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The ballad of Jesse Camp

By Lorne Behrman

JUNE 7, 1999:  "Please welcome to the show MTV VJ-turned-rocker Jesse Camp," shouted talk-show host Johnny Vanson, getting up from his desk at the Edward Weiss Commemorative Theatre in midtown Manhattan to applaud. The drummer of Too Fast for Love, The Vanson Show's house band, hammered out the cowbell intro to "We're Not Gonna Take It" as a guitar traced the song's vocal melody and the rest of the players kicked in. Greeted by shrieking fans and a barrage of flung panties, Jesse strutted on stage, shook Vanson's hand, and took a seat on the plush couch next to Vanson Show sidekick Ted McDonald.

"Jesse babe, why are you so amazing?" Vanson enthused, shooting Camp a toothy grin.

"Awe, lae ooh blah ugheeee uh," Jesse slurred modestly as a gob of spittle slid down his chin onto the collar of his Kix T-shirt.

"The kids love you on MTV -- I bet that bubblegum metal album of yours, Jesse & the 8th Street Kidz [on Hollywood], is going to sell like hotcakes," Vanson said, winking at the camera. "It reminds me of when the Top 40 was dominated by limo - and - leather - dudes - and - dudettes - who - had - hits - with - songs - they - may - or - may - not - have - written - let - alone - played - on - but - no - one - cared - 'cause - the - boys - looked - like - girls - and - the - girls - looked - like - porn - stars."

"Uwha wha eehya nyeeha," Jesse admitted with a giggle.

"And I bet there are a few power ballads on there too . . . "

"Ughghgyeah, nyheaaeee!", Jesse affirmed.

"Ha-ha! You're bringing back the glory days of Poison and Mötley Crüe, when popular music was loud, fun, and stupid," Vanson exclaimed with an approving nod.

"Loud, fun, and stupid, sir!", McDonald boomed. "LOUD, FUN, and STUPID!"

Several miles away in an Upper West Side apartment, those three words echoed in the head of Dr. B. Ring, waking the professor from a fitful sleep. He studied the disturbing visage of Jesse and his tangled palm-tree hairdo as it stared back at him from the TV screen. For years Ring and his fellow rock critics had worked to rid pop music of hairsprayed spandex-and-leather-clad rock boys and fist-pumping headbangers, filling their reviews with words like "dystopian," "massification," and "commodification." Ring's brain trust of musicians -- Michael Stipe, Eddie Vedder, and Steven Malkmus -- had replaced the lewd frivolity of rock and roll with collegiate irony and folksy humility. "This Jesse Camp fellow could ruin it all," Ring seethed. "I bet he doesn't even have a bachelor's degree. He's probably in cahoots with Manson."

The brain trust was convened. Ring briefed his minions. "An orator like this could destroy us!" he shouted, pointing to the cover of the Jesse Camp & the 8th Street Kidz CD. "He's every bit as dangerous as a Stuttering John, Jeff Spicoli, or Pauly Shore. Especially in the current climate." Then he shouted at a trembling Vedder, "Your record sales suck! Live on Two Legs? How about getting on all fours for a good ass-whooping."

Stipe began a compassionate a cappella rendition of "Everybody Hurts" to soothe the doctor's nerves, but Ring cut him short with a stern glance and sent him scurrying off to his room without dinner. Malkmus gazed calmly up from his hardback copy of Wittgenstein's On Certainty and said nothing.

Exasperated, the doctor stormed over to the stereo, slid Jesse's CD into place, and pressed "play." First, a screech of feedback. Then, a guitar inverting the central riff of "Brown Sugar." And, finally, Jesse doing his best Steven Tyler impersonation: "Yo' 'eep me comin'/We ain't gonna make it to school this mawnin'." Three minutes later, school bells, playground noise, and anthemic guitars coalesced around the joyous finale of "See You Around."

Next up, a tune with a Bay City Rollers-style bubblegum beat, handclaps and all. Malkmus began humming the melody. Vedder was on his feet dancing. Even the doctor was tapping his foot.

"It's like Joan Jett," Vedder blurted out.

"You moron," Ring countered, "it's Hanoi Rocks."

"No it's the Sweet," insisted Malkmus

"What do you know, Malkmus? You can't even tune a guitar," Ring shot back.

"You're the one who wrote that article on Celine Dion," was Malkmus's cruel retort.

They listened on. To a jangly tune with an infectious "Yeah, yeah" chorus. To a song that resembled Cyndi Lauper's '80s hit "All Through the Night." To two more solid guitar rockers, one with more handclaps, the other without. And then . . .

"It's 'Wild Horses,' " the doctor called out.

"No, uh . . . ," Vedder stroked his chin in deep thought, "it's . . . "

Before he could finish, they were silenced by the sound of Stevie Nicks gently dueting with Camp on "My Little Savior."

"She's a traitor!" the doctor yelled viciously as he stormed out of the room.

Again Malkmus peeped up from his book. "It's 'Maggie May,' " he said with a final, knowing smirk.

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