It was 1985. I was doing a classic internship at a New York studio, RPM Studio at 12W 12th Street. That means you get school credit for vacuuming the floor and sharpening pencils for the engineer. Eventually you can sit in on a session, learn techniques, start to assist sometimes you make a connection and if you really want to be a recording engineer, the experience can be invaluable. I was just trying to soak up as much as I could of New York’s music world, and in a half-hearted way studying recording. Recording studios turn me on – I just like that all that great gear sitting there! But an engineer I’m not. I did however go on to co-manage a great facility in Atlanta (Blue Wall Studio) and worked at New York's now defunct Baby Monster, and my time at RPM was indirectly to thank for both these gigs.
So, one day I was cleaning up the lounge as usual when I hear the owner say to the studio manager: “Sue (the maintenance engineer) can’t take her vacation in July – the Stones are booked then.” WHAT! What Stones...not the...I turned of the vacuum cleaner and listened more closely. He clearly did mean THE Rolling Stones. It's not like anyone else uses that name... “But we don’t know exactly when they'll be done with basics in France, and we’ll need her here to prep lots of things prior to the lockout so she will just have to wait until they’re done to go on vacation” I said, “Do you mean The Stones are coming here to work?” “Don’t tell anyone,” he said, “Seriously – not even your best friend. We’re negotiating a five week lock-out. But don’t talk about this at all. If they do come in, we want to be extremely discreet for their sake and if they don’t, we don’t want everyone to wonder why. Trust me, if they come in, you will be here.”
OK – fair enough – nothing like a good secret to keep me excited! WOW. RPM had plenty of interesting clients who were major artists. People like Phoebe Snow and Joe Jackson recorded there it was and is today a fine facility; a quality analog room with a NEVE console and a fantastic mike collection – all of that. The kind of place The Rolling Stones would work, frankly. Usually they prefer to work outside of big cities but, for whatever reasons, they opted to be smack in the middle of downtown Manhattan for this one.
They confirmed a 5-week lockout. For nights only. So during the day, RPM could run as normal, booking clients that would finish by 6pm. The Stones had been tracking at Pathe Marconi Studios in France. Steve Lillywhite was the producer! This was really the unbelievable icing on the cake because I love his production – I would say five of my top 10 records in High School were produced by Steve Lillywhite – U2, Peter Gabriel, Psychedelic Furs, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Cure – but it never would occur to anyone that he would be the guy for a Stones record...anyway I was beyond excited that he was going to be there. I even wrote a term paper on this guy's production! As it got closer to the date, Stones people and Stones things started showing up. The tapes came in from France. The gear arrived – and with it someone who came to be my dear friend still to this day – Alan Rogan – the guitar and amp technician for this adventure. Dave Jerden was the engineer – also someone who had worked on records I loved – he’s credited on at least three solo records of Tom Verlaine’s. Some of Dreamtime was recorded by Dave Jerden at RPM.
We re-did the lounge area and polished the place! We stocked up on the list of goodies on their rider: a case of Rebel Yell bourbon, English Breakfast tea and Evian water is what I remember. The last two items were for Mick and I remember that it HAD to be Evian water, not just any purified water.
At least part of this band was ready to party! I’m happy to finally tell some stories from this crazy summer and I’m glad I remember so much. I have a little help – a journal I was keeping at the time and the photos. Whenever I meet anyone who was there – we swap stories and refresh our memories. But none the less, when I quote something from 16 years ago, you have a right to wonder if I actually remember verbatim what everyone said or if I’m embellishing a little here and there. I’m not. I kept the highlights recorded in a journal, snippets of dialog, especially in the first three weeks before I took the whole scene for granted. I was 23 and a huge fan! Everything about The Stones was a very big deal to me and I knew I’d write about it one day and I’d forget colorful details so I took good notes. It’s all true.
On the first night of production, July 8th, Ian Stewart, Dave Jerden and Steve Lillywhite came in. We thought Steve was a messenger or something – he looked so young – he actually was in his 20s still. You know what is referred to as the Phil Collins drum sound – that compressed snare 80s thing (intro to “In the Air Tonight”)? We have Steve Lillywhite to thank for that. He and Peter Gabriel pioneered that on Gabriel’s third album – frankly you hear it on all the records he did in the early 80s. Again, he was my personal producer hero, but just the most absurd guy to have in the middle of this straight rock & roll environment! He was from another context entirely! Simple Minds would come on MTV in the studio lounge and Steve would exclaim to me, “Now THIS is a proper band!” So absurd.
They put up a few reels, listened through the first night. What a treat. The guitars were clean and natural, it was just the sound of a band being recorded straight to tape. Untreated Stones guitars! It wasn’t the material that blew me away but hearing the raw Richards/Woods guitars was a relief –you could HEAR what they played – exactly. Like seeing a longtime good friend who’s naturally beautiful without makeup for the first time. Scratch vocals only so far. The tracks sounded like extended Rolling Stones jams. On all 60 reels of master tapes from France it says, aptly: “Artiste: The Runny Noses.” Nuff said.
Yes I DO mean sixty 2 inch reels. These boys roll tape!
The second night Keith and Mick were supposed to come in but didn’t. On the third night however, they all came in...
“Listen , hi how are you? They sent ME out here – I don’t know why but they sent me to come and ask if you have rolling papers anywhere or if you could buy some?” This was the first thing Keith Richards said to me. “Of course I will be happy to go get rolling papers,” I said. And off I went down the street on my first little errand for the boys.
Meeting them was an extension of listening to them. I wasn’t nervous around these people. For some reason, it was surprisingly comfortable. Then again, it was a constant all night party. “Comfortable” would be putting it mildly...
The studio staff during these sessions were just myself and Abel Domingues, who was the official night manager. I was assistant to the night manager I guess. A big part of my job was keeping out unwanted visitors – that is to say, they invited plenty of people to stop by all the time, but they wanted them to be entertained in the lounge. I answered the phone and greeted guests – everyone from their children to Les Paul and Bob Dylan. I ordered cars, meals, trafficked messages, emptied ashtrays. I put out fresh flowers. People would just show up and wander in to the session – so I was told to under all circumstances keep them in the lounge and curb the interruptions. For the studio door Keith drew this hysterical skull and crossbones sign with the text below: “DO NOT ENTER – even if you met Mick or Ronnie in a club and they said call in! See the studio staff.”
Here you see one of Keith’s rolling guitar closets: Does it kill you? Ready, set, drool: From top to bottom: ’59 Tele, 5-string Blonde tele, 5-string Sunburst Tele, #1 Custom Tele, 5-string Telecaster, Black Tele and on the ground: Jazzmaster, 2 tone Sunburst Strat, Ron Wood Sunburst Strat, Esquire, Sunburst Strat, Ron Wood Blond Strat and on the side: 1952 Telecaster...1952! And these are just the ones I captured on two shots – there were plenty more!
Alan Rogan was my favorite part of this whole circus. He was onboard to look after all the guitars and amps, which was a whole sub-circus in itself. We called it Alan Rogan's Guitar and Amp show. Not only did he maintain all this stuff for Keith and Ronnie, he was always out shopping for other British Rock stars during the day and I mean by the time he got going it was the classiest collection of American vintage guitars anywhere on the planet! Alan and I bonded immediately, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. I saw him three months ago, on the Who Tour, because his main gig is, get this, he’s been Pete Townsend’s guitar tech since the mid 70s. In fact he’s invited me to hear Pete and various Who tours since way back then! He’s the funniest guy I’ve ever met. Always making fun of EVERYTHING: America, The Stones, New York, rock stars, women – his satire is downright hilarious, especially in the context. AND he let me play all of Keith’s 50’s Teles...
In the middle of the night you could find him excitedly chatting away about some super vintage ultra exclusive guitar. Who is he talking to at this crazy hour I’d wonder? He’d hang up after 20 minutes looking very pleased and say: “Eric says hi!” “Eric who?” “Clapton.” “Oh.”
Alan was “borrowed” for the Stones that summer. They were lucky to get him – he’s a busy guy – the world’s foremost guitar tech to elite British rock stars. He works for George Harrison, Eric Clapton, ACDC, and plenty of other people I can’t recall at the moment. Needless to say, “Pete Townshend” was all I needed to hear. Poor guy, I picked his brain about The Who, little by little every night. He NEVER does interviews. All the guitar magazines call him all the time but his attitude is: Why should I tell you anything? Believe me, it’s part of the reason they all love him: he’s a total straight shooter, into the work for the work’s sake. I think he could care less about the fame of his clients...but his passion: he really deeply loves...guitars. And amps. And he loves constantly making everyone around him laugh out loud. He is loved by all who know him.
There was an entire cast of characters that showed up more or less every night. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts did make it in to do some overdubs but they were only around for a week or so, their bit was done in France. Some of these people were around as much or more than The Stones. Frankly, The Stones weren’t in such great shape as a unit. Mick had just released his first solo album “She’s the Boss” and it was doing pretty well. There was tension. Sometimes I messengered over master reels to some other studio entirely for Mick to do his vocals! Needless to say, I had never hung out with a band where everyone has his or her own individual manager. It got to where I could tell what kind of night it would be right away by what tracks they played back in the control room at the start of the evening. Some songs were more Mick’s, some were Keith and Ronnie’s which led to that some nights were Mick’s, some were Keith and Ronnie’s. Guess which were more fun?...
Keith and Ronnie were a team. They kept the party going pretty good. They jammed all the time with Steve Jordan (drums) and Charlie Drayton on bass. This became Keith’s new band if you remember. Indeed the name was coined right here during this time: The Expensive Winos. I think they did two records. Don Covay, who wrote “Mercy Mercy” and Aretha’s “Chain of Fools.” He was a gentle sweet man – raised on gospel, started his first secular band with Marvin Gaye and started his solo career with Little Richard.
Do you have a copy of Dirty Work? It’s the ultimate recording to listen to while you read my memoirs here! Listen to the background vocals on “Harlem Shuffle.” That’s him and Bobby Womack supplying the soul! Bobby Womack’s early band The Valentinos had a hit with “It’s all Over Now” which of course our friends The Stones later recorded. Other artists he's worked with on songwriting or session work include Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix and Wilson Pickett.
So one night they Bobby invited me into the studio. I heard one beautiful stunning jam that night. Bobby Womack on guitar, Alan Rogan on bass, Ron Wood on drums, Don Covay singing and Keith Richards at the piano – a shiny black Steinway grand. I sat between the drums and the piano. Ron’s drumming was wonderful but funny! His inflections and breaks are all very guitar-minded. That night they played and it just flowed out of them. They ran a song over and over. It had the repeated line “Some of us are down on our knees...” A gospel vibe to it...I don’t remember the name of the tune, but it was haunting and they talked about it for days. It never made it to the record.
Most of the time it felt like being around any experienced and successful musicians. But then someone in the entourage would bring it back home: on a gig they get 10 million dollars just for showing up and 15 million for merchandise.
The Women: Ron’s beautiful wife Jo was in a lot of the time. I liked her – she was always up for the party and dressed to kill. The dynamic Kirsty MacColl, who was married to Steve Lillywhite came in many a night. Tragically, she was killed in December of 2000 by a speedboat while vacationing with her sons off the coast of Mexico. She was the daughter of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, Pete’s sister. So she was Pete Seeger’s niece. A brilliant pop songwriter, and always upbeat and amusing. They had just had the first child at this time, but she didn’t seem the least bit stressed out. Listen to her album “Titanic Days” for some top-notch British irony and first class songwriting. Jane Rose was Keith Richard’s personal manager. Beautiful Jewish woman, always wore fishnets and heels, a total Rolling Stones lady. But her priority was Keith Richards and she looked out for her client. As far as women, this was the core crew. We had some special visitors of course too – like Patti Scialfa, Bruce's back up singer at the time, whom he later married. I never met Jerry Hall, but I spoke with her on the phone a few times. She was the only person in the whole six weeks that always asked for “Mick Jagger” when she called instead of “Mick.”
Sometimes we ordered Chinese food. Keith ordered duck. I swear I am not making this up...Remember there were rumors about Bill Wyman leaving The Stones years before he did? Everyone joked with him openly about it too. So one night he opened a fortune cookie that read: “It is time to seek new employment” I swear!! I got two – One that said “Now is the time” and another that said “In a month your responsibilities will be alleviated.” Just unbelievable...
Happy Birthday Mick. So the engineer Dave Jerden and Mick have birthdays a day apart and we decided to get them some cake and sing. I ordered cakes at a West Village bakery and when I went to pick them up I told the girl there that one was for Mick Jagger and without missing a beat she said, “I thought his birthday was tomorrow,” and she was right. Anyway we busted out the cakes at 5am in the morning, when they took a break, there were only about five of us and I got to stand next to him singing Happy Birthday to himself and Dave. So I guess I sang with Mick Jagger, right? OK, anyway...and he invited me to his party at the Palladium but I was so tired from being up all night every night – besides, I’d had my kicks regarding Mick Jagger’s Birthday already.
So what were they like? Ron Wood was a sweetheart, real friendly. No airs at all. He asked me to jam the first time I met him. Party animal. Outgoing. Invited everyone in New York to stop by and entertained them graciously when they did. Keith? He’s how you’d imagine him. Except: his trick is that he’s never as fucked up as his image would suggest, even if he lets you continue thinking he is. No – you see he’s actually quite in control. Quiet sometimes, but never difficult or off-putting. Mick – initially cool and, well, a little distant yes – I mean he IS Mick Jagger. But he warmed up considerably and in the end I had a lot of respect for him and how he wanted to go about things. He was certainly more mindful of his celebrity. If I ordered cars for Keith and Ronnie, they would all go down more or less when the car would be there. Keith even took street cabs! He’d sign autographs for all the kids waiting – which they were when word got out – every night outside the studio. Now Mick on the other hand, would expect me to go down and make SURE the car was waiting and would definitely NOT want a crowd there. But so what? If you were Mick Jagger I'm sure you’d want to be left alone on your way home too.
I said then and I say now: they are all gentlemen in my book. They were consistently gracious. They included us in conversations, and food orders – and other things. They welcomed Abel and myself into their world, when they could have easily kept us at arms length.
They were just like ANY other band when they watched concert footage on video from 12 years prior of themselves someone had brought in. The usual: Swearing they couldn’t hear the monitors enough, remembering how awful the sound was onstage and teasing each other about their look and moves. Same when they read reviews – well, mostly Mick who had his first solo album out – combing over and gently mocking every phrase that perturbed him.
One night early on, the Stones let us in on that they might sit in with Lonnie Mack playing at The Lone Star. I called a few friends but no one believed me. Remember, this was back when seeing half of The Stones sit in with anyone in a small club could be THE defining rock concert memory in your whole life. And it was spectacular! The place was just around the corner from the studio. They put us on the guest list, we sat around and heard Lonnie Mack play some wonderful blues and then all The Rolling Stones walked in with Bob Dylan! They went to sit upstairs and sure enough Keith and Ronnie soon went onstage to join him while Mick stayed up there. Ronnie played slide with Keith’s jack knife. Everyone in the club was ecstatic. They played about half an hour. The New York Post put a huge picture on the cover the next day.
That was the first in a long line of amazing party nights upstairs. Patti Hansen was there, as was Ron Wood’s wife, Bob Dylan came up and a bunch of assorted crazy friends. This was the first night Mick was around too. I had to come in early to get two bottles of Stoly among other things for The Stones. I was helping serve drinks and having a few myself, and Abel decides to take out his Hawaiian Steel guitar. For some reason I was trying to play it right away – what an icebreaker! I had just begun playing electric guitar, but this thing was easy to get a groove on, at least in the state of mind I was in...
“Do you know how to play that thing?” Bob Dylan asked. Who knows what I answered but we chatted for a few moments and he was pretty quiet the rest of the evening. Abel swears to this day I’m the only person he spoke with all night.
What I do remember is Keith and Ronnie teasing me about being “next in the studio for some heavy overdubs!? Sounds good sister! Are you on some sort of crash course for this sort of thing or do you do this all the time?” “I do this all the time,” I said.
In fact I was just starting. I was good with chords, and knew some licks. My repertoire of little licks centered around The Who, Stones, Zeppelin, Richard Lloyd, Television and Tom Verlaine. (Umm...I think that still about wraps it up) I remember being very loose around them and un-self-conscious. It was just easy to be there. They were altogether encouraging. Keith said he’d love to hear me play when I get it together. He asked me who I like on guitar and I said Richard Lloyd, who had just released Field of Fire with all my friends in Orebro, Sweden. He turned to his manager and said slowly and seriously: “The girl’s got taste!”
I had a 1965 Fender Mustang and a Rockman, which were brand new at the time. A little device the size of a portable tape recorder at the time, which lets you play electric guitar through headphones and choose from 4 settings. I had the pleasure of demonstrating the Rockman for Keith, (“here’s distortion 1, here’s distortion 2, clean setting and edge”) which he seemed to think was a new and useful tool. Alan walked by and rolled his eyes, saying “You got three of those for Christmas at home!” It could also be used as an effects box and they put Bobby Womack’s guitar through it one night.
A typical night would start around 7pm with Steve Lillywhite and Dave Jerden coming in to listen to the previous nights work, make comps, put up rough mixes. I would ceremoniously arrange all this cheese and fruit in the lounge that no-one touched all night. Threw it all out the next morning. Studio formality. Until midnight it was mostly quiet and uneventful. If Rogan was anywhere near Abel and I would be guaranteed entertainment of course. Sometimes I'd go in and look at their amp settings.
Alan would let us drool while he did a set up on a 50s Tele. We might order dinner. Dave Jerden ordered the same sushi deluxe from the same restaurant every single night. Around 9:00 they would start calling in and seeing who was there, who was coming in and by midnight or so there would be a bunch of Rolling Stones and assorted folk all over the place. They would be between the studio and the lounge, recording and entertaining guests until 9am when the sun was out and we all went home. Some nights there were 20 people there – other musicians like Clem Burke, his girlfriend in the Go-Go’s, or Tom Waits or business associates of theirs.
I asked Bill German, who ran the official Rolling Stones Fanzine “Beggars Banquet,” if any fans ever had the dumb luck I had – to fall into a full length recording situation with The Stones and he said no, in his seven years of covering all their moves and having access to them, no really big fans were ever in my position in his memory. Here I was guarding The Stones gate! Even Bill German had to play phone tag with them through me. It was surreal. (The photo on the homepage at the Beggars Banquet site of Keith and Ronnie was taken as the sun was coming up one morning at RPM during these sessions. I even remember it.)
One night Jimmy Cliff came up. The first thing he asked me to do was to call all the major hotels in New York to try to find his musicians just in from Jamaica! He was just going to visit and on his way out, around 3:30am Ronnie roped him back in to the studio for some vocals and by the time he came out it was morning. He sang on “Too Rude” - perfect harmony on the first take. It’s a reggae tune – my favorite on the record. Just so you know, when they record vocals they all lean into a mike the gentleman’s waya2 to do harmonies. “To hell with this multimiking business!,” said the assistant engineer Mike Krowiak. Finally, in the morning they all stumbled out; into the elevator goes Ronnie, Steve Jordan, Charlie Drayton, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. The studio is in a residential building and there was an elderly gentleman in the elevator. The look on his face wouldn’t have been more shocked if six drunk and stoned aliens from outer space got on with him!
Then I would clean up for the day session, and sometimes run into clients for the day. I'd make my way home to the East Village with sunglasses and try to fall asleep all morning. The last track on the record is “Sleep Tonight:” “You better get some sleep tonight, Baby, all you gotta do is close your eyes.” Well not quite. But they were always worth getting up for.
They extended the stay at RPM to 6 weeks. In the next installment I’ll tell you about when Les Paul visited, about Charlie and Bill coming to touch up some tracks, about meeting Keith’s Dad and son Marlon, conversations with Mick, being invited to hear them mix at the next studio and more. I welcome your questions – If I can confirm any rumors or settle any Rolling Stones issues for you I’d be happy to!
Cheers for now!