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March 19, 2011
Many years ago, when I was searching for the answer to life, I thought I’d find it by going to the end of the world. That was the instruction I found in all the stories. You climbed the mountain, found the guy with the long beard, and he’d give you the secret. You’d come down a changed man, everything clear, all the doubts gone. You’d know what to do and how to do it.
So I got on a plane and I flew to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I figured if I was going to go to the end of the Earth, it should be warm and beautiful. After what felt like days on a plane I landed in Tahiti. The thick warm air and the smell of gardenias from the lei that was put around my neck made me nauseous in a swoonish kind of way.
But Tahiti wasn’t going far enough, I knew, if I wanted to meet the guru. I’d read in the Lonely Planet Guide about one of the remotest of the Society Islands. It was referred to as “picturesque,” and promised “quiet and solitude” which I knew meant it had little to recommend it. Just what I was looking for. The island was called Huahine. Even travelling to that postage stamp in space still wasn’t as far as I could go. Apparently, there was a guest house in a small village on the back-end of the island. That was my goal.
I got on a cockroach-infested ship that travelled to the out islands. After a few uncomfortable nights on the boat we got to the island. At the dock I found a bus headed for the village mentioned in my guide book. I was in luck!
The bus sat at the dock most of the day. A few local workers, naturally muscular golden-brown fellows with long, shiny black hair covered in baseball caps and big, toothy smiles sat on the bus, goofing around with each other, drinking beer. No one seemed to be in any kind of hurry and no one could provide information about the bus’s departure. The entire concept of “information” suddenly felt so western and embarrassingly out of place. Hey, who promised that it would be easy to get to the end of the world?
Before the sun started its precipitous plop into the water, the bus finally rumbled off. I asked about the village, and the driver told me it was the last stop. Perfect. After a few hours of adrenaline-pumping hair-pin turns, I remained the only passenger when the bus bumped to a halt. The driver signaled that we were at the end of the road. Literally.
I got off the bus. Just me and my backpack. The bus turned around and this time didn’t wait. In moments, my only escape was a dusty dot on the horizon. I found myself in a ratty little village, with dilapidated tin huts, the streets riddled with crab holes. It sure was quiet and I sure felt the solitude. I looked around in vain for any sign that signaled a place for a poor pilgrim like myself to stay.
Eventually, a young woman, barefoot, wearing a wrap-around skirt called a pareu and tee-shirt, sauntered up to me with her two small children. She spoke English and asked what I was doing here. I said that I was looking for the guest house. She looked at me with a scolding look as if I had made a terrible mistake.
“No guesthouse here,” she said, shaking her head.
“When does the next bus arrive,” I asked.
“Four days,” she said.
She looked at me, I looked at her. “Is there any place around here I could stay? I’m willing to pay.” In a moment of anxiety, I stuck my hand in my pocket and grabbed my wad of Polynesian Francs just to make sure I did have the money.
With a condescending shrug, she said I could stay in the empty house next to hers. I expressed my gratitude.
The house had a bed and a chair. The toilet housed a dead fish. But it was a place to stay, and there was no doubt about it: I had gotten to the end. Or so I thought.
The woman invited me to share meals with her family. All meals turned out to be the same. Poi. It was perhaps the most putrescent food I have ever eaten. It was a glutinous, snot-like concoction, that should have been coming out of my body instead of going in. Meals were hard, smiling as I forced the spoon into my mouth, making rudimentary conversation with this woman, her husband, and kids.
I suffered my days alone pacing the short beach. I fell into a bone-crushing despair. I had done what I was supposed to do. Now that all of the distractions of modern life had been scrubbed clean, and I entered the emptiness, what I found there really depressed me. What I found was — nothing.
Sunday came, and the family said they were going to Church. I could come, or I could take a row boat out to the motu. They told me that Grandpa lived out there. He liked having visitors on Sunday. Here it was! The wise old man at the end of the world! It hadn’t all been for nothing! He was here! I quickly chose the boat to the motu.
What is a motu, you might ask. Have you seen those cartoons of the guy on the desert island, a circle of sand with a palm tree in the middle? That’s a motu. You couldn’t possibly get more remote than this and still be on the planet Earth. I got it now: the problem had been that I hadn’t gone far enough.
I got into the boat and glided across the lagoon to the speck of sand in the infinite sea. I got out and saw the one hut on the island. I walked to the door. Inside, there was a wizened brown man with white hair and milky-cataract eyes. He had a big smile, and greeted me as if he knew I was coming. He sat in a metal chair. Another chair sat empty, next to him. He patted the seat, signaling me to sit down. He faced a table. On the table was a small television with a built in VCR player. The screen was filled with gray noise.
I sat down and he nodded with anticipation. He smiled and pantomimed, pointing to the TV. I nodded, too, and smiled. He reached over and hit the play button. The video snapped to life. What I saw on the screen were three hula dancers: attractive, smiling Polynesian women with long black hair, garlands of flowers, coconut shell bikini tops, and grass skirts. They moved in unison, waving their arms, with undulating hips.
I looked at the wise old man and he looked at me with a big smile and nodded. Then he nudged me with his elbow, pointed at the screen, and said, “Vahine! Vahine!”
Which loosely translated, means, “check out the babes.”
I could have hailed a cab on Seventh Avenue and for $7.00 gotten this message. But no, I had to spend thousands of dollars, and travel to the butt-end of the universe to receive this wisdom.
For some time I chalked it up as a cosmic joke. But as the years passed, I realized that I got what I was looking for. The old man at the end of the world did give me the secret to life.
If you haven’t gotten it already, here it is. It’s not only about searching and finding, it’s about recognizing it when it is right in front of your shnozzola. I had to go to the end of the world to figure out the secret is available wherever you look. It’s all about how you look. It’s about being passionate about what is, embracing desire, finding the deep beauty, inviting in the stranger and giving away your heart to them. It is about a willingness to share every little thing you want to hold onto. It is about the daily practice of finding harmony and connection, having a giggle together, crossing the endless abyss to recognize each other. It’s about singing, dancing, and kissing the girl. It’s about knowing that the only thing worth traveling around the world for is true love.
Or in Polynesian, vahine.
October 11, 2010
You Can’t Go Back: The Time I Did, and Didn’t, Get to Work with the Dearly Departed Legendary Soul Singer, Solomon BurkePosted by Glenn Berger under creativity, Featured, genius, humor, inspiration, love, music, rock and roll, truth, Uncategorized, wisdom | Tags: Ahmet Ertegun, Aretha Franklin, Atlantic Records, Ben E. King, Chain of Fools, David Letterman, Don Covay, Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, Otis Redding, Paul Shaffer, Rounder Records, Solomon Burke, soul clan, Steve Cropper, Wilson Pickett |
I had the blessed fortune of working with King Solomon in 1983, remixing a live album of his for Rounder Records, called “Soul Alive.” Of all the unique characters I got to work with in my years in the music biz, Mr. Burke was one of my favorite. Solomon told me that he had a Cadillac, a girl friend, a child, and a church in every city of America. He would land at the airport in, let’s say, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and his car and woman would be waiting for him.
Solomon’s gigs were made up of endless medleys interspersed with his personal brand of sermon. The King’s philosophy, at its heart, could be summed up in one word. He told us that the word love was overused these days, as he purred in his rich baritone, “I love you. I love you. I LOVE you.” You could feel the women in the audience sweat. But though the King truly walked his talk by siring at least 21 children, he was something of a feminist.
“And if he doesn’t love the child you had with another man, don’t give him none!” he would shout to the hot squeals of the women in the audience. “You don’t need a man to sign your welfare check for you!”
The big guy and I had lots of fun together in the studio. He had a great sense of humor. But I learned later on that it was not a good idea to mess with the King.
In the late 1980’s I worked with Paul Shaffer of David Letterman fame on a song called, “What is Soul.” The song was co-written and produced by Shaffer, the god-like Steve Cropper, original guitar-playing member of the Memphis Stax rhythm section sometimes known as Booker-T and the MG’s and writer of such timeless classics as Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay,
Covay would come into the studio each and every time and grab me by the shoulders, look me in th eyes and say, “Glenn? Are we goin to make history today?”
I would say yes, and then he’d say, “Then I’m ready. Let’s make a hit record.”
Shaffer’s idea for the record, which would be a part of his album, “Coast to Coast,” was to reassemble the “Soul Clan.” In the early 1960’s, Atlantic Records, headed by the R and B loving Turk, Ahmet Ertegun, were making the hottest soul records in the nation. A group of the extraordinary singing and writing talents from that label came together in 1968 and cut one single. Circumstances led to the almost immediate dissolution of this holy grail of supergroups and aficionados of soul tried for decades to reunite these players. Shaffer, Cropper, and Covay had almost managed to do it. On this one record appeared the original surviving members Covay and Ben E. King of “Stand By Me” fame (check out the beautiful and departed River Phoenix in this clip),
along with Wilson Pickett who performed such hits as the seminal “In the Midnight Hour,”co-wrote with Cropper.
All that was missing was the King himself. (Otis Redding, who sang “Dock of the Bay,” and Joe Tex, of “Skinny Legs and All,” fame, were dead.)
Shaffer got Burke on the phone. We were psyched. But the reunion second only to the Beatles was not to be. Burke told Paul that not only would he not sing on the song, “What is Soul,” but that he had written it, (He hadn’t. Shaffer, Cropper and Covay had.) and if Shaffer insisted on putting it out, he would sue! Alas. You gotta love it.
The moral of the story is, you can’t go back. In Cropper’s day, you’d write a song in a few hours at night, cut the A side from 10 in the morning till lunch, take a break, do a little blues jam for a B side, that might turn into “Green Onions,” press the record, stick a $20 dollar bill in the sleeve, bring it over to the local radio station, and in 24 hours you’d know if you had a hit. (Notice on this clip that this hit-machine of a combo was all the more extraordinary in the Memphis of the mid-60’s for having white and black guys in the same band.)
Shaffer’s record was ruined by the taste-deaf record company execs who kept demanding changes to make it marketable. Over-produced, we worked on it for months. At one point, in rageful frustration, Wilson Pickett screamed, “You pluckin’! You chicken pluckin’ now!”
You can’t go back. Isn’t that what the sweet pain in art is all about? The King is dead and the soul clan will never be reunited. This moment in American musical history is no more. But I get to hold onto these memories. And Solomon Burke, with songs like, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” (and in Solomon’s case, it should have had the sub-title, “And I’m Available”) and his 21 children, 90 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, truly leaves behind a legacy that will long endure.
September 22, 2010
The secret to life from another Chinese Sage.
September 13, 2010
Two days ago, I got a call from Mickey, an old psychotherapy client of mine. He asked if he could come in and see me. I agreed, knowing something was wrong. Had he broken up with his boyfriend? Did his elderly aunt finally die? I didn’t think about it too much. I’d know soon enough. When he came in the next morning, it was good to see him, but I could tell that his mood was somber. He carried a small plastic bag. He removed a photograph. The photo was of my client, his boyfriend, and a nice looking pooch. I knew the dog was dead. Mickey said, “It’s been so hard,” and gripped his heart with his hand. Then he told me Sandy’s story. (more…)
August 23, 2010
I’ve been reading the book The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre, published by Crown Publishing. This wonderful book, which is truly ‘fair and balanced,’ explores the question of why boys are falling behind girls in academic achievement. This book has led me to think about my own experience in school and beyond. I remember my first day of kindergarten. No kid wanted to go to school more than me. Unfortunately, by the time I left 4th grade I was turned off to school. I got by on talent and little work. I was so disenchanted by high school, where I majored in hitching to the ‘record store,’ that I could see no purpose for college. Today, 40 years later, I am writing at 6 AM on Sunday morning and I have my doctorate. What happened? Where did this discipline and passion come from?
Fortunately for me, instead of going to college fresh out of high school, I became an apprentice at one of the world’s premier recording studios, A and R Studios in New York.
This was a rough place to grow up. New York in the 1970’s was an edgy place and the culture of the studio followed that midtown style, where people went to the Carnegie Deli for a pastrami sandwich and paid extra to be abused by the waiters.
The guys at A and R played hard and loud. It wasn’t uncommon to find these grown men screaming and throwing things at one another. A and R’s leader was one of the era’s truly great engineer/producers, the legendary Phil Ramone. Ramone was notorious for being brutally rough on his apprentices, and as each apprentice became a master, they trained the next generation in the same fashion. If the new kid screwed up, and they always did, they would get yelled at, cursed, thrown around. Not many could take it, but if you did, you became a member of the club. I went through it, took it, and gave it back. When I walked in at 16 I was a mess of a kid. 4 years later I was a master engineer working with the most demanding clients in the world, artists like Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra.
I always wondered if the training had to be so rough. Couldn’t I have learned the same lessons in a gentler way? But now that I have read The Trouble with Boys, I’ve been thinking about what was right with the kind of apprenticeship I had at A and R.
The reason I gave up on school was because I was disillusioned. What I longed for was a noble ideal to aspire towards, a reason to work hard. School did not provide this, but Ramone and his minions did. We were there to do the best. We were creating great art. Though we didn’t have the best equipment, we provided the greatest service to the musical geniuses we worked with. Our goal was to provide the ultimate environment where they could create at their peak. And it worked. For example, Billy Joel, until that time a floundering artist with a minor hit, created “The Stranger” and then an endless list of hits in the A and R milieu. We had pride in what we did. We could be arrogant jerks, but we earned it.
In this very male environment, we were all bonded by this common mission and approach. It was no joke that everyone there did whatever was necessary to make a great record. When I started out working in the tape library and got a call on Saturday morning to come in and find a tape for Burt Bacharach, Milton Brooks, the studio manager, had already been there for an hour. We were all in it together. The mores and rules were passed down with each new generation and shared by everyone. And the first rule was you did whatever it took to get the job done right.
Though the training often hurt, there was an amazing amount of loyalty that we felt toward each other. It might be hard to imagine in today’s world where we all want to try out a new restaurant every time we go out, but at that time clients stuck with you through it all. Arnold Brown, a “Mad Men” era music producer for the advertising agency, Dancer, Fitzgerald and Sample, would run me around in circles just for the purpose of driving me nuts, but he was willing to make an investment in the new guy, because he wanted someone there who he knew would do it his way and give him the quality product he demanded. The amazing group of top engineers on staff, guys like Don Hahn, Dixon Van Winkle, and Steve Friedman, stuck by their assistants while kicking their ass because that was how they had gotten the gift of their careers from Ramone, and they wanted to give back. There was enough work for everyone, and when Elliot Scheiner started working with Steely Dan he might not have time to work on a jingle, so he’d throw that gig my way.
So why did that experience change me so fundamentally? These qualities of a tradition, ritual behavior, a willingness to suffer pain in order to achieve an ideal, group bondedness and loyalty are all characteristics of an experience of initiation. This was a group of men who ushered young men who were willing to pay the price into manhood. It was the army, but instead of killing, we made great recordings.
Maybe this tells us what boys need to thrive. If initiation rituals that have existed since the dawn of time have anything to tell us, boys need to suffer to become men. But they need to suffer for a good reason, do it with a group of men bonded by this common goal, who have been through it and are invested in them becoming good, strong men. And it certainly is possible to do this for a better reason than war.
Young men crave this experience and hold it with them as something sacred for their entire lives. A few years ago I went to a party for Blue Jay Recording Studio in Carlisle, Massachusetts that I had helped start in 1980. Several men came up to me to meet the ‘legendary’ Glenn Berger. They had been trained by people who had been trained by someone who had been trained by me. I had trained those first guys in the way that I had been trained, to the exacting standards of Phil and A and R. I passed the legacy on. I had no idea that I had influenced any of these guys, and I was stunned to see the impact that this had had on them. They all had that fire and pride, that passion and discipline that was the true gift that I had gotten from the men who had initiated me. That might be a big part of the answer of what our boys need and what we men need to give to our sons.