Learning, coincidence and reconnection. Sometimes a unique series of events come together to produce lasting memories. If you’re lucky, you actually get to see how these events continue to connect and expand into even more unique remembrances. And sometimes these recurrences excite suppressed yearnings.
Learning So it’s another Friday morning, I’m an AV engineer at GTN/CSG and checking the entertainment section in the newspaper before actually doing any real work. Jim McFarlin writes that a new local band called Skeleton Crew is playing tonight at the Wagon Wheel in Troy. This band is made up of some musicians that I have previously run sound for. Jim calls their music “power acoustic”. Geez, it’s been at least 4 years since I’ve seen Chris Badynee (ex- Cadillac Kidz bassist/songwriter), Russ Epker (ex- BSA guitarist) and Bill Pilipchuk (ex- BSA vocalist/songwriter). Maybe I’ll go. Ah, I don’t know…. Well, Darlene (my wife) probably won’t want to go since she has to get up early for work.……Ah, I don’t know, after all, it’s just the Wagon Wheel. Never ran sound there, it’s not exactly a rock joint. Large painting of Diamond Jim Brady on the outside. Oh well, better get some work done…….
Later that day, I run into Gary Pillon, the godfather of remote audio, playing with this weird microphone. He says it’s a prototype stereo sound pressure mic from Crown® called a SASS-P MKII® (Stereo Ambient Sampling System). This updated mic hasn’t yet been released (its serial number is 0003), and he tells that he’s been testing it out on classical music and choirs. He says it works great for getting that live acoustic sound of the room. Crown® has loaned it to him to try, all they want is informative feedback, and maybe some sample recordings.
What the hell, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. “Hey Gary, how’s about I try it out on a bunch of local rockers doing an acoustic gig tonight?” “Sure”, says the big man, “you can also use my new portable (TCD-D3) Sony® DAT recorder and some headphones. Just take some notes and bring it all back Monday.”
It’s 5 o’clock and I’m outta there. I roll home eat dinner, play with Chelsea, our 2 year old daughter and chat with Darlene, my again pregnant wife. After they both go to bed, I play around with the gear for awhile, then get ready to go to the show.
When I get to the club, the place is jam packed and the boys (Bill Pilipchuk, Scott Christy, Dan Hess, Chris Badynee, and Russ Epker) have already started. It must be 85 degrees and 90% humidity in the place. Humidity has a small, but measurable effect on sound speed (causing it to increase by about 0.1%-0.6%). Nothing like a hot, sweaty, smoky, dimly lit crowded club- this is my idea of a perfect combo for any show. It’s what Dave Rat calls the Thermodynamics of a Rock Show.
Their front of house (FOH) engineer, John Wysk, a fellow soundman in the Detroit scene for Toby Redd, and I have worked many a show together. His mix is perfect and the place is getting more crowded by the minute. I see many friends have arrived to cheer the boys on. In between songs, and after I buy him a beer, I tell John about the portable recording gear in my car and ask if it’s ok to give it a shot. “Go for it, man. Better get a spot quick, looks like the room’s gonna be too tight to move soon.” I tell the giant Bouncer I’ll be right back, just need to get some stuff in my car for the band.
I grab the gear, return to the entrance. Man, must be 40 people in line waiting to get in. Screw it, I push my way to the front carrying the gear. As soon as I get one foot in the door, the same Bouncer places his huge hand on my chest, stopping me dead in my tracks. Listen, 155lbs of a long hair soundman ain’t nothin’ next to a 250lb ex- linebacker.
“The place is too full, you’ll have to wait in line with the rest.”
“What the f… I just told you I was going to my car to get some recording gear.”
“It’s too packed, and the owner just told me not to let anyone else in until some people leave.”
“Dude, I just left, and now I’m coming back. Christ, don’t you remember me. It’s not like there’s anybody else with a handlebar moustache that just left to get some audio gear out of his car.”
“Sorry man, I can’t do anything about that, right now. You’re gonna hafta wait like–” Just then, the song ends. Again, if you don’t ask… (Holding up the gear) “John! Hey John!” Wysk nods to the Bouncer, who concedes (not without crap from everyone else waiting in line).
I setup as quick as I can. The mic is on a stand (thanks Gary!) about 40’ Stage Right of the band and 6’ from the floor. I set levels on the DAT and cross my fingers cause the headphones aren’t loud enough to really monitor with. The boys rip through 4 tunes (In Another Life; Don’t Look Back; One Last Chance; Since I Met You) before taking a break. Geez, I thought Bill’s voice was going to plunge the recording into digital overload on “One Last Chance”. That dude sure has some pipes! Good thing I was visually monitoring levels. And who the hell thought of covering a Hermione Gingold tune? Brilliant! It’s a good thing it wasn’t “The Borgias Are Having an Orgy”.
Holy Crap! Now that I’m not so focused on the recording, I realize that the place is about 100 degrees with 100% humidity and about to burst at the seams. I’m in the middle of a human car wash, without any protection for myself and the gear, and if I don’t move to some place safe, I could really be in trouble.
I move the gear next to John’s FOH console, buy him another beer, and promise not to get in his way. The mic is now 55’ from the stage, about 5’ from the back wall, and 6’ from the floor. Not exactly ideal, but at least it’s a drunk proof zone (I hope). The boys come back on for their last set. The place is so packed that Bill announces to the people still waiting in line that he will come outside and sing if they don’t let everyone in. The boys and the audience are thoroughly enjoying and playfully interacting with each other. I cross my fingers that the Crown® mic is doing its job. Everything is going smooth for 4 more tunes (Sentimental; Siren Song; Sea of Jealousy; We Ought to Know Better), when the batteries start to poop out as Chris begins to do “God Loves George Jones.” Thank God I’m not in the middle of the audience as I struggle to get the dead Duracell’s replaced, just in time to catch the end of the tune. Dang it! Shoulda checked the voltage levels before leaving the house. Fresh batteries allow me to continue as the boys pull out another 4 to close. (Excuse Me Sir; Paper Promises; Cry Myself Dry; Freedom On Your Mind).
At the end of the show, the boys go into the crowd to meet & greet. Rich Nelson from BSA and I try to listen to the playback, but the noise floor in the club has to be 90dB. If I push the monitoring level too high on the DAT, it sounds distorted. John makes me promise to get him a copy. Hopefully I can come through. I try listening via headphones on the way home, but the nuances of the recording are lost in the car road noise and my tinnitus. Man, have I just wasted my time, and dented my rep? Oh well, it was a memorable night either way. I’ll just hafta wait until Monday to give the tape a listen at the GTN studio with Gary.
That Monday afternoon I hookup with Gary. We give an initial listen, but he has other work pressing, so I leave a few blank cassettes for him to make copies. The next day (October 8th – for the significance of this date, read on), I pickup the cassette copies. The quality is pretty good, except for the area where the batteries died. The mic captures the essence of sitting in the audience better than anything else I’ve ever used. We both agree that the mic seems to work best from the first position. He asks if he can submit examples of the tunes to Crown®. I fill out the mic position info, attach it to a cassette copy of a few of the tunes, then sent it on its way. A few weeks later I received a copy of the Crown® SASS Demo CD as a thank you for my input. Gary went on to design a surround sound rig using two SASS-P MKII® mics, and Crown® gave him two free mics for his help. He still uses them to this day. I’ve used this mic to do a 3 day national college marching band competition, as well as some High School marching band recordings. Worked great every time!
Fast forward a few weeks later. Skelton Crew has another gig, so I drop off a cassette copy to John, buy him a couple of beers, and stay to enjoy the show with my lovely wife Darlene. A few months later, I get a call from Skeleton Crew asking if I can run sound for them. In 1992, I was slowly removing myself from the scene, only working gigs for special friends. Chelsea, our two year old daughter was my main focus, and our second daughter Hailee was on her way.
“John’s not available. Can you work the next few gigs? And, oh by the way, we now have a drummer.”
“Sure, why not. But, are you sure? I mean, I don’t exactly have a light touch and I might tend to Rock it up a bit more, especially now that you have a drummer.”
“We trust you. Please help.”
So I did. Filled in for John for about 6 gigs. It was a blast, but I really had to work to control my volume and keep a ‘light touch’. The boys were handling the dynamics well enough by themselves, and adding anything major really took away from their ‘feel’. Back then my mix was about punch, shock & awe – with vocals always wet & on top. Every once and awhile Darlene & I would go to see them when John mixed. I always thought John did a better job than me, a ‘more refined’ touch. Some soundmen just fit well with certain bands. Me, I always seemed to do best with power pocket drummers and interesting lead singers (Rhythm Corps, Via Satellite, Cadillac Kidz, the Roommates). And with Adrenalin, I could vibrate the prosthetic leg of their follow spot man Tony V every time (and that was with the guitar leads, not just the kick drum).
Reconnection After the birth of our second daughter, Hailee, I was completely out of the Rock n Roll business – focusing more on TV & recording studio design. Chris called me one day to let me know that Skeleton Crew was competing on Star Search. They almost made it to win it all too. It still makes me smile to see the YouTube video of these local boys beating out “Girl Tyme”, Beyonce’s precursor to Destiny’s Child. What a trip!
Learning Over the next decade and a half , besides being a Dad, I’ve changing careers multiple times (from TV design, to supervising a creative advertising department, to photographer, to 3D virtual reality room display design, to PMI certified project manager). Now I’m a musical playwright. Somewhere along the line I even managed to get a Top Secret security clearance (but if I tell you about it, I might have to kill you after I answer). In between all this I’ve sporadically done my fair share of audio gigs. Just lucky I guess. After working with Skeleton Crew, I’d leaned toward more listening and understanding what not to do in a mix, instead of what I could add. Every time I did a jazz group or church gig, I’d do my best to let the artists shine through, without trying to add too much of my own signature. Twice, I had the honor of doing sound for Kem just before he was signed at Motown, this is one artist that works best with the ’light touch’ approach I learned with Skeleton Crew.
Reconnection. Throughout the years, I always kept in touch with Chris Badynee, occasionally checking out his shows under his alter ego Bogdon Vasquaf. Darlene and I watched his daughter do a soft-shoe while his band played jug music to accompany her. I even took Hailee and her bass playing boyfriend to a gig where he was demonstrating his box bass. I feel it’s important to connect with and support people who continue to pursue their dreams, especially when they’ve occasionally dropped their passions so that they could take time out to be a parent.
When I did my first interview with Encore Michigan about my playwrights group trying to get something going locally by holding open staged readings of our plays, Chris was the first to post it on Facebook. Because of the positive response from many of the musicians I had worked with, and constant pressure from Darlene and my daughters, I succumbed to the world of social networking. Low and behold, if I didn’t reconnect with other Detroit musical souls, including Bill Pilipchuk. I found out that he and the Skeleton Crew boys decided to get back together to record at Harmonie Park Studios for the Christmas in Detroit CD to benefit S.A.Y. Detroit, a nonprofit organization dedicated to programs for the homeless. This charity is founded by local wunderkind Mitch Albom. Darlene just finished reading his latest book ‘Have a Little Faith’. Bill tells me that the song they are recording is called ‘Faith’ and they were adding Pastor Henry’s choir (featured in Mitch’s book) to the end of the song. Coincidences?
I’ve been slowly digitizing all my old live show cassettes, so I decide to transfer the Wagon Wheel show next. While I’m cueing up the cassette, I decided to use the tune ‘One Last Chance’ for a level check (remembering the peaks Bill hit with his voice that night). Darlene was listening, and commented that she’d forgotten how good Bill’s voice was. This is one dude who, as they say in the theatre, can really “hit the back wall”. When I emailed Bill to see if he would be interested in a digital copy of the Wagon Wheel concert, you could feel beaming excitement pour through his response. Seems his wife Susan has practically worn out her cassette copy of the show. The craziest thing is that Bill’s email to me was on October 8th – yep, boys & girls, 18 years to the date when I got my first copies of the Wagon Wheel recording from Gary P. Coincidence? As Albert Einstein said “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” These types of events always make me push further, just to see what dreams may come.
Reconnection. The following Monday I call Bill to see if I can drop off a CD copy on my way to my monthly playwrights meeting in Ferndale. I arrive at his brownstone near Lola’s Salon a few minutes late. I get to meet his beautiful wife Susan, and we catch up quickly.
Bill mentions he’s been retired from singing since the late 1990’s, and never really intended to go back, but after he forwarded the tune ‘Faith’ to Brian Pastoria and, with some heavy persuasion (never, ever discount Brian Pastoria’s enthusiasm), he decided to reconnect with the boys to give it a go. He recounted this story about a person who is in Pastor Henry’s choir that was at a crossroads in their life until they were given the lyrics to ‘Faith’. Coincidence?
Says Bill – “…In fact not too long ago this individual was sleeping in a box next to Harmonie Park Studios, and also used to party too much at Lola’s Midtown Tavern.” (another supposed coincidence? I think not.). “Of all my music experiences, this songs’ effect on this person meant more to me than anything.”
Images of concern, restless ideas, passion flow out and surround our 60 minute reconnection.
“…I’ve had an idea for a musical, but I just do know whether I have enough time”….“So email me your thoughts and let’s see what happens…”
“Dude, you’re a little rusty, I’m a little rusty.” – We ask our friends to get the oil can, and apply.
Learning, coincidence and reconnection. As Bill shows me around iContact Designs impeccably appointed brownstone they call their workspace, I’m impressed with his openness and passion for his work; but I sense an underlying yearning for balance between the impact of the Detroit economy, the ability to stay the course, and a sense of restrained dreams within. I’m reminded of the tough times in 1980’s early Detroit, which bred musically like minded souls to band together to make sense of the poor economy through music. Somewhere, along the path, we all took slight detours away from our desires in order to suppress disappointment, yet, have a little faith, fire doesn’t fade away. These recurring episodes ignite smoldering passions that eventually awaken as closed away memories catch fire. As we mature, events manifest revealing when it’s time to move. We need to seize these opportunities, because we might just have one last chance, one last chance to be drawn toward these moments of truth, discovering from each event, and reconnecting like trumpeting souls as they occur.