Major labels kept sniffing around, and finally Cornog bit on an irresistible offer from EMI America—a five-record deal at $75,000 a pop, no strings attached. But before the deal was a month old, the label was shut by its global parent, which turned out to be a huge gift. Cornog got paid in full, without recording a single note. He and Powers took the money and ran, finding a house they could afford in the now-fashionable Summit. Cornog went to work at Home Depot and “became the closest I’ve ever been to a regular guy.”
Though now a decade (and counting) since his last binge, What Are You On? shows how powerfully drugs still inhabit his imagination. These songs aren’t about the bravura of recovery—no Oprah-certified material here. Rather, they’re set deep in the muck of drug abuse. “Crystal Queen” is a twisted ode to crystal meth; “Druglife” is about a relationship buckling under the stress of addiction. It starts with a confrontation:
“Hey, where’s my pills? / They were sitting on the windowsill / Should have known something was wrong / When last week you tossed my favorite bong / Now it’s gone.” The despair is leavened with comic rhyming, but the song ends ominously: “If it comes down to the drugs or you / Baby, we’re through / ’Cause you’re messing with my druglife.”
These days, there are a million weepy balladeers painting life’s little letdowns as the heartbreak of the century. But Cornog’s wit and lyrical ingenuity save him from the trap of self-pity. His years of underachievement also serve him well. What Are You On? is emotionally complex in a way that few of the more prosperous songwriters of Cornog’s generation are capable of producing at this point in their careers. In Cornog’s voice, for instance, you hear echoes of the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, the guy with “one foot in the door, the other one in the gutter” and his distinctive tone of wounded stoicism. Westerberg soared to greater heights than East River Pipe will ever reach, but who’s better off now? Westerberg ran out of things to say years ago, while Cornog is still able to tap into the pathos of his former life and find new stories to tell.