OMG!: I'm featured in "This is Your Brain on Music" by Professor Daniel Levitin, Ph.D., McGill Univ.
Here's the excerpt from Dan Levitin aka "Professor Daniel Levitin, Ph.D , McGill Unversity;
"I've was lucky to have the opportunity to work in recording studios
for many years. Every day that I walked into a studio, I counted
myself unbelievably lucky. The studio is a special place, not only a
place where magic can happen but where that magic can be preserved so
that we can listen to it later, over and over again. One session
stands out as one of the most memorable sessions I've ever had, and
it produced three amazing songs that were never released: a young,
talented singer named Suzy Fischer, backed by some of the all-time
great musicians from San Francisco's psychedelic hey-day.
I got a phone call from Marc Fleischer, an influential and powerful
attorney in San Francisco in early 1984. His client list included
the Airplane, ZZ Top, and the San Francisco 49ers. He called to tell
me he had discovered a singer in her 20s who channeled Janis Joplin,
Grace Slick and Bonnie Raitt all at once, and yet had her own
distinctive style. Would I meet her? Would I consider producing a 3
song demo for her?
She came to my house and played me an old beat-up cassette that she
had recorded a few years before. The recording was awful. The
backup band not only seemed to be fighting with each other but with
her vocals. But there was something there and I decided then and
there that I wanted to work with her in a good studio to see what we
I was working at The Automatt in San Francisco, the former C.B.S.
studios where the first Santana album had been recorded, parts of
Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and dozens more
A-list, classic albums. Fred Catero, the Grammy-winning engineer was
legendary at the Atuomatt. Although retired, he still came by now and
then to say hello. Somehow Suzy had managed to coax him out of
retirement to record her demo. When I went to the Michelle Zarin, the
studio manager to book the session, she didn't believe it. "Fred
doesn't do demos," she said. "He's doing this one," I said. "No,
there must be some mistake. You're talking about Fred f-ing Catero.
He hasn't done demos in 20 years." She called him. He confirmed.
Suzy had also managed to get three members of San Francisco rock
royalty as her band, all of whom had been heroes of mine: John
Cippolina on guitar, from Quicksilver Messenger Service. Peter Albin
on bass, from Big Brother and the Holding Company. And Specer
Dryden, from the original Jefferson Airplane on drums. I couldn't
believe it. I knew every note each of them had ever recorded.
Michelle Zarin gave us "Studio A," the biggest and most
technologically advanced room at the Automatt. On the day of the
session, Fred eyed me warily. He was probably 60 then, and I was a
skinny 26 year old who looked about 22. "Who are you?" he asked.
"I'm going to be the Producer." There was a long silence. I
suddenly realized the hubris - who was I to think that I was going to
lead these sessions? Fred had spent more time in recording studios
than I had been alive, and he had engineered some of my favorite
records of all time. He looked me square in the eye and said, "Good.
Because I'm here to engineer - not produce."
The set up got off to a slow start. Spencer's roadies brought in the
drums and set them up, but they weren't acclimated to the temperature
and humidity of the room and they kept going out of tune. The
assistant engineer, who had done a lot of work with Fred, had set up
the microphones but Fred wasn't happy with the way they sounded.
There was a lot of running back and forth. Once we had the drums
sounding right, someone called Albin and he came in to get a sound on
the bass. About an hour later, Cippolina arrived in a wheelchair,
looking like he had recently died and just been resuscitated. On the
one hand, I couldn't believe I was in the same room with one of my
favorite guitarists of all time. On the other, it looked like he
might collapse any minute now. A caretaker who travelled with him
explained that he had pneumonia, had had it for six weeks and
couldn't shake it, but that John never, EVER missed a recording
session. They wheeled John out in the studio and the caretaker tuned
his strat, then put it in his hands. John held it weakly, and it
looked as though it might just turn into liquid and ooze out onto the
Now I should back up and mention that we had never rehearsed.
Usually when producing, I would go through a month or more of regular
rehearsals with the band, especially with the band and vocalist. But
there had been no time for that, and no money. The guys were here
for a recording session, and we would have to work out arrangements
on the fly. At my house, Suzy had suggested three songs that I knew
well and that we were sure the band also knew: Quicksilver's "Pride
of Man," Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," which we would do in a
more-or-less Hendrix version, and the John Kay (he of Steppenwolf)
song, "Easy Evil."
Suzy went out into the room with a microphone, old school style --
the singer in there with the band -- so that we could run through the
tunes. We described the arrangement - how many measures of intro,
where the guitar solo would be, how we'd end. Albin and Dryden were
noodling during Suzy's and my talking, so that it was hard to talk
above them. And Cippolina - well, he still looked three-quarters
dead. Spencer clicked his sticks together to count it off for them
to rehearse "Watchtower" and I saw a transformation that was nothing
short of Godly: Cippolina perked up in his wheelchair as soon as he
heard Spencer's sticks, gripped the guitar tightly, and played the
most amazing parts, as though he had been playing this tune for a
thousand years, back through dozens of previous lives. When the song
was over, he fell limp in his chair, his eyes closed, and he didn't
say a word.
I ducked into the studio and reported to Fred. I said, "You know, I
don't know how long Cippolina's going to be conscious. And I know
that it's expensive to waste tape, but we should probably record
*everything* just in case." Fred just pointed to his right. The
tape machine was running, red light on, in recording. He winked at
me: "I always do."
I got on the talkback mic - the little microphone built into the
mixing console that the musicians out in the studio could hear
through their headphones - and asked them to play it one more time.
The second time was better because Spencer had missed a section
transition the first time which made for a bit of an odd sound until
he figured out that the rest of the band was in the chorus while he
was still playing the verse. Then they played the other two songs,
flawlessly. We listened back and found a couple of places where
Spencer wanted to play a fill but hadn't. He played just the fill
and Fred and I edited it in later. Then Peter came into the control
room and fixed a few bass notes. All this time, poor John sat in
the corner of the studio, in what could only be called a pneumoniatic
stupor. We had his rhythm guitar parts on the songs but no solos -
he had played a backing part when it came to the solo section in the
songs, with the notion that he would add the solos as a layer on top
of that later. I went out to tell John that this is what we were
going to do - that it was time for the solos. As I spoke to him, he
didn't open his eyes or move a muscle. I wasn't sure if he had heard
me. I waited. I asked, "Is that o.k.?" He cracked one eye open
slowly and then coughed so violently that I thought he would cough
himself right off the edge of the wheelchair, or that pieces of lung
tissue might start flying out of his mouth. Then he held up one hand
with his thumb and index finger making a circle in the universal
symbol of "o.k."
We played the tape back to him and he listened, still motionless.
When it came to the part of the song for his solo, he bolted upright
and played the most beautiful, soaring, melodic guitar lines
imaginable. He did this three times in a row for the three songs,
and then passed out.
Fred and I talked about maybe redoing Suzy's vocals in order to
provide more isolation. She had sung live in the room with the
musicians, after all, and so there was bleed through from their
instruments into the vocal mic. This constrained what we might want
to do with the mix because, for example, if we wanted to add
reverberation to her vocal, we would be simultaneously adding it to
the drums and bass and guitar since they were all mixed up in with
her vocal mic now. We talked about it for a few short but intense
minutes - talked about perhaps using an expander, or a noise gate,
all sorts of audio tricks. I don't remember for sure now, and I
don't have any notes on this, but I'm pretty sure that we ended up
just keeping those original vocals - the ones that 24-yearold Suzy
did in one take - not because we didn't think she could sing it
again, but because we didn't see that there was any reason to try and
make something better that was already that good.
Marc Fleischer and others shopped those tapes to a largely
indifferent record industry. For all their talk about wanting to
recapture the magic and the buzz of the 60s, they decided that this
sounded too authentic, too much like the 60s. But hearing them now I
realize how wrong they were. The recordings are clearer, more
balanced, and the performances more nuanced than most of the music
made 15 years earlier. And Suzy's voice, although reminiscent of
other great singers, was surely her own. This was not the first time
that record companies would reject something senselessly. That same
year that Suzy was recording these three amazing tracks, a young Tori
Amos recorded demos at the Automatt and was rejected by every major
record label. She wouldn't get signed until two years later. John
Cippolina died in 1989, and in that same year, C.B.S. dropped Elvis
Costello because he "only" sold 100,000 copies of his most recent
album. The record business is strange, to say the least, but the
most positive thing about where it has landed is that now great
tracks like Suzy's can finally be heard by everyone who wants to hear