"I was hoping you would call."
Work at Bearsville Sound became scarcer and scarcer. I got a job running the projectors at the Tinker Street Cinema, Woodstock’s little movie palace, housed in an old church. Having been a theater projectionist back in high school, I didn’t need much training to run the big old 35 millimeter arc-lamp machines. The boss there was a film buff, and when he didn’t like the new movies on offer, we ran Fellini, Chaplin, Welles, Tracy & Hepburn, Capra, Hitchcock and so on and so on. Like going to film school! I also painted posters for the theater. So I didn't spend all those 3 months in art school for nothing!
Across the river, in Rhinebeck, a real revival theater called Upstate Films opened, a well-funded and scholarly venue. This place was not like film school. It was film school. I started painting posters for them and helped out with some technical stuff. I became friends with Steve Lieber, who managed Upstate Films.
One night, over dinner with Steve, I once again started in on what had become a rather tedious running rant about being broke, and the good old days when I was making records, and what happened to my life anyway. Bored by this and hoping to shut me up, Steve shoved a copy of the Sunday New York Times at me and said “Hey brain dead! Why don’t you check out the classifieds—— maybe there’s something in there for you.”
“Huh. That’s how I got that studio job in New York 4 years ago. This agency ran a classified ad in the Times, and the lady got me a job at a real studio."
“Who was that?”
“Alayne Spertell. Why she pushed me for that job I’ll never know.”
“Maybe she’s still running the ad.”
“Naa. There’s a crowd of people who want to be engineers now. The business has changed.”
And there in the classifieds section was Alayne’s ad: RECORDING ENGINEERS WANTED. And her phone number.
The next morning: "Warren! I was hoping you would call!" I was stunned that she even remembered me—— after 3 years of exile.
Spring 1973. I went to see my old friend Alayne Spertell at her office on Lexington. She sent me to Bell Sound on West 54th Street to see the boss, Dave Teague. I got the job. Immediately things got hectic. Bell had started up in the fifties and had a solid reputation as a good all-round studio, with extra strength in rock n roll. Hits recorded there included The Toys' Lover's Concerto, most of the Lovin' Spoonful's hits, and many Four Seasons records.
Early on, I recorded commercials for Mutual of Omaha, Campbell's Soup, and a Schmidt's Beer spot. I got in trouble with Schmitt's because during the session, my girlfriend called and asked what are you doing? And I said "A Schlitz Beer commercial!" and 5 agency creatives gently corrected me in unison, yelling: "Schmidt's!! It's SCHMIDT'S!!! SCHMIDT'S!!!!!!"
In June I was assigned to a session with Richie Wise and his partner Kenny Kerner. We were there to record a song with a band called Stories. The actual members of Stories were nowhere in sight; the music track for Brother Louie was played by my old pals who had challenged Mercury Records' bookkeeping 2 years earlier, Steve, Steve, Bruce and Huey. Brother Louie hit #1 in August, displacing a Diana Ross tune.
In September Richie and Kenny produced I've Got to Use My Imagination, which peaked at #4, and then The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me (#3) with Gladys Knight and the Pips. That's a lot of hit records in a very short time.
October 10, 1973: Richie and Kenny and I started on the first KISS album. About a week into recording, I found the 4 members of the group in the control room, each studiously at work drawing a whiteface picture of himself. Crayons had been provided. Bassist Gene Simmons drew his own face as that of an evil demon, which made sense; his high school buddy Paul Stanley's face had a star over one eye; Ace Frehley, lead guitar, drew stars over both eyes; and Peter Criss, the drummer, clearly didn't quite get it; thinking of the whole exercise as kind of a kid's Halloween mask sort of thing, rather than a menacing, mysterious sort of thing, he gave himself cat whiskers and a cute black nose.
November 17: the first episode of The National Lampoon Radio Hour was aired. The show was created by Michael O'Donoghue and Bob Tischler. Bob is an engineer too, and had a lot more experience than I with "spoken word" recording and editing. I learned a lot from him and we cranked out 13 hour-long shows in 13 weeks, which pretty much killed us. It was just too much work! So the show's running time was cut to 30 minutes.
After about 15 weeks, the Lampoon organization got their own studio built. Since I was on staff at Bell Sound, and I had been doing fairly well with music, I didn't move over to Madison Ave.
The Radio Hour’s hard-working cast included: Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramos, John Belushi, Anne Beatts (Michael's girlfriend), Chris Cerf, Brian Doyle-Murray, Chris Guest, Doug Kenney, Bruce McCall, and Brian McConnachie.
I remember being trapped in the funky old Bell Sound elevator, stuck between floors with Chevy, Belushi, and O'Donaghue. After 15 minutes waiting to be rescued, with 3 comedians carrying on (clawing at the doors, screaming for help) in that small confined space, I couldn't take it any more. I begged them to boost me up so I could reach the overhead emergency exit and clamber out of there.
Years later, in 1978, a phone call —and a familiar voice on the other end: "Remember me?" It was John Belushi, with his partner Dan Ackroyd. The Blues Brothers were getting ready for their first West Coast concert, at the Universal Amphitheatre. The album we recorded, Briefcase Full of Blues, was released in September 1978. This led to recording work on the set of The Blues Brothers Movie later that year.
Once the guys had chosen their new faces, and, unknowingly, their indelible public identities for the rest of their lives, we continued plowing through the KISS repertoire. The songs on this first album were written when Gene and Paul, both in their mid-twenties, were pretty much at their creative peak.
I think everybody in the room thought of the whole makeup thing as kind of a big joke. I got the impression it was a gimmick, dreamed up by somebody at the record company, or management. Actually there was a lot of kidding around throughout the project, most of it tasteless, or worse. I had a pretty good time myself, trying to figure out how to record super loud guitars in a way that would retain their power on a record. I was mostly unsuccessful at this. It took me a few years to figure out some workable answers to the problem.
One night Gene Simmons was in an autobiographical mood. He revealed his real name, Chaim Weitz-Klein. He started in disparaging himself, rather than his usual targets, other people. I imagine that he did this by way of demonstrating how far he had risen in the world. He made fun of how he spoke when he first arrived in Brooklyn from Israel with his mom: "Plizz, what time it is?" He painted a picture of a repressed, nerdy guy who had been mugged on the subway as a kid—— unlike his current bold, creative self. He had been a 6th grade teacher and played in a few unsuccessful bands with his friend Stanley Eisen (Paul Stanley).
Gene and Paul could be super obnoxious. One of their favorite targets was an assistant engineer whose name was Allan Tucker. Tuck hated working on these sessions, I imagine because of the unceasing ridicule. For a lot of time during the KISS project, he was nowhere to be found. For some reason he was rechristened Drago, and the name was immortalized on the back of that first album, whereon appears the inscription : Where's Drago?
I got to be pretty good friends with Gene. One night we finished early and he came up to the apartment for dinner with my girlfriend Sue and me. He clunked across the parquet in the giant boots he now wore at all times and I introduced him. Gene sneezed.
I had already given Sue an idea of what a creep Gene could be, but she was undaunted. This was Sue: she immediately had Gene lie down on the couch while she went to the kitchen and squeezed a half dozen oranges into juice. She then told Gene to drink up. Vitamin C.
Gene was sold on Sue. As I walked him down to the lobby, he advised me to let him know if Sue and I should ever break up. I did not feel complimented.
Of course we had no idea how big the band would become, but still.
1975, ONE MORE KISS
Years later, a phone call.
"Warren?" Warren, it's Gene. Gene Simmons."
"Don't call me that."
"Gene. How are you, man? What's happening?"
"Well. I guess you know who I'm with now."
I had no idea. "No, I don't know. Who?"
"Cher. I'm living with Cher. I'm calling from her house."
"Wow. She's a little old for you, isn't she?"
"Just 5 years older."
"I wanna do a new record project."
"I want you to work on it with me. Like a co-producer."
"Ok great Warren. I'll call you."
"Ok Gene. Nice to hear from you."