45 Years Ago: Eric Carmen Somehow Completes a Deeply Personal Masterpiece
Late 1976 found Eric Carmen in a position most only dream of, despite the breakup of his band Raspberries. Now free to pursue a solo career, his 1975 self-titled debut had gone gold on the backs of two hit singles: the immortal "All By Myself" and its follow-up, "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again."
Music fans knew who he was and seemed ready to embrace whatever he came up with next. His record company Arista, headed by perhaps the biggest of industry bigwigs in Clive Davis, was eager to have Carmen begin the second chapter of his solo story. Carmen had a band he liked and was raring to get into the studio and go.
Things went to hell almost immediately.
Six months, three cities, innumerable hours of studio time and $300,000-to-$400,000 later, Carmen re-emerged in August 1977 with Boats Against the Current, an excellent, yet under-appreciated singer-songwriter album. (Seriously, if you like Carole King's Tapestry, Jackson Browne's Hold Out, and Billy Joel's Turnstiles, you should check this out.) The problems began almost immediately: Producer Jimmy Ienner, who'd helmed all four Raspberries albums and Carmen's debut, informed Carmen he was unavailable to assist with the new record.
Though the defection was surprising, Carmen's working relationship with Ienner had had more than a few tense moments. "We helped each other at a time when we both were starting out," Carmen tells UCR, "and I don't begrudge him what he did – and I still like the guy very much. He's a very likable guy. But he didn't want me to be in that control room, because he knew I was a quick study."
As an example, Carmen recalls an instance working on his first solo record, when he figured out a way to make percussion sound better, using a piece of studio equipment Ienner didn't like to use. At one session, Ienner left the control room to take a phone call, leaving Carmen and engineer Jack Sherdel a few minutes to experiment with the sound – successfully, as it turned out.
"At just that point, Jimmy walked back into the studio," Carmen recalls, "and he said, 'What's going on?' And I was ecstatic. I thought, I just found lightning in a bottle, and Jimmy said to me: ‘Come here, kid' and he walked me way to the back of the studio and a little baffled booth, and he said, ‘I'll walk right now. You're embarrassing me in front of the engineer, and you're embarrassing yourself and 98% of your ideas won't work, and don't you ever do that again.'
"I said, ‘Jimmy, Jimmy, I'm sorry. I just had an idea. And I thought it might work. And I kind of did,'" Carmen added, "and he laid down the law and basically said, ‘You can't do that anymore.'"
Carmen sent tapes to two A-listers to fill the producer's role for this second solo project: Beatles producer George Martin and Gus Dudgeon, who had produced David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and classic early Elton John output from 1970's Elton John to the just-completed Blue Moves.
Listen to Eric Carmen's 'Boats Against the Current'
"They both said, 'Yes, we would like to do it,'" Carmen remembers. "George, unfortunately, was not available for about four months, because he had a couple of projects [to finish]. Gus, unbeknownst to me, had just split with Elton, and he was available immediately."
Initial conversations with Dudgeon went well ("I spoke to him on the phone," Carmen recalls, "and he seemed like a nice chap"), but what Carmen needed from a producer was a sonic upgrade: Elton John's records sounded great on stereo systems and FM radio, and Carmen's to that point did not.
"Elton was doing his Tumbleweed Connection album and it was out the same time [the Raspberries'] ‘Go All the Way' was out," Carmen notes, "and if you listen to the two records back to back, it sounds like ‘Go All the Way' was made 30 years earlier. Technology had moved on … and I was very – I don't want to say unhappy, but I'm a sonic guy."
Carmen decamped to London with his band – the same group that had played on his gold solo debut. His choice of musicians was partly made out of comfort. "They were friends of mine," he recalls. "They were good, good guys from Cleveland, Ohio. They weren't session guys, but they were good."
From the beginning of the sessions, however, Carmen knew there was trouble afoot with his producer. "We spent about a month of absolute torture in the studio," he says, "in a little studio [Dudgeon] had rented and [we] got absolutely nothing."
Essentially, Carmen and his rhythm section of drummer Don Krueger and bassist Pete Hewlett would play and await feedback that would never arrive. Dudgeon, he remembers, "just kind of sat there and at the end of 12 hours of me and the bass player and the drummer playing the same thing over and over again, he just sat there with no comment.
"After a week or so I said, ‘Gus, what seems to be the problem? There's only three of us. It's either the drums or the bass or the piano,' and he said: ‘I don't know. I'm bored and frustrated.'"
A month of drudgery followed in London, but Carmen had enough. "I got on the phone at 2 in the morning and booked us all flights home," he remembers. "I called Gus' chauffeur because I couldn't get through to [Dudgeon] and said, ‘Tell him we won't be there tomorrow. Tell Gus to call me in a week and we'll re-discuss [the recording].'"
Sessions resumed in Los Angeles, with most of Carmen's band replaced by session musicians. Some, like Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro, fit right in.
Listen to Eric Carmen's 'Take It or Leave It'
"I had heard Jeff Porcaro on Boz Scaggs' Silk Degrees," Carmen says, "and I loved the way he played drums. So I brought him in and he played on 'Boats Against the Current,' just to my piano and some string charts I wrote. The fourth take was what's on the album, and it's absolutely brilliant. … He got it all perfect.
"I think we'd used half an hour of the three-hour session, and I said, ‘Well, now what do I do with you for the next two and a half hours? That's my only problem,' Carmen said, "and we laughed, and he left."
Nigel Olsson, best known as Elton John's drummer, also played on Boats Against the Current but didn't mesh as well. Carmen remembers working on the album's hardest-rocking track, the Stones-y "Take It or Leave It," with Olsson and bassist David Wintour, when the drummer dropped a bombshell.
"We start to run the track down," Carmen says, "and Nigel puts his sticks down on his drums and he goes, ‘I hate rock 'n' roll.' I said, ‘Aren't you the guy that played on all those Elton songs, like ‘Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting)' and ‘The Bitch is Back?'"
Olsson was adamant. "[He said] ‘I like funk and I like ballads, but I hate rock and roll,'" Carmen recalls. "I was thinking, ‘Aren't you a drummer in a very successful rock band all these years, and you hate rock 'n' roll?' I said, ‘You know, I wish you told me last night, Nigel, so I could have booked someone who actually likes rock 'n' roll.'"
In addition to being a rock drummer who didn't like rock, Carmen found himself working with a producer who wasn't familiar with the differences between musical instruments. Carmen recalls trying to explain to Dudgeon how to get a specific guitar sound – the one Andrew Gold used for the solo in Linda Ronstadt's "You're No Good."
"I said, ‘I'm not trying to usurp your session, but I think it's like a Telecaster triple-tracked, plugged directly into the board, and slightly detuned with a lot of compression. That's my guess,'" Carmen remembers. Dudgeon added, "'To be honest with you, I wouldn't know the difference between a Gibson and a Fender if it bit me.'"
Carmen admits that he "started to laugh because I thought he was joking, and then I realized he's not joking. He honestly does not know what a Gibson guitar sounds like, or a Gibson Les Paul versus a Gibson SG versus a Fender Telecaster or a Stratocaster. My mouth hung open.
"I said, ‘Well, a Telecaster direct sounds like this, and this is what I was going for.' He said, ‘All right, well, you just do it yourself,' and he packed up his stuff and walked out of the studio."
Listen to Eric Carmen's 'Nowhere to Hide'
Dudgeon's real strength, Carmen soon realized, was in engineering records. "He understands 32-band parametric equalizer," Carmen says he thought at the time, "and he knows what each instrument goes so that it sounds – the piano goes here, guitar goes here, and bass goes here. He understands all the frequencies and just where everything should be. That, to me, is like mathematics; it's not like creativity."
Carmen, conversely, knew what sounds he wanted – just not necessarily how to get them. "I literally walked into every recording session, with every note for every single person in the band worked out – every harmony," he notes." All they had to do was set up the mics and push 'Start,' and that was that."
The final argument between the two men resulted in Dudgeon exiting the sessions for good, and it all had to do with a particular horn player. It started when Carmen and Wintour were in a hotel room, listening to some of the session work they had done that day.
"It was late at night, like two in the morning or something," Carmen recalls, "and there's a knock on the door. I opened the door and there's this guy standing there. He goes, ‘Hey, what is that?' and I said, ‘We're playing back some tracks we did today,' and he goes: 'That sounds great. Can I hear it?' [I said] ‘Who are you?' [and he said] 'Bobby Keys.'
Keys was responsible for the saxophone work on the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar," "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," and "Rip This Joint," as well as the solo on John Lennon's "Whatever Gets You Through the Night." He had also appeared on Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and Lynyrd Skynyrd's Second Helping, to name a few.
"I went, 'Bobby "Brown Sugar" Keys?'" Carmen said with a laugh, "and he said, ‘Yeah!' and I said, ‘Come on in!' He sat down and he listened to these tracks, and we actually had a horn date for the next day. … Bobby, at some point, said, ‘Hey, you know what, this stuff is so great. I'll play for free.'"
At the studio the next morning, Dudgeon and Carmen began arguing about the work ahead that day. Carmen asked how Dudgeon would feel about Bobby Keys playing on the record. Dudgeon said, "Bobby Keys? Bobby Keys is Beelzebub! He'll come in with a football helmet full of cocaine. He's the devil!' Carmen recalls. "I said, 'Well, he should be here in about 20 minutes.'"
Dudgeon balked. "He slammed his briefcase shut and he stood up and he walked out the door," Carmen remembers, "and I never saw him again."
Listen to Eric Carmen's 'Run Away'
Carmen took over the producer's chair for the sessions, already behind schedule and over budget. "Everybody in the studio was a little bit panicked," he remembers. "I said, ‘Well, based on what I've seen for four or five months of this guy, I think I can do this.' We proceeded onward, and I took it over. Unfortunately, I took it over down $300,000 with nothing but piano, bass and drum tracks – some of which had to be redone."
He also had hours of disorganized session tape to sort through as a parting gift from his now-former producer. "We had 46 reels of two-inch tape and Gus' thank you to me was to throw one track sheet in the top box. It was for one song, and that was it," Carmen remembers. "So my job for the first week … was 12 hours a day of listening to track after track after track. A lot of them [were] seven minutes long, and no notes. … So it was really a trial by fire."
The music contained on those tapes, however, was the beginning of Carmen's masterpiece – an autobiographical song cycle, filtered through a fascination with literature, set to music by turns sweeping and orchestral, and grounded in the AM radio harmonies on which Carmen obsessed as an adolescent.
The connection with literature is most immediately apparent. The title Boats Against the Current is a direct reference to the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby, whose last line reads "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Fitzgerald's work was a particular inspiration to Carmen as he wrote the record, shortly after the touring cycle for his self-titled debut.
As Carmen recalls, he had "been on the road forever and ever, and I hadn't really had a lot of time to think about what the second album would be. Somebody gave me a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short stories, and so I started reading them. I was astonished at the way you are astonished when you read something and you think, ‘How could this person know this much about me?' [I read] the short stories, which I thought were for the most part brilliant and moved on to all the novels, including Gatsby. I saw certain parallels [to] what I had been going through, and … what Gatsby was experiencing, and how he had kind of created himself."
That sense of self-creation is the foundational point of the song "Run Away," which centers on the singer's high-school experience. "There were very few people that I hung out with in high school," he remembers. "I didn't really fit in any group.
"I had all the same high school experiences of, you know, I'm sitting next to a girl in like, eighth- and ninth-period art class," Carmen adds, and there was some sort of school dance going on. I was just bonkers over this pretty blonde girl sitting next to me. I took all my courage and asked her to go to the dance with me, and she turned me down."
The life Carmen wound up making for himself had its inspiration in a cultural moment so many shared: "When the Beatles happened," he says, "and just like Billy Joel and Elton and all the other people my age, we suddenly saw an avenue. Like, wait a minute, girls are screaming at these guys, and they play instruments – and, you know, they probably weren't the quarterback on the football team. There is an alternative route for getting girls, and now that began the story."
Listen to Eric Carmen's 'Marathon Man'
"Marathon Man" is the natural extension of this narrative, when the dream becomes reality and the forward motion that began with the girl's rejection and the Beatles' inspiration results in the protagonist, further down the road, looking around at this scene:
"Someone's callin' my name
It's the crowd in the stands
Concentrate on the pain
Put my soul in command"
Inspiration can be fleeting, but it can also be found when one least expects it. A late-night fast-food run, of all things, gave Carmen the missing piece for "Nowhere to Hide." "The melody is so syncopated," he recalls. "Trying to write lyrics to that it was like, ‘What the fuck did I do to myself there?' I remember spending an entire week trying to get one line. …
"One night, it was like four o'clock in the morning, and I had been working on this one line for a week and could not get it," Carmen adds. "There was a McDonald's down the street from where I lived. I got in my car, drove to McDonald's, got a couple of Diet Cokes or whatever to help keep me awake. On my way back right before I turned into the parking lot of my apartment, this piece of newspaper blew across the front of my car – and I went, ‘There it is: ‘I've been floating around like an old newspaper blowing down some windy street.' … It took a week but it was worth it for that line."
After months of work, multiple studios, and a six-figure expenditure, Carmen finally turned in Boats Against the Current to his record company. Arista founder Clive Davis listened to it and told Carmen the record had to be re-sequenced.
"On the Boats Against the Current album," Carmen says now, "if you want to have some idea of the way it was supposed to be, you have to reverse the sequence and start with ‘Run Away' and go backwards to ‘Boats [Against the Current].' That's the way I submitted it."
The narrative thread Carmen intended the album to follow does indeed become more apparent with a bottom-to-top sequence. The adolescent struggles of "Run Away" are more logically presented first, and the sweep of the title track does indeed make for a better closing – one might imagine end credits running atop the lines "There's romance in the sunset / We're boats against the current to the end."
Any way one listens to it, Boats Against the Current is a fine record, and a major statement by Eric Carmen. Making the album was a troublesome ordeal, and the No. 45 finish didn't match the commercial success its predecessor was – thanks to minimal record company support. Still, it served as a creative high-water mark for its creator.
"I went into that album with my highest expectations that this was going to be my masterwork," Carmen says. In that regard, Boats Against the Current was a success.