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Literary Kerfuffle
Friday, June 2, 2006   |    Fiction

Super Producer Rick Rubin Mulls His Next Move

by Will Layman

Rick Rubin, his trademark beard cascading to his lap, sits in the L.A. office of American Recordings, surrounded by gold records, Grammys, and empty Chinese takeout boxes. He grits his teeth and rests his chin in his folded, knuckled hands.

I miss Johnny. I miss his rumble and his knotted brow. He was a legend, sure, but who knew what he needed? Then I came along. You think I don’t know a veiled punk when I see one, a rapper under wraps, an M.C. cracked straight out of Arkansas foothills who just didn’t have the benefit of owning any Nine Inch Nails albums?

Johnny had the voice, the pompadour, the closet full of black clothes, but it was my vision. I don’t come along, they’d have played “A Boy Named Sue” at his funeral. The guy was washed up—a history lesson at best, a cut-rate Willie Nelson without the braids or tax fraud, a memory of a recollection of a reminiscence who sang for a bunch of inmates so long ago your momma associates his songs with the good ol’ days of AM radio. Walk the Line? Made-for-TV at best—if I don’t come along.

Then why the big hassle getting Neil to sign on? The big guy resists, doesn’t want to give up his sequined shirts and Vegas sizzle—some hesitation about being lumped in with The Beastie Boys? In whose company is a Brooklyn Jew gonna feel comfortable if not with some Long Island punks named Horovitz, Yauch and—hey—Diamond? But look at him now, dripping with renewed street cred. He’s a sideburned cowboy, an edgy artist on the fringe whose deep source of rootsy American sorrow has taken on a whole new analog grittiness. See, Neil? You’ve been Rubin-ized.

The music industry is littered with huge talents in desperate need of relevance and stripped-down authenticity, man. I’m casting my net wide for the next project—someone no one will believe—a bigger challenge, a more daring transformation, someone squarer than Neil and potentially roguer than Johnny. Someone with a hole in his soul shaped exactly like my beard.

I’m gonna pick up the horn right now and reserve that studio in Kansas City, keep Hank Jones’s favorite piano tuned and ready. How can Barbra resist? Put a gardenia in her hair, go with a Billie Holiday thing—“Hush Now, Don’t Explain” and I get Flea to play some cornet. She’s gotta eat that shit up.

But I can reach deeper into the well of square. “I remember all my life / Raining down as cold as ice / Shadows of a man / Face through a window cryin’ in the night.” It may be “Mandy,” but that’s dark stuff that deserves what only I can provide. Imagine it with just hammer dulcimer and snare. We’re talking a Grammy nomination, if Barry is just willing to trade in his Central Jersey grandmas for some really down undergrads at Reed and Bard. So what he guest-judged on American Idol last year? That doesn’t mean I can’t engineer a whole new kind of success.

This is what I was trying to explain to Mickey Dolenz and Davey Jones. Get a Guided By Voices sound on “Daydream Believer”? Oh, yeah. “Stripped down” is the new commercial. Ashlee Simpson duetting with Public Enemy? Yes, and tell me Flava Flav wouldn’t want to hit that. Fuck, yeah. I could get Kenny G to go with a Mohawk, stop playing that goddamned saxophone and consider a spoken word project, maybe reading selection from The Satanic Verses with Sonic Youth and a klezmer clarinetist—just as an echo of the old G-man. A Captain and Tennille reunion album with some guest vocals by Tom Waits, man, I’m bursting with ideas now. An ambient album by Richard Carpenter, complex mixture of synth patterns and field recordings from the Mississippi delta … .

Will Layman used to be wise beyond his years, but then the wisdom kind of slowed down and the years just kept coming and . . . well, you get the picture. Now he is simply itchy beyond his years. When not furiously scratching, he teaches in Washington, D.C., plays the rock 'n' roll music, and pursues the pot of gold at the end of the Little Humor Pieces on the Internet Rainbow. Dig his work on National Public Radio, McSweeney's,, and at Contact Will, if you dare, at