Stacks of wax

Adventures at the bottom of the music trade

When I was new on the job, Sam introduced me to Jack Shaw. "He's a great guy," he kept telling me. "Wait till you meet him."

One day the elevator door opened, and Sam wheeled Jack Shaw out. He was a crippled midget in a wheelchair, a human pretzel with a Svengali goatee. "Isn't he great?" asked Sam, with utmost sincerity. And thereafter, Sam and Jesus were forever relieved of the task of wheeling Jack Shaw home from Dorn's sessions, where he was a frequent personage.

Dorn and Lifton helped support him and remained loyal as Shaw's health deteriorated. Shaw had once co-produced Fathead Newman albums with Dorn, and wrote under pseudonyms for Tiger Beat.

Which one of these people has a penchant for Tony Orlando & Dawn and diarrhea? It's not Rahsaan Roland Kirk, third from left.
Atlantic Records
Which one of these people has a penchant for Tony Orlando & Dawn and diarrhea? It's not Rahsaan Roland Kirk, third from left.

I was often sent to fetch Shaw from his reeking West 57th Street apartment. And there, disassembled from his oxygen tank, his apartment overflowing with garbage, was Jack, stranded in the middle of it, crawling over a trash heap like a deformed baby, the bones of his ass hitched up, his scraggly, bearded face gasping for air. Soon I was shopping for his groceries (imitation "cheese food" was his favorite). The poor guy needed more help than he got. When it was time to urinate, even in the studio, he would fumble out his disarmingly large pecker and piss into a bottle, oblivious to strangers.

As a Philadelphia jazz DJ with Dorn, he had somehow been able to drive, and had chauffeured Lenny Bruce to gigs in Philly. Jack described his wheelchair vantage point as a "crotch-eyed view of the world." I waited for some nugget of wisdom as payoff for all the errands I ran for Shaw on my own time. He'd contemplate my questions about jazz or about how I might advance as a studio guitarist. He'd twist his face into a wizened grimace, stroke his beard, looking heavenward, deep in thought as I waited for one kernel of crotch-eyed wisdom -- but I never got it.


Occasionally, Regent Sound went into some ridiculous high-security mode, and Studio A was declared off-limits. Once, for a James Taylor-Carly Simon duet. Regent's mild-mannered security man, Fred, sat quietly in the Studio A reception area every night; he was unassuming and slightly built, but would pat the .38 under his jacket whenever I inquired whether he could really fend off an attack.

For a brief Raquel Welch visit, Joel Dorn ordered me, Jesus, and even Sam off the third floor. I would often retreat to the windowless fifth floor to be alone when my ego was wounded, and commune with the tapes as I slowly ordered them.

"What the hell does he do up there?" Bess the bookkeeper would always complain to whoever would listen.

That very week, Raquel Welch and Shep Gordon, who also managed Alice Cooper, were in hot pursuit of my dad to write her authorized biography -- a high-paying project that my father considered during a time of financial strain, though he wrestled with the humiliating subject matter. He did tell Welch that his boy worked at Regent, and to say hello. And so I stayed on the fifth floor, waiting for an intercom buzz summoning me down at her request so I could broach their pompous security. She never called. My father turned down the book the next day.

When Carol, the gorgeous Haitian receptionist, punched out at night, studio musicians and engineers would fight to sit upon her swivel chair while it was still warm. Her flanks were awe-inspiring. She transformed from prim librarian to bombshell by doffing her thick eyeglasses and releasing her hair bun, haughtily ignoring wolf whistles from janitors and elevator men. She never once visited me on the fifth floor, a dump she wouldn't dream of entering. She eventually married chief engineer Vince McGarry.

Bess would often complain about me or Sam to Carol, suspicious that my $60-a-week salary was a waste, since they couldn't watch me upstairs. In fact, after endless dusty afternoons spent separating crusty, waterlogged tape boxes and deciphering their faded origins, I had whittled down the fifth-floor heap to one row. My two-year odyssey was nearly complete. In a week or so, I could type up the master log and present a fully ordered library to my boss, Robert Lifton.

But then, suddenly, I was "laid off." Lifton mumbled something about "unions cracking down" and regretting my departure, but ol' Bess, the wicked business manager, had convinced him the budget had to be cut. I was lowest man on the totem pole. I learned a basic tenet of business: I had no clients, brought no accounts into the business.

"But the tapes!" I cried. My masterwork of inventory organization was nearly complete.

"Oh, those," said Lifton. "Don't worry, we'll take care of 'em."

Dorn's reign lasted but a few more years. "When you're just a pure artist, when you do what you want when you want -- that doesn't lay well with businesspeople. As long as you make them money, they'll put up with your nonsense. I had a 15-year run; it was unbelievable.

"What happened at the end of the '70s, early '80s, is when the corporate takeover of music in this country was completed. Now lawyers and accountants and non-in-the-street, non-late-night people were running the music business. They observed it the way businessmen do. They said, 'Let's see. This kind of record that sounds this way goes on this kinda radio, sells at this retail, and pulls this audience at this venue.' They applied the laws of logic to art. And you can't. They changed the music business forever. The wildcatters are gone. These are all corporate folks. It finished it for guys like us."

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