Dave Grohl was the first to panic. After all, he’d done a stand up job of preserving the memory and importance of the Nirvana years. Lucky for members of the grunge generation, no one was selling the latest offering from Ford or Apple or Starbucks to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’
Then it happened.
The first appearance came on You Tube. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and Polly, who’s name didn’t come out of nowhere, had been surfing through the website using her usual keywords – Nirvana, rare, demo, acoustic, just to see what popped up.
The first song she found, somehow at the top of her suggested videos said ‘Nirvana – ‘Yellow,’ RARE Coldplay Cover. She scrolled thru the About section. There were no comments. Just a standard video offering a recording of Kurt singing a Coldplay song.
OK. Fine. Except that ‘Yellow’ wasn’t recorded until five years after Kurt’s death.
In fact, Coldplay wasn’t even a band yet.
OK, so maybe the lead singer met Kurt at an industry mixer somewhere. He might’ve said ‘hey, I’ve got this great song just waiting to become something. There’s a guitar in my car. Let’s sneak down to the parking garage, smoke some pot and play.’
In a weak moment, in this scenario, maybe the pot would be enough to entice Kurt down to a West Hollywood parking garage. Maybe he and the future lead singer of Coldplay whose first name most people still don’t know would sit in the garage, and someone would have a small recorder on them. They’d toss it on the dashboard, someone would light a pipe with a little resin in it, and the boys would get high in the front seat of a ’74 Olds while the Hollywood elite whispered upstairs about who they’d just seen at this little soirée and didn’t he/she just absolutely look like shit?
OK. Yeah. Maybe that’s how it happened.
But that wasn’t how it happened.
* * * *
The way it started was with a coder named Mark Dormund, who went by the screen name Sparklehorse02. Mark was a bit of a music aficionado, self-appointed, who loved the bands of the late 90’s and early-Aughts. The mid-career efforts of Nada Surf and Local H, hatched in the 90’s but robbed of opportunities through major label whims and the rise of the internet. There were other bands, lesser knowns out of California he loved and wished would get back together.
And of course, there was the deep, buried pain of Kurt.
He’d barely been fifteen years old when Kurt vanished. Mark had collected every recording he could find of Kurt’s. He too had searched You Tube, almost daily, looking to see what rare and unusual thing had suddenly spring out of someone’s vault.
Meanwhile, there were covers. Way too many covers. Aspiring nobodies lacking the imagination to rise above sitting in front of a cheap web cam and croon out a beloved classic.
How many of these people thought that what was coming out of them bore any resemblance to the original recording? Or that they could even sing or play, let alone with the divinely guided passion of a truly gifted artist?
Mark hated these people on a certain level. He wished he could filter their voices through… something… that would make them sound bearable. Better yet, if only they really sounded like versions of Kurt.
And that’s where it all started.
* * * *
David Geffen owned a reasonably-sized music and film catalogue, and a staff who believed that protecting copyright was paramount to their safety, viability, and of course profitability. All of these things his company would continue to act on under the banner of protecting their artist’s integrity.
Geffen got the call from Grohl at 8:24 that morning, just after his morning orange juice and bagel.
He asked how the best-selling musician had been and if there were anything new to report.
“Yes,” he said, “but it isn’t sunshine and rainbows I’m about to blow up your ass.”
* * *
Right after the two agreed that Sunshine & Rainbows would be the name of the next Foo Fighters’ album, Geffen agreed to put their best hacker on the job.
That hacker’s name was Rachel.
Rachel had a formidable history of finding people who didn’t want to be found, especially those who refused to join the digital age. Only 28 years old, Rachel had been born in an internet world but at just the right moment in time that she still knew how to put an ear to the Earth and hear its pulse.
She stood in front of her ‘team,’ as she called them, other hackers who routinely made the impossible possible.
“Our guy,” she announced to the room, “should technically be a God. He should actually be here, in this room, one of us. Frankly, whatever he’s done and how he’s done it makes Napster look like child’s play.”
“David has good reason to be concerned,” Rachel said. “Imagine if right now, I could put my speaking voice through a vocal harmonizer that makes me sound like Mariah Carey? Or Michael Jackson? Right down to the smallest nuance. Suddenly their catalogue is worthless.”
One of her smarter young associates, Hannah, opened her wide brown eyes and raised her pencil. “You said ‘he.’ How do we know it’s not a she.”
“Very unlikely. You’ve watched ‘Profilers.’ The killer is always some pasty white guy – no offense to all the pasty white guys here…”
Three pasty white guys in the room smiled.
“It’s usually the guy who’s got no life and an axe to grind.”
“Do people still grind axes?”
“Where? I mean, can you Google ‘axe grinders’ and find one in the city..?”
“Figure of speech people,” Rachel said. “Look. We have to find this guy, and he isn’t going to be easy. He’s good at hiding his IP, erasing his tracks. But most of all, he’s developed a piece of software that could make some very rich people very poor, very quickly. So here’s what we know…”
* * *
In a small rented bedroom in a Southern California, a man in his forties strummed an acoustic guitar. He’d woken up with a song in his head. The melody had come to him in a dream. He thought it sounded like Carly Simon.
He plucked and strummed lightly. He found the notes and wrote them down. He put the song together.
He was right, it sounded like Carly Simon.
If only he could sing like her.
* * *
Two hours later Penny, a young woman in Manhattan, pulled her iPhone from her back pocket. She’d received an SMS notification from You Tube. A new video had been uploaded: Carly Simon, NEW SONG! ‘Love Me Like I Do You.’
Penny grew a smile. She pushed a pair of earbuds in, then tapped on the link that redirected her to the video.
She absolutely loved it.
* * *
“Let’s get out in front of the media,” said a man in an expensive suit.
He strode confidently down a hallway, followed by a beautiful woman in her 70’s, her smiling face and voice familiar to millions. The two entered a room full of reporters, lights and cameras.
He stepped up to a podium and produced a sheet of paper.
“For those of you who don’t know me, I am William Horan,” and he spelled his name so it would be printed correctly. “I am the acting attorney for Miss Carly Simon, who is standing behind me. At this time, we’d like to make a statement we hope you will share with your readers and all reaches of the public.”
“We,” Horan started, “have recently been informed of a quote ‘new’ song making the rounds on the internet titled ‘Love Me Like I Do You’ credited to Ms. Simon. We are here to state that this is NOT, repeat NOT the work of my client, Ms. Simon, either in whole or part.”
“We have been in contact with the Federal Communications Commission. They have been made aware of this false recording currently circulating. We have received assurances from the highest level that they are deploying all available resources at their disposal to stop this type of fraud. An officer with the FCC has informed us that there is a new type of software, currently unregistered with the FCC and illegal to use, which mimics the voices of other people.”
“We’ve received assurances from YouTube that the offending material will be removed, and any further efforts to repost it on YouTube will result in immediate suspension of the user’s accounts, as well as prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.”
“We appreciate the FCC’s efforts and all who are tracking this illegal practice. If anyone has information regarding the use of this software and phony recordings being made in the name of registered artists and others, we urge you to contact the FCC immediately.”
“I’ll now turn the podium over to my client, then we’ll take a few questions.”
The woman stepped up and leaned lightly toward the microphone.
“Hi everyone. Sorry to drag you all out here like this but I feel this is very important. Whatever it is that’s going on, if someone is using some kind of software to mimic my voice – or the voice of anyone else for that matter, I’m just going to ask that you stop it. Please. Stop doing what you’re doing. It isn’t right. I’ve worked almost half a century giving my all to my fans, and I’d appreciate the opportunity to do that again and again.”
“Yes?” she pointed at a reporter.
“Did you like the song?”
“I gotta admit,” she said with a world-winning smile, “it sure does sound like me!”
The room laughed.
“In fact, it’s one of the best things I haven’t recorded in years!”
At this point the lawyer stepped back up. A perfect sound-byte had been generated. No one generated them better than grace under pressure. The media wouldn’t need anything after that famous, smiling face had led the room in laughter.
What he needed now was a culprit.
* * *
A forty year old man who’d strummed an acoustic guitar yesterday, playing something that sounded a lot like Carly Simon was now cloaked in the air-conditioned comfort of a hotel room.
Door Dash had just delivered a bag of KFC. He’d turned away with the bag when a second knock came. He spun around and re-opened the door.
“Did you forget - ”
The smile melted from his face. Six men in windbreakers, some of their jackets green and others blue, stood stone-faced.
All had capital letters where breast pockets would be.
* * *
“We got him,” said Rachel.
Geffen smiled. “Does the media know yet?”
“Nope. Do you want them to?”
Geffen thought. “Nah. Not yet. Who’s the guy?”
Rachel explained. “Name’s Mark Dormund, hacker in Jersey…”
“Imagine that, fuckin’ Jersey…”
“Always a pain in the ass. Anyway. He developed the software with a college buddy. Thought they’d make millions making ‘lost’ recordings by famous people and putting them up on Ebay, wherever suckers had money.”
“Bring him to my office.”
Rachel nodded. “We’ll see you tomorrow.”
She hung up.
* * *
Mark Dormund looked like an under-dressed fugitive, his beige Dockers soiled from days of wear. His 100% cotton tee was thin, tattered from years in washing machines, its message faded beyond coherency.
He’d been led into the room by Rachel, and a few steps further back, Hannah. The other pasty-white hackers stayed in the hallway, watching Dormund led past like a crucifixion.
Now he stood in front of Geffen. He didn’t wear handcuffs, but his posture said he’d recently become used to them.
Geffen sat, looking, waiting. Finally he looked Dormund in the eye.
“So,” Geffen said. “You want a job?”