Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Remembering Frazier Mohawk

This weekend I played the Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival and on my last night I played "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" in rememberance of my old buddy Frazier Mohawk who passed away on Saturday. Then I did a short reprise of the song in the last set because Frazier was never satisfied with the first take. On Saturday afternoon, I had a nice long coffee with Alan Gerber and all we talked about was Frazier and all he had done to help us out at crtical times in our lives/careers. I hadn't seen Alan since this time last year (also at Orangeville - he is a staple at that festival and now they've made him an honorary citizen of Orangeville). Then we both got the news that Fraz had passed away during the night.

I had gone to see Frazier in the hospital on the previous Wednesday and Alan had dropped in on his way to Orangeville on the Thursday. We both just wanted to hold his hand and say a final thank you. Both of us had our gripes with Fraz over the years but it's easy to put aside the little tiffs when you consider all that he did to enrich our musical journeys. I almost wrote "help and encouragement" but the fact is he was never big on encouragement. Maybe he encouraged some others I don't know about but in my case I always felt he was always working around whatever intrinsic talent I may have brought to the table. For a music producer, he never got really excited about any music. I thought it was just me, but Brad Spurgeon mentions the same thing in his blog. You never heard him say "come in here, you've got to hear this". Actually, I do remember one time now that I think about it. It was in Montreal where he (and I) had been taken under the wing of the legendary Andre Perry and Fraz came in with this old vinyl recording of the Swan Silvertones and played me a track called "Saviour Pass Me Not". That track lit him up but I don't even know how he felt about the rest of the tracks on the album but I can imagine him dissecting the harmonies or the choice of microphones.

Alan talked about meeting Frazier (then Barry) in Paul Rothschild's office at Elektra Records and how later in California he took him around to meet Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Carole King, where Alan spent an afternoon at the piano swapping songs with her. Barry pops up in Carole's recent autobiography and also get's name-checked in many recently released bios where the backdrop in the LA music scene of the 60s.

When he arrived in Toronto in 73, there seemed to be an element of intrigue in his exit from LA and though he sometimes referred to some unsavory characters, I never got the real story. I think there may have been many reasons for him the change his name, I made his acquaintance when I came to work one morning at a brand new studio in Toronto (Manta Sound) where I was producing an album for Fraser & DeBolt on behalf of Columbia Records in New York. Frazier had dropped in to the studio earlier that day and left behind an album he had produced on the recording console. I don't think we listened to the album but when I picked it up I couldn't quite make out the abstract artwork until I held it back and could see it was a close up of two naked intertwined bodies. It was called "Primordial Lovers" and the artist was ex-wife Essra Mohawk, formerly known as "Uncle Meat" when she was in the Mothers of Invention. It was only a matter of a couple of days later when I was introduced to Frazier in the kitchen of 127 Hazelton, a legendary hang-out/crash pad in Toronto's Yorkville district and I said "You're the guy that left behind that album at Manta." I'm not sure how much time elapsed but at a certain moment he said he needed an "assistant" (nowadays we'd call that an intern because there wasn't any money changing hands though he may have uttered some variation of that old Ronnie Hawkins pitch "...but you'll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra"). We certainly got more drugs than Frank Sinatra and there were a few liasons the last of which ended when one young lady's older brother, who was a police officer, came from Nova Scotia to fetch his little sister from this den of iniquity.

Frazier had rented a huge space on Richmond Street, an old house that had been completely gutted and painted black inside. It had previously been a photographer's studio. Fraz built himself a sleeping loft with a wobbly ladder that would discourage any curious visitors and the main project was a group called the "Blackstone Rangers" which was essentially a reincarnation of Rhinoceros minus Alan Gerber (who had been the sole American in Rhino). This was a pretty glamorous bunch of rock stars and they made a big impression on this kid from hills of Quebec. The band was set up in the middle of this big room with a huge concert PA ("Voice of the Theatre" speakers) and they rehearsed a bit and partied a lot. Frazier wanted me to "supervise" a second group that he was going to produce. They were called "Flying Circus" and had just arrived from Australia where I think they were a pretty big deal. I don't think I had more than a couple of sessions with the band when I had to extricate myself from that crazy scene. I don't think they ever made a record and only one of those Aussies stayed in Canada but he has been a profound influence on the Toronto music scene and that is bassist Terry Wilkins.

Then we fast forward a couple of years to Montreal where Frazier introduced himself to another recording studio and this time he hit the jackpot. The studio was built by Andre Perry (a Quebec music industry titan but best known outside Quebec as the man who recorded "Give Peace A Chance") and - as luck would have it - André had just sold the studio for big bucks and now had plans to start a record label and break out of the Quebec market. When he saw Frazier's credentials and connections he immediately set him up in a cute little apartment in Old Montreal and gave him free reign of the studio (where he still had thousands of hours of credit as part of the sale). Frazier immediately showed him how to set up a big-time record label, starting with a succession of full-page teaser ads in Billboard magazine announcing the birth of "Good Noise" Records. They printed oversized/overpriced stationary and business cards, hired the most expensive publicist in the music business, Connie deNave and started flying people in from New York and LA. I'm not sure that they had signed a single artist at that point but around that time, Andre heard me sing a song called "Don't Forget Your Mother" with a country-rock group I was playing with that included Sue Lothrop, Russ Kelley, Wayne Rose and I think a couple of brothers from Wilmington Delaware. I can't remember Frazier's initial involvement but André was totally smitten with that song if not with the group. He convinced me to go into the studio with Frazier producing. First we did a demo with a lot of local players including Sue, Ronney Abramson, Ron Dann and many others. Then for the "real" recording, he brought in John Lissauer as music director, Laurel Masse and Jance Siegel from Manhattan Transfer for vocals, and top-session players like Tom "Bones" Malone (later of Blues Brothers fame and much more) on horns and Jim Gordon on drums. At the time Malone and Gordon were part of Frank Zappa's Mothers so Andre was seeing this as a great "tie-in" - The Mothers recording "Don't Forget Your Mother". The Mothers were performing at the Montreal Forum as part of their "Petit Wazoo" tour and most of the other members of the band came to the studio - some played and some just hung out, but try as they might, they couldn't get Zappa himself to participate. I believe the quote was "Frank doesn't help other people make their rock and roll records". As a further aside, drummer Jim Gordon, hot off a Derek and the Dominoes tour, ended up in an institution for the criminally insane for killing his own mother in a psychotic rage. I think I noticed he was not having a good time when he was laying down that drum track. I wondered if it was just that I might have not been laying down the most confident guitar track - after all this was probably the third or fourth song I had written and I had never sung on my own till then. I hardly sang any vocals with the group but "Mother" was my little "feature spot." And I had my doubts about my performance on that track but I was surrounded by so many brilliant players it had to be OK.

Well many months were spent mixing and remixing and overdubbing - they hired a whole string section from the Montreal Symphony under the direction of Otto Armin, then a boys choir from an elite private school. Everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. You can hear it for yourself here.

Up to this point thousands of dollars had been spent on this recording (as well as a daily allowance for me) and yet nothing had been signed. Alas, when I was called in to a meeting, I sat down with Frazier across this beautiful antique pine table with nothing on it but a big fat (unsigned) recording contract. I was humming and hawing about how I wasn't really happy with my performance on that recording when Frazier lurched across the table grabbing me by the throat and screaming "Sign the contract, motherfucker!). I think anyone who has since tried to produce Brian Blain has had the same impulse. Anyway I hastily scribbled in a short rider that offered me some guarantees and I signed. This was old Hollywood-style negotiations. I think if he'd had a gun he would have pulled it out.

This story goes on, but to wrap up this chapter of my adventures with Frazier, suffice it to say the "Mother" was never released, though the B-side, "The Story of the Magic Pick" did get released on Good Noise/Polydor but had the misfortune of being released in the same week and on the same label as that monster hit "Spiders and Snakes" and there was not room for two "novelty" releases in the Polydor promo man's bag of tricks that week. Despite some choice gigs (mostly arranged by Frazier) like opening for Lou Reed and Seals & Crofts, a hi-profile benefit show with Joni Mitchell and Loudon Wainright and a tour with April Wine, I disbanded the Blainettes and went on the road for five years as a "bassman-for-hire". Well I didn't really disband the Blainettes, because another Frazier prodigé, Lewis Furey, scooped 2 of them to be in his band but in a delicious turn of karmic retribution, they were soon hijacked from Lewis by his friend Leonard Cohen who decided he wanted to try having female back-up singers,

After being on the road for 3 or 4 years I settled back in Toronto briefly and Frazier hired me to be part of his "Rent-A-Fool" clown troupe. I would wear a sequinned tuxedo and play incidental music as Mark Parr, Brad Spurgeon and the lovely Lynne Cavanaugh frolicked around. At one point, he was taking "contracts" to attack people with cream pies. We were a pie-hit-squad. I think that's about the time I went back on the road. But it was a great diversion, as was every adventure I had with Frazier.

Fast forward another decade or two and I land in Toronto, not quite on my feet, and one of the first people I look up is Frazier - who is back in Toronto, living a in a caboose on a farm in Kleinberg. He gives me $200 and says he's sure we can find a way for me to work it off. Well first he wanted me to be a "wrangler," shuttling ponies to rich kids' birthday parties. I managed to get out of that but ultimately became an occasional "sub" for Anthony, the Singing Cowboy. I'll always remember trying to play guitar on very bumpy hayride where I would sometimes get airborne with nothing to hold onto except my guitar. I also helped with some desktop publishing projects and mailing promotional material - I remember one time that I was running a little late and had him screaming at me "You just lost me twenty-thousand dollars! You owe me twenty-thousand dollars!" but he never fired me. In the end I did him one great favour when I noticed that several recordings he had produced were now being sold on CD and I asked him if he was getting any royalties. He hadn't thought of that and when he contacted Warner Brothers they sent him a big fat cheque (and apologized for the delay because they couldn't find his address (??). Since that money came from his musical endeavours he decided to put it back into music and that was the beginning of the Studio at Puck's Farm. And once it was operational, he offered me some complimentary studio time that provided me with my first CD, "Who Paid You To Give Me The Blues?" For that and more I will always be grateful to Fraz.

So what else happened in Orangeville?

This is the first time in recent memory that I played 4 nights in a row. The first night was a noisy club where I was trying to put out as much sound as I could. I was playing solo but then Harpdog Brown showed up and sat in for a set. He is such a bear of a guy but when you play with him is is one sensitive, tasteful musician. The Larry Kurtz arrived from the Festivalk kick-off event and I had a double harp accompanyment - Nelson Sleno also sat in for a couple of tunes. I decided to stay over in Orangeville and checked in to the Orangeville Motel where they Indian couple tried to accomodate this starving musician with a bowl of oatmeal and a glass of milk. I was most grateful. The accommodations might have seemed a little rough by modern hotel standards but for someone who's toured in Eastern Europe it was just fine. Then I had two nights at an upscale Italian Restaurant, Il Corso, where the food is delicious. The owner expected a big crowd because the main stage was rained out but it was not to be. Th second night was packed but I think I preferred playing to a small crowd that was listeninbg than to a big crowd who weren't.. I dropped in on Alana Gerber's show and was invited to sit in with him for the last tune and he pointed out that this was the first time we had actually played together - though we had shared the bill in Quebec many times. Then I swung by some of the other clubs where I saw Erin McCallum, who was celebrating the release of a great new CD, and Charlie A'Court - who was playing the same club I played on Thurs - also solo but with a PA ten times the size of my little set-up. And even without a PA, he's ten times as loud as me. He was doing a lot covers that I used to do - Knock on Wood, Into the Mystic , Stevie Wonder but then when I saw him next day on the mainstage with a band he was killing it with some burning Stratocaster solos. I have to admit when I first heard Charlie (which was the same night I first heard Matt Andersen) I thought there's a couple of big guys, singing at the top of their lungs and strumming that guitar as hard as they can...not my style. But then both of them have mellowed out considerably. Hell Matt Andersen became the darling of the CBC by singing sweet Christmas carols. I guess the idea is that you come on hard and heavy and once you have their attention you can start to lighten up and find your own voice.

I should have a few upcoming dates or choice quotes or career development tips for my musician friends reading this but I just wanted to get the word out about Frazier. I might have morphed a few events in my foggy memory and I hope I haven't said anything to tarnish his memory. If you were there and I got something wrong, please let me know. There's an obituary in today's New York Times and Facebook Friends can drop by his Facebook Page.

A Celebration of Barry's Life will be held on Saturday June 16th in the Crest Theatre Green Room at the Performing Arts Lodge, 110 The Esplanade, Toronto, from 5pm to 9:30pm. Bob Segarini, who I met while we were recording "Don't Forget Your Mother" (and he's got a great story about that night but it will be for him to tell it) Anyway, he has put together a lengthy blog of Frazier's life along with excerpts from recent books by Jac Holtzman and Neil Young.