It’s Just a Spring Clean for the May Queen

In the miserable progression through the fourth morning of sessions it clicked. David Angstrom was the producer and engineer on Cush’s label debut; Don’t cry for me…because I’m laughing at myself, to be released through a pontoon outfit of Geffen’s creeping empire. Dave was doing double duty to save money for what mattered, the recordings. It was his first full production credit. Cush, properly called American Cush, was a band of kids. Two of them weren’t old enough to drink, none of them was keeping it together until today. Cush comprised Eric Anders, guitars and keyboards; Dicky Caine, vocals; Robbie Booker, bass; and Robert “Ziggy” Montoya, percussion.

Dave was barely older than Eric. He had been an engineer for eight years, starting at seventeen, before trying to go into production. In his naïve youth he’d taught Mike Clink an accidental mic trick during the Appetite for Destruction sessions with Guns and Roses. On his way up he’d assisted, and argued once with, Bob Rock on the Whitesnake album that Steve Vai dubiously appeared on. After being thrown out of that he wasn’t sure he was going to work much.

There was a time when these men had still been willing to sacrifice four decibels of the vocal track to make a better song; it might not hit the charts, but it would last. None of them cared anymore about making songs. They only cared about making hits and the endless competition to see who could outslick the R&B values. That was why a bumpkin like Glen Ballard could do multi-platinum with Alanis Morissette, he honestly was doing more interesting work than the big boys. For Godsakes, even Rick Rubin was off his game. Dave wanted to scream at him, A producer doesn’t take orders from the band! If you don’t have better ideas than they do, what are you there for at all?

But Dave didn’t really care; he’d given up. Rock and Roll was dead. Lenny Kravitz proved it by hitting the charts with the song that declared it. The death throes of the Led Zeppelin mill had been overridden by a somewhat healthier colony of Aerosmith imitations but it was so runny with strains of KISS that it was breeding itself out of existence. The Rock and Roll plains were grazed off, the erosion was complete, there was no coming back; only endless Beatles covers. A few thundering Gods—in the shapes of Living Colour, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, G’n’R, and Pantera—might cruise the lower skies for years but Dave didn’t care. Cobain was dead, and few understood the significance but Dave did, the Seattle needle had jumped the track and skidded in static at the center of the turntable. LA was drowned in glam, the bay area had played their metal card and found it a fad briefer than punk. New York and Austin occassionally held out hope but it tended to be so glib that kids saw right through it; or rather, didn’t see it at all. The Mix Master kid genius Hop legions and industrial goth clans never had more to offer than disco and were only borne out in sales by those who would be buying disco if it were still available. The role models were gone and the substitue teachers were given the treatment, in the long term, they warranted. Pink Floyd was wrecked on the shores by Waters’ feeble solo career and Gilmore’s inability to be innovative without him. When Ian Stewart had died, the Rolling Stones might as well have. In a hundred years no one would again achieve Page’s incredible stance between production and playing. There would never be another Floyd, another Who, another Stones, another Queen, another Zeppelin; not in Dave’s professional lifetime. But of course the existence of these graceful beasts is what kept more from springing up. All the young bands thought they could be the next big one. This poisonous desire had killed most of them after their label debut. The few bands, like Alice in Chains and Jane’s Addiction, that could escape it, and blindly stagger to a producer and engineer who could handle them, found their own poisons and reliably self-destructed. Dave would not be another Roy Harper, it just wasn’t going to happen. Not in the heydays of FM automation. If only he’d been around before even the small labels were demanding a single that was format. Then he could have done what he knew he was able to do. He could have crafted out a wing of culture more vital than Shakespeare could hold, and left voices and images that would outlast empires; mattering more all the while. Dave knew he existed only to build the temple of the new Gods.

The session clicked, though. Dave was taken to that place. He was scribbling fader notes all the while. He knew that he would turn the automation gear off and he would ride the faders when he mixed down, because he was in that place. The big boys would’ve laughed at him for doing it but Dave would be the one left standing, with a smile, in twenty years.

Eric’s guitar work was ridiculously good. It married the technical genius of Vernon Reid with the sweet swing of Stevie Ray Vaughn, but somehow Dave thought, it was Brian May that should have been standing there. Eric was playing a Telecaster with heavy gauge strings but he bent them like elastic when he felt like it. He was mic-ed off a custom Soldano; one track on axis, one off. The stereo was delicious, even rough in the booth.

Ziggy could have set quartz timing, and he was hitting the drums so goddamn hard the heads would start to break if he kept it up another twenty minutes. His cage of a mongrel kit was integral; it was eclectic, solid, and every piece—from the Brazilian blocks to the 40 inch Zildjian he had drilled full of holes—was used in the course of a set.

Robbie was laying back with his rebuilt Gibson bass so deep in the groove that he was invisible. But if he was gone everything would have fallen flat like a startled soufflé. And what he did for the chorus was a counterpoint far too chromatic for Bach but just as important.

Swaying at the mic Dicky was in that place Dave was; the ecstasy on his face was subtle. Dave would have felt envy but he was there too. The vocal line on the verses was smooth and sweet, when they all hit on the musical chorus, there were no lyrics to it, and Dicky threw his voice into that monstrous falsetto he could manage sometimes, that’s when Dave knew it. He wouldn’t take the poison yet but he saw it clear as day offered to him. He was worshipping at the temple of the new Gods. If the rest of the tracks maintained, even dipped a little from this thing, he was recording the sessions that, once pressed and given some room, would jockey with Dark Side of the Moon on Billboard’s top two hundred for all time.

For most producers the nuances Cush was striking would be lost, wouldn’t be heard when the tapes rolled their sorry image of what had just been played. They were the tiny elements that make many people devout live music fans. They were the things that only a Phil Spector or an Alan Parsons could get, and only on their best day. Dave had been prepared for a long time to begin his best days; to have a reason to. Though he was about to back off of it. After four days of wasting tape, and the constant bickering between Eric and Dicky, and Dicky and Robbie, Dave was about to give up on Cush, but during the recording of “Don’t Look Back” the band decided to show up.

“Don’t Look Back” was in the can while it was still light out; complete with three lead guitar tracks. Eric could give input but Dave would choose which one was making the mix. Dave liked to hear the vocals once above everything. He pulled the track up while Eric did the last, and the most woven, lead track. Even without hearing it, Dave knew it was the keeper, but he was listening to the singing.

Don’t look back at me / you’re a pillar of salt / and I’m the Red Sea / never again to come in your body—Don’t talk back to me / you’re the queen of lies / and I’m the man on the moon / to be new again so soon—Don’t look down on me / you’re not so high / and I’m not so low / but if you insist I’ll take you below—Don’t look back at me / you’re a pillar of salt / and I’m the Red Sea / never again to come in your body

The SMPTE counter stopped at two minutes forty-seven seconds; from the roto-toms rolling down into it to the final bass note of Dicky’s voice coasting out with the coughing guitar. It was format. He could see the video already. He’d hire that animation grad student from USC that had been ghosting the place… Dave cursed himself for allowing thoughts of the poison in.

The actual tune of “Don’t Look Back” was so simple, it should have been written a hundred times before… but like “Whole Lotta Love,” this was a song that could only have been brought by them and would only be written a hundred times afterwards. The music was naïve and undeniable; the stuff the emperor’s new clothes were unmade of. Dave knew there were kids out there who would someday beat the crap out of each other because one of them made a disparaging remark about this song. They wouldn’t understand why but they’d do it. Dave understood everything.

His ears took over and shut his personality out. They recorded like the old days; as if it were live, and until the sun was coming up. Finishing five more songs; “To Pave the New Way,” “Daughter of Crazy Horse,” “Beast,” “The Fate of Man is Man,” and “Nickel Girl with Copper Lips.” There were thirteen slated for the album but Cush had broken into fifteen minutes of dynamic ad libbing at the last chorus of “To Pave the New Way”. It didn’t matter how long it was. Some part of Dave still clung to convention, insisting that only an asshole would let a nineteen minute tune onto a first album, but, still, it was just too good to toss. Dave suddenly knew what Eddie Kramer must have felt engineering the “Black Dog” sessions. Zeppelin had recorded too many songs for their fourth album and they were all too good. A handful of them were shuttled to Physical Graffiti. Dave knew this song would never be heard when the sun was up but the renal systems of a hundred midnight deejays were going to make it the most played song on any graveyard shift.

Dicky’s voice was like a heavy fluid pouring into any open place: I’ve been plotting the demise of the bour-geoi-se / I’m gonna kill the rich / single hand-ed-ly—I’ve been wor-king out the end of the poor / I’ll be the fi-nal straw / can’t take any more—White man, white man / get over here / Black man, black man / come over here—Virgin, teen-age girl / there’s nothing to fear / We’re all stand up men today / there’s no danger here… The first chorus, punctuated with the snare drum, pinned Dave to the wall: I think I need to / die! / to pave the new way / I think I need to / die! / so you can be safe. The second chorus, with the sweeping guitar beneath all their voices, was enough to make Dave close his eyes and nearly blow the improvised cue Robbie flagged him to switch back to the secondary mic tree where the SM-57 with a broken diaphragm gave the backing vocal a stunning astral quality: When the rains came / we traded names / we took hands / and we were brothers, sister—When the rains came / we gave up on shame / we put away the guns / and we were sisters, brother…

The song would stand and two others would be dropped from the cassette and the vinyl. If Dave, Dave!, was misting up, the song would have to stand; at least on the CD where there was room for it.

Dave slept at a studio for the first time in five years. Some part of him was terrified that something would happen to the tapes. That someone else would somehow have overheard the session, know what he knew, and would come to usurp him if he moved. They might even tell Cush what they were before they were ready for the knowledge, before they even were that thing.

Dave hardly slept; fixated on all the things that could go wrong. They still needed to find their stage confidence, some bands never got there. They might not take the unit seriously enough. Dave knew that even if Robbie quit or were kicked out, it would be two giant steps back. They all drank too much but that was nothing that could be helped; and it was nothing new. One of them might Yoko the band midstream; they had a battery of candidates for the role already. They always fought, but that might not matter, the Stones and Aerosmith fought like cats throughout their careers; sometimes it even helped. But Dicky had thrown a glass in the studio the first day and accidentally dented Eric’s Jackson; until yesterday Eric seemed quite unwilling to let this go. Eric wasn’t on the needle but Dave knew he did heroin sometimes. Once he had money and was bored he might do it all the time. If Dicky were rocketed to the stratospheres the same way Axl Rose was…well, a lot of people thought Axl was just an asshole but Dave knew that he was holding together better than most, probably better than Dicky would. Dave was pretty sure that Ziggy was homosexual, at least that he would swing, and he knew that if the rest of Cush figured this out there would be trouble with Dicky, and if they fought, Ziggy would kill him. If this were Cush’s only album it wouldn’t mean a thing; they’d join the scrap heap of Rock Apocrypha that was already blocking out the sun. It needed a career to stand on and contrast; to show how great it was. Keep Cush on the air long enough for the interest to kindle, fizzle, kindle, burn-out, kindle, blaze. There were few radio hits with a great band. There was a body of work that became as necessary as bread. Dave knew he needed to get them into a new contract immediately, a generous one with flexibility but one that would keep them tied to him for at least five more albums.

When the boys staggered in, it was afternoon and they were all hung over. Completely changed from the happy goofing around last night. Dicky had improvised a new set of lyrics to “Give It Away” while Robbie and Ziggy played the guitar parts with their mouths and Eric danced around like a horny pogo-stick. Dave was so happy, laughing so hard he thought he’d piss. This morning they’d been fighting about money. Dave and time at So-So studios weren’t cheap, neither was this trip upstate. Dave debated whether he ought to encourage them with praise, get them each a drink, or just go down to the money machine and withdraw a couple hundred bucks for each of them to shut them up. They were really going at it. He knew Eric had a violent streak which was dangerous because he was too frail physically to support the tendency, and didn’t have enough insight to see why Ziggy always rushed to his rescue. Dave was pretty sure, but not positive, that Eric was going to hit Dicky this time. Hell, Dave wanted to right then but he was sure it wasn’t a good idea. He thought quick, trying to come up with a way to put the brakes on it; just get them through five more songs and get them apart for awhile to organize a tour.

Dave was attempting to engineer more than the record. He was building the temple. He was the only one that knew it and that was good. He was the only one who could put it together right. To build the next great Rock carnivore, that would break stadium records, be the soundtrack for a million teenagers and all their first times, be scratched into ten million high school desks and painted on a hundred thousand underpasses, be lambasted by the press for every kid who killed himself with their lyric sheets within reach, make them all into the Gods that refused Rolling Stone interviews as a matter of course, and make them all entirely immortal. Dave stood there with his arms crossed, listening to the fight, aching with the deepest pleasure humans can know over what he saw was possible if the temple went up right.

Of all the things that could fuck it up, including Eric punching Dicky right in the middle of their first sessions, Dave was patently aware that he was one. He took the road less traveled. He invited them to join in him the studio when they were ready and he kept out of it.

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