Walter De Maria, Pre-Velvet Underground Renaissance Man

One of the rewards of doing research for intensely detailed books is that the deeper you dig, the more there is to find. (There certainly aren’t many financial rewards involved!) Such is the case with untangling the histories of the Velvet Underground’s associates, especially in the years before 1966, when quite a few people from the avant-garde scene influenced the path the band would take. Sometimes it leads you to experimental records and movies you never would have checked out otherwise, and even makes you aware of interesting other projects with little or nothing to do with the Velvets.

One of the more interesting people who was involved, if briefly, with future Velvet Underground members was Walter De Maria. He was the drummer in the Primitives, the group formed by Lou Reed and John Cale with another guy who wouldn’t go on to the Velvets, Tony Conrad. The band was only around for about two or three months in late 1964 and early 1965, and only Reed appears on the sole Primitives single, “The Ostrich”/“Sneaky Pete,” recorded before the other musicians were recruited. But it was in the Primitives that Reed and Cale first worked together, forming the core of the Velvet Underground after Conrad and De Maria drifted away to other pursuits.

The Primitives, late 1964. Left to right: Tony Conrad, Walter De Maria, Lou Reed, and John Cale.

The Primitives, late 1964. Left to right: Tony Conrad, Walter De Maria, Lou Reed, and John Cale.

The work of Tony Conrad is fairly well known, at least to many people with an interest in the avant-garde arts. He played in La Monte Young’s group with Cale before and (for a little while) after the Primitives and made quite a few seriously avant-garde recordings, a good number of which were made commercially available. He also made one of the more noted experimental films of the 1960s, 1966’s Flicker, comprised solely of alternating black and white frames.

Walter De Maria’s work outside the Primitives is not so well known, at least to those whose interest in the Velvet Underground is focused on their musical manifestations. He is quite well known as an environmental installation artist, though many who know him for that work are unaware of his relatively slim activity as a musician. In fact, his 1977 piece The Lightning Field is one of the most celebrated examples of “land art,” its 400 stainless steel poles occupying a grid measuring one mile by one kilometer in New Mexico. Other noted, smaller-scale De Maria creations, New York Earth Room (a room filled with 250 cubic yards of earth) and The Broken Kilometer, have been on permanent display in New York City for many years. Some of his visual artwork can be seen, along with some footage of De Maria himself, in the 2015 documentary Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, which is pretty interesting even if your interest in De Maria (and land art itself) is casual.

The poster for the documentary "Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art" features a photo of Walter De Maria.

The poster for the documentary “Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art” features a photo of Walter De Maria.

While De Maria’s musical activities are relatively obscure, they’re more extensive than many people realize. Serious Velvets fans — at least those serious enough to read my book White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day — know that not long after the Primitives, he was drummer in the Insurrections, fronted by fellow avant-gardist Henry Flynt. Flynt had his own fairly close Velvets connection, filling in for John Cale at a few actual Velvet Underground shows in fall 1966.

Later in 1966, Flynt recorded an album’s worth of material as the guitarist and singer in Henry Flynt & the Insurrections. The group’s raw, primitive sound is similar in some respects to the Velvets and the Fugs, but has more of a hillbilly flavor (particularly in the vocals), and is frankly not nearly as impressive as the music being produced by their Lower East Side peers. The recordings weren’t released until 2004, on the Locust Music album I Don’t Wanna.

Walter De Maria plays drums on these 1966 recordings by Henry Flynt & the Insurrections, which weren't issued until 2004.

Walter De Maria plays drums on these 1966 recordings by Henry Flynt & the Insurrections, which weren’t issued until 2004.

That’s about as far as I got on the trail of De Maria’s musical activities for the first edition of White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day, and I didn’t think there was much if anything left to exhume. It turns out, though, that De Maria had released an actual CD of 1960s recordings so obscure — at least, obscure enough to evade my detection — that I wasn’t even aware of it until working on my revised ebook edition in recent months.

At some point in 1964, De Maria recorded a 24-minute instrumental piece, “Cricket Music.” Although the ingenious conceptual composition mixes his drumming and the sounds of crickets, their chirps are hard to detect until about the middle of this lengthy recording, on which De Maria solos in a rather jazzy, repetitious style. Soon, however, the crickets rise in volume until they’re louder than the drums, eventually dominating the soundscape as De Maria continues to plug away in the background, slightly varying his rhythms. By its conclusion, “Cricket Music” is all crickets. The entire track was eventually issued on his 2000 self-pressed CD Drums and Nature, which was reissued in 2016, though you’ll probably have a hard time finding a record store that carries it.

"Cricket Music" and "Ocean Music" were finally officially issued on this 2000 CD.

“Cricket Music” and “Ocean Music” were finally officially issued on this 2000 CD.

Drums and Nature also includes his 1968 recording “Ocean Music,” which is rather similar in conception. Starting off with several minutes of the sound of ocean waves, his 20-minute piece “Ocean Music” eventually blends the waves with his jazzy repetitious drumming, until by the end the drums have totally overwhelmed the ocean sounds. It’s thus something of a mirror image of “Cricket Music,” in which the sounds of crickets eventually submerge his drumming.

What’s more, both “Cricket Music” and “Ocean Music” were used in De Maria’s 1969 movie Hard Core, which like his other projects was hardcore avant-garde. The half-hour film’s composed primarily of slow pans over a mountain-shadowed dry, cracked lake bed in the desert. (One source says this was in the Mojave Desert; another says it was in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.) These are periodically interrupted by super-brief shots of two cowboys preparing for a duel, ending with a lengthy shootout. That’s not quite the final sequence, however, as it’s followed by a lingering close-up of an Asian girl’s face, perhaps as an oblique reference to the war in Vietnam.

hardcore-filmstill-hc1

It’s not so easy to see the film these days, but it can be viewed for a $25 fee in the Film Library and Study Center of the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California. Fortunately I live just across the Bay in San Francisco, and so was able to watch it earlier this year.

What’s most interesting to me about Hard Core is not the film — which is largely static — but that it was actually broadcast on television, and indeed made for San Francisco’s public TV station KQED, which aired it in 1969. I admit I don’t watch everything on KQED (still the biggest public TV station in the Bay Area, and indeed one of the most watched such stations in the US), but I have a hard time imagining it would screen something like this these days. Maybe there are some such items I’m missing (perhaps in their periodic broadcast of work by local independent filmmakers), but I don’t recall seeing anything close to as, well, hardcore as Hard Core.

What’s more, Hard Core was not some one-off that found its way onto KQED by a fluke, but part of its experimental Dilexi Series. This is the only installment of the series I’ve yet seen, but it also includes Frank Zappa’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich film and an episode, Music With Balls, featuring a performance by Terry Riley (himself a performer with pretty close Velvet Underground associations, collaborating with John Cale on the Church of Anthrax album shortly after Cale left the Velvets).

Zappa-Burnt-Weeny-Sandwich

The twelve-part Dilexi Series was not solely devoted to music or work by filmmakers who were in, or (like De Maria) somewhat in, the musical world. There was also an episode by Andy Warhol, although his contribution, The Paul Swan Film, was (along with Burnt Weeny Sandwich) one of the two entries that had already been filmed, and wasn’t specifically produced for this series. Other installments were contributed by top photographer Robert Frank (later to direct the legendary unreleased documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 US tour) and the Living Theater’s Julian Beck. Episodes featuring and/or directed by less celebrated artists encompassed dance, found footage, documentary, and satire.

Incidentally, there’s another connection between this series and a top rock band. It was produced by John Coney, and Jim Farber worked on it as a production assistant. In April 1970, Coney and Farber would co-produce an hour-long film of a Pink Floyd concert (performed at the Fillmore in San Francisco, though not in front of an audience) that was subsequently broadcast on KQED. Most, though not all, of that footage is on a DVD/Blu-Ray disc in Pink Floyd’s recent box set The Early Years 1965-1972.

Even considering the Pacific Film Archive allows you to view up to two hours of material (appointment needed in advance) from its library for the $25 fee — something, unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of when I reserved Hard Core for screening — you’d need three sessions, and $75, to see all dozen episodes. The Dilexi Series seems historically important enough to issue on DVD, or even to re-broadcast on KQED, should the station have the rights to do so. My guess is that some or most of the installments, like Hard Core, are not terribly accessible, and in some respects tough going to watch. They’d serve as a reminder, however, of the risks television can take, and the exposure it can give to important talents far outside the mainstream.

Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore

I’ve been to Point Reyes National Seashore a few times, but it’s so big that there are still a lot of areas I haven’t seen. So when a friend told me about a walk I’d never taken to a place I’d never been, Chimney Rock, we knew how to celebrate Martin Luther King day.

Point Reyes is only about 60-90 minutes from San Francisco depending on where you’re going, but it does take some time and planning to get to Chimney Rock. For one thing, you can’t drive directly to Chimney Rock. You have to park in the big lot at the visitor center near Drakes Beach and take a bus from there. Of course, Drakes Beach makes for a pretty scenic launching point, as you can tell from hiking around the visitor center a bit before you get on the bus:

Drakes Beach.

Drakes Beach.

That’s a zoom lens on the seal below near the visitor center, by the way. Signs warn you not to get too close.

DSC00874

The bus from the visitor center makes two stops. Most people get off at the first one, the Point Reyes Lighthouse. That’s worth seeing, but if you’ve been there and want to spend time in Chimney Rock, as we did, stay on the bus for a few minutes until the second stop. Near the turnaround where the bus lets you off, a very short trail leads to the Elephant Seal Overlook, from which you can see a beach with seal pups:

DSC00881

DSC00886

Most visitors take a look and get on the next bus back to the visitor center. But if you’re at all in reasonable shape, the trail going west to Chimney Rock is only about a mile, and rewarded with views like these:

DSC00887

Those are seal pups on the beach below, as you see in closeup:

DSC00888

Here’s Chimney Rock, which doesn’t look exactly like a chimney, but what the hey:

DSC00894

And take a look at more stunning views on the trail back to the bus turnaround, at which buses arrive often to take you back to the visitor center:

DSC00895

If you’re lucky, you’ll see elk on the hillside as you’re waiting for the bus:

DSC00896

The Record Plant in Sausalito

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website’s new series Into The Mix, which focuses on little-known stories from the Bay Area music scene’s past and present. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

Hot tubs, water beds, sex, and drugs — all were staples of the Record Plant in Sausalito, home to some of the highest times of any Bay Area studio in the 1970s.

Yet there was no small amount of rock and roll too. The dozens of famous albums partially or fully recorded at the Plant in the ’70s include Sly Stone’s Fresh, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and Prince’s debut album For You. The Plant continued its reign as one of the top studios in the Bay Area into the early 21st century, through several ownership changes that, at one point, saw the federal government running the facility.

That wasn’t the sort of atmosphere its founders had in mind when the Record Plant opened in late 1972. After establishing himself as a top recording engineer with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, Gary Kellgren opened successful branches of the Plant in New York and Los Angeles with business partner Chris Stone before the two set their sights on Sausalito. As Raechel Donahue (who coordinated KSAN’s live-in-the-studio concerts from the Plant) puts it, “They invented this idea of having a recording studio that gave everybody a comfortable place to be.”

 

The Record Plant in Sausalito, as it looked when photographed in November 2016.

The Record Plant in Sausalito, as it looked when photographed in November 2016.

“Basically, it was a party atmosphere to record in,” says Jim Gaines, who produced and engineered records by the likes of Santana, Journey and Huey Lewis at the Plant. “They built this studio up here to go for the Bay Area bands. But not only that, bring up people from L.A. that wanted to get out of L.A. They had a hot tub in it, they had a boat at one point in time [to] take people out. The house”— where members of bands like Fleetwood Mac would stay during their Plant sessions — “was part of the package deal. And Kellgren was a party kind of guy.”

Indeed, when Gaines interviewed with Kellgren for a job at the Plant, “I’m shaking hands with this guy in this purple or blue Napoleon outfit. He’s got the hat on and everything. I’m thinking, ‘Do I want to work for this guy? Good lord.’ It was all about a big party for him, as well as working. He seemed to put those two together. That’s why the studio was built.”

Gaines turned down the job in favor of staying at Wally Heider’s studio in downtown San Francisco, adding that “when Heider found out that they were coming into Sausalito, he went out and found a building. He had plans to build a studio in Mill Valley to counteract ‘em.” Notes engineer and producer Stephen Barncard, who, like Gaines, also worked sessions at both Heider’s and the Plant, “Wally had plans for a studio in Mill Valley near Tam Junction. I actually saw the plans. He was gonna get [TV and film production company] Filmways to pay for it, and when the Record Plant went in, it was over. It never happened.”

As just one example of the detail lavished upon the facility, recalls Gaines, “the ceiling in Studio B looked like clouds. They were made out of cut-out plywood in different forms, and covered with velveteen or velvet or something like that; they looked like clouds hanging up there. Kellgren was smart; he wanted his rooms to look different. He knew he wanted to make it artsy.”

Word about the Record Plant got out through its lavish opening party, as well as KSAN broadcasts of live-in-the-studio programs featuring such heavyweights as Bob Marley & the Wailers (part of whose October 1973 performance at the Plant was issued on the Talkin’ Blues CD), Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt and Fleetwood Mac.

 

Part of this archival Bob Marley release features material recorded at the Plant in 1973 for a KSAN broadcast.

Part of this archival Bob Marley release features material recorded at the Plant in 1973 for a KSAN broadcast.

“At this time it wasn’t really common to do live broadcasts, especially from a recording studio,” explains Raechel Donahue. “When we were at KSAN, our version of a live broadcast was me and [DJ] Terry McGovern and a 100-foot microphone cord which I would feed out the window to him, so he could interview people on the street. It really was [KSAN manager] Tom [Donahue], Chris Stone, and Gary Kellgren who figured out, ‘Ah, there’s obviously a way to do this if we could only just figure this out.’”

KSAN kicked off its Record Plant broadcasts with a legendary 72-hour marathon. At one point during Kris Kristofferson’s performance, according to Raechel Donahue, “this wackadoodle guy came wandering through the studio singing ‘He’s a peach pit, he’s a pom pom, he’s a pervert, he’s a fool’” — bastardizing the lyric of one of Kristofferson’s most famous songs, “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” — “and then just walked out the other door.”

“Everyone who was anyone was there, and they wandered in and wandered out,” Donahue said. “All I had to do was figure how to coordinate that. But that’s kind of what KSAN was all about, figuring out how to make reality blend into music. It was a crazy thing to do, but it did start the whole Record Plant live thing.”

It wasn’t the only craziness at KSAN broadcasts; Bob Simmons, the announcer for some of them, recalls Last Tango in Paris star Maria Schneider “wandering around trying to get someone to get in the hot tub with her” during one.

The Plant soon attracted not only stars from L.A. and out of state, but also quite a few from the Bay Area itself. The setting was as vital to its appeal as the studio itself. “Heider’s was downtown in the Tenderloin,” says Gaines. “That’s a whole different concept down there. I mean, just to park your car and get to the studio without being mugged is a feat. The Record Plant, you could just walk out, and you’re only like one door from the water. Then you got some public tennis courts down the streets. When I was working with KBC Band — Marty Balin and [Jack] Casady and Paul Kantner — Marty would go down there and play tennis while we weren’t working.”

The studio’s most famous feature, however, was on the premises, and more notorious for its, shall we say, extracurricular activities. The sunken area known as the Pit was, in Barncard’s words, “partial boudoir and studio. It’s basically for a place to do track-by-track overdubs and vocals, and then make love to your girlfriend between, in breaks over in the side.”

“Sly Stone moved into that back room for a while,” reports Gaines. “They had a little bedroom for him. Just a bed, with little frilly stuff over it. He wanted all of the doorknobs moved up. It’s like he was a kid or something. The doorknob couldn’t be in a regular place, it had to be like a foot higher. I finally changed that. I said, ‘Man, I can’t deal with this.’ There’s a lot more [stories], but I don’t know if I could tell some of ‘em.’”

Part 2

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website’s new series Into The Mix, which focuses on little-known stories from the Bay Area music scene’s past and present. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

After getting up and running in the early 1970s with some celebrity local musicians and KSAN broadcasts (see part one of this feature), the Record Plant in Sausalito seemed to be thriving in the last half of the decade. Steve Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, and Rick James all used the studio to record hits, and it’s where Prince cut his debut album. Yet there was no small amount of turbulence behind the scenes, culminating in the Plant almost getting shut down in the mid-1980s before reasserting itself as a top recording facility.

For all the glamour passing through its grounds, not everyone was enamored with the sounds. Although Fleetwood Mac did more than 3,000 hours of recording there for Rumours in early 1976, relatively little was used on the final album, which was largely recorded later that year in L.A. studios. Stevie Nicks may have used the privacy of the sunken area dubbed “the Pit” to write “Dreams,” though it was just as famous as a retreat for drug use by musicians and their visitors.

“The Pit was a complete idiotic idea,” says engineer/producer Stephen Barncard. “That’s how hard the studios were fighting to get those kind of clients.” While the drug use it fostered might have helped attract name players, as Barncard points out, it wasn’t always conducive to the best results. At one session he worked with short-lived semi-supergroup KGB (who included Mike Bloomfield, Carmine Appice, and Barry Goldberg), “Keith Richards was in the next room, and he was apparently passing around some kind of green snortable substance. [Producer Jim Price’s] friend who came along had snorted it up, and got really ill. That kind of put a pall over the whole session.”

As an engineer, Barncard is also critical of the space from some technical respects. “Even perfect equipment doesn’t necessarily always guarantee you’re gonna have a better record,” he feels. “I am really a fan of natural acoustics, of natural spaces. The Record Plant did not have natural spaces. It was the most unnatural. It was designed for totally isolated, multi-track recording, where you don’t have leakage between the tracks. Where you can go and punch in and fix things, and you won’t have anything behind there to give away the fact that you punched in there.

“Stevie Wonder, Songs In the Key of Life? That’s the deadest record ever recorded. That’s the Record Plant sound. I didn’t like to record there because I lacked time to make stuff sound decent, but I liked the people, the gear and the location,” Barncard continues. “Many, like [producer/engineer Jim] Gaines, were able to create hit records from there, and that’s all that counts in the end. But they had the gigantic budgets and my experience was a couple of overnight quickies and two weeks with New Riders of the Purple Sage, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. In the end, we’re talking different styles of producing, and it’s all good.”

Artwork for Stevie Wonder's 'Songs in the Key of Life'

 Projects continued to roll into the Plant in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but the studio’s ownership was in flux, soon threatening its very existence. Co-founder Gary Kellgren, the engineer/producer who was the artistic force behind the operation, drowned in his Hollywood swimming pool in 1977. In the early ’80s the other co-founder, Chris Stone, sold the Plant to a quadriplegic teenage music fan, Laurie Necochea. In 1984, a year before her death, it was sold to Stanley Jacox.

Around that time, the Pit was rejigged for more constructive purposes. “While I was doing the Con Funk Shun record [‘Electric Lady’], John Fogerty calls me,” Gaines said. “He’s coming out of retirement, quote-unquote, and he wants a studio. I had just opened up [the former Pit as] the little C room in the back. He said ‘Jim, I’m just gonna do this record myself. I’m playing all the instruments. Can you engineer it?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m in the middle of a record, I’ll give you my assistant Jeffrey Norman. Just move into the back. We need to open up the room anyway, and you’ll be easy.’

“When we turned it back into a real studio, Centerfield was the first record cut in that little room. There would be days when I had Starship in one room, Huey Lewis in another room, and Fogerty in the other.”

Artwork for John Fogerty's 'Centerfield'

Yet soon after that, Jacox was accused of manufacturing amphetamines in his home and investing some of the proceeds in the Plant — and the studio was actually taken over by the federal government.

“The day the studio was shut down, I had a session with Journey,” remembers Gaines. “I noticed there’s a lot of cars in the parking lot for 9:30. As I’m approaching the door, here comes federal marshals; all kind of police are surrounding me. They said, ‘We’ve just taken possession of the studio, and we need to interview you.’

“They went through the studio, looking for drugs. They thought that was the source of the ‘drug manufacturing,’ quote unquote,” Gaines says. “They didn’t find any drugs. I mean, there might have been a joint or something in one of the road cases, but they were highly disappointed.

“They basically told me, ‘Look, we’re gonna take possession.’ Fortunately, I had Journey in there with all their gear and stuff. I said, ‘Well, you can’t take possession until I get all my band’s gear out of here, and tapes. ‘Cause we’re working on a record, and you cannot have any of this stuff. It doesn’t belong to the studio.’ I called the band up and said, ‘We gotta clear outta here. Everybody come and get stuff.’

“It was shut down for around six months or so, maybe more. At one point, the federal marshals offered me a position to open and run the studio. I said to them, ‘Look, if my clients knew I worked for the federal marshals, you think that they would come in here? Here’s the deal. Take my secretary, make her the studio manager, and I will come in and do some work.’ I actually opened the studio with Santana when that part reopened.”

Gaines was also working with Santana at the studio for the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

“Carlos and one of his main guys had just left to go shopping when that quake hit. I was working with Chester Thompson doing some organ overdubs. We were in studio A; I didn’t think we were gonna get out of there before that damned thing came down. When it hit, you can feel there’s some low-end rumble or something going down. So CT looks at me and says, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I said, ‘What are you doing?” And we both said, ‘Uh-oh.’

“And we hit flying into that door, man. We’re out on the ground out in the parking lot, and the ground is rolling along. I had a bottle in my car; we sit in the parking lot, found us some cups, and turned the radio on, listening to ‘Bay Bridge collapsing and the freeway collapsing.’ One of the consoles got beat up pretty bad, and twisted a little bit. We was down for about at least three or four days. Phones didn’t work. The only thing that worked was the fax machine, for some reason. We never figured that out.”

Part 3

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website’s new series Into The Mix, which focuses on little-known stories from the Bay Area music scene’s past and present. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

When Arne Frager took over the Plant in Sausalito in 1988, he wasn’t much interested in sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

“I was really interested in rebuilding the studio into a really great sound emporium for making records,” Frager said.

If hits are what a studio’s judged by, it generated plenty of those over the next decade and a half or so. It held sessions for big albums by Carlos Santana, Metallica, Dave Matthews, John Lee Hooker, and Mariah Carey, as well as for lesser-selling but celebrated artists like the Kronos Quartet.

 

A doorway to the Plant, as it looked in November 2016.

A doorway to the Plant, as it looked in November 2016.

“It was a party studio throughout the ’70s, until the government seized it in 1985,” says Frager, as the first two parts of this series illustrate. “I had Herbie Herbert, the manager of Journey, tell me he’d never go there, even though he knew I was rebuilding it and was more serious about business. He said, ‘I tried to talk Journey out of going there, and they went there and wasted lots of money just partying. I didn’t like that.’”

So if the partying, if not eliminated, was no longer as much the focus, what was drawing so many acts to the Plant, both from the Bay Area and beyond?

“You would have the ability to step outside and be surrounded by these gorgeous, tall eucalyptus trees, and walk a few steps out to a beautiful dock by the edge of the bay,” remarks producer/engineer Enrique Gonzalez Müller (now also a professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music), who was on the staff for several years starting in 1999, and continued to work on Plant projects until its 2008 closure. “But at the same time, you didn’t really feel the need to step out of the studio because the vibe was amazing!

“One of the studios that had a lot of use, called the Garden—which used to be Sly Stone’s personal room back in the day—the lounge for that studio was literally outside, in the open air. The lounge was this beautiful little garden that had fish in a pond and a Jacuzzi that you could relax in. It wasn’t really the type of atmosphere that you find in a lot of big studios where you do want to step out for air and escape the pressure of making records. People just relaxed, hung out, and that level of ease and comfort definitely transpired onto the music being captured within those walls.”

Just because Frager was the owner didn’t mean he always got special treatment. When Van Morrison was booked for an album, “the only words he spoke to me in the month he was at the Plant were ‘Hi, I’m Van’” as Arne was waiting to greet Van the Man at the studio’s front door on the first day of the sessions. When Frager went to Studio C to introduce himself to Starship, their manager “blocked the door and said ‘hey, you can’t come in here,’ and locked the door in front of me.” When Stephan Jenkins from Third Eye Blind kept parking his motorcycle in Arne’s space by the front door, according to Frager, Metallica bassist Jason Newsted relieved himself on the vehicle in rebuttal, though by the time Jenkins came out at night hours later, the stink had evaporated.

Such hijinks, however, seemed to take a back seat to more serious work, such as sessions Gonzalez Müller worked on for the Kronos Quartet’s You’ve Stolen My Heart. “Kronos decided that they were going to record and re-create every single element heard in these [vintage] Bollywood scores, which have gigantic orchestral, super-quirky, unconventional instruments,” he recalls. “We needed to do a ton of overdubs. If they wanted to record one melody, they would record it three, six, eight times to create the sound of a larger orchestra. It became this beautiful monster for us engineers. We had to be on top of this massive amount of musical input that then we had to filter, sift through, and condense into something palatable.

“They brought in Asha Bhosle,” the Indian singer on the original recordings of this material, composed by her late husband, R.D. Burman. Then in her early seventies, “Asha had more energy than any of us, and the Kronos Quartet are an energetic bunch. When she started singing, it was an exact photocopy of what you had heard her do in the ’50s. Every single peak and valley of her vibrato seemed to be performed perfectly, deliberately, and assertively.

“Here we were in a laboratory making this beautifully layered, complex Persian rug one little tedious hair at a time. I might be misquoting the year, but to paraphrase, she shared this anecdote: ‘In 1943, I had to do two albums in one day. I remember reading the score as a young singer, and it had instructions for when to ‘duck,’ because the entire orchestra was recorded with one single microphone, live!’ The flutes were behind her, and if she didn’t duck, the microphone couldn’t capture their fragile sound accurately. That was such a profound story for me for how there’s a million ways that you can capture emotionally captivating music.”

asha

While Frager takes great pride in hits like Santana’s Supernatural (where a Polygram executive who signed Carlos came to sessions for a couple weeks just to hang out because he was such a big fan of the guitarist), he’d also sometimes let up-and-coming bands use the facilities. “We did a band on spec, just to help them, called the Monophonics,” who are from San Francisco and are “kind of a funky horn band. They’re out there touring all over the world doing really well. We gave ‘em the time at the Plant just for their first record. No charge.

“I always felt it was a crime to see a studio with a million-dollar investment, or 2 million, sitting there empty. If people approached me, and had a project—sometimes I had an interest in the project—sometimes we just gave ‘em the studio,” though he acknowledges he also did so for “a long list of bands nobody’s ever heard of.” 4 Non Blondes’ 1993 hit “What’s Up” was also cut at the Plant. But as Arne notes, singer-guitarist-songwriter Linda Perry never brought “another dollar’s worth of business into the Plant” after leaving the band for a solo career.

Frager sold the studio in 2008, although it kept running for another month or two. Since then the Plant in Sausalito has ceased operations, though the building’s now being used by Harmonia, “a health and well-being social club” (as its website describes it).

“We started losing money in 2000 because of Napster,” says Frager. “Young people who used to buy records suddenly found out that you could get music for free. I kept it alive for eight more years with my own money. I put [in] over $1 million, thinking ‘this can’t possibly stay this way. These record companies are gonna figure this out.’ I ran out of the ability to use my own personal funds. By the end of 2007, I could no longer afford to keep the doors open. Nobody’s making any records there, and that’s really what that building is for. They’ve been trying to sell it ever since I closed the doors.”

While Frager has moved on to a new chapter in his life and is now “signing and developing unknown artists,” he maintains the Plant Recordings Studios site “because that’s my brand. Above any studio I’ve ever been in that was a major studio, this place kind of had a laid back, relaxed feel. It was very conducive to making records. I always felt there was magic in that building. I still do.”

For Sale sign on the Plant property, November 2016.

For Sale sign for the building formerly housing The Record Plant in Sausalito, November 2016.

Rolling Stones Memorabilia

Last month in New York, I saw the Rolling Stones’ massive traveling exhibition of memorabilia, instruments, costumes, photos, and whatnot, Exhibitionism. Part of my intention was to write a blogpost about the exhibit, which was partially foiled by a no-photos policy. They do allow cell phone photos, but I don’t have a phone that can take pictures. That’s why the first graphic here is not of something in the exhibit, but of an EP boasting a cover from one of their first photo sessions, which I bought at a record convention back in the early 1980s for $6. “Where else are you gonna see a picture of Keith Richards looking like this?” was the dealer’s pitch.

Note that "Stoned," the B-side of the Rolling Stones' second single, is misspelled "Stones" on this EP.

Note that “Stoned,” the B-side of the Rolling Stones’ second single, is misspelled “Stones” on this EP.

You’re not going to see it at this exhibition. Now even with nine big rooms, such a space isn’t going to be able to show close to everything. Still, another reason this blogpost isn’t exactly an extended Exhibitionism review is that it was just okay, nothing extraordinary. There wasn’t a whole lot to wow the diehard Stones fan/collector. With ticket prices close to $40, it wasn’t nearly as good a value as that EP, even adjusting for inflation.

Of course, it wasn’t a total loss by any means. I liked the re-creation of the squalid 1963 flat in which Richards, Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones lived, as well as some of the vintage instruments. A fact sheet Brian Jones filled out in 1964 reveals he was a fan of Richie Barrett (original writer/singer of “Some Other Guy,” the first song the Beatles were filmed performing) and the New Orleans R&B label Minit. A tape box for tracks from Their Satanic Majesties Request has working titles for some of the songs (“2000 Light Years from Home” is inexplicably called “Toffee Apple,” for instance).

That’s not enough to fill up a solid blogpost. What the displays did do for me, however, was generate some Stones memorabilia I was unfamiliar with when I searched for some of the things I saw at the exhibit online. For instance, one of the neatest instruments you could see was a Vox amplifier Bill Wyman used when he auditioned for the band in late 1962. As the now well known tale goes, they weren’t particularly eager to recruit Wyman. But Bill was, as Roy Carr wrote in The Rolling Stones: An Illustrated Record, “embraced not only because of his ability, but because he appeared to possess more amplification equipment than the rest of the group put together.”

The amp that made such an impression back in 1962 doesn’t seem so mighty these days:

voxamp

Retrieving this image, however, called up a couple cool Vox endorsement ads the group posed for early in their career. (A few such ads can be seen in Andy Babiuk and Greg Prevost’s fine book Rolling Stones Gear: All the Stones’ Instruments from Stage to Studio.)

voxwymanbass-1965

The shot of Brian Jones on the left is obviously from a later era than the earlier one circa mid-late 1963 on the right, when the Stones were still wearing uniform suits of sorts.

The shot of Brian Jones on the left is obviously from a later era than the earlier one circa mid-late 1963 on the right, when the Stones were still wearing uniform suits of sorts.

I couldn’t find a Satanic Majesties tape box, but the search coughed up one for their 1964 5 X 5 EP. The great instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue” is missing “South” in the title. Much more interesting is that it’s subtitled “(And Muddy Came Too).” This might be a source of (almost certainly false) rumors that Muddy Waters, the blues great the Stones did meet when they went to Chess Records at 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, plays on the track. Also check the note “fade at approx 2 mins—between marks,” though on a German LP (and a CD reissue of the US LP on which this appears), the track runs about a minute and a half longer, that instruction getting discarded.

5x5-tape

There were some promo posters for Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed that were new to me, and rare, considering not many are online. As this one for Beggars Banquet (spelled Beggar’s Banquet in the copy) shows, this June 1968 photo session at the seventeenth century Swarkstone Hall Pavilion in Derbyshire, England was also the source for the more famous picture that appears on the cover of the Hot Rocks compilation:

beggars-banquet

rolling-stones-back-album-cover-for-hot-rocks

You can stay at this (now restored) building, by the way, though it’s expensive, and its website does not volunteer information about whether you can just go there and walk around the grounds for a few minutes.

As long as I was searching (largely unsuccessfully) for the other late-‘60s promo posters, this ad I’d never seen for the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” single turned up;

jumpinjack

Looks like Wyman had a rough night. He looks more worn out than Jones in this picture—not an easy thing to do in 1968.

The film section of the exhibit was kind of disappointing, just offering a few clips from a few of their rockumentaries with some commentary. The poster for Gimme Shelter wasn’t at the exhibit, but it’s interesting as it uses an outtake from the session for their famous December Children’s LP cover shot. Brian Jones wasn’t in the Stones, of course, when Gimme Shelter was filmed in late 1969 more than four years later, and one has to guess New York’s Plaza Theatre just used whatever picture they had quickest access to:

gimmeshelterad

The guitar that Keith Richards used for “Sympathy for the Devil” was one of the more interesting instruments on display. I couldn’t find a picture of that online, but the search generated some picture sleeves for European singles that backed “Sympathy for the Devil” with “Prodigal Son,” an odd choice for a 45 even considering it was a B-side. Maybe this version of a song by bluesman Robert Wilkins (read more about how the Stones might have found his recording of it here) was selected by Decca to deny songwriting royalties to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Here’s the Dutch single, which has a really oddball sleeve design:

1324381

It turns out that there’s actually a logical reason the Stones are pictured sailing a ship named Veronica. Radio Veronica was a long-lived Dutch pirate radio station that was still broadcasting when this single came out in 1973—hence the lettering “Veronica’s favourite choice” at the bottom.

Should you visit Exhibitionism, take a walk afterward just a couple blocks north on New York’s great High Line park. The elevated walkway features ever-changing public artworks such as these, which I saw on my visit:

billboard

coffee

woman

sunbath

wheel

At the southern end of the High Line, there’s also the Whitney Museum of American Art, one of the foremost art museums in the US. Here’s a view of the neighborhood from one of its outdoor decks:

whitney