I never had a dog and never wanted one. Until yesterday.

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…)

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.

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Through the miracle of Facebook, I have reconnected with legendary New York City cat, Binky Phillips (raconteur, leader of the punk band The Planets, proprietor of the best record store in the East Village) who has been posting his memoirs on the site Sonic Boomers. He’s a great writer and for anybody who loves rock and roll, his stories are a thrill. Check out “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guitar,” for one.

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I’m a New Yorker. I’ve traveled the world and lived other places, but Manhattan is my spiritual abode. I know how to manifest taxis, groovy places to eat, and unique real estate. I think I know the place. But in a recurrent dream I turn a corner and discover a new part of the city that astounds me. Today, my dream came true. I walked up a staircase on 14th Street and 10th Avenue and found myself on the High Line. Like all great art, I suddenly saw the city in a completely transformed way. The High Line was a dilapidated elevated freight railroad bed which has been transformed into a sexy greenway that opened to the public this June. The stunning renewal appears to have emerged out of the weeds that took over the place when it was abandoned. Seeing the city from this new vantage point, every vista revealed some fascinating abstract perspective. The car garage on 20th street was suddenly a bold statement of stacked cubes. The nets at the Chelsea Piers Sports Center were massive black gossamers cutting the river views into relief. All the buildings were replaced by architecture.nils_hompage

Perhaps most exciting of all was what smashes you in the face just at the top of that 14th Street Staircase. Phillips de Pury and Company, one of the world’s foremost art auction houses, fortuitously found its global headquarters and gallery as a backdrop to the High Line between 14th and 15th streets. It’s wall of windows on two sides are a perfect spot to present contemporary art work to the 50,000 sophisticated, hip weekly visitors to this new urban wonder. The gallery chose the work of artist Nils Folke Anderson as its premiere installation to usher in its role in contributing the highest quality art to this outdoor space. Folke Anderson’s work, entitled After Before and After, are a set of 5 sculptures of reciprocally linked square frames made of white polystyrene. Though every frame is identical and pure, each set can be arranged in an endless number of positions. The piece speaks of Platonic ideality, infinite possibility and planned playfulness. They are also stunningly beautiful. Seeing this grouping of scuptures through the wall of glass is a perfect complement and comment on the High Line and the new city revealed by this fresh perspective. It embodies and reflects the place where art, public space, commerce, geometry, randomness, and massive scale meet.

If you are in New York, and you haven’t gone to the High Line yet, which currently runs from Gansevoort Street in the West Village through 20th Street along 10th Avenue, go immediately. If you plan a visit to the city, make sure to put the High Line on your itinerary. Try to go before September 6th, so you can view Anderson’s installation. Prepare to have your mind blown.

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Pete Seeger at the Clearwater Festival
Image by sono salvo via Flickr

In 1966, folk legend Pete Seeger had a dream to build a sloop like those that had traveled the Hudson River for over a hundred years. Through grassroots activism the boat was built and launched in 1969. It became the symbol of a much larger mission: cleaning the majestic, but polluted, river. 40 years later, the project has been a total success. Not only is the Hudson pristene, but the clean water act is the law of the land, and our consciousness about the environment has grown exponentially. To support this mission the Clearwater Foundation hosts The Clearwater Festival: The Great Hudson River Revival, at Croton Point Park along the river in Westchester County, New York, near Pete’s home. I have been attending these festivals for 6 years now, since I moved to Westchester and had kids. This year was beset with bad weather. Whenever the weather gets weird, many of us wonder if it isn’t somehow the effects of global warming, reminding us that Pete’s original mission, to expand environmental consciousness, is an ongoing task. But despite the weather, many die-hard fans, including myself and my family, braved the mud and rain to celebrate the river, the work of the foundation, music and play, and the sucessful spirit of the 60’s that lives on at this event. The main draw is the music which plays at four stages and this year featured Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Taj Mahal and The Persuasions. But that’s not why I go. My kids are too little to sit still through the performances, though music fills the air. We go because I want my children to be exposed to the values of the people that organize this event and attend it. These are people who dedicate their lives to the love of others and planet and have worked hard to care for both. They promote justice, fairness, human rights and freedom for all. They have strong political convictions and a legacy, history and tradition of fighting for the little guy. They love music, and their songs have insprired generations to fight for the right. These people are called — liberals. Amazingly, though the crowd did have its share of people with long, gray hair, there were, as always, tons of little kids. My son, Ethan, who is 3 and 3/4 (as he likes to say), got right into that old hippie spirit. He spent most of the day splashing in mud puddles. The only thing that made it different from 1969 was that he was wearing his “Thomas the Tank Engine” rain boots. There are many people who care, that is, who live from the heart, and a whole big bunch of them were at the festival this past weekend, eating veggie wraps, buying green tea, dancing to great music, playing drums, learning about the river and doing something for a good cause. This festival is a good reminder that a great deal of the ethos of the ’60’s is worth keeping: much can be accomplished organizing at the grassroots. I’m proud that my kids got exposed to that. They cried when we left.

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