Almost 40 years ago, in the mid-1970’s, I lived with Phil for 2 years. When I say lived with, I mean it. I spent far more time with him than his wife did. It wasn’t unusual for us to spend 20 hours a day together. Back then, he was a recording engineer and a budding record producer, and I was his assistant engineer.
As a boy of 18, I didn’t go to college. Instead, I was lucky enough to be apprenticed to a true master in the craft of recording. When I began working with Phil I could barely rewind a multi-track. When he was done with me, I was a top-notch senior mixer, with a long, rich career ahead of me. Phil turned me into a cat. Ramone was not only a great engineer and producer, but he was, perhaps more than anything, a great mentor. I was but one of an endless legacy of top people in the music business who were lucky enough to come under his wing.
But let’s not pretend. Just because the Great One is dead, and he did so much for so many, there is no need for hagiography. As anyone knows who was touched by Ramone at that time, he was a lunatic who inspired fear and awe. As his major domo, Milton Brooks – better known as Broadway Max – said, if Phil wasn’t a world-class recording star, he’d be in the loony bin.
We all have our Ramone stories. I’ve got dozens of them, and I’ve heard hundreds more. The stories take the form of, “you think that was crazy, wait till you hear this one . . .”
But let’s wait on those tales. There will be plenty of time to tell those stories, once the grief passes. For now, the real crazy thing is how much a part of my life Phil remains to this day, decades since I sat at his feet. Sure, he was my mentor – a father figure, my sensei, my guru, and my rabbi – and I did work at A and R for seven extraordinary years during a highly formative time of my life. And for that time, Ramone was the center of my life. I was far from the only one. He was the overwhelming influence and personality for all of us who worked at his recording studio, A and R Studios. So much so, that for just about anyone who flew in his orbit, he made an impression that never faded. Last week I hung out with two studio alums. Guess what we talked about? Ramone.
His impact runs deep. Ramone still has a core place in my psyche. He often appears in my dreams, if not in my waking thoughts. For all of you others who were a part of the Ramone legacy, don’t you dream of him, too?
What was it, beyond the lunacy, that Ramone had that influenced and impacted me so deeply? What did he give me? What did I learn from him? Sure, I learned what microphones were used for the different instruments, and where to place them to get the best sound. But most of what I was taught was what it meant to be the best. Ramone always embodied the ethos that our main task in life was to help the greatest musical artists in the world make timeless music. In order to do that we needed to be impeccable. Any flaw in our work meant that the artist would notice the technology and this would interfere with their flow of creativity. He burned our egos by reminding us that the best sound did not come from the engineers but from the players and the sounds they were able to make with their instruments and voices. The less they noticed they were being recorded, the more likely they’d sound great. Recording, in the Phil Ramone school, was about there being as little as possible between the sweet vibrations of inspiration and what landed on your ear.
Sure, at my worst, going without sleep for months at a time, I learned from Phil how to be a real jerk. Most of my behavior at that time in the personal realm left much to be desired. But as far as my approach to work and art were concerned, Ramone deconstructed the child-like me and built my adult character. He birthed in me a standard of excellence. This vision of quality was, and remains, the meaning and purpose of my life. Whether I am consciously thinking of Phil or not, this is the part of him that pervades every dimension of my life, whether it is in the work I do now as a psychotherapist, in my marriage, as a father, or in the creative work I do. It is that aspiration to magic (with a little less of the craziness, I hope) that I aim to pass on to my own children.
In the way Phil treated me, and in what he demanded of me, I experienced a lot of pain. But what I learned from him was that life and art demands that we rise above our own comfort to meet a cause greater than ourselves. When we followed Ramone into battle, we lived life to the fullest.
All of us who worked at A and R under the tutelage of Phil Ramone share an ineffable bond. When we get together we look in each other’s eyes, and, from our shared experience of having lived in the Master’s aura, we know something that no one else in the world knows. Not only that, we share a bond of joy and fulfillment. We each and every one of us will say that our years at A and R, under Phil’s leadership, no matter how hard, no matter how painful, were the most thrilling and unforgettable of our lives.
That was what you got with Ramone. The lunacy, the pain, the glory, and the pride. I can’t wait to get together with old friends, and tell the old tales and laugh, talking on the surface about the nutty stuff that Phil did, but knowing that behind our words we are reliving the time when we lived in the presence of greatness, and touched greatness ourselves.
Thanks Phil. We made beautiful music together.
For stories of Phil, me, Dylan, Jagger, Simon, and others in the studio, click here.