In 1986, I was working out of a tiny, makeshift 8 track recording studio on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan. The studio was in the basement of an old tenement building, and was next door to a shop that sold guitars (which looked suspiciously as if they’d been spirited out of some nearby apartment for quick drug money). To enter the studio, one had to go down a flight of steps off the street, open a locked gate (which doubled as a makeshift community urinal), pass through a dismal looking courtyard (which appeared somewhat menacing after dark and occasionally reminded me of Whitechapel circa Jack The Ripper) and eventually wind up in front of the basement entrance. The building and it’s vicinity was grimy, constantly reeked of stale human residuals and tenants shared it’s perimeter with the local population of bums. In 1986, the word “bum”- not “homeless person” was still used as a term of classifying identity. Coming or going from the studio, when evening came, people always had to step over one or two of these denizens of the subterrain.
The studio and it’s environment was like a world within a world. The basement was initially raw space and had to be built out. Fortunately, my partner Mark Miller did construction for a living. The place felt like a cave where late Cro Magnon man might have done his first paintings of wild bison and deer. It could have housed a private S&M club as easily as a recording studio (and, at one point, may have done so). Mark built a small control room which housed a Tascam 16 track console, an Otari 8 track tape machine, EV near-field monitors and a meager assortment of outboard effects. There were no sonic treatments and there was no ventilation. In the summer, it was absolutely brutal to work there. I would often find myself recording people in the steamy, tiny little space with clothes absolutely soaked and the smell of body odor permeating everything. It was perfect.
St. Mark’s Place was an exciting place to be in the mid- 1980’s; the neighborhood was starting to gentrify, yet still had a tinge of danger about it. It was chaotic, noisy, electric, inspiring and scary. Up the street on First Avenue was Stromboli Pizza, where I ate every day. Down the street on Avenue A were the bars and nightclubs. Further east, toward the river, you could have anything you wanted if you were prepared to pay for it. There were crazy people everywhere- punks, hippies, straights. And, in the midst of it all, I was entertaining fantasies of grandeur, desperate for another big break.
I’d already breathed in the rarefied air of success. In 1983, I’d had a very popular record and in 1984, I’d gone to the Grammy’s. This was big for a kid in his early twenties. It was also the result of a collaboration with my former production partner, Bill Laswell. By 1986, I had only done a handful of recordings as the sole producer. I was meeting with A&R people on a regular basis, however, nothing came from any of these meetings, apart from frustration. I was mainly encountering dead ends, disinterest, non sequiturs and occasionally, derision. In one meeting, an A&R person told me very directly that giving me one of his projects to produce would be a crap shoot.
And he wasn’t wrong. I didn’t have much to show anyone, aside from that very successful record from 3 years prior, a pair of records I’d produced for some Canadian artists and a handful of recordings I’d made in my basement studio with various obscure local musicians. I still had yet to prove myself. In spite of this, I spent hours in that cramped, swampy, filthy studio, laboring away, trying with all my might to make some unknown artist’s demo sound like a Def Leppard recording. In those moments, nothing else mattered- just the sound coming out of the speakers. It didn’t even matter that the music I was working on usually wasn’t that good- I was in my space, doing something I loved. I was being driven by a vast unseen force. I was alive.
And then came a break. I was introduced to movie producer named Barbara Zitwer who had a film project which had just been green-lighted. She was looking for an original piece of music- a pop song for this project, the name of which was “Vampire’s Kiss”. Barbara had convinced the director of the film, Larry Cohen, to meet me. With that, I had my in. I had a week to come up with a piece of music for this movie and in so-doing, I would get my name in bright lights.
It was perfect. I had a studio, I had equipment. I wasn’t exactly a lead vocalist, but that didn’t matter. This was going to be great. In roughly 3 months time, I’d be on a red carpet, sporting a new suit and walking into a movie premiere. To see a movie with my song in it.
There was only one small catch. I didn’t have a song to record. As this reality began to descend upon me, I started to rack my brains about where this song would come from. I went through my song archives and realized that much of it wasn’t very good. Additionally, for all the producing and engineering of other people’s music I’d been doing, I hadn’t written many songs. I wasn’t very experienced as a song writer.
I began to panic. There were now 5 days until this (as yet, unwritten) masterpiece was to be unveiled before the movie director and that familiar sinking feeling was setting in. I started to experience a hollow sensation in my stomach and an icy, sweaty coldness through my upper body. My breathing became shallow and labored. I began to get shaky and clumsy and kept bumping into things or knocking them over. My mind went into a free fall and I couldn’t think in a straight line anymore. Suddenly, the very ambitious young man who believed he’d discovered a pot of gold, found himself in an unfamiliar world. I had no bearings. There was no road map. I was completely lost.
And then, as fate would have it, an idea for a song came to me. Whew. Finally. Relief. Endorphins.
I took this song structure and began fleshing it out. It all began to gel and my dreams of red carpets, new suits and pots of gold were back on track. Adrenalin was flowing as freely as the ideas were coming. There were 2 days left before the big meeting and I was going to make that deadline. Pretty soon, I’d be flying high and seeing my name in big letters.
The evening prior to the deadline, I was playing back a section of this piece of music and it suddenly dawned on me that the song wasn’t very good. Actually, it was terrible. The lyrics were poor, the melodies were forgettable and track sounded generic. The whole thing felt desperate. It was poorly recorded. And whoever the vocalist was sounded like he was squawking the words instead of singing them. How could I get behind this aberration I’d concocted?
In an instant, a floodgate inside me burst open and all those feelings of abject terror I’d previously experienced, came rushing back. I was drowning and then I was sunk. My dreams were dashed to bits and in flames. I was in hell.
Still, what could I do? I’d been commissioned to write this song and it was nearly done. It was dreadful, but it was still my dreadful. An appointment had been made and it had to be kept. There wasn’t anything better (or anything else) to show- this had to be it.
I finished working on the song mere hours before it was to be played for Larry Cohen. I didn’t sleep a wink and later that morning, I set off for my destination- bleary-eyed, punch-drunk and devoid of hope. It felt as if I was taking the subway to my own execution.
I can’t recall much of what happened in the interim, as a thick, foggy haze had descended onto everything. It felt as if I was traveling through a world which had been smeared with vaseline. I somehow wound up at my destination and found myself ushered into Larry Cohen’s office. He was tall, impassive, wore some kind of khaki fishing vest and appeared thoroughly disinterested.
There I was at the gateway. Red carpets and pots of gold. I croaked a half-hearted salutation to him and he asked for my tape. I handed it to him and he put the cassette in one of those little old school rectangular players with the hand held microphone. He pressed the play button.
The room was closing in on me. Everything in sight was being devoured by the thick malignant haze which had surrounded me in a cone, leaving a minute, claustrophobic hole for me to peek out through. The sound of that song upon which I had placed the entirety of my career, my future, indeed the rest of my life, came pouring out of the tiny 2 inch speaker. The sound of my squeaky voice. The sound of fear. The sound of desperation. The sound of failure.
Larry Cohen didn’t look at me once the entire time I was there. Which had to be under 2 minutes. All he did was listen for roughly 20 seconds, whereupon, he pressed the stop button on the player, took the cassette out of the machine and wordlessly handed it back to me. And it was done. I had been executed. I was dead.
Suddenly, I found myself downstairs in the street, wandering aimlessly. The haze had lifted, the panic was over. I felt a wave of sadness that my song had been rejected, however, I also felt as if I’d been freed. All those dreams and fantasies I’d been entertaining had just collapsed on top of me. I’d enslaved myself to an illusion of what this song was going to do for my life- how it was going to change the very fabric of everything I knew and valued. I had constructed a little universe in which I was drowning and my very survival hinged on this one, awful piece of music. I had actually become prepared to renounce what drove me, what was truly essential, as I attempted to exchange that for something contrived, something embroiled in drama. This is why the song wound up being so bad and ultimately, why it was only useful as a lesson, not in a movie soundtrack. Still, what a remarkable lesson it was. There were no dreams up in flames anymore- I was done fooling myself.
And with that, I went back to the grind of working in my little studio- producing everything and anything I could find and trying to make it sound as good as was possible. Occasionally, I’d remind myself that I’d fallen cataclysmically from my success 3 years prior and now, I was working with all the left behind, no-talent Lower East Side musicians, to whom, executives who worked in the “real” record industry wouldn’t have given a minute of their time. I was just a little guy in a little ghetto studio who wanted to be Mutt Lange. But when those thoughts dissipated, I got to experience the joy in what I was doing- and the education I was receiving. I had parameters, but they were my parameters. I was free to do what I wanted and whenever I heard music coming out of those monitors, I treasured the impulse I had to make things sound as good as I could make them sound. It was good just to be alive and creating again. The air around me was clear and crisp. This was the very best part of being conscious. No more dreams of red carpets and pots of gold- they no longer mattered.
I also kept taking meetings with A&R people. One day, I walked into an A&R meeting with Michael Barackman at EMI records. I played him a few recordings from my studio. He mentioned that EMI might have something for me. There was a band on their roster called The Red Hot Chili Peppers and no one could figure out what to do with them.
Michael gave me a demo tape of the Chili Peppers’ most recent songs and I went home. I listened to their demos and made copious notes. Two weeks later, I was riding with them in a van between shows they were doing in New Orleans and Dallas. Roughly a year after that, we finished our first recording together.