Other challenges awaited the kid engineer. An album project was begun, with a band, not to be named here, discovered by a staff person at Mercury. In the first few minutes it became clear that “the band couldn’t play”, meaning that the group was not capable of performing well in the studio. Too out of tune, or too stiff, or too sloppy for rock n' roll. Sounds oxymoronic, right? But it did happen sometimes, even with good bands. They could fire it up onstage, but technically, as players for recording, they pretty much sucked. But they had great songs!
So it was suggested that some ringers —professional musicians— should be hired to play the band’s songs for them. Usually the original members of a group would resent being replaced like this, but it was fairly common practice even with famous, established acts like the Beach Boys. However, on the positive side, if they could get over the insult, it would be an excellent opportunity for the kids to gain some knowledge from observing more skillful players. And I knew just the guys.
Steve, Steve, Bruce, and Huey had played on demo recordings I had made for Lon and Derek Van Eaton and a few other projects at Mercury. Super funny and fun to work with— more like a real band than the older guys that usually got hired for this kind of work (and charged as much as triple union scale). Real pros, but younger and much cheaper! The producer loved them, mostly for this latter quality, but who cared? The guys were happy to get work at union rates.
So we got started, and polished off lots of tracks in rapid order. The ringers played brilliantly, and soon everyone became pals. After each session tax forms were filled out and releases signed, everything legit and by the book. And every night after the musicians had said their goodbyes and headed home, I watched with interest as my boss, the producer, efficiently tore all the forms into little pieces and let them fall into the trash can.
A few weeks after recording and mixing the album, one of the musicians called. Steve Berg, the guitarist, was a fastidious man where money was concerned, as any professional musician should be. He told me that none of the paperwork for the sessions I had recorded with him and our three other friends had reached the union, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians.
As usual I was just a few steps behind, but somewhere a in a remote corner of my brain I was beginning to get a feeling that I knew where those forms had ended up.
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Other stuff intruded on whatever thoughts I might have been chewing on regarding loyalties and ethics and other deep matters. Various Paul Leka projects erupted, sputtered and died. Since the Steam record was now approaching 6 million sold, he and the "Na Na" team could pretty much do anything we wanted. Paul bought the console it had been recorded with and moved it to Connecticut. He also bought a new E-Type Jaguar.
I got to meet and work with Phil Everly, who pioneered country rock with his brother Don; Lesley Gore, the pop queen of teenage longing; Steve Cropper, the great Memphis guitarist and producer; Janis Ian, the New York poet and singer-songwriter of "Society's Child", who brought a girlfriend to the session— my first time hanging out with lesbians; the amazing percussionist Ruth Underwood, who later joined Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. And at the time, lots of pop records were embellished with orchestra parts, meaning real horns and strings and woodwinds, not synthesized or digital approximations. It usually took a while, like years, to earn the right to make recordings with ten or twenty or more expensive union orchestra players. With Paul Leka's backing, I began to be trusted with these major investments at a relatively young age.
And right around 3 months after their not getting paid and me watching their paperwork being shredded, the two Steves and Huey and Bruce got their day in court— although it wasn't exactly court. It was just a union hearing, but the room where it happened, in the headquarters of Local 802, sure looked like a courtroom to me.
In those days unions, especially certain unions like the AFM, were strong. If the union decided a record label wasn't treating their people according to the rules, the label could lose their right to record union members (meaning just about every professional musician in America). This was a big deal. Now Mercury Records would face justice —and some real disruption of their business model— as they also faced the real possibility of having to figure out how to sell music without musicians.
Of course that problem was solved a few decades later with the advent of Hip Hop.
The Big Shove
We were all gathered in the temple of justice, room 201 of the headquarters of the Manhattan branch of the American Federation of Musicians. The hearing got under way. Both sides laid out their cases. The issue turned on whether my friends were playing as work-for-hire musicians, or were being given a golden opportunity, through Mercury's generosity, to have their work heard by the public. If Mercury could be shown to have intentionally stiffed union musicians, well, things could get serious.
I was the only witness to be called. Nobody from the company told me to lie, which I figured was pretty honorable of them. And luckily for the musicians, I didn't even think about lying, and they had kept their dues current. So the beans were spilled, the good guys won, the capitalists at Mercury got spanked. And soon after, so did I.
So yeah, nobody told me to lie; they didn't think they would have to tell me. Apparently they took it for granted that I would figure it out for myself, Do The Right Thing, and lie. And now there was a compact, torpedo-shaped tie-and-jacket guy waiting outside the hearing room, apparently eager to discuss what had just happened, and what the hell was wrong with me.
He looked mad. When somebody like that is mad at you, and the anger fills the space between him and you, he doesn’t have to spell it out. Actually he probably couldn’t have spelled it out, at least not accurately.
You can also tell when a guy is kind of considering whether to restrain himself, or just let the anger take over.
I thought maybe he was Mr Green, founder of Mercury Records and my ultimate uber boss. We had never met so I wasn't sure. He definitely knew who I was. He must have been in the hearing room when the righteous and the good had triumphed. I was pretty scared, especially when his fist seemed to hover around in the air next to him, trying to decide whether to launch or not, as he began to speak.
We were colleagues, possibly, since I had worked for Mr Green for almost two years, if he was Mr Green. I assumed that is why the maybe Mr Green felt free to address me informally: "Hey. Son of a bitch."
Then: "I heard you were a smart guy, but now I don't think so. What was that about in there?" Nodding toward the hearing room. Luckily I had a clever reply all ready.
“Uh,” I said, not cringing hardly at all.
The fist achieved liftoff, but instead of punching, it just kind of shoved me into the wall, hard. "You will never work in New York again."
I waited politely for him to exit, and a mere 10 or 20 minutes later felt stabilized enough to put one foot in front of the other and head for the train to Bergen Street Station in Brooklyn, where I had actually bought an old Brownstone for $100,000. Which is now considered an incredible bargain price for any one single object anywhere in the greater NY area.
And this was a real 4-story house, my first venture into real estate. And luck in real estate would become a handy bridge between future disasters.
'Mr Green' had said, "You will never work in New York again." How cliché. How moronic. And how true, for a while. By the next day the word had gone out. The next day I had one last demo session at Mercury and, while the tape was rolling, made a phone call.