Drinking with Strangers: A Whiskey-Soaked Epic About Hair Metal, Pop Queens and Surviving the
By Joe Daly
October 20, 2011
When is it appropriate for a public figure to release a memoir while they are still well within their prime?
Simple- when the story is ripe.
And when a story begins with a small boy in the deep South dreaming of one day making music, and concludes with the emotionally-pulverizing account of his rented Malibu home burning to the ground, with only his dogs and a lone hard drive salvaged, the story is as ripe as it gets. In between these two poles is an epic journey from a would-be metal god to a pop goddess Svengali.
Drinking with Strangers is the tale of musician, songwriter and record producer Butch Walker. Those who might not recognize the name have almost surely heard his handiwork- as Rolling Stone magazine’s “Producer of the Year,” the 42 year-old Walker has produced hits for the music industry’s biggest pop stars, including Katy Perry, Weezer, Pink, Avril Lavigne and Fall Out Boy. When an artist is in need of the Midas Touch, Butch Walker is the guy they call, whether they need him to write a song or to pull a million-dollar hit from the knobs of the mixing board.
The journey begins in Georgia, where a KISS record changed Walker’s young life. Picking up a guitar, he never looked back. Provided that Butch graduate high school, his father gave his blessing for his boy to move to Los Angeles to pursue a one-in-a-million shot at becoming a rock star.
The opening chapters describe Walker’s journey to Los Angeles and his immersion into the late-80s hair metal scene on Sunset Strip. There is the requisite baptism-by-fire into the music industry and the cavalcade of lessons that only get learned the hard way. Although his glam metal band begins to taste commercial success, they are eventually derailed after a disaster-plagued tour through China. Walker perseveres in subsequent bands and as a solo artist, even scoring a hit with the infectious “Freak of the Week.” But it is his work as a producer that has has engendered his high stature in music. Major record labels and chart-whipping artists seek out his guidance and expertise to write and record their biggest hits, and Walker discusses these people and their projects with equal doses of candor and humor.
Among the scores of engrossing anecdotes, his brief and excruciating attempt at collaborating with actress Lindsay Lohan perfectly encapsulates the book’s greatest strengths. Summoned to New York City by ex-American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi (who was producing an album for Lohan), Walker was left to work in the studio with DioGuardi while Lohan painted the town seven shades of red. When Lohan shows up a day late with a cartoonish entourage and a mysterious inability to sing, Walker’s account of the ensuing chaos is nose-clearingly funny. From his description of her stereotypical posse to the abject hysteria punctuating Lindsay’s first attempt to sing (it is so bad that they summon a doctor- literally), Walker delivers witty observations that are peppered with empathy, self-awareness (“I now understood how I had failed the karma exam: this is exactly what I had asked for”), and loads of valuable nuggets about how mainstream music is produced.
There are page-turning tales of some of Walker’s more colorful collaborations, from canoodling with his good friend Pink at the Chateau Marmont to a late night interlude with Nikki Sixx that is so bizarre that it would disorient David Lynch. Along with co-author Diehl, whose prose flows easily and smartly, each of these stories conclude with some kind of takeaway- an observation or a lesson that gives weight to the experience. For example, while co-writing a song with Avril Lavigne, Walker realizes that she doesn’t understand his lyrics. As she cocks her head in confusion, he receives a profound epiphany into both the artist and her audience that eventually resulted in Lavigne’s hit “My Happy Ending.”
Throughout the book, industry commentary takes the form of handwritten notes containing crude illustrations, graphs and lists like:
“How to Make a Really Bad Music Video in 1990:
* Hire guy who does all big Aerosmith videos
* Spend 3x what the album cost to make (in 2 days)
* Make sure catering budget is more than a new Audi
* Lots of ‘Amps.’
*Synchronize your band’s moves”
Walker’s captivating story is also a de facto primer on how to navigate the music industry as an up-and-coming artist. It used to be that any artist who took their career seriously would need to read Don Passman’s All You Need to Know About the Music Business. But Drinking now offers a viable and supremely more entertaining alternative for introducing artists to the business side of music. Replete with first hand experiences of touring, recording, negotiating contracts and defending against cutthroat competitors, young (and old) musicians will richly benefit from Walker’s honesty and his aptitude for explaining complex concepts in simple terms.
Ultimately a book like this can only work if it’s got heart. No matter how many big names are dropped, if there aren’t real feelings that a reader can relate to, the book will die unread and unwanted. Refreshingly, while unafraid to share some frank and sometimes-unflattering assessments of some high profile figures, Walker is sincere and good-natured. Even in discussing the sobering events surrounding his home being burned to the ground (he was not there at the time), Walker sidesteps frothy emotional platitudes and shares his fears and regrets candidly, revealing himself to be a man of depth and integrity.
At age 42, Butch Walker is hardly in the autumn of his life and he surely has thousands of stories waiting to unfold. But at this juncture, his story is ready to be told. Part-High Fidelity, part-Hammer of the Gods, Drinking with Strangers, is one hell of a fun read. Walker and Matt Diehl have delivered an enormously well-written, heartfelt and fast-paced odyssey that entertains and inspires at every turn. Chock full of practical guidance and cautionary tales, it is also a must-read for anyone even remotely considering a career in music.