I Remember It That Way - 'The Life of Chris Gaines' turns 20
Here’s the thing—if the concept of ‘Chris Gaines’ had been done later on, it may have been better received—or at the very least, maybe a little better understood.
If not better understood, maybe people would have humored it a little more.
But because the idea of ‘Chris Gaines’—a character, or caricature, if you will, personified by an already established artist in the zeitgeist of the 1990s, came at the time that it did (the eve of the new millennium), from what I can surmise, people were confused, and possibly alienated by the entire project.
It was just too much—too difficult to follow, with too much pomp and hype surrounding it.
Already established artists taking on characters, or other identities, are not so much commonplace now, two decades later, but it’s an artistic device that is, overall, a less difficult idea to wrap your head around.
The entire idea surrounding ‘Chris Gaines,’ though, was maybe just too ambitious—never really given a shot to do anything than buckle under its own perplexing weight.
‘Chris Gaines,’ per the biographical information found on the inside page of the liner notes to The Life of Chris Gaines, is Australian. It’s a weird factoid—maybe weird isn’t the right word to use; it’s specific. It’s a very specific fact about the fictional musician portrayed by the very, very American Garth Brooks, who was born in Oklahoma.
In the years between Brooks’ seventh album, aptly titled Sevens, released in 1997, and his ‘final’ album before retiring in the mid-2000s, Scarecrow, from 2001, Brooks found himself developing the character of ‘Chris Gaines,’ a tormented and very successful pop musician, who was more or less seeking redemption for his debauched lifestyle following a near-death car wreck.
Brooks himself had created a very elaborate backstory for Gaines, with the intent that he would then star in a film about Gaines’ life, entitled The Lamb; in fact, printed onto the inlay card, and visible through the clear tray of the CD’s jewel case, reads the message “The pre-soundtrack to the film The Lamb.”
The fact that The Life of Chris Gaines was released as the soundtrack for a movie that wasn’t made is something people often forget. ‘Chris Gaines,’ as an idea, or a character, is something people, also, often forgotten, despite Brooks’ attempt at creating a media frenzy surrounding it in the fall of 1999.
The project itself failed so spectacularly, and confounded so many people that, presumably Garth Brooks himself would love it if the whole thing could be forgotten; long out of print, any of the music from the album has been scrubbed from YouTube, and as anticipated, it is not available to digitally download1. Brooks only recently, and briefly, reflecting on Chris Gaines after actor and singer Donald Glover chose to cover the minor hit from The Life of Chris Gaines, “Lost in You,” for Australian radio station Triple J’s “Like A Version” series.
Brooks called it ‘very sweet,’ and said Glover didn’t just cover the song—but that he ‘owned it.’
He also, apparently, discussed it at a press conference for a 2015 concert, stating he’d make another Gaines album in a heartbeat, but would never lose that much weight again.
The project could be looked at as a footnote in Brooks’ storied history—it was a perplexing move, or experiment that got out of hand, that he was able to recover from given enough time2. Arguably, it didn’t hurt his career that badly. And outside of the occasional think piece—Stereogum ran something on it in 2016 during what they called ‘Weird 90s week’—the whole thing is an oddity of pop culture from another time entirely.
Was The Life of Chris Gaines a disaster because it was so confusing to people that a superstar like Garth Brooks would adopt this additional persona, alleging that he would star in a film about the character’s life; was it a disaster because it was difficult, at the time, to see a musician from one genre attempt to—albeit awkwardly and bombastically—crossover to another platform? This, two decades later, is very common (e.g. Taylor Swift.)
Or, was it a disaster because musically, The Life of Chris Gaines is a difficult, at times embarrassing, record to listen to?
‘Chris Gaines,’ per the biographical information found on the inside page of the liner notes to The Life of Chris Gaines, is an only child, and the son of two former Olympic swimmers. Despite the character being born in Australia, Gaines grew up in Los Angeles, developed his love of music, and dropped out of high school near the end of the 1980s to form the band C.R.U.S.H, the fictional trio responsible for one of the album’s strangest, and weakest moments, “My Love Tells Me So,” a bizarre, in earnest pop song that Brooks doesn’t even sing lead on—Gordon Kennedy, the guitarist in Brooks’ band for this record, does.
C.R.U.S.H. ends abruptly when one of its members dies in a plane crash; from there, Gaines’ solo career begins to gestate.
As if all of this wasn’t difficult enough to process, this is where things begin to a little harder to understand, at least from a logistical point.
The liner notes feature mocked up album artwork for Gaines’ solo outings, including his debut, Straight Jacket, and its ‘dark and angry’ follow up, Fornucopia. The covers feature someone who looks a little like Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines, but it’s definitely somebody younger and much, much slimmer.
The covers are also ludicrous in their sexually charged imagery.
I remember the usage of a younger Chris Gaines in these early album covers, for some reason, caused a lot of confusion for me as a teenager—my mother, a longtime Brooks fan, bought The Life of Chris Gaines shortly after its release, but I can recall her being very, very disappointed by it.
Somebody named Brian Vaughn is credited in the album’s liner notes as standing in for Gaines from 1986 to 1992. And because The Lamb, as a film, was never developed beyond this point, what I’m uncertain about is if Vaughn would have portrayed the younger Gaines on screen—according to this increasingly elaborate backstory, it’s in 1992 when Gaines is involved in a horrific car accident, where he is hospitalized for six weeks, and requires a number of reconstructive plastic surgeries on his face. The Gaines mythology says that during this time, he releases an album in 1994, but does not allow himself to be seen or photographed, and does no promotion of the record.
It’s in 1996 that Gaines reemerges, as Brooks, with a R&B tinged album called Triangle—the Gaines biography states that he was dubbed ‘the new Prince’ at this time. And as the biography concludes, it says Gaines’ forthcoming record, The Lamb, is already expected to be the ‘definitive album of the new millennium.’
The thing about The Life of Chris Gaines, an album that is presented as a 13 track ‘greatest hits’ that spans Gaines’ career, is that it plays its hand entirely too soon.
Running nearly a hour, a bulk of the album is not unlistenable—however there are a number of moments that will make you wince, and perhaps in an effort to lure people in to the album as a whole, Brooks sequenced the two best tracks, back to back, right out of the gate.
The album’s opening track, “That’s The Way I Remember It,” truthfully, doesn’t seem all that out of place for Brooks, if he were playing the role of himself. It also, 20 years later, doesn’t seem so far out of place that it couldn’t fit in somewhere on the radio now—either as an adult contemporary track, or, if you pushed it, country, even though there is little that resembles this, or even what I came to know as ‘country’ music in the 1990s on the charts right now.
The song shuffles along with a soulful, warm electric piano, and lightly brushed percussion that is accompanied by the use of drum programming—again, a trademark of the late 1990s adult contemporary sound. It’s a mid-tempo ballad, and I only say that because of the way Brooks just goes for it in the song’s refrain—it walks a weird line between being restrained (musically) but bombastic (vocally)—and he nails it.
There are songs on The Life of Chris Gaines where Brooks tries to do some different things with his voice, but here, he still sounds like himself as he belts the refrain—“That’s the way I remember it—I remember it that way,” he sings, and I never said that the lyrics to the song weren’t mildly insipid. “From the day I was living there, I remember it that way. Some of our stories fade as we grow older—some get sweeter every time they’re told. That’s the way—I remember you that way.”
One of the most surprising things about “That’s The Way I Remember It” is how quickly the song manages to pull itself together—it opens with a muted acoustic guitar progression that then gives way to large, expansive strumming, affected slightly by a flange if you listen closely. It’s tough to know where the song is going before the rest of the instrumentation comes tumbling in, including the drum programming and actual live percussion working in tandem, and the inclusion of some dreamy guitar noodling, panned pretty heavily to the right, during the refrain.
Not every song on The Life of Chris Gaines pulls itself together like this, though. There are a number of times when the song never pulls itself together at all, turning into what could be looked at as a bit of a train wreck.
If you do an internet search for ‘Babyface,’ as in Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, and ‘Chris Gaines,’ there is very little record of this alleged factoid about the ill fated projected film The Lamb—that Babyface was going to serve as an executive producer of the film, but he, surprisingly, has nothing to do with The Life of Chris Gaines.
This is surprising because, as a legendary producer and songwriter, you would think that Edmonds would have had a hand in the prospective film’s ‘pre-soundtrack.’
It’s also surprising because the album’s first single, and its second track, “Lost in You,” sound an awful like it was written by Edmonds.
Sounding like an amalgamation of “When Can I See You Again” and “Change The World”—which, as it turns out, Edmonds only produced, and did not write, “Lost in You,” released a number of months in advance of the full album, managed to crack the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and is possibly, the one tangible thing that people remember when they think of ‘Chris Gaines.’
Fascinatingly, and coincidentally enough, though perhaps not all that surprising, it turns out that the trio of songwriters responsible for “Change The World”—Gordon Kennedy, Wayne Kirkpatrick, and Tommy Sims, are the three names credited with penning “Lost in You.”
A flirtation with acoustically based R&B—and really sounding like nothing else on The Life of Chris Gaines, Brooks seems almost at home, or at least like he’s comfortable, singing something moderately soulful in a higher range. A far cry from the absolutely bombastic, energetic country music he is known for, “Lost in You” is an exercise in restraint—it’s structured so that there’s really even no place for it take off, even if it wanted to; even with the inclusion of a number of soulful back up singers to come through on the song’s incredibly impactful (if not borderline insipid) refrain, it always remains at cruising altitude—a slinking, slow burning love song that, surprisingly, manages to do quite a bit with the three minutes it lasts for.
As insipid as the refrain might be, it’s also surprisingly clever in one place—“Heaven knows, I’m head over heels and it shows,” it begins. “I’ve played every field, I suppose. But there’s something about you, when you’re around, baby I have found I get lost in you.” And maybe I’m a sucker for saccharine pop lyrics, but the contrast between being found, and then lost, works, and works well within the context of the song.
“Lost in You” is three minutes, which is the perfect length for a pop song (see also Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer”) because it both leaves the listener wanting more—or at least thinking they want more, but three minutes is also a smart enough length not to overstay its welcome, or give the listener too much of a good thing.
Brooks, despite his stable of songwriters and players, and his best efforts, is unable to top these first two tracks—“The Way I Remember It” within the Gaines mythology, is from the album Triangle, the album the character released in 1996 after four years of self-imposed exile; “Lost in You” is one of two ‘new’ Gaines songs to be included on what is billed as a Greatest Hits effort—even a fictional character still falls into the gimmick that began in the early 1990s with artists including one or two new songs on a Hits collection in an effort to get you to buy things you already had.
In most cases, at least in the ‘album’ era (before digital downloads) it worked.
Even sold as a ‘Greatest Hits’ collection for a fictional character, after you get beyond “Lost in You,” the album, as a whole, is of diminishing returns, and contains little, if any, cohesion in sound—all kind of just barely held together by Brooks’ voice, and some familiar instrumentation here and there. Some of it is just simply forgettable—too middle of the road and boring to make you wince; some of it is a little surprising at times; some of it is just absolutely unlistenable.
Outside of the vague memory of this entire debacle happening, and possibly recalling “Lost in You” being released as a single, the one thing people will more than likely actually remember about Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines is when he hosted an episode of “Saturday Night Live” in the fall of 1999.
Brooks was the host; Gaines was the night’s musical act (during the era when the musical guests only performed one song, as opposed to two), and at no point was it ever explicated stated that the host, and the musical guest, were the same person. It continued the weird, very earnest and ‘meta’ inside joke Brooks was trying to cultivate.
The Gaines episode, airing in November of 1999, was the second time Brooks had hosted, and this time out is probably most remembered, outside of the Gaines musical performance, for a skit where Brooks plays a struggling musician who exclaims he would sell his soul to write a decent song—and in walks in Will Ferrell, in an elaborate devil costume, attempting to pitch out of tune, novelty songs like “Love Bat,” and “Fred’s Slacks.”
On the NBC website, the Gaines musical performance is, strangely, missing (it is really nowhere else to be found online, either) and there is a small handful of sketches available from this episode, including a ‘breaking the fourth wall’ exchange between a very young, very thin Tracy Morgan and Brooks, about Chris Gaines.
It shouldn’t have been funny then, and it certainly is not funny now, but within the conceit that Morgan ‘doesn’t know’ Brooks and Gaines are the same person, he tells Brooks he thinks Chris Gaines ‘bats for both teams,’ and ‘smokes meat cigars.’
If I recall, the Gaines song played on “Saturday Night Live” was a short, funk-driven track—“Way of The Girl.” It’s one of many songs on The Life of Chris Gaines that border on being directionless, and more or less lose momentum at some point near the three or four minute mark, before they fade out into nothingness. The idea of ‘the fade out’ in a song is fine—it’s not poison for a song, but here, it seems to be overused in a way that implies, within the studio, Brooks and his band, and veteran producer Don Was, simply ran out of ideas with certain pieces, and that’s where they ended up.
Because The Life of Chris Gaines has, for the most part, been scrubbed away from the internet, and is not available to either legally, or illegally, download, in order to get a copy with the intent of revisiting the album, 20 years after my mother purchased it on a Saturday afternoon in September, I bought a used copy, for $4, from the second-hand CD and DVD store in town. The woman who runs the shop gave me a sideways glance when I slid it across the counter, and said, “Really?”
I had to explain to her that it was turning 20 at the end of September, and it needed to be revisited, and that I was thankful they at least had a copy of it for sale.
In listening to it, as I am able, either at home or in the car, I’d subjected my wife to it a few weeks ago on a trip up to the Twin Cities where we were having an impromptu night out for dinner.
We were nearing our destination, and had passed the halfway point of the album, when, totally unprompted by me, she made a surprising statement—surprising, only, because it was something that I had thought about myself, but never vocalized.
“Do you think there are some songs on here where he sounds a little like Ryan Adams?”
Ryan Adams, for the last seven or eight months, has become a sore subject in the house. Once, a favorite for both my wife and myself, after being outed as a serial sexual abuser of, like, every woman he’s ever come in contact, we’ve been uncertain on what to do with the vast collection of Adams LPs that once lined my shelf.
There’s a song, shortly after the halfway point on The Life of Chris Gaines, that sounds an awful lot like when Ryan Adams write a ‘rock’ song—or at least, like a rock song in 2002, or 2003; thing “Starting to Hurt,” from Demolition. Perhaps it’s the use of chugging, then distorted electric guitar; perhaps it’s the steady bass line and sharp, precise drumming coming from the rhythm section.
Or perhaps it’s the way Brooks drops his voice into a raspier, lower range—a night and day difference from the higher, soulful tones of “Lost in You.” On “Unsigned Letter,” Brooks, you could say, even snarls—though a little restrained, still, somehow—in the song’s infectious, mildly clichéd fist pounding refrain: “Is she gonna strike the match that’ll surely light the flame? Is she carrying a torch for love I vain? Is she gonna break the locks—take a look inside the box, knowing that she could release Pandora’s shame.”
Then, for some reason, he says—“Welcome to the game; what’s in a name?”
“Unsigned Letter,” aside from sounding exactly like the kind of thing somebody else would record only a handful of years later, is yet another song that seemingly drifts off without direction until it mercifully fades out, but it is also one of the more listenable, and tolerable songs that make up the rest of the album.
I hesitate to say that structurally, The Life of Chris Gaines almost folds under its own ambitions almost immediately, but following the one-two of “The Way I Remember It,” and “Lost in You,” it would take a herculean effort to keep that kind of momentum and quality for another 11 tracks, and Brooks just doesn’t have it in him, unfortunately.
“Snow in July” is the first of a few attempts at faux-funk; “Driftin’ Away” is a turgid ballad that finds him stretching his vocal range, but it snail’s pace with which the song unfolds brings the pacing of the record down to a crawl, and “It Don’t Matter to The Sun” (another single) suffers a similar fate; “Main Street” and “Digging for Gold” are two additional ‘rock’ leaning tracks that find Brooks tapping into that raspy, proto-Ryan Adams range.
These songs aren’t bad, per se—they are just totally forgettable.
The aforementioned “My Love Tells Me So,” the 1980s inspired track that closes the album is not, surprisingly, the strangest, most difficult piece to take away from The Life of Chris Gaines.
No, that would be “Right Now.”
On my initial listen of The Life of Chris Gaines, shortly after I procured it for $4, I left it playing in our home’s stereo while I took a shower. After exiting the bathroom, my wife excitedly told me I had missed a song that featured, as she put it, ‘rapping.’
On another listen, a number of days later, we were speeding down the highway when “Right Now” came on—“THIS IS THE ONE WITH THE RAPPING,” my wife exclaimed, as I fiddled with the volume knob, attempting to keep the car in the right lane.
Calling what Brooks does on “Right Now” ‘rapping’ isn’t exactly correct; the song itself is a medley, of sorts, combining the iconic refrain from “Get Together” written by Chet Powers and performed by The Youngbloods—originally from 1967, with verses, rattled off in a muffled, distorted, spoken word affect, lifted from an idiosyncratic folk song from the late 1990s, “If It Were Up To Me” by Cheryl Wheeler.
Coming off as a borderline manifesto set to music—thanks in part to Wheeler’s original being a protest song of sorts in the wake of a shooting—it arrives as the most puzzling, bizarre, and cringe inducing moment on the record. Musically, it blends jittering programming, live percussion, and a chugging rhythm coming from the acoustic guitar, the whole thing is a train wreck—and it’s in moments like this when it becomes glaringly clear why Brooks has tried to erase the memory of Chris Gaines from public consciousness.
In one of the things that I read while researching what I was able to find about the entire Chris Gaines debacle, I came across something that implied the public would have been, perhaps, a little more forgiving of Brooks if he simply admitted he wanted to make a pop/rock album, and released it under is own name—and that audiences became too hung up on the Gaines persona, and the frenzy that surrounded it—Brooks did, after all, concoct a mock episode of VH-1’s “Behind The Music” featuring Gaines, and also performed songs from the album in an hour long NBC prime time special.
I am uncertain if I can agree, or even disagree, with that statement. It’s tough to know what the listening public, especially country music fans, on the eve of the new millennium, would have been willing to put up with from Brooks. Artists ‘crossover’ from one genre, and one Billboard chart, to another, all the time now, but at that point in time, would a ‘rock record’ from Garth Brooks been welcomed with open arms, even if it wasn’t made up of these songs; even if it had been more cohesively structured in its final sound?
Some of my friends from work occasionally ask what I’m working on when I say that I’ve been writing, and I found I had a challenging time attempting to explain the idea of Chris Gaines to them. One of them remembers it, but not very well; others have no recollection of this at all—perhaps because they are younger than me, or perhaps they do not live in a world steeped in nostalgia and popular culture. After trying to explain the soundtrack to a movie that was never going to be made, and a fictional character portrayed by Garth Brooks, one of them told me she thought it sounded fascinating.
Somebody else asked what the conclusion of this essay was going to be.
It is fascinating, isn’t it? That’s the thing—the Gaines mythology, both of the character itself, and the sheer audacity surrounding the development and eventual release of this album, is far more memorable, and more interesting, than the music found within. The music itself is, unfortunately, forgettable; save for two songs—“Lost in You,” and “That’s The Way I Remember It,” the rest of the record certainly hasn’t stood the test of time, and the ‘sell by’ date on something like this probably didn’t even last until the year 2000.
It can be looked at as a failure, or that it did something to his career that he could never really recover from (which I disagree with), but you have to admit that this was a courageous, albeit bizarre, risk, and he went into it 100%, and tried to walk away as gracefully as one can from something like this.
It’s fitting, in a sense, that arguably one of the best songs of the project—or, at the very least, one of the most infectious and memorable from this album, is called “That’s The Way I Remember It,” and it features such a simple line in the refrain, where Brooks repeats that phrase twice, but during the second time, he inverts a few of the words to say “I remember it that way.”
Because, 20 years later, Brooks would prefer that nobody remember this at all.
1- At some point, I learned a strange tidbit about Garth Brooks—that he was furious, at one time in his career, about the idea of ‘used CD’ stores; specifically, he was mad at the idea of someone re-selling his music without him making money off of it. In 2014, in an effort to take control of the amount of royalties he was receiving off of digital music sales, Brooks launched his own digital music platform—Ghost Tunes. It shuttered in 2017, and was absorbed into Amazon Music.
2- The Stereogum piece alleges that his career never really recovered, even after the release of Scarecrow in 2001, and that is why he retired, and eventually wound up in Las Vegas for a number of years, before coming back to tour nationally.