Cheers to Nick Blagona
Updated: Jan 7
Nick Blagona died last night.
I prefer to celebrate Nick rather than mourn him and I know that’s what he’d prefer. Even if you didn’t know Nick, you’ve probably listened to a lot of music he was intimately involved with as an engineer, producer, and/or mastering engineer for Cat Stevens, Tom Jones, Chaka Kahn & Rufus, The Police, The Bee Gees, Nazareth, Chicago, Deep Purple, Ian Gillan and Roger Glover, Ian Hunter, Rainbow, April Wine, Kim Mitchell, The Tea Party, Jeff Martin, Crack the Sky, among many others.
When I arrived at the hospital a few days ago when Nick was still semi-lucid I asked him how he was doing.
“Dying,” he said.
I said, "On the way here today I was thinking about the immortality of your life's work. Records you’ve made have been threads in the lives of millions of people you haven’t even met. Those records will always be played. Your work will be in the time capsule, I’m sure of it.”
Nick smiled and said “that’s pretty cool.”
“Damn right,” I said.
The good doctor, Hunter S. Thompson wrote “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!” Nick nailed that pretty well, I think.
“I’ll have an extra extra dry martini, please, with a clusterfuck of olives,” said Nick when the server came ‘round at a fancy Berkley restaurant after a fabulous recording session with Joe Satriani and Ian Gillan for the Gillan’s Inn record in 2005. Nick often said to me in the studio that if “something is worth doing, it’s worth over doing” a philosophy of his much more nuanced than you could imagine as he often did counsel restraint as well. But when it came to his own approach to living that philosophy was certainly dominant and as I recently said to Nick, he used his chips up better than anyone I know.
Speaking of excess, Nick told a story about how he woke up one day in the Beverly Hills jail for coffee and a croissant before the Canadian Mountie who’d been sent by the embassy arrived to get him out. When Nick asked why he was in jail, he was told that he’d been arrested for what appeared to be an attempt to make love to a Mercedes convertible. The lack of memory may have had something to do with a bit of partying the night before at a wrap party for a Chicago record. He must have really liked that car.
I learned so much about making music, recording and producing from Nick. He showed the same compassion and drive with unknown artists like me when we first met as he did superstars who equally entrusted their careers to Nick’s incredible talents, ears and sensibilities. Nick constantly showed that engineering and producing music aren’t just about turning dials, technical knowledge and making decisions, it's also about listening to the artists, understanding their vision, and helping to bring the very best out of them in what may be some of their most insecure moments. He put all his artists at such ease – even some legendarily difficult ones.
Nick viewed every record as different and started with a clean slate. He’d listen to the music and let the music dictate what the approach should be. His only dogma when approaching challenges was that there weren’t any rules. Outside the box was Nick’s natural habitat. As the world went digital, Nick brought along his analog inventiveness to break rules and try new things on every record he made. He didn’t just use plugins, he’d hot rod them and make them his own and sometimes write the code from scratch.
From his hospital bedside, Mary-Jane asked him if he wanted her to make his custom plugins available after he died. He adamantly said no. I remember him saying a few years back that he’d never do that. Back in the day, he said, studios often built their own equipment and that was a big part of their unique sound. Those plugins, Nick said, were part of his sound. And he said “there aren’t many fucking things I can take to the grave. I’m taking those.” I understand and respect that choice.
The most important thing for Nick in the studio was capturing good performances. That meant having to do quick set ups, sound checks and getting artists playing with as little downtime as possible. He could find the sweet spot on a guitar speaker cabinet and perfectly place an SM57 microphone in seconds, and there was never any drama with the drums, just great sounds fast. When drummer Michael Lee showed up at Jacobs Studio in Farnham, England with his Thin Lizzy touring drum rig up to do his drum tracks on Gillan’s Inn, Nick was ready to record him within about 30 minutes of Michael setting up. I remember Michael being amazed at how good the drums sounded and joked “Steve Albini took a week on his drum sounds for the Page/Plant record 'Walking into Clarksdale.'"
Because everyone trusted Nick so much in the studio, he could ask anyone to do another take. One time, during the Gillan’s Inn sessions, Nick had asked Ian to do a vocal over a few times, one which Ian was already happy with. Ian said, “I’m singing for you, Nick” and he sang that part again, brilliantly, I might ad. I always felt the same when Nick and I were recording. I was playing for Nick, and when he was happy with something, I was really happy with it too. Nick sent me back to the drawing board many times during pre-production and the recording of my last few records, and the songs and recordings were better for it every time.
For the Gillan’s Inn record we recorded in Toronto, England, Nashville, Buffalo, San Francisco, and Los Angeles and Nick masterfully blended in parts from Ronnie James Dio (RIP), Tony Iommi, Ian Paice, Jon Lord (RIP), Michael Lee (RIP), Jeff Healey (RIP), Roger Glover, Joe Elliot, Don Airey, Steve Morris, Steve Morse, Uli Jon Roth, and many others. He was a master of managing the chaos of recording, and he was the glue, talents which were again essential when we made the Exile And The Kingdom record with Jeff Martin in Ireland shortly thereafter. Just before we made Gillan’s Inn, Nick and I recorded the first record I put my own name on. It was called “In a Heartbeat.” I’ll never forget Nick saying to me through my headphones as I tried in vain to scream my lungs out on a track very poorly, “You know you’re a baritone. Why not try that in a range that doesn’t hurt…” something Mike Sak had said to me years earlier on the first Animal Planet record, WAG!. They were both right.
I will miss making records with Nick. I will miss his sardonic sense of humor, his crude jokes which thankfully continued until the end. And I will miss his stories. Lordy, after I first met him when he mastered the Animal Planet record, Dawn, I remember saying a few times I’d pay his day rate just to hear those stories about the early days of recording in England.
Those who knew Nick well have known his life was quite vulnerable for years. Nearly twenty years ago, as I sat with Nick and Mary-Jane at a summer cottage they had rented north of Toronto at one point Nick’s laughter turned to coughing and then his head and body went limp. We thought he was faking, until we didn’t. Mary-Jane moved him to the floor and pounded on his chest. He came to and said, “why are you hitting me, I was just taking a nap?” to which I replied, “no you weren’t, you fucking died. Don’t do that again…” And that’s how it went with Nick. He had a heart attack about ten years ago, had major bypass surgery, got a pacemaker and has suffered from numerous ailments from diabetes, heart failure, failing kidneys and liver, and related troubles. What frustrated Nick most when he was ill was when he couldn't work on records.
A few years back, on Nick’s 70th birthday after another pretty crappy health year for him, I drove up to his and Mary-Jane’s house near Hamilton. Nick was in a foul mood, still in a bathrobe and muttered, “I’m fucking 70.” I asked him if he was working on any music he liked at the time and he said he wasn’t. I said, “should we make another record?” He said “yes.” He perked up after that and we went outside to take what became one of my favorite pics of Nick and some great ones of him and Mary-Jane together.
Last year when Nick was still waiting for a few overdubs from me to finish the Satisfaction Garage record, he called and said in his old rabbi impersonation that he hadn’t been feeling well and would like to get that record done. I knew exactly what he was saying and wrapped up my end of things as quickly as I could. Nick’s stewardship of that recording process and the following mixing and mastering were amazing, as always.
We had another record planned for this spring. The concept was to get back to the big band approach we had on the Dawn, but with more attitude and fewer fucks to give. I’m still going to make that record, and it will be dedicated to Nick.
A few days ago, I asked Nick if there was anything he wanted. He said, “a fucking scotch and Coke, make that Coke Zero.” Mary-Jane suggested he could have the full-strength Coke at this point given that he was likely going to die within a few days. “No,” Nick said, he wanted the Coke Zero. I picked up the scotch and Coke Zero on the way up to see Nick for the last time a couple days ago. By the time I got there, he was in much worse shape, in and out of consciousness, having hallucinations and trying desperately to escape from the hospital. His body was nearly gone but his brain was hanging on. His last word to me was “scotch” so I mixed drinks, and we had a final toast for the road. He had only a sip. He died the next evening.
I may make some t-shirts that say “WWND?” on the front and “What would Nick do?” on the back. And the answer to that question right now, is, without a doubt, raise a glass to a life well lived, celebrate his work, his legacy, fantastic memories, lessons and to move on with making the best music we can, be good to ourselves and each other and to enjoy the ride.