John Lennon once said that songwriting is like “getting the devil out of me.” Mark Hudson, the producer, songwriter, and musician who has a new residency at midtown’s Iridium Jazz Club, can testify to that statement more than most.
“John was so much more romantic than he’s ever been given credit for,” says Hudson, shaking his Skittle-colored beard in an espresso bar on the Upper West Side. Hudson was with Lennon years ago during his “lost weekend” — the eighteen-month stretch when Lennon and Yoko Ono were separated. “And he was missing Yoko something fierce.”
Hudson’s job for the past five decades has been to divine and drive out those devils — the breakups, the meltdowns, the existential despair — for some of the most famous musicians in the world. He was Ringo Starr’s choice co-writer for decades. He produced Harry Nilsson’s last (unreleased) album. He helped Aerosmith earn a Grammy (“Livin’ on the Edge”). The Nineties and early Aughts were a prolific time for Hudson, whose work crossed genres and generations, from Bon Jovi to the Baha Men, Ozzy Osbourne to Hanson.
Dressed like a rock ‘n’ roll Willy Wonka in a matching eggplant-colored suit and beret, Hudson bounds through conversation as if flipping at random through a history book. He’s gazed into Roger Daltrey’s eyes and drunk cheap wine in the studio with Rod Stewart. He’s originated more Tylerisms than Steven would like to admit, and he’s jammed back-to-back with a Beatle in the studio (Paul, this time). “You have to make the artists believe that you’re not there to do you, you’re there to do them,” he says. “I listen to all of their work and see where their blood and guts are.”
Hudson’s mercurial charm keeps his audience laughing through his non-stop two-hour show. Hudson doesn’t use setlists. He relies on his well-oiled band, the Mamalukes, to intuit where he’s going, and if they mess up — or even if they don’t — he chides them to keep up. One minute he’s bumbling over a microphone, the next ripping into Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” the next recounting the time Diana Ross flicked his penis for twenty minutes (“It was very painful”).
“I want the show to feel like The Ed Sullivan Show, where you have the Beatles and Joan Rivers and Laurence Olivier doing a thing from Hamlet,” Hudson says of the residency. True to form, he’s joined by surprise guests for every show. Some are planned, like onetime Lennon guitarist Earl Slick. Some are accidental, like Eagles singer-guitarist Timothy B. Schmit.
Hudson grew up in Portland, Oregon. His family, the Salernos, emigrated from Sicily and Calabria, moving across the world to get into the liquor business in the port cities of the West Coast. Early in life, Hudson was one-third of the Hudson Brothers trio, which had a popular 1974 variety show. Playing mediator between his two competitive brothers, Brett and Bill (the latter the father of actors Kate and Oliver Hudson), Mark learned how to play creative referee for the genius, drug-addled, mollycoddled rock star. Mentored by the legendary producer Phil Ramone, he embarked on songwriting as a full-time career. In 1997, Ringo hired Hudson to produce and co-write songs for his eleventh solo album, The Vertical Man.
“When these artists get distraught, it’s big distraught,” Hudson says. One time, he remembers, Ringo came into the studio feeling bad about his drumming. As a response Hudson wrote “Instant Amnesia,” whose propulsive John Bonham–style beat impelled Ringo back to the kit. “It moved him into something new, even though he’d done it thousands of times,” Hudson says.
A similar thing happened with Tyler during the recording of Aerosmith’s thirteenth studio album, Just Push Play. “We spent nine hours singing 62 backing vocal tracks,” Hudson recalls, “and it was just wrong. It didn’t work. And Steven started losing it. So I said to him, ‘Make it your answering machine.’ By making Tyler feel like the time wasn’t wasted on failure, he could move on.”
Hudson isn’t immune from writerly woes either. Like with many of his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame friends, his creative impulses stem from and depend upon fevers of lust. One of his favorite stories to tell at the Iridium is about falling under Joni Mitchell’s spell at a private party on Paul McCartney’s boat in the Seventies.
“The cheekbones, the black velvet coat — I fell in love,” Hudson recalls. “I was in a gabardine Bob Mackie suit and she’s with Jackson Browne. I had to meet her.” Naturally, Cher made the introduction. (The whole encounter is infinitely more entertaining as retold with Hudson’s wobbly Cher impression.) As for Mitchell, she wanted nothing to do with Hudson, so he did the next best thing: He went home and wrote a song about her. The first verse brought producer Bernie Taupin to tears. Taupin assembled a forty-piece orchestra to record it, with Hudson on piano, but the session was — comically — cut short, and the song never released.
Fast-forward 25 years: Hudson is driving to a Los Angeles Starbucks when he spots Mitchell having a cigarette outside. Hudson begs her to stay put and returns with a burned copy of the song he recorded in her honor decades ago. As he recounts during the set, “Three days go by and I get a call on my voicemail. It’s Joni Mitchell. ‘That was so romantic,’ she said. The whole intent for that song was for one person to hear it. And she did.” Hudson is now fairly beaming in disbelief, as if telling the story for the first time.
The Iridium presents more opportunities for moments like these. At a recent show, Lennon’s former girlfriend May Pang sat in the front row. “I knew Lennon wrote a song for May called ‘Surprise Surprise,’ ” Hudson says, “and when we went into the song, she was over the moon.” The song is Lennon under Pang’s spell, all sensual warmth. “She gets me through this godawful loneliness/A natural high butterfly/Oh I need, need, need her,” Lennon wrote.
“We’re here for a good time, not a long time,” Hudson says, smiling into his cappuccino. “The first eighteen years are fucked up, because you’re being told what to do, and the last eighteen, everything is falling off. You’ve got the middle years when you need to make a difference.” Invoking master librettist Oscar Hammerstein II, Reba McEntire, and his grandmother Salerno all at once, Hudson puts it simply: “The love in your heart wasn’t meant to stay, because love isn’t love until you give it away.”
Mark Hudson plays at the Iridium on February 1.