A Wall Unsound
The atmosphere in the control room was tense. Present were some of the biggest names in the music industry. At the board sat singer/songwriter Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, listening intently while the studio became increasingly busy around him, his patience becoming frayed. His brother Dennis, drummer/vocalist, and some of his buddies, hangers-on/ne’er do wells, had booked studio time, and Brian’s session was running long. As it was Brian’s studio, in his house in Los Angeles, he felt no obligation to rush his talent, Bob Dylan, lyricist/guitaricist. Terry Melcher, songwriter/producer, leaned over the board listening to Bob’s song with rapt attention.
Next to Brian sat legendary music producer/impresario, Phil Spector, also wearing cans* and a displeased look on his face. He appeared to be signaling Dylan through the glass, but Bob was ignoring him as he struggled to master the complex changes of his concept/crossover album/song “A Short Age of Surf Feet.” This only served to further annoy Spector and drive him to wider and more ostentatious gesticulations as he tried to conduct Dylan through the glass. Bob continued ignoring him, intently focused on his fingering, eventually turning away from the glass until he had his back facing Spector and Wilson. Spector removed his headphones**and stared in perturbed annoyance at Brian, who gamely finished the take, avoiding his gaze.
After the shootings, I decided it was time to get out of the city for a while. Too many people were dealing with their insecurities by menacing me with firearms, too many were shooting me. By my way of counting, one person shooting me is too many. Way too many. I questioned whether I’d survive to the end of the book at the rate I was going – I was having some serious doubts about our gun culture. Americans, not putting too fine a point on it, are fucking crazy. We come by it naturally though; our leaders are crazy, our teachers are crazy, our nation is crazy.***
Now before you load-up, lock-up and head-out looking for this hippy fag to teach a lesson to (exploducation), understand I am a personal firearm advocate. Perhaps not an advocate, but I nod my head in agreement if somebody says something not too stupid in regard to firearms from time to time, so that should count for something. There are a lot of good reasons to be armed and many bad ones as well, but the best reason to have a gun is to be able to protect yourself from all the other people who have guns. And there are a lot of them in the U.S., maybe 100,000,000.
A simple statistical analysis should suffice: 300 million citizens of the U.S.A., 30,000 annual gun deaths, mostly suicide; 1.5 million times a year guns are used to prevent a crime. That’s right, and that stat comes from Clinton’s DOJ so it’s not some right-wing conspiracy. Crazy people have guns. We know this. Seems some sane ones should be armed too, if just for balance.
*Headphones - included for studio vérité
**Bottles, in ritzy studios
***I of course make exception for anyone with the intellectual wherewithal to appreciate this book ****
****Or anything I publish.
But by 1968 our political reality had changed dramatically and I, as many other Americans, had come to question many of the assumptions which had thus far informed my perception. Three days after Solanas shot Warhol, Mario Amaya, his curator, and me – while menacing studio manager Fred Hughes – Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. This only two months after Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Malcom X, Medger Evers, John Kennedy…Guns were becoming an expanding concern.
The astounding thing is how easily we are convinced that we are swayed – sometimes I wonder if we believe half the stuff we profess to. In each of the primary political assassinations in the U.S.A. during the ‘60s, the people murdered were characterized by J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI as enemies of the state. Another way: the major political assassinations in the 1960s were of the very people the power structure wanted dead. Damned nice of all those lone nuts to go out and eliminate the state’s detractors for them, with explosive fury no less, the state’s very method for dealing with that kind of thing. Well, we can kill it….
The liberal intelligentsia held the Kennedys up as men who paid the ultimate price fighting a corrupt system. The reality was that they were just more corrupt men who paid the highest dividend for biting the hands that fed them. As with all “old money,” the landed gentry attained and maintained their wealth and position through deals skirting legality, while avoiding ethics or morality entirely. Joe Kennedy and FDR made killings at the end of the U.S.A.’s first War on Drugs, Prohibition, by providing a thirsty public just what it didn’t need. Oh, but they wanted it, the thirst deep from many uninteresting years of sobriety and reason. We would never have been properly girded for World War II had we maintained our national sobriety; no sober mind rushes into a firing machinegun. Prohibition had to end so we’d be stupid/drunk enough to war again.
In every manifestation, the War Machine pays dividends and most huge fortunes exist owing to it in some way or another, even if only through ancillary services. The Kennedys challenged the War Machine – a few other Machines as well – and were ground up by them, just as they grind so many others down, worldwide, in perpetuity, for liberty and justice for all. Amen. Power is never averse to throwing one of their own under the bus to maintain a position of social primacy. Money demands a deeper loyalty than mere flesh and blood.
And closer still, the voices of sheer madness braying: After Solanas’s arraignment, Ti-Grace Atkinson, N.Y. Chapter president of NOW, described her as “the first outstanding champion of woman’s rights.” Shooting a self-described virgin gay guy as a blow for women’s rights might lead some to wonder just what rights these women sought. NOW, in no need for negative news, impeached Ti-Grace, claiming, “She was just our president. She didn’t represent what the people who elected and supported her felt. Mostly.” Afterward, Ti-Grace started another woman’s movement for really mean women called WHEN (Women Hate Everyone NOW) but her following suffered when she was outed buying Fabio DVDs and she retired in Di-Grace.
But I digress….
I got invited on a road trip with a couple of my fellow Chelsea dwellers, one of whom, Pico, was, as earlier established, a delightful road companion indeed. The shooting had left a pall over the The Factory crowd; Warhol nearly succumbed to his wounds and was never the same after his near death experience, though any rational consideration would make that abundantly obvious. Death threats always carry more resonance when delivered on the tip of a bullet traveling in excess of 1000 feet a second. And Solanas was out and on the streets in 3 years. The Factory scene became less open, less free; speed freaks plus suspicion equals paranoia. We needed out.
So Pico invited me along with them. Our traveling companion as it turned out was Bob Dylan. I’d run into him around the Chelsea; helped him up, brushed him off – he seemed like a nice guy, didn’t bear me any ill will. He’d been staying there owing to issues with his pregnant wife Sara and his unhappy “friend” and Warhol Superstar, Edie Sedgewick. As those issues have nothing to do with this story, suffice it to say that Bob needed a little Bob time, and, as we all felt like leaving anyway, we agreed wholeheartedly.
Bob talked about doing a fusion album: protest/surf. It was a crossover fraught with all manner of failure potential yet he felt that with the right support and drugs, he was the man to pull it off. As I always perked up when drugs entered the picture, I told him that I supported his adventurous spirit and offered to help him bring it forth in all its insane magnificence. He had an ace in the hole: Brian Wilson had offered up his studio and production skills to help him realize this fairly ridiculous dream. So we road tripped to L.A. Bob needed time to decompress and we all traded off various road duties: I would drive, Bob would compose, Pico would provide tension relief; Bob would drive, Pico would compose while I relieved her tension; and Pico would drive, I would compose and Bob would catch a few zzzs in the back. So forget it, freak!
By the time we hit Memphis, Bob had composed 6 songs, 4 lyrics and improved Pico’s scoliosis markedly; I’d written 15 lyrics, 7 songs and thrown out her back twice; and dear Pico had written 30 lyrics, 72 songs and made both Bob and I forget all about the nightmare back in New York. It had been a productive four hour drive. But there was plenty of road ahead, miles of it, some of it kind of bumpy, maybe some pot holes, and Bob had yet to create his masterpiece title song. Of marginal interest, that occurred outside of Assault Lake City when Bob was composing and Pico and I were driving hard in the back. A brilliant lyric with the verse a strong folky Dylanesque growl and the chorus a Beach Boys multi-layered harmonizing wooo-fest, “A Short Age of Surf Feet” was Bob’s most ambitious foray into a genre of music no one had the slightest interest in.
Reprinted here with no one’s permission, “A Short Age of Surf Feet”:
A Short Age of Surf Feet
Donny’s at the beach
In the surf a splashin’
Shore is outa reach
He’s in the water thrashin’
Where the sewage leach
Our sun tans turning ashen
For to own their each
Is the enduring passion
Tanning unguent rank
But pale is outa fashion
Darlin’ is a skank
Excitement in dispassion
Where ambitions sank
Sharp teeth they are a flashin’
At the river bank
Bad checks are there for cashin’
It’s a short age of surf feet
Wave bye bye when it’s complete
Waxing bored with those we meet
First you rinse and then repeat
Just a short age of surf feet
Once it’s soured, bittersweet
Winners live in the retreat
Be sure to keep your receipt
© 1968 Dob Bylantunes
“What the fuck is this place?! Union fucking Station?!” Spector stared at the crowded studio with disdain as Dennis addressed Brian, “Yo bro…How long you gonna go?” Brian removed his headphones and considered the hubbub. ”With all this going on, there’s not a heck of a lot I can do.” Dennis watched his active and increasingly noisy retinue, responding, ”Sorry, bro, don’t want to harsh your buzz. But you told me to come over, said it was, ‘Cool.’” Bob stepped out of the booth and smiled when he saw Dennis. “Denny, my man.” Dennis responded in kind and they hugged as old friends, even though this was their first and only meeting. “Roberto.”
Spector fumed. He’d come out as a favor to Brian; at the time he was in his recluse phase and his contract stated very clearly that he was not to be seen in groups of people or by them.
Now he’d come out on a weeknight – after again having to lock his slut wife Ronnie in the basement – risked being seen by the uninteresting rabble only to find himself in this distressing gathering with a songwriter who couldn’t sing and singers who couldn’t write songs. Perfect. Spector was a disturbing person, offering the affectation of entertainment royalty with an air of tyrannical whimsy – once he’d arrived, everything was handled, making anyone displeasing to him readily disposable. The artist included. He also had a way of turning a word or sound, boop boop, or shoo wop for instance, into a writing credit on someone else’s song.
While this went over with neophytes and people whose songs used words like boop boop or shoo wop, Bob was too seasoned to fall for such blatant credit filching, understanding words like royalties and publishing rights. But Spector was only willing to do a favor with promise of return – the new hyper-capitalist favor – and Bob wasn’t about to favor him with publishing credit, which created contention right out of the gate.
“A Short Age of Surf Feet” was some of Bob’s best work. He’d lifted the music from Ry Cooder and the Wilsons, but the lyric was all his; he wrote every word of it. My concern was that I had dictated every word of it – to Pico, after an intense acid fuck, while we lay staring at the stars, through the roof of the car on that hot June night. It had been Bob’s turn to drive and he was being petulant because it was our turn to fuck, so he pulled over and we parked in the desert near Assault Lake, where Pico and I worked our magic and he serenaded us with a voice reminiscent of a plunge router binding in cheap laminate.
The Factory notwithstanding, I had as much use for speed as I did for smack. We had burned through our cocaine in a fiendish binge through Arkansas, so I was pleased to find Bob’s taste for cannabis not dissimilar to my own. We stopped by Pico’s connection in Topeka and regrouped as well as redrugged – that’s where we got the acid. It was on blotters, tiny stamps with the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland emblazoned on them, and was quite potent.
By the time we had stopped near Assault Lake, we were all way too high to be driving. Frankly, for a couple of desperate hours, we were all too high to be parking. But we avoided stationary collisions and enveloped our ethereal post, numbering ourselves among those of letters, notables unpenned, stamping out the return of junk while ever delivering the bulk rate. Shoo wop.
So Bob found himself highly protective of the lyric as he already faced the likelihood of having to share credit with me (or having me bumped off, like…sorry). Just what he didn’t need was Spector glomming onto it and then having to deal with his legal sharks over percentiles. That dance always ended up with the lawyers making the lion’s share of the profit while the artists sulked over accreditation and the critics debated contribution.
Spector had had enough. Everyone was talking to each other – in a brief acid flashback I was talking to a tiny giraffe on my sleeve named Wendell – and he blew up. “Would everybody please shut the fuck up?!”
This got our attention as he offered it with maniacal authority, the voice of a man used to being listened to. Everyone stopped and glowered at him, which really pissed him off. Brian was not impressed. It was his studio, in his house and he was figuring out that Spector’s much-vaunted Wall of Sound wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. One of Dennis’s group, Charlie, spoke first to the girls he was with, then directly to Spector. “That’s Phil Spector. You’re Phil Spector…Amazing. You’re a fucking genius, man.” Then to emphasize his point he repeated it to the fairly lackluster girls, who stared at him while ignoring Spector, “A fucking genius.”
This was distressing to Spector: he was being ignored and praised in the same fetid breath which confused his response, as he hated being ignored but loved being praised. Pretty much like everyone. Charlie was something to see, long hair, even for the day, kinda ratty beard, jeans (ratty as well) and a T-shirt proclaiming “God is Love” on the front and “I am God” on the back. Spector played it with aplomb, “Excuse me?”
Dennis, really stoned, placed his hand on Spector’s shoulder and fixed him with a deadly sincere gaze, “He said you are a fucking genius, man. And I happen to agree.” Now Spector had us where he wanted us. Surely Bob would realize who he was in the presence of and cut loose a little of that sweet, sweet publishing – the fucking song needed some fucking shoo wops – who would argue with a genius? To keep it interesting Melcher chimed in, “Mister Tambourine Man…brilliant.” Was he deliberately baiting Dylan? I couldn’t be sure, though Wendell had some opinions on the issue.
Dylan’s song, “Mister Tambourine Man” as produced by Spector for the Byrds, was a smash hit, leading many to believe that it was a Phil Spector song, a misconception he was loathe to disabuse. Bob looked at Spector askance and Brian jumped in as mediator, “One of Bob’s best songs. A really moving piece…” Terry couldn’t let it go (not a huge fan of Dylan’s), “Phil’s production really made it pop. Eating up the charts, for the Byrds.”
Patricia, one of the girls looming near Charlie queried, ”So, uh, what’s the song about?” This cast a pall on the studio: songs weren’t “about” things, they were about describing things. With rhymes. Songs had become the final repository of rhyming poetry, the rest consumed in expensive free verse. What was this weirdo on?
Bob was gaining a reputation as a cagey composer, giving cryptic and circular responses to people with the audacity to ask such questions. He looked at Patricia, oblivious to the creative derision directed at her and responded, “It’s about Mr. Tambourine, man.”
Patricia seemed fairly out of it and fiddled with her long, straggly hair. She considered his response then replied with complete disinterest, “Oh. Cool.” She looked at Charlie and continued, “When are we gonna hear your song, Charles?” Charlie looked at her, gauging the temperament of the room, then responded, “Soon as they’re done swinging musical dick, Katie.”
Spector meanwhile had taken to removing the master tape from the reel-to-reel, which distressed Brian and Bob equally for different reasons. “What are you doing?!” Brian stood over Spector as he popped the tape reel off the spindle and responded, “I can’t work under these conditions. I’ll take this to my studio and polish it up.” Brian placed his hand on the tape, as Bob weighed in, “We’ll work on it here.” Brian continued, “That’s my tape. Stays in my studio.”
Spector pulled the master away from Brian and fixed him with a slightly twisted grin. “I don’t work for free. Even when I work for free. I’m the fucking biggest name in the music game, people listen to me.” We were all astounded. Phil had just written the best lyric of his life, right off the top of his head. But in order to write it down, he’d have to release the tape. Enslaved to the master, he watched as Bob pulled a pencil out of his pocket and jotted it down on a napkin.
“You all saw that! That lyric is mine, Dylan.” Then, in a mad flash, Spector produced a pistol from his jacket, by my way of thinking among the more impressive things he produced in his cross-checkered career. Holding the master under his left arm and the pistol in his right hand, he pointed it in turn at everyone in the room like a desperate thug in a ‘30s gangster move, making sure we all knew he was armed and dangerous. He clutched with his left hand, the large master tape beginning to unravel under his armpit as he turned the gun on Dylan, “Hand it over, Zimmerman. Trust me, you don’t want any of this,” and he shook the pistol for emphasis.
Dylan, defiant, pulled out his Zippo and held it under the object of attention. “I’m not one of your bitches, Phil. You shoot me even your status won’t save you.” Sneering, he lit the napsong, which went up fast, then released it and watched as it drifted to the floor, consumed. Spector grabbed out with his left hand, pushing past Brian, fruitlessly trying to save it, dropping the master tape onto the floor, causing it to unravel. “Nooo!!!”
Bob was right. Spector was by no means a beautiful person, but his wealth and acclaim made him extremely attractive to the power structure and thus the authorities always treated him with kid gloves, usually made from the hides of real kids.* But taking out a burgeoning music icon who owned the rights to his current big hit with a bullet would even give the jaded Los Angeles authorities pause. As luck would have it, the hot new lyric that had ignited so much interest also ignited the garbage can it had fallen into. Bob, surprised by the flash jumped back, tripping over an amp, toppling to the floor next to me. As he fell, he inadvertently kicked out, knocking the garbage can over, spreading the expanding flames across the floor.
Brian panicked leaping back, but behind him Spector had bent over to gather the irksome master tape, causing both of them to crash over their chairs and onto the floor in a flailing pile of stupidity. By now the fire had grown and the unraveled end of the master tape ignited like a fuse, burning rapidly toward the motherload of the reel inches away. Charlie and the girls watched this in amazement, Susan next to him proclaiming, “Whoa.”
Then as Spector and Brian rolled on the floor, grappling for the gun, the master tape was engulfed in a huge stinky, smoky flash. Bob and I clambered to our feet, distressed and furious. Excellent, another gun. Dennis, strangely subdude as he watched this madness, grabbed the fire extinguisher and blasted out the fire, too late to save the tape but in time to save the studio. Terry and Charlie helped Brian pummel Spector to the floor, finally getting the gun from his hand as he wailed and cursed like a spoiled little bitch, “Fuck you, you assholes! You don’t know who I am!!! You don’t know what I can do!!!”
Dylan gave up on his concept album and returned home to his wife and expanding family in Woodstock, New York. Spector returned to seclusion where he was at least accorded some dignity while he stripped any from his long-suffering wife. Brian realized that the vaunted Wall of Sound was simply Spector having different instruments play the same fucking notes. And Dennis and Terry moved on to work with Charlie in other facilities, not so volatile.
I had come to a revelation myself.
It appeared I was the only person in showbiz who wasn’t armed. That would have to change.