Don’t talk trash about Richard Marx in his hometown.
As I wrote in a story last week on the Morning News, Marx – the Chicago-born singer best known for the 1980s soft-rock hits “Hold On to the Nights” and “Right Here Waiting” – demanded a sit-down with me after I called him “shameless” in a blog post for a local TV station’s news site.
“Would you say that to my face?” he emailed me. “Let’s find out. I’ll meet you anywhere in the city, any time. I don’t travel again until the end of the week. Let’s hash this out like men.”
At first, I thought a reader was pulling my leg. Then Marx sent these tweets from his verified account: “You call me 'shameless' in print in my home town but won’t respond to my emails to define/explain. I call #chickenshit.” That was followed by “Hey @TedMcClelland I'm running some errands. Should I stop and pick you up some tampons?”
So I invited Marx to my neighborhood bar. He arrived in his Jaguar.
“Listen,” I told him, “if anything I wrote offended you personally, I apologize. It was meant to be music criticism, and I don’t think any reasonable reader would have taken it otherwise. I didn’t intend to impugn your character.”
He still seemed miffed.
“You called me shameless in my hometown, where my family can read this,” he said.
At the time, I thought I was special. Marx told me that, despite 25 years of snarky reviews, he had never met face-to-face with a writer who’d gotten on his bad side. I could not understand why an internationally famous musician who’s sold 30 million records – albeit one whose last hit was nearly two decades ago – would be so overwrought over something I wrote on a pissant blog that he’d drive an hour from his suburban estate to a strange bar in a strange neighborhood just to dress me down in person.
But as I’ve since learned, Marx has a long history of getting heavy with local journalists. After a blogger for Chicagoist called him “the Midwest’s answer to Billy Joel,” Marx responded with a series of testy emails. The blogger, who also belonged to a comedy troupe, reenacted the exchange with a friend who donned a Tina Turner wig to play the formerly mulleted singer. Just last month, Marx failed to show up for an appearance on the public radio station, because, he said, it was raining, he had bronchitis and he couldn’t find parking. When the host complained that Marx had made it to a TV show the same day, the singer took to Twitter.
“So some guy … is bashing me on the radio for not walking in pouring rain with bronchitis to do his show?” he wrote. “Pussy move.”
It escalated from there, with Marx calling the host and his producer “coward,” “douchebag” and “jerk.”
As a poster on Metafilter pointed out after I published my story, Marx consistently violates the public relations maxim “never punch down.”
“If you’re going to feud with a nobody, make sure you’re doing it because you want to help their career,” the poster wrote. “Marx looks like a fool here, and the writer gets bragging rights about how he met Marx in a bar and didn’t back down from calling him shameless, which is a characterization of Marx that few would object to.”
According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Marx’s quadruple-platinum album "Repeat Offender" has sold more copies than "Blonde on Blonde," "Songs for Swingin’ Lovers" or "Pet Sounds." (In fact, Marx’s most popular album has sold more copies than any album by Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra or the Beach Boys.) However, Marx’s window of fame was so brief, and his songs so ephemeral, that he doesn’t have a musical legacy. He’s still heard on late-night call-in request shows for the lovelorn, and, as even he admits, “I’m HUUUUGE at Walgreens” as background music for shopping.
But unlike near-contemporary pop stars Hall & Oates and Journey, Marx has not built a following among a new generation of fans. Few people under the age of 30 or over the age of 60 knows who he is, and most people in between haven’t thought about him in decades. His last Top 10 hit, “Now and Forever,” was released in 1994. He’s a songwriter and a producer now, with a Grammy for co-writing Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father,” but in Hollywood, nobody knows the writer’s name.
Marx has never gotten respect from critics, which is understandably galling for any artist. In a 1990 concert review, a New York Times critic compared him to David Cassidy and Donny Osmond, as the latest in “a long string of insipid, pseudo-adolescent singing idols whose tenure as teenage heartthrobs rarely lasts more than three years.” That was also the last time Marx’s music was the subject of a New York Times article.
Nowadays, only Chicago critics bother to disrespect him. Down is the only direction he can punch, and he seems to believe that, as a native son and 30-times-over platinum artist, he deserves obeisance from not-quite-major-market hacks who are not his professional, financial or creative peers. Marx once threw a diva fit when he found out that songwriter David Foster had received twice as much airtime as he did on WGN-TV.
“A six minute segment. And 3 anchors,” Marx emailed producer Jeff Hoover. “So I sell over thirty million albums and write 13 number one songs ... Oh, yeah ... and I also produced Josh Groban. And Streisand. And many more. And you might let me squeeze out 3 minutes. And even that may involve you dancing like an idiot behind me. Next time you need someone to sing on your show ... you should call David.”
It occurred to me, after my story was published, that Marx might be picking fights with writers as a way to keep himself in the public eye. Because his tweets and emails are so loaded with grievance and crass invective, a run-in with Richard Marx makes great copy. As that Metafilter poster predicted, I have never received as much attention for a piece of writing as I have for that yarn about my barroom encounter with a pop star. It even inspired a Tumblr site devoted to “mostly fictitious stories about people meeting Richard Marx.”
As the Facebook counter and my Twitter followers climbed into the thousands, and emails hit my in-box from England, Ireland and all corners of the USA, I wondered whether Marx had been playing me. But while I respect him for facing me down personally, rather than siccing a lawyer or a P.R. agent on me, which he certainly could have afforded to do, I cannot believe a man as rich and famous as Marx has anything to gain professionally from feuding with bloggers. For whatever reason – insecurity, bitterness, an exaggerated sense of honor -- Marx has a bottomless need to vent against his critics.
Less than 24 hours after my article appeared, Marx – who had flown to Los Angeles that day – sent me a long email in which he attacked my looks, my marital status, my lack of professional achievement, my hypocrisy and my factual accuracy. He informed me that my arrogance is in league with Adolf Hitler’s and Joseph Stalin’s. (To be fair, I’d done some of the same to him, although I didn’t compare him to Hitler, Stalin or any other 20th-century dictator.)
He insisted I publish this letter in its entirety. I am doing so here, both because he dared me (“let’s see if you have the guts”), and because I want to give readers a glimpse inside the mind of a sensitive love balladeer. I’ve annotated the letter where a passage needs explaining, or where I feel like taking another dig at Marx. After all, as he points out, the only thing I’ve got over him is my own blog.
I'm still laughing at your tweet today suggesting I "let this go" when it was you, eight months after I had done just that....face to face...., who chose to print another public attack on my character, and in an extra douch-ey move, include my private e-mails to you. We'll see if you have the guts to reprint this e-mail, unedited.
First, let's cover the inaccuracies of your "piece" today.
First, your editor, who's not named but whose identity I can easily find, is a liar. I've never tipped less than 20% in my adult life, and you're more than invited to call any establishments you think I may patronize to check it out. Also, anytime you'd like to compare annual charity contributions, say when. (Oh,..and I'm also taller than my wife, but despite being 5' 10" I get pegged as much shorter all the time, perhaps due to a somewhat scrawny physique and alarmingly oversized head...but I digress.)
[I read this paragraph to the editor of my blog, who reiterated that not only is Marx a bad tipper, he’s what waitstaff call a “runner” – a demanding diner who constantly asks his server to run back to the kitchen for a new fork, a basket of rolls, etc. However, this photo of the Marxes with President Clinton indicates that Marx – or at least his hair – is taller than his wife.]
Second, to assume you can crawl inside my head and know what my motivation is for writing a song is arrogance reserved for the likes of Hitler and Stalin. Opinion based on fact is respectable journalism. Opinion based on information you have no possibility of knowing is intentionally ignorant and shouldn't be permitted to stand.
Third, my Christmas album was and is available everywhere, not just Target. iTunes, Amazon, Best Buy, trunk of my car, wherever. A nine second Google search would've told you that. And if you (and "Mike, the Plumber") think making a Christmas album and wanting it to sell is shameless, you're not only a blithering idiot, but a total hypocrite. I checked on Amazon and lo and behold, your Obama book is available there. So I'm a "sellout" for selling a Christmas album but you selling a book is, what?...a "calling?" A "service?" Did you donate all the royalties? I call bullshit.
[The Richard Marx Store at Richard Marx’s website, richardmarx.com, has a link to target.com, which advertises a special edition of "Christmas Spirit" with four bonus tracks, available “Only at Target.”]
Lastly, your statement "Richard Marx is married to a model" is not only inaccurate, but insulting to my wife of twenty-four years. Cynthia is a former professional dancer, and actress who has co-starred in more than one iconic film. More importantly, she's a mother who raised three children and who does more volunteering for charity every single year than anyone I know. The demeaning tone of your statement is worthy of an ass-kicking unto itself.
[Marx is married to the former Cynthia Rhodes, who played Penny in "Dirty Dancing."]
You are correct, despite your childish description of my appearance, that I have not had plastic surgery. You can check behind my ears for scars. Interestingly, while I think you're a few years younger than me, you appear considerably older. While as insecure as the next person, I'll choose my view in the mirror over yours any day of the week. But not just for what's on the outside.
We all know guys just like you. You posture all day long about what a "rebel" you are or how "angry" you were to the pathetic point of protesting far too much. The truth is more likely that you spent more time in high school locked inside your own locker than in a classroom. And it shaped exactly who you are today.
The big question is why I give a shit about people like you or the things you write. Even my wife and some friends ask me why I don't just let certain things go. I'm fully aware of what's in my win column. Amazing human being for a wife; kind and healthy kids; more than one fiercely loyal friend; and a career that, after twenty-five years, still sees me hearing my songs on the radio, writing new songs with an array of diverse artists, and touring all over the world. So why do I let these certain attacks get to me?
Here's my explanation. The internet, Twitter and blogs particularly, are a Utopian breeding ground for cowards. A place for small, frustrated people to spew vile, bitter shit without fearing true retribution. But don't forget...Twitter, as well as your little blog, is a public forum. And in a world drowning a little more each day in apathy, I choose to occasionally call out the cowards, if only to briefly shine a big, bright light on their little yellow streak. Today, you became the poster-boy for Chickenshit-itis.
And for you, as well as anyone else who thinks this is as simple as me being "thin-skinned," let me make a clear distinction, again...and for the last time: Mock or belittle my music all day long? Go for it. You're entitled to your opinion. But disparage or call into question my character, and I'll demand you answer for it. That's what I think anyone with any self respect is obliged to do.
I'm fully aware of my lack of celebrity. You think that's an insult? (Although what does it say about you that you would dedicate an entire blog about....ME?) I wasn't EVER really a celebrity. But a bunch of my songs are. And going back to your ignorant and clueless statement about me trying to write songs strictly for commerce, I've only ever written songs that I liked, and hoped other people would like as well, and a couple of my biggest hits were written specifically for my wife, with no initial intention to record them. But I absolutely love that they became hugely popular songs all over the world that people dedicated to loved ones, sang at graduations, funerals, weddings. And I'm even more grateful to have had someone in my life to write those songs for, and about.
By your own admission, this is among the many things you are without.
But you've got your blog. Congrats to you.