Requiem for a Lucky Man: Greg Lake RIP

Two of MJ’s Tom Anderson guitars with James Zota Baker’s hand painted Strat and a stack of Mesa Boogie amps. Greg Lake loved his “Andys” and Boogies!
I began my day by composing the following email to my friend Tom Anderson:

In case you haven’t heard yet, one of our extended family of Anderson-playing brethren, Greg Lake, passed away yesterday at age 69 after a battle with cancer.

I clearly recall Greg telling me how much he loved his blue Drop Top. You and I later talked about it, and you said, “I don’t know why he likes it so much. It’s an experiment that was never intended to be seen in public. The top is nondescript, and the guitar is a B-flat at best.” Greg had an usual relationship with equipment. When he dug something, he was totally into it, but when he couldn’t figure it out, he simply gave up on it. He practically *gave* me his original Matchless DC30 after I was able to coax righteous tones out of it that he was not. Said it would be better in my hands than his. 

I have fond memories of him. RIP Greg.

Everybody knew Greg Lake as the legendary singer/ bassist of Emerson Lake & Palmer, whose hit “Lucky Man” remains a Classic Rock radio staple 40 years later. Fewer knew he was the voice of King Crimson for a while. I knew him as the generous gear geek whose quest was the perfect note played with the perfect tone.

When my mentor and chosen-brother Keith Wechsler brought me into the ELP fold as a “tone consultant” during rehearsals for a tour, Greg and I immediately bonded via our mutual affinity for Anderson guitars and Mesa amplifiers. Greg had recently obtained a new prized possession, a not-for-sale, in-house “tester” Anderson Drop Top guitar that he borrowed from Tom. To Tom’s surprise, Greg refused to return the guitar, despite reassurances that a non-tester finished product would be more satisfying and certainly better looking.

As the owner of several stunning showroom-quality “Andys” with AAA+++ quilted maple tops, I was acutely aware of the fact that Tom never intended to sell Greg’s guitar because its top had no sex appeal. Its grain pattern was so plain that it deserved to be painted, not stained. Nonetheless, Greg said the instrument gave him inspiration, and that he couldn’t put it down. “When you find something that inspires you,” he said, “you don’t let go of it.”

Greg plugged in to his Mesa TriAxis preamp & Simul-Class 2:90 power amp and treated me to an inspired solo rendition of his 1972 hit “From The Beginning” from ELP’s Trilogy album. The guitar clearly was Greg’s Holy Grail instrument, obviously giving him tremendous joy to play. Afterward, he presented the axe to me with the reverence of a diplomat bestowing a rare artifact upon a head of state after signing a historic treaty. I caressed the fretboard with a few expensive-sounding Steely Dan chords before returning the crown jewel to its smitten owner.

I then programmed some custom presets into Greg’s Mesa/Boogie rig, fine tuning them to his unique “touch” and style. He loved that rig, and was happy to have a few new colors on his tonal palette.

Greg then asked me if I could help him with his new Matchless DC30 because he “couldn’t get a tone” from it. Matchless was, at the time, the new boutique kid in town. The flagship DC30 was intended to be a roadworthy Vox AC30-inspired amp with two separate channels and attitudes. I was already familiar with the amp because Rusty Anderson walked me through his DC30 before a recording session at A&M Studio A. I showed Greg some tips and settings, but he wasn’t feeling the amp. He was simply uninspired by the amp, and it showed. Greg handed me the guitar, and all of a sudden music began pouring by the bucket from the speakers. Horses for courses. I guess there’s no true one-size-fits-all.

Greg’s generosity found its way to me. He believed that I would put the DC30 to better use than he, so he offered to give me the amp–which he knew was valued at $2500! I politely declined, saying that I would be willing to buy it from him rather than accept it as a gift. He asked if I had any cash in my wallet. I said, “Not enough.” He asked how much. I replied, “Only $600.” Greg said, “If you insist on paying for my gift to you, I insist you fork over that $600 right now.” With a wink and a big smile, he happily took my money. I took home a piece of Rock & Roll history.

In the spirit of passing the gift of tone to those more worthy of carrying the torch, I ultimately placed the amp with six-string phenom David Weiss of Travis Whitelaw, Trailer Radio, Slackjaw and Steve Conte’s band. Dave is a solid friend whose fiery-yet-tasty playing never ceases to amaze me. Dave also appreciates his DC30’s provenance and its fabled “green transformer” mystique.

Circling back to Greg Lake, another anecdote worth sharing is my recollection of a lovely “family day” in the park. FM radio giants Kansas and Tower Of Power were headlining an afternoon outdoor concert with Greg at Balboa Park in Los Angeles. Greg, a legend among rock’s royalty, was totally relaxed, low key, savoring the lovely weather and the company of his friends and colleagues. He was just another regular guy who was happy to share sandwiches, cheese and apples with the rest of us mere mortals, both before and after switching to the Rock Deity persona only while he was on stage. There was no isolated backstage cloistering on that day. Greg Lake, legendary rockstar, was unassumingly enjoying his picnic among a thousand diverse Angelenos from all walks of life. I don’t think anyone noticed him until he took the stage.

If I recall, the closest Greg came to playing the rockstar card while off stage was when he and Wechsler, who played drums that day for Greg wearing a cast on his broken ankle (!), introduced me to TOP’s drummer Dave Garibaldi, because I mentioned that it would be really cool to sit behind Garibaldi during his set. Mission accomplished. Cherished memory cast in stone. Sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest impressions. Lucky man indeed.

MJ: “This song’s for you, old friend. Rest in peace.”
 
David Weiss playing his Matchless DC30 that I got from Greg Lake.
 

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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.

Pinging the Pros: Gil Griffith

From Harmonizers to Distressors and Beyond

Latest version of the legendary classic

I cold called Eventide in the early ’90s because I wanted my own Harmonizer in my portable producer rack, but its hefty price tag of $3000 was beyond my humble means. I was hoping that the company would grant me an artist accommodation price because I had recently recorded some hip Sub Pop records for Hole, L7 and Reverend Horton Heat, all of whom were buzzing.

My call was directed to Gil Griffith, VP of Marketing (or something similar). Gil was somewhat of a legend: he came up with the idea for Steve Vai to create 48 presets for the H3000, which as a result became a required staple in every session guitarist’s refrigerator rack of doom and remorse. The presets were both twisted and beautiful, and they made a guitar sound like an otherworldly instrument that Shiva and Vishnu might play while destroying or creating life.

Gil was impressed that I had the balls to request a discount, given that my marquee credits were Seattle-centric as opposed to international. He was further impressed by the fact that I was prepared to actually purchase the H3000 when other cats from the Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie and Michael Bolton camps shamelessly begged for freebies even though they could afford to pay.

Long story short, Gil asked me enough questions to determine that my profile was more street, less corporate, than that of a “typical” Harmonizer user. He saw a fresh marketing angle that could attract a different demographic to the product.  Gil planned to fly into Los Angeles the next week, and suggested that we meet in person to discuss various possibilities.

My wife Irina and I rode our mountain bikes 20-ish miles to Gil’s hotel, arriving in a glorious stew of Lycra and sweat. Fortunately we asked him in advance if he’d mind, and he was cool with the idea. He was getting into cycling back home in New Jersey, so he was curious to check out our machines.

Irina and I had state of the art race bikes, and we were wicked fit: she was an actress of renown and I was still ripped from racing at the UCI Pro MTB World Championships. For better or worse, there we were, flying our freak flags with only a thin veneer of spandex separating our flesh from the elements, taking a meeting with a tall charismatic VP in a well tailored suit. Talk about an indelible first impression!

Fortunately Gil bet on my character and enthusiasm. He singlehandedly positioned me, along with my colleague and mentor Keith Wechsler, to become perhaps the most in-demand preset developers (at the time) for not only Eventide, but also competitors Lexicon and TC Electronic.

As an aside, Keith and I took these preset gigs quite seriously, and our fees skyrocketed to $10,000 plus the product (times two) per project. Along the way, we became friends with the folks who hired us, so we eventually decided to completely forego our cash fees. Believe it or not, it was the right thing to do.  Even though we could have continued charging top dollar, we believed that our karma (or dharma?) was to be of service in a pure way. With hindsight it’s clear that we wanted to do the preset work for the good of humanity, not as a career path that might interfere with our true passion of making records in the studio.

Anyway, back to the story of Gil, and how he enriched my life and my business…

Gil arranged for Don Teolis and me to write 91 new and unique presets for the H3000 D/SE and D/SX units. The former was geared toward studio applications while the latter was all about crazy guitar effects, including some trippy “backwards” Hendrix/Beatles stuff. By that time, Gil, Don and I were genuine friends, so we did the job for love, not money. Help a brother out, right?  Don and I were on fire, and created all those presets in a single day! I distinctly recall writing a wish list of every cool idea we could fantasize, and then rolling up our sleeves and executing the plan. It was a helluva day, but not really a surprise because that’s the way it was when working with Gil. He attracts excitement and inspiration.

Eventually Gil exited Eventide to found his own company, Wave Distribution. The company launched coveted brands like Dangerous Music, Chandler Limited, Empirical Labs, Focal Professional, Kush Audio, Burl, SoundToys, Tonelux, Purple Audio, and others. Because of Gil’s high standard of excellence, I’ve relied on him to spec and supply much of the equipment in my mix room. He knows what I need, before I do. With that in mind, let’s get on with asking Gil a few questions in our first Pinging the Pros segment!

Ken Bogdanowicz (Harmonizer designer), Gil Griffith, Dave Derr (Distressor designer)
MJ: You always know what I need. How is that?
 
GG: I feel that the products I choose to represent tend to be designed by folks within the very market we sell to – they own or work or worked in recording studios as musicians, producers and/or engineers – and as such, came up with their product ideas from inside the studio – necessity being the mother of invention and all – so if they needed the very product they designed, you, as a recording engineer and producer, most likely need that product too. I’m not clairvoyant, it’s just easy for me to recognize symbiosis.
 
MJ: How do you decide which gear to represent?
 
GG: I actually look at the person behind the gear first. Dave Derr and I were friends and colleagues from the eight years we spent together at Eventide. I worked at his studio (Studio E in Garfield, NJ) after he left Eventide, recording demos for bands I was friendly with and trying to help promote. When he showed me the Distressor he had developed, and asked me to help him sell “a hundred or two”, it was a no-brainer. 
 
When I met Wade Goeke from Chandler Limited, he had one product (the LTD-1 EQ) and two dealers. He had recently left Brent Averill, and had all these ideas for a range of products based on Beatles-era EMI gear from Abbey Road. His enthusiasm for the pro audio market and his exuberant personality were contagious. I liked him right away and wanted to work with him to bring his vision and passion for classic analog signal processing to the market.
 
All the best stuff that we love in life typically comes from the mind of a creative individual, who bends the forces of business nature to his/her will and makes something cool and useful (and typically disruptive) against all odds. Nicola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, Steve Jobs. In our industry – Georg Neumann, Rupert Neve, Les Paul, Saul Walker, Colin Sanders, David Griesinger – were the forward-thinking pioneers who bucked trends and produced new products and markets with a determined singleness of vision. I have been blessed with woking with a few modern audio pioneers over the years, including Richard Factor, Ron Noonan, Ken Bogdanowicz and Dave Derr. From that experience, it became easier for me to recognize the people who possessed the right combination of creativity, passion and design chops to bring the next “gotta have” brand to the pro audio market.
 
Now, my very good friend Bobby DeNiro told me that it’s not cool to drop names ;-), but my story is not about me, it’s about the people I choose to work with because of what I saw in them and their potential. And here I’m speaking of not only Dave Derr, Ken Bogdanowicz and Wade Goeke, but all the brands I helped launch or promote – Greg St. Regis (Studio Electronics), Andrew Roberts (Purple Audio), Peter Frampton (Framptone), Paul Wolff (Tonelux), John Arbiter (Carillon), Jaques Mahul (Focal Pro), Chris Pelonis (Pelonis Speakers), Ruben Tilgner (Elysia GmbH) and Gregory Scott (Kush Audio).

 
MJYou do business in an enlightened manner. Every deal is a win-win, and you spread the wealth rather than hoarding it. When you were with Eventide, why did introduce me to Lexicon?

 
GG: I believe in healthy competition. If we didn’t have competitors, innovation might crawl to a snail’s pace. Good competitors keep designers and manufacturers on their toes. The best win-win for me is a friendly competitor, like Lexicon was to Eventide. A competitor whose products and design strategy you admire. I have owned Lexicon gear, have used it in the studio, and have been wowed by artists like Steve Morse who could do amazing things through a PCM 42. How do you not respect and admire a company like Lexicon? Plus, the man who ran it during my time at Eventide was Ron Noonan, who I had great respect for and almost went to work for in 1994. I got friendly with Lexicon’s Director of Sales Joel Silverman from seeing him at AES, NAB and NAMM shows – in Anaheim, Joel and his then-wife Kathy used to host a really nice Sushi dinner party every year during NAMM, and he invited me one year. I thought that was very big of him (and I *love* good Sushi!), and we kind of hit it off and started hanging out at trade shows, to the point that we even switched name badges as a joke at NAB and AES one year. Confused the hell out of people, but it was out little inside joke.
 
So since I knew the gear and liked the people, I was more than happy to share the love and introduce you to them, figuring if I liked and admired them and their products, you would too.
 

We all benefit when creative, clever, and passionate people bring cool products and brands to the market place – and there’s room for all of them – and it’s in all of our best interests that the pro audio industry be healthy and vital and alive and prosperous. 

MJ: What’s new for 2015? What’s on the horizon?
 
GG: I’ve set up a web portal for our dealers and distributors (store.wavedistribution.com) to bring the efficiency and ease of use of retail on-line shopping to wholesale distribution. I’m launching two new brands this year, and there’s a plug-in coming that is a real game changer. With the Euro weakening against the Dollar, I’ve opened distributors in India and China to expand our market reach and take advantage of those opportunities. I’m as optimistic as ever about the future of Pro Audio, and am looking forward to bringing the next Wave (pardon the pun) of cool, cutting edge products to market… and of course, as always – having Michael James be one of the early adopters!
 
I appreciate all the insight, advice and feedback you’ve shared with me, it’s certainly helped to further fine-tune the course and development of more than a few products over the years.
 

-Gil