During the summer of 1973, I took one small step up from bottom-rung schlepperhood at A and R Recording Studios. I got a $10 raise and was promoted to tape librarian. I didn’t have to push the hand-truck across Midtown as often, but I still had to schlep piles of two-inch sixteen-track, one-inch eight-track, half-inch four-track, quarter-inch two-tracks, and quarter-inch mono tapes from the Valhalla of the 7th floor studios down to my personal hell. It was my job to catalogue these newly-created album, film, and jingle recordings and order them in the endless stacks deep in the basement’s innards, so they could be easily found in the near or distant future.
I was terrible at the job. I personally knew where every tape was, but my system was chaos. I paid the price for my disorganization early one Saturday morning.
As was typical, my friends and I had spent the preceding Friday night watching a quadruple feature at The Thalia, a ratty old repertory film house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the seats were higher in the front row than in the back.
Next came the satirical sci-fi flick, Barbarella, starring the then-super-sexy Jane Fonda when she was being directed by her then-husband Roger Vadim.
Third was Fellini’s Satyricon. By the time this rude psychedelic favorite came on at about 2 in the morning, I was so high and tired that I didn’t know what was happening in my mind and what was on the screen.
Finally, at around 3:30 AM came the movie we had all been waiting for, Performance. This rocker vs. gangster film, which we had seen so many times we could even quote the lines that were in incomprehensible cockney, starred the astounding trio of the young, lithe Mick Jagger; Keith Richard’s gorgeous chick, Anita Pallenberg; and James Fox, who played the bad guy with sublime intensity.
When it was all done, we slept on the subway back to Brooklyn, lucky to get off at the Avenue U stop at about 6 AM. I crashed at a buddy’s house, so I wouldn’t get busted by my mom for being out all night long.
I was a bit groggy when my friend’s mother came down to the basement about 3 hours after I’d fallen out and shook my shocked shoulder to tell me I had a phone call.
“Hey, buddy boy. We need ‘ya.” It was Milton Brooks, the studio’s all purpose consigliere.
“Max, what time is it? Isn’t today Saturday? What the fuck?”
“ Phil Ramone is here with Mr. Bacharach, and he needs a tape. Call a cab. How soon can you be here?”
Phil, the studio’s fearsome leader. Through my time at A and R I had learned more about him. He was brilliant and a baby, an inspiring hitmaker and a world-class psycho. Like I had been instructed by one of my first teachers, Rich Blakin, on my first day, I steered clear.
Mr. Bacharach. That would be Burt Bacharach. For those of you who don’t know, he was one of the finest pop song writers of all time, charting 73 top 40 hits. Along with lyricist Hal David he penned some of the greatest records of the ‘60’s, including, “Walk on By,” “Look of Love,” “What the World Needs Now,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” “Close to You,” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” He was an anomaly for the ‘60’s. He wasn’t a rocker – his tunes had sophisticated harmonies and rhythms – but even in that time of hardness and hipness, he honed his pop sensibility to such heights that he was able to knock hit after hit out of the ballpark.
“Brooks, can’t somebody just go in the basement and get the tape?”
“30 minutes?” Brooks pretended not to hear. “Perfect. We’ll see you when you get here.”
Here’s what I would guess happened.
Phil probably hadn’t prepared for the session and hadn’t requested the necessary tapes in advance. On impulse, he turned to his assistant and said, “Where the hell is the multi-track?”
The assistant couldn’t find the tape because he didn’t know he’d need it and it wasn’t there.
Normally, at that point, they’d call me in the library and I’d scurry over with the tape. But it was Saturday.
“Get your ass over to the basement and get that tape now!” Ramone was sure to have hollered.
The assistant went, but in my mess, couldn’t find the tape.
“Brooks!” Phil was certain to have yelled.
“Get that goddamn schlepper down here NOW! I want that tape NOW!” Phil most definitely bellowed.
Brooks was sure to have answered, “Yes, sir, right away!” and went on his detective hunt to find me.
He was probably speaking the way he was to me because he was in front of Ramone and Bacharach.
“I can’t possibly get there in less than an hour,” I said.
Again, ignoring me, “See you in 30 minutes.”
“Brooks! That’s impossible . . .”
“Bring the tape over to 322 the minute you get here.”
That Saturday morning was my first personal encounter with the mercurial demands of the Great One, Ramone.
Following the A and R ethos, I acceded. I bounced back easy in those days. I threw on some clothes and headed back to the subway I’d just barely exited. I’d get to midtown Manhattan faster that way, and I’d pocket the cab fare. Between that, and the double-golden overtime I’d be making – meaning $5.00 an hour – at least this would make sense financially.
By the time I got on the decrepit D train I emerged into consciousness and started to stew. What kind of lunacy was this? Did he really need this tape right now? Why didn’t he ask for it on Friday like normal people? What the hell was Burt Bacharach doing at the studio at 9 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday anyway? Pains in my ass.
After getting over my snit, the good soldier kicked in. I busted it to the basement, jogging through the streets of the city. It took me all of 30 seconds to find the tape in the library. If I’d just been a little more organized anyone could have found it. But, no, the schlepper had to be schlepped out of bed and had to travel half way across creation to get it. Wow. I was important. I scurried over to 322 to deliver the gold.
Two-inch tape in hand, I walked into the control room of studio R-2. Max was standing at attention by the door in his shiny black suit, yellowing shirt, and stained red tie, always at the ready. Ramone was behind the board. He leaned back in his brown leather Knoll chair, his arms resting on his leviathan belly. His assistant cooly sat by the tape machine behind him. Invisibly, I slid over to the assistant and handed him the tape.
Before I could slip out, Ramone, ignoring me, whispered to Max, “Have him wait in case we need anything else.”
Fuck. Now I couldn’t leave.
I pulled up a stool and hung by my favorite spot near the echo machine. At least I’d do something while I waited for the master to give his next command. I faced Bacharach, who stood by the row of seats in front of the console, next to the studio glass.
Burt was chatting away. In the middle of his monologue, he pulled his yellow crew-neck cashmere sweater over his head, revealing a pale blue oxford shirt. Then he replaced the yellow sweater with a royal blue v-neck number. That lasted all of three minutes until he pulled that one over his head, and changed into a red one. As I sat there, aiming to achieve my zen stillness, bored out of my gourd, my body starting to ache from having had little sleep the night before, listening to Bacharach prattle, I must have watched him change his sweater 10, 12, 15 times, to every color on the color wheel. Blue, red, pale pink, chartreuse, lavender, sea foam, black, gray, white, purple, crimson. As my blood sugar plunged and dots danced before my eyes, not a note of music was played.
His sartorial regimen complete, he turned to Ramone and said, “I’m done. Let’s go.”
What the hell was that whole thing about? Bacharach in the studio at 9AM on a Saturday morning only to try on a stack of cashmere sweaters? Weird.
I was told by Milton that I could leave now. Really? They never used the tape I brought. It was all some whim of Phil’s. I was pissed.
Talking about whimsical, and the making of a hit record, here’s a legendary tale I heard years later from Phil about Burt. Bacharach had penned and produced the song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” the theme song from the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a breakthrough movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The song was due to be released as a single, sung by B.J. Thomas.
After it was recorded, mixed, mastered, pressed onto vinyl, and shipped to record stores (that was what used to happen), Burt decided he didn’t like the mix of the intro! Not the musical parts, not the vocal performance, simply the balance of instruments at the beginning of the record, a subtlety that would be missed by almost any living human being. But Bacharach was a perfectionist and couldn’t live with it. He had all the single discs recalled at who-knows-what cost to the record company. He had Phil remix the intro and edit it to the body of the tape.
They re-released the record and it was a number one, selling millions of copies, and winning an Oscar for best song. Would it have anyway? Who knows.
I wanted desperately to get out of the basement and into the studio, but after what I heard, and got a glimpse of that day, I didn’t want to work with this Phil Ramone guy. Way too scary. But that was the last of my worries. I was certain it would never happen. Phil had his assistant. He only worked with the most seasoned, brilliant guys. Once hand picked, this assistant worked exclusively for the King. All the heavies at the studio: Elliot Scheiner who eventually won Grammys for mixing Steely Dan; the Canadian funkmeister extraordinaire Don Hahn who went on to run A and M Studios; the eccentric and deeply musical tuba-playing Dixon Van Winkle, who included McCartney in his discography; and so many beyond, had come up this way, apprenticed to the master.
I was infinitely far from these guys and barely contemplated ever getting there. But I did hunger to be an assistant, one day – just not for Phil.
I worked to get my shit together by arriving at the studio before anyone else and set up for that day’s session. The assistant wouldn’t mind the help, and I’d work on my chops. I learned what microphones were used for the different instruments, and where to place them to get the best sound. The bass drum had an Altec 633 mic called a “saltshaker;” the snare, a Sennheiser 421; we used Neumann U-87’s on the brass; woodwinds, the Sony C-37.
But most of what I was taught was what it meant to be the best. We were there 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. 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 make beautiful sounds. Recording, in the A and R school, was about there being as little as possible between the sweet sound of inspiration and what landed on your ear.
The studio work went on around the clock, and if I was the first to arrive, I tried to be the last to leave. This wasn’t enough for a kid as hungry as me. With the tacit encouragement of management, I’d sneak into the studio on weekends, stealing rolls of tape to record anyone I could. Thus began my training in going without sleep.
After months of this, I had managed to get myself to assist on a handful of sessions with the other staff engineers when an extra hand was needed. I fucked up badly at least once on every session, and would get my pipes cleaned by anyone in the room. That, I knew, was the price of admission. I’d put up with it for as long as I had to, if it meant I was getting closer to the castle in the sky.
One day, I was doing one of my heinous mind-numbing schlepper tasks, endlessly screwing together hubs and flanges, the center rings and the flat metal coverings that together made up the reels that held our magnetic tape. Through the monotony I couldn’t help but ruminate, worrying if the day would ever come when I would get through a session without a horrific mistake and the painful pummeling of emotional abuse. I knew that without that, I’d never be good enough to get out of this shit-hole.
While I was enduring this torture, in my hands and mind, the vice-president of the studio, David Sterling, who had once been a top engineer until cigarette advertisements were banned from the airwaves, wandered into my basement lair. He had taken an early dislike to me. I was all firecracker, a grasping street kid, ready to do anything to get my seat at the console, and he was on the other side of that, all bitter and has-been. He was Mad Men early 1960’s in his neat silver hair cut, finely cut narrow-lapeled suit and highball. I was post-hippie 70’s freak in my endless fire-colored hair, Elton John platform shoes, and cloud of pot smoke. I was more than a little obnoxious. He was a drunk.
He came in after a two-martini “lunch” in a tormenting spirit.
As I screwed together reel after reel, Sterling said, “You better get used to this, because if I have anything to do with it, you’re going to spend the rest of your life in this smelly hole of a basement making reels.”
I could feel the heat rise up through my belly and vibrating through my body, a mixture of rage and terror. Oh my god, I thought. My worst fear was coming true. I’d be trapped in the basement forever. I’d never get to the 7th floor!
Having dropped that bomb, satisfied with the splatter, Sterling meandered over to another of the basement offices to commiserate and snicker with one of his drinking buds.
In despair, alone, I began to think of escape routes. I was ready to quit. Maybe I’d get a job over at the Record Plant, our rock n’ roll rival of a studio across town, like my friend, Jimmy Iovine, who had just gotten fired from A and R. (Jimmy went on to become a billionaire. Maybe I should’ve gotten fired, too.)
Later that afternoon, sitting in my blackness and finding no exit, the phone rang. Fuck. Just what I needed, I thought. I was sure it was Tony, with one of his annoying tasks. But it wasn’t. It was Max, sounding not his usual self. He was awfully serious.
I could hear him chewing on his cigar. “Don’t worry,” he said in a raspy growl. “It’s going to be alright, see.”
Well that would scare anyone.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Phil needs you to do a session tonight.”
“Who’s the engineer?”
I felt an instant cramping in my gut.
“What do you mean? I can’t do that, I’ve never . . . Where is his assistant?”
“He’s not available and everyone else is working. So you’re the guy.”
“Brooks, I’m not ready, I mean . . .”
“You’ll be fine. We’ll all be right there to back you up. Now go over to R-1. The session starts at 7.”
Ramone, like the giant in Jack in the Beanstalk, was known to eat assistant engineers for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, if they had so much as the tiniest fuck up on one of his sessions.
If I had yet to get through one date assisting on my own without screwing up royally, and this inevitably led to me getting emotionally beaten within an inch of my psychological life by whichever of the rest of the staff engineers I was working with, and these guys were merely pale imitations of the guy who trained them, the big monster, Phil, what would happen when I screwed up on his date?
I was certain of one thing. I would never live through the night. I started making phone calls to say goodbye to my friends and relatives.
“I have to work with Ramone tonight, and I’m going to die!”
No one seemed to be as scared as I was. Well, that made sense. I was the one who was going to be eviscerated.
After saying my farewells to all I knew, I zoomed over to the other side.
The session was a demo for Lucy Simon, Carly’s sister. It was a simple rhythm section: bass, drums, guitar and keyboards, with Lucy singing in the booth. I sped around the studio and had it set up in minutes. I checked the mics and cans three times. By the time Phil and the musicians walked in, I couldn’t think of anything left undone. The control room was spotless, the console was set. The take sheets, track sheets, and tape boxes were filled out in a snazzy filigree.
Lucy came in with her manager, Ron Delsener, who was a legendary concert promoter. Carly, the bigger and more famous sister, was there, gorgeous, with her impressive, and somewhat horsey, lips.
The band members, top studio cats, took their places behind their instruments. I dashed out to the studio to set the microphones in their optimal positions.
Ramone sat casually before the console. I stood directly behind him, never sitting down, crouched, like a runner on first base taking a lead toward second. I was ready to sprint if I so much as saw Ramone take a breath.
Phil seemed relaxed, and offered no critique. He pushed up all the faders at once, and each sound was there – bass, drums, guitar, keys. It was amazing. Whenever I touched a fader, everything sounded like dog meat. With Ramone, all he had to do was touch the knobs, and within seconds it all blended together into magic.
The musicians played, Lucy sang. I kept eying the clock. With every passing minute without anything screwing up, I told myself I was one second closer to the fuck up that would ruin my career for good.
Phil asked me to make a small adjustment on a mic, and I was out in the studio and back in the control room like a blur. I hit the record button on his command, and when he asked for a playback, I rewound the tape flawlessly. Somehow the adrenaline from the fear of immolation gave me a focus I’d never found before.
Delsener, Carly, Lucy, the cats, all laughed. They appeared to be having a good time, not noticing that instead of a class act behind the master, there stood the schlep. We cut one, two, three tracks. Everyone was satisfied.
I was confused when the musicians packed up and left. Could that be it? It was as if I had just gone through major surgery without a hitch.
Ramone told me to set up for a quick mix. Shit. Another chance to blow it. Maybe it would happen now. He asked me to patch in a few equalizers and limiters. I took a deep breath and plugged in the cables. Again, it all worked. I didn’t create any horrible feedback, I hadn’t erased any essential drum parts.
Ramone quickly balanced the instruments and vocals and we laid the mixes down to quarter-inch tape. Jesus, he was good. It sounded luscious.
I made a 7 1/2 inch tape copy for Delsener, and in three short hours, everyone left happy, including Phil. Good naturedly, as if leaving the host of a party, they all said goodbye – to me.
I now stood alone in the silent studio. Louder than anything we had just put down on tape, I heard my heart pounding in my chest. Wait, I told myself, unable to take it in, I’d made it through the entire, mercifully short, three hour session without one single, solitary mistake! The first time ever! I was alive!
I bolted into the studio and ran in circles screaming at the top of my lungs with glee. I jumped behind the drum kit, and played a Keith Moon-esque wild drum solo. Yay!
I went back into the control room and flopped in a chair behind the console, taking some long, deep breaths. The best part was that I’d never have to work with Ramone again. I was done. I could go back to my hidey-hole in the basement, safe from harm.
I broke down the studio, coiling all the mic cables and headphones, folding the chairs, lining up the mics in neat rows. I cleaned up the control room, leaving it pristine for whoever would come in the next morning. I went home, the last to leave. I slept a full night for the last time in seven years.
The next morning, my night of torture behind me, I returned to my purgatorial station in the basement, the smelly sanctuary suddenly seeming tranquil and safe. Then, like a predictable bowel movement, I got the dreaded call from Tony to come up to the studio’s main office.
“Get up here, pal.”
Reverend Blalock took me up the freight. “Hey, chicken hawk. You catchin’ any chickens?” I didn’t know what he was talking about.
The usual characters were hanging around the office.
Plotnik laughed sardonically, “So, you’re Ramone’s new boy!”
“Go stick it,” I responded. “I’m just glad I lived through the night.”
“Oh yeah,” Holley added. “Now you da man.”
I was sure I was just getting my usual morning dose of razzing. I felt embarrassed.
Tony joined in. “You’re fucked now, big fella. Come over here and look at the book.”
I felt a strange sense of destiny in a way that I have in only a few moments of my life as I I walked over to the scheduling book. Tony pointed his pipe at page after page. Phil’s last assistant’s name had been erased from all his sessions, and I saw my name on every one: Paul Simon all day, and an unknown artist named Phoebe Snow at night. The engineer: Ramone. On top of each session was the name, “Berger.” That was me.
“Your schlepping days are through. I don’t know why Ramone would have done it,” Tony had to add.
I had just turned 18 years old. I made my way out of the basement and I was saved from the evil alcoholic VP. But the exit meant entering the jaws of the tyrannosaurus.
In a moment of inspiration, Holley said, “Now you da Berger-Queen!”
The office liked that one, and everyone cracked up, repeating in unison, “Berger Queen, Berger Queen!”
I had passed through the initial tests and now my real initiation was about to begin.
As terrified as I was, I knew this was the big break I had barely dared to wish for. On that day, staring at my name next to Phil’s and Paul Simon’s, I knew that a rare, perhaps singular, miracle had occurred in my life. Never again would I have to walk down the fetid steps to the basement. I made my way up to the seventh floor for good. I was on my way to becoming a cat. I was the luckiest boy in New York City.
Phil Ramone had chosen me to be his assistant engineer.
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