Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Article 7: Gary Lee Usher
I met Gary Usher in the early spring of 1972. He was hired by Electra Records to produce our group's album, The Ship: A Contemporary Folk Music Journey. We were delighted that someone of Gary's experience in the music business was going to be producing our album, for he was a well-known songwriter and producer. He collaborated with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys on many songs, including "409" and "In My Room," and he produced albums for The Beach Boys and The Byrds, along with many other "surfer" and "hot rod" bands. He also discovered the comedy group, The Firesign Theatre.
After it was announced that Gary would be producing our album, he made a trip to Urbana, Illinois, to meet us. The entire group and several other people, including our managers, Roger Francisco and Peter Berkow, were gathered at Rofran Studios late one afternoon to greet Gary. When he entered the studio, he chatted with everyone for half an hour and then suggested that we go have dinner and see a movie ("A Clockwork Orange"). I had stayed on the periphery of the conversation, for I was a bit overwhelmed by the whole situation. As everyone filed out of the studio, he hung back and walked over to me. Only I heard him say, "When you regain your self-confidence, you're going to be really something." Just those words and nothing more, and we walked out together.
In April of that year, Gary came back to Urbana to hear the group perform The Ship to a sold-out concert hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Over 2,000 people saw that concert, and it was probably the best we'd ever performed the folk opera. In May we hit the road for Los Angeles, where we were to spend six weeks recording the album at Elektra Recording Studios. We arrived in L.A. on a Friday afternoon and were invited to visit Gary at his home that night. There we spent a couple of hours discussing what to expect at the recording sessions, which were to begin the following Monday. Harry Chapin would be recording in the studio during the day, and our sessions would be after his from 4:00 pm to midnight, five days a week. (His cello player, Tim Scott, was on our album.) In the studio next to ours, Bread would be recording Guitar Man. We were pretty excited about what lay ahead. As we were leaving, Gary took me and my writing partner, Albert Melshenker, aside and invited us to come to dinner at his home the following night.
Gary had a way of making everyone feel special. He would somehow try to connect with each person in a particular way. (Mark Hamby, maybe the most athletic of us guys in The Ship, was invited to a game of flag football on Sunday of that weekend. I remember that Lee Majors was part of that game.) Well, Mel and I were very happy to attend dinner with Gary Usher. On that evening, it was just the four of us, including Gary's wife, Bonnie. She was a lovely, gracious person, but our attention was clearly on Gary, who was seated across the large table from us. When dinner was over, Bonnie cleared the dishes and did not return for the rest of the evening. I think Mel and I both wondered what was in store for us.
Gary continued with the following: "I want to tell you a parable and ask you a question, and then I'd like you to answer the first thing that comes into your mind. Imagine that you are at the bottom of a deep pit with many other people. All you can see above you is blue sky, and you don't know what is outside the pit. The walls are almost impossible to climb, and for many days people try to climb out--either alone or with the help of others--with no success. Finally, you are the first to reach the top and climb out." During the entire recitation, Gary had been looking directly at me, but at that moment he snapped his fingers, pointed to Mel and asked, "What's the first thing you do?" Mel immediately replied, "I look around to see what's there." Then Gary pointed to me and asked the same question. I replied, "I reach down for the next person." I had given it no thought; the answer was just there. Gary pointed to me and said, "You're right. Now we can begin the rest of the evening."
Gary told us that he'd created a concept album, and we, along with one other person, would be the first to hear it in its entirety. At that moment, as if on cue, the front doorbell rang, and in walked a beautiful woman, who Gary introduced as "a neighbor who does the Maybelline eye makeup commercials." Albert and I probably thought the same thing--this isn't Illinois any longer.
I should describe Gary's living room, where we were to listen to the recording. It was a large room with hardwood floors, about 20' x 40' in size, high ceilings and a very big fireplace on one long wall, opposite a wall of sliding glass doors that led to the garden. In each of the four corners of the room stood a huge audio speaker tower. Suspended from the ceiling, facing the fireplace, was a six-foot-wide (very silent) porch swing, and on the floor between the swing and fireplace was a white bear rug. Except for a couple of incidental chairs, that's all the room contained.
We were already out of our comfort zone when Gary gave us his instructions. He had brought out a large, scrapbook-like manuscript and said he'd like us to lie down in front of the fire and read the book, pausing at each point that said "STOP FOR NEXT SONG." To enhance the experience, he wanted us to smoke some marijuana first, so we all did that, chatted for 10 minutes until we were first feeling its effects, and then lay down and began to read. Gary sat on the swing while we lay facing the fireplace, book in front of us. If you've ever tried to read something while you're stoned (and I admit it's been well over 30 years since last I tried), you know that it's a real chore. Each of us struggled through the pages, and when we reached a stopping point, Gary would stand up, walk to a hidden sound system on one side of the room, and play the next song.
What we heard that night was extraordinary--quadraphonic sound with lush, layered vocals and all of the instruments played by Gary. It was my first experience with "surround sound." Here we were in Los Angeles to record a concept album, and he had labored for years to make his own concept album, with an accompanying book! I have since learned that what he played for us were the demo tapes of an album called Beyond A Shadow Of Doubt, but the project was never finished. As I recall, it was the story of a person's journey into a foreign, Hobbit-like land, complete with adventures, challenges and morals. I don't believe the book was illustrated, but Gary did show us extensive architectural drawings afterward that depicted the civilization he'd created.
I think Mel was only too happy to get out of there, but I could have talked with Gary all night. On the way back to our motel, we joked about events of the evening, but I had been forever affected by the experience. What had really impacted me was the parable. Gary knew what I would answer, because it was his answer also. I have serious doubts that we would have been witness to his project, had I not answered his question in that way.
Gary pushed me to explore metaphysics and philosophies. Two days later we began recording our album. During that six-week marathon, it was not the time or the place to have in-depth conversations with Gary, but during the first week he pushed me in a surprising direction, by telling me that I should read The Morning Of The Magicians, by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. I immediately got the book and began reading about occult and paranormal phenomena--metaphysics. It was a whole new world to me.
Gary's message, in several brief conversations, was not that I should adopt the metaphysical ideas and beliefs as my own, but that I should be aware of them. That year was the beginning of nine years of intense philosophical exploration for me. I suppose I can say that I was "searching for the meaning of life," but that's over-simplistic. I was looking for a belief system--a way to conduct one's life--that worked for me. Gary planted the seeds and gave me a push to do that exploration.
During those eight years I searched through many disparate philosophies, including metaphysics, Buddhism, the Hawaiian Huna religion, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (which is a philosophy unto itself), Hinduism, and especially G. I. Gurdjieff's teachings (which grew out of his Meetings With Remarkable Men book). I read "New Age" books and "Old Age" books. I experienced a prior-life regression hypnosis, which was really quite enjoyable and revealing. Mostly, I talked with countless people about their beliefs. Gary really opened the door to that exploration.
[In my article on Stephen Porges, I'll discuss the de facto end to that exploration.]
Gary pushed me to be observant. If there's one characteristic that described Gary Usher, it was that he was observant of others, which is a great irony, because he did not "get" what we really wanted to do on our album. Roger Francisco and Billy Panda had to remix the tracks, once we'd heard the finished product. Gary's vision was to over-produce the songs with accompanying strings and all sorts of vocal effects--much like the album from his own project; our vision was to do a folk album with no added effects.
But on a personal level, Gary was as observant and intuitive as anyone I've ever met. By nature he was quiet, but he watched people intently. That really interested me. I was usually a quiet person from introspection; what if I was a quiet person from observation of others? That seemed to be an approach that was consistent with my search for a personal belief system. The transition from being centered on self to observing those around me was further developed in the books I read the next few years, but the start of that transition was with Gary. He did see my struggles with self-confidence, from the day he met me, and he encouraged me in a direction that restored my self-confidence. That transition begins in looking outside yourself, not in constantly trying to correct something inside.
And Finally....Gary Usher died of lung cancer on May 25, 1990, at the age of 51. It was really not until after his death that Gary's impact on the history of music was realized and documented. Stephen J. McParland wrote a five-volume biography of Gary Usher, entitle The California Sound (An Insider's Story), which I have not read. Although I was contacted by McParland and gave him some information about our group, The Ship, and our six weeks with Gary, I don't know if the information ever made it into the biography. I was not so much interested in Gary's place in musical history; I was interested in his place in my history.
Of all of the remarkable people I have known, I knew Gary for the shortest length of time. We did not have any contact after the recording sessions were finished. Even so, I will always remember that parable. Gary was the one who reached down for me.