Too Late the Loser

by J.R. Taylor, N.Y. Press, July 16, 1997

It began as a kind of parlor game, or something that I would use as a last resort during dull dinner gatherings. Later, it became a pick-up line, but only because I couldn't deliver any of my old pick-up lines with a straight face. Then that became kind of obvious, so now it might as well become a cheap device to start off an interview. All this being the simple question: "What scene from a movie best reflects your love life?"

For some reason, you always have to specify that it's love life, and not sex life. Otherwise, all you ever get is people talking about that scene with Kevin Costner and Sean Young in the back of the limousine from No Way Out. That's probably just couples flattering themselves, though.

Anyway, people have given me enough cool responses that I'm thinking about turning the whole thing into one of those candy-bar books they sell by the register at B. Dalton's. There's the scene in Aliens, where Bill Paxton screams out, "We're on the express elevator to Hell!" The part in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, where the Gyro Pilot helps Max win a fight by dropping a dead snake on his opponent. A segment from a nature documentary called Ring Of Bright Water, where these two otters kind of wiggle around on each other.

And, of course, there's my own personal favorite - Kathy Bates takes a sledgehammer, puts James Caan's foot against a piece of wood, and whacks his ankle to a 90° angle. Then she says, "I love you." Misery, 1990.

Moe Berg, leader of The Pursuit of Happiness, has had a long and difficult career. Therefore, his answer makes me concerned that he's had a hard time grasping the concept. "Remember that scene from Stardust Memories, where the aliens come down? Woody Allen asks what he should do to help people, and the aliens say that he should make funnier movies. That's the most profound thing I've ever seen in my life. It really hit me. That's still how I justify everything I do."

"Well, you know, Moe, I'm asking about your love life, not your professional life."

"I know. That's my love life. That's how I justify anything I do in my love life. Make funnier movies."

The Pursuit of Happiness first debuted with 1988's Love Junk, wherein the Canadian band scored some college airplay with "I'm An Adult Now." To the band's detriment, though, it turned out Moe was sincere about lines like, "I can sleep in till noon any time I want/Though there's not many days that I do." Love Junk and the follow-up, One-Sided Story, were both smart poppy albums full of insights into modern romance and maturity.

The college kids, however, were still more interested in snickering at the antics of The Replacements. After a long hiatus, TPOH then returned in 1993 on a new label, releasing the metallic and melodic The Downward Road. Moe continued to redefine the rock stereotype, and promptly cost his band any chance for another American record deal.

1995's skittery Where's The Bone went sadly unreleased in America, so you have to buy an import CD to hear Moe deliver killing blows like "Save The Whales":

You blew smoke rings

While you lectured me on the lungs of the world

But since Canada's Iron label now has an American distribution deal, NYC kids can finally go out and buy this year's The Wonderful World of The Pursuit of Happiness. The only problem is that the album is thirty minutes of brilliant short songs that continually collide into each other. If that isn't off-putting enough, Moe still remains unrepentantly adult. Of course, the guy would have to be a complete idiot to think he could build an audience off any album that closes with a truth like "The Truth." The chorus (of sorts) goes "I hated you first," but the real surprise is the target of Moe's wrath:

You don't even have a tv

You like Bjørk and Oasis

You're not smart enough for Shakespeare

But hip enough to dig Merchant of Venice is racist.

That's right, kids - Moe hates you! At least Moe isn't kidding himself about his own chances for success. When asked what difference he thinks the Stateside availability of The Wonderful World will make in the band's floundering career, Moe pauses thoughtfully, then says, "That's a very good question."

"I'm not meaning to sound pretentious, but I don't care if my record fits in the marketplace. Once you start talking about the music business, you're part of the problem. The people at the record company are doing their job to make you famous, and they should be left alone. Artists shouldn't care about anything more than being good, but they start thinking about being famous. Then they're part of the problem."

Many column inches could be taken up documenting the ways that Moe's single-minded subject matter has sabotaged his own chances for fame. One-Sided Story features "Shave Your Legs", where Moe offers his girlfriend all kinds of pleading favors in return for her pulling out the Lady Bic. He also showed some alienating foresight on "Two Girls In One":

She won't wear a ring on her finger

No man can tie her down

But she wears one in her nose

So he can pull her around.

The Downward Road had a more commercial sound, but featured songs like the hard-rocking impotence anthem of "Honeytime". Foreplay is a fine topic for rock radio, but Moe insisted on explaining how too much of it can keep a guy from delivering on the big finish.

The Downward Road also contains the big moment where Moe really got ripped off from his rightful place as a great rock visionary. Long before fellow Canuck Alanis Morissette came along with "You Oughta Know," Moe dared to truly tilt the sexual hierarchy with "Nobody But Me." Where Alanis fulfilled a standard male fantasy with her willingness to give some guy a blow job in a theater, Moe was willing to clean his errant lover's bras. Even more, he offered to risk his freedom by buying her drugs, and pledged to keep his head between her thighs. Coming from a guy welding an electric guitar, those sentiments were honestly revolutionary and shocking.

Moe is willing to take a bow for all this, as well. "This makes me feel presumptuous, and I don't mean this to sound the wrong way--but, yeah, I wrote that song first. When I first started writing my lyrics, it seems there wasn't anyone who was writing the same way. Now, everyone's a loser. I have to say that I was a loser before everyone else. And now all these nouveau losers are really big, and I'm fading."

But as a low-level rock star who regularly writes songs about accepting personal responsibility, Moe can only sustain his victimized attitude for so long. "The truth is, a lot of musical success has to do with sensibilities. A lot of people have the same sensibilities as Bryan Adams. People can plug into him immediately. I can't connect to people like that. It may just be that I'm an irritating guy."

The Wonderful World actually contains a rare and perfect example of Moe at his most irritating. In fact, the album features Moe's first truly bad song since the tough guy posings of One-Sided Story's "Little Platoons" (in which he boasted about surviving the mean streets of Toronto). "What You Did To My Girl" is not only the sole weak melody on the new album, but the lyrics are a painfully fey commentary of how much happier his ex-girlfriend is with her new lover. After two minutes of oohing and aahing, the whole thing finally culminates with the dopey sentiment, "I'm just glad that she found happiness with a girl like you."

This was, naturally, one of the first singles to be released in Canada. The whole painful incident clearly reeks of the same kind of pandering marketing that Jill Sobule thrived on with " I Kissed A Girl". This is an accusation that Moe finds particularly fretful.

"I was really disappointed in Jill Sobule when that song came out. I loved her first record so much, and I still think she's terrific. And I understand what you're saying. But my song isn't anything like 'I Kissed A Girl.' It's not like a Twilight Zone - 'Omigod, she's a lesbian!' It's just about everybody ending up kind of happy. It's a nice song."

Despite these kind of happy tolerant sentiments, however, Moe still places himself at artistic risk on a daily basis. In a world where hippie drones regularly claim to be politically incorrect, Moe Berg honestly dares to speak bluntly and honestly about his experiences. Canada's rock community may not be burdened with the same strict party line that American rock serves, but it still seems logical to wonder if Moe doesn't pay some price for refusing to put a happy face on complicated living.

"Well, the only shots I have to take now are from the few people who are still paying attention. Usually, it's how I'm 'too smart for my own good,' or 'too funny for the room.' Those are the subtle jabs. But it's easy to read newspapers and have people tell you what to think. I still have to write where I live. I remember doing a radio interview with National Radio here in Canada, and someone was upset with 'In Her Dreams', because it's about a woman's rape fantasy. But all I did was write about a conversation I had with a couple of girls."

Moe is used to being regularly considered misogynist, due mainly to his tendency to wonder why women can't act as nice as they smell. He also insists on treating women as emotional equals in the sexual obsessions that mark rock 'n roll, and calls them on the cultural inconsistencies.

"I have no problem writing about lust. It's a perfectly valid thing. It's a positive thing. It's a very positive, natural emotion. I just want to celebrate it. But a lot of people seem to think that there's something wrong about talking about sex in an honest or joyful way. I've always thought feminism is about liberation. It seems that a lot of my negative reviews have a lot to do with the writer's agenda. We get some reviews where I can just see the writer showing it off to his girlfriend."

Of course, a sad sack like Moe should raise the suspicions of any experienced pop music fan. The general rule, after all, is that mopey pop types are exactly the guys getting laid like maniacs. In fact, Moe is told, there's probably never been a frontman who's had trouble getting laid.

"You're talking to him," swears Mr. Berg, who's actually quite attractive. When reminded that he wrote a touchingly selfish account of infidelity called "But I Do", he merely says that was a fluke.

"You're talking about a period of just a few months. Then, it was over. I wasn't juggling a bunch of girls. I just had ambivalent feelings about the woman I was seeing. I had a dating mentality, and couldn't decide to commit to that person. I wasn't like a wild man going crazy, having sex with everybody." Moe says this as if the thought is distasteful.

Despite the dry spells, Moe truly earns his place in every man's record collection for his continuing interest in exploring female jealousy. Where most rock musicians treat flirting as a macho right and rite of machismo, realist Moe regularly focuses on women's staggering inability to allow a guy just to have fun at a party. "I'm a shameless flirt, and, if you have a real relationship, you should be able to get away with it. I'm not sure exactly how laissez-faire about this I am, though. I can understand someone being mad if a boyfriend once left her for a girl he met at a party. People have feelings, even in the big city. But you can be involved, and the opposite sex will still be interested in you."

"'The One Thing' got me the most flack, even from my band," he says, referring to a song wherein Moe promises his girl that he draws the line with other women at actual intercourse. "They were offended by the sentiment of the song. It was something I didn't understand. "The One Thing" still has a moral message. It's about not being unfaithful to your girlfriend. It's totally un-rock 'n roll."

The band will take a token stab at promoting the American release of The Wonderful World, and then Moe will expose himself to further barbs with the recording of the inevitable solo album. He doesn't seem to anticipate that the project will necessarily do anything for a commercial breakthrough. But, when pressured, he does concede that there might be some positive benefits in the works.

"Playing the big rock show isn't a good environment if you're looking to meet girls--bearing in mind that I'm no Noel Gallagher. The entire solo idea started because I discovered how intimate it can be when it's just me on a stage with an acoustic guitar. If I play more solo shows, then maybe some girl can look in my soul. And I can seduce her that way."

Copyright © 1997 New York Press, Inc.

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