Among the inscrutable terms invented to parse the stylistic subtleties of rock music, “bedroom pop” stands out as an elegantly descriptive coinage. The bedroom in question refers not to the content of the songs but to where they’re produced. These are solo projects, sort of like writing in a diary or sketching on a pad, and in New York, there is practically an epidemic of the stuff. In any given Williamsburg tenement, some off-duty barista is hunched over a rat’s nest of recording gear, emptying his soul into a machine that cost him a year in tips.
These private masterpieces rarely get far from the bedroom, and for that, the rest of us can consider ourselves fortunate. The world is noisy enough, don’t you think?
Sometimes, though, the music not only gets out, it catches on a bit. Which is the story of East River Pipe, a.k.a. F. M. Cornog, an erstwhile “garbagehead”—“a drug addict,” he translates, “who will take anything that is put in front of him”—and now the flooring guy at a Home Depot in New Jersey. When Cornog takes off that orange apron, he goes home to a loving wife, a baby daughter, a skittish Dalmatian, and a roomful of music equipment with which he pursues a secret life as a reclusive pop hero.
What Are You On? is the sixth East River Pipe album, and it is a deeply satisfying work of storytelling through pop. The thirteen songs, meticulously assembled from a simple palette of guitar chords, gentle keyboard riffs, and a drum machine, are about drugs, their fleeting pleasures and lasting complications. The lyrics are dark, funny, bitter, wise, and sad, and the melodies, driven by Cornog’s scorched voice, have a surprising and alluring sweetness.
That Cornog, at age 45, should be at the peak of his creative powers has everything to do with his failures as a younger man. If things had gone right for him from the start, his best days as an artist would almost certainly be behind him. He graduated from high school in the late seventies with “an intense interest in writing songs and getting fucked up,” an optimal résumé for the indie-rock revolution that would soon take off. In Athens, Georgia, there was R.E.M.; in Minneapolis, there were the Replacements; in San Pedro, California, there were the Minutemen. But in Summit, New Jersey, home to the resolutely middle-class Cornog family, there was nothing but a job in a lightbulb factory and a big supply of Rolling Rock and weed.
“If it was today, they probably would’ve said I was depressed and put me on Paxil,” Cornog says. “Back then, I didn’t even know I had a problem, although I sure wanted to take something for it.”
He aggressively self-medicated for the next decade or so, barely clinging to menial jobs, disappearing on binges, sleeping on benches at the Hoboken train station, and occasionally keeping his head clear enough to write and record a few songs. He always intended to form a band, and even came up with the name for one. “I saw a big pipe spewing out raw sewage into the East River, and I thought, I’m the pipe, the sewage is my songs, and the river is the world,” says Cornog. “You can see I felt really good about myself.”
As a band, East River Pipe never happened. Cornog had a collaborator for a while, “a guy with better social skills than mine,” but they couldn’t get it together. “I’m amazed,” he says, “when I read about rock stars who are addicted to drugs and still somehow make albums and go on tour. I only had time for drugs.”
The collaborator proved indispensable in one respect: He introduced Cornog to Barbara Powers, who “had the best record collection of any woman I’d ever met,” says Cornog, as well as superhuman tolerance for dealing with a binge-prone boyfriend. At that point, the only people who’d heard Cornog’s songs were the few friends to whom he’d given cassettes, and Powers took it upon herself to get his music out. From her apartment in Astoria, she created a label called Hell Gate, first putting out homemade tapes, then pressing 45s.
By the early nineties, when Nirvana was on top of the world, agoraphobic outsiders were suddenly the rage. Cornog’s “Helmet On,” about a guy working up the nerve to go inside a gay bar, won Single of the Week honors from the influential British magazine Melody Maker, and East River Pipe looked poised to bust out of the bedroom.
That, too, never happened. Just as the serious offers came flowing in, Kurt Cobain killed himself. In Cobain’s extreme discomfort with the trappings of celebrity and the exigencies of the music business, Cornog saw enough of himself to know he could never survive even a tiny dose of fame. He hated performing live and almost never did it. So he opted for a small indie label that required no touring or promotional chores. As he pulled himself together, he wrote songs with redolent titles like “Shiny Shiny Pimpmobile” and “Stare the Graveyard Down.” A stable relationship and the semblance of a daily routine helped him gradually stretch the time between binges—a week, then a month, then six months, and finally a good, long spell of sobriety.