Ivan Ulz and the Great “Stolen Cassette” Caper


Ivan Ulz drifted into my life so quietly. I bet he did that to a lot of people. I was the second engineer at a recording studio in Maynard, Mass. called Natural Sound in 1970. Bud Stockham, up from New York City, was first engineer and Lou Casella was maintenance and part owner. I know these names mean nothing to you, but there are still folks out there who will see them and remember. Plus, they still mean a great deal to me.

 

At the audio console at Natural Sound Studio in ’71


Natural Sound had the first Scully 8-track recorder in the Boston area, so of course they attracted a lot of musicians and bands from around the New England area. Notables were Tom Scholz, who was the composer, leader and driving force of the band Boston. They demoed their entire first album with us, and the differences between that recording and the final record are minimal, with the lead singer being the only noticeable difference.

Natural Sound attracted the ARP company, a new synthesizer builder, who put their new synth in our studio to get attention and be tried by some of the musicians coming through the studio. Also testing their new product was the DBX company, who had come up with an noise reduction unit to rival Dolby. They were so secretive that I got a two-day vacation while they installed their unit, mostly out of needless secrecy.

There were a half dozen country bands from Maine, New Hampshire and Western Mass., good bands with some very talented musicians. They usually recorded only two songs, then pressed a bunch of 45’s to sell on their gigs. Curly Isles was a steel guitar player that we always looked forward to recording, he could have made it in Nashville in a heartbeat.

And then there was that band from Cambridge, Bead Game. They cut an entire album at our studio, with the “help” of a then big-time record producer who worked for Mercury Records, Robin McBride. Bead Game was a haphazard group of semi-hippies who had some good songs and good musicians, but didn’t seem all that dedicated to the success of the whole thing. One afternoon we were cutting a tune, and from the control room I couldn’t see the lead guitarist, but I could hear him. When the song was finished I walked out into the studio room to see where he was. He was lying on his back on the floor under the studio window, playing down there with his headphones on. I was pissed. “You know,” I scolded, “If you would take all this a little more seriously, you might become a good musician.” That musician turned out to be Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.

 

Young Skunk Baxter



Nothing ever came of those sessions, and Skunk and the Bead Game drummer, Jimmy Holder, both quit the band shortly after and moved to L.A. They landed with Steely Dan for a short time, then Skunk ended up with the Doobie Brothers, which he played with for quite awhile.

 

Remembering Ivan

While Bead Game was recording with us, they brought a ragtag group of young fans who wanted to be a part of the band’s recording experience. One of them was a long-haired guy with a pleasant face and quiet way, Ivan Ulz. He dressed in long gowns and sandals, a la Jesus, as was popular with hippies back then.



One evening, at the end of the session, he approached me after the band was gone. “Hey man, I’ve got a few tunes. Would you let me play them for you?” We sat down in the studio room, he grabbed a guitar and played me two of h is favorites, “We Survived The Madness” and “Ivan, The Ice Cream Man.” They were both good songs, and I liked them. He said he had 10 others and we decided to record him when the Bead Game project was finished.

About a week later we sat down on a Friday night and recorded all 12 of his songs… all in one take. Ivan had a good voice, and his guitar playing was average, but certainly adequate. He asked if he could have the master, I said “not until you pay for it.” It was a two-hour session, $50 an hour. He said he couldn’t pay for it that night, but could he at least have a cassette to take home. I didn’t see the harm in that, so i pulled a cassette for him… and that’s the last time I saw him for six months.

As Ivan was born and raised in L.A., he had developed some great music contacts in L.A. and San Fransisco in his early years.(Which he never mentioned until sometime later.) He immediately hopped on a bus across the country to L.A., met up with Glenn Yarborough and played his cassette for Glen. Glenn, a fairly well-known folk singer of the day, fell in love with Ivan’s “We Survived The Madness,” and recorded it. Then Ivan took his cassette to Rod McKuen, a singer/songwriter who owned Stanyan Records, did an album on Ivan with the rest of the tunes on the cassette. During that time he also played those tunes for Hoyt Axton, with whom, I found out later, he was good friends.

Here’s a piece of the history of Ivan on EverybodyWiki –

“After writing and recording his first song, A Letter to Hayley (released as a 45 rpm single by Bruce Belland’s LarBell label) in 1962, Ulz decided to pursue a songwriting career. He spent the next couple of decades in and out of the folk-rock scene, living in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oklahoma and Alaska. (I know he spent at least 6 months in Boston, and had a girlfriend there.) Although Ulz did not achieve lasting fame as a folk singer/songwriter, he did make some notable connections, including introducing Lowell George to the music of Rickie Lee Jones by singing him “Easy Money” over the telephone (thereby creating an alliance which eventually led to Ms. Jones’s recording contract with Warner Brothers), and giving an unknown comic named Steve Martin a spot in the open mic that Ulz was running at Coffee and Confusion in San Francisco.”

Here’s the link to more about Ivan on EverybodyWiki. https://en.everybodywiki.com/Ivan_Ulz

Ivan wrote 3 “hit” songs, not hits on the Billboard top 100, but songs that made him some serious money – “We Survived The Madness” (which should have been re-released last week after 45 left office) “Ivan The Ice Cream Man.” My personal favorite, I love his lyrics –

“I’m Ivan, the Ice Cream Man, everybody watch out for me
If you give me a nickel, I give a popsicle
If you turn me on I’ll give you one free
“cuz I am, I am-am, Ivan the Ice Cream Man
Everybody look out, everybody watch out,
Everybody freak out for me
Deedle deedle di deedle di dee, hee hee.”

And of course there’s “Fire Truck” which became an underground hit with the under-10 set. I played my copy of Fire Truck for Dillon, who was three at the time. Naturally he liked it. Not a week later a siren came blaring by in our neighborhood, not more than a block away. Dil and I were outside in the yard. I looked up and asked him what that was. His eyes were wide with excitement… “A pire fuck!”

Right before our studio In Maynard closed, Ivan showed up one night while I was working there alone. I was not happy, he had stiffed us for $100, but I was intrigued by why he would come back. “Listen,” he smiled, “I know what I did, and I’m sorry. I want you to know I had to do it, but I’m sorry. At least I want you to know what happened. Glenn Yarborough has already recorded “Madness,” and Rod McKuen is going to cut an album on me. I couldn’t have done it without your recording.”
I was stunned. “You did all that with that little cassette?”
“Sure,” he grinned. “All I ever needed was a good clean demo of my songs. I didn’t care about the master.”



Ivan never paid for that demo and I never pressed him for it. We parted as friends, and that’s the last time I saw him. I remember asking him what he was doing back in Boston, and he got serious. “Why, to see you again and set it all right. I knew you’d want to know what happened with those tunes.”

Yeah, well… knowing Ivan, I doubted if that were true. But then he made the trip out to Maynard, 30 miles west of Boston, to talk to me, knowing he owed the studio some money. You just never know, and in this case it simply didn’t matter. Ivan was, in his heart, a good guy, a fine song writer, a free spirit who left a fascinating, if tangled, web of friends and broken hearts on his path through life. He was a magnetic, charismatic guy to many of us, and definitely affected the lives of many people, most of them artists. Ivan died in 2017. Some of his last words were, “I had a great life, but I regret having to deal with mental illness most of my life.”

Perhaps now we can say for certain, there is no such thing as a stable genius. But thank god for the geniuses among us. They change and enhance our lives in so many good ways. I bid a reluctant farewell to my favorite unstable genius, Ivan, The Ice Cream Man.

Steve Hulse