The view from the porch of the Smith’s settled over Jimmy like a song as he puffed at his cigarette, squinting into the late afternoon sun. Here just a few miles east of Crow Peak in Vermont’s northeast Kingdom, autumn was coming early and the threat of frost was stimulating food production in the Smith’s kitchen. After two days of non-stop eating and recording, Jimmy was ready to attempt the guitar solo of his lifetime. Croissants, vegetarian chili, fresh baked bread, potato salad, dilly beans, tomato soup and congo bars aside, it was time for him to step up and shred.
The rest of us were hard at work setting up Jimmy’s amplifier, three bodies crowded into a small room about the size of a clothes drier. We were busy wrestling the microphone into position in front of the speaker cabinet when a strange buzzer suddenly went off, not the first of many unwanted noises that had plagued our session. The short list included lawn mowers, pots and pans, dimmer switches, truck traffic, cell phones and a drill press. But this noise seemed to be right next to us. Oh, of course – bingo! It WAS right next to us – it was the clothes drier reaching the end of its cycle. Our beautiful isolation booth also had a toilet, a towel rack, a shower stall and matching bath mats. We finished our adjustments and shut the door tightly, leaving the amp on standby.
The weekend was shaping up nicely. Two gorgeous fall days, smooth border crossings for the one Canadian band member, resolution of all gnarly technical issues, sumptuous simmering soups and other treats wafting their aromas through the studio at all hours, and an atmosphere of conviviality, hospitality and good manners a la Club Med. Maybe all bands in the magical Kingdom were this high-functioning? I surely could not think of any other whose drummer’s parents had put an addition on their house for band rehearsals and who cooked all weekend to feed them. It made my job as producer and engineer not feel like a job at all.
“Where is he?” Callum said. Bob jumped up.
“I’ll go get him, he’s on the porch. He’s been going at it for over an hour”.
It had been a long, productive day for me, sitting at the console running Pro Tools while the guys fiddled with their guitars, pedal boards and amplifier settings. When things were going right at the controls, between takes or during equipment set-ups there was always time to daydream about the next meal. If Jimmy’s solo went well, this would be our last recorded track of the day and we could eat again. Through the studio’s glass French doors I had a direct line of sight into the Smith’s kitchen. I could see dinner was already underway and that like clockwork, Lena and Mick had put together another massive feast. Friends and family were flowing in, filling the room with happy conversation. We were running a little later than we’d expected to, and our ability to finish the day’s work now hung on Jimmy’s shoulders.
I admit I was slightly worried about the solo, as I always was when we needed something great from someone. Callum and Bob came back into the room looking focused, towing Jimmy who was smiling his usual happy-go-lucky smile. We were ready for him, but was he ready to bring it home?
As Jimmy strapped on his Gibson, Callum and Bob took their positions on either side of him. I tried not to look, not wanting to jinx his performance.
“Okay buddy, you can do it. Make it dirty.” Bob said. “Send it, man, frickin’ send it,” Callum said.
Then together, in somewhat of a football cheer, they chanted in unison. “JIM-MY!”
I hit the button and inside our headphones music started to roll. Glancing quickly to the side I made sure he was hearing it and then reduced my movements to a minimum. Jimmy was hunkered over his instrument, body swaying in time. I listened intently as the vocal cried out its final chorus and faded away. The window into the solo section was about to open.
His notes began conservatively, measured and clean. The melody started to appear, blooming on my computer screen in waves of bright color as Pro Tools made visible what our ears were hearing. Jimmy’s feet shuffled one, then the other past the legs of the drum kit in a slow dance of concentration. The confined area of the studio necessitated his having to walk on top of cables and dodge unused equipment boxes and stands, but he was in “the zone” now unaware of danger, moving like a somnambulist toward some mysterious enticement. He turned his back to us, headphones slipping so far forward they practically obscured his face; simultaneously our headphones filled with an awe-inspiring sequence of improvised creation. I stole a glance to my left, throwing a quick thumbs up to the others, stifling my urge to yell. There was a collective nodding of heads, and mouthing of the word : “YES”.
But where was he going? The fluid power of the solo did not waver as Jimmy continued to move farther west across the studio floor. In a moment he would crash into the wall – were his eyes open?
A flash of consternation suddenly wiped away any smugness I might have had about the song being in the bag. Where the hell was he going? In the heat of his brilliance Jimmy’s grunts were audible - it was clear he was doing some heavy lifting, aiming for that finish line with all he had. Then abruptly his movements stopped - squarely in front of the bathroom door. He was still playing his heart out but now there was clearly an object to his communication. He was so far into “the zone” he was making the ultimate connection, an other worldly communion only fully understood by a rarified few. Yes, I could see it now: he was merging with his amp.
It was hard not to feel superfluous now. If I had wanted to take any credit for helping bring Jimmy to this jumping off point, I was humbled. Only a new, six-panel pine door stood between Jimmy and his other half there next to the drier, and he was gone, leaving us behind to sweep up after him with a dime store broom. The upside was that a delicious dinner would be waiting for us, rewarding us for his work. If we could pry him out of the headphones and bring him down from his higher state of enlightenment, there might even be dessert. I was hungry for something as deeply nourishing and it appeared that Lena’s cooking would be my next best option.