“SANIBEL” - A Songwriter’s Odyssey
 

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When “Sanibel” first came out on the  Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young reunion CD “Looking Forward”, I received many correspondences about the song. CSN&Y fans were most kind in accepting it as part of the album, even though it was written by an “outsider”. I wrote this article as a collective “Thank You” note, and to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about the song. Hopefully, it will come off not as a vanity piece, but rather as an inside look into the creative process of songwriting, the triumphs and frustrations behind getting a song cut, and the ecstasy and reality of being thrown into a working situation with a legendary group of musicians.

All facts and events are as I remember them, and reflect my personal perspective and opinions. Needless to say, this cut has had a tremendous impact on me, personally and professionally. The whole back story covers a time span of almost three decades, involving a lot of heartbreak, hard work, blind faith, and dumb luck. It’s an 18yr. “overnight success story”. Hopefully, it might inspire someone else to stick to their guns, believe in themselves, and follow their dreams. Our lives are always in Higher Hands .

ODE TO CSNY

My relationship with Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young is first and foremost, that of a fan. Individually and collectively, as writers, performers, and musicians they have set a standard of musical excellence that has shaped and inspired my own musical odyssey.

Stephen Stills has always impressed me with his infectious songwriting, unique guitar playing, and arranging skills. His music is a melting pot of rock, blues, and folk. He helped bring the acoustic guitar out of the dusty old folk closet, and placed it center stage in pop music.

David Crosby’s work in the Byrds still inspires new generations of folk-rock knockoffs. His jazzy, free form vocal stylings and psychedelic poetry brought a mood of experimental excitement to CSN. Songs like “Guinevere” stretched the mind and touched the heart, raising the bar for so many singer/songwriters. I’ve also admired the strength of his political convictions and his personal courage dealing with adversity.

Neil Young is an artist with a capital “A”, always following his own muse, totally unconcerned with sales, trends, or smooth edges. He writes and plays it like he feels it, equally at home singing soft ballads like “Birds”, or wailing away on “Rockin’ In The Free World”. The sheer (shear?) energy of his guitar playing helped put me in touch with my inner-Scorpio guitar player. The sustaining one note solo of “Cinnamon Girl” and the spontaneous chaos of the “Woodstock” solo spoke volumes to me. His ability to achieve success in two legendary bands, maintain a solo career, and jam with acts ranging from Pearl Jam to Willie Nelson is amazing. Songs like “Ohio” showed the power of mixing music with political activism, and his work with charities and social causes reflect his humanity and character.

When I first heard the Hollies, I fell out of my chair. The power of their soaring harmonies were second to none. Even when I had a top ten record with my own band (“Come On Down To My Boat”, Every Mother’s Son), we continued to cover Hollies’ tunes on tour. The dream band in my head sang like the Hollies and played/wrote like the Buffalo Springfield. Graham’s distinct voice framed the legendary CSN sound. As a writer, he put the band over the top, and into the mainstream market with hits like, “Marrakech Express” and “Teach Your Children”. A master of understated elegance, he pours his generous heart and compassionate soul into every song. He’s also one of the nicest people on the planet.

“SANIBEL” -The Song

I was not a very happy camper around 1981. My musical career seemed dead in the water; I was working a mindless day gig, and the girl that I was romantically involved with had skipped town a few months earlier without even saying goodbye. One day, I received a mysterious picture postcard with a beautiful island sunset on the front and an inscription on the back...







“Dear Denny, Here’s a picture of our evenings here on Sanibel .....

Wish you were here .... All my love, ________”

I wanted to make contact, but the lady had neglected to include an address or phone number. Be it accident or omen, I took this as a sign that this was not meant to be. I vented my mixed emotions the only way I knew how - on my acoustic guitar. I started to bang away on some anghasty, bluesy groove, but the Muse had other plans. Starring out the window of my little pool guest house, I watched the shimmering waters glow from the pool lights in the dark night. An odd peace came over my soul; the next thing I knew, my guitar was in open G tuning, and I was playing a sweet, James Taylor like progression. I sang half of the 1st verse on the fly, then the entire chorus. I’ve always believed Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for doing what songwriters do for (we hope) a living; some inner voice guides the song ether into the material world.

After the initial rush of inspiration is over, the real work begins, wrestling the beast to the ground. The search engines of my subconscious “googled” through my literary database and came up with three major images:

  1. 1.The opening pages of Kahil Gilbran’s “The Prophet”, in which a metaphysical master, preparing to leave his home forever, addresses his followers.

  2. 2.Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” (“So I’m laying out my winter clothes and wishing I was home, going home”) and “Sounds of Silence” (“I turn my collar to the cold and damp”), two images this ex-NYC boy can relate to.

  3. 3.Homer’s “The Odyssey”, which chronicles the ten year struggle of a warrior King to return to his beloved wife and home land. He vows to return, and their blind faith in the power of their love for each other keeps their dream alive (“Angels of the waters, Sirens of the Sea”).

The song just poured out. Musically, I heard the whole arrangement in my head. I knew there was something special about this song, but it didn’t seem to fit any commercial categories on the current musical scene, and I was light years away from a record deal myself. So, I just thanked the Muse and tucked the song away for a couple of years.

“WHAT’S A NICE SONG LIKE YOU DOING ON A CD LIKE THIS ....”

I first met Graham Nash on a NYC street corner in the late sixties. I was leaving Allegro Studios after an all night session with my 1st top ten band, “Every Mother’s Son”. He was looking for the studio, and noticing my guitar case, asked me for directions. I recognized him instantly and awkwardly introduced myself. He was courteous, chipper, and freezing; I was thrilled to have met my Hollies Hero.

Our next encounter was around early 1969 at Wally Heider Studios in Hollywood. I was working on the soundtrack for an original movie musical I was involved in (it made the Monkees look like Masterpiece Theater!). One of my band mates used to be a roadie for the Buffalo Springfield, and mentioned that Stills was recording next door with his band, “The Frozen Noses”. We thought we’d sneak a listen. Now -- picture the setup -- Studio B had this odd arrangement where you entered from the street and walked right into the control room. Just as we walked in, the down beat of “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” blasted away on the big speakers. Stills had just laid down the lead guitar overdubs, and CSN (and their wonderful engineer, Bill Halverson) were listening back to the entire piece for the first time. Crosby recognized my friend, and passed us a "party favor". Words can’t describe what the mood was like in that room. After the final “Dit-dit-di-it”, the room got quiet; we all knew this was a milestone moment in Rock music. I felt like a voyeur on their musical honeymoon. Then the soundtrack producer came in to collect us. It was like one of those “white light” near death experiences - I’d heard the Angels sing, and now I was being dragged screaming out of the light and back into my own mundane session. CSN went on make musical history; I rode the movie project right down the toilet.

Things picked up in 1973. I was watching “The Tonight Show” when former teen idol Rick Nelson came on, backed by his country-rock ensemble, The Stone Canyon Band. I was always a big fan of Rick’s music, but I was fixating on his lead guitarist playing acoustic guitar and singing backgrounds on the Dylan song, “She Belongs To Me”. I turned to my girlfriend, and said, “That would be a nice gig for me”.

The angels must have overheard, because the next day I got a call from my best friend, MCA promo man Lindy Goetz, saying Rick’s manager had called him in a panic; the SCB rhythm section had just quit. I assembled friends Jay DeWitt White (bass) and Ty Grimes (drums), and after two rehearsals with Rick and pedal steel legend Tom Brummley, we were playing the Astrodome! Within the next six months, we had played Carnegie Hall and recorded the “Windfall” album, which featured five of my songs, including the title track co-written with Rick. I thoroughly enjoyed the next few years. Rick was a talented guy and there was a great sense of camaraderie between us, but after seven years of lagging record sales, poor management, and changing musical trends, we parted ways.

The early 80’s were a creative void. Disco and Punk had driven the singer/songwriter deep underground. We weren’t considered “unplugged” back then; we were obsolete. I was doing film production work for writer/director John (“Red Dawn”) Milius and producer Buzz (“Rambo”) Feitshans. Enter Allen McDougall, an affable Scotsman whom I had met through mutual friends at A&M publishing. I hadn’t seen Allen in years, but when we ran into each other in a parking lot, he mentioned his son wanted to learn how to play slide guitar, and I offered to show him some basic licks. The next day, he dropped him off, and casually asked “I’m going over to Graham Nash’s house -- got any tunes?”. Allen was Graham’s best friend, and best man at his wedding. I whipped out a song sampler tape. You have to keep an even keel in these situations; the higher the expectations, the greater the disappointment. Allen picked up his kid, and I went about my business. Two days later, there was a message on my answering machine saying, “Hello Denny, this is Graham Nash calling from Maui to tell you I love your song, ‘Sanibel’ and it’s going to make us both rich!” I went nuts! This was an absolute dream come true.

“TIME KEEPS ON TICKIN’ .... TICKIN’ ....”

I wasn’t expecting the time line that followed. After an initial series of phone calls between Graham’s “people” and my “person” (longtime friend and show biz attorney Gerry Rosenblatt), things seemed to grind to a halt. I never heard from Graham personally, but Allen assured me that he was still very excited about the song. As jazzed as I was about the prospect of CSN doing the song, they had no immediate plans to record, and as a writer and publisher, I couldn’t commit to taking the song off the market. This informal stalemate continued for almost a decade. There was talk of a “mystery superstar project” with Graham and other artists, a Crosby/Nash album, and a slot on CSNY’s “American Dream”, but nothing clicked.

One day, about eight years ago, I was home working on a screenplay, when the phone rang:

“Hello, Denny, this is Graham Nash. Who played guitar on your demo of Sanibel?”

D- “I did.”

G - “Can you get down to the studio right away? James Taylor tried playing guitar on the track, but it just didn’t sound the same.”

D - “Can I get a copy of James Taylor not cutting it on my song? (laughs) ...The only problem is my guitar is in the shop.”

G - “Don’t worry - we’ve got all of Stephens guitars down here, just pick one you like.”

D - “Sure. I’ll be there in an hour.”

Other than getting invited to record with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, replacing James Taylor on guitar, and running through one of the world’s greatest antique Martin guitars collections, it was just any other day.
 

THE “SANIBEL” SESSION - or “DON’T FUCK UP!”


I drove through a rare L.A. rainstorm down to The Record Plant in Hollywood. I often get a little case of the jitters going into a session. When the red record light comes on and the whole band’s cooking and you’re going into the last chorus of a perfect track, a little voice inside says, “you’re almost home -- don’t fuck this up!”. And now I’m in the studio with my Heroes!


I walked into the control room and Graham and David were talking. As intimidating as the situation might have been, Graham Nash is one of those rare people that makes you feel like you’ve been friends forever. David, on the other hand, was cordial but all business. I remember him saying something like,

“Play it just like the demo, or you’ll fuck it up!”.

I took that as a backhanded compliment; he wanted to make sure the integrity of the arrangement came through on the record. My game plan for making the cut onto the album was to make all three of the singer, artist, producers to feel involved in the creative process. Graham overheard David, and waxed philosophically about being open minded and not closing any creative doors (you go, Zen Boy!). Their dialog spoke volumes about their personal relationship and contrasting styles; the bull and the butterfly, working through their creative differences.

Moments later, the band’s guitar tech took me into a back room filled with giant road cases that housed the Stephen Stills Martin Mini-Museum. I was like a kid in the candy store. I’ve played and owned many fine guitars in my life, but these rare classic prewar instruments were spectacular! I had to remind myself that I was there to work, and began noodling on different guitars, trying to find the one best suited for the track. During this time, the tech got a call from Stephen, who grilled me by proxy until I convinced him that I would be playing gently with bare fingers. Still replied,

“OK, but tell him if he fucks one up, I’ll kill him!”

Obviously, the theme for the day was for Denny to not fuck up.

I returned to the bliss of the Martin Museum, choosing a prewar, herringbone D-28 that felt and sounded like my early 60’s D-28. The tech did a great job of restringing and tweaking the guitar to perfection.

I was then introduced to engineer/co-producer Stanley Johnston, and session all-stars Joe Vitale (drums), Bob Glaub (bass), and Craig Doerge (keyboards). These guys are masters at turning good songs into great records!

They miked a scratch vocal/guitar track for me and we began running the arrangement down.

While Stanley was working on the drum sounds, Stills arrived. His first comment to me was to complain about my ball cap (how do you fuck up a ball cap? -- I bought it in Atlanta on a rainy day, and was using it to cover my head on a rainy L.A. day -- but the hat advertised some Atlanta team that was a rival to Stephen’s beloved Miami team). I’m used to be razzed by friends -- but aren’t you supposed to be friends first? Sarcasm is a 2-way street, so I turned to the tech guy and said, “I like to war my guitar strap a little higher -- can you drill another hole here?”, pointing to a spot on the precious Brazilian rosewood body. We threw a few zingers back and forth, initiating each other into the Brotherhood of the Buttholes Club.

Stephen eventually broke out a guitar -- this was it! -- I was actually going to record with Stephen Stills! The player in me said, “Screw Sanibel -- let’s jam!”, but I stuck to my game plan; maybe if he played the guitar part himself, he’d feel more involved with the song. I offered to show him my guitar arrangement with the greatest respect; I’ve ripped off more than my share of Still’s licks and techniques, and I knew he had all the chops needed to play it. But what came out of my face was, “I can show you the guitar part -- it’s just me ripping off you ripping off Joni Mitchell”. That led to Stills reading me the riot act about who taught who what.

We ran through the song a few times; Stills jammed a few blues licks, complained about the headphone mix, and left.

I sat down by the piano and ran over the chart with Craig. After a few minutes, Graham came over and wanted to sing it through to make sure it was in the right key. Crosby and Stills returned, circled the piano, and began singing. Graham sang the verse, and when they all broke into harmony on the hook it was magic; The collective consciousness of the four of us merged into a single musical entity. After all these years of singing and playing their songs, CSN were singing one of mine! Talk about your Cosmic Connections! It was an epiphany -- one of the purest, most perfect “white light” moments of my life. It lasted about twenty seconds.

What had fallen perfectly into place was now being analyzed, dissected, and revised -- the keys too high for one, too low for another, who sings what part, etc. Suddenly, Stephen wanted to take a crack at the lead.

Now the man’s a mighty fortress, but it was a no-brainer that this song needed a Brit, not grit! They got into a mock battle, threw a round of zingers, then Stills broke off, joking (?) about quitting the band. I had stayed out of it up until now, but at that point, I instinctively said.

“Stephen, I wouldn’t do that if I were you - - they won’t even have to change the logo”.

It took a few seconds for the gag to sink in -- CSN -- Crosby, Sarokin, & Nash. It got a big laugh, even from Stills. For the first time, I really felt like “one of the guys”.

Time to start tracking. Stephen played a little lead on the run throughs, then decided to join the other producers in the booth. I sat in the middle of the room where I could cue the musicians, and in a couple of takes, they laid down a perfect track and departed.

I knew I would have to redo my guitar track because of leakage (the sounds of other instruments coming through an open mike). Stanley came out to fine tune the miking for the acoustic track. Crosby ran out and replaced Still’s D-28 with his own precious D-45, claiming it was part of their classic sound. In all honesty, I thought it sounded like 2x4 compared to Stephen’s Martin, but hey, that’s always the producers and engineers call. They miked me and took me direct through an internal guitar pick up. Stanley stopped me in the middle of the first take to tweak the EQ - -Stephen took the opportunity comment that I was playing to hard (they changed the headphone mix on me and I couldn’t hear my track as well). I nailed it on the 2nd pass (guess I didn’t Fuck Up after all!) and doubled it on another track for extra texture.

We listened to the playback, and everyone seemed pleased. I took my kudos, and went out of my way to thank Stills for the “tip” about my playing lighter -- he replied, “I know -- it sounded like shit!”. What a putz!

-- he couldn’t drop it for a minute. I didn’t take it personally. I knew I hit all my marks as a musician, brought “Sanibel” to life, and handed her over to my all time favorite artists to do with as they pleased.

They were moving on to another song, and people were in transit, running errands, ordering food, etc. I didn’t want to impose on their creative space, so said my farewells, and a special thanks to Graham -- I felt like I was losing a new best friend.

I got home feeling exhilarated and exhausted. The whole thing felt like a hallucination; a surreal mixture of the dream where your life’s fantasy comes true, and the dream where your life’s fantasy comes true in public -- and you’re not wearing any pants!

It was amazing working within the personal dynamics and musical textures of this unique, brilliant, and sometimes dysfunctional musical family. It still goes down as one of the most memorable days in my life.

"TO BE OR NOT TO BE ..."

Once again, I made all the necessary business arrangements and anxiously awaited the release of the “Live It Up” CD. Unfortunately, when I went to the store to pick up a copy, my song was conspicuously absent. It brought to mind a piece of zen wisdom I once read on an Eagles T-shirt: “There’s No Bull Like Show Bull!”

Cut to Nashville, Christmas '99. My lawyer called to say that Graham was inquiring about the song again. We negotiated a mutually beneficial licensing agreement. I was excited, but cautious. In the months that followed, I heard talk of a CSNY reunion, and realized this must be the project!

I didn’t hear a word about it until April, ‘99. It was the during, “Tin Pan South”, a week long celebration of songwriters put on by the NSAI (Nashville Songwriter’s Assoc. International). The highlight of the event is a “Legends” concert, which included performances by Mac Davis, Paul Williams, and Jackson Browne, with Graham closing the show. He wowed the audience, which sang along on “Our House” and “Teach Your Children”. He also debuted “Heartland” from the new CD. My honest mixed reactions were a) it was a great song, and
b) there was now one less slot open on the CD.

At the post show Pro Member party. NSAI Executive Director Barton Herbison had paired me up with a Tennessee Congressman (I’ve worked on the NSAI congressional lobbying committee) and I was pleading our case for an up coming vote. Graham entered the room, and I eventually worked my way over, stuck out my hand, and said, “Hi, Graham -- Denny Sarokin...” He shook my hand politely and said, “Nice to MEET YOU.” Well, so much for having made a lasting impression at the session. But then he took a beat, stared at me and made the connection.

“Denny ??? ....”, he went into overdrive, pumping my hand, and introducing me to publicist Michael Jensen as “the guy from Sanibel”.

He preceded to tell me the following:

  1. 1.CSN had lost the original 48 tk master of “Sanibel” - they had been reworking the song for months, splicing and dicing in Pro Tools to replicate it from a reference DAT mixdown that he said was “magical” (no one seemed to think of calling back the guy who made the “magic” in two hours the first time around)

  2. 2.Neil was singing one of the verses. At first I couldn’t picture this, then I heard the chorus Neil’s “Birds” flying through my brain and it made perfect sense.

  3. 3.Neil was unsure of something about his performance on the mixdown tape, and it was his call whether or not to keep it.
    (HISTORICAL NOTE: when it come to the decision making process of the band, the score breaks down like this: Y - 4, CSN - 0! It’s not an ego thing at all -- Neil once said, “I only work for the Muse”, and he will engage or disengage with his extended band at the whim of the Muse.)
    The album started with Neil jamming on one of Stephen’s tracks at his ranch, coming down to L.A. to do a little more, and bleeding into the fabric of the project. CSN was well into the process before they knew whether or not they could officially attach a Y to it. Same for touring)
     

  4. 4.Graham was more hyped on the song than ever and he wanted it to be one of the singles.

After this exciting info overload, we started rapping about whatever came to mind, like old friends at a party. I called his attention the day we had met outside the NYC studio -- we did the math and realized we had “known” each other for over 30 years, and this was the first time we’ve actually ever had a spontaneous conversation. It was a weird realization, but both of us, being the Zen type, wrote it off as Karma. We exchanged phone #’s, and he invited me to stop by his house when we got home. I had to remind him -- I was home. We gave each other a manly-man hug, and I walked away feeling great about the song, and privileged to have finally spent some “quality time” with this witty and wonderful gentleman.

We spoke on the phone a few days later. I offered my services if they were needed, and Graham reconfirmed his determination to get the song on the CD, inviting me to stop by the studio if I were in town. Now, I know what you’re thinking - "how come Denny didn’t walk barefoot over hot coals to get the chance to be in the studio with CSNY"? As a fan, I would have loved to have be there, but having seen the unique chemistry of how these guys work together, and Neil being the “X-factor”, I felt the song would be better served if they had the opportunity to experiment on their own. I couldn’t have a better foot in the door than Graham, and I trusted he would call me if he needed me.

Months went by again. I ran into Stills at the NAMM show in July, where he was plugging his signature Martin guitar. I asked how the album was going, he said, “Fine” -- no mention of “Sanibel”. The CD release and tour had been scheduled for summer, so I assumed the song was history.

I finally got a call from Graham on August 8th, telling me that they had just finished sequencing the CD; “Sanibel” was programmed as the last cut. Neil said, "We’ve taken them on an emotional roller coaster - let’s drop ‘em off on a nice little island”. Neil had been a champion for the song, in spite of new material popping up from the others. Graham cautioned me that nothing was certain until the master was approved by everyone, but he promised to call me when it was a done deal.

I didn’t hear from Graham for a while (and didn’t expect to after he broke his leg in a boating accident), but I did receive all the pre-release paper work from the Warner Bros. Records Legal Dept. This was not a test. Now, I finally spread the news to my friends, family, and musical comrades.

On Oct. 10th, I came home to a message on my machine. Graham Nash -- a man of his word -- called to tell me the song was on the CD and was being released as one of the singles. I was disappointed I missed his call, but laughed at the irony -- this whole crazy ride started with a message on my machine, and had finally come full circle.

I bought “Looking Forward”, and although “Sanibel” was the last cut, I listened to the whole CD in sequence. I did a head count on the writers, looking to see if I had missed one of Graham’s songs, then realized the enormity of this man’s generosity and musical integrity. The world had been waiting for a new generation of Graham Nash songs, but he had selflessly substituted one of mine. As we use to say in my old neighborhood, “what a MENCH!”. I welled up with tears as I listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young... & me.

I’ve never been blessed with children, but to a writer, songs are like children; small, living extensions of our creative being. These wonderful artists brought my song to life, and now, a little piece of me is out there touching people all around the world. Even in country driven “Music City USA”, a cut by this legendary group opened a lot of doors for me in the business and songwriting community. The song has become a favorite at my live shows.

Thank you, CSNY, from the bottom of my heart, for letting me be a part of the magic!

“IT AIN’T OVER ‘TILL THE SKINNY BRIT SINGS" ...  LIVE!





Graham was gracious enough to provide me with tickets to the Nashville show, as well as the show in Miami. I brought my Dad, Bernie, who was an enormous show-biz fan who had always supported my dreams though all the peaks and valleys. We went backstage after the show and hung out in the V.I.P. room. One of the real thrills for me was meeting and talking to “Duck” Dunn, legendary Stax-Volts bass player (“Booker T. & The M.G.s”) and bassist for the CSN&Y band. I saw Neil talking to someone in the corner, but every time I tried to drift over to where he was, he was gone.

Graham had arranged for some private time with my Dad, who presented him a gorgeous antique Hawaiian shirt from his private collection. We took some photos, and “Handsome Bernie” was in heaven -- he wore his backstage pass everywhere for the rest of the week! (He passed away a short time after that, but I’ll always remember this as one of our finest moments together).

As we were saying goodbye, Neil walked by on his way out of the stadium. He looked like a defeated boxer -- exhausted, head down, glazed expression, with some kind of a coat or robe wrapped around his shoulders. Graham stopped him, said, “Neil, this is Denny - Denny wrote Sanibel” - Neil paused, and in slow motion, looked up and made eye contact. The corners of his mouth turned up in a petite grin, and he extended his hand. His handshake was as ethereal as the man himself. I thought it peculiar that this cotton candy-grip had literally torn the strings off a guitar an hour ago. He didn’t say a word, just disappeared back into the musical Mists of Avalon. I was touched by his subtle but sincere gesture - - my song and I had just received a benediction from the Mystic Pope R’n’R.


I hope you’ve enjoyed my little tale, and it’s given you a taste of the ups and downs, joys and chaos of the music making process. I hope it might encourage any of you facing any kind of personal challenge or life quest to aim high, dream big, and enjoy the ride along the way!

God Bless,  Denny Sarokin

 
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