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New Faces: Extreme

Their hard-hitting second album, ‘Pornograffitti,’ has been lauded by critics but snubbed by radio and MTV. It’s nice to have found some respect — but how about a little airplay?

EXTREME

EXTREME.

Michel Linssen/Redferns/Getty

No, Listen, Paul, that’s not fair… . . .”

It’s midafternoon at a Framingham, Massachusetts, pizzeria, and Paul Geary and Nuno Bettencourt, the drummer and the guitarist for the Boston hard-rock band Extreme, are engaged in what was, until a few minutes ago, a fairly low-key conversation. Now, however, Bettencourt is beginning to sound strident.

Gary Cherone, the band’s vocalist, watches them with interest. Cherone has kept quiet during most of the conversation, contenting himself with the occasional observation delivered in a booming, dead-on imitation of Don Pardo. He smiles and leans back in his chair, waiting for another opening.

“There are lines you draw, Paul, no matter what you do,” Bettencourt is saying. “We could sell a million records, but if it’s all twelve-year-old girls who think that one of us is pretty, what the fuck kind of audience is that to have? Of course you want to be rich, but how far would you go, you know? Would you suck dick to do it?”

Thaaat’s debatable!” barks Cherone happily. Bettencourt and Geary shoot irritated glances at Cherone, then get back to the topic at hand.

“Seriously, what’s the most important thing to you?” asks Geary. “Maintaining your integrity? What I’m saying is, if you’ve got your bottom line, then shut up. You want your cake and eat it, too.”

The two continue to hammer away at each other; apparently neither realizes that although they’re approaching the argument from different angles, they’re both making the same point.

“I recently read this thing,” Geary says. “The guitar players in Warrant were in Guitar Player, and I notice that they’re struggling for respect from their peers. That’s a big major problem for them. They have all the money, and they’ve got success, and . . .”

“That’s my whole point, Paul,” says Bettencourt.” Would you rather sleep at night, or would you rather have your wallet full?”

“I’m just making a point,” says Geary. “Warrant is saying, ‘Jeez, I got a million dollars, but I don’t have any integrity,’ and you’re saying you’d rather have what you have than what they have.”

“Okay, then be quiet,” says Bettencourt sullenly.

“The grass is always greeeener on the other siiiide,” says Cherone.

Though the bickering match might seem pointless, there’s a reason for it: frustration, the source of which has been gnawing at the members of Extreme with increasing regularity. There’s never really been any question that faced with a decision between having their cake (maintaining their integrity) and eating it (raking in the bucks), the members of Extreme would choose the former.

Of course, that’s an easy decision to make if you haven’t got a fork.

Extreme — Cherone, Bettencourt, Geary and bassist Pat Badger — first surfaced in 1989, with a single, “Kid Ego,” off their debut album. The song, a cut-and-dried head banger’s anthem, was a rather poor representation of Extreme’s range (Cherone says he cringes today when he hears it), and the album, hampered by production problems, didn’t do the band much justice, either. But it caused enough of a stir to save Extreme from the metal scrapheap. Critics took to the band’s pleasing harmonies, and the level of musicianship — Bettencourt’s hyperactive guitar style, in particular — drew notice. Through positive reviews and incendiary live performances (four years of steady gigging around Boston had molded the band members into consummate showmen), Extreme began to amass a loyal following.

Given that momentum, Extreme’s current album Extreme II: Pornograffitti seemed destined for a respectable run on the charts. The album, a loosely conceptual indictment of moral corruption ranging from pornography to politics, was hailed by critics and musicians alike as one of the finest hard-rock albums of 1990. Pornograffitti is indeed a stunner; its thirteen tracks find Extreme stomping down the barbed-wire boundaries of hard rock to tap-dance all over the musical map. From Halenesque barn burners (“Money [In God We Trust]”) to Gershwin-style piano ballads (“When I First Kissed You”), from rap & roll raveups (“When I’m President”) to breezy acoustic shuffles (“Hole Hearted”), the band zigzags from genre to genre with breathtaking ease.

There have been other factors that would seem to indicate an impending breakthrough for Extreme. While Pornograffitti was bowling over critics and showing up on rockers’ year-end top-ten lists, the twenty-four-year-old Bettencourt was being heavily courted by the guitar underground. Guitar magazine devoted a whopping six pages to him; Guitar World put him on the cover. Washburn signed him on as a consultant and is currently selling a guitar that Bettencourt designed. Through all of this, the guitarist was building a solid reputation as a hired gun; it was Bettencourt’s razorsharp riffing, for example, that gave Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat” single its snarl. For a while it seemed as if the splash created by Bettencourt alone would put Extreme over the top.

But even a tidal wave can fade to a ripple. Pornograffitti, despite the accolades, has yet to sell 300,000 copies. The band’s first two singles, “Decadence Dance” and “Get the Funk Out,” barely made a dent on the radio. And although live performances are Extreme’s true ace in the hole, landing opening tour slots has been a catch-as-catch-can affair. The band had been passed over for so many tours before they were tapped for a recent jaunt with Winger that the members joke that they were seriously eyeing the Sinatra tour.

The most distressing bit of hard luck Extreme has had to contend with — and probably the primary reason the band hasn’t gained mass acceptance — is also the most confounding. The band members don’t like to talk about it, of course. But the fact is, they’ve been shunned. Blacklisted. Snubbed by Adam and Martha and Kurt. Banished to — gasp!Headbanger’s Ball.

You can’t get around the fact that MTV is in a position to play God with musical careers. Ask the members of Faith No More, who lived on Ramen noodles for eight years and began pigging out on surf ‘n’ turf when MTV picked up the video for “Epic.” Ask the average sixteen-year-old: If he doesn’t see it on MTV, it doesn’t exist.

Just don’t ask the members of Extreme. Being gentlemen, and not wanting to burn any bridges – however rickety those bridges appear to be – they display admirable restraint when they’re asked why it is you never see them on MTV. Bettencourt – who has a tendency to go off half-cocked no matter what the topic – works himself into a lather at one point and looks as if he’s about to do some MTV mudslinging. But then he checks himself.

Just why MTV — and radio, for that matter — has dropped the ball on Extreme is anybody’s guess. But the most likely reasons, unfortunately, are the very elements that set Extreme apart from the heavy-metal pack. The first two singles might have stumped format-brainwashed programmers. Though several of the tracks on Pornograffitti are fairly accessible, many of the songs contain such a wide variety of musical elements that they aren’t easily categorized. In addition, Cherone’s lyrics often hint at a conservative stance that’s uncommon for a hard-rock band. “Rock a Bye Bye,” a track from Extreme’s debut, makes a fairly strong prolife statement. Several of the songs on Pornograffitti — the title track, in particular — seem to decry the nation’s fraying moral fabric.

“There is a morality that I fight with,” says Cherone. “But I’m certainly not perfect. I could say I’m prolife, but to tell you the truth, if I knocked up my girlfriend and didn’t have the money, I might be going, ‘Abortion.’ Everyone’s human. I mean, you can be screwing your girlfriend with your cross or your Jewish star dangling down onto her chest, you know what I mean? There is a lot of contradiction on this record because human beings are contradictory.”

The members of Extreme are not your typical bad boys. None of them has been arrested or said “fuck” on television. Their favorite road stories aren’t about groupies obliged or hotel rooms trashed but rather Laurel and Hardy-type vignettes. There’s the one about a gig in Providence, when Geary stood up to wash his cymbals, tried to sit down again and went pinwheeling backward off the drum riser because an overhelpful drum tech had pulled his stool away. Or the time the smoke machine malfunctioned, fogging the stage to such an extent that the band members couldn’t see one another to signal and had to drag out the ending of a song for ten minutes. Or what they call A Nightmare on Prom Street, a show in the Carolinas where the young, freshly scrubbed audience sat politely through all of Extreme’s hardest-hitting material and then, in a surreal moment right out of a 1940s ballroom, rose en masse with their partners to slow-dance to “Rock a Bye Bye.”

That Extreme hasn’t bothered to cultivate an image may be the main reason for MTV’s lack of support. Judging from the test-tube testosterone currently hogging prime time on the network, MTV’s viewers like their rockers airbrushed and arrogant. But Extreme’s avoidance of the usual braggadocio seems less a conscious decision than a natural consequence of the band’s determination to keep its songs at the fore. “Anything other than our music is not important,” says Cherone. “Off the stage, we’re not gonna climb poles. So it’s gonna take longer for people to notice what we are.”

It’s dark by the time the band members leave the pizzeria. Cherone and Bettencourt have a basketball game in an hour, so the three climb into a battered GMC High Sierra that Geary has borrowed from a friend and set off for Boston. A light snow is falling, and it’s quiet inside the truck, save for the soft drone of the radio. Bettencourt begins to nod off in the back seat.

“Hey,” Geary says suddenly, turning up the radio. A Boston station is playing “More Than Words,” the band’s new single. Cherone and Bettencourt spring to attention. Much hooting ensues, followed by an impromptu sing-along. There are a lot of hopes pinned on this song. If ever there was an Extreme track tailor-made for radio, it is “More Than Words,” a striking duet by Cherone and Bettencourt, their intertwining voices set off by a single acoustic guitar. The members of Extreme believe that with a little luck, “More Than Words” could turn out to be their “Sweet Child o’Mine.” And they may be right. As this issue goes to press, a week after the song’s release, sixty AOR stations have added “More Than Words” to their playlists, and it is reportedly the tenth most requested song on rock radio.

And if they’re wrong, and “More Than Words” fails them? No big deal. Struggle, according to Bettencourt, is what makes life interesting.

“Even if we had the No. 1 video on MTV and we had money and everything else,” says the guitarist, “I think we’d always have more to do. I don’t ever want to wake up in the morning and say, ‘What are we gonna do today?’ I’m afraid of that. I don’t ever want to wake up and feel like we’ve conquered.”

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