Rob Smith Can’t Say No: Josh Groban, “Hidden Away”
… with apologies to Robert Olen Butler.
It’s another day in Hell, same as all the others. It’s really not like they used to teach us in Sunday school—no Lake of Fire, no devils with pitchforks and cloven hooves. No Satan, in fact—the Big Guy keeps to himself, in an office somewhere downtown, in the middle of the ever-shifting city grid (maps are useless here; the streets all have similar names and seem to move randomly every day). Aside from the daily sulfur rain shower, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Baltimore, at least for the first few hours of your eternity. In Hell.
Why am I here? That’s the question everybody asks. They’d lived good lives; they were good, honest people. Some of them even went to church every time the doors were open, for all the good it did them. I’m one of the lucky ones, though; I know exactly why I wound up here. True, I led a reasonably good life; I worked hard, provided for my family, did nice things for my friends, reared the fifty-first President of the United States. Yes, I was prone to gluttony and long periods of intoxication, but I made up for them by giving to charity (the Salvation Army pots count) and by not putting Mom in that home until I absolutely had to (the twice-weekly “there’s a spider on my ceiling” phone calls were a bit much).
No, I’m in Hell because of how I died. Slammed into a garbage truck while searching for a song on my iPod to play in the car. The song was Kenny Rogers’ “You Decorated My Life.” They don’t let you into Heaven when you die like that.
So here I am—living in Hell in an apartment with my roommate, 1981 Christie Brinkley, who makes me watch her shower every day, but never lets me touch her (turns out, she still pines for Billy Joel, who lives on the other side of town with John Wayne Gacy). Every day I go to work at the Hell Music Herald (formerly Pitchfork), where I write reviews (my latest, on Koot Hoomi’s Air Supply covers album, ran last week) and interview famous Hellites for my column. I’ve spent three hours every afternoon for the last month talking to Dan Fogelberg, for a career retrospective. He always forgets where he left off the previous day, so I have to ask him the same questions over and over again. I transcribe the conversations each weekend. Hey, it’s a living. In Hell.
Today, I received a package from the Big Guy himself—quite the coup; all my co-workers were buzzing about it, wondering why I was getting such attention. The few remaining Pitchforkers were particularly alarmed; after all, they’d published raves for such bands as The Knife, Panda Bear, and Joanna Newsom, for the sole purpose of pleasing Satan.
So I opened the package and saw the cassette therein—no label, no writing on it, nothing to identify what was on the tape. Popped it into my Walkman, and hoped for the best.
A stately, earnest piano played three rumbling chords before the equally stately, earnest voice began singing stately, earnest lyrics:
Over mountains and sky blue seas
On great circles will you watch for me
Is this person dead? I thought. Hovering over mountains, asking for someone to watch for him, on great circles? What?
The sweetest feeling I’ve got inside
I just can’t wait to get lost in your eyes
Who the Hell rhymes inside and your eyes? Yeah, it’s an oblique rhyme; it’s assonant. That counts. Still sounds funky. The voice, though. The voice is so mannered. It could only be one singer: Groban.
And all these words that you meant to say
Held in silence day after day
Words of kindness than our poor hearts crave
Please don’t keep them
Another oblique rhyme—crave and away. Jesus, two in one verse? Who the Hell writes this shit? I thought. And the instruments—the “Bridge over Troubled Water” piano gave way to a strummed acoustic guitar, with a little organ in the faint background—were all very organic sounding. Strings came in during the chorus, and Groban reached into his falsetto range, probably to show his sensitive side. But Groban is all sensitive side. I wondered who had produced such a fetid piece of mush.
Just then, a small piece of paper fluttered out of the discarded package. “Produced by: Rick Rubin,” it read.
Shit, I thought, Neil Diamond must take forever between records.
The second verse started:
You’re a wonder, how bright you shine
A flickered candle in a short lifetime
A secret dreamer that never shows
If no one sees you then nobody knows
I stopped the tape and removed my headphones. Yes, I thought, I am in Hell. But this is bad. Really bad. Bad even for the place of eternal damnation. Groban’s songs—at least the ones I’d heard when I was alive—had always had a kind of grandiosity, in lyric and in production. This one reached for grand gestures in the words (those unforgivably trite words), but fell completely flat in the production. It was almost as if two separate but equal forces were at work—evil (in the cringe-worthy lyrics), and malevolence (in the boring music).
Because I was aghast at what I was hearing, and because I hoped to never hear it or anything like it again, I decided to try to pull a little reverse-psychology thing on Satan. I wrote a rave review. I called “Hidden Away” (as I discovered it was called) the best thing I’d heard since Chicago 19; I lauded Groban as the voice of a generation, a once-in-an-eternity talent, the likes of which had not been encountered at least since Harry Connick Jr. (I did that to piss off Sinatra, who still hasn’t granted me an interview). I called Rubin’s production “organic to the point of almost being too organic, like a good fertilizer.”
I immediately published the review on the online version of Hell Music Herald (the print version will drop in three week’s time. Or maybe two. Or maybe six). Ten minutes later, as I was setting up for the day’s Fogelberg interview, my phone rang. It was Ashlynn Yennie, the woman who in life played the tail end of the Human Centipede, but who now serves as Satan’s admin assistant (which made me wonder which gig was worse). Ashlynn told me I was being summoned for an audience with the Big Guy, at his lair. I was about to ask about scheduling, when I exploded, leaving a small pile of ash on my decidedly non-ergonomic desk chair.
I reappeared in a tastefully decorated office, seated in the most comfortable leather chair I’d ever rested in. I was situated in front of a richly stained executive desk, on which I could see the nameplate that read “B.L. Zeebub.” Behind the desk sat the Lord of Darkness himself, seated in his own plush chair, turned to face the window behind him. Outside the window, sulfur rained down on the streets of Hell, horribly burning all it touched. The screams could be heard from our vantage point, at least 15 stories above it all.
“You liked Groban, did you?” Satan asked, still facing the window. His voice sounded so familiar, but I chalked that up to the fact that I’d heard him on the radio before, being interviewed about life in Hell.
I thought quickly. “Yes,” I said quietly. “Yes, I did.”
“Good,” he replied. “That pleases me. There’s more where that came from, you know.”
Oh, shit, I thought. “Oh, great!” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Something like this.”
I suddenly remembered where I’d previously heard the voice of Satan. As if detecting my realization, the Big Guy swiveled around in his chair, revealing his true face.
It was Jeff Giles. My editor when I was alive. He was responsible for the Groban song.
“Yes,” he said, his eyes glowing red. “Much more where that came from.” He then laughed a heinous, echoed laugh, like Vincent Price at the end of “Thriller.” I sunk back in my chair.
It’s going to be a long afterlife.