Saturday, July 18, 2020

The David Foster Documentary | Lefsetz Letter

I’m a student of the game. I’m less interested in the achievements of the stars than how they got there.

David Foster is an opportunist, in this movie he says so.

Funny, I didn’t see any hype for this documentary, but my inbox started to fill up with people asking if I’d seen it, what my opinion on it was, so I decided to dive in.

One thing you’ve got to know about David Foster, he’s insane.

I don’t mean certifiable. But those on the bleeding edge are not regular people, there’s something different about them, and when you interact with them you can tell. Foster’s brain moves a mile a minute, and he’s confident in his opinions. He’s always a mile or two or ten down the road, you’re discussing the present, and he’s already living in the future.

Fosters don’t work for the Fortune 500. They would never fit in. If you want to work for the man, the number one criterion is the ability to get along, to be a member of the group, to be part of the team, whereas with creative people it’s all about the “I.” Sure, other people aid in your success, in the field, in the studio, but then there are people like Todd Rundgren, fully capable of creating the tracks all by himself – writing, singing, playing, producing and engineering, and ending up with hits. And Todd isn’t the easiest going guy either. You see to make it as a musician, to be a star, you’ve got to be an egomaniac. You’ve got to think you can push people out of the way on your rise to the top. And in Foster’s era, in the big studio era, when there were hired gun musicians, the inner circle was made up of only a handful of players. Well, maybe two handfuls. But all those records you heard on the radio, by all those different acts? Oftentimes it was the same damn players. Meaning it was very hard to break into that circle. It took chops, perseverance and relationships. The music business is all about relationships. Doesn’t matter how good you are, if you don’t know anybody, you won’t get ahead.


Foster is a prodigy. Most of these people are. With perfect pitch. With skills far beyond those in their neighborhood, even in their state. But that doesn’t mean they succeed in the music business. Anybody can get on the radio, anybody can get on TV, you enjoy it the first time but you soon set your sights higher, you want to be on EVERYBODY’S radio, EVERYBODY’S TV, you want to be part of the firmament, you want to SUSTAIN!

And you can come from nowhere.

But you’ve got to go somewhere.

Foster leaves British Columbia to go to London with his band. They don’t succeed. Everyone leaves but him. That’s a hard job, keeping the band together. Read the “Washington Post” article on Midland:

The Return of Cheatin’ Songs

Scott Borchetta is reluctant to sign bands, BECAUSE THEY BREAK UP! And if you sift through the leaves you’ll find that almost everyone in Hollywood started off in a band that broke up, there are just a few survivors, who need it.

And Foster doesn’t like New York. Greatest city in the world, but not for him. He feels claustrophobic. When Foster came up, the music business was centered in L.A., it’s centered in L.A. once again, if you want to make it you should come here, you don’t absolutely need to come here, but you want to make it easy on yourself. Living in L.A. is easy. It’s a giant suburb, if you can’t afford the rent you just move further out, you battle traffic, but that’s the only element that’s not on your side, there’s no issue of weather, it’s easier to survive.

So, Foster hangs out in London for a year, the loneliest one of his life, and then comes back to Canada. I know, I know, today you’ve got all these instant successes. But the truth is those who last paid tons of dues before you knew their names, with more failures than successes, until things finally clicked.

So Foster leads the “Rocky Horror Show” band, the musical played at the Roxy forever, and he works the relationships.

He’s at a session with Barbra Streisand and she’s not feeling it and calls for a break, but he sits at the piano, playing, knowing she’s listening in the control room, leading to one of his big breaks.

You’ve got to see the holes and take advantage of them. You’ve got to be pushy without appearing pushy, at least until you’ve succeeded, and then you can alternately be pushy or the friendliest person in the room, after all, you’ve got nothing left to prove.

But Foster always has something left to prove. So, he’s in the studio 24/7, year after year.

The star of this movie is Katharine McPhee, the “American Idol” runner-up who has sustained a career. She and David are now married, and she won’t let him skate. Foster says he’s a runner, he admits it. Foster delineates so many of his flaws in this pic, which undercuts the hagiography, especially when they cut to Celine Dion and Michael Buble. This was a guy who wanted it and once he got there believed in himself and wouldn’t let go, he didn’t compromise, the making of the Chicago records is the highlight of the musical interludes. Band separates from Columbia, they’re down on their luck, and then Irving hooks them up with Foster who promptly says their material sucks, gets them to write new stuff, along with himself, he also plays on the record, and the end result…GIGANTIC HITS! Peter Cetera sides with Foster and leaves the band and the guys in Chicago have never recovered from the whole experience. Foster changed their sound, there were not horns, they can’t get over it. Foster understands, but also says he rejuvenated their career and they’ve been touring on those hits he produced for decades since. A producer can be a chameleon, the act is loath to change its identity, it’s all they’ve got, if they fail, it’s toodles, whereas the producer can always get a new gig.

So, he’s married five times. When it gets bad, he moves on. Leaving carnage in his wake. Some of this trauma kids never get over, even if they claim otherwise down the line, I’m always stunned when constantly touring musicians have a passel of kids, they hardly see them, and oftentimes they break up with their mother and…

McPhee has Foster’s number. She talks about flying all over the world, to hang with Foster’s rich and famous friends, but then says they’ve got no clue who he really is. BINGO!

You get in this rarefied air and… There’s just no reality. Everybody’s being so fabulous, with a mask on, being fake, that you can’t connect. But you’ve worked so hard to earn this, to be part of the inner circle, and you don’t want to admit it’s phony, because then you must question your entire journey.

McPhee insists David discuss, argue, at length, reveal his feelings, she wants to get down to the real nitty-gritty. Something no prior woman has been able to do, never mind a man. Yes, you can have all the success in the world, but that does not make you happy, not on a sustained basis. It’s good to be #1, but that never lasts.

And we’ve got blowhards like Clive Davis polishing their resume, trying to ensure he lasts when he never will, all these acts saying the tracks they’ve done with Foster will last forever when they won’t either. Because the kind of stuff Foster does lacks an edge. The greatest stuff comes from explorers, willing to do something different. Oh, of course we need journeymen, fix-it people, but to become a legend…

Foster wants to be a legend. He can’t avoid the spotlight. He admits that his reality show appearances were bad decisions, jokes, but when you work behind the board all those years, you hunger for the spotlight, you’ve got the money and the credits, but not the fame, the acts have all the fame, even if they are now broke.

But Foster can’t give up. He says he’s retired yet he works all the time. Because he needs to be in the game, trying to ascend the ladder, which brings us to Broadway.

Why the Great White Way bookends this documentary I’ve got no idea. Since Foster has not had any success there, just a desire to triumph. But he does admit Broadway is a collaborative effort, when Foster is a dictator. Foster knows what’s right, he’s trying to achieve it, you don’t want to get in his way, you just want to say yes.

But is he George Martin, the Beatles, Quincy Jones? No. Because his big hit with Whitney Houston was not written by her and her identity was so all over the place that it’s hard to square the singer with the song.

Not that I’m trying to tear down hits. But Whitney Houston is a creature of publicity. She’s only lasted this long because she died. She had a big hit movie, some hits in the MTV era, so what? We’re looking for something a bit more titillating, with a bit more of the aforementioned edge. Same deal with Celine Dion. Yes, Foster recognized a star, but all she is is a voice. Who appeals to Middle America. But the British Invasion happened, the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper” and what came before became irrelevant. The Great American Songbook? Rod Stewart sang it, and it almost killed his career, his true fans had no interest.

So, there are two music businesses. One feeding the hoi polloi, casual fans, and another feeding the diehards, whose lives were saved by rock and roll and hip-hop, who see the singer not as an entertainer, but a vessel of God, someone who can channel truth, whose every word they hang on. The Beatles fostered the latter. Clive Davis fostered the former. The Beatles need no publicity, Clive cannot keep tooting his horn, you don’t need to do this when you’ve truly got it.

And Foster has it.

You see when you have big success, people notice, and they call, and want to use you. And as long as you continue to succeed, you can write your own ticket. It’s a hard business to get into, and a hard business to stay in, so you try to surf the wave as long as you can. And Foster’s had a very long ride, almost longer than anybody from his era. It’s just that…he’s making pop music, and pop music is inherently disposable. Which is maybe why he wants to go to Broadway, where he can prove he’s more than a studio rat, convince the naysayers in New York, when the truth is who cares what those arbiters of culture have to say anyway, isn’t that why we live in Southern California?

I’m judging Foster on an absolute scale. Because the documentary portrays him as a titan and that’s the world Foster considers himself a player in.

David Foster took a band on life support, on a new label, the Tubes, and gave them success…and broke up the band in the process, they didn’t see themselves as that act.

He made two stiff albums with Hall & Oates before that, and once the duo jettisoned Foster and produced themselves they instantly emerged with gigantic hits, like “You Make My Dreams” and “Kiss on My List.”

If you know who you are, you don’t want Foster.

But if you don’t… Foster can come along and deliver.

So who is the real David Foster?

Despite all the self-denigration evidenced in this documentary, I’m still not sure. What does he need? Hits, acclaim, money?

Well, if I think about it, what David Foster truly wants is love. He got it from his supportive mother, and he’s been looking for it from everybody else forever since. So he’s a weird amalgamation of compromise and a complete desire to not compromise, knowing that compromise never leads to success, you’ve got to follow your heart, only you know what will work. Talk to any creative person with great success, they’ll tell you they know when they achieve greatness, and they know when they don’t. It’s hard, but they have to rely on themselves. And Foster, as a producer, is inherently compromising when in truth he wants to be singular, and can’t hold himself back.

Foster’s not the only one. There’s the case of Mutt Lange, who essentially makes the albums himself. Without him? AC/DC never had a gargantuan hit, and neither did Def Leppard, all their legendary work was done with Mutt.

Foster’s a man out of time. He would have been a giant in Gordon Jenkins’s era. Where the song was everything, and it was a matter of bringing that song to life and getting it down on wax.

But that’s not the era we live in today. Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, they’re all people out of time. Their vocal talents carry them through, but once again, what we want is something more singular, true artists, who speak from the heart, more John Lennon than Olivia Newton-John.

Not that I think Foster will be happy I said all this, he’d rather get adulation, but the truth is he needs to be pushed. He’s got the desire, but all the acolytes are sycophants. Foster’s still got it in him, he loves a challenge, he’ll dedicate all his time and effort into it.

Maybe it’s Broadway.

Or maybe it’s a concept album.

Or maybe it’s even a partnership with someone on his level, who will challenge him. Someone like Van Morrison, even though that’ll never happen. Could Foster push Van to create chart-topping, everlasting material? I think so, Van just needs that little push himself, but Morrison has been so abused he doesn’t want to invite anyone into his party.

Kind of like Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. They both brought different things to the table. And butting heads they came up with something transcendent.

Today’s Foster is Max Martin. Although the Swede is fine living in the background. But like Foster, Martin has sustained success, when everybody else has not, usually producers have their era and then they’re over, can you say “Roy Thomas Baker”?

All this came to mind watching the Foster documentary. The first half is very interesting, how he got from there to here and what he left in his wake. And at the end there’s more of this too. And Foster is wide open, he’s himself, and you cannot help but watch and admire his success, which he earned, nearly completely by himself. Sure, there were business people aligned, but they’re a dime a dozen, Foster was responsible for the creative elements, the most elusive, they’re a challenge.

So, I don’t think the final chapter of David Foster’s life has been written yet, he just needs a bigger challenge. Molding singers into hitmakers? He’s been there and done that, which is why he’s reluctant to do it again. But if Bob Dylan can still carry on…

Foster is no Dylan, but Foster knows what Dylan does not, and vice versa.

Now there’s a pairing.

Most of these superstars just want yes-men or women. But they are the ones who can truly use Foster’s skills. Foster needs to play with people of his caliber. He’s found Katharine McPhee, but now he needs someone in the studio, any takers?


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