11. The $7 million B-side

na na hey hey kiss him goodbye part 3


Steam

November 1969


4 AM: Everybody was getting their coats on, ready to brave the New York chill, confident and happy that we had just created a true B-Side, that no radio station in its right mind would ever play, when Gary / Garrett had an idea. "I need a piece of wood!"  He grabbed a chunk off the wooden base of the electric organ's speaker cabinet and some mallets from the vibraphone. He plunked the foot-square piece of lumber onto a stool.  I set up a microphone and sent its signal to our one remaining open track.


Gary played a kind of conga or bongo drum part with the borrowed mallets on that slab of wood. It added a cool swagger to the track and did a pretty good job of filling in for the low bass notes, of which we had none!


The next day, the other genius of the 4th floor, Bob Reno the A&R guy, heard our rough mix of the song. Even at 3:45, he thought it had potential. 


That night we did a final mix. For an A Side with a whole different artist, who would not be Gary. He had faith in his originally selected record and wanted no part of this sloppy, second-hand tune that was finished in one night.


Out on 57th Street, the four of us trudged towards Broadway, where I would catch a subway train and the others would head for their cars and home.


A giant white plume of smoke blasted up out of a manhole cover right in front of us. Paul said, "Look at all that steam!" and so was named a brand-new band, a One-Hit Wonder that didn't even exist. A name without a band.


By December, our $85 record hit number one, knocking the Beatles out of first place. I bet "Come Together" cost a bit more than $85.


Almost 50 years later, this little nonsense song has been sung by choruses of thousands. It has become kind of an anthem in reverse, ushering losing sports teams and politicians off the scene, or off the playing field, or out the door.


****************


How does it feel to be part of a Number One Record? It's a bit hard to describe. The music business has changed so much, I'm not sure anyone gets to feel this way anymore. But back then, I started to become a bit disoriented, and giddy.


I sent a telegram to my old high school girlfriend: NA NA IS NUMBER ONE. PLEASE COME TO NEW YORK. I figured she would get a romantic crinkled yellow paper like in the movies, delivered by a jaunty kid in a cap. What she actually got was a phone call from a perplexed Western Union phone operator who had no idea what she was reading about.


I took a pretty Mercury secretary to lunch, just happening to have my Gold Record with me in a paper bag. "Ever seen one of these?" I asked casually, propping the framed spray-painted object on the table. She was impressed only by my idiotic behavior. 


I made a deal for some songs I had written, all worse than terrible. I used the money for a down payment on an old brownstone in Brooklyn. That was actually a good move.


Paul Leka, who wrote most of and produced and played most of the Number One Record, liked to do much of his own engineering. Once he kind of gently shoved me aside and took over completely, because he knew exactly what he wanted and knew what knobs to turn. I was insulted and walked out of the control room.


I sulked into a little editing room down the hall, knowing he would eventually get to the point where he would push the wrong button or disconnect something and need my help. Then he would have to find me and apologize. The door opened.


"Warren, is there a problem?" 


"Yeah well, who is the engineer on this session, me or you?"


I knew that was an off thing to say and deflated instantly.  I felt terrible. Paul knew it but had to cajole me anyway, back into the control room, back to work. Yes, I was the engineer, not him. Yes, I was an ass. My excuse: I was 19. Even so, it was inexcusable. Unprofessional.


But damn if I didn't pull that same tantrum again, a few years later. 


Yeah, in my case the immaturity excuse is a handy one. Nevertheless I am pretty sure that misinterpreting ourselves (and everyone else) is part of the general human condition. Why do humans misread each other so? We blunder on, bumping around so wrapped up in fiberglass and masking tape that we always miss the point; we can't hear or see or get the remotest idea of anything real or what to do about it. A tiny crack of light reveals a tiny sliver of real knowledge of another, and bingo we are in love. We think we know another person so well— when we can't even figure out what's going on within our own heads. Go figure, if you can.



next: Goodbye NY