Featured Column:My Weekend At Rock-N-Roll Fantasy Camp
Real True Confessions With Padre Pienbique
Somewhere too close to my forsaking the certain future of my hometown Northfield, Minnesota, for the greedy and corrupt pasture of Hollywood, my ultimate teenage dream came true. No, not my first blowjob thankfully the suspense was over for that Janes Addiction released the follow up to one of the most important statements to my young ears.
There was no end to the tape flipping my copy of Ritual De Lo Habitual endured. Somewhere between the crazy lyrics, the songs plowed ahead through chord progressions only to push arrangements into unknown territories, leaving me to scratch my head thinking: What record company thinks theyre going recoup an advance on this Wait a minute, who cares? This is the shit that rocks! After all, it only cost $9.98 for a fresh cassette- which is exactly $9.98 more than people pay for new albums now, given that musicians are supposed to swallow a million-dollar debt in order to stay cool with their fans.
But fuck that- this album was everything to me at the time: Natural-born poetry, Zeppelin-esque arrangements, real songs about something, and most importantly, it was happening right before me. And what a time for it to happen: No matter how much you love music, it cant sound any better than it does when youre a teenager. When a song grabs you in those tender years, it has you by the balls. And if that song is about a girl that doesnt even know you exist, all the better. If a song like that grabs you when youre vulnerable, good luck to you, brother. Youre hooked- and surprise Holmes! – Youre fucked. Theres nothing else to do but play that tune over and over and over again.
After I had moved to Hollywood to attend Musicians Institute (the Bass Institute of Technology- what a name!), Janes threw a homecoming of sorts, capping their tour with a three-night stand at the Universal Amphitheatre on the cusp of the Hollywood Hills. To say tickets were hard to come by is like saying nobody will ever come in your mouth: No matter how earnestly somebody said they could get you a ticket, you were going to feel cheated. My neighbors, with an endless supply of cash, bought a pair of seats for night two for some ungodly amount of straight cash, although the lords of rawk saw to it that my roomie and I got into the show for twenty dollars and half the strip of acid we were about to eat for the show.
What a fucking show! Either the set list was catered to my trip, or the acid got me good and hard. While leaning towards the former, I clearly remember the satisfaction of mentally reviewing the show over and over while watching my lava lamp do its thing. No matter, I remember committing myself to playing music that night. If I could only get an audition prove myself musically have something fall in my lap or at least get somebodys attention
Years later, with less LSD in my system but bloody full of enthusiasm, I found myself onstage with Janes rather creative drummer, Stephen Perkins filling in for Mike Watt on bass in one of Perkins ongoing musical adventures, Banyan. No matter that we (!) were playing a slot at the Big Wu Family Reunion. While the dust of rock-stardom had faded from my vision- after all this time playing with a hundred different musicians, why would playing with guy be any particular thrill? Part of it might have been my meditations in front the lava lamp. I remember trying to turn my older brother John on to Janes, telling him they reminded me of Zeppelin- not in their sound- but in the way their songs evolved. If you heard the first thirty seconds of any song they wrote (except Been Caught Stealing), you would never guess it was the same song if you fast forwarded it to the last thirty seconds. Besides switching up the songwriting, Janes felt comfortable improvising on stage. This was in 1990, when rock musicians just didnt do that in front of crowds, unless they were old fat guys calling themselves the Grateful Dead. Another one of Janes big ideas was investing into a traveling circus of bands that came from all walks of musical life. Sounding like a band bio from Leeways Home Grown Music Network, rock, rap, women, metal, folky, and ethereal bands all were all thrown on tour together and surprise! Audiences loved it. Im not saying Janes Addiction invented jam rock or fathered music festivals. Im just pointing out that they were doing it years before other bands did, back in a time when Warrant and Motley Crue were still considered relevant.
Back to being in Banyan, without as much as two minutes rehearsal, we walked on and played for two hours straight. While not every minute was pure gold, Banyan is more of a continuing experiment, literally all jam and no band. As a bass player, to say playing with Perkins drumming is fun is like saying ice cream is okee-dokee. He beats the living bejesus out of those things, but his style is incredibly fluid. Time signatures dont mean shit to him, and tempos are as elastic as prom night rubbers, often speeding up more than 35 beats-per-minute just to keep the audience on their toes. This is my idea of fun.
So no doubt I jumped at the chance to fly down to California for a little recording and a few tour dates. Although I harbored no illusions about the glamour of this gig, I couldnt help but be just a little giddy about having someone from the band that set my acid-addled imagination free fifteen years earlier pick up the tab to fly me, of all people, down to L.A.
Picking me up from LAX was the one and only Willie Waldman, trumpeter and all-around freak. Willie is the guy who never does anything right, continually circumventing right and wrong with Just Do It. Whatever It is, Willie lives a zero-tolerance lifestyle in favor of getting It done. In the time it takes other musicians to seal backroom deals, fax lawyers to get the edge on contracts, and email their cousin who knows the housecleaner for the president of Capitol Records in hopes he might come down and make all their rock-n-roll dreams come true, Willie has already put together a band and finished a tour.
The first thing that you need to know about life in Los Angeles is that everybody, and I mean everybody, says theyre connected in what affectionately known as The Business. What most of these players hate to admit is that The Business is as flighty as Randy Moss running for a touchdown, or from the police. One night theyre blowing coke with Cameron Diaz and shaking hands on deals that wont outlast their hangover, the next day theyre cleaning puke out of the pool. Not because theyre good houseguests, but because if they dont get it done by 10:30, theyll be fired.
And so it goes with Willie and his partner in crime, Tommy D. One day Willies blowing trumpet onstage with the Red Hot Chili Peppers to a sold out crowd at Irvine Meadows and the next day hes ditching out of a construction job to pick up some clown named Andy Miller at the airport. As for Tommy, hes a regular rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-something story everyday. One half of a team of producers that defined the sound of West Coast Gangsta rap, Tommy worked on literally every album that came out of Death Row Records. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Makaveli, Nate Dogg, Korn, George Clinton, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and for some reason, Ben Harper have all hired him to do whatever it is he does to their music. But those rewarded with rock riches tend to find ways to bring themselves full-circle, arriving at that familiar spot of poverty, usually at the expense of perversity.
And so off we were, rushing back to the job site they had left a mattress delivery chump stranded as to pick me up from the airport. Except rushing is one thing you dont do on freeways in southern California. It may be rush hour, but that lasts from sunrise to midnight. The rest of the day is called road construction. Even though the mattress guy had given up and left, there was plenty to do. Utilizing the depths of twenty-plus years musical knowledge and experience, Willie put me to work cleaning up the jobsite while he caulked the sink. And its only if youve spent any amount of time trying to break into the L.A. music scene that youll truly appreciated the following sentence: Thats Show Business, Baby!
The next morning Willie and I moved onto more artistic adventures. Namely playing music. Tommy D grabbed us from Willies Hollywood abode and dragged us out to the valley, where Perkins compound is ensconced. Snuggled into the garage detached from a modest, yet kick ass house on the far side of the Hollywood Hills, Stephen had built himself a cool studio, control booth and all. Serving as more of a free-for-all jam session than a rehearsal, Charlie Hitchcock (Particles newly released guitarist) joined Stephen, Willie, and me for an afternoon throw-down.
After a few tunes, Stephen would duck into the control booth while Willie and I ran outside to puff some butts. Every once in a while we would hear Perkins high-pitched voice scream fresh directions from the garage: Play more notes! or, Its not enough! Might be the drugs, but I swore I heard a cry for Mooooore!!!!!!
I responded by digging out an old bass groove, slow and contemplative, that Id nicked from my first bass teacher. Repeating two chords (E minor and C 9, if you care) over and over, morphing it from a calm meditation into a frenzy of notes, with Hitchcock, Perkins and Waldman all ripping notes like wrapping paper from a long awaited birthday gift.
I say amen. Dont read me wrong: I love playing in the Big Wu. But sometimes other members think they can think bass and complain that I play, well, too much. Sometimes its just nice to be able to play for the sake of playing- more is better, and having a billion-note blowout makes the restraint of Steely Dan freaks with their jazz sensibilities sound so tired.
After spending the afternoon at Stephens, Willie got a call from Tommy Ds roommate, Lance Pierre, who was looking for a new bass part to go over a groove he was working on in his home studio. So of we went, bass in hand, to Tommy and Lances.
Like Tommy, Lance had racked up several credits with Death Row records, programming beats, engineering songs, and doing whatever it is rap dudes do. Which I found out during my ongoing education with Professor Waldman, is entirely different approach to making music than generally practiced by my jam-oriented and usually terminally white co-patriots.
Theres a million ways to write a song, and as long as the material is good, none of them can be discounted as wrong. I usually write around a melody and follow suit with chord progressions and the like until theres enough to be called a song. Traditionally, rappers have been brought right in off the street, or if part of some kind collective, still dont do much in the way of writing music, as understood in the general sense of the term. Utilizing whatever previously recorded music strikes their fancy, more than one hip-hopper has been brought into court for sampling someone elses music.
Although theres still enough sampled music being used to keep James Brown in PCP and shotguns til the cows come home, rap labels got smart and started using grooves made by independent contractors, such as Lance and Tommy. When we arrived at Casa Da Death Row, Lance and another cat from the 18th Street Gang (I dont know if thats a rap group or a gang of thugs, most likely both) were slowing nodding their heads in unison to a slow groove that came oozing out of the speakers, flooding the dimly lit smoke-filled room with the same kind of hypnotic serenity that I distinctly remember from zoning out on my lava lite fifteen years before in my Hollywood apartment. Then it hit me: This was the same fucking groove Willie and I had been playing at Perkins joint. I mean, the same goddamn thing. Of course they werent stealing it, they werent there with us one hour previously. But if you ask any self-styled mystic, theyre always happy to remind you that there are no coincidences. (Well see about that)
So there I was stuck in some kind of time warp, between the nostalgic lighting, the familiar groove and enough weed smoke to set half of the L.A. fire department into action. And thats how it was: for the next three and a half hours, we sat, puffed blunts, and nodded our heads to the groove the same groove repeated over and over and over blunt after blunt until
Until nothing. Its in this method of repeat grooving that the metal of any groove is ultimately tested: As the groove goes on and on, Lance and his buddy would stop talking, perk their ears for a second, twist a knob on what I can only assume to be some kind of Groove-o-Matic sequencer, listen to the subtle change, smile in approval, roll another blunt and nod the head until the next round of weed and knob twisting commences.
Since they had already gotten on the groove that I would have brought, there was no need for extra bass. Which was fine since my friend Richard began calling to inquire when cocktail hour would come. Before blazing a trail of dead soldiers in the form of vodka tonics from Burbank to Hollywood, Willie and I met a dealer who assured us that his product was the same that Eddie Van Halen gets. Again with The Business. Ever pervasive, The Business has its claws into every facet of life, including leisure time. Not wanting to upset the gods of The Business, Willie, Richard and I went on to party like rock stars all over Hollywood until late in the night.
Like rock stars must be the most accurate way to describe our bender. Note the use of like as a qualifier to the above sentence. Call me superstitious, but Im betting that the gods of The Business watch over real rock stars, because nobody should be expected to be functional under the hangover we suffered the next day. It was as if we were being punished for the lack of authenticity in our behavior: If we were hanging out with the Scorpions, Im sure we would have been granted a reprieve for our actions. But no, this morning after was as painful as it was real. (In my more cynical moments, I kept imagining Klause Meine, lead singer for the Scorpions, enjoying the morning with a refreshing glass of orange juice by his pool, wearing the same leathers he was sporting in the video for Big City Nights.)
But Rock-N-Roll Fantasy Camp rolls on all the same. The next morning, Tommy D came to pick us up- again- and we headed up the Hollywood Hills to Tommys Death Row engineering partners palatial estate located on the top of top of the hills. Hanging with Snoop and 2 Pac had certainly paid off for Willies long time friend Dave Aron. This is one of the few pieces of real estate that boasts a true 360-degree view of Los Angeles. You can see everything from the surfer slums of Santa Monica clear to downtown, not to mention an overview of modern porns cradle known as the San Fernando Valley that sprawls so far that the Earth curves before you can see the end.
Needless to say, but Dave Aron had a sweet studio set up in the house facing the East as to facilitate good sunlight exposure. As is demanded by the gods of The Business, gold and platinum albums lined halls of the entire downstairs, with several more spilling up the stairway and into the second floor. (I think he simply ran out of room to hang any more gold albums downstairs.)
The studio and accompanying sundeck were abuzz with activity that afternoon. Ever in pursuit of upgrading his abode, Dave had set his assistant and a Latino woodworker (who didnt speak a lick of English, but made the universal sign that he would like a hit off the bong) to the task of constructing custom studio speakers that were so fucking ridiculous in both form and function that Im replacing this months Old Style Zealot with a picture of these these things.
Realizing the fact that 90% of his jobs are in the hip-hop genre, Mr. Aron hired Tuff Gong/King Tubby/Burning Spear engineer Scientist to design and oversee construction of these these things. (No, its not a typo. He goes by Scientist, not The Scientist, or even Mad Scientist.)
A jovial Jamaican fellow, Scientist kept watch over Arons minions, chain-smoking one joint with another tucked behind his ear. How he kept replacing the joint behind his ear after he lit another one, I dont know. It was like some kind of parlor trick, except the smelly bunny pulled from a top hat was substituted with a smelly doobie pulled out of thin air. When Scientist put on a CD he produced that had Willie Waldman on trumpet, the track he played not only sounded like, but was, note for note, the SAME FUCKING RIFF we grooved on (twice!) the day before. Coincidence my ass; this is conspiracy.
While Scientist smoked herb and the assistants followed orders, Dave Aron was busy behind an old school drum machine (approximately 1993 vintage, which is a small eternity in studio gear parlance). Since Perkins was busy doing his thing, Aron procured several samples of Perkins drumming, stripping them down to the most basic parts, tearing them apart like a dog with a pork chop- only to rebuild them into something else on his antique drum box. Moving with the grace of a figure skater, this dude kept a ferocious pace, diddling knobs on the Akai sampler, trimming something on Pro Tools, adding inappropriate sounds to different drum triggers, fucking with those- all while barking orders to his assistant: Fix the router between the hard drives! Wheres the sub woofer? Make it happen! Roll another fucking blunt! (Im starting to sense a theme here)
Incidentally, this was how he programmed the beats and grooves that moved his ass up from an apartment somewhere off of Sunset Blvd to the tippy-top of the hills. (By the way, a couple of the Scorpions had houses just down the street.) Once again, I was witnessing another completely different approach to making music, although it would hard to guess that music was part of the program if you looked at him. Upon first glance, it looked more like an adult was being thoroughly seduced by some kind of video game where instead of being awarded points or an extra ball, the player got to hear one and a half second slices of a drum roll before scratching his head and pressing more buttons.
Before Dave Aron got done with his thing, the forth member of the weeks Banyan lineup had arrived. Brian Jordan, generally known as the guitarist in Karl Densons Tiny Universe, slinked in as quiet as can be. Literally. He must have been sitting on the couch for five minutes before I noticed he was there. But when it came time to lay a track, there was nothing reserved. A badass on guitar, Brian and I share a love of riffs- Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and the Meters all sit atop our favorites. Jordan riffed all over this ditty with a smooth fury, somehow grooving and attacking at the same time.
Willie and Perkins run everything Special Forces style in Banyan: Go in, get it done, and move on. This was no exception. Even though Perkins wasnt there in person, his spirit or at least his canned drum samples was there. I titled the song Perkins In A Can after the old prank call Do you have Prince Albert in a can? Well you better let him out!
So it goes. I would fly through the track on bass, only stopping to adjust to the arrangement, then Brian did a couple of fly-thru takes, one to play rhythm, one to solo over, then Willie ducked in to blow a solo on trumpet and presto! Track done.
And so was my weekend at Rock-N-Roll Fantasy Camp, but not the work. We hit the road as Banyan for a few shows before swapping drummers for a pal of Willies from Memphis that has played with Isaac Hayes and the Platters. While that was fun in itself, its a story for another time.
As promised, the picture of this months Old Style Zealot has been replaced with the closest thing to silly- The Speakers. Note the two aluminum squares, those are fifteen inch subwoofers capable of handling well over a 1000 watts each. (Scientists, who custom designed the things, referred to them as positively ghettolicious.) Keep in mind that Dave Arons control room where these are mounted only measures out to be about 15 × 9. I hope he can hear them loud and clear.
Drive safe, be nice to your mother, and drink your milk!