Class 4, A&M chapter what, The Ballad of Michael Whitaker

Now you may or may not know that brainspank was down for a week.  It was an ill-fated attempt to at upgrading and advertising.  In the process I lost the graphics and only one blog.  My latest blog.  No word on graphics yet but I did discover a copy of said blog in my drafts file.  I took the liberty of editing and upgrading and here we are…….I’m just proud to be an American helping Americans one window treatment at a time.  Come see me at Costco………..

Without further ado: 

Michael Whitaker was the kind of guy who confounded most of the reasons I had for liking or disliking people.

Aggressive and smarmy.  When we first met, I thought him unctuous.  His enthusiasm was almost effeminate and rang bullshit to me.  I didn’t like him.  He seemed to know less than he thought.  I might have been aggressive and smarmy too.  I’m sure I knew less than I thought.

Cold isn’t a problem for me until the wind blows.

I was a cocky bastard.

Michael was rotund and sweaty.  About as big around as he was tall but obviously agile.  Belushiesque.  Always on something so he perspired so profusely.  Whatever you snort for pleasure is poison and it makes you sweat.  Toxins have no choice but to find escape from the pores.  I know this from personal experience.  I got into some bad biker speed one night in Pacoima and nearly lost my mind.

Long time ago.  A good story.  It involves Johnny Angel (Wendel), now a progressive radio talker, bodyguards, a professional big bust model and pink kerosene smelling biker speed that I was naive enough to think cocaine.


Corpulent fingers on hands that were amazingly strong.  There were times in the middle of the night, 2 or 3 a.m., he’d take it upon himself to knead my back as I sat with the tape remote between my legs or console in front of me.  He meant well.  It was an intrusion on my person.  He never smelled bad but but his nails were sometimes grimy and his face was a map of rivulets and streams.   I sweat.  I’m a sweater.  I leak from the head.  Whitaker’s head ran sometimes, like he just walked out from a car wash.  And he was thick and hirsute.

I don’t remember ever seeing him eat.  His eyes were so damn smart.  He clocked every single thing.  Like a cat.  Ever notice how some cats don’t want you to watch them eat?

Always completely about whatever we were doing.  Manic.  Hyper vigilant.  It was easy for him to tell me not to worry about things I knew I had to worry about anyway because he didn’t worry about anything.  He wasn’t interested in my world or anyone’s idea of else.  Michael’s world was completely his own.  I wondered sometimes where and how he lived.  We weren’t concerned about the same things in life,  in music however, we complimented each other.  We understood each other.  We visited each others world.  We made music in Studio C.

He filled out track sheets, box labels and had an excellent memory.  He remembered what I forgot.  He helped me in every way he could.  He helped us, the artist.  He helped us, the band.

Together we would guide artists around and through the obstacles that they might otherwise stumble upon.  We crafted and cajoled and reinforced.  We nurtured.

He bounced around my edges while I kept to the inside.  Did my best to keep the sounds fat and the performances with the right amount of rubber on the road.  I earned his respect about the same time he earned mine.  My muse.  His muse.

We did record a guitar out of time once through an entire chorus and neither of us realized it until after I mixed it.  Has to be the dumbest thing I ever did.  It was a forest for the trees mistake.  Patricia Sullivan, The lovely MissRicia, repaired it for us in mastering.

“Gozer the Traveler. He will come in one of the pre-chosen forms. During the rectification of the Vuldrini, the traveler came as a large and moving Torg! Then, during the third reconciliation of the last of the McKetrick supplicants, they chose a new form for him: that of a giant Slor! Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!” -Ghostbusters and Bob Borbonus

I kept my control room at 65 and wore long shorts and a sweatshirt.  I wore a doo-rag with my hair tied back.  Oxblood Doc Martins that came half way up my calf with heavy wool lumberjack socks.  My partner Al would bundle up.  He had a fragile constitution.  I was fond of reminding him.  I was alert at that temperature and I’d discovered that sound deteriorated at a rate that coincided with an increase intemperature.  Twelve to sixteen hour days are best served cold.

Vitamin B (snortable), Vitamin C, lots of water and not so much coffee.  Juice.  Salads.  Fruit.  No booze until just before bed.

I’d go out to the guard shack and have a smoke when Hollywood was a hundred and one degrees.  Back to my control room to get some hot coffee and a banana.

I did so much then without even knowing what I was doing.  I slept there, I showered there.  I ate there. I drank there.  I learned about life there.  I less occasionally lost my mind there.

Easier to make a snare drum crack right in a control room that’s not a sauna.  Easier to make guitars bite and bass guitars growl and lumber along just behind the beat of the kick drum when even the kick drum hangs back.  Sometimes.  All electronic equipment runs better in a cool environment.  Now and then the AC would go down and every control room would rocket past a hundred degrees inside of fifteen or twenty five minutes.

Big fans doing a push pull at every control room entrance and exit.

Heat smears things to the ear the same way it shimmers and distorts the lense when looking at anything from a distance on an oppressive summer day.

I wish there was a past tense word like ‘shat’ for ‘shit’ for ‘sweat’.  Swat?  Perspired.  Michael Whitaker was fat and greasy and I adored him.

He was a human holiday.

Unmitigated enthusiasm and too infectious euphoria.  Sensitive to the artist as a cautious bull surrounded by china.

Whitaker didn’t really know how to play the guitar, I don’t think, but he could make it feedback in pitch and even get a melody out of it.  He really was a genius at it.  He played Mellotron on tons of stuff we did.  Mellotrons are unbelievably cool instruments: “The Mellotron is an electro-mechanical, polyphonic keyboard originally developed and built in Birmingham, England in the early 1960s.” -Wikipedia.

That works for me.

Press any key and it starts an actual loop of prerecorded tape of some component of an orchestra.  Completely analog.  The most amazing thing was you could play a chord on it.  The loops from each key played in time.  A pre synthesizer.  We had the same one John Lennon used for a while.  The ones I recorded were in tune with themselves, thanks to a genius A&M tech squad.  They weren’t always completely in tune with the track but a little dissonance isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Chili and lime.  Sweet & Sour.  Ginger, lemon, soy sauce and garlic and raw fish.  Capers, lemon and butter on whitefish.

A raging wall of collapsing guitars stacked upon each other so that the dissonance is harmonically irresistible.  So that you can feel the wind coming off the wall.  There really is nothing like that sound.  The feel and sonic force of 12 inch speaker cones literally warping and contorting while reproducing the distorted chords being forced down the throat of the magnets driving them.  It was one of my favorite sounds and I knew just how to make it.  When it came to big guitars, I could put the anchovy in the paste.

Cilantro and/or ginger.  A little soap in the gravy.  Maybe it’s not so comfortable on the tongue but you’re glad you swallowed it.

Like an oyster.

“Like disco lemonade.”  -stolen from some song I’m too lazy to look up

Always use celery salt on sauerkraut.  Always.

Contrast is as valuable as a compliment.

I digress.

We were talking about Whitaker.

Everything about him was fierce and gentle.  He had an office but no desk.  This was A&M records.  The most successful independent label ever.  Used to be the Chaplin Stage.  Charlie actually lived there; his foot prints are in the cement right before the steps to the studio.  It’s a protected historical monument.  I worked there for about a decade.

Geographically on the cusp of social unrest.  We all had to flee the riot.  It came up La Brea chaos ugly.

Michael’s office was pillows and bean bags and crappy playback.  We’d go there to listen to a mix and I’d  listen out of the corner of my ear only.  Crappy playback.  And a bong.  A giant bong.  I rarely took a rip off that monolith, so I can’t say I didn’t.  A policy that was part of my work ethic.  I never sat behind a recording console anything other than stone cold sober.

There were times I ended up behind one influenced, but never at my own discretion.

It was well lit.  Michael’s office I mean.  Cheerfully moody.  Rugs and candles and cushions and carpets and incense.

It occurs to me that I got away with what I did because there really was honor among thieves.

Michael, in a peculiar way, was a musical genius.  A production genius.  I learned a ton from him.  He never once thought inside the box.  His brain was untamed.  I was the producer and the engineer so I had to spend time within the box.  I had to decide about the box.  What size and what color and all that.  Big picture stuff.  Michael kept fucking with my box.  We agreed he could touch the faders after they were marked.  We came to an understanding.  He was free to contribute as he saw fit and we hardly ever disagreed.  There were certain things like delay times or reverb parameters we had to consult on before he laid a hand…..they were timed to the tempo of the song.  Meticulously.  All effects were in time with the track; no good engineer leaves that undone.

He was raw and intellectual talent.  He was crazy and combustible.  I don’t really know or understand where he came from.  I’ve no idea what his sexual orientation was.  He was goddamn swirly pudding.  He talked about his past in vague terms.  He told me once he could have ended up bad.  I think I know what he meant.

I don’t know what else he was actually.  I guess the A&R department paid him, but he had no power to sign anyone.  He didn’t have an expense account.  He had an office.

I’d cultivated the A&R departments business and this guy Jeff Suhy started to send tons of gigs my way and Whitaker was part of the deal.  He was nuts but I have tons of affection for him to this day.

We’ll get to Suhy.  He’s his own chapter.

One of us was the others muse constantly.  I got what I wanted when I wanted it because I was the engineer and the producer.  The stud duck as my my father would say.  But he still drank my milkshake.  The phone on the console would blink and ring.  “Fruzen Gladje?”  “Without reservation”, I replied.  Four minutes later, Whitaker pushes through the double doors and lands on my day.

He suggested one dark Sunday morning that we track a vocal on La Brea Ave.  Jessie Montague.  From the Studio C control room to the La Brea sidewalk was 150, maybe 200 feet.  We had to run mic and headphone cables all the way out.  XLR, low impedence, so  I was grieving over inductance loss.  We had more trouble from the cans than the mic.  A couple passive DIs and Bob was your Uncle.  Ask me about Bob is your Uncle.  He’s your lucky Uncle.  We had the guards open the gates.  I set up a music stand, headphones, a fet 47  or a 414, I wasn’t about to hang a tube mic on LaBrea, and a pop filter.  She sang a version of Come Together by the Beatles that slays me to this day.  Whitaker played mellotron at the bridge and some stabs in the verses.  We faded it on the cars going by.  It was then I realized I should have recorded it in stereo.

Like he was egoless.  Michael never once looked at his own dick the entire time I knew him.  Not even when we were pissing next to each other.  The metaphor is unlovely but apt.  Michael was all about the band’s dick.  The artist’s vagina.  I’m sure I looked at mine.  I know I did.  I called him “White Acre”, he called me “Douglass”.  That was it.  He looked at you and talked to you.  Sometimes I didn’t completely understand him but he always knew what he was saying.

I had a giant ego back then and Michael Whitaker handled me just fine.

When I think of Whitaker, it makes me miss the whole thing.  I miss the whole thing.

Making records is the coolest job in the world.

Drinks for my friends.

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