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Adventures at RCA, by Lory Hawley

Lory Hawley | Published on 1/29/2023

Recording Light

Our February Intro  
Adventures at RCA
by Lory Hawley


The season when to come, and when to go, to sing, or cease to sing, we never know

Alexander Pope


I was thinking about how our love of music can take us on surprising adventures. It was certainly true for me, when my love for the music of John Denver coincided with my exploration of the wider world of ideas. Though this story is quite personal in its lessons, I feel it is universal in the sense that music, at its best, both mirrors and guides culture, as well as inspires. us.


I saw John Denver for the first time at a concert in Berkeley around 1971. John had recently had his first hit “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and wasn’t a mega star yet. He was very funny, radiant and passionate in his singing. I was just becoming familiar with the first songs from this man, but it was love at first hearing.


Part way through the concert he thanked a man named Werner Erhard for providing him with something called the Est Training. I didn’t know much about it, but by how clear-eyed John looked, I thought I should know more. I was twenty years old and ready to take on my future. This troubadour was singing my anthems and, though I didn’t know it at the time, Werner Erhard was teaching the fundamental guidelines of my new adulthood. I enrolled in The Est training, which laid a sound foundation for me that, to this day, anchors me through the storms of my existentially uncertain life.


It was through Est sponsored events; evenings that introduced people to some of the great minds of the early seventies, that my life’s education was rounded out. Such people as Buckminster Fuller (the scientist who coined the terms synergy, and spaceship earth), Swami Muktananda (a spiritual teacher from India), The Karmapa of Tibet (a Tibetan holy man of stature equal to the Dalai Lama) and many others. For a small-town 4H girl from Pleasanton California, my horizons were suddenly infinite.


Armed with the freedom that only blissful ignorance can provide, I flew into my twenties, confident and curious as a child, exploring the world around me. If I wasn’t having adventures around the world in my job as an international flight attendant, I was backpacking in the Sierra or the Colorado Rockies. John Denver’s life and mine tracked parallel courses, often working for the same causes, and being shaped by the same influences.


One of the major lessons from Est was the concept of “completing communications.” This is the recognition of how important it is to let people know they have made a difference in your life, or whatever else needs to be said to complete the circle between you and them. There can be great power in doing this, often with unexpected results. For me, I became charged with the idea that I wanted John Denver to know that it was he who catalyzed my self-explorations through Est, and (such are the ways of cause and effect) everything else that flowed from that exposure to the world of ideas. I wanted to “complete my communication” to him in person, rather than in a way that would be superficial or potentially unread, like a letter.


            Fast forward to 1976. I had many layovers in New York City in my work as a flight attendant. Manhattan was a place I found both exhilarating in its possibilities and disturbing in its high pitch of energy. The perfect setting for achieving my goal. I knew John Denver recorded for RCA studios in New York. I figured RCA was my doorway to John and that golden circle I needed to complete with him. So, off I went; RCA beckoned…


          One of the lessons I learned as a result of my naive goal to meet John Denver, was how magical life can be when one is armed with the power of intent, coupled with a sense of the possible.


          Armed with that magic shield of purpose, I talked my way past the guards at RCA and began wandering the various floors and halls of one of the great icons of musical history. Feeling like Alice in Wonderland, I drifted past windowed rooms with glowing red lights over closed doors. Lights that signaled one potent, wondrous word. RECORDING.


          My sense of wonder fluctuated with the edgy wariness of the guilty. This was not a public tour. I was not an invited guest. The sound of approaching voices, serious voices, deep in discussion, “the mix isn’t flat yet. Who’s the A.R. on this project?” What to do? Jump into the shadows? I’d seen too many film noir detective movies. There were no shadows. Putting on my best “I belong here smile,” I strode forward to meet my challenge. Three engineer types, heads bent in focused discussion rounded the corner. I squeaked out my hello. Did they stop in their tracks, eyes narrow, spotting the interloper in front of them? To my amazement, they breezed past with little more than an absentminded, collective nod.


          Insight penetrated my fear. I was there, therefore I belonged! They hadn’t questioned my right to be there. Suddenly I felt the giddy power of creating a new persona. I saw an open door and poked my head inside. A small room stacked with massive metal machines, the high-speed whine of a tape reel and the warm air rich with the smell of ozone and wax drew me in. A friendly looking guy perched on a stool looked up at me. His rumbled short sleeved shirt, pocket protector and pens made me feel right at home. He could have been my electrical engineer father sitting in his TV repair shop. “You look lost. Can I help you?” “I think I’ve gotten off on the wrong floor. I was looking for the PR department?” Jeez, that’s a dumb thing to say. Only a geek would come up with a hokey phrase like PR department. My cockiness crumbled, I looked at him helplessly. Perhaps I looked like his daughter, or maybe the charm of my imagined quest shone round me like a talisman. Humor twinkled in his eyes, “you’re in the production department, probably not what you’re looking for. Want to see what I’m doing?” I spent the next thirty minutes watching a tape being recorded to a wax record master. I was on the ultimate field trip.


          Forgetting my fear, I was now a rapt journalist, asking a million questions. With wide-eyed awe, I was being shown the interior workings of OZ.


          “Just what are you really looking for” my new friend asked me. Thinking candor best at this point, I confessed the whole story. “You know, now that you mention it, there were some folks in my life I wished I could have thanked. Now it’s too late…” His voice trailed off; his thoughts gone soft to some distant memory. “You need to talk to Mr. Denver’s A&R guy.

I’ll call up to him, tell him you’re on your way. His name is Bruce, he’s a nice guy. I’ll tell him you’re a friend. Out of the corner of my eye I swear I saw the sparkle of fairy dust in the slanting afternoon light. True magic does happen when you let the heart do the talking.


          Armed with a genuine invitation, I stepped from the elevator onto the posh, hushed reception area where the “talent” was handled. This was a very

different place than the folksy halls of the studios. I was greeted with the icy stare of the receptionist.


          This dragon at the gates stood between paradise and me. I recited my practiced open sesame line. “I’m here to see Bruce Sommerfeld… he’s expecting me.”

Her hand went to a button. “She’s buzzing the guards” I thought. “This is as far as I get. Should I excuse myself before I suffer the shame of being escorted out?” “Bruce, there is a visitor here to see you, shall I send her in? Relief mixed with adrenaline propelled me down the hall toward the next doorway to adventure. The plaque next to the door read Bruce Sommerfeld, Artist and Repertoire. Ah, I get it. A&R.


          Stepping inside I am greeted by a man not much more than thirty. His curly shoulder length brown hair and warm blue eyes put me at ease. Once again, I tell the story of my quest. I’ll never forget his wide smile as he shook his head in disbelief. “You got moxie kid.”


          RCA was OZ, and I had met the wizard himself. I was Bruce’s guest whenever I was in New York. I had the honor of attending a closed recording session with Duke Ellington and Theresa Brewer, among many other sessions. I was so enchanted with all I saw at RCA; I had almost forgotten my original purpose.


            Several months later, arriving in Manhattan after a grueling twenty-hour day, I checked in with Bruce to let him know I was in town. I figured that after a much-needed sleep, I would get together with him the following day. “Glad you called. John Denver is booked for a private session late tonight, Studio D, 12th floor, around midnight. Can’t promise you can get in, you’re on your own; just smile really nice to the guard, and… leave me out of it, I don’t know from nothin’…”


          It was almost 5:00 P.M. I was so tired my body buzzed. Should I sleep for five hours? Not wanting to trust my big chance to a wake-up call, I decided to stay up and have some dinner. I stopped into one of those nameless Manhattan diners. Loud, bright lights, a forgettable menu. I was too nervous and too fatigued to do much more than push my dinner around on my plate. I rehearsed what I wanted to say, and as importantly, what I would not say. John Denver was no longer the gee whiz kid I had first seen in 1971. He was now one of the top performers for RCA, and a star of television and movies as well. I didn’t want to waste my big chance uttering what I was sure would be something he was numb from hearing. I would not say, “Oh John, I love your music”. Even though it was true; even though I had sung and hummed almost everything he had written; around campfires, in my car on road trips from California to Colorado. Lullabies for soothing my sometimes-troubled life… Fanfares for my joys.


          At 11:00 p.m. I arrived at RCA. The front doors were locked. My heart sank. Did I really think this was going to be easy? Hoping there might be another way in, I started around the block. Down a dark alley I spotted a warm splash of light from a doorway.


          Approaching the uniformed guard, I put on my best “I belong here” swagger. “I’m here for a recording session scheduled for midnight.” Waiting for the interrogation to begin, I was stunned and grateful when he simply looked up at me with tired eyes and waved me in. “That would be the 12th floor, miss”.


          The elevator doors opened to a dark and dreamy world. Soft lights created pools of warmth in the otherwise darkened halls. I found Studio D and was relieved to see I was alone. I had time to carefully choreograph my speech. I studied lighting. To the left of the doors were florescent lights. I made a note to myself not to stand under them. As bleary-eyed and keyed up as I was, I knew the lights would not be my friends. I rehearsed my speech, pacing out the various versions it could take. I must have been delirious with fatigue at this point, and it was fortunate that no one came around the corner to catch my mumbling performance.


          Midnight came and went. The soothing darkness of the hall drained the nervous energy out of me. “Well, I might as well make myself comfortable. Just sit down here by the door…” My eyes began to close. Alarmed, I tried to hold my lids open with my fingers. One o’clock dragged by and still I was alone. I rested my head on my knees, closed my eyes for a moment and tumbled over into an exhausted sleep, sprawled in front of the door.


          I’m dreaming I’m in the darkened cabin of a DC-8 and passengers are pushing and milling around me and I know there is something I must do if I can just remember… No, there are people milling around and they are stepping over me “who is she? Is she asleep?” Oh god, what am I doing on the floor? I try to brush my wild hair out of my eyes and wipe the drool from the side of my mouth. I search the faces in the dim light. Puzzled, concerned faces peered back at me. This was not the grand entrance I had so carefully planned. “What time is it?” I mutter, trying to stall while I gather the remains of my dignity around me. My Mission, I must do this right. I didn’t come this far to crumble now. “It’s 2:30”, a friendly bearded man answers as he offers his hand to help me up. Later I learned this is Steve Weisberg, guitar and dobro player. Like a rescuing angel, he asks what I’m doing there at that late hour. Once again, I tell my story, and once again, kind regard is returned. “John, this is Lory, and she is here to see you.” Though the sentence was short, so much more was conveyed in his tone of voice. Musicians understand the language of tone, and in that one sentence, he said so much. “She’s not a crazy stalker, someone here at RCA knows her, I know it’s late, but she has something important to say to you…”


          John is standing under the florescent lights. I walk over to him. Oh well, so much for looking good… He glances over his shoulder towards the open door to the studio. I feel his impatience. I panic, and start to rush through my speech, apologizing… First words out of my mouth, “ Oh, John I just love your music” oh, no, I want to grab those dumb words out of the air. (Really, Mr. Denver, I didn’t come to invade the sanctity of your closed recording session just to tell you that) My pat statement received his pat answer.

“Thanks, glad you enjoy my music”. We both deserved better. The habit of response is deadening. Every moment in life has the potential for widening who we are, when we are present, and speaking our emotional truths. “The truth shall set you free” it has been said.


          I start again. So many important moments are lost when I’ve crumbled at someone’s indifference. Not this time, damn it! There are junctions in our lives where we have the chance to step up to the next level in our power. I take a deep breath and center myself. “I’m here to thank you. I want you to know that sharing your life so honestly many years ago, on a stage in Berkeley, catalyzed my own life in countless ways”. I told him about my taking the Est training and all the ways my life had grown out of that experience. I talked about how important it was for me to let people know that they truly had made a contribution to my life. I explained that my learning adventures had started because of his own simple heartfelt confession of ‘thanks’; that there is power in feeling gratitude and what a privilege it is to say, “thank you”. My heart swelled with the truth of what I was feeling. My sudden tears silenced my speech. The moment was full and rich in the stillness between us. His brown eyes looked deeply into my own. Being to Being, stripped of roles and personas, we floated in a timeless moment. Joy danced in his eyes. “That makes me so happy to know that!”. “John, we’ve got you set up”. The spell broken, I blink back my tears and can only smile wordlessly. We hug hello/farewell, and he disappears into the studio, people closing around him like the sea.

          Years later, the puzzle reveals itself in the telling. A gift was given to me, a lesson about so much more than a fan and a star seeing how they complete each other in the dance of show business. I learned that fear and courage can feel the same, and that looking foolish doesn’t disqualify you from being magnificent (at least for a moment), and that when you stand present and speak your truth, you open not only your own heart, but others as well.

          Thanks, John. I’ll always remember that hug…