In 2002, Corey Feldman was the canary in the reality-show coal mine. Before starring on the first season of VH1’s “The Surreal Life,” a show that spawned something like 16 spinoffs, the fallen star of Goonies and The Lost Boys produced an album which could stand as the unofficial soundtrack for the 00s’ glut of celebrity reality shows. That Former Child Actor was going to be a wreck was evident before it even came out (maybe it was the promised cover of “Imagine” that tipped everyone off). But this series is dedicated to reassessing vanity projects past, no matter how unpromising, so let’s do now what we didn’t do then—and give Former Child Actor a listen.
THE SONGS: Aside from the cover of “Imagine” and covers of the Dead Milkmen’s “I’m Flying Away,” and “Jingle Bell Rock” (“[r]earranged and recomposed” by Feldman, to sound like a metalcore Christmas carol), all are originals written by the actor, with the exception of the title track, which was co-written with Rick Springfield. The general sound can be summed up as “all of the bands at Woodstock ’99 but with a much lower recording budget.”
THE PACKAGING: The cover goes with the theme of celebrity persecution; Feldman’s face appears in extreme close-up behind a lattice of bars (the cover of an A/C vent, looks like), as if captured through a telephoto lens by paparazzi stalkers. On the back cover he lies on a leopard-print couch, wearing a white shirt unbuttoned to the waist and with blonde-streaked hair shellacked in a sweaty sweep and a classic nu-metal bassist’s goatee. His right hand rests sadly on an oily pair of bare female legs. The graphic on the CD and tray is an overhead close-up of his thinning hair.
The booklet reprints the lyrics of all the songs, which are earnest and painful to read in the way that observing someone failing to deal with their own problems always is (“my message is strength and that should be a factor / but no one gives a crap ’cause I’m a former child actor / the war I will wage is like a nuclear reactor / but the headlines still reads he’s just a former child actor”). One age includes a photo of Feldman in an undershirt, smoking and flipping off the camera as he poses for a mock mugshot. In another picture, he appears in a barren carpeted hallway in a black suit, up on his toes and pulling his pant legs up to reveal white socks in the classic Michael Jackson pose. There are also pictures of him staring into a mirror and putting on lipstick, and of him kissing a plant. He is sweaty or greasy in every photo, and they all seem to have been taken inside a not-particularly-nice apartment or rented home.
The thank-yous start off with “each and every Corey fan” before moving on to Corey Haim, Ron Jeremy and Howard Stern. He also thanks his musical inspirations, among them Billy Joel, David Gilmore, “and of course Wacko Jacko.” He ends with “And to all of the non believers HA HA HA.” The domain of his music manager’s email address is aol.com.
DID IT SELL? Only the first 2,000 copies of the CD contained the cover of “Imagine.” My copy, purchased last week, contains the cover of “Imagine.”
WAS I ABLE TO FIND AN UNOPENED CD FOR SALE? Oh yes.
SKETCHINESS OF LABEL: Medium-high. It came out on a Portland label called Crazy Bastard Records, which has put out records by such seminal Portland punk bands as “Secludes” and “Monkey Fur.” But their main product appears to be tribute albums to beloved joke-punk bands like GG Allin, the Meatmen, and the Dead Milkmen. So not a vanity label, but flying pretty close.
MOST HILARIOUS QUOTE FROM AN AMAZON REVIEW OF THE ALBUM: They’re all joke reviews, so none of them are funny.
WHEN HE MADE IT: If the traditional narrative of former child actors is your basic “Behind the Music” arc of success -> hubris -> failure -> rock bottom -> redemption, Corey Feldman seems cursed to swing eternally between steps three and four, a celebrity Sisyphus pushing a giant stack of Star magazines through a never-ending news cycle.
After a steady stream of TV and commercial work as a younger child, he came to fame through the classic ’80s kiddie trilogy of Gremlins, The Goonies, and Stand By Me. In Goonies, a carefully constructed movie whose fourth wall is constantly threatened by the young actors’ clear excitement at being around one another, Feldman’s personality is the most vivid. His character, Mouth, is like a nerdy kid pretending to be Han Solo, the kind of tween who, as he gets older, can either refine his extroversion into a professional comedy act or just stick with that level of awkward humor and become David Brent. Feldman seems to have landed squarely on the latter, and for a regular person, that’d be fine. But his work in the 80s has stuck him with a fame that gives him regular, and profitable, opportunities to be humiliated in public. (Imagine if David Brent was given a prime-time comedy special for the express purpose of letting everyone make fun of his awful jokes and songs, and you have the last fifteen years of Corey Feldman’s career.)
Feldman came to be defined through his strange, tragic relationships with two people: Michael Jackson and Corey Haim. One of the many showbiz kids Jackson brought into his orbit, Feldman formed a strong bond with the singer, and seemed resentful that Jackson didn’t feel as strongly toward him. One of the songs on Former Child Actor, the furious “Megalo Man,” is about Jackson, but when MJ died, Feldman dedicated a concert to him, with some apparent fondness. (The concert was powered entirely by alternative energy, because Feldman is an “eco-activist” now.)
As for Haim, he and Feldman found fame as a pair of Tiger Beat hearththrobs who shared a ridiculous name, but became mutual doppelgangers, encouraging the worst in one another. After co-starring in The Lost Boys, the Two Coreys made a series of films together that defined the phrase “diminishing returns”: sequels, self-written indies-because-they-couldn’t-get-funding comedies, direct-to-video sequels, etc. Then there’s “The Two Coreys,” the “semi-scripted” reality show they did one-and-a-half seasons of from 2007 to 2008 before getting canceled. The show was enjoyable, but symptomatic of Feldman’s post-’80s problems: a decent idea executed with pure amateurism. If it hadn’t been scripted, it would’ve been fantastic. By trying to control it, the fun was ruined. Haim, a longtime addict to just about every kind of drug he could get his hands on, died in 2010 (offical website is still going and is heartbreaking); Feldman was not invited to his funeral, though he framed this as staying away “to minimize the media attention.”
Former Child Actor, released in 2002, came out in the period between Feldman’s real fame and his final descent into abject pandering. Feldman was an early adopter of the “celebrities as real people” trend that emerged around the turn of the millennium (you’ll remember that “The Osbournes,” the first big celebrity reality show in America, also premiered in 2002), becoming a regular on Howard Stern’s show apparently for the sole purpose of being made fun of; the “Baba Booey!” tone of the Amazon reviews suggests Stern’s fans took to this in earnest. In 2003, he appeared on the first season of “The Surreal Life,” VH1’s ur-reality show, alongside Vince Neil and Emmanuel Lewis. Many of Feldman’s moments involved his budding romance with Susie Sprague, who he met in a club in 2002 when she was celebrating her 19th birthday. (Those are probably her legs on the back cover.) In the series finale (above), they marry in a ceremony co-officiated by MC Hammer and a rabbi. Hugh Hefner also attends. There is a scene in which everyone stands around and gives Feldman marriage advice, and it is just too much.
Sprague is a strong presence throughout this period, co-starring with Haim on “The Two Coreys,” and receiving a few credits on Former Child Actor. She and Feldman, who have a son together, have since divorced. Feldman continues to live his life as a mega-beta, showing up to make fun of himself in successful movies and videos while producing unsuccessful but sincere movies of his own. He’s either a permanent submissive or trolling all of us really, really effectively.
WHO MADE IT: Though he certainly had help, Feldman is generally responsible for the album. He’s been making music for a long time. As a solo act, he released a very Michael Jackson-y single called “Something in Your Eyes” in 1990, and, in 1994, came out with a New Jack Swing album called Love Left (a single from which is above); he has also apparently done seven movie soundtracks. Two years ago, his band Truth Movement put out a concept album about technology, aliens, and the environment, the central question of which is, as Feldman has said, “what came first, the apple or the robot?”
THE MUSIC: In trying to avoid the clichés of vanity albums, Corey just ends up embodying the clichés of awful local bands. One song is titled “Phony People”; another is called “What’s Up With Youth.” While he doesn’t put on sunglasses and front a blues combo or murmur over a pre-built track, he has made an album full of adolescent resentment, pretense, undesirably cheap sounds, and wicky-wacky guitars. It might as well be called “Unaware of its Limitations.” Arguments are made that men who beat dogs are more like animals than men, and what’s up with that??? The most interesting track is the aforementioned “Megalo Man,” which, the credit notes, has “additional lyrics by Susie Sprague.” At the song’s climax, Feldman j’accuses: “I believed in your words / I believed in your lies / But in September in New York / YOU LEFT ME TO DIE!!!!” (Remember: 2002.) It is, in short, awful, the sound of a man who thinks he’s chopping down a tree actually hacking away at his own arm, grinning at you with fawning desperation. “How do you like your brown-eyed Corey now, Mr. Jackson?” he would yell, if he had the cultural awareness, and the fact that he doesn’t just makes it seem like a tantrum. The ultimate tragedy of Corey Feldman is that you can’t feel sorry for him: he’s got problems, but so do the rest of us, and he’s the one that keeps going back to the celebrity well rather than get another job. This January, he joined the cast of the UK’s “Dancing on Ice.” He was eliminated in the fourth week.
Previously: Ian McShane’s From Both Sides Now
Mike Barthel has a Tumblr.