Friday, May 13, 2011

Chapter XII Thank you, Gene Sculatti



There is a need for some personal reflection at what may be the
half way stage of this life story; I wish to lay down a sense of
my bias in recounting these past events, with my sometimes
straying into the present. 

   
Now that I had made my grand entrance into the Los Angeles
underground music scene, it seemed that I managed in quick order
to be ostracized by half of its denizens.

Other than a cross word exchanged here or there, I never
found out why I was shunned by so many; yet, I managed
to collaborate with most of the important groups of the day.
I did not take any animosity too personally: it was evident
that here was a world wracked by petty jealousies and
people intriguing almost as a birthright. The experience
with Mario Machado of our exchanging perceived acts of
betrayal would have prepared me, if only a little, for what
would follow. Since most people’s vision did not extend
past the next important "gig" or party, it soon
became apparent who was with me or agin’ me.


There was a legacy, actually a lack of one, either because 
I was not taken seriously or fences needed mending which
I failed to do.

Other than the group I managed (F Word!) and its lead singer 
Richard Elerick (Rik L Rik), I never worked as a producer with 
any of the first wave of L.A. punk groups, the class of 1977, 
making my mark instead with San Francisco groups 
(The Nuns, U.X.A., Negative Trend inter alia) and the groups 
then forming in the L.A. suburbs.


(It has taken me decades to write the following music/press related paragraphs , added in May 2011)

I was 24 years old in 1977.  Earlier in my life I had considered journalism as a career. From publishing my own magazine at Westminster at 14 to editing the Holland Park School newspaper at 16, I was off to an early start.  If spending just 7 terms at Westminster was a goof, staying only 3 months at the Los Angeles Times in 1971 as an 18 year old copyboy was a greater one.  My excuse was to return to Britain to pursue a University education.  I did not listen to my father who felt that a higher education's purpose was to land the job I already had!

During the next 4 years at varsity and the 2 wandering years afterwards, I managed to have major interviews published (the actor Michael Caine, the footballer Rodney Marsh), have 2 articles published in the London Evening Standard reporting from the 1974 FIFA World Cup in Germany and learn certain of the techniques of being a freelance foreign correspondent, subsequently submitting numerous articles to the London press.

I came to the 1977 L A music scene still wearing my journalist's hat.
I wrote just one music article :  a critique of Eddie and The Hot Rods at The Whisky.

What I soon learned was that I should have been writing fawning pieces about groups I was interested in, interested in managing, interested in partying with, the fine art of plain vanilla sycophancy.

That definition of journalism, a more realistic one for Hollywood, did not sit right with me.  I actually found it more honest to work in public relations whilst the battle of hidden agendas played out in the L A scene.

I knew Robert Hilburn, the Los Angeles Times  pop music critic from my time in 1971 as a copyboy at the Times.  He even sent me out on "assignment", my taking an invitation no one else was interested in, attending Alice Cooper's "Coming Out" party held at the Ambassador Hotel.

Bob had drifted over to rock music from having been involved in country and western music. He was a genial sort, not exactly a rock 'n roller, more a doctoral candidate in bearing and quite even tempered unlike many he dealt with.  He managed to cultivate in his columns an authoritative voice on music matters as though speaking ex cathedra. But other than certain of his personal favorites that were relentlessly promoted, he came to rely on people in the industry and stringers not just for industry gossip but, more significantly, for artistic direction.  Now this trait of seeking others' views made him highly popular with those he consulted, less so with others ignored.

The scene at the Tropicana Motel, Joan Jett talking on the 'phone with pal Lisa "Devil Worship" Curland. Joan and Devil Worship were both very much part of the punk scene or the early punk scene was part of theirs. Photo: by kind permission of Brad Elterman

                              

In October 1977, after performing my own brief investigations, it became apparent that Bob was clueless about what was happening on the street; rather, he was still fixated upon the pavement outside the Troubadour on Santa Monica Blvd., a generation behind what was going on just down the street inside the Tropicana motel or at the other clubs around town.  By the time of the Elks Lodge Benefit concerts and riot, he was more tuned in, standing next to me the first day and asking about the dark haired girl on stage singing wildly out of tune, Exene Cervenka of X,  whom once signed to a major label, he would champion to the exclusion of the suburban groups.

It so happened that the sources Hilburn came to rely on for his punk intelligence were tied in with Slash magazine, a business venture underwritten by art entrepreneur Steve Samiof and investor Bob Biggs and edited by Claude "Kick Boy Face" Bessy.

Slash made a lateral move into the record business,  and it was highly synergistic for Biggs's then girlfriend Penelope Spheeris to make a film The Decline,  featuring the bands the magazine's writers were already members of, screwing or smoking dope with.

To be sure, there were some hugely talented people involved with Slash. The Chicano artist activist Mark Vallen contributed some truly astounding front cover illustrations which have endured as icons from that era.
"Come back to haunt you." Mark Vallen (c) Pencil on paper. 1980. Cover art for the last issue of SLASH magazine. Reproduced by kind permission of Mark Vallen/Art For A Change who adroitly noted  "I recall seeing you just about everywhere, and also the crap people would say behind your back". 

I was very much involved with Slash initially as they wrote about
F Word!.  But as time wore on, I felt unwelcome at their offices.

In any event, I had discovered Flipside fanzine, a rag ridiculed by the Slash crowd, but one whose do it yourself ethos I found refreshing.

Flipside was a bunch of young fans from the Whittier area, lead by marine biologist/surfer Al Kowalewski.  Starting off as xerox art the magazine did well to keep to a bi monthly print schedule for the next 20 or so years, eventually boasting 4 color glossy covers, gracing newsstands.

In a way, Flipside made me my fortune, for it was principally in its pages that the suburban punk culture was nurtured.  Meanwhile, fed dreck by his sources, Robert Hilburn completely missed the entire Orange County scene with barely a nod to the rise of Black Flag from the South Bay.

Even the O.C. music correspondent Mike Boehm could not get his outstanding pieces published beyond the O.C. local edition.

One memorable night Rodney Bingenheimer played 17 Posh Boy Recordings by a wildly dissimilar assembly of groups over the span of a 4 hour show;  but as far as the L A Times was concerned, my label did not exist.  This took a personal toll:

my father would not believe I had achieved any degree of success without reading about it in the Times

Unlike Hilburn's industry sources who might call him up screaming about some injustice in their universe I never confronted Bob about these slights, ever the 18 year old cub reporter.   But thank you, Gene Sculatti, the Chronicler of Cool,  who did write about Posh Boy, for showing me that at least one rock journalist in L.A. cared.

I would have loved to have worked with Darby Crash and half
expected to do so in 1981, after the fiasco of the Darby Crash
band at the Starwood in the autumn of 1980.

Darby had re-appeared in Los Angeles in 1980 after a summer in London with a new "pop" persona,
to go beyond the Germs cult. He needed a new hit record on Rodney's show for his launch, to bring in adoring fans. Instead he was faced by perplexed fans expecting 1977 all over again for whom a teased mohawk was a strange sight.

Darby was, at the time, still on Slash Records and needed to let that situation play out. Instead he took the needless permanent, final, step in the proverbial resolution of a temporary problem and achieved a deeply flawed immortality.

Instead, it was my taking The Adolescents into the studio that early Fall 1980 for a 2 hour session that proved the game changer in the L.A. scene.  Whereas before suburban kids had been spectators, now they and their bands took over.   The Adolescents knew they had the goods and struck a hard bargain with me:  all I could have was a single recording, not even a "B" side, but only to be used on the proposed Rodney On The Roq compilation (which the old guard bands were not interested in gracing).

It was a choice between Amoeba and Kids of The Black Hole.  I wanted both but was firmly denied, so it was Amoeba because we wanted a punk radio hit and we got it.  Amoeba soon crossed from Rodney's show to being played every hour during the day on local radio station KROQ.

It was a monster and made the first Rodney On The Roq album a monster seller in the suburban L A record stores.  Yes, it was a 2 hour session.  It helped that Tony B. did his vocals and overdubs in one take.  It also helped that the remaining members of the group continued to record after I rejected the song's co-writer's uncertain backing vocals.  It helped that the General,  maestro Rikk Agnew, was willing to listen to me and the 2 guitarists,  apprentice Jay Lansford and audio engineer David Hines, in the control booth.

But when a few months later in early 1981, again at The Starwood, I presented members of the group with "Gold" record awards, they were well received apart from Tony's who promptly threw his into the audience, expressing his disdain, thinking that I had actually conjured up a single release, against our contractual understanding.  Tony was undoubtedly upset at the time but I wasn't ... my feelings have always been of gratitude that I had the opportunity to produce them and chagrin at not getting a shot to record more from what was a very talented and inspired group of teenagers.


The same night in October 1980 when we tracked and mixed Amoeba at Unicorn Studio on Santa Monica Blvd using studio time that had been arranged through Black Flag who were, in my recollection, living on the premises, we also recorded lead and backing vocals for Wild In The Streets, as performed by the Circle Jerks.

It was a bitter sweet experience having singer Keith Morris in the studio again.  8 months or so earlier when I was really, really broke I had signed the Circle Jerks to a limited 1 e.p., 6 song deal.  I already knew Keith from his days singing with Black Flag and guitarist Greg Hetson as a 16 year old in the group Red Cross.  They invited me to see their new group at a club on La Brea.  Another type A personality was drummer Lucky Lehrer with Roger Rogerson on bass.  I think there were only 2 other patrons in the club that night, the band was simply not known yet.

In listening to their material I asked them to record a cover song by Garland Jeffreys which they had performed either that night or at an attended rehearsal.  They were not keen to do so and, in fact, only espoused the song as one of theirs after it had become a hit off the Rodney On The Roq album.

In any event, the group came in for a fairly easy recording session, but my ace engineer, David Hines was not working exclusively for me yet.  Unbeknownst to me, the session was soon spiraling out of control with secret drinking and within a few hours of rolling the tape, Keith Morris was not just drunk but legless, completely unable to sing.

For a month or two I kept hoping to re-schedule Keith for his vocals, to complete the half a dozen recordings sitting in the can.

Then, in May 1980, after completing The Nuns album with the very last of my resources, I left Los Angeles for London on an extended visit courtesy of a one way air ticket my mother had kindly provided for me.  Now it was the Circle Jerks' turn to grow impatient.

Upon my return to L.A. 3 months later, I met with Greg Hetson in his small pick up truck as he wanted to play me something they had recorded on a spec deal.  It was the 16 minute long Group Sex album, 5 of the songs he had already tracked for me.  He needed a modest couple of thousand dollars to pay his studio bill!

We had a frank discussion which remained friendly.  I told Greg that I had wanted to produce the Jerks and for them to sound more polished than what I was hearing.  However, I knew someone who was looking to put out a new record and who might have the money to settle his bill.  This was Lisa Fancher who, heretofore, had given punk a wide berth but who was enthusiastic and keen.  However, I could not get Greg to agree to finish my recordings, so I was sitting on a total loss.

So when the Jerks heard sometime later of the forthcoming Rodney On The Roq compilation they wanted in  and I agreed to their only concession of allowing me to finish the one song, which they felt they could spare as they hadn't written it themselves.

My production - and it can be contrasted with their own re-recording from a year or 2 later - proved to be another hit off the compilation, though not enjoying as extensive daytime radio airplay as Amoeba.  I managed to recoup my losses and the Circle Jerks built upon the airplay to become one of the bigger L.A. punk groups.  The original 16 track master tape with the other uncompleted recordings was stolen out of a different recording studio, either to re-use the tape or because someone wanted to make sure I did not fulfill my spoken jest of releasing a Circle Jerks karaoke e.p., "Sing In The Shower With The Jerks", or some such title.


Of course, with the Dickies signed very early to A&M Records and X
following in signing to Elektra, the Hollywood groups had their eye
on a bigger prize than signing to a pisher owned label, i.e., the upstart Posh Boy label, but now I made my name with first recordings from the Adolescents, Circle Jerks and Agent Orange with many, many others following, none of them Hollywood groups.

To be sure, there were betrayals to come with those I did work,
various of the groups creating a party line of malfeasance
attributed to me.  But over time, perceived betrayals played out.
Fighting off just one lawsuit from a group yet developing meaningful
friendships with its members decades later.

Was the experience of going to court on New Year's Eve worse
than being assaulted with fisticuffs, bricks thrown at my moving
automobile, hearing clearly enunciated death threats made (all by
the same beach group)?

Well, the above animus on all sides has been washed away
through death and personal redemption.

In retrospect, I have felt far worse about the quite sudden implosion
of my relationship with the Black Flag/SST complex.  From
the closest collaboration to their believing that I had betrayed them,
cutting me dead, the past 30 years of hearing their threats and taunts.

A decade earlier, I had spent some years living in Germany and
Sweden.

I had been perfectly aware that I was skirting dangerous territory
by living in east Germany, having friends in significant places,
whether they be book editors, journalists, ballet choreographers
or photographers. When spirited inside a ballet company's casino
in east Berlin and someone pointed out the middle aged Agnes Nelken
lurking in the shadows, I already knew more about her Stalinist past
from my extensive reading of cold war era literature than her
co-workers at the Komische Oper. Such people were discretely identified to me as
those whose major function in life was filing reports; what few knew
was the scope of the reporting. With the fall of the east German
government we have come to learn that so many in that socialist
state had collaborated with the security services, as if half
the country had formed some collective firing squad, no one knowing whose rifle
had been armed with live ammunition rather than innocuous blanks,
yet that seemingly innocuous but dutiful observation to the Stasi had
the potential to wreak havoc in someone’s life.

I am eager to have access to my Stasi file; With a failed marriage
now behind me along with countless artist relationships gone sour,
it is hard to think I will be crushed emotionally by discovering I was
deceived by those I cavorted with. More worrisome is the real
possibility that it was I who caused injury to some of those I had met
in the former GDR. At the time, I knew I was taking advantage of my
status as a foreigner to enjoy myself in ways difficult back in Britain.
Without need of black market Ostmark, simply being a foreigner in a
largely closed society was currency enough, just as now my possession
of a modest foreign income is enough to live like a prince in Thailand.

I had been offered a desperately needed job in radio by a senior
official in the east German foreign ministry; it was obvious that this
was an offer to be politely declined. But that same official either
eased my unofficial journalistic activities or failed to take routine
action to obstruct them.

Was I an unwitting tool of the east Germans? Maybe of my own
American side, who had quietly re-opened an embassy in east Berlin,
in variance with stated U S policy at the time.  In such relationships,
if the people are professional, their betrayal should never be revealed
to its victim.

In Sweden, the most bureaucratic country I have known
where everything is detailed for the State to know, I experienced
the greatest year of my life enjoying the Swedes’ hospitality, teaching
school, training with the IFK Furuby football team and, most
importantly, the warmth of their women. Yet, some damning
statement may have been made about me that found its way to one
or other of the ministries dealing with my request for my denied work
permit and I would have never known the identity of the person who
had denounced me (or simply noted the truth :  I had worked illegally
and my Swedish language skills were still weak!) .

Consider insecure Hollywood: its players are forever using others
to unwittingly carry bombs into their enemies camps. The bombs will
explode, raining piercing untruths upon their victims. Now regard
fortress Israel : on my only visit there in 1984, I found the security
system oppressive; yet, I should have known better as a seasoned
veteran of many a cozy chat in a private east German interview room.

Consider the Israeli security forces' urgent need is to jostle their guests from their
complacency : many years later I carried undeclared a Mexican doll
aboard an American flag aircraft, given to me for my young daughter
by a lady whom naturally I would have never suspected of being connected with anything evil. Only afterwards at
home in California had I realized how complacent I had been in not
even giving the object a rudimentary inspection (does it tick?).

In east Germany it was well understood that my contacts with any
citizen would be reported. As I was not about to indulge in anything
untoward, I felt no danger. If anyone ever approached me to do
something of an illicit nature, I’d inform them that there was no
doubt that I was being watched so why would they want to get
caught? (And, yes, I did give thought that those approaching me
might themselves be security agents).

Years after the event, an admired friend, Stefan Orendt, originally
from Transylvania then living in a great apartment in the eastern
suburb of Koepenick, told me how he had been picked up near
Checkpoint Charlie whilst waiting for me to cross into west
Berlin before I walked right back to the eastern side moments later in
order to renew my Tagesvisum (25 hour visa valid only for east
Berlin, though no checks existed beyond the city limits).  By the
time I was finished with my business, he was finished with his but
he did not tell me about this encounter until decades later.

And why wasn't he hauled in? Possibly because he had proof on
him of his SED party membership or a special  contact ...

This is not to belittle the Hollywood intrigues. Quite the contrary,
for here in our little punk rock universe we were the principal
players, out to hump others or be humped. Back in the GDR,
we would be just one of literally millions of cogs in the machine,
generating the mountains of reports to be filed away in Stasi
archives and M.I.6’s and the NSA’s, for that matter.

My adopted home of Bangkok is a favorite retirement spot for
many an ex-CIA man or those who worked for the Company
on a contract basis; for the vast majority their function in the
greater scheme of things was no more than clerical, helping to
organize and route inconsequential information from outpost to
h.q. and back again. If there are those among us here responsible
for particular actions, I doubt we will be hearing much boasting from them.

However, Izzy Fishel who features in the later Nana chapter offers
invaluable advice concerning women : do not consider it a betrayal
by a woman when after showering gifts and affection upon her she
decamps for another bedroom. She has received a better offer,
that’s all.

My own wife left me after years of pleading in vain for a new white
Mercedes to call her own instead of the used Audi sitting parked
in our double garage. Did she betray me? I have come to learn that
it is a question not worth wasting the brain waves over. The more
interesting question is why did I want her, as the walls came
tumbling down, to think that I had betrayed her?

I could write several tomes detailing every slight received, every
proverbial stab wound etched in my back during my career in
Hollywood, but for what purpose?   Ultimately what counts are
the results of one’s endeavors; if my records did not crack the
Billboard 200, again, so what? I have been gratified by the continued
attention they have received decades later from ordinary music fans
besides the few scholars who have decided that my
efforts are worthy of study.

And does not each betrayal invoke a denial of
self worth? If my best friend from my late teen years could spike my
drink with LSD (acid), was that not an accurate estimation for me at
the time of my own worth to anyone as a friend? I have learned not
to hold hormonally enraged teenagers responsible for their
capriciousness but their assaults are not easily dealt with by their
victims. Sad to say, though many wounds heal, some continue to fester.

Originally written October 1998, updated May 2011
   
Postscript, written May 2011

In the late 1990's I did write the Gauck Office in east Berlin requesting my Stasi files.  What I received back clearly showed the existence of such a file but I was advised to re-apply at a later date.  Approximately 10 years later on a visit to Berlin, I visited the Gauck Office in person but received even less information.

I had 2 exceptionally good friends from my east German adventure.  One ceased communications with me  in the early 90's, the other had been smuggled to the West shortly before the Wall came down and never was at peace with himself subsequently and is now dead.   Other friends have gone on to really flourish in the post GDR world;  I am thinking of my dear friends the acclaimed photographer Helga Paris and the former leading ballet dancer, Roland Gawlik, now associated with the Friedrichstadtpalast in Berlin.
   
My best friend from my late teen years who spiked my drink is now an ueber Amerikaner with a global bully pulpit in a leading newspaper.

Greg Hetson became rich and successful after joining the re-invented early punk group Bad Religion.  Along the way he lost his hair, did not grow any taller but remained the same good natured guy.  In 2004,  I was privileged to be an invited guest of Kevin Lyman on that year's Warped Tour, managing to attend in Florida and Massachusetts.  Greg was there with Bad Religion and quickly adopted my children, the then 14 year old Stephanie and 4 year old Gordon whilst I tried hard to be adopted by his friends from Germany, Anja and Dana.

Tony B. did not become rich but has achieved a rich family life and sometimes rewarding career as a special education teacher when not touring with the reformed Adolescents after interim stints with the ADZ and Flower Leperds.   It was later revealed that it had been not been Tony's award that he had sent flying across the Starwood bouncing off the back wall and falling onto the staircase but another group member's.
Tony gave his award to his mother.

I can't think of anyone who experienced more of "Hollywood", the "Punk Scene" and "Betrayal" than my good friend Ginger Canzoneri who befriended me in September 1977 before either of us had set foot within the L.A. punk scene.  Ginger earned her "colours" as the manager of the Go Gos, taking them from a Hollywood back alley to number 1 on the Billboard charts.  I am so glad to say that Ginger and I are still close friends to this day, along with quite a few of the survivors from that "scene".

Work in progress

3 comments:

  1. Great read Mr. Fields. Kudos! I'm going back to the beginning to read them all.

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  2. This is my favourite post, together with your schoolboy recollections. :) I wish I had been there.

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