By John Cody
|Photo by Brad Elterman|
Harvey Kubernik is a Los Angeles legend. Born and raised there, the city is in his blood. He saw the Beach Boys play local gigs in 1962. As a teenager he danced on American Bandstand the day the Mamas and Papas debuted their first single, “California Dreamin’.” He played on sessions for the greatest producer of them all, Wall Of Sound architect Phil Spector. Name a musician from Los Angeles, and chances are Harvey knows them. I spoke with him last month, in a freewheeling 2 ½ hour conversation that felt more like old friends catching up than a typical interview.
Outsiders have written about the city and it’s colorful musical history for decades, but Kubernik was there. Van Dyke Parks credits Kubernik as one of the few writers fighting the rampant revisionist history of pop and rock documentation. He gets it right. For one thing, he’s honest: “Unlike most people in Hollywood, I don’t hide my age (he’s 54). I have recall like no one’s ever seen because I don’t try to reinvent myself…I’m a real Angelino talking about what happened. It’s usually New Yorkers or people from England who define L.A.”
This is Rebel Music, subtitled The Harvey Kubernik InnerViews, is his first book. But he’s hardly a neophyte. For over 30 years he’s written for a wide variety of music magazines, including Melody Maker and MOJO. “Fortunately or unfortunately I devoted my life to a world of service for other people – my name is on 180 books – thanked, quoted, sometimes a little bit ghosted. I’m not complaining about it, I choose to be a team player and assist many people, because the keys to the kingdom often reside in my mailbox.”
“These aren’t just old interviews, there’s a wingspan over the 80s to the present century…I always knew that things I liked would come around. And I knew it before the box sets and CDs were reissued. I just knew the people were important and had longevity, that they had an influence on people’s record collections. And more important, they had an influence on my record collection.”
Offering lengthy in-depth conversations, Kubernik knows these people, in some cases for decades. The famous – Keith Richards, Chrissie Hynde, Marianne Faithful, Ravi Shankar, Grace Slick, Ray Manzarek, and Allen Ginsberg – rub shoulders with important behind-the-scenes movers and shakers, including Motown records founder Berry Gordy, arranger Jack Nitzsche, original Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, and drummer Jim Keltner.
“These are friends of mine. I was there so often at startup or launch events of their own careers – be it something at the Whiskey, or Jack Nitzsche recording sessions, that I had a little bit of entry into watching this stuff before magazines and books picked up on it.”
“L.A., Southern California and Hollywood in the last 10 years, somehow the microscope to the worldwide media started coming here. Music writers, journalists, West Coast bureaus, articles about LA punk rock, country rock.. That sort of stuff didn’t exist 15 years ago.”
“You read the book, and about halfway through you realize, “this guy is taking me through Los Angeles and Hollywood that I have never experienced before…I’m the guy you always wished wrote a book. I don’t want to come across like I’m some macho cat, but know that Michelangelo Antonio said the film sometimes follows you from the theatre. This book follows you… It validates your own life as a DJ, a collector, as a writer…you leave the table, you learn 300 new things.”
I mentioned it was easy to relate to his enthusiasm, as my own record/Cd collection is in the neighborhood of 80,000 titles. “We all kind of line up together because we are on the side of rock’n’roll…a guy like me who’s kind of part rock scholar, super-fan, musician/producer, musicologist, record collector geek, but somehow, I filled in gaps to your own record collection. Do you know how hard that is?”
“I’m not writing for fan magazines. This is hardcover rock ‘n’ roll book stuff. This book is connected. I know that you learned a lot… We’ve never met, yet you feel like we know each other, more than just about every rock music book that you’ve ever read.”
“My own inherent sense of musicality, whether by producing records, being a former drummer/percussionist on a few things, whatever, I think it empowers the questions and the responses, that I bring in musicality, as well as record collecting and geek information… I wouldn’t get the responses if I didn’t bring that to the party, and I think that differentiates me from most of people that put together collections of interviews that appeared in Rolling Stone or Musician, and I’m not putting them down.
He rarely references other writers. After so many years, he’s covered it all, and if he checks the files, more often that not: “the original writer was me…You have to live the life to document the stuff. And this book is not laced totally with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. That’s not what I’m selling. I’m selling survival, renewal, teamwork, and passion.
“I’m a student of history. I know that someone like Jack Kerouac had maybe six books written before On The Road was purchased. And so, I said I know this is good, but I was also adamant that I wanted to do long form discussions and dialogues with people, between 3,000 and 10,000 word interviews. It was my reaction to the short sound byte world that was happening in print journalism in the last 10 years. So I kinda cooked my own goose because I was insistent that there be long introductions with these questions and answers, and that format didn’t fly with a lot of current publishers. That seemed to be something that if I remedied that, things could have happened.”
“This is a shortcut society – imminent and immediate gratification. Nobody wants to take the long route. I wasn’t interested in 15 minutes, 15 years, I was always interested in 50 years.” Even growing up, “…most of my friends were 5 or 10 years older, which sometimes felt like 40 years older. I would be 18 they’d be 28 but they were married with a kid…I fell in with older people. That’s why I produced on Buddy Collette. These people were 10, 20, 30 years older than me. That’s not to say I didn’t hang out with people my own age. I realized it was the long, big picture.”
His second book – due next year – is entitled Hollywood Shack Job. “It’s my ‘Hollywood Movie Project,’ even if it wasn’t a screenplay. It’s a collection of me talking to directors, music supervisors, actors, musicians, composers.” Interviews include Robbie Robertson (The Last Waltz), James Ellroy/Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), and D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back/Monterey Pop), music supervisors for The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under, and such acclaimed directors as Paul Thomas Anderson and Baz Luhrmann, all discussing the use of music in film.
Memory As Calendar completes the trilogy. He’s still working on it, but at this point the book, which continues the loose theme of Rebel Music, will feature, among others, interviews with Leonard Cohen, Dick Clark, Johnny Cash, Bill Wyman, Phil Spector, Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach.
Andrew Loog Oldham manages to show up in all three books. As the man who pretty much invented the Rolling Stones, his story is fascinating, and is documented in his autobiographies Stoned and 2Stoned which are well worth seeking out for those interested in 60’s pop music.
Kubernik is fascinated with those who are sometimes relegated to behind the scenes, particularly drummers and arrangers: “The drummers slip through the book. Sometimes they’re plants, sometimes they’re people I went to go see, sometimes even picking my seat to be close to the drum stool. I’m not a frustrated musician. I was only in one band briefly forty years ago. The Rip Tides – a surf group. Being a drummer I know what it’s like to watch Hal Blaine tune his drums, or the cartage arrive for Jim Keltner. I meticulously watched this stuff. Charlie Watts wrote the liner endorsement for the Buddy Collette record I produced. I’d much rather hang with the drummer than the lead singer.
“I could go on for hours about drummers. Do you see the number of drummers thanked in my book? Even Jim Keltner (is) a drum-specific thing, although it’s cloaked in a George Harrison memoir, you still feel his relationship with Ringo. I still get to lay out Jim’s credits as a drummer. When the chips were down, I wasn’t going to go hide my drummer badge when it was time to do a book. I do know that when you’d see Hal Blaine, that was somebody who played with Lenny Bruce once. Look at the Jefferson Airplane. Earl Palmer recommended Spencer Dryden, who was playing at places like Sardi’s out here, but in a strip place too. They had to back Go Go dancers, and all kinds of people, yet it taught them finesse, it taught then not to showboat. I think today whether it be equipment, the sound system, people want to come to the show and hear a repertoire of hits, and the vocals and the vocalist is spotlighted. The drummer is sort of a little bit to the back of the bus again. Maybe it started with the sound system, maybe that’s the role you accept. You’re really there to provide a beat on the team. But I think most of the people – they don’t have the history or the experience of doing all kinds of gigs to educate them. …today (it’s) let’s go into the studio, Protools and sound tools, and then we have a development deal and a demo deal out there, and lets just go showcase after six months at SXSW or CMJ.”
His work as a writer and producer has always superseded that of his drumming: “I don’t have a sense of regret because of a handful of Spector dates I played on in the late 70s, whether it be percussion, handclaps being at sessions for Darlene Love, Dion, Paley Brothers, Ramones, whatever. I don’t have to be in a band after having that exposure to Phil and all those players. It was a monumental impact on me in how music is made and I try to bring sort of a little bit of Wall of Sound to the way this book is constructed.” Those experiences helped birth an equal passion for the unsung heroes of many a sessions, the arrangers. While he describes the drummer as guiding the tugboat, as the heartbeat, he likens arrangers to “sort of like the aorta.”
“How often do people discuss arrangers? Remember I always cared about engineers and arrangers, I think you can tell by reading the intro of the book.” He lists Johnny Pate for his work with the Impressions and Nelson Riddle for Frank Sinatra, but his all time favorite is Jack Nitzsche. “Jack spelled out the ingredients to the Wall of Sound that were mostly funneled through him initially. He explains how it was his rolodex that fueled most of these people. I know that was new information for most readers. So if I’m just getting the music building blocks out there, then I’m doing one of my jobs.
Kubernik is a disciple of rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s not something he takes lightly. He retains his passion for the music, and it’s transforming power.
“I could be Billy Sunday or Billy Graham, what’s the word – a zealot – for the religious fervor I feel about rock ‘n’ roll. Evangelist Kubernik at your church. People like Johnny Cash brought me closer to the Christian community. Johnny’s in my third book – an interview from 30 years ago when he was promoting The Man In Black and appearing at a Christian booksellers conference in Orange County. I welcome that kind of stuff in my life. Johnny blended rock ‘n’ roll and his faith-driven life. He had a religious zeal, a sense of purpose, both propelled by a firm musical rhythm section, and guidance that saved him and helped us who were fortunate to hear his music, or talk to him. We all bring Johnny’s legacy forward.”
|Cover photo by Heather Harris, courtesy of University of New Mexico Press|
He lists Jim Keltner as another ‘musical light,’ a mentor who has impacted his thinking: “For decades (he) has offered me faith-based concerns that stem from his own religious background and musical journey. Jim took me to one of the 1980 Bob Dylan concerts when Slow Train Comin’ was released [Keltner was playing with Dylan at the time] and that was another trip where rock ‘n’ roll and religion paired up on stage. At a very early age, decades ago, when I was first really toying with the idea of making music, producing it, or writing about it, Jim really went out of his way to explain the concept of ‘the law of giving’ …my trek has definitely included some of his instructions.”
I asked about the power of the music: “…sometimes there are gigs, evenings and events that are almost as reinforcing as the religions I have been placed in, discovered or absorbed. Sometimes a record, and once in a while a live music experience, like a Bob Marley and Wailers recital, or many 1960s and ’70s Rolling Stones concerts entered ‘the evangelical zone…’ He compares the experience with his visits to temples, churches, reading the zohar – a sacred Kabalistic commentary on the Torah – visiting the Self-Realization Fellowship, and encountering Krisnamurti on video tape.
There have been times when circumstances have caused him to question life and existence: “and suddenly a song comes on the radio, I play a recording, or a tune magically appears right in front of my eyes and ears with ’”the answers’” and the pain vanishes, or isn’t as bad.”
For Harvey, a perfect example of rock and religion “colliding and collaborating” was soul/gospel legend Curtis Mayfield’s funeral at the First AME Church in L.A. Members of The Impressions, Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder performed a celebration of Mayfield’s music; “I was totally bummed out by the realization of the physical loss of Curtis Mayfield, one of my main men, but a sad scene became an uplifting situation, and I was reminded about the power of rock ‘n’ roll to acknowledge and heal.
Brian Wilson – who wrote the book’s back cover endorsement -is another long-time inspiration. Kubernik cites Wilson’s late sixties and early seventies compositions – ‘This Whole World’ and ”Til I Die’ being prime examples – as another area where rock and religion co-exist.
Seeing Brian and his band perform this past summer was typically inspiring; “Maybe it was my own cruise from kid with a skateboard to author now hearing his music. Brian has always encouraged me. “Are you writing? Are you in the studio?” …I took a longtime friend to the show, who was in pain and really needed to hear Smile, and my reward for this gesture was some initial feeling of transformation or receivership I had not planned on. Brian playing ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ on the piano in his dressing room before the concert, so I got my Phil Spector taste, and they did “Then She Kissed Me” in the repertoire. In addition, Jack Nitzsche was in the air, he lived a mile or two from the Hollywood Bowl. I felt the pull of a Southland melodic trinity. What a lucky and fortunate human being I am…”
He might emphasize the music’s history, but he’s not stuck in the past: “There are also current bands and new sounds that offer spiritual renewal, and there are radio shows, like Little Steven’s Underground Garage that I do indeed listen to religiously.”
In addition to pulling double duty with Bruce Springsteen and portraying Silvio Dante on The Sopranos, Steven Van Zandt helms the popular radio show. In the book he shares his feelings about the transforming power of music: “We were and are spiritually bankrupt, and in a state of confusion ever since the sixties opened up our eyes, and we never recovered as a culture. We’ve never found that zeitgeist or that paradigm or the next thing where people can relax and say, ‘O.K… I know who I am, I know who our country is. We know who we are collectively.’ That’s never happened. We started getting bounced around when politics started to really become show business, until the media became so powerful.” Little Steven’s Underground Garage harkens back to the days when music could bring people together, as he’s seen this occur with his audience: “I don’t mean to be blasphemous, but I look at rock-‘n’-roll as a religion, regardless or their age, a certain common ground with this type or that, I can’t explain, but I know it exists.”
Grace Slick points out that in her case, what looked like revolutionary actions during the sixties was to some extent simply a result of her then undiagnosed alcoholism – an idea hardly considered by the counterculture at the time – alcohol was considered their parent’s drug of choice. Airplane guitarist Paul Kantner still talks of fighting the revolution, but former band mate Jorma Kaukonen sees many of their exploits as that of spoilt kids, who didn’t really grasp the big picture. In 1971 Slick and Kantner had a daughter, who they attempted to name ‘God’ – although this was more than likely just a way to upset the press. They settled on China.
Harvey is good friends with China and her husband, who are born again Christians. I asked how her parents felt about their child being so far from them philosophically: “Just seeing China embracing her life and health seems to be a really positive thing…She seems blessed.” And family relationships? “In my last chat with her she and her mom were getting close. She’s also mending fences with her father.” He doesn’t see the embracing of Christianity as a reaction or rebellion against her parents – “I’ve known China since she was a small child, and besides retiring to college, leaving the acting world, and life as an MTV VJ, she is now very happy in her studies and faith…A life as example. One thing about Paul and Grace is that they encouraged all sorts of open door activities that might have influenced China to pursue her own soul seeking (ad)ventures.”
An interesting side note; the similarly named Chynna Phillips, daughter of Mamas and Papas founders John and Michelle Phillips, and a member of multi-platinum singing group Wilson Phillips, has a story much like Kantner’s – legendary excesses from her parents – in this case her father – and has since embarked on a very public embrace of her Christianity.
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
Considering the phrase can mean much more than a particular rhythmic pattern, or a musical form birthed in the 1950s, I asked Harvey for his personal definition of rock ‘n’ roll. “Heat, teamwork, inspiration, trust, helping others, getting the assist instead of the basket and collectively impact is made and achieved. It’s a signal. Sometimes rock ‘n’ roll is a harsh and potent reality. An audio lesson or stage event that extends beyond the grooves that you bring home or carry with you. For seconds or years.”
As an example of the rock ‘n’ roll spirit, he mentions Buddy Collette, a legendary Los Angeles flute and sax player who played with Louis Jordan and the original Chico Hamilton Quintet. “I place people like Buddy under the rock ‘n’ roll umbrella for various reasons. The main one is his supporting and hooking musicians up. As a teenager suggesting/convincing Charles Mingus to get a bass and leave his cello. And I know how much Mingus’ bass playing influenced future rock ‘n’ roll musicians decades later like Jack Bruce and Ray Manzarek.”
“As a jazz musician, Buddy played in the bands on early ’50s L.A. TV shows and backed the likes of the Robins and the Coasters. He wasn’t a jazz snob and extended and participated in rock ‘n’ roll in the very early days on screen.”
“In addition, I went to a gig years ago where Buddy and Chico performed – I know the influence Chico Hamilton had on Charlie Watts – and Buddy introduced me to horn player Jackie Kelso(n). They had a fifty year history as well. I thought it was pretty cool knowing Jackie Kelso was on stage at The Concert For Bangladesh as a member of The Hollywood Horns, and had a hunch, like Buddy, he must have logged some time on seminal R&B and rock ‘n’ roll gigs or as a sideman on legendary recording sessions. This was before the internet, cyberspace, massive record label re-releases, box sets and reissues with extensive liner notes. Somehow, Jackie and I got into a chat about surf music, and Jackie volunteered he did a sax session with The Sun Rays for “I Live For The Sun” and we talked about their drummer/singer Rick Henn. And, Ollie Mitchell was also on the track. Ollie was in Bangladesh. It’s all connected.
Another name he cites is jazz drumming legend Stan Levey: “Stan was rock ‘n’ roll as well. To survive living with Miles Davis and hanging/recording with Charlie Parker you had to be. This was a guy who lived under a bench in a park in New York City, even when it rained and snowed, in the 1940s, and later, when doing drums for Peggy Lee at Basin Street, he stayed at a swank hotel and still could look out the 10th floor window and see the same bench that was his previous cement-based residence.
Plus, Stan was a major influence on Charlie Watts and Jim Keltner. I arranged for Watts and Keltner both to go on screen to endorse Stan in his DVD The Original Original.
Rock ‘n’ roll is an attitude, and because a jazz cat like Stan extended to me as well, he is rock ‘n’ roll. Take a listen to Stan’s drumming on Gene Pitney’s “Town Without Pity.” Where big band discipline meets unabashed rock ‘n’ roll freedom, particularly at the end tag fade of the track.”
He concludes by bringing it all together with an example of rock ‘n’ roll, drumming, and faith intersecting at a funeral last month for a friend’s father, who was a drummer: “Another musician, a drummer…drove me to this funeral. The same resting spot as Stan Levey and right next door to where Rick(y) Nelson lies. At the conclusion of the service, the Rabbi went to the microphone and offered some telling observations, including a stern warning about “false friends who betray you.” I was stunned, since this had just happened to me. It hit home. The living drummer heard the Rabbi speak the same line like I did, turned to me, and suggested that “What the Rabbi just ran down is rock ‘n’ roll as well…” Yet, I somehow felt liberated by the Rabbi’s verbal offering in a room full of strangers. A blessing.” He returned home to find three new writing assignments on his voice mail “…and a phone call from a real rock ‘n’ roll woman we’d just heard on the radio on the drive to the Forest Lawn and Mt. Sinai venue.”
Thus, Harvey continues to fight the good fight, ready to tell the real story of what happened, what’s happening, and why it matters.
© John Cody 2005