In the early 1980s, after graduating from college, Mike Fitzgerald went to work offshore as a drilling fluids engineer for a little company called Halliburton. Twenty years later, Fitzgerald found himself in a Los Angeles recording studio alongside 99 other people, singing such lyrics as “Let’s impeach the president for lying/And leading our country into war/Abusing all the power that we gave him/And shipping all our money out the door,” while their author, rock deity and newly appointed Republican dartboard Neil Young, looked on with amusement.
And they said irony died on September 11.
“In a five-year period,” says the 47-year-old Ventura-based singer-businessman of his time with the now-infamous energy company, “I wrote about $40 million worth of business. They had a little downturn in 1986 and laid off 80 percent of the company.”
That experience gave Fitzgerald, the owner of local copier dealership the Performance Group, unique insight — if not motivation — when he was hired to lend his voice to Young’s incendiary, all-encompassing anti-Bush manifesto, Living With War. An experienced vocalist and musician when not selling copy machines, Fitzgerald — who records under the name Michael Fitz — was selected to be part of the makeshift choir bolstering the legendary songwriter’s scorching dissent. As a result, he’s now indirectly (very indirectly) embroiled in the kind of controversy only Fox News can dream up: Does a Canadian citizen have the right to criticize our country and its elected leaders? Of course he does, says Fitzgerald. “It used to be people could say whatever they thought and not worry about any backlash. All of a sudden, in the last four or five years, you have to watch your tongue,” he says. “It’s the opposite of what Americanism is about.”
Fitzgerald’s liberal politics may tag him as a native Californian, but the reality of his upbringing is betrayed by his still-twangy accent: He was born and raised in Kentucky. An appreciation for music and art forms half of his DNA: His mother played piano and wrote poetry. But his father, an employee of General Motors, was all business. He refused to buy his son a guitar; he gave him a golf club instead. “When I was five, I traded a baseball glove for A Hard Day’s Night,” Fitzgerald recalls, “because I knew my dad would buy me a new baseball glove but not A Hard Day’s Night.” Still, the pull of his inner Jimmy Page proved to be too strong, and Fitzgerald finally picked up the axe at age 11. He went to the University of South Carolina where he initially majored in music theory and composition. “But after a couple years, I realized I didn’t want to be a band director. If you’re going to write songs and stuff like that, you don’t really need a degree.”
He switched to business, and the job with Halliburton followed, landing him in Bakersfield. After severing ties with the company, he moved to Ventura, where he responded to a newspaper ad for a copier salesman. To his surprise, Fitzgerald discovered an innate talent for pushing copiers, and in 1992, he founded the Performance Group.
While building his career, Fitzgerald didn’t stop writing and recording songs, putting together about a dozen self-produced albums over the years. In April, he was working on a new disc with esteemed vocal coach Rosemary Butler when she received a call from Neil Young, who needed 100 singers ASAP. Despite growing up in the South, Fitzgerald supported Young in his beef with redneck heroes Lynyrd Skynyrd back in the 1970s, and counts him among his influences. About three days later, Fitzgerald was standing in a studio with him and the best session vocalists in town, singing words off a projector, “[Young’s] vision was he didn’t just want his voice, but a mass of voices, so it’s not just Neil singing it,” Fitzgerald explains. Going in with essentially no rehearsal, it took some time to adjust to Young’s unorthodox composition style. “One time, we had a little trouble getting his phrasing,” Fitzgerald says. “He came out and went, ‘I don’t know what I did, but I stand behind it. So figure it out.’ ” A handful of the singers marched out, not out of frustration but over disagreement with the content. But “the majority of them were like me, just thrilled to be a part of it. The songs are really strong, and the material’s good, and Neil has always been a man of integrity.”
After the 12-hour session, which ended on an a capella rendition of “America the Beautiful,” Fitzgerald had the opportunity to speak with Young one-on-one. “I told him I had a nephew who is an Air Force doctor in Iraq and that I’m sure he’d really appreciate the songs and I can’t wait for him to hear them,” he says. “And he said that’s exactly who he wrote the songs for: the troops.”
Now that he’s had his brush with greatness, Fitzgerald is reinvigorated creatively to finish his own album, titled The Way It Goes. He’s planning to have it done by June. If somehow it does catch fire, Fitzgerald says his business is now self-sustainable enough to spend time away from the office and on the road. But he isn’t plagued with delusions of grandeur.
“I think the music is really good, and if it does succeed, I’ve got four or five good albums in me,” he says. “So my goal is to have it be successful enough to fund the next project … But I’m just happy to be doing it at this point.”