Me and Dr. Luke
Lukasz Gottwald, AKA Dr. Luke – the hyper-successful producer and Svengali to some of the biggest stars of modern pop music – was one of my first friends. He and I went to kindergarten and grade school together.
While I was, in general, very socially inept and had precious few friends in general, Lukasz was one of them.
He was a nice guy in spite of my social deficiency and the oppressive social hierarchy that comes with the earliest years of life. We had a lot in common; we were both brought up in the sort of upper middle-class Greenwich Village families that look great from the outside but that eventually end up as the source material for depressing Ang Lee movies. Not surprisingly, we both went through some fairly tough times in our youth. Fortunately, we both eventually moved past them.
Not that our otherwise rather Dickensian childhood was without a few very bright spots. For instance, one of our friends and classmates was the son of the then-president of Marvel Comics. It meant more to me than I think it meant to most, but we were all pretty blown away when our class took a tour of the Marvel Bullpen of the 1980s. It was an actual behind the scenes look at where Spider-Man, The Avengers and many more were created and published, in comics which still featured Bullpen Bulletins from Jim Shooter and Stan Lee in their back pages.
It was also the first time I caught a glimpse of how the sausage gets made in the world of entertainment. Spoiler alert: it’s a grind. Whether you’re a voiceover artist, a superstar musician/producer, or a comic book writer, you’re not doing what you do because you have a gift, or even because you love it. People like us do it because we have to. To quote another who has remarked on Dr. Luke, performers and creators are born this way.
I was eventually eclipsed as Most Awkward in School when one of the popular kids kind of went loopy, and Lukasz and I remained friendly the few times we saw each other – though as we grew, we grew apart. We were expelled from a couple of the same schools at roughly the same time, and from there we pursued paths that you would think would intersect frequently, but we rarely saw one another. By the time he was in the Saturday Night Live Band, we had forgotten each other so completely that I attended several tapings, and we saw each other backstage but failed to recognize or remember one another. I didn’t have any idea of what had became of him until I saw the name Lukasz Gottwald scrolling by the SNL end credits one night while I was finishing up a shift at Q104, where I was an on-air personality at the time.
I had joined the staff of Q104 after quitting K-Rock, and it had been a remarkably smooth transition, though not for lack of trying. K-Rock’s program director, who had given me my first job as a full-time disc jockey, made it very clear to me, and everyone from my agent to the station I defected to, that he claimed ownership of me. He felt that he had created me and owned all rights to my professional life going forward.
Fortunately he was proven very wrong on every count. Sometime later I had a contract dispute with another program director, which did not go to court, but which did have the grotesque dénouement of learning, along with the rest of the world, that former New York radio legend Dave Herman — the program director in question — was a monster of the worst kind.
I would later learn that my former Q104 co-worker Mark Parentau was a destroyer of lives, as well. My very first employers in the entertainment industry have had believable charges of unwanted sexual creepiness leveled at them, including a recent recounting by a friend of mine who I am certain is telling the truth.
I share these facts to explain why I feel compassion towards Ke$ha, a woman I’ve never met and whose music I’ve never cared for, in what appears to be an endless and hopeless plea to be released from a contract she signed with a person I used to know, and who I always liked.
The spectacularly successful musician/producer now known as Dr. Luke has been very open and forthcoming about much of his life in interviews, even when journalists who seem to have forgotten the first half of their lives described his teen years as “troubled” as if every teenager who has ever lived has not been troubled. We eventually grow up and begin having troubles which, to paraphrase Trainspotting, are more socially acceptable, many of which we can mitigate with an equally acceptable assortment of prescription drugs.
Before we know it, we find ourselves grousing about the next generation and how troubled, stupid and hopeless they are, and how there is no better proof than the pop music that we don’t like and don’t relate to, such as Ke$ha’s ubiquitous pop smash “Tik-Tok.” We do this even though they had no choice in our decision to bring them into a world that eats it’s young, with a culture that sustains itself with the stress and pain that comes from a life increasingly defined by competition.
When I was younger and dumber, I would sometimes console myself in times of trouble with the notion that I was somehow the most accomplished of my former schoolmates. That was a notion based on arrogance and stupidity, and I’ve cast it aside along with the problems I had that led me to that intellectual fallacy/emotional crutch. At least one of my old friends is now a decorated war hero and and I’m certain that many others are doing very well too, and nothing could make me happier. I’m a different man these days – I’ve had a procedure to remove my head from my ass, which has made me much more humble and pleasant to be around.
Lukasz has in many ways eclipsed all of us a thousandfold, and I’m very happy for him. He could never work another day in his life, and still live out the rest of his life in the kind of opulence that a James Bond villain could only dream of.
Which brings me to Ke$ha. I only know what I’ve read, which is fairly extensive and with the eye of someone who has fought bitterly in the trenches of the entertainment business. I’ve never sued or been sued, but I have been called to give a deposition in a very nasty split, of which I was essentially a footnote, or at best a bystander.
Unlike Lukasz, I’ve never met Ke$ha. I have no idea what she’s like to work with, what she’s like after hours, or how she presented herself when she went into business with Lukasz and his record label.
I do know the status of things at the moment — Lukasz and Sony continue to fight Ke$ha’s efforts to leave his label, and the judge has rejected her injunction which claims, as you probably know, that she suffered vicious emotional and physical abuse at the hands of Lukasz, her onetime mentor and friend.
I have no idea whether Lukasz is guilty of any charges. I do believe that there is no reason to force her to adhere to her contract with him other than cruelty. I believe this because of my experience, I believe this from the facts that are available to me, I believe this because I know what depression and despair feel like and I swear I can see it written on her face. I also believe this because I’m familiar with some of the math involved.
By continuing to fight Ke$ha’s claims and denying her the right to leave his record label, Dr. Luke is not earning, saving, or protecting any money. To the contrary, he is paying what are undoubtedly exorbitant attorney’s fees. These attorneys are obviously doing a phenomenal job, since despite Ke$ha’s claims and the support of many of her (predominantly female) peers, the judge here in New York dismissed not only her injunction, but seemingly the concept of rape itself.
As far as Ke$ha and Dr. Luke working together going forward, he must realize that the best thing he can hope for is a “fuck you” album, one that by design or by the damage done to the artist in the intervening years is a critical and commercial flop. The sort of album that could destroy what’s left of Ke$ha’s already damaged career, but would barely scrape the juggernaut that is Dr. Luke.
I don’t know whether any of Ke$ha’s charges of his past cruelty are true, but I know that Dr. Luke and Sony have been very brutal to her, very publicly, since she sought to leave his label, Kemosabe Records, for a litany of reasons straight out of Dante’s Inferno.
I don’t know anything about Dr. Luke’s finances other than that they are massive, but I would be surprised if he hasn’t donated some amount of his huge fortune to causes that needed it. Wealthy people with even a shred of decency tend to be philanthropists. But right now I know with certainty that there is a desperate woman fighting for her career and her peace of mind, and I know that by forbidding her to leave and try to find these precious things in life, the only thing Lukasz stands to gain are points in a nightmare videogame in which he plays a giant, and gains points by punching down at a helpless underdog.
I believe Dr. Luke, Lukasz, whoever he is today to be a good person. In spite of what I’ve written above, and in spite of the fact that we haven’t spoken to each other since the Reagan administration.
If there is a reason, other than cruelty, to continue to fight Ke$ha’s request to part ways with Dr. Luke and Kemosabe Records, I’d like to hear it from Dr. Luke, who has not been shy when discussing Ke$ha’s claims. I understand that Lukasz may fear that by simply ending the fight with no more bloodshed, he is somehow confessing to every claim ever made against him by Ke$ha, and opening up the floodgates for anyone else who might make similar claims against him now or in the future.
But in truth, a settlement is not an admission of guilt. The only thing you’re admitting is that the battle is over, so that both parties can move on to the next stage of their personal and professional lives. For Dr. Luke, that’s another day of hard-earned, phenomenal success. For Ke$ha, it’s a choice: between fighting what at the very least is deep depression and trying to reignite her career, or simply giving into the despair that she is so clearly suffering. Any way this shakes out, Ke$ha has a difficult road ahead of her, but Lukasz can make it much less so with no damage to himself.
In short, Dr. Luke is sitting on top of the world, while Ke$ha is fighting for her career and, in a very real way, for life. Whatever Dr. Luke did or did not do to her in the past, whatever contract stipulations she may or may not have violated, Dr. Luke has an opportunity to be the better man. To be a philanthropist. To not destroy an artist he once worked so hard to champion, and to set her free and allow her to try to find success and happiness. It’s the only moral choice.
I’m aware that the judge does not agree with me on this matter. I’m making this plea not to judge or jury, but to a guy I used to know when we were both young and naive to the ways of the grown-up world. Because I know that he must remember what it’s like to be the underdog. Because I hope that he is still in touch with that part of himself, and remembers how desperate it feels. And I hope that he lets her go. The only thing he stands to lose are attorney’s fees and negative publicity, while she is fighting for everything. The judge’s ruling and Dr. Luke’s wealth could strip it from her, but that doesn’t mean that they should.
Contracts matter. Letting an artist out of their contract could, potentially, set a dangerous precedent. But that would not be an issue in this case. The fact is that denying Ke$ha her freedom cannot possibly have a happy ending. In the remarkable event that Ke$ha could make peace with being tied to Dr. Luke’s label, and produce the best album she possibly could under the circumstances, Luke and Ke$ha are now inextricably linked as figures who have feuded very publicly over allegations that Dr. Luke raped and emotionally tortured her. Whether Ke$ha’s allegations are true or not, it’s clear that being bound to Luke is horribly damaging to her as a person, and every single person who would buy that album would be aware of that fact. So Ke$ha is trapped in a vice for no reason that I can see, other than the enormously powerful Dr. Luke’s need to feel, or present himself as, even more powerful. Powerful enough to control the career and life of an artist he discovered, and therefore seems to feel he can claim ownership over. Powerful enough to destroy what he believes he has built.
Dr. Luke and I both know what it means to have a second chance. It’s the difference between life or death, and Dr. Luke has made more of them than anyone could have ever dreamed. Ke$ha deserves the chance to try to do the same. And even though, in all honesty, ‘Tik-Tok’ is a song I’ve never particularly enjoyed, I would buy a new Ke$ha album recorded for another record label. I’d like to hear the voice of someone who’s been freed from anguish, how that has changed them, and what new untapped potential could be discovered and someone who has been truly liberated from the demons of her past.