© 1990-2017 Phill Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.
The Great Pacific High
The purple door. Hard for me ever to forget. That was the door at Pacific High Recording at 60 Brady Street in San Francisco. I later realized that Brady Street is about 2 blocks west of Van Ness, between Market Street and what could have been Mission, had Mission Street not veered suddenly south after passing Van Ness. On that day in April 1969 it was just somewhere in the gray area in front of me; out among those gray buildings - not designer grays of the 80's and 90's but the well-earned grays that painted the old San Francisco, along with the mean browns and off-whites - decades of it, with coats layered like a sealant.
I knocked on the rectangle of purple depressed into a wall. I had done this before. I'd been to a lot of studios; I would know what to expect. But not this time. I had no idea what was behind this door. This wasn't the land of the Hollywood hip. This was the beyond hip, not in the manual, music scene of San Francisco in the sixties and, if lore was any guide, a Grand Living Sage or the Grateful Dead might be in that building, might open that purple door - right now. It was almost visceral as yet another pre-quake tremor positioned my already full life to change course forever.
I had been at almost every recording session at 2 of the top studios in Hollywood for the last 5 years. I'd been on live recording crews for the Beach Boys, for Sinatra in Rat Pack mode, the Smothers Brothers, Peter Paul & Mary, the Beatles, and both Monterey Pop and Monterey Jazz Festivals. I could name-drop my way into any genuine argument on the topic of "what's up". My chops were tops and I was ready. But reality in San Francisco in April 1969 was not that easy to define. I was packin' a ton of background experience in the real-thing, but that bit of gold was also seen as bad shit by many within the music making and radical recording community; especially in San Francisco, but anywhere really, because "recording studios" and "engineers" were owned by the "corporations" and their "labels" and furthermore run by old-timer A&R guys and their slimy payola DJ minions; all running seemingly at the edge of organized crime. I mean, when I thought about it that way, I hated it too.
So, why was I here? Well, good fortune for one thing. Peter Weston, who owned Pacific High Recording, was about 12 years older than I, and had converted his straight life in the professorial world of audionics somewhere in the mid-west into a hip recording world in San Francisco by using his inherited money - a good amount but not unbounded, to pursue excellent recording possibilities, especially for acoustic instruments, utilizing the seemingly endless stream of new equipment and techniques coming to the fore in the closing years of the 60's. For Peter, my experiences in the Hollywood recording world were very valuable and seemingly impressive, in particular my work with Bill Putnam and his many studios and recording projects, as well as my remote location recording experiences with Wally Heider.
So I was here to a certain degree because I was a touch of L.A. and related by mentorship with industry giants, supporting an image of technical know-how and real-world experience. I would face the task of living up to that real soon. Now I faced the purple door, late in that day, having moved bag and baggage to San Francisco from Los Angeles; having left all hope behind. And this would definitely have to be it for today. I'll make a grand entrance, say hi to Peter and the staff, then come back - like tomorrow.
As I inwardly quit for the day, the world settled down, but just for a moment. The locked door opened, and there appeared the final image to complete my metamorphosis. Long red hair; light and faintly freckled skin, her face a true loveliness; dreamy eyes from a memory and full breasts moving beneath something diaphanous, and holding a child just so, nursing. She said absolutely nothing, merely moving the door slowly the final few inches to let me pass easily; amid a light breeze of Patchouli oil. I entered through the looking glass brightly.
"In every battle, the eye is conquered first" - Tacitus
What a great place this was. Considering everything. The studio, a very large room, had three high, wide walls faced with fiberglass material; this covered in colored burlap sheets, creating fluffy vertical wall panels. The control room had the same wall treatment.
During my first weeks there, the middle of the studio floor was the site for an experimental sound recording booth: a large octahedron formed by an aluminum metal tubing structure supporting cushions of sound absorbent material. These cushions were covered with orange, plastic coated burlap and suspended from the tubing on springs. But the designers didn't know their math; not as it involved the illusive qualities of sound at any rate. If you were to make any physical movement with your body within this space, and who could avoid it, you could hear your clothing slide against your skin; along with a general sensation of hissing air around you. Evidently the spring suspension of the rigging allowed for the absorption of low frequencies quite successfully, but the highs and mids were not absorbed in a correctly corresponding ratio; instead reflecting back with great success. It was a quite hideous sound. It was dismantled after we finished enjoying its presence in the room - it did look interesting after all, and we could spend a lot of stoner time discussing it's seemingly many cool possibilities.
Sadly, the whole recording room itself had a major problem. As someone once said, "It's not that the room doesn't sound good, it's that it sounds bad." That sounds awful, and it realy wasn't quite true. As a hot commercial LA kind of studio, this place would never have survived. Not without radical surgery. But it wasn't that kind of place - it needed to be to survive financially, but it wasn't. What it was was a big enough room so that you could most often find a solution - you could create sub-areas and screen off the rest of the room with portable acoustic panels. Up to a point. But unless you close-miked, you could always run into problems that took some experimenting to resolve. The situation was not helped by the fact that the acoustic treatment was, in real truth, lots of burlap in lots of colors.
Actually, the fellow that referred to the studio acoustics as "bad" was a producer from Vanguard Records, who had come to visit Country Joe McDonald's manager Ed Denson at a recording session where I was producing a recording by Country Joe called, "La La La"; an experiment on my part based on a mood I sensed as I watched him get all absorbed with the poetry of Robert Service. I had gone to Winterland and recorded him singing Robert Service's poem "The Ballade of Jean Dupre" and had felt the simple romantic eloquence of Joe's conception of peace and harmony and war. Then sometime later I heard him playing guitar by himself out in the studio while I was working in the control room on something or other. As I listened to him playing and singing this lovely little tune, full of pure musical delicacy and sonority, with a chorus of simplicity, I felt a pure joy emanating from the repetition of a lovely, simple, universal expression - La La La, to celebrate the fact of song.
At the time, I was also working with recording the Sufi Choir under the direction of Bill (soon to be Allaudin) Mathieu and I had been thinking of "things to do with a choir" and had already decided that one of them would be to record numerous individual chords, sung by the full choir, and create a library of these chords from which I could then choose certain combinations to put on various tracks of a multi-track tape in order that the tape machine could become a musical instrument. Bill Mathieu agreed that I could record at least one full session of these chords as an experiment. It was while contemplating this project that I began to hear in my mind the combination of Joe's unusually wistful singing against an acoustic guitar backup, with a gradual addition of the full Sufi Choir in a heavenly mist behind him. It was nearly sublime. Composer Stephen Foster had been known to refer to his "brain band". Mine was singing La La La.
The recording sessions were scheduled so that Joe would record the guitar and voice track first. As Joe had not heard what I was hearing in my mind, and since I envisioned adding the choir later, it was key that Joe not feel uncomfortable with the process. Unfortunately, the choir leader thought to go to Joe to suggest that it was better for Joe to perform with the choir. I didn't want to go that route so I continued as I had planned; careful, subtle layering of choir sounds was a key element of this piece and could only be achieved in the post-recording realm of editing and mixing.
Recording things simultaneously would not work. Remember, it was not a good sounding recording room. Letting Joe and the guitar mix it up with the choir in the same room in the same take would not work at all.
The production was almost completed. I never did an actual final mix, but the rough one was quite representative of the production intent: a dream by a campfire - the crystalline sound of the imagined paradise. Joe never finally liked it well enough to go all the way to release it. I think he had become a bit uncomfortable with the inclusion of the Sufi Choir element. It was a bit of a shame, but I never bothered about it. I had gained something valuable in the process - I had found that the combination worked. And I would use this to even better effect later on. Oh well, not everything is realized on this side of the river - so I was off to the next thing.
Since Pacific High Recording had such a big recording room, we were able to build a good sized stage directly opposite the control room, against the high, back wall. Local PBS TV station KQED took advantage of this for a number of recordings for a quite wonderful series of video documentaries of the local music scene; a principle figure in this effort being well-known music columnist and critic Ralph Gleason, who had been one to early on recognize the emergence within the San Francisco music scene of true talent; for him the most remarkable being Janis Joplin. I had met Ralph at the Monterey Jazz Festival in '67 when he was there beaming at the incredible performance of Janis, who herself had been in a state of reverie to have succeeded so wonderfully at this classic "jazz" venue. She hadn't known what this deep dish music crowd would think of her performance. But from my vantage point backstage, watching sliver views of the audience from the wings, her "Ball and Chain" blew a brand new hole in the heads of the assembled thousands. As outrageous bleats of ovation roared forth, Janis plowed back stage, powered down belts of Southern Comfort; unable to stand still, gasping in disbelief, repeating "Fuckin' blew their minds" and "I don't fuckin' believe it" as the energy swarmed through all of us who were experiencing this stunning event. One day, prior to the PBS tapings, Ralph had come to PHR with Janis for a recorded interview and introduced me to her, mentioning that he had met me while backstage at Monterey Jazz in '67 and she said, "Oh yeah, how'd I do?" and I replied "You fuckin' blew their minds" and she beamed, "Yeah, I did didn't I".
That stage at PHR became a very useful feature. The grand Christmas 1969 open house party at PHR, with performances by some of everyone's favorites and some of the true originals, was a time to wonder at it all. In the twelve months that had followed the incredible year of 1968 a lot more had happened in the world. We shot two campers to the Moon, the concert at Woodstock delivered irrefutable evidence of the scope of the new age, and the horrendous appearance of the demonic legends of Charles Manson and Altamont (which I almost worked at and am so glad I didn't) ended whatever remained of the mythology of a race of benign, chemically-altered flower children. But here at PHR, amidst vertical shafts of colored burlap, a party roared onward, while on the wing edge of the stage a free-dancing blonde apparition in white performed a nonstop, unguided, barefoot Nouveau dervish, perhaps one of the last of this ancient, five-year-old acidic ritual that had already become one of the iconic images of the age..
I spent much of the party in the control room, which was in full-sail as a recording/partying command bridge. I was monitoring a mix of the various acts moving on and off stage, while simultaneously providing flat, line level feeds of the mikes to the Scully 12-track machine for archival purposes. This was something that was very easy to accomplish at PHR because the whole concept behind the control room console was to route amplified mike signals to the tape machine channel input either directly or by way of a combining network, all using the cleanest, state-of-the-art amplifiers and without processing of any kind. This was an unusual setup; not the standard concept, because it would be rightly assumed that if the signal were subsequently - on playback off the multi-track machine, processed by equalization, compression or other processing, the noise of the tape medium itself would also be included in the processing; adding potentially unwanted emphasis of tape artifacts of noise or distortion.
Peter Weston's concept included the use of a new innovation being offered by a fellow named Ray Dolby. His device reduced audible noise generated by devices such as transmission lines, amplifiers and, most usefully for us, audio tape. By having a Dolby device on each of the channels of a multi-track tape recorder, Peter realized the concept of recording unprocessed signals on multiple tracks of a tape, and only subsequently adding any processing or other manipulation of the signal. He made tape noise reduction the key to retaining the natural dynamics of the music performance.
Peter's vision was implemented at Pacific High Recording in the unique plan of the custom recording and mixing console, the choice of microphones, and the size of the recording space - though the completed room would remain only a vision. This innovative enterprise offered me an unbelievable next level: a rare world of experimental thinking and action, the most encouraging of atmospheres, allowing me to freely expand on ideas and practices of recording I had first envisioned and tried in Hollywood at United and Western studios. It was a world of both purity and outlandish audio behavior, and into this mix of wonderful circumstances now walked some of the most fascinating projects and some of the most interesting creators of the era, propelling all of my professional forays forward at ecliptic speed.
I don't know how we got away with it, but we were able to have these large gatherings of people in the studio even though the whole building had only one exit door - which opened inward into a closet sized space in which it was awkward for even just 2 people to maneuver out of the building. Oh yes, we also had one always-locked sliding freight door.
Luckily, PHR was only the site of good times. With such a big room it was somewhat inevitable that audiences would find their way here and at some point become part of recording events, and one such was the series of special quadraphonic radio broadcasts on KSAN radio in the summer of 1971, mixed by me in most cases. When Mike Wilhelm, veteran member of the Charlatans, brought his new group "Loose Gravel" to the PHR stage for the very first of these KSAN quadraphonic broadcasts, fellow Charlatan Richard Olsen and I worked together on the live mix.
These were publicized as ground-breaking events that were supposed to usher in the grand quadraphonic future. Uh huh. On Klingon FM maybe, but earth took a pass, although some manufacturers actually did start making the consumer equipment for all this and in fact the whole series of broadcasts was sponsored by one of these companies. Theater surround-sound systems descend from that original technology, with phase-coded stereo signals evolving to produce four - and even more channels of sound.
I was crazy about the creative force, working with it directly, incorporating its morality in my technical considerations and using my skills to its ends. And this was the era in recording history when the pure technicians were loosing control of the situation - just like the conservative voice of America was steadily - almost dizzily, loosing control of the culture. We now owned the mixing board. And "we" included me, hybrid guy - part mixer, part musician, part audience. I was both the technician who had the necessary skill and the musician who wanted to kick my butt outta the room.
Here in San Francisco at the end of the sixties, the big recording families, like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, didn't want engineers; they wanted wizards and concocters, and were playing out and defining this new relationship, kicking out the technicians - or inviting them on-board. The Bob Mathews-Betty Cantor team, and Dan Healy were invited on-board the Dead, as later on I was invited on-board the Jefferson family.
When I first arrived at PHR, in April 1969, the Charlatans were nearing the completion of their first and only LP for Mercury Records, under the technical supervision of Dan Healy, who stood in the center of the control room at PHR later that night - fatigued and ripped but faking it grandly, and announced that "when I become deaf, just put me on top of the Mac power amp and I'll feel my way through the mix".
Dan Healy was one of the wunderkinds of subversive sound at the heart of the San Francisco recording scene of the late sixties and remains still a revered figure in the legend and the world of the Grateful Dead. I saw Dan quite often at PHR in '69, '70, and '71; at the sessions for the Charlatans, and at those for the Dead's "Aoxomoxoa" and "Working Man's Dead" albums which he continually visited, advising and kibitzing, often to the chagrin of engineer Bob Mathews (and to another contender for the role of technical wizard, Owsley, who was unmercifully teased about it by the others, never actually realizing that his quest was to them an amusement).
When Dan Healy came flying into a room, he was the promise of a barnstorming test ace come to rescue the general's genius with brilliant pluck and unbounded enterprise! He had thoughts on almost everything at hand and anything at issue; comments about minute details of audio recording and, not incidentally, a way of expression that could be precise, outlandish and delightful at the same time. He appeared quite often as instigator and iconoclast, with an intoxicated persona that for some was too ferocious, the result of "speeding" or some such thing. Yeah, well, when you run into someone who can still dance with his brain at that dizzying pace, then who the fuck cares - just enjoy the show. And that's how I related to Dan. In the movie "Gimme Shelter" there is a brief sequence where Dan Healy is shouting directions to Arthur Dinsmore up on a tower setting up audio equipment. Wearing his at-the-time signature red westerner scarf he presents Arthur with just that little extra bit of instruction and explanation that seemed always to swirl around Dan as he would pace about a studio control room or backstage area divining truths and planning clockworks and confounding the icons.
They came down the hall too quickly to see the control room door - much less stop at it. They zipped past and careened into the studio proper; Grace in a pair of red hot-pants and Paul following along, authoring an on-the-fly torrent of words that leapt from his mouth even as Grace stalled, looked around the big clumsy space of Pacific High's recording room, considered it and then turned and headed back to the control room. That's where I was, in the control room - and theoretically in control. At least up to that moment. You see, if you know Paul Kantner - and I was beginning to, you know that your control of any situation where he is present is an illusion. But at least in just this one case, those red hot-pants beat even Paul's ability to own the moment. He could mumble, command, whatever, but she had the con because she had the goods. All he could really do was to announce that it was her thirtieth birthday. And since being thirty was a molten psychological issue for us counter-culture warriors of the sixties, there was a slew of thoughts coursing through the room. I could feel it. And I had some. So did Grace. At some point she opined that thirty was a wall that she planned to ignore, but that at forty years of age it would be completely unacceptable to be on stage in a rock-and-roll band. She meant it. It was October 1969 and she was thirty years old and, depending on how one interpreted the famous adage, either already not-to-be-trusted, or soon to be "untrusted". Later in the evening she announced that "don't trust anyone over thirty" meant you could be trusted until thirty-one years of age. Paul chimed in with his version of charm with the observation that you were over thirty the second after you turned thirty. What a guy.
I didn't connect with either Paul or Grace much in the first few times we crossed paths in the studio world of SF in 1969. I am not completely certain of the exact order in which things occurred but I do recall seeing them sometime during the year when the full, original Airplane (the '67 group) came to PHR to record their segment of the "Go Ride the Music" program produced by Ralph Gleason for San Francisco PBS station KQED. Bob Mathews of the Dead handled the mixing and ace engineer Bob Shumaker made the PHR technology all work correctly. I ambled in and out that day, visiting with Ralph (with whom I would soon be working as producer of the Congress of Wonders for Fantasy Records, where Ralph was functioning as executive producer for a number of interesting recording projects), and giving Bob Shumaker a hand with setting and adjusting mikes out in the studio. And this was a great project. In retrospect it would be a rare glimpse into the recording studio world of the San Francisco Music scene of the sixties.
My next meaningful contact with Paul and Grace was when I engineered and mixed the Jefferson Airplane single "Mexico", which was backed with "Have You Seen the Saucers" (which I didn't mix, though some of the tracks were recorded by both me and Bob Shumaker in separate sessions at PHR). This pairing is one of the last singles ever released by the Airplane and if something had to end it why not "Mexico," a toker's anthem to bookmark an era it was simultaneously celebrating, trashing and leaving; replete with bombastic we-do-what-we-want lyrics that wouldn't get airplay today without a court-order, and recording anecdotes to last a lifetime - including a most amazing escape from the mince-meat machine by yours truly.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, I really never got to know any members of the Airplane other than Paul and Grace. Somewhat the same as with the Grateful Dead where, though I had worked at some of their recording sessions, my only friendship was with Jerry Garcia, and that developed not so much from the "Dead" sessions but rather through working with him on a couple of his own experimental projects at PHR and from working together creating sonic situations for "Blows Against the Empire". And out in Bolinas we both contributed to Paul's "Sunfighter" album project. Our friendship reconnected again later, near the end of the seventies when our paths crossed while we were both involved with Phil Kaufman's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers".
When Paul, Grace and the band came to PHR to record "Mexico", I was the engineer, though for some reason Paul kept referring to me as the producer, a reference that should have been pleasant and attractive, but rattled me to some degree because it sounded like a noose slipping over my head. I proceeded with the cares of the session - microphones to pick, set, test, and a recording crew to direct in setting up the Stephens multi-track recorder, the Scully stereo mastering machines, patching the ancillary equipment like LA3 and 1176 Limiters, graphic equalizers, new Allyson EQ modules and the sainted Pultec equalizers, Dolby A units and other holy pieces of recording gear revered and loved by all recording engineers before whom the beauty of music is revealed and waiting.
Yes. Me too. I couldn't wait to get that music
started; to get Jack playing, to hear Jorma's completely familiar
gorgeosity and Joey Covington's new power on the drums - after
all those years of Spencer's elegant bridge to the other idioms.
This was Grace's song and the band backed her with a ferocious
insanity and musical brinkmanship that ripped skin off the brain.
The first day's session was a steady progress into the center of
the rhythm section, planting ideas and staking out tonal areas,
rehearsing it into the shared cluster of Jack's searing chain-saw,
Paul's persistent pulse, Joey's lockup and Jorma's triumphant
spears and daggers. Grace came to stand near me at the recording
console and began singing the lyrics as the rehearsals out in the
studio began to turn into recorded takes.
...There are millions of you now
I mean it's not as if you were alone
There are brothers everywhere
Just waiting for a toke on that gold...
Oh yeah. This was the edge of the world, and we were waiting for nothing and toking heartily, the dope box handy and bowls of golden green passing before us like collection plates sent up from an earthly Church of the Holy Shit.
When the session ended we were all quite happy with what we'd done. We'd put the basic track down on the 16 track Stephens and we were ready for the morrow. Oh, but just one quick 7 1/2ips copy of the basic so that I can listen to it at home to check the general EQ and especially to hear that amazing Casady bass sound and try to make a plan for a submix of the multiple tracks of direct feeds and miked amplifiers - which all by itself was sure to scare the paint off the walls. I had to make some choices and do a submix to free up some tracks for the second day's overdub session.
Sure, I had 16 tracks but you gotta remember, nobody was really in charge of this situation. There really was no actual plan of attack for the sessions. There were no discussions about anything. So I didn't want to get stuck using up all the tracks on the basics without knowing how many I might actually need when we began adding the leads, and Grace had said she would probably be double-tracking the vocals. How many tracks would I need so she could lay down alternate versions? I also wanted to add echo to her voice during the recording and then store the echo return signal on a separate track. This was a technique I sometimes used so that I could have only the vocals resonating in the chamber - without the other instruments that would need a little echo sweetening during mixing. But how many tracks would be available? I of course tried to elicit some information from Paul about what was going to be needed but - well, you probably get the idea by now that Paul is the guy least interested in limiting his choices by locking in a plan.
This was 1970 after all, and we were in the eye of the recording hurricane that was sweeping through all the studios in America. In this eye there were no producers and no union rules. Producers were suddenly not automatically attached to every project - as they had been only a few years before (and would be again also in a few short years). For the "Mexico" sessions, the general idea was that I was the producer because, well, the engineer was the highest link in the chain-of-command among the non-musician infrastructure that surrounded the rock immortals.
For me, the next day began in my rambling hilltop house in the Marin County hamlet of Fairfax, with its citizenry of heads, hippies, artists, and rock 'n roll. Maybe there were some straights - there must have been, but they were mostly invisible.
In the late afternoon I made my way to Pacific High Recording to complete the tracking, help Grace capture great vocal tracks; then do a fantastic mix of all that with the basic tracks that I knew were already down on tape. But as the session came to life; as Paul and Grace readied themselves to begin laying down the vocal tracks, a ripple slipped, undetected, into the force.
One of the things the professional staff does at the beginning of a recording session - and surgery, is to check all the gear and make sure it is up to the standard you are currently worshiping. For recording sessions this includes checking the alignment of both the playback and recording electronics of the multi-track recorder and making adjustments as necessary, using standard reference tapes and a recording alignment maintenance tape. Additionally, at the head of the first new master tape in a session - or a block of consecutive, uninterrupted sessions, a "tone pad" of standard levels is recorded. This is used as a reference when aligning playback levels of equipment for all subsequent recording sessions.
We were about to begin recording Grace's vocals tracks. Out in the studio second engineer Bob Shumaker set up the microphone and then returned to the booth. I stayed in the studio to make some final adjustments of the acoustic baffling around her and I made sure she had the headphones that I had chosen - the ones with the softer cushions. Paul stayed out in the studio with Grace as I headed back to the control room. As I entered the room there was a clutch of 4 or 5 people over by the back wall where the 16 track Stephens resided. Bob looked very distressed as he glanced toward me. Something was wrong. In her book, "If These Halls Could Talk: A Historical Tour through San Francisco Recording Studios", Heather Johnson lays out the horror of it all: '"Grace was out in the studio with a (Neumann) U47 in front of her, headphones on, waiting for us to get prepared," recalls Shumaker. "The guy doing tech work was finishing the alignment, was going to slap on the master and off we would go. And I looked at what he was putting the tones on to align the machine, and realized he had just erased the master. It was gone. It was a set of tones over an Airplane master. I was dying, I told Phill, and he immediately said, 'Well here's what we gotta do' and he got up, walked out in the studio where Grace and Paul Kantner were waiting and he said, "I'm real sorry to tell you this, but we accidentally erased your master."
I recall being quietly vibrant.
Not that I knew exactly what to expect from Paul; only that I was ready for it. The clear facts were that it had happened, it shouldn't have, it was my complete responsibility, and my confidence in being able to proceed was high no matter what the direction need be. I certainly could understand if Paul wanted to go into a rant - I mean this was a big deal, and those had been dynamite tracks. Losing Jack's treacherous and gorgeous lines of the day before was a ghastly heartbreak for me. He had plunged further and now it was dead - not on the cutting-room floor, but nowhere.
Paul immediately wanted to know who had done the erasing. I said that it had happened as a result of technician's error, not a mechanical malfunction, and that I was not going to give a name because I alone was responsible for the session. To my surprise, Paul accepted that explanation without any further clarification or question, and we went back into the control room. He made a phone call. "Guess what happened? ... No... Think of something else ... No ... What's the very worst thing we worried about happening in the studio? ... Yeah! No shit ... Come on down and we'll redo the tracks ... No, back at PHR."
It hadn't been that long since I had watched one of the network TV producers of a Jackie Gleeson special leave Western Recorders in Hollywood and vanish from the industry after having been responsible for the show's master tapes being completely erased. I also remembered that the guy who had originally inspired me into all this, engineer Bill Putnam, had once sailed his ketch into a pier, destroying it; then bought another boat.
I was not going to vanish. All I needed was a new boat. I had gone out into the studio and had told Paul and Grace what had happened, offered to redo everything if that's what they wanted to do, and was moving forward with push and hardihood, secure that all could still be held on a tight tack, and that I was bigger than the problem.
So, the basic tracks were redone, Grace's wildly powerful multi-tracked vocals were safely on the tape, Paul's accompanying vocal tracks nailed the signature Grace-Paul combination and my highly bass-conscious mix delivered a vision of Jefferson Airplane as a raptor's slash.
Of course, as you might imagine, for me there is always a lingering suspicion that the first set of tracks would have led to a final master that would have conquered the heart of Zeus, but I'm probably just musing about the one that got away.
But nevertheless, sorry Paul; sorry Grace.
Now as for what came next, well, that's even better.
* * * *
Side Two of Blows Against the Empire, sometimes referred to as the "Blows Suite" or BATE, was mixed by Graham Nash and me - with Paul Kantner ripped and ready behind us, at Pacific High Recording (PHR) in 1970. It has been said in some places (and is inferred in an early interview with Paul) that Graham Nash mixed it at Wally Heider's, but hey... what's wrong is wrong no matter who said it. Here's the hard cold fact: It began and it ended - not at Heider's at all.
As to how it started, check Paul's words, "It happened like this. I wanted to make some tasty demos to show everybody what the song was about and there was an innovative studio, Pacific High Recording, right behind the Fillmore West, off Market Street. For some unexplained reason Grace chose to help me by playing this very grand, Grace style piano, near totally off the top of her head. Very little rehearsal. She just sort of joined in and followed my chords beautifully. There were many miscues and mistakes but they blended in well in the free-form modal tone structure that was the heart of the piece. All big, rich chords, both rhythmic and elegantly elegiac at the same time. She does a thing playing octaves with her left hand and rich chords with her right hand that always impressed me. ..."
And here's how it happened to end. Paul and I had been trying to get good mixes at Heider's but it wasn't happening. I had worked at Heider's both in LA and SF, but PHR was special. This is where I'd recorded and mixed "Mexico", and this is where Paul had recorded the original guitar and vocal track for the Blows suite - with Grace's majestic playing on the studio's rebuilt early 20th century Steinway Concert C Grand Piano. And I knew for certain that PHR's new stereo echo chamber was the biggest and the creamiest in SF, especially for acoustic instruments and vocals. So Paul and I decided to go there - this time so that Graham, who hadn't been hanging around at the Heider mixes, could try to produce a mix. We spent the next 2 days in the studio/control room and we began by listening to the tracks over and over and over looking for the key into the mix. It was slow-going for quite awhile. Paul had some tape clips of off-TV sounds and I also had a stash of tape oddities I'd brought from Hollywood, along with my own experiments with some of these elements, and some ongoing "music concrete" works (about 2 minutes of one of these had already become a part of XM). I started fooling around with some of this material - looking for ways to process it, like cramming sound through Dolby A units incorrectly in record process mode, or applying reverse echo, or differing speeds, and then trying different combinations of all this on multitrack tape. Out in the studio Graham started messing around with the Hammond Organ and Leslie speaker and I recorded that and mixed it in. At one point Paul and I went out and we all mumbled and moaned "home" into a Neuman M49 microphone. This all somehow created the event we needed to get over the feeling that the whole suite couldn't be mixed because it wasn't done. Now it was done - again. We went at the mix and Graham refined the final blend of the vocal/acoustic guitar/piano tracks that would weave the main pieces together with a strong sonic center that was crucial. He mixed these tracks and I mixed the other instruments and sound effects. Each mix would be the entire suite at once - no stopping, straight shot from Sunrise to "Well?" - I mixed standing up, also readjusting echo, pan positions, EQ and effects as we rolled onward through the music - sometimes missing cues, keeping drums up on one mix, trying them down the next to let guitars drive and punch; pure grass fire blur mixing; gems and changes everywhere, the whole gorgeous phantasm spilling forward and threatening to come apart at any moment. Stoked by headphones and a pair of JBL 4320 studio monitors, we learned and rehearsed and evolved until that moment when everything was suddenly in place and we were sailing through a mix with energy and beauty balanced in a fantastic sonic gumbo. With all our heads blown nearly off, we made a go for it and unfurled Paul's heroic anthem in its final form.
Paul Kantner called with a plan in mind, "Let's go down to LA and do the disk mastering. I think I'll ask Bob and Betty too." I'd been in San Francisco less than a year but already it was fairly clear who was who in the studios, both artist and technician - and those within the loose and crazy blur in-between. Paul was referring to Bob Mathews and the very cute Betty Cantor, two of the pure originals and long-time regulars in the San Francisco technical pantheon. They had great credentials having just pulled off a terrific production job with "Workingman's Dead", the pivot-point for the Grateful Dead's first major mid-course correction. Paul, Graham Nash and I had recently finished the mix of side two of Blows Against the Empire at Pacific High Recording. Now side one was evidently ready as well. And there was an airplane involved. "Come on over to the house tomorrow afternoon and hang out. I want to show you the album cover and I think you have to sign something. We'll go down to Butler Aircraft later and take a Lear jet to Burbank."
Next afternoon at the Airplane House was the usual atmosphere one finds around celebrity; the air tinged with electric sexuality and smelling faintly and sweetly of sweat. Later, with night descending, Paul pointed out his window into the darkness, showing me where we'd next be working together. "I'm going to live right there," he said, still pointing far into the distance, at some specific spot out there in the ocean, beyond the Golden Gate. "That's Bolinas. We're moving out there." Good plan. Then he showed me the album artwork for Blows Against the Empire. There were a lot of names on it. I hadn't realized how many people had contributed to this amazing album, my participation in the project coming late in its production - in fact right at the end of Paul's quest to complete the nearly half-hour musical production that occupied all of side two. Much to my surprise, my name appeared 4 times: as a performer in a list of players referred to as the Jefferson Starship, twice as a composer, and once with an engineering credit. Although the "tons of credits" craze would soon sweep both the music and film industries, the Blows album also was defining "group" differently, its inner cover and credits indicating a loose confederation of musical types working in and around a project - much like a swarm.
Eventually we headed out to the airport in Paul's matt-finish gray 911 Porsche - a serious, sober road-bullet, reeking of cool. And it went real fast. On the streets of San Francisco it was all fun and tense, but we spent mere seconds on them. Paul zoomed us out from the Airplane House and down Fulton to some convoluted path through Golden Gate Park, crossing a section of lawn at one point to change directions, flying down Fell Street to the freeway on-ramp, then accelerating in a mad dash down 101 - possibly to the scene of our no-doubt inevitable crash.
Paul was multitasking; reaching for a plastic bottle of water on the passenger side floor and swilling from it while opening and reading fan mail. A joint passed back and forth for a few miles; then suddenly we were slowing down - radically slowing down; alarmingly and insanely coming to a total stop, unbelievably in the middle lane of U.S. Highway 101 at night. We had missed the off-ramp! Instantaneously Paul began furiously backing up; a madly quick acceleration that just as suddenly turned to a gut-grabbing screech as he dead stopped again, having swung the car to face the now accessible freeway exit to the private aviation facilities. I didn't look to the right to see what was about to ram us, but no matter, the Porsche had the kinetics to get us out of there in the allotted microseconds.
We arrived at Butler Aviation, found Bob and Betty waiting patiently, and we all climbed into the plane, a small Lear jet, seating maybe 6 or so, plus 2 pilots. I dont know the exact moment, but joints were fired up real soon, and continually through the flight down and back; it couldn't have been possible for those 2 pilots to avoid a major, significant atmospheric dose of cannabis spectacularis. When we finally reached altitude the curve of the earth was dramatically clear along the faint, glowing edge of the horizon.
Landing in Burbank, we walked into the terminal with little recognition from travelers and airport staff. At the rent-a-car station in the relatively uncrowded private air facilities area, Paul lifted his brushed-aluminum briefcase up onto the counter, opened it and began rummaging around for his credit cards. Not finding them immediately, he began taking items from the case and placing them on the counter. He suddenly produced an amber colored glass jar, on the label of which was quite obviously the image of a skull and crossbones and under which was clearly the word COCAINE. This was his stash of pure German medicinal coke. Either he didn't realize what he was doing or, just as possibly, was reveling in his brazenly cocky willfulness. He plunked the jar down hard on the counter. The counter attendant had clearly seen what was happening, but just as clearly was choosing not to acknowledge what he was seeing. It all happened quickly; Paul found his credit cards, returned the jar to the briefcase, and we picked up the car and headed out to the corner of Vine and Sunset to get Blows Against the Empire safely mastered for the ages.
It was well past midnight when we returned from Hollywood to the Burbank Airport. But there was a glitch. "We can't leave town, said one of the pilots. I looked out through the gate and saw our lonely little jet, lights blinking in their sequential normalness, waiting for us to come aboard. "You can't take off in a jet from Lockheed Airport after midnight; it's the law," said the older of the two pilots - using the old WWII name for the Burbank Airport. "It's just a fine, isn't it?" asked Paul, "What's it going to cost me?", as if there was nothing to discuss except the money. We would take off, goddamnit. There was no doubt about that. We were the goddamn fucking Airplane and we take off whenever the fuck we want! "Fourteen hundred dollars," said the pilot. "Let's go," said Paul, and we swept briskly out of the terminal and into the cozy cabin of the jet. As it sped down the runway, and a joint passed yet again among us, I could hear the radio from the cockpit "mentioning" that we were not cleared to take off. A red light began pulsing its dire warning of illegalness from the dashboard as the little spaceship lifted from the ground and shot up into the sky, speeding its cargo of counter-culture warriors back to the streets of San Francisco.
Sometime between 1970 and 1972 Ike Turner came to Pacific High Recording to do some overdubs and some mixing for a record he was producing - though not an Ike and Tina recording, and maybe not even an Ike recording. I sorta forget. But in any event, we liked working with each other right off the bat; our pace being similar and we seemed to argue constructively and converse very easily. Remember, this was well before the advent of his absolutely terrible reputation as the Worst and Biggest Shit in Relationship History and his eventual canonization as the icon of bad behavior - which he would own and wear until he died.
But there, at PHR, Ike Turner was very easy to like and we worked and had a lot of constructive fun together in the control room - just he and I, for 2 days of sessions - and each day there were these 2 women sitting quietly down in front of the console; one of them occasionally knitting away the time through 2 long afternoons, wearing sunglasses in the semi-dark room. That was Tina, and she said hardly a word the whole time except to whisper back and forth with the other woman. It seemed a bit weird to me, but I took no special note of anything.
Sometime during the session Ike mentioned the idea of getting high - which was always a good idea in those heady days, so I produced a couple of joints from the PHR control room stash which we got busy with immediately. Then everything suddenly got a little strange and tense. Ike had become quite freaked by the grass (top-flight rock-n-roll power weed) and after a few minutes of his squirming around the room he began to look to me to help him out. I quickly suggested we should take a walk. He looked stressed about that idea. I reminded him that we were on a very rarely used street and that we could walk down an even more obscure alley that bordered the studio. He was getting kind of desperate so I said "trust me", and we walked out of the studio and wandered for about 5 or 10 minutes while he struggled to get control of his extreme anxiety.
Then at some point he grabbed my shoulder and said he might be having a medical emergency. I quickly told him that the stash of grass had been at PHR for days and we all had smoked it and nothing bad had happened to anyone. He seemed to perk up a little bit so I said it over and over in different ways and after a few minutes I could see him suddenly begin to relax his posture - since we had left the building he had been walking as if he was about to break into a run.
When we returned to the studio, Ike was almost completely calmed down and together. All that was needed was a couple of glasses of water and some idle conversation to complete the recuperation, and then life returned to normal in the cozy little control room at Pacific High Recording - the one that Scott Putnam had designed and built - and Ike and I got back to making records for the sixties.
I liked Ike. And I want very much for it to be true that nobody is a monster, until they are.
An incidental recollection: I worked around Joan Baez twice. The second time, at PHR, I was the engineer for a simple vocal overdub and it was no big deal - she was in and out in about a half-hour. But, interestingly, it was my first actual paid session at PHR and, in a way, my first ever paid session as a recording engineer. I used an M49b Neuman and some mid-lows reduction to get the room "haunt" out of the sound.
The first time I'd been involved with a Joan Baez recording was when I'd set up a stationary mike for her in Western's studio 2 in Hollywood a few years before and, remembering how she worked with a microphone, I added a mild dose of an LA3 - the era's smoothest vocal limiter, between the mike preamp and the equalizer.