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Never Say No to a Rock Star
In the Studio with Dylan, Sinatra, Jagger, and More
By Glenn Berger
Schaffner PressCopyright © 2016 Glenn Berger
All rights reserved.
Day One: Yes Sir, James Brown!
I was stuck.
The year was 1972, and I had just turned seventeen.
Should I wear my Keds or my blue platform shoes with the cork soles? I'd already put on ripped jeans, a cream-colored sports jacket with brown piping on super-giant lapels, and a polyester striped shirt with the top three buttons open. At least the rest of my outfit was done.
I had to choose soon or else I was going to be late.
I went with the sneakers. Maybe I'd have to move fast. I had no idea what would be asked of me. I looked in the mirror on the way out the door. My long red hair cascaded over my shoulders in huge banana curls. My gold-rimmed glasses with orange lenses added a distinctly John Lennon-ish vibe. Was I ready? I blew out a giant breath and left the apartment — ready or not.
In order to get to my destination by subway from my home in Sheepshead Bay, I first had to cross the trestle over the Belt Parkway, a popular place for muggers to lurk and steal the fifty cents I carried in my pocket for a couple slices of pizza. Safely over that obstacle, I plunked my 35-cent brass token with the "Y" carved in the middle into the wooden turnstile and zoomed up the stairs to the elevated train platform, with barely enough time to sneak through the closing doors of the graffiti-emblazoned Manhattan-bound D train.
Once on the train, I grabbed a seat, gripping the little piece of paper that read: A&R Recording Studios, 799 7th Avenue, 52nd Street, 7th floor. See Tony in the main office. I kept staring at it, holding it so tightly my hand hurt, afraid that if I loosened my grip or took my eyes off it for a second it would fly out the window and onto the tracks, causing me to forget where I was going, and permanently blowing my one and only chance for stardom and an escape from Brooklyn.
But, as much as I wanted the job, I was equally terrified to get there. With each stop, my chest vibrated more heavily, in sync with the clacking of the subway car as it descended from its elevated track and flew into the black tunnel that would take me into Manhattan.
I got off at the 47th-50th Street subway stop in Midtown. I followed the grid of New York's streets to find my way to 52nd Street and 7th Avenue, zipping between the worker bees on 6th Avenue in a race that only I knew I was running.
Standing in front of the building marked "799," I read the discreet metal plaque labeled A&R Recording. My blood pressure kicked up a notch. This was my big chance. Would I fuck it up? My legs started to ache, and my breathing quickened.
Because the first six floors of 799 7th Avenue were home to Manhattan Community College, there was a crush of African-American and Hispanic teenagers in the front lobby. I stood among the throng, watching the numbers light up above the elevator doors as it inched down, stopping at every floor. With every passing minute that seemed like forever, the lobby got more and more crowded. By the time the elevator had arrived, I had to hurl myself into the car packed with so many students I was sure we'd never survive the climb to the 7 floor. I plunged my arm through a passel of bodies to get to the buttons, all lit up from the 2nd to the 6th. I was the only one who pushed the number 7.
As the ride lurched to a stop at each floor to vomit out multitudes and suck up yet more people, I fantasized about a glamorous and glitzy world awaiting me, full of fabulous stars, groovy rockers making crazy sounds, and geniuses who expected me to be just like them. Despite this alluring vision, my fears overwhelmed the thrill, and I grew certain that I was doomed, convinced I had to be perfect and brilliant, when I knew nothing whatsoever about the recording business except how to hit rewind and fast-forward. A voice screamed in my head: Just hit the lobby button, go back down, and get out of there! No one will ever know you were here, and you will have escaped!
With the clamor in my brain growing to a screech, the doors slowly opened at the seventh floor. I stood in the car, frozen. Thank goodness the elevator was such an ancient piece of crap that the doors stayed open for a long time.
Then something in me pushed up from my center, an alternate force of determination. I told myself, I'm gonna do this. With all my might, against the pull of terror, I leapt out of the car. When I looked around, I felt disoriented, convinced I was on the wrong floor. The decor was shabby, cheap, and worn. I saw a dirty yellow couch with a couple of disheveled messengers asleep on it. They looked to me like homeless beggars.
Then two guys ran in front of me and down the hall, one chasing the other with a fire extinguisher held over his head, screaming, "You putz! I'll fuckin' rip your balls off!"
So much for glitz and glamor.
Strangely, that made me feel a little more comfortable. This wasn't as far from Brooklyn as I imagined it would be.
Could this really be the place? I saw an open door to the left, and walked in. A guy stooped over a drafting table with a Sherlock Holmes pipe drooping out of his mouth. He had broad '70s sideburns and a long, Italianate shnoz.
"Yes?" he said, laconically, with a raised eyebrow. The phone rang. "Hold on," he raised a finger, signaling me to wait.
"Can't do it, pally. It's booked. Look I don't care if Donnie's having a baby. Phil's got it blocked for McCartney. All day and night." A pause. "I know he won't use it. But do you want to tell Ramone he can't have his studio?" Another pause. "All right. Good luck." The guy slammed down the phone.
He looked at me. "What do these fucking people want from me?"
I wasn't sure what to answer, but I guessed he must have been talking about Paul McCartney. That would mean I had arrived.
"OK. Who are you and what do you want?"
I was in it now. No time for nerves. I somehow squeaked out, "I'm the new intern and I'm here to see Tony, the studio manager."
"You got him. Perfect. Hey, assholes!" He called out to whoever was in the room. "We have a new victim!"
The other guys in the room turned to me with a look of pity. I intuited this was all a test. It was time to perform. This was something I could handle, or at least so I thought. Just look tough, I told myself.
Tony tapped out his pipe in the ashtray and leaned over so close to me that the tip of his nose almost touched mine, which, being of the Jewish variety, wasn't so short itself. I held my position and stared in his eyes.
"Rule number one. Keep your fucking mouth — SHUT. Do you understand? If I hear that you have so much as said hello to any of the artists, I will rip you a new one and your career in the music business will be over before it began. Get it?"
I nodded, not knowing if this was one of those times I wasn't supposed to speak.
"Rule number two. You do whatever I tell you to do. You never, ever say no. The only right answer is yes. Do you understand that one?"
Now I at least knew what to say. "Yes."
I hadn't blown it yet, but inside I was wincing a bit. I felt like I was getting poked in the ribs. I knew I couldn't show it.
Two hip-looking young guys ambled into the office.
One of them, with a cool gait, a wispy blond moustache, scraggly beard, plastic aviator glasses and a black and white cowboy shirt, said, "Hey Remsen, Billy, come with us."
The studio manager, Tony, said, "What are you up to?"
The other guy, good looking with a black shag and beard, said, "We're just breaking down from the Foghat session so Blakin can get into A-1."
"Mathis, Devon, this is ... what's your name?"
"Berger here is our new intern. Take care of him, will you? This is Dan Mathis and Greg Devon, two of our best assistant engineers. Follow them around and one day you, too, might learn how to be as big losers as they are."
The guys smiled, ignoring the provocation. Mathis said, "Come with us."
The five of us walked down the hall. My legs were still shaking a bit, but I tried to affect the same cool these guys displayed. With each step, my initial panic settled, replaced with giddiness. If anyone saw me with this crew, they'd think I was just one of the guys.
At the end of the hall was a blue door with a round window. We opened it.
I stood at the threshold and peered in. For someone who was interested in how music got made, it was like looking into the entrance of Chartres Cathedral. I stared into a huge room with a blond, wooden floor and a high, peaked ceiling. Something had just happened. Microphones hung on huge booms slanted at various angles in front of buzzing amps and empty chairs. Headphones lay tossed on the floor. A huge drum set, behind baffles, was surrounded by a web of mics. The room gave off a sweet ring like a bunch of monks chanting "om." The remnants of a pungent, skunky smell suggested rock and roll.
I didn't have much time to take in the vibe, as we hurried to a smaller room in the back. I hustled to catch up. What were we up to? Why were we cramming in this little space? Everyone huddled in a circle, silent with anticipation. I took my place. Mathis took out a folded piece of paper and carefully unwrapped it, revealing a small pile of white powder. Devon offered a tiny, metal spoon.
"Where'd you get the shit?" Billy asked.
"The guys from Foghat gave us a little gift on the way out. They told us to share it with you low-lifes."
The group of young men hovered anxiously over the offering, waiting for their toot. I watched each guy dip the spoon into the powder, hold one nostril and snort the stuff into the other one. Then they reversed the procedure, snorting up the other side.
Eventually, the spoon came to me.
"You want some?"
I had done my share of substances in my young life, but never cocaine. Being a kid from the '70s, I was all about taking any drug available. I remembered Tony's instructions.
I just wanted to impress with my savoir faire and do it right. My shaking hand scraped up a few grains of the magic dust onto the spoon. As I brought it to my nose I tried to remember to breathe in and not out. I feared I looked the novice. Some precious crumbs fell on the artificial carpet. Looks were exchanged. My cool cover was blown. I cringed with embarrassment.
But I learned fast. We went around the circle a few more times, and I got enough in to give me a sweet, glowing buzz. It was as if someone had blown a giant wind through my head, clearing the dust and dirt away. I felt fresh. My head expanded. All the lights got brighter, my anxiety and embarrassment evaporated, and I saw the whole thing as if from above, wowed by where I was. I had to suppress a stupid grin. I had just learned my next lesson in the studio: I now knew how to snort cocaine.
If I hadn't been excited enough getting my big break to be an intern at a recording studio, I was now euphoric. I hadn't been in this place for ten minutes and I was already blasted. A cocaine-amplified thought went through my head — I was the shit! Yes, indeed!
Devon said to the crowd, pointing at me, "So what are we gonna do with this kid?"
Mathis answered, "Berger, there's a session in A-2 you might dig. Why don't you hang in there till we think of something for you to do. Come on. Follow me."
We walked back down the hall, the shabby decor glimmering a little brighter. Over the control-room door a sign lit in red announced: Closed Session. I hesitated. Mathis walked right in and signaled me to follow. Apparently, I'd received carte blanche.
I stood in a dim room lit by colored lights. The recording console glowed in the middle, a blue metal box about the size of a small car, covered with black knobs, white glowing switches and buttons, and red sliding volume controls. This was the machine I hoped to play with someday, the thing that took what came out of the artists and musicians and transformed it into that thing we called a "record."
Thick double-paned glass covered the front wall. Behind the glass was the recording room. My first session!
Mathis introduced me to the assistant, a black guy named Holley. He shook my hand and smiled. The assistants were cool. He pulled over a stool for me in the rear right-hand corner of the control room and patted it for me to sit down. He whispered. "Do you know how to run a tape machine?"
I nodded and again said, "Yes."
"When I give you the signal, you rewind this tape to the top and then hit play and record. That's your job." Holley winked, as if to say, I'll take care of you, kid, don't worry.
I tried to settle my ass on the stool. My first job. I silently prayed, Please, God, don't let me hit the wrong button ...
Above the glass, there were speakers on the wall opposite me the size of small tanks. A relentless funk vamp pounded out of the giant woofers and tiny tweeters. Every time the kick drum popped on the first and third beat of the four-beat measure I felt my viscera lurch to the edge of my throat. Smack between that non-stop deep and hard percussion was the stanky crack of the snare on the two and four. When the stick hit the skin I checked my ears for blood. Sinewy guitar licks punctuated the off beats. Honkin' horns swirled their sexy riffs between the gravelly vocals.
In the front of the control room, underneath a spotlight, a black guy with a high, stiff coiffure held court. He looked familiar. Though I couldn't hear him over the pounding groove, I could see his lips move as he talked non-stop while his court stood around him in obeisance.
The repetitive four-bar musical pattern seemed to go on forever. Pop, stomach up, crack, ear-bleed, pop, crack, pop, crack.
Everybody seemed to be enjoying the music that just kept going, but I couldn't take it. It was too loud.
I had this overwhelming urge to run out of the control room. It was like someone was screwing a drill into my head. My newbie status was clear. I'll never be able to handle this, I thought. I held onto my stool to keep myself there.
Over the funky noise, I heard this raspy wail. "Bob, Bob! Stop that muthafucka!"
A white guy sitting at the console, the engineer, nervously pushed his long hair back, swung his chair around from his position at the board and swiped his hand across his throat, the universal signal for "stop." Holley hit the big white button on the middle of the massive multi-track tape machine. The silence was almost as deafening as the cacophony that preceded it. Holley gave me the cue, and I hit the rewind button.
"Bob, you gotta listen when I talk!"
"Yes sir, Mr. Brown."
A short, rotund man in a black suit nodded and marked something on a pad.
Mr. Brown? Wait, I know who that guy is, I thought. It's James Brown! The Godfather of Soul, Mr. Hot Pants, the Papa with a Brand New Bag! Holy shit!
I hadn't really thought of James Brown for a couple of years, probably not since his last hit, "Sex Machine," and two years was a long time back then. I assumed his best days were behind him, but he was definitely a legend. I was in the room with my first Star.
"That track is fine," Brown said. "Now this is what we're gonna do next. This young lady and I are going to work the bridge on the ballad."
Mr. Brown put his hand on the waist of a sexy looking woman wearing a tight-fitting polyester dress that clung to her ample butt. "I'll show you what to do," Mr. Brown said to her.
He turned to Holley and said, "Set up the mics."
Holley ran out into the studio and pushed some microphone stands into position in the center of the room.
James Brown started to speak with a voice that sounded like someone had shredded his vocal chords into a thousand pieces and then poured crazy glue on them to put them back together. "Here is the situation in the country today. The black man is finally beginning to assume his power. The princes of Africa, you know that most slaves were descendants of African princes, right? The princes of Africa are no longer going to play this role of bowing down to the white man. And the white man is afraid, because he knows that when the black man finally wakes up, he will be in a lot of trouble. Now here is what every one of you got to do."
His coterie stood rapt around him, listening to his every utterance, nodding approvingly. The tape machine I was rewinding was coming close to the top of the reel. I hit the fast-forward button to break the speed, and hit stop when it slowed to a crawl. Then I hit play and "record." I felt slick.
James Brown continued.
"You must be proud. Say it loud," he bellowed in that famous rasp, "I'm black and I'm proud! We are not the ones who are going to ruin this country. White men can do that job good enough themselves. We are the ones who are going to save it! It's time for payback! Get out of my way!"
I wanted to shout out, right on, James Brown! Power to the people! But then I remembered that I was supposed to keep my mouth shut. Also, I was a skinny white kid who was the assistant's intern. Good idea to keep quiet. But man, this guy could be funky and political all at the same time. I dug it.
Holley came back into the control room and with deference said, "We're ready, Mr. Brown."
"Get up!" Mr. Brown cackled. "Thank you, Holley." And then, "Bob, you lame-ass white mother fucker, what are you doing? Put up the ballad and go to the bridge. Let's go!" And then, with charm, "Come on, young lady, follow James into the studio and I'll show you what to do."
The engineer fiddled with some knobs to prepare for the new track.
As James Brown walked out of the control room and into the studio, a man with gold-rimmed glasses, a droopy moustache and a scraggly head of hair with a growing bald spot in the back got up from the row of movie theatre chairs that were at the front of the recording console.
He said to no one in particular, "Is this man not the funkiest cat on the planet?" still groovin' to a beat that had stopped long before.
Excerpted from Never Say No to a Rock Star by Glenn Berger. Copyright © 2016 Glenn Berger. Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsPrelude: "It Was All Me",
Track One - Day One: Yes, Sir, James Brown!,
Track Two - The Schlepper,
Track Three - Phil Ramone Plucks Me from Obscurity,
Track Four - Paul Simon: The Superstar,
Track Five - Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks: The Untold Story,
Track Six - Judy Collins and Arif Mardin: A Turkishly Delightful New Years,
Track Seven - Too Much Too Soon: The New York Dolls,
Track Eight - Oddballs and Angels: Phoebe Snow,
Track Nine - The Freaks, the Pricks, and the Gems,
Track Ten - The Night I Didn't Have Sex with Bette Midler,
Track Eleven - Fifty Ways to Leave Your Mentor,
Track Twelve - "The Saddest Thing of All": My Thirty Minutes with Frank Sinatra,
Track Thirteen - All That Bob Fosse,
Track Fourteen - How Paul Shaffer Almost Got Me Killed,
Track Fifteen - The Time Mick Jagger Sang "Honky Tonk Women" Just For Me,
Postlude: It Was All Them,
Glenn Berger: A Select Discography,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
More than a story about how beautiful music is created but a tale about how a kid from the 70's made his dream come true with all the pain & glory that comes with the pursuit.
Don't bother with this, unless you want endless descriptions of how this colossal egotist adjusted a mic, got to wherever he was headed, or what he was wearing. He refers to himself as a "shrink",but this guy's an imposter. He got his phD at a phony school that doesn't require attendance. He doesn't even know some of the people he maligns. Just a guy with a lot of gall and absolutely nothing else...such as writing talent.
Glenn's singular voice tows the line between post-music business insights (as a therapist), and his impeccibly detailed recollections of the underbelly of New York's A-List music recording world; all this, during the golden age of big budget studio sessions and infamous rock and roll excess. NEVER SAY NO TO A ROCK STAR is a tale of spiritual redemption, bristling with all the angst, wonder and wisdom that only real-life experience provides. An absolute must-read!