The Rock Doc, Neil Ratner Speaks About Touring With Pink Floyd
To Helping Michael Jackson And Others
Neil Ratner has lived quite an incredible life. Early on, he wanted to be a drummer in a rock band. However, that was not in the cards for him.
Instead, he got involved in the other side of the music business by being the road manager for the likes of Edgar Winter, ELP and Pink Floyd.
After several years of living the rock and roll lifestyle, Ratner decided to go to medical school to become an anesthesiologist. As it turns out, one of his most famous clients was also in the music business, Michael Jackson. Ratner spent eight years with Jackson touring the world and meeting other famous people like Nelson Mandela.
Ratner recently published a book called The Roc Doc where he details his incredible story.
We had the opportunity to chat with Doctor Ratner to talk about his book and his fascinating life.
Greg Drugan: Hello Neil, thanks for taking some time to speak with me. You have a very interesting story.
Neil Ratner: Well, I appreciate that. What I like to say is that nobody can ever say that I'm boring.
GD: That is true! Congratulations on your book, I’m about halfway through it. You have lived an incredible life.
NR: I sure have. When I look back on it, it's hard to believe that I did all of these things. Sometimes I question myself and say, did I really do all of this or did I make this stuff up? (laughs)
GD: I guess the reason you got involved in the music business is because you happened to live in the same building as Rick Derringer, is that correct?
NR: Absolutely! It was a quirky fate of circumstance or karma or whatever. Between my sophomore and junior year in college, I took a position in a training program to be an operating room technician. I was pre-med at the University of Vermont. I took an apartment in the East Village in the summer of '69. I move in and shortly thereafter I hear a bunch of noise coming from upstairs, so I go upstairs, knock on the door and there's this short guy with long hair who answers the door and invites me in. He says, "I'm Rick Derringer." I said, "Rick Derringer from the McCoy's?" He said yeah, and that's what started it. We became real friendly that summer and I thought maybe he could get me a job as a drummer, as fate would have it, it was road manager.
GD: Did you know that “Hang On Sloopy” is Ohio’s official rock and roll song?
NR: Not only do I know it, but I have a very active Facebook Page, Rock Doc, but I have posted that story many times with the proclamation and everything! I also have a connection to Ohio and Cleveland in particular because that's where my wife is from. I connect to Cleveland and of course the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is there!
GD: Have you been back recently?
NR: Not recently, but I was there a few years after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened. So I got to see some of what Cleveland was starting to become. I guess there's been a change in the whole waterfront there and they're on the upswing.
GD: Sure! We just hosted the All-Star game and there has been nothing but positive feedback from that. They recently updated the inside of the Hall of Fame and its great! Maybe you could come and give a talk about your book there?
NR: Can you arrange that? I would love it! (laughs)
GD: So after working with Rick and Edgar Winter, how did you end up working with ELP?
NR: It led to ELP by a guy named Dee Anthony. I was with Edgar for about a year and we split amicably. White Trash was on it's last legs and it was transitioning into what would become the Edgar Winter Group. Through a lawyer I knew, I was introduced to a manager named Dee Anthony, he was a major rock impresario back then. He was looking for an assistant who could go out on the road and do box office and be his eyes and ears. At the time he was managing J. Geils, Peter Frampton, Humble Pie and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I did a tour with ELP and I expanded my role from just doing box office to doing a little bit of everything. Greg Lake introduced me to Stuart Young and I quickly found out that he was going to be their manager and he was putting together a team and he wanted me to come to London and be in charge of all live activities. So I did.
GD: Wow! So that eventually leads you to work on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon tour. I believe that show still holds the attendance record at Blossom Music Center here in Cleveland. The story goes that people just kept coming in from the woods, so they actually don’t have an official count because so many people didn’t have tickets. Do you remember that particular show.
NR: I think I was there, because I was on the early part of the tour in '73. When we have outside shows and we could do it, I had these two truck drivers who said, wouldn't it be great if we did the album cover on the side of the trucks? Then, if we are in the right venue, we will drop the trailers on either side of the stage and give an incredible visual. So we did that in every outdoor venue that we could. If you think about 1973, there were no Jumbotrons or any of that kind of stuff.
GD: Did you actually get to know any of the band members or were you just on the production side of things?
NR: The production side. There was another quirk of fate to work with The Pink Floyd. When I got to London to work with ELP I got a phone call from an old girlfriend. She had married a music guy in London and she wanted us to get together. So we go to dinner and her husband is Peter Watts. Peter was the road manager for Pretty Things and then joined The Floyd very, very early. First he was their road manager but then he became their chief sound technician. That's how I connected to The Floyd.
GD: After the Floyd tour, did you end up working with Genesis?
NR: No, actually Genesis was way earlier. My partner named Jim Morris, had a sound company named Kelcy Morris. They had done a lot of prominent groups. When we formed our company, Circus Talents, he had some good connections. We had done some small things with Genesis and the Bee Gees, but our first really big tour was with ELP.
GD: After living the rock and roll lifestyle for several years, then you decided to go back to school and become a doctor. Did something just click in your head or did you just get burned out from it?
NR: I grew up with two dreams, one was to be a rock and roll drummer and the other was to be a doctor. After about five years in the business, and accomplishing all that I did, the rock and roll lifestyle caught up with me. I ended up with kidney stones in a London hospital. I saw this movie called Not As a Stranger, late at night and I had this epiphany, I want to be a doctor. I'm never gonna be a drummer so may as well try my other dream and become a doctor.
GD: How old were you when you went back into med school?
NR: Somewhere around 25. The tough thing was getting into places. Even getting back into college because I had walked out of the University of Vermont. I was a little older an I was applying to college and I was applying to be a doctor and people did not think I could accomplish that. I did and did well. It was the mid '70s and the Vietnam War was ending and trying to get into medical school was worse than ever. With my discontinuous education, no one was interested. Fortunately for me, there were schools all over the world that were catering to the overflow of American students. I picked Guadalajara, Mexico. I took four years, in Spanish. I did one year of unpaid internship to get back into the system. I thought I wanted to be a surgeon and did a year of surgical residency but then switched over to anesthesiology.
GD: What made you want to get into anesthesia?
NR: That wasn't anything I really thought about. During my surgical residency, when I was in the operating room, I interacted with anesthesiologists. A level 3 trauma center on a weekend, you would think there was a war going on outside.
I decided to became and anesthesiologist, but I didn't want to work in a hospital and be on call every third night. I started to look around to see where I could use my training. What really struck me, particularly doctors in cities who had these really nice offices who are doing small procedures. They were geared toward hospital based surgery, not office based surgery. With my level of experience, I thought that (office based surgery) was something that I could do. So I stepped into that world.
GD: So by becoming a doctor, you actually get to come back into the music world because one of your patients was Michael Jackson.
NR: Yeah, but it was better than that. I got back into the music business before I met Michael. President Clinton pardoned a guy buy the name of Mark Rich right before he left office. He was married to Denise. Mark Rich left and went Switzerland and became one of the richest men in the world. Denise is there with small children, bored out of her mind and not getting along very well with Mark. She decides that she's going to be a song writer and she writes a song called "Frankie." It somehow gets to Sister Sledge and it becomes a number one hit. Denise leaves with the kids and about a half a billion dollars. She becomes the girlfriend of one of the doctors who's operating room I'm working in. He knows my music history, and he decides to introduce me to Denise. She invites me to the Grammy's and I meet her manger and we decide to co-manage her and I create a company called the Dream Factory in New York. We had a whole production company for a couple of years. I was fully primed to get back into the music business.
I started working with doctors in the reconstructive and cosmetic surgery world. Knowing that they dealt with patients who didn't want to go to hospitals and they had the kinds of procedures that could be done in an office and they had the money to keep the offices safe and to have the type of equipment that I would need or want. After about eight years into my practice, Michael walked in.
GD: How did that relationship develop into a friendship with Michael?
NR: I spoke with Michael the night before the surgery. When he saw me the next day, I looked rock and roll. I had an earring and a ponytail, not many doctors looked like me. He had a good experience. He had my phone number, so often times celebrities wouldn't give out their number, but they would take my number and call me. About three weeks later at about four in the morning, I get a phone call. I hear, "Hello, Rat." I realized it was Michael and those phone calls continued for about a year. I realized years later, that was Michael's M.O. He liked to make friends with people with late night phone calls. He didn't sleep well, obviously and that was his game. I relayed in the book about his friendship with Princess Di. Although they only met once, their relationship was totally based on late night phone calls and they became quite close.
GD: What kinds of things did you work with Michael over the course of your career with him?
NR: Michael had problems, he had a serious sleep disorder but it went way beyond that. It wasn't just about sleep, before he had to perform or do a music video, his mind would just race to the point to where he just couldn't shut it off. When he knew he had to perform and start rehearsing, not only would he not sleep properly, he would stop drinking and would not eat properly. He would get himself into a terrible state of dehydration and low nutrition as well as lack of sleep.
As a friend and a physician, I created a treatment that I thought could benefit him. I would give him fluids and electrolytes, some nutrition and a semblance of sleep to where he could get up and perform or do what he had to. From a medical standpoint, I would help him in that way as well as be his personal physician. I would periodically go out with him on The History Tour.
GD: Because of Michael, you got to meet Nelson Mandela. How did you end up working with him later on in your career?
NR: When I found out I was going on The History Tour, Mandela was the president of South Africa. I had followed his story and I had a history of Africa and had been to South Africa a few times. My wife and I became safari junkies and became truly taken by it. I created a bush clinic for tribal people in the middle of no-where. I had a background of charity before I had even met Mandela.
I told Michael that I would like to meet him and he said don't worry, I'll take care of it. Nelson came in, after our first concert there and I was on the receiving line and it was fantastic! Michael called me down and we got some pictures. A few years later, we did a charity tour. We played Soul and Munich. We raised some money and half of it was for Mandela. For my 50th birthday, Michael took me to South Africa for the Choral Awards where we actually presented Mandela with a million dollar check. That same day, Michael invited me to spend that afternoon in a suite in Sun City with Michael and his kids, Mandela, his wife and my wife. I explained what I did with my charity in Africa and he said, come back and do it here.
Many years later, I met a baker and we started a charity where we were going to be based in South Africa. Some friends of mine contacted Mandela, he remembered me and said, "I want to help the doctor." So, he donated five of his official coffee table books. We auctioned them off and he endorsed them any way the buyer wanted. We raised enough money for our initial project.
GD: That is totally incredible. What an awesome life. You have done a lot of good things in you life and are very charitable, however you also spent years in rehab and a stint in prison. Tell me about those experiences.
NR: Two defining experiences in my life. Let me say this. It's really the difficult times that presents itself for the most growth. When you are going through these times and work it out, and get to the other side, you will have grown tremendously as a person.
I escaped drug addiction in rock and roll but I became a drug addict as an anesthesiologist. What most people don't realize is that drug addiction is an occupational hazard of anesthesiologists. It's not an uncommon story. The practice of anesthesia I like to describe it is moments of terror with hours of boredom. It's not for everybody and you have the keys to the candy cabinet, so to say. Starting an office practice, nobody controlled the drugs but me. In a hospital, you had to sign them out. One day a resident asked me if I ever tried fentanyl? I said what do you mean? He said try a little bit and two years later I almost killed myself and ended up in rehab.
I got it. I was motivated and I was looking to get better. It wasn't just a 12-step rehab but they wanted to get to the base of my addiction and it worked for me.
The jail thing was something else. It was 12-14 years later. I created my anesthesia practice which got very popular. I wanted to expand my business and in the late '80s I became aware of in vetro fertilization and fertility procedures. I capitalized on that. We thought insurance companies would pay for at least the first cycle, but found out quickly they wouldn't. I had one doctor who said it was every woman's right to have a baby and I'm going to bill it as gynecology because it's a gynecological procedure. I was a contract player, it was his patients and his reports. If he got in trouble, he got in trouble but I was dead wrong. I was complicit, the Feds got involved and when he got caught I got caught. Unfortunately, I got my father involved in my business. He was retired and I figured he could do my billing for me. The Feds threatened to go after him and I got tired of it so I cooperated. It was two long, brutal trials. I lost everything. I was promised that if I did what I was supposed to do, I would get a slap on the wrist, pay a fine and go about my business. The judge didn't like what he heard and decided that I needed to do some time, and I did.
But again, it was a defining experience. I worked with a shaman on my spirituality, and I decided to make it a part of my growth. I got thrown into the kitchen, I loved it and eventually went to cooking school. I got to play drums in front of a lot of people. They were all great stories. I don't recommend you going to prison, but if you find yourself in that kind of situation, there are ways to make it beneficial to you.
GD: It seems like everything you've done, you've turned it into a positive. It is a totally fascinating story and I can't wait to finish the book.
NR: I appreciate that man! The story continues, I'm not done yet!
GD: Neil, I want to thank you so much for your time and your stories. I wish you success with your book and hopefully you will make a stop in Cleveland.
NR: Don't be surprised if I give you a call one day and say, "Greg, I'm around the corner, where are you?"
GD: That would be great!
Check out Neil Ratner’s fascinating book, The Rock Doc. It is available on his website http://www.neilratnerrockdoc.com and you can also check him out on his Facebook page.