Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | November 2017 | 26 minutes (6,465 words)
On a sunny day in 1989 when I was just 14, I heard Jane’s Addiction for the first time.
I was at my friend Nate’s house. As I sat on his bedroom’s itchy tan carpet, near the waterbed with the imitation leather rim, we watched their debut record spin. It was a live recording, and like many teenagers whose musical awakening came before the internet, we’d inherited it from a cooler elder — Nate’s sister’s boyfriend.
The album was recorded at a club called The Roxy, on the Sunset Strip. As a concert recording, some fans called it “the live album.” We called it “Triple X,” after the indie label that released it. Unlike other live records where applause fades in before the music starts, Triple X launched right in with no introduction: fast drums, soloing guitar, and a high-pitched banshee singer howling cryptic lyrics that went way over my 14-year-old head: “Oh, mama lick on me / I’m as tasty as a red plum / Baby thumb / Wanna make you love.” The song was called “Trip Away.” I had no idea what tripping was, but the music slayed me.
After a blazing crescendo, the audience clapped, seconds passed, and a slow bass line played a new rumbling melody. The drummer pounded a single beat over it: boom. Then two more ─ boom boom ─ building tension. The guitarist slid his pick down the guitar strings, smearing a wicked echo across the rhythm, then the banshee yelled “Goddamn!” and broke into “Whores.” “I don’t want much man, give a little / I’m gonna take my chances if I get ’em. Yeah!”
To a middle class kid in Phoenix, Arizona, this music had a primal abandon that I hadn’t yet encountered, but whose wildness attracted me.
“An artist gets it to a point where they’re already self sustainable and then labels swoop in and there’s going to come a point where these artists realize the reason why they’re swooping in and giving them all this money is because they can make ten times as much if they just keep doing what they’re doing,” JMSN says. “Take Chance the Rapper, he’s been offered million dollar deals and turned them down because obviously if they’re offering you million dollar deals then labels know they can make a whole lot more than that from you. When I meet with labels I ask, ‘What can you provide me that I’m not able to do myself?’ and more often than not there’s not a solid answer besides radio. Who the fuck is going to radio to discover music anymore? We live in a different time.”
—Russell Dean Stone writing in Vice about what happens when musicians and their record labels part ways, why this happens, and how they can bounce back.
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I was still in Detroit, and I got a call from Berry Gordy — he was out in California — and he said, “We signed these kids. We finished the album and listened to all the mixes, and I don’t like any of the mixes. I’ll send you the multitracks, and I want you to remix the whole album.” And I said, “Anything you want me to do?” He said, “No, do what you think is best.” It was The Jackson 5’s first album. I was in the studio, all by myself mixing. I’ll tell ya, the first time I heard Michael’s voice, my jaw hit the floor. “This little kid can sing!” But yeah, that’s how it started, and, like I said, that’s how he [Berry] trusted people. He trusted my ability to scrap all the mixes that he had, send me the multitracks, and say, “You do it.”
So the first time you heard Michael’s voice, would you say that you instantly knew he was the real deal?
His pitch was great and he had good emotion. He was like an adult in a kid body. He really impressed me. He wasn’t just singing words — he came from the heart. Once I moved up to L.A., I was with him a lot. Michael was a good kid; I really liked Michael. He would sit next to me in the control room and would ask, “What does this do? What does that do? Why does that happen?” He was very into the behind the scenes thing too. He was always fascinated by the equipment, how things were accomplished, and how you do it. He was very soft-spoken and very polite, until he got behind a microphone, and all of a sudden, bang — “Who is that guy?” I liked him a lot. He was a very nice person. He was genuine. It was not easy to be Michael Jackson. He couldn’t go anywhere without putting on a disguise, because he’d be mobbed. I heard one time he had never been into a grocery store, because he couldn’t even walk into a grocery store. Jermaine [Jackson] was telling me they went to a grocery store when they’d closed, and they flipped the manager a couple of bucks so that Michael could walk around. He couldn’t believe all the aisles and shelves of food — that blew his mind.
–Russ Terrana, in Tape Op magazine, on his time working as Motown’s chief studio engineer.
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