Dave Mason’s Alone Together is a seminal singer/songwriter album, one of the great ones, and it was a big hit back in ‘70; it was pretty much all downhill from there, however, and he never again reached those lofty heights, artistically or commercially (notwithstanding his late-period hit single, which gives this chapter its title). These interviews were conducted in 1996, when Mason – truly the Leonard Zelig of rock ‘n’ roll – had joined Fleetwood Mac (you remember that, don’t you?) I can confess that he hated this story when it appeared in Goldmine – he told me so, getting rather angry in the telling. Alone Together is still one of the great ones. So there’s that.
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.
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.”
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 going 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 No. 5 on the British pop charts. Mason’s trippy “Hole In My Shoe” followed, ultimately reaching No. 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 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 came up with 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 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 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 Harding album 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,” “Shouldn’t 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 for Alone 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 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 lunchrooms, 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 a blurry 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 issue 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 remaining 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 but left the two-tracks).
LiPuma was pleased with the results, such as they were. “If you’re not happy,” he said, “you come to somebody 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 confounded fans who recognized the titles as retreads from Alone 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.”
Here we go again
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 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, bassmen Lonnie Turner and Chuck Rainey and pianist Mark Jordan (from the Headkeeper 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 opened It’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; it 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 finest ballads, “The Lonely One,” featured brilliant harmonica soloing from Stevie Wonder (he’d 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 No. 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. 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, despite his nickname, 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 Finnigan, 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.”
To wit: 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 No. 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 just before Split Coconut was recorded. “He was headlining arena tours, and paying us very little for the money he was making,” Glaub 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.
Still, said 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, according to Mason, loaned Mason $50,000 of his own money), Columbia made the best offer and re-signed him 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 Mason’s management thought Nevison might just be the guy to happen.
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 gritty vocalizing by both Mason and Krueger.
It wasn’t to be though; the single didn’t even make the Top 40. And out of the box the Let It Flow album looked like another stiff.
Then, in August, Krueger’s wistful ballad “We Just Disagree” was released as the 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 anguished, 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 disco era, and in November it reached No. 11 on the Billboard chart.
Here’s how 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 composer Leonard Rosenman. He named it Villa Mariposa and recorded many of the songs for his next album 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.
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 or bought 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.
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 the previous 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).
Interestingly, Krueger’s prolific pen came up with the uptempo “Save Me,” one of the better melodies on Old Crest. 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. “He 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.”
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, to 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.”
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).
He 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.
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).
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.
“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.”
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 (see Two 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 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.
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 brother 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,” Rich 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.”
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.
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 said, 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.”
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.”
This story appears in the book I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews (St. Petersburg Press).