It is a primal wish that we want to hear ourselves on the radio. This was true 20, 30, 40 years ago, and I think it’s still true. In 2017, anyone can be on television; it requires no special talent, just a willingness to be humiliated or place yourself in the right place at the right time. However, appearing on a hit record, hearing yourself over the sound system at Walgreens while grimly searching for Zantac — now, that’s something special indeed.
I can hear myself in Walgreens, sometimes. Rite Aid, too. It makes me smile.
In the spring of 1994, the twin Janus faces of my college rock soul were co-existing relatively neatly. On one hand, I was listening to a lot of maximum minimalism, musicians who explored the magical, mesmeric, spiraling harmonic universe that can be found when you play one chord (or nearly one chord). I was enthralled by artists like Tony Conrad, Stuart Dempster, Neu!, Pauline Oliveros, James Tenney and others who, I thought, took punk rock to its natural conclusion: the one great chord that knows all.
At the same time, I remained deeply attached to the jangling, harmonizing, arpeggiated college rock of R.E.M., The Soft Boys, Dream Syndicate, The Feelies, etc., and I was a sucker for any band that espoused these swaying, chiming values during the Grunge Times.
Oh, I was also working for a major record label. I had just signed a band that would make the third biggest-selling album of the decade and one of the 20 best-selling albums of all time. One of the reasons I signed Hootie & the Blowfish was because I felt they were a rare and vital continuation of the college-rock values that had thrilled me when I first heard Chronic Town or Underwater Moonlight.
It was the spring of 1994. We were in a blockhouse of a building tucked into one corner of a block between Vineland and Lankershim. On every side of us, the Valley spread from horizon to horizon. In the past few weeks, Kurt Cobain, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Richard Nixon had each proven that the only certainty was impermanence; and on equally symmetrical and sun-fogged streets just 25 miles south, gangsta rap was asserting itself as a unique voice of rage for the decade.
But here at NRG Studios in North Hollywood, Hootie & the Blowfish were recording their debut album.
The recording of Cracked Rear View was cheap, efficient and a lot of fun. Producer Don Gehman, who had worked with John Mellencamp and R.E.M., was an expert at effectively transposing the rich guitar harmonics and bar-band thrust of an experienced group to tape. He was also very welcoming of my input; as both Hootie’s A&R person and their friend, I had taken a very active interest in making the best possible record, and I was with the group for virtually every day and hour of preproduction, basic tracking, overdubbing and mixing.
And that’s why I was there on this particular spring afternoon, as Don and the band were adding some keyboard flourishes to the completed basic tracks.
The group had recorded a pile of originals and a handful of covers, including “I Go Blind,” a simple and affecting pop song that had been a college radio hit back in 1986 for a band from Vancouver called 54-40. Their original version had been a shivering confession of vulnerability, insecurity and the power of love to underline and amplify these qualities; it was dark, almost self-loathing. But Hootie had been playing the song live for years and years, and although their arrangement and tempo were virtually identical to the original version, somewhere along the way it had become a fairly straightforward celebration of love.
On this day, only hours away from the conclusion of tracking (very shortly, we would pack up to mix at a different studio), we were running down a checklist of parts that needed to be added to various songs. Anything terribly important had already been completed; we were now working on non-essential bits that had been postponed, for one reason or another. One of these bits was a keyboard part on “I Go Blind.”
What I had in mind was so simple that it was likely everyone would think I was joking. So I asked if I could just go in and give it a shot.
We hadn’t gotten around to cutting it on our big “keyboard day” (i.e., the day we actually hired someone to come in and play on about half a dozen tracks), so here we were, in the last hours of recording, trying to come up with something — or determine if it needed anything at all. Two different band members, the producer and an assistant engineer had each gone behind the glass and tried something, but nothing was quite right.
I announced that I had an idea. I considered trying to describe it to Mark Bryan, the band’s guitarist, who was at that moment sitting behind the organ. But I found that what I had in mind was so simple that it was likely everyone would think I was joking if I attempted to describe it.
So I asked if I could just go in and give it a shot.
The Hammond B3 organ is a beautiful and mysterious instrument. With pedals, a sleek hardwood chassis and rows of levers to be pressed, flicked at, decoded and revealed, it is not unlike a classic car. It recalls cathedrals of ghostly magnificence, rollicking rock bands bursting with the tremor and tremble of the blues. It speaks in subtle, almost human whispers, telling you tales of sin, salvation and Small Faces. When you sit down behind it — no, not behind it, within it — it is a cockpit of fluttering, humming, flutey potential. It is unlike any instrument on Earth.
It invites infinite possibilities, and for me, the infinite begins and ends with nothing — and just west of nothing is a single note.
I adjusted my headphones. Since this was a decent studio, the headphones actually worked. You’d be surprised how frequently they don’t, and any musician will tell you tales of the endless time spent — on the clock — trying to coax the headphones to perform the basic function of feeding audio signals into your earholes and not sounding like a CB radio playing early Swans.
The tape rolled. I sat out the first verse and chorus. When the song reached its second verse, I reached out one eager, slightly trembling index finger (stained from the M&M's and Ruffles plentiful in any recording studio) and placed it on a D, one octave above middle C.
And left it there.
And didn’t move it.
For the next two minutes and eight seconds, I did not move my finger, and the earth, which had expanded and contracted rather dramatically just 20 or so weeks earlier in nearby Northridge, did not shuffle or shimmer detectably. And for the next 1/28th of an hour, I did not move my finger, and all over the Los Angeles Basin, people conjured dreams and other people mourned the death of dreams. And for the next 1/674th of that warm mid-spring day, I did not move my finger, and in the thin, clear air above Nichols Canyon, a mostly failed screenwriter wondered whether Adam Sandler might be interested in a “serious” film based on the story of the Golem, the clay giant given life by the Rabbi of Prague.
And during that entire time, my index finger remained on the D one octave above middle C.
It would remain there until the song ended. In fact, just to be certain, I kept it there until after the engineer (who I want to refer to as “Ace,” because all recording engineers are called Ace at some point — and indeed, this one may have actually been named Ace) stopped the tape. I proudly took my headphones off and returned to the control room to find the producer and the guitarist and the bassist and the singer smiling, and assuring me that the part was “just right.”
Of course I felt the need to draw attention to what I did, so I pointed out that I had tried to create a “psychoacoustic,” an ultra-simple part that would raise the harmonic and intensity level of the track without actually drawing attention to the part itself. Breathlessly, I cited precedent in the great string parts of “Wichita Lineman,” “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Heroin.” I went on and on, oblivious to the fact that no one was listening anymore and instead were perusing Chinese takeaway menus.
That one note ended up being pretty high in the final mix.
A few weeks later, after we had finished mixing at a different studio tucked into a grim patch of Cahuenga Boulevard, we sequenced the album. We chose to leave “I Go Blind” off, because it seemed wise to have an album made up entirely of originals. The song was shelved until about 18 months later, when “I Go Blind” landed on the soundtrack album to accompany the Friends TV show (and was featured prominently in an episode of that brassy, unsubtle sitcom). The track became a rather enormous, supermarket-friendly hit.
Listen, I have spent a large portion of my adult life somehow apologizing for my connection with Hootie, but I remain deeply proud of it. Not only are they a supreme example of the underdog who made it despite all prevailing trends, but I also see them as a band that connected the jangly, sensitive, hard-working and sincere college-rock values of the early and mid-1980s with the modern country movement that they had such a large part in starting.
And thanks to them, today in a Target or Ralphs or Home Depot somewhere in the United States, someone will hear me playing a Tony Conrad–influenced, minimalist keyboard part on “I Go Blind.”