I recently published a blog entitled “Michael Beinhorn Fires Drummers”. It was obvious that the title and subject matter were controversial and might ruffle some feathers. I figured that there might be some fallout, but I’d rather people form their opinions about me based on the truth, instead of fabrication.
In spite of this, I was pleased that most everyone who read the essay actually understood its significance and were simpatico with its underlying principle. They got the notion of striving for greatness at all costs and that people must occasionally make hard decisions when faced with pressurized situations.
I did, however, get two responses that appeared to be less than approving of what I’d written. One of these was a relatively terse missive which simply read, “Fuck you!”
How brilliant, I thought- how direct and succinct. This email was like a piece of minimalist art from the 60’s- wrought into a neon sculpture it would have been right at home on a prominent wall of the Whitney Museum in New York.
However, since I was able to only discern the “what” but not the “why” of this email, I felt incapable of responding to it.
However, the other response I received was a little more discernible and it goes a little something like this-
“Of course for that not to be, to a certain extent, bullcrap depends, first, on your artistic judgment being infallible (which you can’t really be arguing, surely?) And, second, on the idea that when someone buys a band’s album they pay to hear the “best produced album” rather than hear the band they actually love and have loved, perhaps, for years. Removing the distinctive texture of a band, removing authenticity, is not always an improvement. In a business full of excellent session players, there will always be a “better” player for hire to reproduce what you yourself hear in your head. That goes without saying. But that isn’t really what recording a band should be about is it? You say you’re scrupulous about getting the rest of the band’s OK first, but any numbnuts can divide a band by telling them that they are being let down by someone else’s performance. You also imply that you’re usually having to tidy up behind junkies and losers but that’s on the one hand a libel on many decent men and women and, on the other, an admission that you’re not at the level of those producers who have coaxed stellar performances out of massively fucked-up musicians. There are always times when a drummer might have to be fired, painful and emotional as it might be. That’s a sad, sometimes a tragic, fact. Proudly embracing the practice as just one of those things that a producer regularly has to do is an admission of failure.”
That’s all very interesting, but my blog post addressed the necessity of firing people when there is no other recourse. Nothing in it even hinted at the perverse notion that I somehow enjoy firing people or that the people I’ve fired were dissolute miscreants. I also don’t recall implying that I “proudly embrace the practice”.
As was stated in my essay, firing people is not something entered into lightly. Admittedly, the title was meant to be tongue in cheek, but surely, anyone who read the essay would have understood this.
Had this individual had actually read my essay? Did he miss the part about how difficult it is to fire someone, especially after a working relationship has been established with them? It was odd to me that someone could, with such authority, address an article that I felt explained my intent and motivation, miss the point entirely and put words in my mouth.
Perhaps he simply didn’t comprehend what I’d written. Was his trajectory way, way off or, had I really portrayed myself as a talentless, blame-casting, Svengali with a Napoleon complex?
Right then, it dawned on me that it made no difference whether or not he had actually read my blog post. This is because he had made up his mind about both me and my essay even before he began reading.
How could this be?
From reading this guy’s email, I surmised that his opinions had been influenced by something he’d heard about me prior to reading my article. He certainly held some very dogmatic, yet ill-informed opinions, some of which I found fascinating.
I suspect his apparent bias was instigated by publicly aired accusations of malfeasance which were recently directed at me based on how I handled a certain recording session many years ago. The fact that I was never asked to provide my version of these allegations should have cast some doubt on their veracity. Nonetheless, they’ve been accepted as fact by a great many people.
The fact is, people love the truth far less than they love drama. They love a good witch hunt. They also love not having to think or feel for themselves and prefer when someone else is available to think and feel for them. Even if they want to believe their righteous indignation is their own.
By assuming I envision my “artistic judgment” as being “infallible”, the respondent to my article touched on the subjective nature of firing performers. I felt this was adequately addressed this in my previous article but for the sake of courtesy, I’m more than pleased to take another shot.
The real question is not about subjective “artistic judgment”, but instead; what is “bad” and how bad is “bad”? Does one require “artistic judgment to know “bad” or is it evident to nearly anyone?
In the case of a performer on a recording, there may be many criteria for what can be referred to as “bad”, but I really know only one. The name most people know it by is “incompetence”. Someone who cannot do his job as it has been mutually understood by him and everyone he works with is generally considered to be incompetent.
Here is the basic premise; if a performer does his job in a manner which falls below the expectations everyone else they are working with has of him- for example, if he is playing sloppily, forgetting parts, playing without any excitement- in short, performing far differently than he did prior to recording, it is understood that he is incompetent and becomes a candidate for expulsion from said project. If, even after acknowledging the situation, he continues to perform this manner, he is guaranteed a ticket off the recording.
As previously noted, this is exactly what happened on the aforementioned notorious recording session. I heard it. Everyone who was involved in the decision to fire this person heard it, too. They didn’t want to imagine that their bandmate’s performance could be that awful, but it was plain as day and impossible for them to ignore.
This performer displayed all the outward signs of being incompetent. They were given every opportunity, coddled and encouraged to do their best. When the issue of their shoddy performance was finally addressed with them, they not only became defensive, they refused to acknowledge it and continued to play badly. Eventually, nature took its course and they were fired. This was not a subjective decision which came from one person’s “artistic judgment”, it was an objective decision made by a group of people working together.
Of course, the possibility exists that those of us who made this decision were wrong. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps, I’m simply not good enough at coaxing “stellar performances out of massively fucked up musicians”, to quote my respondent.
Now, if you are naive enough to believe that producers coaxing “stellar performances out of massively fucked up musicians” is the norm, you are either a fool or you know nothing about how recordings are made. I’m not certain as to which category my respondent falls into but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and lean toward category number two.
These days, no one has time for so-called “massively-fucked up musicians” on any recording project. If a “massively fucked -up musician” can’t function, he will immediately be jettisoned- unless, of course, he is the principal artist. Making a recording is already difficult enough without performers who can’t keep their personal lives from interfering with their work- and that of their co-workers. No one on a recording- or anywhere else- has the time to parent an imbecile who has chosen to ruin his life and intends to take everyone he knows down with him.
And while we’re on the subject, drummers who wind up on their band’s recordings but are technically challenged- or “massively fucked-up”- are so heavily edited by their producers that they sound like automatons. Personally, I like the sound of a real drummer who can play real drums without triggers on them, as opposed to the sound of a sloppy drummer with no groove- or emotion- whose performance is edited and triggered to the point where it doesn’t resemble something a human being could- or would want to do.
All this to pretend that everything is ok. All for the sake of maintaining some kind of illusory status quo that no one outside this person’s band gives a crap about. They just want to hear a great record.
Which brings us to my respondent’s insistence on the importance of authenticity. Authenticity is somewhat subjective and its nature depends somewhat on how you define it. My respondent doesn’t really explain his own definition of authenticity, but he does complain when he feels it’s been excised from something familiar to him. Therefore, we can assume that he defines “authenticity” as something that feels real to him- something which he connects with due to its familiarity.
Authenticity is entirely a result of whatever an artist wants to show you- not what actually is. An artist’s genius is the ability to regulate what you see of her and how you see it- her talent to either force herself into you like a mighty tempest or conceal herself from you so thoroughly that you never know who she is or what she actually means.
The subjective nature of authenticity is identical in many respects to the subjective nature of “transparency”. Like authenticity, transparency is also regulated by whomever is controlling the flow of information and is in no way equivalent to truth. With this in mind, an artist can fabricate everything he does and still be entirely truthful. Flexibility- the artist’s mercurial nature- his ability to turn on a dime in a split second when his muse demands him to, is far more important than authenticity.
In fact, authenticity is much less important than believability. The difference between authenticity and believability is the distinction between a performer’s ability to be who he is versus his ability to make you care who he is. This is the difference between being interested in an artist and being passionately in love with his work.
If you disagree, then answer me this- did Paul McCartney write a song like “Yesterday” as the result of his authenticity or is it a work of art, fabricated and made believable by a consummate artistic genius?
“Yesterday” is not based on specific events- it’s a composition, the basis of which came to McCartney in a dream. It exists solely because McCartney created it- not because he had anything profound to say. To give an example of this, the original working title of “Yesterday” was “Scrambled Eggs”. It bore no resemblance to any previous work he’d done and was a result of his constant artistic evolution.
“Yesterday” works because McCartney makes it believable through the conviction of the composition and the conviction in his performance, not because it’s authentic.
The view that authenticity in art must be preserved at all costs comes from an obsessive need to compartmentalize artists instead of allowing them the freedom to explore. Artists aren’t marionettes on a string that do our bidding or your bidding. They also aren’t jukeboxes which spew out the old familiar songs/sound at the pleasure of their fans.
I feel the methodology of an artist is to follow their muse and to express themselves- to communicate in a way that is unique and exclusively their own. My role is to insure the artists I work with are able to perform this function without interferences, impedances, or impasses. Any half-decent record producer (or “numb nuts”, as my respondent puts it) will proudly accept the same responsibility.
There are two options that an artist often chooses from when she is preparing to make a recording. The first option is pleasing her fans, the second is pleasing herself. For this reason, many artists have had to weather public opinion instead of basking in it when they chose to follow a path their audience didn’t approve of.
To be very clear, when I go into a recording studio with an artist, my prime directive is the vision of the artist whose recording I’m making; how this vision becomes implanted in my own mind and how I can best represent it. In order to represent that vision, I literally will stop at nothing.
When an artist becomes too self-conscious, too concerned with how he is seen by others- and this includes his fans- he becomes creatively ill. I’ve seen what this cancer does to artists and it isn’t pretty.
An artist who becomes too concerned about what his public expects from him, feels he must desperately attempt to relive old triumphs. He starts to repeat himself instead of evolving creatively and gradually renders himself useless. Such an artist will lose his audience with great haste. If he worries too much about how best he can please his audience, such an artist will deprive his audience of his greatness in its most refined and pure form.
Artistic vision must always trump the staid notions of preserving a so-called “band sound”- the element of familiarity my respondent insists must be present in a recording in order to retain “authenticity”. The nature of evolution is to grow and if an artist chooses to evolve instead of being a geisha- cranking out the oldies for her customers even as she grows decrepit and the years take their toll- that’s her business.
Still want to debate this point? Watch an interview with Jimi Hendrix and see how he addresses his creative process. If you do, you’ll see how unimportant the notions of a “band sound” and “authenticity”, etc, are when an artist needs to express himself and doesn’t care how he gets his ideas out. He’s not talking about “authenticity”- he’s talking about his truth.
BTW- to put things into a relative perspective, the compulsion an artist has to express himself is about the same feeling you get when you have to take a really bad dump- except the feeling comes from deep in your soul instead of deep in your colon.
Vision, my friend, is what record making is about- to me and the artists I work with- vision and collaboration. You see, contrary to your assumption, I make records with artists- I don’t record bands. The essence of record making is about taking a vision from abstract concept to concrete form- it’s a collaborative undertaking and therefore- yes, when I’m making a record with an artist- my vision- my conception of how a record “should sound” matters a great deal.
It matters because it is an augmentation of the artists vision- an extension, an embellishment that he might not have been able to arrive at on his own. In fact, contrary to your assumption, this is why the artists I’ve worked with chose me- because my creative vision augments and facilitates theirs in a way they find beneficial.
I’ve mainly been hired by artists because they didn’t want to repeat themselves or recycle their old riffs. These artists want a collaborator with imagination who has the nerve to help them create an entirely new vision instead of the one they have become identified with.
I didn’t work with Soundgarden so we could recreate “Badmotorfinger”, I didn’t work with Marilyn Manson to recreate “Antichrist Superstar” or Hole to recreate “Live Through This”. If they’d asked me to recreate something they’d already done, I’d have turned them down flat. Trying to relive past glories is a hallmark aspect of delusion and I would have been doing everyone an immense disservice by assisting in such a delusional task.
And frankly, dear respondent, I’d have been doing you a disservice, too- even if you fervently believe all those artists I’ve worked with should have continued making “authentic” recordings just to make you happy. Whether you have the stones- or introspection- to admit it or not, your world is a better place with artists in it who are bold enough to follow their muse, and people such as myself who help facilitate their vision.
You don’t have to thank me, but I know you’re thinking it.