As a young man, Glenn Berger got the break of a lifetime working under Phil Ramone [Tape Op #50] as an engineer at A&R Recording in New York in the early ‘70s. After 20 years of studio work he quit and became a psychotherapist, and in 2016 he published a book about his time in the trenches called Never Say No to a Rock Star. It’s a wild, unflinching read about the real world of making records with “rock stars” like Paul Simon, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Bette Midler, and even Frank Sinatra.
Did it help that it’s now years later and you can tell the truth about sessions?
Yeah. I certainly wanted to let enough time pass, in terms of some of the stories that I told. Certain folks passed away, and that kind of thing. I also really needed to get some distance on those years in order to get a different perspective. That’s what I attempted to do, to have that dual perspective of seeing it through the eyes of the kid that I was then, combined with a little bit more of the distance and maturity that I presume I have in the present moment. I think I was too angry back then. My view of it was too narrow, for a long time. I had to work through a lot of that to write something that was honest and fair, and had a broad enough perspective. It wasn’t just about telling the dirty stories, but capturing a larger truth.
So much of making records is not about you, in that position back then, or me making records now. It’s about the artist. It’s about coaxing whatever you can get out of them and keeping them comfortable. I think it’s so hard to explain that to someone when they’re younger.
Absolutely. There’s a session I just did with an amazing band. We had a reunion in the studio’s cutting room a couple weeks ago. It was a room that was filled with so much love and such generosity, where musicians and singers donated their time to this event. The playing and singing was just astounding. It was really the first time that I felt like I produced something, where I was able to bring that to the project, where I was able to focus on what was going to make those musicians and singers comfortable enough, and safe enough, where they could bring out their best. I don’t think I was able to do that as a kid in the same way. Although I observed it, I didn’t really get it.
You moved into the field of psychotherapy after many years in the studio. I feel like this job becomes a counseling session, at times.
Oh, yeah. My joke is that I worked with enough crazy people in the studio that I had most of the training that I needed. It’s interesting that both of my careers have to do with listening. The studio, you know what it’s like. There’s a lot of psychology that goes into it. Phil Ramone really understood the psychology of the artist, and it’s a big part of what made him successful. Though I don’t think he was consciously aware of it – he operated on a very intuitive level.
How did you end up working in a recording studio?
I was lucky enough to get an internship at a jingle house that was run by one of the geniuses in the field, Susan Hamilton, and she got me an internship at A&R Recording. On my first day I was taught three important things. One was, “Keep your mouth shut,” which I don’t think I ever learned well enough. The second one was, “Whatever anybody asks, your only answer is ‘yes.’” Then the studio manager set me up with a couple of assistant engineers to figure out what to do with me that day. The first thing they did was offer me some cocaine. Since I had just been instructed that the only thing I could say was “yes,” of course I said, “Yes.” So that’s the third thing I learned how to do, at 17 years old, in the studio. On that first day I got to watch Paul Simon record “Loves Me Like a Rock” in one studio and James Brown record The Payback in the other studio. That was what the studio was like every day – an amazing amount of projects going on. My first job was as a schlepper. A&R had two studios, and it was my job to push a hand truck from one studio to the other through dangerous, midtown ‘70s Manhattan. My goal was to be an assistant engineer. I’d get to the studio before everybody, and leave after everybody, to try to get my chops together. I’d sneak in on the weekends and steal tape when management was looking the other way. A day came when Phil Ramone’s assistant wasn’t available, and they needed somebody to fill in on the session. I knew I was going to die that day, because Phil had a reputation for eating assistants for breakfast when they screwed up. Somehow I got through that session without screwing anything up, and I came into the studio the next day and found out I was Phil Ramone’s assistant engineer. I worked with Paul Simon all day, and a then unknown artist named Phoebe Snow at night, who would cut her hit record [“Poetry Man”]. So that’s how I got my start.
It was really the right place and right time to be involved at that level.
Oh, yeah. I was very fortunate, in that regard. There were those kinds of opportunities then. That just doesn’t exist anymore. There was a real apprenticeship system back then. You didn’t go to school, you became apprenticed to a master; he made an investment in you, because he needed you to do the job right. Ramone had an incredible legacy. There were so many amazing people in the business who came up through his imprimatur.
I’d met Phil once, and he seemed like a really affable guy. Reading your book, his intensity is just wild. What do you think was the key to his success that made him such a special producer?
Phil had this astounding ability to be incredibly, insanely cruel to the assistant engineer, and amazingly kind and loving to the artist. Many people who worked with Phil only had good things to say about him. I really think he was tapped into the magic. His capacity for enduring pain was incomparable. He worked endless hours, and there’s no limit to what he was willing to do to help an artist achieve their vision. He really sacrificed, or dedicated, his entire life to that process. I think that when you go that far, magic happens. It led to fortuitous, amazing occurrences. We were working on this record, and Phil was asked to co-produce it. I don’t think he thought it was going to be much of anything, because he basically gave this project to his B-team, which was me and Rich Blakin. This was a project that Milt Okun produced, who used to work with John Denver. Phil was out in the hallway, on the phone with Barbra Streisand scoring his next gig in Chicago. Every couple of hours he’d come through the control room so it looked like he was earning his credit. He wouldn’t even say anything. I thought this record was a turkey. I could get into a kind of Zen state with the tape machine; I was there and not there, at the same time. Things could get quite tedious when they went on for hours. Phil comes in the control room and says, “Okay, this is what you do. You get a pedal steel guitar, put it through a phaser, a fuzz box, and a flanger. When they sing, ‘skyrockets in flight,’ have them do a descending gliss, and this will be a number one hit record.” I had two thoughts when Phil said this. One was that he was nuts – it’ll never be a hit record. The other was, “Damn it, now we actually have to do some work.” We got the pedal steel player, put the song through the flanger and fuzz box, and did the descending gliss. It was a record called “Afternoon Delight” – one of the biggest hits of the ‘70s. They [Starland Vocal Band] never did anything before or since. But he was able to hear that while he was on the phone in the hallway! That’s what they call ears, right? He knew just the perfect piece of ear candy to put on that thing to take it over the top. He really knew how to make the artists feel brilliant. In so doing, he brought out that genius. I think that’s what he did with Billy Joel. He took this middling artist and turned him into one of the world’s biggest superstars, basically by championing him and by making him feel brilliant.
It’s an amazing gift. With the tail end of your career, you started doing less sessions. What were your feelings around then?
Well, I had done more than I ever expected to do. The thing that I loved about the studio was the people, really. It was hanging out with musicians and great singers. That community, and that feeling of camaraderie, was an amazing thing. I’d be working on a film date with 40 musicians in the studio, the conductor would raise his baton at ten o’clock, and the band would hit the downbeat. It was just an extraordinary sound; this thing that happened when everybody was playing together. By the time I was finishing up in the late ‘80s, I was sitting with one guy in a room with a laptop. It just didn’t interest me in the same way. That wasn’t what I personally loved about it. You can make good music that way I guess, but it wasn’t what I got off on. I knew it was time to do something else.
In putting the book together, was it hard to remember details of incidents?
No. The stories that I tell in the book, I remember so vividly. I don’t know how that is, because there are a lot of things that I don’t remember in my life. Clearly those were very powerful, very impactful experiences. When I was writing it and trying to capture what I was remembering, I’d get to a point with a chapter where I’d read it and say, “This could not have possibly happened.” But I knew that it did. When I got to that point, I knew that I had nailed it. Was that really true, that Mick Jagger sang “Honky Tonk Women,” just for me? That it was just him and I in the control room, and he did that? I don’t think you forget experiences like that.
Are there other sessions that were less interesting that you just don’t recall much of too, though?
Oh, yeah. Without a doubt. There were some albums that I worked on that were just so uneventful that I don’t write about them, just because they don’t make very interesting stories. I went in, worked all day, left at night, came in the next day, and did it again.
Has anyone expressed interest in licensing this for a movie, or optioning it?
Yeah. Actually, there’s somebody at Fox who expressed some interest, but I think that what people are saying is they’re seeing it more as a TV thing, rather than as a movie. Unfortunately, the HBO show Vinyl was not a big success. It’s a similar era, but from a different perspective. I think it would be great to have something from that sort of Almost Famous perspective of the schlepper in the studio, at the time.
I think people romanticize the studio, and the kind of lives led there. To see the reality of it is quite a different thing.
Absolutely. Someone asked me at one of my presentations if the artists or musicians knew when they had something that was great, or was going to be a hit, and were people excited and having fun in the studio? I said, “Most of the time, no.” People were working so hard to try to do the best thing that they could. The band would come into the control room while it was played back, and everybody would be very serious, listening for the tiniest flaw. Usually what everybody said at the end was not, “Woo hoo, we’ve got a hit,” but, “Let’s go out there and try to do it better.” We did the hard work so that the listener could have a good time, not knowing what we went through to make it.
Is there anything you miss from that era?
Musicians by and large, especially the studio guys who have much less ego than the artists, are beautiful people. I miss hanging out with those folks. They’re quite unique. They’re not folks who you meet every day. I’m very grateful that they were so generous and welcomed me into this world of music. It was beautiful for a kid like me to come into the studio. I guess I must have had something. They taught me, they embraced me. They were friends. We were on this mission to make the greatest records that we possibly could. We were all in that together, and that was fun.