Although it might seem hard for some of you to believe, I was once nearly signed to a major-label record deal. How close was I? Well, judging by the parting remarks of horrified ex-girlfriends, as close as I should always be to my anti-psychotic medication.
The label that nearly signed me was Mercury. I felt terrible about the rejection, until a few years later, when Merc put Jon Bon Jovi on their roster. He who, with his garbled, colitis-inducing singing and his lyrics about the working class which made him resemble the Springsteen of special ed., had me feeling just fine that these folks passed on me.
Still, there were perks attached to the day I did my demo for the label. I got to meet and play with jazz great, Elvin Jones. He was so nice and swung so hard, he could've made a cool record with Karl Rove. So, even though things didn't turn out as expected, it was, as you might imagine, one ridiculously memorable recording session.
It all happened by accident. I'd originally been up in Mercury studios to play lead guitar on the tape of, Ian Mackenzie, an Australian kid I'd befriended. In those days, they were giving out contracts to singer-songwriters, faster than the guys in The Stones infected women with STDs.
Ian's tunes had a certain melodic lilt, but his stuff was so tepid, it made you long for the hard rockin' intensity of Firefall (who were big then). Still, it was my first time in a real recording studio. I cooked up some solos I felt combined the intensity of Leslie West with the melodic-inventiveness of George Harrison; indicating that instead of displaying guitar breaks, I was exhibiting delusional ones. But since I wasn't cracked enough to be strapped down and given ECT, they let me play.
During a recess, to amuse myself, I began to play and sing something I had written. It was a hard-edged R&B thing called "Let It Go," displaying my resemblance to Van Morrison, except that I'm taller. Jack, the heavyset, balding guy running the sessions, came over as I was playing. I thought, since I was a nobody session guy, he was going to take out a glove, slap me across the face and demand satisfaction. Instead, he made a 'keep going' gesture, with his hand. I finished my off-kilter, wordy, streetwise tune, expecting to then be escorted from the building.
Jack said, "I like that, man. Got any more?" I played him two other songs, the first being "Bobby and Sue" a quiet piano study about a couple of kids from the suburbs, now shooting dope on St. Marks Place. When I finished, I told Jack, I was thinking of pitching it to Donnie Osmond. He laughed and said, "I like your stuff. It's got personality." Which made me anxious. "Personality," was a euphemism used by people who wanted to get their friend a date if they were fat or looked like Joseph Stalin. Even the girls.
Jack assured me he dug the songs. Then asked if I would like to cut a couple of songs at Mercury. Ian, the guy I was playing for, was now looking at me angrily and then staring at my carotid artery, knowing just one slash and that would be it. But he said nothing.
I told Jack I was interested. He told me to come back tomorrow and we'd do something. The last two hour's of Ian's session went by with the speed and humor of Philip Glass's "Einstein On The Beach." When we finished, Ian packed his guitar and stormed out, not bothering to say goodbye.
The next day, I was back and ready to cut some songs, but so nervous and shaky, I sounded a lot like Barney Fife. Even so, my tentative delivery worked well on "Bobby And Sue," conveying a certain tension to the song which gave it the air of repressed anxiety exhibited on The Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning." Just not as good.
Then Jack brought in a bass player and drummer, so I could cut my two other tunes. The first one, "Bombed," in which I tried to compare being drunk and fighting a war, came off okay, too. Although, if Springsteen's lawyer's were there, I think they would've heard enough similarity to "Growin' Up," they'd have served me with a cease and desist order.
Three hours in, we got to "Let It Go," the song that had caught my producer's ear the day before. That's when the trouble kicked in.
This lyrical soul tune had a funny, sort of sprung rhythm, that the drummer, Jimmy, was having problems with. Which is also a euphemism. This heavy, longhaired hack actually said, "This stinks." Bill, the smallish, albino bass player didn't seem to think so and aimed his eyes at the ceiling. He'd obviously heard this eloquent appraisal from Jimmy before.
We were stuck. Time was money. Every time I began to sing, I was more warbly and awful than the time before. In fact, I soon compared favorably to Alfalfa Schweitzer, singing "I'm In The Mood For Love," but without the nuance.
That's when the divine intervention occurred. Appearing in the doorway, big, black, beautiful, was a familiar-looking guy. He stood there with a beatific smile on his face. Jack, the producer, turned to see what we were all looking at. Jack smiled, too,
"Elvin," he said warmly, "what are you doing here?"
It took a second to realize it was Elvin Jones, one of the greatest jazz drummers of our time — an integral member of John Coltrane's band and somebody whose presence seemed to bring calm and reason to a room that was turning into the musical equivalent of a food fight.
"What am I doing here?" repeated Jones. "Replacing your fucking drummer, that's what I'm doing."
Jones walked in, came over to where we were playing. He was tall, well muscled and had hands big enough to palm your head. He went over to Jimmy, and just looked at him. Jimmy was up and out of his seat so fast, I was sure he was going to run out saying, "I think my mom's calling me."
Elvin sat down. He turned to me and said, "I dig the tune. I heard it in the hallway. Jimmy don't know shit. Let's try it again."
I expected this to be followed by the skies opening and an angelic choir, but it was much more normal than that. Elvin suggested we "take it from the top," clicked his sticks three times and we were off. Jones's Zen-calm and his ability to hear the rhythm I had in my head was reassuring and a little eerie. But he caught the groove of this tune (think "Domino" with cerebral palsy) so well, I instantly lost my anxious squeak and went back to my regular voice. Not exactly Van Morrison. But not Alfalfa either.
We got the song in one take. We did another for insurance. And then, as slyly as he came in, Elvin Jones got up and began his exit. But not before I thanked him and shook his hand. Elvin acted as if it was nothing special. Then said, "You got something there, man. You swing."
Then he was gone.
It was disappointing, when two weeks later, Jack said that Mercury liked the songs but weren't "quite ready to commit." Remarkably, the rejection didn't bother me that much. At least until years later, when I realized Mercury had used some of my money to sign Bon Jovi. That's when I had to be restrained from making plastique and blowing those tone-deaf, corporate, surrender monkeys straight to hell.
But then I thought, "Hey, Jon and Richie would never get to shake Elvin's hand." He would never tell them they swung, unless he wanted to go to jail for perjury. But the drummer did tell me that. I think he meant it, too. And, all those years ago, before money and ego and other problems entered into my life? Those words from Mr. Jones, were just as good as any record deal you could possibly mention.