June 1981/Volume 73/Number 6
Gil Markle and His Electric Farmhouse
By Terry Kahn
"Stunt Backfires," shouted the headline in the Cannes newspaper last January. "All I wanted to do," the accompanying article quoted record producer Gil Markle as saying, "was sell master rights to our new release."
To accomplish that, Markle had printed fliers advertising his Massachusetts-based Long View Farm record label, and distributed them at the MIDEM convention, held in January in that Mediterranean resort city. MIDEM, for
Marche International du Disque et Editions Musicales, is to record hustling what the spring film festival is to movie wheeling and dealing, and hype is the name of the game at both affairs.
Markle's problem was that his hype hit too close to home. One entire side of his 10-by-14 inch flier boasted, "There's a Record Pirate at the Montfleury." It was a cute enough play on words: "Record Pirate" was the name of a cut off the new Joanne Barnard album he was pushing, and the Montfleury was his hotel.
Maybe a little too cute. Especially sensitive to the ever-growing wave of record counterfeiting, or "piracy," industry representatives failed to see the humor. In fact, some of them thought Markle himself was actually a pirate, there to middleman counterfeits to unscrupulous distributors. No sooner had the fliers hit the streets than Markle began to report receiving threats, angry calls in the middle of the night, warnings that this might well be his last MIDEM convention. Eventually, Markle reported, a real record pirate called him, asking to arrange a meeting "in his Mercedes behind the Carlton."
The press leapt to Markle's defense, seizing upon the hot story of the week. The MIDEM daily paper, concluding that Markle was an innocent businessman, urged its angry audience to lay off. Billboard picked up the story three weeks later, and ran it as one of the highlights of the convention. By the time Markle returned to his rural North Brookfield home, 77 miles west of Boston, his new Barnard album had become notorious, and he had arranged for distribution deals in Germany and Switzerland.
Wait a minute.
This sounds as though Markle had a good trip, not a nightmare.
Right. Because none of the furor, none of the "Stunt Backfires" stuff ever happened. Even the original MIDEM news story as a press release written by Markle (which he delivered to an unsuspecting and uncareful news office). Only the fliers existed and the album they were trying to sell.
It was all hype. Markle had again managed to sell an elaborate cultural vision.
"The myth," he would tell me months later, the Cannes reports spread on a table in front of him, "is what it's all about."
The Worcester Airport grows quiet by seven. The last commuter rush is over, and even the terminal's cocktail lounge is empty. In the offices of his American Leadership Study Groups, a student-tour agency, Gil Markle is sitting in his plush executive suite, nursing a second drink. Markle founded ALSG with two Yale graduate-school classmates in 1967; it got caught up in the student-travel boom of the late sixties and early seventies, and now grosses several million annually.
The ALSG offices, a warren of desks and phones occupying the airport terminal's east wing, are where Markle spends most of his typical working day, and where he makes most of the money. On one of those typical working days, he would have been home an hour ago, but today, and for the next couple of days, his house guests the J. Geils Band have told him to stay away.
Markle's home is Long View Farm, a turn-of-the-century dairy farm that he converted seven years ago into a residential recording studio. Dinner is usually served just about now, and Markle prefers to be there, to "officiate," as he puts it, and to "adjudicate." Officiate and adjudicate are not terms one expects a studio honcho in California or New York City to drop, but Markle doesn't fit that mold. A boyish 41, a successful businessman, possessor of two PhDs and an academic appointment at Clark University, Markle is a man whose hobby may be reeling out of control. Tonight, one of the country's best-selling bands has barred him from returning home; this year, the farm's got to earn $250,000 to break even. It is not surprising that outsiders have taken notice.
Drink finished, Markle plans how he will spend the rest of the evening. Scattered around his large track-lit, speaker-dominated executive suite are boxes of clothing delivered earlier by an attractive fine-arts teacher from Clark, who often shops for Markle, and describes it as "Fantasyland." Markle likes the shirts, rejects the $140 Tony Lama cowboy boots. Now, dressed in a schizophrenic combination of boots, jeans, dark double-breasted suitcoat, white dress shirt, and burgundy silk tie, he ponders changing his image. "It may be time for a new look," he says. "Perhaps a three-piece suit, the kind bankers wear."
From a man who, for the past decade, has studiously nurtured a countercultural persona, the remark is meant to shock. But Markle hastens to assure that he is still as infatuated as ever with his rock-and-roll-influenced lifestyle. "If I didn't enjoy it, I'd be worn out," he says. "It gives me freshness, and I've not felt better in years. I hope it continues."
There are more immediate concerns, however, and Markle addresses the matter of dinner. He suggests the El Morocco, a restaurant and lounge that has been a hangout of his since his days in academe. We close up the office and walk outside to Markle's black 1978 Cadillac. As we glide out of the parking lot, Markle pays a cassette tape of a West Indian steel band; he recorded them on a recent vacation in Tobago, and now plans to produce an album. Over a cacophony of what sounds like garbage cans being clanged together, Markle says he will dub drums, synthesizers, perhaps even a vocal or two.
A nice way to write off a vacation, I think, as we pull into a parking lot next to the restaurant, a garish concrete blockhouse of a place. Inside, no one has bothered to dim the overhead lights, and the frayed edges of the waiters' mismatched tuxedoes are disconcertingly visible.
The El Morocco is familiar territory for Markle. He is greeted by his first name; heads swivel as he saunters to this booth; the manager joins us for a chat. It is the big-fish-small-pond syndrome, and at once Markle is reminiscing about his years at Clark. "A professor could have really big effects on his students," Markle is saying, staring at his shish kebab. "The way kids were with their politics, they could transfer a commitment with the speed of light."
Those were the days, he is saying, the days before rate cards, payment schedules, negotiated publishing rights, royalty fees, deferred compensation, and gold records. The days when the myth was everything, and the salesmanship unconsidered.
"The professor," Markle says softly, "played the role of a god."
The Electric Farmhouse
The crux of the Gilbert Scott Markle myth lies in a renovated farmstead on the side of a hill less than a mile from the center of North Brookfield, a town of about 4,000 residents. For seven years, Long View has been evolving into a nationally renowned recording studio where artists ranging from the Geils band to Stevie Wonder, from Rupert Holmes to John Belushi, have trekked to record or relax.
Markle initially saw the farm in 1973. A tenured professor of philosophy at Worcester's Clark University, he was spending a sabbatical year in neighboring Paxton, where he had built his own four-track studio, a wealthy amateur's plaything, in a rented house. He and his lover, Nancy Wilcox, were planning a family (Markle was divorced at the
time), and he had told Wilcox she could shop around for the proper homestead. ALSG was doing well, and money was no object.
When Wilcox showed him Long View, Markle did not hesitate to spend the $125,000 to take title of what the locals still think of as the old Stoddard place. And immediately he began gutting the farmhouse. Within a month, it was unsuitable for family life, and today Wilcox, with two
young Markle offspring, lives in another farmhouse down the road. "Nancy never forgave me," Gil has told friends.
An escape from the city, a bunker in the boondocks, Long View is nowhere 90 miles from Boston, two-and-a-half hours from New York. Its 145-acre spread lies in the midst of undulating pastureland near a town whose graduating high-school seniors have been known to celebrate by parading their cars in front of the school, burning rubber in small puddles of water and bleach, and sending clouds of white smoke into the air. Long View's neighbors include chicken, dairy, apple, and worm farms. Sophisticated the community is not.
Part of the illusion Long View creates is in the fact that, seen from Stoddard Road, the farm's three buildings a white farmhouse, a smaller cottage or bunkhouse, and a large red barn look no different from the surrounding spreads. The horses in the fenced-off pasture, the occasional cow, the swimming hole with its small wood diving platform add to the pastoral fantasy. Even inside the barn's main door, the stalls are redolent with manure, and the walls echo with a mixture of neighs, bleats, and barks. But beyond the farm animals' living spaces lie guest rooms, a sauna, a Jacuzzi, a game room with big-screen television and pool table, and a recording studio equipped for both 16-track recording and videotaping.
The main farmhouse is no less accommodating to the rock-and-roll life. The front door opens into a completely gutted first floor: the original small, low-ceilinged rooms, heated by a variety of fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, have been turned into a common dining/living-room area measuring roughly 2,000 square feet. And at the southwest end of the nineteenth-century three-story dwelling is Studio A, the facility for which, according to the Long View rate card, Markle charges $1750 a day (everything else, except the barn studio, is included in that fee). Studio A is separated from the rest of the ground floor by a soundproof wall of dark wood and glass, but whatever is being recorded there can be piped into speakers throughout both the house and the barn/cottage complex.
The rest of the main house consists of a variety of guestrooms, bathrooms, nooks, and crannies. The farm's eight-member staff lives either in quarters in the barn or off the premises completely.
Making records at the farm is a pleasure, especially considering the amount of equipment recording artists have to work with: an MCI 24-track studio console, a 16-track Aengus console, four brands of monitor amplifiers, four brands of monitor speakers, electronic synthesizers, 50 different microphones, digital relays, noise gates, graphic equalizers, a grand piano, two organs, drum sets, amps, and both an in-house engineer Jesse Henderson and in-house musicians and vocalists. And everyone's ready to work 24 hours a day.
"Long View is the best thing I've ever done," Markle eventually reflects. "The prettiest thing I've done."
Boogie in the Boonies
On September 21, 1976, Long View made, so to speak, its nationwide debut.
The occasion was a press party arranged by a New York City public-relations firm, Wartoke Concern, for client Stevie Wonder. Wonder had completed his ambitious two-album Songs in the Key of Life, and Wartoke and Motown Records were looking for a provocative way to announce its release. Markle, still trying to gain entree among the industry's movers and shakers, had sent Wartoke a publicity packet on the farm. Wartoke called him and asked if he would be interested in hosting a party. Markle said sure.
The party wound up costing $30,000 money spent to rent the farm for a day, charter a DC-8 and a fleet of Worcester school buses, and buy a junket for nearly 100 reporters, photographers, Manhattan scenemakers, and the Wonder entourage. For Markle and his fledgling studio, it was an opportunity to establish Long View as a mythical retreat.
The big-city reporters were appropriately awed, too. Newsweek correspondent Maureen Orth gushed, "We arrived to find two bars stocked with champagne, a feast of home-cooked food, including a 60-pound side of beef, and a black calf named Stevie... Midafternoon we were taken on a horse-drawn hayride while a film crew, hired by Stevie for a TV special, recorded the activities from a helicopter." Orth's magazine ran a picture of Wonder, dressed appropriately in a Western outfit designed by his brother (and described variously as "cowboy" and "gaucho"), and Markle sitting side by side in the Long View studio control room; Time, Rolling Stone, New York, the Boston Globe, and others gave it extensive coverage. The local press was nearly overwhelmed by the glitterati. The Worcester Telegram headlined its story, "$30,000 Day of 'Pure Decadence' in N. Brookfield," and a newspaper in Pittsfield described Markle as "an empire builder, an acquirer ...an absolutely perfect mystery."
Even Markle began to have second thoughts about the amount of publicity he had generated. The day after the Telegram's story appeared, Markle asked for a retraction of the report that there'd been marijuana smoked; since the North Brookfield police chief and several members of his department had been hired as security officers, the statement that drugs had been used was rather embarrassing. And, the Telegram noted, "Markle said a quote attributed to him about 'pure decadence' was made about a helicopter, and for the benefit of the reporter who, even then, was looking in the wrong direction.'"
Nevertheless, Long View and Markle had made their big splash, and success was on its way. The next year, the farm grossed over $100,000 for the first time, beginning a steady upward climb that would peak with 1979's bottom line of $260,000 in earnings. Equally important, Markle says, was the fact that "I never had to introduce myself anymore. Everyone had heard about Long View."
By 1978, Long View Farm had become front-page news in the Wall Street Journal, part of a business-trend piece headlined, "Rock Artists Take to Hills to Pound Their Beat in Peace." That same year, the farm recorded its first "gold" album, Sanctuary, by the J. Geils Band, a record that sold 500,000 copies and rose as high as number 40 on the national sales charts. In 1979, the Geils band put together another best-seller, Love Stinks, which broke into the top 20, and by the end of the year, Markle was complaining he had been "too successful." "We were incorporated as a subchapter S company," he says, "and our profits pushed us into an unexpectedly high tax bracket."
Long View, which for four years had been a nice place to visit (as one local reporter wrote, "but I'd want to live there"), became a place to make a hit record, too. Cat Stevens, Rupert Holmes, Tim Curry, and Aerosmith all made the trek down the Mass. Pike. And Markle, who'd begun his hobby by setting up a little four-track recorder while on sabbatical from his teaching job, introduced his own Long View label. The first release was a 45 by Joanne Barnard, a Worcester woman whom he had heard when her band checked into the Farm's inexpensive Studio B to make a demonstration tape. Markle used the opportunity to elaborate on the Long View myth. When he was unable to sell the Barnard version of "Substitute" to CBS/Epic (which instead chose a recording by an English band, Clout), Markle put three Long View employees on the company WATS lines, and placed over 100 telephone calls to radio-station program directors. The message: Long View is a David in the record industry, taking on the Goliath of CBS; since our version is better than CBS's, why won't you play it?
"All the radicals went on our version," Markle recalls. "Some of them would even give a speech about it over the air. And the print hype we followed up with played on the same theme. Unfortunately, none of it did much good. We didn't have any records in the stores. Still, it was great exposure for the studio. Billboard even mentioned us in a piece on labels attached to studios."
By the beginning of 1981, Long View had branched into international distribution of its own acts (the business Markle would take care of at Cannes), distribution of other acts on its private label (a service Markle would offer any band making a demonstration tape or a privately released record), and conventional recording (the Geils band was back). On the surface, things looked pretty good. The previous fall, John Belushi had dropped in to do some vocals for the next Blues Brothers album, and had managed to lose 40 pounds as well. And a new single by Long View's house band, Fragile and the Eggs, was getting a lot of college press on account of its ambiguously obscene title, "If you see Kay," (An English distributor with whom Markle had signed a deal had even promised the record would be banned by the BBC.)
Yet under the veneer of success, there were problems. Last-minute cancellations at the end of 1980 had left Long View with an empty studio for two months. There were the usual cash-flow problems. Markle wanted to outfit Studio B with video equipment, but could not guess where the necessary million bucks would come from. And Long View engineer Jesse Henderson was heard to complain that the MCI 24-track console, the single most expensive piece of equipment on the farm, and the state of the art when it was installed, in 1978, would not be the state of the art much longer. "It's a trendy business," concedes Markle. "It can go away as quickly as it comes. The people you do business with are chic, and they're notoriously fickle."
From Myth to Madness
John Hajjar has bought the farm for three weeks. A former purchaser for the family food brokerage in Lawrence, Hajjar had become the talk of the tight New England music-business community in March with his spending habits and promotional zeal. A $4,000 two-page spread in Billboard touted a recording session by his group, Marianus and the Invisible Light Band; similar ads were published in TV Guide and the Boston Phoenix. He rented a rock night club, the Metro, in Boston, for three nights to showcase his act, and spent tens of thousands of dollars to videotape them.
A Globe reviewer tabbed the band as the worst he had ever seen or heard. Another scenewatcher estimated that Hajjar, in one month, spent $100,000.
Hajjar doesn't care. He's on a mission from God.
Long View suits Hajjar just fine, this early spring afternoon. We are sitting in the bunkhouse, a place the curly-haired, 37-year-old Andover native is convinced he's visited in a previous incarnation. Reincarnation is just one of many topics Hajjar wants to cover; yoga, mysticism, numerology, and out-of-body experiences are others. So infatuated with the number 27 is Hajjar that he immediately agreed to pay Markle $27,000 for the band's stay, although that figure was $3,000 more than Hajjar had initially offered and $1,000 more than farm manager Kathy Holden had initially asked for. "The client is always right," Markle told me with a grin as he recounted the incident.
But the money is really immaterial to Hajjar on this pleasant day. It is the music that matters, the music that he first heard three-and-a-half years ago, when, one night, his body was zapped with divine inspiration. Hajjar lies back on the couch, reenacting the zapping. His lower back arches, and he shudders with a series of spasms. Then he sits up and stares at me, eyes wide, unblinking. "All of a sudden," he says solemnly, "I heard music unlike any ever heard on earth." This is the music he's come to record in North Brookfield. "By the end of May," he assures me, "you will have witnessed the birth of the new Beatles. No, Marianus will be bigger than the Beatles."
There may be moments when Gil Markle thrusts his hands to his head, shuts his eyes tightly, and moans that none of this is worth it, that none of this is what he had in mind seven years ago, when he set out on this mad journey, but now is not one of them. No, this is what Gil Markle has to say about a man who believes in unearthly music, and pays in cash.
"I can respect the madness of a John Hajjar," states Markle. "It's no defect that Marianus has a lunacy to it. For all I know, it could be divine madness."
Business As Usual
The early-spring sunrise cannot take the chill out of the central Massachusetts countryside. Nor can it wake the denizens of Long View Farm. Unlike the inhabitants of the neighboring dairy and chicken farms, Long View's residents miss the dawn. Only Reed, the young night watchman, is up. He is watching the news on the oversized color television in the living room. Reed is a native of North Brookfield, the only native employed by the farm, and he is suitably impressed. He remembers the time Aerosmith let all the horses out of the barn, and he boasts that John Belushi's bodyguard and he became real good buddies. Hanging out with superstars' bodyguards compensates for having to make tuna sandwiches at 3 a.m. for Marianus and the Invisible Light Band.
By 8:30, most of the Long View staff is awake too. Markle, dressed in sweatshirt and jeans, is conferring with farm manager Holden. There are bills to be paid, and Markle must approve them. Three other staffers are beginning to prepare a breakfast of omelets, toast, and coffee, and Kent, Kathy's husband and the unofficial groundskeeper, is heading into Worcester to pick up a repaired piece of equipment. The one other full-time employee, engineer Henderson, is a little slower to rise. He did not get to bed until 5 a.m., spending much of the night teaching the band and its engineer the ins and outs of the Long View recording console.
Kathy and Gil are interrupted by a phone call from a man looking for manure. "We've got quite a bit you can have," Holden tells him, "but a band just came in and things are a little hectic. Do you think you could come by next Thursday?" Markle gives a final perusal of the checks to be mailed out and heads off to his top-floor bedroom, a room carpeted wall-to-wall and outfitted with tape deck, receiver, and speakers, to change into another suitcoat, tie, and jeans ensemble.
Markle returns, and it is time to head to the airport. As the Caddy glides out of the garage, down the driveway, and out onto Stoddard Road, Holden turns to me and, almost apologetically, says, "Sometimes, when things are real crazy, Gil just likes to be assured that we're doing business."
For sure. For ultimately, the mythmaker must believe his own myth. Or fail.