J. Dennis Robinson
Without wishing to offend lovers and friends, I freely state that some of the happiest hours of my life were spent at the Fishtraks recording studio with Jeff Landrock. It is a joy that is difficult to explain. In the 80s and 90s, I wrote and produced at least 100 videos, slideshows and radio commercials. Jeff was my sound engineer, the best in the business.
I was usually a basket, arriving at 62 Congress St. in Portsmouth, next to Winebaum’s News, carrying my scripts, scribbled notes, CDs, and audio tapes. But the minute Jeff appeared with that perpetual smile – his perfectly shaggy long blonde hair, shorts and short-sleeved shirt no indication of the weather outside – my nerves relaxed. Whatever crazy creative ideas jostled in my head, whatever the budget or tight deadline, I knew Jeff was going to make them work.
At Jeff’s memorial service last week, to my horror, I discovered that I was not his only friend. The event was, like Jeff, a super laid-back affair, held outdoors in a dirt arena at Leo A. Landroche Memorial Field behind Newmarket High School. The athletics field is named after Jeff’s father who was a school principal, teacher and coach at Newmarket. Realizing that rock-n-roll hippie Jeff was the son of his high school principal explained a lot, including the adapted spelling of his last name.
I am not a fan of memorial ceremonies, funerals or death in general. As a senior in denial, every time I get a new Facebook friend, I seem to lose one, definitely. Even mentioning that I’m still on Facebook makes anyone under the age of 50 laugh.
Jeff’s children Lindsay and Cory led the memorial show from a small stage lined with flowers. They choked on each other telling stories about their cool counter-cultural father who, until his departure on January 5, 2020 at age 67, still played in a Beatles tribute band. Jeff knew all the chords and lyrics of every Beatles song and could perfectly reproduce all the sounds they produced using only a microphone, guitar and digital keyboard. His original, distinctly Beatlesque recordings are rich in catchy melodies, intelligent lyrics and heartfelt messages sung in a voice that is sometimes hopelessly angelic.
As each speaker took to the stage, it became clear that everyone thought they were Jeff’s best friend. He was listening. He was a repairman. He was a joker. He was a musical genius on the keyboard and in the studio.
In our studio sessions, he was drinking my goals for each project, like Mr. Spock performing a Vulcan mind fusion. Often times we would record vocal talents. Cliff Blake, Jim Gelinas, Mike Walsh, Lesley Smith and Mark Miller were among my favorites. Jeff would wire each speaker beyond the glass window into some sort of soundproof room. We sat side by side in front of the dizzying rows of sliders and switches on a recording console the size of a compact car.
In my 100 sessions with Jeff, I never hit a button. His fingers flew up and down over the console as I described the sound I was looking for. The best days were always âthe mixâ when we mixed narration, music, sound effects and silence into a soundtrack. With the slides and the video, the visuals were in my head. Jeff never saw what I saw, and yet he knew, instinctively, how to match sight and sound.
He was, of course, also a brilliant pop rocker, which made him the quintessential sound engineer. Millions of hours of listening to The Beatles had transformed Jeff into both Paul McCartney and George Martin. There is no place here to list the solo artists, musicians and local groups who have benefited from his talent. A few of them were at the memorial service. Each speaker swore that Jeff was their best friend, that he never stopped smiling, that he was as funky as an unmade bed and that he had made their dreams come true.
I remember one session where, after writing a jingle on the coffee filters, I needed a four part harmony, but I could only afford one singer. Jeff hooked up Wendy Bergeron, who was also my secretary, and made her sing part of the harmony, then another, and the other two. He quickly layered the tracks into a single melody. You might be able to do it on your cell phone today, but in my day it was magic.
In another session for a training film on alcoholic responsibility, I realized that the narrator, who had long since returned home, had transposed two words. Instead of “point-zero-one”, the narrator had said “point-one-zero”.
It was a fatal mistake that I had missed.
At the time, we mastered on a one-inch magnetic tape. No digital, but no problem for Jeff. He turned the heavy metal knob of the enormous studio recorder again and again, his ear glued to the speaker. Then he took a razor blade and cut the duct tape, cutting two narrow diagonal strips. He swapped the two pieces, stuck them on the main reel and – hell, curse! It was magical.
Jeff has recorded everyone from Shaggs, my worst favorite band ever, to Irish tenor Tommy Makem, who Bob Dylan says was one of his earliest influences. As I arrived at Fishtraks one day, exuding the zen of Jeff’s presence, Tommy was finishing a session.
“My mom is a huge Makem fan,” I said to Jeff, “do you think, maybe, you could get him to sign something for me?” Jeff had a word with Tommy who I’m sure thought he was Jeff’s best friend.
“Can you call your mother? Tommy asked me, pointing to the studio phone on the wall. I did. My mother responded.
“There is someone here who wants to meet you,” I told him over the phone. “Hello, Phyllis. It’s Tommy Makem!” shouted the singer. My mom screamed and dropped the phone. But, years later, she found herself on a bus tour of Ireland with Tommy Makem as her guide.
Like I said, it’s a joy that’s hard to explain. Jeff Landrock had his demons, I’m sure, but I never met them. We flew this recording studio console like it was a jet plane. I was the navigator, Jeff the pilot. Every Christmas he sent holiday songs which he wrote and recorded with his children, and later his grandchildren. I still have a copy of “Santa Stole My Jeep” and other classics.
His only vinyl album, “Stolen Studio Moments”, was tinkered with at Fishtraks during the hours between paying customers. The cover art shows Jeff at work alone, surrounded by guitars, keyboards and microphones. Two local police officers hover in the background.
The reverse of the album shows Jeff being arrested and driven in a cruiser for stealing studio time. The “actors” in the photo were real cops who were happy to play with the gag. Hey, they probably thought they were Jeff’s best friend. Maybe we all were.
Text copyright 2021 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Dennis is the author of a dozen non-fiction history books on topics such as the Music Hall, the Strawberry Banke Museum, the War of 1812, the Smuttynose Island ax murders of 1873, and more Again. His first âhistorical mysteryâ novel, âPoint of Gravesâ, will be released soon. This is the weekly photo column # 895. For more information, email [email protected] or visit jdennisrobinson.com.