Published Monthly

What Instrument Are You Here to Pick Up Again?
May 2007

Author’s note: I have been saving this story for the month that writer’s block strikes. May appears to be that month. Please enjoy laughing at my expense.

The phrase “paying your dues” is fairly common in most industries, but in the entertainment field, it’s pretty much a way of life. Due paying is the reason you’ll be asked to do any number of thankless tasks no one wants to do for little to no financial compensation.

In the music business, you basically have three options: you are in a band; you work on the business side (are at a label, management company, etc); or you are employed in the recording/technical side (at a studio, freelance, or even doing live sound). I’m oversimplifying things at the moment because this isn’t the real point of the article.

If you’re in a band, “paying your dues” may entail playing shows where you go on at 1:30am in some empty bar where the only people still there are the guys in the other bands because they’re too drunk to leave. Or it’s selling the bulk of your possessions, packing up in a van and touring the U.S. all the while learning how thin you can stretch your finances and what it’s like living on the free condiments you snag from fast food restaurants.

And while there’s no guaranteed success rate, it’s just accepted that it’s something you have to go through if you want to “make it” (unless you’re some talentless twat like Ashley Simpson. Then you can just ride someone else’s coat tails). Some argue that all the trials and tribulations one goes through make you more appreciative of your success when it comes. Theoretically, it also makes you treat the people under you who are going what you went through better, but that really doesn’t always pan out.

At any rate, I’m sure you’re all pretty familiar with this whole concept. So just a little more exposition here, and I’ll get on to my story.

I work in a recording studio. To get into studio generally you attend some form of recording school. Doesn’t really matter what school. Some of my co-workers went to six-month programs, others have two-year associate’s degrees, and some of us even have bachelor’s degree. After you graduate, or as part of your schooling, you’re usually required to intern at a studio.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of interning somewhere, you basically work for free. And at a studio this entails working for free doing the really fun stuff you always dreamed of doing: mopping floors, cleaning toilets, etc. Then you become a studio runner. Studio running’s kind of like being a glorified intern: you get paid minimum wage (sometimes) to run errands for the studio and the clients (food, cigarettes, etc). You also have more responsibilities including repair work, setting up sessions, and learn more about the technical aspects of the facility and the equipment contained therein.

After that, you become an assistant engineer, where you actually work on recording sessions helping the engineer and producer with the real recording work. From there you work your way up to freelancing and hope that some day you’ll be the next Phil Spector (sans the murder trials) or Bob Rock (sans helping to ruin Metallica).

Anyway, one of the joys of any get-together involving anyone who’s worked in a studio is swapping stories about the crazy things you’ve seen or had to do for clients. I know people who’ve had to call escort services, drive hours for certain types of food, or who haven’t been allowed to look celebrities in the eye or talk to them directly.

While my internship was fairly uneventful, other than Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons demanding that none of the employees be allowed to walk through the lounge while they were eating (the lounge was the center hub of the studio so this was a little tricky), I have the greatest runner story ever. I’m not saying this to be conceited. I’m saying this because I have met people who have heard my best story from other people telling it. That, and most people tend to bow out of the odd stories competition after I tell mine.

And I had a few adventures as a runner. I had to go to strip clubs to invite girls to studio parties, or then there was the time the guy we ejected from a studio Halloween party who started swinging a cane at us and bashing in car trunks with it. There were the times cleaning up cocaine, or the time I was picking up food off the floor that a band had spilled and one of the guys started throwing more food on the floor and laughing at the fact I had to clean it up (I won’t say who it was specifically, but there are reasons that I’m not a big Linkin Park fan, aside from the fact they make shitty music).

The time that I toilet papered a yard with Kelly Clarkson and two of the guys who used to be in Evanescence is a good story (if you’re curious, visit my blog). Once I was at a red light, and some guy in the intersection randomly started screaming at me and hitting my hood. When I finally retorted to one of his many obscenity-laden shouts with “hey, fuck you!” he actually pulled a knife and tried to jerk my car door open. I even once had to take a client’s dog--well, poodle--to the vet. It had been bitten on the penis by another dog, and there was a camera crew in tow since they were shooting a reality TV show trailer at our place. Ever go to a vet and had to say, “This is not my dog, but it was bitten on its penis by another dog, and I need to get it looked at.”

Those tales are all fine and dandy, but they’re nothing next to the “pump organ” story. Where to begin…

It was a Friday afternoon at work. I was still a runner at the time, and we were just finishing lunch. John Fogerty (as in the guy from Creedence Clearwater Revival) was in Studio B, and they were reaching the end of their session. Apparently, someone was supposed to drop off a pump organ on Thursday night for John’s session.

Our studio manager came out and asked me to go pick up a pump organ from Tom Biller, an engineer who frequently worked with the producer Jon Brion at the time. I had never met Tom, but I had a mental picture of what he must’ve looked like.

You see pump organs aren’t a very common instrument. They’re very rare. They’re basically a small wooden organ with a set of push pedals and an accordion-looking billow underneath the keyboard. Not something that’s easy to find. And since Jon Brion collects and uses obscure instruments, he was loaning one to Fogerty’s session. People who collect this kind of gear tend to look like they’d be in a band with Beck or someone like that.

So I’m handed the directions and am told to get there as quickly as I can. Apparently Tom’s waiting for me, and they need the organ for the session as quickly as possible. I hop in my car and head to Silverlake. Silverlake’s not really all that far from North Hollywood, but the directions gave me had me getting on Interstate 101, which can get really backed up. And it was very backed up that afternoon.

It took me nearly an hour to get there when it should’ve taken fifteen to twenty minutes. I’m paranoid that now I’m inconveniencing Tom by making him wait for far longer than he thought he would. Silverlake is located toward the western end of the Hollywood Hills, and the street I ended up on was a narrow road winding up one of the hills.

While keeping an eye out for house numbers, I notice a gentleman in the street ahead of me who appears to be taking his Chihuahua out to the bathroom. And he’s looking around like he’s waiting for someone. I also happen to notice that he’s standing in front of a long house. At one end is a door with the address I’m looking for. There is a garage door in the middle of the building and another door at the far end.

I pull up to park, and I notice that the gentleman in the street is eyeing me. I get out of my car and ask him if he lives at said address. He responds that he does. I say, “Oh, okay, I’m here from the studio. I’m here to pick up the pump organ.”

He says, “okay,” and then he calls out, “come here Junior!” Junior, as it turns out, is the name of his Chihuahua. We’ll get to why I remember his dog’s name so well momentarily. “Come this way,” he says.

So I follow him. He doesn’t look like what I was expecting. I was expecting a guy with shaggy hair, beat-up jeans and a worn-out t-shirt. Probably scruffy. That’s what those types of musicians/engineers/producers look like in my head. This guy is Hispanic and very clean looking. But whatever, one of the things I’ve learned in the industry is that you never know what someone’s going to look like so I really didn’t think all that much about it.

He led me past the door with the number I had been looking for. But there were a few trashcans stacked outside the door so I thought to myself, “huh, it must be the back door.” Normally people keep their trashcans by their back door so no big deal. We kept walking towards the garage door. Now, pump organs aren’t always necessarily very large instruments (I couldn’t find a good picture of one the size of the one I was picking up on Google, but it kind of looked like this, It wouldn’t have surprised me if he kept it in the garage. So I figured we were heading to the garage.

No such luck. We kept walking past the garage door and to the door at the far end of the building. I figured it must’ve been a door to a home studio or something of that nature. The guy I was following opened the door, and it led to a hallway with multiple other doors, which I soon realized were apartments.

“Now this is weird,” I remembered thinking. I wasn’t given any apartment numbers, but whatever. I was given the directions in a hurry, and this guy seemed to be waiting for me. So I followed him down the hall to a door. He stopped, opened the door, and stepped in. I followed.

The apartment was immaculately clean. There was art deco on the walls. I was in the living room, and there was no musical equipment anywhere to be seen. I was expecting an apartment full of vintage musical instruments and gear, but there wasn’t even a stereo to be seen. Now I was feeling a little concerned. But whatever, you know? I had said I was there for the pump organ, and this guy seemed to be expecting me.

“Pardon me for a moment. I’ll be right back,” he said and disappeared into a bedroom off to the right. I was standing just inside the door, with my back to the wall, next to a chair that was waist-high. The Chihuahua jumped up on the chair next to me and began barking in that special way that only Chihuahuas can.

I like dogs so I figured I’d make an attempt to befriend it while I waited. My unnamed host (Tom, I’d assumed) shouted, “Be quiet Junior!” from the other room. “Hi, Junior,” I said, and I reached my hand out to pet him. As I was doing this, I noticed my host coming back into the room in my peripheral vision.

At that moment Junior tried to bite me. I pulled my hand back quickly and noticed a hand reaching across in front of me. It was “Tom,” and I assumed he was reaching over to grab Junior since the dog had just tried to gnaw on my hand. Makes sense, right?

Here’s where it gets weird.

Instead of grabbing the dog, he grabbed my dick, simultaneously wrapping his other hand around my waist. I don’t know how he miraculously knew exactly where my flaccid penis was, especially since I was wearing camouflage shorts. You’d think they’d do a better job of hiding the actual location of my genitals than regular shorts would. He then began giving me a hand job, and I felt him lean in to kiss my ear.

Now, this was all so surreal and odd that it actually didn’t process at first. It seemed so bizarre that there was no way it could actually be happening. Then I realized that it was, in fact, really happening.

“What the fuck are you doing!?!” I shouted, flinging my arms up and away. I spun to face my assailant.

His eyes became the size of dinner plates. “Oh my God, you’re the wrong person,” he gasped.

“No fucking shit!” I yelled.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” he began saying, swinging the door open and cowering behind it.

Now, I’m not a physically imposing person. I’m only six feet tall, but if I were in his position, I’d imagine some guy covered in tattoos and piercings screaming at me for sexually assaulting him would intimidate the shit out of me too.

I slowly backed out into the hallway, probably looking as shocked as he did, while he continued to cower behind the door exclaiming, “I’m so sorry!” the entire time. I was in such a state of shock and disbelief that I don’t remember anything until I realized I was standing in the middle of the street, mouth agape, looking like a deer in headlights.

I’m not homophobic. Not even slightly. I had a gay roommate in college and have many gay friends. I’ll go to gay bars, if that’s where the people I’m with want to go. I have no problems with that lifestyle and the people who live it. I would think that guy should be thanking his lucky stars that was the case. He could’ve really gotten hurt doing that. At the same time, I have to wonder, is that how easy it is to get a hand job when you’re gay?

So somehow with my dumb luck, I had shown up outside a building where a homosexual gentleman was expecting some hot mid-afternoon action. I step out of my car saying I’m there for “the pump organ,” and there you have it… I end up on the receiving end of a hand job I really don’t want.

After a few minutes of standing in the street in complete shock, I wandered over to the door with the trashcans from earlier. A scruffy-looking gentleman with long hair wearing worn-out jeans and a beat up t-shirt answered the door. “I’m here for the pump organ,” I asked, somewhat defensively.

“Oh yeah, I’ve been waiting for you. I’m Tom.” He replied. “Did you have any trouble finding the place?” he asked as he led me into a room full of vintage instruments and recording equipment.

“No, none at all,” I eeked out. “Traffic was just really bad. Sorry I’m late.”

He then gave me the actual pump organ (the instrument, not the gay hand job), and I headed back to work. I stopped for gas on the way, calling my studio manager en route to explain what had just happened. All joking aside, it was a very unsettling experience, and I felt very uncomfortable the rest of the day. I got back work without any further incidents, where the story had already gotten out to a degree, so I had to explain it again to my co-workers, as well as John Fogerty (who still teases me about it every time I see him) and his engineer (who now makes it a point to tell that story to everyone he meets).

So there you have it. I have paid my dues in the recording industry. I have so thoroughly paid my dues that I was actually (homo)sexually assaulted on the job. I defy anyone to come up with a work story stranger than that one.

Josh Newell resides in Burbank, California. He is pierced in over 100 locations. He is the proprietor of Josh Newell Recordings and works as a recording engineer.


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