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John Tabacco

Composer, Songwriter, Producer, Engineer & Recording Artist

Lost In Lahina

…a sealed, surfboard sandwich with the wrapper glued by tiny, transparent ants.

"I already know what’s going to happen". "I wouldn’t worry about it". Those were the last words I heard from Chris Pati as his shadow vanished down the narrow, dark staircase. Here I was at forty-three, an unknown, self-made recording artist who was able to dodge conforming to a 9 to 5 life style for years on end, trapped on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Through some premonitions regarding "Gorgo Twain Has Gone Hah-Why-In" back in 1982 and a wall poster of a Pacific beach plastered inside the cheap but constantly good St. James Chinese Kitchen I had ended up in a $700.00 a month apartment in Lahaina, Maui. Alone. I had four months worth of credit card money to hold me over but that was just for food and rent. I was screwed. It was too soon to come back home. The final farewell the folks threw for me on Long Island seemed so fitting and true. A no brainer. I had to move to Maui. But that was little over a two months ago. It would be embarrassing to return home so soon without even trying to investigate all my options. So I continued to go through the tropical motions caused by what appeared to be a simple mis-communication between native friends and two guys from New York.

I guess I should back up a bit if I expect you to make any sense of this story. But where to start? I had the whole thing worked out in my head as I was walking down Front Street. I could see myself typing this and the words were coming together so fluidly. But that was in my head. Everything works perfectly there. The problem and constipation seems to come when I have to transmit my thoughts into this dimension. I get too distracted by the female gender, the weather, multi rhythmic bird noises and annoying motorcycle riders who need to show everyone just how big a penis they have. So where was I? Ok. Well, I can tell you that this place they call paradise is actually a sealed, surfboard sandwich with the wrapper glued by tiny, transparent ants. Yes, it is a nice place to vacation - no doubt. Amazingly warm, clear, life-affirming air, with morning rainbows swashing across the big "L" on the mountain side and the finest, softest sand your feet will ever touch, not to mention the most picturesque sunsets the Earth has to offer. But really, if you are by yourself - it sucks. This is a "couple’s destination". Not a place for a middle aged Long Island loner. Everything that was supposed to happen here for me disintegrated systematically on a daily basis. Why, you may ask? Well, here’s the scoop:

the most picturesque sunsets the Earth has to offer…if you are by yourself - it sucks

On a sunny morning in May of 2004 I was told that our landlord wanted to sell the house where Marci Geller, Gian DiMauro, Paul Michael Barkan and I had formed Sonic Underground Studios. Naturally this was quite a blow to me, seeing that I did not know where I could to go to continue recording and the studio was the only way I could make a living, meager as it was. I walked around that day feeling mighty low. Sometime in the afternoon I came back to the house totally depressed and noticed that there was a phone message for me from my old school friend and multi talented musician Chris Pati. All Chris said was how would I like to run a recording studio in Hawaii? This sounded intriguing and right on cue. So I called him back. It turns out that Chris produced a few songs for a kid named Darrell Labrado. The songs became big regional hits in Hawaii. One guy by the name of Shane (co-owner of Riptide Records) apparently embezzled some money from his record company and put it towards Darrell’s record. He had nothing signed with Darrell. Chris did not know until later where Shane got his money from so what seemed to be pure initiative and intentions from Shane lead to the two of them signing a partnership to form the Aloha Entertainment Group. After Darrell’s record went off the charts Shane asked Chris if he wanted to produce this young girl named Tani Lynn who had a great voice and who sometimes acted in various TV spots. Chris heard the fifteen-year-old wunderkind and was impressed by her singing. Shane then told Chris that his company would pay him $15,000 to produce an album for Tani Lynn. He also said he had "ins" with the world renown guitarist George Benson’s studio, aptly named Lahaina Sound. Shane knew that the Lahaina Sound Studio lease was up for grabs so he told Chris that if he wanted, he’d put Chris’ production money towards the lease for a year. The studio would be leased under Chris’ company Guru Project. Chris agreed. A few months later, Chris finished a few tracks at his Long Island studio, Modern Voices, for Tani Lynn; some of which she contributed lyrics to. These were straight out of the box, commercial pop tunes, geared for lots of airplay. It was the kind of stuff Chris has been producing in his sleep for years. The record company was very exited about the crossover potential of a Hawaiian artist like Tani Lynn into the USA mainland. Up until then Don Ho was probably the most successful Hawaiian to infiltrate the States.

Meanwhile, Shane and two engineers Brett and Tim who owned the equipment at Lahaina Sound said it would be no problem if Chris advertised the studio on his web sight. The Guru Project could be fully affiliated with Lahaina Sound (now called Studio Maui). Thus, it was a slick addition to see that beautiful studio picture on the website. It certainly impressed me when Chris suggested I run the joint. It seemed like a perfect fit. So I said (holding back my excitement), "Yeah that would be cool I guess. But first I would need to check out the place in person." Chris understood and eagerly invited me to come with him to record vocal tracks with Tani. That was in late June of 2004.

When we arrived in Maui, Shane and his family greeted us with open arms and we got along fabulously. Shane took us all over Maui and fed us, housed us etc… We video taped all the high points of the island (later used to make a DVD with Chris’ instrumental music), saw the fastest cows gallop across a wide open pastel field, ventured up to what was a mouth of a dormant volcano and met a lot of happy, fancy people at hot spot dance clubs. When it was time to get down to studio business we invaded Lahaina with all our New York savvy. Computer tracks in hand. Totally prepared. Sure there was a few studio problems (not on our end) but we got over them quickly and there was no waiting when Tani walked in to the room to sing. It was at that moment that Chris and I met Karey. Karey (a woman in her early thirties) was the silent partner of Riptide Records. She was basically managing Tani’s deal. Although she put out a polite yet suspiciously cold vibe towards us, she did profess that she loved the way the tracks sounded. I would soon find out that she was a very influential political figure in the music world on the island.

We recorded vocals with Tani and her performances were pretty good. Not quite perfect under the microscope but respectable. There was maturity to how she sung her phrases that I found quite appealing. She had a lot of potential. But as the week went on, Tani started to developed a real attitude problem. She became really hard on herself and kept making excuses not finish anything. Sometimes she’d just cancel the session or in the middle of recording, take a break and go to sleep on the couch. It was rather unprofessional. But then again she was only fifteen. I gave her the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately, Chris and I left Maui feeling a bit disappointed at the results.

Melissa Slip 17

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The record company however, still liked the songs and wanted us to come back to finish the project. We had discussed with Shane that I would come to live in Maui and run the studio, get things to happen so Chris could move on the production with no hesitation. Chris also had mainland clients who wanted to come and book the studio for future projects. We also had some potential investors because of the Maui studio connection. The future still held some promise.

Chris and I discussed that I should leave Long Island a little earlier than him to get a feel for running Studio Maui - to get a feel for the kind of clients that come in etc… Since I had to move out of 21 Walnut Avenue anyway, this made sense. That’s why I left in late August. I remember the last client I recorded at Sonic Underground. It was folk singer songwriter Terry Winchell. Terry actually had a brother who lived in Maui and she thought maybe I could record her next project there if and when she had enough cash. Suffice to say, that never happened. After I finished Terry’s session I went upstairs to grab some recordable CDs. On my way back down memories of the fantastic music and fun and not so fun times I had living in the vocal booth like a freak rushed over me. 21 Walnut Avenue was a mini Brill Building where songwriters came together and collaborated on ideas.

21 Walnut Avenue was a mini Brill Building where songwriters came together and collaborated…
There was always something going on and most times I was in the middle of it. My head cluttered with nostalgia, I suddenly tripped on a step and all the CDrs went flying. I scrambled to catch them but no use. They scattered everywhere. I tried to eloquently pick them up but clearly my movements were so awkward. "Never did that before", I said embarrassingly. Terry just laughed. As her song was being burned to a disc I could see in my mind’s eye credits rolling. It was a list of all the clients I’d worked with over my twelve yearlong stay. Sadly, there was no grandiose music playing. No applause. No "thank you for all your hard work". No gold ring or party. Nope. Nada. My payoff I surmised was a move to Hawaii. Not what I ever expected but I suppose it could have been worse? I could have ended up in Wyandanch.

I tried to pack as much important stuff as I could into my new luggage bag on wheels, which included my Apple G3 laptop. my Neumann U89 microphone, my printer, CD roms of all my music, two ipods full of my favorite tunes, sheet music, some clothes and god knows what else.

The thing weighed a ton. Wheeling all this essential crap around in airports - not fun! God forbid it gets lost in transit I’d really be up shit’s creek. But amazingly, the flight to Hawaii (Maui) with a quick stop off in San Diego went off without a hitch.

Unlike the first time I landed in Maui this time, as I stepped off the plane I had an uncomfortable feeling like I was not welcomed. And rightly so. No one was there to greet me or to pick me up. Where was Shane? Maybe he forgot the time of my arrival? Nervously I phoned him but he did not answer. I took a deep breath and gave him the benefit of the doubt and proceeded to rent a car. I searched hard into the bowels of my memory and sure enough found my way to his house. No one was home. So I headed off to Lahaina where everything was happening. When I got there I called his partner Karey and with all the balls I could muster, asked if I could stay at her house for a week while I find a place of my own and get settled. This time she was very warm and friendly about the whole deal, though I felt she was a little confused as to why I was here. As it turns out, Karey knew nothing about the studio or Chris’ fee going towards the lease. Apparently there was no communication between partners. I was beside myself but took in the absurdity of the situation and went along with the flow.

I … staked out a creepy one room joint in a huge house located on the suburban outskirts of Lahaina…The smell was awful.
Anyway, I stayed with Karey and her cousin Joy for a week and staked out a creepy one room joint in a huge house located on the suburban outskirts of Lahaina. Not too far from the studio. The room was kind of like a closet with one window that rarely saw any sunshine. It had it’s own bathroom but some weird sewage stuff kept bubbling out of the shower drain every night. The smell was awful. There was no air conditioning so nights were hard to sleep comfortably. To make matters worse, millions of tiny transparent ants kept crawling on my sheets and getting in my hair. On the second morning I was confronted with a seven inch centipede and those suckers bite. I sprayed it with some Clorox I had in a bottle and it rose up on it’s hind legs begging for mercy. I felt horrible. That was it. I was out of there. $600.00 wasted. I checked all the local papers that day and fortunately found a larger apartment right down the road from where the studio was. It was little more expensive but at that point I did not care. Meanwhile, I was given a copy of the keys to the recording studio only to find a main room with a computer that did not work and a bunch of foreign gear I had no idea how to operate.

Fortunately, one of the studio guys (Brett) was nice enough to show me how to sort of get things working but he could not go into detail because he was heading off to Thailand for three weeks while Chris and I were supposed to work with Tani. In between all this stress, Karey had me meet a bunch of Hawaiian musicians and the top DJ on the island. I handed out my cheap calling cards to everyone and chatted the best I could without sounding disinterested in the scene. All I could think of was that dysfunctional studio. At one point Karey said she wanted to record one of Hawaii’s most well known musicians, the intimidating Willie K. He was a big Hawaiian bloke who played fusion guitar. Her idea was to pair up Willie with Tani and have them collaborate on some songs. As it turns out Tani and Willie got along fairly well and they did come up with some ideas. Karey asked me if I could record two sessions with them and I agreed to do so for free because she was nice enough to let me stay at her home. The thought of recording a big name like Willie K was a bit un-nerving (I’d heard he was a moody guy and hard to get along with) and the fact that I vaguely knew my way around the studio. I had a week to decide what I wanted to do but I told Karey almost immediately that I was up for the session.

I wracked my brains out pushing buttons methodically until I could get a microphone signal.
Why I was so confident that I could make the session happen was beyond me? Certainly I had the ears and experience to engineer but I am not a technical guy. I was used to having tech guys like Nick DiMauro, Paul Barkan and Bob Ball to help me figure the ins and outs of new equipment. Regardless, with this new false confidence I mustered up, I hunkered down in the studio for hours / days and learned to work an antiquated device called the RADAR which was a 24 track digital recorder. There was no mouse to control it. I had to learn a bunch of keystroke commands by reading the manual. Can you believe it? Me, reading a manual? Who are you and what have you done with John Tabacco? But somehow I managed to figure out how to get signal into the machine and record it. That was a major triumph for me but there was still that Sony digital console to contend with. It was a completely foreign animal to me with no manual to speak of. I wracked my brains out pushing buttons methodically until I could get a microphone signal. Then I recorded an acapella version of The Beatles’ "You’ve got to you’re your love away" with bizarre harmonies until I could figure how to equalized each vocal and make them blend. Trial and error – just using my ears, but it paid off because when Willie K and Tani walked in I was able to record them.

Phewww! As it turns out the first session was just them making stuff up (all of which I just recorded using my laptop computer in mp3 mode). The following day I used the RADAR system. There were a few bugs and digital feedback to tackle but I was able to record four guitar / vocal demos. I finished the mixes that night and everyone was happy with the results.

Chris Pati showed up a few days later and I played him the recordings I did. He had no problem with the sound of the mixes. It was the tunes he was not fond of. They just seemed to ramble. But that was not his concern. As far as he knew, he was there to focus on his tracks with Tani. Meanwhile, at this point the main computer, which Chris needed in order to run his music sequences, was down. It wouldn’t even boot up. So Shane came by in a panic with his external drive and we were able to boot up off of that. After about ten hours of trouble shooting we had the studio running. When Tani came in we were ready to rock. At first she sang wonderfully but quickly her moodiness started to rear it’s ugly head and she protested that she was tired. We took a break, got something to eat and Tani took a nap. After about an hour of down time we woke Tani up and she went back in to do the vocals. It was a disaster. She sounded awful and she knew it. She started to cry and blah, blah, blah…

It was a disaster. She sounded awful and she knew it. She started to cry…
We stopped the session and called it a day. That evening Chris received a call from Shane stating that Karey and Tani no longer wanted to use his tracks. They wanted Willie K to come in and produce the album. Ouch! Whereupon Chris called up his diplomatic partner Kyle on Long Island to see if he could clear things up with Karey. Unfortunately, no compromise could be reached. So there we were with a studio that barely ran and no tracks to record. Later, we had a conversation with Tim Nelson one of the guys who owned a lot of the external studio equipment. We made it clear that we would need to bring in some of our own gear and set things up to our specifications. Surprisingly, he had no problem with that. We asked him the current status of the studio lease but he did not know. He hadn’t heard from Shane. So Chris made a phone call to the landlord regarding the studio. The landlord (a Japanese fellow) called back and told Chris that Karey had already asked to take over the studio for the next six months starting November 1st. Apparently she was good friends with this guy so there was no bargaining here. Meanwhile, Shane would not acknowledge any of this with Chris for a few days. In fact, we had to call him up a bunch of times before he even returned our phone calls.

You’ve Got To Hide

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Eventually he told us that he just wanted to finish Tani’s record and be done with dealing with her. After the six months were up we can have the studio if we want it. Well as you can imagine Chris was pissed. Here he had spent time and money to produce those pop songs for Tani and now he couldn’t even obtain the lease much less get paid for the tracks. And of course he had to deal with the embarrassment of me moving here under false pretenses. So he swore to take legal action against Riptide Records. It just so happened that one of the songs Chris produced was co-written with a fellow who was an attorney here on Long Island. He was hoping to get his song on to Tani’s CD. When he was made aware of our lease situation he considered taking on the case. Chris and Shane were legal partners in Aloha Entertainment (part of Riptide Records) so there was a real breach going on here. Shane was in trouble.

"I already know what’s going to happen". "I wouldn’t worry about it". So said Mr. Pati as he headed back to Long Island. Those words just echoed in my mind. I sat alone on the ant infested bed staring into space wondering what my next move would be. The next day I received a call from Karey asking me to work the sessions that Willie K was going to do with Tani and also to work on his own CD. I agreed for a measly twenty dollars an hour. A few days later, I found that the studio locks were changed and I was without access to the place. Karey did not want me to be in the studio recording my own stuff. So that was that. No point being there. Consequently, I lost my Internet connection and my finances were starting to dip. I made an attempt, assuming the worst, to get in contact with people who might be able to lead me into a more secure financial direction. I emailed Claudia Gray a delightful woman I met here in Maui on my first trip. Claudia and I hit it off very well. Good sense of humor. She worked for Universal Studios. More specifically, for the Coen Brothers. I figured maybe she could turn me on to some movie work. It was worth a shot. But nothing came of it. I also called Dave Russell the engineer who ran Walter Becker’s Studio - Hyperbolic Sound. He was very pleasant on the phone and gave me some loopy directions to the studio. One of which was "X" marks the spot. It was about two hours away from where I was currently residing but I rented a car and saw him Tuesday, October 5th around 12:30pm. I had built up this whole scenario in my head that I would meet Walter Becker; he would hear some of my music and ask me to engineer and write with him. Then Donald Fagen would come in and hear my voice and ask me to do back up vocals and the next thing you know he’s producing my CD and it made perfect sense. My life was leading up to this right?

I could not imagine I was just here to find myself a job working at the Bubba Gump’s Shrimp House …
I could not imagine I was just here to find myself a job working at the Bubba Gump’s Shrimp House (though their food was tasty and the people were friendly). No. I would meet one of my musical idols and a new chapter would start. Yes? Not exactly. As it turns out Mr. Becker was nowhere to be found at his studio. Instead Mr. Russell greeted me and he took me though a tour of the main studio. My eyes first focused to the right where I spied some Steely Dan tapes on a shelf, and below that, a myriad of guitars strewn about. There was a nice big mixing board (a modified Harrison – not sure) in the center of the room, some Genelec Studio monitors, a 48-track tape digital recorder and a patch bay that looked like a rat’s nest. When I asked about the patch bay Dave just shook his head and said, "Yeah, it’s a mess but it works and who are we to argue with Steely Dan?" I nodded in agreement. Actually most of the equipment was kind of antiquated. In fact some of it was exactly like what we had at Sonic Underground Studios back on Long Island. They even used the same sequencing program we used called Studio Vision. I’d never seen that program used in any other studio. Cool. Consequently, I played Dave a few things I recorded and he dug it. He immediately said that Becker and Fagen did not need another engineer and they very rarely let outsiders record at this studio but if I wanted to record here for seven hundred dollars a day I was welcomed. I turned to the imaginary camera and shrugged my arms. I was then led into an adjoining house where they recorded live instruments. It looked like a barn with wood floors and walls and sonic material pasted in specific corners. They had a platform for the drums and various gobos to isolate each instrument. I stepped into the small vocal booth where Donald Fagen sang all his Kamakiriad vocals. There was a little video monitor in front of the booth where you could communicate with the main room. For a moment I was feeling pretty privileged to be standing where Fagen sang but that feeling was quickly doused by the reality of the situation. I was six thousand miles away from my previous life and I still was not sure what I was gonna do to make a living. An hour and a half later I bid Dave a farewell with all the false sincerity I could dredge up knowing that I was just as qualified to work there as him if not more. I was an actual musician. As far as I could tell, he was not. Dave got the job on a lark from Steely Dan’s engineer Roger Nichols a close friend of his. I should have such luck.

So with iPod blaring in the hot, clean air, I headed back to my apartment with the strange hole in the screen that kept getting bigger the more I repaired it. I looked up some studios in Oahu and planned my escaped from this paradise they called Maui. I told the landlord I was going to leave and asked if it was possible to have some of my money refunded. She agreed to give me $650.00 out of the $750.00 I paid for next months rent. That sounded fair to me. On a whim I drove myself to this alien / existential rock quarry I passed by with Chris a while back. I parked the rental and wandered about.

Darkness creeped in and soon I was bathed under the Milky Way just staring at the stars.
Darkness creeped in and soon I was bathed under the Milky Way just staring at the stars. No one around for miles. Imagine that? Six billion people on this earth and I’m the only one here! What did it mean? It was then I began to realize how important my friendships were back home. I missed everybody. Maui was such a transient place it was almost impossible to meet the same person on consecutive days. I was lonely. The following night while dining out I flirted with a sexy marine biologist / waitress by the name of Melissa. I sort of asked her for a date the following Sunday and she told me to meet her at "slip 17". I never did show up but I got a good song out of her. Hence, the manic "Melissa Slip 17". I did however make a connection with a tourist agent of sorts called Gaye Cuccinato. We talked a few times and eventually I asked her if she would be interested in taking some of the goods I had at my apartment which were too much to carry on the plane. She agreed. I also hooked up with a woman who thought I was stalking her as I was constantly hanging out near the main boardwalk with nothing to do. A policeman questioned my motives but I assured him with my New York accent that I was just biding my time reveling in the gorgeous sunset with no malicious intent. She was a new-age kind of person collecting donations for homeless children. After easing her fears that I was not stalking her I offered her my bicycle with which I actually had to get a license for. In fact, the day before I was supposed to give it to her some kid stole the bike while I was at the library. I met up with her and told her my story. She empathized with me stating that it was common to have bicycles stolen here. "Welcome to Lahaina" she said. The next day after paying for a little Internet service I wandered around the back of a building (the movie theatre actually) and lo’ and behold I spotted my bike. It was unchained to a rack and still had all the paper work wrapped around the seat support bar. Score!

Without hesitation but feeling a little like a criminal I speeded off with the bike and back to my apartment. Eventually, Gaye came over and I ended up giving her the bike, along with a small vacuum and some pillows. There was a big spider in her car that night so we ended up talking to each other for quite some time. Nothing physical transpired but we bonded on some philosophical level. We’re still friends on facebook.

She nervously told me some bullshit story… I was in no position to argue

The next morning I waited outside for the bus to take me to the airport. I knocked on the landlord’s door and she nervously told me some bullshit story that her landlord would only agree to give me $350 dollars back instead of the $650 she agreed to. I was in no position to argue as the bus had just arrived. I took the money and left for Oahu. Maybe I could find a studio job there I thought optimistically. It was a much more popular place (Honolulu) - an actual city no less. This made sense. The plane ride to Oahu is about thirty minutes. The plane however is small and after I was searched for possible concealed weapons or explosives (the Neumann microphone looked suspicious) I was told I had to somehow drop twenty pounds off my luggage bag. I proceeded to get rid of some papers and wooden CD racks I don’t remember what else but it was depressing.

In Oahu I found a hotel on a main block that was under construction. I was often propositioned by a myriad of street hookers and believe me I was tempted to exchange some fluids. But the money issue soon overwhelmed that desire and I decided it was better for me to spend the remaining cash to take buses to the various recording studios I had mapped out. I visited a few of them. They were beautiful, completely up to date and stacked with all the goodies you need to make a great sounding record. My CDs sounded respectable on all the monitors and the recording engineers were impressed. One thing I found curious however, was the fact at no time did I see anyone recording. No clients! I was told that some wealthy Japanese folks who recorded only when they felt like it owned most of the studios in the area. They kept the place operating just to have it operating. What a waste. If I could bring in some clients I was welcomed to work there. But how? I didn’t know anyone in Oahu and the lazy paced work ethic that seems to run rampant in Hawaii did not match up to my racing heartbeat and enthusiasm. I was fucked.

I managed to get only two clients while working in Maui and those were mastering gigs that were dealt with over the Internet. I mastered music for Stu Markus and Teddy Kumpel from Long Island. So after a few unfruitful days in Oahu, piggy backing off other people’s Internet connections I realized I had just enough money left to fly back to the east coast with my tail between my legs. I was beat. Memories of the last two and a half months of what could have been a really cool situation battled with the reality that my life back on Long Island would forever be changed. My studio at 21 Walnut Avenue was gone. I lost all my clients and nothing seemed to be happening with Chris and his lawsuit. Bob Ball was busy making artful DVDs of his son’s football games without any regard to pursue the SA3 process. The future appeared so hazy and uncertain. Would I ever be able to record another CD of my own? How could I continue this bohemian life I started back in 1987? Little did I know I’d soon be living in Centerport, NY with Nigey Lennon and Eric Weaver, recording a CD for singer extraordinaire Cathy Kreger, mixing music that featured ex-Zappa alumni Napoleon Murphy Brock, and having an adulteress affair with the love of my life from a previous chapter. There was more to come but for what reason I knew not.

© 2012 by John Tabacco
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