“Rock Doc” is an autobiography that chronicles Neil Ratner MD’s extraordinary and colorful life journey from the music business to medicine, back to music and everywhere in between. Neil Ratner quit college in the late sixties and traversed the Hollywood celebrity world as a successful road manager for names like Edgar Winters White Trash and tour manager for Emerson Lake and Palmer. He established a full-service production company (a pioneering approach at this stage) to support the artists on tour and worked with T-Rex, Genesis, Pink Floyd and many others. Later in his career he managed the successful songwriter Denise Rich and built Dream Factory studios in NYC. After his successful career in the music industry he decided it was time to follow his heart and pursue his other childhood dream of becoming an MD. Neil became an anesthesiologist. Traditionally anesthesiologists worked in hospitals, but Neil had other ideas. He was the first to take the practice of anesthesia out of the hospital and into doctors’ offices in NYC. When Propofol became available in the U.S. in the late 1980 s Neil was one of the first to become expert in its usage as it was a perfect drug for office use. His relationship with the top plastic and reconstructive surgeons in New York allowed him to treat a number of high-profile patients. That is how Neil met Michael Jackson. He became his personal doctor and a close friend. They had a lot in common. Neil accompanied the star from late 1997 until his last performance in 2001. Neil became a trusted friend of Michael’s from 1994 to 2002, periodically going on tour and spending time with Michael at Neverland.
I’m a big fan of the movie “Fast Times At Ridgemont High”. One of the characters in the movie is named Mark Ratner. The book and the movie was written by Cameron Crowe originally of Rolling Stone fame. I was wondering if giving the character the last name was a homage to you with your history in the music industry?
I haven’t heard about this.
There are a lot of pop culture references in the movie.
I’ll have to go back and check it out. I’ll have to go back and watch that movie and watch Sean Penn. What was his name in that? Spicolli? (both laugh)
I’ll have to go back and check it out. Funny you should mention Cameron Crowe. What I relate to more than that was “Almost Famous”, which of course was based on his experiences as a Rolling Stone reporter and certainly a lot of the stuff her portrayed was very familiar to me. I think he was semi portraying a Led Zeppelin tour, but we all experienced it back in the day. And it was very much like that. (both laugh)
Being in the business as you were as a tour manager, production and even a doctor/anesthesiologist to a number of celebrities do you ever fact check movies like “Almost Famous” for accuracy?
Of course they had some accuracy and the filmmaker took certain liberties to make a good movie. (both laugh) Depending on the movie, some are more accurate than others. A lot of what they’re trying to portray absolutely did happen back in those days. The moniker, “sex, drugs and rock and roll” was all sort of together and happening. It was crazy times as well as some incredible music. Lots of groups produced unbelievable music back in the day, but life on the road was life on the road.
How do you balance the right and left side of your brain, being a musician at heart as well as the wherewithal conducting the business as a manager as well as eventually becoming a doctor? Was it really difficult to balance it out when you were younger?
Yeah, a little bit. I wasn’t that great in school. I was okay. I felt more musically inclined, but of course later in life when I made the transition I was way more interested in that educational experience. You could turn it on and off to sandwich that depending on where you are in life and what you really want to accomplish at that point. When you’re young, you’re young. Certainly I think your artistic leanings unless you’re a real nerd and a guy all about math and science most young people want to be movie stars, musicians, doctors, sports figures – everything but intellectuals. (laughs) Or anything other than an intellectual pursuit. But having both it was interesting to be able to execute focusing exercise both sides of my brain at different times in my life focusing both on the intellectual side to be a doctor or the artistic side and be a drummer. Also, both sides come into play for everything. When you can unite both sides of your brain and get good communication going that’s when I think you’re helpless the most. (laughs)
You’ve one on the road with some of the biggest acts in the world – Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake and Palmer for example. What is your perception now when you listen to music, if you still listen to much radio any more? Do you like where you see music going? What is your opinion of it?
You know, a lot of people from my generation will bemoan the fact there’s no good music out there – the only good music was their music. It’s kind of reminiscent of my parents and their generation saying. (laughs) And I don’t happen to prescribe to that. I think there’s always good music going on. I’m fortunate to live in a community where we have an independent radio station – Radio Woodstock. As a matter of fact I have a little show every Saturday and Sunday – a little report on rock and roll talking about my old experiences or something back in the day. I also have a large Facebook following where I have the same thing. I post a lot of things; post live video work. And because I love live music and live in a place with an independent radio station I’ve been exposed to a lot of new music – and I like what I hear. Some of it I can’t listen to. I’m not really that attune to rap. Other than that, I think there’s some great music that’s usually always going on particularly. I have no problem with today’s music. I really don’t. Not everything I hear, but come on.
As a doctor and an anesthesiologist to some of the largest stars in the world, Michael Jackson being one of them and being a musician yourself, has that helped you relate and understand your patients more than other doctors?
Certainly with Michael that was one of the key points in how we became friendly. I wasn’t just a doctor; I was a real music guy with real music experiences that he was interested in hearing about. It was a level we could relate on almost instantaneously. In terms of other celebrities I gave anesthesia to, having been with celebrity I could relate to celebrity in a different way. It’s very important, especially as an anesthesiologist you don’t vary what you do necessarily for the status of the patient, so to speak. You develop a routine in what you do and when you start to make exceptions or do things you don’t normally do that’s when you can get into trouble. A lot of doctors who always wanted to be doctors get very impressed when a celebrity walks into the office and can’t really handle it that well on an interpersonal level. Having been in a business when I met celebrities all the time I could relate to them on a different level, which made me better at what I did as an anesthesiologist. But on another level, music and anesthesiology had a big part. I was able to blend the two in a sense. I was one of the “grandfathers” who started office space anesthesiology in New York City. During my residency I paid attention to those kinds of cases that were done with intravenous medication. The patient was in a semi-state of consciousness. Because I was a musician and because I knew the power of music, I was one of the first to introduce music into the operating room – not for the surgeon necessarily: they always had music, but for the patient. Put a pair of headphones on the patient and pick very specific non-worded spiritually uplifting music – classical pieces, the new age music was just coming about at that time and I found if I used music effectively it almost became another drug in my cabinet of drugs to use as anesthesia – and that was like an incredible thing. The whole music and medicine thing really interplayed itself in many different ways.
When you moved to the East Village in New York and took a summer job at a local hospital. You had Rick Derringer as an upstairs neighbor. You went from being in med school to being a road manager and from there started a production company, Circus Talents, Ltd. You seemed to be ahead of the game on everything you are the responsible for coming up with things many either take for granted or thought had been around forever in both the entertainment and medical fields. What was your experience with Rick like?
That must have been fate, karma, synchronicity – call it what you will. As you said, I had a summer job, which would have gotten me a license as an operating room technician which I had hoped would help me get into medical school. I just took a summer sub-let in the city. It happened to be in the East Village. I heard the guitar playing, went upstairs. Lo and behold it was Rick Derringer. We become very friendly – an incredible summer. Rick was involved in all sorts of things, not just musically, but Rick was all a part of the Andy Warhol crowd. And being let into that whole thing was incredible and interesting. And then at the end of the summer I had already lost my desire to go back to pre-med at the University of Vermont. I was so excited by all that I had experienced and said, “hey, get me a job in the business”. Lo and behold about eight months later he did but it was as a road manager as opposed to a drummer – which at first I was hesitant. I really didn’t want to do that. It wasn’t what I was looking for but Rick convinced me it was a great way to get in the business – you never know who you’re going to meet; never know what’s going to happen. And that started me on a path. In terms of being entrepreneurial in my life; yeah, I always had that idea in my head to look ahead at maybe what people weren’t doing. Anybody could look at what people are doing and say, “all right, I’m going to do that”. You may do it well and you may be successful and that’s fine. What’s really interesting is if you have the foresight to think of something that hasn’t been done. And if you have there wherewithal to put it all together that’s really an incredible experience. Success or failure just the act of doing that I think is an important kind of way to advance yourself as a human being in a sense put yourself out there and see what you’re going to accomplish.
Did you actually get to meet Warhol during this era?
Yes I did.
What was that experience like?
We didn’t talk much. I met him once or twice with Rick. He took me to The Factory once or twice, which was in the studio. Then when I started to work for Steve Paul, Edgar’s [Winter] manager there was a place in New York called Max’s Kansas City. And that was a major, major hangout for the hip crowd – so to speak. It was a back room. You couldn’t get in the back room unless you were really somebody and Steve had a table back there and he’d be there every night with his entourage – Johnny, Rick – whoever. And Andy had a table right next to him and of course his entourage. And so, yeah I interacted with those people during that whole Edgar Winter time and before when I met Rick that summer.
You’ve had a number of musicians as patients. Has any of them asked you to jam with them knowing you were a drummer?
(laughs) No. (both laugh) But when I was an anesthesia resident there were a group of us that played instruments and we created a band called Gas Band. (laughs)
I think I may have heard of you guys.
I doubt it. (laughs) We were only together for a couple of years and only played locally in the city. Some of the guys could play. It was fun.
You have a new book out about your experiences being the “rock doc”. A lot of attention I guess is going to be on relationship with Michael Jackson. How welcome are you to attention to that aspect of your life?
Part of the reason I wrote the book was because I thought Michael was misunderstood. I felt that I had a very unique relationship with him and maybe I could straighten a few things out and I wanted to tell the story of the Propofol story. That’s how he died and I know most people that probably left a bad taste in their mouth. They didn’t understand it. It seemed like the guy was looking for a drug. It just seemed awfully weird and I wanted people to know the beginning of that story. I thought that was important. There are all kinds of things that go on in life and most of the time we never know the real story about these kinds of things. I had the real story and thought I owed it to Michael to tell that story. Having said that, nothing turned out the way that I thought it would relative to that story, the book and my relationship with Michael because shortly before the book was released the “Leaving Neverland” documentary came out. And that poisoned the waters for Michael Jackson – period. I tried to do some publicity for the book with for example the English tabloids and it was a disaster. They just wanted to pump me on the pedophile type information. As I stated in the book: that’s not the Michael I knew. I don’t know these guys and that’s not the Michael I knew and wouldn’t have accepted it. I would have stopped it. I would have called in the authorities – done whatever I had to. I’m a medical professional – not a game; not a joke here. For the eight years I was with him that wasn’t the behavior I witnessed. And I’m an anesthesiologist – I’m an observer. I was with him at very intimate times. So that is all I can say about that. Unfortunately for me all that timing put a real damper about what we had hoped to do, relative to tell that story because nobody wanted to hear it any more. So it is what it is. It’s in the book and if they want to read it they can read it.
Did you give him advice along the way you wish he had taken? He had issues with pain management at times.
Pain management was sort of… his issue was more sleep than pain management. Pain management – yeah, periodically. And at least when I was around him he was not addicted to opioids. He only did opioids very occasionally and only if a doctor gave it to him for whatever the doctor thought he needed it for. So he was not an opioid abuser at all.
That wasn’t what I was implying. Sometimes someone who is constantly in the spotlight they have no downtime. As a friend I was wondering if there were things you suggested he do or try – not necessarily medication but lifestyle change.
Well yeah, of course. As his friend I was aware of his good behavior. I was aware of his bad behavior. As a friend I would always try to correct his bad behavior. Even with the Propofol and the sleep therapy was designed to be a very temporary treatment and we would transition to a better lifestyle – something else so he wouldn’t have to have that type of treatment. That was always the case. And just in terms you would relate to a friend. We would give each other advice. He would tell me things and I would tell him things. We talked about lifestyle change. We talked about stress pressure. We talked about his love of children we discussed a lot. I got it. I understood it. I didn’t agree with his behavior relative to having the kids around – and I talked to him about that. And I talk about it in the book. But he just didn’t understand. It was obviously the lost childhood thing and he felt children were innocent. They wouldn’t betray him and they were true to who they were. And so it was more comfortable for him hanging out with kids than with adults. But to me, and what I saw was minimally sexual. He wasn’t a very sexual human being to me – honestly.
He never came across that way to me either.
Although women found him very attractive – and were attracted to him. He had all kinds of female fans and he had relationships with women – whether it was Lisa [Marie Presley], Brooke [Shields]. It may not have been many. You know what I’m saying? There was some attempt there; that was just not his thing I don’t think.
Were you surprised that you became friends with someone who was the biggest celebrity on the planet at one time? I mean, he’s got a lot going on around him and I was wondering what it was like getting the trust of the family. After all, he was the crown jewel of the Jackson family.
When you talk about the Jackson family it was a pretty dysfunctional family in many ways. By the time I met Michael in late ’94 he wasn’t totally connected to his whole family. Believe me, there were different factions and very few had the approval of everybody. (laughs) And so it didn’t really matter because Michael controlled the show. Essentially he had an on again off again relationship with his father and that was obviously out of hand because of the past and stuff. He loved his mother. Janet and me were super close. La Toya and he had their moments and the rest of the family was the rest of the family. It was all very disjointed and it wasn’t like this big family that was united together. It was when he was five years old or something but at the time I met him, believe me, everybody was off in a different direction.
What do you do these days? Do you still get behind the drum kit and bang around on them a little bit to keep yourself occupied from time to time?
You know, in the early years that I got here I took up African drumming – djembe – and I did that for a number of years and enjoyed it. I played on a set every now and then. If you go to my Facebook pate you see this ridiculous set that I just sat in on. I was up in Quebec City and somebody turned me on to this guy that had to have one of the largest drum kits in the world. Funny you should mention that because it’s a very recent picture on the internet. The guy’s got 202 cymbals. The kit is a part of the drum memorabilia collection in the world. I haven’t recently. I think about it sometimes. I’ve been so busy. It took a long time to write the book and the audio book. I was promoting it and doing al this other stuff so I really haven’t had time. I will pick it up again at some point. What am I doing now? I have this little radio show I’m doing now. And now we’re working on a very active Facebook page – 27,000 followers. And now I think we’re getting ready to do a podcast thing – keeping out of trouble. I’m always looking for new opportunities; I guess would be the best way to put it. A lot of my story is tied up in charity work, which I did in Africa. I’m getting ready to do that again – start something. I’m not quite sure what yet. I have a name in mind – “Music Is Medicine” – combining the two. Going to figure something to help people. So that’s kind of where I’m at today.
I’m surprised you’ve only written one book with all your experiences. You have a library full of stories.
I thought about it. I may at some point, but I need to take a break. Five years was enough. Maybe in another couple of years I want to write again but it’s not an easy thing to do although it’s easier now obviously that I’ve done it. It comes much easier than when I first sat down with an empty piece of paper and a pen and I said, “Okay fill up the paper and you don’t leave the room”. (laughs)
When proofing the book did you have to add stuff you forgot about?
There was definitely some of it. When you’re self-published and you actually have to write it yourself and don’t have a ghostwriter you definitely have editors. And certainly along the way I had two different editors and of course they would read something I wrote and say, “Well, why don’t you put the way that this felt”. Yeah, there was a lot of give and take on stuff.
– Dave Weinthal