Special to Rick Keene Music Scene.com
Neil Ratner is a name that has been associated with the Rock n Roll scene since the 1960s. While pursuing a career as a drummer, Neil got a gig working on the road that led to associations with Emerson Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd and later on the king of pop himself; Michael Jackson.
Neil recently released his book Rock Doc which is a blend of fascinating fun stories of the Rock n Roll lifestyle to heartfelt messages about charity and personal redemption. Neil gave Ron Roxtar a call from Ratner’s Woodstock N.Y. office.
Roxtar: Hi Neil, Thanks for the call. You know looking over your career I’m not even sure what to say it is you do. Tour manager, anesthesiologist, author and maybe we can say future rock star.
Neil: (laughing) Thank you for that although I feel my days of trying to be a rock star are well behind me.
Roxtar: You have your latest book out now, Rock Doc.
Neil: Yes it’s been out for a while now. It has so many interesting stories and people in it. There are ups and downs in life’s lessons. Even though I wasn’t trying to be an author I was always writing down on pieces of paper.
Roxtar: So what were your initial beginnings?
Neil: Growing up I always had two dreams. One was to be a doctor and like most people growing up in the 60’s we all wanted to be rock stars. I wanted to be a drummer so I played in bands in high school through to college.
Roxtar: I heard you came up here to Montreal to join a band.
Neil: Oh yeah! I was hoping you’d ask me about that. It was the local rock station up there CHOM-FM. They said a band up in St. Agathe was looking for a drummer. I called the station and they got me in touch with the band who said to come on up, which I did. I was the drummer in that band for about four months. I don’t even remember the name of the band but it fell apart and then I came back to the States.
Roxtar: So after that experience what happened?
Neil: It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year I took an apartment in the city because I had a job at the hospital that I thought would help me get into medical school. I found out by chance that my upstairs neighbor is a musician. I knocked on his door and he’s standing there with a guitar slung over his shoulder. He invites me in and tells me his name is Rick Derringer. I was like “You mean Rick Derringer from the McCoys?!” He was like “Yeah.” From that, we became very good friends and he heard me play the drums. I asked him to help get me a job. One day he calls me up and says he’s got a gig for me but not as a drummer. He was working with Johnny Winter at the time. Johnny had a brother named Edgar who was forming a band and they needed a manager so my whole life took a major left turn.
Roxtar: So in a chance meeting everything changed you ended up eventually working for some big names like Pink Floyd and (ELP) Emerson Lake and Palmer.
Neil: Yeah, well I spent more than a year with Edgar Winter’s band it was called White Trash. I then met a big-time manager who was managing Humble Pie, J Geils Band, Peter Frampton and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.
They were at the time changing management and they offered me a job to go over to London and run their lights and stage production. I was basically the general operations director.
After about a year I noticed all these bands were using too many companies. They had a lighting company, a sound company, accountants and more. This is back in the day where it made things very complex. I got this idea to form a company called Circus. It would provide trucking, lights, sound and everything that a group needed under one tent so to speak.
The guy who helped me form this company was named Peter Watts. He was the husband of an old girlfriend of mine from college and we just happened to meet up in London one day. Peter was the sound technician for Pink Floyd. One day he came to me and said “You know we’ve never used anybody for anything. We’ve always been self-contained. Now we’ve got this new album coming out called Dark Side of the Moon and for the tour I want us to be the first to use quadraphonic sound and digital lighting. The only way we can do it is if you combine forces with us. So we did the Dark Side of the Moon tour and even afterwards a couple of other things. After five or six years I had pretty much set out do everything I wanted to do before I got an epiphany to follow my other dream which was to become a doctor.
Roxtar: So after achieving let’s say some of your accomplishments in the music business you go back to wanting to be a doctor.
Neil: Well you have to remember, Ron, one of my first dreams was to be a doctor. Plus those years in the music business was taking a toll on my body and I ended up in the hospital with kidney stones.
I remember watching this movie one night about American medical students on their way to becoming doctors and that’s when I got my epiphany. I had achieved everything on the business side of things and I was not going to be the rock n roll star drummer I wanted to be so it was time to go back to being what I wanted to be which was a doctor.
That was a ten-year journey since I had stopped going to college. I had to study outside of the US. I studied for years at a Mexican medical school, then a year of unpaid internship just to get back into the American system. I then did a couple of years of surgical residency. After ten years I finally had switched to anesthesiology and became an anesthesiologist.
Roxtar: Someone coming from the world of music let’s say back into medicine there seems to be a connection. I’ve read that some doctors play music during operations and it’s almost as if music can if not be a cure, certainly can be a helping healing factor.
Neil: Well I’ll tell you a funny story about that. At the end of your residency, everybody has to do some sort of research project. Mostly everyone does a scientific study of some kind. I had an interest in consciousness in a sense. There is a type of procedure doctors do that’s called conscious procedure where the patient is not completely out but certainly not wide awake. It’s somewhere in between. As an anesthesiologist I somehow knew if I could play music in a patient’s ear during the surgical procedure we could use fewer drugs and decrease the stress and tension of that patient.
All the doctors laughed at me and thought why would I ever want to do that, but I persisted. In the end, my study did show that there was a great benefit to music being played almost as if it as an extra drug.
Then after a little while, I realized I didn’t want to be a hospital-based anesthesiologist. I looked around and noticed that a lot of doctors wanted to perform procedures in their own offices but couldn’t because the equipment wasn’t monitored properly. So I offered my services and would go into the doctors offices to be their anesthesiologist. I was one of the first to do that in New York City.
Roxtar: You also spearheaded doing some overseas charity work. You were instrumental in helping the victims of the bombing attacks in Kenya and Tanzania that took place, which was the first time the world heard about Al- Qaeda.
Neil: Absolutely. I was in New York when the acute bombings happened. We arrived afterwards. A friend of mine who lives in Kenya called me up. They were aware of my previous charity work. My wife and I had been to Africa and we were very concerned for the Indigenous people. We went to a very remote village near the Somalian border.
We went down there all self-contained and started a bush clinic for the local tribes there. We started a mission of mercy down there working along with the various charities. A friend of mine helped me to get started on making three micro bakeries in some of the poorest of the regions. One of the most meaningful things you can do in life is to give back to those less fortunate than yourself.
Roxtar: If someone’s going to buy this book what exactly will they be reading about?
Neil: They’ll be getting an incredible journey about different areas of life. One journey is about the rock n roll business of the late ’60s and early to mid-’70s. That was a really good time in rock n roll because that’s when the business was developing. You’ll read about ELP, Pink Floyd and others. There are stories about the rock festivals and how we made sure we were doing our best to make things happen in the right way.
Another journey is about what it’s like to go into the world of medicine at an older age in a foreign language in a foreign place and what that’s like. With that comes the journey of anesthesiology. The world of plastic surgery and celebrities.
From there is the journey of meeting Michael Jackson and not only becoming his doctor but his close personal friend. I spent eight years with Michael traveling and being with him in various ways.
There is a journey about me getting into a little bit of trouble. From that, I learned to be a humanitarian and try to do good in life.
The book has all of those things and more. I’m getting a great response and people are really enjoying it. Let me add there’s even a section of pictures so you get that as well.
Roxtar: So what was it like to work with Michael Jackson?
Neil: You know Michael was a great guy. A lot of people did not have an opportunity to get close to Michael and I was one of the few who did have that opportunity. He was a great friend.
We could talk about anything. We talked about spirituality, nature, even old rock n roll. We talked about anything.
He was very supportive. The time that I was in trouble in life he was incredibly supportive. He was what a friend should be. I have very fond memories of him.
He was also a great humanitarian and a lot of his efforts were unheralded. There was a time when we were in South Africa. He insisted on going to the hospital there. This is at a time when people were still very afraid of HIV. Michael was not afraid to go in and mingle or hold the patients. He wasn’t afraid to touch them, whereas most people never would. I had some great times with my friend, Michael Jackson.
One of the greatest things Michael did was introduce me to Nelson Mandela. That was an amazing thing and because of it I got to meet Nelson on a couple of occasions afterwards. During one of those meetings he helped to finance the first micro-bakery I talked about earlier.
Roxtar: You are stranded on a desert island with no hope of ever being rescued. What are your top three desert island discs?
Neil: Oooh, that’s a tough one. (thinking) Okay, I got it. Gaucho by Steely Dan.
My second would have to be Dark Side of The Moon. If you’re on a desert island you’re going to want to have a record that takes you far away from there in your mind.
For my third, I’d want to have a real rock n roll record. I’m going to get personal and go with Edgar Winter’s Roadwork. I really think it is one of the best rock n roll records out there and not many people know it.