L.A. GrapevineIt's daunting to take over this column and attempt to fill the shoes of its longtime proprietor, Maureen Droney, who has now taken her vast knowledge 5/01/2006 8:00 AM Eastern
It's daunting to take over this column and attempt to fill the shoes of its longtime proprietor, Maureen Droney, who has now taken her vast knowledge and myriad relationships to the Producers & Engineers Wing of the Recording Academy. Although it goes without saying that I have a great deal to live up to, I come prepared — on paper, at least — having spent more than a few hours in this city's high-end recording facilities, A&R'd my share of records and made it through three decades in and around the music biz without losing my enthusiasm for a good tune and a well-designed track. Additionally, to quote Randy Newman, I love L.A. and feel like a native, despite my origins on the other coast.
My love affair with So Cal began years before I first touched down at LAX. The Beach Boys got my attention, but it was The Byrds who seduced me since I first heard “Mr. Tambourine Man” while driving to school in New Jersey in 1965. Five years later, The Byrds prompted my first trip to L.A. to research the book I was writing on the band while a cub writer/editor at Scholastic, which published my paperback The Byrds a year later. That 1970 trip also occasioned my first visit to a recording studio — the old CBS facility at Sunset and El Centro, where The Byrds were doing overdubs on their (Untitled) LP.
In 1972, I took my first job for a record label, doing publicity for Mercury in New York. That experience was highlighted by the signing — by my friend and mentor Paul Nelson — of the New York Dolls. During that project, I learned the difference between an artist's ability to enchant onstage and the nuts-and-bolts, focus and discipline that go into making a record. What intrigued me at the time was that although producer Todd Rundgren related to some of the bandmembers with what I took to be thinly veiled contempt, he helped them make a seminal album.
The combination of my brief label experience and my regular byline in Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Creem, Rock and Fusion (where I wrote about Big Star, Little Feat, Neil Young and Nick Lowe's Brinsley Schwarz) got the attention of A&M Records, and I consider myself immensely fortunate that I began my life in L.A. on the storied lot at 1416 N. La Brea. Between the record company, A&M Studios and the Chaplin Soundstage, all cozily arranged on the lot, the place was a three-ring circus of rock 'n' roll fantasies come to life.
I'll never forget looking in the dark of the control room as Emmylou Harris sang a duet with her now-departed partner Gram Parsons on the classic ballad “Sleepless Nights” for the collection of the same name, which Harris and I jointly, and lovingly, put together. Nor will anything erase the memory of The Tubes leader Bill Spooner racing up to my office window in the publicity bungalow to tell me about the magic being made right then by Jack Nitzsche, who was conducting an overdub session for the band's Young & Rich album. Then there was the week The Band and a horn section took over the big soundstage to rehearse for a tour; we'd sit in the bleachers captivated by the sounds these pros were making in rehearsal, and on break, Richard Manuel would hang out in the bungalow, drink coffee and tell us stories. Those five years convinced me that L.A. could be a place where dreams are realized, although I saw other dreams go horribly awry.
Then came a five-year apprenticeship with Clive Davis as Arista's West Coast A&R director. I don't know how many times I strolled into his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel with an armful of demo tapes, most of which would never find their way onto his stereo because he had just as many things to play for me — at top volume and with all due distortion. What job security I had was the result of passing along an import single of Air Supply's “Lost in Love” to the boss; it's one credit I've kept to myself over the years, in part to avoid being needled by my hipster friends.
After spending the rest of the '80s in the world of music trades, I took a job at BMG start-up label Zoo Entertainment, where I signed and worked with Matthew Sweet, Procol Harum and Big Star, and tried unsuccessfully to make Vancouver's Odds a household name. The Zoo job ended abruptly, as A&R jobs tend to do, but I snagged a consultation gig at the Warner Music boutique label Discovery, which morphed into a free-standing version of Seymour Stein's Sire, leading to another VP A&R gig. It turned out to be a fast-forward version of my Zoo experience, but before I returned to the editorial world in 2000, I had an immensely gratifying experience A&R'ing a project — my final one, as it turned out — with a gifted and fascinating producer. That experience provides the segue to the second half of this column.
The recording facility in which I've logged the most hours during recent years is Studio A at Hollywood landmark Ocean Way. The cavernous, high-ceilinged room where Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Count Basie once worked now has another distinction: Mixmaster/producer Jack Joseph Puig is about to celebrate his 10th anniversary as its exclusive tenant. JJP, as he's called, has mixed countless tracks in A during the past decade — right now, he's mixing The Academy Is, John Mayer and Aqualung — but he's been very picky about taking on P/E/M projects. One of them was Imaginate, the 1999 debut album of Australian band Taxiride. Stein had signed the group and assigned me to A&R the record, and the first thing I did when I got the news was to drive over to Ocean Way and play their self-made demos for Puig, who flipped over the hooky songs, close harmonies and elevated musicianship. He readily agreed to do the album from pre-production through the final mixes.
The band and I spent a memorable three months with Puig making the album, becoming intimately familiar with the room, which our host had obsessively decorated: Tapestries and posters of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Brian Wilson hung from the walls; the room was subdivided into cozy nooks for the musicians to relax and work in, with upholstered chairs and love seats intermingled with amps and vintage guitars sitting in stands like sabers in scabbards; and the place was lighted like a brothel, with the assistants making sure the dozens of candles stayed lit. The place cast a spell, and I don't recall ever being as relaxed in any studio. That, according to Puig, is precisely the point.
“The womb is only here to make people feel comfortable so that they can get into the music,” Puig explains. “In a sense, this is all to get you off the environment and into the space of really listening to your music, because you're making a decision about the CD — the mix, the song, whatever — that stays forever. It's a serious decision.”
The big room is now even more ornate than the last time I stopped by two years ago — there's a faux palm tree, an Oriental chandelier hanging over the long table where people eat and talk, a cozy nook with couches and a stereo beyond the control room glass. But what catches my eye is the careful arrangement of every imaginable effects pedal, 25 or 30 in all, illuminated by a pair of candles atop a road case on which are stenciled the words “SUZIE QUATRO.” Now that says rock 'n' roll.
“There are no props; everything is used,” says Puig, his eyes sweeping over the rococo ornamentation that surrounds him. “The candles are for the vibe, but the gear is not vibe — it's used to make great records. When you were a kid, I'm sure you had a notion of what a recording studio was gonna be like, and unfortunately, if you go into most modern studios today, you're disappointed. So this is everyone's dream. This says you've arrived and it can happen.
“When records are massively successful,” Puig asserts, “they are bigger than the people involved. That's a mistake people make — they think it's all about them. But the stars lined up and it just went. You can't tell me that you don't have records in your collection that are amazing that sold two records.”
Do I ever. And one of them is that Taxiride record, that labor of love for both of us, made with great care and obvious passion right here in this one-of-a-kind room.
Bud Scoppa is Mix's new L.A. editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.