The Canadian music industry is taking a somber pause today with the news that legendary record producer Jack Richardson has passed away at age 81. I fluked into the knowledge this morning while getting my daughter ready for school and turning on the TV to see the weather report, saw it as a crawl across the screen on CP24. I exclaimed out loud and after Em went downstairs to get ready I suddenly slumped onto the bed and felt the tears well up.
1985 was the year Jack Richardson began teaching recorded music production at Fanshawe College’s highly sought-after Music Industry Arts program. It was also the year I arrived there, having turned 18 a few months earlier, somehow having managed to secure one of 30 spots out of over 600 applicants (so I was told), and feeling pretty full of myself.
In the opening day assembly of both the first and second year students, the announcement was made: none other than Jack Richardson would be teaching full time in both the first and second year course, the announcement was greeted by a standing ovation. I looked around, recognizing that sickening “left-out” feeling….”Who is Jack Richardson?” I felt far too stupid and ashamed to ask. So I didn’t. It took me a long time to realize that he had produced none other than Max Webster’s Universal Juveniles album, which happened to be the first record I ever bought in my “grown up” collection (post-Monkees, post-Bay City Rollers, post-Kiss). And I realized that a lot of the the LP’s in my milk crate had his name on them: Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits, The Guess Who….Moxy.
The MIA program was a two-year trip down the rabbit-hole for me. I did not realize how much of a formative effect it had on me until much later in life, perhaps in some aspects maybe even until this morning, driving here, emotions and insights welling up, crying in the car at some points (and laughing my ass off once or twice).
Going from high school in a small town to a college course like Music Industry Arts is unlike any other post-secondary school path. My first day at MIA semed almost dreamlike. Everybody there was a musician, many of them older and more experienced (out of the 30 producers and 30 engineers in first year, only 4 of us had come directly from high school).
The first day of school we were sitting around in a recording studio mixing room, talking about sound, music, rock and roll. I strolled over to the campus radio station with a couple of guys I met and they knew somebody in the radio broadcasting course, we were standing there in the booth “hanging out” while he was doing his show, live, on air. It seemed surreal, like the high school I was in just a few months previously was doing the intellectual equivalent of “itsy bitsy spider, climbed up the mountain top” and here I was in this environment, so totally ultra-cool and hip and different.
It was amazing, and I couldn’t handle it.
The euphoria wore off very soon and after all the first years performed live musical auditions for the second year students I was thoroughly cowed and dejected. Going second last after 58 career musicians, many of which had been playing live, playing professionally, had done records I pretty well crumbled under the pressure, delivered a lackluster montage of guitar riffs and crawled under a rock. The purpose of the auditions was so that the other students would know who the new talent was and who would get called to work on other people’s recording sessions for class projects. I didn’t get one single call for the entire two years there.
Lession #1: Sometimes there are “hinge moments” when a lot of things ride on rising to the occasion. Failure is not an option doesn’t mean you will succeed.
After growing up in Cambridge, Ontario and being “the whiz kid” guitar player, the guy who was destined for greatness, going to be a rock star…I had blown that first big hinge moment in my life royally. It sucked, and it affected me deeply from then on.
It became very apparent very quickly that after a lifetime of being: gifted, exceptional, ahead-of-the-pack that I was now somewhere near the bottom of the heap. Unremarkable, unexceptional, struggling.
I basically kept my head down in MIA, and tried to keep up. My first song project was another abject failure, I went in with high hopes and after Jack listened to it I settled back in my chair, preparing for the praise that was about to heaped upon me by the legend. “Mark, you have some problems here…” was how it started, and for the next 45 minutes he tore the song to shreds….. (among other things, I had recorded the entire song in mono).
For my second project I was utterly and completely single-minded in my pursuit to show him I could actually do this, and it happened again. Another agonizing hour of decimation ending with “I’m sorry Mark, I honestly cannot think of one good thing to say about this track”.
After 2 years of this, I managed to claw my way from a D in these projects up to a B, I think I may have gotten a B+ on one track near the end of second-year. But I was dealing in alien territory. After being academically fast-tracked all my life and easily sauntering onto the honour role throughout high school, I was a marginal-at-best student here.
Lesson #2) Sometimes your best effort still sucks. (But if it’s something you’re passionate about, something inside you, you really have no other option but to learn and improve).
Aside from performing miserably in practical recording courses, I realized much later in life how much I had deeply internalized frequent nuggets of information from Jack during the music business lectures. His story about the Guess Who disturbed me on a level I couldn’t understand at the time. He mortgaged his house to produce the second or third Guess Who album (the one with “These Eyes” on it) – and it became a hit. Fortuitously, it became a hit at the same time their recording contract was up for renewal, so the record label had to pony up to keep the newly risen stars on the label.
It all worked out for Jack, “it doesn’t always happen that way” he cautioned. What bothered me about this episode was that it gave me a glimpse of how the world actually worked. It meant that these things didn’t follow some established procedure, you do this, you do that, you follow this set of rules, success follows. And I had grown up my entire life believing just that. It was all wrong.
Lesson #3) Sometimes you have to go “all in”
There are no formulas, there isn’t a set, procedural way to get through life or ascend up a career path. You had to make your own breaks, manufacture your own luck. As a kid who honestly thought that I was going to graduate, wave my diploma in the air and get hired by some hip record label or recording studio “just because”, I found this deeply troubling. Especially since I actually didn’t figure this out until much much later.
And then there is the one, deeply etched mantra, that is so deeply ingrained in me that I often over-act this and take on too much. But I remember that day well, maybe not his exact words but the definite message:
Lesson #4) Even though something may not be your fault it is still YOUR RESPONSIBILITY
To this day I’ve never known why a certain piece of advice or folk wisdom or anecdote will resonate deeply with me and become a central tenet of my entire being, but this was one of them. Jack explained it along the lines of:
When you’re producing a record, everything and I mean everything is your responsibility, no matter what happens or who it happens to. You are the guy delivering this record and no matter what occurs, it’s on you to get it done. So if the studio burns down, if the singer loses his voice or the bass player dies of a heroin overdose you’re the one who’s going to have to figure out what to do next.
I swallowed that one hook-line-and-sinker and kept hold of it to this day. Take Responsibility. Pure and simple. You often hear the opposite: “It’s not my fault because….”, that sequence of words in not in my vocabulary. I have no patience for it, I have zero tolerance for this way of thinking.
In retrospect think it’s served me well, perhaps the single lesson that was in itself the price of admission for those two years.
Eventually, graduation approached and over those years I heard many stories and anecdotes about previous graduates. Honeymoon Suite had graduated a couple years earlier and were at their zenith. When I heard these stories I was always crestfallen, because I knew deep down that I was not going to be one of those guys. One of those “success stories of MIA”. I was going to come and go through that course like I was never there and be utterly forgotten (musically anyway, it turns out I was held up as a some kind of curiosity when the internet came along a decade later)
By the time I graduated I had still not figured out how much it was up to me to “make things happen” and I became very disoriented and confused when nothing did. My graduating classmates seemed to understand this better than I and they went out into the world and “did stuff”. One of them engineered a Van Halen record (and that was when Van Halen was the original-4). Not me. I put my guitar under the bed for close to a decade, embarked on a series of dead-end jobs (record store, telemarketing, air cleaner sales) and career alcoholism.
It had all been a flop. That was my prognosis.
Over the years I started thinking about all of this, mainly from a (to quote the Pursuit of Happiness lyric) “what the hell went wrong?” perspective. Eventually I eased back into music, started playing in London bands. One of them even had a minor radio hit in the mid-90’s.
I drew back on my experiences in MIA and surmised
Lesson #5) It is vital to know what you’re good at and be able to admit what you suck at.
Which meant at the time, I knew I could play guitar and write pretty catchy music, but I was a liability behind the mixing board. So to this day, I just don’t get involved in that part of the recording process.
Back in the summer of ’85, gearing up for my coming “glory days” in MIA, I was reading a book called The Record Producers which contained mini-bios and interviews of famous record producers and I felt I had “missed out” on an era in music history when these guys career paths typically started out the same way: They would walk in off the street into a recording studio somewhere and get a gig rolling cables, making coffee, etc. They would take this informal apprenticeship approach and I found that very attractive. But I bemoaned that those days seemed to be gone for the record industry,
What happened next was pretty crazy, because this thing called “the internet” came along. Something very interesting happened. I suddenly figured out that “the internet” of the early to mid 90’s, was the music business of yesteryear.
There were no rules because it was all still new, everybody in the business was making it up as they went along.
Almost in a blinding flash, all of those painful lessons from 1985-1987 came back and hit me square in the face:
This was one of those rare periods in history when something big and new is emerging and if you can take responsibility, make your own luck and basically make things happen, you might do well.
I realized that the single most fortunate thing that could possibly happen to a person had happened to me: lightning had struck twice (sort of) – I had been handed a second chance. “If I knew then what I know now” had just come back to roost.
Because over the next few years I would understand some horrible, painful regretful lesson from the past and I would figure it out just as I needed it, or even better, slightly before I needed it (recall the old Ben Wicks quip “experience is something you don’t get until just after you need it”.)
So while for many years I considered my MIA stint and my “lost years” immediately after a failure, I have since come to realize that I would not be where I am today (a place I value very highly) without those experiences and without those teachers.