BY ROBERT SCOVILL
As my flight out of Phoenix climbs to 10,000 feet on my way back to my cushy hotel room, spacious tour bus and high tech sound system while fulfilling my role as concert sound engineer on the Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers 40th Anniversary tour, I find myself sitting here taking stock of what modern concert touring has become in 2017, how it got to this wonderful lifestyle and who were the real pioneers of the industry. I’m introspective about who I am, why I do what I do, and how the hell I got here in the first place.
So, what has sparked this sudden burst of introspective investigation of myself worth you may ask? Well, sadly, as is the case many times in one’s life, it’s after hearing the news of the recent death of someone we revere or hold close in our hearts. In my case it’s upon learning of the passing of renowned engineer and mixer Russel Pope.
So why this event you may ask? Why would it carry so much meaning? Well, it’s a story of moments. Actually, a culmination of seconds really when considering it in the context of the total amount of time we actually participate in Planet Earth. It’s a story of a chance meeting that impacts a life for decades yet to come. I believe that every life has an incident like this, whether it’s recognized and identified or not. A chance meeting, that not only influences and impacts who you are during the span of the meeting, but sets the narrative of your life in motion from that moment forward. And so it was for me and Russel Pope.
I’ve recounted this incident and my reverence for it in some form or another in feature articles for trade magazines and most recently in webcast interviews and even recently in a live radio interview. And, I will do so again here and pray that I do so in a way that actually shows it in the proper light with the expressed agenda of honoring Russel, not myself.
For many years, I could not recall the actual date, nor could I recall the actual venue where this all took place and the ticket stub was long gone. Hell, I wasn’t even sure it was Russel that I spoke with until decades later. But these trivialities are simply that, trivialities compared to what actually took place on this day for a wide eyed, impressionable 14-year-old consumed by the music of his youth.
For additional context, at this point in my young life I had been studying music for some time. It was 1975 if memory serves me and of course when I say “studying music”, I don’t mean in the traditional sense at a conservatory of music or anything of that ilk. I was simply an ardent fan of contemporary rock music and it consumed me on a daily basis probably from the time I heard my first Beatles 45 at the ripe old age of about 4 or 5 via the teenage son of my baby sitter. By the time I turned 10 I was a fledgling musician (at best) taking music lessons with dreams of one day contributing my own verse to the great historical record of rock music.
And so it was, that the home stereo and the concert hall were the alters at which I worshiped as a young boy stumbling his way into manhood. The legendary progressive rock music station KSHE-95 FM in St. Louis provided the soundtrack to my daily existence and in so doing introduced me to the record Crime of the Century by Supertramp. Musically, and maybe just as importantly, sonically, that record spoke to me in a way that others had not up to that point. But unbeknown to me at the time, the real sonic revelation was yet to come.
That revelation for me took place upon seeing, and more importantly hearing Supertramp live in concert. For context, keep in mind this is the very early 1970s. Sound reinforcement as an industry had little to no visibility in the music business. It was still a “cottage” industry at most. In terms of visibility, obviously, the Internet did not exist. There were no dedicated trade magazines on the subject. You might see some broad, anything-BUT-detailed, coverage of concert technologies and the people who used them in music magazines of the era like Hit Parader or Circus or maybe Rolling Stone but it was extremely rare.
In my young and uninformed mind, all you needed was some big loud guitar and keyboard amps, big loud drums and a “PA speaker” big enough to allow the singer to keep up and somehow it all just magically kind of “happened” when it was brought into a concert hall and turned on. Right?
Well, that perception collapsed and was quickly discarded on to the scrap heap upon attending my first Supertramp concert. I stood there in the audience, in the same room I had seen and heard a number of concerts in my, to that point, young life as a concert goer. I stood there listening and I firmly remember having this awakening thought of “what the heck is going on here? I’ve never heard a concert sound like this”
I mean, many of us have had that moment at home, with a great stereo, or maybe in a control room when you put on an expertly crafted and recorded piece of music where you simply crank the volume and say in that voice that only some of us actually recognize “YES! Fucking hell! Listen to THAT!” From that point on, you simply know that no stereo was ever going to be big enough or powerful enough for your listening pleasure. And so goes the power and influence of rock music.
As the show wound down I continued to process what I had just experienced. I was walking out of the venue and apparently, as providence would have it on this night, I exited on the aisle right by the mixing console. It stopped me dead in my tracks and I stood there staring at it. People continued to brush by me. The guys I attended with were well past me and on the way out of the building to the car. I didn’t care. I somehow knew, this “thing” that I was looking at had something to do with what I just experienced. And more importantly, I inherently knew that the person standing next to it had something to do with my experience as well. Everything seemed to go into slow motion and get kind of blurry, just like in a movie dream sequence until I was snapped out of it by these words..
“Wanna have a look around?”
I’m sure I shyly nodded, or possibly even mumbled the word “yeah” but inside, every part of me was screaming “Hell yes I do!”
At that point, I had no idea who Russel Pope was, what he did for a living, or the magnitude of his impact on the entire Supertramp experience. But what I did know for certain upon leaving after his brief tour and simplistic explanation of the FOH position was, that I was certain I no longer wanted to be a musician, and I was also certain that I was now “on fire” to find my way in to work as a “sound guy” in some way, shape or form. And so my journey took it’s first step forward.
So here I am, at 30,000 feet now, some 42 years later trying to make sense of it all. All of the “what if’s” are circling in my mind like a squadron of fighter planes trying to find their target.
- What if my parents had remained in rural Kansas instead of moving to St. Louis when I was about 7 years old?
- What if I had never been introduced to KSHE-95? At the time, a somewhat underground progressive rock station willing to play Supertramp as opposed to the Top 40 pop drivel of the day?
- What if my parents were too afraid to let me go to “rock concerts” with my school mates – all of whom were considerably older than me at the time?
- What if I had not saved my allowance in order to go see Supertramp in concert, and instead my only exposure being their albums?
- What if I had purchased a seat that would have exited me from a different part of the building?
- What if Russel Pope would have been too busy, or simply unwilling to share what he so graciously shared for a “kid” from No-Wheres-Ville in the middle of the United States?
All I know for certain is that all of those “what ifs” when realized somehow lead to the final one. In my mind’s eye right now, if any ONE of those things don’t take place, who knows how it all turns out for me? But what I can say with absolute certainty is that this brief engagement with Russel rendered all of the other bullet points universally meaningful.
And certainly, in retrospect, in that moment, that very moment – whether he knew it or not, Russel set the bar for me. Maybe I didn’t even realize this until right now while writing this, but without verbalizing it, what he actually got through to me on that night was “if you’re going to make it doing this kind of work, your results need to be at least this good and frankly in the end had better exceed what you heard here tonight”. “Being professional? This is what it looks like. It means striving to never be a charlatan, but it also means you’re gracious enough and secure enough in who you are and what you know to share it, all of it, and in so doing raise up your person and your profession.”
In the decades that followed, I’ve been recognized and awarded and achieved more visibility as a “sound guy” than I ever remotely dreamed possible. And, of course, with that fame and fortune come the critics, the doubters and the nay-sayers, as is true for many in every walk of life. Many of those doubters have questioned not only my abilities and my agenda but have also accused me of self-aggrandizing through countless behind the scenes videos and magazine features, radio and web interviews etc. But it’s my hope, after sharing this story with you, that I can get you to reconsider that this exposure is not a case of vanity run amuck, it’s nothing more than a case of paying Russel’s graciousness forward. It’s my way of simply saying, to anyone willing to listen, read or watch …
“Wanna have look around?”
So, I feel compelled to share the final evidence of providence concerning this story because it’s beautiful in its closure.
In the course of sharing an abbreviated version of the story in a recent Internet radio station interview for Roadie Free Radio, a dear friend of mine who I toured with in the 80’s named Ted Leonard, who now lives in Finland, was actually tuned in to the broadcast. And as my good fortune would have it, he was actually friends with Russel Pope and was unbelievably gracious enough to connect Russel and I via Facebook some 42 years after the fact. It was like being tossed in to some sort of time travel machine. Russel and I recounted the event and, much to my disbelief, he remembered the venue and actually recalled the chance meeting. I was simply in disbelief, but of course I shouldn’t have been. He was as gracious and giving as that night 40 some-odd years ago.
At the time of our Facebook connection, I had no idea he was terminally ill. So, I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunity to close the loop with him and thank him personally so many years after the fact. I’m deeply indebted to Ted for making that connection. And so here, in print, I say again thank you Russel for being the central figure in the most significant 10 minutes of my career and maybe my life. And thank you for being a true pioneer in concert sound and more importantly, setting the bar for professionalism, expertise and manners for not just me, but anyone you encountered. You will never be forgotten.