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Live: Artist of the Year

Meet the 1996 Readers’ Poll winners

'Live', Chad Taylor, Ed Kowalczyk, Chad Gracey

Live at the 12th Annual MTV Video Music Awards in New York City on September 7th, 1995.

Catherine McGann/Getty

LIVE!” “HOOTIE!””LIVE!” “HOOTIE!”

THIS IS THE EXCHANGE ON THE streets, a cry that rises up as the members of Live make their escape from the 1995 Billboard Music Awards, at which they were just given the Rock Artist of the Year accolade. It’s a cold and brilliantly floodlighted Christmas-season-in-Manhattan evening, and throngs of bundled-up fans are gathered behind police barricades when the four band mates make their way from the catacombs of the New York Coliseum. A car is waiting 100 yards away, a road manager is ready to run interference, and all the awestruck crowd can do as their heroes come within spitting distance is scream: “Live!”

“Hootie!” a lone voice retorts. A voice belonging to, of all people, Live guitarist Chad Taylor. “Live!” the crowd continues, and Taylor repeats his non sequitur of a response: “Hootie!” This odd choice of mantra completely disarms the pack, which dissolves into laughter. Taylor and the rest of Live hit the limo without further distraction merely by invoking the name of the one band whose multiplatinum run in 1994 and 1995 was more staggering than their own.

But only just. While Hootie and the Blowfish continue to make their simultaneous run at record-breaking sales and ever-shrinking golf handicaps, Live have forged their own brand of wide-ranging stardom. Their second record, Throwing Copper, was released in the spring of 1994. More than 18 months later, thanks to endless touring, five radio and video smashes and a judiciously timed appearance on MTV Unplugged, the album has sold more than 5 million copies, and Live now have an audience that stretches from the most obsessive corners of cyberspace to the 15,000-seat venues they filled during the summer of 1995.

Overnight success? Hardly. Together as a band for almost a decade, this group of 24- and 25-year-olds from York, Pa. – singer Ed Kowalczyk, bassist Patrick Dahlheimer, drummer Chad Gracey and guitarist Taylor – seem built for an even longer haul. Although MTV has been generous in giving Live their biggest breaks – first back in 1991 by jumping on their debut video, “Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition),” and later with long-term support for Throwing Copper – Live have the kind of hungry-for-meaning fan base that goes beyond a casual I-like-that-video-with-the-skinhead-guy appeal.

While Live possess the same existential angst that fuels so much rock today, their approach is more about searching than raging or imploding. No negative creep or cartoon nihilist, lyricist Kowalczyk is unafraid of sentiment, favoring Big Subjects like love, religion and, on the band’s biggest hit, “Lightning Crashes,” the circle of life – as in birth, death and rebirth. Kowalczyk is not only willing to believe there’s beauty and meaning in this alienated age, he’s also bold – or foolish – enough to try to figure out what it is, pointing the way for an audience that welcomes the possibility of transcendence (“It’s the way we sing that makes ’em dream,” Kowalczyk posits on Throwing Copper‘ s “Selling the Drama”). Musically, Live’s mass appeal stems from the band’s straightforward spin on what can now be called, God help us, ’80s classic rock. Live are slightly funkier and a bit more gothic, but since Day One they’ve been openly influenced by U2 and R.E.M. From the former, Live take their heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity and big-rock sweep; they owe their unglamorous democratic approach and sense of ruminative melodies to the latter.

“We’re earnest people,” Taylor says, and that inspires Live’s fans to relate to the group on a highly personal level. It’s a feeling the band returns by keeping in long-distance collective contact with the Friends of Live. There’s a phone number fans can call for the latest information on band activities, and the four members also pen individual notes for Home Spun, their regularly published fan-club newsletter.

On the Internet, Live’s official Web site draws an estimated 12,000 hits a day. In addition to the usual videos, sound clips, lyric sheets and discographies, the band is unafraid to make available, the artifacts of its early years, such as local newspaper articles and photos of their early, bad New Wave haircuts. There’s also a management-sanctioned e-mail list, and an active bulletin board and private chat room on America Online, where hard-core fans vent about their personal problems and analyze every image of Kowalczyk’s writing – his take on abortion, what one song’s reference to Hitler means, where he stands on religion – as if they were sacred texts.

“I’ve willed, I’ve walked, I’ve read, I’ve talked, I know, I know, I’ve been here before,” Kowalczyk sings on “Selling the Drama.” “Hey, now we won’t be raped, hey, now we won’t be scarred like that.” Here’s AOL subscriber Altfanatic, with his or her deconstruction of these words: “The character begins to turn away from religion. He had always walked the pure path by telling others about his God; he had always been willing. But then something bad happened in his life, and perhaps he prayed for help but didn’t get it. He was scarred by his experiences and now believes that since religion didn’t help him, he must help himself. He is determined to keep himself from being hurt – raped, scarred – again.”

It’s enough to warm the band members’ hearts or thoroughly mess with their heads. “For us to try and understand that the four of us are relating to a couple million people lyrically or musically – everybody have a drink and chill!” Dahlheimer says. “On a personal level it’s almost too much for me.” It’s even worse for Kowalczyk. As the most visible member of Live, he gets people showing up in his front yard at all hours of the night, shouting “Ed! Ed!” Whether this is creepy or touching, it seems unlikely that Live’s audience will abandon them for whoever turns up next in the Buzz Bin. Plus, Throwing Copper is the band’s second release, so unlike Hootie – or Bush – they don’t have to worry about the almost inevitable sophomore slump. They’ve had a more gradual career trajectory, one that has been part good fortune and part careful planning. “The one thing we always wanted in this band was longevity,” Gracey says, “and I think that building a pyramid is the way to longevity.”

“It’s not like we just showed up and were like ‘We’re gonna play the big sheds,’ ” Dahlheimer adds. “We did clubs, theaters, college markets. It’s a matter of proving yourself. Everything’s show and prove.”

Indeed, the Throwing Copper tour was so extended that Shirley Manson, the singer in one of the first leg’s opening acts, Angelfish, managed to join a new band, Garbage, and then write, record and release an album with it during the remaining time Live spent on the road. In 1994, the band was just one of many participants in Peter Gabriel’s annual multinational WOMAD tour; a year-later, at the Billboard awards, Gabriel would turn away from a Joni Mitchell/Tina Turner photo op to give Kowalczyk and Taylor an affectionate, haven’t-seen-you-in-a-while greeting. “The world’s turned around a little, hasn’t it?” is how Kowalczyk puts it.

NOT THAT ANY OF this is entirely unexpected. Back in the seventh grade in York, when their musical experiences were limited to singing for parents in auditoriums and playing and marching on muddy 50-yard lines, the members of Live had rock & roll dreams in full force. “Taylor and I used to sit in some sort of science class; we were lab partners,” Dahlheimer says, “and we used to draw stage plots. I was like ‘Man, this is gonna be my side of the stage, and my amps are gonna be this tall, and I’m gonna have this many.’ “

The dream became nascent reality at the urging of their junior high music teacher, Don Carn, who got Gracey, Dahlheimer and Taylor together for an eighth-grade talent show. Their repertoire included “Jam on It” by Newcleus, and “Like a Song . . . ” by U2. Kowalczyk, who’d known Taylor since kindergarten, added vocals to the mix by inviting himself over to practice one day after he ran into the trio at a local club’s New Wave night – the same club at which Taylor met his future wife. Kowalczyk’s basement debut was on Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69.” Then the group moved on to Duran Duran’s “Save a Prayer.” “Duran Duran’s been very involved in our past,” Gracey says. “Pat used to have John Taylor hair – he was the first guy I ever knew who used mousse.”

The group, then known as Public Affection, continued playing all the way through high school. They found themselves a manager and made a do-it-yourself album, raising $5,000 for recording and manufacturing costs by selling $100 “shares” in the project to friends and family members around York. Gigs at home and in nearby Lancaster, Pa., were soon augmented by shows in Philadelphia – including that Philly rite of passage, a slot opening up for the Hooters.

It could have ended there. Although it’s in a pastoral part of the country, York is a racially mixed, industrial working-class town, and the members of Live are working-class kids, the children of bank tellers and secretaries and union men. They were supposed to shed their familial blue collars. Gracey’s dad, for example, is a carpenter who always dreamed his son would have the college education that he never had. But after four years of playing music, “it seemed completely unreal and unsafe and unsavory to go out for a college career or something that was traditionally called a job,” Taylor says. “I have a poster in my room, this gigantic picture that my mother blew up for me – it’s the very first official picture of us. We were basically 13-, 14-year-old boys, too young to really even know what life was about or who we were as people, but I could just tell we were comfortable with each other. I told my wife it looks like we were meant to be with each other for the rest of our lives, and she said, you know, ‘It kinda looks like a wedding picture.’ “

“For some unknown reason that must have been directed by fate or whatever,” Kowalczyk adds, “we looked at each other and said, ‘No matter what we do, let’s take two years and devote it to four guys in a rock & roll band in America.’ “

Before they were out of their teens, the band members signed with Radioactive Records. One name change, five years and much success later, their parents have lost the consternation they felt about the jettisoned college plans. “Sometimes we think our parents are too involved,” Gracey says – not ungratefully. He just finds it a little strange going home for Christmas and signing autographs for cousins he has never met before: “And they wear all the Live paraphernalia. Like, my mom works in this market on Saturdays, and every day she works, she wears a Live T-shirt, so she always has people saying, ‘Do you know that band?’ She’s like ‘My son’s the drummer!’ ” Dahlheimer’s mom regularly haunts the band’s America Online bulletin board, chatting up the band’s die-hard followers, some of whom she has met on tour.

Last year’s touring eventually deposited Live in such venues as Pennsylvania’s Hershey Stadium, where what was essentially a big hometown gig drew more than 27,000 people, and for their final show, Philadelphia’s Spectrum, where all Dahlheimer and Taylor could think about while onstage was that the last time they were there, it was as fans seeing U2’s Zoo TV tour. For Kowalczyk, the beyond-reality point was taking the stage at September’s MTV Video Music Awards. “It was, like, wow, we really entered the circus of things, the circus of these bands that are put on a pedestal because they say something sweet, they say something honest, and honesty gets you this place in society that is put above everything else,” he says. “Our music was in this world of fame and glam and lights. We all realized, ‘Wow, we have taken something that is pure to us, and somebody bought and exploited it, and now we’re able to make a living.’ “

ARE YOU READY TO TALK about God yet?” asks Kowalczyk. “I’ve been waiting to talk about God all night.”

Kowalczyk is in a light mood, perhaps because he and the rest of Live have been consuming copious amounts of hot sake for the better part of an evening. It’s the night before the Billboard awards, and it’s the first time Live have been together as a band since its tour ended in September. For the past three months, Live have been kicking back – Kowalczyk and Taylor in Pennsylvania; Gracey in Oregon, where he now lives with his girlfriend; and Dahlheimer in Los Angeles, although he’s still a York resident as well. Mostly they’ve been decompressing. “People of the world, we’re taking a break from Live, and we’d like you to, too,” Kowalczyk says. “We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for choosing us as band of the year. But we’d really like you to take a break so you give a shit about us next time.”

This temporary reunion, marred only by the presence of a journalist, is marked at a midtown Japanese restaurant with three ceremonious drinks – followed by several less ceremonious ones. Live have been shamelessly chameleonlike in their varied states of hair length and color, so it’s worth reporting that Kowalczyk has let the hair on his head grow out and has a beard to match, while the once shaggy Gracey has trimmed his hair to a clean-cut length.

As the evening progresses – or rather, degenerates – Gracey licks whipped cream off the restaurant table, and Kowalczyk throws food. He brings up God on multiple occasions and even blurts out an impromptu rendition of that pesky Joan Osborne song at one point.

So what about it? “See,” Kowalczyk says, “when you talk about God and being in a cool band, there ain’t no doubt about it – you’re gonna sound pretentious.”

But they’ve been more than willing to take that risk.

“We’ve been willing to take that risk since 1987!” Kowalczyk cracks in reply.

When Live first appeared with Mental Jewelry, Kowalczyk’s primary obsession was Jiddu Krishnamurti, an Indian guru who basically preached self-discovery and responsibility, although he was never quite able to resolve the irony of being a don’t-follow-gurus guru. There were direct references to Krishnamurti in the lyrics; interviewers focused on it incessantly, and even today, Live’s Internet fans swap the address of the Krishnamurti Web page. It was almost as though Kowalczyk used the band to engage in the slightly stoned dorm-room philosophizing he missed out on by not going to college. More recently, older and wiser, he has expressed an affinity for novelist Henry Miller, and on Throwing Copper, there’s a very simple, effectively imagistic song inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

“But I’ve chosen ROLLING STONE to relate to the American public the fact that God can’t be discussed in black-and-white [terms],” says Kowalczyk, “so we might as well joke about him.”

“Yes,” Dahlheimer chimes in sarcastically. “Can we talk about Krishnamurti? That’s my favorite subject. I’m soo influenced by Krishnamurti.”

Could it be that Live’s image as a band that takes itself very seriously isn’t altogether accurate? In Dahlheimer’s case, this must be true – he’s the guy who blurted out “Snoop is innocent” at the Billboard awards after Kowalczyk’s heartfelt mention of America’s Bosnia-bound troops. “When we started out, we were so serious,” Dahlheimer says. “We’re fuckin’ out of high school, we wanted a record deal, and it didn’t seem like a joking matter.”

“I just know that what we do and how we feel about what we do is supremely sincere and real, and whenever you say that shit, it sounds pretentious, and it sounds whack,” says Kowalczyk, who has been showing a curious affinity for B-boy lingo tonight. “But the people who come to see Live, and all the millions of people who bought the record and bought Live and came to see us in concert, they know, they can feel the passion of the songs.”

If Kowalczyk is wary of explaining himself to the press, it may be because the press has rarely been sympathetic. Live are not critical favorites, and one of the band’s most refreshing qualities is that it’s utterly unapologetic about this. “Man, we were never credible,” Dahlheimer says. “I’ve never identified with this I-wanna-be-a-hip-alternative-cool-guy thing. Live always wanted to be successful.”

“Just because some critic doesn’t think we’re cool doesn’t faze us,” Kowalczyk says. “Well, it fazes us a little, or else we wouldn’t say shit about it.” At any rate, Kowalczyk manages to duck any further inquiries about God and Krishnamurti. Kowalczyk has been mulling over other things, among them gender issues. “I’m telling you right fucking now, women are the superior beings on the planet,” he says. “Women teach more about things than we’ll ever know. What women do to men, women say without even saying it – ‘you’re a dick’; ‘you’re egotistical’; ‘you think too much of yourself’; ‘you act ignorantly’; ‘you have a temper that will not be quelled’; ‘you cannot handle the present moment.’ When you really begin to trust a woman with your life is when men become men.”

Kowalczyk has been in a serious relationship for a year, and it seems that experience is likely to inform Live’s next record. “We wrote a song called ‘Ghost’ that’s all about this shit,” he says, “and I’m telling you, man, if you’re not a woman yet, you will be one when you hear it.”

Which might be sooner than you think. Having done a good amount of songwriting during all that time on the road, there are already demos for Live’s third album, projected to appear before the end of 1996 and maybe even as early as summertime. Blustery with sake, Kowalczyk promises it will be “mack-daddy, record-of-the-century shit, a rocket fucking Apollo 19 launch from Copper. Just ’cause we won’t let it be anything but that.”

Before that, Live will turn up on a Sweet Relief tribute album to Vic Chesnutt. They took the Georgia singer/songwriter out on the road with them at the beginning of the Copper tour and have been covering his “Supernatural” ever since. “Vic really changed my whole idea of songwriting,” Kowalczyk says. “He was like my Tom Waits, my intro into the power of lyrics and the power of suffering. So all this shit that we’ve experienced over the past four years is coming together on the next record. The most important thing is that we continually mature as a group. I think that in about 10 years, there’s gonna be this island of bands or artists or musicians that are standing all together and have weathered all the trends and bullshit. And I really honest to God believe we’ll probably be there on that island.” 

In This Article: Coverwall, Live

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