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  • Featured Image[Article 308]The elements – Earth, Wind & Fire

    349634967Without Maurice White, the 1970s wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting.

    The founder, songwriter, singer, percussionist and creative pivot point for the musical juggernaut that was Earth, Wind & Fire, White was responsible for bringing funk, rhythm ‘n’ blues, jazz, pop and spirituality together in a way that nobody — not even Sly Stone, who’d aimed in the same direction — could have foreseen.

    The nine–piece group made some of the decade’s most exciting records, crossing boundaries of race, radio and finely etched musical manifestos with the kind of ease that defines the most important kind of cultural innovation.

    And the musicianship was always kept at the highest level.

    “We just wanted to be the best band in the world,” said vocalist Philip Bailey. “It wasn’t about trying to get rich. We were all just very much in love with the art and we were willing to work, and do whatever we needed to do, to be the best that we could be.

    “In our own minds, in our own hearts, we just wanted to lift the bar and, like Maurice used to say, be true to the art form. Let it carry you, and let it be the barometer by which you judge yourself, and not anybody else.”

    The message, to the tune, was always positive. Today, the best Earth Wind & Fire songs retain their brilliant musical grooves, and their lyrics are as fresh and immovably, profoundly optimistic as when they were first offered up.

    “In Japan, we’re called the greatest funk band,” Bailey said. “I tell them we’;re not a funk band — Parliament/Funkadelic is the funk band. I think we’re a fusion band made commercial, because of all the different elements that are there.

    “The one thing that we have done is chosen selectively what not to do, and I think that’s been as big a key as any to the longevity. God’s blessings, first and foremost. But I think that because the intent in our hearts, and purpose, was pure.”

     

    ‘He makes plans’

    Born in Memphis, where his classmates included Isaac Hayes, Booker T. Jones and David Porter, Maurice White had aspirations towards a career in medicine. But he got interested in the drums, and he and Jones put together a jazz combo called the Mad Lads to play campus clubs and parties.

    White’s mother moved the family to Chicago, where her teen-aged son entered junior college — and, ultimately, the Chicago Conservatory of Music, where he met many of the musicians who would play important roles in the evolution of Earth, Wind & Fire.

    White got a job as staff drummer for Chicago-based Chess Records and its Okeh imprint, playing on seminal sessions for the likes of Fontella Brass, Etta James, Betty Everett (that’s him on the original “You’re No Good”) and even Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon.

    All day, he’d bang out R&B in the studio, and at night play the traps in the Windy City’s premiere jazz clubs. He became good friends and confidantes with Chess’ staff arranger, pianist Charles Stepney.

    The Ramsey Lewis Trio, the label’s star act, recorded in Studio A on the second floor (the Chess Brothers’ business offices were downstairs).

    The group would often ran into White and Stepney, who would be rehearsing in Studio B. “Maurice was a fiery drummer, but very soft-spoken,” Lewis recalled. “He would ask me ‘What’s a publishing company?’ ‘What’s a manager supposed to do?”

    “Now, I had no idea our group was gonna break up. But he was asking me ‘What’s it like on the road?’ Then I’d see him two or three weeks later: ‘Hi Ramsey; now, what’d you say a booking agent was supposed to do?’ This went on and on.”

    In 1966, Lewis’ drummer and bassist left over a money dispute. White was enlisted to play in the “new” Ramsey Lewis Trio, on its never–ending tour of theaters and college campuses.

    It was during this period he began playing the kalimba, a hand–held African instrument also known as a “thumb piano.” White would sometimes solo on the kalimba instead of his drum kit.

    “He stayed out on the road with me for about three years,” said Lewis. “And one night, afterwards, he said ‘I think in a few months I’m gonna be leaving the group. I’m going to form my own group.’

    “I said ‘What is it — jazz trio, or quintet, you got a couple horns or what?’ He said ‘No, man, I’m gonna form a group that’s gonna do magic. We’re gonna play R&B, pop, jazz, and dance …¹

    “I said ‘Reese, take a couple aspirin, go home, meet us at the airport tomorrow morning. You’ll get over it.’”

    Within four months White tendered his resignation and moved to Los Angeles to put his dream band into action.

    Initially, they were called the Salty Peppers, and their Chicago–cut single, “La La Time,” a regional hit, had been picked for national distribution by Capitol.

    The label issued two singles by the Salty Peppers; they were not successful, and a promised Capitol album failed to materialize — but White was already a dozen ideas past the Salty Peppers, anyway.

    He had conceived of a multi–player band — an ensemble, really — that would combine hardcore funk with jazz, smooth R ‘n’ B and first–class musicality. And showmanship. He’d told Lewis the band would “fly” on the stage.

    “He was on a plane,” recalled Maurice¹s half–brother Verdine. “And he sketched it out. A band that would encompass all different types of music.”

    Furthermore, Maurice intended to reach out to all sorts of people with positive, uplifting lyrics, and inspirational messages adapted from the Eastern thoughts he’d been studying since a visit to the Far East with Lewis. He planned to play lots of kalimba, too, to connect the group with its African bloodline.

    “Somehow, the name Salty Peppers didn¹t feel universal enough,” he later told an interviewer. “I came up with the name because my astrological chart had no water in it: Earth, Air & Fire didn’t sound right so I used ‘Wind’ instead.”

    “Reese has always been, and still is, a thinker,” said Lewis. “He kinda thinks and figures out stuff, and he makes plans.

    “He carries books around where he jots down his ideas, whether they’re musical, or things he wants to do or think about. He reads a lot of books and makes plans.

    “Then he focuses and gets committed and he brings people around him to make those ideas a reality. That¹s what Maurice is.”

    Verdine White, all of 19 and still attending high school, had been studying bass back in Chicago under Chess’ studio trombonist Louis Satterfield.

    A call from big bro convinced Verdine to move to L.A. and become part of Earth, Wind & Fire. Most of the other chairs in the band were filled by Maurice’s old–school jazz chums from the Conservatory.

    The band signed with Warner Bros in 1970, issued a self-titled debut, and the wheels began to slowly turn. They recorded songs for the soundtrack of writer/director Mario van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song.

    A second album, The Need of Love, was released in ’71 and, like its predecessor, went nowhere. “The beginning was difficult,” said Verdine. “Because nobody had ever seen a group like this before.”

     

    Full Spectrum Music

    Philip Bailey was singing and playing percussion in a cover band called Friends & Love, a big fish in the small pond that was Denver, Colorado.

    “Obviously, there wasn’t a lot of African American culture there, but it was a great place to grow up, and a great place to raise a family,” Bailey said.

    In 1972, Friends & Love opened an afternoon show for Earth, Wind & Fire at the Hilton Hotel in Denver.

    They were already fans, Bailey remembered. “I’d heard the music before I actually saw them, and I didn’t think that they were black,” he said. “Because that was the time of Motown and Philly and doo–wop. My band was playing Rare Earth, Three Dog Night, Blood, Sweat & Tears, all that kind of stuff. Pop that has the most progressive and eclectic sound.

    “All of a sudden, I hear this music that¹s totally different. I notice that it has some color to it, but it has a different kind of lyrical orientation — it’s philosophical. So we started doing their music, because we were of that mindset.”

    Bailey and Dunn had another gig that night; the White Brothers came to see their show before setting out next day for the rest of their tour.

    “After that,” he said, “it became apparent to me that if I didn¹t want to be a local yokel, I was going to have to move.”

    Bailey relocated to Los Angeles to play percussion with the gospel trio the Stovall Sisters, who’d backed Norman Greenbaum on the hit “Spirit in the Sky.”

    Soon, many of the musicians who’d come west with the White brothers quit, disgusted, and returned to more lucrative gigs in Chicago clubs. The others were let go, leaving only Maurice and Verdine to re-think the whole thing.

    The pressure was on. “I think somebody sat down with him and told him look, if you really want to take this to the next level, you need to come in with some guys that have a look, are more aggressive with the sound, and are a bit younger,” said Los Angeles percussionist and singer Ralph Johnson, who auditioned, and won, a spot in the new band.

    After a few musicians came and went, afresh–faced new lineup was set in stone. Guitarists Al McKay and Johnny Graham came on board, along with three of the young musicians that had so impressed the Whites in Denver: Larry Dunn on piano, saxophonist Andrew Woolfolk, and — most importantly — Philip Bailey.

    In 1972, Columbia Records honcho (and legendary career-maker) Clive Davis auditioned the “new” Earth, Wind & Fire. “Maurice and I had heard that Clive was looking for us,” Verdine White recalled. “We had opened up for Dizzy Gillespie at the Bitter End East, and some guy named Chuck said ‘The man’s looking for you.’ Reese and I thought it was the police, so we started trotting back to the hotel room! And he said no, no, no, it¹s Clive Davis.”

    Davis bought out the group’s Warner Bros. contract and put them back into the studio with Joe Wissert, who’d been at the helm for the earlier records.

    Each Columbia album — Last Days and Time, Head to the Sky and Open Our Eyes — sold progressively better, and radio was taking an interest, the group was generating a buzz on college campuses, and, as Verdine likes to point out, those were the days when record labels believed in “nurturing” a new act.

    Open Our Eyes was a million–seller, and reached No. 1 on the black album charts. Crucially, for this record White enlisted Charles Stepney to refine the group’s arrangements. “He was the kind of cat that, if he couldn’t play an instrument, he’d go buy one, sit in his basement and teach himself to play it,” recalled Larry Dunn. “He was an amazing piano player.”

    Two of Stepney’s album productions — Minnie Riperton¹s Come Into My Garden and Ramsey Lewis’ Mother Nature’s Son — were favorites of everyone in Earth, Wind & Fire.

    “Mighty Mighty,” the single from Open Our Eyes, was Earth, Wind & Fire’s first appearance on the charts: It went to No. 4 R&B No. 20 pop, in March 1974.

    With Wissert out, and Stepney as a full producing partner, Earth, Wind & Fire went back into the studio in late ’74 to cut the soundtrack for a low–budget film called That’s the Way of the World. The band and Stepney worked closely to give the music a sophisticated edge — from the punchy funk of “Shining Star” to the elegantly soulful titles track and “Reasons,” which showcased Bailey’s stunning four–octave falsetto – That’s the Way of the World was refined rhythm ‘n’ blues music, not too rough for the black audience, not too soft for the blacks. Just the coolest of the cool.

    This was Maurice White¹s vision come to life.

    “Step wrote the music for ‘That’s the Way of the World,’ ‘Reasons’ and a couple of others, then charted it out and conducted it,” recalled Dunn.

    “We would go to Chicago, to his basement, and go over the songs. Then we’d go back and record ‘em. Then Step would fly out and write the arrangement — or we’d send him the tracks — and then we¹d go to the studio and he¹d conduct the orchestra.”

    Verdine White: “He explained music; he explained what was in our heads, what chords were. When I would overdub with him, and with Larry and Ralph, we would talk about music.

    “He’d had a tremendous amount of experience, which was great for us. He was kinda like what Quincy Jones was to Michael Jackson, or George Martin to the Beatles. Where you actually have someone who is a musicologist as well as a producer — a producer to explain what’s in your head.”

    Stepney and the White Brothers also collaborated with Ramsey Lewis in 1975 on Sun Goddess, the piano legend’s first foray into fusion music. The title track, although it has no lyrics, wouldn’t sound out of place on That’s the Way of the World. Stepney himself played second piano on Lewis&339; recording, and arranged the track.

    Although the movie, starring a young Harvey Keitel as a record producer and Earth, Wind & Fire as “The Group,” was a massive flop, the That’s the Way of the World album sent “Shining Star” to the top of the pop and R&B charts, and the title song into the Top Ten. The album, too, went to No. 1 and sold over a million copies.

    According to guitarist McKay, the groove was paramount. “On the records, a majority of five of us cut the tracks, and we’d reproduce it onstage. I did most of the guitar work on all the stuff in the studio.

    “Of course, I’m not taking anything away from Johnny — he did some great stuff too. Great solos on That’s the Way of the World.

    ³But it started out, in the studio, with Maurice on drums, and me, Verdine and Larry,² he explained. ³Maurice was at the helm ­ and we went from there.²

    The live legend of Earth, Wind & Fire began around this time; as the money started rolling in, White beefed up the already–impressive stage setup with flamboyant costuming, special effects and elaborate choreography.

    “He wanted to do something called Full Spectrum Music,” recalled Ralph Johnson. “He wanted to have a band that had a great live presentation. That was essentially it, because at that time everybody was just kind of standing around, and nobody was into special effects, not really.

    “He wanted to take it up to the next level. He wanted to have a black band that could play all styles of music and at the same time have a great live presentation.”

    Nine became 13 with the addition of the Phenix Horns, led by Don Myrick and Louis Satterfield, longtime White collaborators, on saxophone and trombone, respectively.

    The word Phenix — spelled in the Egyptian fashion, without the letter “o” — had great resonance for Maurice White, who loved its connotation as a living thing risen from the ashes of something once alive, now inert.

    Through it all, somehow, the music remained the center of attention. “It wasn’t complicated, it was natural,” said Bailey. “It came from Maurice’s concept first, then people’s individual love and taste for music stylings.

    “I came from pop radio,” McKay said. “I was a Motown guy. And Johnny and I played great together onstage — he was more of an Albert King, blues style. I was just a little bit of everything.”

    “Many of us loved jazz,” said Bailey. “What Al added to the puzzle was the commerciality. What I added was the harmonics and my voice stylings, and a concept, vocally. If it had been something we were overthinking, I don¹t think it would have ever happened.”

     

    Powerhouse without peer

    “I knew,” Dunn recalled, “that this was going to go all the way. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind. It wasn¹t so much ‘We’re going to be famous!’ as ‘This is gonna be a very huge musical aggregation!’”

    Between 1975 and ’79, Earth, Wind & Fire was one of the hugest musical aggregations on the planet. The band sold more than 30 million albums, and won six Grammys, and their world tours were among the hottest of tickets. Six consecutive albums went platinum.

    Gratitude, a double LP, was issued in late 1975. Although it contained several new studio cuts (including the chart’topping “Sing A Song,” written around a riff Al McKay came up with in a dressing room), three sides were live (they were literally touring so much, they didn’t have time to finish an entire record).

    Gratitude also featured the live Earth, Wind & Fire version of “Sun Goddess,” with brilliant solos by Larry Dunn on piano and Andrew Woolfolk on sax.

    Musically, they were a powerhouse without peer, with each musician at the top of his game, and Maurice White and Philip Bailey out front, duetting and trading off vocals. It was like an exuberant, three-ring funk ‘n’ jazz circus. “Keep Your Head to the Sky” and “Open Our Eyes,” with their stirring gospel feel, were always concert highlights.

    White and Johnson alternated between drums, percussion and out–front vocals; Verdine’s younger brother Freddie joined the ranks in 1976 to give the band extra punch.

    “He was just laying it down,” said Dunn. “I’d never really heard a drummer hit that bass drum like that. At the first rehearsal, it wasn’t miked and I could feel the bass drum. I was like ‘Man, this cat is serious.&339;”

    The first special effects, courtesy of an L.A. magician named Nailhead, involved horizontally “levitating” Verdine White on a wire, while he was laying down a particularly funky bass solo. Dunn’s piano would rise eight feet in the air and start to spin as he played, “and I never fell off.”

    Later, as budgets allowed, Maurice hired Doug Henning and his assistant, David Copperfield, to create an elaborate stage setup, utilizing both Egyptian symbolism and Close Encounters–style light and smoke spaceship gimmicks.

    Their choreographer was George Faison, a Tony winner for 1974′s The Wiz.

    According to the band members, there was never a danger that the spectacle would overtake the music … and the spirit.

    “We wanted to give the audience more than just an audio concert,” Bailey said. “We were big fans of Broadway, and we wanted to make the visual effects as spectacular as the music.”

    “There was so much going on,” Dunn recalled. “All the eye candy was great, but the band was on 900 all the time.”

    Halfway through the recording of Spirit in 1976, Charles Stepney died of a heart attack. The album was dedicated to him.

    Arranger Tom Washington (aka Tom Tom 84) worked with the band, in Step’s shoes, for the next few years.

    Larry Dunn was the “musical director” for the tours. “Even though I was the youngest one, they did listen to me,” he said. “There was none of that. Everybody was a serious musician, and it was about getting it done.

    “That’s why the live shows, to this day, are untouched. I haven’t seen too many bands that even come close to that. I’m not saying that because I was in it. It was because I was in it that I can say that. I’d be sitting there onstage and looking around and just going ‘Damn …’ It was pretty serious.”

    For the Spirit tour, Reese’s latest infatuation — pyramids, sphinxes and other religious imagery from the Egyptology textbook — took center stage. Henning’s stage design had the band members, who’d arrived in a huge spaceship descending from on high, disappearing into a giant gold pyramid, which then rose in the air before splitting apart — before the shocked audience’s eyes.

    The musicians would re–appear in a flash, in spaceman costumes, alive and well. And dancing up a storm.

    At one point, Verdine went into an Egyptian sarcophagus while the others played on; Satterfield left his trombone and took over bass duties.

     

    Beginning of the end

    The records — All’N All (1977), The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire Vol. I (1978), I Am (1979) — were flying off shelves; arenas around the world were stuffed with fans who wanted the total experience.

    Maurice built his empire like a pharaoh. Through his Kalimba Productions, he produced hits for Denise Williams, the Emotions and others. He started his own label imprint, ARC, distributed through Columbia, and opened a massive studio and office complex in Los Angeles.

    Inside the hurricane, Verdine said, the focus remained on the music. “What you know is that you gotta keep progressing,” he said. “Particularly when you’re dealing in music, because music is something you get from the spirit.

    “We noticed that we were digging in deeper, musically. We were never out of the studio. For me personally, it was all the same — the days were nights, the nights were days. It was like one big thread.”

    The constant rehearsals were necessary, he said, to remind themselves that they were, first and foremost, a band. “The bigger the place is, the smaller the music is. The smaller the place is, the bigger the music is, because the music has a place to develop.

    “When you’re playing in front of 20, 30 thousand people, that’s show business. That”s not really as much music. It’s the same problem the Beatles had when they were performing at Shea Stadium or Candlestick Park — the show was bigger than the music. They really couldn’t hear themselves onstage.

    “And I think any band that’s performing in big places has that big challenge of making the music that comes out of an intimate setting, come out just as intimate in a big setting.”

    In 1978, the band was featured in Robert Stigwood’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie, performing the only song on the soundtrack not produced by George Martin: “Got to Get You Into My Life.”

    I Am produced two major hits: Bill Champlin’s ballad “After the Love Has Gone” (with string arrangement by David Foster) and “Boogie Wonderland,” a full–tilt disco number produced by Maurice White and Al McKay, featuring vocals by the Emotions, the female trio White was producing on ARC.

    Earth, Wind & Fire, however, would barely survive the ’70s. After 1980′s Faces, McKay quit. “It was just time to get away,” he explained. “Maurice and I were starting to clash pretty bad. It was time to move on; no regrets.

    “In the beginning, it was a family thing. We all created and that was it. It was understood that we were a band, and that’s the way I’d always thought of it, as our band. We go in and create music together, and everybody shares in the rewards.

    “But things work out a little different sometimes. Not to fault anybody, but you just have to be aware of what you’re getting yourself into when you get involved in a situation like that, with so many people.”

    What it was, was mutiny.

    “After Al left, it became the Maurice White Show,” Bailey said. “We just started being sidemen, and it just lost all of the magic of what it was before.”

    Although “Let’s Groove,” with its electronic beats, was a Top Five hit in 1981, Bailey all but dismisses everything that came after That’s the Way of the World, All’N All and I Am. “Those records were the heart and soul of the band,” he said. “To this day, the whole catalog is driven by those records. All the stuff after that, Powerlight and crazy mess that we did, that stuff didn’t mean a thing.”

    One by one, the band members drifted away — even the Phenix Horns accepted a lucrative offer from Phil Collins.

    “When you start thinking it’s all you, that¹s the beginning of the end,” Johnson said.

    “The fact of the matter is, Maurice was only as good as the people he surrounded himself with. He was smart enough to surround himself with a bunch of young, aggressive cats who would listen to him. And that¹s how that sound came about.”

    Dunn recalled the 1983 album Electric Universe: “I took it home after it was finished and I played it. I told Maurice the next day, ‘I listened to it. Good music, it is. Earth, Wind & Fire, it ain’t.’”

    “When you have a group of nine personalities, it’s hard to hold all that together, to Reese’s defense,” Johnson said. “But everybody is not a leader.

    “And so Maurice put out a solo record and it did absolutely nothing. Well, it did absolutely nothing because that was God’s plan — that’s what he wanted, for it to do absolutely nothing. Because at that point, Reese was so full of himself, it was incredible.”

    Bailey was livid. “Nothing’s ever just one person,” he said. “Taking nothing away from Maurice’s abilities as a facilitator and a visionary and all that, but without a song which Charles Stepney was a major part of, with an arrangement he was able to craft, without a band, without the rhythm section that Al McKay used to take Maurice’s idea and make it commercial, without a great record company that supports a band, there would be no Earth, Wind & Fire.

    “Once we had success, and Maurice was the spearhead, then management and everybody started telling him that he was the god of everything. That he was the be–all and end–all of everything. And he started believing it. And it just tore up the group.”

    Bailey, who scored a No. 1 hit in 1986 with “Easy Lover” (a duet with Phil Collins), said that things had got so bad that Earth, Wind & Fire had completely ceased to be.

    “The group broke up,” he explained. “All our stuff was sold, all our costumes … some people will tell you ‘Oh, we went on a hiatus.’ You don¹t go on a hiatus and sell all your stuff.”

    It would be four years before Bailey and White could speak to each other. The others investigated different aspects of the music business; Verdine went into video direction, and produced an album by the British band Level 42.

    “I think we all changed a little bit, because the demands were different,” he said. “And everybody processes the same thing differently. And there was no book where you could ask somebody, ‘How do you deal with this?’ You never know what people are going through.”

     

    Touching the world

    A truce was reached in 1997, in which Bailey became a full co–owner and co–leader of the band, sharing in all the decisions, planning the set list and in general having just as much clout as Maurice. Touch the World materialized, and the single “System of Survival” made it to No. 1 on the R&B chart. In 1992 came a boxed set, The Eternal Dance, and then the album Millennium.

    Maurice White, diagnosed with Parkinson¹s Disease, retired from the road in 1994, although he is still involved in Earth, Wind & Fire recordings.

    Today, Bailey explained, “Our relationship is friendly but it’s strained a little bit, just because it’s so complicated.”

    White owns the band name, and leases it to Bailey, Johnson and his brother Verdine, who continue to tour — with a huge ensemble, to great acclaim — with Bailey taking most of the tenor and baritone leads that were Maurice¹s trademarks.

    Bailey is most gracious in giving praise and thanks to Maurice White during today’s Earth, Wind & Fire shows. The crowd always goes wild.

    Don Myrick was murdered in 1993, and Louis Satterfield passed away in 2004. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, which was, to date, the last time all the surviving members have been together in the same room.

    This year, White collaborated with Broadway veteran Maurice Hines on a theatrical revue, Hot Feet, based around classic Earth, Wind & Fire songs.

    He declined to be interviewed for this story.

    The three veterans are only too aware that, according to history, there could be no Earth, Wind & Fire without Maurice White. And they beg to differ. “Of course, Reese was the spearhead, the guiding light,” said Verdine. “But it was pretty much always a collaborative effort.

    “There¹s no way Philip, Ralph and myself could take Earth, Wind & Fire on without Maurice unless we were intimately involved. Because in order to be intimately involved, you have to understand the process of it. And in order for us to keep the sound today, and still lead the band today, we would’ve had to participate intimately in the creation.”

    In the final analysis, of course, it’s possible that Earth, Wind & Fire — like so many bands in and of a particular era — just couldn’t survive the inevitable transitions of time and taste.

    Innovation’s fuse only burns for so long. After all, the Beatles never made it out of the ’60s.

    It’s a fact of show business that Philip Bailey has learned to appreciate over time. “We were able to see things from a different perspective,” he said. “We were able to see what our contribution to the world, to the music scene, had been.

    “Prior to that, you’re in it. So you really don’t have the proper perspective.”

     

    @2006 Bill DeYoung349634967



  • Featured Image[Article 293]Mary Hopkin: ‘She’s a Joan Baez type, but we’ll soon alter that’

    Mary-Hopkin@1992 Bill DeYoung

    MARY HOPKIN is surprised and flattered to learn that she is something of a mythical figure in America. In the States, general knowledge of Hopkin is pretty much limited to seven singles and three albums she released between 1968 and ’72, and even then, you’d be hard-pressed to find too many people who could hum anything other than ‘Those Were The Days’.

    Little-heard though they may have been, Mary Hopkin’s American releases were on the legendary Apple label, owned, operated – and eventually all but abandoned – by the Beatles. She was discovered, and her career set in motion, by Paul McCartney himself.

    And that’s enough to put Mary Hopkin in the pop music history books. The fact that most of her Apple records were good, unlike so much of the non-Beatles Apple catalog, only makes her more of a legend.

    Add to that her reluctance to do interviews (this is only the second one she’s granted since 1988) and the fog of myth descends and settles in.

    Hopkin’s talking because EMI Records, in its admirable attempt to free the Apple catalog from its musty out-of-print limbo, is issuing Those Were The Days: The Best Of Mary Hopkin in the U.K. on April 3. An American deal with Capitol is reportedly in the works.

    Those Were The Days is essentially a re-issue of the 1972 Apple album of the same name, Hopkin’s third and final release for the label. It collects all of her singles and most of the B-sides, lots of really, really good tracks that were not included on 1969′s Post Card or 1971′s Earth Song Ocean Song.

    This new-old album has been assembled by Hopkin herself, and in addition to being chronologically sequenced (so that ‘Goodbye’ follows ‘Those Were The Days’, etc.), she’s added several tracks that weren’t on the original collection, plus one outtake that’s never seen the light of day in any form.

    She was born May 3, 1950 in Pontardawe, South Wales (coincidentally just a few kilometers north of Swansea, hometown of fellow Apple artists Pete Ham and Mike Gibbons of Badfinger) and with her angelic soprano voice sang folk songs with her mates at school. Accompanying herself on guitar, she’d performed on a couple of regional TV shows.

    Mary Hopkin’s Cinderella story goes like this: Her Welsh agent, Bert Veale, signed her up to appear on British ITV’s Opportunity Knocks talent show, and against her better judgment (Hopkin said the program was “like the Gong Show“) she went on, and won. The date was May 6, 1968.

    The long-legged and very famous model Twiggy saw Hopkin on that first show (in the weeks to follow, she’d go on to win a record number of times) and told Paul McCartney about it. McCartney happened to be looking for talent for the soon-to-be-launched Apple label, and on Twiggy’s recommendation, he tuned in to the next Opportunity Knocks, and immediately had his office find Mary Hopkin.

    “I got in touch, and her and her mum came down and we had a little lunch in Oxford Street somewhere,” McCartney recalled in a 1987 interview. “Mary was really a sort of folk singer, so I said, ‘But, for record success, there’s this song that’s not a mile way from folkie It’s got a folkie feel. It could be a big hit, with the right treatment, the right arrangement’.”

    McCartney told the story of how he found ‘Those Were The Days’ in a London nightclub: “There would sometimes be cabaret clubs. I’d go down late, about 11:30, and catch the early show. It was kind of a good thing to do, you know, because around Berkeley Square there was the Blue Angel. I used to go down there quite regular and check out the cabaret.”

    One night at the Blue Angel – it was probably in 1966 – he saw an act called Gene and Francesca. “They were an American act, and I’d never heard of them before,” he said. “But they did this little song; they said ‘Here’s a little song of our own that we’ve worked up.’ I always thought ‘Ooh, that’s a good little song. If it hadn’t been written, someone would have to write that’.”

    He was knocked out by ‘Those Were The Days’, which Gene (Raskin) had adapted from a traditional Lithuanian folk song.

    “I got the office to try and find those people,” McCartney said. “He was an architect, I remembered. Because it was almost a hobby for them, this little thing they did on holidays.

    “They found them anyway, and said ‘You know that song wot you writ? Well, ‘eed (he’d) like to do it,’ kind of thing. We got a little tape of them singing it, and I worked it all out with Mary.”

    Produced by McCartney, ‘Those Were The Days’ was released the same day as the Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ (in August 1968) and went on to sell eight million singles, even knocking ‘Hey Jude’ out of the number one spot in the U.K.

    (McCartney, ever hit-conscious, had Hopkin record her vocals in English, French, Italian, German and Spanish, and ‘Those Were The Days’ became an across-the-board international smash.)

    ‘Those Were The Days’ is Hopkin’s favorite from her batch of Apple singles (she liked the acoustic songs from Post Card, the album he produced for her, too).

    Almost immediately, as McCartney’s attention began to wane, she grew disenchanted with the singles she recorded as follow-ups. She was a folk singer, not a pop artist, and despite being voted Britain’s Top Female Vocalist in 1969, she was miserable making the endless rounds of TV shows and ribbon-cutting ceremonies her Apple handlers sent her on. She lamented about the “sugar-coated” image that Apple had bestowed upon her, and about the things she was expected to do as an “all-round entertainer.”

    Worst of all were the summer seasons. “A summer season,” Hopkin explains, “is a three-month gig at a summer resort, like a beach resort. In this country, we’ve got Blackpool and Margate, all over Britain wherever the beaches are. Sometimes it takes place on the pier, or in the local theaters. You perform six to eight times a week for three months.

    “And unless you like that sort of thing, it’s pretty horrendous. You end up singing the most dreadful material.”

    And then there were the pantomime shows, usually at Christmas, where fairy tales and sundry “light material” were given the musical treatment. Again, for weeks on end.

    The low point, for Hopkin, came with her representation of Great Britain in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest. For this show of shows, she was given the insufferably bland ‘Knock Knock Who’s There’ to sing. As she said in this interview, such things did great damage to her confidence, but she was young and naïve at the time and trusted the advice of her manager, Stan Skeffington (who was also her brother-in-law).

    ‘Knock Knock Who’s There’ was the second of three Hopkin singles produced by Mickie Most, who was brought in after McCartney drifted off (his last single for Hopkin, ‘Que Sera Sera,’ featured just him and Ringo Starr on the backing track).

    Hopkin and Most didn’t get along, though, and her next sessions were produced by Tony Visconti, who’d been at the boards for the Iveys’ Maybe Tomorrow album on Apple, and would eventually go on to fame as David Bowie’s producer (Hopkin sang harmony on Bowie’s ‘Sound And Vision’ in 1977).

    With Visconti, Mary Hopkin was able to make an album (Earth Song Ocean Song) that she felt truly captured the acoustic flavor she’d craved from the start.

    But it was too late. The record got no support from the fast-rotting Apple; Hopkin was booked into another hated summer season and was unable to tour to promote the record. Despondent, she let her Apple contract expire (although in truth there was no one left to stop her).

    Hopkin and Visconti married in 1971, and he produced a couple of singles for her on his Good Earth label (now divorced, the Viscontis produced two children too).

    Throughout the ’70s, she continued to perform in pantomime and summer seasons (what else did she know how to do?); in 1980 she formed part of the trio Sundance, and in ’84 she made an album (with Julian Lloyd Webber and Peter Skellern) as Oasis. Neither project saw American release.

    Mary Hopkin’s last recording to date was on George Martin’s 1988 all-star production of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, on which she played the part of Rosie Probert.

    Today, Hopkin lives in England. She writes songs with her 21-year old son and talks in vague terms about returning to the music business on her own terms.

    As for her Apple period, well, how to be diplomatic? For Mary Hopkin, the memories aren’t all bad, but those really weren’t the days.
    Prior to signing with Apple, you made several records on the Welsh label, Cambrian.

    I did a few EPs in the Welsh language, and I think they were particularly enjoyed in the Welsh settlements in America and South America. There was a television program, basically Welsh folk music and contemporary music, and I did a few of those. It was a good experience. And I used to sing for pocket money with the band we’d formed, with three local boys.

    We listened to English pop music, mostly. We did actually have a Welsh pop chart, but it was mostly folk music at that time. These days, they’ve gone on to do covers of a lot of the current American and English pop charts. I think they sound horrendous. In fact, I listen to the stuff I did then, covers of English songs, and they sound awful.

    What did you want to be in those days? Did you have designs on a folk singing career?

    Joan Baez and Bert Jansch were the first guitar-playing folk singers I ever really listened to; I was introduced to them by a friend of my father’s, who was a keen folk enthusiast. I learned to play guitar from Joan Baez records and things, but left to my own devices, I think, I’d have developed into a singer/songwriter. My development was rather halted halfway, when I was thrown in at the deep end of the music business.

    The old story is that Howard Hughes was a great fan of your Welsh-language records.

    I was rather amused by that. You could picture him as a recluse, sitting with his Kleenex on his lap, listening to his little Welsh girl. Very strange. Very odd.

    Your “big break” came on the ITV talent program Opportunity Knocks. What was that like?

    It was all terribly, terribly embarrassing at the time. It wasn’t something I want to be a party to. But I was sort of (talked) into doing it by the agent who was finding us work while I was still at school. Without my knowledge, he put my name down for this show. I was mortified when I heard he had done it. You can’t condemn that kind of show, because they can do a lot for people, and certainly it would’ve taken me a lot longer, if at all, to get into the music business, but the whole thing is terribly embarrassing. I did the audition, because my agent said it would be good experience to attend an audition.

    Do you remember what you sang on the show?

    The first thing I did was ‘Turn Turn Turn’, the Pete Seeger song. I just went on and did the Joan Baez songs I had learned up to that point. They’re a bit show business for my liking, those light entertainment shows. It smacks of cabaret and summer seasons.

    I presume this is where Twiggy comes into the picture.

    Hmm, yes. She was watching it, one of the many who do watch that sort of program. I’m not one of them. But I am grateful to Twiggy; she’s lovely and she certainly gave me a momentous start in the music business. I did the show on the day after my 18th birthday; I was still supposed to be studying for my final exams at school, my university entrance exams. Twiggy saw the show, and I think the next day saw Paul McCartney. He was telling her all about the new Apple label. And she said she’d seen this girl on Opportunity Knocks, and he should check me out.

    So I received a telegram, two days after the show, which I ignored for a few days. It said, “Ring Peter Brown at Apple Records” and I had never heard of either of them. I was a great Beatles fan, and I’d heard of the Apple Boutique, but nothing else. We didn’t know Apple Records was on the way.

    I left it on the shelf for three days, and then my mother said it would be polite to ring back. So I did, and I was put on to whom I thought was Peter Brown. And this chap had a distinct Liverpool accent.

    I started wondering at that point, making the connection with Apple but he asked me if I’d come to London and sing for him. I said, well, that depends and he realized I was being very cautious, so he asked my mother to come to the phone. So my mother came to the phone, and he said, “Oh, this is Paul McCartney. Would you like to bring your daughter to London to sing for me?”

    That was it really. I was whisked off there the next day and sang for him; we demoed at the little Dick James Demo Studios. I sang a few songs for him; then I was called back about two or three weeks later, and he sang a little song for me, sort of hummed it, and said, “I’ve had this song lying around for years. It’s called ‘Those Were The Days’.” And he said, “Let’s go in and do it.”

    ‘Those Were The Days’ sold eight million singles and bumped ‘Hey Jude’ from number one in England. Was there a game plan for your career, for following up its huge success?

    It was a bit haphazard, really. I think everyone was taken by surprise by the success of ‘Those Were The Days’. I don’t think anyone expected that to happen so quickly, you know. It went straight to the top of the charts, and it was number one in 13 different countries at one time, so I was whisked around the world and spent the next year promoting it.

    Did you have the impression that Paul wanted “a girl singer” on Apple, and was trying to groom you, to fit you into the mold?

    I’m not sure what he wanted. It was definitely an experiment. I felt as though it (Post Card) was an experiment to see what I was capable of, and that was not very much at that time. I didn’t take it that seriously at that time, I thought, “This is all right.” I didn’t realize I’d spend the next 20 years trying to live it down.

    On Post Card, you cut those big, show-stopping songs, like ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ and ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’. Was Paul pushing those on you?

    Not really. Paul and I talked things over. I didn’t know what I was capable of anyway, and I thought, “He must know better than I do.” I mean, I didn’t really question it. There were songs I was obviously much more comfortable with, like the Donovan songs. I was completely at ease with those, and those would’ve led directly into Earth Song Ocean Song, where I did choose the songs.

    On that first album, you sang Donovan’s acoustic ballad ‘Lord Of The Reedy River’.

    I loved that. The three of us just sat there, it was all done live, and I sang direct from Donovan’s lyric book, where he had just printed the words out. It was lovely, and that’s the way I would’ve liked to work. I don’t think there were any of their songs on Post Card, but as soon as I met Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, we clicked. We were obviously on the same wavelength.

    Did Paul score all those big orchestral arrangements on Post Card?

    Paul was always involved. He would go sit with George Martin and they would work it out. Sometimes it would come from George, and sometimes Paul would sing a little riff and say “this feel” or “that feel.” I can’t remember who did exactly what now. But Paul was very much involved.

    What did sudden success do to you?

    It didn’t change me very much, I don’t think. I was pretty naïve about a lot of things; having grown up in Welsh valleys, you’re quite protected and sheltered from the Big Bad World. I was experiencing a lot of new things, but probably because of my solid Welsh upbringing I rejected a lot of the things I didn’t want to associate with in the music business.

    I remember one quote from Paul in the press. He said, “She’s a Joan Baez type, but we’ll soon alter that.” That didn’t go down well with me; even though I thought Joan Baez was wonderful, I didn’t want to be too influenced by her. Like all young people, you listen to artists when you’re 12 or 13, and you learn their songs, but that doesn’t meant you end up being like them. You want to develop your own songs.

    The Beatles were having serious problems by 1969. Did you feel that Paul was paying less attention to your career?

    Of course. A year went by before he wrote ‘Goodbye’. And that was after I’d said, “Look, how about another single?” But I understood. Obviously his priority was the Beatles, that’s natural. He said he wrote ‘Goodbye’ in about 10 minutes. I’m not sure how true that is! It probably is.

    The two of you played acoustic guitar together on ‘Goodbye’ right?

    Yes, we did. And Paul put a thigh-slap on there – on his own thigh, I might add! It’s a good song for its kind, but whether it was suited to me, I don’t know. It was easy for me to do those songs. They were fun little pop songs. So it was very easy for me to say, “Oh. Okay. Yes.” But as soon as I realized what was happening, I started putting the reins on, and putting my foot down about what material I was going to do.

    I trusted Paul’s judgment, anyway. I would never condemn him for what he did; because he did what he felt was right for me. And I really enjoyed working with him.

    Were you aware of the chaos at Apple, and did it affect you?

    I was aware that it was disorganized; I think everyone involved in Apple would agree on that. I think they were just finding their feet; it was early days for them, and a lot of them were new to it anyway. [Beatles publicist] Derek Taylor mentioned in an interview over here that my management setup was pretty dreadful. I had no one to represent me at the time. Eventually, my brother-in-law took over as manager, but there was no one at Apple.

    Every time I did a television show, I always had an escort, a sort of acting manager. There were a couple of people, Terry Doran and Alistair Taylor. My sister didn’t manage me, which you sometimes read in the press – she was sort of pushed into the position of chaperone-come-spokesman, because I had no one else to represent me.

    Did you feel that they were overly concerned with your image?

    I don’t remember any formal discussions about it. Coming straight from school, I suppose I looked very innocent and little girl-ish. What I didn’t think was necessary was extra sugar-coating on the top of that. I felt they were exaggerating the image. If I’d be sitting in a bar with a drink, a glass of wine or something, and a photographer turned up, it would be whisked out of my hand and replaced with a Coke or a lemonade or something, by whoever was with me from Apple at the time.

    I thought that was rather silly, because it must’ve been embarrassing to Apple to have someone like me on the label, anyway. I thought, why exaggerate this image when it’s sickly enough as it is.

    Tell us about ‘Que Sera Sera’, the last single Paul produced for you.

    At the time, it was just one of Paul’s fun ideas. It was one sunny afternoon, we were sitting in Paul’s garden, and he said, “Do you like this song?” I said, “Well, I used to sing it when I was three!” And he said, “My dad likes it, let’s go and do it.” And so Ringo came along; it was all done in an afternoon. I was sort of swept along with Paul’s enthusiasm, really.

    By the time I was halfway through the backing vocals, I said, “This is awful.” I really thought it was dreadful and I didn’t want it released.

    Mickie Most came in and produced the next single, ‘Temma Harbour’.

    Had it been done by another artist who’d established themselves in a different vein, had I been an established singer/songwriter, for example, you can then do very twee little songs and get away with it. Like Sting did that ‘Happiness’ song. Someone like that, because he’s established, he can sing a twee song and everybody gets the joke.

    But when Mary Hopkin did something like that, the general public wouldn’t understand. Now I write very tongue-in-cheek, bitchy little songs. That’s what happened with the sugary image that was presented. It made it all very ghastly; songs like ‘Temma Harbour’, anything sugary, are really very nauseating to me.

    Why Mickie Most?

    The reason I worked with Mickie was that obviously Paul and I agreed that it wasn’t going to work out, because he hadn’t the time, and I had to get more material out. We came up with Mickie Most, and I thought, “Oh, that might be good,” because he’d produced Donovan, who was very sensitive and does beautiful music.

    Unfortunately, Mickie took a different approach with me. And that’s when the rot set in.

    The crunch was when Mickie visited me at my final summer season. We’d been going over some songs to record, and he said, “Choose the keys, and I’ll go away and record them. When you’ve got a chance, you come down and do the vocals.” I said no way; I have to be there. I want to discuss the arrangements. I don’t want to be a session singer, just come in at the end and stick a vocal on top, thank you very much.

    There is a perception that after the Beatles broke up, no one at the label paid any attention to the other Apple artists.

    I didn’t mind that, because I left Apple, by choice, after Earth Song Ocean Song. I was so demoralized by that time, because I’d finally done the album I wanted to, and Apple was encouraging about that, but I was then tied up in doing these horrendous summer shows, which preventing me from promoting that album. So it sort of fizzled out without a trace, because I wasn’t there to promote it. I remember reading a lovely write-up in Rolling Stone. But by that time it was too late. I’d been pushed more and more into the show business side.

    It’s very easily done, because when you’re surrounded by people who’ve been in the business for years, handled around to different agents, you say yes, the first time, because you don’t know what it’s all about. It’s hard to explain, but it’s easy to be manipulated when you’re 18, 19, and people say, “Ah, but you only have to do this one, and then you’ll be free to do the kind of material you want.” They have their ways of persuading you.

    Was it the best of times or the worst of times?

    I was so young at the time, I didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t realize immediately that it might harm me psychologically. I’m not sure how it’s harmed me as far as the public is concerned.

    You represented England in the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest, and you’ve said it was a real low point for you.

    I did lose my confidence. I really don’t want to sound too upset about it all, but at the same time it was unpleasant. I’d say.

    The music quality is appalling. The only decent thing that came out of it was ABBA, that kind of music. It was another embarrassing experience, an experience to crown them all really. I wish it had never happened. I was promised that that quality of songs for the competition would be improved, that they would be decent songs.

    And what happened?

    Well, they were dreadful. I was conned, basically. Not by the BBC, but just by people around me, who said it was very important that I do this. The song was ‘Knock Knock Who’s There’. I was devastated when I heard that, because by that time I was committed to doing it.

    That’s the problem, you see, you weren’t told exactly what was going on. So by the time you’d committed yourself, professionally, you couldn’t back out. It would be unprofessional.

    Aside from a few scattered singles and group recordings, you haven’t appeared much on record shelves since the Apple days. What are you doing now?

    I’m writing songs now, working either on my own or with other writers, in various styles. The songs that are important to me are the ones I’m writing with my son, Morgan, who’s living in New York. He’s 21, and he’s writing some amazing music. He sends me backing tracks and I write the melody and lyrics. And so far the response has been really good. We’re really enjoying it. We’re very much in tune. He writes what I hear, what I can’t put down, because as a musician he’s excellent. I’m fine with vocals, and basic guitar and piano, but I wouldn’t be able to put down a whole backing track as well as he does.

    Are you considering re-entering the music business?

    Although I’m not consciously looking for a record deal – I’ve had some unpleasant experiences in the past – I’m not interested unless I have full control over what I do. But my idea would be to have them released and do videos, and that’s it.

    So, how do you feel about the Those Were The Days album being released on CD?

    I’m not unhappy it’s coming out. Fortunately, I can sort of remove myself emotionally from it. I’m delighted that people who enjoyed the tracks then will get to hear them again. It’s always lovely. That’s why I don’t want to condemn them, really because if it gives people pleasure, it’s good. As a singer, it sort of demoralized me, but we shouldn’t harp on that, should we? I’ve moved on.

    Do people still recognize you, stop you on the street and say, “Mary Hopkin! ‘Those Were The Days’!?”

    I’m afraid so, yes. I’ve never liked that side of it. I’ve always really liked the music side when I’m in control of the music. Basically, I’m not a performer. I’ve never been comfortable onstage, really. I am a singer and now, hopefully, a songwriter. I love that. I feel as if I’m finally expressing myself in the way I want to.

    So the Apple days were like being in kindergarten, really, just falling over a lot and the whole world witnessing all my spelling mistakes.
    Song By Song

    Those Were The Days: The Best Of Mary Hopkin was compiled in 1972, and in its new greatly expanded form, by Hopkin herself. After our interview was completed, she was asked to comment on each of the album’s 17 tracks:

    ‘Those Were The Days’ : Good quality. I’m proud of that. It was a delight to do, especially since Pavarotti and his pals sang it.

    ‘Goodbye’: Jolly little song. I think slightly in the wrong direction, but it was fun at the time. I think it was good of Paul to write it for me.

    ‘Temma Harbour’: No. No. I did say no to this at the time. It was one of those long drawn-out arguments, really. I lost. Another artist, with some credibility, could’ve done that really well.

    ‘Knock Knock Who’s There’: That wasn’t Mickie’s fault, even though he produced it. That was from the other side of things, nothing to do with Apple. It was just a lot of other people wanting me to do the Eurovision Song Contest. It was the accepted thing, if you were a popular singer then, that you would represent the country that year, you know.

    ‘Think About Your Children’: I lost a lot of confidence because of the material I was doing. And I suppose I’ve only myself to blame anyway, but all I can say is that I was very young at the time, and however much I disagreed, there were about 15 people who would oppose me. It was very hard to stand up to all these experienced businessmen.

    ‘Que Sera Sera’: As far as I remember, it’s just Paul and Ringo. I don’t think he added anything else. It was all finished in that one afternoon.

    ‘Lontano Dagli Occhi’: That was another song contest, in Italy. Again, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I had never been to Italy, and I thought, “Good, I’ll go to Italy.”

    ‘Sparrow’: ‘Sparrow’ was lovely, because that’s when my friendship with [songwriters] Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle started. And we’ve been friends ever since, which is about the most wonderful thing that’s come out of my time with Apple. It was a little somber, on reflection, but at the time I was happy with it.

    ‘Heritage’: I think that’s one of the ones where I just sat in the studio with Benny and Graham on acoustic guitars. I loved everything they were involved with.

    ‘Fields Of St. Etienne’: That’s one of my all-time favorites. Beautiful song. Apparently, the first time it was released on an album, it was a different arrangement. It might’ve been the chap who did ‘Those Were The Days’, Richard something. Paul produced the other version, which was a bit over the top. And having been told that they were re-releasing it, I begged them to find the version I did with Benny and Graham. Which I think this is.

    ‘Jefferson’: The country “Ya-hoo” song. Pleasant, fun, yes, not their best song. But it was fun working with them; we were great friends by then.

    ‘Let My Name Be Sorrow’: I think my friend Ralph McTell found this – a French writer, I think. I loved it; it’s all a bit melodramatic, looking back, the way I sang it and the way it was arranged.

    They were a bit over the top. Vocally, my voice hadn’t matured enough to cope with any of these really. Many of the heavier ones.

    I can’t blame Paul for thinking I should sing light, jolly little songs, really. But there could’ve been a happy compromise – I could’ve sung some more of the contemporary folk things.

    ‘Kew Gardens’: Oh, that’s a delightful little song. That’s a twee song, but it’s very sweet. It’s not one of my all-time favorites, but since Ralph wrote it, it’s a very sensitive little song.

    ‘When I Am Old One Day’: I haven’t even heard it since then. We recorded it, but I think we had enough tracks for the album, and that was one of the ones that got left out in the end.

    ‘Silver Birch And Weeping Willow’: Quite honestly, I didn’t want to include my absolute favourites on this album, because they didn’t fit in with it as a collection of songs. So I chose the lighter songs, really. ‘Silver Birch’ is another gentle, sweet song of Ralph’s.

    ‘Streets Of London’: I wasn’t ever happy with my vocal on that. It’s a beautiful song, but only Ralph can sing it really. We have this argument, Ralph and I: He thinks I didn’t do it justice. It’s in this collection because I do love the Earth Song Ocean Song album. It had such a beautiful atmosphere there. It has all the best musicians – Ralph, Danny (Thompson) and Dave (Cousins, of the Strawbs) and Tony produced it very well and wrote lovely string arrangements. It was all very sensitive, and that’s the way I wanted to work.



  • [Article 287]These were my boys, the greatest in the world’: A conversation with George Martin

    George-Martin-conducting-Beatles@1993 Bill DeYoung

    At age 67, George Martin is one of the longest–lived architects of rock ‘n’ roll. Born in London, he was an oboe player and composer of classical melodies who found steady work as a staff producer and conductor at EMI’s recording studios at No. 3 Abbey Road. In the ’50s and early ’60s, Martin’s pop successes included hits by singer Matt Monro, and comedy discs by the likes of Peter Sellers, Rolf Harris and Beyond the Fringe.

    He was 36 and bored with his job when Brian Epstein presented him with the Beatles’ demo recordings. Every other label in England had turned Epstein down, but Martin–with his keen ear for melody and complex harmony, and an affection for warmth and humor–heard something that no one else had.

    The middle part of this story is blood–familiar to every Beatle person worth his salt (or, should we say, his pepper). Martin shaped, developed, encouraged, discouraged and forged the Beatles’ sound over their nearly eight–year relationship. He arranged almost every song they ever recorded, wrote all the orchestral scores (with a few exceptions) and–save the Let it Be debacle–is listed as producer on every single Beatles record.

    Martin has written and recorded numerous instrumental works over the years (most of them Beatles–related) and, in those heady days of 1963–64 produced many, many chart–toppers for British artists (the great majority of them managed by Epstein).

    After the Fabs’ breakup, he went on to man the boards for America, Jeff Beck and others, and he produced a triumvirate of Paul McCartney solo albums in the ’80s. Most recently, he handled production chores for the original cast album of Tommy, at the behest of Pete Townshend.

    That’s all well and good, but if George Martin had never crossed paths with the Beatles (and they with him), his work with other artists would be little more than a footnote in the book of rock ‘n’ roll. His credits are a mile long, but one stands head, shoulders, knees and toes above the rest. He was truly the Fifth Beatle, one of the most important figures in popular music history. His contributions may never be fully absorbed.

    Although AIR Studios, which he began in 1966 (contracting out to the Beatles and EMI until 1970) is still operational in London, its branch on the Caribbean island of Montserrat was destroyed by 1989′s Hurricane Hugo.

    This year, Martin supervised the digital remastering of the anthology albums, The Beatles 1962–66 and The Beatles 1967–70 at EMI. His Beatles work, as you’ll read in this interview, is far from over.

    Bill DeYoung: John Lennon used to say that when he heard a Beatles song, it automatically brought him back to the recording session, what he was playing, how he was feeling that day. Is it the same way for you?

    George Martin: Not really. Looking back at all the songs, it’s a long time ago, and I purposely over the years hadn’t looked back at the songs. My life has been so busy, I’ve tended to go on and look at tomorrow rather than today, or even yesterday. And I find that you can get too obsessive about the past. I did find, however, that when I did that television program on The Making Of Sgt. Pepper a couple of years ago, that of course forced me to look back and see what was going on. And it was the first time, to be honest; in all those years I’d really looked back and started thinking deeply about the past.

    When I think of a song – if you play me “Paperback Writer” or “Norwegian Wood” – sometimes I will think about things…in the case of “Norwegian Wood,” it immediately brings it back to a hotel in St. Moritz, where John and I had a skiing holiday together. And he wrote the song during the time there, so that’s obviously very evocative. But if you take a song that doesn’t have that particular kind of nostalgia, it’s a kind of blur. “Fool On The Hill,” I can remember how we did that…but there were so many, and there are so much of them, that it’s all one sort of melting, shimmering haze.

    Bill DeYoung: You played piano on a lot of songs during the early years; it’s particularly evident on the ‘Hard Day’s Night’–era tracks. Was that literally because no one else could do it?

    George Martin: To begin with, of course, none of them knew what a keyboard was like. They were guitar players. When I first met them, I was aware that they were guitar men and I was a keyboard man. And if you’re running through a new song for the first time, a guitar player will look at another guy’s fingers and see the shapes. You can see what the guy’s doing on the fret, and you know what chord he’s playing. If you then take that guitar player, and he doesn’t know anything about keyboards, what you play on the piano will be completely meaningless to him. He won’t understand the chords at all. And a keyboard player, if he knows a bit about guitar, won’t understand what the chords are by looking at his hands. There’s a hidden language there.

    So I actually said to myself, “Hey, I’m going to have to learn the guitar, because I’ll need to communicate with these guys on their level.” And Paul, at the same time, said the same thing to himself: He said, “I think I’ll have to learn piano, to see what George is up to.” Because what I used to do, whenever Paul or John sang me a song, I’d sit on a high stool and they’d play it in front of me. And I’d learn it, and I’d then go to the keyboard and I’d say, “Is this is?” and I’d play through the chords and hum the tune. And they’d say, “Yeah, that’s fine, Okay,” and I’d know the song.

    Bill DeYoung: That piano sound was very distinctive.

    George Martin: Piano’s a very useful instrument. And, of course, Paul was the one who actually took it up and learned it more quickly and more adaptably than anybody else. I mean, he’s such a fine, versatile musician; he could play almost any instrument if he set his mind to it. So that by the time he got to “Lady Madonna,” he was doing a bloody good solo. He couldn’t possibly have done that in 1962.

    And John never really mastered the keyboard. His idea of playing the piano was having a group of triads – you know, three notes that formed a chord – and just go up and down the scale with them. He could play rhythm all right on keyboard, but he wasn’t very clever at doing single notes or lines.

    Bill DeYoung: It’s been theorized that your classical music background, and your work on comedy records, were big factors in making the unprecedented new pop sound that you made.

    George Martin: I tried to turn them on to it. We did get counterpoint into their work. I remember during “Eleanor Rigby,” which was quite a breakthrough in a way, when we were actually recording it I realized that one of the phrases could work against another phrase, that, they hadn’t designed that way.

    In other words, “Ah, look at all the lonely people” actually could come at the end of the piece. Which it does. I put it in; got them to sing it…they were knocked out by that. “Hey, yeah, those two things go together! It’s great, innit? It works well.” It had never occurred to them; never occurred to Paul. But that was a lesson for him. Because I’m sure that when he came to write “She’s Leaving Home,” that was, definitely, two lines working against each other. It was one broad melody, and another one kind of answering underneath it. He leaned how to use that weaving of lines.

    Bill DeYoung: They were like sponges, in a way, weren’t they?

    George Martin: They learned so quickly. But when I first met them, I had absolutely no idea at all they could write decent material. They wrote songs that were pretty awful – “One After 909,” and “P.S. I Love You” and “Love Me Do” was the best of them. It was pretty rough stuff.

    I didn’t really blame the guy who turned them down so much. In fact, everybody turned them down, more or less, on the grounds that their material wasn’t very good, I imagine.

    Bill DeYoung: Do you remember exactly when they stopped being your students in the studio and started pretty much calling their own shots, coming to you simply for advice?

    George Martin: There was no one moment. It was a gradual drift. By the time we got to a song like “Walrus” or any of John or Paul’s later songs, they would have very definite ideas on what they wanted to do, which they hadn’t to begin with. It was a gradual drift so that they became the teachers, almost at the end, and I was the pupil.

    What I do remember, though, was that having rejected all the stuff that they had, and accepting only “Love Me Do,” I had actually rejected “Please Please Me,” in those very early days of 1962, saying “This is no good, this song, it’s very dreary. If you’re going to make anything of it at all, you need to double the speed and really put some pep into it. Make something really worthwhile. Maybe use some harmonica on it.” Because when they played it first to me, it was Paul singing a very kind of winsome, Roy Orbison slow ballad. Which was very dreary.

    Well, they learned from that, because when I gave them “How Do You Do It,” and we made a record of that, they still wanted to have their material. They said, “We’ve been working on ‘Please Please Me,’ we’d like you to listen to it.” And the result was good. And that gave them an incentive, then, to do better things from that moment onward.

    Bill DeYoung: Had you tried that in 1968, say around “Hey Jude” time, would they have said, “Don’t tell us what to do, George?”

    George Martin: I don’t think so. I don’t think they ever rejected anything I said. All of us in the studio, including Ringo, had equal voices. And the five of us would look at things and try to make things better. They were much more fruitful by this time, so that if I did have something that I didn’t like…in the case of “Hey Jude” I said, “Do you think we’re being a bit unwise, going on for seven minutes?” And Paul said, “No, it’s there. Can you get it on a record?” I said, “I can get it on, but it’s not exactly a single. DJs will fade it.” I was being practical, and I was wrong, because he was right, because it was right that it should be seven minutes. And it always has been, ever since.

    Curiously enough, Paul and I have always been good friends, and we’ve often had dinner with our wives and so on. And about eight years later, ’78 or ’79 I’d say, we were having dinner one night and Paul, at the end of it said, “By the way, I’d like you to produce my next record.”

    I fell apart and I said, “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

    He said, “Come on! Don’t be so silly! Why not?”

    I said, “Because things have changed now. You’re a good producer in your own right, and I don’t want to spoil a beautiful friendship, thank you very much.”

    He laughed and said, “Why don’t you think it’ll work?”

    I said, “Because I don’t think you will accept the direction that I have to give you as a producer.”

    He said, “Of course I will. We know each other too well for that. How could it not work?”

    I said, “Well, there’s a selection of songs, for a start.”

    “Do you want me to audition for you?!?!!” he said, jokingly.

    I said, “Not quite, Paul.” But, I said, “I’ve got to be able to choose your songs and tell you what’s good and what’s bad.”

    And he swallowed. That had never occurred to him. By this time, all of them had got to the stage where everyone revered them so much that they hadn’t quite thought anyone would dare to suggest that anything they did wasn’t terribly good.

    He said, “You’re quite right. I’ve got 14 songs.”

    I said, “Give them to me, and I’ll listen to them over the weekend. I’ll tell you about them on Monday.”

    He rung me on Monday and said, “What about it, then?”

    I said, “Well, I’ve listened to every one of them.”

    He said, “Good.”

    I said, “Four are great.”

    He said, “Four???!!”

    I said, “Six need a lot of work on them, and the other four you can throw away.”

    There was a kind of distant silence. But Paul is a sensible and honorable fellow, and he said, “All right, you and I had better talk about it, and we’d better sort them out.” And we did, and we made a very happy album.

    I think that people, when they become superstars, they have to have someone to tell them…they’re surrounded so many times by people who tell them they’re the greatest thing in the world; they need to have an honest opinion. It’s the emperor and his new clothes, isn’t it?

    Bill DeYoung: Near the end of the Beatle years, did you consider yourself friends? Or was the relationship like that of an employee to an employer? This was White Album, Abbey Road time.

    George Martin: The White Album was a funny one, because at the time they came back from abroad and they all had a huge collection of songs they wanted to record. And they wanted them done all at the same time. By this time, they were four individuals with their individual songs, wanting to record them with the assistance of the other people, rather than being a group. I couldn’t cope with it all at once. We were actually recording in a couple of the studios at the same time, identically. John would be in one studio, and Paul would be in another. And I was running from one place to another. I had a very able assistant by this time, a guy called Chris Thomas, who’s now a first–class producer. We shared the work, so I would come in and see what he was doing, and supervise and so on.

    But it was such a frantic time; I never really worried about any sort of splits there. The real cracks appeared during Let It Be. That was the worst time.

    Bill DeYoung: With regard to the White Album, you’ve said that you tried to get them to cut it down to a single–disc, 14–track album. What would you have cut out?

    George Martin: That’s a good question, because it’s now such an accepted album. Everyone thinks it’s terrific. A lot of people say it’s their favorite album. Don’t forget, I was looking at it from the point of view of the songs when I heard them, rather than the songs when they were finished. I said to myself, “Let’s pick the best and most commercial songs, and let’s work on those. Let’s forget the other ones for the moment.”

    I’m not saying we wouldn’t have recorded those other songs, but I would like to have made a really great album out of the best of the stuff there, and concentrated and work very hard on them. But they wanted everything done at once. I thought they were dissipating their energies rather than focusing them. That was my concern. There are one or two items of dross on the White Album.

    Bill DeYoung: Such as?

    George Martin: I haven’t got the list in front of me. You’ll have to read them off. Was “Bungalow Bill” on that? “Honey Pie?”

    Bill DeYoung: Yes, and “Wild Honey Pie,” “Revolution 9,” “Birthday.”

    George Martin: “Birthday.” Well, there you go. You’re picking them for me! There are songs that are not at the front rank, put it that way. From other groups they probably would be front rank, but these are my boys, they’re the greatest in the world, and that’s the way I saw it.

    Bill DeYoung: The songs that remain unreleased today: “Leave My Kitten Alone,” “If You’ve Got Troubles,” “That Means A Lot.” Was there a sense while you were cutting them that they were hopeless? Or were they just culled at the end of the sessions?

    George Martin: There were many instances when they would come in and not get very good results. I don’t remember the specific circumstances; quite often, they would be done at the tail end of sessions, or sometimes they would be done because they came into the studio and they didn’t have anything else.

    Bill DeYoung: Would you like to see that stuff released?

    George Martin: Now that all the water’s gone under the bridge and everybody’s much older and wiser, we are actually now looking at putting out a kind of definitive, all–encompassing Beatle anthology.

    They’ve certainly been doing it on film; the boys themselves have been collecting a hell of a lot of footage and interesting visual programming. They’ve got about six hours assembled so far. And toward the end of next year, or maybe 1995, there will be the beginnings of a television series of hours. It’ll be tracing the history of the boys from when they were kids right through to the dissolution in ’70.

    Now there will be an accompanying series of albums, which will go alongside that. But they won’t be the soundtrack, because the soundtrack will be spasmodic and so on. They will be complementary rather than identical. And for that, I’m going to delve, and I’m going to look at every source–bootlegs that are in good condition. I’m going to look at radio broadcasts, live performances, demo records, all sorts of things apart from anything else we did in the studio, and I shall collate, polish, look at, criticize, chuck away, but maybe issue anything that I think is worthwhile, that actually traces their history.

    Bill DeYoung: The bootleg CDs that are out now, some of the stuff is pretty phenomenal.

    George Martin: So I understand! And where the material came from in the first place is most interesting. I’d love to know. I’ve heard some of it, and some of the quality is remarkably good.

    Bill DeYoung: You don’t think anyone knows how they got out?

    George Martin: I think all these things will probably be incorporated in what I’m talking about. It doesn’t make sense for them to go out on bootlegs, does it?

    Bill DeYoung: In his 1970 Rolling Stone interview, John made several disparaging remarks about Beatles recordings, what he called the “Dead Beatles sound.” Did that hurt your feelings at the time?

    George Martin: Very much! John went through a really crazy period. I was very incensed about that interview. I think everybody was. I think he slagged off everybody, including the Queen of England. I don’t think anyone escaped his attention.

    When I saw him back in L.A. some years later, and we spent an evening together, I said, “You know, you were pretty rough in that interview, John.” He said, “Oh, Christ, I was stoned out of my fucking mind.” He said, “You didn’t take any notice of that, did you?” I said, “Well I did, and it hurt.”

    He went through a very, very bad period of heavy drugs, and Rolling Stone got him during one of those periods. He was completely out of it. John had a very sweet side to him. He was a very tender person at heart. He could also be very brutal and very cruel. But he went through a very crazy time. The tragedy of John was that he’d been through all that and he’d got out the other side. And he really was becoming the person that I knew in the early days again.

    I spent an evening with him at the Dakota not long before he died, and we had a long evening rapping about old times, which was marvelous. That’s now my happiest memory of him, because he really was back to his own self.

    Bill DeYoung: You were recording Tug Of War with Paul the day John died. Just for the record, where were you when you heard about it?

    George Martin: I lived about 80 miles west of London, and he (Paul) lived 70 miles south. We were both in our respective homes. It was six o’clock in the morning, and somebody rang me from America and told me the news, which was not a good way to start the day. I immediately picked up the phone and I rang Paul, and I asked if he’d heard it. He had heard it.

    And after a few moments together, I said, “Paul, you obviously don’t want to come in today, do you?” He said, “God, I couldn’t possibly not come in. I must come in. I can’t stay here with what’s happened. Do you mind?” I said, “No, I’m fine. I’ll meet you.”

    So we went into AIR studios in London. We were supposed to record that day. Of course, we didn’t put down a single note, because we got there and we fell on each other’s shoulders, and we poured ourselves tea and whiskey, and sat round and drank and talked. And we grieved for John all day, and it helped. At the end of the day we went back to our homes.

    Now, one of the ironies and one of the bitter bits about life is that Paul, when he came out of the studio, of course was surrounded by reporters and journalists. He still was in a deep state of shock. They photographed him, and they flashed him, and they said him the usual sort of zany and stupid reporter questions. The question was, “How do you feel about John dying then, Paul?” I don’t know what you’re supposed to say to that. And he looked and he shrugged and he said, “Yeah, it’s a drag, isn’t it?” And went off into the night.

    And he was slated for that. He was mercilessly attacked saying, “How callous can you be?” And I felt every inch for him. He was unwise, but he was off his guard. It was tough.

    Bill DeYoung: You recently scored Paul’s song “C’Mon People.” You must have a pretty good working relationship with him.

    George Martin: I don’t produce because I’m too old and he’s a good producer anyway. I don’t want to produce. In fact, he’s asked me if I would. But life’s too short. But he had this song and he said, “Would you mind doing a bit of scoring for me?” So I listened to it and I said, “Okay, why not?” And it was fun. It’s nice occasionally working together. I wouldn’t want to make a habit out of it.

    Bill DeYoung: You’ve done a lot of remastering and CD transfer for EMI on these Beatles projects. When you get to the Phil Spector songs, “The Long And Winding Road” and that, are you ever tempted to twiddle the knobs and just wipe out those strings and choirs?

    George Martin: (Laughing) You bet I am! It’s a silly thing, really, because that was a wounding thing. And I don’t honestly think those tracks are as good as we should have made them. But hell, they were there, and they’re history now. If you’re a sensible bloke, you just say, “That’s it.” And obviously, when you’re transferring to CD, it’s got to be as it was when it was issued, and that’s the end of it.

    Bill DeYoung: Maybe you’ll get to change some when you do this anthology next year.

    George Martin: Well, you can’t really change the artistic content…that would be wrong. My brief was to try and reproduce on CD what we heard on analog. That was my prime motive, to try and make it sound, on CD, with the same warmth and quality we have on analog. Which is not an easy thing, by the way. So when it comes to the question of changing things, no, if I changed it, I would’ve re–scored it, and all that kind of thing.

    Bill DeYoung: On the American LPs, they added all that echo and awful stuff. Did you used to hear that, and throw your hands in the air?

    George Martin: Of course I did, but I was powerless to do anything about it. Capitol ran the roost. And they used to take the credit for it too.

    Bill DeYoung: Do you know why they did those things?

    George Martin: Ego? I don’t know! I mean, there’s a guy who actually put his name on the records, saying he produced them. So you tell me. Eventually, when we do this anthology thing, then we’ll go back over all those albums and make sure they’re in the right order, and in the original versions as well as other stuff. It’ll be quite a big job, but it’ll be fascinating to do. The last thing I’ll ever do with the Beatles.

    Bill DeYoung: You think so?

    George Martin: I guess so. The final thing. The final solution.

    Bill DeYoung: So you’re content with being known as The Beatles Guy now?

    George Martin: Well, you can’t escape these epithets. You get pigeonholed. Some people think I’ve never done anything else.

     

    (Post-script: Well, so much has changed. Where do we start? Nevertheless, I am proud that this interview is now a very small part of the Beatles-history jigsaw puzzle. BDY, 2012.)



  • Featured Image[Article 243]Didn’t you used to be Grace Slick?” (2007)

    main-photoOn TV a few days ago, there was Grace Slick, on one of those insufferable I Love the ’80s shows, singing “We Built This City” in a 20–year–old video.

    This was the nadir of an illustrious career that began with Jefferson Airplane, one of the most groundbreaking of the 1960s rock bands. Slick was the world’s very first female rock ‘n’ roll star, and by the time of “We Built This City” — which has recently been voted the lamest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine — she was in her late 40s, posing and pandering to a young audience.

    I mentioned this to Slick, who was calling from her home in Los Angeles.

    “The ’80s were stupid, we all dressed stupid, and the songs kept getting worse and worse,” she said with a throaty laugh. “But I had stopped drinking and was trying my best to be good.”

    It wasn’t long after the debacle of “We Built This City” — which, of course, was a Number One record — that Slick quit the music business altogether.

    Part of it, she admitted, was her well–known fondness for alcohol. Mostly, however, she was feeling her age, and she felt like a hypocrite singing “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” when she no longer felt them, or believed them, or thought the audience would rather hear stuff like “We Built This City.”

    These days Slick, who’ll turn 68 Tuesday, concentrates on her artwork. She works in pastels, pen and ink and scratchboard, and concentrates mostly on iconic ’60s images — Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the like. She has also painted herself and the other founding members of the Airplane.

    She is happy with who she is. One of her favorite phrases is “age–appropriate.”

    “I don’t dye my hair, and I’m not busy doing pilates and trying to look 35 years old,” she said. “Even though I live in L.A. and that’s what everybody else is doing. I don’t care.

    “I’m an old lady, that’s the way I look, that’s what I am and I do what’s pretty much appropriate for my age.”

    Q. So are you officially retired?

    A. Sure, call it whatever you want. I thought I was retired when I was 50. Apparently not! People say interesting stuff to me because I’m old and fat and have white hair — they say “Didn’t you used to be Grace Slick?” And they’re right. I used to be a persona that’s Grace Slick.

    I don’t like old people on a rock stage. I think they look silly. You can do jazz till you’re 150, you can do opera, blues, country-western … rap and rock ‘n’ roll seem, to me, to be a young person’s medium. For them to scream and yell and get all that anger out.

    When you’re in your teens and 20s, you discover that adults don’t know what they’re doing. And it pisses you up so you start yelling about it. Good thing to do! Instead of taking a gun to school and killing a bunch of people, write some angry songs and make them good, and get some money for them.

    Q. Others from your old band are still out there performing. I saw Paul Kantner and Marty Balin recently, and the show, honestly, was pretty terrible.

    A. The thing is, I can hang it up. They can’t. Paul is notoriously terrible with money. The money’s in publishing — Paul always had more songs on the albums, so he should be the richest guy. And he’s not. Marty has to work to pay medical bills. Paul has to work because he fritters money away.

    So they have to do it, because what else are they gonna do? They’re not trained for anything else. And unfortunately it’s not very good.

    Some of ‘em have to do it to pay the bills, and some of ‘em just need that applause.

    Now, the Rolling Stones are still pretty good. But you’re listening to somebody singing “I can’t get no satisfaction” who’s got lines all over his face, and the wattles under the chin are wagging back and forth. As soon as your chin doesn’t go with your face, when you turn it real fast, it’s time to get out of rock ‘n’ roll.

    You feel like a jerk singing songs that have absolutely no relevance to either the time or your age. I hate to be appropriate at anything, but there’s a thing called age–appropriate.

    Q. When did art come into it for you?

    A. I started drawing when I was very little, but I can only do one thing at a time. One man, one car, one child. One job at a time. I don’t multi–task. Jerry Garcia used to take his paints on the road — I don’t do that. Either I’m busy being a singer or I’m busy being a painter. Not both. Although sometimes I had little sketches and things inside the album covers.

    Q. Why all the ’60s imagery?

    A. It started because I was asked to draw rock ‘n’ roll people for a book I wrote. I thought it was way too cute — “Rock ‘n’ roll draws rock ‘n’ roll — aw, isn’t that cute!” But once I started doing it, I got interested in those people, so I don’t mind it. Now, it’s a challenge for me to see what other aspect of them I can bring out.

    If I’m not drunk, I do what I’m told. When I’m drunk, I’ll probably do the exact opposite just to piss you off. I’m sarcastic and kind of self–willed sober, but when you put alcohol into anybody, usually whatever they are just gets intensified.

    So if my agent says we need more Hendrix, or more bunnies, or more nudes, then I do it. Sometimes it’s a commission from somebody. I won’t do somebody’s uncle, but I’ll do your idea. You can tell me what to draw, but you can’t tell me how to draw it.

    Q. You weren’t there when the Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why?

    A. I have a medical thing where I can’t move standing up for more than about 10 minutes. And they were going to play. It’s very rare — whenever my feet get about 64 degrees it feels like somebody poured boiling water on ‘em. And they don’t know how to cure it, because there’s so few people with it that the drug companies wouldn’t make any money off the medication even if they could figure it out.

    You don’t do rock ‘n’ roll standing in a box of ice. If you’re 67 or 68, get off the stage. That’s what happens when you get old — you’re basically falling apart. Getting on a rock ‘n’ roll stage is just not a cool thing to do, I don’t think.

    Q. Are you still drinking?

    A. I haven’t had any alcohol for 10 or 11 years. Mainly because it’s not a good enough drug. I don’t have anything against drugs. Man has always taken drugs. So do animals, as a matter of fact. “Just Say No” just cracked me up. Like that’s gonna be happening.

    Being an alcoholic, if I have the amount that I like, then the next morning is just too godawful. And I’m too old for that. The older you get, the less your body is able to recover from things.

    However, if they were to start making Quaaludes again, I’d be buying ‘em. Those are my favorite all–time drugs. I liked those better than alcohol, but they stopped making them about 30 years ago.

    Here’s the thing: Now Valium is popular. Do you know how long it takes to get off Valium? Six months! The worst drugs to come down off of are Valium and Methadone. Not heroin!

    I’m not saying don’t take drugs. I think drugs are fabulous, including some prescribed by doctors. But you’ve got to know going in, with either the street drugs or the doctors’ drugs, it might kill you. Same thing as being Evel Knievel — you jump over 15 barrels on a motorcycle, that might kill you.

    All Valium does to me is make me stupid and tired. If I want to go to sleep, I’ll go to sleep. I don’t need to be stupid AND tired. I can be stupid all by myself.

    Q. Do you still listen to music? Any artists that you’re fond of?

    A. Oh yeah, there’s a band I just love called Del Castillo, out of Texas. They’re on my deck in the car at the moment. I love Daughtry as a singer, who came out of “American Idol.” If he gets good songs, that’s the problem. All these kids need is a good song.

    Celine Dion has really only had one hit song in this country, but her voice is so good. But what she does onstage gags me, because it’s too orchestrated and corny. When you say something about your heart, you don’t point to your f––––in’ heart. Leave your hands alone, honey. Just stand there and sing.

    As far as attitude, I like Pink. Christina Aguilera has got a great voice, although I’m not fond of everybody imitating Marilyn Monroe with the platinum hair. Gwen Stefani. Britney Spears when she’s dressed up. I think “Why don’t you invent your own look?”

    Q. Do you consider yourself a survivor?

    A. Apparently I scraped by without knowing it. It’s not ’cause I’m smart or anything, it’s just that I missed that negative chemical reaction that happened with some other people. For whatever reason.

    It’s not that I’m so marvelous, I just missed that boat that goes to Death. A bunch of times. We’re all just a bunch of meat and chemicals, if you get right down to it. The chemicals have all re–organized themselves for me.

    And I’m grateful, but I don’t know how that works.



  • Featured Image[Article 236]Looking back with Bo Diddley (2002)

    boAt age 74, Bo Diddley may not be a spring chicken, exactly, but he’s hardly courting the rocking chair. Although Bo and his wife Sylvia live a relatively quiet life on 80 acres in Central Florida, six nights a month you’ll find the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer on a stage somewhere in America, wailing on his rectangular guitar, pounding out the most intoxicating of primitive rhythms, and singing with all the energy and fervor of a man half his age.

    Bo Diddley, he’s a man. Spelled M–A–N.

    He’d rather be retired, casting for bass or tinkering with an old car engine, but this is how he makes his living. He receives no publishing royalties, having sold his great songs many years ago to clear up some debts. The terms of the record contracts he signed in the 1950s afford him very little money—if he didn’t perform today, he says, he wouldn’t have any steady income.

    He’s been an entertainer all his life, though, and nothing gives him more pleasure than making an audience happy.

    And those audiences, they know who he is. He likes that.

    “I was first, man,” Diddley said. “Wasn’t nobody doing nothin’ until I thought of it. I was about a year and a half before Elvis Presley. And I don’t like it when they jump up and say Elvis started rock ‘n’ roll. That’s a lie. He didn’t do it. He was really good, a fantastic entertainer, but he didn’t do it.”

    Bo Diddley’s great contribution to rock ‘n’ roll was as an innovator. He did things with rhythms that nobody in blues or country & western music had thought of. He figured out how to snake in and out of the breathy rhythm of a tremelo guitar. He introduced a toughness, a pride, into rock ‘n’ roll during its infancy, stitching in the naked, howling urgency of urban blues. Songs spoke volumes with just one chord. The rest—swagger, humor, lust and cool – was all Bo Diddley.

    He likes to refer to himself as The Originator. “I think all the time,” Diddley explained. “I’m always sitting somewhere trying to put something together that somebody else ain’t did.”

    In his 70s, he’s still as sharp and straightforward as that skinny, nearsighted cat in the checkered jacket and bow tie, crowing about a stripper named Mona, trading musical jibes with a rubber–faced dude named Jerome, or asking a woman named Arline, flat out, who do you love? “I’m just 23 and I don’t mind dyin’,” he boasted.

    He still writes music, although doesn’t realistically expect Snoop Dogg or Eminem to call him for advice. “They’re not breaking down any doors to get cats my age,” Diddley said. “They think that I’m finished. And I’m a tricky son of a bitch. I’m not finished, I just learned what to do.”

    He was born Ellas Bates on Dec. 30, 1928, a black Creole, in the southern Mississippi delta land between McComb and Magnolia. Just about everyone in the extended family picked cotton for a living. His teen–aged mother wasn’t able to raise a child in that impoverished climate, so at age eight months Ellas went to live with his mother’s first cousin, Gussie McDaniel, and her husband, Robert.

    “That’s the way things was in those days,” Diddley recalled. “Everybody raised everybody else’s kids. I knew it as uncles and cousins and all that kind of stuff. There was quite a few of us. We shared everything.

    “It ain’t like it is today. If your parents were next door and you didn’t happen to be a relative, if your parents had run out of some cornmeal or flour or bacon or whatever, if your mother was trying to cook, all she had to do was go across the field and ask Miss So–and–So could she borrow something? No problem.”

    Robert McDaniel’s death in 1934 meant Gussie had to look for better work; she decided to join the flood of emigrants heading north.

    So at age 7, Ellas relocated, with Gussie and her own kids, to the South Side of Chicago. His name became, legally, Ellas Bates McDaniel. They rented a house at 4746 Langley Avenue and joined the congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

    He loved the urbanity of his new digs and he fit right in. In Chicago, “treatment of black people was better. In the South, things were really screwed up. It didn’t have to be that way, but I guess that’s the way it was.”

    It was here, in grammar school, he got his lifelong nickname. “The kids there started calling me Bo Diddley,” he said. “I still don’t know what the hell it means…but I know what it means in German!” (It’s a vulgarity.) Initially, the kids had called him “Mac,” because of his surname.

    Young Ellas announced he wanted to learn to play violin with the Ebenezer Sunday School Band. “I wanted to do what I’d seen some dudes doing, with a stick draggin’ across some strings and makin’ music,” Diddley said. “The church took up a collection, and the violin cost $29 at that time. And they bought me one. The lessons was like 50 cents a lesson. Are you ready for that? You can’t even talk to nobody on the phone for that today.”

    He took lessons from Rev. O.W. Frederick—squinting at the dots on the page through his Coke–bottle glasses—and was soon proficient enough to play his instrument in church. He also sang in the choir.

    One December five years later, Ellas was out shopping with his sister Lucille (technically, his first cousin). “We went to this music store to buy some candy,” he recalled. “And they had the ol’ raggedy guitar hangin’ up in there. And I looked at it, and I told my sister ‘I want one of them.’

    “I remember her saying ‘You want everything you see.’ I’m the same way today, man, if I see something that looks weird, I want to try that dude out.

    “She bought it for me. It cost $29 or $30, almost the same thing with the violin. It was a old Kay guitar with two strings on it.”

    Frustrated at trying to play blues and jive music on his violin—he never got it to sound quite right—Ellas was immediately comfortable around the guitar. “When I liked what I heard John Lee Hooker doing, I said if this cat can play guitar, I know I can learn,” he said.

    “I tried to play ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ running up and down them two strings. And I finally got enough pop bottle money. Strings were like 12 cents a piece. You’d buy one string at a time, until you got all of ‘em.”

    Bo Diddley never learned how to properly tune the guitar; to this day, he still doesn’t know the names of the strings or their proper pitch.

    “I tuned it by accident,” he said. “I liked what I heard. I tuned the thing, didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It was said that Lonnie Johnson used to tune his guitar that way. I said ‘Who in the heck is Lonnie Johnson?’

    “This was before my time. I was a kid, a youngster, dealing with the same things that kids are dealing with today.”

    In 1940s Chicago, you had to learn how to fight. “We had a little neighborhood thing; we called ourselves the Golden Gloves,” Diddley recalled. “We beat up on each other, you know? But I wasn’t really what you’d call a boxer. I was what I would call a slugger, something like Mike Tyson.

    “Mike’ll hurt you, if he ever gets ahold of you. So the smart thing is to stay away from him. Because the cat is so powerful, he could break something on you real easy. And that’s the way I was. As long as I kept you away from my head, I had it made.”

    Briefly, he considered training to become a professional boxer. “I didn’t want to get into it,” he said. “That was just to protect myself from gangs and all the stuff I grew up with. I never ran with a gang. I think a gang of boys jumpin’ on one person is a very cowardly action.”

    Around the neighborhood, Ellas was known as the Fix–It Kid, because he could take virtually anything apart and put it back together again, good as new. He attended a vocational school and briefly thought about a career as an auto mechanic.

    Music, however, was in his blood. “I started doing this and everybody thought I was the misfit in the family,” he said. “There isn’t anybody else doing it. I’m the only one that’s got any musical background.

    “My brother started in the ministry, but he could have played in some big–name baseball teams. They were after him. And he also has a talent for spreading the gospel.” (Diddley’s half–brother is Reverend Kenneth Haynes of Biloxi, Miss.)

    Ellas was constantly told that music—especially the “Devil’s music” that he so enjoyed—would lead him down a path of destruction.

    “I had to find out what I wanted to do,” he said. “I had no idea I was gonna end up Bo Diddley.”

    Along with guitarist Jody Wilson, harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold and school chum Roosevelt Jackson—playing a washboard bass that Ellas himself constructed—he started playing the three or four songs he knew on streetcorners, the way blues musicians did, to get coins out of passers–by. They played them over and over again and made new songs out of schoolyard rhymes.

    At first they were called the Hipsters, then the Langley Avenue Jive Cats. “We did that and passed the hat,” Diddley said. “I was too chickenshit to steal.

    “I did it because my mother didn’t have nothing. And everything that I wanted as I was growing up …it meant ‘let me work so I can earn some money, so I can buy a pair of shoes, buy a pair of socks. A hankerchief to go in my shirt.’”

    The origin of the famous Bo Diddley beat has been in contention for years; it incorporates elements of the old “shave and a haircut” rhythm, the early ’50s shuck–and–jive hit “Hambone,” Chicago blues and the open–tuning, hard–hitting guitar chords of Bo himself – heavy on the tremelo, once Bo got off streetcorners and went electric. “They didn’t have no electric guitars down there,” Diddley said. “I made my first electric guitar. I built the first tremelo—I actually did it. I built it with some points out of an old Plymouth distributor, and a big wind–up clock. I sat down and I put it all together to make the music go whop/whop/whop/whop/whop. Because everytime they made contact, you’d get a sound.

    “I figured out how to do this, and a company was building one at the same time. I never went to Toledo, Ohio in my life, but somebody there was doin’ one.”

    Then, as now, he was always tinkering. “I used to play by tapping into the audio tube in the back of a big radio. Got shocked a few times before I figured out which of the plugs on the back was the one.”

    By the time Ellas was 15, he and the guys were playing 20 streetcorners every Friday night, after school let out. “People would say ‘There’s them three dudes again,’” he recalled.

    “We did something worthwhile, man; we didn’t go out robbing people and all that. The police would sometimes take our little tip money, because they said it was illegal for us to try and make a living to buy bread.”

    Ellas left home, and school, at 16 and briefly went to vocational college. He married and divorced a young girl named Louise inside of a year. “She wanted to juke me around,” he recalled. “All she wanted to do was get away from home.”

    Eventually the group came to include Jerome Green on maracas and vocals. Jerome would become Bo’s onstage foil during the hit years, and an important part of the sound.

    “I met Jerome when I was with my second wife, Ethel Smith,” Diddley said. “I met Jerome when I used to go over to her house to see her. He came up the back stairs with a tuba wrapped around his head, from school. They let him bring it home.

    “I talked him into going with us on the streetcorners. He said ‘Man, I ain’t goin’ out there,’ and I said, ‘Come on man, we’re gonna pay you the same. We’re gonna split up the money.’

    “I stole my mother’s cake bowl, and went out there and filled it up (with money). We came back with $15 apiece, for three of us. And the next weekend, Jerome was looking for me: ‘Hey man, are we goin’ back on the corner again?’”

    Once the boys had turned 18, they left the street and getting booked into clubs. The next step was to get on record.

    “I had an old Webco recorder,” Diddley recalled. “And we made a dub, and I took it to Vee–Jay Records first. They looked at me and said ‘What kind of crap is that?’ I said I don’t know, I just play it.

    “They said ‘Well, we don’t know what to do with it,’ because they was strictly into blues. John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed and all that kind of stuff.

    “Nobody inspired me. I just wanted to be me. That’s what I wanted to do, me.”

    “I figured I had something good enough to make a record. ‘Cause the people on the streetcorner, they was jumpin’ and clappin’ their hands. I said ‘Hey …. I’m making ‘em jump.’ So I figured this must be it.”

    In early 1955, Bo Diddley was signed by Leonard and Phil Chess, owners of Chicago’s Chess Records (Bo was to record for the subsidiary label, Checker).

    The idea of being on the same label as Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and the rest of his heroes from the Chicago club scene “didn’t excite me. It’s just that I knew I was different from the rest of ‘em. I was different from the other bands that I heard.

    “I played a different type of music, and people were trying to figure out what the hell was I doing? Because I sounded like 10 people, rather than just three.”

    Momma Gussie and othe others did not approve. “They said that I was playing for the Devil,” Diddley remembered. “My aunts and uncles, everybody said ‘Why don’t you put that talent of yours to good use and play in the chuch? I said well, why do you all tell me to do that, and then you tell me I’m God–gifted?

    “I said, you all can’t pay me the money that I make in clubs, for playing in the church, no. I’m not gonna do it. I’m just doing it to try and make a living. I’m not hanging in clubs, getting drunk and fighting and cutting up people and cussing. I don’t do no drugs, never have, never will. I’m scared of what the doctor gives me. I have no idea what the hell it is. I’m just what you call chickenshit.”

    “Bo Diddley/I’m a Man” was released in the spring and reached the top spot on the national R&B charts. The A side introduced the Bo Diddley beat to the world, syncopated in a blustery onslaught with Jerome’s maracas and tribal tom–toms from drummer Clifton James.

    Diddley’s original version of the song went “Uncle John’s got corn ain’t never been shucked/Uncle John’s got daughters ain’t never been …to school.”

    At Leonard Chess’ suggestion, he re–wrote the lyrics as a song about himself …about this character he’d created. Bo Diddley. Bo’s legend would become a recurring theme.

    “I’m a Man” was another ballgame altogether. Here, Diddley dealt a straight hand of Chicago blues, punctuated by Billy Boy’s wailing harmonica.

    “Muddy Waters came up with ‘I’m a Rolling Stone,’ or ‘I’m a King Bee,’ one of those songs, saying ‘when I was 26 years old,’” Diddley recalls. “And I said well, if you’re a rolling stone, I’m a man. You understand? Willie Dixon wrote those—and I thought if he’s that bad, I’m a man.”

    Not long after, “Muddy copied it and wrote ‘Mannish Boy.’ There’s only one word in ‘Mannish Boy’ that I never understood. He uses the line ‘woe be.’ I ain’t never figured out what ‘woe be’ means.”

    The record was like nothing heard before. There were no complex changes, just gut–busting emotion on “I’m a Man” and shuffling energy on “Bo Diddley.”

    The success of the single meant live appearances, and Diddley’s group hit the road, getting farther from Chicago with every performance. On Aug. 20, he played the legendary Apolllo Theatre in New York City. “And destroyed it,” he recalled. “People was trying to figure out, how is three dudes makin’ all that noise?”

    In those days, Diddley said, the national speed limit was 45 MPH. “I mostly drove with my band. I had a 1941 DeSoto station wagon; they called it a Stagecoach. It had a rack on the top, and we used to tie all our stuff up on top of it. And away we went.”

    In November, the band returned to New York to appear on Ed Sullivan’s TV show. This story has become an integral part of the Bo Diddley legend; this is the artist’s own version:

    “Ed Sullivan heard us in the dressing room practicing ’16 Tons,’ Tennessee Ernie’s song. He said ‘Can you guys play that on the show?’ and I said ‘Yeah, we can play it our way.’ But I was there to do ‘Bo Diddley’ by Bo Diddley. So I did two songs, and he got pissed.

    “But it was their mistake, the way that they had the program written up. I did it the way that the program said: Bo Diddley and ’16 Tons.’ As far as I’m concerned, that’s the name of the song—and, ’16 Tons.’

    “Ed Sullivan said I was the first colored boy that ever double–crossed him on a song, or something. And I started to get on him, just to tell this old man the truth, right in his fuckin’ face. Because I hadn’t ever been said nothin’ to like that, and I didn’t double cross him. They made the mistake, and I lived with it for a lot of years.

    “He said I would never work again. And I got 48 years of rock ‘n’ roll. I’m not happy that he’s dead, you know, but I had something that I perfected. And I did my best. And I think that’s the reason why I’m still here.”

    History always seems to constrast Diddley with his Chess labelmate Chuck Berry—the two even issued a patched–together duet album in the early ’60s—but Diddley sees this as an apples–and–oranges thing. “We were writing different,” he said. “He was writing about school days and stuff like that, which was very interesting. And I wrote comical–type tunes. He couldn’t be funny; I could. I could make you laugh.”

    Berry also crossed over to a white audience in those heavily segregated days, something Diddley never really managed. Although he made a respectable showing on the R&B charts, only one of his singles, 1959′s “Say Man,” made a dent on the pop side.

    “Say Man” was a series of good–natured back–and–forth insults between Diddley and Green, what they used to call “signifying” back on the streets in Chicago.

    He considers “Who Do You Love,” first released in the summer of 1956, a “funny” song. “Well, it was serious and funny at the same time,” he said. For the record, there never was a woman named Arlene in his life. He just made it up.

    As his fortunes faded in the United States, as Presley, Berry, Holly and so many others brought rock ‘n’ roll to an insatiable audience, Bo Diddley struggled. “Say Man,” “Crackin’ Up” and “Road Runner” were major hits, but by the early ’60s, it just wasn’t happening.

    Diddley’s live show continued to generate excitement. Guitarist Norma Jean Wofford joined his band in 1961 (following a short stint by another woman stringbender, Peggy Jones). Wofford became known as The Duchess; it was whispered that she was Bo Diddley’s sister.

    “We told that lie so much that it started sticking,” Diddley said. “But we’re actually no kin. I had started adding different people to the group. It was just guys at first, and I said ‘I need some glamor on the stage,’ so I started putting the girls in the group.”

    Novelty had always been important for Diddley—his classic 1960 album, Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger was inspired by the movie The Magnificent Seven and had a Western theme—and his act had always included a little comedy, a little dancing. “Didn’t none of us stand still,” he recalled.

    Diddley was surprised to learn, during a 1963 trip to Great Britain, that he was held in high regard by the young, rhythm ‘n’ blues–worshiping musician crowd. The Rolling Stones, one of the tour’s opening acts, dropped all Diddley covers from their set as an act of respect.

    The young Stones viewed Bo Diddley with awe; Brian Jones, Diddley remembered, had an insatiable curiosity about the rhythm and the blues. And “Mick (Jagger) is like a loner; he stays by himself all the time. And you don’t impose on a person like that—if that’s his way, that’s his way. I don’t fault him for it.”

    Diddley’s relationship with the Stones continued over time—in the ’80s, Diddley and guitarist Ron Wood toured Japan together, and Bo joined the band onstage in Miami on the 1994 Voodoo Lounge tour.

    In 1965, he appeared in the legendary TAMI Show, and four years later played the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Festival, on a bill with the Plastic Ono Band. Diddley can be seen in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Sweet Toronto.

    Overall, though, the ’60s were rough. Diddley continued to record and perform, but his records had little impact. The British Invasion, followed by the psychedelic and hippie movements, left little room for growth among the pioneering rock ‘n’ rollers.

    Diddley watched attitudes and fashions change all around him. “My generation wasn’t into that shit,” he laughed. “So I’m sitting outside going what the hell’s going on? I’m starving in my own world, my music world. But I found out something: If you can’t beat ‘em, you gotta join ‘em” (see the Chess albums The Black Gladiator; Another Dimension).

    Strapped for cash because of an investment scheme gone wrong, Diddley sold his publishing in this period.

    And like many artists who rode in on the first wave in the ’50s, he got paid a ridiculous royalty rate. He was never a math whiz, so he signed whatever contract had been put in front of him. “The Chess Brothers were very secluded about telling an artist,” he said. “It looked like to me that they were afraid somebody would step out of place and start asking for more money. I was just interested in playin’ for the people. I had no idea about the business, how it worked and all this.

    “They were beginning to set up little things here and there that would elude you from the right things—in other words, while you sleep, we’ll figure out how we can not pay you something.”

    The winter of Diddley’s discontent began in the glory days and has yet to blow over. He remembers precisely when he first realized he’d been short–changed:

    “When I started to asking about royalty checks and all this kind of stuff, my stuff started getting played less and less,” he said. “And I didn’t understand. And after a while it looked like it was set before me so that I could plainly see it, that I was becoming a troublemaker because I started asking about royalty checks. This meant that I was going to cause problems. And the easiest way to shut you up was to pull your records off the airwaves. It’s called blackball.

    “When the people buy your stuff and make you earn the name ‘So–and–so is really great.’ But when your record company don’t acknowledge that you got a contract with ‘em, and so much revenue come in that they’re supposed to give you this and that …this didn’t happen with me. Instead, they put the money in their pocket. I guess because I was a little country black boy in Chicago, I got ripped off. Because they figured I didn’t know what time it was.”

    Then, as now, the only real money that came Bo Diddley’s way was from live shows. And if somebody’s making money off those classic records, it’s not him. “I ain’t seen shit,” he said.

    And so he works, flying hundreds, thousands of miles, equipped with only a guitar and a suitcase. Although he has a semi–regular group for big shows, he does most gigs with a pickup band, hired by the local promoter in each town he plays.

    After Chicago, he lived in Washington, D.C. (the Gunslinger album was recorded on a two–track Presto machine in his basement), then Los Angeles and, ultimately, Florida (twice he’s spent a year or two in Las Lunas, N.M., where he was deputized and walked a sheriff’s beat). He was married to Georgia native Kay Reynolds for 20 years, and bought his first Florida property from her dentist.

    Every few years, some music business sharpie with a few bucks in his wallet signs him up for an album or two; without fail, they make little or no commercial impact.

    Diddley cares very little for the 1973 The London Bo Diddley Sessions, which paired him with a contingent of hip young English rock players. “When you turn your back, they do whatever they feel like doing,” he said. Since the end of Chess in the mid ’70s, he’s drifted from label to label.

    In 1996, producer Mike Vernon put out the Bo Diddley album A Man Amongst Men, which featured “collaborations” from the likes of Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Richie Sambora.

    Trouble was, Vernon assembled the tracks from pieces; Bo was rarely in the same room with his guest stars. “It just never occurred to them that maybe Bo doesn’t want it that way, you know?” Diddley said. “So it would be my mistake if I fucked up. But they fucked up, and I still bear the cross of them messing up. And the public don’t know that I had nothing to do with it.”

    He has a handful of bedrock songs that continue to reverberate today (“Who Do You Love,” “I’m a Man,” “Before You Accuse Me,” “Mona”), and the “Bo Diddley Beat” is a cornerstone of rock ‘n’ roll (see “Not Fade Away,” “I Want Candy,” “She’s the One”).

    His 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll of Fame was logical—and, perhaps not surprisingly, Bo Diddley took it with a grain of salt.

    “The way I look at it, the attention is really great,” he said. “But the reward in what I have done is not a plaque sitting on my wall, because I can’t do anything with it. They’re worth a lot of money to a collector, but to me they’re not worth anything.

    “It doesn’t really mean anything to me. It don’t pay none of my bills. Take the actors who got the Oscars and the Emmys, they don’t mean nothin.’ It’s just that people can come to your house and see ‘em and go ‘Wow, you got an Oscar.’ What does it mean? Is it worth a thousand dollars? $400? $200? Or worth a million dollars?

    “What is it worth in dollar bills, because this is what you need to survive. Not a medal with your name on it.”

    Back surgery slowed him down in the ’90s—he had to sit in a chair onstage for a while—and a recurring bout with high blood pressure caused him to cancel a few dates in 2002.

    Otherwise, hell, he ain’t slowing down.

    “I figure I got 15 or 20 years, maybe longer than that,” he said. “If I take care of myself. But it’s winding down. I might as well face it. I don’t look to kick off, but when you get to my age you start getting’ scared and you start realizing that the day is coming, and that’s a guarantee. We’re all gonna leave out of here.

    “As you get older, things become more clear to you about everyday existence. Am I going to be able to wake up in the morning? Am I going to sleep and …you don’t know that you’re gone? That’s the way I feel.

    “That is the most scary thing in the world. You take me, traveling on the road by myself, and getting a hotel room. Go to bed, go to sleep, and I don’t know if I’m gonna get up and go catch the plane in the morning. I used to not worry about that.”

     

    @2002 Bill DeYoung



  • Featured Image[Article 230]Whistling This: Neil Finn (1998)

    maxresdefaultThere’s a lush, green exotic-ness to Neil Finn’s songs, as if they were created in some kind of hothouse rain forest where only the most beautiful flowers get pollinated. Ever since he turned out ‘Message to My Girl’ and ‘One Step Ahead’ as a member of Split Enz, Finn’s songs have had a special and somewhat other-wordly feel to them.

    Could be because Finn is a Kiwi, mate, born and bred in New Zealand, the third rock from Australia and a place so far from the United States that just about everything with its stamp seems odd, exotic and attractive.

    Or maybe it’s that Neil Finn is just a damn fine songwriter, a man who has that rare gift of turning the everyday moment – or the everyday abstraction – into a sublime pop song. Over the course of four albums with Crowded House, Neil Finn was a melody machine, each sweeter and more delicious than the one before. Crowded House only had one hit in the States, ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, but it isn’t a stretch to say none of their records, or shows, ever received a bad review. Why Crowded House had to go to England or their homeland to get treated like pop stars, well, that’s a mystery.

    Finn has just released Try Whistling This, his first solo album, on which he experiments with different instruments and sonic textures, always coming back to the source: gorgeous melody. The album entered the Australian chart and No 1, and was Top Ten in Britain its first week.

    We caught up with him in Orlando, Fla., just before his very first American show as a solo artist.

     

    Goldmine: You told me there’s a certain stigma to ‘going solo.’ Are you feeling that intensely?

    Neil Finn: Not really. It’s got a touch of the Spinal Tap to it, doesn’t it, going solo? It’s like we’ll find out we’ve got a hit in Japan and re-form and do another tour. There’s nothing wrong with going solo, it just has a sound to it that’s slightly disturbing. But I’m quite well-adjusted to it.

     

    You were so faithful to the band for so long. Is there a sense of, I broke up a marriage?

    I don’t really feel that guilty about it. I sometimes think ‘What if?’ It carries with it certain risks, and commercially speaking, it’s probably harder. Maybe not quite so much in America, where Crowded House’s fortunes had slipped, anyway. But certainly in England, Australia and New Zealand where things were going very well, it would’ve made commercial sense to continue. But none of that seemed to be central in my thinking at the time.

     

    So here you are on the precipice of a whole new thing. Is it daunting?

    It’s only daunting when you allow yourself to get caught up in judging your worth by chart positions, or whether you can get on this radio station, or that radio station. That’s the trap sometimes when you’re in the midst of it.

    But most of time when you’re traveling with a good bunch of people, as I am, you’re pouring yourself into gigs, and you have an innate feeling of worth, anyway. And it’s really not daunting at all, it’s actually exciting to go from town to town and play.

    When I think about the first 10 shows I did with Crowded House, they were very small little pubs in the backlots of Australia. And with about 200 people or something. This tour’s going to theaters with audiences of 2-3,000. So that’s upped the ante quite a bit for the beginning of this band’s career.

     

    At the end of the day, though, it’s not like Crowded House. You’re the artist. These guys work for you.

    Yeah, but in some ways there’s only a subtle difference. Certainly in terms of recording, with Crowded House I would end up doing most of it myself, anyways.

    So in a way, the musicians (on the solo record) were a different cast of characters, that was the main difference. And I didn’t have to consult people to make other decisions – where the touring would go, what sort of promotion we would do, what we would be wearing in the video clips.

    I spent a long time thinking about whether I should break the band up. It was in my mind a lot. Once Paul had left, the internal chemistry was altered, and it didn’t feel the same, anyway. It didn’t feel as good. Although we could’ve made a good record.

    I got to the point where I needed the space, and didn’t want to have the responsibility for so many people in my life. And the band didn’t feel like it was really progressing.

     

    Do you still run into people who are pissed off that you broke up Crowded House?

    I think some people are like ‘You guys were poised on the edge, you could’ve been the biggest band in the world, your music was great, why break up?’ I got that a lot in Europe, actually. And some people only got switched onto it on the Best Of, and then all of a sudden we weren’t around any more.

     

    Try Whistling This sounds like a continuation of Together Alone, the final Crowded House album, or Finn, the album you made with your brother Tim. The arrangements are more ambient, less structured.

    I think it’s definitely a continuation, and I suppose in a way it’s obvious that it would be, because as much as I try to re-define myself…I did actually embark on some pretty lateral and radical things in the course of making the record, but as much as they were thrilling in their different-ness, they didn’t have an emotional impact for me.

    So I’d come back to certain familiar and reassuring things, in terms of looking for chord sequences and melodies that can really resonate for me. In some cases I pulled songs back to a more familiar context so I could actually attach myself to them a bit more.

     

    Wait a minute…Could that Spinal Tap thing happen?

    I certainly wouldn’t put the band back together because my solo career had failed. I think I’m too stubborn to do that.

    I’ll just make another record. I think I’d be disappointed if it didn’t find an audience…it’ll find an audience of some sort, because even the Finn record, which has probably sold the least amount of records, it’s the record I’m probably the most proud of. I’m still really, really fond of that record.

     

    Why?

    I think there’s a sensibility about that it which is really un-fussy, and very open. There’s no double-guessing on that record. It was all done in a free-spirited way and without any thought as to the end result, really. We just enjoyed the process so much.

    And I think it’s quite an exotic record. It occupies its own space. The songs are still kind of un-formed in a way; they’re not overly worked at all.

     

    There’s a certain freedom about the new arrangements…no conformity.

    There’s also the matter of being forced into new angles because there wasn’t the comfort zone of a bass player or drummer there to pick up the songs and make them sound like Crowded House. So I had endless options – that’s not always necessarily a good thing, it can lead you into confusion – but the freedom to be able to start songs off in any manner and actually get out of those patterns and habits.

     

    ‘She Will Have Her Way’, the first single, has that melodic Crowded House thing going, but then again it doesn’t. What’s different about it?

    I think it’s an economy in the rhythm track that Crowded House might’ve been tempted to color up a bit more. A willingness to stick with one atmosphere. We would’ve tended to make the bridge break down, or introduce some really new colors into the thing. I think that one has got a certain attachment to the core, all the way.

     

    You recently left Australia after 12 years and moved back to Auckland, not far from your hometown. Do you draw inspiration from that area?

    It inspires me to be there. I don’t know how direct the relationship is, but it feels to me like it’s very good for what I do. I suppose you could argue that I don’t have to go that far away – it might be a lot easier for me if I got myself a house out in Connecticut or something. It would still be beautiful.

    But there’s something about where you grow up, and the smell, and the lights, the way the shadows fall on the hills, all those things, there’s a very deep connection with them. So I’ve chosen to live amongst it, and I’m hoping that it will continue to influence me.

    In the northern hemisphere there’s a certain urgency to the way that things are operated, in a musical sense and otherwise. So it tends to up the pace and the ante of what you’re doing. I think that’s good – in New Zealand, you can drift quite happily for a long time, good lifestyle, and nothing seems that urgent.

     

    Your writing is almost uniformly bitter-sweet. People always talk about how dark your songs are…

    I don’t think that the songs are ultimately that dark. There’s melancholy at the core of most or them, a lot of them. I think that images resonate when there’s a context of yearning.

    It’s a difficult thing to sum up, really, because certain lines come out without any forethought, and then I kind of fill in the blanks. I usually imagine a guy in a room, and I imagine what the room or space is before I know I’ve actually written the song. It has to occupy some kind of place.

    I find the most intriguing moments to evoke in songs are the moments of doubt, anguish, when you’re castigating yourself or the person you’re with, the cracks in relationships with people. The sort of difficult areas, that’s the area that I’m intrigued by, and so I suppose that’s what I write about.

     

    And you’ve said over and over again that very few of them are first-person songs.

    I’m actually quite content at this point in my life. The angst that I’ve had over the years has not really been to do with my relationships. It’s been more to do with the lifestyle that I’ve been involved in, and bands and stuff.

    In fact, when I’m down, I don’t write songs. I write songs when I’m feeling pretty good. But they can describe moments… sometimes even fractions of time that happen in the middle of the night, when you wake up and there’s an anxiety there, or a deep concern. By the morning, it’s all fine again, but the song can deal with those sort of moments.

     

    How do you do that? Tell me, and I’ll do it too.

    For me, the early stages of the songs are always sounds and words that just form. They come with a melody, married to the melody. Then I start singing nonsense and all of a sudden a line’ll pop out of the nonsense and it’ll seem to have some kind of resonance. I’ll write it down, and then another couple will turn up. On rare, beautiful occasions I’ll get the whole thing in one fell swoop, without really thinking about it. But most of the time I have to fill in the gaps.

    Every now and again I’ll sit down and have an idea about what I’m gonna write about, but most of the time it just falls out.

     

    A song I like on the new record is ‘Sinner’. You were raised a Catholic, and the shadowy figure of God appears in many of your songs. I like the line about not being able to see my faith until I let it go.

    An untested faith is not a faith at all, it’s kind of a suspension of disbelief. Whatever you end up with after you’ve rejected everything is probably what’s close to your truth, or your value system. And so I suppose the song’s about that.

    And I’m not like a churchgoing man at all; I have a kind of a loose attachment to all of that stuff, still. I rejected it all at some point in my life, too. But it’s ingrained still. You don’t lose it.

     

    There’s a web site for people to discuss your lyrics. Have you had a look at it?

    I’ve kind of kept away, not because I don’t like the fact that they’re talking about it. I’m kind of flattered that people like them enough to do that. But I actually get a little bit claustrophobic reading about people’s impressions of it sometimes. That kind of thing might intimidate me from writing.

     

    Since we have this opportunity, let’s take a few of your better-known songs, and I’ll ask you maybe not what they mean, but how they formed. ‘World Where You Live’.

    I was staying in my manager in L.A.’s house, and there was a woman that lived next door to him who always seemed to be having wild sex at about 6 in the morning. It used to wake me up. And I had no idea anything about her, except that she was really rampantly enjoying the thrash-around.

    I think that’s where I got the lines “I don’t know where you go, do you climb into space, to the world where you live,” just speculating about this mystery life that was going on next door.

     

    ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’.

    I wrote that on my brother’s piano. I’m not sure if I remember what the context was, exactly, but it was just about on the one hand feeling kind of lost, and on the other hand sort of urging myself on: Don’t dream it’s over. That one actually fell out literally, without me thinking about it too much.

     

    ‘Hole in the River’.

    That actually was a rare occasion where I sat down and had a story to tell. I’d just been told over the phone by my father that his sister had committed suicide. I was playing the tune on the piano before he rang me, and then he rang me and I just repeated it, basically, to the melody.

     

    ‘When You Come’.

    I’d done it a couple of times before, but that was the first time I was conscious of a real stream-of-consciousness lyric. Images just fell out one on top of another. I didn’t, at the time, think it was all that connected – but actually, now, it seems like quite a coherent statement. I was just juxtaposing the natural world with a personal…pledge, really, I suppose.

     

    ‘Into Temptation’.

    The first few lines of it related to being in a motel in New Zealand. There was a rugby team there, and a netball team – netball’s like women’s basketball. And they were having a really big night in the bar together while I was playing my guitar. And one by one a lot of them paired off.

    I went back to my room, and just before I went to sleep I heard a knock on the door next door, and I kind of thought it was my door. I went out to open it, and as I did, one of these netball players was knocking on this guy’s door. They both sort of saw me and went “Ooops!” and he ushered her in. And then they proceeded to get it on in the room.

    Those were the first few lines: “You opened up your door, I couldn’t believe my luck.” I was kind of speculating about this guy’s reaction to it.

    These probably sound strange, but this is actually the origin of a lot of stuff. You get them from weird places.

    The chorus was to do with L.A., really. When there was a big earthquake there, and people were espousing the theory that it was punishment from God for all of L.A.’s excess and sin. So it was “Into temptation, knowing full well the earth will rebel.”

    That was the origin of it. It became a song written in the first person, so it related like a personal experience. But really the origin was actually different.

     

    How about ‘Weather With You’. Is there really a 57 Mount Pleasant Street?

    There’s actually lots of them. My sister used to live in Mount Pleasant Road in Auckland, but it wasn’t Number 57. The number she was at didn’t sound very musical.

    Tim had the lines “Everywhere you go, always take the weather with you” and also “Walking round the room singing ‘Stormy Weather’” and that was the extent of it, really. We just imagined the scenario. That was a classic case of imagining a room that a thing was taking place in, and a guy with a bit of ennui, having lost somebody, you know?

     

    ‘She Goes On’.

    That was actually written for a friend of ours lost her mother. I think she asked me if I had anything they could play at the funeral as a kind of tribute. And I actually wrote that and made a little demo and sent it to her. They played it at the funeral, and I realized later that it was actually a pretty good song.

     

    ‘How Will You Go’.

    Tim had heard that this engineer guy he knew called Timmy Kramer had died in New Orleans or something, in quite unfortunate, indulgent circumstances. And we started thinking about him in the context of the song, so it became focused towards that. It’s just angled at somebody who’s leading a troubled life, and can’t resolve their dilemmas.

     



  • Featured Image[Article 217]Rednecks in Space: Tom Petty & Mike Campbell on Bob Dylan, the Heartbreakers and ‘Let Me Up’ (1986)

    99db9e5f086365c88323bff20a85d6f2To set the stage: This freewheeling interview was conducted around midnight July 16, 1986 in Tom Petty’s suite at the Omni Berkshire Place in New York City, after the first show in a three-night stand at Madison Square Garden, which New York Times reviewer Jon Pareles would describe as “oddly paced and willful.” Bob Dylan with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were playing three-hour concerts that summer, with no intermission. This was, Petty gleefully told me, the only interview he’d agreed to do on the entire tour.

    I used a few quotes in the article I wrote for the Gainesville Sun in ’86, but otherwise, the old cassette tape hadn’t been fully transcribed until now. I got it out of the shoebox. I’ve left out a few sections, where we talked about records we liked, people we knew in Gainesville and other stuff that wouldn’t mean anything to anybody.

    What we have here is a time capsule, a Polaroid of a moment in time, when Petty – fueled by Dylan’s ramshackle rock ‘n’ roll ethos – was all worked up over a new album he had written and recorded quickly (you’ll recognize the title, but of course, the record wound up getting second-guessed and diluted with lesser, pop-oriented material). Full Moon Fever and the Wilburys came next … and nothing was ever the same.

     

     

    Petty: Since I’ve seen you, I did the Southern Accents tour, I did a film of that tour, then I mixed the double live album. I did Farm Aid with Bob, then a trip to Australia, New Zealand and Japan with Bob. Mixed the HBO thing. Did a double album in four weeks. I did a single for Bob in Australia, called “Band of the Hand.” What else did I do? I did a part in a movie called Made in Heaven. I did that and flew right back to the studio and got the ol’ double LP done. It was cut between the Australian and the American tour. I produced two songs for Bob on his album, and we wrote some songs together that are gonna be great, that we ain’t got around to doing yet. And then I jumped on the bus for this.

     

    So you’re going to make this a double album?

    I think I have to. You always hear “there’s a bulk of material,” but there really is a bulk of good material. Real rock ‘n’ roll stuff. I think just one slow song on a double album. It’s real barrel-out stuff.

     

    Why did that happen?

    I don’t know! I’m still mystified by it.

    (Mike Campbell enters)

    Ladies and gentlemen, Mike Campbell. Mike, you got anything to say to the newspapers?

     

    Campbell: You want to write some songs tonight?

     

    Petty: You never know, man. I’m a songwritin’ machine!

     

    So, this new stuff is full-steam rock ‘n’ roll?

    Campbell: Is that what you called it, Tom? Full-steam rock ‘n’ roll?

     

    Petty: Well, full steam hasn’t really come out. It sounds kinda like a redneck bar band, or a garage band. It’s real light stuff …

     

    Campbell: With a little bit of a cosmic edge to it.

     

    Stanley says it sounds like the first album.

    Petty: It sounds better than the first album. It’s a lot more raucous than the first album. You know how they always say “God, I wish he’d make a rock ‘n’ roll record like he used to”? Well, this is a lot better than the rock ‘n’ roll records we used to make. This just happened, in the studio. I’d say – (he plays the opening chords to ‘Can’t Get Her Out’) – and the band would start playing. Then I’d start singin’ a little thing, you know? And then it’s done.

     

    Why hadn’t that happened for years? What got in the way?

    You gotta be kind of good to do that, and you gotta have a band of a certain mentality to do it. We’ve been fuckin’ around together 10, 15 years.

    We just felt like playing. We weren’t even meant to be there. We went there because I’d booked the time for Bob, and he wasn’t ready to go in. So we just jumped in there to try out some songs me and Mike had written. We went in with about four tunes and left with 35. We’re gonna put a number of them out.

     

    You’ve cut “Got My Mind Made Up”?

    Yeah, there’s a Heartbreakers version and a Bob version. We wrote that together, and there’s a lot more verses. So I think in our version there’ll be a lot of the extra verses that didn’t get on Bob’s.

     

    Campbell: Bob wrote the verse about Libya.

     

    Petty: I wrote the verse about Libya.

     

    Campbell: You did?

     

    Petty: I did. Well, if the truth must be known … Bob says “Let’s write a song about Florida!” And I said no. He goes (singing) “I’m going to Tallahassee ..” and I said no, “I’m going to Libya.” And he sings “There’s a guy I gotta see/He’s been living there three years now/In an oil refinery …” Great! And then we did another one.

    Writing with Bob is great, because if you throw one line he comes back with three great lines.

     

    Could you tell him if he came up with a lousy line?

    Oh yeah, sure. No, no, no, you don’t want no lousy lines.

     

    Well, Dylan has written some bad songs too …

    Petty: What great man hasn’t?

     

    You’ve written some bad songs. Both of you have.

    Campbell: I’ve never written a bad song in my life!

     

    Petty: Well, so has everyone. I think Ludwig Van had a few clinkers. Lennon, certainly.

    You can’t be great if you don’t show your ass now and then. Or you’re not trying to do anything. I mean, Bryan Adams might not ever write one that you notice is bad, because they’ll polish that turd to a high chrome!

    Come on. This is the only band in America who doesn’t know who’s gonna take the solo. Fuck ‘em! The name of my album’s called Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough.

     

    You’re gonna call it that?

    Petty: That’s right, because I’ve had enough. It’s called Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough, written by me and Brother Campbell.

     

    You’ve got a song called “Let Me Up” and another one called “I’ve Had Enough”?

    Campbell: No, they’re one song, in two parts. A “Let Me Up” part, and then an “I’ve Had Enough” part.

     

    Petty: It’s heavy art! (laughter)

     

    How can you guys stand each other after so long?

    Petty: Oh, we hate each other. We can’t fuckin’ deal with each other. I don’t know how the fuck I put up with you after all these years!

     

    Campbell: It must be ‘cause I’m so good-looking!

     

    Petty: Looks is a good part of it.

     

    There’s a lot of talk right now about Jagger and Richards not writing together any more. And you guys have been working together for a while ….

    Petty: Since 1970, if we must reveal it …

     

    Campbell: See, the thing is, we don’t write together. We write apart, and …

     

    Petty: Not till we’re in the studio do we look eye to eye and try to bang it out. Unless I’m doing something and I can’t think of a bridge, Mike’ll think of a bridge.

     

    I’m curious about this new stuff. It sounds like it’s “The Heartbreakers, Mach II.”

    Campbell (to Petty): What does he mean by that? Mark 2?

     

    Petty: “Mach.” Mach II. It’s another era. “No more funny glasses and backward tapes,” is what he means. I see people in New York wearin’ them glasses now.

     

    So we’re back to playing live in the studio, without overdubbing?

    Petty: There’s hardly any overdubbing. But we never did that much overdubbing anyway, really. We tried a lot but it never got on the record most times.

     

    Do you think Dylan’s slash-and-burn approach – “go in and do it” – has rubbed off on you?

    Petty: It’s too early to tell. I could tell you in a year, maybe. We’ve been running around with Bob for about a year now. I think we rub off on him more than he rubs off on us. You know, you can slash and burn but it’s still gotta come out good.

    I think it’s just a real good band, you know? This band keeps getting better. Another thing was, me and Mike are producing this record, and there was never a producer there to sort of like throw a wrench in the works, or suggest another idea. Or make it feel like you were making a record. We didn’t ever talk about making a record!

    If you hear the tapes, I’m calling the chords. Some of them we only ever played maybe once or twice. And that was the writing and the playing of the song. So when I hear them, they’re still real fresh to me.

     

    Campbell: In Bob’s defense, that was something we learned from him.

     

    Petty: We probably did learn that from Bob. We learned the joy of throwing some chaos in any time things … Bob will never let things get too settled. When all of a sudden you feel like “I got this thing down,” he’s gonna change it. And that may sink, but if it really happens it REALLY happens. You can’t fake it then, buddy. You really got to do it.

    I’d rather hear somebody try, and sink, than turn on their fuckin’ computer and just drift by. I’m not into that. That shit’s gonna die. People are gonna catch on to that.

     

    You have these raw tapes now. If you sit on them, will you start thinking “Ah, I could do this better,” or do you want to get them out fast before you start to think?

    Campbell: You don’t want to think. If you start thinking, you’re in bad trouble.

     

    Petty: There’s no thinking involved. If you’re thinking, there’s something wrong. We’ve done some of those intellectual albums. Southern Accents was a real production piece. Two years of production.

    And we’re not in the mood to do that. Not that we won’t do it again, no promises, but this is what we’re doing now. We’re “Rednecks in Space,” you know? It’s a garage band, but a good one.

     

    It’s very kamikaze. You cut all these tracks in such a short period of time. It’s unlike you guys.

    Petty: Well, I’m sure it’ll come out that Bob Dylan did that. Maybe he did do that.

     

    Campbell: And we might throw all those tracks out and start all over again.

     

    Petty: You never know … we might go back and do something else. But I think we won’t, because I really like this album so much. I really do. I ought to play you some of it … but I don’t know, it might scare Michael.

     

    How is your relationship with MCA?

    It’s great. I’ve known Irving Azoff for years and years. I don’t do a lot of record business any more, but I know Irving and he’s somebody I can call up and talk straight with. All he asks of me is to bring him a record. He never rushes me. He didn’t rush me for two years. He’d come down and listen and say “When it’s right …” He knew what I was doing.

     

    So you’re going to try to get this album out this year?

    You betcha!

     

    Will Irving let you do another double, after the live album?

    I never asked him. I just assume he will. Why wouldn’t he? Irving’s a reasonable man. (laughter)

     

    Irving must’ve been the guy who decided to make “Needles and Pins,” a four-year-old track, the single from the live album?

    I don’t know. I don’t pick the singles. I thought they should have put out “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” I just thought it was such a great record. And you know what they said? They thought it was too rock ‘n’ roll for the radio. And at that point I said well, guys, we really don’t have anything to talk about. At the time, it was the Number One Airplay song in the country. And they wouldn’t release it as a single because it was “too rock ‘n’ roll.” That’s … you know, let me up, I’ve had enough. (laughter)

     

    What was the inspiration for “American Girl”? There’s always been a story that connects it to Gainesville …

    Petty: Naw, that’s myth …

    Campbell: It’s got 441 in it …

    Petty … and it’s probably got a southern setting. A lot of songs are based around there. I’ve written a lot of songs with a southern setting. “Magnolia” could be that area. There’s a lot of magnolias there.

    I’m trying to remember writing “American Girl.” I think I wrote it in an apartment in Encino, California in ’76 or ’75.

    Campbell: It was the Fourth of July, wasn’t it?

    Petty: Fourth of July. And it came quickly. It was written very quickly. Instantly.

     

    It’s a song about suicide …

    Campbell: Naw. BULL-shit!

     

    Well, the story goes that the girl jumped from Beatty Towers in Gainesville …

    Petty: No, the line is “If she had to die trying …”

    Campbell: Love is dead, that’s what it was about. It’s a figure of speech! “If she had to die trying …”

    Petty: “If she had to die trying.” She didn’t have to DIE. “It was one little promise she was going to keep.”

     

    Well, it’s desperate …

    Petty: Yeah, it’s very desperate. Well, maybe that’s why they thought she just lept off the balcony. I always pictured her as a much more stable bitch than that.

     

    That was back in the period where all the songs were two minutes, 25 seconds.

    Petty: Yeah, we just figured “Let’s get in, get out,” you know? We were highly criticized at the time for that. I kinda miss that, you know? Verse, verse, chorus, solo, verse, chorus, get out. A good rock ‘n’ roll song doesn’t need to be more than a few minutes long anyway.

    We got songs on this record now that are nine minutes long. There’s one song that’s probably a whole side. I don’t know, Campbell will probably edit it.

    We just play. We record everything played in the session. If one guy’s playing, it’s recorded. And there’s always somebody out there playing. It’s not the kind of band that can learn a song and do, say, 10 takes any more. We’re too impatient. We’ll go on to something else. Because we just want to hit a feel and play it. If we know it too good, we can never record it.

     

    Is the live stuff as much fun now as it was when you first started playing with Bob last year?

    I like playing with Bob. Bob’s all right. He’s just a good friend to play music with. And God, he sure has done a lot for us. We’re allowed to do whatever we want. It’s kind of like having another band. We got another singer who writes, you know? We treat it like a group. That’s the way Bob’s arranged it. I respect him for that.

    It’s kind of like jamming for three hours. You don’t really know what you’re gonna play, or what rhythm it’s gonna be.

     

    You’re hanging back a lot in these shows.

    I like hanging back. I sing a lot in this show, man. I must sing 15 songs in this show. I got at least five songs to sing with Bob, and what’d we do tonight? Eight. That’s a lot of singing.

     

    Still, where’s the ego fit in, when you’re playing a supporting role?

    What ego? What are you talking about? Listen, man, if you’re in a rock group and you’re even dealing with ego, you’re not going anywhere. You can’t deal with that and do anything!

     

    That’s not what I heard.

    Well, there’s a lot of things you hear that ain’t true. I’ve done this a long time. I’m much too smart to get into ego. I want to make Bob good, and Bob wants to make me good. And that’s why we get along, because we’re way above that.

    It’s a matter of feeling, this music. It’s all about feel. To send out something and make somebody feel good. It’s not any deeper than that. And if you can learn that, then you’re gonna be around more than a record or two.

     

    Bob was out there tonight pulling these Jesus songs out of the hat …

    Petty: And rightfully so!

     

    Right after your second set, after Ronnie Wood came out for “Rainy Day Women,” then there was a Jesus song. I could feel the momentum dive.

    Petty: Yeah, but see, you’re still talking about it. You know what, the Beach Boys wouldn’t-a done that. They’ve have probably just steamrollered that baby to the end like Bruce Springsteen. But that’s not what we’re doing. That’s not what this is about. He had something to say at that point.

    This ain’t show business, man. This ain’t show business. That’s Bob Dylan. He had something to say at that point. He had something to say about Jesus right then. He sang “Like a Rolling Stone,” right? He’d already done that.

    Listen, man, you gotta dig that there’s a lot of great songs about Jesus. David Lee Roth might not want to do that. But I admire a man that’s confident enough in himself to do that. And I tell you what, nobody left.

    Campbell: He does that on purpose. I know what you mean by momentum. It builds up and it’s boogie till you puke. Bob doesn’t want to boogie till he pukes.

    Petty: I respect a man that can bring it down and still hold ‘em. This is not boogie till you puke. We’re not there to do that. We’re there to offer an alternative. To expose people to an alternative.

    A lot of times we don’t know who’s taking the solo or what’s gonna happen. This is the only band left like that. And it’s a shame. Except for some of the younger bands that nobody wants to give the time of day to. And I’m real concerned about that.

    A rock show’s gotten to be such an organized, routine thing. I don’t know when’s the last one I went to, because they’re so fuckin’ predictable. You know what’s gonna happen. You know they’re gonna play an encore. You know they’re gonna do another encore. Da, da, da, the big lights are gonna come on …

    Fuck it! It’s like you may as well watch Johnny Carson. Bob did a great show, and he didn’t concede to anything. And that’s an artist. That’s when you start calling this shit art. (laughter). If you must!

    A lot of these guys are great performers and entertainers, but they’re not taking the medium anywhere as far as I’m concerned.

     

    But is Bob’s intention, with those kind of songs, to get people to follow him?

    They’re never gonna follow you. Did they ever? If they’d ever followed him, I mean, there wouldn’t have been a war. They’ll follow you to the record store. They’ll follow you to the concert hall. And they might have a great time, but very few retain a sense of “following,” as far as taking the lyrics … but you can inspire them. You can inspire them to think for themselves, which is the greatest thing you can do for them. You can inspire them; you don’t want them to follow you.

    Campbell: Even the Jesus songs, they’re not pro-Jesus. They’re just sort of calling attention to it.

    Petty: You have to ask Bob those questions, because I don’t really know how to interpret that. But I respect it. And I don’t think he’s ramming anything down anybody’s throat. And he certainly offered a wide variety of his material tonight. Bob’s done 35 albums; if he played one song from each of his albums, that’s the show.

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  • Featured Image[Article 210]Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead (1990)

    tompettyThomas Earl Petty was born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, a small town that thinks it’s Something Big because, for 50 miles east and west, there’s no culture, no big downtowns, no nothing; just pine forests and peanut farms, cattle ranches and cabbage patches. It’s smack in the middle of the skinny peninsula; pass through tiny, Andy Griffith–type cities with quaint names like Melrose, Newberry and Keystone Heights, and after 50 miles each way you hit water.

    What separates Gainesville from its neighbors is the University Of Florida. The hallowed home of the Fightin’ Florida Gators is sprawled across half of Gainesville, and every year, when school is in session, the population swells by 30,000 people. In the summer when the college is relatively empty, Gainesville looks like everywhere else in northern Florida.

    Other times of the year, though, the place is packed. What with all the students running loose, spending Daddy’s money, it was inevitable that Gainesville–of all the redneck bergs in the area–would be the place to get shopping centers and car dealerships, nightclubs, network TV affiliates and rock ‘n’ roll radio. Subsequently, it became the cultural hub for all of its satellites, the place where things happened.

    If you lived there, however, and you wanted to try for the brass ring, Gainesville was as dead as they came.

    “One thing I’ve noticed from traveling, whatever town you’re in, somebody will say, ‘There’s nothing going on here,’” Petty says. “Whoever you ask, they say, ‘this place is dead.’ So we always wonder where it isn’t dead.

    “I’ve never had anything against Gainesville,” he adds. “I just wanted to make records. The other thing was, we were young and we wanted to do things, to make records and be on TV. And play places other than we’d played a dozen times. Or more.”

    From an early age, Petty was sure that rock ‘n’ roll was going to be his ticket out. Ambitious, single–minded and stubborn as a gator on a sandbank, the tow–headed son of an insurance salesman literally never thought of anything else.

    In the ’60′s, when rock ‘n’ roll came to town, many young Gainesville boys who would otherwise have wound up driving a truck or a tractor took up guitars–and those that could play them found plenty of work, gigging for fraternity parties or for the endless stream of students that frequented local bars.

    Petty was in junior high school when he saw his inevitable future. It came via a chance encounter with Elvis Presley.

    The King was in Ocala, 30 miles south of Gainesville, in the summer of 1961, shooting a scene from the film that would eventually be titled Follow That Dream. Petty’s uncle, who ran Gainesville’s camera–supply store, was assistant prop man for the movie shoot. He invited Tom’s mother–his sister–in–law–to bring Tom and his little brother down to watch Elvis work (they were present during filming of the “Elvis looks for a parking place” sequence).

    Petty was deeply affected at the sight of Presley, in his white karate robes, breaking boards on the lawn outside his trailer. Behind the ropes, girls were squealing and sobbing Elvis’ name.

    That quickly, Tom Petty knew he was finished with Midget League baseball and cowboys and Indians. He was 10 years old.

    He traded a slingshot to a friend for a stack of Elvis singles (the friend had inherited the records from his college–bound older sister). He played them night and day, learning every word, and soon persuaded his father to buy him a cheap electric guitar. He taught himself to play a few chords.

    The first Tom Petty band, the Sundowners, featured Petty on bass and guitar, with three of his friends from school on guitars and drums. As soon as Petty heard his first Beatles record, the Sundowners were transformed into mop–topped, Beatle–booted hipsters.

    The Sundowners became the Epics when Petty was in high school; by that time, he didn’t do anything but play music. All his friends were musicians.

    His father, who’d left school to join the Air Force during World War II, saw what was happening to Tom and demanded he ease up on the music. He thought Tom, who had a gift for drawing, could be an architect. A good, solid trade, as opposed to the iffy promise of show business.

    Tom graduated from Gainesville High School in 1968, then tried junior college for a year. He came back to his father with an ultimatum: Daddy, he said, if you’ll just leave me alone, I’ll be a millionaire by the time I’m 35.

    The Epics were one of the top bands in Gainesville; a good portion of their music consisted of songs that Petty had written.

    In 1970, the band changed its name to Mudcrutch. According to Tommy Leadon, the group’s lead guitarist, “I think we liked it because it just sounded sort of dirty and decrepit. We thought it was funny–sounding; I don’t think it really means anything. It just projected a certain image, and we liked that.”

    Leadon’s older brother Bernie had left Gainesville for California in the mid–’60s; by the time Mudcrutch was ready to cut its first record, in mid–1971, Bernie had been in the Flying Burrito Brothers and would soon become a founding member of the Eagles. He and Tommy conferred long–distance on how to go about recording.

    “Bernie told me exactly how to do the basic tracks, the overdubs, how to mike my acoustic guitar,” Tommy Leadon says. “We set up in this club we were playing in and spent whole afternoons rehearsing the instrumental tracks. When we went down to Criteria, we nailed the first song, ‘Up In Mississippi,’ on take one. The guy (producer Ron Albert) was really surprised! We wasted no time, and got both songs done in one day.”

    Mudcrutch knew Criteria studios in Miami because some of their favorite records, like “Layla,” had been recorded there. Their single–”Up In Mississippi” and “Cause Is Understood,” both written by Petty–was financed by a bell pepper farmer from the little town of Bushnell, Florida, named Gerald Maddox.

    Maddox’ son was a friend of Mudcrutch drummer Randall Marsh, and he’d convinced his father to use the proceeds from a good crop of peppers to bankroll the Mudcrutch session. When the single was delivered, 500 copies, it was on the Pepper label; Maddox was listed as Executive Producer.

    Mudcrutch had changed guitar players the summer before. During Marsh’s audition, his roommate, a wiry, curly–haired kid from Jacksonville named Mike Campbell, sat in on guitar. Ostensibly, Leadon was the lead player, and Campbell was auditioning for the rhythm guitarist seat (Petty was playing bass almost exclusively).

    Campbell dutifully learned all of Mudcrutch’s original material, playing along as Leadon and Petty called out the chord changes. But when he took a searing, note–perfect solo on a jam of “Johnny B. Goode,” they knew he was a born lead player, and a potential asset. Henceforth, Leadon and Campbell would alternate between rhythm and lead guitar.

    In those post–Woodstock days, the four–piece Mudcrutch appeared at innumerable free concerts in Gainesville, often playing for nothing. “We’d get up on the stage wherever we thought there’d be a good crowd that would be receptive to us,” Leadon remembers. “And in doing that, we’d get a lot of other jobs out of it. And we built up the name.”

    Early on, Mudcrutch made a conscious decision to play original material almost exclusively. It made getting work in bars difficult.

    “We used to say, ‘Here’s one by Santana! And just play one we wrote,” Petty remembers. “We used to call out whoever was popular at the time. They don’t know; the club owners don’t know. People’d go, ‘Oh, I dig Santana,’ and they’d hit the dance floor.”

    On several occasions, they played “host band” for a weekend–long festival, held at the isolated, ramshackle farmhouse Marsh and Campbell shared on the north edge of town (the whole band lived there off and on, surrounded by girlfriends, chums and hangers–on).

    With people camping in the woods, doing God knows what through all hours of the night, Mudcrutch and the other top Gainesville bands would play, one after the other, their amps turned up to maximum. The house’s official tenants, Marsh and Campbell, were evicted after the third “Mudcrutch Farm Festival.”

    The band’s steady gig was at Dub’s, the concrete bunker of a rock ‘n’ roll club that was just a mile up the road from the “farm.” Often Mudcrutch pulled a six–week stint at Dub’s; the only thing they disliked was playing for the topless go–go dancers. It made them feel sleazy and unappreciated.

    Once or twice, they played a regular “sit–down” concert at the university’s venerable old auditorium. Lynyrd Skynyrd, visiting from Jacksonville, would open. And whenever Mudcrutch played Jacksonville, they opened for Skynyrd.

    Leadon dropped out in 1972, replaced by singer/guitarist Danny Roberts. The band also added organist Benmont Tench.

    Tench, the son of a Circuit Court Judge, had spent his high school years in New Orleans. Upon returning to his hometown, he started hanging around with Mudcrutch. Petty took an instant liking to the shy younger musician and his creative keyboard work. His organ and piano playing added a layer to his songs that he’d never dreamed of.

    Petty was determined to get Mudcrutch out of Gainesville. Between road gigs, when they’d pile in a van and drive south to Tampa, or north into Georgia and Alabama for a few nights’ work, he and the others worked on their promo pack. They also cut a crude demo tape.

    After an unproductive trip to Capricorn Records in Macon (“They weren’t interested because it didn’t sound like Marshal Tucker or whatever”), the band started sending tapes out. They received the usual number of rejections. Petty: “We were pretty different from what was going on at the time–extended guitar solos…it was, well, the ’70s. Say no more. It was the mid–’70s.

    “And the stuff we were doing, if you hear those first (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) albums, was pretty crude. Snappy. I remember they used to say, ‘But all the songs are so short; they’re too short!’ They didn’t understand it.”

    In 1974 Mudcrutch got two responses from record companies that liked what they heard on the tape. One came from London Records, which none of the guys in the band took too seriously because the label didn’t have any contemporary artists, other than ZZ Top. And London requested a tape of cover songs! They knew it was far from prestigious.

    The other–and it interested them greatly–came from Denny Cordell of Shelter Records. Cordell, who’d managed and produced Joe Cocker in his Mad Dogs And Englishmen period, had co–founded Shelter with Leon Russell in 1970. Cordell also produced classics by Procol Harum, and all of Russell’s albums. Shelter’s offices were in Tulsa, where Russell lived, and its studios were in Los Angeles.

    Cordell was intrigued by the band’s short, snappy songs, a far cry from the long and rambling “free–form” guitar bands that were coming a dime a dozen out of the south during the period. He saw a tough, determined little band, possessed with a drive to succeed on its own terms, with untapped potential.

    Cordell invited Mudcrutch west, an invitation they leapt upon. New York, their other option, was too cold a place to be starving musicians. On the way to California, they stopped in Tulsa and auditioned. In L.A., they did a session at the studio. Largely on the strength of Petty’s songwriting, Mudcrutch was signed to the label.

    In 1975, Shelter released its one and only Mudcrutch single, a sloppy, reggae–country number called “Depot Street” (Depot Avenue is a large thoroughfare in Gainesville), backed with “Wild Eyes.” Both were Petty originals. The single didn’t chart, but Cordell encouraged Mudcrutch to continue.

    “We started an album, and we floundered a lot because we couldn’t get the sound we wanted,” Campbell recalls. “We kept writing new songs and throwing the old songs out. We’d think we had an album, listen to it for a while and say, nah, and throw half of it out.”

    Meanwhile, Petty was playing more guitar and less bass, leaving the latter to Roberts, who wasn’t crazy about the idea. Campbell says they were simply “trying to find the best approach. Then after a year or more, Tom started writing some better songs.”

    Their future in limbo, Mudcrutch fell apart. “There were personal things, and musically, we were very frustrated,” says Campbell, “especially the rhythm section.” We sort of became a burden to the label after a while, spending money in the studio on an album that wasn’t working.”

    When the band members went their separate ways, Cordell retained the contract in order to keep Petty, who he realized was the one with the talent. He’d signed Petty to a publishing deal and meant to keep him in the fold. The question was, would there be a solo career, or another band? He had Petty cut some demos with studio musicians.

    At this moment, Tench, who like the others had stayed in L.A., taking gigs with Top 40 bands to pay the rent, accepted a friend’s offer of some free studio time. It would be after hours, from midnight until dawn, but all Tench had to do was buy the tape.

    One afternoon, he literally ran into Stan Lynch, an old pal from Gainesville, on the street. Lynch had been the drummer for Road Turkey, another popular band in the university city, and had subbed for Mudcrutch’s drummer many times. He had also come west to seek his fortune. But Road Turkey has split up even before they reached California; now Lynch was drumming for a metal band and working the day shift at Tower Records.

    Tench recruited Lynch to the ad hoc group he was assembling for his studio session; Lynch asked along bassist Ron Blair, yet another Gainesville alumnus, and Blair in turn called his friend Jeff Jourard. Guitarist Jourard was in a band called RGF with Blair back in Gainesville; his older brother Marty happened to be the guitarist in Lynch’s Road Turkey.

    Lastly, Tench called Mike Campbell, who wasn’t doing much of anything, and Campbell invited Petty. Tench thought Petty could play a little harmonica, maybe add some guitar.

    What happened surprised them all. They quickly fell into a pattern of Petty songs, the sound largely that of Mudcrutch, but with Blair’s solid bass and Lynch’s punchy but restrained drumming giving it the power and drive it had always lacked. Petty was learning to sing with a wild, new looseness. They all had a great time. Petty called Cordell in Tulsa; he had found his band.

    The year was 1976. Elton John was on top with his Captain Fantastic album, disco was starting to happen, and Denny Cordell, who’d inherited all of Shelter’s Los Angeles holdings when he and Russell had parted company, was masterminding a quirky little rock ‘n’ roll band from Florida.

    Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers was released in December 1976. Just under 30 minutes long, the album contains some of the cleverest and most concise rock songwriting of the era. Petty wrote most of it; on some tunes he added words to Campbell’s music (they work this same way today, writing a good half of the Heartbreakers’ material jointly).

    “Breakdown,” “American Girl,” “Strangered In The Night” and “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” were structured like early Beatles songs: punchy, hooky and to the point. They were performed, however, like the Rolling Stones: gritty, loud and snarling. It was honest rock ‘n’ roll, young with an attitude.

    Cordell’s gift was taking Mudcrutch’s somewhat twangy, country–rock sound and condensing and compressing it into a tight little fist of sonic rock ‘n’ roll.

    Still, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers owed much to Petty’s other major influences–the Byrds, with their chiming guitars and lush vocal harmonies, and Buffalo Springfield, with their taste of playfulness and experimentation.

    Critics, for the most part, loved it, praising it as a shot in the arm during the dog days of disco. What most American DJ’s concentrated on, however, was the cover, a photo of a sneering Petty in a black leather jacket, a belt of bullets draped over his shoulder. The photo clearly said, punk, and at the time punk was little more than ugly stories coming out of England about the Sex Pistols swearing on TV, and people putting safety pins in their noses. The album didn’t get airplay.

    (Jeff Journard played on early sessions for the album–he doubles Campbell’s signature lead on “Breakdown”–but he was dropped from the final lineup because Petty felt there were already too many guitar players. He and his brother Marty went on to form the Los Angeles band the Motels.)

    The Heartbreakers took a long stint at Hollywood’s famous Whisky A–Go–Go; they weren’t making money, but they got to be one of L.A.’s most popular club bands, opening for the likes of Blondie, Al Kooper and Nils Lofgren.

    It was during a British tour with Lofgren, in fact, that people started paying serious attention to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. By the end of the brief visit, the crowds were responding more warmly to the Heartbreakers than to the headliner.

    The British knew the Heartbreakers meant business, that Petty wore his heart on his sleeve begrudgingly. He was an angry young American. “It was happening in England,” Petty says. “We’d been there and seen the punk thing come down. We’d already seen it before America got a look at it. So when we came back to Hollywood, all of a sudden we were playing the Whisky and there started to be a real club scene again. People started coming, and from there, it slowly built.”

    Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers earned a silver record in England, where “American Girl” was a major hit; back in L.A., the band was still an opening act, a club band with a growing legion of rabid local fans.

    Roger McGuinn, who was being informed more and more often that some blond guy from L.A. was singing just like him, checked Petty out–and recorded “American Girl” for his album Thunderbryd. Petty and Campbell sent McGuinn a new song called “Magnolia,” but McGuinn couldn’t get behind it and it was never released.

    In early 1977 Shelter recorded the band at Paul’s Mall in Boston, and released four of the live tracks on a 12–inch disc to radio. Official Live ‘Leg contains in–concert versions of “Luna” and “Fooled Again” from the first album, plus a rousing cover of Chuck Berry’s “Jaguar And Thunderbird” and a nine–minute “jam” called “Dog On The Run.” In a shorter form, this song had been recorded in the studio, but was left off the album.

    At the end of ’77, the Heartbreakers were well into recording their second Shelter album, provisionally titled Terminal Romance, when fate intervened.

    Irving Azoff, who was then managing huge careers for the Eagles, Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs and Jimmy Buffett, included “Breakdown” in the soundtrack to his movie FM. The film, a forerunner of WKRP In Cincinnati (but not as funny), barely made a ripple when it was released. Its soundtrack album, however, was a bonanza for programmers across the country.

    There on the wax were Steely Dan, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt…and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Petty, as himself, appears in the film in a laconic cameo).

    Within weeks of the movie’s release, the sinewy “Breakdown” was all over the FM airwaves. It didn’t matter that the LP it was taken from was over a year old, or that the band’s sophomore effort, now titled You’re Gonna Get It, was released almost simultaneously. Shelter re–released “Breakdown” as a single; it went to #39. The Heartbreakers were Top 40!

    They went on tour, opening for Patti Smith, who was then all the rage with her Springsteen–penned “Because The Night.” More often than not, half the audience left after their set. It was destined to be their last tour as an opening act.

    Petty got on well with Jimmy Iovine, the one–time engineer (John Lennon’s Mind Games, Springsteen’s Born To Run) who’d produced Smith’s breakthrough. Iovine, in turn, heard so much in the Heartbreakers–potential he didn’t feel was tapped on the Cordell albums–that he agreed to produce the third effort. It would not appear without a fight.

    In 1978 Shelter’s distributor, ABC, was purchased by the conglomerate MCA. Petty, who was stinging from what he perceived as chintzy deals with Cordell, saw it as the perfect chance to get out of his Mudcrutch–era contract once and for all.

    MCA knew the next album was going to be the one to put Petty over the top; Petty knew it too, and the prospect of making lousy money didn’t appeal to him at all. But the company wouldn’t renegotiate.

    Balking at the prospect of being “bought and sold like a piece of meat,” Petty claimed, the contract was invalid because he hadn’t been consulted via the switch to MCA.

    The company, in turn, hauled him into court for breach of contract, and the resulting legal wrangling took more than a year. The band was forbidden from performing live, and in May 1978 it filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Immediately, MCA was legally stopped from further prosecution until the matter could be resolved. But Petty had no label to release his (still unfinished) record. It seemed a stalemate.

    In the summer of ’79, Petty and Cordell settled their differences out of court, and MCA, as weary from the proceedings, as Petty, offered a compromise; a new subsidiary, Backstreet Records, on whose (small) artist roster Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would be in top standing. There was also a sizeable increase in the terms of Petty’s recording contract and publishing royalties.

    Recorded in stops and starts during the year of legal hassling, Damn The Torpedos was released in the fall of 1979. It was immediately hailed as a great work of rock ‘n’ roll, its themes of rebellion and overcoming adversity made more raw and more real by the tough year Petty had spent in the courts, fighting for what the believed was right. (Of course, the same theme–Petty as the underdog who will fight to his last breath–was all over the two Shelter albums, too.)

    Iovine’s production–and the dynamic boardwork of engineer Shelley Yakus–turned the muddy mixing of You’re Gonna Get It into a sonic wall of sound. The sound got bigger, more expansive; Lynch’s drums, Tench’s organ and Campbell’s guitar seemed to share the wide front of the mix with equal space. The album was clean and melodic like its predecessors, but burst forth from the speakers with a crackling energy they simply didn’t contain. It was as if the Heartbreakers were being released from an iron grip after being held still for too long.

    On top of it all was Petty’s voice; thin and reedy, bursting with anger and impatience on “Refugee.” “Here Comes My Girl” and “Don’ Do Me Like That,” each in turn a hit single (the latter went to #10 on the Billboard chart, and remains the highest–charting Heartbreakers single to date).

    Disco was fading at last, but the rock ‘n’ roll scene was dominated by “corporate” rock entities, faceless bands like Styx and Kansas, with sterile and synthetic sounds that tended to blend together. Damn The Torpedos, an all–out rock ‘n’ roll guitar album, with intelligent lyrics and ballsy production, couldn’t have come at a better time.

    Damn The Torpedos stayed in the Top 10 throughout the first half of 1980–it was kept from the top slot by Pink Floyd’s The Wall–and in time became Petty’s first platinum album. The 1980 arena tour, with Tommy Tutone in the opening spot, was a phenomenal success. (Petty came down with tonsillitis early in the tour, and a few dates were shuffled.)

    In September, the band appeared at the “No Nukes” concerts in New York. They’re included on the soundtrack album, performing Solomon Burke’s “Cry To Me,” but they’re not in the film. It could have been an important career move but Petty getting sensitive about his public image, thought they’d played badly and insisted his footage be cut.

    MCA got in Petty’s face again before the dust over Damn The Torpedos had even been settled. Announcing that all 1981–and–afterward “superstar product” would be list–priced at $9.98, a dollar more than was standard at the time, they told retailers the first release under the new price structure would be Tom Petty’s follow–up to Damn The Torpedos.

    Petty, of course would have none of that. Proclaiming that he would not be held up as an example, he threatened to sit on the album indefinitely–or he might let them put it out, but call it Eight Ninety Eight. MCA, tired of duking it out with its temperamental star, gave in and released the album at the lower price.

    For a while, the album was called Benmont’s Revenge; ultimately Petty titled it Hard Promises (on the cover, shot in a California record store, he stands next to a crate of albums under a sign reading $8.98).

    The LP’s title came from “Insider,” a duet with Stevie Nicks that almost didn’t make it onto the sequence at all. Nicks, a great fan, had asked Petty for a song, and he’d giver her “Insider,” a taut, emotional ballad about fighting for what you think is right–the classic Petty theme. But “Insider” showed a vulnerability Petty hadn’t displayed before.

    Nicks, in turn told Petty that he was obviously giving up something very personal and she couldn’t bear to take it from him.

    A grateful Petty then gave her a rocker called “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” and he sang it as a duet on Nicks’ Bella Donna album, with the Heartbreakers providing the music. It remains her biggest solo hit, topping out at #3 in August ’81. A year later he wrote and sang “I Will Run To You” on Nicks’ second album The Wild Heart. Tench completed a world tour as Nicks’ keyboard player.

    Hard Promises went platinum soon after its release. It spawned two singles: the Byrdsian “The Waiting,” and the moody “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me),” which featured old friend Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass.

    Ron Blair had been growing progressively more tired of the Heartbreakers’ non–stop touring schedule; halfway through the album he told Petty he would do one more tour, and that was that; he just “couldn’t get on the bus” again.

    Dunn auditioned as a new heartbreaker bassist, along with a dozen more of L.A.’s finest players. But the one who got the nod was a virtual unknown, and a guy who had almost nothing in common with the Floridian Heartbreakers. He was Howie Epstein, a Jewish kid from Wisconsin who’d played in John Hiatt’s band, and on a bunch of sessions for some minor artists like Cindy Bullens. He was a fine singer and songwriter in his own right.

    When he met Petty, Epstein was playing bass for Del Shannon. The year was 1981 and Petty, a longtime admirer, had agreed to produce Shannon’s comeback album, Drop Down And Get Me. The album stiffed, but the Heartbreakers came away with Howie Epstein.

    Epstein’s first appearance with the band was on Sept. 1, 1982 at the Santa Cruz Auditorium. Four nights later, he played before 250,000 at the US Festival outside of San Bernardino.

    The fifth Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album Long After Dark, appeared in October. Thematically bleak and shadowy, it was far less buoyant than its predecessors, yet still contained several Petty classics: “Straight Into Darkness,” “Change Of Heart” and the moderate hit single (#20) “You Got Lucky.”

    Petty and the Heartbreakers toured for nearly a year after the release of Long After Dark (the promo video for “Change Of Heart” was filmed live in West Germany). Epstein’s harmony vocals were giving their live sound an extra dimension. When the tour was over, Petty took a long break.

    “I just hit a point at the end of that tour; although it was a very enjoyable tour, musically. I just was ready to stop,” he says. “I wanted to stop everything for a year and try to resume living again. Because it was dawning on me that it’s impossible to write about things if you’re not out there living a fairly normal life; if you’re in a plane, or a car, or a room for year on end, then things to write about leave you.”

    Petty hung around his Encino home (affectionately known as “Fort Petty”), taking his daughters to school, trying to be domestic. He and Lynch went to England to Las Vegas, home to Gainesville for a weekend, just to do something other than play and sing. He got bored very fast.

    Ultimately, he built a studio in his basement, and the Heartbreakers assembled there to begin working on a new album in mid–’84. Petty had written several songs with titles like “Rebels” and “Southern Accents,” that described growing up in the south, yet included that patented Petty ingredient–fighting the odds. In many of the songs, just being southern stacked the odds against you.

    He decided the album would be a concept piece about the south; ultimately, the band recorded 30 songs for it. They did a dozen in straight country arrangements. The plan was to make it a double album.

    Another track recorded in the basement at Fort Petty was Nick Lowe’s “Crackin’ Up.” Lowe and his band had opened some of the American Long After Dark shows.

    During the period the Heartbreakers were recording the Southern Accents album, Petty met David A. Stewart, the eccentric writer and producer behind the Eurythmics. Together, they wrote three songs for the album, including “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and recorded them with the Heartbreakers in record time.

    With its ringing sitar, stuttering drum machine and mock–psychedelic atmosphere, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was a single,” Petty says. “It was made like, say, ‘Good Vibrations’ was a single. We wanted to make something that was very different, that was gonna come on the radio and sound real exciting and different.

    “I never worked so intensely on the production of a record! I would’ve liked to just send it out as a single; eventually I did get it out about a month before the album.”

    But “Don’t Come Around Here No More” hardly fit in with the all–southern theme. Likewise, “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me,” another Petty/Stewart number, owed more to Manhattan dance clubs than to the glorious confederacy of “Rebels.”

    So the theme was rethought, and the album was scaled back to a single. One southern song, “Trailer,” was replaced at the last minute by a pop throwaway called “Mary’s New Car,” and Southern Accents was ready for a release in April 1985. (“Trailer” became the B–side of “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”)

    The Stewart songs “It Ain’t Nothin’ To Me” and “Make It Better (Forget About Me”) were dressed up with sprightly horn charts; Petty loved the idea of putting out a record that wasn’t all “12–string guitars and organ.”

    Likewise, Robbie Robertson had taken a vintage ’80 track, “The Best Of Everything,” and given it a horn arrangement and a harmony vocal by Richard Manuel. Robertson and Petty had intended it for the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy, but MCA had refused to lend the track to Warner Brothers, which was issuing the soundtrack.

    “The Best Of Everything” was about a Dixie gal; she’d stayed down south while the narrator, her boyfriend hit the road. Petty loved Robertson’s arrangement because it seemed such a fitting coda to his album about leaving the south for bigger and better things. He saw “Rebels” and “The Best Of Everything” as bookends.

    The sessions were not without their moments of conflict. Out of frustration, Petty smashed his left hand into a studio wall during the final sessions; so many bones were broken, a steel pin was surgically inserted into his hand to hold it together. His doctors doubted if he’d ever play guitar again.

    Petty put the lie to that when the Heartbreakers hit the road in July for another extended trip. It was an elaborate show. The band was joined by a three–piece horn section and two female backup singers. The set was built like the front porch of an antebellum southern plantation home.

    On one of the first dates, in Florida, old pal Roger McGuinn showed up to join the band for “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” The song, which had been in their set on an earlier tour, became a staple of all the ’85 shows.

    They appeared at Live Aid in Philadelphia, the first act (at 5 p.m.) to perform after the emotional finale from London had ended.

    Campbell, Tench and Epstein had contributed to Bob Dylan’s spring ’85 LP Empire Burlesque. In September Petty’s manager, Tony Dimitriades, was approached by partner Elliot Roberts with a thought about the impending Farm Aid concert. Dylan, Roberts’ client, didn’t have a steady band at the time; he’d done Live Aid acoustically (with Keith Richards and Ron Wood). Maybe a Petty and the Heartbreakers/Dylan matchup would be a cool thing.

    All parties agreed, and after a few weeks of rehearsal the ensemble played Farm Aid, the Heartbreakers barreling through breakneck versions of “Straight Into Darkness” and Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny,” along with several songs behind Dylan, including “Maggie’s Farm” (they were all joined on that one by a befuddled–looking Willie Nelson).

    The final concerts of the Southern Accents tour, at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre, had been recorded and filmed. The film–which was scaled down from a potential theatrical release to a long–form home video–was a pretty straightforward souvenir of the concert. But the album–titled, like the film, Pack Up The Plantation (something the roadies did after each show) was something else again.

    Petty pulled out live tracks from as far back as 1978 (the Animals tune “Don’t Bring Me Down”) and ’81 (a version of “Insider” with Nicks) and sequenced them alongside the selections from the Southern Accents tour.

    Nicks was featured singing harmony on the Searchers’ “Needles And Pins” from the ’81 tour; Petty later confessed it had been the one and only time they’d performed the song. And original bassist Ron Blair was included on no less than five of the LP’s selections, alongside the Howie Epstein material.

    MCA released a promo video for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” to MTV, but issued “Needles And Pins” as a single instead. It went nowhere. (Petty had lobbied for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” as a single–it was upon the album’s release, the #1 AOR track in the country–but MCA didn’t agree.

    Petty and his bandmates were especially prolific in 1985. Petty and Campbell gave “Ways To Be Wicked” to the L.A. band Lone Justice; he and Tech wrote “Never Be You,” Roseanne Cash’s #1 country hit, and Lynch co–wrote “Drivin’ With Your Eyes Closed” with Don Henley. Tench recorded and toured with the Eurythmics.

    Campbell made the biggest score of them all. He gave Don Henley and instrumental track that Petty had elected not to write words to; Henley turned it into “The Boys Of Summer,” and his recording, featuring Campbell’s melancholy guitar, became one of the year’s biggest hits.

    At Christmas time the Heartbreakers backed Dylan on short tours of Japan and Australia (where the “Hard To Handle” video was shot), then brought the show to the States for a series of concerts. The Dylan/Heartbreakers concerts were three–hour marathons of re–worked Dylan chestnuts and a healthy dose of obscure material. The band played several short sets without Dylan, too.

    While in Australia, Petty produced a Dylan/Heartbreakers single, “Band Of The Hand” (the theme for Miami Vice director Michael Mann’s feature film of the same name). It appears only on MCA’s Band Of The Hand soundtrack album.

    In the spring of ’86, Petty’s friend Timothy Hutton badgered him into making a cameo appearance in director Alan Rudolph’s fantasy film Made In Heaven. Neil Young and Ric Ocasek, both handled by the same management firm as Petty, were also given small roles.

    Petty starred as Stanky, a disreputable nightclub owner robbed at gunpoint by Hutton and Ellen Barkin. His onscreen time totaled about three minutes.

    It was also during this period that Petty became acquainted with country star Hank Williams Jr. Along with Willie Nelson and Reba McIntyre, Petty took a verse on Williams’ cover version of Hank Sr.’s “Mind Your Own Business.” The record became a sizeable country hit later in the year.

    Petty and Dylan wrote “Got My Mind Made Up,” for Dylan’s album Knocked Out Loaded, released in the summer of ’86. Petty recorded a version too, with slightly different lyrics. It never surfaced.

    After the first round of Dylan commitments, Tench, who’d gigged on Elvis Costello’s King Of America, joined Costello’s Confederates Band for a swing through Europe. He was back for a Heartbreakers session in no time, however.

    In late 1986 and early ’87, Petty and the group ducked into the basement to record tracks for their seventh studio album, Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough).

    Issued in spring 1987, the album was recorded in short bursts, and some of the songs–”The Damage You’ve Done,” “A Self–Made Man,” “How Many More Days”–were literally written as they were recorded, then embellished with overdubs later. Petty said they’d learned “the joy of throwin’ some chaos in from Dylan.

    “Jammin’ Me,” another song co–written by Dylan and Petty, was issued as the album’s lead–off single. It was then announced that Petty and the Heartbreakers would headline a “Rock ‘n’ Roll Caravan” tour during the summer, sharing the bill with the Del Fuegos and the Georgia Satellites. Petty told the press the multi–bill reminded him of the rock ‘n’ roll tours he’d known as a teenager in Florida.

    Other highlights on the album were “Think About Me,” a bouncy rocker in the manner of the old days. “It’ll All Work Out,” featuring Campbell on mandolin, and the dreamy synthesizer ballad “Runaway Trains.”

    Only days before the tour was set to begin, someone set fire to the back porch of Petty’s Encino home. Petty, his wife and daughters, plus a housekeeper, barely made it out before the blaze engulfed the two–story structure. All the fire department could do was spray it with water and stand back.

    In the end the house was a total loss. Petty’s basement studio–where many of his master tapes and unreleased material was stored–was ruined from smoke and water damage.

    In a state of shock, Petty left on his road commitments. Before, he’d introduce a solo version of “The Waiting” with a story about how he’d fought his doctors when they said he’d never play guitar again; he’d beaten the odds. This time, he talked about the somebody who’d torched his house. “You didn’t get me,” he’d call out. The case remains unsolved to this day.

    During the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Caravan” tour, Petty heard a radio commercial for the B.F. Goodrich tire company that sounded suspiciously like his own recording of “Mary’s New Car.” The company had asked to license the song earlier in the year. Petty had refused, and now they were using a sound–alike song, and a sound–alike Petty! Furious, he threatened to sue B.F. Goodrich. The ad was quickly withdrawn. Once again, Petty had seen his artistic integrity on the line and had refused to back down.

    Originally, Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) was going to be a double album. Petty was really hot for it this time. But the constant touring with Dylan made such a commitment to recording impossible.

    The Dylan/Petty/Heartbreakers axis finished up ’87 with a swing through Egypt and the Mid–East (with Roger McGuinn as opening act) before moving on to Europe and finally England, where it played a multi–night stand at Wembley Stadium.

    It was backstage at Wembley that Dylan introduced Petty to George Harrison, and he in turn introduced Jeff Lynne. The two Englishmen were coming off a great season with Harrison’s Cloud Nine album. Lynne was about to leave for America to produce a comeback LP for Roy Orbison.

    A month or two later, just around Christmas, Petty was sitting in his red Corvette at a stoplight in Hollywood when he looked over in the next lane and saw Jeff Lynne waiting for the same light. It being the holidays, with no one in town, he was as bored as Petty. Shouting through their car windows, they made plans to get together.

    Later, Petty showed Lynne a song he was working on, “Yer So Bad.” Lynne suggested a chord change, one that Petty hadn’t thought of, and together they finished the song. The next day they wrote, “Free Fallin’.”

    Hot to record, they rushed over to the nearest studio–at Mike Campbell’s house–and proceeded to lay down the tracks. Phil Jones, who had been Stan Lynch’s drum roadie and Heartbreaker percussionist on a couple of tours, was brought in to play drums. Before they knew it, they were making a record.

    “We’d done a couple, and I said to Mike, ‘Well, it ain’t the band, is it?’” Petty says. “He said no, it ain’t. I said, well, I don’t want to cut these again and try to bring the band in. I’m just gonna call everybody up and say, ‘I’m gonna make a solo record.’

    “It was a period of time when I don’t think the Heartbreakers were planning to work anyway. So I’d say, ‘Come on Jeff, let’s do just one more.’ He’d say he had to go back, and I’d say, ‘Aw, one more…’ through the whole album, really. ‘You can do two more, can’t you?’ We wanted to get all we could drag out of Jeff really.

    “It was really incredibly easy with Jeff there; he has this amazing knack for arrangement. He showed us tons of things that we’d never come across, and by the same token, I think he learned a bit from us. I think that’s why it was such a pleasurable experience, because it was all new guys hanging out together.”

    By the spring, they had laid down nine tracks, including “You Got It,” co–written by Orbison and destined for his own album. Harrison played and sang on several of the tunes.

    In April, Petty’s manager played the finished songs for Billboard magazine, announcing the imminent release of Songs From The Garage, the fist Tom Petty solo album. Some radio stations received an advance cassette of a song called “Runnin’ Down A Dream.”

    Warner Brothers asked Harrison for an extra song to serve as the B–side of a European single. He started to polish up an unfinished tune, “Handle With Care.”

    Together Harrison and Lynne found themselves in Petty’s living room, finishing off the song. They had a great time. Bitten by the recording bug, they drove to Dylan’s Malibu home–and the four of them tossed ideas around, finished up “Handle With Care,” and cut the rhythm track in Dylan’s home studio.

    Somebody thought of Orbison, who was doing a concert in L.A. that night. He came over and his vocal provided the finishing touch that “Handle With Care” needed. Right then and there, both the Petty and Orbison albums were put on hold. Harrison nixed giving Warner Brothers “Handle With Care” as a B–side. He knew it was too good.

    Without thinking about it too much, the fivesome–dubbed the Traveling Wilburys from a suggestion Prince Charles had once made to Harrison about an anonymous supergroup–became a working unit.

    Together, acoustic guitars in hand, they wrote nearly 20 songs, each contributing lines. Whoever wrote usually sang, but there were exceptions. On the finished album, Traveling Wilburys Volume One, Petty sang lead on one track, “Last Night.”

    “All the Wilburys songs, people want to think that we wrote them individually, but we didn’t,” Petty recalls. “I think Dylan wrote most of ‘Last Night.’ We sat on the floor, the five of us, and wrote, literally, all those songs.”

    “It’s even hard for us to believe, really. When we stared that record–this is another thing people don’t really understand–we had been hanging around for quite a while, all of us except Roy. But Roy had been around the sessions for my album.

    “The core band then was me, Mike, Jeff and Phil Jones. George was around a lot too. We’d say, oh, Randy Newman’s coming in today–let’s do one for Randy. So it wasn’t like it was just the whole bunch of us together for the first time.”

    The Wilburys’ album is unassuming and fun; it’s as if all the participants took off their serious caps for a spell. “It was 10 days to write them, if you don’t count “Handle With Care,” which was done first. Then 10 days to write nine more. We did the basic tracks and went to England and worked for another month, I guess, finishing up.”

    Petty says the Wilburys loved what they’d done from the outset. “We were like little kids, leaping on each other’s backs. We were just so thrilled. When you could finally put it up and hear it all going by, that’s when I started to think, hey, this is a pretty good album. We didn’t think about it much until then, because we were so busy. It was a frantic pace we were keeping.

    “(But) we set out to make a great album. We didn’t want to do it if it wasn’t going to be real good. And we knew we’d get a bunch of shit if it wasn’t real good.”

    Traveling Wilburys Volume One appeared in October, to ecstatic reviews. Many critics commented on how good it was to hear Dylan and Harrison enjoying themselves for a change. And Orbison, it was noted, was in better voice than ever. Two months later, Orbison died of a heart attack. “I’m just glad that I knew him,” Petty says. “I’m honored that I got to spend that much time with him, and work with him. I think the last conversation we had, a few days before he died, he was just over the moon. They’d just finished his album. Roy had a good idea, I believe that things were really about to go his way; we all wish he could’ve seen the great success he’s had ’cause boy, he would’ve loved that.”

    Orbison’s Mystery Girl, with contributions from Petty, Lynne and Campbell returned to the studio and finished the solo album, now called Full Moon Fever. Petty thought Songs From The Garage might be construed as a throwaway title, denoting garage rock or just playing around, and that was definitely not the point.

    Released in April 1989, Full Moon Fever was cleaner and more accessible than the recent Heartbreakers albums; Lynne’s gift as a producer seemed to know when to bring Petty’s reedy voice up to the front.

    Four hit singles came from the album: “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream” and “A Face In The Crowd” made the Top 20, “Free Fallin’” went to #7 (Petty’s highest–charting single to date). A fifth single “Yer So Bad” was released a full year later after the album appeared, but did not chart.

    Petty left two completed songs in the can: One, “Don’t Treat Me Like A Stranger,” appeared on the British CD single of “I Won’t Back Down.” The other, “Down The Line,” was issued as the B–side to “Free Fallin’” in the United States.

    Full Moon Fever turned into the Album That Wouldn’t Die. Eventually, it sold over four million copies and stayed in the Top 10 for the better part of a year. With the Heartbreakers, Petty toured the country twice in support of the album, in summer ’89 and again this winter.

    During the first leg of the tour, Petty invited the radical environmentalist group Earth First along to distribute literature. As he approached his 40th birthday, he felt a growing concern over the sorry state of the planet. The dedication–in public and in private–to the environmental issue was carried over into 1990, and the second leg of the tour, on which the band returned to Gainesville for the first time in seven years.

    In 1976 his onstage raps were usually “Let’s hear it for rock ‘n’ roll,” “Are you feelin’ alright?” and things of that nature. On this tour, he talked about saving the earth, every night, just before breaking into Thunderclap Newman’s 1970 song “Something In The Air.”

    The Traveling Wilburys’ version of “Nobody’s Child” (an old country song by Mel Force and Cy Coben) was scheduled for release as Wilbury/Warner Bros single in mid summer. The song was supposed to be included on The Romanian Angel Appeal, a benefit LP (organized by Harrison’s wife Olivia) for the orphans of revolution–torn Romania.

    The Wilburys reportedly were finishing up their second album, with no one replacing Orbison, in early June.

    Mike Campbell is producing much of Springsteen paramour Patty Scialfa’s first solo disc; in ’89, he and Don Henley collaborated on “The Heart Of The Matter,” which became another hit for the one–time Eagle. Howie Epstein was behind the board for Carlene Carter’s forthcoming comeback LP.

    Stan Lynch and Benmont Tench are in the studio with other artists; last year, Lynch co–wrote Henley’s solo hit “The Last Worthless Evening” and other tracks on Henley’s The End Of The Innocence album. Tench most recently appeared on Elvis Costello’s Spike and U2′s Rattle And Hum, among others.

    Inevitably, they’ll all regroup as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and cut another record. They’re brothers; they’ve lived and breathed each other for nearly two decades. And to the member, they couldn’t name another band they’d rather play with. Each of the four Heartbreakers name Tom Petty, unequivocally, as their favorite songwriter.

    In a career that’s spanned 14 professional years, Tom Petty stands out as an artist fiercely dedicated to his own freedom of expression; he saw what he wanted as a boy back in Gainesville, and he’s fought–and won–many a battle to make sure his dream happened the way he wanted it to.

     



  • Featured Image[Article 203]The Heartbreakers interview: Satan Eats Cheese Whiz (1987)

    91w7EUV1aEL._SL1400_Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have come full circle. They began, more than a decade ago, as a ragtag quintet of friends from North Florida playing uncluttered rock ‘n’ roll, and eventually came to experiment with diverse and wide-ranging sounds and ideas. With Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), their seventh studio album (to be released Monday by MCA Records), Tom Petty and his group — a little less ragtag, and a little more worldly-wise — have come back to the future. It took them 12 years, but they’ve finally made a great uncluttered rock ‘n’ roll record.

    Gainesville natives Benmont Tench and Stan Lynch, keyboards and drums, respectively, both agree that the last two years — much of the time spent touring with Bob Dylan — were positive for the band. Today they feel as sprightly as they did in their salad days. Over a four-week period last spring, sandwiched in between tours of the Far East and the United States with Dylan, the five musicians recorded more than 30 songs. Many of them, they only played two or three times, and were recorded to capture the spontaneity.

    “Most of the record is like that,” Tench says. “‘The Damage You’ve Done,’ ‘Think About Me,’ ‘A Self-Made Man,’ ‘Let Me Up,’ most of this record is from that month of doing live tracking. The second side is mainly that stuff, and the first side is mainly stuff that was worked on more.”

    Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell produced the 11-track album, and there are no musicians other than the five Heartbreakers present. Overdubbing, even by the band, was kept to a minimum. Bass player Howie Epstein laid on harmony vocals to a few of the completed songs.

    Most of the numbers are straightforward rock-type songs (in 1987, “Petty-esque” is probably a good enough way to describe the band’s brand of guitar-based rock) with an ensemble sound, rather than lead guitar or keyboard, prevalent. There are very few solos.

    The exceptions: “It’ll All Work Out” is a ballad in waltz time, with an Oriental sheen. Campbell is featured on the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument.

    The score to the melancholy “Runaway Trains” is reminiscent of the synthesizer band Tangerine Dream, hypnotic and dreamlike. It’s also one of Petty’s most strikingly poetic lyrics (Campbell wrote the music, and Petty the basic melody. Lynch remembers that the song existed for several years without lyrics).

    With its moody synthesizer and sparkling electric guitar fire, “Runaway Trains” recalls “The Boys of Summer,” the song Campbell co-wrote a few years ago with Don Henley. It was a big hit for the former Eagle.

    “Everything he writes now sounds a little bit like ‘Boys of Summer,’” Lynch says with a snicker. Tench gives him a questioning look, then they both laugh. “Ah, print it, I don’t care,” Lynch says, on a roll. “Hey, why not? ‘The Boys of Summer’ been berry, berry good to Mike Campbell. Once a hit, always a hit.”

    Tench interrupts his stream of humorous observation. “‘My Life/Your World’ is Mike’s, too, and it doesn’t sound like ‘The Boys of Summer.’”

    “It does if you play it backwards,” Lynch says.

    With “My Life/Your World,” Petty sings wry social commentary over a dance-club beat. The song sounds like the heir to “It Ain’t Nothing to Me,” from 1985’s Southern Accents album. “I think it’s a better song than ‘It Ain’t Nothing to Me,’” Tench says. “It’s the Heartbreakers play ‘Billie Jean.’”

    Otherwise, “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough)” rocks. It’s not overtly literate (a good sign if one is on the lookout for genuine rock ‘n’ roll), but it’s not without its uplifting emotional moments. For every song like the title track, an all-out screamer (literally), there’s another like “Ain’t Love Strange,” that puts focused lyrics (“It can make you string barbed wire/Around your little piece of ground/For emotional protection/Oh but it’s too late now”) next to an exhilarating, seemingly spontaneous arrangement.

    “‘Ain’t Love Strange’ must have meant something to Tom,” Lynch theorizes. “I’m guessing, but I’ve seem that kind of reaction out of him, when we were doing that song ‘Insider’ a few years ago. Good, bad, or indifferent, he made psychic communion with that song. He had made an attachment to ‘Insider.’ He loved it.

    “And I think ‘Ain’t Love Strange’ had that same biological reaction. There’s a couple of things Tom is always unwavering on, and that was one of those songs that it didn’t matter if we got a good or a bad version or not, it was going on the record.”

    Both Lynch and Tench say this is the first album that all the band members have been completely satisfied with before it’s released. They think it’s an honest record, true to Petty and Campbell’s vision of an all-band effort, circa 1987. “It doesn’t feel overly autobiographical to me,” Lynch says. “This isn’t Tom’s Nebraska. It’s not Okahumpka.”

    “It’s not Alachua,” offers Tench.

    “No,” Lynch adds. “He said to me, ‘It’s a good rock ‘n’ roll record. We did our best.’”

    Campbell co-wrote half the LP’s songs with Petty. Bob Dylan contributed some of the lyrics to “Jammin’ Me,” the album’s first single, which decries the media’s “information overload,” according to Tench.

    “I don’t have any idea which parts of it Bob wrote,” he adds, “but I think you can take a wild guess… ‘Take back Pasadena….’ The blatantly cynical and sarcastic stuff is probably Bob’s.”

    Typical of a Heartbreakers album, there’s 20-second snatch of gibberish between two songs on the second side. It’s the band engaged in a brief tribal chant, complete with hand claps, ending in laughter and a quick joke. Listen closely, Lynch laughs, and it says “Satan Eats Cheeze Whiz.”

    “I like that stuff,” Tench comments. “I think it’s funny. There isn’t anybody who’s any good who’s funny any more. Bruce is great; he’s not funny. U2’s a good band; they aren’t funny. The hell with ’em.”

    (The LP’s cover, a favorite among the band members, is a composite face — screaming — made up of pieces of each of their own mugs. On the inner sleeve is a Los Angeles Herald-Examiner news photo, showing a small plane that actually went nose-down into a woman’s backyard swimming pool. near the studio where the Heartbreakers were recording. Petty wrote a verse in “My Life/Your World” about it. They all think that it’s a great picture, too.)

    Following last summer’s American tour with Dylan, while Petty and Campbell were cooking up additional songs for “Let Me Up,” Tench went to England for a month-long tour with Elvis Costello. He played piano in Costello’s Confederates. The high point, for him, was a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where Van Morrison sang a few numbers with them. A fanatic for popular music, Tench had long admired the reclusive singer.

    Recently, Tench has been recording with the band X, Rosanne Cash, and Ferghal Sharkey. The latter two have recorded new Tench compositions.

    The Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers tour, in support of Let Me Up, begins in late May in Arizona. Rehearsals start in two weeks.

    “There’s no band,” Lynch says. “It’s a figment of everyone’s imagination unless they’re together. We don’t all live in the same house — it’s not like we’re young kids, we’ve all got lives, we’ve all got creative projects, so it (a tour) re-confirms to us that indeed, there really is a band. That’s what a band does — they play live. So the question of ‘Are we gonna tour?’ is really ‘Are we pro-band this year?’ They’ve decided that they are.

    After seven weeks of touring (with no stops scheduled for Florida), the Heartbreakers will take a month off and then connect once again with Dylan, with whom they’ll tour Canada, the southern United States, and Europe. They’ll also play Israel, Egypt, and several other countries in eastern Europe. Dates in the Soviet Union are still being mulled over. There’s prestige in playing there, Lynch and Tench admit, but no money. And that’s something to be considered.

    “Nobody knows any specifics, because it changes daily,” Lynch says. “Egypt and Israel are going to pay for the whole thing, so they’re critical in working the tour around. The Israeli dates will pay to bring a 747 full of equipment to that continent.

    “Those dates are going to coordinate with the start of the Jewish New Year, so they’re critical…the other stuff is being discussed. It changes all the time.” A southern American swing will reportedly bring Dylan and the Heartbreakers to two, or three, Florida cities.

    A Dylan/Petty show is never the same on any two nights. Lynch says that while any one member of the Heartbreakers can be the “backbone” of a song in concert, driving it from start to finish, with Dylan “he’s the backbone, the frontbone, and the whole skeleton. All we can do is embellish. He throws in all the curves.”

    Tench says it’s a unique experience. They just hold on tight and ride wherever it goes. “Bob will reel it in and it’ll be under control. It’ll go in whatever direction he feels like taking it in. That’s what you’re doing, the guy’s up there singing what he feels like singing that night, that minute, and you follow it. And this band’s been together long enough that we’re good at that.”

    That attitude of Dylan’s made them remember the joy of spontaneous combustion, and its practical application to rock ‘n’ roll, and they were full of that joy when they went into the studio for Let Me Up during a lull in their tenure as his touring partners.

    “Any record, whether it’s good or bad, turns out to be a document of the time when it was recorded,” Tench says, “of ‘Here’s what it was then.”



  • Featured Image[Article 199]Tom Petty on the Heartbreakers’ ‘Greatest Hits’

    tom_petty_and_the_heartbreakers_-_greatest_hits_-_frontMemories are made of this
    By Bill DeYoung

    “It was kind of fun when I heard it all strung together,” says Tom Petty of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits, which MCA Records will release on Nov. 9.

    The song selection was left to Petty himself. “I was sort of flooded with a lot of memories,” he says. “I thought they were pretty good little records, really. I don’t ever put them on at home. I hear them on the radio, but the first time I’d sat down and really played ’em all in a row, it was kind of nice.”

    After this one, his records will be released on Warner Brothers. “It was a nice way to end my long affiliation with MCA,” he reports. “I think I’m leaving on a good note — everybody’s still friendly and everything. How long was it, 18 years? That’s a long time to be there.”

    Song for song, here’s Petty’s comments on the album.

    “American Girl: I remember we recorded it on the Fourth of July, and I remember a lot of talk about the Byrds when it came out, but Michael (Campbell, Heartbreakers guitarist) and I never really even thought about the Byrds until other people brought it up to us.

    “I remember when we got the take, we were pretty excited about it.”

    “Breakdown”: “I wrote that because, whatever song we did that day, we got done pretty early. And no one really wanted to go.

    “Someone said ‘Why don’t you write us another one?’ and being young and naive I just said ‘Yeah, OK.’ I sat down at the piano and wrote this ‘Breakdown.’

    “It was originally put down in this jammy kind of version that was about six or seven minutes long, and the guitar lick Mike played only right at the end of the song. And this guy called Dwight Twilley, he was around a lot in those days, he said, ‘Boy, that’s a really great lick at the end there, I can’t believe you aren’t using that more. It’s a great hook.’

    “I’d already sent the band home, and I phoned them at 2 a.m. — so they say — and they came back to the studio. We cut the track in a couple of takes, in a much shorter arrangement.

    “We were into very short songs at the time — no excess — because there was so much of that going on in that time period.”

    Petty says he has no idea at all why he sang “Breakdown” with a cheesy Spanish accent.

    “Listen to Her Heart”: “My wife Jane had gone, with (producer) Denny Cordell, over to Ike Turner’s place. And she had been kinda cornered by Ike Turner and barely got away. She was saying it was this wild experience.

    “I don’t really think I was writing to Ike. I think it gave me an idea and I took it from there.”

    “I Need To Know”: “I was trying to make a song like Wilson Pickett’s ‘Land of 1,000 Dances.’ That’s one of my favorite records.

    “I actually wrote that at Crescent Beach, Florida, at a friend’s house.”

    “Refugee”: “‘Refugee’ was mostly Mike’s music. I think I just hummed the tune and wrote it very quickly, in 10 or 15 minutes. I can’t remember exactly how long, but I remember thinking ‘Boy, this fell together quick.’

    “The song hung around for a good year before we ever got it recorded, but we used to play it on the road.

    “It was one of those that really caught on with people.”

    “Don’t Do Me Like That”: “Mudcrutch recorded it in L.A. around ’74. It was something my dad used to say, ‘Don’t do me like that.’”

    “Don’t Do Me Like That” became Petty’s first Top 10 single, in 1979. “We never really took it very seriously,” he said.

    “Even the Losers”: “I think that’s really a good song. I heard it the other day on the radio.

    “I remember that I didn’t have the title when I went to the session. I had all of this song and then the chorus came and I didn’t know what to sing, That just sort of blurted out of me on one of the passes and I went, ‘All right! There’s the title.’”

    “Here Comes My Girl”: “Another one of Mike’s, from the same demo tape as ‘Refugee.’ I got the idea for the narration from Debbie Harry, who we’d been playing with at the time. She did some deal where she just talked in the song.”

    “The Waiting”: “Don’t remember much about ‘The Waiting’ except … I think we recorded it on my birthday, because we were interrupted by somebody in a gorilla suit, one of those really awful telegram things. And he wouldn’t go away. It was really annoying. We were just, ‘Please, never let any more of these in the studio.’ We were trying to cut this track, and the guy was trying to do ‘his show’, and he wouldn’t leave until he’d done his entire act.”

    “You Got Lucky”: “Just a little pop song. We’d just gotten the synthesizer, obviously. It was probably the first germ of trying to break out of the bag we were in, musically. That whole album (Long After Dark), I think I was impatient with everybody and wanting to do something else.

    “That was the one chance I got to sort of feature the keyboard more than the guitar. It’s a pretty hot little single, you know, pretty hot. Pretty good rhythm track.

    “I think I was already in the mind to make Southern Accents by that time, and there was consensus around that I was maybe being crazy. So I almost felt like I was conceding to do the stuff on Long After Dark. Although I enjoyed it; I really thought at the time we probably should’ve been doing something else, because it was so much like the stuff we’d done before.”

    “Don’t Come Around Here No More”: “It’s still one of my top three things I ever did. That one’s way up there on my list; just as a record it’s a lot of fun to listen to.”

    What are the other items on the top three? “Couldn’t say.”

    “I Won’t Back Down”: “I like this one quite a bit, too.”

    “Runnin’ Down a Dream”: “A terrific driving song, I think. One of the only songs I ever wrote about a car. Del (Shannon) had a good laugh about it. I gave it to him in an airport; he said he put it on on the plane and started laughing.”

    “Free Fallin’”: “‘Free Fallin” was really about Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. At the time, I was living in Beverly Hills and Mike lived in the valley, and I had to drive over Mulholland Drive, which is this kind of road that looks off to L.A. on one side and Hollywood on the other. It was formed driving down Ventura Boulevard.

    “It’s a very active road. It’s a kind of a trip just driving up and down it.

    “I’m very pleased that I was so embraced by the people of the San Fernando Valley. Anytime I go somewhere, they thank me for the song.”

    “Learning To Fly”: “I love that one. I just think it’s one of my better songs. I wrote it with Jeff Lynne, and I loved the record. We had a ball doing it.”

    “Into the Great Wide Open”: “The problem with a lot of them, especially ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More,’ people always think of the video. ‘Wide Open’ was one of my favorite videos, because it came out so close to what I envisioned. It was exactly like the movie in my head.”

    “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”: “I’m still thinking of the right words to explain the song, but I don’t know if I’ve come up with them yet.”tom_petty_and_the_heartbreakers_-_greatest_hits_-_front

    “Something in the Air”: “It was one of those that we’d only played twice. And when we dug through everything, we all just oohed and aahed over it. We were so pleased with it, and we thought ‘You know, this is probably the only chance we’ll have to put this out on a record.’ Because covers never seem to make the final album cut; the originals just get priority.

    “So we decided to stick it on. I thought it was a nice little message for the end of the album.”

    Petty understands that not everyone will be happy with his choices. “There was a lot of things that some people wanted that there just wasn’t room to put on,” he says.

    “It’s really a double album. They’ll probably bring out another volume at some point.”



  • Featured Image[Article 196]The wire is life’: A conversation with Phil Lesh (2006)

    ‘The Wire is Life’: A conversation with Phil Lesh

    By Bill DeYoung

     

    More than a decade aftepf-20080621_02-philr Jerry Garcia’s death, the mythology of the Grateful Dead remains, perhaps more potent and insinuating than ever as the jam band universe — virtually created by the Dead — continues to expand, absorb and excite.

    Phil Lesh, by all accounts, had a good year. His memoir, Searching For the Sound, was a runaway best–seller and actually made the leap into a second–printing paperback edition (quite the feat for a rock ‘n’ roll autobiography).

    The master of the six–string bass is feeling great, feeling delightfully sober and feeling no lasting ill effects from his 1998 liver transplant, the result of a nasty tangle with the dread Hepatitis C.

    He’s kicking off the Phil Lesh & Friends summer tour with a stop at Bonaroo, followed by a two–month trek across the country. This year’s band includes jazz guitar great John Scofield, former Bob Dylan Band member Larry Campbell on guitar, mandolin, pedal steel and everything else with strings, vocalist Joan Osborne, keyboard player Rob Barraco, and drummer John Molo.

    We spoke with Lesh just before the tour started. It had been just a week since the tragic death of Dead keyboard man Vince Welnick, and the stench was still hanging in the air from the Dead’s first major P.R. disaster — the removal of free vintage concert downloads at archive.org.

    Naturally, both subjects had to be addressed, along with everything else.


    Q. Do you still think about Jerry?

    A. Sure. Not every day, but frequently. It’s not like he’s looking over my shoulder or anything, but he’s in a good space and he’s watching. In a sense, he’s looking in and he’s aware of what we’re doing, the rest of us down here. The sense that I get is that it doesn’t really matter that much to him, because he’s in another place now. At the same time, I get the sense that he’s pleased that we’re continuing.

    Q. I’d like to ask you about Vince Welnick.

    A. We worked together early on, when I started Phil Lesh & Friends, and it was a gas. We tried to put it together again, Vinnie had other commitments, and I think we just sort of both moved on. He had his band, Missing Man Formation, and I had mine. It just happened that we didn’t have a lot of contact.

    But I was just tremendously heartsick and dismayed when I heard that he had passed away.

    Q. Were you aware of the fingers being pointed after Vince died, that some members of the Dead never treated him as part of the “family” after he’d left the band?

    A. I had a great time playing with him, every chance I got. As far as “who’s family and who isn’t,” that’s not something you can lay down — you can’t just say “OK, this person’s family” or “This person’s not family.” That’s a concept that doesn’t really have a lot of resonance with me. Because if the crew is family, why isn’t the musician family? I frankly never felt that Vince wasn’t family.

    Q. You’re actually turning up at blood drives throughout the tour. Why?

    A. Well, there’s never enough blood. I’ve been through it — I’ve used up a lot of blood in my illnesses. Luckily, there was plenty for me; I have the most common blood type. But there’s always a shortage, and you never know how much you’re gonna need.

    So I encourage people to give blood, and I also encourage everyone to become an organ donor because it’s the simplest thing in the world. All you have to do is tell your family: Hey, if anything happens to me, I want to be an organ donor. That’s how simple it is.

    Q. In your book, you very successfully described the telepathy that’s necessary for groups of musicians to improvise together. Not too many people have captured that on paper.

    A. I’m glad you got it, man, because that was what I was trying to convey. First of all, kind of the experience of that, and also the nature of what it really was: A group mind.

    Q. Is it easier now to do, now that you’re older, maybe not healthier, but wiser?

    A. Even if you’re playing with people you have history with, and that have demonstrated that they get the deal, it depends on the context. And it depends on how everybody feels that day. It depends on a lot of variables, but what it mostly depends on is everybody’s desire to let themselves go and not have to play “their stuff,” and not have to show off. And not have to be the lead voice, so that a dialogue, or a conversation, or a colloquy or a symposium can evolve.

    Q. So the idea is: We’re not going to worry about how we get there, or who gets there first. We will get there.

    A. If we listen to one another, if we respond to one another’s thinking.

    Q. OK, but is this still fun for you, after so many years of doing it?

    A. It’s one of those things that, when it’s happening, it can’t be anything but fun. And it’s the most fun that you can have as a musician, because you’re making up polyphonic music on the spot. It’s not just one voice that’s being improvised, it’s everything. The whole musical texture, the whole thrust of it, the whole direction of it, how fast it moves, what kind of twists and turns it goes through, which directions it’s going in. Those are all things that are happening as a kind of consensus.

    In a way, that’s a metaphor for a way that together, we can make the world better.

    Q. I like the fact that with jam bands, there’s really no pre–set formula Obviously the Dead were out there doing it first. Isn’t it like walking the high wire?

    A. Oh, yeah. Wasn’t it Karl Wallenda who said “The wire is life, and everything else is just waiting around”? It’s that risk that gives you the sense of “Wow, I’m really alive right now. It’s not like I’m going to be alive if this comes off,” or “I’m going to be alive looking back on this,” it’s “I’m really alive right now, right in the middle of all this risk.”

    Q. It works with the younger guys, too, right? Guys you haven’t been playing with for 40 years?

    A. Oh yeah. The thing is that a lot of these guys are really open to that. Larry Campbell is a really good example. He played with Bob Dylan’s band for so many years, and he was like a pillar of that band, playing great stuff. And yet he really wanted more. He wanted to play more. And so he left Bob’s band, and I kinda snagged him.

    So now he’s just flowering. He’s playing this amazing stuff that’s almost like, I don’t know, Electro–Celt or something. He’s like some warrior out of ancient history, standing up there playing these laments and heroic tales.

    Q. Do you use a set list?

    A. Oh sure. We kinda have to, but how we go through it is completely open. Essentially, I just say “We’re going to do these songs in this order,” but how we find our way between them is gonna be up to us at the time.

    Larry loves to do these elaborate guitar symphonies as a prelude to a song, so I like to have him do that. Then we just kick the band in at the right moment, and away we go.

    Q. What about the Dead downloading controversy?

    A. In all honesty, I had nothing to do with that decision. I was as shocked as anybody when everything was pulled. I thought it was a very bad idea to pull everything — eventually, of course, the audience tapes were put back up.

    To me, it was kinda like closing the door after the horse had left the barn, because all of those soundboards are already out there — they’ve been out there for years — and they’re out there in digital pristine copies. It’s not like you can stop them from being distributed.

    So I think the other guys in the band had some bad advice on that.

    Q. There was some awkward backlash from longtime fans who said the Dead had sold out, after giving the stuff away for years.

    A. I know, I know, but what can I say? Personally, I get a lot of good things from archive.org. When I was writing the book, I would be writing about a particular period, and I would go on there and listen to music from the period. And it was really helpful. It put me right back into that mindspace.

    Personally, I love archive.org, and I would be perfectly OK with the soundboards being up there — but I’m just one guy.

    Q. Will the Phil Lesh & Friends shows be made available?

    A. We’re going to do instant live CDs available at the shows, and of course by mail order after the show. And there’ll also be downloads of each show available online. We are going to put up one show out of the tour for free, but the rest will be available for purchase.

    Q. Here’s a thought: What happens if you play a bad show? Not that you probably play too many bad ones any more, but would you send somebody out there to say “We’re not going to be doing a CD tonight, folks …”?

    A. If it’s a bad show, if people don’t like it, they won’t buy the CD, that’s tough. It doesn’t really matter. I think the point is that’s how we are. We go out there and we take risks. And sometimes we don’t pull it off as well as we do other times.

    I don’t think there’s going to be a really bad show, but some might be less spectacular than others. That’s just how it works. And some people would want those shows anyway! You never know what people are going to want.



  • Featured Image[Article 181]Apple Boy: A few words with Peter Asher

    20130118-paul-mc-peter-asher-600x-1358525607The world remembers two Peter Ashers. One, of course, was the bespectacled, slightly nerdy–looking redheaded half of ’60s pop duo Peter and Gordon, hitmaking crooners of A World Without Love, I Go to Pieces and the god–awful Lady Godiva.

    (Beatle fans of course know that Peter and Gordon cut the Lennon/McCartney tunes Nobody I Know, I Don’t Want to See You Again and A World Without Love because Paulie was dating Peter’s sister Jane, and actually lived in the Asher family home in the first few Beatlemaniacal years. Then, of course, there’s the song Woman, written for P&G by Paul under the nom de tune Bernard Webb.)

    In the 1970s, Peter Asher was the bespectacled, slightly nerdy–looking redhead who both managed and produced James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, two of the Me Decade’s most successful recording and concert artists.

    In between these two prestige gigs, Asher was the head of Artists & Repertoire for the Fabs’ utopian record company, Apple. Asher was only at Apple for a year, but he produced two quintessential LPs: James Taylor and the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Under the Jasmin Tree.

    We managed to snag Asher recently, at the tail end of an interview about Linda Ronstadt (for another magazine), and ask him about his time at the Longest Cocktail Party.

    What specifically was your entry into Apple?

    Paul and I were very close friends. Prior to that he’d been living in my house. So we knew each other very well, and he told me all about his plans. This was after he moved out. He was at Cavendish Avenue. But I would hang out there a lot while he was formulating his Apple plans.

    He had liked some of the records I’d been producing at that time. Initially our first conversation was, would I produce some things for Apple? I said I’d love to, and then later on it grew into, would I be head of A&R for the label, and I said yes. So the job offer came from Paul.

    Have you found that the things written about Apple have been accurate?

    In general, people got it. I mean, there’s mistakes in all the books. They get stupid stuff wrong all the time. You realize how little people do actually check their facts. I’ve just been reading this new Barry Miles one, about the ’60s, and there’s bits in it that are really good and interesting and bits that just have mistakes in them. But that’s kind of the way they are.

    It was a bit disorganized in some respects. People tend to write about what was going on in Derek Taylor’s office, for example. But at the same time, there was an awful lot of good stuff getting done. We did put out some good records.

    As head of A&R, did you have input with all the artists on Apple?

    We had A&R meetings once a week, at which some kind of quorum of Beatles would turn up. We talked about works in progress, and who to sign. I had some overall influence, but none for example on John’s projects – on ‘Two Virgins,’ there was no input. And when George was off producing Jackie Lomax, he pretty much knew what he wanted to do. I didn’t really have anything to do with it.

    But with some of them, I certainly helped. Paul with the Mary Hopkin album, I was very much hands–on. Paul was producing it, but I was certainly there and doing stuff.

    And obviously James was very much my baby, and I produced it myself.

    For the record, how did you get involved with James?

    I’d been in a band with Danny Kortchmar – he played guitar in a backup band for Peter and Gordon. And after that, he was in a band called the Flying Machine, with James. It broke up, Danny gave James my phone number.

    James came to London, played me a tape and I loved it. I told him I had just started working for this new label and I’d like to produce his record. He said OK.

    Did you have to get approval from the Beatles before signing James?

    As a courtesy, of course, I wasn’t going to sign him without telling anybody. I brought it to the A&R meeting. Paul loved it, John didn’t really care that much one way or the other. I said ‘Look, I’m signing this.’ I think I probably would’ve quit if they’d said no. But that wasn’t even an issue. You make me the head of A&R and I find an act I love, I’m signing it. And they all went ‘Oh yeah.’

    To be honest, those meetings were always kind of wooly, so if you came in and said ‘I’m the head of A&R and I’m signing this act’ everyone would go ‘Right!’ You could get away with a lot just by being decisive.

    To your thinking, were the Beatles actively involved will Apple?

    I had contact with all of them. They all had different degrees of interest at different times in different things. It wasn’t consistent.

    Was there a sense around Apple that the Beatles were really in trouble?

    I think there was a sense that Apple might be in trouble. They closed the clothing shop, there was a lot of chaos, and the record company was existing with some difficulty. So there was a sense that things were in a muddle.

    The Beatles were having big rows, but they were always having rows. They were always yelling at each other. But bands always do. I wasn’t out there at Twickenham, I was working, doing other stuff. I wasn’t at the ‘Let it Be’ sessions. So I didn’t have that sense, no. You did get the sense that they didn’t get on that great, but I don’t know a band that does.

    Is that you on the roof in ‘Let it Be,’ holding a clipboard in front of John with the song lyrics?

    No, it’s not. I wasn’t there that day.

    Were you involved with Mortimer, the band that almost came out on Apple?

    Yes. I can’t remember who first heard them or liked them, but we thought they were pretty good. I think it was two guys and a conga player. We were looking for songs, and Paul let them record Two of Us. I can’t remember if I produced a whole album, or just some tracks for an album.

    I do know that Paul, at the time, thought the Beatles weren’t going to cut Two of Us, and then they did. And obviously, there’s no point in trying to compete.

    And I remember, before the Beatles had it out, a conversation I had with Phil Everly, telling him that they should cut it. That the Beatles would probably let them have it first, because they were such Everlys fans. And that never happened.

    Could you say that it was in the air that Apple wasn’t going to last much longer?

    Apple as it was originally conceived, it was very clear it wasn’t going to last. Because at the beginning everyone had believed in Magic Alex, and believed in the shop and all that stuff, and that had all been shattered. The question was what Apple would become. And I knew that whatever it would become, under the leadership of Allen Klein, I probably wouldn’t like.

    Did you get the sack when Klein came in?

    No, I left. I quit. I would have been fired anyway. He fired Ron Kass.

    I knew a lot about Allen anyway. I knew people who’d worked with him, with the Rolling Stones, and knew him well. And I thought he was bad news.

    Klein was brought in for the big business overhaul.

    It did all change. Maybe it wasn’t viable as it was. It probably did need some business organization, but Klein wasn’t the right man for the job.

    Did you have to negotiate James’ contract away from Klein?

    I didn’t negotiate anything. I just left and took the tapes with me. The rumor is that they were gonna sue, and that Allen wanted to sue. One story is that George talked him out of it, but I don’t know any of that for a fact. But I also know that no one could find any of the contracts, anyway.

    Allen Klein certainly said he was suing us. He did a Playboy interview and said that he had sued James and me each for $50 million. When in fact nothing had happened.

    I went to Warners and made a deal, but I had to make them indemnify us against any possible lawsuits. Which record companies wouldn’t do now, but they did then.

    In the early days, how did Peter and Gordon wind up with those Lennon/McCartney songs? Did Paul play them for you, or give you a demo?

    The first one, World Without Love, he played it to us before we had a record deal. He’d just been playing us some songs, and I liked that one. I think he’d written it for Billy J. Kramer, and he didn’t do it, and the Beatles didn’t want to do it. It didn’t have a bridge – it was just two verses. After we got a record deal, we asked him for that song, and he wrote a bridge and gave it to us.

    He and I shared the top floor; we had adjoining bedrooms. He would play me a song on the guitar one day, and say ‘What do you think of this?’

    Did you feel like you were in a lucky position, with first shot at those songs?

    It wasn’t like that. They didn’t write that much for other people. It was after the success of the first one, which had come around by accident – a song he’d written which basically had no home – we’d established a successful relationship, and then he wrote a couple more songs for us.

    So of course we felt fortunate. But it wasn’t as if we got first shot at something that was otherwise gonna go out to the song–pluggers or something, because it wasn’t.

    Do you still have some of his demos sitting around?

    I think somewhere I’ve got a tape of World Without Love without the bridge, and I’ll Follow the Sun or some other song as well.

    At what stage did Paul’s song Woman get credited to a psudeonym?

    I think it was later on, after we liked the song and decided we’d love to do it. Because everyone was starting to say oh, anything they do is automatically a hit because of their names. So he said ‘Would you mind if we said that someone else had written it?’ We said of course not. So then we invented this story that it was a friend of his from school or something, Bernard Webb. Who’d written it – and because Paul had found the song, that’s why it was published by Northern Songs.

    Last question: Do you still see Paul?

    We’re not as close as we were, but when we see each other, it’s all very friendly.



  • Featured Image[Article 177]Who you gonna call? Ray Parker Jr.

    No one has ever combined funk and pop with the cool finesse of Ray Parker Jr. A multi-talented writer, singer, guitarist and record producer, Parker shone a particularly spirited creative light on the late ’70s and early ’80s with a handful of unforgettable hits: “Jack and Jill,” “You Can’t Change That,” “A Woman Needs Love,” “The Other Woman” and “Ghostbusters.”

    The Detroit native’s forte was catchy songs delivered with good-natured humor, impeccable radio-friendly production and plenty of wink-winking sexual double entendre.

    “People have enough problems,” Parker said. “They’re coming to be entertained and have fun. That’s always just been my theory on music, anyway. Somebody’s got to make those songs about politicians and all that stuff; I just don’t feel that.”

    He began taking clarinet and saxophone lessons as a young child, and by age 11 was considered one of Detroit’s brightest child prodigies. Ray Parker Sr., who worked at a Ford steel mill for 47 years, recognized his son’s potential and allowed him to play guitar with the likes of Marvin Gaye and the Temptations in city nightclubs. Dad went to every show to keep an eye on things.

    At 12, Parker toured with the Spinners, and he was still a teenager when he started doing sessions at Motown – he was in the second-unit band, playing when the famous Funk Brothers were otherwise engaged.

    Stevie Wonder, then living in California, invited the young guitarist west to join his band, Wonderlove.”I had an 8-track in my car,” Parker said. “I was 17 years old, going to college, and the only piece of music I had for the whole car was Music of My Mind. I didn’t need anything else. I had a great sound system, and with that album in the car, I was happy.”

    With Wonder, Parker opened stadium shows for the Rolling Stones. “I thought that they were opening for Stevie Wonder,” he said. “I was really shocked to see that they were the headliners.

    “In my world, in Detroit, the closed world of the ghetto, Stevie Wonder was a superstar. He had all the hit records.’”

    Parker worked on Wonder’s Talking Book and Innervisions. He was also making demos of his own songs, which Wonder encouraged. “And I thought gosh, if Stevie Wonder thinks it’s good enough for him to waste his time on, there must be something happening here.” Parker co-wrote “You Got the Love,” the 1974 hit for Rufus and Chaka Khan.

    He also found plenty of work as a session guitarist, primarily with Invictus Records, the label started by Holland-Dozier-Holland after they’d left Motown.

    Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold”? Parker on guitar. “Want Ads” by the Honeycombs? Parker again.

    Next he met his mentor, Barry White, who saw the young songwriter’s potential.

    White and Parker co-wrote several hits, including the No. 1 “You See the Trouble With Me,” and that’s Parker’s wah-wah on “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love,” “Love’s Theme” and several other Love Unlimited Orchestra classics.

    “He was a real kind person,” Parker recalled. “And very, very super-talented. We’d go into the studio and he’d know exactly what he wanted, right away. I can’t say enough nice stuff about him. He was just a big, big deal in my career.”

    Arista Records president Clive Davis signed Parker. The 1977 Raydio album, written and produced entirely by Parker, featured him on nearly all the instruments.” ray-parker-ghost-busters (2)At the time, anyone who was a famous musician that made a record, it was considered a jazz record,” Parker said. “No matter who you were, didn’t matter what it sounded like. It was only a jazz record because you were a musician.

    “Musicians didn’t have hit records; they just didn’t allow it. Especially black. If you were black and you were a musician, the first thing they’d do is draw a picture of a guitar and you holding it, and there’s your album cover. And then you go to the jazz stations.

    “When they designed my first album cover, that’s just what they did. So I went to Clive and said ‘For some reason, the company has an image of me as a jazz guitar player, and I’m trying to cut Top 40 records.’”

    Presto! Raydio became the name of a band, with Parker out front in the cover photos. “Jack and Jill” hit the Top 10 single early in 1978. Although Parker’s silky tenor is featured on the chorus, the leads were sung by a friend of his, Arnell Carmichael.

    “I couldn’t sing,” Parker said. “In the early days, I couldn’t even hold a pitch. The problem with being a good musician is you know what pitch is. I know what out of tune is. I don’t need anybody to tell me ‘I was just bad and out of tune.’”

    Carmichael shared the lead with Parker on 1979′s “You Can’t Change That,” but by “A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)” two years later, Parker was handling all the vocals. “I wasn’t so sure about that,” he said, “but all my friends said ‘It sounds all right now, you’re not an idiot no more. You might be able to pull this one off.’”

    There was no Raydio. Carmichael and the other guys pictured on the jackets were put on retainer, for personal appearances. Eventually the act was called billed as Ray Parker Jr. & Raydio.

    By the time of 1982′s The Other Woman, the credits read simply Ray Parker Jr. “That happened automatically,” said Parker. “The band got a little crazy, and everybody thought they were the stars. Everybody wanted more money.”

    A pulsating mix of rock guitars and soulful vocals, “The Other Woman” was a huge single, reaching No. 4 in April. The ballad “Let Me Go” was a minor hit, but Parker didn’t score big again until ’84.

    He was approached by Columbia Pictures’ music division to write a song for their upcoming comedy Ghostbusters.

    “It was a 50 grand deal, to write a song in two days whether they like it or not,” Parker recalled. “A key point – whether they like it or not, I get my money. I loved that deal.

    “So therefore, you gotta come up with something. The only problem was, the something became a little harder than I thought it was gonna be. Because what the heck do you write to the words ‘Ghost Busters’? They want the word in the song.”

    He watched roughs of the film-in-progress. “I remember they had the Ghostbusters packs on, and they looked real similar to a Roto-Rooter thing I saw. They had backpacks on when they come and clean your drain. I said ‘That’s it – it should be a commercial, and I should never sing it. I should never say the words ‘Ghost Busters’ myself, I should let the background scream it.’

    “And that’s exactly what I did. That was the best, smartest thing I’d ever done in my life. That one decision.”

    “Ghostbusters” spent three weeks on top of the Billboard chart in June and became the biggest record – by far – of Parker’s career.

    Parker was subsequently sued by Huey Lewis, who claimed that “Ghostbusters” was a virtual rip-off of his “I Want a New Drug.” Parker, who says he counted 12 songs that use “the same bassline” (including Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothing” and M’s “Pop Musik”) settled out of court.

    Still prevented by gag order from saying too much about the case, Parker nevertheless brushes it off. “What I can tell you is that I’ve written a lot of songs in my life, and every time it’s really, really successful there’s a lot of lawsuits. So far, in my lifetime, nobody’s collected a dime and it all still belongs to me. You look at the credits and it still says Ray Parker Jr.

    “I remember Lionel Richie told me a long time ago, ‘You’re not successful until somebody’s suing you.’”

    A label switch, first to Geffen and then to MCA, didn’t produce any more major pop hits (although Parker did write New Edition’s smash “Mr. Telephone Man”). Parker returned to Detroit in the late ’80s to care for his ailing parents, who, sadly, died with in a year of one another.

    Today, he’s working on his first album in 13 years, writing songs for kids’ cartoon shows, and hitting the road (he’s been playing guitar with his old friends the Crusaders).

    Parker has no regrets about bowing out for a while. “I had an unbelievably lucrative career, I made entirely too much money, I was never going to live long enough to spend it anyway,” he said. “And I didn’t want to be one of these guys trying to figure out how am I gonna get my parents back.”



  • Featured Image[Article 167]Robert Duvall: The Lost Interview

    9032020_origWith the first two Godfather movies, Apocalypse Now, The Great Santini, Network, True Grit, Lonesome Dove and another dozen classics behind him, Robert Duvall was already established as the premiere American film actor when this interview was conducted in March of 1991. He’d won an Academy Award for Tender Mercies just eight years earlier.

    A passionate horseman, the 60-year-old Duvall was at the end of a five-week visit to an equestrian training center in Newberry, Florida, where he was learning the fine art of jumping.

    You’ll recognize several movies in this rambling conversation that would come to pass within a few years, including The Apostle, The Man Who Captured Eichmann, Assassination Tango and even Schindler’s List

    There was plenty of talk about horses and tango dancers, too, most of which has been edited out to leave the focus on movie work and Duvall’s very specific acting technique.

    And on Lonesome Dove, which had been adapted from Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into an eight-hour TV miniseries. It had first aired in 1989, and was fresh on the interviewer’s mind – and Duvall’s as well.

    In the years since, Lonesome Dove – despite its small-screen genesis – has been put on a very short list as one of the greatest – if not the very best – Westerns committed to film. And a large percentage of that is due to Robert Duvall’s engaging performance as the irascible cattleman (and ex-Texas Ranger) Augustus “Gus” McCrae.

    The full interview was transcribed (for the very first time) in April 2015. What jumps out at me is Duvall’s refusal to call the Australian director of Lonesome Dove, with whom he did not get along, by name (it’s Simon Wincer).

    And the fact that he gave me more than an hour of his time, making me feel like I was an old friend he enjoyed bantering with.

     

    I have to tell you, I’m the biggest Lonesome Dove fan in the world.

    Well, that’s my favorite part I’ve ever played. I could have retired after that. The English can play Hamlet and King Lear, I’ll play that part. I loved that part.

    I had read the script first, and then I read the book. I read it in like 10 days. The script was well-written, so it was pretty parallel to the book.

     

    What attracted you to that part of Gus McCrae?

    Oh God, that’s a great part. What happened was, I had played parts like that on the stage, more outgoing than the other part, Woodrow F. Call. That’s the kind of part I get offered in films. They offered me that part.

    Even McMurtry said “You’re perfect for Gus.”

    So I told my agent, “I know they’re considering your other client, James Garner, for Gus. See if he’ll switch parts, and that way I’ll do the project.” He must have called me back in about three hours and he said “James Garner has passed – because of his bad back, he can’t go 16 weeks on an intense location. Maybe a movie, but not a miniseries for 16 weeks.” Like people wouldn’t do Apocalypse Now, because they didn’t want to be there for a year. So then I said “submit my name for Gus.

    The script just drew you along. I did some research, but you didn’t have to. You just followed the thing, it was so well written.
    Did you get lost in that part? Did you become the character?

    You really don’t become the character. It’s always acting. It’s just, you turn in a different way doing it. It’s always fun. When it goes well, it’s fun. When it goes well, then you can drop it and say “OK, let’s go eat, let’s play, let’s play ball, let’s ride horses.”

     

    I’ll never forget watching your face during the scene where you’ve just hanged Jake Spoon …

    Oh, I’ll tell you what happened. I’ll tell you exactly what happened there. Old Waylon Jennings is a good friend of mine. He said “How’d you do that, hoss? I never saw anything like that.”

    Sometimes I don’t get along with directors. We had our problems, but … I had done it, and he said “Do you want to go for another take?” And they don’t always say that, but I’m glad he did. I said “Why not?” They had two cameras.

    When it happened – boom – it happened, and it was as good a moment as I’ve ever done in my life, professionally. Thank God they sent me the tape first, because it was not in the final print. I don’t know if it was spite they didn’t put it in there … whatever it was, it was stupidity.

    I wasn’t on particularly great terms with the director at that point, so we called the producer. This guy had a lot of control. I said “Please, this is not in there, it’s got to be in there, if you never put anything back in there …” I don’t know, the editor must have been a moron.

     

    That was a great moment.

    Yeah … it was like life. And when you see Westerns, you never see the vulnerability in men like that. But when I was doing a little research on the Texas Rangers, they were macho killers. But in between, they would put on plays, they would paint. They were interesting guys as warriors. And when one of their leaders was shot along the Rio Grande, all the men just burst out in tears. They wept, openly, because their leader was killed right in front of them.

    So this kind of moment just took over. I don’t know where it came from, but it came. And I probably couldn’t have repeated it. If it was a play, every night, I couldn’t have repeated it.

    I said to the guy “When you cut away to Call, you have got to come back to me and you’ve got to linger on that moment. You’ve got to linger as long as screen time will permit before you cut to me walking away.”

    A lot times with emotional things like that, when you get news that your mother died, your father died, sometimes there’s a delayed reaction, an hour later. But the way this happened, also happens in life – boom, a sledgehammer.

    Had I never seen that thing, and they hadn’t put it in there, I would’ve never forgiven them. (laughs)

    The guy was a TV editor. He was all right, but ultimately, maybe those guys were hacks, because they’re thinking “TV.” They don’t look for moments. They don’t even know what a moment is.

     

    Gus wasn’t afraid to show vulnerability …

    Yeah, those guys … or when he was talking about Lorie, by the creek, they had a moment … those things happened to those guys. And I know as an actor, I can do those things. And I think that’s sometimes what critics and other people miss. Usually the other actors are the ones who can see if an actor can do that. I know of actors that are famous – I won’t say their names – and I’ve seen them try for it in movies. Talented guys. They back up and miss. A guy like Brando can do it. Sometimes De Niro can do it. But other actors I’ve seen, they go for the money but they can’t make it.

    You can’t plan it, necessarily. So when that happened, I said “That’s one of the greatest moments I’ve ever had in my life.” And this jerk, the editor … I don’t know if they did it out of spite because we had a little falling out at the end, or if they left it out on purpose. I don’t know.

    And I appreciate your bringing it up, because it was as good a moment as I’ve ever had.

    The script guided me and drew me along. But I love traveling around and looking for something that’ll help me with a part. We got in a car and drove way out in West Texas, in the middle of nowhere. We looked up old Sammy Baugh, the old quarterback for the Washington Redskins, a great, great talent. But he’s a cowboy. He was a professional football player, and then he retired. I just read about him. And the way he talked with his hands caught me. He was 70, with white hair, and still like a champion. To this day, I don’t think he knows who we were! He came in and talked to us for about two hours. But he gave me that extra thing I needed, the gestures. And I’d get those things in the part, you see?

    You know what I say? I say if the mafia guys had crossed the Red River, they’d have been hung by their nuts from a tree. Those Texas Rangers are rough dudes. And there are a hundred of them left. They have to be as mean as the people they’re pursuing.

     

    One of the toughest things about watching Lonesome Dove was that you died at the end!

    I’m always dying lately! Like in Colors, a lot of actors liked my death scene. They told me about it. They said “That’s the definitive death scene.” I improvised it from stuff in my life, very personal stuff, and it worked. That’s what it’s all about, if you can incorporate it. Without looking like “OK, now I’m stopping to gather something.”

    And I figured a guy that was dying, at that point, who would he call, his mother? He would lose his macho and he would ask for his wife. He’d say “Please call my wife.”

    The emotional line of the character is the most rewarding thing to get. And you gotta be loose and relaxed to get it. And it’s something you can’t plan.

    The emotional moment, if you try to sit on it – like when Jake’s hung, swinging – if you try to sit on it, in any given documentary, it’s more moving. When you see a guy talking about his son he lost in a flood, and he’s trying to sit on it. It’s like Sandy Meisner used to say in acting class, sitting there with his cigarette holder, “If crying meant great acting, my Aunt Tilly could be another Eleonora Duse.” If the emotion is there and it shoots out, and you try to fight it and let it come out this way – put a lid on it – then it’s more effective because it’s become like life. Life is like that. So why try to force it, and then if it happens, it happens.

    It’s like in The Godfather, when I have to tell Brando that Sonny’s dead. We’d done four takes, and usually that’s it for me. And there, Coppola said “You want to go for one more?” I said well, why not. And the moment was difficult, emotionally, to tell Brando’s character that Sonny, Jimmy Caan, had died. So that worked. The other takes were OK, but this became a special moment.

    People say “bigger than life.” That’s such a trap. Nothing is bigger than life. If you make selections from life, then they’re seen as bigger than life. But nothing is bigger or more enriching than life.

     

    Couldn’t you have overplayed Gus? Hammed it up?

    Oh, yeah. But I think the thing is, once again, to be specific with the emotional line. And therefore, if it needs to be big, then your bigness is justifiable.

     

    At first, before I got deep into Lonesome Dove, I thought Gus was very similar to Mac Sledge from Tender Mercies

    Well, Mac was a little bit more like Woodrow Call, very stoic …

     

    … then I understood that he was a huge progression from Mac.

    One of the first things I did, my first film, To Kill a Mockingbird, was with Horton Foote. Then we did a Faulkner short story called Tomorrow, and I played Jackson Fentry, who was really an introvert. And that’s why I didn’t want to do a guy like Call. I wanted to go the other way, which I knew I could do.

    And we’ve just done another Horton Foote project, which is a little different. It’s more like my uncles and my Dad from Virginia. Interesting piece called Convicts, which is one of his favorite things. In a way, he’s my guy, Horton, and yet Horton loved Lonesome Dove.

    I love doing rural guys. There are other things I want to do, too, but it’s hard to get ‘em off the ground. I’ve written a script where I play more of an urban guy, in this tango thing I’ve written. Connecting the two cities, New York and Buenos Aires, two middle-aged guys through social dancing. I know a guy in New York, an actor named Frankie Gio. He’s from South Bronx. He says “I got two gifts in my life – fighting and dancing!” He used to be a bouncer at Roseland. He said “Italians could jitterbug, the Jews could mambo!” (laughing) So we used to go up to the Palladium in New York and all that stuff. I’ve kind of written the script, and Ulu Grosbard who did True Confessions – he’s a good friend of mine – wants to do it.

    Another thing I’ve developed is where I play a Pentecostal preacher. For years I’ve wanted to play one of these guys. It’s called The Apostle E. F. Hart, which was my mother’s name. But I can’t use the name Hart, because there are six preachers in Texas with that name, and I’ll be sued. So we’re just calling it The Apostle for now.

    Once again, the guy has an outgoing side to him. But you know how those guys are, you see ‘em on television. I’ve been to churches all over America, black churches in downtown Brooklyn, churches in the hills of Georgia, in downtown L.A. Great preachers I’ve seen

     

    That would be a great challenge, I would think.

    Oh, yeah. I dug up old J. Charles Jessup, who I used to listen to – he’d be on the radio from Del Rio, Texas years ago – that was their version of television, the evangelists. They were radio preachers. I always thought he was black, but he was white. And he was put in jail.

    And you can’t read ‘em when you meet ‘em. You can’t read ‘em as much as you can a gypsy. Gypsies are gypsies, but preachers are preachers. You don’t know, you know? I saw what happened to Swaggart, and so forth.

    I think some of the guys, when they’re right and a little bit honest, they’re pretty interesting. And talented! They can preach for three hours with no text. Unbelievable. Unbelievably talented. They say the only truly American art form is the American preacher. Some of the music, maybe. Jazz and country music.
    You were going to make a record after Tender Mercies, weren’t you?

    I made an album but it never came out, because the guy that produced it is a very strange guy. Chips Moman. He’s a very talented songwriter, and there were a couple of interesting songs. But it was six years ago. Maybe it’ll come out, I don’t know.

     

    Are you sorry it didn’t?

    Well, yeah, but the sorrow’s subsided because it’s been six years. It’s ridiculous. I mean, you make something, you come out with it. I don’t know what that’s about. Even if only three people hear it.

     

    How much like Santini was your father?

    Not a lot. My dad was quieter, and more of a brooder. He had a temper, but it was more of a brooding thing. My mother was more like Santini! I’ve met a lot of people who said their fathers were like Santini. They say this, or that, or what an ogre, but a lot of people had fathers like that, who they loved. At least he voiced things. He wasn’t so passive that he never voiced opinions … at least there was a care there.

     

    Are there things in your career that you wish you hadn’t done?

    I’m sure. I’m sure. I don’t think about it too hard. If I did, I’m sure I’d come up with a few! You do things for money sometimes. To pay the rent, you know?

     

    Anything you believe you could have done better?

    I have a superstition that once I’ve done ‘em, I see ‘em once or twice, then after three or four years I don’t want to see ‘em again. Then maybe if I’ll see something, I’ll watch and think well, if I don’t embarrass myself I figure I’m on the right track. I figure if I watched everything I could pick out what I’d want to do again.

     

    You were offered The Silence of the Lambs, but chose to do Days of Thunder instead. Why?

    First they offered me one part, and then the other, and I said “I’d rather work with Tom Cruise than wait around for these people to make up their minds.” First, I had lunch with the guy to play the Anthony Hopkins part. And he calls me 20 minutes later and says “I think I’d rather have you play the FBI, and have Anthony Hopkins play this.” Which was a strange move for a director to do. So I’m just as glad I did the Cruise thing.

    I think that Silence of the Lambs is a well-made film. I don’t think it’s a great film; I don’t think there’s one great performance in it. I think that the guy’s very effective in the part; I think it’s very, very talented clichés. There’s nothing really fresh about it, because it’s like made-up material in a way – a guy eatin’ a liver, and this and that. But it was well-made. A little hammered-home with the close-ups.

    It held your attention. But it was nothing near as well-made as my favorite film in many, many years, My Life As a Dog. I love stuff with kids. To me, My Life As a Dog was a perfect, perfect film.

     

    Do you read your critics?

    No. The last Broadway play I did, Mamet’s American Buffalo, that and Lonesome Dove were the greatest reviews I’ve ever gotten. It was like I wrote ‘em myself. But I get superstitious, even though they were good. I don’t collect ‘em, good or bad.

    Let me just say this. I would be in trouble if all these critics liked me, or other fellow actors didn’t like me. When Steve Hill tells me I’m his favorite actor, that’s the greatest criticism. There was Steve Hill and Marlon Brando at the Actor’s Studio years ago, and Steve Hill was Strassberg’s favorite.

    But he’s a maniac. He’s a Hassidic Jew that won’t work on Friday nights. But he’s very gifted. He was in a Horton Foote movie called Valentine’s Day, played the craziest part. Wonderful.

    So when he gives me a gives me a review that’s positive … or when Waylon Jennings wants to meet me because of Tender Mercies … he told me what I did was absolutely impossible. And that’s play a Texan. So if I get a review from him like that, or from Steve Hill, then really that’s more valid than something that’s in the newspaper. If somebody likes me or doesn’t.

    Like when Brando and these guys went to New York, he studied with Stella Adler, certain people studied with Uta Hagen. Nobody went to a workshop by Pauline Kael.

     

    Can you still learn things from other actors?

    You mean about my profession? Yeah, I learn more from other people, or documentaries, than necessarily other actors. I think Brando used to watch Candid Camera when he was a young actor, which makes a lot of sense.

     

    Why didn’t you do Godfather III?

    Well, it was money. Coppola went on the Larry King show and said “Bobby Duvall wanted loads of money.” But see, he twists it a little bit. The truth is that I said “It’s unacceptable that Al Pacino gets paid five times what I get paid.” Two, two and a half times, I would consider it. It wouldn’t be ideal, but I would accept that. But they didn’t even extend that as an offer.

    So I figure, the only reason anybody’s doing Godfather III, I’m sorry, Coppola included, is the money. He’s about to go bankrupt, lose his house in Belize. He already lost his house in San Francisco, and they’re trying to foreclose on his beautiful estate in Napa Valley. So he needs money badly. Why wait 15 years to do a third one? It was for money. And if it wasn’t going to be proportionate, the correct amount at least as far as I was concerned, then I didn’t want to do it.

     

    I wondered if you felt that Tom Hagen was part of you and your history – that, God forbid, they might re-cast the role with another actor?

    It’s ironic, they had my ex brother-in-law, John Savage, play my son. I was married to his sister, Gail Young. Not just my character, but I felt one of the weaknesses maybe in the film was that they didn’t have those fringe characters like Frankie Pantangelo and Paulie Gatto from the first one. There wasn’t enough of that to enrich it, really.

     

    You saw it, then?

    Yeah. It was OK. It wasn’t nearly as good as the first two. I turned on Godfather II about a month ago – I didn’t know it was on, and it was about an eighth into it. I said “That’s Godfather II, let me watch it for a minute before I go on to some sports …” And I could not change channels until it was over. It was that well-made, I thought.

    He’s not the same filmmaker now, Coppola. The stuff he’s done lately – teenage movies in Oklahoma, he’s just not the same guy. And I think it’s because he directs some trailers, and he’s into the technical aspect and the futuristic thing of everything.

     

    What’s next for you?

    Well, we’re working on several projects. Everything’s a little elusive right now. We’re trying to get the rights to Eichmann in My Hands, the guy that actually, physically made the kidnapping of Eichmann in Argentina. We’ve contacted the guy in Israel. I want to play Eichmann. So we’re working on that and a few other things. Sometimes it’s slow, especially when you have personal projects, it’s very hard to raise money.

     

    Are there things that you would like to play that haven’t been offered to you?

    Oh yeah! I’d love to play Schindler’s List. You know the book? He was an industrial German, a Catholic Christian who saved 1,200 Jews? Ah, what a character! Man. It’s by a leading Australian novelist – I forget the guy’s name – who wrote this true story, but in kind of novel form. It’s one of the most moving books you’ll ever read. And it’s great – a true story!

    I know that first Spielberg was gonna do it, then Scorsese, and now I think Peter Weir’s gonna do it. I’ve worked twice with those Australian directors and haven’t gotten along – so maybe the word’s out!

    But I really feel I could do that part. It’s a great, great part. Strange, complex guy. They don’t know why he saved these Jews. Even though he would court the SS, gamble with them, give them caviar and food. To kind of help his position, and help the Jews at the same time.

    I would like to do that. I want to do my preacher project, I want to do my tango project. Most of the things that I do have come to me. I don’t have readers. We develop projects. I’ve been fortunate that the things that have come to me have been great. ‘Cause when I’ve tried to generate something, like the preacher project, it’s tough. It’s tough to get money. I’m not good at it.

     

    About a year after you won the Oscar, you said “It hasn’t brought in any other work yet.”

    (laughs) It only helped to get a little more recognition at airports! That’s where you get recognized anyway. But no, nothing really happened.

     

    The next film was The Natural.

     Yeah, but I didn’t even want to do that. Redford asked me to do it, and he wouldn’t even give percentage points. My wife talked me into it. I don’t know, it was something to do. It was a fun project; I like working in Buffalo. It’s near Canada. I like Canada. Good Chinese restaurants.

     

    Were you mad you didn’t win an Emmy for Lonesome Dove?

    Let me put it this way: I was a little surprised. And I will never go back for another one. Never will I go back. Because it’s decided by committee, not by other actors. It’s almost like, when you keep saying something’s great, they go the other way. It’s didn’t win anything! If I ever won an award, it should have been for that. Even more than the Oscar. I mean, that was my performance. What can you say?

     

     

    @2015 Bill DeYoung

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     



  • Featured Image[Article 95]The 5th Dimension:
    Workin’ On a Groovy Thing

     

    The_5th_Dimension_1972© 2000 Bill DeYoung

    Florence LaRue remembers when Frank Sinatra presented her group, the 5thDimension, with a gold record for their album Stoned Soul Picnic. “We were performing with him at Caesar’s Palace, and the people wanted him to present it to us onstage,” she says. “But they were afraid to ask him! Because of his reputation.”

    Florence said don’t be silly, I’ll ask him. As the record company bigwigs trembled at the very thought of the famously touchy Sinatra, she walked down the hall to the great man’s dressing room. “And I asked him, and he said ‘Of course!’” Sinatra even stayed around to pose for pictures with the 5th Dimension and their award. She has one on the wall of her office, Sinatra in his tuxedo, the group members resplendent in their multi–colored stage uniforms.

    “He was always very warm and loving,” LaRue says. “He would always come to me before the show with a kiss on the cheek, and say ‘Have a good show.’ He was really a wonderful man.”

    Read More…

    Much more than just a ’60s pop act with a handful of good jukebox records, the 5thDimension worked hard and paid attention during that era of innovation and breathlessness, and blossomed in the ’70s. Here’s a group that brought together young and old, black and white, pop and jazz, great songwriting and Top 40. They were showbiz, but they were hip, too. And they made a pussycat out of Sinatra, who liked them so much they became his permanent opening act. He toured the world with them, featured them on his TV specials and never forgot to give Florence that nightly good–luck smooch.

    The 5th Dimension was one of the more distinctive vocal harmony groups to emerge in the post–Beach Boys ’60s, when harmony groups had to be innovative or die lamely trying. They had full use of some of the best songwriters, including Jimmy Webb and Laura Nyro, a great arranger, a great producer. A supportive record label, and most of the top Los Angeles session musicians, who loved to straddle the 5thDimension fence between pure pop and rhythm ‘n’ blues music.

    The group had major hits, including “Up, Up and Away,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “One Less Bell to Answer,” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” which was one of the biggest singles of the year 1969. How big? It spent more weeks at Number One (six) than the Beatles’ “Get Back” OR the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.”

    The group’s early success could only have come in the 1960s, when radio was not nearly as rigid as it would eventually become. For a singing group that utilized elements of Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, Motown and rock ‘n’ roll to succeed, the entertainment palette—not just radio, but TV outlets like The Ed Sullivan Show and Hollywood Palace—had to be open to a rainbow of different styles, approaches and colors.

    The 5th Dimension had that old show business necessity, dazzle, that made them look like good, clean fun to Mom and Dad. They had an act that carried them, most successfully, into the mid ’70s where they were contemporaries of the Carpenters, Chicago and the Captain & Tennille.

    Mostly, the 5th Dimension were five terrific voices. Lamonte McLemore, Ron Townson, Billy Davis Jr., Marilyn McCoo and Florence LaRue each had his or her own preferred style of music, so each voice contributed something different.

    “The reason the voices worked so well together was because they were from different musical backgrounds,” Townson believes. “Florence and Marilyn were pop, Billy was R ‘n’ B and gospel, Lamonte had a hint of jazz, and I was classical and spiritual. This was a mixture and it blended just perfectly.”

    Lamonte McLemore is central to the story of the 5th Dimension. He was born in St. Louis and, as a kid, hated everything but baseball. “I wanted to play ball more than anything else in the world,” McLemore says, “and I was so poor growing up that I saved all my money and bought this Marty Marion shortstop glove. I got it at night, and the next day I was knockin’ on all the kids’ doors. And it was a monsoon; it was raining so hard the kids said ‘Are you crazy?’ I didn’t care about the rain.”

    One day Lamonte’s grandmother, exasperated, asked him to name the three things he loved; after baseball, there was really nothing else, so he thought fast and told her, um, photography and music. “I hated singing with a passion,” he laughs. “My folks used to beat me because I wouldn’t join the church choir. All I wanted to do was play baseball and be a gangster.”

    (Eventually, he did become a photographer—he was the first black staff shooter for Harper’s Bazaar—and he was signed to the Los Angeles Dodgers system as an AA league pitcher.)

    But music, ironically, was to be his life’s work. Back home in St. Louis, teenage Lamonte was recruited to sing bass in a streetcorner group, and that attracted girls. He figured OK, I really didn’t lie to my grandmother after all.

    Once he was in L.A., years later, taking pictures and throwing pitches, it was natural for him to figure out how to assemble a group.

    That would be the HiFis, a pop/jazz quartet that included (briefly) Ron Townson, a singing friend from St. Louis, and a 19–year–old UCLA business major named Marilyn McCoo, the daughter of two prominent physicians. McLemore had photographed the Miss Bronze California Pageant in 1964, when Marilyn won the talent segment and the title of “Miss Congeniality.”

    Although she worked briefly as a social caseworker in L.A., McCoo had a four–octave range, and she had designs on a career as a pop diva. “I did not want to sing in a group,” she says. “I just did not want the hassle.”

    Marilyn had debuted on TV’s “Spotlight on the Young” at age 15, and had appeared on the Art Linkletter show. She also modeled for Lamonte’s fashion layouts.

    Lamonte persuaded her that “it’ll just be a hobby” and Marilyn joined the HiFis. She fully intended to become a solo, though. Group singing, McCoo, thought, was “fun” and harmless.

    During a magazine photo shoot, Lamonte mentioned to Ray Charles that he, the photographer, had a group, would Mr. Charles care to check it out?

    Charles said sure, son, let’s hear what you’ve got, and the HiFis dutifully auditioned; impressed, Brother Ray put them on the bill as part of the Ray Charles Revue. They toured the country, and quit the show six months later following a money dispute.

    Charles produced a single, “Lonesome Mood,” with the group re–named the Vocals for the occasion. It was released on his own label, Tangerine Records.

    McLemore says Charles was fun to be around. “When he comes in, they always hand him something, a book or something just to hold,” he recalls. “We were getting ready to sing, and he had this book, and it was upside down. So we couldn’t hardly sing, we were about to laugh.

    “Then he turned the book around, and we all were kinda astonished: Wait a minute….”

    By this time, Townson had already left the HiFis. A classically trained vocalist, he had sung with the St. Louis Municipal Opera and the Celestial Choir back home.

    Ron’s family was in the catering business. One night at a job at the Los Angeles home of singer Dorothy Dandridge, Ron—in his white catering uniform—was recognized by party guest Nat “King” Cole, a family friend from St. Louis. Cole asked him to sing for Dandridge and her visitors, and after Ron reluctantly agreed he was hired to go on the road with both Dandridge and Cole. Dandridge got him into the chorus for the 1959 movie version of “Porgy and Bess.”

    Townson was a pop singer, too—he’d joined the Penguins after “Earth Angel,” and provided the background on Ed Townsend’s 1958 hit “For Your Love.” Undecided about which direction he wanted to pursue, he was in and out of the HiFis several times.

    The HiFis became the Versatiles in 1965 with the addition of Florence LaRue, who took the talent prize in the Miss Bronze California pageant that year (she sang “April in Paris,” impressing judge Eartha Kitt, Florence says, because she did it entirely in French). Florence had received her teaching certificate from Cal State, and was working at Grant Elementary School in Hollywood.

    Then Townson was persuaded to come back for good, and the final ingredient was, ironically, another chum from the same St. Louis high school. Billy Davis Jr. had a heck of a voice; he could wail like Otis Redding and plead like Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. Billy, who’d fronted several groups in Missouri and had even cut a couple of singles (on the Epsom label), had his sights set on a career in rhythm ‘n’ blues and had already auditioned for Motown in L.A. He was, they assured him, “on the waiting list.”

    The group members chose their new moniker because their music was a versatile mix of Motown, jazz and other styles. Even Marilyn, who’d kept insisting she was on her way to a solo career, had to admit this group was special. Everyone took it seriously, and showed up for rehearsal on time, and that was the sort of thing that impressed her.

    Lamonte hustled the Versatiles’ tapes all around Hollywood, and he spent a good deal of time at the L.A. offices of Motown Records. The group really wanted to be on Motown, home to their heroes.

    Everyone at every label said his tape was nice, but they didn’t hear any hits. Lamonte even flew to Detroit, and Berry Gordy personally told him the same thing.

     

    Marc Gordon, a young executive in Motown’s L.A. offices, was one of the Versatiles’ biggest fans, and he left the label not long after Lamonte’s empty–handed return from Detroit. He became the group’s manager, and promised them big things.

    Soon, Gordon introduced the singers to their unlikely svengali: pop singer Johnny Rivers, who had just been given his own imprint label by Liberty Records. Rivers was looking for acts to sign and produce on Soul City. “I liked the way they looked, their personalities,” Rivers later recalled. “They presented themselves really well. They were nice people, they had a good vibe about them.”

    Rivers produced “I’ll Be Loving You Forever,” the Versatiles’ 1966 debut on Soul City, but after it failed to chart he and Gordon started to re–think the group’s style. The single was very heavily R&B–influenced (in fact, it’s almost a direct steal from the Four Tops); Rivers decided to put the spotlight on his quintet’s incredible harmonies and turn them, he told his engineer Bones Howe, into a “black Mamas and Papas.”

    First, the name had to go. The Versatiles, in 1967, was squaresville.

    It was, by all accounts, Ron Townson and his wife, Bobette, who dreamed up “The 5thDimension,” because there were five people in the group.

    “The label said they needed a hipper name,” Florence remembers. “We liked that, because there is no fifth dimension. We’ll make the fifth dimension our dimension of sound.”

    Rivers sent them to a trendy L.A. clothier for some groovy threads. “Instead of mohair suits and patent leather shoes,” he said. “No black groups were doing that at the time.”

    “It was nice to meet Johnny Rivers but, you know, we weren’t really into his music that much,” says Marilyn. “‘Poor Side of Town’ was nice.

    “He brought us this song called ‘Go Where You Wanna Go’ by this group called the Mamas and Papas. It was pop; it wasn’t what we liked, but he said ‘I know it can be a hit record. And we felt like ‘we need a hit; we’re got gonna stand on ceremony and say no, we won’t record that. The man’s ready to put the money behind us and all.’ So we went into the studio and recorded it, and we thought it was kinda lame.”

    Lamonte: “At first, I thought it was too white. I didn’t understand what we were doing ’cause they got that Mamas and Papas song. I said ‘Aw, man …. I don’t know what this is, but I’ll go along with the program.’”

    He remembers that the Mamas and Papas came down to the studio, “glad the little black group was getting off the ground … then we got to be bigger than them, and we didn’t see ‘em no more.”

    In February of ’67, as “Go Where You Wanna Go” nudged into the Top 20, the 5thDimension began recording their first album, Up, Up and Away, with Rivers at the the helm. The title song came from one of Soul City’s contract songwriters, Jimmy Webb. He’d played it for the group during a rehearsal, when Rivers was out of the country. Rivers came home to find the song arranged, rehearsed and all but recorded.

    By July, “Up, Up and Away” had reached the Number 7 slot in the United States; the album—which included four other Jimmy Webb songs—hit Number 8 in August and went gold.

    “I was still working as a youth job developer in Watts when the single hit,” Marilyn says. “I remember thinking that if I could make $400 a month, I could pay my rent and take care of the bills, and have a little left over.”

    America had a thing for “Up, Up and Away”; in January ’68, it took four Grammys, including Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Contemporary Single and Best Performance by a Vocal Group. A competing version by the Johnny Mann Singers won for Best Performance By a Chorus.

    Florence: “It’s really a Cinderella story, because normally when groups get together, you rehearse and sing around town for years before being discovered. We were only together a year or so when we recorded ‘Go Where You Wanna Go,’ and we changed the name.”

    After the first album, Rivers and the group mutually decided they needed another producer. Engineer Bones Howe—who’d produced hits for the Association and the Turtles—got the nod. Rivers had finished one track, a cover of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride,” and for financial reasons (Soul City couldn’t afford to toss it out) it got tacked onto the end of The Magic Garden, a song cycle of Jimmy Webb compositions, each telling part of the story of his recent divorce (the album was later re–titled The Worst That Could Happen after one of its songs became a huge hit for another group, the Brooklyn Bridge).

    “Jimmy,”says Howe, “was going through a major depression. I would have to go get him up out of bed and drag him to the studio. He was writing the tunes almost as we were recording them.” Webb’s “Carpet Man” and “Paper Cup” put the 5th back onto the Top 40. Several years later, “The Girls’ Song”—the only upbeat track on the album—would become a hit extract from The 5th Dimension Greatest Hits.

    Billy Davis wasn’t entirely sure he liked his group’s pop sound. However, “When we were coming up we were told look, if you get something good going, don’t try to stop it. Just go with it, because you never know what God’s got in store for you.”

    Howe then brought in arranger Bob Alcivar, who had worked with the New Christy Minstrels and the Association. His most famous records had been with the Sandpipers (“Come Saturday Morning”).

    Alcivar, who’d sung in a vocal ensemble of his own (the Signatures), was instructed to listen carefully to the 5th Dimension’s two albums to see what they were capable of.

    “When I first started with them, they were at a certain level,” Alcivar recalls. “Jimmy had been coaching and teaching them. They had been singing mostly his songs. I took on the role of vocal group person, if you will. Harmonies and parts. Jimmy did beautiful things, but he stayed away from five–part harmony. I got into that.”

    Alcivar applied his magic to the songs that would become the group’s third album,Stoned Soul Picnic, released in August ’68. The technique was established: After Bones cut the rhythm tracks, and sweetened them with strings or brass, the 5thDimension would learn Alcivar’s complicated arrangements, then come into the studio and sing them. Then the quintet would overdub the whole thing again to get a “fuller” sound. Often they overdubbed just four bars of music at a time.

    “The group loved doing that, and it just got easier and easier,” says Alcivar. “They began to understand what the relationship was between parts, and so forth. And as we recorded, as they heard playbacks, they really understood where I was going.”

    The first hurdle Alcivar faced when he joined the “family” was song selection. “It was kind of a problem after ‘Up, Up and Away,’ because they couldn’t continue doing that kind of song,” he explains. “Although lots of writers and publishers thought they could, and most of the material that came to them was that kind of thing—flying kites and all that kind of thing. Everybody was writing balloon songs, suddenly. They wanted to get heavier than that.

    “They liked the notes I wrote, the arrangements I wrote, and I enjoyed working with them. So it was just a question of finding the right songwriter.”

    At that point, manager David Geffen brought Bones a demo tape of his prize client, Laura Nyro. She’d had a hit LP on Verve, and her first Columbia album was yet to be released. The 5th quickly added Nyro to their “stable” of songwriters, and her “Sweet Blindness” and “Stoned Soul Picnic” became the group’s first non–Webb–composed hits.

    After that, they scored with “California Soul,” a sort of psychedelic R&B song written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson.

    “That very diversity,” Alcivar notes, “kind of makes up for a bland sound.”

    “Some of the songs we would not have chosen,” remembers Florence, “like ‘Sweet Blindness’ and ‘Stoned Soul Picnic,’ had it not been for Bones Howe’s wonderful ear. Because we were more R’n’B, and he brought these little songs to us that were very pop. And we really didn’t hear them.

    “And his productions were awesome. He was flawless, and sometimes we would spend hours and hours just trying to get a couple of notes in tune.”

    As he became integrated into the 5th Dimension family, Howe immediately began to notice that the public perception of the group did not entirely match the way they saw themselves. “The problem was that they were getting so much publicity about being quote–unquote white,” the producer recalls. “And they hated that. I can understand how they hated it; they wanted to be accepted in the black R&B community.

    “Unfortunately, as one R&B promoter once said to me, ‘They make too much money to be R&B singers.’ Billy wanted to be Wilson Pickett, but he wasn’t. With enough hard knocks, he maybe could’ve made it as an R&B singer, because he came out of that world. But the rest of the group didn’t. Marilyn graduated from UCLA. Her father was a doctor. This is a completely middle class group, with the exception of Lamonte and Billy.

    “But there was always this pressure, because wherever they would go out and work blacks would give them pressure about being too white. And the pressure was always on me to make R&B records.”

    Billy: “We took a lot of criticism, but it was all right, because I felt like we were opening up new ground. We were pioneers. We were just putting it out the way that we felt it, and the way that we wanted to sing it.”

    Marilyn’s reaction was even sharper. “We weren’t thinking that it was a ‘white’ sound,” she says, “it was a ‘different’ sound. We were putting some interesting harmonics in there. When people started accusing us of betraying our blackness, we got angry. I still bristle at that today.

    “I told people then, I did not grow up in a church, singing gospel music. And the kind of music I heard around the house when I was growing up happened to be pop music. It was the kind of stuff my parents listened to.”

    Each 5th Dimension album project began with “listening sessions,” with songs and ideas pitched in by everyone. Once it was decided which songs the group was going to record, Alcivar would head home and draw up vocal charts. “We all sat around and listened to the tunes and voted on them,” Townson recalls. “And when Jimmy Webb was writing for us, everything that Jimmy wrote we just jumped on it. The same thing with Laura Nyro.”

    Alcivar and Howe, along with Bill Holman, arranged the backing tracks for the studio musicians.

    Marilyn: “I don’t know how much advance preparation Bob and Bones would go through, but I do know that once we got into the studio it was a group–oriented project, consisting of Bones, Bob and the group.”

    “Remember,” says Howe, “they were touring all the time. They would come into town for 10 days. Starting with Stoned Soul Picnic, those records were all made in pieces. They were always on the road. They were very, very hard–working.

    “They would come back to town and I would have them for two weeks. In the afternoon for a few hours.”

     

    The group had its biggest year in 1969. They were so busy with tour commitments and TV appearances that Bones was forced to record their vocals for the album The Age of Aquarius in the afternoons at tiny United Recording in Las Vegas (during yet another stand at Caesar’s with Sinatra), all the while cutting the backing tracks at Wally Heider’s back in L.A.

    Hair was all the rage that year—the “American Tribal Love–Rock Musical,” with its rough language, onstage nudity and songs about drug use and homosexuality, peaked the national curiosity. Suddenly, hippies were fashionable—the free love–espousing, draft card–burning hippies of Hair, anyway, who existed only on the Broadway stage under costume, wig and makeup, and who sang gloriously sweet and non–threatening hippie–like pop songs. Middle America could deal with that.

    And deal with it they did—Three Dog Night had a smash with “Easy to Be Hard,” one of the emotional highlights of Hair, and the title song was a hit for the singing Cowsill family. “Good Morning Starshine” turned a singer named Oliver into a star (briefly).

    But the biggest prize of all went to the 5th Dimension, who made the play’s opening song, “Aquarius,” their own. No one who hears this song today thinks of Ronnie Dyson, who sang it passionately on the Broadway stage. They think of Marilyn and Florence and the starry–eyed optimism of 1969.

    “From the first time the group heard the song, we felt like it fit us,” Marilyn says. “We were all at the play, and we all slipped out when we heard it, and we got together at intermission—because we were sitting in different places in the theater—and we were all saying ‘We’ve got to record that song.’”

    They brought the idea to Bones, who told them point–blank, it’s been done, it’s somebody else’s song, forget it. Alcivar said “Aquarius” was a “downer.” But the five singers insisted.

    Finally, Bones agreed to cut “Aquarius” only if they’d let him join it with something else from Hair—by itself, it was simply too short. He got hooked on a section of “The Flesh Failures,” the show–closer, and assigned Alcivar the unenviable task of making them fit together. It was, Alcivar remembers, a nightmare, as the section—”Let the Sunshine In”—was in a lower key, and you never want to go to a lower key, only higher …

    The 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius” single was uplifting, almost spiritual in nature, and it ruled the airwaves in those early months of 1969.

    One reason the single felt like a gospel wake–up call was Billy’s scat–singing, imploring the listener to “let it shine” and to “sing along,” over the finale. Unlike the carefully crafted vocals and the Vulcan mind–meld between the two original songs, this part of the record was an accident. “We were doing the background parts, and Billy just started singing over them,” Howe recalls. “I said ‘Hold on, Billy! We’ll put that on a separate track. That’s fantastic.’ He was just kind of clowning around as everyone was singing. And he got to do his R&B thing.”

    According to Florence, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” was the fastest recording they ever made, they all loved it so much and were so enthusiastic about it.

    Released in January of ’69, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” flew to No. 1 in March and began its six–week stay. While it was there, the album The Age of Aquarius was released …. It spent 72 weeks on Billboard’s album chart, reaching No. 2 and earning the 5th Dimension a second gold LP award (after Up, Up and Away, their debut).

    The Age of Aquarius represented the high–water mark for the 5th Dimension—during 1969 they appeared on TV specials with Woody Allen (!) and Frank Sinatra, they were repeat guests on Ed Sullivan’s variety show, and the album’s “Workin’ On a Groovy Thing” (a favorite of Florence’s, it was a Neil Sedaka composition) became a Top 20 hit.

    Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues,” also taken from the album, made it all the way to No. 1, where it spent three weeks during August.

    “Wedding Bell Blues,” with its unforgettable lament “Bill! I love you so, I always will” was on a Nyro album, not intended for the 5th Dimension. It was Bones who thought it would be a hoot for the group to record it with Marilyn taking the lead—because, as everyone in the 5th Dimension camp knew, Billy and Marilyn were an item, and had been for some time.

    “She used to pick me up to take me to rehearsals,” Billy remembers. “We would talk a lot about life and things, and people, just general conversation.

    “And as we talked, we found out that we had a lot in common. We talked the same language. It was wonderful. We became such great friends … we weren’t looking at each other as far as boyfriend or girlfriend, or whatever.”

    Davis says he had always been “the life of the party,” but when Marilyn was around, all he did was talk to her. “To this day, that still goes on.”

    Their relationship stayed platonic for the longest time, he relates. “All of a sudden, we started looking at each other onstage, and we looked different to each other. And I would say to myself ‘No, that couldn’t be happening.

    “Then I noticed that she was getting in the middle of my business with some of the girls that I was going with. She didn’t like this one, and she didn’t like that one. And I didn’t like that guy, because he wasn’t treating you right. It was that kind of stuff.

    “And before we knew it, we were hooked up ourselves and couldn’t believe it. I think we even tried to fight it, but it wouldn’t go away.”

    Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo were married on July 26, 1969, and in September, Florence LaRue married the 5th Dimension’s manager Marc Gordon.

    It wouldn’t be long before these two camps—the seats of power within the organization—would be bitterly opposed.

    Still, the group finished 1969 on top of the world. The “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” single was the biggest seller of that year, and was awarded Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Contemporary Vocal Performance by a Group.

    Soon after The Age of Aquarius, Soul City went out of business. For a while, Gordon was in negotiations with Clive Davis at Columbia Records, but the group’s contract eventually went to Bell Records, a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures (no relation).

    The first Bell album, Portrait, was released in the spring of 1970, almost simultaneously with Greatest Hits on Soul City.

    Portrait was advanced by an innovative new single, “The Declaration,” a literal reading of the Declaration of Independence, set to stirring music from the Broadway play Bread, Beans & Things. It was a Double A–sided single, paired with a medley of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and the Young Rascals’ “People Got to Be Free.”

    Clearly intended to reach for the same star as “Aquarius”—inspirational messages in medley form, from a hip, hit show—”The Declaration” missed the American Top 40.

    The melody was composed by Julius Johnsen and Rene De Knight. De Knight was a longtime member of the 5th Dimension camp—he had been a friend of Florence’s, and was responsible for arranging the songs in their live shows, which included more than their hit singles. In concert, they covered hits of the day, novelty songs, standards and many things they’d never recorded in a studio. De Knight was the man.

    He changed their early, Motown–ish harmonies, Florence says, and introduced “the jazz element.” De Knight, she explains, “brought in class and discipline.”

    Says Ron Townson: “Rene was with a group called the Delta Rhythm Boys, that used to tour with Duke Ellington’s orchestra all the time. So he had a sense of the sound he wanted. He took the sounds from the Delta Rhythm Boys and created the 5thDimension sound.”

    (Fascinating quote from Rene De Knight in a 1967 issue of Ebony magazine: “The 5thDimension is unique because it is the first Negro group to come along and reverse the rend of Caucasians singing Negro material. This is the way Negro singers are going to have to go. The time of singing ‘I love you, baby’ is rapidly passing.”)

    Certainly change was in the air. It was around the turn of the decade; middle America was becoming more aware of black culture and the notion of equality in everyday life, segregation of public schools had ended, and the 5th Dimension sure didn’t sound like any of the ultra–hip black rhythm ‘n’ blues or soul groups around at the time.

    “Tell me how you can color a sound?” asks Ron Townson. “If you can color a sound, then that’s the sound we’ll sing. We called it champagne soul. We were all different voices and we can’t help the way our voices came out. God gave us those voices.

    “We didn’t try to put on anything; we didn’t try to sing like rhythm ‘n’ blues, we didn’t try to sing like gospel. It was God’s gift that each one of us had a different type of voice, and that’s the sound that came out when it blended together.”

    Lamonte, who had complained that the group’s blossoming sound was “too white” back in the “Go Where You Wanna Go” days, remembers when black members of the student body at California’s Valpariso College had picketed the school’s concert–booking policy, choosing “too many white acts.”

    “So they said OK, they’d get somebody. And they got us. And the black people said ‘Well, this ain’t representative of what we’re asking for at all.” The students, Lamonte heard, only knew “Up, Up and Away.”

    Gordon bought up blocks of tickets and had them distributed to black students—”and they came back and thanked us, with tears in their eyes,” Lamonte says.

    In October, the U.S. State Department paid for a 5th Dimension tour of Eastern Europe, where American musical stars, black, white or green, were in short supply. The group performed in Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and even in Turkey. They were, everyone remembers, treated like kings and queens.

    The Nixon administration took a shine to the 5th Dimension—this might have contributed, actually, to the group’s lack of cachet with the rock ‘n’ roll audience—and the quintet appeared at the Nixon White House in 1972.

    Laura Nyro’s “Save the Country” and Neil Sedaka’s “Puppet Man” were also issued as singles from Portrait, but neither tore up the chart. In August, a newly–recorded single, “On the Beach (In the Summertime)” was released and didn’t do much either.

    (Ironically, these were probably the strongest 5th Dimension singles, melodically and in terms of performance, since “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”)

    Earlier in the year, the group had guest–starred on Robert Wagner’s TV drama It Takes a Thief. The episode (“To Sing a Song of Murder”), which was little more than a 60–minute promo for Portrait, featured the 5th in the recording studio, with Bones, recording “Puppet Man” and Marilyn’s solo from the album, the Bacharach/David song “One Less Bell to Answer.” In fact, the episode even suggested some romantic interplay between Wagner’s character, Al Mundy, and Marilyn.

    “One Less Bell to Answer” was the key song in It Takes a Thief. A bomb was rigged to explode, taking out the president of a third–world nation, when its final chord came over the radio.

    In the fall, long after Portrait had seemingly worn out its welcome, “One Less Bell to Answer” began getting serious airplay. Howe remembers it all started on a tiny Middle–of–the–Road FM station in California, “where nobody ever called in for anything. And suddenly they were getting all these calls, every time they played ‘One Less Bell to Answer.’”

    Bell issued it as a fourth single, and by mid–December it was No. 2 in the nation, behind George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”

    After “One Less Bell to Answer,” almost all the 5th Dimension singles issued by Bell featured Marilyn McCoo on lead vocals. At first, the group went along with it, but within two or three years, the decision was not sitting well. Instead of being a celebratory moment in time, “One Less Bell to Answer” was the beginning of the end.

    “With any group,” points out Bob Alcivar, “you reach a point where you say well, what do we do now? We’ve gone this far … how many different ways can you write a chord?”

    The group’s next single, the sinewy smooth “Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes” appeared in the spring of 1971, and despite its unwieldy title and somewhat ridiculous concept (love as a mathematical equation) it was a Top 20 hit. Marilyn’s vocal was sublime and sexy.

    At the end of the year, Bell issued The Fifth Dimension—Live, a double album recorded at an unspecified location. Featuring many of Rene De Knight’s longtime arrangements of stage favorites such as “Ode to Billie Joe,” “Mac Arthur Park” and “Shake Your Tambourine,” the album—with orchestra conducted by Bob Alcivar—attempted to showcase each of the group members’ vocal talents, and stressed their harmony work.

    “Rene understood how to put together an entertaining live show,” Marilyn says. “And that was one of the reasons why we worked so much, because our shows were hot. It was high energy, and we had interesting charts.”

    However, the single issued was a re–make of the pop ballad “Never My Love,” which Alcivar had originally arranged for the Association back in ’67. The single featured Marilyn on a smoky lead vocal, with the others barely audible in the rear, backing her up.

    And “Never My Love” wasn’t even a live recording; the group and Howe cut it in a studio and dubbed on the audience sounds and applause.

    The single made it to No. 12; the Live album barely registered.

    In 1971, the Ed Sullivan Show dedicated a lengthy segment to the 5th Dimension’s fifth anniversary. Ed even rolled out a really big cake with a “5″ on top.

    To promote the Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes album, the group starred in a TV special, The 5th Dimension Traveling Sunshine Show. Ron got to sing an operatic aria, the others got solos, and Dionne Warwick, the Carpenters and even Merle Haggard appeared as guest stars.

    It was, however, clear that Marilyn was being looked upon as the standout star of the quintet.

    By now, tensions were mounting inside the 5th Dimension camp. After all their years of hard work, the group had turned into Marilyn McCoo and her backing singers.

    According to Howe, who worked with the label’s promotion people to pick the singles, there usually wasn’t much choice: It was Marilyn or nothing. “Ronald had this kind of operatic tenor voice, and it was always hard finding things for him to sing,” he says. “He was always pushing to sing something.

    “They were always finding people whose songs they wanted to record, and there are a few of them scattered through the various albums. Ninety–nine percent of production is psychiatric manipulation. I would’ve traded ‘Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep’ for another piece of junk that’s on that album. I had to trade songs with them, and I gladly did it because my concern was getting hit singles, and getting three or four of them on an album, so we could sell some albums.

    “They were constantly coming at me with these weak R&B songs. If you go through the albums, you’ll find them. They’re in there, interwoven, they’re cut number five on side two.”

    Says Marilyn: “After ‘One Less Bell’ came out, people started coming to me and saying ‘When are you leaving the group?’ But by then, I wasn’t planning to leave. I had no reason to. I was not chomping at the bit to leave the group.”

    The 5th Dimension’s final big singles appeared in 1972; “Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep At All” and “If I Could Reach You” were more Marilyn solos. The group members were angry and frustrated, while the moneychangers at Bell Records were happy with their cash cow.

    “At first, they weren’t supposed to do that.” Billy says. “That was the agreement amongst all of us that that wasn’t going to happen. So when they started doing that, it was like any other company: They started wearing the voice out. They’ll wear it out until it doesn’t happen any more, instead of turning it around, re–creating with somebody else.

    “Doing the same thing the Temptations would do—they’d switch the leads, so people weren’t getting tired of that one sound.”

    “Billy was furious that Marilyn was getting all these hits,” Howe recalls. “I was really under the gun. They’d call me to these meetings, and they would just rake me over the coals because Billy wanted hit singles. He was the lead singer, you know, and I started recording Marilyn.

    “I remember him saying to me ‘If you keep sticking songs out there by the same girl, she’s bound to get a hit.’ He was married to her at the time! Well, I knew I had a good thing, and I kept saying to them look, it’s not Marilyn McCoo & the 5thDimension, it’s the 5th Dimension! But I would go to the concerts and I would see them go nuts when she’d come out onstage.

    “So I was frantically trying to do everything I could to keep everybody else happy, so that Marilyn could continue to have hit singles. And if you look at the string of singles, starting with ‘Wedding Bell Blues’ they’re all her.”

    The Individually and Collectively album (1973) attempted to patch some of the damage by giving each of the five singers a solo. Even though included “Last Night,” “If I Could Reach You” and the quintet’s bravura rendition of Laura Nyro’s “Black Patch,” it was their least successful album since The Magic Garden.

    “The time came when there was more focus on ‘What’s my song going to be?’ and ‘What do I get to do?’ and less on the group,” Marilyn recalls. “It was getting to be so stressful I was taking Valium to go to rehearsal.”

    Bones: “I knew that Ronald was unhappy because he wanted to sing lead, and Florence felt she was being passed over … there was a lot of sizzling inside the group that I wasn’t party to, because I wasn’t in the dressing room when they were on the road.”

    There were two strong camps: Billy and Marilyn, and Marc and Florence. Everybody had their own ideas about what would be best for the group, but after a while no one could squeeze a hit out of any of them. The friction, by 1974, was almost unbearable.

    “And of course, music was changing,” Marilyn reflects. “Billy and I really wanted to incorporate the new musical sounds into the 5th Dimension sound.

    “And not everybody was feeling that way. Some members felt like ‘Hey, our sound has worked, why would we change it now?’ And we were saying well, if we don’t change it, we’re gonna get left behind.”

    The gas gauge was perilously close to Empty in 1973, as the 5th Dimension aligned themselves, somewhat reluctantly, with the big–budget Hollywood remake of the filmLost Horizon. Their recording of Bacharach/David’s “Living Together, Growing Together”—dreadful song, soulless record—was a chart stiff and something of a coffin nail (it did not, pointedly, feature Marilyn, or anyone else, on lead vocals). Howe says Columbia Pictures—which owned their label—forced them to record the songs from the movie.

    Says Billy: “Everything comes to an end, I don’t care what it is. The most consistent thing in all of our lives is change. And sooner or later that’s gonna happen.”

    For the 5th Dimension, the end came in 1975. The blame was placed on Bones Howe, and halfway through the Soul & Inspiration album he was fired; he subsequently produced Tom Waits on Asylum Records. Bell Records morphed into Arista, and the group’s contract was negotiated over to ABC.

    Jimmy Webb, who by then had forged a successful recording career of his own, was persuaded to produce the group’s first ABC album, Earthbound. At the group’s specific request, it was a deeply–felt R&B record.

    The life, however, was gone. Doomed to failure, Earthbound got no radio play and did not produce a hit single.

    Six months before its release, Billy and Marilyn told Marc Gordon they were leaving to try a career as a singing husband–and–wife duo. They were persuaded to stay, finish the album and keep a lid on it until Earthbound had run its course.

    When the break came, it was not pretty. Billy and Marilyn did not talk to the others for half a year.

    “I felt really bad about it,” Marilyn says. “We used to joke about how 50 years from then we were going to be rolling around onstage, singing ‘Up Up and Away’ in our wheelchairs. Because we really planned on being together.”

    Florence: “I felt many things. I was angry, and I was confused. I was trying to be happy for them. And at the time I was also young and immature.”

    Today, she believes, “I think Marilyn and I have become closer than we were when she was in the group. We’ve both grown up, and gotten closer to the Lord, and matured a bit.” Florence and Marc are no longer married.

    Billy and Marilyn, recording on ABC, took “You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)” to Number One in 1976 and registered two or three more hits before settling into the cabaret circuit, where they remain, quite comfortably, to this day. Most recently, the twosome toured the country in a review of Duke Ellington songs.

    Marilyn hosted TV’s Solid Gold in the early ’80s, and her 1993 album of inspirational music, The Me Nobody Knows, was nominated for a Grammy. She and Billy are active and outspoken on Christian issues.

    Florence, Ron and Lamonte recruited new members and continued to record as the 5th Dimension on several labels throughout the ’70s. They toured as the stars of a roadshow production of Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin.’

    They released The 5th Dimension In the House, a hip–hop record with updates of “Puppet Man” and “Stoned Soul Picnic,” in 1995 on Dick Clark’s Click Records label. Although Ron has semi–retired, the others perform on a regular basis.

    The final tally: Twenty Top 20 singles, three Number Ones (“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” and “Wedding Bell Blues”), five gold albums and a legacy of sublime sounds, a blending of voice and spirit that could not be duplicated today, when most of the breath of innovation has been squeezed from an act long before it gets near a recording studio.

    “Aquarius” enjoyed a renaissance after it was included on the Forrest Gumpsoundtrack; typically, it then found another new life as a commercial for Burger King.

    (One of the most interesting 5th Dimension records to see the light of day, a CD single of “Aquarius” featuring five distinct remixes, appeared on Gump‘s coattails in 1994. By far, the strangest was the “LSD Flashback Mix,” which clocked in at 12:18.)

    In 1997, the group was finally given a proper retrospective, the two–CD Up, Up and Away: The Definitive Collection on Arista.

    No one has forgotten how great they were, how pure and joyful and harmonious they blended in that original Age of Aquarius. It’s best that way. Once or twice a year, all five get together to sing as The Original 5th Dimension. They’ve been doing the reunion shows since 1991.

    “I enjoy to this day to get up and do all of those songs, because it’s a part of my history,” Billy says. “I still feel the same joy that I felt during the first 10 years of the group. It’s a magic that happens.”

    “I didn’t think it would ever happen,” Marilyn says. “Well, you grow up, and you start to see the world as it is. We were friends; we had some wonderful experiences together. We have a history here.”

     

     

    (Rest in Peace Ron Townson 1933-2001.)



  • Featured Image[Article 89]Meet The Bangles

    The Bangles
    The Bangles

     

    @2000

    Anyone who thinks rock ‘n’ roll is strictly men’s work hasn’t given a lot of thought to the Bangles. Nourished in equal amounts by the creative wellspring of ’60s pop and the fast–food franchise of ’70s punk and “new wave,” the Los Angeles–based quartet made a decade’s worth of wonderfully bright music that honored the historic and celebrated the contemporary.

    That’s rather a pointy fence to straddle, as many a “retro”–style band with no hits can tell you, but the Bangles managed to top the charts, sell millions of records and write a place for themselves in the history books. Their vocal harmonies, recalling the Mamas, Papas, Byrds and Springfield of rock’s golden age, were textured over sparse, hooky Beatle–esque arrangements that reverberated with cool guitars and a big–beat drum sound.

    Far from being mere revivalists, the Bangles were good songwriters, great singers and, as it turned out, exciting performers. They made two No. 1 singles, two more that hit the Top Ten, plus two platinum albums and a string of classic videos.

    The Bangles were—and are—women.

    Read More…

    Ten years after their acrimonious breakup, the Bangles have kissed and made up, and are about to go into the studio to make another record.

    Don’t call it a reunion, though. The Bangles believe they are merely picking up the pieces. “We’re expecting to get hit from all directions,” said guitarist Vicki Peterson, 41, “and yet we’re hoping that the people who actually have been waiting for a new Bangles record will be very pleased with what we come up with.”

    Said guitarist Susanna Hoffs, 41: “It’s about going back to the original concept, which is to be a band. And knowing that all of us have outlets for breathing room, our families or other musical outlets, is what enables us to give ourselves so wholly to the band. I think that’s the balance that was missing.”

    In 1989, when the group disbanded, they were tired, stressed and easily swayed. “We shouldn’t have let ourselves be manipulated, but we were young and we didn’t understand,” said drummer Debbi Peterson, 39, Vicki’s sister. “Everybody’s learned since then, and now we know, hey, if it doesn’t work out, see ya.”

    Bassist Michael Steele, 46, hopes the world accepts a “new” Bangles album, but like her bandmates, she’s not doing it for the fans—she’s doing it because she believes in the music they made together—and can still make. “How many times can you regurgitate the past? That’s the danger,” she said.

    The band is playing a 10–date “test the waters” club tour during September. “I want this band to have a new life and to make new records,” Michael added. “I’m determined that we’re not going to become some Dick Clark oldies band, from the Golden ’80s. Ay–yay–yay!”

    They all swear they don’t care if their reformation, after more than a decade, is received with indifference. “If you can face that in Hollywood, you can face anything, I suppose,” Michael said. “If we make a really good record that we like, and nobody cares, we can still say we care, so fuck ‘em.”

    Vicki and Debbi

    Born two years apart, Vicki and Debbi Peterson always shared a passion for ’60s pop music. According to Vicki, their house in Northridge, in Southern California, was “extremely groovy and modern,” and their father—an aerospace engineer at TRW—kept Top 40 radio playing near–constantly on the intercom system wired throughout the place. The Petersons rarely went into town, because Dad was a serious do–it–yourselfer, and the four kids usually spent weekends in the yard, helping him do it himself. The radio was always playing out there, too.

    (You could also reverse the intercom and eavesdrop on other rooms, which got the Peterson girls in trouble on more than one occasion.)

    Although she was a member of Red Cross Youth, and had dreams of going to veterinary school, Vicki’s love affair with the guitar began in the 4th grade, when her parents bought her an Electro guitar (a near–perfect Rickenbacher copy) and an eight–watt amp. The guitar was rarely out of her hands; she slept with it sometimes.

    In high school, she was a cheerleader, and sang harmony in the madrigal group. But she had discovered her older sister’s record collection, and was writing songs in the style of Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens and Donovan. Turning her back on radio—after all, it was the ’70s—Vicki began to seriously absorb that which had come before. She and little sister Debbi adored the Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds, and became card–carrying “Beatles freaks.”

    “My parents really tolerated my hideous high school bands,” Vicki said with a laugh. “It was almost considered like one band that started when I was 15, and ended somewhere in 1989, when the Bangles split up.”

    Ironically, rocking and rolling was an idea that came late—her early bands played mostly Vicki’s original songs. They only started working up covers to get jobs.

    Vicki and her best friend Amanda Hills, the group’s bassist, graduated from Rolling Hills High in June 1976; the band—at that time called Crista Galli—was having trouble nailing down a drummer.

    Debbi, the “annoying kid sister” who hung around the band, liked to play air drums at their garage rehearsals.

    Remembered Debbi: “Amanda said ‘What about your sister?’ to my sister. Vicki had never thought about that. We had some friends who were in a band as well, so I sat down on the guy’s drum set and started playing.

    “And I guess it must have been all those years of being air drummer, I must have somehow figured it out. Vicki’s like ‘You’re in the band!’”

    “Vicki had tremendous respect for Debbi as a musician from that moment onward,” recalled Amanda. “Because when Debbi sat down behind the drums, she could do it. She just could do it. It was uncanny. The guy in this band showed her a couple of things to play, and she just played them. It was as though she’d been doing it since birth. I remember standing there, looking at Vicki like ‘Oh my God. We have a drummer.’”

    Equipment was a problem. The group’s drummers had always shown up with their own gear. “I saved up some money from my job bagging groceries at Safeway and bought her a little kit, that she still has,” said Vicki. “And about nine months later my boyfriend, who was also in the band—bad idea—said ‘You know, she should pay you back for those. You spent $250, and she owes that to you.’ So she got a job at McDonald’s, God bless her.”

    “I wanted to play guitar, too,” Debbi recalled. “But this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”

    As Aisha, the group continued, mostly at school functions and parties. They had a big year in ’78; Vicki and boyfriend Joel split up and Joel left the group, and Vicki and Amanda enrolled at UCLA and got an apartment together. The group’s name bacame The Muze, and they started getting real club bookings.

    When lead guitarist Lynn Elkind joined, early in ’79, they switched to The Fans. Vicki, an English major, was bored at college and dropped out to concentrate on The Fans.

    “She was absolutely convinced we were going to make it,” said Amanda, “which was very funny, because in retrospect there was absolutely no reason why we would. And because she was convinced, we were convinced, too. It was just when, rather than if.”

    “From a very early age, I knew that this was all going to happen,” Vicki says. “It was just sheer, wonderful blind faith, and blissful ignorance. I rarely, if ever, actually allowed myself a moment of doubt. Whatever form it took, I was going to make this my life, my work.”

    From a review in The View newspaper, Nov. 8, 1979: “The Fans are a pretty (very pretty) refreshing group in a musical age of lost horizons and general lack of taste, or anything else that once supported our ’60s values.”

    The Fans gigged all around the Southern California club circuit—the Sweetwater, the Troubadour, Club 88—and often the musicians, most of whom were under the legal drinking age, weren’t allowed to leave the stage or their backstage “quarters.”

    “Not that we ever did,” Amanda said. “We were so clean, it was unbelievable.”

    Vicki was energized by the punk and new wave movement of the late ’70s. Playing in sweaty clubs, she thought, was like being at the Cavern. She craved that direct link to the past.

    Debbi, Vicki and Lynn took an apartment together on Detroit Street in Hollywood in early 1980. The group, now called Those Girls, was featured in a brief story called “Meet the Girl Groups” in Oui magazine. “We don’t wear sexy outfits,” the band was quoted as saying, next to a photo of Vicki, Debbi and Amanda wearing black leather. “We’re not a tits–n–ass band and we’re not gay.”

    Sometime that year, Lynn left the band, although she remained a Peterson housemate. Amanda announced her decision to bail, too—she intended to stay in college. The Petersons were determined to forge ahead.

    To hunt up players for a new group, Lynn put ad an in the free local newspaper, The Recycler. For grocery money Vicki worked in the maintanance office at Laird Film Studios, where she liked to carry a clipboard and roam around where she shouldn’t (she once, for example, watched Steven Spielberg direct a scene from E.T.).

    It was Dec. 9, 1980, the day after John Lennon’s murder in New York City. Vicki was at home—Lynn was out—when the phone rang with a response to Lynn’s Recycler ad.

    “I call this stranger on the phone, and I don’t get the person whose name was listed in the ad, but I get Vicki Peterson on the line,” recalled Susanna Hoffs.

    Everyone was thinking about Lennon that day. “I couldn’t have found a more compassionate person who really was going through the same emotions as I was,” Susanna said. “I was looking to be in a band with someone who really was connected to the same stuff that I was.”

    “We found ourselves on the phone for over an hour, sympathizing over Lennon’s assassination, and many other things,” explained Vicki. “I realized the person I was talking to was intelligent, and completely in synch with what I want to do. It was sort of like I’d intercepted something very cool, but in order to be ethically correct I passed on the message to Lynn.”

    Lynn and Susanna spoke briefly the next day, but it was clear they did not have any chemistry. Guilt–free, Vicki called Susanna back, and within days Those Girls were set up in the Hoffs family garage in West L.A.

    “Susanna knew of the Guess Who, Grass Roots, Arthur Lee and Love,” Vicki said. “We had lots in common. Harmony singing was a breeze. We left that night thinking ‘This is it. We got it.’”

    “My memory,” said Susanna, “is that we played ‘White Rabbit.’ I didn’t even know how to play it, but it was pretty basic. Vicki showed it to me, and boom, suddenly we’re playing a song. There’s a drummer, there’s two guitars, there’s voices. It just all came together so fast. It sounded like such a good fit, so natural. And I think we decided to be ‘a band’ that night.”

    Susanna

    Susanna Hoffs was born to a rich family in a tony Los Angeles suburb. Her parents—Joshua and Tamar – met at Yale in the ’40s, and when Joshua went to UCLA for his residency, they got married and moved to California together. The only Hoffs girl, Susanna arrived between brothers John and Jesse.

    Although Susanna loved classical music, and started taking ballet lessons when she was quite young, it was Top 40 radio that became “the soundtrack to my childhood—early Dionne Warwick, ‘Downtown,’ ‘To Sir With Love,’ those things had a huge impact on me.”

    And in 1964, when Susanna was 5, “The Beatles had an enormous impact on my brothers and I. My brother John had a friend whose mother worked at Capitol Records, so we got records very early on. She would bring home an extra copy for us. So we had a large collection of Beatles records.

    “I remember getting that Meet the Beatles record and we listened to it over and over again, and just were so affected by it.”

    Tamar Hoffs’ brother Carmi, who visited from Chicago, was the siblings’ “hippie uncle.” He was, in Susanna’s estimation, a “pretty good guitarist,” and he taught them all simple chords, “Tom Dooley”–type stuff, which Susanna loved, and refined around the bonfires at summer camp.

    Carmi Simon eventually went to work for McCabe’s Music Shop and became a master dulcimer builder.

    While Susanna kept up at ballet, music was something she didn’t take too seriously until she discovered the poetry of Joni Mitchell’s records. “I really taught myself to sing by just copying Joni, Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt in the ’70s,” she said. “And other people too. But there was a point, I remember very clearly, where I really focused in and tried to learn all the little riffs and stuff they were doing. And it went from there.”

    Throughout high school, she had friends that would play and sing folkie–style music together. She learned about singing harmony in the school choir but never even considered rock ‘n’ roll.

    When Susanna went off to Berkeley to study theater and dance, she became involved with David Roback, a guitar–playing kid from the old neighborhood and one of brother John’s buddies.

    John Hoffs had left for Yale; on winter break in 1977 or ’78, he brought his sister a stack of albums: “It was the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads,” Susanna recalled. “It was like ‘OK, I know those three chords the Ramones are playing.’ It was mind–blowing. It really was an unbelievable turning point.” Suddenly, it was as if music could be more than a passive interest.

    Susanna, John and David began harmonizing together—Susanna’s favorite album at the time was Nico’s Chelsea Girl, and they worked up a Nico–like arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep it With Mine” for her to sing, along with the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” “We would do these excrutiatingly slow versions of things,” she recalled. “Very dreamy.”

    It was a band—sort of. “We were very intellectual about it,” Susanna said. “It was more sitting around imagining what the band would be. We were gonna be called the Unconscious, or the Psychiatrists. We wanted to have this kind of like name that was referenced the fact that our dad was a psychiatrist.”

    But the family bond snapped. “What happened was my brother was sort of irritated with David and I for becoming a couple. I was his kid sister, and suddenly I’m stealing his best friend away. So then it was just David and I, and we never did get a bass player or a drummer. We never did a show, and all we did was make some living–room tapes.”

    It was those tapes that Susanna played for Vicki and Debbi that day in December of 1980 as a sort of audio resume. “That made them kind of go ‘OK, cool, we’re on the same page here.’”

    For the better part of a year, as The Colours and then The Supersonic Bangs and finally just The Bangs, they rehearsed as a trio. Their debut performance—and the very first time Susanna Hoffs ever played guitar before an audience—was at a Laird Studios party in ’81 (with a borrowed bass player). Vicki and Susanna’s friendship blossomed and they started turning out songs, together and separately, and with Debbi, they would work out intricate harmony parts, giving each other goosebumps when something hit the spot.

    Around this time, the group members decided that there would be no more men in the ranks. “I can’t say that it just worked out that way, because that would be ridiculous,” Vicki explained. “It was obviously intentional. But the intent was less to make it a ‘groovy gimmick’ than it was being done with the awareness that a man changes the dynamics. A man would change the chemistry. It was a girls’ club, and it felt more natural for us to keep it a girls’ club than to let that psycho–sexual thing happen … it’s no different than when a bunch of guys are sitting around in a room, and a woman walks in. It’s going to change everything.”

    Just before Christmas 1981, the Bangs issued their one and only record, a single called “Getting Out of Hand” (written by Vicki) backed with “Call on Me” (credited to Peterson–Hoffs–Roback), on the independent L.A. label Downkiddie. Susanna sang lead on both.

    Recorded at Radio Tokyo, a tiny studio in Venice, the single was rough, but the hooks were unavoidable. Vicki and Debbi each played bass on the record, and David Roback took the pictures of the band for the picture sleeve.

    The Bangs were determined to be like Vicki and Debbi’s father and do it themselves; hence, Vicki managed the group herself and handled all the bookings.

    Vicki went to England to visit a friend, leaving specific instructions for Susanna to place “Getting Out of Hand” in the hands of influential disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer, who played up–and–coming music on his KROQ show Saturday and Sunday nights.

    “Even though I grew up in L.A., I almost never ventured east of Westwood,” Susanna said with a laugh. “I was always a west–sider. So it was a big thing to go by myself in my car, with the little 45 record of The Bangs and get it to this guy. He got tons of records from everybody, so there wasn’t any guarantee that he would ever play it.”

    When Bingenheimer didn’t play the record that first weekend, she worked up the courage to call him and ask, nonchalantly, what’d you think?

    Susanna explained: “It’s pretty good, he said. You sound like the Mamas and the Mamas. And he got the sort of Paul McCartney bass–influence that was on the record. He played it that weekend, and he played it the following weekend, and then he continued to play it for a year, every show.”

    (At Radio Tokyo, the Bangs cut a 30–second KROQ commercial for the local fanzine No Mag, singing new words to the melody of “Getting Out of Hand.” They frequently dropped in to chat with Bingenheimer on the air.)

    The local success of “Getting Out of Hand” necessitated steady live appearances, and bassist Annette Zilinskas was hired on. “She didn’t really know how to play bass, but she was totally into the same music as we were at the time, and she was very eager to learn,” Susanna remembered.

    The others bought Annette a Vox Teardrop bass—very ’60s, naturally—out of The Recycler.

    They finally got to play one of their dream gigs, at the famed Whiskey A–Go–Go club, as opening act for The Last. They played on bills with everybody. “We got booked with punk bands because Downkiddie’s distributor, Faulty Products, worked with bands like the Circle Jerks, et cetera,” said Vicki. “It happened pretty quickly.”

    The Bangs grew into a popular club act. Their natural buoyancy, combined with their talent for songwriting and their effortless ’60s harmonies, made them stand out in a club scene increasingly packed with bands whose sound and look was strongly influenced by mid to late ’60s pop. People started calling it the Paisley Underground.

    “We went from having to beg our friends to come to some out of the way club on a Monday night, and buy them beer so they’ll dance,” Susanna said, “and we worked our way up to playing packed clubs. And it became a real scene, and it was really fun.”

    Michael

    After enduring disco and wave after wave of metal bands with big and bigger hair, Michael Steele – born Susan Johnson – found the Paisley Underground much more to her liking.

    A native of coastal Newport Beach, where the ’60s meant Beach Boys singles blasting from every radio, Michael played guitar and bass, and flute in her high school band. Both poet and rocker, she loved the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and fell hard for Joni Mitchell, but it was the British folkie band Fairport Convention, with singer Sandy Denny, that made Michael think seriously about making music of her own.

    She entered show business in the summer of 1975 by answering an ad for girl singers. It had been placed by entrepreneur Kim Fowley, who’d dreamed up the idea of an all–female rock band.

    Michael auditioned as the Runaways’ lead singer, and strapped on a bass during a rehearsal when no one else seemed interested. With Joan Jett on guitar and Sandy West on drums, they played “Wild Thing” for Fowley. “Joan was great, even then,” Michael said.

    As for the Runaways, “It was one of those things, a girl band made up by a guy. Which kind of sucks. Because it was coming through his twisted concept of what women were.”

    Fowley worked his girls hard. “He was hilarious,” said Michael. “One day he came to rehearsal and he started throwing garbage at us. He said ‘Better get used to this.’”

    It wasn’t long before Fowley replaced “Micki Steele” on bass. “I got booted out for various reasons,” she explained. “I found the whole Hollywood scene was a bit … I think I was just pretty overwhelmed by the whole thing.”

    It was, she insists without elaboration, a “casting couch… it was kind of like sexual harassment before they called it that.”

    Fowley recorded the first trio of Runaways on a crude reel–to–reel tape recorder, and the material was issued on CD many years later under the title Born to Be Bad. “Kim continues to make money off of me and various other unfortunates who were young enough not to know any better,” Michael said.

    Burned by the experience, Michael ran back home to Newport Beach. Within a year, she started seeing The Runaways in magazines.

    “The injustice of the thing just enraged me, so I finally said ‘I’m gonna show ‘em. I’m gonna go back out there and just start playing with as many bands as I can, and try to become a good bass player.’ Because one of the things this guy said was I was a good singer, but I couldn’t play bass for shit.”

    Michael played with a dozen bands in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and became a regular at the clubs; two of her favorite groups to check out were the Bangs and the Dream Syndicate, whose musicality and dedication to ’60s ideals were very close to her own with hers. David Roback’s band, Rain Parade, was another big draw.

    In 1982, at the invitation of her friend “Spock,” Michael moved into a new apartment, which Spock shared with Vicki and Debbi Peterson. There was a rumor going around that the Bangs might need a new bass player soon.

    “I was like well, you know, this might happen, and I’d like to be there if it does,” Michael said. “And of course it didn’t happen for about a year after I moved in—oop! But that’s OK, it was a nice place to live. And I was beginning to know a new bunch of people, and that was a nice thing.”

    Miles From Nowhere

    Miles Copeland, the head of Faulty Products, managed the Police and other acts under the LAPD (Los Angeles Personal Direction) banner. Miles’ brother Stewart Copeland was the Police’s drummer.

    In 1981, Copeland was also running IRS Records, and the label’s biggest act, the Go–Go’s, was an all–female pop group from Southern California whose members were chummy with the Bangs.

    A friend brought Copeland to a Bangs gig at the Café de Grande. “I went in with a couple of people, all of whom said ‘Don’t do it,’” Copeland remembered. “Which immediately made me think well, this is exactly what I’m gonna do. Because they had the energy—and they had the songs. I immediately thought it was great.

    “Sure, there was a comparison with the Go–Go’s, because there weren’t that many all–girl groups. But my view was look, this is a pretty good group with good songs. The fact that they happen to be all girls from L.A., I’m sure people will compare them, but I had never looked upon them as a spinoff of the Go–Gos, I took them for what they were.”

    When Copeland offered to manage the band, Vicki was skeptical. “I was immediately defensive—oh, he’s going to try and turn us into the poor man’s Go–Gos, and I’m just not interested in anything to do with this,” she said.

    At their first meeting—which Vicki tape–recorded in case Copeland tried to pull a fast one—”he said all the right things: Do things slowly—record an EP at a cheap studio to use as a calling card.” They laughed a lot, especially when Vicki discovered her recorder’s batteries were dead.

    Copeland also won the Bangs’ trust by treating them as equals.

    He hired the Ramones’ Craig Leon to produced a 12–inch EP, with five original songs. Just before the record’s release, a New Jersey band called The Bangs got wind of it and demanded $40,000 for use of their (copyrighted) moniker.

    So the self–titled record became Bangles.

    “We were really heartsick about it, because I really liked the name,” said Vicki. “I liked the innuendo, and the sound of it—it was explosive, and short—so we just tried to keep the syllable in the word. Even though Bangles is a much softer image, and a much softer sound. We felt like we had already established an identity as the Bangs.”

    Copeland booked the Bangles on a tour opening for the ska band English Beat, an IRS act, and began casting about for a label to take them on. He and the girls were adamant the Bangles should not be on the same label as the Go–Gos.

    “We had this kind of naïve, youthful confidence,” Susanna said. “It was funny, we never sort of went ‘Oh, it’s not happening, guess I’ll go back to law school.’ We just had this odd feeling that it was going to work out.”

    Columbia Records A&R man Peter Philbin didn’t take much convincing, and Vicki liked his smooth chat about “letting an act develop over time.” In 1983 the Bangles were signed to Columbia with a $125,000 budget for their first album. Not long before recording was scheduled to commence, however, Annette Zilinskas left the band by mutual consent.

    “Annette wasn’t a great harmony singer,” Vicki recalled, “plus, she was more into rockabilly. We would learn a token rockabilly song or two, which we were not very good at, so that Annette could sing. But we started to realize that we were not in sync.”

    Said Susanna: “She wanted to sing some leads, on more more country–ish sounds. Bass wasn’t her passion.”

    Zilinskas and her boyfriend formed the “cowpunk” band Blood On the Saddle.

    So Annette was out, and Columbia—and Michael Steele—were in. “That,” Michael said, “was nice timing after all the other bands I’d been in.”

    Even with all the aces turning up,Vicki still thought they might be somebody’s novelty “chick band.” “It was never overt, but I’m sure it was being said in the boardrooms,” she said.

    “You look at the band, it’s obvious what it is, but I think it was also obvious that we were a band that was not created by somebody. We weren’t a band that was formed after ads in Variety. I think our ‘street cred’ was intact. Our origins were well–enough known that people knew we’re not talking about the Spice Girls here!”

    Michael: “After the Runaways, I swore to myself that I would never do another girl band as long as I fucking lived. But the Runaways was like a fake girl band; this was a real band that happened to be women.”

    The Bangles became a CBS act a time when the record industry was only too happy to milk a trend for all it was worth, but also at a time when acts with genuine talent were given time—and money—to develop. It would take three years before the Bangles had a hit, but Columbia, bless its corporate heart, stuck by the band the whole time.

    The band was paired up with staff producer (and Columbia A&R honcho) David Kahne.

    Fun, fun, fun

    All Over the Place was years in the making, because we played those songs a lot in the clubs,” said Debbi. “I felt proud of our performance; we sounded like this great, raw rock band. But sonically, at the time I didn’t think the album sounded good enough. And we were tortured by David Kahne.”

    Kahne’s less–than–deft touch always managed to find a Bangle nerve. “For example, on ‘Going Down to Liverpool,’ he made me cry because I had to do the first line over and over,” Debbi added. “I kept thinking it was sounding great to me. And he was like ‘Do it again, do it again.’ It ended up being work.”

    Vicki: “There wasn’t a joy of creation going on there. Everything was complicated. As a matter of fact, it was a phrase he was famous for. He would sit with his head in his hands on the board and go ‘Damn, this is complicated.’ What does that say to the artist? That says OK, this is a mess. You’re basically incompetent. I’m at a loss. I’m going to have to fix it.”

    Kahne, all agree, was brilliant at vocal arrangements, and could always be counted on to decide who would sing what—he was usually right, too. They respected his arranging talents.

    And he polished the Bangles’ rough sound; the garage band that had made Bangleswas nowhere to be found on All Over the Place. “We were very basic as a band, and he was hearing symphonies in his head,” said Vicki. “He would have all these sort of sonic images he wanted to realize, and were we just ‘Huh? Uh …OK.’

    “As Susanna says, we learned a lot from David Kahne, and it took years to un–learn some of it.”

    Kahne, the musicians say, saw All Over the Place as his record, and the Bangles themselves as obstacles.

    “He made us more aware of what our flaws were than the things that we were good at,” Susanna said. “It has a kind of debilitating effect after a period of time. On the one hand, you want to feel inspired, you want to feel confident, but you’re around someone who’s very vocal about what the shortcomings of the band are. You don’t want somebody who’s just going to say everything you do is great, but there’s a different style of working.”

    Some of the songs (“James,” “He’s Got a Secret”) were from Vicki’s teen–age scrapbook and had been performed by The Fans, Those Girls and the others; the band also pulled out favorite covers including The Merry–Go–Round’s “Live” and the Grass Roots’ “Where Were You When I Needed You” (left off the album, the latter became the B–side to the band’s first Columbia single, “Hero Takes a Fall”).

    “Going Down to Liverpool” came from their English friend Kimberly Rew of Katrina & the Waves, who also recorded it.

    All Over the Place didn’t produce a hit, but it sold respectably, mostly through steady airplay on college stations. Today, fans still tell the Bangles it’s the best record they ever made. “We’d been out playing those songs live as a band, so there’s a band cohesion on that album,” said Michael, adding with her trademark dry humor: “And I think that’s what people respond to ad nauseam: All Over the Place was a cool record, thereby saying your other two albums were shit.”

    The Bangles made videos for both singles (“Going Down to Liverpool,” directed by Hoffs’ mother, featured family friend Leonard Nimoy) and got little to no airplay on MTV. The band shrugged it off and hit the road, setting a pattern that would continue virtually nonstop for six years.

    They found an audience in Europe. “You didn’t have the sense of ‘Oh, we don’t have a Top 40 hit,’” Susanna said. “Big deal! ‘We can still play to a packed house in a small club.’ We would play these little clubs in England, and have these incredible shows. You get so much from the audience that it bolsters up any sense of ‘Oh, it’s not a hit on the radio.’ We didn’t really care! We just figured it would happen eventually.”

    Certainly, there were no other bands—female, male or otherwise—playing as rich a concoction of clever songs with Rickenbacher guitars and velvety, Beatle–smooth harmonies. “It’s actually one of the easiest things for us, singing in harmony,” Susanna said. “From the early days of being in a choir or something.

    “We did the best that we could, and given that we couldn’t hear ourselves very well, those were really about paying our dues; learning how to sing in a club where you can’t hear yourself. Those were days where we got a lot of training.”

    The band spent the fall of 1984 as road support for Columbia’s top act, Cyndi Lauper. Vicki and Susanna, along with their friend Jules Shear, turned out “I Got Nothing” as the Bangles’ contribution to The Goonies, for which Lauper recorded the title song.

    Then it was time to make the second Columbia album. A cloud rolled in. “We weren’t smart enough,” Vicki said, “to know that we could fire our producer.”

    Different Light

    At a pre–production meeting, Vicki said, “Kahne acknowledged the problems with the first record, he apologized for his methodology, he promised that he was in a better place and we were going to have a very positive experience.”

    The Bangles went back into the studio with Kahne in summer ’85 to record the follwup to All Over the Place. Columbia was counting on a hit.

    The problems began almost immediately. Copeland had kept the group on the road so much, they’d barely had any time to write new songs. So the call went out—the Bangles were sifting through material to record.

    They chose a handful of songs they liked, cut the few new originals they had … and then fate stepped in, making the Columbia brass shake and shimmy.

    Vicki: “Despite all their noble gestures about ‘letting this band grow,’ etcetera, all of a sudden they’re given a gift from the gods. And the gods are called Prince. And Prince says hey, record this song, and they see the doors open to radio.

    “They see the golden light shining upon them: This is how they’re gonna get this band to radio.”

    Kahne knew engineer David Leonard, who had worked with Prince. It seemed the Minneapolis megastar, who was at the height of his Purple Rain fame, had taken a shine to the “Hero Takes a Fall” video, and in particular to Susanna Hoffs, whose doe–eyed coquettishness had come across particularly well.

    Susanna remembers making the drive to Sunset Sound Studios to pick up a cassette from Leonard. On it were Prince’s demos of two songs, “Jealous Girl” and “Manic Monday.”

    The Bangles were unanimous that “Manic Monday” was the one for them. “I kept thinking, Sue and I could write a song like this,” Vicki said. “This is like a pop song. It seemed a little more contrived than most of our songs; ours were usually a little more obtuse.

    “But it was OK. I thought well, we can record it. But in my innocence I didn’t see the grand scheme until very soon after we recorded it: ‘Why is David Kahne spending two weeks mixing this one song? And 20 minutes on every other one?’”

    According to Susanna, Prince never contacted any of the Bangles until their version of “Manic Monday” was in the can. “I think he very much though that we would use his track and just sing over it,” she recalled. “My memory is that he was really surprised when we re–cut every single thing, because he was great at making … they weren’t really demos, they were recordings. And then just giving them to other people for them to sing over. Because he was such a good producer himself.”

    “Manic Monday” reached No. 2 on the Billboard chart in April 1986. Although the songwriting was credited to “Christopher,” everyone knew it was, in fact, The Purple One (who happened to be called Christopher in the movie he made that year, Under the Cherry Moon.)

    The Bangles exploded. Or, rather, the Bangle.

    “Columbia said, here we have a way into radio, and it’s because of Prince’s infatuation with the little one in the middle,” said Vicki.

    “Those things have a way of spiraling out of control. And all of a sudden you have an article on the band, but there’s a photograph of Susanna. And we fought that as much as we could, not just the three of us who weren’t getting photographed, but management.

    “But there’s only so much you can do.”

    The press pounced upon the Prince/Hoffs connection, and their “romance” became the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll gossip columns. When the Bangles performed on The Tonight Show, host Joan Rivers sat them all on the couch and blurted out “Which one of you slept with Prince?”

    Susanna says flatly that there never was any backstage affair. “He was sort of hanging around,” she explained. “He came to some shows and would call occasionally; I had some phone conversations with him but no, absolutely not. We were never a romantic item.”

    The press, of course, didn’t want to hear that, so the stories continued.

    Getting Out of Hand

    Different Light was one of the biggest–selling albums of 1986; the third single, a novelty tune written by Liam Sternberg called “Walk Like an Egyptian,” topped the American chart for four weeks at Christmastime. The ubiquitous video featured the women in midriff–baring Cleopatra garb, acting out goofy heiroglyphics. “Although it’s the song that we will always, unfortunately, be known for, I was all for it,” Vicki laughs.

    As fun and free–wheeling as “Walk Like an Egyptian” was it, too, was hard–won. “Originally I was going to sing the whole song,” Debbi said. “I don’t know where the change of heart came from, but there was this sudden decision to get three people to sing, one for each verse. Of course, there’s only three verses, so somebody’s gonna get left out.”

    Debbi got left out.

    “I was going to sing the second verse, and I got two takes and David Kahne said ‘No, Micki, why don’t you go try it.’ And then she ended up doing it.

    “I was ‘Excuse me, my voice is just warming up. I know I’m not a Bonnie Raitt and just sing perfect the minute I open my mouth, but …’”

    Debbi doesn’t play drums on the song, either; Kahne “took care of it.”

    “On Different Light, there were a couple of other drummers that came in, but basically that’s because I couldn’t quite get the part as he saw it,” said Debbi. “He was very much a visionary, and saw things a certain way. And would let me play, for the most part, what I was seeing. But then at certain times it would be ‘Well, that’s not quite right, we’ve got to get so–and–so in.’”

    Vicki, too, felt the wrath of Kahne. “He would bring in his ringer guitar players to do certain things,” she said. “At one point, I’d had to leave the studio for an emergency, and I came back, and he had had his guy show up and do a solo. It was the backwards thing on ‘September Gurls.’ I hate to burst your bubble, I didn’t play that.

    “This is one of my nightmare, nightmare stories. I walked into the studio after I had to leave, and this was already done. And Micki’s loving it—she thinks it sounds great! I looked at Kahne and I went ‘Oh! OK.’ And he said ‘Oh … did you want to try something?’ My will had pretty much been broken successfully by that point. It was really awful.”

    Said Susanna: “I remember thinking ‘Boy, being a producer is a hard job.’ And I think he made it seem really hard because he was so driven by angst, and kind of perfection-istic. He had been an artist himself and never succeeded as an artist, so I think he was always tormented by ‘How would I do this if it was my record?’”

    “It was,” said Michael, “sort of an aural version of the casting couch where, well, if I don’t do all this stuff, these songs won’t be hits. He knew there were going to be some big hits on that album. That album made his career, basically. And so we were sacrificed on the altar of his career.”

    Michael wrote and sang “Following,” a haunting acoustic track on Different Light. “He had totally forgotten about that song,” she remembered. “He was totally freaking out about which of the 27 mixes of ‘Manic Monday’ was the right one. We were almost done with recording and I said ‘Uhh, David, remember the song ‘Following’? So it was, like, two takes.”

    Michael thinks Kahne might have “ignored” her because she wasn’t one of the group’s main songwriters or singers.

    “He loved Sue’s voice, and he loved the way we did harmonies, but everything else was basically shit and he felt like he had to get rid of it, or try to work around it, or do something to make it palatable,” she explained.

    “I don’t know, maybe he ran out of money before he replaced my bass parts.”

    According to Debbi, Kahne picked on her in particular—and not just because of her drumming. “He said I physically couldn’t sing one of the songs. Physically couldn’t sing. It was one of those things where you might as well just stab me right now, just kill me. Cut my throat. Cut out my vocal chords. It was so devastating. It was hard for me to bounce back from that.

    “I was actually, at one point, feeling kind of suicidal. This guy was screwing with my emotions so bad, and made me feel so shitty, that I just thought well, OK …. I should’ve just told him to piss off. But we caught between a rock and a hard place.”

    Copeland says the Bangles only told him after the fact why they absolutely, positively would never work with Kahne again. “They’d be in the studio and he’d say ‘I don’t like the middle bit, so you’ve got to re–write it,’” he explained. “They’d go home and re–write, and he wouldn’t like that one. He’d say ‘I wrote one, listen to this.’ They’d say they liked theirs better and he’d say ‘let’s drop the song, then.’”

    So, of course, to keep the song, they’d do it Kahne’s way.

    “In their view, the reason his middle bit was ‘better’ is because he got a piece of the publishing,” Copeland said. “And they were incredibly pissed off about that. They felt that they got raped—that was their word.”

    On Different Light, Kahne was credited as a co–writer on the tracks “Walking Down Your Street,” “Standing in the Hallway” and “Not Like You.”

    “He wanted to make a hit record, and fuck them! That was his view,” Copeland said. “And if he wrote a bit of the song, he was going to have his piece of the publishing, fuck them.”

    Publicly, as their fortunes rose, the Bangles’ look began to turn towards an ’80s, rock ‘n’ roll kind of “feminine.” They began to appear in short skirts, with teased hair and heavy makeup. Gone were the jeans and thrift–shop clothes of “Hero Takes a Fall.”

    “In general, the glamorization of the Bangles happened because there were more outside people in there messing with us,” said Susanna. “We didn’t have enough perspective to say no. You want to look good, and you get caught up in ‘Oh, let’s give you bigger hair!’

    “I remember how big my hair was on the ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ thing and feeling like ‘Oh my God! What just happened to me?’

    “And you get caught up in going along with what’s happening. A wardrobe person comes and says ‘These are great clothes; put these on.’ And you’re busy on tour. You don’t have time to go shop.

    “You look over and the person sitting next to you has got that much makeup on, too. It’s just a vicious cycle. Fashion faux paus just escalating and getting exponentially worse and worse.”

    Vicki: “We played around more with fashion as time went on. Part of that was because more was available to us. People were coming up to us and saying here, wear this. Which happens a lot: You’re starving and nobody gives you anything, but suddenly you have a hit record and everyone wants to give you everything for free.”

    Still, she said, “A lot of it was in response to Susanna’s ability and obsessive–ness with being a star. It was what drove her. It’s what kept her up at night. It started becoming more about that, and more about celebrity status, than about some other things. That was very foreign territory to me, and I didn’t understand it. It sort of exacerbated the rift that was already starting to grow.”

    The Lead Singer Syndrome

    “It probably would have been healthier for us had we allowed each other the room to go off and do whatever it was, however silly, however ridiculous, i.e. going off for six weeks and making a movie,” Susanna said. “Or making a solo record.

    “But we were kind of a band which focused on everybody being committed to the band and giving all of their time just to the band, and it was part of what created the pressure cooker that ended up breaking it up.”

    In the little–seen 1976 film Stony Island, a 17–year–old Susanna had a bit part. The movie was directed by Andrew David, a friend of Tamar Hoffs’ from Chicago. David would go on to make The Fugitive and A Perfect Murder, among others.

    Ten years later, Susanna surprised her bandmates by spending the Bangles’ much–needed break actring in the wacky college comedy The Allnighter, produced and directed (and co–written) by her mother.

    “I think I just needed to not be on tour for six weeks, and go do something that seemed fun and different and exciting,” said Susanna. “It’s not the thing I’m most proud of in my life, but I’m happy I did it. It was something I got to do with my mom.”

    Even though the cast of The Allnighter included Michael Ontkean and Joan Cusak, the film—about a group of college grads looking for excitement at year’s end—was positively dreadful. “Grotesque in the AIDS era,” wrote Leonard Maltin. “Though it would be a stinker any time.”

    “I read the script, and I couldn’t believe it was getting made,” said Vicki. “But I know how these things go, and it did. And it saw release, which was also amazing to me. But I get amazed by many things that see release.”

    Tamar Hoffs, says Vicki, was such a believer in positive thinking that she and her daughter didn’t really see how bad The Allnighter really was.

    “That’s what I was up against,” she said. “I wasn’t going to look her in the eye and say you know what? It’s actually really, really embarrassing. The only concern of mine was that it was going to reflect on the band.”

    Which, of course, it did. After the ‘Prince thing,’ the next volley of Bangles’ press reports all had to do with The Allnighter.

    “The Go–Gos accepted the fact that Belinda Carlisle was the front person, and she was going to sing the songs, and get most of the press,” said Copeland. “The Bangles were very different. They did not want to see any individual in the group step forward and become the star. You had to have four spotlight operators; each one had to be in the spotlight. There were no solo band members.”

    There was no convincing the public, or the press. “I guess the best way I can describe it is that it became really uncomfortable for me,” she admitted. “Because when people would say ‘Are you the lead singer?’ I would say ‘No, actually I’m not.’ Then I’m sort of defending the fact that I’m not. It just caused this tension with all of us.

    “In some way, it’s obviously flattering if someone likes what you do. But the more tense everybody got about it, the more tense I felt about it.”

    Ever the optimist, Vicki convinced herself that everything was OK: We still make records the same way. We all write, we all sing.

    To her credit, Susanna never lorded it over the others. According to Vicki, that was one reason the Go–Go’s self–destructed. “It’s the lead singer syndrome. Belinda would get a suite, and the rest of the girls would find out that she had a suite, and they had single rooms. It was ‘What the fuck is this?’

    “And she’d say ‘Well, I’m a bigger star than you are.’ That kind of thing never happened with us. Susanna wasn’t running around like a full–on prima donna around us. She wouldn’t get away with it.”

    All well and good, except the press only wanted Susanna interviews, and often her photo appeared in print, without the others.

    “The ‘we’re all equal’ philosophy became, in a sense, a straitjacket,” Copeland mused. “Because obviously Susanna began to move forward a bit, reality–wise. It’s a natural thing, a little cute girl in front is going to get more attention.”

    In March 1987, as Different Light was being certified double platinum by the RIAA, the Bangles appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.

    The article announced, among other things, that David Kahne had been dismissed as the group’s producer. “In the long run,” it said, “what they may have learned is just how much running their own show means to them.”

    Everything But the Girls

    After months of touring behind Different Light, and cleaning up after The Allnighter,the Bangles began 1988 with another huge hit: On Feb. 6, their version of the Simon & Garfunkel song “Hazy Shade of Winter” reached No. 2 on the American charts.

    The band had cut the track—an old favorite from their clubbing days—for the filmLess Than Zero, and it was included on the Def Jam soundtrack album (on paper, Rick Rubin produced, but the band says they did most of the production work themselves).

    Three enormous hits would’ve made most artists ecstatic—but not the Bangles. Susanna was uncomfortable, but the others, virtually ignored by the media, were miserable. “I could tell the way the videos were going very pro–Sue,” Debbi recalled. “I could see it all happening.” They all started wearing heavier makeup, sexier clothes and even more outrageous hairstyles.

    “I felt very resentful at the time, and I felt it wasn’t a true representation of what we were all about, and what we were all working for,” Debbi said.

    “There we were with this feeling,” Vicki explained, “and it set up this dynamic where the rest of us felt like if we were going to win at this game, all of a sudden we had to play by different rules. At least I did.”

    The third album was budgeted at $350,000. Success, Vicki thought, has raised the bar. “The problem,” Debbi said, “was we really didn’t talk about it. That was one of the reasons we broke up, because when you have a relationship with three other people, it’s almost like you’re married. You have to talk to these people and say what you feel. And none of us actually expressed our true feelings.

    “I would try to do it, and of course my emotions would take over and it would just come out all gobbledegook and go the wrong way.”

    “We were burned out,” Susanna said. “We needed space away from each other. We didn’t quite know how to do it, but what we did was we all went off to write with other people. Just to survive emotionally, we needed a break from each other.”

    The foursome re–convened in late spring, and although they were glad to be back Bangling, everybody felt something was wrong. “I knew things were tense but I was just used to it,” said Susanna. “We were all used to it. It was just part of the fact that we just didn’t know how to talk about things when they didn’t feel good. Everyone would just kind of sit there feeling weird and uncomfortable. We didn’t have any way to have a group Bangle thereapy session.”

    The first order of business was bringing in Davitt Sigerson to produce—the former engineer had recently helmed an album by David & David that everyone liked. And his easygoing manner behind the board, they thought, would be the antidote for Kahne’s divide–and–conquer tactics.

    “Davitt had a good mix,” Vicki said. “He had humor, hyper–intelligence and a very laid–back way in the studio. I was very tense about doing any guitar playing in the studio because of my bad experiences in the past with Kahne. I just felt like I couldn’t play, and I was inept.”

    Vicki wrote a song, “Make a Play For Her Now,” with former Kiss guitarist Vinnie Vincent, who turned out to be a major Bangles fan. The others found collaborators, too, and when the recording date arrived, there was a pile of new and exciting songs from which to choose.

    Michael contributed three songs to Everything. Her “Glitter Years” was a scorching rocker that looked back fondly on the early ’70s, complete with a unique David Bowie impersonation on the last verse.

    “A songwriter said to me once ‘You know, if that song had been about something normal, it could have been a hit,’” she laughed. “‘Eh … you mean like ‘love/dove’? I always thought that songs that are about something ‘other’ were kind of interesting.”

    Debbi’s upbeat “Some Dreams Come True” was one of her best songs ever, and she co–wrote “Bell Jar” with her sister. Vicki turned in “Crash and Burn” and, co–written with Susanna, the crunching “Watching the Sky.”

    Susanna’s songs, written with Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, were the most blatantly commercial of the lot. “In Your Room,” the first Everything single, was the most overtly sexual track the band had ever done.

    The label was ecstatic when they heard the album, and predicted big things. “By taking more chances, the Bangles sound more comfortable than they have since their 1982 EP,” raved Rolling Stone.

    The band, however, didn’t see it as taking chances.

    Michael: “When Sue was covered as far as all the singles, everybody else sort of grabbed the crumbs as they could. We knew it kind of sucked. It was now ‘Paul Revere and the Raiders Featuring Mark Lindsay.’ I always hated what they did to that band.”

    Vicki knew something was off, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. “All of a sudden it felt like I could be playing in anybody’s band right now,” she recalled. “And that feeling never really went away.

    “It’s like ‘Eternal Flame.’ It’s a beautiful song, Whitney Houston would’ve had a huge hit with it. Anyone could’ve had a hit with it. It was not a Bangles song. To me. It was a really well–written pop song. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I felt completely emotionally divorced from a lot of the music that was happening.”

    Your basic ’80s “power ballad,” Susanna’s “Eternal Flame” would be the album’s second single—and the band’s second chart–topper. It’s almost a solo performance.

    “Everybody else loved it,” Vicki said. “So I was outvoted. Everybody else thought it was fucking genius. And because of the sort of creative thinking world, it was presented to me as, ‘No, but we’re going to do it like a Patsy Cline record.’ And I went ok, well, OK, I don’t know what you mean but that sounds great.

    “If you ask Susanna, she still thinks it sounds like a Patsy Cline record. In the imaginary world of Susanna Hoffs, her references were always completely amazing to me. And they still are! She has a very creative little mind, and she lives in a world that doesn’t always jibe with mine. I now find it kind of funny.”

    “Like it or don’t like it, you know?” Susanna says of Everything, released in November 1988. “That’s where we were at the time. That’s what eight years of touring brought us to, the making of that album.”

    For her part, Michael was glad to have Kahne out of the picture. “It proves that you don’t have to be fucking suicidal to make a worthy album,” she said.

    And in the end …

    “All the people who loved me wanted to blame everything on Sue,” Vicki said. “And it was not all Sue’s fault, I say this to this day. Which is why I’m able to play in a band with her, because I don’t believe that she was … she was neither a victim, nor was she a perpetrator of this crime. It was partially both. Nothing is that black & white.”

    As the Everything tour approached, the four Bangles began to anticipate that old feeling of dread—the travel, the hours, the press. Their removal of Kahne had been a success, so they started scribbling pink slips.

    “They were looking for somebody to blame,” Copeland said. “They made me fire my partner Mike Gormley, then they made me fire my brother as the agent, so I was being forced to use people that weren’t really my choices, one by one.”

    “The reality was that the group was having such internal troubles, it was very hard to keep going.”

    Copeland—who had annoyed the Bangles by giving what they saw as more attention to Sting, his other major client—was dropped in favor of the California management team Arnold Stiefel and Randy Phillips.

    They hit the road with a strong album—and immediately found themselves once again playing ‘Susanna Hoffs and the Bangles.’ Susanna, Vicki recalled, “was physically ill. She was painfully aware of the fact that we were all resenting the direction that things were going, and she couldn’t handle that.”

    The tour was ugly.

    “Towards the end of it, we were just sort of going through the motions, I think,” Debbi said. “A lot of us were. I think Vicki still felt like ‘This can be saved.’ Bless her heart, she was very idealistic about it. But I kept telling her it was going in the wrong direction. I think in her heart she knew that, too.

    “The last tour, we all had such bad stomachaches. We thought we were getting ulcers. Michael was sleeping a lot because she was so depressed. We were not doing well.”

    Said Michael: “Part of it was just exhaustion, because we worked, and were worked, very hard. I remember falling asleep in one of those plastic chairs that they have in convention rooms. And I remember for the first time thinking ‘I’m hating playing music.’ And that was when I knew the end was near, at least for me. Because I always thought ‘I’ll do it until it’s no fun any more.’”

    Debbi, who married the tour’s production manager Steve Botting during a break in June, dreaded going to work. “The whole thing was just too painful,” she said. “It had already gone beyond the direction I thought it should have gone. It was such focus on little sex kitten Susanna Hoffs, and to me that’s what we weren’t all about. We’re a band, we’re musicians, we’re performers, we’re not trying to be little sex girls. But that’s what everybody expects.”

    In mid–April, “Eternal Flame” hit No. 1 in America, and the tour dragged on. “I thought if we had one big single with somebody else doing the lead vocal, it would help balance out the perception, and we’d be OK,” Vicki said. So Debbi’s “Be With You” went out as the third single—the video, Debbi said with a sigh, was poorly shot, in a single afternoon—and when it stalled at No. 30, everyone felt a big shakeup was coming.

    “At that point,” Vicki explained, “the label was saying they don’t want a single unless it’s a Sue vocal. And as soon as I heard those words – and I heard it inadvertently – I said OK, now the illness is terminal.”

    The final wedge, all the Bangles agree, was driven by Stiefel/Phillips. “They were trying to kill the album so they could take Sue for their own,” Debbi said. “I’m not saying anything against Sue at all, I think that definitely was a management ploy. And of course if they’d said that to me, it’s hard not to go with that. You’re tempted by that.”

    “We weren’t operating like a group, we were operating like four individuals trying to protect their territory,” Susanna said. “And managers come along who could care less about protecting the group and just ride out the tour for the last record, and are ready to manage different people in the band.”

    Susanna said she was getting whispers in both ears: You don’t need these other girls.

    “I though yeah, this is hard. I don’t want to be in a room with people who are angry and upset and hostile. Their argument to me was why do you want to be in a room with people who are mad and frustrated?”

    A solo career started sounding pretty good to Susanna. “Basically I thought my God, I’ll be out of the pressure cooker,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be nice. I was very, very stressed out from the tour. I was like a basket case emotionally, physically. I was riddled with anxiety.”

    Ironically, it was Michael who first suggested breaking up the Bangles. Stiffel/Phillips was talking her up, making vague promises about a solo deal with Columbia, once she was feeling better.

    “I’d hit a point where I was starting to have some scary physical symptoms,” she said. “I was like, ‘Fuckin’ A. The Bangles thing is actually making me physically ill.’ I basically called Sue up and said I can’t do this any more. And she was overjoyed, of course, because she wanted to go do her solo thing.

    “Nobody was in anybody’s camp at that point. It was really just that I had to stop. If the band had been united, then maybe they would have gone on without me. But that wasn’t the way it was.

    “The other strange thing about it was that the Petersons didn’t see this coming at all. It’s like this train wreck or something.”

    The band was booked to visit Australia for the first time in October. A labor strike, however, forced cancellation of the trip, and a meeting was called at Stiefel’s home on the beach—to discuss, it was explained, “the next move.”

    “I show up and there gathered in the room are all the Bangles, our manager, his partner, his press agent, our lawyer and our business manager,” Vicki said. “And Micki won’t look me in the eye. I’m like, ‘..W–what’s going on?’

    “And very soon after that, our manager cajoled out of Susanna the words ‘I don’t think I can make this next Bangles record. And actually, I don’t think I want to do a Bangles record again.’

    “It was sort of like your husband invites you to a fancy restaurant for a nice dinner, and you think you’re going to celebrate your anniversary or something. And you show up and he’s got his best friend and his lawyer there at the table with him, and he announces to you that he doesn’t want to be married to you any more.”

    Vicki and Debbi—who had arrived with her husband—were dumbfounded, but tried to rally the troops. “I think our evil manager knew that,” Vicki said, “and so in order to ward off any Bangles records which might be competing with his Susanna Hoffs record, he made sure he had Michael Steele on his team, too. Micki was desperately unhappy as well, for many reasons. He completely fucked with her, and there’s just no other way of putting it. She’ll be the first one to tell you that he told her he was going to look after her, and get her a solo deal and all this stuff, and as soon as the band was dissolved he didn’t return her phone calls.”

    Michael: “I had to get out, and the whole CBS ‘We’re going to get you a deal’ thing was kind of nice, but it didn’t happen, basically because they dropped the ball.

    “I probably couldn’t have even dealt with that, I was so stressed out.”

    Always the most emotional Bangle, Debbi took a few precisely–aimed hits at this meeting. “Management actually blamed me and my by calling it the ‘Debbi & Steve Show.’ They were trying to pinpoint me trying to get all this attention because I had blonde hair, and I was up on the drum riser! And when the spotlight did go on me, which wasn’t very often, the fans would get confused about who the singer was. Then my head turned into a lightbulb. In fact, I’ve seen video of me having a ‘lightbulb head’ because my hair was so bright and I was up close to the lights.

    “They started pinpointing this fantasy about me trying to be a big star. I still don’t even understand it, to this day. If anything, I was just trying to stand up for myself because I didn’t feel a lot of support from anybody else. Look at the videos: Hello?!

    “They were definitely dividing and conquering between Vicki and I and Micki and Sue. That was their little plan to break the Bangles up so they could get their Susanna.”

    Vicki tried to argue about giving one another the freedom to do solo projects and still keeping the band together, but it was too little, too late.

    “It was very final, and it was like nothing you could say could change it,” Debbi said. “We all got in our cars and drove off. And that was it, we had broken up.”

    After the Bangles

    Susanna Hoffs’ solo career was launched with the dissolution of the Bangles, and although she and her managers predicted she’d inherit the group’s success, it didn’t exactly work out that way.

    For her debut, Susanna chose an unlikely producer: David Kahne, who’d humiliated the Bangles for so long in the studio. “I was so terrified by the whole thing that was going on, I didn’t know what was up and what was down,” Susanna said. “Somewhere deep down in my intuition I knew I couldn’t really trust what was going on.”

    Kahne, she thought the time, was the devil that you know as opposed to the devil you don’t. “Maybe he’s a difficult guy to work with, but at least we made good records together.”

    Produced by Kahne, When You’re a Boy (the title comes from David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging,” which closed the album) was released in the early weeks of 1991. Susanna’s single “My Side of the Bed” made it to No. 30, due in no small part to the sexually–charged video (it’s difficult to misinterpret a beautiful, scantily clad woman singing the line “You can get yours on my side of the bed”).

    The album, however, stalled at No. 83, and critics derided its generic pop sound and cloying, come–hither lyrics. “When I didn’t have Vicki and Micki and Debbi there to fight the fight, Kahne went out of control pop, out of control production, out of control keyboards,” Susanna says.

    “It just was a mistake. I’ve heard other artists speak of records they’ve made that way—Tori Amos, Alanis Morrisette, people have made first records that consider to be nothing to do with them.”

    No longer involved with Stiefel and Phillips, Susanna began making overtures to the other ex–Bangles about re–forming the band. “Immediately after the fiasco of making the David Kahne solo record, I thought ‘What am I doing? This is ridiculous.’ And I was trying to re–connect with them, but they really weren’t ready. Had no interest. Zero.”

    Vicki had cut her hair down to an inch, gone back to school and learned sign language. For a while, she was lost. “You’ve been spending not just the last 9 years of your life, which was in Bangledom, but basically it went back to when I was in high school and playing with my best friends in a band. It never had stopped for me. I had been doing this my entire adult life, even my adolescent life had been wrapped up in this dream.

    “So now, all of a sudden, it’s gone. So now who am I? Am I ex–Bangle Vicki Peterson? Am I an artist in my own right? Do I even want to do this any more?”

    She found a soulmate in Susan Cowsill, the one–time “cute little kid sister” of the singing Cowsill family. They started writing songs together. Vicki played guitar during a Cowsills reunion tour—”It was like being onstage with the Beatles”—and she and Susan performed a string of acoustic dates in their nightgowns. They billed themselves as the Psycho Sisters.

    The Psycho Sisters soon gravitated towards a group of old friends who regularly jammed on the stage of an old rehearsal hall; Vicki knew bassist Mark Walton from the Dream Syndicate, one of the old Paisley Underground bands.

    The group became the Continental Drifters. Susan Cowsill married guitarist Peter Holsapple, a Drifters guitarist, and by the mid ’90s all the musicians had drifted to New Orleans, where today they are a frequent and favorite live attraction.

    To date, the band has made two albums—1999′s Vermilion, on Razor & Tie, was critically acclaimed—and Vicki says she’s never been happier. She’s balancing the new Bangles project with her Drifters obligations.

    Debbi began the ’90s frightened and bitter. “I didn’t speak to Susanna for a long time—we’re talking years,” she says. “We just had to heal some wounds, and we all had to do our own thing.”

    At Miles Copeland’s urging Debbi began to write with former Go–Go’s drummer Gina Schock. Calling their band Smashbox, they cut five tracks with producer Humberto Garcia in 1992.

    But Schock “got weird” and the project was never completed. Just as Debbi was wondering about throwing all the songs out, she was approached by singer Siobhan Maher, whose band, River City People, had just broken up. They had briefly discussed working together; how about now?

    Dubbed Kindred Spirit, the pair toured England as Joan Armatrading’s opening act in 1992. Two and a half years later, the Kindred Spirit album was released on IRS.

    It’s an atmospheric album that keeps its focus on the women’s harmony vocals—and the songwriting is strong and interesting. Only one of the Schock tracks, “Here in My Eyes,” made it to the finished album.

    In 1994 Susanna married film director M. Jay Roach, whom she’d met on a blind date. Their son Jackson was born in 1995, son Sam three years later.

    In between children, Susanna released a self–titled solo album on London (a terrific, almost underproduced set) and appeared in Roach’s film Austin Powers, as the guitar–playing go–go girl in Austin’s band Ming Tea.

    She also sang the Bacharach classic “The Look of Love” in the movie.

    In 1998, Susanna and Debbi were both pregnant—and the Bangle wall started to crumble. “You can’t hold a grudge forever,” said Debbi. “Life’s too short. And once you have a kid, your perspective changes.”

    Sam Roach and Brian Botting were born around the same time, and their mothers found themselves on the phone constantly, sharing parenting tips, and soon they were in a room, writing songs together. “It was fun again,” Debbi said. “Just like the old days.”

    “Until Debbi had her son, we just couldn’t connect on a human level,” said Susanna. “Forget all this music stuff.

    “Frankly, Vicki and I could always connect on that level. We were always friends. We could always talk to each other and just have a nice conversation, person to person.

    “Which meant a lot to me. I didn’t ever want to feel like I couldn’t be friends with them. It was a little harder with Micki, because it was such a horrible thing that happened with the management. I didn’t know about it. And I didn’t know how devastating it was. She had to pick up the pieces, emotionally, from how that whole fiasco left her.”

    Michael moved to Northern California, among the redwoods, and lived with “a bunch of animals and no television.” Both of Michael’s parents died during this period; living alone, she wrote songs and played a little music with friends, only when the mood struck. She and Vicki spoke often.

    “I got into a different rhythm,” she explained. “I didn’t have that kind of burning ambition thing any more, which was probably good. Because I think that’s partially what caused the health problem.”

    Meanwhile Vicki, who “took a lot of convincing,” came to Los Angeles and helped the twosome finish off “Get the Girl,” a song for the second Austin Powers movie. She, too, realized things were different—everyone seemed to have the right priorities—and she convinced Michael to play bass and sing on the session. “It was a way of seeing if we can all be in the same room together,” Vicki said.

    Before that, “Micki never talked to Sue. Susanna just started reaching out to these people and having nice long conversations with them, and healing some of the wounds. She did all the work. She had to do all the work; it was her work to do.”

    The Bangles today are different people. “We handle things differently,” said Vicki. “We’re a little less afraid to say the scary stuff.”

    (Update, 2012. The reunion album, Doll Revolution, was brilliant but didn’t exactly rekindle the public’s love affair with the Bangles. Michael left the band, and Susanna, Vicki and Debi continue to tour as the Bangles. Plus a lot of other stuff happened. The end.)



  • Featured Image[Article 86]We Just Disagree:
    The Story Of Dave Mason

    Dave Mason
    Dave Mason

     

    @1996

     

    In rock ‘n’ roll, the road may go on forever, but the shoulders are littered with carcasses. To be a survivor, a rock musician has to be able to take the bumps, bruises and creased fenders, to clear hurdles and cross bridges, all the while keeping the gas tank from running dry. There are temptations, frustrations and eliminations, and if you can’t run that gauntlet, baby, you might as well put it in the garage and pull down the big door.

    Dave Mason has taken hits from every direction, and over the course of his nearly 30–year career has stared down the twin high beams of triumph and tragedy so many times he doesn’t even blink any more.

    Dave Mason is a songwriter, singer and guitar player; some might quibble with the sequencing of those titles, but no one can argue that his sharp and singular sense of style has served him well as a composer, vocalist and instrumentalist. As a founding member of Traffic, and through more than two decades as a solo artist, Mason has produced some of the most exciting and consequential rock music committed to tape.

    Read More…

    Getting there was never easy. In his career, Mason made one bad business move after another, picking the wrong managers, signing the wrong contracts. He had the usual problems with drugs and alcohol, and with relationships with lovers and band members, but at the end of the day, as always, it was the music that mattered.

    “His own career is sort of like Fleetwood Mac,” observed Mick Fleetwood, one of Mason’s oldest and closest friends. “He’s been here, there and everywhere, but he’s always found a way of prevailing.

    “There’s a lot of things between Mason and myself. We’ve had some severe ups and downs, and had crazy times. He’s a survivor. And I like to think, in the good sense of the word, that I am. Dave’s kept his integrity as a person, and as a player.”

    History, like the music business, hasn’t treated Dave Mason very well. Although many of his best songs (“Feelin’ Alright?,” “Only You Know And I Know”) are considered classics, he’s written scores of others equally as provocative, only to see them fail in the marketplace and disappear from record store shelves. His high–profile solo deal with Columbia Records ended in 1980.

    The 51–year old Mason is philosophical about the hard knocks he’s weathered. “I think I got what I deserved, what can I say?” he mused. “I’m not interested in the victim mentality we have in this country. I haven’t got time for the Kurt Cobain kind of thing; I can’t hold people like that up as something to be awed at. The guy didn’t have the guts to live. He didn’t have what it takes to make it through life.

    “As for me, if I’d have known better, I’d have done better. It’s all been lessons, and everybody’s got their lessons to learn. I’m trying my best, and I’m certainly trying to learn from my mistakes. But I’d like to thank all the people that fucked me, because it’s been quite an education.”

    Traffic Jams

    David Thomas Mason was born May 10, 1946 in Worcester, in the farm belt of the English Midlands, not far from Birmingham. His parents, Edward and Nora, operated a candy store for 46 years. Nora worked in the shop, but Edward, who was 52 at the time of David’s birth, was a racing nut who, Mason recalled, spent virtually all his time at the horse track.

    David, the younger of the Masons’ two children, was a lonely and solitary boy. He was overweight, and prone to crippling migraine headaches, and spent a good deal of time in his room, reading and making up stories of his own.

    He remembers his childhood as a “Tom Sawyer existence, running around fields and building rafts and treehouses. But never really talking too much. I was very introverted.”

    The lonely lad found his way out of the shadows through the guitar, which he practiced night and day in the confines of his room. “I sure as hell didn’t want to go and work for somebody from nine to five,” he recalled in a 1979 interview. “Plus, I was fat in school and I figured playing the guitar would be a great way to get next to the girls. There’s a multitude of reasons when you’re 15 years old.”

    He and his first band, The Jaguars, made an instrumental single out of the classical music standard “Opus To Spring” in 1963. A local record shop pressed the disc, with the necessary financial backing from Edward and Nora.

    Drummer and vocalist Jim Capaldi, from a nearby township, was David’s mate. Capaldi had a band called the Sapphires. He and Mason joined forces in 1964 as the Hellions.

    “After I got into it, I knew it was going to happen,” Mason said. “I knew I was going to make something happen out of it. Or I knew I wasn’t going to stop until something did.”

    The Hellions were good enough to play in London clubs and eventually took the preordained English bar–band trip to Hamburg, where they rocked the Star–Club. Despite the release of two or three singles, nothing special happened to the band, and it split up in 1965. Mason sat in with Capaldi’s next band, Deep Feeling, which also included flute and sax player Chris Wood, while plotting his next move (he was already thinking of moving to America). In early 1966, he road–managed the soulful Spencer Davis Group from Birmingham, whose lead singer and organ player, Steve Winwood, was a teenaged legend. Winwood was a fellow everybody knew was going places.

    Early the next year, Winwood left the Davis Group to form a new band with his jamming pals Mason, Capaldi and Wood. As Traffic, the quartet spent six months living in a communal home in Berkshire Downs, “getting it together in the country” to make their music without the strains and hassles of the city.

    “This house had no water, no electricity; all stone floors,” Mason recalled. “There was nothing in this place. And gradually, we rebuilt, put electricity in there. We created a whole lifestyle for ourselves, a way of living, out of which came the music.”

    Traffic’s first single, the odd psych/soul “Paper Sun,” was released in May 1967. Written by Winwood and Capaldi in a hotel during a Spencer Davis Group tour (Deep Feeling had been on the same bill), “Paper Sun” featured Winwood’s breathless vocalizing and Mason’s sitar, and reached #5 on the British pop charts. Mason’s trippy “Hole In My Shoe” followed, ultimately reaching #2. “It was the first song I’d ever written,” Mason said, “just a cute little nursery rhyme kind of song. It was perfect for the time.”

    The others thought Mason wasn’t getting into the communal groove; he tended to write alone and bring in his own songs, finished and ready to record. In a band of eccentrics, Mason was the most eccentric of all.

    Winwood and Capaldi particularly disliked the poppy “Hole In My Shoe,” and Traffic never performed it live. (“It was some trite little song that didn’t mean anything,” Winwood said years later.) Mason left Traffic before the first album had even been released. “That first time, it was too much success too quick,” Mason recalled. “And I couldn’t handle it. I was too young, 18, 19, and I was just from a rural town.”

    The band’s first debut on Island Records, Mr. Fantasy, was issued in December, but by that time Mason was well into an extended visit to the United States at the behest of his new friend Gram Parsons. Parsons (whom Mason had met during a British Byrds tour) took him to the famed Palomino Club in Los Angeles, where Mason was enthralled by the Delaney and Bonnie and Friends band. Traffic, as a trio, toured the States with Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead.

    In March, Mason went to Hedra, in the Greek Islands (where he wrote his two–chord classic “Feelin’ Alright?”) and then headed back to the States. And there, wouldn’t you know it, was Traffic. “I ran into them in New York,” said Mason. “They were at the Record Plant doing the second album and they only had five songs.”

    He reluctantly agreed to re–join, delivering “Feelin’ Alright?,” the country–rocking “You Can All Join In,” and a collaboration with Capaldi, “Vagabond Virgin.” The second album, Traffic, was issued in October and was an immediate hit; it’s still considered a classic. Mason played one weekend gig with Traffic at the Fillmore East just as the record was being released, but he and Winwood simply couldn’t resolve their differences (Mason thinks Winwood was jealous that Mason was writing all the hits. “It just happened that the way I wrote was commercial,” he said).

    “In the end,” Mason concluded, “it was basically a fact of Steve Winwood and Jim calling me to a meeting one day and saying ‘We don’t want you in the band. We don’t like your music, we don’t like what you do, so we really don’t want you in the band anymore.’ And that’s why it ended, basically.”

    In November, Winwood dissolved Traffic altogether to record as Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and bassist Rick Grech, and together Mason, Capaldi and Wood assembled a band in London with keyboardist Mick Weaver. The quartet, Wooden Frog, also known simply as Mason, Wood, Capaldi and Frog, never recorded and soon was history (“I got hung up very quickly with that band, because it wasn’t handled right,” Mason said later, adding that he’d tried without success to get the others to emigrate to the United States and make Wooden Frog an American group. “The general feeling wasn’t that good, anyway,” he recalled.)

    The 1967–68 period in London was magical, Mason said, with pop artists of every stripe hanging out in the clubs and visiting one another in the studio. Mason attending several recording sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and he has a distinct memory of singing on a Beatles session for “Across The Universe” in early 1968. Traffic’s producer, Jimmy Miller, had him along for the Rolling Stones’ session for “Street Fighting Man,” and Mason can be heard in the recording, blasting a horn and beating a drum in the fadeout. He and Miller co–produced the debut album by the band Family, Music In A Doll’s House.

    One of Mason’s clubbing buddies at this point was Jimi Hendrix, and the two of them happened to be at the same London party when Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Hardingalbum was first unveiled. Mason recalled how Hendrix was taken, as were they all, with Dylan’s spooky and hypnotic new song “All Along The Watchtower.”

    “And during that time that I had left Traffic, Noel Redding was going to leave; Jimi was going to replace the bass,” Mason said. “I was going to join them on bass. And their management sort of put a stop to it.”

    Indeed, Mason played acoustic guitar and bass on Hendrix’s searing “All Along The Watchtower,” released the next year on Electric Ladyland. Mason recalled that Rolling Stone Brian Jones was in the studio as an observer. Mason also sang in the chorus on “Crosstown Traffic,” and played bass and sitar on a couple of titles he isn’t sure ever got released. He’s not listed in the credits, but there’s a picture of Mason and Hendrix jamming inside the original Electric Ladyland LP sleeve (the notes on the reissued CD, however, say that Mason’s bass line was later re–played by Hendrix himself).

    In 1974, on his fourth solo album, Mason would record his own version of “All Along The Watchtower,” using the Hendrix arrangement. To this day, it’s one of his in–concert staples. “There’s nothing to the song,” he said. “There’s no arrangement. It’s just the same three chords, and they never change.” He paused and laughed again. “It’s sort of like ‘Feelin’ Alright?.”

    He saw his chance in early 1969. At the urging of Gram Parsons, he bade farewell to England and caught a flight to Los Angeles, where he hoped, he might find something better.

    “After that whole thing with Traffic and their attitude and stuff, there was no other band to be with,” Mason said. “There really wasn’t much point putting another band together, ’cause it was such a good creative band. I thought. And I figured that I’d just go to America, since it’s where rock ‘n’ roll started.”

    The Land Of Opportunity

    “Gram and Cass Elliot were the two people that I knew in L.A. and I didn’t really know anybody else,” Mason recalled. He fell in with the Delaney and Bonnie crowd, at that time the hot commodity on the L.A. club scene. “They were just a kick–ass band,” Mason said. “Originally it was Bobby Whitlock playing keys, and Jimmy Carstein on drums, Carl Radle on bass and Bobby Keys on sax. That was the original band. I went down there and sort of sat in with them.”

    Alan Pariser, one of the city’s legendary scenesters and one of the architects of the Monterey Pop Festival, was Delaney and Bonnie’s manager. Soon, Pariser was managing Dave Mason’s solo career, and the first thing he did was sign Mason up as lead guitarist in the touring band.

    Ironically, Delaney and Bonnie and Friends scored the opening slot on the one and only tour by Blind Faith, Steve Winwood’s new group. Halfway through the tour, Eric Clapton began spending more time with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett than with his own band members. When the tour finally stammered to a halt, there was no more Blind Faith, and Dave Mason left the Friends to record his first solo album for Blue Thumb Records.

    In September 1969, he sat in with Stephen Stills at the Big Sur Folk Festival (they played Mason’s new song, written in open–F tuning at Elliot’s house, “Only You Know And I Know”). Eric Clapton stayed on and replaced him as Delaney and Bonnie’s lead guitarist, and then recruited Delaney to produce his eponymously–titled solo debut.

    Blue Thumb was the maverick independent label operated by former Kama Sutra Records president Bob Krasnow (he would go on to successfully run Elektra for many years in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s) and A&M expatriates Don Graham and Tommy LiPuma. The label’s first signing, in 1968 had been the eccentric and counter–commercial Captain Beefheart; later acquisitions include Tyrannosaurus Rex, Mark–Almond, Ike and Tina Turner and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks.

    Alan Pariser was a partner in Group 3, a management and design firm, with Barry Feinstein and Tom Wilkes. Feinstein and Wilkes operated Camouflage Productions, too, which became Blue Thumb’s house art department.

    In 1969, Mason was being courted by all the major labels. Because of his association with Pariser, he went with Blue Thumb, which bought out the remainder of his contract from Island Records head Chris Blackwell, who was only too glad to see him go (Blackwell retained publishing on “Feelin’ Alright?” and Mason’s other Traffic tunes, however).

    Tommy LiPuma was elected to produce Mason’s Blue Thumb debut. “When we got together, and he played me most of the stuff from the album, the material was just ridiculous,” LiPuma recalled, meaning that in a good way. “He had just bought a 12–string, and he was really in love with it. The songs were just so strong, forget it. You had to be deaf not to hear it.”

    Mason delivered a half dozen spiritually deep pop songs, some of the most moving things he would ever write, all coming from the perspective of someone keenly aware of the cultural climate in which he lived: “World In Changes,” “Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving,” “Sad And Deep As You,” Should Have Took More Than You Gave” and the jubilant “Only You Know And I Know.”

    The album, Alone Together, was recorded in the spring of 1970 in Los Angeles. LiPuma spared little expense in recruiting the best session players of the time, including Leon Russell, Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon and most of the Delaney and Bonnie band. “He was such a great player and songwriter, people were so in awe that when we started these things they just fell right into it,” said LiPuma. “Everybody couldn’t help but hear what was going on in there. And a lot of the stuff just really fell right in like within an hour in the studio. Within an hour, for each tune, there was a groove happening and we were recording.”

    Alone Together was superlative pop, 1970 style, because of Mason’s unusual open tunings, his unexpected shifts in melody, because of his simple but somehow cosmic lyrics, and because he (and, to give credit where it’s due, LiPuma) had a talent for layering electric and acoustic guitar sounds. Mason’s lead playing developed its trademark simple, repetitive figures at this stage, something he’s still known for.

    He’s a man of few notes, but the ones he pulls have a multitude of colors.

    Colors were on the brains of Feinstein and Wilkes, who at Mason’s urging had developed a unique packaging for the Alone Together album. Mason wanted the jacket to fold out over several layers into a sunrise, with the actual disc serving as the sun; Camouflage turned this into the “Kangaroo Pack,” which could be hung on the wall like a poster (it came with a little pre–drilled hole on top, just over the cut–out picture of Mason, in a top hat, peering over the San Bernardino Mountains).

    The design team really outdid itself, though, in preparing the vinyl on which Alone Together was pressed. It was Feinstein’s idea to elaborate on Mason’s sunrise idea, to make each copy of the album different by swirling together the colors in the big vat of bubbling plastic where the records were pressed.

    LiPuma remembers going, with Krasnow and Feinstein, to the pressing plant and selecting color pellets from jars on somebody’s desk. As the presses were rolling forAlone Together, the three of them stood over the vat and dropped pellets in one by one. Mason loved the effect. “There was no way to actually control the colors, so every one of them is different,” he said proudly.

    LiPuma: “They had to break down a press or two presses in order to do this; because when they were finished doing a run, they had to clean the machine up so it wouldn’t show up in the next run of records they were doing for someone else that were black.”

    Advance order in the United States for Alone Together totaled 100,000. The album eventually went gold and became Blue Thumb’s biggest hit ever. “That fuckin’ package costs us like two to three times what you’d normally spend on a record,” said LiPuma, who thinks it might be the best production job he ever did. “Not just the vinyl, the Kangaroo Pack.”

    Mason, for his part, thought his singing on the album was dreadful, and on the week it was unleashed on the public, he was back in England, hanging out with familiar company. “I had to keep a career going, somehow,” he said. “I did the solo album, but I wasn’t looking to be a solo artist.”

    On June 14, 1970, Mason played the first of two or three dates (he can’t remember exactly) with Eric Clapton in his new band, Derek and the Dominos (the Dominos were Carl Radle and Bobby Whitlock, mates from the Delaney and Bonnie band , and Jim Gordon, who’d joined the Bramlett troupe after Mason’s departure and had performed on Alone Together.

    Derek and the Dominoes cut several tracks with Mason on second guitar, “but we were all pretty individually into our own sort of private hells,” Mason recalled. “That’s when Eric was pretty fucked up. And there was just never any rehearsing. I just got bored. I just said fuck this, I’m going back to the States. I came here to do something, let’s do something, if we’re gonna do this.”

    Before he left in disgust, Mason accompanied Clapton to a session or two for George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album, and Mason added his guitar to his first ex–Beatle project (there would be another). In time, Clapton would scrap the Dominos tracks with Mason and remake them with Duane Allman on second lead guitar.

    Back in L.A., Mason fell into his old routine of hanging out at Cass Elliot’s house, smoking dope and sitting on the lawn in a ring of acoustic guitar players. “Her house was a sort of meeting place for all kinds of people,” he said. “It was nuts up there.”

    It was in August 1970 that Mason and Elliot decided to cut an album together. According to Mason, the whole thing happened organically and spontaneously. “I really liked her,” he remembered. “She was a great lady, very funny, and we just sort of got along together. I just did it because I really liked her and her career wasn’t happening, musically. An odd collaboration but…”

    The duo act debuted at the Hollywood Bowl in September and played a short tour that included an American Bandstand appearance and a date at the Fillmore East (where Mason had dead–ended with Traffic two years earlier).

    Dave Mason And Cass Elliot was released on Blue Thumb in February 1971, produced by the singers themselves and promoted with a single, the fa–la–la poppy “Something To Make You Happy.” As part of the deal with Elliot’s label, Dunhill, the single credited to Mason and Cass, was issued by that company. Blue Thumb had just secured a distribution deal with Capitol/EMI that wouldn’t last a year.

    Despite the presence of several good Mason tunes, the album was not received well, and the duo went its separate ways. In early summer, Mason joined Winwood, Capaldi and Wood for six gigs on English college campuses. The shows were held in the lunch–rooms, which is why the resulting album was called Welcome To The Canteen (the original quartet was augmented by Jim Gordon, Rick Grech and Rebop).

    “I’ve tried to get Traffic together,” Mason told Rolling Stone from the road. “I’ve tried to work in units and it’s obvious, for some reason, they don’t work. So I must go and develop me as myself, and have it accepted for whatever it’s accepted for. I hope it won’t be ‘Dave Mason, ex–Traffic.’ It would be nice to drop that.”

    At the time, he said, the snail’s pace was just too much for a restless sort like him. Just like Derek and The Dominos the previous summer, he couldn’t get Winwood and the others to work harder, or do more shows. He got angry and returned to the States again. “It was just one gig a week, which is stupid because you’d get onstage and it would take half an hour just to warm up into it,” he complained.

    Are You Feelin’ Alright?

    The Mason and Cass project had failed to yield a hit single; indeed, the album was roundly booed by critics and fans alike, and shortly after its release started turning up in cutout bins across America, where it was a depressingly common sight until the start of the CD age in the mid–’80s.

    Upon his return from England and the disappointing episode with Traffic and Welcome To The Canteen, Mason went through two managers, Don Sherman and Billy Doyle, and “because I was young, drugged–out and not thinking straight,” wound up in court with the latter. Eventually, Mason lost all the rest of his publishing to Doyle, and was ordered by a judge to pay his former manager a settlement of $350,000. Mason could only stare at the judge in disbelief.

    In October 1971, Delaney and Bonnie hit the Top 20 with a raucous version of Mason’s “Only You And I Know.” Several weeks later, financially strapped but buoyed by the song’s success, Mason started looking closely at his various contracts, and grew indignant over the 1969 deal with Blue Thumb. He and LiPuma were halfway through the follow–up to Alone Together. It was to be a double album, half new studio material, the other half live tracks cut with Mason’s freshly–minted band at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles.

    This rockin’ new set, Headkeeper, was in theory going to increase the fan base established by the success of Alone Together, while (hopefully) making people forget about the Cass Elliot debacle.

    Instead, it almost ruined Mason for good.

    Mason recalled: “Alone Together became a big hit. Because of the experience I’d had with Chris Blackwell on Island, I figured, ‘Well, since you’ve got a big hit, I want the contract re–negotiated.’ I was in the middle of doing Headkeeper and I took all the master tapes and hid ‘em in a vault. I said, ‘I want you to re–negotiate this shit, otherwise I’m not gonna do anything else.’”

    Drummer Rick Jaeger, who’d been hired just weeks before the Troubadour recordings were made, remembered getting the news about Headkeeper, which was to be the first of his many studio projects with Mason.

    “I got a call from Dave in the middle of the night telling me that he had split with the tapes,” Jaeger said. “He’d walked in when nobody was around, picked up the masters and walked out, because he didn’t want to work with Blue Thumb anymore.

    “He said, ‘I’ll go to court and win, ’cause the judge will understand that I’m an artist.’ He was lucky he didn’t end up going to jail. That’s a federal rap. He lost everything on that.”

    No one in rock ‘n’ roll had ever gone into a recording studio and absconded with their own master tapes; at least nobody could remember if it had been done. What happened next, well, it’s a lesson that all recording artists, and record labels should commit to memory.

    Headkeeper, the new Dave Mason album, appeared in record stores, from your friends at Blue Thumb Records, in February 1972. Packaged in a cheap, purple psychedelic jacket with an in–concert picture of Mason on the front, the single LP was studio on side one, live on side two.

    Mason, who was aghast that Blue Thumb would actually put out an unfinished record, today puts the blame squarely on Bob Krasnow’s shoulders. “He took the masters from the studio side–he had some copies–and just rough, 7–1/2 IPS tapes of the live side, and went ahead and mastered an album off that. He just put it out.” Five more studio songs were in the works, Mason recalled; the live tapes became Dave Mason Is Alive, issued by Blue Thumb in 1973, long after Mason had extricated himself from the label.

    (Mason remembered fondly that he’d started talking with the American Bank Note Company to print the labels for Headkeeper, “which would make it a federal offense to bootleg it.”)

    Tommy LiPuma still gets angry when he talks about Headkeeper. “We did half an album. The album was fuckin’ great. It was great. And halfway through the album suddenly they went to the studio and took the tapes. Now, you can ask any record company, or whatever: These tapes don’t belong to the artist, they belong to the record company. The record company pays for them.”

    Mason maintains that his beef was never with LiPuma, but with Krasnow, who he saw as the villain. “I wasn’t trying to rape him,” Mason said. “I just wanted a fairer royalty rate. I’d already been fucked over by Chris Blackwell and his promises with Island, but I was very young then.” Blackwell, he says, had promised the young Mason profit–sharing in the fledgling Island label, way back when.

    “I’m just one of a thousand stories of that in this business,” Mason reported. “I said, ‘Here’s the deal: If we’re gonna stay together, and I’m gonna keep making records and we’re gonna have a successful relationship, you’d better come across with something that makes me want to stay here.’ He didn’t want to do it.”

    LiPuma figures Mason was getting bad management advice. “They took the tapes and they sued us, because at the time they were trying to get out of the contract,” he recalled. “Because Columbia was waving seven figures in front of them, I’m sure. And that was the deal. In the meantime, we had done a live album, because the band was so hot. And the live album came out great. These guys were just gonna walk. And we decided to put the album out.”

    LiPuma produced Headkeeper from safety masters he’d made of the session tapes; the live material was dubbed from two–track tapes (LiPuma always recorded live shows on both multi–track and two–track; Mason had walked out with the multis).

    LiPuma was pleased with the results, such as they were. “If you’re not happy,” he said, “you come to somebody and and you say, ‘I’m not happy,” or, “This isn’t working out. How can we work something out?’ You just don’t go and take the tapes. We got all kind of heat for that,” LiPuma added. “And the reason they gave us heat was because we blew the deal. In other words, they couldn’t go and make a deal with Columbia at that point.”

    Mason, in the rock music press, called Blue Thumb’s Headkeeper a “bootleg,” and urged his fans not to buy it. They didn’t, but it was probably due more to the half–finished project than any urging from the star himself.

    The studio songs were by and large strong ones: “To Be Free,” which had appeared in a clunky pop arrangement on Dave Mason And Cass Elliot, was now an elegantly poetic lyric framed by delicate piano work. “Here We Go Again” featured some dazzling acoustic guitar playing, and Mason laid a ringing slide guitar on “In My Mind.”

    Still, the live side certainly focused fans who recognized the titles as retreads fromAlone Together; Here again were “Just A Song,” “World In Changes,” “Can’t Stop Loving,” all from the first album, along with Mason’s most famous older song, “Feelin’ Alright?”

    While the case was being litigated, Mason was legally unable to record for anyone; he kept his band on the road virtually nonstop. On his side was Columbia Records president Clive Davis, who was, as LiPuma suspected, angling to align Mason with his label once the Blue Thumb situation was resolved.

    Krasnow, meanwhile had signed a distribution deal with Gulf and Western, which had decided to go into the record business. All parties, Mason included, attended a meeting at Gulf and Western headquarters in New York City.

    “The meeting was to say ‘I want out of this,” said Mason. “I was there, he was there, Gulf and Western’s attorney was there, and I was saying, ‘Listen guys, this is not going to work. If I don’t feel like I can give you my best stuff, then what’s the point of having me here? Negotiate a buyout, and let me go somewhere else.’ It went on and on and on. I finally said, ‘You know what? If you don’t let me off this label, I’m going to go in the press and you’re going to read the worst publicity you’ve ever read in your life.’ Their attorney jumped up and said, ‘Are you threatening us? Are you threatening us?

    San Francisco attorney Brian Rohan, representing Mason, got him out of the Blue Thumb jam by having him declare bankruptcy and shake off his creditors by going into double default. At the last moment, Clive Davis rode in on a white horse and bought up his contract.

    The signing of Dave Mason to Columbia Records in July 1973 was one of Davis’ last acts before the board of directors ousted him on various charges of mismanagement. Mason got another manager, a “Barnum and Bailey” type named Jason Cooper, who “took care” of some of Mason’s leftover business dealings (Mason said he “got involved with some shady people” when he needed money, and Cooper smoothed everything over for him).

    At long last, he was free to record again, on a big label, and at a wage he figured he was worth. Columbia, it was reported, had big plans for Dave Mason, its newest star. “I never got into this to be a star,” Mason said. “I’ve been doing this since I was 15, and I like my work. That’s my work, and I created it, and that’s my integrity. And I don’t want anybody fuckin’ around with it. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

    You Keep Your Head, I’ll Keep Mine

    Clive Davis gave Mason a sizeable advance, money to help tidy up his business problems and to get on the stick with his first Columbia album.

    After staying briefly in New York City, where he wrote several new songs, Mason began the sessions in Los Angeles with drummer Jim Keltner and bassists Carl Radle (his mate from Delaney and Bonnie and the Dominos) and Greg Reeves (a recent expatriate from the Crosby, Stills and Nash camp). The bulk of the songs on It’s Like You Never Left, released in October, were recorded by Mason with drummer Rick Jaeger, bass–men Lonnie Turner and Chuck Rainey and pianist Mark Jordan (from theHeadkeeper band).

    The year before, Mason had laid a distinguished lead guitar line on “Immigration Man,” a hit single for his pals Graham Nash and David Crosby, Nash returned the favor by singing high harmony on “Baby…Please,” the rollicking number that openedIt’s Like You Never Left (Mason had played on Nash’s Songs For Beginners album. Nash, for his part, had done a bit of harmonizing on Headkeeper).

    It’s Like You Never Left (the title song was Mason’s winking acknowledgement of the “missing years” since Alone Together had almost made him a household name) highlighted Mason’s talent for mixing acoustic and electric guitar sounds, and for writing complex arrangements for essentially simple songs. His sense of melody was in full evidence on the haunting “Maybe,” his arranging chops on glorious display in the horn chart for “Misty Morning Stranger.” Another sprightly acoustic–based tune, “Silent Partner,” was a rewrite of “Here We Go Again,” from Headkeeper, but nevertheless an improvement. And the song, “Headkeeper” itself was even re–recorded, in a bacon–sizzling, pulse–pounding arrangement featuring Mark Jordan’s piano, and harmonies from Nash.

    One of Mason’s all–time best ballads, “The Lonely One,” featured brilliant harmonica soloing from Stevie Wonder (he’s been recording Innervisions down the studio hall, and Mason, who’d never met Wonder before, asked him point–blank if he’d mind helping out on “The Lonely One.”

    George Harrison, in Los Angeles to do promotional work for Living In The Material World, laid a stinging slide guitar on “If You’ve Got Love.”

    Dave Mason’s “comeback” failed to get any higher than #50 in the Billboard charts, no hit single appeared, and the reviews weighed heavily toward the negative (“a major disappointment,” whined Rolling Stone). And Mason’s relationship with Columbia began to sour almost immediately after Davis’ ouster; there was nobody at the label he felt comfortable with.

    “I think the problem, really, was that Clive was so good–he was a great record guy in terms of music–he became individually very powerful within the corporate structure,” Mason said. “And as soon as one man becomes that, it’s like signing your death warrant. And they started to hire people from the legal department to run the company, who weren’t record people. I’m more from that era when people who started record labels were music freaks. Then the business started to get run by attorneys and accountants. If you want loyalty, buy a dog.”

    Still, a career was a career, and Mason had signed a contract with Columbia calling for a ridiculous two albums per year. “You make a record deal, and they put up the money for you to do an album,” he complained, “And the company makes money from record one sold. They’re recouping the cost of making the album from your royalties. So in essence, you’re paying to make your own album. But you don’t own anything.”

    The first order of business was to put together a good, solid road band and get to work. Rick Jaeger, the drummer who’d anchored the Headkeeper band, had moved to the San Francisco area from Wisconsin in the late ’60s (he’d hit the road with the Everly Brothers when he was just out of high school). Jaeger introduced Mason to many of his musician pals from Marin County, including organist Mike Finnigan, Mark–Almond bassist Bob Glaub and most importantly for Mason, singer/guitarist Jim Krueger.

    A native of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, Krueger had come west with a bunch of musician chums. When Jaeger joined Mason in Los Angeles, Krueger had stayed in Marin (the bass player on Headkeeper was Lonnie Turner who sometimes played with the Steve Miller Band). Krueger and Jaeger also played together in flutist Tim Weisberg’s band (Weisberg’s flute added a nice touch to “Show Me Some Affection,” on the 1974 album Dave Mason).

    Krueger (his nickname was Bruiser) was a shy, introverted guy, a talented songwriter and a pure tenor vocalist who could match Mason’s distinctive style and follow him note–for–note. His harmonies were almost as good as Nash’s; this was not lost on Mason. Krueger and Mason hit it off immediately, and their relationship was to last an unbelievable (for either of them) 19 years.

    Mason: “He was a great guitar player. It just musically worked. But there was no real personal relationship. I mean, there was, but we didn’t hang out, we weren’t really like friends.”

    According to Finnegan, the Mason/Krueger alliance was “very complicated. Jim was an excellent guitar player, and Dave is a great guitar player. Totally different styles. And Dave used to give Jim some blowing room. And as songwriters, they were different too, but kind of the same in some ways. I think there was a mutual respect there, but also tinged with a little bit of resentment on Krueger’s part, which was only natural unless you’re a mentally healthy giant. Unless you’re totally without ego, and I don’t know anybody that description fits.”

    Still, Finnigan said, “Whatever bad feelings he might’ve had toward Dave from time to time were obviously counterbalanced by a certain respect, and certain financial realities.”

    Read: Mason and Krueger needed each other.

    The new band recorded the Dave Mason album and Columbia had it in the stores in October, allowing Mason to keep his two–albums–per–year commitment. Barely. The album was a stylistic move away from the sheeny pop/rock of It’s Like You Never Left and the earlier collections; Mason’s songs were tinged with bluesier guitar lines and more soulful singing.

    A highlight, and one of three singles released from the album was Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” with Mason, Krueger, and Finnigan on three–part harmony. The band cut a searing version of “All Along The Watchtower” using the same arrangement that Mason had done with Jimi Hendrix back in 1968 (it would quickly become a staple of the Mason band’s live shows).

    And, perhaps because Mason couldn’t come up with enough new songs to meet Columbia’s imposed deadline, the track “Every Woman,” which had been a standout on It’s Like You Never Left, was rearranged with pedal steel guitar, an extra chorus and Krueger singing Graham Nash’s harmony part. Overall, the impression completely intentional was that Dave Mason was a band album, the result of four guys playing, rather than a studio confection.

    “I think I had some influence on his singing,” said Finnigan, “just because I was around him a lot, and I sang a lot. I noticed a change in his approach vocally. I think he became a little freer, and I think he got a little bluesier. I wasn’t really aware of it until some other guys I know pointed it out to me: ‘Hey man, he’s startin’ to sound like you.’”

    The band hit the road hard, taking second and third billing to every arena–rock act on the 1974 American landscape. It was Bob Glaub’s first extended tour, and to this day, he hasn’t forgotten it. “It was the most fun I’d had,” he said. “I had a ball during that period. It wasn’t just another gig. We always came to play; we probably overplayed–we were playing like we were getting paid by the note or something. But it was really fun. The four of us in the band really got along well.”

    Finnigan remembered that first tour. “We got a bus, and all it had was a couple of rollaway beds, tied to the sides. And then the rest of it was regular bus seats. Except for one area that was a card table. Our opening act was Gabe Kaplan, the comedian. Rough job, opening for rock ‘n’ roll shows. I used to think, ‘Man, this guy’s got more balls than Mike Ditka.’ We played cards with him a lot. We’d sit there and play poker with Gabe Kaplan, and it seemed like he won all the time. We couldn’t beat the fuckin’ guy. Years later of course, he won the World Championship of Poker, and I didn’t feel so bad.”

    The Show Must Go On

    The years 1974–76 were spent touring recording, and touring and recording some more. Incredibly, even though he hadn’t had even a minor hit single, Mason could fill arenas –he and the band sold out New York’s Madison Square Garden, the Spectrum in Philadelphia and the Capital Center in Washington, D.C. “I had a big live following,” Mason observed, “unlike a lot of people who might have big hit singles but couldn’t fill anything.”

    In January 1975, Mason was visited backstage in New Orleans by young Scottish guitarist Jimmy McCullough, who was in town with Paul McCartney and Wings, recording the Venus and Mars album. McCullough, a big Mason fan, invited the guitarist down to the studio late that night. Mason found McCartney and company recording “Listen To What The Man Said,” an uptempo track that required a hooky, pop–flavored lead guitar figure. And that’s how Dave Mason got himself on a worldwide #1 smash by another ex–Beatle buddy.

    Split Coconut was released in September and although it failed to go gold, as Mason’s two previous CBS albums did, it brought him some of his best critical marks thus far.

    The title song was a mostly instrumental funk fest (the words “split coconut” constitute the entire lyric) and set the tone for what was essentially a fun, throwaway record (Mason had visited a Jamaican restaurant called Split Coconut in London while on tour, and was inspired by the atmosphere). For his necessary cover tune, Mason arranged Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” with a calypso beat, creating a medley with “Peggy Sue Got Married.” He played 12–string folk guitar on the ballad “Long Lost Friend.”

    Bob Glaub and Mason parted company – they were bored with each other–just beforeSplit Coconut was recorded. “He was headlining arena tours, and paying us very little for the money he was making,” Galub said. “But we were still having a ball. I didn’t feel like I was getting ripped off at the time, ’cause I was too ignorant to know any better.”

    Mason, Glaub added, was never into hanging out. He almost always traveled separately from the guys in his band. “He’s a very aloof guy, basically. Not a real people person, which is unusual for what he does. He didn’t really connect with a lot of the people he was working with, he just worked with ‘em. And then he’d have other people that he traveled with, just to hang out with. We called them ‘rent–a–buddies’ at the time.”

    Mason agrees with at least the sentiment of Glaub’s statement. “We spent so much time on the road,” he said. “You’re with them all the time. And I’ve just got my own thing that I want to do. When I come off the road, I want to be left alone. I’ve spent my life out there, practically.”

    In the studio, recalled Mike Finnigan, who would remain a stalwart of Mason’s band for five years, “Anything was allowed to be tried. Dave’s input was usually more in terms of, ‘I don’t think that’s such a good idea,’ as opposed to, ‘Do this!’ I think he knew what he wanted until he heard what he didn’t want.”

    What Mason wanted more than anything was a hit record. Although his albums were good, and he had solid fan support, he couldn’t get on the charts. And that bugged him.

    Said Rick Jaeger: “He was always pretty up, because the band was so damn good. It was amazing that we were staying on top of it like we were. The money was still coming in and without a hit, it was amazing.”

    For his 1976 project, Mason went the way of every other CBS Records arena–rocker. He cut a two–record live album. There were several reasons for this: One, he had a fantastic live band (Gerald Johnson had replaced Glaub on bass, but Jaeger, Finnigan and Krueger remained). Two, he could turn a whole new audience on to his classic old songs (the logic being if they didn’t go for “Split Coconut,” maybe they’d flip for “Feelin’ Alright?”

    Three, the terms of the CBS contract were killing him. To come up with two albums every year, he had to record other people’s songs at a rate he didn’t care for, and record them quickly. “You can’t,” he fumed at the time, “paint a fucking Mona Lisa every other day.”

    Behind the enigmatic smile on the cover of Certified Live was a financially desperate man; Mason filed for bankruptcy for the second time in 1976, breaking his Columbia contract in the bargain. Unlike before, it was only a short pause, and despite serious negotiations with Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun (who loaned Mason $50,000 of his own money), Columbia made the best offer and resigned Mason for another couple of albums.

    At any rate, reprising the chestnuts via Certified Live gave him little breathing room to get his next collection off to a good start. Engineer Ron Nevison, who would soon become one of the leading lights of ’70s rock ‘n’ roll, was hired to produce something “more commercial” for Mason’s 1977 album. He needed that elusive hit, damn it, and manager Jason Cooper thought his pal Nevison might just help it to happen.

    There’s Only You and Me

    Let It Flow was released in April, preceded by the single “So High (Rock Me Baby And Roll Me Away).” Written by “Drift Away” composer Mentor Williams, “So High” was a superbly played and sung pop record, featuring stellar singing by both Mason and Krueger. Finnigan’s piano fills were things of beauty, too.

    It wasn’t to be though; the single didn’t even make the Top 40. And out of the box theLet It Flow album looked like another stiff. (Collectors’ note: To match the eye–catching graphics on the front and back jackets, Columbia issued white–label promos of Let It Flow on clear blue vinyl.)

    Then, in August, Krueger’s wistful ballad “We Just Disagree” was released as the album’s second single. The melodic song about no–fault divorce featured Krueger’s 12–string guitar prominently; the author also sang the harmony under Mason’s too–proud–to–cry lead vocal.

    “He first played it to me and it was like I could’ve written it,” Mason recalled. He related to “We Just Disagree” on several levels, he said, both personal and financial. He knew he could get under its skin. And he thinks Bruiser sang the song with Mason’s style in mind.

    “I thought that song was too good a song to be a hit,” said Mason “although some promotion guys at Columbia at the time really busted their ass to make it a hit. And actually,” he said, “Playboy voted it the worst record of the year.”

    “He was very careful in terms of selecting tunes,” Finnigan said of Mason, “and we used to rehearse a lot. I remember we must’ve played ‘We Just Disagree’ 50 times before we recorded it. Before we even got to the studio. There was not too much left to chance by the time we got in front of the microphones.”

    “We Just Disagree” struck a quiet nerve in the middle of the desiccated disco era, and in November it reached #11 on the Billboard chart.

    Here’s how Rick Jaeger remembers it: “Thank God that Bruiser’s song came along when it did. It renewed it. Immediately after that, Dave just fucked it all up. He was on a self–destruct thing. He stopped listening to me – I got Finnigan, I got Krueger, I knew these people–and somehow he convinced himself that he was a genius, and that he needed people around that he selected. And that’s where it started falling apart.”

    Mason bought a Spanish–style mansion in Malibu from Oscar–winning composer Leonard Rosenman. He named it Villa Mariposa and recorded many of the songs for his next album, Mariposa de Oro, in his backroom studio (it was the first house he’d ever owned; and to this day he still hasn’t purchased another one).

    In March 1978, the Mason band played to 250,000 people at the massive California Jam concerts. Two months later a single appeared, a cover of the Goffin–King standard “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” It grazed the Top 40.

    Finnigan and Krueger took a breather and cut an album with guitarist Les Dudek, Krueger made a solo album in 1978, too) but it met with the same critical and commercial reception as the Dudek project (no one liked it) and Krueger was soon back in the Mason camp.

    Mason took no interest in either album, nor did he contribute musically in any way. “I think Dave Mason treated everybody pretty much the same,” recalled Finnigan. “He wasn’t as egocentric as a lot of people I’ve worked with, certainly. I mean, he was a little weird in some ways, and kept to himself on the personal level. But he was easy to be around; he had a good sense of humor and nobody tiptoed around him. And he gave as good as he got.”

    Also in 1978, Mason wrote and recorded two songs for the disco movie Skatetown USA, starring Patrick Swayze (in his first feature film role) and Linda Blair. Mason appeared in the movie, too, singing his song in a dream sequence as nubile young girls skated in circles around him.

    Yes, sir, things were looking good.

    Wipeout

    In the summer of 1980 came Old Crest On A New Wave, Mason’s seventh Columbia album. Co–produced by Mason and Joe Wissert, the album attempted to rock a bit harder than Mariposa de Oro; without any obvious attempts at “We Just Disagree”–style balladry.

    Krueger, for the first time, played guitar but was not featured, with one notable exception, on the harmony vocals he’d provided so well since 1974 in his Mason–parroting style. The background vocals were done by former Vanilla Fudge keyboard player and singer Mark Stein, who’d replaced Finnigan halfway through the Mariposa de Oro sessions (Finnigan had gone off to do the project with Les Dudek and Krueger, and then stayed on with Crosby, Stills and Nash).

    During Mariposa, Jaeger says, he and Finnigan came to despise Stein, who they called another of Mason’s “rent–a–buddies,” almost as much as they’d hated Ron Nevison. Jaeger’s comments about Stein, like many of the things he had to say about Mason himself, were a shade too colorful to be included in this story.

    Interestingly, Krueger’s prolific pen came up with the uptempo “Save Me,” one of the better melodies on the otherwise tired–sounding Old Crest On A New Wave. Krueger and Mason sing the rollicking chorus in unison, joined in scat–style by yet another Mason mystery guest, Michael Jackson.

    “He was in the same studio, Hollywood Sound, cutting Thriller,” Mason recalled. “And I needed somebody to sing a high part, and I asked him. He said, ‘Man, I’d love to. When I was seven years old, I did a TV special with Diana Ross and we did ‘Feelin’ Alright?” So he came in and sang. Paul McCartney was not the first white guy to sing with Michael Jackson.”

    Despite its release as a single, “Save Me” could not do just that for Dave Mason, and by the time he and the band took off on the North American leg of the Old Crest tour, Mason knew that Columbia was about to pink–slip him. According to Jaeger, the drinking and drugging in that period was ferocious. He remembers Mason playing everything “way too fast” and seeming not to care about how the band sounded. The well–oiled machine that had made Certified Live was now teetering on the edge of certified obsolescence.

    To top it all off, Jaeger said, Mason fired him over the phone just days before the band was to leave for Japan. Jaeger had recruited legendary bassist Jerry Scheff to play on the jaunt, and Mason, he thinks, never liked Scheff. (Bob Glaub had been the session bassist on Old Crest On A New Wave).

    “He (Mason) is one cold motherfucker,” said Jaeger, who moved back to Wisconsin and remains there today, part of Milwaukee’s busy musical scene. “I said, ‘Hey man, at least let me get through this Japanese tour, so I can pay a couple of bills.’ After nine years, I figured he owed me that.”

    But Mason refused to relent, icily claiming (according to Jaeger), “You don’t understand, I must make a change,” before hanging up the phone. Mark Stein hastily arranged replacements for Jaeger and Scheff, and away they went to the Land Of The Rising Sun.

    “Krueger told me that when they got there, the audience was screaming for me, and for Finnigan,” said Jaeger. “Because, to them, Dave Mason wasn’t a human being, it was a band.”

    Columbia did indeed drop Mason after Old Crest turned up lame. The recording career that had begun so promisingly with Alone Together 10 years before was now, for all appearances, a lost cause.

    “It was all over when Clive left,” Mason said. “When you see a label like Columbia dropping Chicago, who must’ve made God knows how many millions of dollars for that label…They just arbitrarily dropped them from the roster.”

    Staying Alive

    Down, but not out, Mason used his fading celebrity to latch onto Miller Beer. In 1981, he and Krueger cut a series of radio commercials for the company. Then they took to the road, just the two of them and their acoustic guitars (they couldn’t afford to pay a band), making Dave Mason, and he’s very proud of this, one of the very first “unplugged” acts. “It was good to do because I’d always been sort of hiding behind a band–not hiding, but having the support of a band,” Mason said. At all the shows, he let Bruiser play lead guitar while he himself strummed a 12–string and crooned.

    In 1982, Mason moved to Chicago (Krueger was just a brief plane ride away, in Manitowoc, his Wisconsin hometown). Four years later Mason moved to the island of St. Thomas, and when the money ran out, he wound up back in Chicago, and on the acoustic road with Krueger.

    Mason made two albums in 1987. The first, Some Assembly Required, was self–produced on the Canadian label Maze (distributed by A&M in the United States). Krueger, by Mason’s side as always, played guitar and banjo and sang backup; both Finnigan and Stein sang but did not play. The rock ‘n’ roll on Some Assembly Required, what little of it there was, was spineless, and Mason’s singing was hammy and overwrought, strictly Adult Contemporary. The songwriting was weak, the production tinny and bland. Today, he can’t even remember any of the song titles.

    Krueger, curiously, was nowhere to be found on Two Hearts, which Mason made for MCA in the second half of 1987. Augmented by the single “Dreams I Dream,” a duet with Phoebe Snow, Two Hearts was produced by Mason and Jimmy Holz.

    Although the songs, nearly all Mason originals, had something to say, the album was decidedly lackluster. Instead of Mason’s trademark guitar runs, the tracks were rooted in electronic keyboard sounds, obviously in an attempt to make Mason seem more “contemporary” (it was after all, 1987). “I should’ve done it with a band,” he said, “instead of programming it.”

    Steve Winwood, of all people, laid down his best “While You See A Chance” synthesizer tracks for the song “Something In The Heart” from his Nashville home/studio (he sang backup on the song “Two Hearts,” too, although at no time were he and Mason in the studio at the same time, the “collaboration” being Mason’s then–manager’s idea of a hip gimmick).

    “Dreams I Dream” made #11 on Billboard’s AC chart, but Two Hearts, the album, was a failure, a comeback attempt that was roundly forgotten by one and all a year after its conception. Within 12 months, he had struck out twice. He never got a third pitch, and to date (1996), Dave Mason hasn’t made another record as a solo artist. Not for lack of trying.

    “There’s no interest or desire from anybody to sign me,” he explained. “I’m not a valuable commodity to them, because I’m not 18 anymore. Which is really stupid, because they don’t understand there’s a whole age group of people out there. The thing is, when I started making records, we were making records on four–track tape. Rock ‘n’ roll had only started when I was about 10 years old. So rock ‘n’ roll is not a very old music at all.”

    Since the twin debacles of Some Assembly Required and Two Hearts, Mason has had lots of discussions with label chiefs–he says he sees himself in the same league as artists like Neil Diamond and Bonnie Raitt, older acts who record and tour successfully for a large, mature audience.

    It’s an idea he’s had for a couple of years now, and one that he’s expanded upon. “The point is that there is a large age group of people that are my contemporaries that would buy records, if the record business ever got smart enough to know that there’s a marketplace out there that they could actually sell to,” he said. “If they would spend the time to be loyal to certain people. If they could make that distinction. It’s still the 12–to–18–year–old mentality.”

    He’s had absolutely no luck with label honchos or A&R departments; today, he said, having a track record as long as his means hardly anything. And contemporizing (seeTwo Hearts) just won’t work; he’s a songwriter and guitarist out of the late ’60s classic school.

    “It’s all perception,” he explained. “To them, I’m just yesterday’s news. For the most part, the music business is totally centered in either L.A., New York or Nashville. Nashville not so much, because country is more of the people’s music, and they do stay loyal…

    “But where you’re dealing with quote–unquote–pop, they’re just a little secluded, isolated group of people who think there is nothing else going on but what’s going on in their little group. And that whole mass of space between New York and L.A. don’t matter. They don’t know what the hell’s going on out here.”

    It’s Like You Never Left

    The wheel began to turn for Dave Mason in 1993. After more than a decade of “unplugged” tours with Krueger, of trying to meet the meager payroll of such ventures, of moving from Chicago and back to Chicago, of filing reject slips from uninterested record labels, fate was about to force his hand.

    Back in Manitowoc, Bruiser went into business with his brother, Rich and bought a liquor store. When his dance card wasn’t filled with Mason dates (and it wasn’t, increasingly) he played in several local bands, including Normal Adults and the Happy Schnapps Combo, a comic polka group.

    On March 29, 1993, Jim Krueger died in a Manitowoc hospital, from complications of pancreatitis, a disease commonly associated with alcoholism. He was 43.

    Rick Krueger, who also played in Happy Schnapps, said Bruiser’s death was totally unexpected. “He was supposed to be leaving, in like a day or two, to go out on tour with Dave,” said Rich. “They were going to start a nostalgia–type tour with Poco and Richie Havens.

    “He had no idea he was ill, because he was leaving the next day. He thought he was getting out of the hospital in a day, and 48 hours later he was dead. Our parents had no idea he was in the hospital.”

    Krueger and his brother often spoke of Mason’s arrogance, spitefulness and bouts of sulking. Mason, he’d been told, would often hurt those closest to him.

    Still, Bruiser loved Dave.

    “Jim did a lot of babysitting for Dave, trying to keep him straight,” Krueger said. “He kind of covered his butt a lot of times.” The “intimate evening” tours, Krueger added, always seemed to come up when Dave needed money.”

    Rick Jaeger, who lived in nearby Milwaukee, saw Bruiser often. “Jimmy was a recluse,” he said. “A very shy person. And he did not have it in him to go out and hustle. He was never meant for Hollywood; he couldn’t stand all the bullshit, and the insincerity.”

    According to Jaeger, “We Just Disagree” was Krueger’s “lifeline” and his increasingly tenuous link with success, and with reality. It was on his solo album, and he proudly played it with his Manitowoc groups.

    “Toward the end, it was breaking his heart,” Jaeger recalled. “He’d call me and say how Dave owed him money.” Jaeger said he was surprised to hear from Mason the morning of Bruiser’s funeral. After a long talk, full of reminiscences, they made plans to attend the service together, in Mason’s car.

    But Mason, who was living three hours away in Chicago, didn’t show up at the funeral. “The morning I was going to drive up there, the weather was just the worst,” Mason explained. “It was unbelievable. I found that it would’ve taken me five hours in that weather. And the other reason was I didn’t want to be around all those people. Because they’re all…I mean, you want to talk about drinking!

    “I didn’t want to be around it when they were all celebrating afterwards, because that was his whole life. To them, there was nothing wrong with it. They didn’t understand that alcohol is another health–destroying drug, the same as any other one.”

    So he stayed in Chicago, wondering what to do next. And he grieved for his long lost friend. “Jim’s there every night I get up and play,” Mason concluded. “I sing ‘We Just Disagree’ every time. That’s the best way for me to remember him.”

    Alone Together

    With Bruiser gone, there was little of the old way left for Dave Mason. He decided to return to California and “try and reestablish something. And one of the things I did was call Mick Fleetwood, just to say hi. I hadn’t spoke to him in years.”

    Fleetwood was in the midst of auditioning guitarists and singers to replace Billy Burnette, Rick Vito and Stevie Nicks, all of whom had left Fleetwood Mac (Christine McVie left too, but eventually decided to become “the Brian Wilson of the band,” according to Fleetwood and make records without going on the hated road).

    “Dave was leaving Chicago, I think,” Fleetwood recalled. “There was a big party at his house in Chicago. It was a drag. And that moment is my catalyst, in the modern–day era, for when our friendship really struck up again. He came to stay with me, and lived in one of the cottages at my house in Malibu for about a year.” It was, Fleetwood said, a bonding thing. They drank and took a lot of drugs together.

    Fleetwood and Mason tell this story slightly differently, but the ending is the same. In 1993 Dave Mason officially became a member of Fleetwood Mac.

    “We had lunch, and he was telling me, ‘I’m trying to get the band back together’ and all this stuff,” Mason said. “He said, ‘I’m rehearsing all these young guitar players and they’re all notes and no content. I can’t stand this anymore.’ He said, ‘I’m almost tempted to ask you.’ I said, ‘Well, ask me.’ And that’s basically how it happened.”

    Fleetwood: “All I did was sit ’round the pool, listening religiously to players who’d sent tapes in. There were a couple of people who got fairly close to joining Fleetwood Mac, but it didn’t happen for whatever reason. I said, ‘I’m getting a bit frustrated, Mason,’ and I jokingly said something along the lines of, ‘I’ll have to put you in the band if I don’t find anybody.’ And he said, ‘Mick in all seriousness, I would love to do that.’”

    At this point, Billy Burnette, who’d gone to Nashville to take another stab at a solo career, came back to L.A. and asked Fleetwood if he could re–join the band. Fleetwood says sure, Bill, we haven’t really been doing anything anyway. There was literally nothing to lose, and everything to win. Bekka Bramlett, Delaney and Bonnie’s 25 year–old daughter, was brought in to sing in Stevie Nicks place.

    Mason, said, Fleetwood, fit right in with Bramlett, Burnette, Fleetwood and John McVie. “He’s a darn good guitar player, good sense of melody, and God knows he’s a good writer,” Fleetwood said. “So I thought, ‘Hmmm, this is adding up. And he looks like me, so that can’t be bad. You put me, John and Mason in a row, without stretching it too much we might be very possibly related. We’ve all got ponytails and beards, and we’re all going bald you know. Although, I’m long since bald.”

    The “new” Fleetwood Mac spent a year touring, to work out the bugs, before venturing into the studio for Time. “It’s not awkward at all,” Mason said. “There’s nothing about it that’s out of place. I’m very song oriented and so are they; there’s a little bit of blues in both of us. It’s not an off mix at all. It works really well.”

    He enjoys singing with Bekka Bramlett, too. “She was two years old when her parents did ‘Only You Know And I Know,’ which we do together now in the (live) Fleetwood Mac thing,” he explained.

    Recording Time, Fleetwood explained, was relatively painless after the lengthy road test (they did the same thing with Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham before cutting the landmark Fleetwood Mac album in 1975). According to Fleetwood, Mason had some “teething problems” at first, adjusting to a democratic system, but he’s “made the transition” to everyone’s satisfaction.

    “We call him The Bull,” Fleetwood reported. “He has learned, I think to be in a band. He always used to fantasize when we were hanging together. He’d say, ‘I miss being in a band. On the other hand I like calling the shots, and I can control this and that.’ But eventually it gets lonely – talk about alone together – and he was ready for a change.”

    “I don’t want to say anything bad about this project, because it’s an ongoing thing,” Mason explained before offering: “To spend a year and a half in a studio, making a record, to me is absurd.” He was excited about making the Fleetwood Mac record, but at the same time frustrated.

    Mason is putting his all into it. He probably won’t be doing any more solo concerts for a while, because he’s committed. “That’s fine, that’s great,” he said. “I need this Fleetwood Mac thing to put my profile up. I wasn’t too happy with the laboriousness of the recording process, but the bottom line is that this is a great band. It feels great. It doesn’t have to be all on me anymore. I liked being in a band in the first place. I liked the whole Traffic idea, except they didn’t.”

    And apparently, they still don’t. In the spring of 1994, Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi made an album under the name Traffic, Far From Home, and criss–crossed the country on a huge and well–publicized tour (the album and tour were, to be diplomatic, less than successful). Chris Wood, the other original member of the English quartet, had died in 1983.

    Mason didn’t have that kind of excuse. He was, quite simply, not invited to participate.

    “I always, for years, in an attempt to make it work again, tried and tried but it never went anywhere,” Mason recalled. “I’d spoken to Jim the year before, and he’d mentioned something about it. I would’ve thought that if they were going to attempt a Traffic tour in the U.S. that it would have been smart to have done it with as many original members as possible.”

    Mason knows Winwood’s quote by heart: “When Billboard asked him about me, he said, ‘Well, Dave Mason was never anything more than an invited guest in Traffic.’ It wasn’t anything close to that.”

    Mason was rehearsing with Fleetwood Mac when the Traffic hit the fan. “And I heard a comment from their agent, who was with William Morris: ‘Mason don’t mean shit over here.’”

    Today, Mason is classified as an “alien resident.” He never became a U.S. citizen, although he says there’s not much Englishman left in him, and he has no family in his homeland anymore. “I don’t think about it,” he insisted. “I’m like my dad, who was a real conservative. He had a little sticker on the back of his car that just said ‘Citizen Of The World.’ That’s how I feel. People are people, they’re either good people or they’re assholes.”

    Dave Mason has been called both – numerous times, in fact – and he’s happy, more or less, with the way things have turned out. “I’ve been through four earthquakes, three marriages, two bankruptcies, one major hurricane and I’ve survived the music business,” he said. “That’s a pretty good record.”



  • Featured Image[Article 82]Linda Ronstadt:
    An Unexpected Journey

    Linda Ronstadt
    Linda Ronstadt

     

    ©2003

    There are many things about her career that Linda Ronstadt wishes she’d done differently. Still, the most successful female singer of the rock ‘n’ roll era is happily 56 years old, raising two young children, and working only when she wants to.

    “All musicians, if they say they’re doing it for the audience, they’re probably bullshitting,” Ronstadt says. “Music is a biological necessity. It’s a way that we all have of processing our feelings.

    “Everybody really should do music. And once in a while, when you’re doing your music and you’re processing your feelings, you strike a resonant chord with other people. And that’s a wonderful feeling, and it can be very good in that you can make a living. Otherwise you have to get another job, and then you get to do your music in your spare time.”

    Read More…

    The doe–eyed Arizona native left Tucson for Los Angeles in 1964 with no particular goal, other than to sing. It took a few years of stumbling, bumbling and feeling her way along, but she finally fell in with the right people, finally made the connection with listeners. “Everybody has their own level of doing their music,” she says. “Mine just happened to resonate over the years, in one way and another, with a significant enough number of people so that I could do it professionally.”

    Her career has been a series of happy accidents: She started off as a folksinger, then spent a while marrying country and rock, and for most of the 1970s everything she did – everything – hit big with the rock ‘n’ roll audience.

    Her dissatisfaction with it all led to excursions into Broadway, grand opera, orchestrated standards, traditional Mexican music and straight–ahead country.

    “Your musical soul is like facets of a jewel, and you stick out one facet at a time,” she says. “I tend to work real hard on whatever it is I do, to get it up to speed, up to a professional level. I tend to bury myself in one thing for years at a time.”

    She is grateful for her fans, but has no qualms about letting them know she didn’t like too many of her records. “There’s a famous story where a fan is talking to this famous guitar player – I think Ry Cooder told this story – and the fan is saying oh, you were great tonight, this and that, and the famous guitar player turns to Ry and says ‘Gosh, I was just trying not to suck.’

    “That’s what you do. You just try really hard not to suck. And when you record, you try to take out the stuff that’s really embarrassing and just leave all that’s really good, or maybe what you think you got away with, or doesn’t suck.”

    Ronstadt’s father was of Mexican–German descent, and he was the first in the family line who didn’t operate a cattle ranch – he ran the Tucson hardware store. Linda and her two siblings – her brother was a boy soprano – grew up listening to Dad crooning Mexican songs. Mom preferred opera.

    Linda’s California sojourn began with Kenny Edwards and Bob Kimmel, as the Stone Poneys. The trio was a regular act at the Troubadour on Sunset Strip.

    “I wanted to do traditional music, which would include Mexican music,” Ronstadt explains. “I tried to talk them into doing certain Mexican songs. They liked it, but they didn’t really understand the rhythms and how to play it.

    “I kept trying to get back to traditional stuff with a lot of harmony, which is what I loved. I remember I had learned ‘Different Drum’ off a Greenbriar Boys record, and I knew it as a bluegrass approach. We recorded it that way, but the producer at Capitol didn’t like it.

    “Came back the next day, and there was an orchestra there. So I recorded with an orchestra, because that’s what they told me to do. I never liked it, but it was a big hit.”

    “Different Drum” (from Evergreen, Vol. 2, the second of the Poneys’ albums on Capitol) was actually a minor hit, and when the trio split, Ronstadt naturally assumed the recording contract. Three solo albums for the label, all musically rambling and badly produced, garnered some attention from the hippie crowd but failed to turn a profit.

    “Long Long Time,” a weepy country ballad from her second solo release, was a Top 30 single in the fall of 1970, but the money wasn’t exactly rolling in. “The immediate problem,” says Ronstadt, “was getting onstage at the Insomniac or wherever your gig was that weekend, or that night. We got paid $300 a week, and we could live on that.

    “It was always, let’s try to get better. Can we get a better drummer, or get drums when we didn’t have them before? Or can you find that magical bass player? Or you find some new songs, because you went to New York and you met Gary White or Jerry Jeff Walker, or somebody told you about the McGarrigle Sisters? You don’t think about that other thing. As long as you’re eating, you’re just playing your next gig. And trying to get through it.”

    In 1972 David Geffen negotiated her out of the Capitol deal and signed her to his Asylum label. Ronstadt had a cult following, and it was no secret to anyone that, given the right material, the right producer and the right push, she was going to be huge.

    For her, it was always about the music.

    “I would have a manager that would say to me, ‘You don’t want to do that country shit. It’s too corny.’ And he also managed the Mothers. He wasn’t a musician, he didn’t really know anything about music. I would go to him and say ‘I have this song written by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and it’s really beautiful. I’d like to record it.’ It was ‘Heart Like a Wheel.’ He’d say ‘It’s too corny.’ We struggled along with somebody that Capitol had, Nick Venet … we were never any of us on the same page. I was trying to do one thing, they were trying to do another.”

    While recording Don’t Cry Now with producers John Boyland and (then boyfriend) J.D. Souther, Ronstadt met the person who would, very quickly, end her career water–treading and send things into overdrive. His name was Peter Asher.

    “I don’t think I would’ve got anywhere without Peter,” Ronstadt recalls. “He walked into the Bitter End with his wife one night, and we were doing a lot of Cajun stuff. I don’t know if my band was very good. I honestly can’t remember who was in it.”

    At the time, Asher – a Londoner who’d had enough of fame and fortune as half of the ’60s pop duo Peter and Gordon – was managing and producing James Taylor, and making quite a good wage. He was eager to expand his stable.

    “Peter was very cordial, and he was interested,” Ronstadt says. “When we got back to L.A., we had some various little meetings and he said he was interested in managing me – but as it turned out, he already managed Kate Taylor, James’ sister.”

    That was, Asher explains, one female singer too many. He liked to give his artists his full attention.

    “Bless Kate’s heart, she decided about a year later that a career in music really wasn’t for her,” Ronstadt recalls. “I was with her one night, backstage at a show, and she said ‘You know, you really ought to ask Peter again, because I don’t really think I’m going to be doing this.’”

    Asher and Ronstadt met again, and something clicked. “I loved everything Linda was doing,” Asher says. “At that point, it was country rock, for lack of a better term, and I felt the songs were wonderful and she was wonderful. My main aim was to bring it to a wider audience. And to make the best possible record that I thought she could make.”

    He came in at the tail end of her first Asylum album Don’t Cry Now, and to fully produce Heart Like a Wheel, her contract–ender with Capitol. Ronstadt: “When I sang ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ for him, he thought it was a wonderful song. He didn’t think it was corny or stupid. So at least we were on the same page musically about more things than I ever was with anybody.”

    Asher didn’t think much of the way Ronstadt’s records had been produced. His idea was to focus them, to bring in the very best musicians available and to provide his singer with the best possible showcase for her instrument.

    “It’s easy to talk in terms of master plans,” he says. “And of course one does have plans, but in general when you fall in love with an artist and their music, the plan is a fairly simple one. The plan is to make the whole thing as good as it can be. And get people to go and see them, and to make a record that you think properly presents their music to the public – and some of which you can get on the radio.

    “I’ve had the good fortune to work with some terrific singers, and they tend to be the kind of singers whose voices are pretty unique, in all different ways. In each case, I’ve tried to have their voices be as well–recorded, as clear and as distinctive as it is in reality.”

    His first order of business, as her manager, was to put her in front of as many people as possible. Ronstadt was the opening act for Neil Young’s Time Fades Away tour in early 1973. “So I went from being a club act to playing at Madison Square Garden overnight, which was pretty intimidating,” she says. “But I loved Neil’s music, and I watched every single show. Neil was using a lot of the same musical elements that I’d used. So it was real reinforcing for me to see somebody doing that so well.

    “So I got a lot of exposure to people. Apparently they like the way I sang, because even in the coliseums they still listened. It was all completely over my head, I didn’t know what I was doing. We were just making it up as we went along.”

    Released in the fall, Don’t Cry Now became Ronstadt’s first Top 50 album, but it wasn’t much different, sonically, from its predecessors (owing, perhaps, to its multiple producers, each of whom had different ideas about how Linda should be presented).

    Heart Like a Wheel, however, was all Asher’s baby, and immediately after its appearance in late ’74 it rolled into the Top Ten, making No. 1 in December.

    Within a month or two, “You’re No Good” (the old Betty Everett song) and “When Will I Be Loved” (from the Everly Brothers) had risen to No. 1 and 2, respectively.

    “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)” hit No. 2 on the country chart. A duet with Ronstadt and her new best friend Emmylou Harris, the song brought Ronstadt her first Grammy, for Best Country Vocal Performance.

    Asher had taken the best things about country rock – the tight, focused harmonies – and applied them to pop songs, with precise and compelling performances from the backing musicians.

    And there out in front, her voice sounding big and yet still vulnerable, was little Linda, barefoot in the middle of the stage.

    “The oldies,” says Ronstadt, “were because I was a club act, or I had a concert that I had to pace, and they were just things that we could do. They were songs that maybe I liked, or I had some quirky interest in, but basically I sang ballad after ballad after ballad.

    “Songs that I was really passionate about were songs like ‘Heart Like a Wheel,’ so there I was with all these ballads. I had to have some way to structure shows. It’s always been a problem for me.”

    Between 1975 and ’80, Ronstadt placed 13 songs in the American Top 40, seven of them in the Top 10. Several of her biggest singles were oldies – from Roy Orbison (“Blue Bayou”) to Chuck Berry (“Back in the U.S.A”) to the Vandellas (“Heat Wave”) to Buddy Holly (“That’ll Be the Day,” “It’s So Easy”).

    No matter that the programming on her albums was as eclectic as ever – she covered Warren Zevon, Neil Young, James Taylor, Little Feat, the McGarrigles and Randy Newman – the singles were almost uniformly old rock or R&B songs done up in the Asher style.

    Still, her albums went multi–platinum out of the box, she was a star of the highest magnitude, and you’d do well not to argue with success.

    “When you’re struggling, one is always grateful for a hit,” Ronstadt says. “But I’d go ‘Why that one, and why not this other one? I like this one better.’ It was just that way, and I got stuck.

    “Eventually I just had to turn away from a lot of those songs because I outgrew them. And they don’t speak for me any more, and sometimes they just flat out bored me until I was crosseyed.”

     

    It’s so easy

     

    As she toured incessantly, as her fame grew and her bank account swelled, she began to question the validity – for her – of the songs she was putting out there. “They all have their time and their place,” she explains. “I mean, if Martha Reeves were singing ‘Heat Wave’ tomorrow I’d listen, it’s a neat piece of material. But it wasn’t something that spoke for me. You have to use music to speak for you, and to speak for what your feelings are, and it just wasn’t who I was after a while. A song like ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ isn’t ever not who you are. It’s a song that grows with you; it’s not a song that’s locked into one age.

    “I just remember waxing my floor, after my boyfriend and I had broken up, and singing ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.’ I just wanted to sing that for two weeks. Or when I learned ‘Willing,’ you know, when Lowell George taught me how to play it, I just wanted to play it and play it. I just loved it.”

    Concurrent with the mega–success was a gnawing distaste for public performing, of the sports stadiums with their awful acoustics, and of the superstar grind, with its inherent lack of privacy.

    On the road, Ronstadt was literally the only woman in a dysfunctional traveling circus full of men – her manager, her band, her crew. And although sometimes got involved romantically with one of the boys, she was a reluctant center of attention. “It felt uncomfortable and awkward and unbalanced,” she recalls. “My first cousin Alisa was in the first female class they admitted to Yale, and I used to think about her a lot. I thought it was very comparable what she and I went through.

    “The pressure, of course, is to adopt their swagger and their speech mannerisms, which I did. I just swore like a sailor. I adopted all the slang and everything, which you do. And it was very, very hard to clean up my language, especially when I have children in the house.”

    And then … “I gotta tell you about drugs. I’m not gonna say I didn’t inhale, because I inhaled, I snorted, I this, I that. I didn’t inject. But I have some kind of a liver that just doesn’t metabolize drugs. It just won’t. I mean, I can’t take prescription drugs or drink coffee.

    “So I have to say I tried most everything and didn’t like much of anything. But it was so much a part of the scene. I can’t drink at all; I never drank. Some people drink and say ‘I got a great buzz going, I feel really good’ and they get really mellow. I just throw up. And I have to go to bed for a long time. It’s like getting a bad case of the flu.

    “I felt the same way about smoking pot. I just didn’t like it. After 20 minutes I’d feel like I wanted to peel my skin off with a knife.”

    Her private life, too, was the subject of public scrutiny. After Souther, Ronstadt lived with writer/actor Albert Brooks, and was involved later with California governor Jerry Brown and Star Wars wizard George Lucas.

    Reading about herself on the band bus, Ronstadt laughed all the time. “It was just so made up,” she says. “First of all, most of us didn’t have lives. We were on the road all the time. In the beginning of the book Heart of Darkness, he talks about how provincial sailors are. And we were just incredibly provincial.

    “We’d get into these tight group dynamics. There’s some kind of a neuro–transmitter that’s released in your brain that’s incredibly pleasurable when you’re experiencing shared labor or shared endeavors. It really is fun and great. So we’d get into this tight little thing and it would kind of be ‘us against them.’ It increased paranoia and gave you this sort of strange fish–in–a–barrel mentality, and I don’t think it’s very healthy.”

    In the 1970s, Ronstadt’s image was just as famous as her music. She was not only a great singer, she was a hot chick, and her album covers drove home the point again and again.

    “I photographed OK from one angle,” she shrugs. “Those photographs are culled from thousands.”

    Ronstadt offers no apologies. “Am I going to say I didn’t like it when someone thought I was cute? I was never beautiful, I was cute, and for some reason men liked me. I didn’t have a great figure and I didn’t have whatever you had to have to be like a model.

    “People believe what they want to believe. When you’re trying to sell records, and the record company says ‘this picture doesn’t really look like you, but it will sell records,’ you say sure. Put a picture of a fire engine on the cover if you think it’ll sell records.

    “Do I think it’s unfortunate that this culture forces that on women? Yes. We are taught that that’s what will sell. We aim to please. And I think it’s a shame.”

    She drew the line when Rolling Stone photographer Annie Liebowitz “tricked” her into posing in nothing more than a skimpy red slip. Liebowitz, Ronstadt said, had shot her against red wallpaper – and the slip photo, depicting the singer lying submissively on a bed, her red underpants exposed – was taken during a break.

    A week later, Liebowitz returned to Ronstadt’s home. “She brought the projector over and very politely showed us the pictures,” Ronstadt said. “We said ‘oh, we can’t use those,’ and she said ‘I didn’t say that you could choose them, I just said I could let you see them.’ At which point Peter unceremoniously threw her out of the house.”

    So much for Rolling Stone. “I never had any respect for the magazine,” Ronstadt said. “I just thought I could respect her work.”

    For her 1980 release, Mad Love, Ronstadt recorded a selection of edgy songs from Mark Goldenberg of the Cretones, and Elvis Costello. Less a conscious move into trendy “new wave” music than a reflection of the contemporary material she and the band were listening to on their long bus rides, Mad Love nevertheless sold considerably less than its predecessors.

    “It’s just that she likes good music,” Asher points out. “And recognized how good punk was. And that isn’t the same thing as trying to jump on a bandwagon. I think it’s a genuine question of her excellent musical taste.”

    The combination of boredom with her career and the desire to avoid repeating herself came to a head when Ronstadt accepted an invitation from producer Joseph Papp to co–star in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Pirates of Penzance on Broadway in 1981.

    “When I was a little child, I knew all of the Gilbert and Sullivan songs,” she says. “And I really wanted to play only in a theater, only as a concert artist. I didn’t want to play in sporting arenas. They were clearly inappropriate places for music. And anybody that thinks otherwise is a fool.

    “Those settings changed the music so profoundly, because all you can hear are those high, arching, ringing guitar solos. You don’t have a chance for subtlety. You’re not working with anything that’s real. You’re hearing echoes of echoes and ghosts of ghosts.”

    She loved the 14–hour days of constant rehearsal, staying in one place and ordering out for lunch. It was so very different from what she’d been doing for 10 years.

    “I grew up thinking I was a boy soprano, so I wanted to use my high voice. I never really got to it early enough. It’s a shame in a way, because had I over–developed the bottom part of my voice so much that it was really hard to get into that other voice.”

    She followed the Pirates production with a film version, which she despises, and a “return to form” album called Get Closer – which, aside from its title song being turned into a toothpaste commercial, was not a success. Which was fine with Linda Ronstadt.

     

    It Doesn’t Matter Anymore

     

    In the old days, Ronstadt and Souther used to sit up late at night, after she’d returned home from her Troubadour gigs, and put on the Frank Sinatra album Only the Lonely.A collection of intimate and heartbreaking popular songs from the 1940s and ’50s, it was (and still is) considered the vocal record by which all vocal records are measured. Nelson Riddle’s aching orchestral arrangements were constructed around Sinatra’s impeccable phrasing.

    Once Get Closer and the Pirates movie tanked, Ronstadt started thinking about what to do next. “After I went to Broadway, I was really dying to not have to sing rock ‘n’ roll,” she says. “What I wanted to do was work on my phrasing, and to get my musicianship cranked up a couple more notches.

    “So I did what I always do – I go ‘What was before this? What’s this built on? Whose shoulders is this standing on?’” Her search led her back to Nelson Riddle, George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter. “There were people that I knew but I hadn’t really studied. So I started to study them, and the songs are so sophisticated, they’re complex.

    “It’s like a Brian Wilson song – if you can sing it, you can really sing it. Because it’swritten for a singer. So even though they’re kind of quote–unquote hard, if you can do it they’re easier than singing something that has a two–note range. Because you can get more out of it.”

    She wouldn’t be the first rock singer to attempt the old standards, nor would she be the last. Still, she was determined to give it a try, and the first step, she knew, was to get Nelson Riddle in her corner.

    “I think he was just dying to work,” Ronstadt remembers. “He didn’t particularly know who I was. I think he may have heard of me vaguely, but he didn’t know my work – nor much care, I don’t think. He liked some rock ‘n’ roll, but not very much of it. He wasn’t against it. To go from as complex an art form as he practiced to as simple an art form as that … he was a musician, so he liked and appreciated good music.”

    Riddle pored over the enthusiastic Ronstadt’s suggested song titles, putting aside the ones he didn’t think she – or the orchestra – was capable of. “When he met me and heard me sing, he knew that I could sing,” Ronstadt says. “And he told me so. I didn’t create these songs in their original settings like Billie Holiday did, or Ella Fitzgerald, but I felt like they were really open to me for my interpretations, from my time, to tell my story. Which resonates with a lot of other people’s stories.”

    Recorded with full orchestra, What’s New was released in November 1983, and its resonance was heard all across America: The album reached #2 in Billboard, sold multi–platinum and spawned two nearly–as–successful sequels. Ronstadt had re–invented herself once more.

    Peter Asher, being practical as ever, had wondered aloud about making a standards album, let alone three. He considered the likes of Gershwin and Porter “elevator music, a lot of old boring songs from shows.”

    Still he provided immaculate production on What’s New, Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons. “I was on the side of the people going ‘This is a big mistake; it probably won’t sell,’” Asher recalls. “Which isn’t the same thing as saying ‘Don’t do it.’

    “I did say that I thought the record company were right in their pessimistic view of whether anyone would buy it. And of course I and the record company were 100 percent completely and absolutely wrong.”

    In the winter of 1984, Ronstadt appeared as Mimi in Puccini’s La Boheme, the grandest of Grand Operas, at New York’s Public Theatre. “I was just following music that I loved,” she says. “I was just chasing the things that I heard when I was little.

    “I could’ve made a different choice when I was 14. I could’ve made a choice to become an opera singer, and then I would’ve only sung things like Boheme. I don’t know whether I would’ve become successful as a an opera singer, although I have a big voice and a big range, and I’m musical so I suppose I would’ve had as good a shot as anybody going into that.”

    Ronstadt, Harris and chum Dolly Parton had tried in the ’70s to make an acoustic country record based around their three–part fireside harmonies; Trio appeared in 1987, put three singles into the Country Top Five and climbed to #6 on the album charts.

    The union was short–lived, however, and Trio II (1997) would have a long gestation period – due essentially to a falling out between Ronstadt and Parton.

    For Sentimental Reasons was originally to have been a double album, but Nelson Riddle’s death in 1985 cut things short. Ronstadt and Riddle had planned to record in Brazil and Cuba with the maestro’s old friend Antonio Carlos Jobim (the Afro–Caribbean sound would permeate Frenesi, her third Spanish language album, in 1992).

    With the success of the Riddle and Trio records, Ronstadt realized she never had to sing “Heat Wave” again if she didn’t want to. And she really, really didn’t want to.

    “People think you’re sitting back thinking ‘well, what direction do I put my career next?’ And it really isn’t like that at all. It’s ‘I kind of like this song.’ It’s just like following lights in the swamp – I go ‘Ohhhhh. That.’”

    Canciones De Mi Padre, a collection of traditional Mexican songs she’d learned at her father’s knee back in Arizona, appeared in 1988. “The Mexican stuff, I wanted to do from the beginning,” Ronstadt says. “But in the ’60s and ’70s, when I said ‘I want to make a Mexican record,’ they’d say well, Joan Baez cut a Spanish record and it didn’t sell.’ Oh. I got dead silence.

    “So I’d cut a few songs in Spanish, but they weren’t the songs I wanted to do. I wanted to do traditional Mexican music. And you can’t just do one of those and put it on a pop record, because it just doesn’t fit.”

    She says she knew the time was right “as soon as I got a chance to meet the guys that could play it really right, really authentic Mexican musicians … which I never had the chance to because they never went out of Mexico! And I was always on the road, playing in a hockey rink in Cleveland or something.”

    Canciones De Mi Padre and its followup, Mas Canciones (1991) did not tear up the charts they way the Riddle records had, but Ronstadt didn’t care a whit. She had enough fame and enough money, thank you, and was pursuing whatever musical direction she felt like.

    In 1989, following a performance in New Orleans, she and some friends went out to hear the Neville Brothers in a club, and Aaron Neville invited her onto the stage. They sang “Ave Maria” – it was the only song they seemed to know in common – and a friendship developed.

    Less than a year later, the Ronstadt/Neville duet “Don’t Know Much” reached #2 on the pop charts. Her Cry Like a Rainstorm – Howl Like the Wind album, featuring four duets with Neville, made it into the Top 10.

    With no interest in “momentum” after so many years, Ronstadt next turned out Mas Canciones and Frenesi. In 1993, she co–produced (with George Massenburg) Jimmy Webb’s album Suspending Disbelief.

    She’s made a few more pop albums since, and in 1999 collaborated with Harris onWestern Wall: The Tucson Sessions.

    Her friendship with Harris, Ronstadt said, had been partially responsible for her shift away from country rock in the mid ’70s. “She was chasing what I was trying to do, and she was doing it so well. I’m not saying that it made me record differently, but I surrendered a little bit more willingly to going more toward rock ‘n’ roll.

    “But it doesn’t matter, you know? Because to me, that was a profound moment, because it made me aware of the kinds of informed choices I was going to make for the rest of my life. It made me know that a certain amount of my values, and the things that I was trained and brought up with, were firm in me. And one of them was that if you see something you admire, you can destroy your own admiration of it by feeling jealous or competitive, or you can just love it. And I made that choice. And I have continued to do so.”

    She’s sung with Pavarotti, Jagger and Kermit the Frog. She sang with Sinatra. On an early ’70s TV variety show, she even sang with Neil Diamond (Ronstadt does not remember this, but the author saw it).

    Her children, ages 8 and 11, are her favorite collaborators these days. Ronstadt performs when she wants to – she does orchestra shows and Mexican shows, for the most part – but at the end of the day, she’s only seeking approval from two people.

    “My son got hold of this new Best Of CD that came out,” she said. “They’d sent me a box of them, and they were in the basement.

    He came running upstairs and said ‘Mommy, you sing oldies!’ And I said ‘Get that out of there!’ It just ruins my day if I have to listen to it. I just can’t bear it.”



  • Featured Image[Article 79]Tim and Neil Finn:
    The Lost Interview

    Finn Brothers
    Finn Brothers

    (1996, Bill DeYoung)

     

    The landscape of contemporary pop music would be far less interesting were it not for the semi-annual appearances on record of the Finn brothers, Tim and Neil. Tim started Split Enz in his native New Zealand, in the early ’70s, and a few years into it allowed little brother to join. By the time the band ended in 1984, more than a few truly great songs had been written and recorded.

    It was in ’86 that Neil assembled Crowded House, tapping into a muse that no one, not even the arty-farty, formerly parrot-haired players in Split Enz, suspected he possessed. The band had just one American hit (“Don’t Dream It’s Over” in 1986), spending the rest of its 10-year existence keeping a relatively large cult following extremely happy.

    Crowded House’s highwater mark, arguably, was the third album, Woodface, released in 1991. The ever-restless Neil had broken up the group, determined to start anew, and found himself in Melbourne, Australia writing a batch of wonderful songs with brother Tim. One of these was called “It’s Only Natural,” and in a wink it became a prophetic title: Tim was made the fourth member of a revived Crowded House, andWoodface was born. He left the band rather suddenly during a British tour and resumed his on-again, off-again solo career with a delightful album called Before and After. Afterwards, Split Enz (with both Finns in tow) reunited for a triumphant tour of their homeland.

    Read More…

    Inside Crowded House, Neil and his mates issued their fourth collection, Together Alone, in’93. Although it was well received in Australia and the United Kingdom, the record was stillborn in the States. Midway through the Together Alone tour, on April 13, 1994, drummer Paul Hester quit the band.

    From then on, it was only a question of how long till Neil gave up the ghost for good.

    Neil, Paul, Nick Seymour (bass) and sometime member Mark Hart (keys and guitar) reunited and recorded three new songs for Recurring Dream: The Very Best of Crowded House, which ends the band’s increasingly strained relationship with Capitol Records. In June, after a handful of (reportedly dispirited) promotional shows in London without Paul, Neil made the official announcement: Crowded House was no more.

    For him, the next move, perhaps unsurprisingly, was toward Tim. The brothers had spent a month in mid ’94 cutting an album they called Finn, with Tim on drums and piano, Neil on guitar and piano, and everything else split between them. It was eerie like Split Enz and ethereal like Crowded House, yet it sounded like neither of those formidable entities. Bubbles were burst and expectations dashed. They had a blast doing it.

    American release took nearly a year, owing to some protracted legal stuff with Capitol (and, as you’ll see, other reasons), and in the interim Tim joined forces with Irishmen Andy White and Liam O’Maonlai (the latter from Hothouse Flowers) as ALT, to make the quirky little collection Altitude. (“If you think the Finn album is non-commercial,” Tim says….)

    When the dust cleared this spring and the brothers found themselves with a nice contract from the Stateside label Discovery Records, they were threatened with a lawsuit by a British band called Fin. “We could have fought it, and probably would have won the day,” Neil says (after all, Finn is the brothers’ legal surname), “but in the end we just couldn’t be bothered.” And so Finn became, in the United States and other key markets, The Finn Brothers.

    The brothers were interviewed separately, just days apart; Tim was in Sydney, Neil in

    London. They agree on (almost) everything.

     

    Do you think it was inevitable that you two would make a record together?

     

    Tim Finn: It was complicated by the fact that we were both completely committed to Split Enz, and then Neil became part of Crowded House. Even then, there was sort of an unspoken desire, I think, all the time.

    Neil Finn: It was something we’d talked about for a good 36 years, and in a way, it was surprising that it’s taken this long. The songs that we wrote for Woodface were intended to be for a Finn Brothers record way back then. It’s been ticking away, and the time presented itself; and we jumped in.

     

    Do you remember when you got serious about music?

     

    TF: I had an epiphany when I was quite young. I was standing in somebody’s kitchen and I heard Eddie Hodges sing ‘I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door.’ It’s a very corny old pop song, pre-Beatles. But he had an adenoidal quality to his voice, and I guess I could relate to it. He sounded like a little boy singing, and I remember just stopping and being rooted to the spot.

    NF: I guess the spur into action for me was when he started to learn piano. I remember he learned “Laura’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago when he was about 13, and I was about 7, and I felt compelled to do it myself. So I sort of learned it, and realized I could do it, and kept par with him, in a way. Or tried to. I watched from afar as he got a band together, and was very envious.

     

    Was there a healthy sort of brotherly competition going on?

     

    TF: I don’t think I was aware of that. It just seemed natural that he would follow my path to some extent. I guess I was entirely comfortable with the relationship and didn’t really question it. I guess he watched what I was doing and he wanted to do it too. But it didn’t annoy me or anything.

    NF: I wasn’t too aware of it being overly competitive, especially in the early days because there was enough of an age gap between us to where I wasn’t really a threat to Tim. I was the little brother. I guess there was an element of competition once I joined Split Enz, in a sense that when he would write a song, I’d want to do one better or something, so it would spur me into action. I wouldn’t say at any point that there was an overt competitiveness. And even now. There is to a degree – on the tennis court, more than anything else. We kind of save it for appropriate venues.

     

    After you left Te Awamutu, Tim, you fell in with an art school crowd in Auckland, and that’s where Split Enz began, right?

     

    TF: We grew up in a very small town, in a very small country. I think I’d always had an artistic feeling, but I didn’t know any artists. It would’ve been a ludicrous thought. It was a huge leap for me, really.  It took me until I was 19 before I actually though that I could drop everything else.

    I gravitated toward them, hung out with them, took drugs with them, started playing music with them. And my whole life changed.

     

    Neil was the little brother back at home.  Do you think he was jealous of the early Split Enz?

     

    TF: He might have been envious.  He would’ve wanted to have done everything the same way, because what he saw from a distance of a hundred miles and six years was basically five or six young men develop an obsession, and a tremendous amount of self-belief out of nowhere.

    There were no role models, we didn’t know anybody in groups and stuff, but we certainly felt that we were the best band in the world, that we were the logical inheritors of music’s next step.  It was an absurd thought, but we were completely compelled to follow that destiny.

    And he saw all that, and he would’ve hungered for it.  And it also became like a talisman for him, or an icon if you like.

    Even to this day, I think that Neil will never be able to escape that feeling that Split Enz were the ultimate group.  Even though he was in a group that became more successful.  I left in the end due to two things:  One, I’d fallen in love and wanted to drop everything and be with this person who didn’t live in my part of the world, and B, I’d done a solo record which was surprisingly successful.

     

    Did it ever become a question of “too many cooks” with Neil writing and singing away in the band?

     

    TF: No, there was never any question.  It was a great luxury to have his songs, and it was all about the group.  It was a complete group ethic.

     

    Neil, when you had the initial success with Crowded House, was Tim happy or envious?

    NF: A little bit of both, I think. And I was a little bit pleased for myself, and a little guilty that it wasn’t Split Enz happening for me.  Having spent a lot of time in that band.

    He’d worked for 12 years with Split Enz, and although we’d had a degree of success in various places, nothing as sort of conclusive as what happened to Crowded House’s first album.  So I think it was a little hard for him. At the same time, he was in London, kind of twiddling his thumbs a little bit.

    I remember at the point we went Top Ten,  rang him up – he was feeling a little distant from it all – so I suggested he come over for a few days and join the tour. He came into New Orleans, and we had a couple of really good gigs where he got up with us. And I think it sort of helped him a little bit to feel like he was part of it to some degree.

     

    Tim, how would you describe your initial reaction to Crowded House?

    TF: I was pretty in awe of Neil’s songs. That first record, I can remember listening to it for the first time and thinking ‘This is an amazing record.’ To see it go all the way like that, I guess I would’ve wished that for Split Enz, but at the same time I couldn’t deny it for Neil. It was like, he earned it, you know?

     

    Tim joined Crowded House, then left midway through the Woodface tour.  Did it get ugly?

    NF: I wish I could tell you that it got ugly. There was a couple of tense moments on the tour, one particularly in the hippie love capital of Australia where we got really nasty.  Those sorts of places want to drag out the dark side of your nature.

    Tim was being asked to play a role which he was very unfamiliar with, a musician playing a bit of keyboards and sort of hanging around a bit until there was a song he was involved in. And similarly for us, we weren’t use to having another strong personality onstage, and it upset the rhythm of the band a bit.

     

    OK, what’s the hippie love capital of Australia?

     

    NF: Byron Bay – it’s in Northern New South Wales. I remember it because we’d had a huge to-do, and I was out in the car park streaming in the car. I’d gone out to get away from it all. I was sitting in the car stewing in my own juices, and tis hippie woman came up to the window and said ‘Neil, I can help you. You’ve got to let your chakra go.’ And I wasn’t in the mood.

     

    You both participated in a Split Enz reunion tour of New Zealand and Australia in 1992.  What was that like?

    TF: It was fantastic. We played to bigger crowds than we’d ever played to when we existed.  A lot of younger people coming along that had never seen the band, and they’d heard about this legendary New Zealand band!  They were from 10 or 12 years old through like 40, 50.  And they went completely berserk – it was a celebration for New Zealand.  I think. It felt like it.

    Everybody got on really well, made lots of money, and it was an entirely positive experience. There was a live album, called Anniversary, I think, because it was 20 years from our inception.

     

    The Finn Brothers has a lot of rough textures on it; it doesn’t sound very much like Woodface or Together Alone.

    NF: It was a different time, a different place and a different state of mind. So to some extent, you surf that and you go with it. It was less sophisticated than either of those records, deliberately. Partly because we only took a month to do it. And we were playing everything ourselves.

    And we were interested, with (co-producer) Tchad Blake, in making it kind of chunky and homemade-sounding. We didn’t really make it with anybody else other than ourselves in mind; we certainly didn’t want to re-create what happened withWoodface. It’s less two-part harmony oriented, partly because of the way we were writing the songs – Tim on the drums, and I was on guitar, or bass and piano. . we weren’t working with the two acoustics. It is what it is, and I’m glad of it.  I think we weren’t concerned by its commerciality, and for that reason possibility it’s not a particularly commercial record.

    TF: There’s certain naivete in the drumming – it hangs in there, but it doesn’t sound like anybody flash playing the drums.  I don’t have too much technique but I can hold down a beat.

    The way we felt was very joyous, even though it’s paradoxically quite a moody record, there was a lot of joy and pleasure in the making of it. We would start a song and work it till it was done, rather than doing a whole lot of rhythm tracks and then over-dubbing. So every song had a day and a half, or a two-day atmosphere built around it.

    We went up to the Cook Islands after writing the songs, to soak up a bit of the atmosphere of the Pacific Music Festival.  We particularly fell in love with the tea-chest bass, which we’ve used on five tracks. It’s a very forgiving instrument.

     

    Well, I have no idea what any of the songs are about.

     

    NF: We don’t make them deliberately obscure, but we’re quite happy to leave them open-ended. For me, lyrics were the things in songs that grew on me least. I was always taken by a couple of lines first in songs, and in a way I didn’t really care what the rest of it was about. There was always a couple of lines that just hooked straight in there and set me thinking.  That’s the main thing, that there’s a few images that stick out. I think some of the songs are fairly clear.

     

    Did you feel a commercial pressure in making this record, pressure to make it sound a certain way?

     

    TF: We didn’t think about it much, apart from just wanting to make a record.  Nobody even knew we were making it. I think it’s a special record, and people who like it really seem to like it enormously, and it’ll never cross over to a mainstream audience, but that wasn’t our intention. We had very modest expectations for it.

    NF: Tchad Blake is really into leaving things pretty bare, and it was partly his influence that prevented us from doing what we would often do, to double-guess ourselves and go ‘Well look, we’d better smooth this thing out a bit.’ Or ‘This is a bit lumpy-sounding, we’d better do something about it.’ He encouraged us to do a lot of one-take performances.

     

    The first single in England was ‘Suffer Never,’ which doesn’t seem to have any hooks in it at all.

     

    NF: The guitar’s the hook, in a way.  There was just an attitude about it that we really liked, and a slightly psychedelic quality. I have often in the past been persuaded to put out the least offensive song as a single first. Which is what the record company always go for. With this record, we thought well, what’s the most deeply atmospheric thing? And I felt really attached to ‘Suffer Never’ at the time, so we pushed that out. It may have not been a commercial choice, but to me it defined the record a little better than, say. . .well, I’m more pleased with what’s going on in America, because ‘Only Talking Sense’ is probably my favorite song on the record.

     

    Crowded House was breaking up as the album was taking shape.  Did you talk about the band’s problems?

    TF: Not so much during this recording period, no.  It was very pure. We didn’t really talk about much else except what we were doing. But, yeah, there has been talk over the years. Neil’s wrestled with it a lot.

    Neil was very loyal to the idea of the combo, you know, the humble combo. The four-piece band, the three-piece band. He’s very attached to that notion and it’s served him extremely well.

    But juggling personalities and egos and shit like that, after you get to your mid-30s. . . you’re a bit over that sort of thing.

     

    Why did Paul drop out of Crowded House?

     

    NF: A combination of tour fatigue, a low tolerance for the shenanigans of being in the band, promotion, photos … I think he was a little sick of himself as a jester figure. He lost his sense of humor about it a little. And I would say a degree of laziness, in that he’s a man who loves to be in front of the television with a joint in his hand and a cup of tea. And have a nap in the afternoon. And it became quite harrowing, the touring.

    He was having a baby at the time, too, and I think he was felling a conflict within himself. It wasn’t unexpected for us because he had been getting progressively less enthused about being onstage. And the shows were suffering a little. Sot to some extent when he left were kind of relieved, because at least it was a way forward. Whereas we’d been struggling with this kind of weird darkness.

     

    Tim quit midway through a tour.  Paul quit midway through a tour.

     

    NF: It happens a lot! When Tim left it was very much a mutual thing.  Paul definitely sprung it on us. Prior to that tour he had said, ‘Listen, I don’t think I’m going to be able to get beyond this tour. I think I’m really going to have to call it quits, but I’ll do the tour.’ So at the point he left, we felt a bit let down, and it made life quite difficult for a few weeks, obviously. But we did soldier on. But his timing was shocking.

     

    Do you think the band’s lack of commercial success was a reason for his departure?

    NF: It had provided a pressure for the band and Paul too.  I think Paul to some extent thought ‘Well, maybe this is never gonna happen.’ I would say that contributed to his state of mind. And at the time, we weren’t feeling that there was a lot of support from Capitol.  We were touring the Midwest and we had Sheryl Crow with us, who was just at the beginning of her meteoric ascent. We had noticed the difference between what her record company was doing in every city, and what ours was.   We’d arrive in towns and there’d be big window displays of Sheryl’s record and we would struggle to find ours in the shops at all.

    That was discouraging, to say the least.  I wouldn’t overstate it and say that was the reason the band broke up, because although we’re ambitious for our music – I love tapping into the ol’ mass psyche – it wasn’t the be-all and end-all for the existence  the band.  We also had other places, like England was very successful for us, Australia and New Zealand were still good, and Canada to some extent.

     

    That must be frustrating, when everyone wants to hear ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over,’ and all the time you’d been writing progressively better songs.

     

    NF: I believe so, yeah. On the other hand, the people we were meeting in every city were people who knew those records.  We were doing shows where we didn’t do ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over.’ Copping a bit of flack for it, I might add.

    I still feel the records didn’t get the shot they deserved in America. I think Together Alone was dismissed to some extent by a lot of people in America. Partly, I think, because they didn’t listen to it enough. And it wasn’t put in their faces enough. The biggest handicap to get over with anybody, and particularly with us I think, is trying to get people to listen to something more than once. That requires keeping on it and working it until people take notice.

     

    Were you frustrated by the albums’ lack of success?

     

    NF: I don’t feel that they were failures in any form because of lack of commercial success. It’s easy to say that, but there’s a few people around the world whose opinions mattered more to me than the mass. And I’ve had their support in the main. So it doesn’t discourage me to the point where I feel like giving up or anything. Not even close.

    But critics don’t sell records. In the end, over a period of time, you build up a certain respect level which does man something. It opens doors for you and gets you into good places with good people. So there’s part of me that’s not altogether unhappy with our career path, in the sense that we’ve never got to the point where superstardom has dictated terms to us. We’ve been successful enough to make a good living, and to tour the world, and I can continue to make records as long as I will, I think.

     

    Why did Together Alone appear in the U.S.A. six months after everyone else got it?

     

    NF: I can’t even remember. I think because we’d established ourselves withWoodface very strongly in England, that was fine to put it out before Christmas. But Capitol felt it would just get lost before Christmas. And what happened was, it got lost after Christmas.

     

    Will you miss the camaraderie of the band after 10 years together?

     

    NF: I will to some extent, but I’ve been through enough in my life now to know that you can’t just expect things like that to continue forever, that kind of chemistry. And you should be willing to let them go, rather than hang on out of some kind of nostalgia or loyalty to it. I’m proudest, really, of the fact that as a live band we were willing to go out on a limb. Every night was different. We jammed, and we involved the audience. That much I think is a rare thing and I’ll always be quite proud of that.

    But in the end, it wasn’t difficult for me to let go of. Maybe it was partly because Paul wasn’t there and the chemistry wasn’t the same, but we could’ve continued and made good records. I really got to a point where I craved a new context and felt restricted by the band instead of it being an open thing. It felt like a restricting thing.

     

    How did you decide on the tracks for Recurring Dream?

     

    NF: We threw around a whole lot of different possibilities. And the record company  in England actually researched the fan base quite heavily about what songs they really wanted on the record. And we left a couple of things here and there off that have not worn very well for us. It has to be a compromise, in a way, because there were certain songs would’ve liked to put on that we couldn’t.

     

    So what did you leave off?

     

    NF: ‘Chocolate Cake.’ For a variety of reasons, just as a piece of music it didn’t wear very well for me.

     

    The Finn Brothers did a short summer tour of America. What happens next for you?

    TF: I’m just going to come back to Sydney and learn how to cook. Neil wants to do another record, in some shape or form, I want to do another Alt record, and I’ve got a solo record I’ve just finished, which should be coming out early in the next year.

    I think in about a year or so, Neil and I will definitely do another one.

    NF: I’m going home, and I’m going to make another record, that much I know. I’m sort of enjoying the delicious feeling of freedom that having made this decision has brought. I’ve got quite a lot of ideas brewing in my head which I want to explore. I suppose technically speaking I’ll be making a solo record, but there’s gonna be a collaborative nature to it. The idea of a solo record is less appealing than getting the chance to play with a few different people and creating different sounds.

     

    (A whole lot of water under the bridge since 1996 – and if you’ve read this far, you know. RIP Paul Hester.)



  • Featured Image[Article 76]Neil Young: Tell Me Why

    Neil Young
    Neil Young

     

    @1997

     

    (Of course, many things have changed since this conversation.Archives, for example. As of this writing (2012), Time Fades Awayhas still not been issued on CD or download. He’s still not happy with the reproduction of recorded sound. There was a Springfield reunion in 2011, a brief one, without Bruce or Dewey – who had both passed away. Young then committed to a full tour with Steve and Richie, but backed out at the last minute. So in a way, the more things change, the more Neil stays the same.)

    The original interview:

    One of rock ‘n’ roll’s most mercurial figures, Neil Young has been known to say something one minute, and then turn around and do the complete opposite the next. Since his earliest public incarnation, as the “Hollywood Indian” tearing up the lead guitar in Buffalo Springfield, he’s been a mystery man, coming and going in various combinations of shadow and light, never explaining himself, never staying in one place long enough to be pigeonholed. He’s switched from acoustic to electric, from techno to rockabilly, to country, pop and blues, back to acoustic and back to electric. He’s a confounding fellow.

    Millions of people love him for these very reasons.

    Read More…

    Yet over the course of his 30-plus years in the music business, Young has been assailed as often as he’s been praised: He’s too whiny, his songs are weird, his songs are boring, his guitar playing is rudimentary. All true, in a way, but one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, or so said another gifted songwriter long ago, and the very qualities that so irritate Neil Young’s detractors are what make him special to the people who believe his best intentions run comfortably in their blood.

    There is no one in rock ‘n’ roll who sings and plays electric guitar with the symphonic crudeness of Neil Young, not another musician within 100 light years who can hammer an acoustic the way he can, and make it sound like something freshly hewn from the forest. He writes strange, beautiful songs.

    The long, repetitive electric ones with Crazy Horse, his longtime backing band, are hypnotic in their simplicity. Anyone who’s ever tranced through the studio version of “Cortez the Killer” can vouch for that. Or “Danger Bird.” Or any of the epic pieces on the Ragged Glory album.

    For that matter, anyone who saw Young and Crazy Horse, rockin’ the hell out of the free world on this summer’s H.O.R.D.E. tour, knows first-hand just how intimate Neil Young is with his guitar.

    This interview was conducted over the phone just before Young and his mates took the stage to mesmerize another H.O.R.D.E. crowd of never-say-die hippies and slackjawed Squirrel Nut Zippers fans.

    Every stop on the tour, this 52-year-old guy blew everybody away like a hurricane.

    Lately he’s been riding the rails, figuratively, as part owner of the legendary Lionel Train company. There was another Farm Aid in October, at which he made a long (for him) and impassioned speech about the huge factory farms that are taking over America’s heartland, and another benefit concert for the Bridge School, a facility for physically challenged youngsters operated by his wife, Pegi, in Northern California.

    He’s got a movie out, too: Directed by Jim Jarmusch, Year of the Horse is a documentary about Young’s sometimes stormy relationship with the guys in Crazy Horse.

     

    Earlier this year, you declined to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for Buffalo Springfield’s induction. Was that something you had to think about, or was there never any question that you would go to the ceremony?

    Neil Young: No, I went back and forth several times, trying to make up my mind. But there was always something stopping me from getting excited about going; there was always something there. Finally, what it really came down to was the television of it. I just didn’t want to go.

    I’d already been to four or five of those things where it wasn’t televised, and I knew how cool it was. Then I was at one where they televised it, and I could see the difference.

    Then, when it went to VH1 you know, the world does not need another awards show. So who cares? I’m saying it’s great to be in the Hall of Fame. I’m already in it. It’s great to be in the Buffalo Springfield, but I’ve already been in the Buffalo Springfield.

    And here I’m talking to guys in the Springfield who would like to bring some of their families with them, but can’t afford it because the seats are so expensive. And then the place is filled up with all these high rollers, and it’s all on VH1′s bill, or the TV station, or whoever the heck it is. They all make the money; everybody gets the big sponsorship money, and people in the bands can’t afford to bring their families to the ceremony. There were a lot of things about it that kind of bothered me.

    Now, it was expensive to go to the Waldorf in New York, but there wasn’t a big television thing involved in it. No ‘We’re going to cash in,’ or ‘We’re going to make a donation to the Hall of Fame to shore up the building’ or something. I don’t know. So I left that off my itinerary of things that I thought were cool to do.

    Did Dewey, Bruce and Richie understand when you made your statement, or were they just pissed off?

    Neil Young: Well, I know Dewey and Bruce understood. I guess everybody else understood it, I never really spoke to Richie about it. But I did speak to the other guys about it. I just told them where I was at with it. And they’re used to me.

    What was it Stills said onstage: ‘Well, Rich, he quit again.’

    Neil Young: Yeah, right. That was great.

    Your induction as a solo artist, and performance with Pearl Jam, had been televised just two years earlier. I remember thinking that was great TV. You said you could tell it was different then. How was it different?

    Neil Young: What’s different is that your speech, whatever you want to say …. this is the moment of a lifetime for a musician. Did you see the Grammys when they gave Frank Sinatra his Lifetime Achievement Award? How did you feel about that?

    Pretty upset.

    Neil Young: Well, television. That’s the way television has to be. They have a corporate thing going there, they got their commercials, they got their slot, and with VH1 it was even worse because they didn’t even do it live. I mean they didn’t even have that excuse.

    Later on, they went in and Editor D, from Room C, was designated by Executive A to leave half of some guy’s heartfelt speech on the cutting room floor. And cut out almost everything that he said, and put in just what VH1 thought was cool. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not hip. Doesn’t get it for me.

    It reminded me, and a lot of people, of this ‘This Note’s For You’ thing with MTV. That was the last TV controversy I could think of involving you.

    Neil Young: Well, you know, there’s a place for ‘em. They do a good service to the community. (laughs) Wasn’t that diplomatic? You won’t be seeing any of my videos on VH1, I’ll tell you that.

    As I remember, MTV didn’t play ‘This Note’s For You’ until it won their big award

    Neil Young: Yeah, they didn’t play it until it won Video of the Year, so they aired it.

    How did you feel about that?

    Neil Young: For me, it was a lucky break. I didn’t have to have anybody see it, so they didn’t recognize me when I was walking down the street.

    How much of Lionel Trains do you own?

    Neil Young: Well, the partners and I have control of the company.

    How did you get involved with Lionel? I know it had something to do with your son.

    Neil Young: Well, I bought part of Lionel along with my partners, Wellspring, an investment group. I had a history with Lionel before that, where I developed a control system that the company uses for controlling the trains. It was developed with an eye for doing a lot of things with my son, using a controller that was accessible to a physically challenged individual. Who had different ways of accessing switches.

    So I came up with this idea, and came up with concepts for supplying auditory feedback, and visual feedback, for every command issued. So that every time you made a command, you heard or saw something happen. You got action back.

    And then you can select the commands by remote control, with a wireless controller, that can be accessed by your physically challenged friend. And so whatever you do with the controller, then when they hit their switch, it happens. So there’s no plugging things in or changing things. It’s fast and easy.

    Were you a model train aficionado before this?

    Neil Young: Yeah! I sort of developed this because of that. I kept thinking how all my kids loved trains so much, and I did too, so we just enjoyed playing with them.

    And I just happen to have this son, Ben, who’s physically challenged, and wants to have a lot of fun. So we share this together.

    And it just turns out that through the development of it, it’s made it possible for a lot of other things to happen for everybody who plays with trains. That really couldn’t happen before.

    There’s a tent at H.O.R.D.E. with a train setup.

    Neil Young: Yeah, Lionel has a display of electric trains, and a thing called LionelVision, which is cameras mounted in the trains. The trains fly around with little color cameras and stereo microphones mounted in them, listening and looking everywhere they go.

    So will we eventually see your face on the packaging? ‘Neil Young says….’

    Neil Young: No. (Laughing). No, I don’t think so.

    You’re 51 now. What does life look like to you?

    Neil Young: Well, I love playing. I love playing music, and I love being around lots of other people who play music. That’s why the H.O.R.D.E. tour is so much fun.

    It absolutely feels just as good.

    You turned down the Lollapalooza tour. What appealed to you about H.O.R.D.E.?

    Neil Young: Really, the diversity of the music. There’s just so many different bands out that are all so different, and all of the different kinds of music, from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and on the tour we’ve had other groups that have visited and stayed for two or three weeks, like Beck, Primus, Blues Traveler.

    There’s always new bands that nobody knows too much about, which is always cool, because their energy is so good, and they’re so positive. It’s just good to be around all of that, for me.

    Does that make the audience primed and already vibrating when you get out there?

    Neil Young: Well, actually, they get a day of music that’s all different, so they’re wide open by the time I see them. So it works real well. I just like the energy out here.

    Is it a younger crowd, or is it really mixed aged groups?

    Neil Young: Oh, it’s definitely a younger crowd. I have to say that at least 50 percent of the people I play for have never seen me. So that’s great, that’s a big plus. Because it’s just more of a challenge it’s just different. And at this stage, something different is something great.

    Does it have to be Crazy Horse for this audience; could you, for example, have used the acoustic band or the Bluenotes for H.O.R.D.E.? Is that what makes the most sense for you?

    Neil Young: Yeah, I would say that’s true, that Crazy Horse is the band for this. And that’s had a lot to do with us choosing this, and doing it this way. Whereas the Bluenotes would have been great, but not as the position I’m in, as the headliner. They would have been a great band to play during the day or in the afternoon, if it wasn’t ‘Neil Young.’ The band itself, without having to drag my name along with it, would’ve been fantastic at this show. Because the same kind of diversity represented in that band is represented all over this show.

    You’re doing a lot of re-arranging lately. It was nice to hear ‘Barstool Blues’ again, on the live album Year of the Horse. Can you take any song out of your bag and say ‘Crazy Horse could do this’? An acoustic song, or something from Trans, for example.

    Neil Young: Well, “Barstool Blues” was a Crazy Horse song in the first place. And Crazy Horse was on a lot of Trans, on the songs I sang with the vocoder, so it would be possible.

    See, they’re there all the time. People seem to think that through all these changes and everything that they’re gone, but the core of Crazy Horse is always around, on most of the albums. And of course the other albums that I’ve done that don’t have this core music thing happening, that I have with Crazy Horse, a lot of those songs don’t fit with Crazy Horse.

    The opposite to that is true of the album I did with Pearl Jam, where most of the songs on that album fit great with Crazy Horse.

    I just go through my songs to figure out what would be the right ones to do that night.

    Down the road, does that mean Crazy Horse might play songs from Harvest Moon? Is that conceivable?

    Neil Young: Hey, anything’s possible.

    Six of your catalog albums remain unavailable on compact disc. Recently, you told an interviewer you would burn the tapes before you let them come out on CD. Why?

    Neil Young: Until we get the technology. I’m pushing for better technology. And CDs don’t cut it, to me. HDCD is a real great improvement on digital sound, no matter what the format of the sound is. That’s a process you can make CDs through, and it makes them sound more detailed. If you have an HDCD playback system, it sounds incredibly more detailed.

    Is that one of those technologies that we’ll ‘see by the year 2000′?

    Neil Young: It’s out there now. There’s about 40 different companies, small audiophile companies that make stereo equipment that carries the HDCD chip.

    There are something like 15 of your albums out on CD on Reprise. How come they’re out, and these six aren’t?

    Neil Young: Those were made during the beginning of CDs. When it hadn’t really dawned on everybody how inferior the CD was. But during the mastering of all of those, and listening to what we ended up with compared to what we started with, everyone became aware of the problems. And that was maybe more than 15 years ago. And there’s been no improvement, in 15 years, from a bad standard.

    Meanwhile, we got 64-bit video games, and 32-bit this, and 16-bit sound. Running at a slow speed. So we really need to get a standard together for recorded sound that doesn’t destroy it.

    But Reprise is still making those discs.

    Neil Young: Oh yeah, that’s right, you can’t stop that. But I’m not gonna do any new ones until there’s a standard.

    Let me play devil’s advocate. Since you’re committed to this, can’t you just put a stop to those that are still in print? Can’t you tell the label ‘They sound like shit; let’s take ‘em out’?

    Neil Young: You can do that with the new ones. When you put out a master, you put it out, OK, it’s out. Until then, you have it.

    You know, those six albums aren’t available on vinyl or cassettes, either. They’ve all been deleted.

    I ‘m trying to use that leverage to get some tonal quality on the recordings.

    Well, what can I do? I’ll make a call. As a fan, it bugs me that I can’t put, say,American Stars ‘n’ Bars on the CD player.

    Neil Young: It’s tough for me, too, but I’m not gonna put out ‘Hurricane’ sounding like a piece of shit. That’s the way it is. There’s the ability to have it better, and I can make a statement. I’m not gonna let it keep happening.

    Hawks and Doves, a great record. Can’t hear it. That makes me a little sad.

    Neil Young: Right, me too! I feel the same way. When it comes out, it’ll sound great.

    What about your long-rumored multi-disc Archives project?

    Neil Young: It’s the same thing there. We’re close enough to the new standard. There’s all kinds of people throwing ideas for the new standard around. The latest new standard that came out for sound is worse than the CD. That’s the DVD. That is totally a piece of crap. A thousand times more distortion, and I’m not exaggerating. That is a clinical number.

    It’s a terrible thing, and they say that you can play CDs on it. You can play ‘em, but they have to be interpolated and translated and everything before your ear hears ‘em; by then, they’re so distorted, they’re just not there any more.

    So what they’ve done is, they’re killing an art form through greed, and not being able to focus on using a decent standard. They’re more interested, it seems, in putting out more product, and more real time information on a disc, than they are in putting out more quality on a disc. And one plays against the other.

    So a lot of things have to be worked out before the new standard is set, but the wheels are turning right now, it’s happening.

    Do you have a time frame, i.e. ‘They’ll be out in four years’ or something?

    Neil Young: They may never be out on the market if the standard’s not right.

    What exactly is the Archives? And how close to getting it done did you get?

    Neil Young: Pretty close, now. It’s a set of volumes. Each volume carries a number of CDs, but none of those numbers are locked in.

    Didn’t you record Time Fades Away digitally in ’73?

    Neil Young: No, it was recorded through a Quad-8 CompuMix board, one of the first computer boards. It was mixed directly to masters; instead of copying masters, it made masters over and over again. But actually it was kind of a misfire.

    Tell me about the Year of the Horse movie. Was Dead Man your first collaboration with Jim Jarmusch, and did it lead to this?

    Neil Young: Dead Man was definitely first. That was just getting to know Jim. And we did a video together, for Dead Man, and then we did a video for Broken Arrow, And then we decided to do this … actually, we didn’t really decide to make a film, we just decided ‘Let’s film some stuff and see what we get. If it looks like it’s gonna be good, and fun, we’ll keep going.’

    The Dead Man soundtrack was issued on your label, Vapor Records. Does Vapor Records still exist?

    Neil Young: Yeah! We’re not a big record company, we’re a real record company. Real small, too.

    You cut your hand a while ago. What was the deal with that?

    Neil Young: It was just a regular accident. If I hadn’t been so famous, it wouldn’t have made any difference. I was slicing a sandwich.

    And you had to cancel some dates in Europe?

    Neil Young: Yeah. If it had been Joe Schmoe, it wouldn’t have made any darn difference, but now I gotta live with people going ‘Hey, you cut your hand a few months ago.” Pretty soon it’s gonna be like ‘Hey, back in ’97, you cut your finger.” When I’m 88.



  • Featured Image[Article 73]The Ballad of Rodney Crowell

    Rodney Crowell
    Rodney Crowell

     

    @1996

    He’s written songs that reach in deep and massage the heart, songs that bring on tears, songs that bring on laughter, songs that bristle with electrically charged emotion, like he went to some dark, hidden place of energy just to find the switch and throw it. His songs are happy, catchy, friendly, playful, fearful, fretful, thoughtful, mindful, visionary and blind, and the records he’s put on the air, and on jukeboxes, have made the country music standard of living a little richer, made the lives of everyone who’s tapped into his talent a little more interesting.

    As a writer of the highest standard, Rodney Crowell is a national treasure. The singer/songwriter has long been an important presence in country music, from Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, to Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Charlie Rich — and Rodney Crowell can stand up there proudly in line. They all started with naked truth on a scratch pad and went on, with varying degrees of success, from there. His contributions to the development of country music as a contemporary force can’t be measured. Gram Parsons is often described as the father of country/rock, as the guy who put the square peg in the round hole and came up with something that fit more or less comfortably. But Parsons died young, still trying to get it just right, and it took another generation — a generation that included Rodney Crowell — to realize and perfect his dream.

    Rodney’s musical education consisted of as much rock, folk and rhythm ‘n’ blues as whole–cloth country. At his father’s knee, Crowell learned all the old country standards, how they were put together, what they meant and why they were great. He was a teen–ager when the Beatles and the Stones arrived on American shores, and even down in the Deep South, where Rodney and his family lived, their influence and their energy got in the bloodstream of every guitar–strumming teen–ager.

    Read More…

    From Bob Dylan, he learned to put thoughts and music together. From Guy Clark, he learned to reach for poetry, not just words. Harmony, humility, perseverance and professionalism, he learned those from Emmylou Harris.

    He joined Harris’ celebrated Hot Band in 1975, at the age of 24, and stayed less than three years. “I wanted him very much to go out and sprout from that tree of artists and writers who came from that country place but who were infused with their own poetry of their own time, their own generation,” says Harris. “That were going to push the frontiers of country music, and infuse it with something very much current, and their own.

    “He had the vision to do it, he had the songwriting talent, and he had the voice. I always thought Rodney was a great singer, a very underrated singer.”

    Crowell met Clark at a time when Nashville was telling its scribes to keep it short, sweet and stupid. Rodney had already mastered that particular hat–trick — and when he connected with Clark, he learned about putting words on a page like the strokes of a paintbrush. The secret, he discovered, is to stay away from pretentiousness by remaining connected to your own heart and your own sense of irony. Care about what you write. Stay true and, by God, the picture will paint itself.

    Over the 25 years of their friendship, Crowell and Clark have co–authored a dozen songs. A songwriting partner, explains Clark, “has to be somebody you can trust, because when you’re writing there’s a lot of experimentation, and off–the–wall stuff you have to verbalize. Which won’t always be used in the song, but it seems to be part of the process. That’s something you don’t have to worry about when you’re writing by yourself.

    “There’s some very good friends of mine, we’ve tried to write together and, nothin.’ And sometimes I’ve written with strangers and it’s just come off wonderful. I’m not quite sure what the chemistry is, but for some reason Rodney and I have always been able to do it.”

    MCA Records Nashville President Tony Brown, a longtime friend, believes Rodney was always destined for big things. “The first thing I noticed about Rodney was his eyes,” Brown says. “It was almost like you could see into his brain, they were just clear and amazing. It felt like I was meeting somebody really special. A very charismatic guy.”

    Brown, who co–produced all five of Rodney’s No. 1 hit singles, hit further paydirt with other artists including Reba McEntire, Wynonna and George Strait. “People ask you what makes stars,” he says. “Some people have that, and most people don’t. And Rodney has it. He’s probably Gram Parsons reincarnated.”

    Perhaps the quality that sets Rodney Crowell apart is his willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve for the sake of his art. Very few writers use their vulnerability as a tool—as Crowell has done many, many times over the course of his songwriting career. The songs, he says, come to him — rarely does he go looking for them. So he writes from a deep and genuine place, even when it hurts.

    “I never considered any other kind of work,” he says. “I did a lot of different kind of stuff before. I was a dishwasher and a busboy at a Friday’s restaurant in Nashville, and I quit in the middle of the day. I told my boss, ‘Look, I’m sorry to do this, but if I can’t make a living making music, then I’ll just starve.’ I was committed to that, and this is what I’ve done ever since. So I guess that kind of commitment is what you gotta have.”

    His career has gone up and down more times than the Space Shuttle, but he’s learned to put it in perspective. Sensitive and self–aware, Rodney Crowell wasn’t too surprised to find that his greatest commercial success coincided with his most intense period of personal unhappiness. When all was said and done, however, he got a couple of good songs out of it.

    Oh, yes … he knows how to have fun, too. “Rodney is able to put exuberance in a song without being perky,” enthuses Harris. “Without over–simplifying the positive.

    “There’s still a quality to Rodney that no matter how old he gets, he’ll always be the Houston Kid. There’s always going to be a kid in there.”

     

    The Houston Kid

    He was born Aug. 7, 1950, the only child of James Walter and Cauzette Crowell. Rodney’s father, whom everyone knew as J.W., was from Arkansas and grew up in southwestern Kentucky farm country, in a town called Murray. He’d met Cauzette Willoughby (from Buchanan, Tenn., just “a mule ride away” across the border) at a Roy Acuff concert at the Buchanan High School gym. Many years later, Rodney introduced his mother to Acuff, backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, and was proud to say “Mr. Acuff, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here.”

    Both J.W. and Cauzette had left school in the 8th grade, to help out on their respective family farms, and after they got married they high–tailed it out of there. Times were hard and jobs were few for young people in those post–Depression years, and if you had a lick of sense, you went where the work was. First stop was Detroit, where J.W. took a position on an auto assembly line. It didn’t work out, and soon the Crowells were on the move again.

    “They wound up in Houston, because Houston was a port and there was lots of menial labor,” Rodney explains. “He went to work there as a laborer.”

    The Port of Houston was one of the busiest on the Gulf of Mexico, with nearly all of Texas’ oil products eventually shipping out via the city’s tremendous man–made channel. The Crowells’ tiny house was near the channel, on the “wrong side of town,” packed with refineries, warehouses and beer joints. J.W. did whatever work was at hand. “On my birth certificate, his occupation is listed as ‘truck driver,’” says Rodney. “What he was really doing was delivering ice.”

    The senior Crowell, his son remembers, played the guitar and sang, and was pretty darn good. “He was, basically, an encyclopedia of songs from a certain period. His area of expertise was the Roy Acuff era, from Jimmy Rodgers, probably from 1930 to 1965. He just knew all of that country music.”

    J.W. performed at home, in what spare time he could find. “I think it’s what he really wanted to do,” Rodney says, “however, he grew up the son of a sharecropper, and the Depression hit those people so hard that I think my dad was locked onto this thing that he had to have a job.

    “And that’s what he did, but I think what he really wished he would’ve done is gone to Nashville and ‘made it.’”

    J.W. gave his boy the gift of music without even realizing it. “Later on, when I found my own love for it, the foundation that had been laid, just through osmosis, all of those songs … one thing about my dad, he didn’t write ‘em, but he knew ‘em. I think I became a songwriter because I absorbed so many songs when I was little that eventually I had to just re–assemble them and turn them into something else. I had a body full of songs just from osmosis. He had those rabbit in the graveyard, trace her footprints in the snow, all of those dead baby songs, a real wealth of authenticity in his repertoire.”

    Rodney Crowell remembers a musical household—”Hearts of Stone,” by the Fontaine Sisters, was a favorite record. “I remember hearing that record when I was like real little, I must’ve been 3 or 4. Or younger.

    Mostly, there was country music. “I remember Hank Williams 78s. There was some sort of crude record player there, and we had these Hank Williams 78s, no dust cover or anything on ‘em. I just remember music.”

    By the late ’50s Rodney’s dad had a band, J.W. Crowell and the Rhythm Boys, to play weekend dates at the local drinking establishments. “These were dives, with no barmaids, with that alcohol lunatic fringe,” Crowell recalls. “It’s sort of an under–culture of its own down there, a seaport town. There are a lot of those ice houses and beer joints that Merchant Marines hung around, in the part of Houston where the ship channel ended, where I grew up. “It was honky–tonk country music, from the Hank Williams era through to middle Merle Haggard.”

    Years later, Rodney’s friend Guy Clark wrote a song about the Crowell family, “Black Diamond Strings,” proclaiming that J.W. played “two nights a week in a hillbilly band.”

    Not the case. The Rhythm Boys gigged maybe five nights a month. And never, ever on school nights—because in 1961, the group took on a new drummer, 11–year–old Rodney.

    “My dad came home one day with a pawn shop kit, set ‘em down and showed me how to do it,” he remembers. “I practiced for a little while and then went and started playing with him. I would say within a week’s time I was playing drums, a goofy 11–year–old kid.”

    Although he never saw a serious fight, never experienced a real “barroom brawl,” Rodney didn’t like going to the beer joints. “I felt a little put–upon. I wasn’t entirely happy about it. I was kind of ‘made’ to do it. And like in Guy’s song, Cauzette didn’t like what J.W. was doing, taking the kid to a honky tonk. So she went to keep an eye on me. She thought the devil lived there.” Rodney often fell asleep in the back seat of the family car, on the drive home.

    J.W. drew from his vast repertoire of country classics to keep the tempo going, Rodney says. “Watch me,” his dad would whisper, “I know how to keep the dance floor full.” Requests would be written on one–dollar bills dropped into a cigar box in front of the stage. “At the end of the night when they split up the dough, there wasn’t any coming my way,” Rodney chuckles. J.W. had deduced that by adding his little boy to the band, that was one less musician he’d be required to pay.

    So when he was 14, Rodney quit the Rhythm Boys. The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion had reached Houston radio. “It was like plugging your finger into a light socket,” he says: “Ah … the guy out front gets the girls.” He was attracted, he says, to the energy.

    J.W., predictably, said the Beatles were “bullshit,” but his harrumphing couldn’t keep a guitar out of Rodney’s hands. His first band was called the Arbitrators, and the played Beatles, Beach Boys, Animals, Yardbirds, whatever big–beat stuff happened to move them. And they were moving plenty. Rodney Crowell’s teen–age years were a combination of Arbitrators rock ‘n’ roll, baseball and bull–riding (which he wasn’t much good at, although that didn’t stop him from taking rein in hand). After a light bulb snapped on over his head, he realized he could put his dad’s influence to good use and started a second group, a rodeo dance combo, using a couple of the Arbitrators as sidemen. “That band was Merle and Buck,” he says. “I knew those songs. I’d get up there and slam those songs.” He played some rock ‘n’ roll, and some country music—foreshadowing the “supposed fence–straddling,” he points out, of his later years. “This is not schizophrenia; it’s real. I was doing that when I was a teen–ager, to make money.”

    Rodney was one of Crosby High’s 46 graduating seniors in 1968. And although he had composed a tune at age 15, a “childish song in D minor,” his first big lunge at the pen came at graduation time.

    One night the senior class was to vote on the class flower, the class this and the class that. It occurred to Rodney that they’d probably go for a class song. “That morning I got up and I threw a song together. I went and played it at this meeting, and they all voted that that was going to be our class song. And God, it was blood awful. It was very Beatles–derivative and it was … it was bad. It was really bad. And I got up there with a cap and damn gown, with a guitar on, and sang that stupid song.”

    Now, let’s fast–forward … “I went to my 25th class reunion, and there was a woman who taught a little English and home economics, and was kind of the only cultural icon that we had around there. Her name was Miss Hansen. Her daughter was my age, so I saw here there.

    “A lot of these classmates were saying ‘Sing the song, Rodney Crowell!’ and I said no, I’m not going to. And Miss Hansen was standing there, and she said ‘Wise choice, young man.’ I said ‘It really was bad, wasn’t it?’ She said, ‘Awful.’ And I said ‘Thank you for supporting me.’”

    It was at Stephen F. Austin College in Nagadoches that Rodney met Donivan Cowart, his first in a series of soul mates. Donivan was a history major; Rodney was ostensibly studying political science and English. In reality, they spent their time “getting high, skipping class and writing songs.” Rodney got a job playing guitar in a Holiday Inn group; eventually he took over the six–nights–a–week gig, adding Donivan and a drummer. They called themselves the Greenville Three, only because Donivan had written a song called “Greenville, Tennessee.” It made enough sense to go by. “We got fired regularly because we played our own material,” Crowell says. “And the clientele that started to come see us was young hippies, and the young hippies had their inebriants before they got there. So they would just sit and listen to the music, and not buy drinks. They’d fire us and then hire us again.

    “We would ditch the ‘Jeremiah was a Bullfrog’ crap and start playing our own songs. And the crowd would dig it. And we’d get fired, and literally re–hired the next day.”

    Eventually Crowell and Cowart drifted east to Houston, in Donivan’s ’65 Impala to look for work, college having become a dead issue. And there they met Jim Duff, whose claim to fame was having engineered a 13th Floor Elevators record. This was as close to the music business as the young musicians had got, so when Jim Duff offered to manage them, they readily agreed. Signed on the dotted line. “We loaded up the car and drove to Crowley, La. to J.D. Miller’s studio, where he did all of those race records, those party records,” Crowell recalls. “And they did a whole lot of Cajun records over there. We did a record with Jim Duff.

    “Well, as it turned out, Jim Duff was a real bad alcoholic — the poor man was an illalcoholic — we made this record and came back to Houston, and he said ‘OK, I’m going to go to Nashville with it.’ Donivan and I were working as a duo at Popeyes, a supper club in Houston, and making some pretty decent money — we were doing covers but could sneak in our original tunes.

    “We got the call from Jim Duff: ‘Hey, I’m signing you to a 10–year recording contract with Columbia Records, and you’re going on the road with Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. Get up here.’ “Well, we quit Popeyes, jumped in the car and headed to Nashville, man. Slid in sideways, doors flew open, ‘Where’s Jim Duff?’

    “We couldn’t find the guy anywhere. We were like ‘What the fuck?’ I had spent my last dime buying this really fine Martin guitar — hey, I gotta have a good guitar if I’m going to do this, right? — we slid in sideways to Nashville with 15 bucks. No Jim Duff.”

    Both in their early 20s, Crowell and Cowart didn’t know anybody, didn’t have any prospects, and they sure as hell couldn’t find their mentor and his Columbia Records contract. They assumed Kenny Rogers was waiting somewhere for them, looking at his watch and impatiently tapping his foot.

    Having no money, “We lived in the car out at Percy Priest Lake, Donivan in the front and me in the back, and came into town,” Rodney remembers. They took baths in the lake.

    In time, they started picking up a little change by passing the hat at Bishop’s Pub, a legendary watering hole on the west end. Owner Tim Bishop liked their enthusiasm and gave them free hamburgers in the kitchen.

    Soon a mutual friend — well known to be a speed freak — drove all night from Houston, just to tell them the truth about Jim Duff and their big–time opportunity.

    “It was a lie. What he’d really done was, he came up and didn’t get nothin’ going, so he sold the publishing for $100, for a bus ticket back to Houston.

    “We found out that the tapes and the songwriting contracts were on top of a drawer at Surefire Music, which was the Wilburn Brothers’ publishing company.

    “We went in at lunchtime, and Donivan charmed the receptionist. And I slipped into that office, swiped the tape and the publishing agreement on the songs, and we scooted out of there with our tapes and our songs.”

    The write stuff

    Bishop’s Pub was a mecca for the new breed of songwriter then immigrating to Nashville and living the dirt–poor but artistically rich lifestyle. The pub was dark, and the beer was cold, and Tim Bishop would let any of them get onstage and play for the hat. A supportive group of like–minded individuals – many of them from Texas — began to orbit Bishop’s Pub. Central to the coterie were Guy Clark and his wife Susanna, herself a gifted songwriter and painter, and the Clarks’ compadre Townes Van Zandt, who’d already made a couple of albums on the tiny Poppy label. The three of them shared a small house on 34th Street, just around the corner from Bishop’s Pub, so they could just walk over whenever they felt like it. Mickey Newbury, Billy Joe Shaver and Richard Dobson were regulars, too.

    “It started to get cold, and me, Skinny Dennis Sanchez and Richard Dobson got a house on Ashland Avenue together,” Crowell says. “And all of the songwriters started crashing out there.

    “That’s when I started working at Friday’s. As a dishwasher, I’d get off at 2 in the morning, and from drinking all those half–empty drinks that came through I’d be smashed when I came home. I would be just perfectly oiled up for what was already going on at the house. We’d play music till dawn, sleep all day, and then I’d work at night.”

    There was never a dull moment at Rodney’s place. “For a while, there was an acrobat and his assistant living in the front bedroom,” he remembers. “I think Richard Dobson went off on one of his literary trips, and sublet his front bedroom to these circus performers. I can’t remember their names, but they were just out, just perfect for the whole bizarre atmosphere that was going on around there at the time.”

    Guy Clark had already written “L.A. Freeway,” which included a line about Skinny Dennis Sanchez — the Californian bass player who wound up sharing the house with Rodney — but his first album was still two years away.

    Susanna Clark remembers the first time she and Guy ran into Rodney and Donivan, at the Ashland house. “Everybody was in the kitchen, doing what they did, and these two were in the walk–in front hall, looking kinda weird. I just sat down and said ‘Hi!’ I was young and in the way, too. Still innocent and friendly.

    “I just thought Rodney was this twinkling, beautiful angel. And I said ‘I’ll play you a song, if you’ll play me one.’ I played him something, I don’t remember what, and he played ‘There’s Glue on My Stool.’ He only played that one for me — he wouldn’t dare play it for anybody else.

    “We started talking, and he was bright and cheerful, and stars started poppin’ all around his head. And I said ‘I like you!’ And he said ‘I like you, too!’” In the Clarks, Rodney was to make the best of friends. “Susanna and I started talking,” he says, “and we hooked right up. I think Guy was passed out on my bed, face down with his boots hangin’ off the end. That’s how I met Guy.”

    Clark’s disciplined, no–words–wasted songwriting had an immediate effect on Rodney, who eagerly joined in the all–night sing– and booze–alongs. “I would venture out a few of these twerpy songs, and there was Guy Clark songs, Mickey Newbury songs, and Townes Van Zandt songs. I was exposed. My shortcomings were exposed in a big way.

    “There was no suffering fools there. I wasn’t tolerated at all — I was ignored. I think the talent was present, and my knowledge of music was present — I think Guy kind of locked in on that, he saw that I had real roots, and that kept me around — but the songs that I was writing were just an embarrassment. I was smart enough to realize it.”

    “I thought he was very good when I first met him,” says Clark, who calls Rodney one of his “real, true” friends. “I can’t remember exactly where I met him—I remember he and Donivan came over to our house in East Nashville – but I always thought he was great. I always knew he was capable of it.”

    According to Rodney, the late–night songwriters’ gatherings were friendly, but competitive. “It was intimidating. Townes was extremely competitive. Townes was more overtly competitive than Guy—those two were very competitive with each other. But I think I was just young enough, and guile–less enough, I took my beatings in the proper spirit of learning.”

    He was, after all, only 22 years old, the runt of the litter. Eventually, however, things began to change.

    “I remember quite clearly when I played this song called ‘Bluebird Wine.’ Which is not a great song, but it’s a good start. It was one of those nights, and I got Guy’s approval with that. And of course, Townes wasn’t giving any approval on it.

    “And then the next time around, in some setting, Guy would go ‘Hey, Rodney, play Bluebird Wine.’ So then I was in. I had a song that Guy would say ‘Play that.’ I think that fanned the flame a little bit.”

    In Clark’s view, Rodney blossomed quickly as a songwriter. And their friendship, a symbiotic affair, grew deeper as time went on. Rodney told interviewers later that he could very well have gone into business writing cheap, glittery, radio–friendly country songs at that point, but for connecting with Guy Clark and coming to understand that you could write about what was inside of you, reaching deeper with each pass until you found it. He learned about songcraft. From the beginning, Rodney described Guy as his mentor. “I never thought of it as a student–teacher thing, never wanted it to be,” Clark says. “I learned a lot from Rodney. He has a really good sense of music, and a great catalogue of knowledge from having played as a kid. He’s got a real energy.”

    Voila, an American Dream

    In the spring of ’73, Rodney was eking out a living playing clubs, after giving his notice at Friday’s. Somebody, he doesn’t recall who, asked him if he could yodel; he said yes, of course he could! He would’ve done anything by that point to make some cash.

    He went to Opryland, which was just getting ready to start its first summer, and auditioned for their big summer revue, based on the life of Jimmie Rodgers. His yodeling carried the day, and he was awarded the part of the “Blue Yodeler” in the summer spectacular. A steady paycheck seemed assured, but … “But I happened to be playing Happy Hour at the Jolly Ox, and I was expressly forbidden to play my own songs,” Rodney recalls. “One night I clenched through my teeth ‘I’m gonna play one of my own songs.’ So I played this song called ‘You Can’t Keep Me Here in Tennessee,’ and at the end of that set Jerry Reed’s manager came and said ‘We’d like to record that song tomorrow, and if you’re not signed, we’d like to sign you as a songwriter.’ I said ‘OK, yeah. Good timing.’ I think that was a crossroads.” He has often reflected on how his life would’ve turned out differently if he had become the “Blue Yodeler.”

    True to his manager’s word, Reed cut Rodney’s song the very next afternoon. “I speculate they were sitting around at Happy Hour at the Jolly Ox going ‘God, we need a song for tomorrow…’”

    Vector Music paid him $100 per week to turn out the tunes

    Although he wrote several that would later prove pivotal, including “Song For the Life” and “‘Til I Gain Control Again,” none got recorded. Still, Vector was a learning experience, and he met Chet Atkins, Jim Croce and even Buford Pusser, and super–session drummer Larrie Londin (later a close professional and personal friend) during this period.

    Skip Beckwith, who played bass with the Canadian country/pop diva Anne Murray, came through Nashville in ’74 and wound up crashing at Rodney’s house for a week. The two became fast friends, and when Beckwith flew home to Toronto, he was carrying a cassette demo of a couple of Crowell songs. His intention was to play them for Brian Ahern, Murray’s producer.

    But Ahern was knee–deep in a new project. He had agreed to produce the first solo album for Emmylou Harris, the former harmony singer for country/rock pioneer Gram Parsons, who had died from bad living the previous fall.

    It was a fateful meeting, and one Harris remembers well. “Brian popped the tape into the machine, and ‘Bluebird Wine’ came on,” she says. “There was something in Rodney’s voice that I really liked. There was something about the energy and the song that I really liked. So we listened then to ‘Song For the Life’ and I said ‘Now, here’s somebody that has obviously listened to George Jones.’”

    Crowell was tracked down in Houston — he still has no idea how they found him there—and within hours of Ahern’s call he was on a plane to Toronto. He came face–to–face with Emmylou Harris for the first time at the rural Virginia home of guitarist John Starling, of the Seldom Scene.

    “We sat up all night and played songs,” says Crowell, “‘Do you know this one?’ We both were into all those brothers — the Everly Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, the Wilburn Brothers, John and Paul, all of those duet singing teams.”

    Immediately, they both knew they had to sing together. It was too good.

    Harris: “We would sit there and bang away on the guitars, and he would jump in with the harmony. In the way that Gram used to play me songs, and I would jump in on the harmony. Or then Rodney would sing the song and I would start harmonizing with him.”

    During that first session at John Starling’s house, Rodney sang “‘Til I Gain Control Again,” and Harris was stunned. “At this point, I felt like I had probably found the mother lode. Because for somebody at his young age to be able to write a song like ‘Til I Gain Control Again.’ … I always felt that Rodney was an old soul, that he was able to write songs that you can appreciate when you’re young, but they really age well because as you get older, and life gets harder, and you get more and more worn around the edges, the songs take on even more levels of soulfulness and poetry. He really has always had a phenomenal talent for the lyric and the melody.”

    Susanna Clark remembers the first time she heard Emmylou Harris sing. “Rodney called us over to his little apartment, and he said ‘Sit there, Susanna. I’m gonna play you something. You have to be still.’ All of a sudden there was this piercing, beautiful, angelic voice, singing ‘Til I Gain Control Again.’ And he said ‘See? They like me up in Canada.’ I knew how he wrote it, and why he wrote it, but I’d never heard it like that before, ever, ever.”

    Eventually, Crowell was Choice No. 1 for the Hot Band, which Harris and Ahern were assembling to back her on her first album. He readily agreed to move to Los Angeles, where the sessions were to take place.

    “Being a harmony singer was such an integral part of what my real musical education was about,” Harris points out. “So much of what we did was built around singing those harmonies. And having somebody to bounce songs off of, and bounce harmonies off of, having somebody to harmonize with … That whole duet thing was a real important part of my identity, the way I approached music, the way I thought of myself.

    “I found myself center stage because of fate and circumstances, but I always felt that I was sharing the stage with Rodney. And the whole rest of the band. I always thought of myself as a member of that band.”

    The Hot Band was aptly named, as it included several members of Elvis Presley’s touring group, guitarist James Burton, bassist Emory Gordy Jr., pedal steel player Hank DeVito, drummer Ron Tutt and pianist Glen D. Hardin. And Rodney Crowell.

    All but Tutt agreed to tour with Harris — Burton and Hardin on the condition that they be allowed to work around Elvis’ schedule. Gordy, DeVito and Crowell, in particular, formed a bond that lasts to this day.

    “It’s interesting that everybody focuses on the Hot Band, and the hot players, and rightly so,” Harris says. “Everybody in the band was so important. But Rodney brought something to the band — I think he became the spirit and the personality. He had such a wonderful, open, playful quality about him, and yet he was so talented as a songwriter. Everything just fell into place, and somehow it was real pivotal around Rodney.”

    Harris recorded “BluebirdWine” for that first album, Pieces of the Sky, and “‘Til I Gain Control Again” for Elite Hotel in ’76. For the next decade, Rodney Crowell’s songs figured in nearly all of her records — Harris was the first to record “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” and numerous others.

    “I was like a kid in a candy store,” she enthuses. “I had this great young writer that nobody else knew about, and I had first dibs on anything he wrote. In fact, sometimes I was the first person to hear the song.”

    Rodney’s first recording sessions were as backing vocalist on Guy Clark’s RCA Records debut, Old No. 1. Clark had recorded the entire set, then decided he didn’t like it and cut the whole thing again. By the time of the re–make sessions, Crowell was living in Los Angeles with the Hot Band. He flew back and forth to Nashville to help with Old No. 1.

    “He brought a lot of good, positive energy,” says Clark. “And he made the record better.”

    Crowell also figured prominently in the recording of Clark’s historically underrated second album, Texas Cookin,’ in ’76.

    Onstage, the Hot Band was re–papering the walls between country and popular music. Burton, DeVito, Gordy, Hardin and Crowell were more than mere backup players. The virtuosity onstage was astounding, and audiences from coast to coast to coast responded.

    Crowell: “It was fun. It was heady. At that time, we were a country rock band opening for Elton John at Dodger Stadium. We were out with James Taylor. We played a lot of the rock venues. At that time, it wasn’t so segregated. And it was real cool.

    “I was young and impressionable, and I learned a lot. I think that’s the period where I became a record producer, because working with Glen and James Burton and Emory and all of those guys, it was a group of arrangers.

    “I could only claim that I was a songwriter and a little bit of a vocalist at that time. But being around those guys, I actually learned how to arrange. And combining my sense for songs and what I learned about arranging, being in that band, has really served me pretty well for a while.”

    History has re–assigned the Rodney Crowell of that period the role of surrogate Gram Parsons; Harris, it’s suggested, needed a strong male vocal presence on the stage to make her comfortable, and Rodney filled the bill.

    “That was a completely different deal,” Crowell says “Gram Parsons needed Emmy. He sang melody and she sang the third harmony part. It doesn’t work without the third. And with me and Emmy, Emmy sang the melody, and I sang usually the fifth beneath her. It’s a different kind of harmony configuration.

    “Whenever I took the melody, and Emmy sang harmony with me, I think we had that particular sound. I think I was basically the same kind of singer as Gram Parsons, in that timbre.”

    Crowell thinks of Parsons as a “James Dean character who died a flamboyant death,” and that’s about it, thank you. He never met the guy. “I wasn’t a surrogate Gram Parsons,” he says. “We were just working, making music.”

    A brief marriage, in 1975, to his Nashville girlfriend Martha didn’t last long, but it resulted in the birth of Hannah Crowell, who was brought up by her father. “She left and I got the kid,” Rodney says proudly. “I raised her up solid.”

    By any other name

    The next year, he met Johnny Cash’s 21–year–old daughter Rosanne, an aspiring singer/songwriter herself. It happened at a party at Waylon Jennings’ house, where Rodney and Emmylou were the center of attention. “They trotted us out and we sang duets for them,” Crowell recalls. “While Rosanne and Willie Nelson sat under a pool table.”

    He didn’t really notice her, he says, although she later told interviewers she took an instant liking to him. “There was too much going on to really dial it in,” Rodney says. “Me and Emmy were kind of performing for everybody, so I don’t think I was terribly receptive. We were performing for Willie and Waylon, really. And I don’t think John and June (Carter, Rosanne’s stepmother) were there.”

    Brian Ahern sat in the producer’s chair for Rodney’s first solo album, Ain’t Living Long Like This, for Warner Brothers in the spring of ’78. The album featured many of the virtuoso players that made up the Hot Band. To pursue his own dream, Crowell left the touring band, to be replaced by young Ricky Skaggs, who found himself referred to by the press as a “surrogate Rodney Crowell.”

    “Honestly, I dropped out thinking that I would just do what Emmy was doing,” remembers Crowell. “Get myself a great band and go out and play all those great places she was.

    “That was not at all what happened. I put out that first record and it didn’t do anything for me, personally, but the songs were good and they all got covered.”

    Within three years, “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” “Ain’t Living Long Like This” and “Voila, An American Dream” would become huge hits for other artists. Harris herself cut “Leaving Louisiana” and “Ain’t Living Long” on her fourth album, 1978′s Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. It went gold.

    But Rodney Crowell’s album gathered dust on record store shelves across America.

    Perhaps it just swung too wide—along with the sharply–etched originals, Crowell included covers of Dallas Frazier’s “Elvira,” Porter Wagoner’s “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name” and Hank Snow’s “A Fool Such As I,” all of which he’d learned at his father’s knee.

    “‘Elvira,’ and ‘Candy Man,’ which I did years later, were songs that I learned off my Aunt Mary’s stereo down in Houston,” says Crowell. “She had a collection of R’n’B singles, back there in the late ’50s and early ’60s, that was uncanny for the kind of woman she was. These R’n’B records from New Orleans. She had Frogman Henry and those things.” Aunt Mary’s son, Larry Willoughby, followed Rodney into the music business.

    Everyone involved was stunned at the failure of Ain’t Living Long Like This, which never sold more than 50,000 copies. “It was a great record,” believes Emmylou Harris. “And just about every song was lifted by somebody else and made a hit.

    “But for some reason, that door that had opened for me when I kind of surprised everybody, including myself, and there was an audience for this new kind of country —the door kind of closed somehow. And I don’t think the record company knew exactly how to promote that record of Rodney’s. I don’t know what happened, because certainly it was a good record.”

    To add insult to injury, the Oak Ridge Boys took their revival of “Elvira,” using Rodney Crowell’s arrangement, to No. 1 in 1981, earning “Single of the Year” honors from the Country Music Association.

    Success somehow eluded Rodney Crowell. “I think I just sort of assumed it would come,” he laughs. “Maybe I was presumptuous about that.”

    In retrospect, Crowell believes he doomed Ain’t Living Long Like This because he didn’t promote it; rather than hitting the road, he flew to Munich, Germany, where Rosanne Cash was making an album for the Ariola label. As a favor, he had produced her demo recordings. When a friend in Munich played the tape for someone she knew at Ariola, Rosanne was offered a record deal. Crowell always believed they were trying to cash in on the fact that she was Johnny Cash’s daughter.

    The first sessions went badly, and soon Rosanne called Rodney and begged him to come to Germany and help her finish the record. He did, and during their stay in Munich romance blossomed.

    Rosanne’s self–titled album was issued worldwide, and died a worldwide death. That, they figured, was that. They both hated it, anyway.

    Back in California, Crowell had formed a bond with Albert Lee, the English guitarist who’d taken over for James Burton in the Hot Band, when Burton opted to keep his calendar open only for Elvis. “There were mixed feelings when I joined the Hot Band, because I was replacing James Burton,” Lee says. “James wanted to do both gigs, really, and they forced him into a decision. So I was fortunate enough to get the gig with Emmylou, which was perfect for me. It was the kind of music I’d always wanted to play.

    “But I had to replace one of my all–time favorite guitar players, and play a lot of his licks. Which was fine up to a point. But there were certain people in the band — I won’t name names — who were putting pressure on me. But Rodney was certainly on my side, and a big fan. And we became fast friends right from the word go.” Rodney and Albert weren’t together in the Hot Band for very long. But they enjoyed singing together; they dubbed their weekend act “Rodney & Albert.”

    “In Emmy’s down time, we started playing down in Redondo Beach, at the Sweetwater,” Crowell recalls. “It was me and Albert, (drummer) John Ware, Emory Gordy and Hank DeVito. Rosanne sang harmony and played guitar with us. That was what eventually became the Cherry Bombs.”

    Some nights, Rosanne was so nervous she turned her guitar amplifier off and only pretended to play.

    Tony Brown, another former Elvis sideman, had replaced Glen D. Hardin as the Hot Band’s pianist. When Emmylou cut down on touring because of her pregnancy, Brown took a desk job with RCA Records in Los Angeles, joining the Hot Band for their infrequent gigs, most of them in California. He hooked up with “Rodney & Albert,” too, and by simple virtue of his presence became a charter Cherry Bomb.

    Between 1979 and ’81, the Cherry Bombs barnstormed the California club circuit, played some big shows, and re–organized with a slightly altered lineup each time. “We would play for anything from a dollar a night to whatever our fee was, just to be in that group, with Larrie Londin on drums,” says Brown.

    “The Cherry Bombs didn’t become the Cherry Bombs until we brought Larrie Londin out from Nashville to the Record Plant in Sausalito,” Crowell adds. “That’s when I got on the idea to call the band the Cherry Bombs: ‘We’ll tour the whole world!’” Vince Gill, who was just then starting to sing with Pure Prairie League (his explosively successful solo career was still a decade away), often played lead guitar with the Cherry Bombs.

    “I first met Vince at the Troubadour in ’76,” recalls Crowell. “I went down to see Byron Berline, and Vince was on the stage. I walked in and got me a place in the balcony up there, and Vince started singing ‘Til I Gain Control Again.’ And I went ‘Wow,  that was good.’ He sang it REAL good. Vince must’ve been 20 or 21 at the time.

    “When they came off, I went and introduced myself. He was, I think, just starting to date Janis from Sweethearts of the Rodeo, and I knew them from the Long Beach Bluegrass Festival days. When I was a judge, and I voted for ‘em. They were the Sweethearts back in ’75.”

    In early ’79 Rick Blackburn, then the head of Columbia Records, was at Johnny Cash’s house in Nashville. Proud papa pulled out the Ariola album, Rosanne Cash, and put it on the turntable. Blackburn didn’t care for the record’s trendy pop sounds, but he liked Rosanne’s voice, and he was particularly drawn to one song, “Baby, Better Start Turnin’ ‘Em Down,” written by Rosanne’s new boyfriend, Rodney Crowell.

    Rosanne was signed to Columbia Records, and it took some persuading, but Blackburn eventually allowed Crowell to produce her debut, Right or Wrong.

    He tackled his first major production in the Enactron Truck studio, the very facility where the newly–married Ahern and Harris made their masterpieces (it was indeed a truck, parked in the driveway of the house they leased on Lania Lane in Beverly Hills).

    Right or Wrong was a punchy, heads–up concoction merging country/pop ballads and uptempo ravers. Rosanne covered her father (“Big River”), used one of her own songs (“This Has Happened Before”) and hit a blue streak of great Rodney Crowell songs (“Baby, Better Start Turnin’ ‘Em Down,” “Anybody’s Darlin,’” “Seeing’s Believing” and “No Memories Hangin’ Round”).

    A duet with Bobby Bare, “No Memories Hangin’ Round” was Rosanne’s first hit single, reaching No. 17 in September ’79, two months after she and Rodney tied the knot in Los Angeles. Rodney’s daughter Hannah moved in with them, and daughter Caitlin was born later in the year.

    The Cherry Bombs backed Rosanne on her record, too. “He had an idea what he wanted, but obviously he put a lot of trust into the players,” recalls Albert Lee. “He knew what he could get from the players. He relied on us.”

    Lee’s chicken–pickin’ electric guitar — as well as his piano work and vocal harmonies —were used on every Crowell record, as an artist or producer, during this period. “All the times I worked with him in the studio, he never really grilled me at all,” says Lee. “It’s always been very easy. He knows what I do, and he always seems happy with what I deliver.”

    Rodney’s focus once again became his solo career. In ’79, he was besotted with Elvis Costello. “It was songwriting far beyond all those punk guys,” he says. “By that time, I’d been to England a few times and hung out with Dave Edmunds and the Rockpile boys, and got introduced to pub rock sensibilities. I went back to California thinking we were too soft.” On a trip to London, “Hank and I went down to Dingwall’s, and they had ‘Pump it Up’ blasting, and it was like ‘Man, this is the hippest stuff I’ve heard.’ And of course, we started going ‘Well, now we’ve got to upgrade our shit, here.’”

    So Rodney Crowell and his Cherry Bombs moved into a rented house in Sausalito, armed with a handful of freshly–minted compositions, and “started bashing away.” The result was But What Will the Neighbors Think, a punchy, poppy record that bears little resemblance to the lighthearted and decidedly country Ain’t Living Long Like This.

    Rodney’s vocals had something new, a compressed, filtered quality. “That’s me trying to get tough with it,” he says. “I think that’s me being influenced by Elvis Costello and those guys.”

    The album was produced — virtually live in the studio — by Craig Leon, who’d made records with the Ramones. Rodney liked what he’d done on one of Moon Martin’s albums and sought him out.

    “This artist travels outside the borders of country music, a move that jingoistic outlawism would consider an implicit betrayal,” read the rave Rolling Stone review ofBut What Will the Neighbors Think. “Yet rock ‘n’ roll and even English folk balladry are of a piece with Crowell’s concerns.”

    The music was heads–up different–sounding, but Rodney Crowell the songwriter was right there where he should’ve been, dead center. “On a Real Good Night” ached with beautiful desperation, “Here Come the ’80s” looked forward with skewed optimism and humor. The covers were great, too, especially Guy Clark’s “Heartbroke” and Hank DeVito’s “Queen of Hearts.”

    But Juice Newton soon had a huge pop hit with “Queen of Hearts,” and Ricky Skaggs made “Heartbroke” his third consecutive No. 1 record.

    Rodney managed to get to No. 78 on the pop chart with “Ashes By Now,” the first of two singles from But What Will the Neighbors Think. Even that had been left over from the first album; in fact, the original recording was the B–side of “Elvira” back in ’78. Brian Ahern later replaced Rodney’s lead vocal s with Emmylou Harris’ and released “her version” of “Ashes By Now” as part of her Evangeline album.

    In the meantime, two more singles from Rosanne’s Right or Wrong were Top 20 records.

    Crowell: “I was certainly frustrated, and disappointed and hurt, but you know what? Every time I did something that the public or the writers perceived as such a devastating thing, to make me such a negative, nasty person, it just wasn’t true. Because I would just get over it and get on to the next thing I was working on. I was producing something else or I was touring with the Cherry Bombs. I was always optimistic.

    “I was certainly disappointed, and I was going through the trials and tribulations that you do in marriage, when you’re young and getting too screwed up, but I think there’s this general stamp to put on me in that time.

    “And it’s not fair, because I was always optimistic and always writing more songs, and onto the next thing.”

    He wore his producer’s hat for two new projects, Guy Clark’s The South Coast of Texas album, and Rosanne’s Seven Year Ache. Early in the year, Clark had made an album, Burnin’ Daylight, with Craig Leon, but it wasn’t a hit with anyone who heard it (especially the nit–picky Clark) so it went back in the can, and Crowell was enlisted to re–make it. And that was The South Coast of Texas, issued by Warner Brothers in the summer of ’81.

    “I played him what we’d done, and explained how much I didn’t like it, and he said he thought he could do it,” Clark recalls. Craig Leon’s wafer–thin vocal sound didn’t suit Clark’s bare–bones songs.

    Ultimately, Rodney would produce two albums for his friend — and today, Clark doesn’t care for either one of them. “There’s just too much stuff,” he says. “I never did like that kind of thing, just trying to do what too many different people wanted. (And) he was trying to learn to be a producer on me; it wasn’t totally a labor of love. He had an agenda.”

    Clark, who now records with a primarily acoustic sound, says he and Crowell agree today that the big–production thing — drums, electric guitar and pedal steel — was a well–intentioned mistake.

    A breakthrough was on the horizon, though. Under Rodney’s careful production,Seven Year Ache was a slick, masterful updating of the rockin’ country sound Harris and Ahern had developed for Harris’ early records. But Rosanne’s style was more urban, her choice of songs and her delivery less rooted in the traditional. The emotions were simple and on the surface, like the best country music; the music was more sophisticated.

    The album had saxophones instead of pedal steel guitar, but the players were, as always, the best — members of the Hot Band and the Cherry Bombs. With Seven Year Ache, Rosanne Cash became the poster girl for contemporary country in the 1980s.

    Three No. 1 singles emerged, including the feisty title song (inspired by Rodney after one of the couple’s many arguments), a cover of Asleep at the Wheel’s “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,” and another Rosanne original, “Blue Moon With Heartache.” Rodney and Hank DeVito contributed the lovely “I Can’t Resist,” later covered by Sweethearts of the Rodeo.

    Rodney issued his third album that year, too. Containing some of his best songs yet, including “Shame on the Moon,” “Victim or a Fool” and “Stars on the Water,” Rodney Crowell appeared with little fanfare from Warner Brothers, virtually no publicity, and zero radio play. Its two singles scraped into the lower reaches of the Top 30.

    The Cherry Bombs continued to plug away. “I think about then Albert might have started playing with Eric Clapton,” says Crowell. “Actually, there were three guitar players in that band that kind of rotated: Richard Bennett, Vince and Albert. Probably the one who did the most work was Richard Bennett, because Albert got real busy and Vince was in and out. There were nights that they were all three onstage.”

    Recalls Tony Brown: “I felt like I was barely hanging by a thread to be able to play with those guys. I had that whole Hot Band bunch way up on a pedestal, and I was just hanging by my fingernails.”

    Always the bridesmaid

    Waylon Jennings took “Ain’t Living Long Like This” to the top of the country charts, and the Oak Ridge Boys did the same with “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.” Then Crystal Gayle’s version of “‘Til I Gain Control Again” went to No. 1.

    Rosanne’s success was the capper. The party line, in the press, was that Rodney Crowell had the magic touch — at least when it came to other recording artists. As a performer himself, he couldn’t get arrested.

    Having the touch wasn’t entirely what he craved. “There were always times when I remember evaluating: To be a producer is to actually get into the art of helping someone else realize what they’re trying to do,” he says. “I always thought that was a pretty noble undertaking, and I still do. It’s a part of me that’s always been there—I like collaborating with other people, kind of a midwifery. And I always kind of viewed it like film directing, producing records. I always really enjoyed it artistically. Still do.”

    He was to reach the brass ring, but not for a while yet. “I got perspective on this,” he says now. “Having big hit records myself later on didn’t satisfy, so there you are.”

    As Rosanne’s star ascended, his stayed on the ground. It made good copy, and the public could buy it — hell, it made sense on the surface — but Crowell insists that household envy just wasn’t the case.

    “It was my success, too, because I in the early part, I was a real driving force in those records,” he explains. “She later on matured and started taking on a little more … she eventually became her own producer.

    “But in the beginning, I enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing them succeed.”

    Recently, Laurence Leamer’s book on country music, Three Chords and the Truth,reiterated the old story about Rodney’s “bitterness” in those early years, watching Rosanne score hit after hit. The book steamed him like a clam.

    “I wasn’t jealous of that,” he says. “I was frustrated with myself. It was ‘How come I can get this to work so easily, but when I put the spotlight on myself, why do I trip up?’ I couldn’t figure that out, and it took my five more years to solve that.”

    After he produced albums for Bobby Bare (As Is) and for actress Sissy Spacek (Hangin’ Up My Heart), Rodney, Rosanne, Hannah and Caitlin loaded up the truck and moved to … Tennessee, on the Fourth of July, 1981. “We started having children, and L.A. just didn’t seem like the place to be to do that,” he explains. “A little too sprawling. A little too much time in the car. Not very big yards.” The couple’s second daughter, Chelsea, was born in Nashville.

    Renewing his friendship with Guy and Susanna Clark, Rodney then set about making himself known in Nashville. He produced an album for his cousin, Larry Willoughby, and one for Albert Lee (both were eponymously titled). He did Somewhere in the Stars for Rosanne, and Better Days for Guy.

    Then Bob Seger’s smoky cover version of “Shame on the Moon” became a huge pop hit, at the end of ’82. Not long afterwards, the Dirt Band hit No. 1, country, with Rodney’s “Long Hard Road (Sharecropper’s Dream).”

    He and Rosanne were addicted to cocaine by then. It wasn’t fun around their crib.

    “So much of my frustration was self–induced, and the self–induced frustration was also fueled by drugs,” Crowell reports. “It became pretty much of a black hole situation for me. In the late ’60s, in the beginning, I started writing because of it. It was a fuel for that.

    “But by then, it really became a real negative thing. I was allergic to cocaine, yet I kept on doing it. I made the decision that I don’t care if I never write again, I gotta quit doing this.”

    The world turned on New Year’s Eve, 1984. “When she went off to treatment, that’s when I stopped using cocaine myself,” he says. “And I haven’t used it since.”

    How did he kick such a destructive habit? “I stayed home with the kids,” he chuckles. “She took the high road, and I took the low. I remember waking up in the middle of the night with sweat and thinking ‘Ah, I’m withdrawing here.’ And I actually started writing better. Got more focused. I could actually finish a block of thought.”

    Cash emerged from the detox center clean and sober. Crowell maintains that even though their drug daze fogged some of their records (listen to the lacklusterSomewhere in the Stars, for example), they still created a good percentage of solid material in that period.

    “I think I managed to do some good work as a producer,” he offers. “Where I think it held me back was personally. It was my own stumbling block, my own inner conflict that kept me from being able to create for myself what I wanted.

    “Truth is, I know that what was going on for me at that time was not about her, it was about what was going on with me. I was self–inducing some real serious blocks. That’s why I don’t go with the old tried–and–true story that her records took off and I was jealous. That just wasn’t true.”

    He threw himself back into his work in 1984, proclaiming, hand on the Bible, that he wasn’t going to “be a producer” any more. He wanted that solo career, and with a new clarity of vision, he went after it.

    The album he and co–producer David Malloy came up with, Street Language, was delivered to Warner Brothers at the end of the year. Label president Jim Ed Norman promptly handed it back.

    “There was a little cheese factor in what we did,” Crowell reflects, chuckling. “It was pop in a way that wasn’t whole. Sorta inorganic.

    “I don’t think David and I really hit on it, you know. We took it to L.A., and their reaction was ‘We can’t really do much with this.’ Jim Ed was very gentlemanly then — I’ve kept him in the highest regard — and he said ‘We can’t put this record out, but we’ll give you a budget to make another record. Make us a record that we can work in Nashville.’”

    Instead, Rodney negotiated a release from his Warners contract, and a deal was struck with Columbia Records, Rosanne’s label. “That record went on the shelf, which I’ve always been grateful for,” he says. One track from the rejected Street Languagealbum, “I Don’t Have to Crawl,” was released in 1989 on the Warners compilation The Rodney Crowell Collection.

    The first order of business was re–making Street Language. Booker T. Jones, who’d played organ on the Rodney Crowell album, agreed to co–produce. Crowell had met him during the sessions for Willie Nelson’s Stardust back in ’77 (Jones produced that seminal marriage of pop and country, the album that made Willie a crossover star).

    The re–made Street Language leaned heavily on rock ‘n’ roll and big, electric arrangements. Columbia wasn’t sure how to market the thing.

    “I was still kind of headstrong that I didn’t want to make a country record, per se,” Crowell says. “I wanted to make my own record, right? So when we finished it, we took it to New York, and it was kind of a “co–” between Nashville and New York. And that never works, on any huge level.”

    Neither the New York or Nashville brain trusts could get Street Language off the ground, despite a huge promotional campaign that included countless interviews on “hip” college radio stations, and a tour (in the summer and fall of 1986) with the Hooters and the BoDeans.

    It’s not a bad album. As eclectic in its own way as But What Will the Neighbors Think,Street Language betrays very little country influence — most of the songs, from the rollicking, horn–driven “Ballad of Fast Eddie” to the Beatle–esque “Stay (Don’t Be Cruel)” owe their souls to rock ‘n’ roll. “Oh King Richard,” re–recorded from the first version of the album, was a “modern folk tale” about race driver Richard Petty.

    Crowell: “One of my favorite things I ever did was ‘Oh King Richard.’ To me, that was folk/rock at that time, and I loved that. And I really liked ‘Ballad of Fast Eddie.’ I look back on ‘Let Freedom Ring,’ and I think (co–writer) Keith Sykes and I had seduced ourselves. We were in New York and it was Springsteen fever. When I hear that record, I want to cringe.

    “‘When the Blue Hour Comes,’ that wasn’t Booker’s fault, that was my fault. That thing was totally overdone. Because I did a demo of it recently, with this girl singing, and I discovered it to be a real sweet song. But to me, the way it was all dressed up on that record, we killed a perfectly good song.”

    “When the Blue Hour Comes” was a three–way composition with Will Jennings and Roy Orbison. “Will Jennings was mine and Orbison’s friend, and he kept saying ‘You guys are so much alike. I gotta get you together.’ He saw us as Texas boys, so he instigated that.

    “Roy was black and white, Roy was. Working with him one day, it was like ‘God, this guy! I can’t wait to get out of here. He don’t like me, Will. What made you think that we would get on?’

    “And then the next day, he was like the funniest guy in the world. I was so relieved. Every joke he told, I’d laugh til I cried.”

    “Ballad of Fast Eddie,” which remains in the live Crowell repertoire to this day, was inspired by Peter Sheridan, a hulking, Harley–riding “character” who found his way onto Willie Nelson’s tour bus — “a cowboy bus in the New York zoo” — in the late ’70s (“Fast Eddie” was the crew’s code name for Willie). On his east coast swings, Rodney and Rosanne spent a lot of time with Willie, who recorded the Crowell composition “Angel Eyes (Angel Eyes)” for his Honeysuckle Rose soundtrack album in ’79.

    Sheridan was killed on his motorcycle in 1982, and Rodney’s song became a tribute to his intimidating, hipster–cliche–spouting presence in their lives.

    Around the time of Street Language, Rodney was enlisted to “produce” an album recorded in Europe by Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. Class of ’55 was nothing to write home about. It had probably looked good on paper.

    “Somebody recorded it in Germany, and they brought the tapes to me and said ‘Make a record out of this,’” Crowell recalls. “And then Jerry Lee Lewis comes in with his entourage, puts a pistol on the console and says ‘I’m gonna be on Side One.’

    “But he came in late in the show, so the biggest job was cutting Jerry Lee Lewis onto Side One of the old 33 1/3. And then we spent a week working on matching the audience sounds, so that it sounded like he came out for the fourth song of the set.”

    All three singles from Street Language tanked, and Rodney’s career didn’t advance a millimeter. Meanwhile, Rosanne hit No. 1 four additional times, and was being treated like royalty, as Nashville’s hip young queen.

    Oh, they’d say, and her husband is a great writer and producer. Maybe you’ve heard of him?

    Sometimes it’s diamonds

    The Columbia Records office was across the parking lot from MCA Records, where Tony Brown was staff–producing one great, and successful, album after another. One afternoon in late 1987, Rodney Crowell tapped on his old buddy’s window.

    Brown: “He asked me ‘Hey, why don’t you produce one on me? Let’s cut some hits.’ And when he came and started playing me things, he was so fired up. He was in a good space at that point. I was so excited, I was levitating. Which I guess, probably, inspired him.”

    Practically overnight, Crowell had experienced an epiphany. “Harlan Howard and I had written a song called ‘Somewhere Tonight,’ that that group Highway 101 recorded,” he says. “It was the kinda Bakersfield–sounding thing, and I really liked it. I’m talking to myself: ‘I have a natural feel for that stuff. I really like that stuff.’

    “And about that time, Steve Earle came along and made Guitar Town, and I liked the kind of directness. I wrote ‘I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried’ and ‘After All This Time,’ and Guy and I had that old song ‘She’s Crazy For Leaving,’ and at that time the songs, and where I was, and what was grabbin’ my attention and holding up a mirror, that’s the music I wanted to make.

    “I don’t think I made that music to grab the brass ring, but it did. I think my motivation for doing it was artistic, as opposed to material.”

    Tony Brown had produced Guitar Town, and he was a musical compadre, so why the hell not? Together, they recorded, mixed and mastered Diamonds & Dirt in four weeks.

    “We went in the studio, and I guess it was the only record he ever made that fast and didn’t second–guess it,” Brown remembers. “He did the vocals quick. He just flew through it.

    “Because Rodney will sit and second–guess. He’s the kind of guy that when the record has been out a year, he wants to re–cut Side Two one more time.”

    There was no master plan, nobody saw it coming, but Diamonds & Dirt proved to be the record that broke Rodney Crowell. Broke him wide open. “Tony Brown and I got on the same page,” he recalls, “and I said ‘I want to make a real cool country–sounding record.’ And it worked.”

    He had steadfastly refused to make a straight–ahead country record for so long, when he finally did it, it was as if the country music audience had been waiting for him all along. The hunger had built up and reached a fever pitch. He was an overnight sensation, in gestation for 10 years.

    With its shuffling honky–tonk sound, Diamonds & Dirt was a natural for the period, when artists like Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis were putting more traditional sounds back on the radio. And Rodney knew that kind of music inside, out and all kinds of ways backwards.

    For some fans, however, the album was a disappointment. After the passionate eclecticism of Crowell’s earlier records, it sounded like an overtly commercial appeal to the radio.

    “But it didn’t sound contrived,” says Brown. “I think it just sounded like real accessible Rodney Crowell. Everybody had sort of made him a left–of–center act for sure. When I played it for people who knew Rodney, their first response wasn’t ‘What a commercial record,’ their first response was ‘God, Rodney sounds great.’”

    Brown has nothing but compliments for Crowell’s abilities. “I really hadn’t come into my own,” says the man who would later become Nashville’s most successful producer. “For Rodney to ask me … he was one of my mentors. A lot of my production things I copied from him and (Jimmy) Bowen. I took Bowen’s ability to organize himself, and to say there’s no one you shouldn’t hire. Fly ‘em in.

    “And I took Rodney’s way of looking at the creative process. I studied that. So they were my mentors.”

    Between January and October 1988, Rodney Crowell had five consecutive chart–topping singles. First out of the chute was “It’s Such a Small World,” a duet with Rosanne Cash.

    They’d avoided recording a duet for years, mostly because that was what everyone in country music, conservative or contemporary, did eventually. “I remember saying ‘Nah, we’re not going to try to capitalize on that,’” says Crowell. “Whatever made the change happen, I don’t know. But as I look back on it, it was natural casting. I coulda got Emmy to do it, maybe. But we were both on the same label.” “It’s Such a Small World,” ironically, was the most pop–sounding track on Diamonds & Dirt; still, the duet with his famous spouse served as a proper introduction to country radio, which didn’t know Rodney’s voice at all.

    Afterwards, in rapid succession, came “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried,” “She’s Crazy For Leavin’” (the original, produced by Rodney, was on Clark’s The South Coast of Texas), “After All This Time” (eventual winner of the Best Country Song Grammy) and a cover of Harlan Howard’s “Above and Beyond” (a honky–tonkin’ hit for Buck Owens in 1960).

    Suddenly, it was Rodney Crowell this, and Rodney Crowell that. He was in print, he was on TV, he was on the radio every time you punched a button.

    Success should have been sweet. Predictably, perhaps, it wasn’t.

    “I was too busy trying to keep up, to do what was coming as a result of it,” Crowell says. “It really brought in a tough time for me, actually. That was when that marriage started to go down the drain.”

    Says Susanna Clark: “When he got hot, he was physically unavailable, but it seemed like psychologically he needed you more.”

    The fall of ’89 brought Keys to the Highway, which should have been a blockbuster followup. “Well, I got a little more miserable,” Crowell reflects. “After I did Diamonds & Dirt, I really wanted to break out. I kind of like what I tried to do with Keys to theHighway, but that to me was just a little too much a following … I think that record was more trying to stay in the marketplace than Diamonds & Dirt was. I thinkDiamonds & Dirt was just making a record because I felt like it. And then after I made it, I kind of had to do a followup. And I’m not too good at followups. And I wasn’t too happy about where I was.”

    Again, Tony Brown co–produced. “With Keys to the Highway, he and Rosanne had just started going through some problems,” he remembers. “And face it, if you go through any artist’s career, in any genre, and you see a little cycle of where there’s a dip, nine times out of 10 there’s something in their lives that’s personal that’s interfering.

    “His father passed away. A lot of things happened. I remember when we were in the studio and had just finished recording ‘Things I Wished I’d Said,’ he just broke down in front of the entire band. It was a really emotional moment.”

    “Things I Wish I’d Said,” written as a tribute to J.W., barely charted at all. “Many a Long & Lonesome Highway,” with poignant lyrics about his father’s passing, went to No. 3. The sprightly “If Looks Could Kill” reached No. 6.

    Even the album cover was downbeat; unlike the happy–go–lucky Rodney Crowell who strolled toward the camera on Diamonds & Dirt, the guy on the front of Keys to theHighway looked grim. There wasn’t a single picture of his million–dollar smile anywhere on the package.

    Things carried on, for all intents and purposes, like nothing had changed. Daughter Carrie was born in 1989; Rosanne, who preferred not to tour, stayed home in Nashville while Rodney worked the road with his Dixie Pearls Band, virtually for two years straight, massaging his newfound celebrity. “That just didn’t sit well at home,” says Rodney. “It wasn’t a good time.

    “I had all those No. 1 records in a row, and two of them from Keys to the Highwaywere Top Five, and boy, it just didn’t do anything for me. I was actually more miserable. That was the most miserable time in my life.

    “Rosanne’s perspective on this would be her own, and I wouldn’t project … I always felt that I was more supportive of her than she was of me. If you ask her, in fairness, she might say ‘No, I was more supportive of him.’ But I stayed.”

    Rosanne moved out of the Nashville house in 1990. She went to Connecticut, and then to New York City, where she’s lived since her divorce from Rodney became official in mid–1991.

    From Rosanne’s 1990 album Interiors: “Maybe our lives will never be the same/But we can face tomorrow if we can just get through today/I’m holding back the tears while you’re pushing me away/But on the surface everything’s OK.”

    Rodney wrote this: “I feel the same as you/I don’t know what we’re gonna do/We have got to be who we are/So we can’t let it go too far … Maybe next time out we’ll be ourselves …”

    When Roseanne wrote: “I wonder where you are/Do I exist for you?/If that pain that never quits/Ever gets you too?” her husband finished the song: “I see my past just like a mask I wore/I hardly know how to be myself anymore.”

    “The thing about Rosanne and I, we just kinda wrote about our experience,” says Crowell. “I was writing about my experience—it wasn’t all about her, or answering to her, it certainly had a lot to do with her because she’d been a big part of my life.

    “I’ll say this: Her impact on my life was very positive. I see it as very positive and not negative. She’s the mother of my children, and I don’t have anything bad to say about her.”

    His marital postscript was 1992′s Life is Messy.

    A sometimes brilliant, sometimes painfully honest collection of songs, it brought to mind John Lennon’s classic Plastic Ono Band album: Maybe it was a little too personal in places, but there’s a lot to be said for the naked emotion in the grooves.

    Life is Messy quickly became known as Rodney’s “divorce” album. And even though it sent the single “Lovin’ All Night” into the Top Ten, it was not a critical or commercial success. This was just three years after the career–making juggernaut that wasDiamonds & Dirt.

    “Here’s what I think about Life is Messy, having the benefit of hindsight,” he says. “If I could take parts of Street Language, and parts of Life is Messy, I could make one really good record. For me. To me, I have some of the same feelings about them both: There’s some really high moments for me, as a recording artist, and some parts that just fall really flat for me.

    “I hedged the bet a little bit by putting in ‘Lovin’ All Night,’ ‘It Don’t Get Better Than This’ and ‘The Answer is Yes.’ I could have made a whole album of darkness. Looking back on it now, I should’ve made a completely dark record. Who would care? It would sell a lot of records and I could look back and say ‘Boy, I made 10 songs that were just committed to that pathos.’”

    Despite Crowell’s commitment to promoting Life is Messy with more TV appearances than usual, and with another concert tour (which found him mixing his ultra–personalLife is Messy songs with such cheery and familiar fare as “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried” and “She’s Crazy For Leaving”), the album marked the end of his brief but productive relationship with Columbia Records.

    He gave it his all, but quickly found he needed his all back.

    “Everything was taking a downturn, it looked like then,” he remembers. “I look at it now and I go, ‘ah, you just hit a rough patch. Toughen up, dude.’”

    Rosanne’s departure had left a hole in his life, and a hole in the way he got things done. Upheaval was the order of the day.

    “I made Life is Messy, and Donny Ienner at Sony, up in New York, said ‘Come up here and be our Don Henley.’ Those were his exact words. And I went ‘Awwww … I don’t want to be somebody’s somebody,’ and I just quit: Fuck it, I’m going home.”

    Coming back

    He spent about two years (between 1992 and ’94) looking after daughters Caitlin and Chelsea. “I went home and became a single parent, and I spent two years single parenting. Eventually came back out with Let the Picture Paint Itself, but there was a period there where my kids needed me more than music did. I was a little overwhelmed at that time, because I had some responsibilities that were outside of chasing fame and fortune.”

    He’d always considered himself a good father, despite his frequent absenteeism. During the Diamonds & Dirt days, the glory days, he sometimes chartered a tour bus just for him and the girls, while the Dixie Pearls band traveled separately.

    But now, with the career in a ditch, he went home to Nashville, actually telling a group of journalists — only half in jest — that he was retiring from the music business. “I had to improve my skills in other areas,” he says. “I had to get tougher. It was easy for me to be a good–time dad, but I had a teen–age daughter I had to start getting tough with.”

    In ’92 Rodney received a call from film director Peter Bogdonovich, who was putting together The Thing Called Love, a fictional movie set in the very real Bluebird Cafe, Nashville’s plain–jane listening room, where singing/songwriting stars are made overnight.

    “He called me to retain me as a consultant,” Crowell says. “That didn’t take much of my life. I kept telling him to make the River Phoenix character a cross between Dylan in Don’t Look Back, and Waylon. I took River over to my house and showed him Don’t Look Back. He’d never seen it, and it blew him away.”

    Instead, the Phoenix character, James Wright, comes across as a surly and only marginally talented performer — more a testament to Phoenix’s own palpable arrogance and increased drug intake (The Thing Called Love was the last movie to be released during his lifetime) than to Rodney’s songs–for–hire. Altogether, three Crowell originals were included in the film, performed by Phoenix: “Standing on a Rock,” “Until Now” and “Lost Highway.” The latter was Rodney’s favorite, and the only one he didn’t record and release himself, with his own vocal track.

    Crowell’s versions of “Until Now” and “Standing on a Rock” were included on Giant Records’ The Thing Called Love soundtrack album; he re–recorded “Standing on a Rock” for his Columbia Greatest Hits package, because he felt the movie version “just didn’t get it.”

    River Phoenix, then 21 years old, had been writing music of his own for half a decade; he had his own band, Aleka’s Attic, in the Florida town where he spent his non–movie time. As a writer and singer, he was heavily influenced by bands such as XTC, R.E.M., and Elvis Costello & the Attractions.

    The actor offered to create songs especially for The Thing Called Love.

    “They couldn’t use the songs River was writing,” Crowell recalls. “But I really liked ‘em. They were out there. I couldn’t sing you a note of ‘em, but it was like, ‘Wow. That’s coming from another planet.’

    “I guess if he would’ve organized it, put it together, he would have had himself a real out–there alternative thing.”

    Phoenix checked into the Gram Parsons Heavenly Hall of Fame in October 1993. By then The Thing Called Love had crashed and burned in movie theaters, and Rodney Crowell was looking at the other side of his serious, stay–at–home single dad period.

    He cut several new songs for Greatest Hits, including his 15–year–old “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” and a new song, “Talking to a Stranger,” that recalled the Everly Brothers (Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and Mary–Chapin Carpenter helped out with harmony vocals on the new material). He took a month in ’92 to produce the debut album for Lari White, who’d been a Dixie Pearls backup singer.

    When 1994 dawned, Tony Brown was president of MCA Nashville, and his production had given Reba McEntire, George Strait, Wynonna, Vince Gill and just about every other MCA artist that golden touch. He was the hottest thing going, and he was quite naturally permitted to sign whoever he damned well pleased.

    So Tony Brown added Rodney Crowell to the MCA Records roster. “I think he’s such an important artist in this town,” Brown says. “I really think he’s been responsible for a lot of things that happen in this town, the way people write songs, the way they cut records … and I felt like if we did Diamonds & Dirt once, we could do it again at MCA.”

    Let the Picture Paint Itself (1994) repeated the Diamonds & Dirt formula: A lot of uptempo, bouncy, hook–laden honky–tonk songs balanced by a couple of pensive ballads (“Stuff That Works,” a killer lyric co–written with Guy Clark, was the song that got him started after his “retirement”) slicked over with Brown’s sharp, shoe–black production, radio–ready and good on the jukebox, too.

    But Garth Brooks and his generic Wal–Mart country music was well into its trail ride to the national consciousness. “Young country” had become the pop music of the ’90s, and literate, smart, musicianly guys like Rodney Crowell had no place in that rodeo ring. Let the Picture Paint Itself was stillborn. With all the Marks, Tys and Tracys out there, the public — which had turned over several times since the Diamonds & Dirtdays — said ‘Rodney Who?’

    “Hindsight on MCA: It looked really good on paper,” Crowell says, “with my old friend Tony there, and my cousin Larry in the A&R Department, but it was going backwards in a lot of ways.

    “Some of it was a step forwards, and some was a step backwards. Truthfully, MCA gave me a lot of money — basically, the deal was to go back and do Diamonds & Dirt. A contemporary version of that. “I tried to be a good guy, and honor the deal, but it just wasn’t right. I don’t blame that on Tony, or even on myself.”

    With the title song, “Let the Picture Paint Itself,” released as a single, “I was trying to make a hit record for country radio, and that’s the only time I ever did that.”

    When the album tanked, says Tony Brown, “I wasn’t disappointed, I was pissed off. Once again, they had painted him like a left–of–center. I was pissed off at our label, and at myself for not having the ability to make it happen. “I think in Rodney’s mind, and in a lot of people’s minds, they think because I sit in this chair that I have a magic wand. And I don’t.”

    By that point, Brown says, “I started to feel intimidated by Rodney the producer. It’s easy to feel like a second–class person around certain producers to this day, when I’m around a Don Was, or a Hugh Padgham, or Rodney. I’ll probably never get over it, but it’s probably the thing that drives me to make better records.”

    The second MCA album, 1995′s Jewel of the South, jumped stylistically all over the map (although Crowell believes “Please Remember Me,” the set’s big ballad, was a “bona fide hit single” that MCA simply couldn’t make happen).

    With Jewel, Tony Brown’s heart wasn’t in it any more. “I told him hey, just do what you want,” Brown says. “He had artistic freedom. And then he basically just went underground again.”

    The life I have found

    Whether he “went underground” by design or because his diminishing returns made it necessary, Crowell won’t say. But after the failure of Jewel of the South (which is, ironically, a stronger record than Let the Picture Paint Itself) he asked for, and was given, a release from his MCA contract, which had called for three albums.

    He’d finally climbed the hill, only to find he was over it. “Success is determined by a lot of different things, in my mind,” Brown says. “You can have a record that’s a piece of shit, but it makes a lot of money and you’re successful, or you have a record that has critical acclaim but doesn’t sell that much.

    “If it’s got serious critical acclaim, you can make a living. People will come out and see you. There are a lot of artists in our business who don’t really sell a lot of records who make a real good living playing live.”

    And that, in a way, is where Rodney Crowell went in 1996. After producing an album for his good friend Beth Nielsen Chapman (Sand and Water), he called together three of his closest musician friends — bassist Michael Rhodes, drummer Vince Santoro and guitarist Steuart Smith — and recorded an album under the name The Cicadas (that’s a locust–like insect, one variety of which gestates in the ground for something like 13 years before coming out to croak from the treetops).

    Warner Brothers Records released The Cicadas in the early weeks of 1997. Although Crowell wrote or co–wrote all the songs, and co–produced the album with guitarist Smith, it’s actually drummer Santoro who takes most of the lead vocals.

    The album is very eclectic, mixing Beatle–esque pop sounds with Everly Brothers harmonies and the infrequent country–sounding guitar lick or vocalization. It swings and it bounces, but there ain’t no twang.

    The Rodney Crowell of Diamonds & Dirt is, literally, nowhere to be found on The Cicadas. “It was the way to re–invent,” Crowell explains, “and the way to use that glaring self–consciousness that comes with ‘solo singer/songwriter.’ I wanted to re–invent what I was doing in a way where I could eliminate all that ‘You should’ business.

    “Joining a band, making a record as a band and collaborating on that level really removed that stuff. I enjoyed it in the best kind of way. It wasn’t like I was making a Rodney Crowell record, and I had to go get a haircut, or go get my shirts cleaned. I didn’t have to do all that shit.

    Besides, he laughs, “It’s like Michael Rhodes said, it’s cooler being in a gang than being by yourself.”

    For a single, Warner Brothers released to radio “We Want Everything,” which Rodney wrote—all in one sitting—as a reaction to the suicide of an old friend, New Orleans folksinger Harlan White. He and Santoro sing the song’s verses in unison, an octave apart, in the style of Squeeze’s Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook.

    The Cicadas also covered the classic “Tobacco Road,” Rodney’s “Nobody’s Gonna Tear My Playhouse Down” (which had originally been cut as the B–side to one of the Life is Messy singles), the Crowell/Clark collaboration “Our Little Town,” and a song Rodney co–wrote with former Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch, “Through With the Past.”

    Indeed, Crowell seemed to be saying he was through with it, once and for all. “The re–invention is not so much for image as it is for creativity,” he explains. “I haven’t done much to re–invent an image, I’m just trying to re–invent the work techniques and the message, so that I don’t go into the studio trying to make ‘Young Country’ records. That’s not where I am. I’m more mature than that.”

    He says he’s committed to the Cicadas for as long as it takes — but, one thing’s for sure, nothing will be heard from Rodney Crowell, solo artist, for a good while. “It doesn’t concern me at all,” he says. “I don’t have any desire for that.”

    As for The Cicadas, “Warner Brothers is very supportive in that they realize it would be easier to market the record as ‘Rodney Crowell,’ but then it’d just be the same old shit, you know? I want to move on.” He’s producing albums for his cousin, singer Brady Seals, and for vocalist Claudia Church, his girlfriend of five years, whom he met on the set of the “Lovin’ All Night” video.

    The blonde and blue–eyed Church, a former model, is also a writer and a painter, “a real Renaissance woman,” Crowell gushes.

    “I love Claudia. Claudia’s great. We’re gonna get married. She’s the coolest woman that’s ever come into my life.”

    He says producing records for other artists, and singing on still more (including the Hackberry Ramblers and Chip Taylor), is all the “career chasing” he needs right now. “I’m helping other people to realize that goal for themselves. It just ain’t mine any more.”

    He contributed a fine rendition of Elvis’ “All Shook Up” to the charity album Blue Suede Sneakers in 1994, and the recent Jim Croce: Nashville Tribute included a Crowell interpretation of the Croce classic “Operator.” For the Stone Countrycompilation, he turned in a sizzling “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

    He figures he’s finally got a handle on things. “Where I sit today, I’m a happy man, with the way everything has happened, good and bad. Most of the mistakes, failures or flops or whatever, they were all learning experiences. Equally as valuable as the success stories.

    “So with all of that taken into account, I’m blessed. Like I can make a cup of tea and go ‘God, I’m going into the studio,’ or ‘I’m going to write,’ and I love it. I love my work. That’s the only thing that I have to judge it by. I actually love my work more than ever.”

     

    Love Hurts: A conversation with Rosanne Cash

    In their 12 stormy years together, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash managed to produce, among other things, a handful of albums that came with their own set of road rules — country, folk, rockabilly, straight pop, they all rode together, front seat shotgun, with little regard for what lay ahead, or what grew smaller in the rear view mirror.

    The daughter of Johnny Cash and Vivian Liberto, Rosanne grew up in Southern California, and when she met Rodney Crowell they were both in their ’20s and hot to get going on something good. With her wonderfully pliant voice and his ear for a good song, they started making records that married every style that felt right.

    In 1979, they married each other because it felt right. Gut feeling counted for a lot in those days.

    Starting with Seven Year Ache, her third Crowell-produced album, Rosanne found her audience, and between 1981 and ’89 she scored 11 No. 1 singles on Billboard’s country chart, all but one of them produced by her husband (that was 1985′s “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” which they wrote together).

    After their 1992 divorce, Rosanne moved to New York City, where she lives today with her second husband, writer/producer John Leventhal, and daughters Caitlin and Carrie —both, like her great recordings, collaborations with Rodney Crowell.

    We all know there’s a wonderful synergistic thing that can happen with one artist and one producer, where everything clicks. Was it that way with you and Rodney?

    Rosanne Cash: From the first record. I think in retrospect we got in less conflict than would have been assumed. We were really young, we didn’t know that much about making records, and we kind of learned together. And we had our personal relationship; it would’ve been really easy for it to just detonate.

    But it didn’t. I think the work we did together was a kind of stored energy in our relationship, and it was always good, even when everything else was shit. I always knew work was a safe place for us to be, even if we were struggling or having conflicts. It never got polluted.

    Is it true that (CBS Records president) Rick Blackburn had to be talked into letting Rodney produce Right or Wrong, your first album?

    Rosanne Cash: Oh yeah. Not only that, on the second album, we had to talk them into releasing ‘Seven Year Ache’ as a single. We were swimming upstream in a lot of ways. We didn’t have a lot of conscious knowledge. We were still just letting whatever came out, come out. Except for the song ‘Seven Year Ache,’ I remember we worked a very, very long time on that. We recorded the entire thing and ended up stripping it back down to the bass—not the drums, the bass. And we re-recorded the whole song from the bass up.

    ‘Seven Year Ache’ was your first No. 1. How did you write that song?

    Rosanne Cash: There is a famous story where we got in this fight, and he left me outside of a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. But the real inspiration came for me because Rickie Lee Jones’ first album came out, and I was so moved by it, and so inspired, I thought ‘There’s never been a country song about street life, about life on the streets.’ So I started writing it, a very long poem, four pages, and then I turned it into a song.

    How did you choose the cover material for those first albums?

    Rosanne Cash: We were both songwriters, and both passionate about great songwriters. And that’s what we drew from. We were pretty snobbish about material, so we’d go to our own wells, like Keith Sykes songs.

    I assume you got first dibs on Rodney’s songs.

    Yeah, it was great. I didn’t realize how great it was at the time. It was a blessing.

    Wasn’t it awkward to be married to the producer?

    Rosanne Cash: We fought in the studio, definitely, but it was always a really positive arena. Rodney really loved my voice, and he took great pains to get it recorded correctly. It just made me feel so good about myself that he cared that much about my voice, and it gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. He loved me as an artist, and of course I revered him as a writer. It’s just something really, really positive we gave to each other.

    I would sulk sometimes, or we would go into separate rooms. I remember throwing the headphones down.

    Those early singles scaled the country charts, but they were very much pop records. Did you consider yourself a country artist, or were you just making the best records you could make?

    Rosanne Cash: I was just making the best records I could make. Because Nashville signed me, it didn’t make me a country artist, as far as I was concerned. Because, you know, I got my definition of country music really, really young. And I didn’t fit it. Out of respect, I wouldn’t have called myself a country artist! I loved Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline, but I knew that’s not what I was doing.

    People think that we really pushed the boundaries, and we opened doors for people, and we started this thing. In a way we did, but it wasn’t conscious that that’s what we were doing. We were just bringing our hybrid influences to record-making.

    It was purely collaborative. So much of that was due to Rodney. There were things I would’ve never chosen to do on my own that Rodney, with his very eclectic passions, wanted to work out through me. I would have never done ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box,’ or ‘My Baby Thinks He’s a Train.’ Or ‘I Wonder.’ But I was happy to do it. Truthfully, a lot of my energy was caught up in mothering, and Rodney felt stronger about things than I did at certain times.

    There’s a book out now, Three Chords and the Truth, that talks about Rodney’s bitterness and jealousy when your records were successful, and his weren’t.

    Rosanne Cash: But he was producing Number One records! He was pretty damn successful.

    He was really frustrated, and he said ‘I want a chance to do what you’ve done as an artist.’ And it kind of scared me, because I thought ‘Well, that means he’s going to go out on the road … and that’s my big alarm bell.’

    Why?

    Rosanne Cash: Well, put two and two together. My dad was on the road for my entire life. It was pretty scary.

    But Three Chords and the Truth paints Rodney as a bitter man, an unpleasant guy at that time.

    Rosanne Cash: No. He had his frustrations, and resentments came up at certain times, but no, he wasn’t bitter. I would never use bitter to describe Rodney under any terms.

    Rodney hit in 1988, and suddenly he was The Thing. Was that pretty much the beginning of the end?

    Rosanne Cash: Yep. It was. I can’t say how much of it was like your fears coming true, that if we spent that much time apart that it was gonna break us up. That had something to do with it, I’m sure, but the main reason I think Rodney and I completed our work together, both personally and professionally, is that it was done. It was done. We couldn’t do anything more with each other.

    We had reached a point of diminishing returns; we had done such great work together, on both levels, that we both had the grace to know when to quit. That’s how I look at it.

    Were the Interiors songs about your relationship?

    Rosanne Cash: The nature of writing, I think, is when you lose any sense of time and place, and all parts of your present. Part of it was about me and Rodney, but I was so shocked when everybody started saying ‘Oh, it’s a divorce record.’ I couldn’t believe it, because I wasn’t there in my life yet. It was really appalling to me.

    The story about ‘I Hardly Know How to Be Myself’ is that you’d left the first verse on a desk, and Rodney came home, worried about what you’d written, and then finished it off. Did you leave it there for him to see?

    Rosanne Cash: Not consciously. We both worked up in the same room, and I was really in a lot of pain about him being gone so much. So I started writing this thing. And I thought it was beautiful that he finished it. I love that song.

    Isn’t the great irony that Rodney wanted success as an artist, but when he finally got it, the cost was enormous?

    Rosanne Cash: I wouldn’t frame it like that, because it makes me seem like a martyr, in a way. And besides, it’s not that simple. It’s far more complex. Like I said before, we had completed with each other.

    There’s nothing left undone with Rodney. I talk to Rodney every other day, and there’s nothing left undone. Mostly we talk about the kids. I value what he gave to me so, so much. I would never be the artist that I am if it hadn’t been for Rodney.



  • Featured Image[Article 70]Willie Nelson:
    Funny How Time Slips Away

    Willie Nelson
    Willie Nelson

     

    Well, hello there/My it’s been a long, long time

    With his beatific smile and twinkling bright eyes, Willie Nelson looks like the most serene and centered man on the planet. When he’s wearing a Stetson hat or a wide red bandanna, he brings to mind a sort of Western Santa Claus, someone you’d trust to slide down your chimney and come into your house with a sackful of cap guns, singing a cowboy tune.

    How’m I doing?/Oh, I guess that I’m doin’ fine

    There has never been a singer like Willie Nelson. He’s a genre–jumper. The rich, mellow timbre of his voice, going tip–toe over the kind of casual jazz phrasing Frank Sinatra used to be able to do in his sleep, gives Nelson the option of singing virtually any style of music and giving it his distinctive stamp. He transcends country music; he transcends music, period.

    It’s no wonder Willie Nelson is considered an American Folk Hero. In the best American tradition, he is tireless and his talent is timeless.

    Read More…

    It’s been so long now/And it seems that it was only yesterday

    For 30 years, Willie Nelson has flown in the face of convention. He’s taken the notion of what a country singer should be and smashed it, time and again, against the sometimes brutal rocks of contemporary show–business.

    And even though he often found himself between those rocks and a veritable hard place, Willie never wavered in his belief that the individual should be allowed to express himself, whatever the arena, using the gifts he’s been given. It took him a long time to hit because Nashville — and the world — was suspicious of him. He didn’t look or sound like he came out of any mold.

    When he and success found themselves at last running neck–and–neck on the same horse track, Willie Nelson made up for lost time. To date, he has recorded country, swing jazz, Western swing and straight–ahead jazz; he’s made albums of pop standards and albums of gospel standards. He’s sung duets with the biggest stars in the world, not just country vocalists, but pop, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues singers. He’s made movies, he’s made TV shows, he’s made news, he’s made history. He made a lot of money. And he lost a lot of money.

    Gee, ain’t it funny how time slips away?

    Nelson himself chuckles at a suggestion that he’s fearless. “If I am, I’m probably stupid,” he said with a grin. “I think fearlessness and stupidity go together. It’s real corny, but the fist line that comes to my mind are words that I’ve followed all my life. There was a movie with Fess Parker playing Davy Crockett: ‘Be sure you’re right, and then go ahead,’ that was his motto. It’s corny, but goddamn it makes sense.”

    Through four marriages, somewhere around 200 albums and a career with higher highs and lower lows than any stretch of Appalachian mountains, Willie Nelson, 61, retains a zest for life and a passionately optimistic outlook that bespeaks a man who knows inner peace. He’s a survivor.

    Nelson is the original Zen cowboy — and his religious beliefs, while rooted in the Christian church, lean toward Buddhist principles. “I think people like Willie are forever, you know,” observed Waylon Jennings, one of Nelson’s oldest friends and a partner in success. “He crossed all the boundaries in music. He’s bigger than music, that’s what the whole thing is.”

    Said Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson, another of Nelson’s buddies: “Waylon at one time said to me, ‘Willie was laid–back before people knew what laid–back was.’ I think Willie has always been that way.”

    The trick, Nelson says, is to be ready for anything and learn to land on your feet. “I think everything happens when it’s supposed to,” he said. “And fortunately, we’re not in control.”

    Patience, as a virtue was not something he was not born with. It was a lesson he was forced to learn.

    Willie Hugh Nelson first gazed upon the world on April 30, 1933 in Abbott, one of dozens of identical farming communities in the cotton ‘n’ cattle belt of East Central Texas (Waco, just a few miles to the south on Highway 35, is the “big town” where Abbott kids would go to the movies and kick back at hayrides and jubilees). He was the second of two children born to transplanted Arkansans Ira and Myrle Nelson. Sister Bobbie Lee, who has been playing piano in Willie’s band for more than two decades, arrived two years before him.

    Ira, who spent many years as chief mechanic at a Ford dealership in Fort Worth (about 40 miles north of Abbott), was an itinerant guitar player who loved to play and sing. He encouraged the same in his children: Willie received his first toy mandolin at the age of two. Bobbie was a toddler when she first tinkled the ivories of a cardboard–box piano.

    Mother Myrle, 20 years old at the time, was a scrapper, a free spirit and a fun–lover; she and Ira fought frequently, and when Bobbie was three and Willie just a baby, she left.

    Not long after the divorce, Ira hit the road, too, taking what work he could get in those Depression days (although he wouldn’t go very far, and would remain active in his children’s lives as they got older). Bobbie and Willie were sent to live with Ira’s parents, William and Nancy, known to the family as Mama and Daddy Nelson. Daddy Nelson was by trade a blacksmith and by practice, a Methodist.

    But he and Mama were also musicians, with mail–order degrees, and they filled their two–story house in Abbott with song: Willie remembers Daddy Nelson teaching him to sing “Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day” while he was still in diapers.

    Bobbie learned to read music as a small child; she practiced her piano (when she go a real one) night and day. The house was packed with sheet music and songbooks, Bobbie recalled, as Mama and Daddy indulged their grandchildren nearly every way possible. Daddy Nelson bought Willie his first Stella guitar at the age of six. He gave the boy a chord book, which he studied diligently, and soon “the Nelson Kids” would play a tune together for anyone who asked.

    Willie had made his first public performance at the age of four, reciting a poem at a gospel sing–along and picnic. He was so nervous, he stuck his finger up his nose and a stream of blood ran out, ruining his cute little white–and–red sailor suit. Little Willie hadn’t written the poem (“What Are You Looking At Me For?”), but it wouldn’t be long before he would start putting words together, and then combining them with his own melodies.

    Pneumonia took Daddy Nelson in 1939, and Willie, then age 7, began writing songs about loss and heartbreak on his little Stella guitar. In those days, because of his flame–red hair, his nickname was Booger Red.

    Several significant events in Willie Nelson’s life occurred in the year following the death of his beloved grandfather: The family got its first radio, a big wooden Philco, and the outside world came a little closer (he thinks maybe Daddy Nelson hadn’t wanted one in the house). His earliest memories are of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Kay Kyser and the Little Orphan Annie show on KVOO, Tulsa; another favorite was the Light Crust Doughboys, out of Forth Worth.

    “I remember when we used to sit around and watch the radio,” Nelson recalled. “Because it was new in the house. There was somethin’ there that had some entertainment comin’ out of it. The first thing that we tuned in was WSM in Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry. That was a regular. And everything else. I turned the dial.

    “I was up late at night a lot, and I’d turn the dial and listen to anything I could, really. A lot of boogie and blues, back in the days of Freddie Slack and Ella Mae Morse, and Ray McKinley. And Glenn Miller and those guys.”

    Financially strapped, Mama Nelson had to move the kids out of the only home they’d known and into what Nelson would later describe as a “shack” in the poorer section of Abbott. Mama took a serving job in the school cafeteria, and supplemented the family’s income by picking cotton in the nearby fields. Willie’s memories of this period are not entirely pleasant, as he and Bobbie often were expected to come along and fill their burlap sacks with cotton, too, to help out.

    Cotton picking is back–breaking, hand–shredding work, and even as a small child Nelson knew it wasn’t for him. Sometimes he’d pick just enough to make a pillow out of his sack, and curl up and fall asleep somewhere out of the brutal Texas sun.

    He listened, though, to the Mexicans, the blacks and the Texans all singing in the cotton fields, and that’s where Willie Nelson learned the blues. Their regular Methodist Church visits filled the siblings with gospel music and Christian hymns.

    The radio was Booger Red’s lifeline, and he dial–shopped ceaselessly, soaking up big band music from the Aragon Hotel in Chicago, jazz from New Orleans, and vocalists such as Bing Crosby, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. He learned to love lyrics and melody.

    Nelson was most impressed, however, with country music. Under its showbiz fabric beat a rural heart. Although Bob Wills and Texas swing were omnipresent on the Texas airwaves, young Willie took to listening to WACO in Waco, for Hank Thompson’s hillbilly show. He loved Lefty Frizzell, Bill Boyd and Hank Williams too. Floyd Tillman was a big favorite.

    Nelson was 10 in 1943 when Frank Sinatra made his debut on Your Hit Parade, and the young Texan was spellbound by the kid from Hoboken’s off–meter phrasing, seemingly effortless, jazzy melodizing and remarkable breath control. It was something he would not forget.

    “My grandmother gave me voice lessons,” he said, “and that was what she always taught me: Voice control was deep breathing, breathing from way down deep, and how that would strengthen your lungs and your vocal cords. So I started out doing that real early.

    “And I’d heard Frank Sinatra sing, so I knew he had strong lungs. I really don’t know if he practiced voice control as I did, but he must have had that sort of instruction somewhere along the way.”

    But Willie’s first true idol was Ernest Tubb, who’d showed up on the Opry in 1943. “Walkin’ The Floor Over You” was one of the first songs Booger Red learned off the radio. He took to heart Tubb’s advice, given much later, of course, that the two most important things for a singer are clarity of thought and individual style.

    “Ernest Tubb was the Texas country music hero, and Frank Sinatra was the bobbysoxer hero back in those days,” Nelson said. “But I could see similarities. I think it (my singing style) is probably a combination of Frank Sinatra, Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman and Bob Wills, and probably other people that I don’t even know.”

    Elements of all can be heard in Nelson’s distinctive style, squeezing words together and racing ahead of the beat, regardless of the type of song he’s singing. “I think early on I did do a lot of phrasing. Of course, a lot of it was ‘If you can’t do it this way, do it another.’ Maybe I couldn’t do it exactly the way Ernest Tubb or Frank Sinatra did it, so I would do it the way that made it easy for me.

    “It may sound strange or even more far off than they think I should be , but as long as I get back in time and the beat is there…I’ve run a lot of drummers crazy trying to follow me, because I do lay behind or jump ahead a lot.”

    While in the sixth grade, he landed his first professional gig, strumming acoustic guitar with the 15–member John Raycjeck Bohemian Polka Band. The ensemble played polka, waltzes and shoddishes for the large German and Polish settlements around Abbott, West and Waco, and Nelson was paid the princely sum of $8 per night (more than he could bring home after a week in the cotton fields). Still, his guitar playing was rarely audible above the drums and horn section.

    He was already a prolific songwriter at 11, and he hand–printed a Songs By Willie Nelson music book to prove it. He drew a lariat on the cover, and the greeting, “Howdy Pard,” and put it on the coffee table next to the Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers folios, where he could gaze at it and dream.

    Sister Bobbie, age 16 in 1946, married Texas fiddler Bud Fletcher, and together they put together a Western dance band, with the 13–year old Willie on guitar. Bud Fletcher and the Texans played the beer joints and dance halls, like dozens of other bands in the area. They even had their own radio series on KHBR out of nearby Hillsboro, and Nelson thought they’d reached the very pinnacle. Ira Nelson played with them for a period too.

    That first year, the entrepreneurial Fletcher booked Texas’ number one king of swing, Bob Wills himself, into the Oak Lodge dance hall in nearby Whitney, Texas. Young Willie was a partner in the deal.

    Nelson remembered that Wills, who looked like wax but was still larger than life, always had a crowd around him. In his 1988 autobiography Willie, he wrote: “Bob Wills taught me how to be a bandleader and how to be a star. He would hit the bandstand at 8 p.m. and stay for four hours without a break. One song would end; he’d count four and hit another one. There was not time wasted between songs.

    “I learned from him to keep the people moving and dancing. That way, you don’t lose their attention, plus your amplifiers drown out whatever the drunks might yell. The more you keep the music going, the smoother the evening will be.”

    Wills, already a hero, became a friend: the great man would pen the liner notes to Nelson’s second album, Here’s Willie Nelson, in 1963. Nelson, meanwhile, had taken a fancy to Django Reinhardt, the Belgian Gypsy guitarist who played much the same way Sinatra sang: with strange textures, phrasing and shifts in meter. Jazz was an important element in Willie’s musical education.

    “My dad played fiddle, and he played rhythm guitar,” said Nelson. “The style that he played, he learned mainly from Western Swing, Bob Wills and those guys. Now, the fiddle players in there, guys like Johnny Gimble and Cecil Briar, were great students of Stephane Grappelli, who was with Django’s Hot Band of France back in the ’30′s and ’20′s. Django himself was a hero to all these western swing guitar players, who were nothing more than jazz players themselves. Bob’s arrangements were jazz. So I had Django influences before I had the real thing.”

    It was Johnnie Gimble, in fact, who gave him his first Reinhardt album: Nelson claims to have every record the guitarist made. “I loved his tone, and naturally I can’t do what he did, but I do admire it enough to where it’s obvious that I try to do what he does,” Nelson said, acknowledging the Reinhardt influence on his own wild guitar style. “I reach for something, and I don’t hit what he hit, but I’ll hit something else accidentally. That’s where most hot licks come from, I think.”

    After graduating from Abbott High School in 1951, Nelson signed up for the Air Force, determined to become a jet pilot and serve his country gloriously in the Korean conflict. But he couldn’t even get past the preliminary tests, and after trying a couple of different start–up positions (in radar school and the medical corps), he was released on a medical discharge (he’d hurt his back lifting some heavy boxes).

    Upon returning to Abbott, Nelson fell head over heels in love with a 16–year old carhop, Martha Jewel Matthews, a feisty gal with a Cherokee bloodline. On their first date, he drove Bud Fletcher’s car. Martha was still 16 when they married, and the newlyweds moved in with Mama Nelson.

    Nelson played guitar for a spell with the Mission City Playboys (whose drummer, Johnny Bush, would remain a lifelong friend) and, after Martha became pregnant with their first child, Nelson took a job as a disc jockey in Pleasanton, 30 miles south of San Antonio. To get the job, he lied about his experience (he didn’t have any).

    In 1954, shortly after daughter Lana was born, the new family relocated to Fort Worth (Ira and his new wife lived there, as did sister Bobbie, widowed by Bud Fletcher and remarried). Nelson was a popular air personality on KCNC in Fort Worth. His sign–on: “This is your ol’ cotton pickin’, snuff dippin’, tobacco chewin’, stump jumpin’, coffee pot dodgin’, dumplin’eatin, frog giggin’, hillbilly from Hill County.” He played and sang live on the radio each day, and it was during this tenure that he first met drummer Paul English, who would join his band fulltime 10 years later and remains to this day.

    “He was a Fort Worth pimp and part–time musician,” Nelson recalled, laughing. “Paul’s brother, Oliver English, was also a fine musician there in Fort Worth. Each day I’d do a live show, 30 minutes with just me and the guitar, and Oliver English. One day Paul came down, and the drummer that we had there didn’t show up.

    “So we had Paul sit over there and we put a pair of brushes in his hand. That was the first time he ever played drums — he played trombone, or sax or something in the Salvation Army. But the first time he played drums was on the radio with me and Oliver.”

    Willie played songs for children at one o’clock in the afternoon, sort of a “naptime show”; one of his favorite records was “The Red Headed Stranger” by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. Nelson was also writing feverishly.

    It was in Fort Worth in 1954, too, that Willie Nelson was first introduced to marijuana, a substance he has rarely been without in the intervening years. It has been sanding off his rough edges for four decades now.

    In 1956, after relocating briefly to San Diego, the Nelson family moved in with Mother Myrle, who’d remarried (twice) and had settled in Vancouver, Washington. Old radio hand Nelson talked himself into a jock job on KVAN, and within a month his 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily program was the second most popular show in town (Arthur Godfrey was first). His air name was Wee Willie Nelson.

    Mae Boren Axton, who’d co–written “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis Presley, visited Vancouver while working as advance publicity flak for singer Hank Snow (managed by Axton’s boss, Colonel Tom Parker, who was by then getting busy with Elvis Presley). Willie, never one to miss an opportunity, corralled her into the production room and played her a tape of some songs he’d written. Axton’s advice: If you got something to sell, go where the store is. Get the hell out of the Pacific Northwest and move to Nashville.

    Instead, Nelson dragged his electric guitar and amplifier into a converted garage in nearby Portland, Oregon, and crudely recorded two songs: his own “No Place For Me” and “The Lumberjack,” a tune written by his pal Leon Payne. The echo–laden tapes were sent off to Starday Records in Nashville, where 500 singles were pressed (on “Willie Nelson Records”); Starday’s Pappy Dailey declined to pick up the artist’s publishing, which was his company’s option in the contract.

    Wee Willie sold the singles on his radio show; for $1 you received the record and an autographed photo of W. Nelson, writer, producer and record tycoon. He sold out of the first pressing, and eventually his fans bought 3,000 records.

    Willie wasn’t ready to try Nashville yet, but the bug had bitten him. Making enough money to support his family was his top priority, and when his program out–performed Arthur Godfrey in the local ratings, he demanded a raise and was promptly dismissed.

    So after two years in Vancouver he packed up Martha and the kids (daughter Susie was born in Washington in January 1957) and went back to Texas. For a while, he was determined to quit the music business and be a serious and hard–workin’ daddy, but his restlessness and drive wore him down.

    In Fort Worth, living with Ira and his new family again, the Nelsons tried to be a normal family, living normal hours. Nelson sold vacuum cleaners, Bibles and encyclopedias door to door, and even taught Sunday school for a while, at the Metropolitan Baptist Church. When the pastor learned that Mr. Nelson, respectable bible–thumper and tutor to the local children in the ways of the Lord, was often coming in on Sunday after a night singing and picking in honky–tonks and “buckets of blood,” Nelson was dismissed from Sunday school.

    Disgusted by the hypocrisy of it all (“I ran into a lot of the same faces Saturday and Sunday,” he’d later write), Nelson left the Christian church for good. It was at this time, he wrote, that he started reading about other religious beliefs and eventually came face to face with what, for him, would read like God’s own truth: the laws of Karma and reincarnation. These beliefs helped him through some mighty rough times.

    Looking for more honky tonks to conquer, Nelson brought his brood south to Houston, a rough–and–tumble town in 1958 (son Billy came in May). Perpetually broke, he held down three jobs: He played six nights a week with Larry Butler’s band at Houston’s roomy Esquire Ballroom, spun records Sunday mornings on KCRT, and taught guitar at mandolinist Paul Buskirk’s School of Music (although, he says, most of his students seemed to know he was faking it). Buskirk remains a friend and ally; his presence is felt throughout 1993′s Moonlight Becomes You.

    Nelson settled his family in an apartment in Pasadena, Texas, a Houston suburb. It was during the 30–minute drive from Pasadena to the Esquire Club one night that he plucked the opening lines to “Night Life” out of the air: “When the evening sun goes down, you will find me hangin’ round…” He rarely wrote anything down, figuring that if it wasn’t good enough to remember, it wasn’t good.

    Meanwhile, Starday Records owner Pappy Dailey signed Nelson to his fledgling D Records, and cut his first “official” single on Nelson, “What A Way To Live.” But Dailey and the label man had a falling out over “Night Life,” Nelson knew it was a hit in waiting, but Dailey thought it was a blues song, not a country song, and wouldn’t let him cut it.

    So Nelson recorded “Night Life” on a small Houston label, Rx Records, and to avoid a legal hassle with Dailey, he had the artist listed as “Paul Buskirk and His Little Men, Featuring Hugh Nelson.”

    “The musicians on there were jazz and blues musicians,” Nelson said. “Herbie Remington, the steel guitar player, was a fantastic musician who could play anything. He was one of the original steel guitar players with Bob Wills.”

    To finance the session, Nelson had sold “Night Life” to Buskirk for $150; earlier, Buskirk had purchased Nelson’s song “Family Bible” for $50. He said that in those days, he figured songs were like paintings; you finished one, sold it and painted another one. He has never earned a cent from “Family Bible,” which was a Top 10 hit for Buskirk’s partner Claude Gray in 1960 (on D Records, of course), or from “Night Life,” which became Ray Price’s signature tune in 1963 and has been recorded by more than 70 artists, including Willie himself.

    In 1960, encouraged by his meager songwriting success, he finally took Mae Axton’s advice and pointed himself toward Nashville in his beat–to–hell 1950 Buick; after dropping Martha and the kids at her folks’ place in Waco, he hit the highway to Music City.

    The car collapsed and died like a tired horse the moment he arrived in downtown Nashville.

    Willie made fast friends at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the watering hole just across the alley from the Opry, where the songwriters hung out and drank and bragged and schmoozed. Nelson fell in with Roger Miller, Harlan Howard, Mel Tillis and, fortuitously, Hank Cochran. The composer (with Howard) of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces,” Cochran had connections; when his new friend Nelson began to turn up at “guitar pullings” (late night boozing parties where writers tried out their new stuff) the tide started to turn for Nelson.

    He moved Martha and the children up from Waco, and the family took a cheap trailer at Dunn’s Trailer Court, coincidentally, the very mobile home that both Cochran and Miller had inhabited when they had first arrived. Miller, in fact, used the entrance sign at Dunn’s — “Trailers for Sale or Rent” — as the opening image for his 1965 classic “King Of The Road.”

    In 1960, though, Cochran was the only one of the bunch to have achieved any success. So impressed was he by Nelson’s songwriting that he waved off a $50 per week raise from his publisher, Pamper Music, and suggested they use it instead to hire Willie Nelson.

    When Willie learned about this good fortune, he cried. Martha cried. The kids cried. Cochran cried. At last, Nelson was a songwriter, making a living — well, makingsomething — with his relentless creative drive. Martha went to work as a waitress and barmaid, paying the bills, while Nelson pursued his dream. The marriage was, however, unraveling, as Nelson was pulled, and eventually pulled himself, farther away from family duties. He and his wife were both hotheads, he recalled later.

    He recorded dozens of songs as demos, the same way its done in Nashville today, and shopped them to country artists (most of the so–called “Pamper demos” were issued amid lots of compilations in the 1970s).

    Things began to turn around in 1961. First Faron Young, one of the Tootsie’s crowd and a consistent hitmaker since the 1950′s, cut Nelson’s “Hello Walls.” Backed by another Nelson number, “Congratulations,” the single stayed at number one for nine weeks. Nelson received his first big royalty check for $20,000, and French–kissed Faron in front of all their cronies at the bar at Tootsie’s.

    Two more smashes followed, in October and November, respectively. “Funny How Time Slips Away” was a smash by Texan Billy Walker (an old friend who’d also cut Nelson’s “Mr. Record Man” to considerably less success), and “Crazy” became a big hit for Patsy Cline. He wrote them in the same week.

    He never seemed to be out of songs. “I just think if you’re a songwriter, if that’s what you do, it’s just kind of like if you’re a farmer,” Nelson said. “You have a natural talent for plowing a field. I’m a songwriter. It’s supposed to be easy for me, and it is.

    “I can write a song about anything, at any time. Now, whether it’s worth a damn or not is debatable. But to any professional songwriter, you should be able to say, “All right, write me a song about running around naked,” and he should be able to do it.”

    The songwriting royalties were startin’ to look fine, but Willie still desperately wanted to be a performer. Around this time, he took a job, playing bass in Ray Price’s road band, the Cherokee Cowboys (replacing Donnie Young, who would soon change his name to Johnny Paycheck). He so enjoyed life on the road that he spent more and more time away from home, even when he wasn’t working. With his big royalty checks, he’d often spring for a suite at whatever Holiday Inn they were staying in, so the band could party.

    In the fall of 1961, Hank Cochran unwittingly got Nelson his first record deal. While on a song–selling mission to Liberty Records head Joe Allison, Cochran played a few of the demos Nelson had recorded for Pamper.

    Allison fell for Willie Nelson’s songs, and for his unusually expressive voice. “For years, nobody would record him because they thought he sung funny,” Allison would later recall. “We finally decided that the best approach would just be to play rhythm behind him and stay the hell out of the way.”

    That was pretty much the blueprint for …And Then I Wrote, the first Willie Nelson album, issued on Liberty Records in September 1962. Performed with a small, bass–piano–drums–guitar combo and little else to fog Nelson’s Texas baritone, the album is a classic honky tonk weeper.

    Here are the earliest versions of “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Hello Walls,” plus textbook barroom bawlers like “Undo The Right” (co–written by Cochran), “The Part Where I Cry” and “Three Days.”

    There’s also the utterly strange “Where My House Lives” and the darkly beautiful “Darkness on the Face Of The Earth.” All in all, depressing songs about unhappy relationships.

    “Most of the songs that I write pretty much reflect where I’m at, at the time,” he reflected. “And those were some pretty sad and hectic times in my life. I guess that’s why I was born a songwriter, so I could write about ‘em.”

    Of course, the album wasn’t a hit. It’s likely that the world wasn’t ready for Willie Nelson yet. Today, Nelson wonders what his life would be like if his early records had made him a star. “I’d be burned out by now,” he believed. “I’d be dead somewhere. It’s occurred to me several times. I think everything happens when it’s supposed to. I don’t think I would’ve known what to do with success — I still don’t know what to do with it! I might be one of those guys that’s settled down in Branson and decided that’s where they want to spend the rest of their life. If I’d had some hits early, when I was 25 years old, I might’ve been tired of the whole damn thing.”

    The best thing to come out of …And Then I Wrote, to Nelson’s mind, was his relationship with the great country guitar player Grady Martin. Martin was the session leader for the Nashville part of …And Then I Wrote (several of the tracks were cut in Los Angeles, with Leon Russell supervising) and the two developed an easy rapport that would last. Martin played guitar in Nelson’s band for nearly 20 years and finally retired, over Nelson’s protests, in 1993.

    …And Then I Wrote was the most satisfying album Willie Nelson would release untilYesterday’s Wine nine years later; with each subsequent set, with each new producer, his vocals would become a little less essential to the mix. Starting with 1963′s Here’s Willie Nelson, his producers would try to fit him into the mold of a Nashville record–maker.

    But he didn’t fit; he never would. And try as they might, nobody could make a star out of Willie Nelson until they changed the mold to fit him.

    His first chart single, a duet with singer Shirley Collie, Hank Cochran’s “Willingly,” was released in December 1961. Collie, a world–class yodeler and harmony singer, was a member of Red Foley’s Phillip Morris road show. By the time “Willingly” had made it to #10 in March, Nelson was romantically involved with Collie, married to a California disc jockey who’d helped Nelson’s career.

    His solo single “Touch Me” went to #7 in May, but Willie Nelson wouldn’t crack the Top 10 again until he returned with long hair, a beard and a cowboy hat 13 years later.

    Here’s Willie Nelson appeared in 1963, and sank without a trace, and a third album though recorded, was never released (all of Nelson’s Liberty tracks were later collected on the two–CD set The Early Years: The Complete Liberty Recordings). He left the label for what he hoped would be greener pastures.

    By the time Ray Price had cut “Night Life” in 1963, Nelson was deeply in love with Shirley Colley; he once described her as the best harmony singer he’d ever worked with (listen to the duo’s snazzy, jazzy versions of “Columbus Stockade Blues” — three of them — on the Early Years). Martha divorced him in 1963 and took the kids out west; after Shirley’s divorce from Biff Colley, she and Nelson were married. They bought a 200–acre hog farm in Ridgetop, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville (while they were signing the papers, they learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas).

    Nelson wrote the Christmas song “Pretty Paper,” which became a Top 20 it for Roy Orbison, and briefly recorded for Orbison’s label, Monument (one single was released, and the other tracks originally consigned to the Monument shelves were issued during the Williefest that was the ’70s; the most complete collection being theSinger/Songwriter album.

    Suffering from the serious bouts of depression and self–doubt that would plague him for many years, Nelson quit the performing business for a few months in 1964 to write songs and raise hogs at Ridgetop. The British Invasion was making short work of most other styles of music at the time, anyway, and country music was adding strings and big arrangement to compensate (this was the beginning of ‘countrypolitan’ music, the so–called “Nashville Sound”).

    Bored with the hog farmer bit, Nelson “came back” with a vengeance in November, ironically signing with RCA Victor, where the Nashville Sound blueprints were being drawn. But vocal arranger Anita Kerr was a fan, as was A&R head Chet Atkins, and they believed Nelson’s stellar songwriting talent would override his unorthodox singling style. With some strings here and chorus there, he could be a huge country star yet. Nelson joined the Grand Ole Opry the same month.

    In Nashville, he joined the cast of Ernest Tubb’s syndicated TV show as co–host. “It was a lot of fun,” Nelson recalled. “That was back when Jack Greene was playing drums in the Ernest Tubb show. Cal Smith was playing guitar, and Wade Ray was playing fiddle with me. That was the good ol’ days.”

    Nelson was thrilled to be singing and playing alongside his boyhood hero. “I helped him host a little bit along, but he was the master of ceremonies,” he remembered. “He let me be the co–host because he wanted to help boost my career, I guess.”

    But the powers that were at RCA were wrong; in six years and 18 albums, Nelson had never had even a minor hit with the label. Producers Atkins and Felton Jarvis tried every trick in the book — they laid on the strings, they laid off the strings, they put on steel guitars and fiddles, they put on horns, they let Nelson just play his acoustic guitar. But he resented, like so many others, having to use the antiseptic RCA studios and the dispassionate RCA session musicians.

    There were some good songs—he was really cranking ‘em out by now—but the recordings were…well, they were kind of boring. “I really did get frustrated in those years,” he said, “because I was writing what I felt were good songs. Each time you put out an album that you didn’t feel had a chance, there’s 10 of your children that you feel like didn’t get a fair shot. On the other hand, I also knew that if these songs were as good as I thought they were, they’d always be good and eventually I’d be able to do them again, some way.

    “When I first went to Nashville, I wanted to go in with me and my guitar and do some things. Chet Atkins, Grady Martin and I, just the three of us, we did some a few years later. I was so intimidated being in the studio with those two guys that I couldn’t find my ass with a search warrant.”

    To be honest, many of Nelson’s RCA records were doomed by his performance style, too, which had become a kind of bleating monotone. He hadn’t yet found the intimate and even tender singing voice he would use on Red Headed Stranger and everything that followed.

    Although there were many, many good songs, and they weren’t all overproduced (check out Nelson’s hipster takes on “Fire And Rain” and “Both Sides Now” on the 1970 Both Sides Now LP) they were nearly all overpowering, without any subtlety at all. As if he were trying too hard. (Compare Nelson’s honking 1970 version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” with the calm, measured reading on 1979′s Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson).

    “I knew they didn’t sound like I wanted them to sound,” Nelson said. “There was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t have the authority to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I don’t want to do it this way.’ I decided maybe I’m makin’ demos, but if I am, they’re pretty expensive and I’m not paying for ‘em.”

    In 1965, Nelson and his band were performing at the Riverside Ballroom in Phoenix; Waylon Jennings was a regular performer at JD’s Lounge down the street. Jennings went over to check out the traveling Texan, and a lifelong friendship was born.

    “I love his writing,” Jennings said. “I’m a firm believer that between him and Roger Miller, it would be a toss–up. Willie has written more of a wider range of country songs. But Willie is basically the greatest country songwriter that’s ever been, I think.”

    He was selling records in Texas and surrounding areas, where his live act was drawing crowds, but everywhere else Willie Nelson was a washout. Nashville just didn’t know what to do with him. He didn’t feel right with Nashville, either. “Just because he had on a suit and tie, or a turtleneck, didn’t mean that’s what was going on inside his head,” offered Ray Benson. “He could have been a beatnik. You have to get into the nuance of the time. If you really look close at it, you’ll see that he was really different. And he always knew that.

    “He was trying to fit in, but only superficially. Because the music was so different, really — his version of ‘San Antonio Rose,’ for example, that’s almost jazz music. That’s also in the great tradition of Ernest Tubb, though. His band did stuff like that all the time.

    “Willie’s musicality was probably what set him apart. The facts are, when you hit Nashville back in them days, there were two kinds of players; the people who played hot, and the people who played commercial. And that was the word they used, ‘commercial.’ Hank Garland, one of the greatest jazz guitar players of all time, also played on all of the Top 40 country western records of the time. And played commercial.”

    At Ridgetop, Lana, Susie and Billy came to live with Willie and Shirley. Martha never did give her ex–husband legal custody, but she was getting re–married, again, and had better things to do. Eventually, she and her third spouse, Mickey Scott (an old flame from Waco) moved in just down the road from Willie, Shirley and the kids.

    Ira, Willie’s dad, and his new wife Lorraine moved onto Nelson’s farm, as did sister Bobbie, her third husband and her three kids. When Lana married, she and her husband stayed in the area. Mother Myrle and her husband relocated from the Pacific Northwest to a house five miles away. Musicians Wade Ray and Paul English — they played fiddle and drums with Willie — moved onto the farm with their wives too.

    Even though he wasn’t selling records, Nelson was bringing in close to $100,000 a year in songwriting royalties. He still wanted desperately to be a star, and in the mid–’60s bought his first bus. He and the band began to hit the road nationally, for a month at a stretch.

    Things at Ridgetop were strained, with Willie on the road all the time, and Shirley increasingly resentful, holding the reins on the kids, the hogs and a whole brood of transplanted Texans practically by herself. Daughter Susie began to rebel, staying out all night and abusing drugs; Billy apparently never got over his parents’ divorce and resented Shirley for years.

    One afternoon in November 1969, Shirley opened up a piece of mail with a Houston postmark, and proceeded to read a hospital paternity bill. Willie and Connie Nelson, “Mr. and Mrs.,” had become the parents of a baby girl, Paula Carlene on Oct. 27. Mr. Nelson had put the Ridgetop address on the registration forms.

    Willie had been introduced to Connie Koepke at a club in a Texas town called Cut ‘n Shoot, just outside of Houston. She was more than just another conquest of the road, of which there were many by this time. Nelson’s marriage to Shirley was coming apart; he was hard–drinking and unhappy again.

    Shirley moved out shortly after the arrival of the errant hospital bill; by Christmas, Connie was living at the house with the baby Paula Carlene, Susie and Billie. Susie thought Connie, 27 was all right, but Billy never spoke to her. Willie and Shirley wouldn’t speak to one another for 10 years.

    In the basement at Ridgetop, Nelson had rigged a crude recording studio where he, Cochran and the rest of the songwriting gang would play cards, get drunk and lay down new tunes. A week before Christmas, Nelson and Cochran wrote a song called “What Can You Do To Me Now?”

    Willie was at a party in Nashville on Dec. 23 when someone called to say his house was on fire; Connie and the baby were home, but had escaped unharmed. He hurried home and dashed through the smoldering ruin, kicking through the ashes until he found what he was looking for: an old guitar case stuffed with two pounds of top–notch Columbian marijuana.

    A friend helped the Nelsons find suitable quarters while they started looking for a place to live while their home was being rebuilt. Since most of Nelson’s performance dates were in Texas, and Texans loved him, they started looking down there. Eventually they settled on a place called the Happy Valley Dude Ranch in Bandera, 50 miles west of San Antonio on the eastern edge of Texas Hill Country.

    Happy Valley was closed for the winter, and so they had the place all to themselves. Nelson’s “family” was expanding even further, and several of his band members and their immediates made the move with him. Thus, the Bandera property became something like a commune, with each family encamped in a different clapboard guesthouse. Willie and Connie took the ranch foreman’s quarters.

    It was here at Happy Valley, among the hills, cedar trees and verdant fields of wildflowers, that Nelson began to wonder whether he really wanted to live in Nashville after all. His lifestyle was loose, organic, so unlike the way country music performers were supposed to behave.

    He hated the studio system, hated his record company, hated the fact that after 10 years of hitting the road hard, the only place he could draw any sort of a crowd was around Texas.

    “I was ready to move somewhere anyway,” he said, “and it just seemed like when the house burned I didn’t have any excuses anymore. If I’m gonna look for a new house, I might as well look for one back in Texas, because that’s really where I felt I ought to go.

    “First of all, I needed to go somewhere I could take my band and play, and I knew I could do it in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana. I didn’t have to travel very far that way, and I figured, ‘If this is my retirement, I’m gonna enjoy it and be somewhere I want to be.’

    “I think I reached a point where I just said, ‘Wait a minute. This is not working. I’m ruining my health, running around all over the world trying to do something that just ain’t working.’ I was still getting songs cut, so I was making an income that way, so I said, ‘I’m going home.’ And when the house burned I just said, ‘Let’s go.’”

    In Bandera, Willie began to meditate. He read Kahlil Gibran, the poet, and the philosophical works of Edgar Cayce, the prophet of reincarnation. He also began playing golf religiously (Happy Valley had its own nine–hole golf course).

    In 1971, he released Yesterday’s Wine, a brilliant country music album, brimming with the mortal court and mystical spark that would ignite Red Headed Stranger (still four years away), but just as gut–wrenching and emotional as his early songs for Liberty.

    It’s a concept album, telling the story of a man watching his own funeral and reviewing his life. The new songs on Yesterday’s Wine were written in Bandera, where he and his cohorts had settled into a hippie–esque, hedonistic way of life. There were drugs, and drink, and many days spent navel–gazing and nature–communing under the influence of some chemical or other.

    These are the spoken opening lines of Yesterday’s Wine:

    Voice 1: You do know why you’re here?

    Voice 2 (Willie): Yes. There is great confusion on earth, and the power that is has concluded the following: Perfect man has visited earth already, and his voice was heard; the voice of imperfect man must now be manifest. And I have been selected as the most likely candidate.

    Voice 1: Yes, the time is April, and therefore you, a Taurus, must go. To be born under the same sign twice adds strength, and this strength, combined with wisdom and love, is the key.

    With an intro like that, how could Nashville like this album?

    “It was just one of those ideas,” Nelson said recently. “I’d heard of concept albums before, and I just thought, ‘Well, I can do that.”

    Along with the title song and good old “Family Bible,” Yesterday’s Wine includes “Let Me Be A Man,” “It’s Not For Me To Understand,” and “Me and Paul,” Nelson’s humorous song about the trials and tribulations of life on the road with drummer and closest pal Paul English (really close, because he lived at Happy Valley too).

    Most importantly, the album introduced a “new” Willie Nelson and Band sound: stripped down, spartan instrumentation and quiet vocals, like a gang of spiritual cowboys around a campfire.

    Except Cowboy Willie seemed to be trying to sing with the stilted phrasing of every other erstwhile Nashville star. The combination was lethal; Yesterday’s Wine was too weird, and predictably, it stiffed. He wasn’t ready yet.

    The Ridgetop house was rebuilt in 1971, and everyone schlepped back to Tennessee. Willie and RCA reached an impasse over Yesterday’s Wine (he thought they didn’t promote it, which they didn’t, and they accused him of being counter–commercial, which he was). After a few contractual obligations were worked out, Willie Nelson was a free agent.

    He met Atlantic Records head Jerry Wexler at a guitar–pulling. Sitting on a stool in the wee hours, his old Martin N–20 gut–string guitar in hand, Nelson sang an entirely new concept album he planned to call Phases And Stages. The story of a painful divorce was told from both sides. Phases And Stages introduced a couple of songs that would become classics: “Bloody Mary Morning,” “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way” and “Sister’s Coming Home.” It was to be a bold stroke.

    Wexler told the singer he was starting an Atlantic country division, and since his deal with RCA was just about up, would he like to be the flagship artist? Nelson said yes, if he was given artistic control of the project. He was making just enough money to be cocky about it. Wexler agreed.

    The first thing Atlantic did was fly Willie and his band to New York, to record there (for their very first time) with Arif Mardin. The Shotgun Willie album sessions, featuring a crack horn section and guest pickers Leon Russell, Doug Sahm and David Bromberg, were attended and written about by Rolling Stone magazine.

    Phases And Stages finally arrived a year later, as quiet and reflective as Shotgun Willie had been drunk and electric. “Bloody Mary Morning” was a Top 20 hit, andPhases And Stages became Nelson’s best–selling album to date (numerous rave reviews certainly didn’t hurt). The “alternative” press was calling him cool, and it looked like he was on his way.

    But the sales figures still weren’t all that great, and when Atlantic decided to shut down its Nashville operation, Phases And Stages died a quick (and painful) commercial death.

    By that time Nelson had already retreated back to Texas and its comfortable beer joint stages, where he was a familiar and welcome figure.

    “I could be happy doing that, because I had worked clubs down in Texas all my life, and I knew all the club owners around there,” he explains. “There was a pretty good circuit of clubs in Texas, and you could work every day and not work the same one.”

    Since almost all the gigs were in Texas, why not just move there permanently? Nashville just flat wasn’t happening. With the Atlantic debacle ringing in his ears, and with Happy Valley memories still strong, Nelson shifted his entire organization to Austin.

    “I had come back to Texas to retire, and to play what I wanted to play when I wanted to play,” Nelson said.

    “I’d been lucky enough to write some songs and have an income, so if I lived within the means I wouldn’t have to do any more touring. I was 40 years old, and it was time to slow down a little bit, I thought.

    “So I came back to Texas, and I started just working around places that I wanted to work.”

    Rock ‘n’ roll and country were drawing closer together, despite themselves, and in the spring of 1972, some quick–thinking promotion guys in Dallas had decided that Texas, where the burner under this melting pot seemed to be, needed its own Woodstock.

    And so it came: the First Annual Dripping Springs Reunion, held in a dusty cow pasture a half–hour’s drive west of Austin. Tex Ritter and Loretta Lynn were on the bill, but so were Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. “The old meet the new” was the idea. Or something like that.

    The country Woodstock was pretty much a disaster; the 60,000 fans got wet, muddy and stoned, in that order, and the promotion men took a bath. But Willie Nelson, keen observer of people and the things that drove them, was taking notes. He used the unfortunate Dripping Springs concert as the jumping–off point for the annual Willie Nelson Fourth of July picnics, which he would begin in 1974.

    “The Dripping Springs Reunion had been a financial disaster, but it was still a good idea,” Nelson said. “And I was on that show. And I saw the possibilities.

    “The reason I wanted to do it in July was because it was hot, and I figured that any kind of violence that might break out would be lessened by the heat.

    “I figured if people smoked enough dope and drank enough beer, then they wouldn’t want to fight. Especially if it was hot.”

    And he put his own name prominently “above the title,” helping to set himself up as the patriarch of the south’s new counter–counter–culture.

    “Some of them were big, some of them were just bombs,” Ray Benson recalled. “He really wasn’t making any money at all. He’d take his publishing checks and subsidize the whole thing.”

    The bill at the 1974 picnic included Kris Kristofferson, his wife Rita Coolidge (then enjoying success as a pop solo act and as a duo with her husband) and Nelson’s old bud Waylon Jennings, who was coming into his own, like Nelson, as a “progressive country” artist.

    (By the fourth go–round in 1976, a three–day affair held in Gonzales, Texas, the picnics had become the largest annual musical event in the nation, and were routinely condemned by the local politicos. Which of course, made them all the more fun.)

    “I don’t know how many Fourth of July picnics we’ve done, 10 or 12 or 15 or something,” he said. “They started blending into Farm Aid. We quit doing Picnics and started doing Farm Aids.”

    In 1972 and ’73, Willie Nelson had found more than what he expected in Austin. He found a lifestyle, a manifesto, and an attitude. And he, a 40–year old country singer, ostensibly an “establishment figure” could relate to it.

    “I found a lot of people who thought the same way I did about a lot of things, a lot of them from Texas,” he said. “And so I realized there was a lot of folks over there who would like to hear some country music, but they really didn’t have a place to hear it.

    “Guys like Commander Cody were playing at the Armadillo World Headquarters, so I thought this would be a good spot to break country music in to those people.”

    The Armadillo World Headquarters, a converted National Guard Armory, became the center for Austin’s fledgling subculture of hippies, rednecks, country and folk fans and all the strange hybrid bloodlines that were forming. It was a lot like San Francisco in its hipster heyday, Nelson said. Except much further south.

    The music was changing fast too. Rock ‘n’ roll and country had been brought together in exciting new ways courtesy of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Eagles. Troubadours such as Jerry Jeff Walker were sort of like Hank Williams, the prevailing logic went, if he’d been alive in the present age.

    “I saw something that a lot of people didn’t see,” Nelson said. “I saw a whole new audience out there. And the only difference between these guys and these guys is one of them has long hair and might smoke a little dope every now and then, and the other guy over here’s got short hair and drinks rotgut whiskey.

    “It was gonna be difficult for them guys to ever get together unless they had some common ground. And I knew what the common ground was. I knew that these same guys, who had their hair down to their ass, loved Hank Williams. And I knew that this guy over here, who had just got through kickin’ the shit out of some hippie, he loved Hank Williams. So there was something wrong with this.”

    Austin in 1972 was like nothing else history had seen, recalled Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson. “It was wonderful. We were always broke, and everybody just wanted to get high and play music. There were many, many like–minded people. People used to say, ‘What’s the Austin sound?’ I’d say, ‘There ain’t no Austin sound, there’s an Austin scene.’ We were all as different musically as you could be: Doug Sahm had his thing, Greezy Wheels, Marcia ball, Willie Nelson, a hundred other groups. And they all sounded different. There wasn’t anybody sounded the same.”

    So what was it? “It was all lifestyle,” Benson said. “Everybody liked to get high, liked to have a beer, liked elements of country music for sure, absolutely, but we were also counter–culture, whatever that was. We were takin’ the hippie thing and giving it this real Texas, country music slant.”

    And above the title, smiling that million–dollar paternal smile, was Willie Nelson. “He was the father of the whole thing, no doubt,” Benson said. “He was the most successful, he was the oldest, and he was pure Texas. He knew Darrel Royall, the football coach, he knew the state representatives, these kind of guys. I couldn’t get a check cashed in Austin.

    “Willie was very much in touch with the establishment from his previous days, and yet he was also very much part of the counter–culture. So he had his feet in both camps, and was accepted by both. He was our link. He was the guy who, when he said we were all right to a bunch of these straight establishment kind of people, we were all right, which opened up many, many doors which would’ve otherwise been closed.”

    Willie began to grow his hair and beard, and to wear old jeans and T–shirts onstage. “I did it to piss a lot of people off, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t pissin’ nobody off any more,” he recalled with a deep laugh. The he told a story that, for him, explained everything: “We used to sit around at parties back in the drinkin’ days, sit around in hotel rooms, and crowds would come in, and there’d be more people there than you wanted.

    “So we’d start sayin’ ‘fuck’ around, and the first thing you know, the guys that had their little girlfriends would leave. And then I started noticin’ that the more you said ‘fuck’ the more people’d come in.” He laughed another good Texas laugh. “Times are changing.”

    The common denominator, Benson said, was, “Drugs. Frankly, all I can say is he turned on with the rest of us. He got psychedelicized, as they used to say. I think he always was a ‘seeker’ as Dolly Parton used to call him. He was always looking for more than perhaps the obvious spiritual answer.”

    Nelson’s first show at the Armadillo was Aug. 12, 1972. It wasn’t long before he called Waylon, who too was getting sick of the stranglehold up in Nashville, and persuaded him to come down to play a gig in Austin. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were booked as the opening act.

    “He called me and said, ‘I think I found something down here,” remembered Jennings. “So I went down there, and I looked out of the curtain, and there was all these long–haired kids. And I said, ‘Go get that little red–headed son–of–a–bitch! Get him in here!” And they went out front and got Willie, and I said, ‘What the hell have you got me into? Those are a bunch of kids!’

    “And he said, ‘Just trust me.’ I said, ‘Now I know what that means in California, but I ain’t sure about Austin.’ Well, that was one of the first times that I saw this happening, and it spread from right there at that little Armadillo Club, all across the country.”

    In 1975, the country music establishment was doing its best to ignore the mixed marriage between country and rock ‘n’ roll; the switch to the “countrypolitan” sound was complete, away from the hillbillies and honky–tonk tunes of the old days to a streamlined, string–laded, cloned–from–the–pop–charts sound. There was very little in the middle. Still, things were better in 1975 than they had been at the turn of the decade — both Freddy Fender and Merle Haggard had sizable hits that year with different–sounding records. But Nashville, slow to change, was still pretty much a bastion for the old guard.

    Willie Nelson, meanwhile was having a great time being the King of Austin. He’d like to keep recording, he told anyone who asked, but he wasn’t gonna go back to Nashville and have to put up with all that dictatorial crap. But since he’d never had a real hit, no producer was going to let him call the shots.

    Phases And Stages, although a critical success, was a commercial dud, and you couldn’t exchange a flop for clout in the studio. But the big noise from down Austin way had attracted CBS Records’ A&R guys in Dallas; over the objections of producer Billy Sherrill, the hottest hit maker in Nashville (and head man at the label’s Music City headquarters), CBS president Bruce Lundvall offered Willie Nelson a contract.

    The key clause: Total artistic control — the music, the players, everything down to jacket art — was Willie’s.

    Why would giant CBS give a relative nobody like Willie Nelson such freedom?

    “I found out later that they didn’t,” Nelson said with a chuckle. “They just told me they did. It just so happens, on that very first album, they knew if they ‘no’ then, then I was gone. So they let me have it for a time or two, but then whenever they decided I’d had enough, they started rejecting my albums.

    “And I said, ‘But wait a minute, you can’t do that. I got artistic control! But they continued to do it.”

    Willie and Connie were making the log drive back to Texas from a skiing trip in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, when he asked her to help him think of songs to record for his first album for CBS. As she was jotting down titles, Connie reminded her husband how much he loved that old song by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, the cowboy ballad called “Red Headed Stranger.” This was his favorite song to play on his children’s show back on Fort Worth radio. He’d crooned “Red Headed Stranger” as a bedtime ballad to his three kids during the early years; he still sang it to lull Paula Carlene and her sister Amy to sleep.

    “All of a sudden it was like a light came on in Willie, and we started talking right away about it being a concept album,” Connie told an interviewer later. “Willie started mentioning other old songs he knew like ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,’ and he started outlining an album, noting where he could write a song to fill in the story.”

    “Red Headed Stranger,” written by Carl Stutz and Edith Lindeman, told the tale of a brooding rider who held a dark secret, riding from town to Western town, silently leading his dead lover’s horse behind his own “raging black stallion” and staring straight through anyone who approached him.

    Nelson bracketed the song with an Old West parable: In his version, the stranger was an idealistic young preacher who’d murdered his cheating spouse in a jealous rage and then went riding in search of redemption, haunted by the memories and deadened by the sin he’s perpetrated.

    He added thematic links; he added Fred Rose’s old “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” as the rider thinks back on his deepest love. Eddy Arnold’s “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True” went into the narrative, and the old gospel standard “Just As I Am.”

    Then Hank Cochran’s bittersweet “Can I Sleep In Your Arms” came into the story, as the lost preacher finds comfort in the company of a simple farm woman who understands his sorrow and accepts his fall from grace. He finds peace at last in “Hands On The Wheel,” written by Bill Collery, a lovely piece of imagery that brings the stranger full circle in a kind of blissful cowboy catharsis.

    Red Headed Stranger was stitched together from disparate sources and incredibly, it all sounded wonderfully cohesive. “It didn’t take any time at all, really,” Nelson recalled. “It sort of fell together as they do, in a scary way; when you got somethin’ really going for you at all, you just start writing it. To put in ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’ in that point, I didn’t think about it in a month. It had to go there.”

    Released on Columbia, the Red Headed Stranger album went on to break Willie Neslon out of Texas and way, way out of Nashville; its spare arrangements (performed, as per his demands, by Nelson’s own touring band) left the focus on his warm and newly–relaxed voice.

    It was as if Willie was telling the Red Headed Stranger story, with his guitar and sister Bobbie’s piano, right there in your living room (by now the band included drummer English, bassist Dan “Bee” Spears, guitarist Jody Payne, harmonicat Mickey Raphael and Bobbie.).

    The album was recorded, Nelson recalled, over two days in a tiny Garland, Texas studio usually used to cut advertising jingles. The total cost was around $12,000. “It was a timing thing,” he said. “I had to wait until Red Headed Stranger came out to get another shot. CBS let me go in and do it, and accepted it the way I handed it to ‘em, reluctantly. They said, ‘When are you gonna finish it? It’s a pretty good demo, but…’

    It was Bruce Lundvall, up in New York, who asked Nelson, ‘Wouldn’t it sound better with a couple of strings or background singers?’” When the album hit, Lundvall never questioned Nelson’s judgment again.

    To mix a metaphor, Red Headed Stranger proved to be the straw that broke the power block in Nashville. “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” spent two weeks at #1 (it went to #21 on the pop charts) and the album was a smash success.

    Suddenly, Willie Nelson, who’d had so many doors shut on him in Nashville (he could show you the bruises on his feet) was the hottest thing going. His unorthodox performance style — those simple arrangements, that cozy deep voice with no strings attached — became the rabbit for the Music City greyhounds to follow. Ray Benson says he became a “pied piper.” It was time for a last laugh.

    Meanwhile, because he’d dared to record outside of Nashville with a producer he actually liked and who solicited the artist’s opinions, Waylon Jennings had been branded a troublemaker. But his records were selling to a desirably young audience, and “outlaw” dreamed up by some ad man or other, turned into a music industry buzzword. Long hair. Beard. Beer–swilling and good times. Non–conformists playing non–conformist country music. Outside of the Nashville establishment. And this is how Waylon and Willie became outlaws.

    In 1975, Jennings began putting together a patchwork album, using old tracks, for RCA. His task was to pull together tracks of his own, old stuff of Willie’s, and songs by studio owner/artist Tompall Glaser and wife, singer Jessi Colter, and make an “outlaw” album out of them.

    “I did the Outlaws project at about three o’clock in the morning at RCA.” Jennings recalled. “A lot of those things weren’t supposed to be released.”

    He “sweetened” the old four–track tapes with harmony vocals and extra guitars. “Most of those tracks were 10 years old by then,” he said. Nelson was, of course, the linchpin. RCA was eager to get some mileage out of him by re–releasing old tracks from his long, unsuccessful tenure there. Jennings was the label’s current great white hope for tapping the younger, hipper audience, and RCA had been watching “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” and the commotion down Austin way. They saw the Willie juggernaut.

    Central to the album, which wound up with the title Wanted: The Outlaws, was a song Jennings and Nelson had written together in the ’60s, during an all–night poker game in a Fort Worth hotel. They had both cut versions of “Good Hearted Woman” (Nelson’s bloodless solo reading is available on the All–Time Greatest Hits CD) and Jennings had recently issued a live version.

    In the studio, Jennings took this live recording, deleted his own voice in some places, and put Nelson’s in. “We were just riding around town in one of those hazy conditions,” Jennings recalled, “and I said, ‘Why don’t we go cut a record?’”

    So they went in and “made” a classic country record in a matter of an hour or so. “When I first cut the one that’s got me and him on it,” Jennings said, “he wasn’t within two or three thousand miles of me.” Be that as it may, the Waylon and Willie version of “Good Hearted Woman” spent three weeks at #1 and was named Single of the Year by the Country Music Association.

    Wanted: The Outlaws became the first country music album to be certified platinum. Yep, they were outlaws, all right. Whatever worked. Whatever sold.

    Two of Nelson’s best songs from the Yesterday’s Wine album, the title tune and “Me And Paul” were included on Wanted: The Outlaws. Because the rejection of that album had been a key reason Nelson had left Nashville, their success on the compilation made for an even more bitter irony. Nelson and Jennings became the toast of country music; overnight long hair, bandannas and Stetson hats became part of the country package. Uniforms and kitsch were out. Individuality, as personified by Willie and Waylon, became a thing to be prized, rather than scorned, in Nashville.

    “I’ll tell you what it was, it was freedom,” Jennings said. “It was something that had never happened in country music. We just took our own lives by the reins and didn’t let nobody in.

    “When I first came to Nashville, you had three hours to cut four songs, and mostly you had to use their studios, their producers, their musicians. You went in there, and what you got was what you got, and that was it. I never could do music like that. It was like an assembly line.”

    Although they’d known each other since the early days, Nelson and Jennings had found they were kindred spirits; fun–loving, fiercely independent, tired of letting someone else call the tune while they danced. Or didn’t dance.

    “I don’t know how two brothers could be any closer,” Nelson said.

    “We’re friends, we fight…we have, we don’t anymore. Back when we was on different kinds of drugs, we would fight.”

    Eventually, they cut a total of four duo albums, and two as 50 percent of the Highwaymen (there’s a third on the way as this is being written).

    Yes, Nelson and Jennings are really, truly good friends. Theirs is not a friendship of showbiz contrivance. Said Jennings: “He don’t try and change me, and I don’t try to change him. Willie is the only truly free spirit that I really know. I hear a lot of people say they are, but he really is. Now, there’s other people say he’s the most irresponsible person on Earth, and we’re both right.”

    Against Jennings’ better judgment; he let Nelson convince him to act in the abysmal 1986 TV–movie remake of Stagecoach. Waylon said he doesn’t hold it against his friend.

    “I love Willie; he’s like my brother of the road,” he explained. “And he’s one of those type friends that, when you’ve been apart for a long time, all of a sudden you look up and he’s standing there. You pick it up right where you left off a year ago. It’s just a timeless friendship.”

    After the double–whammy of Red Headed Stranger and Wanted: The Outlaws, Nelson just go hotter and hotter (he sang the last verse of Jennings’ hit “Luckenbach, Texas” a #1 hit in April 1977).

    As befits any legend, Nelson’s past came back to haunt him. As he made one album after another for CBS, his old labels, EMI (which owned the Liberty masters) and especially RCA, were reissuing his early material with new titles and with pictures of the new, bearded and bandanna’d Willie on the cover.

    Eight Willie Nelson albums appeared in 1976; only two, The Sound In Your Mind andThe Troublemaker, contained new material (The Troublemaker, a gospel set, had been recorded for, but rejected by, Atlantic). Between 1976 and 1987, at least four Willie Nelson titles appeared in the record bins each year. More were sold through TV ads and mail order.

    Rick Blackburn, who runs Atlantic’s current country operation in Nashville, was president of CBS/Nashville during Willie’s peak years. He said that he, Nelson and the label were only too aware of the harm those continuous re–issues — of generally inferior material — were causing Nelson’s rep.

    “We hated it,” he said. “It diluted the market, it cheapened his price. But that’s the commercial music business. He tried to stop it, but you can’t. You don’t have the right to. In the case of Willie’s pre–Liberty demo recordings, the artist can say, ‘I’ll sue you because it was never intended to be a master,’ but of course they’d say, ‘Well, we own it.’ And you wouldn’t believe the glut of product that came out.”

    Nelson’s recorded output, once he and Columbia hit Red Headed Stranger out of the park, began to reflect his own wide–ranging musical tastes. First out of the chute were The Sound In Your Mind, a hodge–podge of stuff from various places, and a Lefty Frizzell album, To Lefty From Willie. It was as if he wasn’t sure what to do afterStranger.

    “The natural thing that I guess a marketing genius would’ve said to do was come with another concept album,” Nelson said, “but you just can’t run ‘em off, you can’t sit down and write one anytime you want to.

    “I had some songs that I probably could’ve done, other than a Lefty Frizzell tribute album, but I didn’t have anything that I thought was that good. The songs in that Lefty Frizzell album were, to me, just as good as the songs in The Red Headed Strangeralbum, or in the Stardust album that came out later. Those songs are standard, as far as I’m concerned.”

    He released low–key duet albums with Ray Price, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Young and Roger Miller within another two–year span.

    “Honestly,” he said, “these guys were my heroes. To be able to afford to go into the studio with Faron Young, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Roger Miller, Ray Price and do albums and have ‘em come out? That’s amazing. I was not only singing with my friends, I was singing with guys that I had listened to growing up.”

    Nelson denies that these were “payback” albums, to bestow some of his commercial cache on the men who’d helped him in the early days, and who were now less than commercially viable.

    “I thought they needed to be recorded,” he said of those albums. “I loved those songs, and I know a lot of other people do — Lefty Frizzell songs, Webb Pierce songs, Carl Smith…nobody’s done a Carl Smith album, so that needs to be done. Little Jimmy Dickens. There’s some more guys that I want to do albums about, once I get in a position where I can do it again.”

    Nelson’s recorded output began to include standards, cowboy songs, gospel music and contemporary classics — sometimes all on the same album. To him, it all made sense.

    “When I was playing clubs, the same audience would ask for ‘Fraulein,’ and then they’d turn around and ask for ‘Moonlight In Vermont,’” Nelson said. “Or they’d ask for ‘Stardust’ or they’d ask for ‘San Antonio Rose,’ and then they’d ask for ‘Mansion On The Hill.’ Those people didn’t know labels out there; they just liked music. So it wasn’t hard for me to want to record all kinds of music and sing all kinds of music.”

    Everything came together with Stardust in 1978. Produced with velvety smoothness by Booker T. Jones (who was married at the time to Rita Coolidge’s sister Priscilla), of Booker T. and the MG’s fame, the album played up Nelson’s odd phrasing, against a setting of low–key, romantic arrangements.

    But, there were no strings in sight; Stardust laid its bets on Nelson’s voice as the centerpiece. Against all odds, it worked.

    Remembered Rick Blackburn: “He had started to get hot. And Willie called and said, ‘I got this idea to take 10 of my all time favorite songs, like “Moonlight In Vermont,’ ‘Sunny Side Of The Street’ and ‘Stardust,’ and do those; they’re just great songs. What do you think?’ And I said, ‘I think you’re crazy. I think what you need to do is write some; you’re a great songwriter. You’ve got a roll going; do something current. To me it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.’”

    The Waylon and Willie single “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” was all over the place at the time; Jones, to Blackburn, meant Booker T. and the MG’s. “Green Onions.” Who the hell did Willie think he was, with those old songs? Tony Bennett?

    “He had a young demographic, which was unheard of at that time,” said Blackburn. “Country artists skewed very old. Willie was never one for a debate. Not much discussion and he says, ‘Well, thank you very much,’ and he hangs up the phone.”

    Under its contract with Nelson, CBS had to putout whatever record he gave them. And so, as with Red Headed Stranger, it took on Stardust with reluctance.

    Immediately, Nelson’s sensitive reading of “Georgia On My Mind” became his third chart–topping country single (after “Blue Eyes” in 1975, and “If You’ve Got The Money” the following year).

    The followup, “Blue Skies,” went to #1, too. “All Of Me” was Top 5, “September Song” Top 15. And Stardust, the album that made no sense to anyone but Willie Nelson himself, eventually sold triple platinum staying on the Billboard pop charts for more than two years. To date, it’s his most successful album.

    “It was a marketing dream,” Blackburn said. “The older demographic loved the songs, even if they didn’t like Willie, they liked the songs. It brought back a lot of good memories. The young demo, they liked Willie, and they thought he wrote every song. So we couldn’t go wrong.”

    Said Nelson: “I’ve always figured that the commercial end of it is somewhere in the future. The ideas that I’ve had, the music that I’ve come up with and written and played—I’ve always had the encouragement of the people around me and from the audience was playing it for. The only people who were telling me it didn’t have a chance were the record executives. The public was already telling me, ‘Hey, it’s a good idea.’”

    Stardust wasn’t the first time Nelson had gone against the powers that be in the record biz — remember Yesterday’s Wine? — but it was the first time he was vindicated by enormous acceptance by a public that now adored him, and was willing to give his ideas a listen.

    “As soon as I got the record companies to give me a shot, to put it out the way I wanted to d it, well, success was right there,” he explained. “And the commercialism was right there.

    “All of a sudden, all those ideas that weren’t commercial weren’t commercial were selling,” Nelson said.

    Waylon Jennings wept the first time he heard Stardust. “I told him, I said, ‘Willie there’s that thing in our voice that never fit anywhere else like it does there.’” Jennings said. “He had this thing in his voice. I told him, ‘That thing has been waiting.’ Because he always had this kind of a quiver in his voice — it wasn’t like a vibrato, it was just something that was there — like no other person.”

    Stardust was the ultimate outlaw album. Willie had re-written the book of country music, and added another chapter.

    “I’ll tell you what,” adds Jennings. “Willie does what Willie wants to do, and that’s it. You might be there for two days and miss the whole train yourself if you start trying to make him do something.”

    Simply because he didn’t have to, he wrote less. His older songs popped up on his new albums all the time, in new recordings. Still do. Nelson said he’s always been reluctant to let them go.

    “I’ve got hundreds of songs laying around back there, and I haven’t had an opportunity to get ‘em all recorded,” he said. “And whenever there’s an opportunity to go get one — or if it’s one that I did on one of those obscure albums years ago that got lost — there was 10 of my songs that got lost along with it.

    “So I don’t give up on them. I go back and look for the ones that I think nobody heard and I’ll bring ‘em back and try to find a spot for ‘em.”

    By 1980, life in Dripping Springs was becoming too much, what with all the visitors (“People were showing up at the ranch who thought I could lay hands on them and heal their crippled limbs,” Nelson later wrote) and so Connie persuaded her husband to buy a second home, a three–story Swiss chalet just outside of Denver. Here, Paula and Amy began school.

    The Nelsons also purchased the Pedernales Country Club, a huge, secluded spread in Spicewood, Texas, just northwest of Austin (the Pedernales River flows between Luckenbach, Spicewood and Dripping Springs).

    Willie now had his own private nine–hole golf course, the country club building was converted to a recording studio, and he had a full–scale Western town built across the street from the studio (you can see it in the Red Headed Stranger movie, and in the TV–movie Lonesome Dove, where it stood in for Fort Smith, Arkansas, sheriff July Johnson’s stomping grounds.

    Golf quickly turned into a passion. “It looks so easy, and it is so hard. You think you got it and then you don’t. You think you’re turning into a great putter, and then you miss one two feet away. So I think it’s a humbling game, and I don’t know why anybody plays it,” Nelson said.

    Back at the outlaw ranch: Because of the unprecedented success of the Outlawscompilation, RCA waved fistfuls of money at Nelson and Jennings and persuaded them to record an all–new album together. Waylon and Willie was released in January 1978, just before Stardust.

    Ultimately, Waylon and Willie again dusted off a couple of Nelson’s older tunes, chiefly, the lovely “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way,” a highlight of Phases And Stages. But the long–haired country music “outlaws” had such a cachet that the album, which was recorded quickly and wasn’t very good, sold platinum in record time.

    The album’s one/two punch was Ed Bruce’s “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” It hit #1, earned a gold single, and became the best–selling of all of Jennings and Nelson’s 45s. (They had recorded together, in the same studio, this time around.)

    Nelson’s solo career, of course remained his primary concern. After Stardust, there was no stopping him, and his next “new” album appeared in November (co–headlining jaunts with Jennings had taken up the first half of the year). The double–pocket Willie And Family Live was a fairly straight–forward recording of his band’s live show at the time —it was pulling sellout crowds wherever it played.

    Here, Nelson sang the medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life” he’d already been doing for years. To this day, his shows still start with Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River” and follow with “Stay A Little Longer” and the medley.

    Willie Nelson became an American cultural icon in 1978. His contented smile, it seemed, beamed from everywhere: Rolling Stone gave him an extensive cover story, and periodicals from Peoria to Pakistan delighted in chronicling his troubled rise to the top: the hard early days as a songwriter, the rejection by Nashville, the rejection of Nashville, the “Outlaw Movement,” the Family band, the exhaustive touring schedule.

    On April 25, 1978, Nelson performed at the White House as special guest of Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, and with Connie and the girls, spent the night. Nelson loves to tell the story about the White House aide (nameless, of course) who sat on the roof with him that night, drinking beer and smoking “Austin torpedoes,” pointing out the sights of Washington from the best vantage point on Pennsylvania Avenue. Ah, success.

    Nelson release three albums in 1979; Sings Kristofferson, a rather unspectacular collection of compositions from Kris Kristofferson, an old drinking buddy and co–headliner at the early Fourth of July Picnics (Kristofferson was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet at the moment, what with A Star Is Born and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, but he wasn’t considered much of a singer, and his records still weren’t selling).

    Willie also cut a two–LP set with Leon Russell. One For The Road, recorded quickly in a rough ‘n’ ready roadhouse style. Nelson and Russell sang duets on “Danny Boy,” “Summertime,” “You Are My Sunshine” and a bunch of even stranger titles. Even so, their up–tempo remake of Mae Axton’s “Heartbreak Hotel” went to #1 in July. The album went gold.

    At Christmas time 1979, the Pretty Paper album appeared. A collection of holiday tunes delivered in the quiet, unassuming Stardust style (Booker T. Jones retuned to produce), Pretty Paper joined the ever–rowing glut of county singers’ holiday albums; although the title song was released as a single, it failed to chart. Willie wasn’t concerned about it one way or another, for his star continued to rise at a dizzying rate.

    In November, Nelson made his cinematic debut in Sydney Pollack’s comedy The Electric Horseman. Earlier, there had been a round of talks with Hollywood people about turning Red Headed Stranger into a movie (ultimately, it would take another seven years to happen).

    Nelson had backed out of negotiations after getting the sneaking suspicion that MCA/Universal, which was offering him a development deal, only wanted a piece of his recording contract. The company had also indicated it wanted Robert Redford to star as the murdering, redemption–hungry preacher; Nelson had designs on the role himself, even though he had no acting experience at all.

    So when Nelson heard that Pollack was producing and directing Redford in a film about a cowboy in Las Vegas (an updated remake of the 1962 Kirk Douglas epicLonely Are The Brave), he called Pollack out of the blue and said, “I sure would like to be in that movie you’re making with Bob.”

    Taken aback, Pollack said he didn’t think there was a part for Nelson; Willie, who’d read the script, countered that he’d like to read for the part of Leroy, who managed Redford’s title character, a showbiz cowboy.

    Pollack agreed to let him try, and the audition went well, and Nelson would up getting some of the best notices when the film appeared (it was otherwise not a tremendous success). He ad–libbed much of his own dialogue.

    The Electric Horseman soundtrack was released as a Willie Nelson album — although it was as spotty and fleshed out with movie–music filler — and brought him another gold album award. It went on the wall at Pedernales.

    “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” from the movie was a #1 hit in January. Although it features Nelson’s intimate and unfettered voice way out front, the song (which Willie didn’t write) isn’t much more than a string of clichés about cowboys and country stars, and the production (by Nelson and Pollack, of all people) is burdened with violins and other badly–arranged and unnecessary instruments. If Nelson had stayed with RCA, and been a success, his records by then might’ve all sounded like “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.”

    “My Heroes” was Nelson’s sixth #1 country single in less than five years. Ultimately, he would have 13 chart–toppers, and several more as half of a duet (plus one as part of a foursome). Conversely, some of his singles barely charted at all.

    That’s the way Willie worked: he put out whatever he felt like putting out, and if it had little to do with what came before, well, so what? It was as if he was purposely going in the opposite direction of his tightly–controlled RCA years.

    Between 1978 and ’83, Nelson placed 17 albums on the Top Pop Albums chart. Eight of these went platinum or more, and the rest (the new CBS stuff, but not the RCA re–issues) went gold. Everything made an appearance on the Country Album chart (Stardust hovered in the nether regions for nearly 10 years!)

    “Willie always had vision,” said Rick Blackburn. “You gotta listen to him.”

    As head of CBS, Blackburn’s job was to approve or reject an artist’s material. When Nelson was hot, he was on fire, and it was all Blackburn could to keep up with the music as it came in.

    “I encouraged it, because Willie was a lot of things to a lot of people,” Blackburn said. “I never really thought that hurt him that much. Willie was everywhere; Willie had an appetite to do all kinds of music.”

    Stardust, about which Blackburn had been skeptical, remained on the pop charts for more than two years. So although, as Nelson says, CBS sometimes exercised its “veto power” over his “artistic control,” it pretty much said yes to him at every turn, especially at the turn of the decade.

    He’d bring you so much, and then you’d sit down and talk about what made sense,” said Blackburn. “The product just flowed all the time, in rough states. But good roughs. Our feeling was that it broadened your horizon. Would that fly today? It depends on the artist. Willie would be sort of what you’ve got Garth Brooks to be now. You had hits, and then there was Willie. We were selling four or five million back then. That’s a lot.”

    Meanwhile, the execs at RCA were still kicking themselves for cutting Nelson loose, and the wizards in A&R (and the art department) were keeping busy churning out new riders for the Willie bandwagon. RCA charted Willie Before His Time, Sweet Memories, The Minstrel Man, Best Of Willie and My Own Way (although Willie Before His Time was assembled and “sweetened” by Waylon Jennings in the wake of theOutlaws success, and presumably had Nelson’s blessing, the rest were no more than retreads from the RCA vaults.)

    Most insidious of all was 1980′s Willie Nelson With Danny Davis And The Nashville Brass, a set of musty RCA tracks featuring Davis and his hornblowers dubbed over Nelson’s vocals. Nelson, never swayed and always happy for one more acknowledgement, even penned cheerful liner notes for the album. The Nelson/Danny Davis version of “Funny How Time Slips Away” charted, briefly.

    Nelson’s projects for 1980 include Family Bible, a modest collection of religious songs and hymns from his Methodist boyhood, released as a duo album with sister Bobbie on MCA and the set with his old boss, Ray Price (Price had been a co–owner of Pamper Music way back when, too).

    San Antonio Rose was the first of five albums Willie cut with buddies from the old days, and it was the best. The duo put “Faded Love” on the singles charts, where it stalled at #3 in August.

    The Electric Horseman had whetted Nelson’s appetite for movie acting, though, and in 1980 Pollack produced his first starring vehicle, Honeysuckle Rose.

    “I always wanted to make movies, all the way back to when I first saw Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, the singing cowboys,” Nelson explained.

    “That’s the kind of movies that I wanted to make; still do. And those others came along: a movie about being out on the road again, that’s easy to do.”

    Although it contained elements from Nelson’s road life, the movie, which co–stared Dyan Cannon as Willie–esque singer Buck Bonham’s loving but discontented wife and Amy Irving as his protégé–turned–lover, was pretty much the Hollywood version of the way things were. Nelson’s band members all appeared — Mickey Raphael has a couple of memorable moments with actress Diana “Mommie Dearest” Scarwid — but the “band” in the movie was fleshed out by actors (including Slim Pickens!)

    Nelson’s charisma and sheer likeability carried the day, though, and Honeysuckle Rose was a success at the box office, if a modest one. The film is notable mostly for the appearance in a concert scene, of Emmylou Harris (looking radiant in 1980, and sounding like every bit the queen of country music) and for the introduction of two freshly–written Nelson songs, his first for about five years, “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” and “On The Road Again.”

    “I haven’t ever written as much as I did in those early years, when I was hungry and writin’ for money,” Nelson said. “Tryin’ to write enough songs to keep the advances coming from the publisher. I was pretty productive in those days. But what I write (now), I feel was worth sitting around waiting for.”

    Pollack has often told the story of how his new star wrote “On The Road Again,” start to finish, on the back of an envelope during a flight to somewhere or other, impressing the hell out of him and director Jerry Schatzberg.

    Both “On The Road Again” and “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” went to #1. Nelson seemed unstoppable as he conquered genre after genre. His film career (he filmed a small role in James Caan’s Thief that year, too) opened new doors. He became a favorite guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

    Bill Witliff, who’d handled the script for Honeysuckle Rose, had written a script about an old cowboy embroiled in a life–long feud with a Mexican family. He’d married the daughter, the father had betrayed him and cut off his ears in the bargain, and when the cowboy had become a roving bandit, a legend had sprung up around him (he also took to killing the old Mexican’s sons when they came looking for him).

    The character, and the movie, were both called Barbarosa, and when it was filmed for Marble Arch in 1981 it starred Willie Nelson in the title role, and Gary Busey as Carl, the naïve farm boy who joins him in his dusty travels.

    Released in 1982, Barbarosa played in theatres for about five minutes. It is however, full of Western black humor and interesting dramatic tension, and is one of Willie’s better movies (it’s his personal favorite too). His next film was a TV–movie with Jon Voight, Coming Out Of The Ice, for which he received good notices for his portrayal of an at–peace–with–himself prisoner in a Siberian work camp!

    In 1981, Nelson re–teamed with Paul Buskirk for Somewhere Over The Rainbow, an album of swinging country jazz and Western swing tunes (“I’m Confessin’,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter”), big old ballads (“Mona Lisa,” “In My Mother’s Eyes,” “Over The Rainbow”) and other tunes as far from the commercial country music of the day as possible.

    Johnny Gimble lent a swinging fiddle to the proceedings. Country/jazz guitarist and singer Freddie Powers co–produced the album and even sang several of the songs; “Mona Lisa” was a minor hit, and Somewhere Over The Rainbow became a gold album.

    It was during this period that Nelson started working on improving his health: he quit smoking, cut back on his drinking and began running daily (he hasn’t committed to vegetarianism yet, still having a weakness for Texas barbecue and potted meat sandwiches). While vacationing in Hawaii during the summer of 1981, his left lung collapsed (he figures it was a combination of his lungs’ smoke–weakened state, his jog that morning, and the icy–cold Pacific water).

    During his four weeks in a Hawaiian hospital, to make use of his down time, Nelson wrote an entire concept album. Tougher Than Leather, which would be recorded with his road band and released in February 1983, was the story of an 1800s gunfighter who eventually died in the electric chair.

    Reincarnation figures in the Tougher Than Leather picture, but unlike Red Headed Stranger, it’s a difficult story to follow.

    In 1982, Nelson cut the albums with Roger Miller and Hank Snow, and his old tracks continued to come back and haunt him. Monument Records assembled The Winning Hand, musty period recordings by Nelson, Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and Brenda Lee, all of whom had long ago left the label.

    Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard next cut an album together; the title song, “Poncho and Lefty,” had been written by the legendary and terminally under–appreciated Texas songsmith Townes Van Zandt and recorded by Emmylou Harris on her Luxury Liner album.

    Nelson and Haggard hit #1 with “Poncho and Lefty” in April 1983. Although it had been recorded a year earlier, typically for Nelson it was released out of sequence. In the meantime, he’d had his biggest hit yet.

    Rick Blackburn: “We were doing a duet with Merle and Willie, it was ‘Poncho and Lefty,’ I think. And Johnny Christopher showed up on the bus, drunk. He had this demo in his hand, which was the B–side of an Elvis Presley song. It was ‘Always On My Mind.’

    “He brought that song in for Haggard. I was there. I think Johnny put it in the tape player and Hag said, ‘Aw, that’s not for me, Johnny.’ And Willie’s sitting there, real quiet, and he says ‘That’s for me.’ Hag doesn’t remember that story, but that song was originally pitched for him. Willie had an ear, though.’”

    Indeed, Chips Moman, who’d produce a lot of Nelson’s stuff in the ’80s, came on board for the Always On My Mind project. The album, which featured “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Let It Be Me” and “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” wasn’t his best, by any stretch. But something about the bare emotions of the song “Always On My Mind” caught the public’s attention. It was a #1 country single (of course), and a Top 5 pop single. It earned a Grammy nomination for Record Of The Year. The triple–platinumAlways album is Nelson’s second biggest seller, after Stardust. It was his biggest pop album, logging five weeks in the #2 spot.

    Two years later, he was back in the Top 5 on the pop chart with perhaps his strangest single, “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Blackburn: “He wanted to do something internationally. He always thought, ‘Let’s start thinkin’ global.’ And Julio Iglesias was the biggest thing in the international market.

    We had him on CBS International; I didn’t know him, but he had a house in Florida, where he lived part of the year. His brother was a dentist down there. So Willie set out to find him. And did.

    “And I guess Julio was convinced that maybe it would bolster his domestic sales, because he didn’t sell a lot in the U.S. They struck up a win–win thing and started looking for a song.”

    Hal David’s “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” proved to be the ticket, and although Nelson and Iglesias recorded their parts separately, the chemistry was right, the single was a huge hit and went gold.

    (Another Nelson/Julio duet, “As Time Goes By,” appeared on the Without A Songalbum at the end of 1983. Produced by Booker T. Jones, the album consisted of yet more standards in the Stardust vein, but failed to attract much attention.)

    Songwriter, a movie Nelson and Kristofferson had been planning for many years, finally went before the cameras in 1984. Written by Bud Shrake, a former newspaperman and Sports Illustrated writer (he later went onto co–author Nelson’s autobiography), Songwriter was the story of a country songwriter who left the business, disgruntled, only to return as an entrepreneur and Svengali for a flaky girl singer and get revenge on the low–life club owner who’d screwed him.

    The script underwent many, many revisions from Shrake’s and Nelson’s original ideas, but the final product was till pretty close to that vision, and to Nelson’s own story. Lesley Ann Warren played the girl singer, Kristofferson was hot country star Blackie Buck and ex–partner of Nelson’s Doc Jenkins. The film also starred Rip Torn as a Texas promoter with questionable ethics. Pollack produced, and Alan Rudolph directed.

    Still, Songwriter was a massive failure both at the box office and at the record store (featuring Nelson/Kristofferson duets, Music From Songwriter hardly qualified as a full album from either). Promotionally, the film suffered because Nelson had shaved off his beard during some, but not all, of the scenes, and appeared in many of the promotional photographs almost totally unrecognizable.

    In some of the photos and film clips, he sported his beard. People got confused, and avoided the movie in droves. (Nelson often shaves off his beard on the spur of the moment, just to give his chin some air).

    He scored another #1 with Steve Goodman’s “City Of New Orleans” in August 1984, just before Songwriter came out, and teamed up with Ray Charles at the end of the year for “Seven Spanish Angels,” as unlikely a country music chart–topper to “All The Girls I’ve Loved Before”

    Again, Nelson changed the rules to suit himself. The success of “Seven Spanish Angels” helped get Charles a recording deal with CBS. “One of the reasons I went after Ray Charles was because Willie said that was his favorite artist,” said Rick Blackburn. “And Merle Haggard said that was his favorite artist. Ray was like the idol, see. I didn’t know Ray Charles from you.”

    In 1984, Nelson released the unlikely Angel Eyes, which presented him as the vocalist with a swinging three–piece jazz group headed up by Texas guitarist Jackie King; some of the songs are nothing less than fusion, with Willie Nelson trying to keep up at the microphone (picture him out in front of the Pat Matheny Group).

    “He’s an incredible guitar player from San Antonio; he knew a lot of the same musicians around San Antonio that we knew,” Nelson said of King. The title song toAngel Eyes was torchy ballad with big, free–form jazz breaks, but the album’s unquestionable highlight was a magically weird rendition of the Sons Of The Pioneers’ “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”

    Despite all this, Angel Eyes is one of Nelson’s few original albums to be deleted from the CBS catalog. No single was ever released from the project.

    In April 1985, duet albums appeared with both Faron Young (who’d cut “Hello Walls” so many years before) and Hank Snow; in May came Highwayman.

    Highwayman was one of those rare high–concept projects that worked. Usually, pairing more than two big stars on one record meant they tried to out–perform each other, on the separate fan bases cancelled each other out. But Highwayman, with Nelson, Jennings, Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, was a winner right out of the gate.

    So where did the idea come from? “They all know I did it,” recalled Jennings. “I’ve had to rejuvenate all of their careers so many times…they’ve never known how much they really needed me.

    “I remember talking about it. We were in Switzerland, on Johnny Cash’s Christmas special. And we got to doing three or four songs, and I’m positive I said, ‘Man, we ought to go cut an album.”

    The song that gave the project its title was written by Jimmy Webb, and had been kicking around for a year or two. “Highwayman” was about reincarnation; specifically, the same fellow appears in the song in four different personas.

    “I don’t go for that,” Waylon said. “I think it’s a little far–fetched.” As for his pal Nelson though, “He’s never tried to push me with that, and I’ve never tried to push him away from it. That’s what gets him through the days and nights — everybody has something that does.”

    Actual recording of the song and the Highwayman album was, like everything else, purely an accident of time. “Cash and Willie were recording something together at Chips’ place,” said Jennings, “and I just stumbled in there.”

    As for the ideas of adding Kristofferson as a fourth, Jennings said, “I think I brought that up, but all of them say they did too. So you got four liars, now you take your pick. No, really, the main thing about all of us is that don’t keep score.”

    “Highwayman” became a #1 single on May 15; the album was a huge hit too, and sent Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For A Train” into the To 10 in September.

    At the Live Aid concert in July, Bob Dylan remarked that it sure would be nice to see something done for the family farmer in America, so very far from Ethiopia, where all the money and support from Live Aid were going. Nelson took this comment to heart; he’d been thinking about the heartland, where the family farmers — self contained, loyal to the land where their very forefathers had toiled — were being forced out by farming corporations. An American way of life, essential and part of the backbone of the country’s economic success, was being killed off.

    He’d discussed this with Neil Young while they were cutting Young’s “Are There Any More Real Cowboys” (the song would appear on Young’s Old Ways, and on the Half Nelson compilation, which collected a bunch of loose–end Nelson duets and singles, including those with Julio Iglesias and Ray Charles).

    With Young and fellow heartlander John Mellencamp, Nelson formed Farm Aid, Inc., and organized a massive concert for Sept 22, 1985 to raise funds in the telethon manner prescribed by Live Aid. The all–day concert, really not much different from the Fourth of July Picnics, except better organized with bigger rock acts on the bill, was held at the University of Illinois at Champaign.

    With a few exceptions, there has been a Farm Aid concert every year since 1985, with Nelson, Young and Mellencamp topping the bill.

    As president of the company, Nelson signs every check that goes out. “There is this idea that people have that we have way too many farmers,” Nelson said, “that all these small family farmers and small agriculture–related businessmen should be put out of business.

    “And they probably think they’re right about it. But I don’t think they realize the importance, or the way that the economy in this country was built, on the farmer. He was the first citizen, the first taxpayer. The first rung on the economic ladder. The farmer is the backbone of the country, the small family farmer, not the big corporate farmer.

    “He is related to all the other small businesses. When five farmers go under in a farming community, one business in that town goes under. This has been going on for years now. We once had over eight million small family farmers; now we’re down to less than two million. And they’re knocking them off like flies.”

    Since 1985 Farm Aid has granted nearly $11.5 million to more than 100 farm organizations, churches and service agencies in 44 states. Nearly half of the group’s grants are used for direct services (emergency assistance, legal aid and food); the rest are distributed as program grants, which include outreach, education and the development of long–term solutions.

    The Farm Aid board believes that if America grew its own crops, to feed to its own people, the rest of the economic problems in the country would eventually be solvable.

    “That’s why we keep doing it, to try to stop this trend of people leaving he land and going to the city,” Nelson said. “It just doubles and triples the problems in the city. And the only way for the economy to turn around is to flip it, and put people back on the land. Let a young couple go out there—take 100, 200 acres of land, make a living and pay taxes, and buy a tractor. Support the local schools, hospitals, businesses, service stations, what have you.”

    He is more passionate about Farm Aid than anything that’s ever passed his way before. “The time will come when we will begin to appreciate the small family farmer, and how important it is that we get him back on the land. There’s plenty of money out there to be made if we take the natural things that grow and let them pay the bills.”

    “Plenty of money” Nelson himself seemed to have, but in 1984 the Internal Revenue Service came to him and held out its hand for $2 million in unpaid income tax, from earlier, not–so–successful times dating all the way back to 1972.

    “This accounting firm came to me and said, ‘You don’t need to pay that,’” he recalled. “What you need to do is get you a tax shelter, and you don’t have to pay. You can take it away and defer it later, write it off,’ all those things. And they were just full of bullshit. It was one of those shelters that the IRS wrote off as a non–allowable deal, and so anybody who invested in it — and there were a lot of us who did — lost what they put it, and at the same time, the taxes still weren’t paid.”

    The accounting firm with the bad advice was Price–Waterhouse, the same guys who count the Academy Awards ballots and deliver the envelopes solemnly on TV on Oscar night. Nelson said his tax shelters included “securities and a cattle feed deal. They started going sour pretty quick in a couple of years. I knew a big mistake had been made. But it was one of those you couldn’t take back; you already had your money invested. And you still hadn’t paid your taxes.”

    More albums followed: Promiseland, Partners, Island In The Sea, A Horse Called Music, Born For Trouble, Seashores of Old Mexico (with Haggard) and I’d Rather Have Jesus, another religious set with sister Bobbie (it was later re–released as Old Time Religion.) There was the poorly–received Highwayman 2.

    Although Nelson hit #1 with “Living In The Promiseland” and Beth Nielsen Chapman’s “Nothing I Can Do About It Now,” and had another Top 10 with Iglesias (“Spanish Eyes”), the songs just weren’t hitting the way they had been.

    “I think the reason that those didn’t do well is because those albums were coming too quick,” he said. “We were handling them product quicker than they could sell it. They just weren’t geared to put it out that way.

    “When I first got into the record business, I can remember when you could record a song today and have it out next week. And then have the whole company behind it. Webb Pierce could do it, and Faron Young could do it, and Lefty Frizzell could do it. All those guys, when they were really hot, they could more or less dictate what they wanted to do. And consequently, there was a whole lot of big hits coming in those days, a lot of great songs from the artists who were able to control what happened.”

    Nelson said the marketers at CBS, for all appearances, were doing their best. “They were trying,” he recalled. “Blackburn, he was taking everything I would give him because it was easy product: ‘Oh, Willie’s sent one in again this week. Here’s Willie’s weekly album.” But I was having a big time, and they was takin’ ‘em, so…maybe it was a little overdone.”

    By 1991, things were getting strained with CBS. Blackburn had departed for greener pastures at Atlantic, where he could steer the careers of hot hat boys like Tracy Lawrence and John Michael Montgomery. Nelson had one flop too many at CBS, he reckoned. That “artistic control” thing was starting to wear out its welcome.

    “As long as it was sellin’ great and everything, there was no reason for them to get after my shit,” he said with a chuckle. “But when I put out one that didn’t do very well, then they had a great reason to come in and say, you know, ‘We better help you, son. Obviously, you’re slippin’.”

    His movie projects continued with limited success. Red Headed Stranger made it to the screen in 1986, with Nelson, not Robert Redford, in the title role. Morgan Fairchild was cast as the cheating wife who gets her comeuppance in the form of a bullet, and Katharine Ross signed on to play the woman who redeems the stranger’s soul (replacing Angie Dickinson, Nelson’s first choice, who was busy with another project).

    Made at the Pedernales town set for about $2 million, Red Headed Strangerattempted to tell the same story as the album, with an added subplot about an ornery family of wolf–trappers terrorizing the townsfolk. The subplot wound up taking over much of the film.

    Despite pretty good performances (including Paul English and Bee Spears, with blackened teeth, as members of the redneck trapping clan), Red Headed Strangerwasn’t a cohesive film, and didn’t retain any of the subtlety of the album. It failed at the box office too.

    Nelson bounced back with a TV–movie remake of the classic John Ford WesternStagecoach, for which he provided a title song. Nelson played Doc Holiday, in the strangely un-engaging film, with Kristofferson as the Ringo Kid, Jennings as the gambler and Cash as the sheriff. For once the stars agreed with the critics: it was pretty lame.

    On the set, Nelson fell for makeup supervisor Annie D’Angelo, 20 years his junior, the marriage to Connie having lost since deteriorated into heartache, and ultimately, divorce.

    Nelson and Annie were married in 1991, and they have two sons: five year–old Lucas, and Mica, four. In 1998, he starred in two TV–movie Westerns for veteran writer/director Burt Kennedy: Where The Hell’s That Gold and Once Upon A Texas Train (also called Texas Guns And The Last Texas Train).

    He re–teamed with his Songwriter comrades Kristofferson and Rip Torn for Pair Of Aces (1990) and Another Pair Of Aces (1991), two unlikely comedies featuring Nelson as a wisecracking safecracker and Kristofferson and Torn as Texas Rangers.

    To date (1996), his most screen acting stint was in 1991′s The Wild Texas Wind; he took a small role as a favor to his friends Ray Benson and Dolly Parton, who’d starred.

    Nelson filed a $45 million lawsuit against Price-Waterhouse, claiming their bad advice had gotten him in such bad tax trouble. The IRS, meanwhile, hit him with a $6 million bill for back taxes, plus more than $10 million in penalties and interest. In November 1990, the agency seized Pedernales — the studio, the golf course, the Western town, the fish camp, the Nelsons’ home — and announced plans to auction off the property to pay off Nelson’s debt.

    “The thing started snowballing,” he recalled. “And when they came down, I knew that it was just a matter of time. I’d been expecting it for years; it wasn’t as tough it was a big shock or surprise to me.” He was not, however, prepared for the big bill they’d handed him.

    “Initially, they said $32 million, then it dropped down to $17 million,” he said. “But I knew that if their accountants and bookkeepers had any brains at all, they’d see that there’s not $32 million there. That kind of figure never could have happened.”

    At the public auction, one could bid on everything from the studio tasking price $575,478) to a microwave oven, a set of golf clubs given to Nelson by Jack Nicklaus, and a box containing 40 pairs of Nelson’s golf shorts.

    Friends Frank and Jeannine Oakley, who run the Willie Nelson and Friends Showcase and Museum and General Store in Hendersonville, Tennessee, spent $7,000 buying up gold and platinum albums, posters, musical instruments and other personal items. Most of them are back in Nelson’s possession. The rest, the Oakleys have on display.

    A group of 40 farmers, some from as far away as South Dakota, came to Texas in January 1991 to show support for Willie and protest the imminent auction of his ranch on Fitzhugh Road in Dripping Springs, where Lana and her family now resided. The American Agriculture Movement, a farmers’ lobbying group, bought the ranch for $203,840; in time. Nelson bought it back.

    As for the golf course and studio, well, nobody with money showed any interest. When Nelson’s tax bill was finally settled in 1993 (he wound up paying about $9 million), he got them back. He settled unsuccessfully with Price–Waterhouse, too, and that took off some of the financial burden.

    Keeping his sense of humor, Nelson titled a 1991 collection of songs Who’ll Buy My Memories? The IRS Tapes and sold it through TV advertising (“Who’ll Buy My Memories,” unrelated to Nelson’s tax troubles, was a heartache song from his golden age of songwriting). Recorded at Pedernales, Who’ll Buy My Memories featured just Nelson’s voice and guitar on 24 of his classic songs (the exception was “What Can You Do To Me Now,” the old burning–house song he’d written with Cochran in 1969; this would have made a good title for the album, too).

    It’s a style that would soon come into vogue courtesy MTV’s Unplugged show. But Nelson did it first, and the songs on this album — including “Yesterday’s Wine,” “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone” and “December Day” — are among the best recordings of his career, certainly the most personal. The Vietnam–era “Jimmy’s Road” was truly heartbreaking on the album’s intimate stage.

    “Whatever talent I had going in, I still had that,” he said. “And whatever I had used to make whatever figure they said I owed them, I still had the same tools, the same music. I really wasn’t worried about it, because I knew their figures were so out of line.”

    Outtakes from the Who’ll Buy My Memories sessions — from the Willie Nelson/Internal Revenue Service Tape Library — turned up on The Classic Unreleased Collection, released in early 1994 through Rhino Records and sold, via three nights’ worth of appearances by the man himself, on the home shopping network QVC.

    “I felt it was good enough, and important enough to me, to spend some time trying to sell it,” he said of the three–CD or three–cassette box that to this day remains unavailable in stores. “Money had nothing to do with it. It’s just a lot of stubbornness on my part to get this music out.”

    The set includes Sugar Moon, an entire album of jazzy standards recorded at the same time as Somewhere Over The Rainbow, with Merle Haggard’s band (Haggard had been scheduled to record, but hadn’t shown up); Willie Sings Hank Williams, a fantastic tribute set cut in the late ’80s; an entire live concert from the Texas Opera House in 1974 (an incredible performance from the height of the pre–Stranger era); outtakes from Shotgun Willie and other projects; and that elusive first single from 1957, “No Place For Me” and “The Lumberjack Song” (taken from a pristine disc, as the tapes could not be located). Willie answered QVC callers’ questions about the package, which contained material the IRS had returned to him after their bill was settled, and numerous tracks that CBS/Sony rejected outright. He said as much.

    Yeah, okay, but a big star pitching his own stuff on retail TV? Willie ain’t Cher, that’s for sure. “I think that the music involved is a lot more important than my ego,” he said. “Naturally, I could feel like I was really a second–class citizen going on sellin’ shit, but I used to be a disc jockey and I sold it all the time.

    “And I used to be a door–to–door salesman, so it doesn’t embarrass me at all to say ‘Hey, I’ve got a good piece of product; let me sell it to you.’”

    During the IRS crisis, he’d accepted a job shilling for Taco Bell on TV commercials, singing a song called “The Girl With The Rose Tattoo” against a backdrop of cactus, desert sand dune and a Taco Bell drive–thru.

    “When I first got the words, I said, ‘Wait a minute,’” he said of the TV spot. “I can’t do this. It sounds like I’m readin’ a menu.

    “And when they sent me the melody, I said, ‘I can’t do this. It’s a ripoff of a song that me and Hank Snow recorded years ago.’ They said, ‘When you get sued, we’ll take care of it. We’ll hold you harmless.’”

    At the end of the day, of course, nobody sued nobody, and after the spots ran their course Willie Nelson was replaced as Taco bell shill by Rocky and Bullwinkle.

    Meanwhile, things began to go from bad to worse for Willie’s son. Billy Nelson never could seem to find a place for himself. Numbed by a messy divorce in the mid–’80s, he turned to drugs and alcohol; living in Goodlettsville, Tennessee in a cabin on the Nelsons’ Ridgetop property, he was arrested four times for driving while intoxicated and, in 1990, lost his driver’s license.

    The death of his mother, Martha, in 1989 doubtless shook him up too. All the family members, including Willie, came to therapy sessions and participated in Billy’s treatment programs, but it all came crashing down on Christmas Eve 1991 when Billy hanged himself at home. He was 33.

    “Billy was a lost soul,” said Ray Benson, who was one of Billy’s closest friends. “And Willie felt awful about the way it all happened. Billy was a kid when Willie was a young man and had nothing, Willie said. He had no money, he was drinking a lot, the marriage was not a good marriage so he didn’t spend a lot of time at home. And Willie feels a lot of probably remorse — not guilt, but remorse — over not being able to have raised Billy right.

    “But he tried, for many years, to be a good father to Billy in his adult life, Billy had demons, and problems, that no amount of fathering could do anything about. Billy was a lost soul and he couldn’t fit in anywhere. He tried. It was really a shame. He was not raised right, Willie knows that. He was not a good father to Billy. Nor was Shirley a good mother.

    “As the Japanese would say, it was Billy’s karma to be this way. For whatever reason. And if I knew the answer, hell, I’d get a TV show.”

    Willie didn’t record again until the latter part of 1992; he did however, keep his regular dates in Las Vegas and in Branson, Missouri. Artistically, Willie Nelson’s “comeback” arrived in the spring of 1993.

    Across The Borderline was produced by Don Was, who’d engineered Bonnie Raitt’s career revival and would go on to do the same for Waylon Jennings with Waymore’s Blues Part II.

    “It felt right at the time, and it was an off–the–top–of–my–head decision,” Nelson said of Was’ recruitment. “My manager, Mark Rothbaum, calls up and says, ‘What do you think about Don Was?’ And I said, ‘As a what?’”

    On the album, he sang a song by Paul Simon (“American Tune,” seemingly tailor–made for Nelson), a song with Paul Simon (“Graceland”), a song he wrote with Bob Dylan (“I kind of feel like he and I are sort of equally weird, and we get along fine”) as a duet, and duets with Raitt and Sinead O’Connor.

    Simon, Willie said, had been trying to get him to record “Graceland” for years. Nelson thought it was just some song about visiting Elvis Presley’s grave.

    He sang “Still Is Still Moving To Me” and “Valentine,” two new compositions (“Valentine” was written for his son Lucas), and re–made 1963′s “She’s Not For You.”

    The “Healing Hands Of Time Band,” with Was, David Grisman, Benmont Tench and other notables, backed Nelson up on Lyle Lovett’s “Farther Down The Line” and “If I Were The Man You Wanted,” John Hiatt’s stunning “The Most Unoriginal Sin,” Ry Cooder’s “Across The Borderline” and Dylan’s “What Was It You Wanted.”

    Nelson sang the latter song at the big “Bobfest” in New York City at the end of 1992; Dylan was among the numerous guests who performed with him on the April 1993 birthday special on CBS, The Big Six–O. Shortly afterward, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

    Across The Borderline drove Willie Nelson stock way up for the first time in years; a young, hip audience was learning about him, almost like the young, hip audience of the ’70s had discovered him in Austin and beyond. He was truly country music’s elder statesman now, and an American musical icon — kind of like a cross between Hank Williams, Buffalo Bill Cody and Frank Sinatra. CBS/Sony had its first gold Nelson album in years; it was thrilled.

    And then he left the label.

    Miffed at the CBS brass’ dismissal of Sugar Moon, Willie Sings Hank Williams and another set of standards cut with Paul Buskirk, Moonlight Becomes You, Nelson declared himself a free agent. He issued Moonlight through Justice Records, an independent Texas label.

    “I don’t know why Moonlight Becomes You wasn’t considered another major album, but it wasn’t,” he said. “They didn’t consider it to be commercial enough, so the powers that be at CBS at that time turned it down. They decided they’d rather have something else, and so we immediately got crossways.”

    Justice Records, apparently, was simply in the right place at the right time; Moonlightsold close to a million copies.

    But he couldn’t stay there permanently; an independent label just couldn’t handle an artist of his stature (CBS International continued to distribute Moonlight outside of the United States).

    “I’d been with CBS a long time, and I have a lot of product there, and I have a lot of friends there,” Nelson said. “And they all worked hard, but I just felt like I wanted to do something…it was time to make a change.

    “And all of a sudden, here’s Jimmy Bowen and Liberty Records, EMI, wanting to do something. Again, the timing was just perfect. I love Jimmy Bowen. It’s real easy to work with him. It was just one of those natural deals.”

    Liberty, of course, was the very label Nelson had started out on, way back when; it was a different label now, with Nashville legend Bowen at the helm. The label’s first commitment to Nelson was the two–CD set The Early Years: The Complete Liberty Recordings, finally bringing together his early work under one roof. It had been out in ugly dribs and tacky drabs for years on various EMI–owned labels. As a fold–open boxed set, it included an exhaustive EMI discography and a pretty good biography, too.

    Bowen took Nelson into a Los Angeles studio in the summer of 1994 to cut the album that would eventually be called Healing Hands Of Time; Nelson had copywrited and recorded the title song in 1964, on the Country Willie album. It had been pre–recorded on The Sound In Your Mind in 1976.

    At first titled Crazy (the implications were probably too much), Healing Hands Of Time is a collection of standards (a little left–of–center this time, with “All The Things You Are,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Oh, What It Seemed To Be” among the lesser–knowns in the track listing). It also includes heavily orchestrated renditions of “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life.” There’s a new Nelson composition, too, “There Are Worse Things Than Being Alone.”

    At 61, he’s still cranking ‘em out. “I enjoy recording,” Nelson said, “and it’s easy to record if you know what you’re gonna do when you get in there.

    “We did Red Headed Stranger in a couple of days. Healing Hands Of Time we did in two days. It was 61 pieces, and on the third day we did some overdubbing. To hear about being holed up in a studio for moths at a time is just, to me, unheard of. I guess some people work that way, but I would get bored real quick.”

    Nelson completed another religious project in 1994, too. Released on tiny independent Promised Land Records, Peace In The Valley is the first in a projected series of three gospel albums featuring his late son Billy, recorded in the ’80s. Willie sings duets on some of the tracks, and some by himself or as part of a gospel harmony group, and appears with old footage of Billy in the video for the song “My Body’s Just A Suitcase For My Soul.”

    It’s a heartbreaker, but a surprisingly good album. “It was something that needed to be done,” Nelson said. “It was kind of like the Moonlight Becomes You album; it was product that I had recorded and done and worked hard for, and my son worked on. It was just waiting for something to happen to it.”

    True to his beliefs, the dearth of hit records doesn’t faze Willie Nelson. He figures he’s had a taste of the really big time, and he’s fine where he is, thank you.

    Early one morning in May of this year, Texas police discovered Nelson’s Mercedes parked on a service road along Interstate 35 between Austin and Hillsboro. Inside the car, asleep in the backseat, was the man himself.

    Nelson explained that he’d been driving home from an all–night poker game, and bad weather had forced him to pull over and stop the car. The officers found a marijuana roach in his ashtray; Nelson was arrested, posted bond and philosophically declared the incident “a part of life.” Then he drove home.

    He continues to tour — on the road again and again — with the same band, on the same bus (more or less; the original bus Honeysuckle Rose crashed and burned; now there’s Honeysuckle Rose II). Drawing big crowds—not huge, just big—playing essentially the same songs.

    “You would think that I would get tired of some of those songs, and usually when I do get tired of ‘em, I just take ‘em off the show,” Nelson said. “I don’t do them for a while. I think that’s one of the big secrets — well, I don’t know if it’s a secret or not — but it’s something that I’ve learned over the years. If I record songs that I like, if I happen to get a hit, then I won’t mind singing them every night. But if I sing a bunch of crap that I don’t like and that happens to hit, then I’m stuck with it.”

    And he swears that he doesn’t care about the current Nashville controversy, of the old guys getting no airplay because the video–genic young bucks are all over the place.

    “What’s funny to me, today they say, ‘Well, I wish I’d hear more of the old players — whatever happened to Randy Travis and George Strait?’ I knew when I heard that, I was out of luck, that they forgot about me years ago.”



  • Featured Image[Article 66]Seals and Crofts:
    We May Never Pass This Way Again

    seals-crofts-clipping-portrait-small

    @ 1993 Bill DeYoung

    When the 1960s turned into the 70s, and the flood of longhaired, acoustic guitar–carrying singer–songwriters began, sensitive and poetic and wearing their hearts on their sleeves, Jimmy Seals and Dash Crofts had already been through the star–making machinery. With the Champs, the pair jumped on the pop music merry–go–round, grabbed the brass ring and, not thinking too much of the experience, got off again.

    But as Seals and Crofts, they forged a career their own way, playing by their rules and making records that said exactly what they were feeling inside. What set them apart from the other early turn–of–the–decade pop folkies was their commitment to God and their deep religious beliefs, which dominated and ultimately illuminated their songwriting. Over the course of a 10–year recording career, Seals and Crofts never wavered in their pledge to declare and advance the Baha’i faith through their music.

    Even so, they wound up with a bunch of hits.

    Jimmy Seals was born October 17, 1941 in Sidney, a dusty Central Texas oil town where the family picked up musical instruments to amuse itself, simply because there wasn’t much else to do. Jimmy’s father Wayland Seals was a driller who played guitar in a local swing group called the Tom Cats.

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    One day, Jimmy recalls, his dad’s musician friends came home for supper – young Jimmy was about 6 – and the bunch of them wound up entertaining the family in the living room. Jimmy was enthralled by the violin player, who could turn a mean western rag, and that night he asked his parents for an instrument of his own.

    Eventually, he got one, and by the time he was nine, Jimmy Seals was good enough to complete in the Texas State Fiddle Championship. He remembers that he played “Sally Good’n” and “Listen To The Mockingbird,” and that when he won the state contest he beat out fiddlers from all age groups, including grown–up musicians with many years’ experience under their worn rawhide belts.

    About 25 miles to the northwest of Sidney, in slightly larger Cisco, Texas, Dash Crofts was waffling between a future in music and a future in baseball. Four years older than Seals, he’d begun playing piano at the age of five, and had some lessons, before switching to drums at 10 or 11. When they met, Seals was in the eighth grade and just learning the saxophone, and Crofts was a high school senior drumming in a moderately popular local swing and country dance band, having given up his dreams of the ballpark.

    (Crofts’ given first name is Darrell; he has a twin sister, Dorothy, and when they were tots, their mother entered them in a “beautiful baby” contest in Cisco, thinking they’d be ever so cute as Dot and Dash. The nicknames stuck.)

    Seals had joined Dean Beard and the Crew Cuts, a swing band that was working its way into rock ‘n’ roll, courtesy of Seals’ honking tenor sax and Beard’s boogie–woogie piano. When the Crew Cuts lost their drummer, Seals suggested his Cisco buddy Dash Crofts, and the group carried on.

    Beard and his band were managed by Slim Willet, an entrepreneur and early Texas TV star who’d written and recorded the hit “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” in 1952. Willet led the Crew Cuts through their paces at West Texas teen dances and the occasional nightclub, but only on weekends so the 13–year old Seals could be home for school on Monday mornings. Through Willet, Jimmy Seals cut a pair of instrumental singles in 1958 on the Winston label.

    Beard, who “knew Elvis” and believed he was himself destined for stardom, had hit moderately with a couple of singles for Edmore and Atlantic, and he and his group had backed a number of performers cutting demos in Texas studios, among them Charlie Walker and LaVern Baker.

    And this is where the story of Seals and Crofts really begins. The Champs, from Los Angeles, three months into their chart–busting success with “Tequila,” were on the road when a dispute began over ownership of the group name – did it belong to guitarist Dave Burgess or saxophonist Chuck Rio?

    When the smoke cleared, Rio and drummer Gene Alden were back in Los Angeles, and Burgess and company were in the middle of a tour with only half a band. “Dave Burgess called somehow and got a hold of Slim Willet,” recalls Jimmy Seals. “They said they were looking for a saxophone player and a drummer. They were looking for somebody who wasn’t married, who could be kind of groomed for the part.”

    “Jimmy said to me, ‘Would you like to tour through Texas and be Big Time?’” Crofts says with a laugh. “So I went with them.”

    Seals: “They settled on me and Dash, but Slim told them the only way they could have us was if they took Dean, because Dean had a record out on his own.”

    Says Crofts, “They said, ‘We don’t need a piano player,’ and then he said, ‘Well, then you can’t have ‘em.’ We didn’t know anything about this.” But the Champs took Dean Beard anyway. “They found out later that he was stealing from them,” Crofts recall, “so they fired him and kept us.” The three erstwhile Crew Cuts joined the Champs tour in Baton Rouge, the fans none the wiser for the sudden change. The musicians had their clothes torn off at the very first gig. Someone called in a bomb scare too.

    Seals, who was by then 14, was having trouble at home. His parents had divorced, younger brother Danny going off to live with mom while Jimmy stayed in Sidney with Wayland. When Burgess invited Seals and Crofts to move to Los Angeles to record as full–time Champs, Jimmy had no trouble saying yes.

    “I said, ‘Look there’s nothing out here in west Texas at this time but tumbleweeds and jackrabbits,” he remembers. “If I’m gonna do music, I’ve got to go where it’s being done.’” So the teenage Texans moved to California, where they spent the next six years recording and touring with the Champs (Crofts was drafted in 1962 and spent two years with the Army in Fort Bragg, North Carolina; he was replaced, and his replacement was in turn fired upon Crofts’ discharge from the service).

    Because “Tequila” was an instrumental record, the Champs were an instrumental group, which Seals and Crofts began to find increasingly claustrophobic. They loved to sing, and so did Dave Burgess, but Champs records were just not vocal records. That was that.

    “For me, it was very frustrating,” Seals recalls. “We were starting to write songs and when we’d come back from touring we’d beg them to do some records vocally. They never really got into it. We formed another group with Dave Burgess, called the Chimes. The three of us did a couple of records with that group on the side; they just didn’t want to put the Champs’ name out there with it.” (The Challenge Records discography lists the artists on these 1962 records, “Desire” and “Peg O’ My Heart,” as the Trophies. Both Seals and Crofts say they were recorded as the Chimes, and they’d always thought they were released under that name, but Burgess presumably changed the moniker at the last minute.)

    Crofts remembers the Chimes only too well. “Dave Burgess wrote a couple of songs and wanted us to sing background on them. We’d go: ‘Bong…BING…Bong…’ That was our big debut as vocalists, and we said, ‘This is not happening too much. We’d like to get into something a little more creative.’”

    Challenge Records continued to refuse, even though Champs guitarist Glen Campbell wanted to sing on records too. Of Burgess, Crofts says, “We found out later that he owned the name the Champs. So he brought in all the dough and gave us salary. He was making money hand over foot. Then he decided that he would stay home and run the record company and send us out on the road, like work horses. And that’s what he did.”

    Still, they were turning a profit. “It was a pretty good salary for those days, $500–$600 a week,” Crofts says “Pretty good for us, because we were irresponsible teenagers. We’d buy shirts and throw them away and buy others instead of taking them to the cleaners.”

    “Too Much Tequila” in 1960 had been the Champs’ last Top 30 single; still they slogged on. In 1965, after nearly seven years as a Champ (he’d had four singles released under his own name on Challenge, too, and they all bombed), Jimmy Seals had had enough.

    When the band was booked for a tour of the Orient, with dates in Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, Seals announced he would not be going.

    Crofts recalls that Seals was terrified of getting drafted, and thought that he ought to stay low, staying off international airplanes and out of the newspapers. And – according to Crofts – Seals married a woman he didn’t really love, simply to reduce the risk of being called up. The two actually argued their way into a fistfight, and Crofts, hurt by what he saw as abandonment by his old friend, left for the Far East with a chip on his shoulder.

    When the Champs returned, he too, resigned. His heart was no longer in it. The band dissolved for good soon afterward. Both Seals and Crofts spent the next year or two as Los Angeles session musicians, and eventually they patched up the friendship.

    Seals, who’d started messing around with the guitar and was writing songs prodigiously, was particularly affected by the end of the Champs. “To live through the decline of the group was very depressing,” he says, “although the group was progressing musically to where we were doing Blood, Sweat and Tears or Chicago–type material at the end of the run.”

    Crofts went back to Texas, while Seals “collected pop bottles” in California, taking session work when he could get it. In 1966, Seals hooked up with guitarist Louie Shelton and bassist Joe Bogan to form a cover band dubbed, among other things, the Mushrooms (Seals says they changed the name regularly to get re–booked into places that otherwise wouldn’t invite them back). Crofts was persuaded to return west and take the drummer’s chair. The Mushrooms played rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, country, any kind of music that was needed to bring in jobs, Crofts says.

    One night, the group was playing at a Los Angeles bowling alley, the Hollywood Bowl, when they were approached by three sisters; Billie, Donnie and Lana Day. The Day sisters, who were quite taken with the young musicians, introduced themselves as singers.

    Right away, the gears started turning. “We thought ‘We’ll gang up together, go up to Vegas and make some big bucks,’” Crofts recalls. “We were making a living, but figured that if we added three girls and went to Vegas, we could make a bigger salary.”

    The new group was dubbed the Dawnbreakers. The girls’ mother, Marcia Day, was an agent for a couple of Hollywood actors, and she lived in a gray, three–story house on Sunset Boulevard with her family and sometimes dozens of “friends.” Day became the Dawnbreakers’ manager, and it was she who got them a “fill–in gig” in Las Vegas, fitting them out with matching stage suits. Back in L.A., Dash Crofts started dating Billie Lee Day, and the boys in the band were invited to move into what was affectionately known as Marcia’s Place.

    Soon, Seals, Crofts, Shelton and Bogan started regularly attending the Friday night meetings, or “firesides,” Day held in her home to discuss with many friends her belief in the Baha’i religion, based around the teachings of the 19th Century Persian prophet Baha’u’llah. During his subsequent imprisonment he wrote hundreds of letters and books that became the principal Scriptures of the faith.

    Seals and Crofts, dissatisfied with many things in their lives, began to listen. “It gave us a lot of food for thought,” says Crofts. “Our priorities began to change. When you get into music, your goal is to become as famous and rich as you can become. It’s an ego trip. When we came across the Baha’i faith, it talked about things like oneness of god, the oneness of mankind, the oneness of religion, equality of men and women, elimination of prejudices of all kinds. And we thought, ‘Wow, this is really lofty stuff.’

    “Probably too lofty for us, but it interested us. And so, we started looking into it.”

    Crofts, because he was romantically involved with Billie Lee Day, was the first to convert to the Baha’i. Seals considered himself at a spiritual dead end. His marriage was over and his career was going nowhere fast. Still, he resisted at first. “Because we were working together, they didn’t want to make me feel like they were pushing religion or anything on me,” Seals relates. “So what it boiled down to was, no one really told me directly what the faith was all about. Finally, one day Dash started trying to tell me about it. We were driving down Hollywood Boulevard, and he got so frustrated because he just wasn’t getting through to me. He pulled over to the side of the road, slammed the brakes, and told me what Baha’u’llah’s claim was that he was the promised one of all ages.”

    In the Baha’i Scriptures, Seals found answers to the questions he’d been asking all his life. When you stripped away the conventions of each of the major religions, all the prophets were saying essentially the same thing: love one another. The basic tenets of the Baha’i faith – love, tolerance, absolute equality of all sex or race and worldwide unity – appealed to the young Texan.

    “From that point on, I just started ripping books apart,” he says, adding that the words of Bah’u’llah “became the foundation for the writing that we did with Seals and Crofts.” (“I’ve been trying to find a loophole now for 26 years,” says Crofts, who married Billie Lee Day in 1969. “And I haven’t found it yet. I was really skeptical.”)

    Shelton and Bogan married the other two Day sisters, and Seals became involved with Ruby Jean Anderson, another “friend” who’d stopped by to sit in on the Friday night firesides at Marcia’s Place and stayed a while. One night when no one else was home, Seals and Anderson were thrown together, helping a young woman who’d overdosed on drugs on the Day doorstep, then tending to the victims of a car crash down the block. They wound up sitting over coffee and talking all night, excitedly sharing their feelings about life, love and spirituality. They were married in 1970.

    The Dawnbreakers actually cut a couple of sides for Dunhill in 1968, produced by Richard Perry. However, Crofts says with a laugh, Perry crossed paths with Tiny Tim during this period and “we got dropped like a hot potato.” Perry hit the top with “Tiptoe Thru The Tulips” and the Dawnbreakers’ wax never materialized.

    Meanwhile, Louie Shelton, who was making tons of dough as a session player while starving with the Dawnbreakers, decided to leave the group to work as a session guitarist and producer. Bogan went with him.

    “Louie started moving into producing and Joey started moving into engineering…it just kind of naturally broke up, but we were all still together, in an indirect way,” recalls Crofts. After all, he says, “Three marriages came out of that group.”

    But he and Seals had already done some hard thinking about something new. “In the Champs and the Mushrooms, and in the Dawnbreakers, we were playing a harder kind of music,” Crofts says, “and we were kind of sick of that. So for therapy we would go into a room and write these little, pleasant soft songs, like wandering troubadour kind of music. And we didn’t play it for anybody. We’d just go play it for ourselves, just a therapy. And then we got to where we thought we’d try it out in between sets – at the breaks, when everybody took a break, Jimmy and I would sit there and play these little tunes. And we saw that people liked them.”

    Crofts wanted an instrument to complement Seals’ acoustic guitar, drums simply wouldn’t do. So he borrowed a cheap mandolin from his brother – who kept it on the walls as an ornament – and taught himself to play. “I just plunked it and it sounded really good,” he remembers. (Eventually, Crofts wandered into Barney Kessel’s Music Store in Los Angeles and bought a vintage Gibson mandolin for $125, an incredible price even in 1969. He played the instrument on “Summer Breeze,” “Diamond Girl,” all the big Seals and Crofts records, and he still has it.)

    Seals: “We worked out counterparts on the mandolin and guitar, and also on the vocals, and then we tried to work it out sometimes where we would sing two parts, and play the other two harmony parts on the instruments. Being from a small band, we were trying to make it sound as big as we could.”

    Seals and Crofts played their first show as a duo at the Ice House in Pasadena, California, in 1969. Next, they signed on to perform at the legendary Hoot Night at Los Angeles’ Troubadour club. Seals recalls that he had to borrow the $2 the club required as a guarantee they’d show up.

    “We went on between two hard rock bands,” he says. “And we only had four songs. We played those, and the whole house stood up and just went crazy. So we sat down and played them again. And we told them, ‘We’re sorry, we’ll have to come back when we write more.”

    And so the teenage prodigies from Texas abandoned rock ‘n’ roll and the big beat more or less forever, and found their “true calling” in folksy, acoustic music, dedicating their work – as they did their lives – to the teachings of a Persian religious leader who had been dead for almost 100 years.

    Day got them a record contract in 1970, with Talent Associates (TA), a low–budget subsidiary of Bell. Two albums were released that year, Seals and Crofts and Down Home, both largely self–written collections of “wandering troubadour music.” They were sweet, simple and folksy, and despite the release of two singles from each album, there were no sales to speak of.

    Still, Seals and Crofts’ performance following grew progressively larger, and in early 1971 they were signed to Warner Brothers Records, then on a roll with James Taylor and on the lookout for more introspective singer–songwriters to bankroll.

    Seals and Crofts’ sound, a vaguely medieval blend of acoustic guitar and mandolin, was mannered and polite, courtly even, and their lyrics – almost always penned by Seals alone – were radiant and positive, talking of a kind of love that could have been about the opposite sex or about God, depending on how you read them. The songs were full of love, faith, peace and talk of “the truth.” And that, not to put too fine a point on it, was the sort of thing that was selling in 1971.

    To produce their first Warners album, Seals and Crofts brought in their old Dawnbreaker chum Louis Shelton (suddenly they could afford him). To further keep it in the family, Joe Bogan became their engineer. Crofts, Shelton and Bogan were at the time happily married to the three Day sisters. “We had been drawing 3,500 to 4,000 people a night for like two years without a record,” Seals recalls. “So we felt like, if we ever got a record that would appeal to the masses, we would be able to draw more people and have a career.”

    Year Of Sunday was released on Warner Brothers in the waning days of 1971. A vast improvement, sonically, over the TA albums, it also featured sharper and more pointed songwriting. One particular ballad, “Antoinette,” was an exquisite blend of harmony vocal, acoustic guitar and mandolin soloing.

    The Baha’i influences were everywhere if you looked. “When I Meet Them,” the first single, was a plea for universal brotherhood, as was the R&B–flavored “Sudan Village.” The title track, in fact was based around the Baha’i belief in “progressive revelation,” that is, the teachings of the prophets, in succession, forming a sort of map for mankind to follow. “We all live in a year of Sunday,” then, meant that every day was like a church day, with something to be learned. Heady stuff was for the pop charts, to be sure, but expertly put across. Despite a massive promotional push by the label, however, Year Of Sunday did not light the world on fire.

    Those were the days when record companies actually believed in their artists, and instead of getting the hook for their poor sales showing, Seals and Crofts were encouraged to try again. “This was all an experiment,” Seals says. “We never dreamed we’d be heard on the air. Some of it sounds like shopping cart music. Nobody knew what they were doing.”

    In the summer of 1972, the duo signed on as opening act on a national tour by the supergroup Chicago. The exposure was priceless, as their second Warner Bros. album Summer Breeze was to be released in July. Summer Breeze is, arguably, the definitive Seals and Crofts album. All the elements were in place, including top–notch songs and deft performances by the twosome and a band of friends and studio acquaintances (bassist Bobby Lichtig, who played with Seals and Crofts for most of the ’70s, made his debut here, and the widely–seen Chicago tour featured just him backing Seals and Crofts). Here, they found the ideal commercial formula.

    Again, Seals wrote most of the lyrics, and he and Crofts collaborated on the melodies. On Summer Breeze, they came up with mystical–sounding ballads (“East of Ginger Trees” and “Hummingbird,” both of which included verbatim quotes from the Baha’i Scriptures), a finger–snapping, bluesy acoustic ballad that was literally about faith (“The Euphrates”), a couple of socially relevant “pop” songs (“Funny Little Man,” “Yellow Dirt”), a beautiful if obtuse folk ballad (“Advance Guards”) and an excuse for Seals to take his hoedown violin out of mothballs (“Fiddle In The Sky”). He played a little sax on “The Euphrates,” too.

    Then there was the title song, a simple celebration of home and hearth. With its catchy chorus (“Summer Breeze makes me feel fine/Blowin’ through the jasmine in my mind”) and unforgettable signature “riff” (played in unison on Crofts’ mandolin and Lichtig’s bass), “Summer Breeze” became a classic “soft rock” single overnight.

    The single reached #6 in September, and the album went gold, spending 100 weeks on the Billboard chart. Seals and Crofts appeared on every television show that showed an interest, and began a touring schedule that would hardly abate for eight years.

    “We were ready to be disc jockeys, roadies, sound mixers or whatever, just so we could be in and around music,” Seals explains. “Because that was all we had known. We didn’t have any grand delusions about what might happen; we just took the next step when it came. If the door opened, we went.”

    “Hummingbird,” the second single, made it to #21 in January 1973. By then, Seals and Crofts were almost finished with their fifth album, the one that would ultimately prove to be their biggest seller, and, as each of them would come to realize years later, the beginning of the end. The album was Diamond Girl, and it too went gold soon after its release in May 1973. The title song – jazzy, with some complex changes – was released as a single, and like “Summer Breeze,” reached #6.

    There were no simple acoustic duets on the album – Seals and Crofts had acquired a band. A rather large band. Seals: “After Summer Breeze hit, somewhere in between there and the recording Diamond Girl, we realized that we could not progress any further…we were very limited as to the kind of music we could play. But there was no way that we could play anything any harder. If you’re playing with a band, all of a sudden you’re in competition with 10,000 other bands. The band has got to really cook; and it’s got to have an identity. And for the crowd that we were playing, it had to be hard rock. I feel like we lost a little bit of uniqueness in what we were doing, because we started leaning more and more on the band.”

    Once again, the words and teaching of Baha’u’llah were prominently displayed, in such songs as “Intone My Servant” (“Intone my servant/the verses of your Lord”) and “Nine Houses,” a symphonic “suite” that paid homage to the nine major organized religions of the world. Then there was “We May Never Pass This Way (Again),” which retold the story of the fabled “year of Sunday”: learn all you can in this lifetime; it may be your only chance. This was the second Diamond Girl single, released in September and slightly edited from the album version. It climbed to #21 on the charts.

    Seals honked his tenor sax on the jazzy instrumental track “Wisdom,” and the duo tossed out a humorous cowboy song, “Dust On My Saddle,” that would become an in concert staple.

    Another highlight of the album was “Ruby Jean and Billie Lee,” which Seals and Crofts wrote together as a love letter to their wives. “We kept it a total secret at he time we were doing it,” Crofts says. “We wanted to give them a gift that would last for a while. So Jimmy started writing the song about Ruby, and I said, ‘You can’t write one for her without me!’ So we decided you write a verse, I’ll write a verse, and we’ll put the kids in the middle. We had one kid apiece, Joshua and Lua. The funny part about it was, they’d show up at the studio and we’d start calling it ‘R&B Waltz,’ instead of ‘Ruby Jean and Billy Lee,’ so they wouldn’t know what it was. That was the code name.”

    Seals and Crofts put perhaps the best signing of their careers on this one recording. “Finally, the day came for us to spring it on them. They came down to the studio, and there was like four or five Warner Brothers executives there with big cigars in their mouths and all that; we started playing it for them and they started crying, and then the executives started crying, big tears in their eyes. It turned out to be really neat. We said, ‘This is specifically for you guys. We’re not even going to release it as a single, we’re just gonna give it to you, and you can have it.’” It never was released as a single, but it was included on the duo’s Greatest Hits album two years later.

    By now, Seals and Crofts were a major touring act, a top grosser, with a private plane for Seals and Crofts themselves, another for the band, and another for the crew. Still burning with the fervor of the newly–converted, they devised a way to “tell” their fans about their Baha’i beliefs without, they hoped, coming off like pushy religious zealots. After each concert – about 20 minutes after the house lights had gone up – the duo would return to the stage and chat, sans microphones, with anyone in the crowd who wanted to hear about it. These little post–concert rap sessions, announced at the beginning of each show, were called firesides just as they had been on those long–ago Friday nights at Marcia’s Place.

    “We tried to take our art and use it toward something that would further civilization in some way,” Crofts says. “Yeah, we were successful and we got hit records and we started making bigger money, but what we did was hire more people and try to make it a better show. But we decided at the same time to put in our contract that every place we have the alternative to talk about the Baha’i faith. We never incorporated it into the show itself. We always said that they came to hear music, and that’s what they’re gonna hear. And afterwards, if somebody wants to hear about the Baha’i faith, we’ll come back and tell them about it. We’re not evangelists.”

    Seals put a lot of stock in these discussions. “It was something we felt was like a great responsibility, because you don’t want to be like parrots out on the street, telling everybody that comes along this, that and the other,” he says. “And the other thing is, you’re having to try to live it. You can call yourself whatever you want, but how you live your life is your religion.

    “It was at a time when it was very important that the faith become known in this country, because there wasn’t enough Baha’i at that time, and because they can’t take donations from outside, and they can’t proselytize, the only way you can do it is through an interview, or if you have firesides.

    “You also can’t have people come listen to music and then force religion on them. So it was a strange setup. If people know that you’re gonna talk about something that is religious, or that’s your faith, if they’re attracted to that and want to stay and listen to it, I don’t think you can hurt yourself.”

    The year was 1973. Richard Nixon was looking at another 12 months in the White House, tops, the Vietnam War was raging away…and Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States, had just been handed down.

    “I think you can ruin your career, as we almost did, by taking a concept and trying to put it into a record,” Seals says “where it becomes sucked into the political scheme of things.”

    Lana Day Bogan, wife of the group’s recording engineer and longtime crony Joe Bogan, had seen a television documentary on abortion and were moved to write a poem, from the point of view of the unborn child.

    Seals, at Lana’s suggestion, put it to music.

    “Oh, little baby, if you only knew.

    Just what your momma was planning to do…”

    This was “Unborn Child,” Seals and Crofts’ follow–up to the sweet and singable pop hits “We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” and “Diamond Girl.” The album likewise, was called Unborn Child.

    Crofts: “Warner Brothers warned us against it. They said, ‘This is a highly controversial subject, we advise that you don’t do this.’ And we said, ‘But you’re in the business to make money; we’re doing it to save lives. We don’t care about the money.”

    Both Seals and Crofts insist the song’s message was, simply “don’t take life too lightly,” to stop and think before going through with an abortion. But the critics tore the record to pieces, and Seals and Crofts with it, deriding it as not only preachy drek, but lousy poetry. The single was a commercial disaster; the album shipped gold, but the retail returns were serious.

    “It was a double–edged sword,” Crofts says of the Unborn Child controversy. “It hurt us in one way, and helped us in another. It turns over fans, is what it does. If you’re against something, you lose those fans. But if you’re for it, you gain some fans. And that’s kind of what happened.”

    “I don’t know whether people knew what was in there or not,” Seals recalls, “but some of the pro–abortionists called up the radio stations and demanded equal time. Well, that killed the airplay on it. What we had done is we had taken a single issue. Before, we were dealing with the general concept of things. I think everybody in the world, regardless of whether they’ve previously been a racist, or an atheist or whatever, can accept, without getting too upset, the fact that mankind is one family. We’re all here on one dot and we need each other. It’s obvious. But when you pull it down and start taking the different really hot issues, if a person is not looking at the overview that you are, then they’re not gonna connect the parts together. They just see one thing.”

    This one thing Seals and Crofts picketed all across the country. “I think we got more good results out of it than bad,” says Crofts, “because a lot of people called us and said, ‘We’re naming our children after you, because you helped us decide to save their lives with that song.’ That was very fulfilling to us.”

    “I thought either it would be very much accepted, on the strength of the song itself, or that it would be the biggest bomb that we ever had,” Seals explains. “But it was incidental by that point, because the music was gone. I was out of gas already. When you get in that position, you really don’t know what to do. It happens without a lot of different artists, and I admire those people who have not let that happen to them. We started with a classical–oriented instrumentation, mandolin and guitar, and trying to find ways to use that – and to not use it – with two people was very difficult.

    “If you had one person with the freedom of adlib kind of singing, of being able to move through different phrases of music, it’s much easier for one person to do it than two. Duos had never been my cup of tea, to start with. Outside of a few records, I don’t like ‘em. A group, and a single artist, are much easier to manage and to record.”

    Unborn Child hurt Seals and Crofts’ reputation – it was as if they had crossed that thin line, that sacrosanct divider that separated their music from their religious beliefs. The single never made it higher than #66 in Billboard, and the follow–up, “King Of Nothing” (with Crofts on lead vocal), only went to #60. They toured for much of 1974 with the issue hanging over their heads. Often, their concerts were picketed by pro–choice groups.

    In April of 1975, damage control began with a new single and album; both titled I’ll Play For You. As a response to the fires stirred up by the “Unborn Child” single, this one was an innocent, somewhat innocuous pop song, the most neutral thing the duo had ever recorded. “I’ll Play For You” squeezed into the Top 20, but the follow–up, “Castles In The Sand,” failed to chart at all.

    For Christmas that year, Seals And Crofts Greatest Hits was issued. It had both of the I’ll Play For You Singles, and “King Of Nothing,” but “Unborn Child” was conspicuous in its absence. Buoyed by the plethora of songs from the glory days of Summer Breeze and Diamond Girl, the album sold well.

    Still, Seals says, he could read the writing on the wall. “After Unborn Child and I’ll Play For You, the music just started getting more and more watered down, less identity and this, that and the other,” he explains.

    “I remember the night it happened. I was in the dressing room, I think it was down in Mobile, Alabama, and I just knew. I said, ‘The spirit is gone.’ You sense it. I sensed the same finality that I had sensed with the Champs, except it was our music. And it really made me kind of sick. But at some point like that, you can’t go backwards. And also, if you’re a hard rock group, you can get softer, you can go to a softer song, or a softer style, and you can find your way to peace in your soul, or whatever you want to express and you can get way with it. But if you’re a soft rock group, you cannot do a hard song and get away with it. Very seldom, at least in those days, was it acceptable.”

    Still they plugged on, pretending nothing was wrong. Ironically, when they tried a “hard song,” it gave them their biggest–selling single ever. “Get Closer,” which Seals had written as a Bill Withers–type ballad, was recorded as an uptempo R&B single, with a trio of lead vocalists – Seals, Crofts and R&B singer Carolyn Willis, who’d been a member of the trio Honey Cone (“Want Ads”). “Get Closer” reached #6 in April of 1976.

    “I always felt like Carolyn Willis’ voice was too high for ours,” Seals laments, “because she would be singing at the bottom of her range, and us at the top, in order to get three parts.” Nevertheless, Seals and Crofts hit the road in support of the gold Get Closer album, with a huge band, Willis and background singer in tow.

    They both knew it was all wrong. “I tried several times to get him to go out with just the two of us again, after we had been successful,” Crofts explains. “The problem with touring, in those days, was the expenses were astronomical. You had to ask promoters for a fortune just so you could make some money. And the farther along it got, the higher the expenses got. I think that’s what caused the decline.

    “And Jimmy was his own worst critic. He was very critical of himself, and was very hard on himself. Sometime I’d say ‘Jimmy, when are you gonna just let go and enjoy this?’ He was pretty much of a perfectionist, but Jimmy took it so seriously that sometimes he would badger his own self.”

    The reason he took up mandolin, Crofts says was to be able to travel without “a bunch of stuff to carry around. I ended up with like three 18–wheeler trucks to carry the stuff that goes with the mandolin.

    “It got really insane at one point, and I finally said, you know, this is unbelievable. We’ve got four pilots, three truck drivers, a road manager, an assistant road manager, a business manager, a creative manager, a band and about 12 roadies. We were taking 30 people on the road. It was like an army.”

    Warner brothers tried valiantly to keep the Get Closer momentum going with Sudan Village, released in the fall. It was a live album, of relatively obscure songs from the Seals and Crofts archives, and the first recording of Seals’ “fiddle breakdown,” a highlight of their live shows for years. “We were touring so much that we didn’t have time to go in and do a legitimate album,” Crofts remembers, adding the album was (badly) recorded over a three–night stint in Las Vegas. “I think it was a pretty lame idea, myself. But there wasn’t too much we could do about it, because we were so busy.” The album was a stiff, although the single culled from it, “Baby I’ll Give It To You” (another trio with Willis) actually charted slightly higher than “Unborn Child.”

    “We felt like, after the Sudan Village album, that we were forcing ourselves to come up with material,” Crofts says. “Because, basically, we had said everything we wanted to say already. Our hearts weren’t into it, because we’d already made our statement. It puts you under such pressure. The pressure is once you’ve got a hit, trying to stay in the flow.

    By 1977, they were flying blind. A friend of the duo’s, television writer Charles Fox, talked them into singing a collection of songs he’d written (with lyricist Paul Williams) for the soundtrack of the Robby Benson basketball movie One On One. Fox also produced the film, which was not a major success. The single from this project, “My Fair Share,” went down to #28. They didn’t write it, and they didn’t like it.

    In 1978 came the album Takin’ It Easy. The uptempo single, “You’re The Love,” was out-and-out disco, a full 180 from the “wandering troubadour music” of their heyday. Warner Brothers even issued it as a commercial, 12-inch dancefloor single, extended to six minutes in length for maximum boogie-ing down. “You’re the Love” was Seals and Crofts’ last time in the Top 20, reaching #18 in April. Around the same time, they also cut the theme to the popular television drama The Paper Chase. Although it was heard each week by millions of people, “The First Years” never appeared as a full song on a record.

    The next year, Seals and Crofts accepted $60,000 each to lay down a vocal for a McDonalds’ radio commercial. Crofts: “In those days, it wasn’t cool to do a commercial: ‘Oh, you’re selling out.’ Now everybody’s begging for commercials. They’re killing each other to get a commercial. We kind of did it with a grain of salt. We had offers from Kodak, and Johnson’s Baby Powder, and things like that. They were offering us really big bucks.”

    The end finally came in 1980. Overtly jazz-inflected, The Longest Road was to be their last album. “The best part of The Longest Road was, for me, working with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke,” Crofts reports. “They didn’t have to do the session with us, but they did it out of sheer respect.

    “But I think what we were doing there was just grabbing for straws. We had material, but we knew that the material was not up to par. But we had a contract with Warner Brothers; we were supposed to put out two albums a year. And so we threw an album together – that’s basically what The Longest Road was.”

    The album, and the single “First Love,” got nowhere near the charts. The Longest Road was outsold by K–Tel’s The Seals And Crofts Collection, which was released around the same time. Looking forward wasn’t doing anyone any good; it was time to look back. Warners dropped them.

    “After that, we decided, ‘What the hell are we doing here?” Crofts says. “We’re trying to force material, and stay up with the standard we’ve already established. And why prostitute ourselves? Why don’t we just stop?’”

    “We just didn’t have the material,” explains Seals. “And I think Warner Brothers probably looked at their past artists and said, ‘How many more have these guys got?’”

    Don’t hold them to it, but Seals and Crofts have no intention on returning. “Even today, there’s not one been able to make a comeback and sustain it,” says Seals. “Maybe one album. In those days, a group was good for one, maybe two or three albums. They’d reach a high point, and the rest of it was greatest hits albums; milk it for all you can.”



  • Featured Image[Article 63]Crowded House at a crossroads

    Crowded House
    Crowded House

     

    @ 1993 Bill DeYoung

    Crowded House is a band of mixed emotions. Songwriter Neil Finn rarely takes things lightly; the landscapes painted by the 33-year old New Zealander are for the most part oblique, and darkly passionate, poetically somber ruminations on life, love and the everyday pursuit of nirvana.

    His melodies, on the other hand, are anything but simple and repetitive frames for depressing diatribes. Neil Finn is a melodist of considerable gifts and his musical phraseology has been compared most favorably to that of none other than P. McCartney in his mid ‘60s prime. He has that sort of singing voice too, world-weary and innocent all at the same moment.

    But Crowded House has a reputation for cutting up onstage, pulling faces and cracking jokes at the oddest moment. In their photos and in their interviews, the Melbourne-based trio sometimes seems like Australia’s equivalent of the Three Stooges. And Crowded House videos almost always feature some degree of madcap comedy, even when there’s nothing funny at all about the song in question.

    Crowded House is a band with an image problem.

    Read More…

    Most recently, there was the Tim episode. Tim Finn, Neil’s older brother, became an official member of Crowded House last year – he was integral to the writing and recording of the group’s third album, Woodface, released in July of 1991. Much was made of Tim’s signing on at the time; it bore an ironic resemblance to that moment in 1979 when Neil joined his brother’s band Split Enz, after it was already well accelerated on the international pop scene.

    Reviews of Woodface were nearly all glowing (Crowded House has been a critics’ darling, if not a record-breaking chart act, for quite a long time now). Not a few of the raves pointed out the brilliant writing and harmony-singing act of the Brothers Finn. This has been a long time coming, it was said over and over.

    Crowded House, the quartet, hit the road in September to support the album, starting in America and moving on to Europe, the U.K. and back to the States. When they returned stateside, the first week in December, Tim was gone. Many fans didn’t even know about it until Crowded House took the stage in their town.

    “Everybody had a feeling of unease about it,” Neil Finn explains. “We all tried to make it work in various ways, by changing things around a bit onstage and that, but at the end of the day it was trying to fit four people into what was essentially a three-man operation.”

    Those three – Neil Finn, drummer Paul Hester and bassist Nick Seymour – had established a fun, friendly way of playing live, often without a set list, frequently taking audience requests. But for brother Tim, it just didn’t happen. “He’s a front man, and he wasn’t getting enough to do onstage,” Neil explains. “He was feeling disconnected from it, for large chunks of the evening. For obvious reasons.”

    Neil says it all came to a head the afternoon before a November concert in Glasgow, Scotland. “We’d already decided internally that it wasn’t going to last,” he says. “Paul and I had talked about it. So we actually had a big meeting about it. And Tim had been feeling the same thing. But once verbalized, it had to finish right there. Because you can’t go, ‘Well it’s not working, but let’s finish the tour.’ You want to change it right there.”

    In concert, guitarist Tim was standing behind an electric keyboard, and during the non-Woodface songs, he basically just nodded along. “I felt uncomfortable about surrendering any of the stage to somebody, because I’ve become used to being able to steer the thing along,” Neil says.

    “I think vocally we’re still very strong, Paul and I have been singing harmony for six years. Certainly with Tim there were certain moments in the set where a brotherly kind of harmony thing happened, and it was very cool, but I feel we’ve gone back to normal to a large extent, and it feels very familiar.”

    Says Hester: “We found out what it was we liked about ‘the band.’ When Tim joined, we lost something onstage. And we’ve got more back now – there’s more things we can do, inside the songs.”

    “We were too polite with Tim in the band. We were always aware of each other, not wanting to speak over each other, in between songs. It just wasn’t as loose.”

    So Tim left – disappointed, his brother says, but also feeling liberated. That night, the Glasgow audience called out ‘Where’s Tim?’ a few times and then proceeded to forget about it and enjoy the show. Tim returned to his home in Madrid to pick up the solo career he’d put on hold when he joined Crowded House. Neil says they’re still on good terms.

    “We’ve had a very close relationship over the years, and I tended to focus on he and I working together a lot more than was probably necessary. We’ve really given (Woodface) our best attention. I feel satisfied with that, and I think now the way is open for us to work more, but in a less restrictive context, for him and for me. We put all our eggs in one basket, basically.”

    Neil says his brother is a better-disciplined songwriter, and many of the songs they wrote together for the album would never have been completed were it not for Tim’s ability to complete song ideas. Says Neil of himself: “I’m hopeless with getting things finished. Tim’s very good at that; he doesn’t like leaving things half done. He was good with providing beginnings for songs too – he would suggest an idea and I would find myself running with it and getting quite abstract about it, and taking it somewhere he didn’t expect.”

    Says Seymour: “Tim’s coming and going has actually helped Crowded House realize what we are. The corner that we’ve possibly turned since Tim left is the realization that we have an undeniable chemistry that we have to try and get on the record. The spirit of intuitiveness when we play live together, we’ve never really got onto a record.”

    Born in 1956 in the volcanic central region of Northern New Zealand, in a small town called Te Awamutu, Neil Mullane Finn began taking piano lessons at the age of eight. By that time, his other brother Tim was playing Beatles, Kinks and Move in high school rock bands, while Neil watched enviously.

    The first album Neil bought was by Donovan; when he was 12, he was strumming an acoustic and had determined he, too, was destined to be a musician. The brothers’ Irish mother and Kiwi dad (who toiled, office bound, as a farmers’ accountant) supported their musical ambitions.

    With Paul Judd, Tim started the wildly outrageous aggregation Split Enz in 1972. Although the band enjoyed some success in disparate corners of the world, in most places (the U.S. in particular) it was best known for its garish costumes and sculpted, parrot-like day-glo hairstyles. The music was too ambitious, perhaps too self-consciously “arty” to go mainstream in America.

    When Judd quit in 1977, Tim recruited little brother Neil, then 19, to take his place. Neil first appeared on the Dizrythmia and Frenzy albums, playing electric guitar and doing a bit of singing. “I See Red,” from Frenzy, was Split Enz’ first big Australian chart hit, in 1978.

    In 1980, Split Enz released True Colors, a stylish, poppy album that traded in wholesale the group’s tendency toward over-arrangement for a clean, spartan “new wave” sound. Neil, who was handling a good share of the songwriting, turned in “I Got You.” This song ultimately became the band’s best known in America, almost cracking the Top 40; in Australia, it was #1 for 10 weeks. “I Got You” is pretty quirky by Crowded House standards; a better Neil composition from this period, perhaps, is the lovely “Message To My Girl.”

    After four more tries, Split Enz finally split. Tim had departed before the making ofSee Ya Round, the group’s swan song, which was never released in America; as front man, Neil toured the band’s Aussie and European hot spots several times, losing enthusiasm all the while. “We had a measure of success in quite a few places in the end, Neil says now. “We didn’t put a lot of time into America – we possibly could’ve done better if we’d have toured more.”

    Split Enz never got over that identification as a “Band from Down Under.” Trendy for a while, but almost always the kiss of death in the end.

    When you got down to it, the Finn brothers weren’t even Australians. The people on the continent tend to view New Zealanders as country folk. But if you’re a New Zealand musician, you need to make it in Australia. That’s where the trails of the music business first pick up in that rather remote corner of the world.

    Still, says Neil, “There’s a sense that unless somebody somewhere else confirms that you’re good, maybe you’re only ever just  ‘good for an Australian band.’ There’s a slight feeling of dissatisfaction, and there’s a few people (today) that fall into that category, who’ve only ever had success in Australia. They can make a good living out of it, actually. It’s a good country, but there’s always the feeling: Am I a contender, or was it just because I was in a small country?”

    After See Ya Round, Neil Finn set to poking about Melbourne for musicians to help him carry out his plan for a new band, one that would be his vision and not an inherited one.

    Recently-minted Enz drummer Paul Hester, from Melbourne, became Finn’s first partner in crime. With the addition of Melbourne bassist and motion picture art director Nick Seymour (whose brother Mark played guitar in the Aussie group Hunters and Collectors), the group was hastily dubbed the Mullanes (after Neil’s middle name) and played a select few gigs around Melbourne. (Guitarist Craig Hooper was in the band at first, although he dropped out rather quickly. Hooper is co-writer, with the other three, of the Crowded House song “Recurring Dream.”)

    Taking a cue from the “always a bridesmaid” profile Split Enz had cut, Finn bypassed the Australian and British record business and made straight for America. Capitol Records had signed the group on the strength of Neil’s demos, and in mid-1985 the trio moved to a cramped rental house off Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard to begin the “bonding process” that would turn them into a full-fledged band and, hopefully, would produce a good record.

    The trio was put together with producer Mitchell Froom, who began to shape Finn’s demos into recordable songs. While recording, the trio played acoustic club shows around California under the name Largest Living Things. Other monikers they considered were Krakatoa Chorus and Barbara Stanwyck’s Chest. Eventually, the band became Crowded House; after the cozy digs they were sharing. They played acoustic shows – in tiny clubs and seafood restaurants – before and during the recording process.

    The Crowded House album, released in June 1986, has a kind of post-punk urgency to it, although the songs are clean and melodic – sort of acoustic power pop, if you will. There was none of the arty eccentricity of Split Enz, none of the production overkill of other bands from Aussieland, i.e., Midnight Oil and Men At Work. The album was clean, and simple. There was sweetness, but it wasn’t cloying; there was anger, but it wasn’t brutal.

    “There was a bit of angst on the first record because we were desperate to make an impact, you know?” Finn says. “We’d moved to L.A. to record the album – new venture, new band, so there was an edge to it.” Finn’s melodic songs covered sublime, otherworldly territory (“Don’t Dream It’s Over,” “World Where You Live”) and the twin topographies of fanaticism (“Mean To Me”) and self-doubt (“Tombstone”).

    There were happy songs (“Something So Strong”) and sad ones (“Hole In The River”) and even a rehash from Split Enz (“I Walk Away”). But mostly Crowded House had a fine pop sheen to it, a sense of adventurous tunefulness that didn’t overpower the clever lyrics, and clever lyrics that never suffered because of inferior melodies or arrangement.

    Crowded House hit the road, augmented by Split Enz keyboardist Eddie Raynor, as soon as their album was released. “World Where You Live” did nothing for them at radio or retail, but “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” released as a single in the beginning of September, eventually crawled all the way to #2 in America, in late February 1987.

    “There was quite a long period before we had a hit single,” Hester remembers. “It was probably eight or nine months. But we ended up touring right at the time that single was moving up the charts, so it ended up we did everything at the right time. There was a real build to it.” Within a year of its release, Crowded House was a platinum album.

    For the latter part of 1986, and the first month of the following year, it seemed Crowded House were everywhere. They did TV, they did concerts in any little venue that would have them, they did interviews, and their videos were all over MTV. In a pop world cheated out of the promise of punk, with charts resigned to diluted “new wave” junk like Tears For Fears and ‘Til Tuesday, Crowded House was real, they were sincere – and then they were hit-makers. They had arrived.

    Today, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” remains the group’s only real hit. But they don’t mind the identification. “The only thing you can hitch onto with that song, in a real identification point of view, is that it offers a sense of hope, and timelessness,” says Seymour.

    “If it were something specifically like a dance craze that we were known for, that could be the nails in our coffin, if you will. But I think the basic premise about the band is that we are timeless. And as long as we adhere to that, we’ll be fine.”

    Mediocre Follow-Up was Finn’s working title for the second Crowded House album. Recorded in both L.A. and Melbourne, the album was released in the summer of 1988 as Temple Of Low Men. The title was a reference to the then-raging controversies over evangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.

    “A lot of people have a very passionate liking for the album – more so than the first album, in many cases,” Finn explained. “I really enjoyed the first album, I must say. A lot of people really like both. And a lot of people who really like the second record thought the first one was a bit sort of cheesy-sounding or something. I listen to the first album fondly; I guess it was an exciting time in a way. But I think the second album had more rewards for repeated play; the first album, you could probably forget about more quickly.

    “I see them as being quite different from each other.”

    Crowded House reached maturity on Temple Of Low Men. Produced once again by Mitchell Froom, the band turned in tougher, more assured performances. Finn’s singing was more relaxed than on the first outing – he credits mixmaster Bob Clearmountain for giving the recordings a seamless quality.

    His songwriting improved on the second album too. He wrote songs expressing pure love and passion (“When You Come”), high-grade anxiety (“In The Lowlands”) and the extremes of infidelity-related paranoia (“Into Temptation,” “Better Be Home Soon”). There was a comedy song – well, they thought it was funny – called “Sister Madly,” featuring sometime opening act (and fellow Froom client) Richard Thompson on guitar. Although most people reported it took a few listens to get into, Temple was considered a superior record in nearly every way.

    Of course, it was a resounding flop at the record stores. One reason was probably the observation, repeated ad nauseum in practically every review of the album, that it was “darker” and “more pessimistic” than Crowded House .

    “It was really more fun to make than the first one,” Hester reports. “We had a good, enjoyable period in the studio when we made that record. We don’t look at it ourselves as a rather serious, somber record. Songs like ‘Better Be Home Soon’ and ‘When You Come’ are quite uplifting. It’s one of those things that a few people mentioned, and everyone took that tack with it. It becomes a common thread. But it’s not really the case. We thought that album was pretty ‘up,’ really. We used to giggle about it when someone would say ‘It’s so somber’ or ‘They’re so dark on this record.’ Not that it was a bad thing, just slightly misread.”

    Temple Of Low Men wound up on numerous critical best-of-lists at year’s end, but the lack of a hit single – both “Better Be Home Soon” and “Into Temptation” were given a shot – meant it never found the same mass media audience as its predecessor.

    Hester: “We pretty much toured all the way through the first album, and then we did the second on the back of the tour. We didn’t really have a break until the end of the recording of the second album, I suppose, and we had to sort out a few things with our lives. We’d been away from home and things had gotten out of whack a bit. So we took time off, and we stayed home for quite some time. The second album really didn’t sell as many copies, I suppose, because we didn’t get around and do the job on it – we touched on a few places, but we chose to go home and sort out our lives a bit.”

    To support Temple, Crowded House did a short tour of big cities, appeared on David Letterman and the MTV awards programs, and went back to Melbourne. At Finn’s insistence, a longer U.S. tour was called off. The father of two had dedicated “Better Be Home Soon” to his family on the MTV show, and he intended to follow his own advice.

    Both Crowded House and Temple Of Low Men sported garish Seymour paintings of the three band members, looking goofy on the former, and shadowy caricatures on the latter. Hardly barometers of the squalls blowing within. And then there were the videos for “Something So Strong,” “Better Be Home Soon,” “Now We’re Getting Somewhere,” “When You Come” and others depicting Crowded House mugging and acting silly, for no apparent reason.

    Strangest of all is the clip for “Into Temptation,” Finn’s beautiful ballad about what he refers to as the “dread and exhilaration” of an adulterous one-night stand. The video is a straightforward lip-sync until the final two minutes, when Hester and Seymour start cracking up and pulling faces while Finn sings away in the foreground.

    “There’s one little shot, but pretty much it’s a somber clip, mostly,” Finn says defensively. “You can’t keep the three of us on set on any given film clip day and not have some point where somebody loses it.”

    “It bounced off Neil’s rather poignant delivery of the song,” explains Hester, adding that the video’s director was the one who chose the laughing bits out of a full day’s shooting. “It was probably more tragic than funny, in a way.”

    “Well,” interjects Seymour, “most of our humor is pretty tragic.”

    Finn gets back to the point. “We grapple with the question, too. And even onstage we’re aware of the fact that we undercut our most dramatic moments with humor sometimes. It’s a fine line that we walk – sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the balance is beautiful. We tension-and-release an audience really well. But occasionally, we’ll tell them a joke before ‘Hole In The River,’ and the whole mood’ll just become too weird. So we don’t get it right all the time – we’re aware of when we cross the line.”

    Finn says he believes the group’s audiences appreciate such unpredictability. “We decided early on, through playing three-piece acoustically, that the personality of the band doesn’t have to be a forced thing. We can be pretty much natural. And the way we naturally are together is to create humor – rather than taking the business of being a pop musician too seriously, which to us seems ridiculous. The nature of the music business is eminently laughable. We’re not being snide or cynical by saying that, we just think it is. And if you open your eyes and look around you, there’s plenty to laugh at.

    “Unfortunately, perhaps it does mean that people might get pulled off by that. They might think, ‘These guys don’t really take themselves serious enough, so why should I?’ And therein lies the enigma of Crowded House! We are aware of the duality of the band. When we’re together, we are almost lost to hopeless frivolity – a large percentage of the time – in order to get through the certain media things that we do; we tend to strive for the ridiculous. And that is in contrast, sometimes, to the intent and the character of the music.”

    Finn may be a hopeless romantic, but he’s not, he insists, just plain hopeless. “For me, most of the songs are trying to obtain some kind of personal identification with the singer,” he explains. “In many cases, people regard them as a diary of my life, which I don’t regard them as myself at all.

    “I think all these songs are pretty much hopeful, myself. I feel they’re all tinged with hope. I haven’t written a truly nihilistic or hopeless sort of song in the whole time that I’ve been writing, that I know of. There’s a few desperate ones. But again, the aim of a song is to make people feel involved with what they guy’s singing about, and – even if it’s an indirect sense – it’s the emotion that comes through they connect with. So that’s the measure of success, if people condemn me to the doomed basket.”

    What does it mean? Finn comes up short of giving away his secrets. “I’m comfortable with however people want to listen to it,” he says, “and for that very reason, it doesn’t bother me that some people find some of the lyrics obscure. Because ultimately I’ve always believed it’s the sound of the words that’s the most important.

    “Stacked up behind that on the list of priority is some good imagery, the odd line that confuses and forces somebody to take notice after a few listens – and right at the bottom is literal logic.”

    When the third Crowded House album finally appeared, in July 1991, its title was inscrutable: Woodface. It gave no clues as to the state of Neil Finn’s songwriting. There were no cartoon mug shots on the jacket this time. Oh no. For Woodface,Seymour contributed an oil painting of a sort of jack-o-lantern face, patched together with scraps of wood. Through the eyes, nose and mouth were visible the stars in the sky. What, fans wondered, did this have to do with the music inside?

    That was precisely the point. “One of the things that appealed to us about the rustic quality of Woodface, the picture, was that it had to do with the homemade, cubbyhouse-type, Wooden Horse of Troy sort of aspect in a very high-tech, competitive album covers area,” Seymour explains. “The minute you put any kind of artwork in a jewel box, it becomes really high tech or modern looking, or international in its packaging.

    “And Woodface had a real hand-made, stuck together out of gnarled bits of wood quality to it that I think appealed to the band. And it had a striking, unsettling quality to it in its mask-like design.”

    Finn: “I think we throw too much at people, and we expect people to understand the heart of the band despite a lot of contrary messages. We’ve had this discussion about image many times – it’s been a sticking point in Nick’s and my relationship.”

    The group’s faces don’t appear on the Woodface jacket precisely because Finn requested it; he was tired of seeing his own image used to sell product. The blowup between he and Seymour nearly broke up the band, before the first note of Woodfacehad ever been recorded.

    In the meantime, Finn had discovered a new bond with brother Tim, whose solo career had been going nowhere fast.

    “In Split Enz, the roles were very well defined,” Neil explains. “Tim was my older brother, he was the lead singer and I was the youngster, and we didn’t really feel comfortable enough to write together.

    “But, having spent some time apart, we came back with a real enthusiasm for what each other does. We enjoyed singing together, and we just believed that we were going to write songs. We had no pressure on the situation.”

    At Tim’s home studio in Melbourne, the brothers recorded nearly 20 new songs together. Eventually Crowded House regrouped in Los Angeles with producer Froom and started to piece together their new record. But the songs that Hester and Seymour liked best were the Finn/Finn ones that Neil strummed to himself during the rehearsals.

    “The lines between what was going to be a Finn brothers record and a Crowded House record became very blurred,” Finn says. “And in the end we decided it was better to try and make one good album than try and split yourself between two and not do justice to either.”

    After a period of suspiciousness from Hester and Seymour, who were afraid of a Finn power block, it was agreed that Tim Finn should officially join Crowded House.

    Eight or nine of the songs the siblings had cut in Melbourne were cued up in the L.A. studio, and the rest of the band added parts to them. Then more material, new stuff of Neil’s and one by Hester, was recorded by the full band.

    Woodface is a lovely record, full of swirling, romantic images, uplifting melodies and a good dose of Finn’s brooding good taste. The first single issue was the brothers’ “Chocolate Cake,” a backbeat-heavy dance floor raveup about American excess. It was silly, and like the jacket art, it pretty much had no relationship to anything else. The accompanying video showed the band in leisure suits dancing in formation with giant insects.

    “I’ve always been pretty wary of trying to paint too many impressions of yourself,” Finn says. “’Chocolate Cake,’ in hindsight, may well have undone us. It started off as a live song, which was tremendous fun to play. But as a first single a lot of people were put off by it. It was confrontational, which was good in a sense – people either loved it or they hated it. But maybe it gave an impression of the album which was quite remote from what the album actually was.”

    It’s conceivable that listeners couldn’t get past “Chocolate Cake,” which opensWoodface, and get to the meat of the record. They may have missed songs such as “Fall At Your Feet,” the soulful ballad of longing that is the spiritual heir to “Into Temptation”; “Weather With You,” a beautiful melody about place and time; “There Goes God,” a humorous slam (on the surface anyway) at weekend Christians and those who consider God pop culture; killer Finn ballads “Four Seasons In One Day,” “She Goes On” and “As Sure As I Am.”

    On “It’s Only Natural,” the Brothers Finn perform a tightrope harmony act over a melody as bright and bouncy as the early Beatles and just as imaginative.

    It’s a song about death, though. Typical Finn.

    Woodface ends with a 30-second snatch of tune, a loud and nameless Hester-led jam that comes a good minute after the last song has faded.

    “We deliberately did that to wake people who’d fallen asleep during the last two ballads,” Neil reports with a laugh. “If you’ve listened to 14 songs in a row, man, my hat’s off to you. I couldn’t do it on anybody’s record.”

    Crowded House hit the road hard to support Woodface – feeling that the lack of touring exposure had contributed to the premature expiration of Temple Of Low Men. It didn’t help; the tour got rave reviews, but Woodface never broke the Top 100.

    And then, of course, the thing with Tim. “Even if nothing more happened with the record now, it’s not something that we would dwell on as being ‘Do we go on? Or not?’ Neil Finn says. “There’s been a whole series of things about this record which have made it a bit of a disadvantage.

    “One, the amount of time between records. Two, Tim joining and then leaving is probably confusing for people – at best. For some people, it would seem the band doesn’t know what it’s doing. But there’s a kind of inherent belief that we will have our day, and whether it’s this record or the next one, as long as we keep our focus on what we are, then it will happen.”

    “I think we are the greatest band in the world,” says Seymour. “I really do. I go to see a lot of groups, and I think we’re one of the most consistent groups that I’ve seen. So I don’t believe there’s any reason why, if we keep the formula going for the next few years, we will not be regarded as such.”

    Note: Of course, the ‘greatest band in the world’ finally gave in to commercial failure and internal bickering in 1996, after the brothers’ Finn album and the brilliant Crowded House swan song, Together Alone. Paul Hester was the first to call it a day; Neil Finn then lept into a solo career, made a second record with his brother, and re-formed Crowded House – with Nick Seymour and stage-and-studio keyboard perennial Mark Hart – in 2006. Paul Hester had committed suicide the previous year.

    That catches us up, as of 2012. There are several other Finn interviews on this site.



  • Featured Image[Article 60]The rise and fall of Kenny Rogers

    Kenny Rogers
    Kenny Rogers

    © 1998

    Few artists of the past 30 years have enjoyed the across–the–board recognizability of Kenny Rogers. His celebrity landed him on more television shows and magazine covers than any other singer of his day, and for a long time, you couldn’t punch a radio button without hearing his teddy–bear baritone. If he wasn’t singing on TV, he was hosting an awards show or schmoozing with some other superstar.

    And it’s a long–lived success. More than a decade after his last Number One hit, Kenny Rogers remains an iconic star – his salt–and–pepper countenance as much an international calling card as Sinatra’s fedora, Presley’s pompadour or Jackson’s sequined glove.

    Rogers’ place in music history books is assured. In the late 1970s he came to virtually define crossover, bringing the polarized worlds of country and pop music together with a series of singles and albums that expanded and defied the conventions of both.

    Middle America was Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. His unabashedly cityfied take on country music, via “Lucille,” “The Gambler,” “Coward of the County” and a dozen others, calf–roped people in even the most urban corrals into thinking “Hey, this country stuff’s not so bad.” The women loved him, and the men thought he was a standup kind of guy. His persona was that of a nice, likeable fella who might have lived right up the street.

    Read More…

    Critics couldn’t stand him, and the Country Music Association never gave him the coveted Entertainer of the Year award, but Rogers’ fans were many, and vocal, and they cast their votes in the concert halls and in the record stores.

    History doesn’t lie: Kenny Rogers was king of the hill during the “golden years” of disco, punk and new wave.

    Between 1977 and ’82, Rogers sold $250,000,000 worth of records. He had 20 Number One country singles, hit the pop Top 10 six times, and one of his singles – “Lady,” written and produced by the decidedly non–Nashville Lionel Richie – topped the country, pop and R&B charts during the same week in 1980.

    At his peak, he’d get on his private Lear jet, wherever he was, and leave a concert as the applause was just starting to die down; he then slept in his own bed, on his 1,200–acre farm in east Georgia, nearly every night.

    People have been arguing for half a century about what constitutes “real” country music; when artists such as Kenny Rogers, Barbara Mandrell and Dolly Parton began to show up on the pop charts, the old harrumphing started up about diluting the music.

    The dissing was loudest during the so–called Urban Cowboy craze of ’80 and ’81– and some of that, frankly, was well–deserved (you picked a fine time to leave, Johnny Lee.)

    Rogers survived Urban Cowboy and its attendant backlash because he was much more than a handsome gimmick with a catchy song. A lot has changed in country and pop since his salad days, but the majority of Rogers’ genre–jumping music from the era sounds just fine today. “The Gambler” has lost none of its dark and mysterious charm, and “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer” could be the genetic parent of today’s super–selling “young country” ballads.

    Rogers “went country” as part of a calculated career rejuvenation; he’d become world–famous as lead singer of the innovative pop/rock band the First Edition, itself a byproduct of his years as a jazz bassist (with the Bobby Doyle Trio) and folk harmony singer (with the New Christy Minstrels).

    The success of the First Edition would’ve been enough for most people; indeed, most of the other members of that band left fulltime show business when it broke up.

    But Kenny Rogers wanted more – a restless, ambitious man, he saw a way to re–invent himself another time, took a chance and, despite the odds stacked against him – would anyone take him seriously as a country singer? – succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Including his own.

    “I’m ambitious, but success is not what drives me,” he says. “Happiness drives me. I would’ve been content being a local musician, I think, playing my music as long as I could make my house payment and my car payment, and have a lifestyle I was happy with. I would’ve been happy with that.

    “I wanted to be respected, and I think that requires ambition.”

    Still, his relentless drive to succeed cost him four marriages, and obliterated more than one business relationship. It has not been an easy 59 years.

    Kenny’s older brother Lelan offers a revealing glimpse at the hardest–working white man in show business: “Kenny has always been one that’s set himself above everybody else, in his own mind,” Lelan says. “I’m not gonna say that he’s ever felt that he was better than anybody else – he has always figured that he was more special than anyone else.”

    Hard times in Houston

    Floyd Rogers was a sharecropper from East Texas, the son of a sharecropper from East Texas, and when he couldn’t make a go of whatever he was working on, which was often, he and his wife, Lucille, would move back to his daddy’s farm in Apple Springs. The elder Mr. Rogers grew vegetables, and he was a pretty good hunter, so there was always meat on the table.

    In 1932, Floyd decided to try his luck in Houston, the closest industrial city, where there were oil refineries, giant shipyards and all manner of gainful employment for a man with a strong back and reasonably capable hands. In the immediate post–Depression years, you took whatever work was available. “He was smart enough to realize he didn’t want his kids to be raised in the piney woods, as they were called,” says Kenny. “So he moved to Houston for his kids’ sake.”

    Lucille and her two little ones, Lelan and Geraldine, hitched a ride with a neighbor, who was taking a truckload of chickens into Houston. Floyd, who had arrived earlier, settled them into a modest home. He drove a truck for the farmers’ market, he worked carpentry, he hauled ice. When World War II began, and Houston got the call to start turning out the big boats, he went to work in the shipyards.

    The children came every 18 months or so; Kenneth Ray was the fourth born, the second son

    He made his big entrance on August 21, 1938.

    “We were on welfare most of my childhood,” Kenny says. “If not welfare, some type of federally supported system. And we lived in a federal housing project till I was about 12 or 13.”

    Lucille Rogers worked as a practical nurse, and she’d take the little ones to the hospital with her. Three–year–old Kenny earned quarters by singing “You Are My Sunshine” to the patients.

    Although they lived in low–class Houston Heights, Lucille made sure her family attended church regularly. The Rogers clan sometimes walked to Sunday services at the First Baptist Church of Houston.

    Kenny’s older brother Lelan remembers seeing the local men wearing their silver hard hats to church, topping off their Sunday Best. “It was a sign you had a good job,” he says.

    The Rogers’ were poor – Floyd’s income paid the modest rent, and bought groceries, but there was little left for anything else. Despite Daddy’s almost constant drinking, they were a close family.

    Says Kenny: “He was an alcoholic most of his life, but he had the greatest sense of humor of anybody that I’ve ever met. The more you get to know him, and to look at the times, the more you can understand why there were so many alcoholics at that period.

    “Because life was pretty depressing, coming out of the Depression, and being an unskilled laborer. And I’ve really learned so much about him since he died, from my older brother, that I never knew about. It really made me have a lot more respect for him.”

    Eventually, there were eight children (five boys, three girls) in the Rogers’ home in the projects, and Lelan, the eldest, was itching to get out. Even though he’d been too young to fight in the war, he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders – at 15, he already held down several jobs, and stayed out late every Saturday night to watch the movies (and ogle the strippers) at the Uptown Theatre. But he always had to come home to close, uncomfortable quarters and a bitter, suspicious family patriarch with a bottle close at hand.

    Lelan was 16 when he moved out and married Hazel, his sweetheart (who, contrary to the popular opinion at the time, was not pregnant). They’re still together today, married 53 years.

    Kenny was the first of the Rogers children to graduate high school, and his parents came to think of him as their great white hope – he might actually learn a trade and make some decent money. Lelan and Geraldine had both dropped out to help make ends meet at home.

    At Jefferson Davis High School, though, Kenny began to develop his childhood interest in music. He put together his first band, a four–part harmony group called the Scholars. He and his buddies had figured out that singers, not football players, got all the girls.

    “I had a car,” Lelan recalls, “the only one, so I became their manager, which meant that I never made a dime. But I hauled all the equipment to the PTA meetings where they used to sing in talent contests. I kind of got a little bit of the bug then.” Lelan, a married man, was selling clothes by day, and oil supplies by night. Through his friendship with 17–year–old Houston DJ Larry Kane, he was able to ditch it all and get a job promoting and distributing records first for the local label Cue, then for Decca Records where he specialized in rhythm ‘n’ blues music.

    Lelan arranged for the Scholars to get a contract with Cue. “I don’t know that he really saw any talent in me as much as he saw a way to make a buck,” Kenny laughs.

    The Scholars played the hits of the day, the pop, rhythm ‘n’ blues and especially vocal–harmony stuff that Kenny and his three bandmates enjoyed. Kenny sang the high parts, and played stand–up bass. “I took up the guitar in high school,” says Kenny, “and I ran into this kid that told me I should play bass. I asked him why, and he said there’s more demand for bad bass players than for bad guitar players.

    “And he was absolutely right: He said look around, every group you see has a bass player, and not all of them have guitar players. It was a great piece of advice.”

    Kenny wasn’t the Scholars’ lead singer – that distinction belonged to young Al Eisman – but Lelan remembers what happened at one local show, when his kid brother moved out front for his spotlight number, “Moonlight in Vermont.”

    “All the little girls started screaming and carrying on,” he recalls. “It was just like Elvis. And my wife leaned over and said to me, ‘There’s your star.’ I said ‘That’s no star, it’s just my kid brother.’”

    The Scholars cut a couple of singles that sold around Houston, and subsequently the ante was upped via a one–shot deal with Imperial Records.

    After a long, hot drive, with Kenny’s bass strapped to the roof of the car, the Scholars recorded four sides in a Los Angeles studio, although only one single was released: “Beloved,” with a song called “Kangewah” on the B–side.

    Improbaby, “Kangewah” had been composed by Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons; the Scholars reasoned that she’d plug their record on her radio show and whammo, instant hit.

    But Louella didn’t help them out, and Lelan, hustling for work, arranged for the group to tour armed forces bases in such unlikely spots as Greenland and Iceland.

    Some L.A. sharpie, however, had convinced Al Eisman that he was “the real star” in the group, and the impressionable young singer stayed on the west coast while the others humped it back to Houston.

    So much for the Scholars.

    “I used to sell office supplies in Houston,” Kenny reflects. “And I really loved my job. I was 19 years old. I was making a phenomenal amount of money, but I was only working three hours a day so I could make my music at night. And my boss found out about it and fired me – he wasn’t even giving me a salary, I was on commission, for God’s sake. And I explained that to him and he said well, it wasn’t good for morale. I was the highest paid salesman he had. He thought it was wrong that I only worked three hours – no telling how much I could make if I worked eight.

    “And I said that was not what I wanted to do, I wanted to do music. And he said ‘Then perhaps you should go do that.’ He fired me. And that’s when music took away all my other options.”

    Lelan took out a second mortgage on his house to pay for little brother’s first solo recording. Written by Ray Doggett, “That Crazy Feeling” was the very first release on Carlton Records, which would later provide a home for Jack Scott and Anita Bryant. The artist was listed as Kenneth Rogers.

    Kenny was 19, and here he experienced his first flush of success, traveling to Philadelphia to perform “That Crazy Feeling” on American Bandstand. The single was a huge success around Houston.

    Still, it never made the Billboard Top 40, and its followup on Carlton, “For You Alone,” fared even more poorly.

    Meanwhile, Kenny’s girlfriend Janice turned up pregnant. “In those days, if that got out, they’d tar and feather you and run you out of town,” Lelan says.

    One of Houston’s biggest radio program directors – of course, he was one of Lelan’s cronies – told him such bad press would, at the very least, kill the record. “He ought to marry the gal,” the man advised.

    Kenny and Janice were wed on May 15, 1958, and their daughter Carole came along in September. Around that time, the Rogers brothers cooked up their own little label – Ken–Lee – and wound up in New Orleans, where Kenny cut a rendition of the Cajun classic “Jole Blon” with the intention of outselling the newly–released version by Buddy Holly’s bass player, Waylon Jennings. They loved the tune, and they thought Waylon’s record was a stinker. On their update, they used saxophone instead of accordion.

    Unlike Waylon, however, Kenny wasn’t too good at phonetic French, and producer Cosmo Matanzas had to send out for “an authentic Cajun” to teach the Texas city boy the song, line by line, just off–mike.

    Nothing happened with the Ken–Lee single – probably less than 1,000 were pressed, Lelan thinks – but Kenny was starting to feel at home in the recording studio.

    At his real home, though, trouble was brewing. “Janice’s brother ran a convenience store – a weekly salary, and that was the name of the game in those days,” Lelan recalls. “Janice told him if you’re going to stay in the music business, I’m not going to stay with you. And he said goodbye. He didn’t mince words.”

    They were divorced in April, 1960. Six months later, Kenny had a new wife – Jean – and a new position, as the standup bass player with the Bobby Doyle Trio.

    A blind pianist with a velvety–smooth singing voice that reminded Kenny of Ray Charles, Bobby Doyle was something of a local hero in Houston. Drummer Don Russell rounded out the trio, which debuted at the tony Saxony Club and before long was playing everywhere in town.

    The group specialized in light jazz and standards, and came to be known for its tight, three–part harmonies, in the style of the Four Lads and the Four Freshman, whom they all admired.

    The trio was together, and busy, for nearly six years. “Bobby was blind, so he didn’t have a lot of other things to do,” Kenny laughs. “We used to tell him, ‘Jesus Christ, Bobby! Some of us have to cut our grass from time to time.’ Because he didn’t have to do that. All he wanted to do was rehearse.”

    Rogers credits Doyle with a big part of his musical education. “He really created a great training ground for me, because I was just starting to play bass,” he says. “He allowed me to play a lot of hours a day, and taught me music. He introduced me to that whole era of music, of the ’30s and ’40s. Which there’s no question I would’ve totally missed otherwise.”

    Kenny was becoming a showman and, as his brother recalls, discovering what worked and what didn’t. “Kenny’s personality always drew people, and especially girls,” says Lelan. “The women were just crazy about that boy. And he could con you out of anything with that personality.”

    At one after–hours club, Kenny got chummy with the waiters and convinced them to peel a few steaks out of the refrigerator, wrap them up and leave them by the garbage cans for the Bobby Doyle Trio to pick up on their way out, after the gig. “We always ate good,” Lelan chuckles.

    Working any sort of day job was out of the question. Kenny was a musician now. “He would work the cocktail hour from 5–7 at one hotel, and then he’d go to Paul’s Sidewalk Cafe and work from 8 till 12. Then he’d go over to the after hours place and he’d work over there across from the Shamrock Hotel, from 1 o’clock till 3, 4 in the morning. Him and the Bobby Doyle Trio, and anybody else he could get to sing with him.”

    The trio was paired with the New Jersey–based Kirby Stone Four, a pop/jazz outfit that had put “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” into the Top 30 in ’58.

    The two groups toured the country as a package, and the musicians got to be great friends. While vacationing at Stone’s home in New Jersey, Rogers learned about Stone’s passion for photography, and began to get the bug himself.

    “Kirby became kind of a mentor for me,” Kenny says. “He’s the guy that sat me down at the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas and said ‘You know, I can’t guarantee you’ll be a star. But I can guarantee that if you listen to me, and pay attention, and treat this like a business, that you will always make good money.’ He created an atmosphere of professionalism in me that I might not have had without him.”

    In New York City, Doyle, Rogers and Russell cut an album for Columbia, In a Most Unusual Way, with Stone producing (they were billed as the Bobby Doyle Three). It did nothing to get their career into high gear.

    After a failed one–shot single, “Don’t Feel Rained On,” on Houston’s Townhouse Records label, the Bobby Doyle Trio started to fall apart.

    “I had already achieved everything there was to achieve in Houston,” Kenny explains. “In 1958 and ’59, we were making 700, 800 dollars a week, a 19–year–old kid. That’s a lot of money for that period and for that age.

    “But we realized that it was starting to go down. There was another group who had been around before us, that were now working second–hand clubs … we just kinda saw the writing on the wall.”

    Kenny’s personal life was changing, too – in October of ’63 he married for the third time, to Pennsylvania native Margo Anderson. Their son Kenny Rogers II was born May 24, 1964, and within the year Kenny had an entirely new gig.

    A new kick

    Kirby Stone’s group was managed by George Greif and Sid Garris, who in 1964 had spent $2,500,000 for controlling interest in the New Christy Minstrels, one of the hottest folk acts of the day.

    The New Christy Minstrels weren’t exactly cutting–edge, like Dylan or Baez. The group was more like a franchise, and in fact several “versions” co–existed and toured the country (college campuses, mostly) at the same time. Christies were clean–cut, wholesome young men and women who interpreted the folk hits of the day, standards and show tunes (they were known in ’64 for an interpretation of “Chim Chim Cheree.”)

    Greif and Garris purchased the group from founder Randy Sparks, who’d modeled the ensemble on The Christy Minstrels, one of America’s favorites in the years before the Civil War. That group, which consisted of white singers in blackface, was known for introducing the country to many of Stephen Foster’s songs.

    The New Christy Minstrels scored a couple of Top 40 hits, with songs written by Sparks himself, but for the most part, it was an album act, and one that turned up Pepsodent–white on TV every other night. Good, clean entertainment was the one and only name of the game.

    Barry (“Eve of Destruction”) McGuire had been a Christy, as had Gene Clark of the Byrds and Larry Ramos of the Association.

    Back in Houston, with his records getting him nowhere fast, Bobby Doyle took to drinking; Kenny Rogers and Don Russell had to legally disband the group amid much acrimony.

    Kenny was part–owner of a supper club for about six months in 1965, and he sang harmony and played standup bass for awhile in another light jazz group, the Lively Ones. He cut a solo single, “Here’s That Rainy Day,” for Mercury. Nothing flew. He was broker than broke.

    Then he got a call from Kirby Stone.

    “When the Christies kind of disbanded, and started looking for second–generation Christies, he called and asked if I’d be interested in doing it,” Rogers recalls. “Because I played upright bass and they were looking for a bass player.”

    The “audition” was awful. “They interviewed me on the phone. I sang a song, and I’m standing in the hall of this hotel and I’m singing ‘Green, green …’ and I’m feeling goofy, because people are walking by and I’d say ‘Excuse me, I’m just auditioning for this job.’

    “But it was really a great time in my life. You never do that stuff today. I’d at least have the privacy of my room.”

    Rogers packed up his bass (and his wife and son, and Margo’s daughter Shannon) and moved to Los Angeles to be a New Christy Minstrel. Out of Houston at last.

    He became good friends with Randy Sparks. “He operated the Back Porch Majority, they were kind of a training ground for the Christies,” Rogers said. “As Christies would quit, they would put somebody in from the Back Porch Majority.”

    The worst part about the Christies, Rogers recalls, was that the touring groups weren’t used on the recordings. He didn’t sing a note on the New Kick! album, released during his tenure with the group.

    Kim Carnes was a Christy; she and Kenny became fast pals. He also met Dave Ellingson, who would later become Carnes’ songwriting (and marital) partner. Another singer was Sue Pack, whom Rogers would introduce to his old crony from Houston, songwriter and entrepreneur Mickey Newbury. Kenny was Best Man at their wedding.

    Two members of the group, Mike Settle and Terry Williams, had begun working out harmonies on Settle’s original tunes, and the other Christies got used to hearing them vocalizing together in the university locker rooms before the concerts.

    Settle was the Christies’ musical director, and as such, he felt confident enough to approach Greif and Garris with an idea.

    “We said we could maybe update the image with some new material,” remembers Terry Williams, who had already quit the Christies but in a show of solidarity with Settle went into the bosses’ office anyway. “And they just didn’t want to do it.

    “Now, at the time, we didn’t want Kenny in the group. This was just Mike and I. Kenny was 27 or 28, and we thought he might’ve been a little bit old for it. So we asked Kin Vassey, who was with the Back Porch Majority, and he turned us down. So we ended up asking Kenny to join.”

    The fourth member of the rebel faction was singer Thelma Camacho, a relatively new Christy. “During the day, we would rehearse the group, and at night they were up in Vegas with Henry Mancini,” says Williams. “And it wasn’t long after that we just faced it and broke away.”

    ‘He really wails on the bass’

    Williams’ mother was the longtime secretary of record producer Jimmy Bowen, who happened to be looking for “teen acts” to make hits with.

    “We had a pretty viable product going in, but certainly it didn’t hurt that Mom was Jimmy’s secretary,” Williams remembers.

    “Jimmy wasn’t the kingpin of music at this point – as a matter of fact, he was close to being let go from Reprise because of inactivity and no success until Dean Martin’s ‘Everybody Loves Somebody,’ and he began to make a comeback.”

    Bowen signed the group to his Amos Productions, and secured them a deal with Reprise Records. To produce, he passed the job along to his just–hired assistant, Mike Post. Says Rogers: “We left the New Christy Minstrels on Friday, and on Monday we were in the recording studio. It was a major shortcut, to say the least.”

    They called their group the First Edition, and wore black–and–white stage costumes for a “newspaper” motif.

    The first thing Rogers did, to make himself appear “hip,” was grow a beard. “And I grew longer hair, and I put an earring in my ear, and I wore those damn pink sunglasses,” he laughs. “I was way behind my time.”

    Says Terry Williams: “I taught Kenny how to play electric bass – at first, he played it straight up and down, like an upright. He’d never played bass horizontally before.”

    And so, just as brother Lelan was rocking out in a Texas studio, producing the 13th Floor Elevators for the International Artists label, Kenny Rogers turned himself into a pop star.

    The group’s debut album, The First Edition, was released on Reprise in December, 1967. It contained every one of the Mike Settle originals that they’d worked up, plus a Mickey Newbury song, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” A parody of the then–current “psychedelic” rage, it featured backwards guitar, and background vocals played through a revolving Leslie speaker. Kenny Rogers sang lead because he brought the song in; Newbury had sung it for him backstage at a Christies concert.

    “‘Just Dropped in’ was such an avant–garde record at the time,” Rogers recalls. “We were the first people to use the backward guitar. Mike Post was really a creative guy.

    “People thought we were the next coming, you know, of really wild music. In fact, we weren’t. We were jazz musicians, and certainly not druggies. It was hard for us to follow that song, because Mickey Newbury had not written it as that kind of record.

    “When I asked Mickey if I could do the song, I was still with the New Christy Minstrels. And he said ‘Well, I can’t let you do it, because Sammy Davis Jr. has it on hold.’ I thought boy, I would’ve loved to have heard that record. It would have been worth it to have waited.”

    “Just Dropped In” was the First Edition’s second single. The first, the Settle–written and sung “I Found a Reason,” had stiffed. “Just Dropped In” made Number 5 on the Billboard chart.

    Ken Kragen became the First Edition’s manager after he saw them at the trendy L.A. folk club Ledbetter’s. Kragen, who’d been with the Smothers Brothers since their days doing their “Mom always liked you best” shtick in nightclubs, had snared the brothers a network television show in 1967 and thus became one of its producers. So Tommy Smothers wrote the liner notes to The First Edition:

    Kenny Rogers really wails on the bass, and when you hear him sing ‘Condition’ you will have no doubts at all about what condition HIS condition is in.

    The group performed several times on the siblings’ TV program, beginning in November, and debuted on the Tonight Show before Christmas. On Rowan & Martin’s Laugh–In, “Just Dropped In” was played over clips of the band members cavorting comically inside a taxidermy shop. The band was featured in several TV commercials for Alcoa, which produced aluminum cans for soft drinks.

    To follow “Just Dropped In,” Post planned to release a trippy song called “Charlie the Fer de Lance,” about a groovy, horn–playing snake. But it was relegated to the opening slot on The First Edition’s 2nd (the world’s loss). Another track was chosen for single release.

    The name game

    After The First Edition’s 2nd failed to produce any hit single at all, Bowen himself took over in the studio. With Rogers again on lead vocals, Settle’s country–tinged “But You Know I Love You” was a Top 20 hit in February ’69.

    But after a very, very long dry spell, that just wasn’t enough. The next single had to be the one; everybody knew it, especially Bowen.

    “The whole idea of the group was to put four people together that were each able to take care of an audience by themselves,” says Terry Williams. “Four performers, four lead singers. But it was pretty tough for the public to identify with four people. And it just so happened that Kenny sung lead on the songs that were probably the most commercial of the things that we did …”

    From First Edition ’69, “Once Again She’s All Alone” was issued as a single. Settle wrote it, Rogers sang it: It was very similar to “But You Know I Love You.”

    In the east, however, disc jockeys had discovered an album track called “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Kenny had first heard the lonely, loping country tune on a Roger Miller album; it had also been recorded by Glen Campbell and Waylon Jennings.

    Mel Tillis composed “Ruby,” narrated by a paraplegic veteran, with the Korean War in mind – that had been his era.

    But Kenny Rogers’ gauzy reading of “Ruby” in 1969 came just as many in America were questioning the logic of the Vietnamese conflict, and rush–released as a single, it became something of an anthem (especially after it closed the Huntley–Brinkley Report one night, over news footage of that week’s carnage in Vietnam).

    “Ruby” came out piggybacking “Once Again She’s All Alone.”

    “The idea of changing the group’s name to Kenny Rogers & The First Edition had been discussed already,” Settle says, “because at that time in the business a lot of groups were beginning to change their names, putting the lead singer’s name first. Prime example was Diana Ross, etc.

    “Since we had a single that was still active (it hadn’t died its glorious death yet) it was decided that the timing for the name change was perfect for the ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’ single because, we reasoned, it wouldn’t necessarily compete or conflict with the other single.

    “In any case we were going to make the name change at some point, and the ‘Ruby’ record was a good time to do it.”

    The group’s impending fourth album was re–sequenced to include “Ruby” as its title song.

    Says Rogers: “Jimmy Bowen had a theory that the public really needed someone they could identify with in order to like or dislike a group. And I had sung all of the hits.”

    The other three members’ sole vocal contribution to the song was a little harmonizing on the words “Oh, Ruby.”

    “I think there was a little hesitancy – and quite honestly the majority of the hesitancy came from me,” Rogers says. “Because I never needed it, never wanted it. It was always my theory that I never needed to be more than anybody else in the group. But I never wanted to be any less.

    “Because one of the nice things about power, if you understand it, is that it’s OK to use it if you don’t abuse it. And I think that’s something I was very, very careful of.”

    “Ruby” became the group’s career–making song; it reached No. 6 the week of the Fourth of July, 1969. They were now Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, and there was no going back.

    “I don’t know,” says Rogers, “whether they attributed it to Jimmy Bowen’s ideology, or whether they just said ‘Oh, what’s the difference. We got a hit.’”

    Says Terry Williams: “I’ll never forget going into the meeting and Kenny saying ‘You know, if the tables were turned, I’d leave the group.’ He had a real hard time with it, and I did too. Ken Kragen and all those people were saying (to me) ‘We realize how hard this will be for you, because you actually started the group.’

    “As far as the stage thing was concerned, it was largely my deal. I was the performer, and set up most of the comedy things, and I realized that they were saying Kenny was very identifiable. He had a very identifiable style. And even at the young age of 19 years old, I could see that they were right – even if it meant me taking a gulp, and basically becoming an enigma at that point. Like a Pip, or a Four Season, or whatever. I knew that that was just around the corner.”

    For personal reasons, Thelma Comacho left the group before “Ruby.” After a lengthy series of auditions – including one with young Karen Carpenter – her replacement was chosen: Mary Arnold, a virtual lookalike who had in fact been Comacho’s roommate and a friend of the band’s.

    Mike Settle himself departed around the time “Reuben James” was entering the Top 20 in October (written by Alex Harvey, it’s a hip, “socially conscious” song, about a black sharecropper scorned by all the white folks in town … except for our Kenny, who sings the sympathetic lyrics). “Reuben” had the same gentle country shuffle as its predecessor.

    “We always liked to joke that we were a cross between country and rock,” Arnold says today. “We were a crock.”

    Settle quit because the rigors of touring were taking a toll on his marriage. “It was either the group or divorce,” he says. “About six months before ‘Ruby’ came out, I had given notice to the group that I would be leaving within a year’s time. A year is a long time to agonize over family while being on the road. When ‘Ruby’ began to look like it would be a big hit, I came to the group and suggested that this was an ideal time for me to be replaced. At first they didn’t like the idea because they didn’t want promoters and club owners to have any reason not to book us.”

    Cooler heads, however, prevailed. Ironically, Settle’s replacement was singer/songwriter Kin Vassey, who’d turned down the invitation to join back in ’67. “Kin was a really great addition to the group,” says Arnold. “He was real soulful, and added another type of voice that we really didn’t have. He was really good for the group.”

    And drummer Mickey Jones, who wasn’t pictured on the album covers (he was always in the dark during TV appearances, too) was made a full–fledged member of Kenny Rogers & The First Edition.

    In 1970, the group (Rogers, Williams, Vassey, Arnold and Jones) scored hits with the Mac Davis–penned “Something’s Burning” (No. 11) and Alex Harvey’s “Tell it All Brother” (No. 17). Both were all Kenny, all the time, and featured prominently his newly–minted vocal trademark: A throaty tremelo, making him seem strong and wordly–wise, yet vulnerable and sensitive at the same time. He also stopped smiling when he sang, giving him that ultra–cool “serious rock artist” look.

    Still, says Arnold, “Looking back, I can’t imagine that it was hard for anyone. It was never that Kenny was the star of the group. He never made it like that; we all worked equally as hard together.”

    The group’s last Top 40 hit, Vassey’s sunshine–and–grooviness “Heed the Call,” made Number 33 in November. Their one and only gold album, Greatest Hits, was released in March ’71, not long after they contributed two new songs to the soundtrack of the James Caan/Katherine Ross film Fools (Harvey’s “Someone Who Cares,” co–produced by Rogers and Bowen, grazed the Top 50).

    The Transitions album charted miserably and failed to put a single into the Top 100, although its laid–back country–rock grooves were certainly portents of things to come.

    Rogers spent eight months of 1972, and tens of thousands of dollars of his own money, assembling what would be his group’s swan song for Reprise.

    Concept albums like Jesus Christ Superstar were big business at the time, and Rogers and the others decided that was where they needed to go. Michael Murphey, a Texas–born songwriter pal whom they knew from the scene around Ledbetters, dreamed up a concept album based on true stories, dreams and fabrications of an 1890’s silver–mining town in California, called Calico.

    Murphey wrote the words, and collaborated with First Edition arranger Larry Cansler on the music, for 18 Old West–themed songs. Rogers produced The Ballad of Calico, a two–LP set released in March in an elaborate parchment sleeve complete with old–timey photos of the band members (and the composers) dressed in authentic Western garb. The expensive package included a large sepia booklet with each song’s lyrics reproduced in Murphey’s handwriting.

    Despite its ambition, The Ballad of Calico was a huge, costly flop and became a depressingly familiar sight in cutout bins for years afterwards.

    Rogers was down, but not out. “I think any time you do anything conceptual, that’s on the edge, it’s a risk,” he says. “And I think you have to look at it as part of a body of work.

    “I think it’s a wonderful album, for what it was, for when it was. And I was so impressed with the songs Michael Murphey wrote.

    “Sometimes when you lead, you stumble. And I think that’s expected. As you lead and as you stumble, you learn to look ahead of you a little bit more.

    “But I’ve never been a follower; I just can’t do that.”

    The Ballad of Calico was also a high–water mark for Terry Williams. “It was our last album for Reprise, and I believe Reprise knew that,” he recalls. “We’d been sniffing around and went over to MGM. But of the albums the First Edition did, that’s the only one I would pull out for people.

    “It was a labor of love. We believed in it, we loved it. I don’t know that it was commercially very viable, but it’s my favorite thing that we ever did.”

    Rogers: “There were high hopes that it would be revolutionary, and that it would do something wonderful. It wasn’t as big a success as some of the other albums, but there’s something satisfying about doing good product. And saying  ’A lot of you don’t know about it, but those who do, love it.’”

    Rogers, curiously, took few vocal leads on Calico, which may partially explain its failure. Or maybe the public just wasn’t able to connect with quirky, cutesy-poo titles like “Madame de Lil and Diabolical Bill,” “Vachel Carlin’s Rubilator” or “Dorsey, the Mail–Carrying Dog.”

    The First Edition was never a groundbreaking band, but as a singles group it more than held its own among other, lesser lights of the early ’70s. Certainly the TV appearances and live shows, which spotlighted each of the band members in segments both musical and comical – in the best showbiz tradition, they were famous for their skits – worked to their advantage.

    Kragen got them a TV variety show, Rollin’ on the River, produced by the Californian TV group Winters/Rosen and a Canadian syndicator. Set in a “riverboat” format, each program included sketch comedy and musical segments – the group’s buddies Glen Campbell, Mac Davis and Kris Kristofferson were guests, along with such disperate artists as Bo Diddley, Helen Reddy and Badfinger.

    The show became Rollin’ in its second year, after Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” was removed as the title song.

    Rollin’ rolled along for 52 one–hour episodes. By then, Kin Vassey was history and in his place were guitarist Jimmy Hassell and keyboard player Gene Lorenzo.

    Concert bookings were drying up, too, and for its final year or so the First Edition played mostly state fairs (the prestige factor was low – although, Rogers says, the money was pretty good).

    Rogers arranged a “million–dollar deal” with Mike Post, who was at MGM Records, to distribute the group’s own imprint label. Jolly Rogers Records released three Kenny Rogers & The First Edition albums in ’72 and ’73 before furling its sails altogether (Kenny’s brother Lelan, incidentally, was brought in as the label’s promotion chief). None charted.

    “All groups are destined to failure somewhere,” Rogers says philosophically. “You create your own demise after a while.

    “As members left, we just absorbed it. Terry and I took it over, and we just hired people to come in so we didn’t have to answer to so many people.”

    It was 1974, and more than three years had elapsed since the First Edition’s last hit. Kenny and Terry were $65,000 in debt – money owed mostly to trusting friends, so they felt they had to go on. Bankruptcy was not an option.

    “We were on our way to New Zealand, to do a tour that would’ve gained us that money,” recalls Rogers. “We had some guys that were employees, it was that simple. They didn’t have a vested interest.

    “Jimmy Hassell and somebody else said ‘OK, we’ll go, but we want twice as much money.’ It was kind of like highway robbery to me. It was a matter of principle. I said never mind, I’ll stay here, I’ll do it myself. So we broke up over that.”

    Williams was trying to get a solo career off the ground, and by the time of the ill–fated New Zealand trip, he had already sold his share of the First Edition to Kenny. “I never saw a demise of the group,” he says. “I never had any feeling that we were going down. I always had fun, to my closing night at the International Hotel, I loved every performance. I loved performing with the band.

    “I don’t want to sound egotistical, but when I left it began to crumble. They didn’t replace me, and it was just never the same after that.” Williams says he saw some of the group’s last shows from the wings.

    “I loved everybody, and I was having a ball. But I had been a Pip long enough. And Ken Kragen was pushing me as kind of a teen idol at the time, which wasn’t the direction I wanted to go, but I did feel as though I had a shot at being an artist.”

    Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. “I didn’t realize that when I left the group I’d be completely unknown, but that’s just one of the things that happen when you’re that young.”

    Says Ken Kragen: “The last year, maybe it was two years, was pretty bad. I remember the last performance, I think it was at Magic Mountain. It was truly depressing. Here was a group that had played to thousands and thousands of people … it wasn’t even the same group, there was no energy, everybody was going through the motions. You were playing an amusement park, which at that time was about as low as you could go.”

    By then, Mary Arnold had met and fallen in love with singer/songwriter Roger Miller, who wanted her to record and perform with him (they were married in the mid ’70s). “It was just time,” Arnold remembers. “It was time for Kenny, too. We had been together a long time, and had a good run at it. It’s hard work when you’re gone like that, all the time. The last few shows we did, in Tahoe, were really sad. Because we really, genuinely, loved each other.”

    Of course, it was Kenny Rogers who felt the loss most profoundly. It was his name up there, his voice on the hits, his reputation on the line. After Terry cut out, it was his group.

    “In my heart, I cried when that group broke up, because I never wanted to be a solo artist,” he remembers. “I loved singing harmony. That was always what I thought I was best at.

    “When you have success, and then you don’t have success, everybody has a tendency to want to look for someone else to blame. Terry wanted to go into acid rock, because that’s what he really loved. Mary didn’t know anything about country music and she really didn’t want to be in it.

    “Now Kin Vassey was just a great country/rock artist, but everybody had their own ideas as to where we should go.”

    The First Edition had been easing towards country–rock since “But You Know I Love You.” “Ruby” and “Reuben James” were delivered with a rural sound, and The Ballad of Calico was as much the Eagles’ Desperado as it was Jesus Christ Superstar. And the first Jolly Rogers album, Backroads, included “She Thinks I Still Care,” the old George Jones hit, and other country tunes.

    “When the First Edition broke up, I went to Nashville, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life,” Rogers recalls. “I went to this Fan Fair thing, and there were 8,000 people in this auditorium, and they said ‘Here’s Freddy Davis, who had a hit in 1956,’ and everybody went crazy. I though whoa, this is where I need to be. It was very eye–opening for me, as far as what country music really was. And of course, country music is my base, so it’s not like I had to pretend to be there.”

    Already, the wheels were turning. “The thing I learned is that it’s a very stable market. It’s not like pop music, where you have a hit and you disappear, and no one cares.”

    Like a Rhinestone Cowboy

    In 1975, Larry Butler was heading up United Artists Records’ Nashville division. The Florida–born session pianist had produced Billie Jo Spears’ “Blanket on the Ground,” which had hit Number One in February, and was looking for new acts to record. A tip from a friend sent him to Montgomery, Ala., to see Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. The group was on its last legs, Butler was told: Kenny was probably going to go solo.

    “I watched the audience reaction each time that Kenny would step up to the microphone and sing,” Butler remembers. “And it was unbelievable.”

    He was able to sign Kenny to UA for a ridiculously small amount of money. “Nobody wanted to sign him. All the labels said he’s had a great career but that’s it, it’s over.

    “But I called some of the key country radio stations – St. Louis, Atlanta, Dallas and Houston – and I said “If I sign Kenny Rogers, and I take him in and record him country, will you play him’? And it was unanimous. Every one of them said absolutely, Larry, every time he comes near country we play him – but when he gets off on that rocking stuff, man, we can’t play it.’”

    Rogers told his new producer that he’d been thinking about trying country music – after all, he came from Texas – but he didn’t see himself cutting “Grand Ole Opry’ records. “He didn’t want anything with twin fiddles,” Butler says, “or too much steel guitar.”

    Rogers and Kragen quickly got busy. “Our plan was to establish myself in country music and establish a base, so that we had an audience that would support us,” Rogers explains. “And to just generate enough money to pay my band and keep going until we got a record. That was the initial plan from where Ken and I started working.”

    Initially, Kragen had his doubts. His fortunes dwindling, he’d gone to work with the legendary promoter Jerry Weintraub, who told him forget Rogers, he’s washed up. You got a bright future here, kid.

    But Kragen played his hunch about Kenny. He left Weintraub, opened an office and immediately made up a list of things Kenny had to do in order to make a comfortable living.

    And he started greasing the wheels.

    “He fit the country stuff because he came out of Houston, and although he was interested in a lot of other kinds of music, country was something that he was comfortable with and familiar with,” Kragen says.

    “But what groomed Kenny as much as anything was going to Vegas, going to the Golden Nugget Hotel. Steve Wynn made Kenny feel like a star. He gave him a suite, he gave him a Rolls to drive. He treated him like he was as big as anybody on the strip.

    “We went into this little 300–seat lounge, that if you looked at under any other circumstance you’d think was pretty dismal.

    “On my side, and Steve helped a lot, I worked to create a lot of excitement around the show, a lot of talk in town.

    “So out of that, Kenny gained enormous confidence. Just in the couple of weeks he was there, in that first engagement, you could see this transformation in him. From someone who told me that the first night he went onstage solo, his feet were grabbing the carpet.”

    In Nashville, Kenny hooked up with Bloodline, a three–man group that knew all the old First Edition stuff. They backed him sufficiently and could put the harmonies in the right places.

    He and Larry Butler began pouring over songs. Kenny’s first solo album, Love Lifted Me, was an amalgam of styles, including straight–ahead country, schmaltz balladry and even pop–gospel (says Butler: “You can see I was really searching to find him a groove.”). The album pandered to its intended audience with a medley of “Abraham, Martin and John” and “Precious Memories.” It sent two singles midway into the country Top 40 and didn’t impress anybody.

    To pick up a few bucks before the album’s release, Kenny made a TV commercial in “75, advertising a “Quick Pickin,’ Fun Strummin’” easy guitar course. And during an appearance on Hee Haw, he met Marianne Gordon, one of the cornfield’s buxom beauties, and took up with her – Margo and the kids having decided to stay in Los Angeles.

    Floyd Rogers, Kenny’s father, passed away in 1975, just before his son hit as a solo artist.

    The Kenny Rogers album was released in September ‘76, and unlike its predecessor, it had a streamlined, laid–back sound, with Rogers’ masculine vocals recorded hot, breathy and intimate, as if he were whispering in the listener’s ear.

    To women, it was pillow talk; men liked it because it wasn’t sappy or sentimental. There was something very no–nonsense about Kenny’s deep–dish delivery of “Laura (What’s He Got That I Ain’t Got),” the LP’s first single, chosen by Butler because its narrative (a jealous lover threatens Laura with a pistol as he sings to her) was reminiscent of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”

    Kenny Rogers is a cleanly–produced, lyrically strong pop/country record that would not only become the touchstone for one of the most successful careers in the genre, it would light the way for a generation of crossover artists to come.

    It all started because Larry Butler knew what to do with the voice. “Kenny put everything he had into it in the first couple of takes,” Butler says. “After that, he felt it was redundant. And a lot of Kenny’s vocals were live vocals on the sessions.”

    “Laura” reached a respectable No. 19, and then it was time for Butler’s ace in the hole. “Kenny wasn’t sure about “Lucille,” Butler says. “He thought maybe it was too country, or not really appropriate for him.” According to Butler, “Lucille” was the last song recorded for the album, and done – vocals and all – in one take.

    “Kenny sent me 17 songs that he had recorded with Larry Butler in Nashville,” Kragen recalls. “I was sitting there with these promotion guys, and when we got to “Lucille,’ we started rolling around on the floor laughing. And I said this is either the biggest hit, or the biggest stiff, I’ve ever heard in my life. But if it’s a hit, it’s a really big hit.”

    Written by Hal Bynum and Roger Bowling, “Lucille” became the blueprint for 10 years of Kenny Rogers signature songs. It’s slightly racy, but ultimately all–American, catchy and fun and could’ve happened to just about anyone. The narrator is sitting at a bar, flirting with a woman who’s apparently just given up on her marriage:

    When the drinks finally hit her, she said I’m no quitter, but I’ve finally quit living on dreams.

    The woman’s pea–picker husband comes into the bar, stares them down. Kenny thinks he’s gonna get killed. But the man is shaking, and all he manages to say is

    You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille. With four hungry children, and a crop in the field.

    “Lucille” made a great jukebox singalong – it was easy to remember, it was funny and tragic at the same time, and it had a moral: In the end, the singer (Kenny) takes Lucille to a motel for some quick pickin’ and fun strummin,’ but he can’t perform because in his mind he hears

    You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille. With four hungry children, and a crop in the field.

    “I knew it was gonna be a hit, Larry Butler and I both,” Rogers says. “We remember the story differently. He remembers me not liking it, and I don’t … but whatever’s real is real. But I remember both of us looking at each other – and I think we both really, truly felt this was gonna be a major country record. I don’t think either one of us ever dreamed it would be what it ended up being.”

    It ended up being one of the biggest hits of 1977, spending two weeks at the top of the country chart in January and reaching No. 5, pop. It earned a gold single and was named Single of the Year by the Country Music Association.

    Kenny and Marianne Gordon married in Los Angeles on Oct. 1, 1977, in a celebrity–studded ceremony. They made a beautiful couple.

    The View from the Top

    After “Lucille,” it would be gravy for a long, long time.

    Rogers and Kragen’s game plan – their wish list, really – didn’t just include hit records. Since his days in the New Christy Minstrels, Kenny had been training as anentertainer.

    “We sat down and made out a ladder: If I could be on the Tonight Show – Johnny really liked me and made me feel so very comfortable when I was on there – the theory was that if I could do it once as a solo artist within the year, that hopefully I could host it within the second year.

    “And if I could host it the second year, then we wanted to do a movie. So we kind of had this graduated thing of establishing prestige in the community by association with other majors.”

    Kenny Rogers guested with Johnny Carson in that first year, and in March of ‘77 – with “Lucille” high on the charts – he hosted the program.

    “It worked, that’s the pure and simple,” he says. “When I did the show, I really geared my concept to reach for punchlines, to think of something clever to say, or humorous to say, so he would see that I was able to do that. When he started taking his vacations, I was one of the first guest hosts.

    “I think I looked more comfortable than I felt. But it was one of those things, I knew I had to do it, and I’ve always been a person who likes to challenge myself, so I figured I would just get out there and the worst that would happen was that I would only do it once. But it was still a prestige thing to do.”

    Eventually, he came to guest–host the Tonight Show eight or 10 times. Says Kragen: “I asked Bill McEuen, who was Steve Martin’s then–manager, what the biggest factor was in Steve’s success, and he always said the Tonight Show.

    “Kenny, who was very funny and was capable of actually hosting the show, was able to create that celebrity to go along with the musical success. It really played a pivotal role.”

    It’s a long way from Tonight Show schmooze to cultural icon, but by mid 1977 Rogers was making solid progress. His concerts began to sell out with regularity – they were good, clean family shows, attended not just by fantasizing housewives but by husbands, sons, daughters and grandparents. Everybody had a favorite song.

    Of his next 20 singles, only one or two would not top the country chart; most would be pop hits, too. He would come to define crossover, a term used for country music artists who made records with a pop audience in mind.

    Rogers’ hair and beard, both neatly trimmed, took on their distinctively rugged salt–and–pepper look. He was soon to become one of the most easily recognized people on the planet.

    “I think my sound is very identifiable,” Rogers says. “And I think it’s one of those things that if you like it, I’m really consistent with it, and if you don’t like it, you’re never gonna like it.

    “But it’s always been my theory that I’ve never been a particularly good singer. But I’ve always, I think, had a great ear for great songs. And my theory is if you have a great song, you’ve got to screw it up. If you start with ‘Lucille,’ then you’ve got to do it as a polka for it not to be a hit. It’s gonna be a hit by whoever does it.”

    The iron having been struck, Rogers and Butler began looking for ways to follow up “Lucille.” The uptempo “Daytime Friends,” which used that old country favorite, adultery, as its subject matter, hit No. 1 in August of ‘77. The next single was “Sweet Music Man,” which Rogers had written specifically for Playboy model–turned country singer Barbi Benton.

    Butler didn’t care much for “Sweet Music Man” – he told Rogers that people might think he was gay when he sang it – but Kenny wouldn’t be dissuaded (although the two did concoct an intro that put the song’s gender in the proper perspective). “Sweet Music Man” never got above No. 3.

    In February ‘78 Rogers won the Best Country Male Grammy for “Lucille” and releasedTen Years of Gold, collecting his first couple of solo singles and re–recordings (produced by Butler) of six First Edition Hits.

    Then came “Love or Something Like It,” another uptempo, poppy single, and another one he’d written himself. Although it topped the chart, its cheap witticisms about hitting on inebriated women sounded like an attempt at doing a Jimmy Buffett, who’d just had his first big hits. It was a side alley he would never again explore.

    That year, the book Making it In Music appeared, written by Rogers with journalist Len Epland. It’s ostensibly a how–to tome for aspiring stars – no doubt he contracted to do it around the time of the guitar–instruction commercials – but the best part of it was Rogers’ recollections of his days with the First Edition. And the pictures were pretty neat, too.

    In the middle of the Love or Something Like It album, Rogers began a collaboration with singer Dottie West. “Larry Butler was producing her at the same time he was producing me,” Rogers recalls. “Her session was supposed to have been over at 9 o’clock at night, and mine was to start at 10. I got there early, and she was running late.

    “He asked if she could go ahead and finish this vocal, because she was so close to having it, and I said absolutely. And it was the song ‘Every Time Two Fools Collide.’ She did her vocal, and she came in and we were talking, and I said “Boy, I’d love to sing something with you sometime,’ and she said “Well, go out there and try this one.’ So I went out and sang the second verse – and fortunately, she had kind of a low voice, so we were singing in the same key – and it was just wonderful from the minute we started. And that started a long and very successful relationship between me and her.”

    Says Butler: “I told Kenny, “It might be a little high for you,’ and he said “Let me have a shot at it.’

    “There’s a note that he hits, and he put his thumbs in the beltloops of his jeans and literally yanked on his pants to hit that note. But he hit it.”

    “Every Time Two Fools Collide” became the first of three joint chart–toppers for Rogers and West, who also issued two best–selling albums together.

    It was a collaboration made in heaven – for West, it gave a fading career a commercial shot in the arm. And for Rogers, well, it meant a certain craved credibility with the country audience. Their joint tours (usually with the Oak Ridge Boys) began to sell out. “Dottie and I did a concert in Pontiac Stadium in Michigan, for 80,000 people,” Rogers says. “And I thought then: There’s something good about this business.”

    “Kenny was an incredible singer, and Dottie was an incredible singer,” observes Butler. “But you put the two of them out in the studio face to face on the same mike, or two mics facing each other, and they’d perform for each other. And they both sang better than they’ve ever done before.

    “Dottie was a great singer, but when she sang with Kenny Rogers standing there looking at her, she reached down and got it all.”

    He began work on his sixth solo album with little idea it would take him even higher up the mountain. “Larry and I would start with a box full of a hundred cassettes,” recalls Rogers. “And there may be five songs on each cassette. We would play a song, and it was either yes, no or maybe. We would go through the whole box: Yes, no or maybe. Then we’d throw away all the no’s, go through the maybe’s. Yes or no. Then we would end up with all the yes’s.

    “Then we’d go through the yes’s and go yes, no. So you end up grading on the curve, albeit, but you end up with the best of what’s available at that time. And ‘The Gambler’ was in that first yes category the moment we heard it. The minute they started singing that hook, I knew that was a special song.”

    Singer/songwriter Don Schlitz had issued a single of “The Gambler” in the spring, and Larry Butler just loved it. It was a story–song, with the narrator recalling a lonely train ride, shared with a professional gambler whose wizened advice applied to life as well as cards:

    You got to know when to hold ‘em/Know when to fold ‘em/Know when to walk away/know when to run.

    Oh, man, what a great hook, thought Butler. And when Schlitz’s record stiffed, he brought “The Gambler” to Kenny.

    “Both of us, I think, had a very commercial ear,” says Rogers. “Commercial meaning we knew I could bring something additional to the table. As opposed to just singing a song. And something we thought the audience could either relate to, or enjoy singing.

    “There’s really a single ingredient to every hit song you find. And that is: familiarity. Now, there’s two ways you can get familiarity: You can start off with a song you can sing the second time you hear it, which is what we chose to do. You take a song like ‘Lucille,’ I defy you not to sing it the second time through. That’s how you get a hit song.

    “The other one is if you’re an artist who’s strong enough that you get enough hot rotation, airplay, that people become familiar with it quick enough before it dies off.

    “Familiarity is the key to success.”

    Kenny Rogers’ recording of “The Gambler” blazed up the charts to No. 1, sold more copies than “Lucille” and, most importantly, gave him his most important signature song.

    “I think I’ve had songs that were bigger in sales,” he says, “but none that were bigger in identity for me. I go to Korea and people say ‘Oooh, the gambler.’ And it’s really sweet. It’s really cute.

    “I think those are career–making songs.” Within 18 months, The Gambler TV–movie aired on CBS. Produced by Ken Kragen, it starred Rogers as heart–of–gold gamblin’ man Brady Hawkes. It was the highest–rated TV–movie up to that time, and it spawned four sequels through the early ‘90s.

    Things got bigger and better in “79, as Rogers collected a handful of statuettes at the People’s Choice and American Music Awards (an event he’d repeat for several years running) and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

    He had three more huge hits that year: “She Believes in Me,” “Coward of the County” and “You Decorated My Life.”

    Larry Butler claims the record in Nashville for keeping a song “on hold”: Nearly two years with the romantic ballad “You Decorated My Life.” Rogers despised it, saying it was sentimental fluff, but Butler kept at it and finally got the ascending superstar to cut it.

    “He always cared about the product,” recalls Butler. “He’d fight with Kragen to allow me that time, and when he came in he would not let anything interrupt or disturb us. It was a real joy to work with him, because he and I had made a deal when we first started: we’d both be honest with each other. You know the old deal about leaving ego outside the door, that’s what we did.

    “If either one of us felt strongly about something, we’d fight for it. And we had some heated discussions about certain songs – he’d said “LB, I tell you what. If it means that much to you, man, let’s do it.’”

    Top of the pops

    Rogers was selling more records than Nashville had ever heard of, 10 million albums here, 15 million albums there. He was a favorite People magazine cover boy, andRolling Stone named him top country vocalist.

    “Every time we’d reach out with one of those ‘She Believes in Me’ or whatever,” explains Butler, “we’d come right back with a ‘Coward of the County’ or ‘The Gambler.’ We’d come back with one of those straight ahead country tunes, not overproduced, not overdone, that maintained his country audience. We never pissed ‘em off. They went with us when we stretched out a little bit, and then they went back to them when we got back into the pocket.”

    Rogers: “You have to remember that something like 80 percent of all country records are bought by women. That’s why it’s hard for a woman to have a career in country music – men, historically, don’t buy country records, women do.

    “The people who were buying the records were showing up, and they happened to be women. And the guys wouldn’t mind bringing their girls, because they knew I was going to be doing songs that they liked, too. So I think that’s what really helped my career.”

    “In that late ‘70s, early ‘80s period, country music flowed over into the mainstream,” Ken Kragen says, “but it’s a chicken and egg question. Did Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and some of the others who crossed, cause it? Or did they ride the wave? I think it’s a bit of both.”

    In 1980, after the multi–platinum Kenny album, United Artists Records was purchased by Capitol/EMI and became Liberty Records.

    Now that he was the biggest–selling artist in country music (and one of the top concert draws), Rogers decided to push the envelope a bit farther. After one more album with Butler, a cowboy–concept album called Gideon (written entirely by his New Christy Minstrel pals Kim Carnes and Dave Ellingson, her husband), Rogers went after something new.

    “My whole influence has always been Ray Charles,” Rogers explains. “Somehow or other, Ray Charles factors into everything I do. I heard his Born to Lose album, and I realized that this was an innovative process. He was singing R&B to country tracks.

    “Country music is the white man’s rhythm ‘n’ blues. And I wanted to do something that was equally as innovative. I wanted to sing country to R&B tracks.

    “I kept listening to ‘Three Times a Lady’ and ‘Still,’ those Commodores songs, and I thought now, here’s a guy that really has his handle on country music – which is really R&B.”

    The Commodores’ songwriter and frontman was Alabama–born Lionel Richie, and his big ballads were at that time changing the former dance band’s fortunes. Richie was a hit machine.

    “I went to Berry Gordy, who’s a friend of mine, and I said “Are there any reasons you think Lionel Richie wouldn’t want to work with me?” And he said “Gosh, I don’t know. Let me find out.’”

    Not long after, in a Las Vegas hotel ballroom, Richie and Rogers met at the grand piano, and Rogers asked the hotter–than–hot singer/songwriter if he had any new tunes. “He said “I don’t really know where to start. Let me play you this, and tell me if you like it.’ And he sang “Lady …,’ and hummed the first line of melody. I said “Oh, I love that!’

    “And he said “OK, I’ll go home and finish it.’ That’s all he had was “Lady …’ We hit it off as friends immediately. It was a wonderful experience working with him, because he came from a whole different place, but there were a lot of common denominators that we had.”

    Produced by Richie, Rogers’ single of “Lady” spent six weeks at No. One on the pop charts. Simultaneously, it sat on top of the country, adult contemporary and R&B charts.

    Another smash. Rogers was making it look easy. “Lady” was included on a newGreatest Hits album that went multi–platinum not long after its release. The album spent an astonishing 181 weeks on the Billboard album survey.

    Except for one or two tunes down the road, Larry Butler never worked with Kenny Rogers again. “Knowing him as well as I do, I understood what was going on in his creative mind,” says Butler, who won a Grammy as Producer of the Year in 1979. “He was thinking “OK, we’ve done this, now I’m ready to branch out and do somet