One Friday afternoon in 1975, at the end of a long week at A & R Recording, I was given the assignment to make, and deliver, a cassette copy of some rough mixes to Bette Midler. This was my job, because, at nineteen, I was assistant engineer for the monster engineer/producer, Phil Ramone.
In those days, Bette was hot in more ways than one. Having found her audience in the nascent days of gay liberation at a place called The Continental Baths, her debut album, titled The Divine Miss M, sold over a million copies and landed her the best-new-artist Grammy award in 1973. She was more chanteuse and comedienne than rocker, and in the looks department she was no Beyoncé, but she had a personality and a set of boobs that cut through all categories in those ambisexual days of the mid-seventies. She was a rising superstar.
Bette was doing some work on her third album at our studio. She, and her producer, the venerable Arif Mardin, were trying in vain to find a suitable direction for her musical growth. She was all over the place. The work was going nowhere.
I called the Divine One up to see when she would be around so I could bring her the tape. When I heard her voice on the other end of the line, I became inspired. Bubbling up from some source of late-adolescent supreme cockiness, total unconsciousness, and massively denied insecurity, I said, “Hey Bette, since I’m coming down to deliver these tapes, would you like to go out for some dinner?” I heard my own voice asking Bette Midler out on a date.
With a sparkly and wicked smile in her voice, she said, “Sure.”
I had not only asked Bette Midler out on a date, but she had said yes!
I traveled the Seventh Avenue Subway line down from the studio in Midtown to Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, with my cassette tape in tow. What seemed like centuries before, when I was thirteen, I had taken the subway in the other direction, north from Brooklyn, and had come to the Village for the first time. The moment I ascended those stairs as a newbie teen, I said to myself, This is where I want to live. Now here I was, the coolest assistant engineer in the world on my way to the house of the hottest babe on the planet.
Yes, it was all too hip, but I was so far out of my depth, I would be lucky if I didn’t get the bends. I was wearing the worst pair of shoes.
As you travel south on the granite island of Manhattan toward its narrowing point, you move back through time, to where the city had its birth. Once you get below 14th Street on the West Side, the city loses its easily-traversable grid and becomes a tangle of irrational pathways. I somehow found my way through the confusion to Barrow Street, a charming, narrow lane of early 19th century townhouses. I followed the numbers until I stood in front of her building, number thirty-six. I walked up the stoop stairs, and rang the bell.
Bette, petite, with a mess of red hair, knowing eyes, a funky nose, and an ample, sensuous body, opened the door and invited me in. She lived in a typical, one-bedroom Village floor-through on the parlor floor of the building. You walked into the living room. There was a tiny kitchen to the left.
She asked if I wanted a glass of Chablis, as I followed her into the kitchen. I remembered the first lesson the studio manager, Tony, taught me when I began my internship at A & R: whatever the artists ask, your only answer is yes. I also figured that agreeing to whatever she said was the best way to conceal that I was a total dork. Once she brought me the glass, I figured out that Chablis was white wine. I was a quick study.
Bette was bright, savvy, funny, and a great conversationalist. Where I had always felt so awkward and tongue-tied around Paul Simon, the artist I was spending my days being tormented by (another story, another chapter), with Bette I felt clever. Sitting at her kitchen table, sipping the wine, she told me she had just met David Bowie, and we talked about what he was like. She said he was smart – that I’d like him. We were getting along, having fun.
She asked if I wanted to grab some dinner at Alfredo’s. I gave the right answer.
As we walked west toward the river, down Barrow toward Hudson Street, I tried to look like I knew where I was going, while following her footsteps. When we arrived at the restaurant it was packed. This was the trendiest spot in New York at that time. Everyone was eating Fettuccine Alfredo. Now, I was sure to find out what that meant.
I approached the maitre d’ to request a table. Looking beyond me, he swatted me away in an instant like a mildly annoying gnat. As I tried in vain to push through the crowd, vying for a coveted seat at this popular bistro, my raised arm and boy’s voice lost in the din amplified by the tin ceilings, the host recognized Miss M.
“Oh, Miss Midler, how nice to see you!” he said in his most sycophantic accent. “Of course we have a table for you, come right this way!”
As the diva pushed out her bosom, beamed, and sauntered past the hoi polloi to her appointed throne, I struggled to keep up, signaling to no one in particular that I was with her.
We sat opposite each other, with the artichoke she had ordered between us. I had never seen such a strange fruit. How was one meant to approach such a cactus? I watched her pull out a leaf, dip it in some sauce and suck the veggie meat off the end. OK. Pull, dip, and suck. Artichoke. Got it.
After slurping through the cheesy pasta, (Alfredo was a cholesterol-laden white sauce of cheese, butter, and more cheese.) drinking some blush wine, and indulging in some rum-soaked tiramisu, I was feeling loose. I had survived dinner. When I wasn’t looking like a spaz, we made a charming couple. I picked up the check.
We walked back to her pad, arm in arm, in the warm spring night. My feet were off the ground, some other part of me was in the air.
Inside, she poured us some more wine, and we danced to some slow, funky Marvin Gaye. Her curvy body against mine left me dizzy.
She asked, “Do you want to watch some TV?”
Of course, I said, “Yes.”
There was one more room in the back of the apartment. The small black-and-white was in her bedroom. This being a New York apartment, her boudoir was just big enough for a queen-size bed. She plopped on the mattress, and I laid down next to her. She turned on the set to Channel 13. I knew I had a buzz on, but I wasn’t on acid or anything; yet what I saw appeared like a hallucination. The show started with some freaky animation, and a twisted martial tune. A bunch of wacky English guys were doing the strangest bits. A blancmange, a large, white pudding, was playing tennis. In a high voice, someone screamed, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” It was Monty Python, a breakthrough British TV comedy that captured the psychedelic, erudite, Beatles-influenced zeitgeist in the funniest way. Bette and I laughed together.
Chablis, Bowie, artichokes, Alfredo, tiramisu, Gaye, Python, it all started to inflate my head like a helium balloon. Then, I looked down, and saw those fabulous, famous, large, young breasts. I looked into Bette’s eyes, and saw that mischievous smile of hers. What had I been thinking when I asked her for dinner? Did I really think I’d end up inches away from her supine body? What, I wondered, do I do now? A vague confusion started to cloud my consciousness, but I pushed it away.
Well, if I had practiced anything during my wasted youth, it was kissing. I got the vibe that she just might let me do that. I lowered my face and my lips touched hers. She didn’t stop me. She yielded, and even made some approving little sounds. Our tongues touched. Hm. Really? I tried it again, and again. She seemed to be ok with it. It felt good. She’d apparently had some practice with this, herself.
After a spate of kisses, the obvious, next thought came into my head: I could touch, fondle, grope, caress, maybe even lick, suckle, the breasts of the Divine Miss M, the queen of booblemania. I reached down. There they were, now in my hands! Now, under my lips!
Wait. That confusion had now solidified into conflict. My excitement was met head on with trepidation. What was the right thing to do? Oh, how foolish we can be at nineteen! We allow morality to enter at all the wrong moments. Was this a first date? If so, one didn’t screw on the first date, did they? Could I ruin a potentially great relationship by going too far? What would the gentlemanly thing be to do? I could sneak learning how to eat an artichoke, but I couldn’t let on that I had no idea what I was doing here, at this moment. And what of Tony’s lessons? I was always supposed to say yes, but I was never, ever supposed to mess with the artists. And then there was Phil. Shit, oh yeah, him. Phil Ramone. My boss’s ugly puss flashed through my mind. He might not take too kindly to this . . . I had to make a decision.
That luscious, famous body pulled me in one direction, and some inhibiting force pulled me in another. I, I — would be gallant, I thought. That couldn’t be wrong!
Before I knew what I was doing, I got up, started putting on my bad shoes, and said that I’d be going. Bette looked at me with incredulity, with shock, but her unlikely reaction didn’t register in my still-maturing neo-cortex. As I watched myself from outside my body, as I reached the door, with me saying goodnight, it suddenly dawned on me. That look on her face – she was angry! Her willing smile turned into a curl of wrath. Hell hath no fury.
The door closed. I saw a cab in front of her building, hailed it, and got inside. The minute I sat down, I felt the yanking pain of my post-pubescent tumescence. I saw, like an after-image, Bette’s face with her wide eyes, flared nostrils, and narrowed, scornful lips as she closed the door. Then, just five minutes too late, it hit me. I had just made one of the worst mistakes of my young life. I could have, no, I should have, done it with Bette Midler, and I blew it! Then, like fragments coming together into a recognizable whole, I could perceive the next layer of truth: this had probably been my one and only chance to ever do anything like that in my entire life. As the cab went up Sixth Avenue, every few blocks I leaned toward the cab driver to tell him to turn around, and each time I told myself I couldn’t, kicking myself.
The truth was, I wasn’t gallant, I was scared. I chickened out. I hadn’t thought when I made the ballsy move of asking her out to dinner that anything like what happened was in my future.
If that wasn’t bad enough, now I had to deal with the next consequence of that ill-fated act. The next Monday, I was back in the control room with Ramone. It was just the two of us, working on some mix, without an artist or producer present. Knowing that Bette was sure to come in again to record, there was a chance that Ramone would find out about this date, and I didn’t want him to hear the story from anyone but me.
“Phil,” I started gingerly, “there’s something I gotta tell ya.”
“What,” he said impatiently. “Come on, 30 ips,” which was his code for get on with it.
“Nothing happened (unfortunately, I thought to myself), I was just delivering the cassette to Bette and we decided to go out for dinner, and we just ate some pasta and hung out for a while and that was all that happened. I just wanted you to know.”
Ramone said nothing. That made me nervous. Well, maybe it shouldn’t, I thought. Maybe he’ll just let it pass. Maybe we got through that moment. I started to breathe again. We went on with our work, for a half hour, or so. Few words passed between us. Was there tension in the air, or was I making it up?
I was over by the half-inch machine, rewinding a mix, when Ramone suddenly twisted around in his brown, leather chair. Reflexively, I turned, and saw his massive belly pulling him forward with a mass of momentum, making him look like a sumo wrestler on the attack, his eyes twirling with crazed rage. I jerked back, banging into the tape machine, and held on.
“You talk to me about integrity,” he growled disdainfully. “You don’t have any integrity. When Bette drives up here in her limo you’re going to crawl out to her on your belly!”
I tried to reason with him. “But Phil, I’m telling you . . .”
Now the volume was getting to an ear-damaging decibel level. “And let me tell you something else, Berger, when you produce her next album, I won’t be engineering it!”
If only I had that kind of moxie and narcissistic confidence! I just thought, in the moment, when the opening presented itself, that maybe I’d be lucky enough to get a kiss, cop a feel — I hadn’t strategized quite so far to see this as some brilliant career move.
“But Phil, I was just her roadie of the night. I’m ten years younger than her, she’ll never have anything to do with me again!” I wished that wasn’t true, but deep down I knew. I knew.
“Now I know who you really are! You’ll fuck anybody to get ahead. You don’t care about me, or the work! You gigolo! So what, now you’re Bette Midler’s little boy? Is she driving up here right now to pick you up? And if she comes, will you go?”
He was out of control. Now I made my next big mistake. “Phil, you’re just jealous.”
“GET OUT! GET OUT! I’VE TAKEN ABOUT AS MUCH SHIT AS I’M GONNA TAKE FROM YOU, YOU . . .”
Before I heard anymore, I ran out of the control room, and zoomed up to the second floor, heading straight for Broadway Max’s office for refuge. Max, the studio’s major domo, and my protector, was on the phone, trying to collect money. He gripped a pencil stub, scribbling something down, and chewed an unlit cigar. He rolled his pale, blue eyes, while pointing at the black phone with the coiled cable, and motioned for me to take a seat.
He hung up the phone, and said in his friendly snarl, “What’s up buddy boy?” His shiny black suit was covered in dandruff, as always.
I told him the story. He laughed with a full throatedness that could only be described as demonic, exposing his big, yellow teeth. He relished this tale, as he loved everything about the biz.
“So you are Midler’s boy-toy of the night, you don’t even follow through, and Ramone thinks you are going to steal his gig! That is hilarious!”
“I’m glad you think it’s funny. If I wasn’t idiot enough last night, now I go and tell Ramone he’s jealous. I’m in deep shit.”
Now Max looked mock-serious. “You said that? Uh-oh.” He scratched his white crew-cut. “That is bad. I better go down there and see if I can patch things up.”
It was good to have an ally I could depend on.
Max called me back down to the control room after a suitable interval. Max had poured Phil a cognac. When I came back in, Phil looked at me out of the corner of his narrowed eyes. I promised not to go out with any more stars. We went back to work as if nothing had happened. But he never looked at this schlepper the same way again. Along with a degree of suspiciousness, he had to admit a begrudging admiration.
Still, I couldn’t let go of this nagging sense of guilt and shame about the Midler debacle. I thought I’d send her some flowers, just to say thanks — and I’m sorry — and maybe there’d be an opening . . . We did a few more sessions, but she acknowledged nothing. I sat quiet and cowed, back in my assistant’s chair. Though I slowly grew to accept that my romance was over, I couldn’t forgive myself.
Even now, I still cringe with regret over my missed dalliance. Was there any way to reconcile this blunder? You’d think the lesson here would be the old carpe diem bullshit. You know, seize the day and all that. To a fault, for years, I rarely turned down such opportunities again, which got me into all kinds of other trouble. So maybe that wasn’t the moral.
Here’s another possible message. When opportunity comes, you’ve got to be ready for it. Timing is a matter of luck. Maybe the lesson is, don’t act if you are not prepared.
You see, what would have happened if I had shtupped Bette Midler? I would have done a poor job of it, for sure. I still would have been just a boy-toy for the night, and my less-than-studly, nineteen-year-old performance would have sealed that deal. Having made love, I would have fallen in love, and my uncontrollable pursuit afterwards would have led to even grosser humiliations. Phil would have had something to really be angry about, and who knows how that would have ended. Certainly, if we had consummated, that would have been the extent of the story. But not having done it makes a much better tale. Perhaps it was the best mistake I ever made.
That leaves me with one last regret. It’s just too bad we couldn’t have been friends. She was cool. Now, that makes me sad.
There was a coda to this concerto. At that time, I was also assisting on Steely Dan’s Royal Scam album. Walter Becker and Donald Fagan, the two guys who made up the band, were an unusual combination for the studio. They were brilliant odd-balls and regular guys, that is, unlike the typical superstars, they were not over-the-top narcissists. Most other artists weren’t as eccentric, but were far less friendly.
Steely Dan manifested the ultimate of the New York studio scene of that time. They had made some great hits in California, but they were New Yorkers in their souls, and they wanted the funk influence that only the top New York players could bring. They came to A & R to cut the tracks for their new record and hired engineer Elliot Scheiner to man the controls. Gary Katz was their producer, who translated the cryptic Martian commands of the bizarre duo to the musicians. The team went on to make the Dan’s greatest record, Aja, as well as Royal Scam and Gaucho. After that, they really had very little left to say.
The greatness of those records came from the combination of Steely Dan’s arch, white college-boy wit, angular rhythmic changes, sophisticated jazz harmonies, and post-modern melodic references, with the groove and funk sensibility of the studio cats who played the music.
Donald and Walter were the most exacting artists I’d ever encountered, relentless in the pursuit of the perfect realization of the sound in their heads. We would regularly take all night and about twelve reels of two-inch tape just to cut a basic track. They might have the drummer tune the snare drum for hours, or recut a track because a single cymbal crash was in the wrong place. Along with Scheiner’s great ears for sounds, there was good reason why their records won Grammy awards, including for best engineering.
One afternoon, we were listening back to those freshly recorded basic tracks. They were so hot, sparks flew out of the speakers, and we were all lifted to a higher realm. While Becker and Fagan were goofing around in the control room, taking a break from our work, Midler came in to hang with the guys.
She saw me and brightened. With just a soupçon of sarcasm in her voice, she said, “Buns! How are you?” She sashayed over and gave me a tantalizing, but ironic, hug.
“Yes,” I said, with a mixture of pride, showing off my tight Fiorucci jeans, and excruciating embarrassment. “That’s what she calls me.”
That became my name for the rest of the Dan project. I know you might be skeptical that any of this is true, but if you look at the credits on the Royal Scam album, the last credit, under “Techno” is, yeah, that’s right: Buns.