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The Rockologist: My Days At Def American

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I can remember it like it was yesterday.

There was me and my two pals sitting on the front porch of my house in Seattle in 1992. Bruce Springsteen had just released two new records — Human Touch and Lucky Town — and we were listening to them on the porch that hot spring afternoon over a few beers. The three of us agreed that neither of them were very good, even though we were hardcore fans.

Then the phone call came.

The CD player was shut off, and I told my two friends Greg and Brett to get lost for a minute while I took the call that was about to change my life. Because the guy on the other end of the line was Rick Rubin, and he was about to offer me a job with his label, Def American Recordings. I'll never forget that phone call for as long as I live.

Six months earlier, I had been unceremoniously fired from my position as National Retail Promotions Director for Nastymix Records, a Seattle based independent record label where I had, with considerable pride, helped build the career of Seattle rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot from the ground up, particularly with the independent retail record stores that paved the way for Mix's eventual mainstream success.

Things had been really great there for about three years — it was a dizzying ride with platinum album sales and the like — but they had since gone terribly wrong. But that's another story, left for another article that one day I hope to grow the balls to write.

Anyway, back to Rick's phone call. Rick Rubin was about to offer me a job.

Two weeks earlier, I had been flown to Los Angeles to meet with the man who was in many ways an idol of mine. We had met briefly once before, in 1986, when he was the Beastie Boys' "DJ Double R," and they were the opening act for Madonna.

At that time, I was assigned to interview the Beastie Boys for Seattle's Rocket Magazine, and they had just been booed off the stage at Seattle's Paramount Theatre — it must have been something about that whole "Kings of the Paramount" thing that rubbed the Seattle crowd the wrong way. I should add that this was roughly six months before the Beasties changed everything about music with the Rick Rubin produced album Licensed To Ill.

So anyway, the Beastie Boys were complete assholes during the interview, slamming their fists down next to my cassette recorder so hard I was never able to transcribe any of it, and the article was, for obvious reasons, never written. I didn't know who Rick Rubin was at the time. But I do remember a guy named DJ Double R who was profusely apologetic at the time.

Six years later, he was arguably the greatest record producer on the planet, and I found myself sitting in the living room of his Hollywood home, being interviewed for a job with his record label. To say, I was in awe would be an understatement. To say I was like a kid off the turnip truck would be far more like it.

So there I sat in Rick Rubin's living room.

The two things I most remember about Rick's house are the big stuffed polar bear and the wrestling boots — which I recognized had the initials "RF" on them. I asked Rick if these stood for Ric Flair, and from there we were pretty much off and running.

Like me, it seemed Rick Rubin was a big fan of pro-wrestling. I would later learn he actually had a financial interest in the independent Smokey Mountain Wrestling promotion. One year after I actually worked for Rick at Def American, wrestling babe Missy Hyatt delivered her calendar to me as a birthday present in person.

How sweet is that?

Anyway, from there Rick and I discussed our mutual fondness for bands like Blue Cheer — and he played a track by the then unknown and unsigned band Monster Magnet, a band obviously inspired by Blue Cheer — the sixties psychedelic band who more or less invented heavy metal.

Rick and I had bonded on Ric Flair, Blue Cheer, and my background with hip-hop. Basically I was in, and I knew it. The phone call I got that hot spring afternoon on the porch of my Seattle house a few weeks later was simply the confirmation I had been waiting for.

What transpired over the next two years that I uprooted to L.A. and went to work for Rick at Def American — and later the renamed American Recordings — is in many ways a blur. The celebrities came and went from our office. In a two year period, I met everyone from George Harrison to Johnny Cash (I'll never forget the way that he extended his hand and said "hello, I'm Johnny Cash").

To say it was just a bit dizzying for a rock fan who more or less fell off the truck from Seattle would be an understatement.

There are experiences from those two years that could fill a book (which one day I hope to get around to writing), and which will certainly last me a lifetime. I went to parties at the home of Hollywood madam Heidi Fliess and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Jack Nicholson and Mick Jagger. I accompanied Sir Mix-A-Lot to the American Music Awards in 1993 (where he won for "Baby Got Back"), and dealt with fans like Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg following us around all night.

And that only scratches the surface.

I DJ'ed at the party where Rick had a funeral for Def American (where the Reverend Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy). I lived shit I had only dreamed of as a kid reading about the glamor of the rock and roll lifestyle in the pages of magazines like Circus and Creem.

But now mostly there is regret.

The fact that I was given the opportunity of a lifetime and ended up essentially blowing it haunts me to this day. The dreams, which often are more like nightmares never stop, and that is when I can actually sleep.

To this day, I'm not really sure what happened, but what I do know is this.

There were a lot of things that were out of my control — I had enemies at the office going in (I replaced someone who was very popular with the girls at the office). Things didn't get any better when Rick hired a certain high-powered record executive to run the retail operation (who will remain nameless) shortly after I arrived. But there are also a lot more things I could have controlled if I only had the self-confidence to do so. Rick Rubin himself, after all, had hired me.

But I was also in completely over my head, and knew it almost from the start.

I can remember a staff meeting where one of my bosses remarked that "ever since Boyd got here from Seattle, all of our records stopped selling, and Seattle exploded." I knew it was a joke, of course. But at the same time, it only reinforced what I already knew. I was in over my head.

From that moment forward, I basically just tried to keep my head low, and sat near the back of the room at staff meetings. Like a kid off a turnip truck. My failure to rise to the occasion is again, something which haunts me to this day.

So what is prompting this rare bit of candor from your friendly neighborhood Rockologist?

I just got a new book in the mail about Rick Rubin, which I will be writing a review about in the next day or two. And I figured I better get all of this shit out of the way first, before getting into the book itself.

In the two years after Rick hired me, I probably spoke to him less than ten times. That is probably as much my fault as it is his — and as I've said, there are a lot of things I'd do differently now given what I've learned since.

But my respect for Rick Rubin remains unchanged. He is undeniably someone who changed the very direction of popular music. Beyond that, he is one of the very few people who have ever lived who is so gifted as to be able to make a very comfortable living by simply relying on, and sticking to his instincts.

That's why he is Rick Rubin, and why I am…well, here.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://donaldgibson.blogspot.com/ Donald Gibson

    If the result of our lives is that we’ve never made any crucial mistakes or caused some underlying regrets, then we’ve got nothing to learn from and even less to teach others about what it means to really live.

    This is a terrific read, Glen, and I’m proud not only to call you my mentor, but my friend as well. I’ve taken great insight and instruction from you on my own writing, which I would never have received if not for the perspective you bring to what you write.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some living to do…

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanks a lot Donald and right back ‘atcha. This was a really difficult article for me to write, but one I’ve needed to get off my chest for about 15 years now. I have to admit that it felt quite good doing it too.

    When I sat down and started to read the book about Rubin (review forthcoming), it all came flooding back and I recognized immediately how difficult it was going to be to write an objective review while divorcing myself from my personal involvement as someone who was actually there.

    The only solution for me was to write a separate article where I could get all the personal stuff out of the way first. As a result, I’m now a lot more confident that my review of the book wont be colored in any way by any of those things.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment, and the compliments.

    -Glen

  • http://www.myspace.com/tinkie101 tink

    If I’d only known you back then, I’d have passed along a piece of advice that helped me numerous times during my career behind the scenes. Act like you know what you are doing, especially if you don’t. Most people do not question what they perceive as authority.

    Great work, great insight.

    Thanks for the view inside.