George & Lilliana Seibert at the Harbor Pharmacy, 1958
Most of the mentors I’ve written about have been work companions and no one I’ve worked with has had the same impact as George and Lilliana Seibert. It would have been their 60th anniversary today (George passed away in 2002) so it’s a great day to honor them.
Yes, Lilliana and George are my parents. And yes, most people can point to their parents as the prime influence on them, but I’m not going to completely bore you with too much personal biography. This blog is focused on work and my folks were my first bosses at their suburban pharmacy. The takeaway from my first work experience has shaped most of what I’ve done since. I picked up my complete love of work with them, and found out that for me “work to live” is not an option. “Live to work” is much more like it. I didn’t become a workaholic —I like my personal time as much as anyone— but I absorbed the real joy of the process of work itself.
I worked* in their store for more than 20 years. Along the way I picked up the building blocks of everything I’ve done ever since (as my parents had from their fathers’ local stores). Of course, there was the simple stuff that lots of kids learn at home, like responsibility and politeness. And small business basics. But working with them side by side went a lot deeper. The measures of an outfit’s viability. The service of a local enterprise to it’s customers and the community.
When I got into the television business it didn’t dawn on me that lessons learned in a mom & pop drugstore would have any direct usefulness. But, one day in 1985 my partner and I were sitting down with the president of Nickelodeon, and I was trying to convey a particular scheduling strategy, where we’d take a bunch of our network IDs that we’d run the sprocket holes off of and just switch them to a different daypart. It would save money on new ID production, and the network would get new dose of freshness.
“How do you know about this stuff?” The president knew I was as relatively new to television.
I explained to her a lesson my mother had taught me at the store. A basket of sale lipsticks had stopped moving, so my mom just placed the basket at the opposite end of the counter. An hour later they were selling again. Transposing the exercise to media placement seemed like a good idea to me, nutty as it was. By the way, it worked on television too, and it was only the first of dozens of surprising tips I could put to good use.
Two decades in the family store netted me oceans more than can recounted here. Not to short shrift our home at all; my two sisters and I had a wonderful, warm life together with my parents. But, suffice it to say, when it comes to work, I was one lucky dude.
* The Harbor Pharmacy opened in suburban New York in 1954, and I started “working” right away. Babysitting was expensive and though most of what was given to me was busywork I took it as seriously as a child could. Stocking shelves was my first important duty, but I rapidly ascended to checking out customers (a classic cash register is way better than a toy for a boy). Accompanying the delivery “boys” (men from 16 to 60) on their rounds was the highlight of my day (not theirs, I’d bet), and my driver’s license led to my next promotion. By the time of my last stint in 1977, I was writing and designing their local Pennysaver ads.
** A quick word about the modern American Gothic photograph up top. Early in our pharmacy’s life a trade magazine was writing a story and sent an art director to supervise the photography. My father, a complete and proud professional, felt the proper attire for a business owner was a shirt and tie, which he wore at work every day for over thirty years. But, the art director thought that the appropriate pharmacist’s attire was the same lab smock it had been for decades. He insisted my father conform. It irritated Dad forever.0 comments Tagged: mentors,.
To call such a buddy a “mentor” might seem an overstatement (he’ll probably find it silly), but it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be in the career I have without Nick Moy.
The son of two pharmacists, I entered school planning on a career as a chemist. Six weeks in I turned to my lab partner and said, “I like the Beatles more than this.” And a lifetime obsession was over, synthesized into a new one. Marching over to the college radio station, I volunteered and began indulging in media overload. Though my tastes veered towards pop, rock, and soul, the station specialized in classical, folk, news, and jazz. It couldn’t be helped, my knowledge instantly exploded.
Nick, his wife Sherry Wolf, and I have been great friends since we met at WKCR-FM in 1969. When Nick and I became roommates four years later, our conversations ranged from politics to music, and though he was the station’s best announcer and classical DJ, his interests exceeded expansive, with a deep grasp of mainstream jazz, R&B and funk, and a solid understanding and attraction to the avant-garde.
More conservative in life approach than me (understatement; I was an undisciplined jumble of nerve endings shooting off in every direction at once) Nick was always open to new ideas, with non-judgmental encouragement to the dumbest thoughts, and an eager companion to almost anything I would cook up. By 1973, we were rooming together in Morningside Heights, where I was running my half of a record company out of our apartment and the college radio studio. Nick had a real job in the public policy world, working for weasel-to-be Dick Morris, making $5000 a year. I was barely earning a dollar, picking up day work here and there while I tried to make the record company a success, and recording anyone and anything, mainly new jazz musicians, usually for no fee.
Most roommates, even friends, would have thrown me out. But, Nick picked up the rent when I didn’t have it (pretty often), bought the groceries and cooked them up (not a horrible burden; I think I was only eating one meal a day then). My temporary quid pro quo was that every once in a while I’d get us some free passes to a club or a record company showcase (we saw everyone from Tom Waits to Charlie Rich to Cecil Taylor.) I think my credits helped him get the Grammy discount for piles of new LPs every month, which enriched us both. From disco to Bach, our apartment was the required stop for our friends to check out the new culture. (One day, percussionist Andrew Cyrille came by for me to record his African drums for his first album. Luckily, we weren’t evicted.)
For five years, Nick Moy was right there for me. Smart as a whip, he prodded my thinking further than any place it had ever been. Funny and dry, he rarely was without a quip when it was needed. Patient and supportive past measure, he was virtually my patron, giving me the room I needed to develop my skills, insights, and fortitude, the space necessary to make my way in a world that I wasn’t sure really existed.
There’s a straight line from my life with Nick right through to cartoons and the internet. Over the years, we tried to keep track, and eventually (very eventually) I paid Nick back the money he laid out for me. But, just the money, the other stuff was beyond value.0 comments Tagged: mentors,.
It’s hard to call Ralph Ginzburg a mentor of mine. I’m not sure he talked to me more than once, and after a few months on the night shift at his magazine Moneysworth, he had me fired. But a mentor to me he indeed was. Without either of us knowing it, the path I started at Ralph’s would continue for 15 years.
By the time I went to work for his publication in the summer of 1976, Ralph was on his last publication. He was notorious for being convicted and jailed for obscenity relating to his hard cover magazine Eros (though there were some who said he was less obscene than just completely annoying). Moneysworth was to be his last hurrah.
I worked in the production department. Ralph was around often, talking loudly and smartly about everything from design to circulation to advertising. All I had to do was absorb it all. It was the place I saw first hand and up close how design, language, marketing, and promotion worked in the real world.
Ralph showed me (inadvertently) the practical meaning of graphic design (the only things I knew were from reading my girlfriend’s book about Milton Glaser); he talked so much, and so eloquently about Herb Lubalin, I felt like I’d actually worked with him myself. And watching him lay out his trademark full page New York Times ads (like the ones above and below) was an education by itself, about design and typography.
But, it was really in the area of writing, strategy, and direct selling that I got my Ginzburgian education. I won’t belabor the details, but let me tell me you… He’d sit down directly at the typesetting machine (like a big IBM Selectric) and, in real time, type out the kind of ad that’s posted here. He’d intone the sentences out loud as he thought of them. He’d explain why he was writing what, even as he was typing something else entirely. He’d explain his philosophy of selling, direct selling, through the ads, why certain words worked better than others to grab subscriptions, and why he used the extra thick dotted lines around the return coupon.
I made a lifelong friend at Moneysworth. And I learned a lot. It doesn’t get any better even though I was fired. Ralph Ginzburg was a MF, in every way.
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Photograph of Michael Mantler by Tod Papageorge, 1968
Another in my ongoing series of horrified-to-be-identified-as-my-“mentors:”
Mike was first hand proof that talent, planning, vision, drive, hard work, and sheer force of will could combine to accomplish dreams beyond anyone’s expectations. He didn’t have any particular interest, I think, in showing me much of anything really, but he was an incredible role model, trying to keep his family’s heads above water, struggling against all odds to be viable fringe artists in a highly commercial world. It was a time in my life that would never be repeated, and one that made a huge difference to me.
Mike would probably recoil at the whole idea of mentorship —by now, we’re probably more like friends or something— but I don’t know what else to call it. He was already a young legend in avant-garde jazz when, as a naive 18 year old, I crashed my first professional recording session he was producing, his then wife Carla Bley’s “Escalator Over the Hill,” He patiently figured I was a friend of one of the superstar orchestra’s if he even noticed my presence. I went on to play their records on college radio, and then he and Carla trusted me right out of school to work at their innovative artist record distribution service (itself an outgrowth of their incredible, idealistic collective, the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, JCOA). I wasn’t too impressed with the job I did, but a few years later Mike asked me to be the sound man and assistant roadie on Carla’s first big band tours. It was an unforgetable experience not only for the music, but for the pride with which Mike managed the unruly, artistic bunch they’d gathered. I repayed them after a year by ducking out days before our first European tour (a real loss on my part), but it didn’t stop us from staying friendly for the 30 years since.
Thanks Mike, you made a real difference in my struggle to become a professional adult.
It wouldn’t be right to talk about Mike without mentioning some of his stunning work. His music isn’t for everyone (on his website he quotes one reviewer saying “’Silence’ is possibly the least listenable record I have ever heard”) and requires a dedicated listener, but the rewards are great. Aside from his playing and composing, Mike was no slouch as a producer either. He always knew to not only get the very best musicians, but that it didn’t hurt if they had name value for sales (check out Robert Wyatt, Jack Bruce, Don Cherry, Jack DeJohnette, Pharoh Sanders, Cecil Taylor, and Don Preston, among many others). Here’s a few worth checking out:
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Jazz recording entrepreneur Joe Fields
I’ve been posting quite a few of the records I produced or engineered at the beginning of my career, and lately in particular, the Muse records. Which has gotten me thinking about the incredibly important role Muse founder Joe Fields didn’t mean to play in my work life.
Somehow or other I ended up in Joe’s office (above the West 71st Street Bagel Nosh) in 1976 asking for a gig “producing” records (like I even knew what that was). Joe, in his always enthusiastic way, happily gave me an immediate assignment (I think it was the first Linc Chamberland LP), and for the next three or four years I was a willing student in his unintended record business class.
(For those who won’t read the Wikipedia entry, Joe started Muse in the early-70s after a long stint at Buddah Records where he started an in-house jazz label Cobblestone. It was a label of jazz “blowing” sessions, meaning it was primarily mainstream jazz artists who’d come in the studio and in two union sessions –six hours– record enough material for a complete album. Muse Records was among the last of its breed, in a day where the most revered mainstreamers had gone corporate. The result was an unparalleled 20+ year archive of jazz in America from 1972-1995. And Joe continues to add to the legacy with HighNote Records.)
I won’t bore you with all the things I got out of those “lessons,” but suffice it to say that Joe had forgotten more than I would ever know. How to pick an artist? How to promote? What to ignore? How to negotiate? What’s important, what’s not? When’s a good time to take a chance? Who was Juggy Murray? What was ‘producing’ anyhow?
A few of my Muse Records productions
Joe introduced me to the real world. Without him I never would’ve gotten to work with 24 track recording, or get to meet the legendary Rudy Van Gelder. To say nothing of the artists like Hank Jones, Willis Jackson, Jaki Byard, or the others. And, he didn’t mean to change my musical tastes —I’m sure it was of no consequence to him whatsoever— but I walked in dedicated avant gardist and walked out a lifelong soul jazz devotee. (Soul jazz didn’t only sell better and longer, but was a lot more fun.)
There was a lot of history in Joe that I just soaked up and it was always fun dropping by the office just to listen to him on the telephone, working it with an artist, a studio, or maybe a distributor or radio station. Things that were second nature to him were golden to my uneducated ears, and I just couldn’t get enough. My only complaint is that I wanted more. More projects, more time, and more money. Mainly more projects, because they were just so much fun. But, I was going broke on the $250 a record he was paying me, though I now know if he paid me anything more he would’ve gone out of business. Lesson #1, being a survivor in the independent record business is never easy, and probably requires you to disappoint almost everyone wanting a better payday.
It was at a disastrous Muse session in Brooklyn that I called my friend, Muse liner note writer, and future partner Alan Goodman to come and help me figure out whether to stop trying to make a living at record producing and try my hand in the then revolution of cable television. You know who won.
Working with Muse Records was a once in a lifetime, unforgetable experience. Not all the records I worked on for Joe were wonderful. And some were beyond fantastic, truly world class. But, no matter the project, it was a rare privilege Joe Fields allowed me.
Joe was, and continues to be, a generous man. Thanks guy, I couldn’t be a producer without you.0 comments Tagged: mentors, producingrecords, Muse Records, jazz,.