A Knack For Survival

Before the interview is to begin with Knack frontman Doug Fieger, the man would first like to ask his own question. "I was wondering, why do you want to do an interview with me?" he says, his voice full of anger and confusion. Because, I tell him, I love the Knack -- or at least I did 18 years ago, when I was 12 years old and didn't know any better. OK, so I don't tell Fieger the last part of that sentence, but he doesn't buy it anyway. "I find that hard to believe," he says, his voice full of hatred and bitterness.

Fieger then proceeds to recount several things I have written about the Knack over the course of the past several years. If anything, I am less astonished that he read -- and recalls -- what I penned about his band and more bothered by the fact that I have indeed written about the Knack on more than one occasion. Fieger mentions one instance when I allegedly compared him to L.A. rock-scene skeleton Kim Fowley, the former Runaways producer who always shows up at South by Southwest and tries to convince the local yokels he still is somebody. Fieger showed up in Austin, Texas, a couple of years ago -- during one of Fowley's rare absences -- and I recall wondering in print if there was an L.A. has-been quota at the music-bizzers convention.

"I've read some things you've written about me specifically that were really snide, unfun, unfair, unnice, and I've never even met you," Fieger says, fairly choking with rage and scorn. "I've gotten calls from friends of mine saying, 'What does this guy have against you?' When I got the call from my manager saying, 'Robert Wilonsky wants to talk to you,' I wanted to talk to you and ask you why you would write stuff about someone you don't know. I really want to know."

The conversation continues like this for a while -- Fieger demanding to know why I would write such nasty things about the Knack (well, duh), and me trying to defend myself against one of the most reviled lead singers in all of rock 'n' roll history. The fight is fixed.

But it is one in which Fieger has been engaged for most of his professional life; he simply has not been afforded the opportunity to attack his attackers, to lash back at those who have derided the Knack ever since the release of Get the Knack in 1979, when the band sold more than 500,000 albums in two weeks on its way to becoming one of the most successful debut acts of all time. If not me, then Fieger's bound to let loose on some other schlub who touted the party line for years. Fieger, who refused to talk to the media during his moment of fame and then couldn't find a microphone after the spotlight burned out, has nearly 20 years of resentment stored up inside him. Who can blame him for exploding? Just stand clear of the mess.

But no one can accuse Fieger of being a quitter. Like Nixon turning up on the talk shows in his later years, Fieger keeps re-forming the Knack as though each new attempt means a chance to rewrite the history books, to earn a reprieve from dishonor.

History would lead us to believe that the Knack was loathed almost the moment the band formed in 1978. In his 1996 L.A. music history Waiting For the Sun, Barney Hoskyns refers to the band -- singer-guitarist Fieger, guitarist Berton Averre, bassist Prescott Niles, and drummer Bruce Gary -- as four "aging musos riding the retro-pop bandwagon" who sat atop the pop charts for six weeks and then slid into the ocean of scorn and obscurity. Hoskyns portrays the band as a one-and-a-half-hit wonder that scored with its "nauseating" single "My Sharona."

Yet there did not always exist such hatred. During the late '70s, the Knack and Los Angeles were like young lovers flush from a new romance. The band played the Troubadour and other near-dead discotheques; it shared stages with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty and Ray Manzarek; its members were beloved power-pop heroes in a punk-rock town. Rolling Stone even profiled the band before it signed to Capitol.

But somewhere between anonymity and instant stardom, the Knack became a detested enemy of the state of rock 'n' roll. Get the Knack was released in early 1979, and, within a matter of days, it was certified gold; weeks later it was dipped in platinum. On August 25, 1979, "My Sharona" became the No. 1 song in America, and for six weeks it sat atop the Billboard charts. And for its success, the Knack was rewarded with some of the most vicious criticism ever leveled at a band. Its members were labeled lecherous old men writing songs about wanting to screw teenage girls; critics pointed to songs such as "Good Girls Don't," "(She's So) Selfish" and "Frustrated" -- teen-beat anthems about doin' it with your girlfriend while Mom and Dad are out of the house -- and condemned them as "nasty" and "mean-spirited."

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