I want to let you know a bit about Sandy Pearlman, not only because he was a good friend and I enjoyed so many great times with him, but also because he was one of the world’s greatest characters. It’s taken a moment for me to put this together because his passing really hit me hard and honestly I’ve needed the time to mourn and reckon with it.
How does one describe Sandy Pearlman??! Anyone reading this who knew him is probably laughing out loud right about now. Just mentioning his name will solicit a laugh, then a warm smile and a head shake from most anyone who knew him well. He was one of the most enigmatic, eccentric, and all around major characters of all time.
Most of you reading this blog know him from the records he produced unless you also used to read his writings in the early rock music publication Crawdaddy. He is most known for co-writing songs for the Blue Oyster Cult, producing their albums, and managing the band. He also produced the Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope album and the Dictators, Dictators Go Girl Crazy, which were both forays into the early punk scene.
I remember when he came back to New York after producing the Clash. Sandy was usually always full of bravado and proud self-esteem. But for the first time ever, I saw him rattled and a bit unglued. He was in my office pacing around. I asked what was wrong and he said, “What’s wrong?? The Clash is what’s wrong! I’ve never seen anything like it—they hate everybody! They even hate THEMSELVES! Man that was a rough ride.” I think for that one album Sandy was not in control and he hated it—but the album turned out great.
Sandy also managed Black Sabbath for a while and an absolutely killer French metal band named Shakin’ Street with a fabulous lead singer, Fabienne Shine. In fact, one of the best metal shows I ever saw was in Oakland, CA featuring all three bands—Shakin’ Street, BOC, and Black Sabbath—wow, that line up. That show was a force to be reckoned with. At the time Ronnie James Dio was the lead singer for Sabbath and he was killing it.
One of the most fascinating facts about Sandy is that beyond his achievements in the music business, he was one of the smartest and most all-around well read people I’ve ever known, and about many more subjects than just music. He was also a label owner, a member of the Library Of Congress preservation board and a professor of music and philosophy, teaching at McGill, Stanford, Harvard, and UC Berkeley, just to name a few places over the years.
You could ask him about almost any subject and he would know about it. He knew so much about so many things the guy was constantly blowing my mind. Once we were touring with the Blue Oyster Cult in Canada and we found ourselves eating lots of incredible Chinese dinners in various cities. At one meal I just blurted out, “Why is the Chinese food so good here?!!! Sandy then told me that the Chinese were the ones who built the great Canadian Railroad. Then, he went on to give me chapter and verse, the ENTIRE history of the Canadian Railroad! Whenever I saw him he was always reading a new book, but the stuff he read was deep. It could be about the history of a particular war, or it could be the writings of the great existential philosopher Kierkegaard!
Sandy appreciated good authentic food and one of his favorite things to do in LA was to stop at Burrito King on Sunset and Alvarado on the way to a BOC show and scarf down a Quesadilla and a Machaca burrito on the way to the gig. We’d be on the way to the show and I’d have his latest Blue Oyster Cult album cranked up to 11, then he’d say, “Believe me I’ve heard this enough, do you have any Wagner?” He knew his classical composers and lucky for me I had a Columbia Records Wagner’s Greatest Hits Eight-Track tape in my trunk at the time. So we blasted “Ride Of The Valkyries” all the way to the gig.
Sandy was an artist’s artist and notorious for running over production deadlines. I think he aspired to Peter Gabriel’s famous quote, “A deadline is a point you pass on the way to completion.” Really?? No wonder he’d “heard that enough”–he was probably spending one week just on the vocals of one song. Or he could be futzing about with some new microphone technique. Once I was in the studio and the engineers had been working on an Eric Bloom vocal for a whole day, changing the color, the EQ, etc., etc.. They were exasperated because they couldn’t get it right for Sandy. Sandy walked in after even more hours of their work, listened to half the song, and then said, “Sounds a bit strident to me,” and walked out. How do you fix “strident”???!
But Sandy was also an ultra cool guy. Once they were working on a live record. They had The Doors’ Robby Krieger guesting on “Roadhouse Blues,” but the solo was very long. Sandy looked at me and said, “You’re a good guitar player, why don’t you go into that room over there and have a crack at editing the solo.” I spent all night trying to edit that damn solo but Robby has a way of running one phrase into another in such an artful fashion taking you on a musical journey that you just can’t jump from one section to another and have it make musical sense. After eight full hours I gave up. I told Sandy it was impossible, and that also I had come to another conclusion—“It’s f*cking Robby Krieger!! Who the hell am I to try and edit his guitar solo?!”
One of my favorite things to do on the road with the Blue Oyster Cult was watching the “E Factor” (the guy in charge of special effects) load the eight pyrotechnic flash pots strung out across the front of the stage with flash powder which he did before each show. Then I’d stand back and marvel at the explosion and smoke generated when they were ignited. The show would start with a big announcer build up, sometimes citing Doors lyrics or whatever the announcer wanted to say at the moment that would get the crowd excited, but it would always end with the same words, “…Here they are from New York city, the amazing Blue Oyster Cult!” That was the cue to push the switch to set off the flash pots. Simultaneously the band would hit a power chord and bring their arms up to shield their faces from the flash.
Once the band was playing a show at the legendary Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. So as was my custom, I went down to the stage before show time to watch “Factor” (nick-name of the nick-name) load the flash pots. But this time he was doing something very unusual. Usually he poured maybe a couple tablespoons of flash powder into each pot from the brown bottle the stuff came in. Only this time he was emptying an entire bottle of flash powder into each one of the eight pots. I really thought he was high or that something else was up so I pointed this out to him as it seemed rather dangerous. He looked down from the stage at me and with his loudest most gravely voice, and strung out the words, “I hate San-Fran-cis-co!” I was like, “Factor, what do you mean you hate San Francisco–NOBODY hates San Francisco, EVERYBODY LOVES San Francisco.” He just scoured and continued to empty bottles of flash powder.
I went back to the soundboard where Sandy was standing. I said, “Hey man, get ready, Factor has overloaded the flash pots—it’s gonna be a bigger explosion than usual.” So, the announcer winds up the crowd, and ends with “…So here they are from New York city, the amaaaaaaazing Blue Oyster Cult!” And the pots go off—KA-F*CKING-BLAMMO!! First off, the flash was so bright everyone in the room was blinded. Then came the heat—you could feel the heat from the stage all the way back to the end of the ballroom where we were standing at the soundboard! Then came the concussion from the explosion–I swear to God, I thought we’d killed the band and had taken out the first three rows of the audience! When our eyes adjusted you could see tons of smoke rolling across the ceiling coming our way. I looked at Sandy in a daze, wondering how scared he must be for the band’s safety not to mention any audience members who could be seriously injured at this point. Sandy just looked at me as if this was business as usual and in his best, nonchalant “Mr. Peabody” (and my Boy Sherman) voice simply said,…“Wow,…positively nuclear.” Smiled, and then told the soundman to ride the guitars heavy and loud. As if nothing out of the ordinary had happened at all, he looked at me and said, “You know, sometimes I think all anyone wants to hear from this band is the guitars.”
Well, that’s a glimpse of my long time friend Sandy Pearlman, one of the true characters of all time. I hope you enjoyed these tales about him.
PS. When we went back stage after the Winterland gig, we saw that the “positively nuclear” flash had literally singed off the eyebrows of the band. Buck, the guitar player looked up with very little eyebrow showing and yelled, “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT??!!! Ha, ha. Rock like it used to be.
Rock on CDJ fans,
© Paul Rappaport 2016