Keith Emerson’s Suicide & Artists’ High Need For Approval

 

ELP’s Keith Emerson, Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess and producer Keith Wechsler

 

Keith Emerson, virtuoso keyboardist of ELP, is no longer with us. It blows my mind to think that he believed suicide was his best option.

Because I am thankfully not prone to depression, I cannot comprehend the idea that not seeing tomorrow’s sunrise would be a better option than waking up to explore the vast horizon of endless possibilities potential in each and every day. Then again, I love a good mystery, so God forbid I were to get sucked into a daytime soap opera. Or to get started on Breaking Bad, because I would almost certainly binge-watch the entire series if it is truly as good as I am told.

I simply cannot wait to find out what happens next. Good or bad, it almost doesn’t matter. I suppose that’s because I find serendipity in tests and difficulties. I believe that they are the equivalent of the fire through which a sword must pass before it is ready for battle. When I broke ten bones in a state championship bicycle race in 2004, my friends were more bummed out than I was. They focused on what I could no longer do for the next two months: race. I, on the other hand, focused on the adventure of spicing up my life with some variety. I bought power tools so that I could make furniture during the 14 extra hours I would have every week. I ticked some long postponed projects off my To Do list. I hired other guitarists to do my recording sessions, and I learned a bunch of new chops in the process. I had a great time, even if I happened to be in pain. A few weeks later, I was back in the saddle again, invigorated by fresh perspective and new life experiences that raised my game both in the studio and at the races. What initially appeared to be devastating, eventually proved to be a blessing.

My dear friend and mentor, Keith Wechsler, worked closely with Keith Emerson as his producer. They became good friends. KW told me a few years ago that Emerson developed a physical ailment that severely handicapped his hands and his ability to perform. Rather than retiring, Emerson figured out how to make two or three fingers do the work of five. He played great, despite his misfortune. Given what I knew, I assumed that he adapted, so I was surprised to hear of his suicide. I guess he identified more with what he did physically than who he was as a spiritual being. Apparently if he couldn’t play piano like a madman or entertain his fans with wicked chops, life wasn’t worth living.

That concept is noteworthy because many artists have a very high need for approval from their fans and peers. Without approval (in the form of recognition, critical acclaim, financial success, etc.), artists often feel like their artistry lacks merit. In the record business, artists without recording contracts often feel like frauds because they do not have the validation of some self-proclaimed “arbiter of worthiness” who may not possess even the most basic hints of musical talent. I’m not saying that all A&R folks lack talent…I’m saying that we, by definition of our job descriptions, have an almost fiduciary responsibility to sign commercially viable entertainers, not necessarily great artists. It is tragic when a great band bails out because they took it too hard when some nonmusical bureaucrat in a suit rejected the band’s demo tape after eating bad sushi for lunch or getting dumped by a lover.

If you’re an up and coming artist looking for somebody in a position of power or influence to open a door for you, remember this: Do something because you love to do it, not because you hope somebody else will like you for it. This is the only way that your art will remain pure. Otherwise you’ll be chasing a moving target while creating “art by committee.”

This is where Emerson and I fundamentally differ. My attitude is to roll with a good thing while it lasts, and then be grateful for the past while I write a new adventurous chapter for the future. When he thinks it’s game over, I think we’re beginning Game 2 of a doubleheader. Did he ever consider the possibility that many fans would have loved to hear him speak about his music, or to take a master class from him, or to be mentored by him? His music was the soundtrack to many peoples lives. There’s a lot more he could have given if he was willing to adapt. Emerson’s music was cool, but it was by no means the only cool thing about him. In this article, Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess states, “Evidently [Emerson] was upset that he couldn’t play the same anymore due to physical issues; that he could not deliver for the fans. I will always think about that now. About the realities of what we do as players, and what I need to be aware of. In that respect, Keith Emerson will never stop teaching me.”

If there is anything that I hope you will take away from today’s blog post, it is the belief that a life well lived is its own reward. Don’t look to others for approval of your art; do it because you love it, regardless of how others react to it.

The second takeaway is to be open to serendipity. You may not always get what you want, but with hindsight, it becomes clear that you often get what you need.

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My Day With The 5th Beatle: A Mini Celebration of Sir George Martin

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Produced by George Martin. As a kid, I commandeered the Sgt. Pepper cutouts from my parents’ album cover.

Sir George Martin was one of the most respected record producers in history. Much more than “the fifth Beatle”, Sir George also produced landmark albums by Jeff Beck, America, Ultravox and Peter Sellers. His passing this week has saddened countless music fans and professionals who cite his productions as a major part of the soundtrack to their lives.

I’m not alone when I say that I modeled my producer skill set after his. George knew music inside and out, and could do anything from composing and arranging to playing multiple instruments and providing the voice of reason. Plus he brought out the best in his artists, inspiring them to constantly raise the bar.

I’m an industrial-strength Beatles fan. Have been since 1967, when I cut out the cardboard mustache, sergeant stripes, badges and other accessories from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album artwork. Not sure my parents appreciated my initiative or industriousness, but I had fun. And I’ll bet I looked pretty stylish for a wee tricyclist pedaling around the sidewalks of Farmingdale, New York. To this day I still have a soft spot for epaulets, although Jimi Hendrix’s affinity for “the look” may have contributed to my fondness.

A year after Pepper, I clearly remember the day that the band’s next album was released. In 1968, I was six years of age, sitting in the backseat of what was about to reveal itself as a getaway car. My mother’s boyfriend Frankie told Mom, my brother Eddie and me to wait in the car while he ran an errand with his buddy. Several minutes later, he bolted from a Macy’s department store shooting a handgun while disguising himself with a nylon stocking over his face. His buddy didn’t make it to the car.

Did I mention that the car, a brand new metallic gold Plymouth Barracuda, belonged to my father, who rode the train to work? Or that Frankie often stole my model airplane glue so that he could get high sniffing it from a paper bag? Or that he ran a red light, totaled the muscular fish, and sent six people to the hospital?

Frankie did have at least one redeeming quality: he too was a Beatles fan. Apparently more committed than I, because I would never consider armed robbery an appropriate method to procure a coveted new release. The Beatles, aka the White Album, was the crown jewel in Frankie’s sack of liberated loot.

I always loved The Beatles’ records. Their inventive arrangements, underlying lyrical themes of love, psychedelic sitars, gritty yet pretty guitars, and lush vocal harmonies emotionally resonate with me. Today, when I close my eyes, their music transports me to another realm. If there’s an underlying theme to my work as a producer, it’s to achieve a meaningful connection between the song and the listener, which the Beatles did so effectively. Thus, it should come as no surprise that George Martin’s work was so inspirational to me.

As much as I would have loved to work with The Beatles, it seemed like I was often just one degree of separation from the guys. My friends David Kahne and Gregg Bissonette work with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, respectively, and acquaintances Abe Laboriel, Jr. and Rusty Anderson are members of Macca’s touring band.

In 1998, I came as close as I ever would to meeting the guys. Irina (my wife) and I spent a day with George Martin. The experience still left me a degree removed from the Fab Four, but was just as gratifying for me!

Enter the talented drummer Peter Bunetta, who was known for producing the one-hit-wonder (“Break My Stride”) recording artist & multi-platinum (No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom) producer/songwriter Matthew Wilder. Peter and I had just met each other, and were having a great time hanging out at the EAT’M (Emerging Artists and Talent in Music) festival, where I was moderating the Producers Panel. Peter is a super nice guy, and he’s generous with his connections in the record business. So, when David Cassidy (who will forever be Keith Partridge in my mind) arrived, Peter said, “Let’s ask David to introduce us to George!”

“Uh, okay,” was all I could muster with my outside voice. Meanwhile, my unfiltered inside voice was screaming, “Oh my God, is this really happening? I’m going to meet George Martin!”

Keith–oops, I mean David–guided us past security, deep into the inner sanctum where we attained the presence of the master, who was also the keynote speaker of the event. I remember the moment with crystal clarity.

David: “George, meet Peter and Michael.”

Sir George: “With pleasure.” (Extends hand to shake ours.)

Peter: (Instantly transforms into giddy fanboy, and overzealously grabs the legend’s right hand with what I would characterize as…ramming speed!) “George, I can’t even begin to describe how much your work has influenced and inspired me! I know it’s creepy that I’m not letting go of your hand, but I promise I will as soon as I finish basking in the moment.”

Irina and I were amused and amazed that we were watching the legendary producer of Sgt. Pepper attempting to yank his hand free from Peter’s determined clutch! George had a slight expression of horror on his face. It was like the face of a celebrity who comes to the realization that he’s just become ensnared in the terrifying web of a stalker. Despite the awkwardness of the moment, I must admit that it was hilarious!

When Peter finally released George, it was my turn for a handshake. I’ve learned that you only have one chance to make a first impression, so I made a point of not blowing it.

Me: “It’s a pleasure to meet you George. Are you cool if we do a regular handshake instead of an extended one?”

Sir George: (Heartily laughs.) “I would very much appreciate that, Michael! And the pleasure is mine.”

The first thing I noticed about Sir George was his impeccable posture. He was tall, well groomed, and a true gentleman. He appeared to be well aware of his legendary achievements and celebrity status, but he was remarkably warm and welcoming. He made Peter, Irina and me feel like we were longtime friends.

Over the course of the day, we chatted about various subjects. Among them were his upcoming retirement, his genuine affection for “the boys” or “the lads” (John, Paul, George and Ringo), the adventurous creative spirit of Sgt. Pepper, and the desire of the boys to rise above their differences and make their swan song, Abbey Road, be a fitting high-note to the band’s legacy.

During Sir George’s keynote speech, he told a humorous story of being lectured by his bosses at Parlophone Records. They said, “Martin, we’ve reviewed a list of the records you made last year, and we’ve discovered that most of them lose money. Stop making those ones! From now on, only produce the ones that will be profitable.” If you’re in the record business, you’re well aware that Parlophone’s mandate was ridiculous because there is no way to accurately predict how well art will perform in a commercial marketplace.

The biggest takeaway from my day with George was to make records that I genuinely enjoy, and to make them with excellence. That makes a lot of sense because we artists and producers honestly don’t know whether a record is going to be a hit or a flop. What we do know, however, is that some other people have similar tastes in music to ours, and those folks will likely dig the same stuff we do. We owe it to ourselves to make records that we’ll enjoy forever, regardless of commercial success or failure. For that enlightenment and commitment to excellence, I thank you, Sir George Martin. May your soul rest in peace, and may your legacy shine a light on the world forever.

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Thanks to Sir George for giving “the boys” the opportunity to shine and to reinvent themselves every year from 1962-70.

Recording Studio Tip: Discovering Your Unique Guitar Tone with Chandler Limited Pedals

Sometimes the best way to be heard is to whisper instead of scream. Similarly, many of the most compelling recorded guitar tones in history are all about subtlety instead of bombast.

Over the years I’ve learned that lowering the gain of guitar amps in the recording studio (relative to the extreme high gain settings preferred by live shredders) will make heavy tones more articulate, and therefore more expressive. Diming the gain provides sustain, but destroys dynamics.

The trick to unlocking your unique tone is to find the amp’s sweet spot that allows you to clean up your tone when lowering the guitar’s volume knob and/or playing with a soft touch, and, with the same amp settings, enabling the amp to growl, sing and bark as you turn up or play harder. When that happens, listeners will be able to identify you by your unique dynamic touch, stylistic nuances and technique, regardless of your choice of amplifier or guitar. Chances are good that you will immediately sound like a more expressive player if you’re typically a high gain junkie.

Today’s tone tip is about how I use Chandler Limited’s two hand-wired boutique guitar pedals, the Little Devil Colored Boost and the Germainium Drive, to enhance my tone. Both are capable of screaming, but I prefer to use them more subtly. Because I already have, in my opinion, great tone that balances the fine line of crystalline chime vs ballsy growl, I don’t want to radically alter my tone. Sometimes I want just a little bit more of what I already have. A little bit more sustain, girth, drive… with a small bit of coloration to make the sound bloom with more character when I step on the pedal.

Although the Chandler pedals are designed to respond differently to each player, guitar and amp combination, I seem to always end up in the vicinity of my personal default settings, regardless of my amp and guitar choices. If you already love the sound of your rig, try my settings and let me know what you think.

From left to right, here they are.

Germanium Drive:

Highs – very bright

Germ Drive – 4.5

Feedback – 4

Boost Range – full

You’ll notice that my settings of Highs vs Boost Range meet in the middle ground, complementing each other to provide a nicely balanced tone.

Little Devil Colored Boost:

Boost Range – mids

Color Boost – 4

Feedback & Bias – 6 (or 5 for more bite)

Highs – very bright

As a subtle alternative, I sometimes switch the Boost Range to full and lower the Color Boost to 2.

I find that these settings tend to work on both my clean and crunch tones. Although similar in aesthetics, the Germanium Drive configured in this manner is a bit more dynamic and clear, while the Little Devil sounds relatively thicker and more macho. If the former is the equivalent of adding a tasteful rhinoplasty to your tone, the latter would be like adding a butt lift to it. Pardon the metaphor—it gets the point across.

I do in fact use other pedals with more extreme settings to create contrast in my palette of tones. Needless to say, you can, too – you don’t need to throw away all your other beloved pedals in pursuit of an idealistic, boutique, hi-fi tone. That said, it really is worth the effort to go down this road and find a pedal that allows you to retain your unique sound, while tastefully enhancing it. You can be even more of what you already are!

If I find some extra time this week, I may bang out a quick home-brewed video to let you hear what I’m describing. If so, I’ll update this post.