That tongue in cheek quote I used on the cover, about the “horrifying neon wasteland of the 80s music business,” is from one of my heroes, Tony James of Generation X. MTV takes a lot of heat because they’re emblematic of the era, but people forget they gave bands like Kraut and X incredible exposure in their early years, so they weren’t all bad. They didn’t force anyone to buy all those Phil Collins and Dire Straits CDs.
I didn’t work with most of the artists you mention until later, but none of them navigated the ‘80s particularly well. The Misfits self-destructed for all the wrong reasons at the worst possible moment. Costello got boring, although he’d never, ever, admit he made a mis-step – he’s still trying to convince us Goodbye Cruel World is good, FFS. Bowie sort of bought into the whole ‘80s vibe, but what separates him from the others is that he knew he screwed the pooch and had the self-awareness to hit reset.
No matter how shitty pop culture seems at any given moment, there are always cool things happening – you just have to find them.
PKM: Is Martin Mills partly based on you, a composite of people you know, or just the embodiment of a fantasy of revenge against the stupidity, decadence and unfairness of it all?
Jeff Rougvie: All of the above? Martin’s got a lot of flaws, but he’s a champion of the Fucking Undeniable Song. If Martin had signed the Ramones, they would’ve been huge while they were all still alive.
Dumb luck is a huge factor in success, which no one acknowledges, because they’d lose their phony-baloney jobs. Martin takes luck out of the equation by playing dirty and I want readers to root for him because he’s fighting a corrupt industry. I’ve compared him to Hannibal Lector at the end of Silence Of The Lambs. You know it’s wrong, but you want Lector to eat Doctor Chilton.
The biggest difference between Martin and I is that I haven’t killed anybody. Yet.
PKM: The punk “genius” junkie, Billy. There are too many of these punk genius junkies to choose from, but did you have in mind someone like Johnny Thunders? Did you have any models in mind for Billy’s band, Stunted Growth?
Jeff Rougvie: Billy’s a mash-up of all of the people who were too decent or fucked-up to deal with the industry machinery in a way that wasn’t harmful to them. Thunders, the Replacements, Cobain, and Richey Edwards were all on my mind when I wrote Billy. As far as what they sound like, I was thinking about the band Tsar, an early ‘00s band that took all the finest strands of rock n roll DNA and made a couple of the best albums of the century. Of course, they got fucked over in all the worst, dumbest ways. IMO, they’re the “new” Big Star; it’s only a matter of time before they get the respect they deserve.
Tsar shreds it up on “The Late Late Show”, whilst blazing through “Band-Girls-Money”:
PKM: What about Brian Slade, the fallen former rock superstar and Mill’s on-and-off nemesis? Obviously, this is the name of the David Bowie character in Todd Haynes’ 1998 Velvet Goldmine film and you knew and worked with Bowie as an A&R man for Rykodisc, which had the smarts to snag the rights to Bowie’s back catalog. Bowie died in 2016, but did you ever tell him you were thinking of doing this graphic novel series?
Jeff Rougvie: Slade is a version of Bowie; a shitty one who never got his act together after losing his way. It’s not meant to be disrespectful, I just wanted to look at a different reality. There are loads of Bowie-influenced characters in comics, so this is nothing new – Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman did it before me; mine is just a little more literal. I think David would like the idea that we’ll make Bowie variants now that he’s gone. He and I mostly talked about art and music. As a comics fan, I tried to engage him on the subject, but he never seemed interested. I read an interview with Terry Gilliam, who was going to make a Watchmen movie in the 90s, and he said Bowie called him repeatedly, seeking the role of Ozymandias (who was based on Bowie). But I’m guessing it was the other way around, with Gilliam calling him.
PKM: Can you give us a telling anecdote about David Bowie from your personal relationship with him?
Jeff Rougvie: He was a wonderful, friendly, funny guy. People used to assume he was pretentious, but his interest in art and the avant garde was authentic but loose. We’d dissect issues of Artforum, in tears laughing sometimes.
PKM: Many PKM readers may have read your work without realizing it was you, since you wrote this great 72-page book that was included in the Ziggy Stardust reissue. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Jeff Rougvie: A: That whole thing happened as an afterthought. Our pitch to Bowie was we were going to go all-out with his catalog, adding extra tracks and expanded artwork, but also that we’d try to market it to a new generation, who may have only known him from Let’s Dance. Ziggy was already 18 years old at that point, so the book put it in context for kids who hadn’t been born when Ziggy came out, but were hearing lots of music influenced by it.
I wrote it and conceptualized the packaging over a weekend, much to the surprise of my bosses. We sent it to David, who loved it. It was probably the first Super-Deluxe re-release of a single album. These days every album’s been released in an multi-disc set.
Dumb luck is a huge factor in success, which no one acknowledges, because they’d lose their phony-baloney jobs. Martin takes luck out of the equation by playing dirty
PKM: You were not just an artist but a musician, singing for two punk bands, Crawling Smash and the Gumby Brothers. What were some of the more memorable bills and moments that you found yourself inside?
Jeff Rougvie: Calling what I did “singing” is extremely generous. I was living in Hartford, which was sooooo boring. This guy Rick Banz convinced the local Lithuanian Club to let him use a ballroom on the second floor as a venue, it was a great place and became our clubhouse, but we were broke-ass kids, so we started Crawling Smash so we didn’t have to pay to get in and for free drinks. We didn’t last long but got to open for the Wipers, Mission Of Burma, Black Flag and Thunders. Johnny sounded great, but he’d shot up before the show. The drugs kicked in about halfway through, and after launching into “Pipeline” for the third time, he fell off the stage, face-planting on the club floor. Walter Lure, probably worried they weren’t going to get paid, led the band through the hits while the crew dragged a legless Johnny through the crowd, screaming “fuck you Waldo!” at the stage.
Big Star – Thank You Friends:
PKM: How did the Big Star projects come about? Did you deal directly with Alex Chilton? How was he in those days?
Jeff Rougvie: Most of us at Ryko were Big Star fans. We’d heard SubPop was sniffing around the Chris Bell solo stuff, which became the I Am The Cosmos album. I reached out to John Fry at Ardent Studios, who had all the masters Chris had recorded. They also owned the rights to Big Star Third and an unreleased live broadcast from WLIR, so it made sense to do a package deal. Big Star was barely known in the US back then – their records had been out of print since the ‘70’s. I mostly worked with Jody Stephens, John Fry, David Bell (Chris’ brother) and producer Jim Dickinson. Alex signed off on everything via Ardent, so we didn’t meet back then.
A few years later, totally out of the blue, Alex called to thank me for finally getting him enough money to buy a house. He didn’t need to do that. Considering his reputation and my love of his music, the gesture meant a lot to me. Luckily our timing was right, the rest of the records eventually got reissued and Big Star finally received the recognition they deserved. It was very rewarding thing to be part of.
PKM: You are writing a history of Rykodisc? Will it be in the graphic novel format?
Jeff Rougvie: It’s weird to be writing fiction about an evil label executive and the non-fiction Ryko story at the same time, because they’re opposites in many ways. Ryko was an anomaly, a very moral label, and it’s great to be revisiting those good times. On the other hand, the next Gunning For Hits is very black comedy; Martin gets tangled up with a Goth-metal act, gangsta rappers, and a Senator. Of course, it all goes to hell. My writing sessions are on wildly opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Someone suggested the Ryko book be a graphic novel, but the story is way too dense, it’d be too huge an undertaking.