Tag Archives: Geoff Emerick

God Bless the Editor

God Bless the Editor: The Power Behind the Scenes

The late writer Norman Mailer was known to be a tough guy, and he was also quite a writer having won both of literature’s highest prizes – the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award – for his account of the domestic protests against the war in Vietnam, The Armies of the Night.   He was once asked by an interviewer to divulge the “secrets” of writing, and Mailer immediately invoked his First Rule, “Always trust your editor.”

I’ve thought about this more and more as I come across works by newer and debut authors; whose works often show promise (“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential,” to quote the wise philosopher Linus) but lack a firm and unified voice.   All too often I see the debut novel that starts off like a house afire but then dwindles away from the halfway point until the ending.   Perhaps it’s because the writer’s energy and confidence faded out; more likely, some type of scheduling conflict meant that the editor involved did not have the time to devote to smoothing out the rough spots in the second half that was devoted to the first.

I think that the work of a literary editor can be fairly likened to the work of a recording engineer.   Bands make all kinds of sounds in the recording studio – some too loud, some too harsh, some too tame and quiet, some jarring, some pleasant – and it’s up to the recording engineer (for a brilliant account read Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick) to mold the sounds into something uniform.   Even more than uniform, they must be pleasing to the ear.   The human ear loves mid-range sounds, so the very best sound engineers minimize the highs and lows to produce a product that sounds unnaturally “natural.”

Buy a very expensive car today and you’ll be offered an equally expensive add-on option, a top-of-the-line audio system (think an extra $5,000 to $7,000) that produces comforting mid-range sounds from any genre of material, rock to jazz to classical or country music.   This stereo reproduction system will have a built-in range limiter, a single-function computer program that mimics and sometimes even  improves the sounds produced by a top-flight recording engineer blessed with perfect hearing and “golden ears.”

Similarly, the writer’s editor must take out what’s jarring, what’s unexpected or simply not registered in the author’s best, pleasing voice…  It’s the editor who must decide, whether or not the author concurs, the answers to the questions:  “What is it about this author’s tone that is pleasing to the reader’s inner ear?   Which part of the writer’s voice is pleasingly mid-range?”

In order to complete his/her task, the skilled editor must edit and sometimes brutally cut out that which does not seem to fit.   And this is where Mailer’s advice is so important to the new writer, the prospective writer.   I will restate his advice this way, in my own words:  Don’t argue, don’t take it personally.   The very best, the most talented, of writers have found that they must trust their editors.

The skilled editor can take multiple, disparate voices and make them harmonize like the fine instruments in an orchestra.   As an example, take the short story collection about true love, Love Is a Four-Letter Word.   This compilation contained 23 stories written by just as many writers.   Yet in the hands of editor Michael Taeckens, the collection never seemed choppy or disjointed.   I found that it had a singular mid-range tone – not too loud, nor too soft – that made it seem quite enjoyable.   And it wasn’t just me.   One reader noted at Amazon that, “…this collection was pretty good…  not just in theme but in tone.”   Said another, “…the stories flowed quite seamlessly from one to the other.   We have Mr. Taeckens, the editor, to thank for that.”   Exactly!

When a highly skilled editor can take 23 voices and make them sound like one melodious voice, just think of what he/she can do to assist the previously fledgling, isolated writer in finding his or her natural voice.

One other key function is left up to the editor.   Carolyn Parkhurst wrote, “…the ending of a novel should feel inevitable.   You, the reader, shouldn’t be able to see what’s coming…  you should (feel) satisfied that there’s no other way it could have gone.”   If the draft ending of the book does not feel natural and inevitable, it’s up to the editor to tell the writer so.

In the end, it does come down to that one word: trust.   Mr. Mailer was so right.

Joseph Arellano

Note: Thank you to author (The Language of Trees: A Novel) and former professional editor Ilie Ruby, for serving as one of my editors on this piece. And thank you to Daniel D. Holt for serving as the second editor. 

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Days Like These

Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy by Ken Sharp (Gallery Books/VH1 Books; $26.99; 262 pages)

starting over book

“You don’t have to do it anymore.   You can exist outside of the music.”   Yoko Ono to John Lennon, 1975

“There’s only two artists that I’ve ever worked with for more than a one-night stand.   That’s Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono, and I think that’s a pretty damned good choice!”   John Lennon, 1980

Before this, only one book took you inside the recording studio with The Beatles, and that was Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick.   Emerick’s book explained the fascinating work performed by sound engineers such as that which led (in some small measure) to the success of the four moptops.   One of the disclosures in HT&E was that the recording sound process at Abbey Road always began with ensuring that Ringo’s drums would sound right and/or unique on each track. (Paul McCartney, who lived around the corner, was the individual who usually tuned the drums used by Ringo and Badfinger’s drummer.)

Now, with Ken Sharp’s book,  we go into the sound studios of New York City circa the winter of 1980, with former Beatle John Lennon, his wife Yoko Ono and a new band of hotshot musicians.   Lennon’s final album, Double Fantasy, would be recorded just weeks before his death (the single “Starting Over” was the track the public heard first), and would be well-crafted enough to preserve his legacy as a musical genius.

This was the happy-husband period for John Lennon who was pleased about everything, even the past:  “He never spoke about the Beatles in a negative way.   Ever.   He only said positive, affectionate things about them…  He was able to look back at their work and realize how great a band they were.”   (Andy Newmark, drummer)

And this was the John Lennon who filled his new album with what some viewed as recordings invading Paul McCartney’s well-marked territory – (silly or non-silly) love songs and songs of domestic harmony and bliss.   John was not at all apologetic about his new-found contentment:  “To work with your best friend is a joy and I don’t intend to stop it…  My best friend is my wife.   Who could ask for anything more?”

“…records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.   I would say Double Fantasy is one of the many excellent records that has gained a certain aura, glow, stature and presence.”   Robert Christgau

The participants interviewed for this book all display a sense of both bittersweet happiness and sorrow at having worked with John Lennon before his untimely death.   “I hadn’t listened to Double Fantasy in a long time.   I recently put it on and as soon as I started playing it, the tears welled up.   It was a real emotional experience for me.   There was a lot of joy doing that record…  When I hear the songs, I see John working on the tracks.   It’s the closing musical statement of his life and it’s filled with great songs.”   (Hugh McCracken, guitarist)

Well said, and this account is a well-written, detailed and loving tribute to someone who simply left us too soon.   Read this book and you will come to know and admire John Lennon’s honesty and his integrity.   By reading this book you’ll also come to discover the background stories of such great songs as “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” “(Just Like) Starting Over” and “Watching the Wheels”.

Think of Starting Over, the book, as the great lost album notes to the original vinyl release.   It will serve you well.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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I, Me, Mine

Hitman: Forty Years of Making Music, Topping Charts & Winning Grammys by David Foster with Pablo F. Fenjves

“If you’re gonna go wrong, go wrong big.”   David Foster

Foster certainly lives up – or down – to his statement in this book which might have been subtitled Musings of a Megalomaniac.   Yes, this one is all about record producer David Foster who makes millions but doesn’t get enough respect in the music trade.   So he makes sure to drop names everywhere (Barbara and Marvin Davis often invited him to parties at their 25,000 square foot mansion) and to tell us essential facts, such as that he lives on 16-acres of prime land in Malibu in a home with 19 bathrooms.   Oh, every now and then he feigns modesty such as when he spoke to a college’s music students and “somehow (managed) to let slip the fact that I’d won fourteen Grammys.”   Charming.

I thought this would be a fascinating behind the scenes in the music business account, perhaps something like Geoff Emerick’s Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Beatles.   Sadly, no it’s not.   It’s a book in which Foster praises the musicians who consented to work with him and disses the ones who did not.   The latter group includes the likes of Paul McCartney, Sting, Neil Young and Frank Sinatra.  

There’s also more than a dose of whining:  “I haven’t always been embraced by the upper echelons of the critical elite – they call it ‘wallpaper music’ or ‘elevator music’ or worse…  Who I am is a guy who writes music that people make babies to – and I’m not going to apologize for it.”   Fine, but he has some quirky opinions about what constitutes the best in music.   He calls Celine Dion “the best singer on the planet.”   OK, although not everyone would concur.

Now, ready for this?   He says of Kenny G, “He’s a hell of a musician.”   Kenny G?   What’s likely the strangest statement in Hitman is this one about Michael Bolton, “The man is one of the greatest vocalists of all time.”   Michael Bolton?   Seriously?   Once I read this I began to wonder if this entire book was a put-on, but apparently Foster’s being honest in his own way.   Maybe…   It certainly clears up the mystery as to why Foster’s had his run-ins, as detailed in Hitman, with Clive Davis – The Man with the Golden Ear.

Foster makes sure to express his self-pride at being a musician who, uniquely, has never used drugs.   Great, but this does not stop him from talking trash and frequently dropping the “f” word around as in the phrase “f—-d up.”   He also lets us know that he’s quite attractive which is why he tells us which one of his five daughters looks most like him.   Right, she’s the most attractive one.

Good is the enemy of great.   Paul Anka

Hitman is neither great nor good.   On a scale of 1 to 5 musical notes, I give it 1 note.   I’m feeling charitable today.

This book was loaned to the reviewer by Daniel D. Holt, co-author of Korean At A Glance from Barron’s.

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Where Did Our Story Go? The Supremes: A Saga of Motown…

Supremes

I keep hoping for another book like Geoff Emerick’s fine account of how he recorded the Beatles in Here, There and Everywhere…  and this is most definitely not that caliber of book.

Not that this is the worst read, but it follows an all-too-familiar formula.   First, there’s the truly interesting tale of The Supremes before we knew them.   Next, we learn how they came together and got their big break.   Then, the trouble with the book begins when every intra-group personality conflict is embellished to the point where the band appears to be on the verge of a nuclear war.   And for any fan wanting to know how The Supremes’ songs came to be inspired or written, or crucial and interesting details concerning how they were recorded, this book is not the answer as such accounts are rare in this Saga of Motown.   What you will find in this book are obsessively detailed descriptions of exactly who slept with who over forty years ago.

What, exactly, did the sex lives of Diana, Flo and Mary have to do with their music?   I have no idea, but by page 180, this dead horse had already been beaten to a bloodless pulp. My excitement over this new music group biography dropped away quite quickly, and I would venture to say that yours will too – unless, of course, you have little interest in the songs of The Supremes and prefer a rehash of everything you might have learned from reading the tabloids for the last 40 or more plus years.

Da Capo Press, $24.95, 426 pages

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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