Simultaneously Blown Away, Humbled and Inspired

I do not remember exactly how I met David Baerwald. He was one half of the duo David + David, whose sole album yielded the hit “Welcome to the Boomtown.” Even though the 1986 release went Platinum, I did not pay much attention to it at the time because my bandwidth was full with my obsession for Peter Gabriel’s So, Crowded House’s eponymous debut (featuring “Don’t Dream It’s Over“), and Nik Kershaw’s Radio Musicola. Nonetheless, seven years later, David, whose album Triage had just been released, was sitting across from me, jamming on the sofa in my living room. I was mesmerized by the gorgeous Knopfler-esque riffs he coaxed from my Taylor 812c acoustic guitar, even though his performance was punctuated by the sound of flying lawnmowers—which were in reality propeller driven small planes on approach vectors, just about to land across the street at Clover Field, aka Santa Monica Municipal Airport.

David generously offered to network with me, probably because I had recently cowritten a couple songs with John Lang, who wrote the #1 hits “Kyrie” and “Broken Wings” for his cousin’s band, Mr. Mister. Lang, a brilliant lyricist who was understandably tough to impress, admired Baerwald’s lyrics and his singing. A few sprinkles of Lang’s credibility landed on me by association—plus I had recently produced my first major label hit for Irving Azoff’s fledgling Giant (Warner) Records—so the door of opportunity to the Big Leagues was flung wide open for the first time in my young career. This was terrific…until David asked me to play guitar.

Wait, what? If I’m a pro, that’s a chance to shine, right? Yes, but it’s also a sure-fire way to blow the all-important first impression if your chops are rusty. In 1993 I was infrequently playing guitar, and when I did pick up the instrument, I played ensemble parts that worked in the the context of a recording, but made no sense without the support of a full band arrangement. As an example, try to imagine how the guitar parts from “Broken Wings” (during the third verse at 3:14) or Scritti Politti’s “Perfect Way” would sound without the bass line to define the song’s harmonic structure, or without the drums to let you know where the downbeat is. My point is that “earcandy” parts (which were pretty much all that I played at the time) were simply unable to tell the story of a song by themselves. And they certainly would not impress my guest of honor, Mr. Baerwald, without a point of reference to show him how nicely and precisely they would fit into an arrangement.

So I instead decided to show David a complex solo acoustic guitar piece that I began composing the day before. The melody was hauntingly beautiful, and the jazzy chords were of the “expensive” variety whose pedigree might be from the epic Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaboration, Porgy and Bess. The bass line was simple enough, but the sound in my head required the listener to hear all three layers of harmonic content: melody, chords and bass. Therefore, I had to play all three at the same time, on one guitar…and I couldn’t do it. To describe the attempted recital as a “train wreck” would be far too kind. David, who by contrast is a real player’s player, let me off easy, stating that he understood where I was going with the tune, and he wished me luck in developing it.

Despite the fact that I blew it, David invited me to his loft behind Hal’s Restaurant (Cafe?) on Abbot Kinney in Venice, just a short walk from the infamous Radio Tokyo Studios where I became a recording engineer back in, coincidentally, 1986. David’s loft was super cool, with a vibe that begged you to get the creative juices flowing. Downstairs was home to a fully equipped recording studio, while upstairs housed various artifacts that may or may not have been related to certain CIA exploits that may or may not have involved David’s father, a political scientist.

David played me recordings of a new, as yet unreleased, project that he was “playing around with” on Tuesday nights with his friends Bill Bottrell, David Ricketts, Dan Schwartz, Brian MacLeod and Kevin Gilbert. They were writing songs with a background vocalist who did some work with Michael Jackson. As David was humbly asking me what I thought of the songs, I was amazed by the work! The recording technique was exemplary, with sonic detail and clarity so crisply defined that I could close my eyes and see the spaces between the instrumentalists! The players were all spot-on, but the virtuosity never overshadowed the organic soul of the songs, which told stories ranging from leaving Las Vegas to having fun on Santa Monica Boulevard, three short miles away from where we sat listening. And that singer! She had a compelling delivery that brought the words to life. I was simultaneously blown away by the sound, humbled by the virtuosity and inspired to elevate my game. I already had a Top 5 MTV hit with Too Much Joy’s cover of LL Cool J’s “That’s A Lie!” and I made some seminal SubPop records for Hole, L7 and Reverend Horton Heat, plus I was having one of my flavor-of-the-month moments in the A&R community, but my records couldn’t hold a candle to David’s side project. His recordings were marvelous and impressive on so many different levels, but remarkably they remained free of pretense. They sounded timeless, they sounded easy, and they sounded live. At that moment, I became determined to become a lifelong student of the craft of making honest records that would serve the songs, not the ephemeral trends.

Sometime thereafter, I drove onto the lot at A&M Records for a meeting with A&R VP Teresa Ensenat to pitch Brian Charles’ Boston based, Beatles-inspired band, Sidewalk Gallery. I recall three things from the meeting:

1) The pitch was successful, so Brian and I would soon be recording at the historic studio where we would eventually meet Crowded House and Rusty Anderson, who would turn me on to Matchless guitar amps long before hitting the road with Paul McCartney.

2) There were several guitar cases in Teresa’s office stenciled withe the name of Steve Earle. I pointed as if to ask, “What’s the story behind them?” Teresa volunteered, “I was married to Satan.” I changed the subject to the gorgeous SoCal weather.

3) I asked Teresa about the giant painting on the side of the recording studio. The fresh faced new artist, Sheryl Crow, was a priority for the label, and I should listen and let Theresa know my thoughts. She handed me a promo copy of Tuesday Night Music Club, which I spun in the car on my way to my session. I instantly recognized the euphonic gloriousness that mesmerized me at David Baerwald’s loft. “Leaving Las Vegas”, “Run Baby Run” and “All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun” were so memorable that I was able to sing along with the catchy hooks weeks after initially hearing them. I was happy to know that David was likely to enjoy another well deserved hit.

Less than two years later, I was head of A&R and staff Producer at Jac Holzman’s Warner Music Discovery label, which was on the front line of the WEA distribution hierarchy. Jac, who was Time Warner’s CTO if I recall correctly, had autonomy with respect to signing and prioritizing artists. He did not have to go through layers of middlemen like subsidiary labels did. For example, Madonna’s imprint Maverick had to answer to Reprise, who in turn had to answer to Warner Bros. As one moved higher up the totem pole, each entity took a slice of revenue and creative control of its subsidiaries, who sometimes had to fight hard to sign acts they loved. Because Jac was on equal footing with WEA’s big three (effectively big four, or anecdotally WEAD, at the time) I had the freedom and support to sign quality talent in whom I believed. At SXSW (South By Southwest) festival, I walked into a nearly empty club on Austin’s Sixth Street to hang out with a couple guys I met earlier in the day, mastering engineer Dave McNair and entertainment attorney Wofford Denius.

In that empty room, over the course of 45 minutes, my mind was once again blown, I was artistically humbled, and I was creatively inspired. A tall handsome lad, clad in gas station attendant coveralls, work boots and a Fender bass, sang his ass off while fronting a crack band of pros who were equally comfortable performing tender ballads or bombastic, odd time signature, Prog Rock opuses. His gorgeous ballad “Tea For One” was a heart-wrenching story of a shy guy who finally gets the courage to ask out the object of his desire a day too late, to find her in the embrace of a new lover. Another song, “Certifiable #1 Smash”, was appropriately titled because it indeed sounded like one during that live performance. I introduced myself to the artist, Kevin Gilbert, and offered him and his manager a record deal on the spot. Kevin handed me a CD of Thud, which I promptly marked with a Sharpie to indicate the three potential hits. My wife and I cherish that CD 22 years later for its excellent artistry, as well as the fact that it is a memento given to me shortly before Kevin tragically died far too young.

It wasn’t until I returned to Los Angeles that I connected the dots and realized that Kevin was already an accomplished musical force of nature. He was the vocalist of Toy Matinee, whose two hits “Last Plane Out” and “The Ballad Of Jenny Ledge” always compelled me to crank up the volume whenever I heard them being spun (physical LPs and CDs, unlike mp3s, actually spun under a turnable stylus or CD laser back in the day) on FM radio. Further, he was also an integral part of David’s mind blowing Tuesday Night Music Club project!

By the time I met Kevin Gilbert, I had learned from my earlier experiences with David Baerwald. I learned that no matter how talented I already was, or who I was destined to become, there was always somebody more accomplished or talented. That knowledge allowed me to be realistic about how I might best serve, and integrate with, top-shelf artists and projects. The life lessons for me were to be open to awesomeness and serendipity, and to appropriately behave in environments conducive to success. In hindsight, the Gilbert working relationship got off on the right foot because I offered to serve in such a way that I could confidently deliver the goods at the highest level. By contrast, I ultimately never worked with Baerwald because I showed him my weak link instead of my true strength. It’s cool, though, because that’s how you learn—and in my case the lessons stuck.

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Chain Reaction

Photo by Frank Bevans

Boom! At first, you see nothing special. Then you open your mind and see that everything is connected, perfectly balanced, ripe with endless possibilities.

I sat down to write a post about a valuable life lesson that I learned from Robben Ford while mixing a tune for him.  In order to put myself back in that moment, which took place approximately 15 years ago, I thought about the chain reaction that brought us together.  It’s inherently interesting enough to deserve its own post, independent of the lesson, so here we go!

The genesis of the chain reaction was simple enough.  It’s similar to the “begats” of the Old Testament: someone begat somebody, who begat more children who begat even more kids. In my case, I can connect the dots all the way back to 1993–and they’ve come full circle in 2015. I was in a meeting with music publisher Jan Seedman, who played me a demo from an indie rock band out of Boston.  I was immediately smitten with the band, who were known as Sidewalk Gallery.  They were influenced by The Beatles, they had a cellist, and they were fronted by twin brothers David and Brian Charles.  I asked Jan to make an introduction because I was convinced that I could develop the band and get them signed to a major label.  Brian, was–and is–a musical genius who inspired me to hop on several redeye flights from Los Angeles to work with him.  I could write a book about our exploits in the studio, about getting deals with A&M and Interscope, about getting backstabbed by duplicitous management, about accidentally being “invited” to dine with the mob in Boston’s North End, etc., but I’ll try to remain on the chain reaction track.

Having shared a wealth of experiences in a relatively short time, Brian and I became good friends.  We decided to produce Zen Lunatic’s Eleven Days In May album at Charles’ Zippah Recording studio in 1997.  During the recording sessions, the band’s publicist Elissa Rogovin visited the studio to facilitate an interview with The Boston Globe.  Seizing the opportunity to leverage my discography to increase the buzz, Elissa convinced The Globe to interview me for a special sidebar feature about being a hotshot “L.A. record producer” working with Boston’s local heroes.  Needless to say, I was grateful to Elissa for generating the good press.

Elissa was friends with an L.A. manager named Mark Lampe, so she introduced us.  Mark was representing A.J. Croce, son of the legendary Jim Croce.  A.J. was a Blues and Americana critical darling, but still hadn’t scored the elusive Pop or Rock hit.  His new label, Higher Octave, was a joint venture with Virgin Records, who had the infrastructure to support a hit.  A.J. and I were confident that we could credibly expand his horizons to incorporate a tip of the hat to his influences: The Beatles, Zombies, Elvis Costello, et al. We cowrote some new songs (that still to this day generate royalty revenue!), made a terrific album titled Transit, and became friends.

One day I asked A.J. how it was to work with his previous studio guitarist, Robben Ford, who happened to be one of may all-time favorite blues/jazz artists.  Michael Bizar (Croce’s fantastic live guitarist) and I (a producer who happens to play guitar) had the intimidating privilege of filling Ford’s unfillable shoes, so we wisely chose to sound good doing our own thing instead of struggling to emulate the living legend.  Anyway… A.J. tells me, “Robben is great! You should call him–you guys are two peas in a pod. He’s a spiritual cat who practices his beliefs.  You’ll love each other!”

Meanwhile… A&R man Jed Ojeda and I are in a meeting at Hollywood Records.  He plays me a demo tape (that’s right, tape, as in cassette) of a San Diego band named Everyday Joe.  Although the recordings sound spectacular, the label wants the insurance of having a “name” producer attached to the album.  As much as I dig the music, I honestly believe that the demo producer nailed it–plus he was able to manage Joe’s idiosyncratic personality, which is a big deal, given that Joe chooses to be homeless because he enjoys the pure, surf-infused lifestyle!  I tell Ojeda that the demo producer should keep the gig, and that the guy (the producer) was so talented that I’d like to meet him.  Ojeda then tells me that I confirmed his own feelings, and that he would pass on the compliment to the producer, who happens to be Nicklas Sample, son of one of my musical heroes, Joe Sample of the funky jazz unit, Crusaders.  As the meeting ends, Ojeda invites me to be his guest at a Robben Ford & Larry Carlton gig, where my wife and I ultimately shared a table–and a good rapport–with Robben’s wife, Anne Kerry Ford.

Fast forward a year or so… Tim Torgerson, frontman of The Invisible Man, and I take a drive and listen to Ford’s Supernatural album.  Tim, who’s a total Ford geek, says, “Man, Robben had a heavy spiritual thing happening!”  The album resonates with both of us, and we imagine how awesome it would be to work with the master.  The next day, I’m searching for a contact in the “F” section of my phone book, and I see “Robben Ford” and his phone number.  I’m just about to erase it because there’s really no reason for me to call him, but instead I dial the number.  I leave a voice message, saying, “Hey, this is Michael James, A.J. Croce’s new guitarist… A.J. told me to phone you because we’re apparently two peas in a pod… I love Supernatural, so give me a shout if you want to hear why… I promise I won’t stalk you.”  I don’t expect to hear from Ford.

A few hours later, Tim and I are at FedEx picking up my four new Empirical Labs EL8 Distressors. My hands are full when my cell phone rings, so I ask Tim to check the caller ID. He says, “Dude, it’s Robben Ford!” I said, “Dude, gimme that!”

Here’s the way the conversation with Robben began:

MJ: Hello.  RF: Hi, may I speak with Michael James?  MJ: This is Michael.  RF:  This is Robben Ford.  MJ: Cool. (More accurately, “Coooooooool!”)

After I switched away from fanboy mode, the conversation got real, and we booked some writing and mixing sessions, but that’s another story altogether.

Re: this story, it interests me not only because the genesis of the relationship was a mundane moment, but also because of all the many tangential serendipities and connections.  Jan Seedman became one of my A&R reps at Warner Music Discovery before getting me the gig that led to my work with New Radicals; he later founded Cadium Music and, in 2015, became my manager.  Mark Lampe, along with Interscope VP of A&R Tony Ferguson (who introduced me to Gwen Stefani and No Doubt with the goal of having me produce the first album before he signed the aforementioned Sidewalk Gallery), jointly managed me in the early 2000’s. Nicklas Sample brought me in to cowrite and produce Monroe, Alison Sudol’s predecessor to A Fine Frenzy, and he later toured the world with his father.  Coincidentally, I happen to love the song “Chain Reaction”, which was written by Joe Sample.

Connections are the currency of opportunity.

While none of this may seem earth shattering, the truth is that connections are the currency of opportunity.  If folks don’t become aware of you, they won’t have the chance to witness your talents.  There’s a good chance that none of these events would have happened if I wasn’t in the right place at the right time.  You never know when an ordinary everyday moment might become pivotal, so I guess it’s important to be in the right place enough times to get lucky.

As a postscript, I will share another moment of beauty that arose from that business-as-usual meeting in ’93 with Jan. Around 2002, shortly after the release of Transit, A.J. and I were dining at his mother’s restaurant, Croce’s, in the historic gaslight district of San Diego. We shared our table with Waylon Jennings and his ex-wife, but steadfast companion, Jessi Colter. Waylon told us all the reasons that he loved Transit, that he thought we made an excellent team, and that he would like us to produce his next album. His words resonated with us. We were blown away.

That alone would have made the evening memorable, but the true beauty was in what happened next. Sure, the thumbs-up from the big guy was a nice pat on the back and it had the potential to put some more dollars into my bank account, but the real reward was witnessing a moment of tenderness that would remain with me for the rest of my life.

Waylon had a habit of calling everyone “Hoss”, presumably inspired by Dan Blocker’s character from the old school TV Western show, Bonanza. On the surface it was both amusing and pretty cool because, if you think about it, Hoss was a great wingman, exactly the type of person you could count on if you needed some mojo on the Ponderosa. To me, it was a term of endearment, but when Waylon slipped up and called Jessi “Hoss”, she sternly replied, “Hey! I’m not Hoss, I’m your wife!” She then smiled, kissed him, and cut his food into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Jessi was a force of nature in her own right, but there she was, regal and elegant in her role as caretaker for the legendary but feeble country music Outlaw, who unbeknownst to the rest of us, would die shortly thereafter. She was a country music star, but her higher purpose, her servitude, is what resonated with me.

Sometimes these seemingly ordinary, mundane moments ultimately prove to be pivotal, and can set in motion a chain reaction that can change your life. In spending just a couple hours with Waylon and Jessi, I got a glimpse into the true meaning of life. It all comes down to the connections we make and the bonds we forge with our loved ones. At the end of the day, the importance of your trophy case pales in comparison to the importance of love. All the money in the world cannot buy you another minute when your time is up, but love can make a single moment feel like an eternity.