The Producers: Macca, Supersuckers, 0 for 4, and Life on Wilshire
One day a year or two on either side of 1995, I was sitting in my kitchen — something I found myself doing more and more during the mid-nineties – and the phone rang. I picked it up, and the man’s voice on the other end asked for me, told me his name (I can’t recall it), and said he was calling from Paul McCartney’s office in London. Assuming it was a ruse, but not positive that it was, I proceeded cautiously as the man explained that he was calling to check on my schedule to determine if I would be available to work with Paul during a certain portion of the following winter. Slightly amused, I considered saying “no, I’m afraid I’m busy,” but thought better of it, and assured the voice that I would definitely do what I had to do in order to make myself available. Before he wound up our conversation, I explained that I was delighted to receive the call, and of course I was excited by the prospect of possibly working with Paul, but could he please explain why he called me in particular, given the nature of the music I was known for producing. He replied that Paul always liked to explore all the options, thanked me for my time, and hung up.
I sat in stunned silence for a minute, wondering how he could have obtained my home number – it must be a practical joke of some sort – so I phoned Sandy Roberton, a producer’s manager who represented me for a couple of years during the nineties, and asked if he would mind checking this guy out for me. Minutes later, Sandy phoned back and confirmed that this man indeed did work for Paul in London. More stunned silence for me, reflecting on the fact that Paul McCartney actually knew who I was, and might have even spoken my name. I was as big a Beatles fan as anyone I knew, and I held Paul in such lofty musical esteem that I really couldn’t imagine a greater professional honor. I thought that perhaps his daughter Stella may have been familiar with my name from the back covers of some of her albums, and maybe she mentioned to Paul that he should check me out. At any rate, it was an extremely gratifying event, even though I never heard from the McCartney people again.
Around this time I was called by A&M Records to do an album with the Supersuckers from Seattle – a ragtag band specializing in a genre of music probably best called country punk — a really enjoyable group, led by one Eddie Spaghetti, who was right up there with the nicest musicians I’ve ever known – truly a swell guy. We had some good laughs up there in Seattle. We used Pearl Jam’s studio, which was a comfortable complex of rooms in a commercial building in the more bohemian section of town. Later on, A&M decided not to release the album, and we all felt pretty disappointed. I know I have a copy of it somewhere, but I simply can’t find it. I know we did a good job, and that the band was happy with the record. I think Eddie is still out there doing shows and festivals.
Right after this, I got a call from Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick. I had been thinking about a reunion with the band for about 15 years, and Rick told me that the band was looking for a deal again, and that if I would come out and produce some demos, I could produce the album that they would make if they subsequently landed a label deal from these demos. I was happy to do so, and the band agreed to pay my airfare and lodging. I flew to their hometown of Rockford, Illinois, and we made the demos over a few days’ time. We took them to Chicago to mix, and I flew home from there.
The best of these demos, in my opinion, was a song called “Say Goodbye,” on which I played a few percussion instruments. It was nicely arranged, recorded and mixed. Once again, the band managed to get a modest label deal, and the first LP they released had the very same “Say Goodbye” on it, and it was the debut single from the album. I bought the album, and couldn’t find my name or credit anywhere. I certainly hadn’t been paid anything for the production, and here it was — the lead single from the new Cheap Trick album, produced and arranged for free. I called their manager and asked him what the idea was. He said “These things happen all the time.” “Not in my world,” I replied, and that was the last contact I had with the band – yet one more unfortunate and disappointing event in what seemed to be an endless series of disappointing events involving artists with whom I once had a tight bond. I had been to Rick’s house in Rockford, I knew his family, our kids had gone trick-or-treating in LA together on Halloween…. and I was chumped by a nicely orchestrated maneuver to get free advice and production. I still look back fondly on the albums we made, but it’s a shame that in the final analysis, people like this will gladly trade your friendship and their integrity for a few bucks.
I had tried to see Doug Morris (still president of Atlantic Records) about the newly-conceived A&R position I was trying to create. I made an appointment with him in New York, and at the last minute he canceled. So I tried to arrange another meeting through the office of Paul Cooper, Doug’s West Coast office head; he obliged, and when the time came for the meeting, I arrived at the office only to find that he had canceled – that “something had come up.” So I looked up my old buddy Jason Flom, who was in town for meetings along with Doug (Jason was head of Atlantic A&R at the time), and asked if he was free for lunch. We went to lunch at the Peninsula Hotel, and who was there having lunch with Paul Cooper? Doug Morris, of course. I made one more appointment and he canceled that one, too. I was 0 for 3.
Then one day when I was in New York having meetings once again with label executives, I was sitting in the 2nd floor waiting room of the Atlantic building on 52nd Street before my meeting with attorney Ina Meibach, and Doug walks through the room. I said hello, and asked if he could spare 15 minutes the next day. He asked what time I’d like to meet, and I left it up to him. He said 11 o’clock. I thanked him, and the next day when I showed up at his office at 11 o’clock, I was told that he wasn’t coming into the office at all that day. Zero for 4, and you’re out. I suppose it was his unique way of demonstrating his relative strength and my relative weakness in the industry. He was certainly trying to tell me something, but I thought the way in which he went about it left a lot to be desired.
Back in Los Angeles, I was called and asked to come to Universal City to meet with the members of Spinal Tap, as I was one of several producers being considered for their follow-up LP. It was a very pleasant meeting, and I was delighted to meet Harry Shearer, to whom I listened frequently on NPR; Michael McKean, it turned out, was a big Cheap Trick fan. Steve Lukather got the gig, though, and I was happy for him. I was beginning to consider getting out of the record business, but I didn’t have any idea of what I could do to make a living .
After some research and some thinking, I decided I would try to open a sandwich shop in Studio City, right on Ventura Boulevard. I’m a big fan of “pedestrian” foods. I make a killer tuna salad, egg salad, chicken salad, and other mayonnaise-based treats, and I had quite a few ideas about how to make a sandwich that would stand out as clearly superior to the ordinary sandwich that one could get at your average restaurant. Mine was to be a specialty food shop, and I’d bake my own bread. I was already a bread baker, having apprenticed to the head of baking at a great place in Nantucket one summer. I traveled to the Culinary Institute in San Francisco and found a wonderful bread guru who taught there and who had written several books on the subject.
Weeks later, as I was actually getting ready to sign a lease for what would have been “Tommy’s Lunch,” I got a call from the former head of marketing at Capitol Records, Bruce Kirkland. Bruce had been made the head of a new company called “EMI – Capitol Entertainment Properties,” and wanted to talk to me about being the Senior VP of A&R for this new company. The outfit was theoretically going to be in charge of exploiting the catalogs of Virgin, EMI and Capitol Records – a fabulous treasure chest of music. In addition, we were to package and market music for lifestyles, much like the Starbucks or Barnes & Noble lines of CDs sold only through the store.
I was pretty excited by the prospect of dealing with the catalogs of artists like Sinatra, The Beach Boys (The Beatles were not to be touched, thank you), Bob Seger, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Billy Idol, and on and on. The job paid well, and the benefits were good; Bruce said he wanted someone heading A&R who was not just a catalog guy, but also a real record producer with a body of work, who could attract new artists as well, if they fit the label’s profile. I started in September of 1997. The offices were in a nice building on Wilshire just east of the Tar Pits. I was allowed a company car, there was reserved indoor parking, and even membership to a health club right in the same building. All of a sudden, things were more interesting. In the twinkling o f an eye, I had a life again, along with a title, an office, an expense account and some clout. Producers, managers and attorneys started calling me and congratulating me and asking for lunch appointments.
During this time, we repackaged and re-issued a number of artists, and one day Bruce came to me and told me he wanted me to produce an album by a group called Jake Trout & The Flounders. I winced, but he went on to tell me that this was a tongue-in-cheek, musically legitimate group of three professional golfers (Peter Jacobsen, Mark Lye and Payne Stewart). Peter Jacobsen was a decent guitarist, a good singer and a big fan of rock music, and coincidentally he had a lot of friends in music who loved to play golf. He wanted to take hit songs from these artists, change the lyrics, and re-record them from the perspective of a golfer on the pro tour – so Crosby, Stills and Nash would give him “Love the One You’re With” and he would re-record it as “Love the One You Whiff,” and Glenn Frey would give him “Smuggler’s Blues,” and it woul d be rewritten as “Struggler’s Blues,” and so on.
The great part of this was that Tom would be able to work with all these donor artists in the studio. Beyond that, I was a passionate golfer, and Payne Stewart had won the PGA Championship and two U.S. Open tournaments. Peter had won seven PGA tour events, and was a very funny and friendly guy. Mark Lye had been on the tour, but was a reporter for the Golf Channel at this point. The band would play in the clubhouse following certain PGA tour events, and they had evolved into a musical unit that was serious enough to make a record.
I assembled a band, and we moved into the Record Plant to recreate all the tracks, copying the originals as closely as possible. The title track of the LP was I Love to Play – a recreation of “I Love LA” by Randy Newman. This particular track was no easy copy, but during the project, I did get to work with Glenn Frey, Stills and Nash, Darius Rucker and others. The album was meant to be distributed mainly through pro shops at golf clubs, but it never really got off the ground. A few months later, EMI closed the company, and I got paid for the remaining 15 months on my contract. I started playing more golf (including a very memorable round with Payne Stewart at his and Tiger’s home course called Isleworth, in Orlando) and thinking hard about what to do, now that I was once again unemployed for good. Months went by, and then I got a call from a music supervisor named Budd Carr, whom I had known from the old Epic days when he was managing Kansas. Budd had been named the music supervisor for a movie to be called Rock Star, based on a true story involving Judas Priest. It would star Jennifer Aniston and Mark Wahlberg, and Budd wanted to talk to me about producing the soundtrack. Hallelujah, I had work.