Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in 1990
He began as Michael Bolotin, a bizzer whose generous mane was already recognizable when he belted hard rock in Blackjack. The quartet, who once opened for Black Sabbath, is best known to younger audiences for “Maybe It’s the Power of Love,” sampled on Kanye West’s 2004 track “Never Let Me Down.” But Bolotin liked the cut of guitarist Bruce Kulick’s jib; the guitarist joined KISS during its ugly makeup-free mid eighties period and played on “Forever,” the top ten single Bolotin co-wrote after he condensed his name by a syllable, dropped a letter, and kept his hair, all while breathing.
A scenester then, as far from the soft rock belter who would watch the theme to Disney’s Hercules become his final American top forty entry in 1997 as Neptune is from Venus. For a while he earned paychecks writing and producing songs for women in need: “I Found Someone” for Cher, exploiting her recent Oscar-winning success in Moonstruck to take another stab at a rock recording career (it worked); the song I’ll write about today for Laura Branigan in 1983. Meanwhile Bolton released several solo albums on which Kulick played. Although nothing stood out on those albums, I bet Bolton had fun playing lead guitar. There was a sense in which Bolton suppressed his deepest yearnings; on 1983’s eponymous album he included a cover of the Supremes’ “Back in My Arms Again,” recommended to those who use soundwaves to blast the mildew in those hard-to-reach corners of your shower. 1985’s Everybody’s Crazy has the singer resplendent in the period’s post-Prince drapery, metal edition, and the title track even got some daytime play that wasn’t associated with Beavis and Butthead.
But 1987’s The Hunger made you feel what the title promised. For almost forty minutes, Bolton sings like a famished man, diversifying his portfolio to include co-writes with Journey’s Jonathan Cain, free agent Eric Kaz, and, ominously, Diane Warren. To match his swelling ambitions he covers Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” which was taken seriously by millions of VH-1 watchers and became a top forty hit. So did the Kaz collaboration “That’s What Love Is All About.” Bolton’s Poppy Bush Interzone reign didn’t start until 1989’s Soul Provider. At first a modest seller, Soul Provider eventually sold millions after Bolton took back “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” from Branigan; it hit #1 for three weeks in the spring of 1990, thanks to which Soul Provider churned up two top ten followups and, the coup de grace, a top thirty cover of “Georgia on My Mind” that I hoped Michael’s mom liked.
Kids, let me explain: Michael Bolton was loathed in 1990-1992. Infuriated, Bolton told critics at the Grammys in 1992 that they could kiss his ass. According to his memoir, Stephen Holden of the New York Times warned him that while 1991’s Time, Love and Tenderness would be his biggest selling album (true), “the other critics are going to crucify you” (also true). I like bombastic crap. Many critics too. “How Am I…” has enough bombast to blow a sailboat from Long Island to the Cape of Good Hope. “I don’t wanna know the price I wanna pay for dreamin'” isn’t a bad line if Bolton didn’t hack up blood on the microphone stand. The tinkle of the dreaded late eighties keyboard sound, familiar to followers of the period’s adult contemporary hits, provides no tension. The guitar solo is boring — maybe Bolton should’ve reverted to Bolotin and played it himself. If he’d stuck to the overstatement of the next single “How Can We Be Lovers,” at least Bolton would’ve honored his hair metal roots, and we know his roots weren’t dyed (yet). Poison or White Lion could’ve sung that one. Give him this: he matches Laura Branigan in addled desire. Both sound as self-pitying and self-abasing as the song deserves, and I suspect what sold Bolton’s version was, to women’s ears in 1990, he allowed himself to sound as exposed as Branigan; the embrace of asshole-ism distinguishes his version. I expect him to yell, CAN YOU COOK AND SEW AND MAKE FLOWERS GROW CAN YOU UNDERSTAND MY PAIN?
His story continues for a few years yet. As noted, Time, Love and Tenderness benefited from Soundscan, the gradual softening of pop into adult contemporary, and the loss of an Oxford comma. He even got Bob Dylan to co-write a tune, and it doesn’t sound like “Is Your Love in Vain”! Then tragedy struck: lawyers sued him and his collaborator for writing their own “Love is a Wonderful Thing” as if The Isley Brothers’ version didn’t exist. Judge for yourself whether similarities exist. I say it’s a draw. A federal court disagreed: Bolton and co-writer Andy Goldmark and Sony Publishing paid more than $5 million in profits to the Isleys, at the time the most generous plagiarism payout in the history of publishing, and I hope George Harrison invited him over for tea.
While the tort snaked its way through the legal system, Bolton’s once almighty airplay decreased. I must say: I never hear him on A/C radio, ever. The industry treated him as if he were Milli Vanilli. After his cover of “To Love Someone,” he reverted to the Ellipses Phase of his career: the original “Said I Love…But I Lied,” whose mild wit, I suppose, originated with Robert “Mutt” Lange, and the gross “Can I Touch You…There?” (uhhh…no?). Then he vanished, but not before shipping more than twenty-five million in albums. He could afford the payout. Let’s hope he invested wisely and continues appearances on Lonely Island records, for which he deserves credit for unearthing a melody line for “island of Tortuga.”