Géza Keller had been playing at weekly jams around San Diego County for a couple of years, but with so many lead guitarists vying for time at the mic, he found himself waiting around for a turn more than he’d hoped.
He’d been leading bands as the guitar-playing lead singer for forty years, but it wasn’t until he started a four-person acoustics group, breakingthecode, that he played all the lead guitar parts himself.
He was a decent player—often practicing his guitar for three or four hours a day before going to his day job—but he wanted to get better. He strived to be able to come up with more impressive spontaneous solos in real time, just like the professional musicians he’d met at the Kraken, the VFW and other jams, who’d been gigging around town for years.
So, he set his mind on improving his solos at home, and finally found a place to try them out: the Monday night blues jam at Aztec Brewery in Vista.
As he expanded his repertoire of blues songs, he developed a camaraderie with his fellow musicians, who started asking if they could play during his three-song sets. But even though he felt his skills were growing, he was still falling short of his own mark.
On November 12, 2019, Géza had already finished his own set at Aztec, but stuck around to watch the others. Maybe get invited to play some more.
As one particular guitarist took the stage to back up a group of musicians, his impressive riffs quickly stood out.
“Who is that guy?” Géza asked Simisi Ma’u, the Aztec jam’s host.
“Jerry McCann. He used to be the music director at the Belly Up,” Simisi replied, referring to a long-time popular venue in Solana Beach.
“Wow, that guy can really play guitar,” Géza said. “I like his style.”
At the time, Géza had no idea that Jerry had quite an accomplished and storied past. Dubbed the “rock’n’roll godfather” of North County, Jerry had been playing music locally for sixty years and had released several albums, one under the Elektra label, but now considered himself to be mostly retired.
Jerry was also known for being unabashedly irreverent and outspoken. He purposely introduced Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead as Jerry Rodriguez—as payback for a money squabble after Jerry’s band opened for the Dead.
He also dressed up as the “Budweiser Pope” for a Halloween performance at the Belly Up, eliciting a cease-and-desist letter from the beer company.
When it was Jerry’s turn to lead a set later in the evening, he started playing “The City,” one of his go-to tunes, after recording music with the song’s author, Jon Mark.
Coincidentally, it was one of Géza’s favorites as well, and had been in his “back catalogue” for forty years. So he hopped on stage to sing the chorus at the backup mic to Jerry’s right.
But as soon as Géza started belting out the words, Jerry turned to him and said—into the P/A so everyone could hear, “Hey, back away from the mic.”
Géza finished out the next few lines of the chorus, then slunk off the stage, embarrassed at being called out so publicly. He hadn’t intended to upstage Jerry, but the mic was hot and he had a big, loud voice.
The next day, Géza looked online to see if Jerry gave guitar lessons. Sure enough, he did. So Géza gave him a call.
“Hey, I was the guy on the stage last night who you told to back off,” he said lightheartedly.
“I wasn’t trying to tell you to be quiet,” Jerry said. “You were just louder than me in the mic. No big deal.”
“You’re a guitar teacher. I’d like to take lessons from you. Do you have any slots?”
“Yeah, I’ve got one at nine o’clock on Saturdays.”
Two weeks later, Géza started taking lessons from Jerry at AMX Studio in Encinitas.
During their allotted hour, Jerry went through an assortment of blues and jazz songs, demonstrating various styles of guitar solos. Then he gave Géza some homework: to study a series of chord charts, to learn some new scales and chord inversions, and to practice daily guitar exercises to increase his finger agility.
Next, Jerry asked for examples of songs that his student wanted to play better. “Bring me songs you want to learn,” he said.
Jerry had a test he applied to his students: Do they really want to play, or are they just going through the motions?
“You can tell who wants to play by the look on their face,” he said, and it was obvious that Géza was engaged in the process. Obsessed even.
“I’d always show up ready to play,” recalled Géza, who absorbed every tip Jerry gave him with the enthusiasm of a teenager. He also impressed his teacher by writing a new song based on one of the chord charts.
In turn, Géza’s passion inspired Jerry to reach deeper too, as they navigated their way through a wide, eclectic array of songs that the two of them—Géza at age 65 and Jerry at 73—had in their memory banks.
“Wow, you’re really pushing me,” Jerry told him.
Géza’s efforts soon began to pay off as his bandmates noticed his new and improved solos.
Then came the day when Jerry asked Géza to play one of his original songs, of which he’d written more than fifty over the past forty-five years.
Géza chose “Cañoncito,” a jazzy number that he’d just been playing at a recording studio, as he was trying once again—after years of failed or aborted attempts—to put together and release an album of his original songs. Jerry played along, offering his own harmonic counter-parts.
But Jerry didn’t offer any kind of feedback. Still acting as a teacher, he simply said, “What else you got?”
After COVID hit and the state of California shut down in March 2020, Jerry’s studio space closed. So, they started meeting at Géza’s house in Oceanside instead.
They kept the same time slot, and played six feet apart in the living room or in the back yard under the canopy.
It was a bit risky, but they determined the risk was small and worth the chance. Géza ran an essential optics thin-films-coating company with thirty employees, where he wore a mask all day, even when alone in his office. And Jerry, who had far fewer students than before, was also undergoing periodic COVID tests for medical reasons.
By then, the creative energy had begun to flow between them. Was it COVID isolation or was it kumbaya between teacher and student?
“We’re pretty simpatico, we’re sparking each other,” Géza told Jerry. “I like your dueling guitars, and that you’ve put out multiple albums. I need a producer. Let’s talk about doing an album.”
Géza had had this conversation several times over the years with several fellow musicians and friends who had various talents and contacts in the music industry and claimed they could be “producers,” while also play on his album and share in the proceeds. This led to a series of ventures that had dragged on for years, but none of them ever reached fruition, including the one he was still pursuing when he met Jerry.
His original approach was to sing his own songs as the singer-songwriter and play a few guitar parts, but leave the solos and other parts to more skilled musicians.
“Let’s put a band behind you,” one of them said, promising that he could market the album once they were done.
They all told Géza his songs had merit, and pulled in their friends to play other instruments, but none of them had actually recorded albums that were ever released. And in the end, that included Géza’s.
After more than a decade of such aborted recording ventures, he had only two or three songs that he felt were good enough to play for anyone.
With each failed effort, Géza’s frustration grew, but his resolve somehow remained intact, if not strengthened. Always the optimist, Géza put the past behind him.
“All roads lead to where you are,” he said.
He wanted his album to sound professional, and now that he could afford to do it properly, he was more determined than ever. And now that he was also a better guitarist, Géza could also play more of those parts. But rather than having friends and friends of friends play on the album, he decided to change his approach.
“I was tired of not having control over how the parts were being played,” he said. “Once I applied my business acumen to my music career, everything got better. There are things I can’t do, so I hired other people to do them for me.”
Like Jerry McCann.
By the summer, Géza decided it was time to bring an engineer into the mix, to add the drums, pull all the tracks together, and then master them. The engineer he’d been using for the earlier venture had closed his studio because of COVID, so Géza called up Sven-Erik Seaholm, whom he’d contacted two years earlier to produce his album during one of his previous recording ventures.
Géza had seen Sven (pronounced Swen) perform at the Adams Street Fair in 2016, and admired his work, including his recent album, “The Sexy.”
“I always got the feeling that you and I were sympatico,” he told Sven, whose tastes and style of mixing jazz, folk, rock and pop seemed to match his own.
Géza was also aware of Sven’s engineering and production skills, to which he’d applied to several hundred recordings by local musicians, earning him numerous “best producer” and other music awards in San Diego and Los Angeles. As a professional musician and singer-songwriter in his own right, Sven could also do backup vocals, and was handy with drum tracks and other effects.
But there was the rub. Géza had already told Jerry that he was the producer. So now he had two of them.
With this new wrinkle came creative tensions, and a little yellow sticky that said, “co-producer,” which Sven stuck on his chair during one of their studio sessions as a friendly reminder of his years of experience.
“Sven rounds out and makes the sound better,” Géza said. “He’s been a guru in the studio, coaching me on how to do phrasing, or encouraging me to play it slow.”
Jerry, who didn’t know Sven before this venture, didn’t quite feel the collaborative spirit at first, but in time he came around.
This was somewhat due to a difference in style and approach. More of a minimalist, Jerry had strong opinions, and he also didn’t always agree with the changes or additions that Sven made to the tracks. So Géza had them all talk it out, knowing that he would have the final say.
“Three strong individuals—that’s how you make the most of the creative process,” he said. “But a leader is best when the people feel they’ve done a good job. That’s been my approach for my whole career. I always say, ‘If you’ve got a better idea, then let’s use that.’”
Over the next few months of Saturday mornings, Géza continued to pull from his catalogue of original songs, playing them for Jerry in his living room, while Jerry listened, and played some fills.
“Let’s record this so I can listen to it later,” Jerry said.
At first they recorded the tunes on Géza’s cell phone, which he then emailed to Jerry, who would come back the next Saturday with a new riff or two, and suggestions on new chords, arrangements, or phrasing.
Jerry often said he couldn’t absorb the lyrics, because they were sung too fast, or got lost in the music, so Géza joined what he fondly called the Jerry McCann School of Songwriting.
“Don’t reveal everything at once,” Jerry advised. “Slow it down. Some songs are emotional, but you can’t hear the words.”
Being Old School, Jerry said he couldn’t hear the music well enough on the cell phone, so, they added a mic, clipped to a tripod, to their sessions.
Still wanting better sound, Jerry asked, “Is there a way to get the songs on a CD that I can take home and listen to?”
Géza pulled out an old recording deck. But with its age came technical issues and compatibility problems, which were frustrating and time-consuming.
So, Géza bought a Zoom 6 recorder, which was named for its six input jacks and was about twice the thickness of a cell phone. It was great for recording scratch tracks, even in the back yard.
They decided they didn’t really want to use a drummer, whose pace they couldn’t control as well as the “clicker” they used to keep time, agreeing that a drum machine would do just fine.
Once they got past the initial rough patch, the three masked musicians settled into a more cooperative groove. This played out in real time one afternoon in the studio, when it came time for Géza to sing the final vocals for a song he’d written in 1997, titled, “Keep the Faith,” which he’d played with his band at the time.
Like many of his newer original songs, Géza had written this one to be played fast and sung with his usual punchy phrasing, so he could slip it into a dance set at a bar. But Jerry reminded him that this was a studio album, which should offer a diverse mix of songs. Jerry wanted him to slow down the tempo and smooth out the phrasing on this one to give it a more suggestive and sultry feel. He also didn’t like the title.
“Everyone has a song called ‘Keep the Faith,’” Jerry said.
During one of their Saturday sessions, Jerry tried to help him with the slower phrasing, focusing on one line in particular: “Come over here and dance right there.”
Géza’s partner, New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother, was in the room that morning. The line hadn’t bothered her before in a dance song, but when it was sung slowly and with more emphasis, she said, it sounded more like an order reminiscent of the movie “9½ Weeks,” which was off-putting to her.
Nonetheless, Jerry insisted they use that same line as the name of the song.
For months, Géza tried to sing the song the way Jerry and Sven wanted—like Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey”—but he was really struggling. It was entirely different from how he heard it in his head—and had sung it—twenty-four years ago.
By the time they got to the studio to do the final vocals, Jerry and Sven had also worked out a new arrangement.
When Géza tried it the first time, Sven asked, “Why are you singing it like that?”
“Because that’s the way I used to sing it, with that phrasing,” Géza replied.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Sven and Jerry kept saying.
Géza gave it a couple more tries, but he could see by their expressions that they were still not satisfied.
“What?” Géza asked. “Do I look like a little bitch? Get it out of me!”
Sven picked up the mantle, and walked Géza through the phrasing he was looking for. When they came to the line, “Come over here and dance right there,” Géza mentioned Caitlin’s objection, so Sven jumped in with a word change to make that line more benign and intimate:
“Come over here and let’s dance right there.”
Sven also dashed down a new last line or an entirely new chorus on a piece of paper and handed it to Géza to sing in the final version.
Géza’s last take satisfied everyone. With their combined input, the song had evolved into a much better version, which Géza couldn’t have come up with on his own.
“They got it out of me and it sounds good,” he said. “I’m happy with it.”
After they had collectively narrowed all but three of the final mix of songs, the album took a surprising turn.
They’d been working on all the songs that needed the most work first, so Géza had waited to play them one of his most personal songs: “That Day,” which was written as a tribute to his college roommate Vic Saracini, the pilot of the plane that was forced to fly into the south tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Ever since she’d heard it nine years earlier, Caitlin had lobbied him to make this song the focal point of the album, because she believed it was his most nationally relevant and important song. One to which everyone could relate. But Géza resisted, not wanting to seem as though he was trying to capitalize on his friend’s death.
When Sven listened to the track after the others had left the studio, he found himself profoundly moved by the message that the lyrics conveyed to him.
It had been 20 years since 9/11, and our nation was now going through another crisis. This time we were being attacked by domestic—not foreign—terrorists who called themselves “patriots,” but were anything but. We were now divided not just globally, but from within.
With a new title that put more emphasis on hope rather than sadness, he thought the song could deliver an important and timely message that was just as, if not more, relevant today:
Got nothing to lose,
But to live every day.
We make the rules.
We can find a new way.
As such, Sven suggested the title be changed to “Nothing to Lose.” Caitlin said it would be more a powerful earworm if the verb “got” was added, which also matched the lyrics, so the title became “Got Nothing to Lose.”
As a result of this collaborative makeover, the song excited Jerry and Sven enough to persuade Géza to make this song the title track. Finally relenting, he was now able to see the song for what it was: Not only was it a tribute to his friend, but it was a national anthem of unity and hope.
Once the finishing touches were made to the final version of the album on February 9, 2021, “Got Nothing to Lose” was ready to be shipped off to be pressed into vinyl and CDs.
“I appreciate that both of these guys have given it their all,” Géza said.
Jerry was already antsy to get to work on their next album together, for which they’d already selected some songs.
“We should write some songs together and I don’t ask many people to do that,” he said.
But even the EnerGéza Bunny, as Caitlin likes to call him, needs to take a break to recharge—and to allow time to distribute and promote the album, a product of his life’s work.