Behind the Curtain: David Foster

Steve RosenCategories:Behind the Curtain

Rock Cellar Magazine

I have always wanted to be a songwriter. I have always wanted to write songs and play guitar in a rock and roll band. Who doesn’t? I tried to write songs not long after I started playing guitar when I was about 13 years old. I would sit in my bedroom with my cheap little acoustic guitar and strum the few chords that I knew—mainly G and C because you could make them with one finger on the fretboard—and try to find words that somehow fit the very juvenile melodies I was humming.

But even before I began trying to write a song in any kind of serious way, I was playing with words in my head. I read a lot—mainly Superman comics and MAD magazine—and loved the idea of words and the sound of them and how they could hook together to make sentences in books and particularly lyrics in songs.

Let me stop here and assure you that this is a story about David Foster. Those of you who have read my earlier tales know that I sometimes wander around a bit with a little background before tying everything together and if you haven’t read any of the previous Behind the Curtain pieces then please stick around because David Foster’s name is coming up shortly.

So, in August 1967, I was a 14-year old little kid growing up in Culver City, CA [Culver City was a town on the Westside not far from cities like Venice and Santa Monica and home to movie studios such as MGM and Desilu] and listening to music on a small, portable radio. Stations like KRLA and KHJ were playing all the extraordinary music that was coming out in ’67 such as Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane and too many others to mention. Every song was wonderful and I remained attached to that radio with the little box glued to my ear day and night.

I mainly listened to KRLA but on this particular day I was tuned into KHJ when I heard them announce a contest. The contest entailed writing a poem for a song that would be included on the upcoming Buffalo Springfield record [at the time there was no album title but would become Last Time Around, the band’s third and final album].

All you had to do was write down some words, send them in and then the Buffalo Springfield would pick the poem they liked best and write music around it [or maybe the track had already been completed]. I thought this contest had been set up especially for me. I thought, “KHJ must know there’s this wishful, optimistic 14-year old boy sitting at home in his small bedroom in Culver City listening to their station and just looking for a reason and a way to become a songwriter.

We’re going to put together this songwriting competition just for him and he is going to take first place and have his lyrics appear on a new Buffalo Springfield album and he will be launched into a fantastically successful career where he’ll write songs, play guitar and become a famous rock and roll musician.”

My mind was exploding in a thousand different directions and while I knew—obviously—this contest hadn’t been arranged for me, I did know that if I could somehow win, it would be an incredible first step into the life of a real songwriter.

Or something like that. All I knew was, I wanted to be part of this.

I had to be part of this.

I started writing down words and phrases. I would later take typing in junior high—my mom was the greatest typist I had ever seen and she could fly over the keys like a mouse on meth and when I took a class in school, I found out I had inherited her skills and became a truly first-class typist as well—but at the time I only wrote in longhand so I found a pencil [I don’t think I used a pen because I figured I’d have to erase words and stuff] and began filling up pages.

There was no rhyme or reason to what I was writing down and I really had no clue about how to write a song lyric. But I’d always loved words as I said earlier so without thinking, I sharpened a pencil and got to work. As I was writing, I had a thought about “For What It’s Worth,” the Buffalo Springfield song that had come out a year earlier and that I had heard a thousand times on the radio. I kept thinking about the words in that song that went, ‘I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound/Everybody look what’s going down.’” The first time you heard those words you remembered them or at least I did and my unthinking 14-year old mind thought, “What if I wrote something like that?”

I finally came up with, “Click, bang, goes the gun/Turn around and start to run.” I can’t remember any of the other words but to this day I still recall those. I wasn’t thinking that the Springfield didn’t want to repeat themselves in a lyric. I just thought it was cool.

I finished the lyric and mailed it in and waited…and waited…and waited. Finally, a letter postmarked from KHJ arrived in the mail and I almost tore it in half opening it. It was a form letter of course. My eyes searched out the text and I held my breath and began reading. I’m paraphrasing here because it’s impossible to recall exactly what was on that piece of paper but it said something about thank you for participating in the Buffalo Springfield poem-writing competition. I kept reading. “Your entry was not chosen but you did win an Honorable Mention.”

No, I didn’t win but as a 14-year old dude with a love of words and music, I had written something special enough that it was singled out. Needless to say, I was ecstatic and that single event propelled me headlong into a world of songwriting, learning guitar, putting together local bands and trying to find a way that someday I might be as famous as the Buffalo Springfield.

For the next 13 years until I met and interviewed David Foster—and this is where it all ties together so thanks for hanging around—I worked on my songs and my guitar playing. Little successes here and there but nothing to speak of.

Speed ahead to 1980 and I’m in a studio in Hollywood interviewing some band—can’t remember who—and as I’m walking through the facility, I see David Foster sitting behind a recording console.

I’m going to be interviewing him the following day on his boat and it was just a coincidence that he happened to be there producing the Average White Band for what would turn into their Shine album.

We said hello and as I was standing there in the control room, some of the guys from AWB came in. They were talking about song lyrics and some little line that didn’t quite work. I overheard the conversation and I reached back in time to that 14-year old’s brain and started working up words in my head. Within seconds, I’d come up with a line I thought was perfect but was afraid to open my mouth. I mean this was the Average White Band and David Foster.

By 1980, Foster was an established producer and songwriter who had played on George Harrison albums and co-written “After the Love Has Gone,” which had just appeared on Earth, Wind and Fire’s 1979 record I Am where it won the Grammy for Best R&B Song. Foster was a monster, a major talent.

So what was I going to do? Stand there and say, “Hey, David, I’ve got an idea. What about…?” and say the words and hope he and the AWB guys didn’t laugh me out of the room or tell me it was none of my business.

I wasn’t going to say anything but I did. ‘Hey, David,” I said, “What about this?” I mouthed the words and he sat there for a moment and said, “Those work. We’re going to use them but don’t think about a songwriter’s credit.” He was joking but serious inasmuch as my name wouldn’t be mentioned anywhere as a co-writer and I hardly expected it to be since I was just providing a few words. But again, it was one of those little successes that kept me on the path of wanting to become a full-time and successful songwriter and guitar player.

The next day, I drove down to the marina in Marina Del Rey to meet David. The marina was the world’s largest man-made small craft harbor with eight separate docking areas and the capacity to house 6,500 boats. Though Culver City was only a 10-minute drive east from there [you couldn’t go west or you’d end up in the Pacific Ocean] and I’d been to the marina many times, I’d never been there looking for somebody’s boat. I didn’t even know anybody who owned a boat but David did and that’s where he wanted to conduct the interview.

I finally found his dock. The boat was sleek and beautiful and had berths to sleep in and a small kitchen—galley—and must have been expensive as hell back in 1980. Still, from the moment he said he wanted to meet on his boat, I was nervous. I had been on very few boats in my life and every experience had been a nightmarish one. My parents took my brother and I on the SS Catalina, a 301-foot steamship to the island of Catalina, which was about 26 miles off the coast of California. This was a 300-foot plus ship and I got sick as a dog. I hated being on the water.

Those memories came back to me the second I stepped from the dock onto the boat. I could feel sweat starting to form on my brow and my stomach immediately tightened. David welcomed me and gave me a tour of his boat. We sat up on the deck and admittedly it was a perfect day with the sun shining brightly in the sky and a mild breeze coming in off the water. I set up my little cassette player and we began talking. He proved to be gregarious, open and smart.

At one point, he offered me some hors d’oeuvres—Greek olives and other assorted tidbits—and I thought eating something might help settle my stomach, which was now full of knots the size of grapefruits. I skewered an olive with a toothpick, took a bite and realized I had made a very bad mistake. The olive landed in my stomach like a cannon ball. This was not good. On top of that, I could feel a tightness in my forehead and I knew what that meant. I had been plagued with migraine headaches all my life and I had never experienced a more debilitating or crushing pain.

Now, I could feel one coming on. I tried to race through the interview before the killer pain truly began but I couldn’t outrace my own chemistry. Within minutes my head was throbbing with a pain so dense and inescapable, I almost thought I needed to go to the hospital. Foster could see something was wrong and I just told him I was queasy and could I please use his bathroom. I had to climb a smaller ladder to the lower deck and I almost fell trying to maneuver down the passageway. I went into the bathroom and puked my guts out and felt marginally better though the pain was still relentless. I climbed back up the ladder and told David I couldn’t continue because I was seasick [I didn’t tell him about the migraine]. He thought that was the funniest thing he ever heard and busted out laughing. He wasn’t doing it in a callous way but he said, “Seasick? But we’re tied up at the dock.” He just thought that was hilarious and said he understood and hoped I felt better.

I somehow managed to find my car and drove back home to the Hollywood Hills. The pain was like some living creature eating my skull from the inside. I made it home, threw my bag down in a corner, and fell onto the bed. Later that night, I woke up and the pain had subsided.

Maybe the moral of that story was you had to endure both the successes and failures in pursuing your dream. I had written a couple of words for an album producer David Foster was working on and that was the success. I had to endure the pain of a migraine and that was the failure. I suppose you had to learn to cope with the ups and downs if you truly wanted to make it as a songwriter and guitarist.

Or maybe the only thing I learned was that I shouldn’t eat olives while sitting on a boat tied up to a dock and try to do an interview.

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