Lessons learned–and re-learned–after a 9-year layoff
I figured that when I returned to reporting after a 9 1/2-year layoff I’d be rusty, scared, frustrated and humbled. And I was right. Just not in the ways I expected. I didn’t think my physical ability to take notes would be so evidently slowed. I didn’t think I’d have trouble holding questions in my head (when I should have been writing them down in advance.) I didn’t think I’d be nervous doing phone interviews in which I had to boil down my story thesis into a sentence. I didn’t think I’d have as much trouble writing cogently and stylistically at the same time.
I had this vision of my former reporter self–a pretty accomplished guy–and I didn’t seem to be able to replicate it. I was me, the reporter, once again, but I wasn’t the same reporter.
This was all predictable, and it was good to struggle. So I thought I’d share my first few stories with you and offer some details on what went wrong and how some of the glitches were straightened out before publication.
I quit editing in the L.A. Times’ California section on Labor Day and returned to reporting the next day as a general-assignment entertainment reporter in the Calendar section. The job description was “popular culture,” which is sort of an excuse to try anything–or to be assigned anything.
The first thing I tried to fell in my lap in March while I was still editing: Columnist Steve Lopez had been doing people-on-the-street interviews about a ballot proposition and ran into a guy with a video camera who said he was making a documentary about the reunion of his dad’s ’60s rock ‘n’ roll band, the once-briefly-notable Electric Prunes. Steve printed that factlet in his piece, and the son sent a subsequent e-mail that Steve gave me just for kicks. A couple months later, when I cut my deal to resume reporting (and still had to wait three months before it took effect), I re-read the e-mail and thought: A story? I didn’t want to show up in my new job empty-handed and maybe I could work on a reunion piece in my spare time before I transferred to Calendar.
Which is when I started wondering who would give a shit about a band you could graciously call one-hit-wonders who were now in their mid- or late 50s. One thing intrigued me: The son, now in his late 30s, made reference in his e-mail to how bitter his dad had been after the band fell apart in the late ’60s, how Dad would never even talk about his experiences. It struck me that if I had a quality that pushed the story into human-interest territory (rather than music-geek territory), it might fly.
So in August, I took the father and son out to dinner, and Dad said something else that, because it was so charming, reinforced the human-interest appeal: the Electric Prunes, the ultimate garage band, were still recording in the home where they’d been discovered back in ’66.
OK, so now I think I have a story but I have to wait one more month of editing before I can get to Calendar and start reporting and writing it, and when I finally sit down to write the story–my first story–something weird happens: I can’t write a sentence. I mean, I can write lots of sentences, but they’re all about 43 words long. The ideas are rushing out of me, I’m trying to squeeze everything into the first five grafs, I’m producing run-on sentence after run-on sentence…and it sucks. My wife, my first editor on occasion, informs me of this.
So I try to rewrite in a more measured, subdued way, and I get everything into about 60 inches…and it still sucks. It’s had the zest–the love of the material–squeezed out of it. My boss, Lennie LaGuire, who is wonderfully supportive, informs me of this. And she says something very smart, which is: You were so excited by this, just make the story feel that way. Think about putting back the stuff you squeezed out. She gives me permission, in other words, to put the story through another filter–a style filter. It was befuddling to me that I was having to do this, but it put into perspective how hard it is to get all the components and qualities into the proper ratio. At first I felt shame, then anger, then I got over it and did the work.
Weeks later, after struggling with a few more stories, I realized what had gone wrong with the initial drafts on the Prunes story: I was consumed with a factual problem that I took so seriously it sapped the “performance” aspect of my writing. The problem was calculating my audience’s awareness–did I think the average reader had ever heard of the Electric Prunes? And, if so, would they remember the Prunes’ one hit? Would they remember the weird song itself or just the title? Suppose (as I eventually concluded) most of the audience (probably anybody under 45) had never heard of any of this? How hard did I have to work to set up an appropriate context? I knew I had a good story once I could steer the story into the chronological rise and fall and rebirth of the band. It was the establishing shots that were a problem.
The basic structure I was going for was some introductory grafs that would loop around the confines of the tale, explain what these guys were–and are today–and then take you through their journey. What made the Prunes’ trip interesting, I realized somewhere in the middle of reporting, as I tracked down a bunch of inconseqential music-business figures, wasn’t just that the Prunes got back together–it was the strange, sweet way it happened. The “how” part of the story was something that any reader, not just an anging rock ‘n’ roll fan like me, could relate to. I tried to ration the quotes because there were a lot of twists and turns to natigate–I had to cover 37 years.
At the last minute the story was cut by about 8% (it had jumped twice in the Sunday Calendar section and the designer was reluctant to move 5 more inches onto another jump page). I had to strip out a few quotes and factlets, which I felt made the story a little less vital. But this was another hypocritical reaction that, as an editor, I never would have tolerated. As you’ll see, even with the cuts it’s a long story.
Final note: I’m not looking for, nor do I think I deserve, compliments. Since I spent a considerable amount of time for the past two years critiquing other people’s work on this site, I owe it to the viewers to be honest about my own struggles. I am now almost two months back into reporting and have yet to write a first draft that feels “right,” or “natural.” Maybe within my struggles there are some lessons you can use to your benefit.
A FEW WRINKLES
By Bob Baker
September 29, 2002
FIRST, A FOUR-GRAF SET-UP
In 3 1/2 decades, the Electric Prunes, those kids from the Valley who brought you the distortion-filled, neck-snapping, what-the-heck-was-that? hit “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night),” have advanced about 50 feet.
Back in ’66, when they were discovered, the Prunes practiced in the garage of a home that bass player Mark Tulin shared with his parents.
These days, Tulin, 53, two other core members of the band and three newer additions practice at the same house. But since Tulin’s parents are dead, the musicians get to blast away in the living room.
For this, the Prunes are grateful. Enough aging, anonymity and alienation will do that.
A TWO-GRAF SUMMATION OF THE JOURNEY
Rock bands often splinter, wander in the desert for a while and reunite. But the original Prunes took a 30-year exodus from performing, walking away from their record company and largely from one another in 1968. They took little pleasure in having made that rare ’60s record, so distinctive or odd that (like “Louie Louie” or “Wild Thing” or “Dirty Water”) it outlived the band and became part of some listeners’ DNA. Lead singer James Lowe was so disillusioned, he would not even answer the questions of his own son, an aspiring keyboard player.
Finally, a few zealous fans, with some help from the Internet, engineered a series of happy accidents that pushed the Prunes back into one another’s arms. Three years ago they resumed their conversations, then gradually went back into the studio and last year onto the stage, where they revel in playing the same raw, sonically weird, psychedelic-tinged music.
I FELT LIKE I NEEDED TO INJECT A VOICE FROM THE BAND, BRIEFLY…
“The way we play is the way we played,” says Lowe, 58, the band’s affable leader who recruited Tulin and guitarist Ken Williams when the pair were seniors at Taft High School. “It’s like dialing the time machine back to 1967.”
…AFTER WHICH, I COULD ADDRESS MORE SPECIFICALLY THE ‘NOW’
The Prunes’ expectations are charmingly modest. They hated the way record companies force-fed them pop lyrics, arrangements and touring schedules, so they’re using the Internet to independently distribute their 2001 album of mostly new material, recorded at Lowe’s Santa Ynez Valley home studio. They’ve played only three concerts so far but head for a series of nine dates in Britain and Greece on Tuesday.
“When they play, man,” says Steven Van Zandt, the longtime guitarist of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, “I swear to God within 10 minutes you are transported.”
Van Zandt, who hosts a syndicated radio show dedicated to garage-style rock, was so effusive about the Prunes’ reunion that he pressured the reluctant musicians to play last fall’s Cavestomp festival of veteran and young garage bands in New York, which he co-produced. “No movie, no record can capture being in that room and having them play.”
THE BACK END OF THAT QUOTE FIT NICELY INTO A QUICK PICTURE OF THE WRINKLED PRUNES MAKING MUSIC, STRUCTURED TO HIT TWO KEY THEMES: CONTROL AND MORTALITY
On a Saturday afternoon in Tulin’s Woodland Hills home, the Prunes crowd into the green-carpeted living room and fill it with distortion and percussion that vibrates in a listener’s gut. Lowe, his white bangs hanging over his forehead the way they did in 1966 when they were blond, shakes a pair of tambourines above his head without a trace of self-consciousness as the band gleefully thunders through “You Never Had It Better.” It’s one of the Prunes’ favorites. It’s also one, as Lowe points out when the last note dies, that their producers failed to put on any of their three albums.
Much of the joy in this reunion is centered on finally regaining control of the music. But it’s also about a deeper awareness of mortality.
NOW I CAN USE QUOTES THAT ARE MORE EXPANSIVE
“After all the recent events [in the world], you look at your life and say, ‘I’d rather be doing what I wanna be doing when it all goes down,’ ” says Lowe, a freelance television commercial producer.
“I spent many years convincing myself I didn’t need to play music, that I could do something else,” says Tulin, a former screenwriter and psychologist who said he stopped working two years ago to concentrate on music. “The lesson I got was, if it’s your passion, do it–you don’t even have to be good at it…. It’s about, if you’re loving what you’re doing, do it.”
I TOOK ADVANTAGE OF THE FACT THAT ONE SONG ON THE PRUNES’ NEW ALBUM WAS A REFLECTION OF THEIR JOURNEY
The bristling opening cut on “Artifact,” their new album, grapples with the struggle for redemption:
I was lookin’ at some photographs
We looked the way we used to be
I never dreamed they’d be my epitaph
And I’d be drowning in a sea
Of lost dream
WITH THAT, I WAS ABLE TO MOVE BACK TO THE BEGINNING AND BEGIN THE NARRATIVE PUSH
James Lowe had a boyhood friend whose father had a home recording studio. Lowe was fascinated by the process. He was also fascinated by surfing and guitars, but at 19 he married a girl he’d met while attending Canoga Park High and they started a family. Lowe worked as a nighttime aerospace X-ray technician, desperate to get out, convinced that music was his only escape route. He hooked up with Tulin and Williams and another young musician in 1965, and seven days a week–after the boys got home from school and before Lowe went to work–they practiced in the Tulin garage, concentrating on original material.
One day in 1966, a woman who was accompanying a real estate agent down the street overheard Jim & the Lords, as they billed themselves, and told them she knew somebody in the business. The hackneyed promise came true: She told Dave Hassinger, who was working as an engineer on the Rolling Stones’ new album but was eager to produce his own band.
Hassinger signed the Lords to a management contract and told them they needed a new name. They chose the answer to one of those ’60s riddles (“What’s purple and goes ‘buzz’?”). Among the songs Hassinger picked was a demo of “Too Much to Dream,” written by a pair of pop songwriters signed to his company. The band imbued it with Lowe’s petulant, dramatic vocal and an unusual feedback-infested, backward-guitar sound.
It happened partly as a fluke: Guitarist Williams was experimentally recording distorted textures with his guitar’s “wiggle stick,” and when an engineer accidentally played the reverse side of a reel of tape, the bizarre noise thundered through the small home recording studio Hassinger was using. Lowe said he kept the fragment and made sure it was integrated it into several portions of the final mix.
The result–variously praised for its effect on punk, garage-band and psychedelic music–was a song that got most of its attention for the way it got your attention. The opening stanza, in which Lowe recounts an erotic dream about an old girlfriend, is quickly overwhelmed by a sound that builds until it feels like “the hum of a thousand-pound bee crashing through your window and onto your turntable,” in the words of Richie Unterberger, author of a book about overlooked innovators. Van Zandt calls it “one of the three or four greatest records in history.”
I USED ANOTHER SNATCH OF THAT NEW SONG BECAUSE IT WENT DIRECTLY TO THE MOMENT SUCCESS SOURED
It didn’t work the way you thought it would
You stole my passion and my name
You two-faced mother with your run-around
You pulled me right inside your game
Of lost dream …
Lowe and Tulin were far happier making records and experimenting in the studio than playing, say, the Swingin’ Gate Club in Fort Wayne, Ind. But after “Too Much to Dream” peaked at No. 11 on the charts in early 1967, and a follow-up, “Get Me to the World on Time,” hit No. 27, Reprise Records sent the band on the road to promote its first album.
The year was a blur of touring from Phoenix to Birmingham to Salem, N.H., with acts like the Beach Boys and Cream and television appearances from “Where the Action Is” to “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” culminating in concerts in Britain and Europe, including a blistering performance in Stockholm that was broadcast on Swedish radio. (Lowe began the show by earnestly apologizing for America’s involvement in Vietnam.)
Ultimately, the musicians found the experience hollow. While it was routine for managers to treat new bands as commodities, the Prunes’ idiosyncrasies made the tension worse. They not only wanted to record without performing–a luxury afforded to no one but the Beatles–but to record their own compositions rather than what they considered the lightweight fare they were being handed. This struggle produced an inconsistent second album that sold weakly. The musicians expected to go back into the studio after returning from Europe in late ’67, only to be sent back on the road. They resented being forced to make a concept rock album (“Mass in F Minor”)–sung in Latin–which also sold sluggishly.
There had already been turmoil in ’67, when the band’s original drummer and rhythm guitar player quit. Now, in ’68, Lowe left the band for good in the middle of a tour. (“It was better to disappear than to do some formal crash.”) Within a couple of months Tulin, guitarist Williams and Joe Dooley, who’d been hired that year to replace a second drummer, also quit.
What followed hurt just as much: Manager Hassinger, who retained the right to use the band’s name, hired other musicians and kept the Electric Prunes alive until 1970, issuing two more albums.
The real Prunes scattered. Lowe worked for years as a studio recording engineer before setting up his TV-commercial business. Williams headed for Oregon in an attempt to “mellow out,” eventually starting a computer-consulting business, which he runs in Santa Barbara. Tulin played on studio sessions, wrote scripts, went to law school for a year, quit to become a geriatric psychologist and quit that to run medical billing seminars. Drummer Dooley hooked up with a succession of bands.
In the 1970s, “Too Much to Dream” became enshrined by a network of critics and record collectors. They placed it–and the Prunes–in a mid-’60s punk-rock hall of fame that usually included other short-lived bands like the Standells, the Seeds and the Count Five–stripped-down American guitar bands that reclaimed dominance in the wake of the British Invasion. Ken Williams was hailed as a guitar visionary, his work best exemplified, it was said, on a poor-quality recording of that ’67 Stockholm concert.
Little of this mattered to the men in the band. Lowe’s son, Cameron, who as a tot loved rolling out of bed at night to watch Dad and his pals play, could not get a word out of his father about his rock ‘n’ roll days. “He distanced himself from it so much, he’d make you feel bad for bringing it up.”
James Lowe mocks himself now for acting like a vet who found Vietnam too painful to discuss, but he suffered from a similar sense of betrayal: Remembering the Prunes meant remembering you’d been forced to follow the instincts of an older generation instead of your own. “In my mind I probably viewed it as a failure. It’s not that easy to look at a failure when you’ve done everything you could to make it come out right. We were just average guys–we were a garage band–rather than people steeled to the music business.”
Only once, when Cameron was writing a ninth-grade report on ’60s rock, did James agree to talk about the Prunes. A few years later, in the mid-’80s, Lowe’s daughter, Lisa, a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, persuaded him to discuss his career with a class, and that seemed to make a dent in a man who’d convinced himself nobody cared about his brief career. “It was an exorcism,” he said.
Still, as late as the mid-’90s, the musicians found it too painful to seek out one another. “There’s no separation between business and personal in a band,” Tulin said. “For a long time I didn’t want anything to do with anything or anybody that had been part of it.”
I TRIED TO WRITE A TERSE TRANSITIONAL SENTENCE TO COMMUNICATE THAT WE WERE ABOUT TO BEGIN THE FNAL SECTION OF THE STORY, REDEMPTION, WHICH THE STORY HAD FORESHADOWED
It took a 27-year-old Prunes fan to break the ice.
His name was David Katznelson. He’d first heard the band’s records in high school (“it stirred something inside me”) and was now a vice president at Warner/Reprise. Katznelson wanted the label to issue a best-of Prunes compilation, but it took him two years trying to find anybody in the band, and when he did Lowe was not interested. Katznelson persuaded Lowe to come into the studio to listen to the tapes, promising he’d be able to choose which songs were used, and Lowe called Tulin for the first time in 20 years, asking him to join him.
Now the Internet took over. In England, a 30-year-old music fan named Haydn Jones, who’d fallen in love with “Too Much to Dream” on an oldies radio show at 14 and had collected European reissues of the Prunes’ first album over the years, started looking for information about the Prunes online. When he came up empty, he decided to start a Prunes site. Gradually he found e-mail addresses for some of the members; others, including drummer Dooley, sought him out. This connected the other Prunes with Lowe and Tulin.
Unknown to Jones, another British fan, Simon Edwards, a fortysomething record collector and the owner of a small label, was already at work on a parallel mission, trying to issue that Prunes’ Stockholm concert as a CD. Edwards, who remembered begging his boarding school housemistress to go to the store and buy the “Get Me to the World on Time” single for him in 1967, had tracked down a studio copy of the concert from Stockholm Radio. But he was finding it difficult to obtain permission. In the late ’90s he found a friendly voice at Warner in Katznelson, who introduced him to Lowe.
In 1999, Lowe, Tulin, Dooley and Williams began sitting down to play, just for fun, occasionally recording at Lowe’s studio, just for fun. Tulin and Lowe wrote some songs, just for fun. Dooley brought in a second guitarist, Mark Moulin, whose playing was dense with ’60s-style flourishes. Cameron Lowe, now in his mid-30s and finally hearing his fill of stories about the old days, was asked to be the Prunes’ keyboardist.
Katznelson formed his own record label, Birdman, to release the Prunes compilation album in 2000. He estimates it has sold about 5,000 copies. (This year, in an agreement with Edwards’ label, Birdman began selling the Stockholm concert CD in the U.S.)
The reunited Prunes played their first gig in mid-2001 at a friend’s vintage-rock-equipment festival in Riverside. When Van Zandt’s Cavestomp fest came calling, they decided to package their new material as the “Artifact” CD and sell copies at the show. Lowe estimates the CD has sold about 2,000 copies.
“We’d like to be able to record and play music, to perpetuate this,” Lowe says during a rehearsal break. “In the face of everything that seems reasonable, that doesn’t seem possible. But all the best things in my life have been serendipitous,”
He has always been the band’s elder statesman. He’s still married to Pamela, the girl he met on her third day of high school in 1960. He delights at the way contemporary critics trace the sensibility of “Too Much to Dream” to the unvarnished style of neo-garage acts like the Hives, the Strokes and the White Stripes. He savors a mid-September e-mail from a pair of Israeli fans who came to last month’s performance in Canterbury, England, thanking the band for “a musical journey into a remote past…. Listening to you playing live on stage, after all those years … symbolized one thing: This music is going to live forever.”
“What happened before,” he says, “was that we sort of lost control of everything by someone else telling us where to go play, how to look, how to act, how not to act. And now it’s back to a place where the inmates have taken over the asylum.”
Next: Telling both sides of a story