Howard Bilerman and Bob Johnston

in loving memory of bob johnston:

some people mentor you directly, in person. other times, a person's body of work mentors you, without their knowledge. for me, bob johnston was such a mentor. it's impossible to listen to "blonde on blonde" and not learn it about record production, or song writing, or musical arrangements. that record is a master class in creating a timeless work. the same is true of other johnston 1960's productions..."highway 61", "songs of love & hate", "nashville skyline", "john wesley harding", "at folsom prison", "songs from a room"...those records teach you that it's about songs, and the people in the room playing them, end of story. there is an intimacy to all of those recordings that is staggering. nothing gets in the way between the song & the listener. it feels like the artists are playing those songs for you. that is because of bob Johnston. as a producer, you get paid to intervene...bob johnston had the good sense not to. bob trusted his musicans, and he trusted their songs. this was lesson number one in my mentorship.

the unbelievable fact that most of the records we associate with him were made in 2 weeks or less was lesson number two. too much time could be just as much of a curse as too little, often worse in fact. the hallmark of a bob Johnston production is that you can almost hear the musicians listening to each other. that is a product of working quickly.

It always felt like johnston took the producer's version of the hippocratic oath, to do no harm. this theory was confirmed to me when I had the honor of working along side him for a few days in 2009. after a completely chance meeting in NYC, I had invited him to montreal to do a live q&a, followed by a workshop at our studio. the q&a could not have gone better. johnston was animated, filled with stories, each more amazing, insightful, colorful, and humorous than the last. but it was at the studio session the next day that I was really afforded a window into what made Johnston such an incredible producer. quite simply, the man loved music. What the musicians saw, looking back into the control room, was a man who was completely reveling in what they were doing. in turn, this made them more invested, and they fed off of bob's excitement until the song reached performance level. recording the take was all about capturing that performance. johnston's presence in the room, in a completely unmanipulative way, guided the song to where it needed to go. lesson number three...the artist always knows best...just let the artist make the record they want to make.

bob contacted me several times after he left montreal, with this idea to start a record company owned & run by the artists on it. he spoke so passionately about it...citing example after painful example of all the artists who he'd seen get screwed over in one way or another. for a man so tangled up in the heyday of the major label system, he was the most anti- industry person I have ever met. there was no question where his allegiences lay...they were 100% squarely aligned with the artist. and, in that moment, everything about the man and his body of work, made sense. stories of him keeping CBS execs away from dylan's recording sessions...the fact that he managed to pull off recording johnny cash play at a prison, not once, but twice...leonard cohen wanting bob to come on tour with him to play piano, even though bob wasn't a piano player...all of them pointed to a person who musicians wanted to be around, because he was so clearly on their side. and maybe this was the greatest lesson of all, because, despite the extreme position of power that comes from the job of record producer, I never got the sense the bob felt he was more important to those records than the people who wrote them & played on them. his reverance for those artists was palpable.

dear bob, it's still rolling, but you will be sadly missed.

howard bilerman, hotel2tango recording studio, montreal