Below, Jeff Calder (Swimming Pool Q’s) pays tribute to Mike Clark, co-owner and manager of Southern Tracks Recording, 1999 Georgia Music Hall of Fame inductee and beloved Atlanta musician who lost his battle with cancer on Feb. 1, 2007.
For all of us at Southern Tracks Recording—the friends, staff, engineers and producers who have passed through this great studio over the last 23 years—it’s an understatement to say that our lives have merely been the beneficiary of Mike Clark’s generosity. Anyone who has been around Southern Tracks Recording for any length of time was part of Mike’s extended family, and, for us, his guidance and example were without precedent and perhaps ultimately without equal.
Many of the young recording engineers who have pursued their craft at Southern Tracks simply walked in off the street one day and asked Mike for a job. He looked past the shaky resume, sensing some hidden potential, and he rolled the dice, sometimes just for the hell of it—because everyday for Mike Clark was as much of an adventure as he could make it for himself and for everyone else.
That he might contribute to some starry-eyed youngsters self -improvement may have appealed to the sense of pride he always took in making something good. Moreover, I think he saw this enabling, if you will pardon that overused contemporary word, as a noble obligation, though he would never have said as much. He was certainly aware that, at the end of the day, we would have to figure things out for ourselves—which is sadly now the case—but, with any luck, we would have a high standard against which to measure our progress, as indeed we do. At least one hopes that he would have had the vanity to know this.
It hardly needs to be said that many will look back on their time at Southern Tracks as the great formative experience of our professional lives; and daily, when faced with some adversity, small or great, they—we—will salute his memory with the query, “What would Mike have done?”
Certainly, for the last eight months, since the time he phoned with the awful news of his illness, when confronted with some seemingly insoluble technical quandary, we managed to keep things on course, because we asked the question, “What would Mike have done?” Eventually, the answer would come, but always with one provision: “Just don’t spend too much money.”
Of course, Mike didn’t like throwing away bread needlessly. He wouldn’t have stayed in this business longer than almost anyone if he had. Everyone knows, Mike always said, that the fastest way to become a millionaire in the studio business is to start with ten million.
But, like most penny pinchers, he was prone to extravagance. After all, he once took me to Gettysburg so we could drive around the battlefield ten times just look at the same pile of famous rocks. He would hem and haw about some outrageous request to improve the facility, but he always ended up doing whatever crazy thing it was anyway, hurling himself into it all the more. Like the time, upon request, he installed a padded burgundy felt room upstairs designed to resemble a New Orleans brothel during the jazz age. I should add that he did draw the line at the suggestion that we cut an exterior window into studio’s control room, but only because, he claimed, the concrete structure of the building would have collapsed. This may have been a lie; he was not perfect.
Nor was he a saint, and Mike would never have wanted us to hail him as such, except maybe just a little bit. Over the last ten days, testimonials have been pouring in. Those who have worked at Southern Tracks or who were at one time or another in its daily orbit all have said roughly the same thing, that Mike was the great father figure of their adult lives.
His advice was always practical. One morning, I woke up to this message on my answering machine: “Jeff, this is your friend, Mike. Before the law changes on November 21, due to your cosmic credit card debt, you might want to look into Chapters 9- 12; and pay particular attention to Chapter 11.”
So Mike Clark may have been the best, or second best Dad you never had, but he was also the best mischievous old Uncle you could ever hope for. Mike never talked much about his religious beliefs, though I think they were strong. Nonetheless, he loved a colorful story as much as the next grown man. We begged him to tell us about his early days in the music business. “Mike,” we would ask, “tell us the one again about the promotion guy who swung out of the helicopter with his pants down.…”
Mike and I loved to scheme and plot, though never with any malicious intent. He once bought me five yards of green velvet so I could make a suit. That wasn’t the scheme. The scheme was, once it was made, to see if I could sneak the suit into the house without getting caught. Somehow I got it inside. I called Mike. He said, “Did you get it inside?” Yes, I said. “Now there’s just one question.” I said, What’s that? “How are you gonna get it back out?”
One of his last great stunts was to arrange for The Swimming Pool Q’s to open the annual Georgia Music Hall of Fame Awards show in 2005, broadcast on statewide TV. Mike insisted that we play our 1979 single “Rat Bait” because he knew that it would shake things up at this normally staid pageant. He was right. In retrospect, it was the most radical moment in the history of the event, with the exception of the year that the power went down during an Atlanta Rhythm Section’s performance, and their drummer had to play a twenty minute solo until the electricians got their act together. Our only regret was that we hadn’t properly arranged for a photographer to grab at least one shot of the Governor’s facial expression during “Bait”. A few weeks later, at a meeting to plan the next year’s show, a state senator approached Mike and said, “You know, I didn’t much like that Swimming Pool group.” Mike responded, “Senator, I’ll be happy to tell them that, and they’ll be greatly pleased to hear it.”
Mike loved cars and all of their details, and he loved to get in the middle of a sale, pointing out some weakness that you’d overlooked. When Mike discovered his illness back in June, one of the first things he said to me was, “Calder, we gotta get the obituary right.” So, to fulfill one’s obligation, however poorly, I should testify that Mike would want the world to know that he once restored the No. 2 Camaro “Show Car” in the United States.
Mike was among the first generation of white Southern pop musicians to cross the color line to meet young black musicians coming the other way. Sometime early in the 1960s, Mike toured with Tommy Roe as part of Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars. He took great pride in recounting to me how he had been on a bus carrying white and black players through Mississippi during the Civil Rights era, and how they had been harassed on more than one occasion by state troopers. It had been very frightening experience for all concerned, and I believe that the episode had a strong impact on his worldview.
Mike overcame non-paralytic polio when he was maybe 11 or 12 years old, then threw himself into playing drums. He was good enough to be offered a scholarship to prestigious North Texas State, but he turned it down to pursue a career as a professional musician.
His had been a sporting youth. Mike had worn Italian suits and shiny jackets, but, in later years, when I got to know him, he tried his best to make you think he was a Country Boy. He drove the largest diesel pickup any of us had ever seen. It was at least the size of something prehistoric, so we named it “Neck-a-saurus.” He loved that.
Of course, Mike’s hayseed Colombo routine was never completely convincing. He would let you go on at great length about some problem, nodding his head all the while like you were telling him something that, as just a simple man, he had never heard before. Then, when you ran out of steam, he’d correct the string of flaws in your thinking and solve the crime, whatever it might be.
Politically, Mike’s principles were essentially conservative and libertarian. Though he would never have voted for Bill Clinton, he seemed to savor every minute of the man’s presidency, every wiggle this way and that. He loved to call at all hours and say, “Did you see it?” Yes, I had seen it, and, we both agreed, that whatever the prevarication might have been, it was quite good, if not remotely believable. Mike may have had a strong opinion or two, but he never suggested, except jokingly, that you might be the agent of a foreign power if you held a view that was opposite of his. He enjoyed the differences, and he encouraged them, which to my mind is the very best of the American democratic tradition, and it reflected with honor upon the man.
Though Mike was at the very advance guard of the modern recording process, he nevertheless remained emotionally connected to the old ways. He would have groaned to learn that Quantegy, the leading manufacturer of tape in America, would be ceasing production within the month of his leaving the scene.
He was connected to the old ways in every sense. He loved his wife Melissa very much. And, speaking of loyalty, he never demanded or expected it, he just inspired it. And we knew, as well, that he would fall on a sword for us, if possible one made of rubber, suitably decorated with a braided tassel.
Additionally, among his many fine qualities, I never once saw him envious of anyone’s success. This was one of the things that made his competitors love him, and it encouraged a sense of community within the Atlanta studio world, which can quite often be a very desperate place and with good reason.
He had his little secrets, some unfathomable. For instance, whenever anyone wanted takeout bar-b-q for lunch, Mike would say, “I’ll take care of it.” “Great, man. Where are you going?” “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” “Yeah, but what’s the name of the joint?” “It’s a secret,” he’d snap.
After he got sick, we tried to get him to give us the key to the storage room he kept near the studio. None of us even knew exactly where it was. I’d drive out to his house and, as the last item on the agenda, ask him for the key. Even under the influence of medication, he wasn’t about to be duped. He’d scowl and say, “What do you want the key to the storage room for?” “Just to put some stuff in it.” He’d grumble. I never got the key.
A few weeks later, Southern Tracks manager Greg “Fern” Quesnel drove out and, at the end of his session with Mike, he too gingerly begged for the key. Mike was quick: “Whaddya want the key for?”
Over the course of this past summer and fall, the storage room assumed mythic proportion. What was he hiding in there? A mummy? Finally, a few days after his death, Melissa took pity on us and gave us Mike’s key ring.
After about 30 minutes trying to locate the room with the help of management, and then sorting through a dozen keys, the lock clicked, up clanked the aluminum door and, aside from a jacket hanging in one corner and an anvil case in the other, you guessed it, there was nothing. $150 a month. It will remain just one of the mysteries that made the man.
Among Mike’s crowning achievements was his induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1999, which I wish I could suggest we rigged, but apparently it was on the level. The other high point was when Bruce Springsteen first passed through the studio doors in 2002 to record his comeback E Street Band album, The Rising, with the Atlanta producer, Brendan O’Brien, Mike’s close friend with whom he had a long and fruitful relationship based on a dynamic for which there is little precedent in a business where too often it’s every-man-for-himself. After Bruce, it wasn’t that—professionally speaking—nothing mattered, it was more like nothing had to matter. This, to me, indicates a pinnacle, and that he seemed satisfied, content.
But, in a storied career lasting over six decades, I think his grandest professional achievement was Southern Tracks Recording itself. He always said that, though his studio may have lacked something or other—corporate sheen or glitz—he would put it up against any studio in the country. And every artist and producer that worked at Southern Tracks will confirm the standard of excellence that was Mike Clark’s demand.
But, finally, there was something else.
In a very real way, Southern Tracks was Mike’s work of art, and, as such, it is truly a great one. As with a painting, you can describe the colors, the techniques employed and so forth, but if it is a great painting there is always an element of the unexplainable, something that defies summary, quantification; something that remains impervious to glib commentary. Like any nice recording facility, Mike’s could be broken down into marvelous recording gear, fun environment, and wonderful staff. But what Southern Tracks has is that unexplainable quality, and that quality was, to be sure, Mike’s essence. Just after Mike got sick, Brendan said to me, as usual, right straight to the point, “Who knows how Mike does what he does. It’s like some kind of voodoo.”
As long as there is a Southern Tracks, and, yes, even long after it’s gone, its hallways and recording rooms will continue to resonate in our minds with the vibration of the artist’s presence, even if we can’t explain exactly what that presence was. Except to say with certainty that Mike Clark, as we knew him, was a titan in the field, and the titans are few.