I read the book Roc Doc by Neil Ratner for this interview and unexpectedly enjoyed it. Ratner has led a very interesting life, rubbing elbows with some of the greatest rock stars out there, and consistently striving for more opportunities. He embraces life’s challenges and has experienced many interesting, and sometimes outlandish things because of that. Running through all of it is a consistent effort to give back and a loyalty to his friends. Throughout our discussion, Ratner easily shared the good and the bad despite his self-admitted difficulty with emotions and his zest for life always shows through.
Fredda Gordon: One of the things you mentioned was that growing up you were taught not to show emotions, and I wondered how did it feel to write this book?
Roc Doc, Neil Ratner: It was really hard because that definitely has been one of my problems throughout my life. My parents were very “Let’s not show the neighbors” kind of people. Everything looked great on the outside when things maybe weren’t so good on the inside. My father was particularly non-emotional. My mother was more emotional, for sure, but my father was [not]. As I was growing up the only emotion I learned really well was anger. Throughout my history I had a problem where, when things would happen, I would react with anger instead of the proper emotion. When I sat down and wrote about all those experiences, and looked at them retrospectively, I realized how emotionally damaged I was growing up, and how hard it was for me to feel and realize emotions. Writing the book was very cathartic. It allowed me to find those emotions inside myself and express them in the writing when I might not have even expressed them at the time that it was happening.
Writing a biography is a very cathartic thing if you’re honest enough with yourself. I had no idea when I sat down. I wasn’t a writer, I had never written anything and I wasn’t particularly good in English. I didn’t really know how it was gonna to go. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to write, but it’s really interesting to put yourself in front of a blank piece of paper in the morning and not leave your desk until that paper is filled up. It’s quite a chore.
FG: Well, you did a good job. I enjoyed reading the book.
RD: Thank you, thank you. I must say unfortunately I haven’t sold too many yet, but the people that have read it I’ve gotten really good response from. I know if I just keep pushing more people will get wind of it and hopefully enjoy it as much as you did.
FG: Even though you say nothing bad about Michael Jackson, you still talk a lot about him. Would you have written the book if he were still alive?
RD: That’s an interesting question. I started the book when he was alive. I actually started the book when I was in prison. It seemed like a good time to start writing my life story. Even with Michael alive, I always felt that I had an incredible story that I wanted to tell, that there were a lot of lessons that I learned and things I wanted to express. If Michael was alive it would have been a much different book. I would have touched on my relationship with Michael but I wouldn’t have gone into the detail that I went into. I wouldn’t have told the propofol story. It would have been a much, much different book.
FG: Are you still in touch with any of the Jacksons or Michael’s circle?
RD: I was never in touch with any of the Jacksons. It’s a weird family, as I’m sure you know. I had met his mother and father on a number of occasions. I had met Janet, I had met his sister Rebbie, spoken to his brothers once or twice, but I never had any kind of relationship with any of them to continue. The people that I DID have a relationship with were some of the people that were in his entourage and some of those people I’ve absolutely kept in contact with.
FG: If you could say something to Michael now, what would it be?
RD: ‘Sorry it turned out this way for you, buddy.’ That’s a really tough one. I feel really bad that all this has gone on and he’s dead. And he’s not there to defend himself. There were so many good things that came out of his life and they’ve now been mostly overshadowed by that documentary and I think its kind of a shame and I feet badly about it. I also would just thank him for showing me the good times that he showed me and being the friend that he was.
FG: Have you gotten any flack for the book?
RD: Surprisingly not. I wrote this book thinking that I was on a little bit of the fence here because I was going to divulge a whole story that people really didn’t know and of course I thought there would be some controversy. The way he died was awfully strange and I hated the way it was left in people’s minds. Part of the reason that I wrote the book was that I wanted to be sure that people knew the real story of how the propofol started, why it started, and that it was done with intense professionalism by somebody who was an expert at what he was doing. It got screwed up at the end, but I thought the context at the beginning would at least leave the story in a better place then where it is now. Of course that’s all been overshadowed by Leaving Neverland.
So, no, I’ve had no controversy whatsoever. That was the one thing I never counted on. I’ve had lawyers, I vetted the book ’cause I was nervous about a lot of the things that I was saying and I wanted to be very truthful about it. The last thing that I expected was that nobody would care. That was the most shocking thing of this whole experience so far. Maybe as we get closer to the 25th, the 10th anniversary of Michael’s death, that’ll shake some stuff up.
FG: Although I don’t think you used the words “drug addict” you allude it when talking about Michael Jackson, and as an anesthesiologist you said when dealing with drug addicts you “make sure they don’t feel high.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
RD: Well, he was a drug addict of a certain type. There’s all kinds of drug addicts, obviously. He wasn’t buying bags of heroin and injecting them and stuff like that. He was an unusual drug addict. Well, maybe not that unusual in this day and age. He was definitely addicted to benzodiazepine, the sleep medication and the anxiety medication. There was no question he had a problem with that. But he wasn’t addicted to other types of drugs and he didn’t do any street drugs, it was all doctor administered, when I knew him anyway.
Now, as you know in the book, I had a drug problem which almost killed me. I went to a rehab, and I went through years of therapy, and Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. I learned about the disease of addiction and it helped me greatly as an anesthesiologist because I had drugs that people could get high on. Depending on how the anesthesiologist administers it you can feel the effects of those drugs. So, in anybody that had any kind of a drug problem, my technique was to make sure that I put them to sleep very quickly. And, I didn’t use certain drugs that could maybe linger around and make them feel high and try to do my anesthesia in a way that wouldn’t rekindle any kind of an addiction that they had.
FG: You talked a little bit of the difficulties of prison in your book, but what is the hardest part of house arrest?
RD: Staying in the house. Not being able to leave. They are very strict about what they let you go outside for. If you have a job they let you go to work, but I didn’t have a job at that time. So I had no job and the only time they would let me leave the house was an hour a day to the gym, and doctors appointments. One of the first things I did was I bought an electronic drum kit. That was great because I could play drums over the headphones, not bother anybody and it was a great way for me to spend some of my time. That was the biggest problem. What am I going to do with myself in this little 1000 sq. ft. apartment for all these hours.
FG: And then when it was over…
RD: It was great because all of a sudden I could have my life back again. But there was a bigger problem than the confinement. I had been the star witness against the gynecologist and, as you read in the book, there were the 2 trials. The whole federal thing lasted a long time and unfortunately for me the judge didn’t care for me. He was able to hear a lot of bad things about me because he allowed the defense attorneys to beat me up severely on the stand. And Lauerson had some great lawyers, the first [was] Ted Wells and the second, Gerald Shargel the mafia lawyer. I was on the stand for days and days and days. You’re only allowed to answer “yes” or “no” and they made me look like a liar, a cheat, a drug addict and every other bad thing you can possibly imagine.
When it came time to sentence me, I had been promised by the feds “Don’t worry about it. You cooperated, you did what you were supposed to do, you worked with us for a long time. We’re going to write you a letter, the judge will go with the letter, you’ll get a slap on the wrist, maybe a little fine and that’ll be it.” Well, the judge disliked me so much, that on sentencing he made me a co-leader of the conspiracy so he could raise my points to send me to jail. But, worse than that, he made me jointly responsible for the $3,000,000 fraud. I was on the hook, just like the surgeon, and the court didn’t care where the money came from. That was a life sentence. The bracelet was going to come off, jail was finished, but where was I going to get this money? So that was really the biggest problem that I was left with.
The gynecologist solved the problem for me because he was hiding money and the judge found out. He had to cash in his assets and pay and I was off the hook. Until that happened I wasn’t free. Y’know ‘This is going to follow me my whole life and how am I ever going to get out from under this?’ But once that ended I was ok. Still, I had lost all my money, and I wasn’t going to be a doctor anymore. Not because I couldn’t be, but I had made a bad deal and the amount of supervision and the hoops they wanted me to jump through in order to practice again were ridiculous. So I just gave it up and said ‘I’ll do something else.’
FG: What did you do?
RD: I wasn’t sure what to do. I couldn’t afford to live in the city anymore and I had this weekend house in the Hamptons and that wasn’t gonna work out. So I had to move somewhere and figure out something to do. I went through some really rough times there. I had a friend who was rehabbing houses in Woodstock, NY and my father wanted to help me. He said “Why don’t you go see your friend. If you guys want to build a spec house I’ll finance it. Maybe it’s a business you’ll enjoy, and it will give you something to do, a new career, and you’ll make a salary so you can start paying the feds back.” So I came up to Woodstock. We built a house, but I didn’t particularly care for that. I started a t-shirt company way back when, this idea that we would be Merch stores for rock and roll groups, that didn’t work out. Then I started a digital record label for awhile. Actually had a top 10 American Idol named Sam Giason signed to my label and that didn’t work out. Then I decided to get serious about writing the book. I put together a team of rock and roll people that I used to work with. It was 5 years to really write the book, edit it a couple of times and try to get an agent. We tried to get a publisher. Nobody bit, so we went the self publishing route and here we are.
FG: Speaking of rock and roll people you used to work with, you told one story of getting ELP to go onstage when they didn’t want to go. Can you share other difficulties that you had to work through?
RD: There was always something. It seemed like every gig had some inherent problem that you had to solve quickly. It didn’t always work out. I remember another time with ELP, we were on tour and Keith Emerson loved motorcycles. We were doing a gig in Zurich, and there was a motorcycle gang in Switzerland called The Bones. Sort of a Hell’s Angles copy, but Swiss. They had their colors and each had a big femur from a cow hanging from their belts [laughter]. We thought ‘Well, since we’re playing this big indoor [place] Keith will ride in with The Bones, he’ll ride right up the middle and…’ it was a disaster. Not unlike Altamont where The Stones got drunk and crazy, these guys got a little drunk. The ride up the front didn’t work out, some guy hit one of the stacks, we lost some of our amplifiers, the gig was a disaster. I remember sitting in a corner by myself at the end thinking ‘What did I get myself into here?’ There were absolutely nights like that were the group hated you because you did something that you thought was right that turned out to be wrong.
But then there were other incredible experiences. I’ll tell you another one. Now don’t forget, this is the early 70s. There’s no cell phones, no computers, everything is analog, nothing is digitally controlled. We were in Italy and we had these 2 crazy promoters, Francesco and Franco. They decide that we should do some fireworks at the end of the show in Bologna. And, of course, there’s no digital timing of the fireworks because there is no digital anything. Basically, Francesco is going to stand there with a lighter and listen, and at a certain point he’ll flick the lighter and we’ll try and time everything. It seemed like it couldn’t possibly work. And, it was amazing! It timed out so perfectly and just as the last note ended, the last firework ended. So there were times like that as well. It was all a crap shoot, you never knew how it was going to work out. Not everything worked out terrifically, but it was rock and roll, that’s what it was back in the day.
FG: You area also very connected to Africa. Are you still working on projects there?
RD: I’m not currently working on projects there but I still have the charity. In recent years we did the three bakeries, two in the townships of South Africa and one in Port Au Prince, Haiti. I split with my partner the baker, but I’m still there, the website’s still there and if the right project were to come my way I would consider doing it. I absolutely plan to continue my charity work ’cause one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned throughout all these experiences is you can’t keep it if you don’t give it away. It’s all about giving back to somebody less fortunate than you. Any celebrity I get from this book, I fully plan to use it in a way to give back, to continue this charity. Wether it be bakeries or not, I’m not sure. I’m not sure which way I’ll go, but a good part of the rest of my life will be devoted to giving back to others.
FG: You quoted someone saying that when things happen in the world, we look at how it effects us first, before we look at how it effected who it effected, what do you think about that?
RD: I think what you’re referring to is the first charity thing that I did. My wife and I went to Africa on safari. I had interest in indigenous cultures and we were able to get the guide to take us to this really primitive Samburu village, a tribal village in Northern Kenya. Quite unexpectedly I was presented with a sick child and I tried to treat the child. Six months later the chief sent me a spear and I was so proud, I had done such great work. Then I went to see a famous doctor friend of mine who was very involved in the charity world, Kevin Cahill, and he just read me the riot act. “Yeah, ok, so, but what did you REALLY do? You made yourself feel better but have you changed anything in the village? If you went back, don’t you think the kid would still be sick because you never corrected the conditions that caused him to be sick to begin with?” And that’s when I realized that I better examine my motives and make sure I’m doing this for the right reasons, I’m not doing this just to make myself feel good, but I’m actually making a difference for these people.
And, I did go back. Over the course of the next five years, on my own dime, I helped create a semi-sustainable bush clinic for that group of people.
FG: Your wife is with you through a lot of this. You have a good relationship with her.
RD: 43 years, July 25th.
FG: How has she handled all of this?
RD: She’s a saint. When I think back on my life I think how of how it effected her and I find it amazing that she actually stayed with me all this time. Through drug addiction, losing my career, going to prison. She understood the nature of making a serious bond with somebody and the words “through thick and thin.” She took that to heart. She was my biggest supporter and without her I don’t know how I could have possibly gotten through all these experiences.
FG: You finished the book. What’s next?
RD: The whole idea of the book was not to just write a book and forget about everything else. I’ve had a life filled with really unique and interesting experiences and there’s a lot of lessons from that. My idea was always to just use the book as a jumping off point. I’d like to go out and talk about my experiences and what I’ve learned. Maybe get into the self help arena in that way. Also, I started in college as a radio DJ and I always thought it would be fun to do something like that again.
When I created Roc Doc a social media expert we work with heard my story [and] said “We should start a facebook page called Neil Ratner Roc Doc. You should tell your stories.” I hooked into This Day in Rock and Roll and every day for the past 4 or 5 years I post 4 stories with pictures, and then I started doing videos.
And I got myself a little gig so to speak where I do This Week in Rock and Roll on Radio Woodstock, which is also I Heart Radio, at 3:00 on Saturdays and I tell a little story or two. It’s working out so well and I seem to be sort of a natural with this kind of media. Now we’re going to expand the whole Roc Doc thing out and see what we can do with it.
There’s no such thing as retirement in my vocabulary.
Interview by Fredda Gordon. Book cover courtesy of Neil Ratner.
You can learn more about the book and Neil Ratner, the Roc Doc, here: http://www.neilratnerrockdoc.com