Paul is live

An interactive drama about a dead rock star makes a long-delayed debut.

By John Alderman
Published July 29, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Paul is Dead has finally come to life.

Like a mastodon frozen in ice, the interactive drama built for the Web has arrived from the time of The Spot -- demanding that users click page after page to uncover its mysteries, reveal its plot and characters and become a part of its community. If "Paul is Dead" looks and feels like a product of 1996, that's because it is one.

A mystery exploring the (fictional) life and uncertain death of Paul Lomo, a trendsetting post-punk rock singer, "Paul is Dead" has the sad burden of trying, yet again, to prove the medium that gives it life. The site is clearly still in the experimental stage of storytelling on the Web, trying out the new tricks that interactivity has to offer. There are links to other Web sites, which work like footnotes spreading the story with tangents to follow and clues to hide. The songs of Lomo's band Miasma are provided in streaming audio, and a "chatbot" offers artificial intelligence-driven dialogue with a snide, paranoid side character. While the series is a Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagnerian ambition, and the effort that must have gone into it is certainly impressive, the characters and the story only live up to the level of an after-school special.

John Sanborn and Michael Kaplan, together known as LaFong, began the work in 1996 -- a year when all the Net seemed to be in a scramble for content and bets were on as to where it was going. The team had previously created "Psychic Detective," a CD-ROM published by Electronic Arts that wowed critics and advanced the state of the interactive art. While they seem to have had no trouble finding backers to produce "Paul is Dead," one corporate sponsor after another signed on only to drop by the wayside. MGM Interactive, the Microsoft Network and Berkeley Systems each picked up the pieces and split in turn. Many corporate logos from these deadbeat sugar daddies hang like trophies on the "Paul is Dead" home page.

The good news is that as an exercise in developing content for the Web, "Paul is Dead" is surprisingly successful. Although it may have been proven before, this site shows once again that, yes, you can sustain a narrative, add elements of interactivity and use the effects the Web itself offers to tell a story and involve an audience.

The bad news is that what LaFong has created still doesn't work for someone on a modem, even at 56K. Sound files stutter along as the home user waits for the pictures to load, and some bugs even crash browsers. Maybe now that it's 1998, everyone's supposed to have a fast T1 line -- but it's not very punk rock of LaFong to assume so.

As the name of the story suggests, Paul Lomo's dead, and it's left to a star-struck fan turned music journalist turned intrepid detective to piece together his death, from (can you guess?) clues left on the last album, among other things -- like a voice between songs that cries, "My hands, my hands, look at my goddamn hands!" Any rock fan above a certain age will flash back to the "I got blisters on my fingers" line from the Beatles' White Album.

There are, of course, plenty of references to the legends surrounding the corpses that piqued the prurient curiosities that rock built. Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, as well as their entourages and legends, are all reflected here -- sometimes with a straight face, sometimes not. It's when the face is straight that the story flops.

"Paul Is Dead's" vast exercise in creating a past and fabricating objects to support it -- the posters, the songs, the lurid backstage photos -- only ends up proving how impossible it is to construct believable pop stars. God knows an army of industry drones is at work in Los Angeles at this very moment attempting to do the same thing with living people.

Maybe that's why there are so few successful books or movies about fictional rockers. The bizarre combinations of Zeitgeist and affectation that produce rock stars are so improbable that any fictional copy immediately sounds made up, just as invented fashion trends also sound absurd. Who would have believed the Spice Girls, Milli Vanilli, Culture Club, Devo or the Germs?

The music in "Paul Is Dead," certainly, reflects the reality of most rock 'n' roll: predictable lyrics, strained emotional appeal and flat, tuneless delivery. It may be unfair to criticize something that's offered not as a work of art but as clue and artifact; but when everyone in the story is going gaga over music that's really not so great, it does test one's ability to suspend disbelief. As for the singing, it's reminiscent of the numbers that Cheech and Chong used to do.

In fact, "Paul is Dead" works best as parody -- like Cheech and Chong or "This Is Spinal Tap." Details on a Web site offering rock collectibles for sale are cutting and bleakly funny -- a syringe is "rumored to have been used by both Paul Lomo and Seneca." There are plenty of well-observed, cutting takes on the stereotypes of rock and the obsessive behavior of fans: Bass player Seneca is said to have joined her first band by jumping onstage and pushing the old bass player off. And Miasma member Teko boasts of holding the world's record for longest drum solo -- at 11 hours, 43 minutes.

Sadly, the story too often becomes a parody of a Web entertainment itself. Using interviews with Thomas Dolby and Todd Rundgren as evidence that protagonist Elly Clyde has hit rock journalism's big time is a telltale sign that the "Paul Is Dead" team may have spent too much time in Multimedia Gulch and not enough out in current rock clubs.

What's amazing is that LaFong has managed to pull through all of the troubles -- all of the times the project was molded, dropped and then picked up and reshaped to someone else's desires -- and still convey an enjoyable, coherent story. While Sanborn has been quoted recently as having his doubts about continuing to work in interactive media, "Paul is Dead" shows that the form -- technical problems and all -- can work. That, certainly, is something. Where the Lafong duo take the form in the future should prove even more interesting.

John Alderman

John Alderman writes about technology and culture, slums around by publishing the Underbelly travel guide and makes music and sound effects with nerd rock band Three Day Stubble.

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