Down at Texas Rose Café with CB and Townes Van Zandt

Michael Ochs Archives_Getty Images

Regular readers of longitudes know that I feature periodic musical interludes. I’m particularly enamored of 1960s rock music. I’ve hosted more than a few 50th anniversary specials in the last seven years.

For this interlude, I’m doing something a little different. I’m soliciting the help of a blogging friend, Cincinnati Babyhead (CB), to discuss an artist who is more associated with the Seventies: Townes Van Zandt. CB has been listening to Townes longer than me.

Like a lot of musicians I profile, Townes was all but ignored on commercial radio, and he never sold many records. But he’s cherished by a small cadre of fans for his purity and musical integrity. He died on New Year’s Day, 1997 at age 52.

CB and I hopped a coupla freights, he from Vancouver and me from Ohio. We converged in Archer City, Texas at the Texas Rose Café, located just under the water tower near the railroad tracks. Archer City ain’t much of a town. It’s on flat, dusty prairie in the middle of drilling rig country. It has a permanent Sunday morning hangover. It’s the kind of place where raggedy divorcees with dark pits under their eyes conduct discreet affairs with high-school football players.

I checked in at the Motel 7 at the edge of town. Juanita, the housekeeper on the day of my arrival, thought it would be real funny to short-sheet the bed in room 202, and her prank gave me fitful dreams all night. But I felt better next day after meeting CB at the TRC for Happy Hour. Appropriately, the TRC jukebox was chock full of Townes songs, mixed with lotsa Hank Senior. We ordered a round of Lone Star beers from Lowell, our portly bartender. Lowell wasn’t too busy, so he occasionally leaned in on our conversation while offering nods of approval.

Without further ado, here’s our beer summit (with thanks to Vinyl Daft Dad for the barfly idea):

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longitudes: CB, we’re both on record as enjoying the music of Townes Van Zandt. When did you start listening to him, and why is he special?

CB: Man, that’s a hard one. I guess like a Texas wind he just blew into my life way back when. It seems that he’s been with me forever. Special? Just listen to him. If it hits you like it did me, you’re done. He stirs emotions, images, thoughts, memories, inspiration. He just has a no-bullshit feel about him. Probably for some of the same reasons you like his music.

longitudes: I think so. With Townes, you get no smoke and mirrors, it’s all about the song. He’s one of those legendary cultish writer-musicians like Gram Parsons or Fred Neil that other musicians often namedrop. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, even Zimmy have covered his songs.

CB: I remember when Merle and Willie cut “Pancho and Lefty.” I thought that was so cool. Plus it put some cash in Townes’s pocket. Emmylou has always had an ear for a good song and a special talent. She seemed to see past the rough exterior of people like Townes, Gram, The Band, and see and hear the beauty in the music. I guess she was moved just like you and me.

longitudes: She does have a sharp ear. Like so many of the greats, Townes had a substance problem and died young. For a while in the 1970s he lived in a shack without plumbing or electricity!

CB: Yeah, the old addiction thing. Who knows the demons he was dealing with? Too bad. I felt for the guy. Watched a doc on his life and shed a few tears.

longitudes: That might have been Be Here to Love Me from 2004. I first heard about him when Miss Emmylou raved about him in some old TV doc. Do you have a favorite album?old quarter

CB: That’s another hard one. You really can’t lose with any of them. When I think of Townes I always think of the wealth of songs he had. The one that always comes to mind is “Tecumseh Valley.” I get taken into that story every time and I’ve heard it more times than I can remember.

longitudes: I find his music hard to pigeonhole, which might be part of his appeal. He’s been called “outlaw country,” but I’m not sure that’s accurate, since his songs seem deeper, more literate, closer to folk. Maybe he lives on the county line between outlaw folk-country and singer-songwriter?

CB: I like your “hard to pigeonhole” thought. Labels mean so many things to different people. Townes is so much more than all those labels. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could ask him? Probably give you a different answer every time.

longitudes: Ha! He did have a crafty sense of humor. But he’s also good bummer music. Sorta white boys’ blues. Great to listen to when you’re a little down and out. Kind of a stripped-down Jackson Browne turned Texas troubadour.

CB: Oh yeah, I mean, how can you beat a song like “Waiting Around to Die.” How many times did you hear that on the radio? I would guess never.

longitudes: CB, what do you say we ratchet up the beverages a little? These Lone Stars are cold, but kinda weak. Wonder if Canadian brews are legal here in Texas. Lowell??

CB: It’s a known fact that beer gets weaker the farther you get from the Frozen North. Lowell keeps the good stuff in his secret fridge in the back. Crack us a couple Mooseheads, fella.

longitudes: You earlier mentioned “Pancho and Lefty.” That might be his best-known song: Livin’ on the road, my friend / Was gonna keep you free and clean / Now you wear your skin like iron / Your breath’s as hard as kerosene. That’s great writing. You wear your skin. And the iron and kerosene similes. The road is not for sissies, CB.

CB: Those lyrics are such a good example of his words and what they conjure up for you and me and anyone else who takes the time to listen. That “breath as hard as kerosene,” he knows that stuff. Him and Guy Clark came up to play in my area, which is about as far away from Texas as you can get. Townes couldn’t get past the border, so Guy played the show solo with a shit-eating grin on his face. Probably thinking about another fucked-up road story. It was a great show. Guy played a couple of his buddy’s tunes.townes 3

longitudes: I discovered Guy Clark, another songwriter’s songwriter, from his connection with Townes. Another Townes song I love is the bittersweet “To Live is to Fly,” which is on his gravestone. The title alone makes me shiver. “No Place to Fall,” just a simple love song, but like to make you cry. Also, “If I Needed You,” which came to him in a dream. Not your typical love song. He shifts the pronouns around. He also mentions “Loop and Lil,” who were pet parakeets…how’d he get away with that?!

CB: You keep throwing those songs at me, I just might have to go on another Van Zandt binge. He gets away with it, Pete, because they are beautiful songs sung with truth.

longitudes: “Beautiful songs sung with truth” sums it up. He comes off as just a regular fellow who can play a little, sing a little. But there’s a lot of talent underneath that casual exterior.

CB: His live recordings are sprinkled with it. I can imagine him sitting with us right here in this bar singing a little, drinking a little, laughing a lot and pretty much not wanting to be anywhere else. Just like me. I might not be going home tonight.

longitudes: Well, if you need to stay another night, Juanita at Motel 7 makes a fine bed. Anyway, if you could only choose one word to describe Townes and his music, what would it be?

CB: I could throw out a truckload, but because you are only giving me one word, it has to be special. Just like you and me, Pete. Special. Plus that word has come up a few times since we sat down.

longitudes: Great word, my friend. I’ll choose pure. Townes Van Zandt had a special kind of purity.

Well, muchas gracias, muchacho, for meeting me in the Texas Rose Café. I think ole Townes would be pleased to know of our rendezvous. (Thanks, Lowell, I’ll eat it here.) Townes, here’s to you!

(Sound of clinking glasses).

 

(Header photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Bright Flower at Woodstock: An Interview with Rose Simpson of the Incredible String Band

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It is Saturday, August 16, 1969. As the helicopter whirs in the smoky grey sky above the farmlands of upstate New York, U.S.A., a small group of musicians huddle inside in anticipation of another festival. They peer hesitantly through the large hole in the side of the copter. The machine suddenly turns and dips sideways. The musicians grip each other, momentarily startled…not just from the sudden turn, but also the ground below. The kelly green farmland has changed. It is now a massive multi-colored tapestry. A very large mosaic, a blanket of miniscule, colored dots on the earth’s canvas. Could tha’ be the same festival c’rowd?, the musicians undoubtedly wonder. ‘Tis a bit lairger!

The blanket below, indeed, is a crowd of people. They’re gathered for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair Festival, in White Lake, Bethel, New York, and road gypsies are still arriving. The merry little foursome from the British Isles, who squirmed through traffic jams for a sneak preview the day before, and are now returning by air for its Saturday performance, has no way of knowing that the three-day event, which will climax at a then-record half million people—whom it will soon sit in front of—will become a defining moment in cultural history.

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Who are the musicians? They are two confident and prodigiously talented Scotsmen; a liquid-eyed, slightly detached Scotswoman who is missing a front tooth; and a slender, raven-haired English sprite with a mild overbite and a glowing smile. They are accompanied by a hip, young, Harvard-educated American manager/producer. The musicians are, collectively, The Incredible String Band. The Englishwoman, formerly a student at the University of York—where she was head of the mountaineering club—has only recently learned how to play bass guitar. Her name is Rose Simpson.

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In a few months, it will be exactly fifty years since Woodstock. There will be facsimile festivals, with musicians and concert-goers unborn when the original occurred, many of whom will be clueless as to the 1969 event’s significance, and its repercussions (positive and negative). There will be, and already are, retrospectives, tributes, nostalgic paeans, and a few critics lobbing grenades at something that still eludes, confuses, or enrages them. As that American manager, Joe Boyd, aptly told Scotland’s The Herald on the festival’s 40th anniversary: “Right-wing politicians still turn purple with rage when we talk about the Sixties. So we must have been doing something right.”

One of those right things is the music of the Incredible String Band (ISB). This band recorded twelve albums between 1966 and 1975. More esoteric than their British folk-rock peers, with serpentine arrangements and weird, off-key phrasings, their early records on Elektra are undefinable, showcasing a potent concoction of original songs imbued with Celtic balladry, English folk, Indian raga, American blues and country, Middle Eastern flourishes, Middle Earth imagistic lyrics…and often with a sly humorous sheen. And sometimes all in one song. The ISB influenced Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who occasionally dabbled in folk. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney praised them, and Judy Collins and Jackson Browne covered them. The ISB were antecedents of the World Music trends made popular by Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, but offered a rich lyricism.woodstock poster3

The Incredible String Band’s most fruitful years were 1966 through 1971. This fertile period produced the highly regarded folk-psychedelic relic, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967), and two aural masterpieces: the evocatively titled The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (early 1968) and the sprawling Wee Tam and The Big Huge (late 1968). The core group were just two people: string wizards Robin Williamson and Mike Heron. But from ’68 to ’71, two others were official members, coloring the tunes with percussion and rhythm, providing ringing vocals, and mesmerizing audiences with their woodland-witch charm: Williamson’s girlfriend, Christina McKechnie (try “K’dist-INE-a Mc-CAKE-nee”), who went by the name “Licorice,” or “Liccy,” or…well…”Lic”; and Heron’s partner, Rose.

In most of the photos and videos I’ve seen of ISB, Rose practically jumps out. It’s not only her dark beauty. It’s also a look that appears to say, “I’m here accidentally, but I’m having a groovy time!” Intrigued by her, I recently got in touch. She is now writing a memoir tentatively called Scattering Brightness, and was kind enough to share her insider, fly-on-the-wall story of ISB with me, including their moment…This Moment, “different from any before it”…at Woodstock.

Here, then, is longitudes interview with the Rose of Woodstock.

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longitudes: Rose, until you met Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band in early 1968, you were leading a fairly conventional life in northern England. You were studying English at University of York, and headed the school mountaineering club. How did you become acquainted with ISB, which at that time consisted of Mike, Robin Williamson, and Christina “Licorice” McKechnie?

Rose: I went to Scotland to do some snow climbing on the mountains. The snow was avalanching, so we stayed with a climbing lady, Mary Stewart, and spent time there. Robin and Lic were living there, and Mike was visiting.

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“The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.” Rose is in center, clutching the tree branch.

longitudes: Mary Stewart’s children are pictured on the sleeve of the ISB’s third, acclaimed LP, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. And I believe you’re one of the older “forest hippies.” Did you participate in any of the music on this record?

Rose: I think I maybe joined in on a chorus or two as one of the various people who were around, but certainly not in any formal way.

longitudes: But after a while, you did become a regular band member, contributing vocals, bass guitar, and more. How did this occur?

Rose: Mike bought me the little silver Syrian drum, and I played that at home alongside him. I’d learned violin a bit—badly—at school. Mike and Robin were playing a gig at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Lic and I were with them, and we just sort of joined in, wandered on the stage with them, and carried on just as we would back home. Then, one day, Mike appeared with the Paul McCartney bass and suggested I play that, too. That was a major delight for me! Vocals were more problematic, because I was not tuneful. Joe Boyd and careful mixing helped that out. I did improve as time went by.

longitudes: ISB manager/producer Boyd, in his revealing 2010 book White Bicycles, said that “One of the most remarkable acts of pure will I have witnessed was Rose’s evolution into the ISB’s bass player.” How long did it take you to learn to play bass?

Rose: I can’t remember, I just enjoyed doing it, and it just happened along the way. I like learning new stuff. Still.

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The Incredible String Band. L to R: Mike, Rose, Licorice, Robin

longitudes: Robin and Mike wrote incredibly exotic songs and were extraordinarily talented multi-instrumentalists. Since you were so close to them, how did they create their amazing music? Did they crawl into a hobbit hole, cast spells, then woodshed for months on end?

Rose: They were both very different, and circumstances changed (their) techniques. Robin was more fluid and automatic. Sometimes he dreamed songs, he said, and they came complete and finished. He didn’t really spend hours repeating and reworking, but enjoyed the spontaneity. Mike was more of a craftsman, and he did want the space and silence to work. But for both, the music was their language, and that’s how they talked through the days. They didn’t need to make spells, it was just them. Very rarely they deliberately sat down and made new music, and then it usually wasn’t their best. Obviously, working a song out together was more planned and deliberate, but the original songs flowed from their days.

longitudes: You, yourself, progressed musically as well, and for the band’s fourth record, the double LP Wee Tam and the Big Huge, you play a delightful fiddle on the Cajun-influenced song “Log Cabin Home in the Sky.” Can you recall any details about participating on this song?

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Mike and Robin, Scottish mystics and gifted artists, pictured on “Wee Tam and the Big Huge”

Rose: I could play it tomorrow! The songs became so automatic. I always loved that, because it was so much a celebration of home and a homely relationship that had a spiritual dimension, too. I also used to enjoy how Robin’s fiddle playing spun and danced around my own. So I ended up sounding much better than I was because of his skill. It also reminded me of a holiday we took together in log cabins in New Mexico one time between gigs.

longitudes: Speaking of band social dynamics, manager Boyd says you and Liccy—Robin’s girlfriend, a percussionist, and the other backup singer, who had a languid soprano—had very different personalities. Liccy seems very mysterious. How close were you to her offstage?

Rose: Very close in daily living and the physical proximity of touring. Very far away in understanding and personality. But I admired her, too, and never did manage to break through her mystery.

longitudes: You earlier mentioned joining ISB on stage at the venerable Royal Albert Hall. ISB concerts were, from what I’ve heard, intimate gatherings, and you had a devoted following, including at Bill Graham’s Fillmore ballrooms in the states. Audience members sometimes left gifts onstage, and Boyd said they especially adored you. Can you describe a typical ISB concert?

Rose: (They were) like an evening at home, with all our stuff around, talking to each other and the audience, laughing, sometimes crying together, colour and lights all making magic around us. We were closer onstage than off it, really. I so adored their music, and watching them play, that I felt also part of the audience in some ways. And I had a great fellow-feeling with the audience, because I was pleased and happy they were there. It was the highest high, I used to say. I always felt, in the good times, that being onstage you saw the best of us all, with the daily nonsense stripped away. And it was natural for all of us, not a performance of someone else, but a projection of the people we would have liked to be all the time. But then, life gets in the way of utopias.

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Rose, with McCartney bass on her lap

longitudes: “Utopia” is a key word. Younger people today, or those who might have more traditional backgrounds (both then and now), might have trouble understanding the appeal of Eastern spiritualism, mysticism, TM, organic and communal living, casual nudity and sex, and, of course, hallucinogen use. The ISB—one of the most hippie of all the hippie bands, on either side of the Atlantic—was at the vortex of all of this. But it wasn’t all youthful naiveté and hedonism, was it?

Rose: It was naiveté, but informed naiveté. We all knew very well what a tough old life it was. But if you don’t have shining visions of what could be, then it’s “Goodbye Cruel World.” We had read all the poets, etc., inspired by (what you listed) above. We understood the theory of it all, in a vague way, and we were already influenced by a post WW1 generation who had also been faced with world chaos and destruction, and saw the way forward through the same things as we did. We didn’t think through where that had taken them.

It definitely wasn’t hedonism for us, not when ISB was what we all now think of it as. We took drugs to enhance visions and learn universal truths. Sex was the way to union with the physical forces which moved the universe, as well as affirming human bonds. Nudity was unashamed closeness to each other and the physical world of nature. Communal living should realize the theories. OK, it didn’t work, and the glory fell victim to the outside world, but we did mean it and did believe it.

longitudes: You verbalize this well, and it’s a good preface to my next topic. On August 16, 1969, ISB performed at the Woodstock festival. (You may have been the only Englishwoman there!) You were slotted to perform with the acoustic acts, such as Richie Havens and Joan Baez, at 11 pm on Friday. However, due to a threat of rain that night, and the fact that Mike and Robin wanted to plug in, ISB insisted on performing Saturday, and ended up sandwiched between two raucous blues bands, Keef Hartley and Canned Heat. Boyd says one of his life regrets is that he didn’t force ISB to perform on Friday, when you might have made the cut for the soundtrack or film, which would have reinvigorated your career. Do you agree with his thoughts?

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Backstage, probably soon after arriving at Max Yasgur’s farm on Friday, August 15, 1969 (Photo: Epic Rights, Inc.)

Rose: Yes, definitely. But also “reinvigorated” is a good choice of words. We were getting worn out by touring, fame was influencing the way we were, spoiling us and our relationships with each other and the audience. So, if we had gone back to ISB as it was when I met them, willing to try anything, and happy with acoustic, we could have done it. For that one time, and on that unique occasion, we could have lived again how it was…So it wasn’t Joe’s fault that Mike and Robin wouldn’t bend to circumstance and throw themselves on the kindness of the unknown masses. “Career” isn’t a good word. We had lives, not careers, but by then that was changing/changed, and soon it began to alter the whole nature of the band.

“It was naiveté, but informed naiveté…if you don’t have shining visions of what could be, it’s “Goodbye Cruel World.”

longitudes: A few of the six songs you did for Woodstock are now on the internet. The music isn’t as strong as on ISB records, but I thought the performances had a sweetness, and showed a gentler, more pleasant side of the hippie counterculture, which at the time was such a threat to so many people. What is your remembrance of your time on stage that hot August day in 1969?

Rose: As a group, we just wanted to get it over with. We knew that it wouldn’t work with all the audience hyped up on volume and power and superb musicianship, after a (Friday) night of chaos and confusion. We had another gig in New York that night and had to get out and away. We did sort of recognize that this was special, and that the New World was dawning in some ways, but we, too, had had an awful sleepless cold and miserable night. As a group, we weren’t doing drugs to get over that. But still, to see that audience and hear a bit of what they were achieving was wonderful and amazing.

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Rose, in sheer chiffon dress, during ISB’s set at Woodstock festival

We were also sweet and gentle most of the time, and that was how we saw the hippie culture. We always worked, were not parasitic, and cared for our immediate environment and each other. We hoped for an end to war and the outrageous exploitations of capitalism, for equality amongst all people and genders, and care for the natural world as part of ourselves. As well as seeing ourselves as part of the eternal cosmic flows, etc. The time onstage was just another gig, bigger audience, but that didn’t make much difference. We didn’t get the fellowship and affection, but then that was our fault.

longitudes: Despite the difficulties ISB had, do you have any anecdotes about being backstage at Woodstock, such as meeting other musicians, which readers are probably curious about?

Rose: Not really, apart from spending the night in a wet tent with loads of people. I was told John Sebastian (of Lovin’ Spoonful) was one of them, but can’t confirm. There are anecdotes, but I don’t have time right now to think it out! We didn’t, in general, hobnob much with other bands when we were on tour.

longitudes: A couple years after Woodstock, you played bass on Mike’s 1971 all-star solo LP, Smiling Men with Bad Reputations, and accompanied drummer Keith Moon of the Who. Moonie is considered one of the greatest and most flamboyant drummers in rock. That sounds like it might have been a rattling experience.

Rose: I remember him playing, but don’t think I played with him on that LP. I did play with Dave (Mattacks) from Fairport (Convention, another Boyd-managed band), I know, and I was at the Keith Moon session, but his drumming was a solo effort with earphones, not a group effort. If I did play that track, it would have been separate, anyway. He was totally out of it when he came in, dragged through the door almost. But at the drum kit it was like a switch threw, and he was absolutely there, and as perfect and creative as his reputation confirms.

longitudes: Steve Winwood was impressed enough by your bass playing that he wanted you to play on one of his albums, I’m guessing with his band Traffic. Why didn’t you accept his offer?

Rose: I wasn’t a competent enough musician and Joe knew it. Joe put him off, not me, but I was grateful.

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Robin, Liccy, and Rose, onstage during Woodstock. (Note Robin’s harlequin pants and his guitar paintings.)

longitudes: Going back a bit…at the end of 1968, the band, always spiritually inclined, became converts to L. Ron Hubbard’s controversial Church of Scientology, which eventually had a profound effect on the group and its music. Could you please touch on this experience?

Rose: I can tell you I was never a convert. I went along with them for a while, because it was that or leave ISB. I never wanted to do that. In the end, I could stand it no longer and left. I didn’t and don’t have any time for cults, and that was not a good one in my eyes. It is also uncomfortable to say these things publicly, because it does bring repercussions…and that’s not ungrounded paranoia.

longitudes: Thank you for your candor with this delicate subject. Then you left ISB in 1971, after the Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending album?

Rose: Yes. They had changed in a direction I didn’t find OK, and they couldn’t accept my non-compliance with Scientology. I was running fast and loose for a while, before.

“ISB was all the good things that people remember happily, but we were also real people and led real lives…The people shimmer and shine, but they also have feet of clay.”

longitudes: Today, Robin and Mike continue to make music, separately. But Liccy disappeared mysteriously around 1990, and even her family has been unable to locate her. Mark Ellen of Mojo magazine wrote (probably apocryphally) that Liccy was last seen hitchhiking across the Arizona desert. Robin thinks she’s a happy mother of three, with her cult of choice. What are your thoughts?

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Liccy and Mike, scattering brightness at Bickershaw Festival, near Manchester, England, 1972 (Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Rose: Could be any of those. I tend to think it ended unhappily and that it did end. Lic was a musician in her way, and would have taken the opportunities that have arisen since to resurface and pursue that life. So I think she probably fell apart under the pressures of a life she was unsuited for. She was not one to accept compromises and would find an ordinary life where she couldn’t pursue her own ways (to be) a difficult one. Years with ISB probably didn’t help that, either. But she definitely could be living in some corner somewhere as a different person. Only trouble is that you need money to stay alive, and that means social contact on their terms, not yours, which was not her forte.

longitudes: Since leaving ISB, you raised a daughter, earned a PhD, became fluent in French, German, and Welsh, and were Mayoress in the seaside, university town of Aberystwyth, Wales. A staggering journey. You’re now writing a memoir with the working title Scattering Brightness. Without revealing too much, what can we expect from this book, and—pardon the pun—is the hippie bloom still on the “Rose” that once flowered with a group called Incredible String Band?

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Manager Joe Boyd, Rose, Mike, Liccy (Photo: Joe Boyd Collection)

Rose: My whole aim in writing the memoir was to make the record straight. Other people write me as part of their lives, but I did have one of my own, too, and that was different from theirs. ISB was all the good things that people remember happily, but we were also real people and led real lives. For a girl, at a time when women had very limited freedoms of expression unless they had some social privileges—which I didn’t, at first—it was a strange life to be part of a famous band on tour. I worked it out for myself one way or another and enjoyed it a lot. I can’t see much hippie bloom on a woman my age, but I’m not going to paint it on, either.

Just as then, I value authenticity and what I think is truth (as opposed) to physical experience. I also know that memories are constructed from imaginative interpretation of events, too, however much I try to get it straight. I guess I have written what I would want my granddaughter to know if she ever decided to run off and join a band. It isn’t a magic life, although it may be a wonderful and exciting one. The people shimmer and shine, but they also have feet of clay. I don’t want to concentrate on that or destroy lovely dreams or illusions, but I just want to make us real. That should bring people closer, not distance them. They should know us better and see the weaknesses as well as all the strengths they generously attributed to us. And I don’t usurp any of the creative talent and charisma that belonged to Mike and Robin. They were the music of ISB, but Lic and I were part of the band, and we earned our keep.

longitudes: Thank you, Rose, for your time.

Rose: You’re welcome.

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(I’d like to also thank Joe Boyd, for helping arrange this interview…dedicated to Licorice.)

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A Knowledge of Ashes: A Tribute to Tom Rapp

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“If you can’t be universal, you can at least be ambiguous”
– Tom Rapp

In 1994, I wrote a letter to Tom Rapp after reading an interview with him in Dirty Linen magazine. I don’t usually write fan letters, but I made an exception with Rapp. It was a typically obsequious fan gush: “I love your music,” “Listened to Balaklava non-stop one entire summer,” etc. I didn’t hold out hope for a reply.

A few weeks later, I got one. Rapp not only thanked me for me thanking him, but he sent a cassette of two unreleased, alternate versions of my two favorite songs of his: “Another Time,” and “Translucent Carriages.” I still have the letter and cassette.

I hope that my letter made him smile. Rapp was an enormous talent, wickedly funny, by all evidence kindhearted, and he deserved better than what this world offered him. He died of cancer February 11 at the age of 70.

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Tom Rapp started life in 1947 in Bottineau, North Dakota, a speck of a town on the cold northern prairie, way up near the Canadian line. His father was a teacher who was blacklisted for union activities, and who then became a loan officer. Fleeced for $15,000 one night, he disappeared into the woods for a month without telling his family. The disappearances continued off and on, and when Rapp’s father was home, he was frequently drunk. Rapp’s song “Rocket Man,” written on the day of the first moon landing, but about his father, talks about a man who flew between the planets, while his lonely wife and son went outside only when it was cloudy, and the stars couldn’t be seen.

(Bernie Taupin claimed he and Elton John wrote their own “Rocket Man” after hearing Rapp’s composition. Both are great songs, but totally unlike. Two major differences: one song made lots of money, and the other made nothing. Also, the John-Taupin song is about space. Rapp’s song occurs in the human heart.)

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The first Pearls Before Swine lineup. L to R: Lane Lederer, Tom Rapp, Roger Crissinger, Wayne Harley (Photo Sandra Stollman)

When he was ten, Rapp did a cowboy-Elvis Presley impersonation for a talent contest held in Rochester, Minnesota. He took second place. First prize was won by a baton twirler in a red sequined dress. Fifth-place honors went to an older Minnesota boy named Bobby Zimmerman, who later changed his last name and became somewhat famous.

(Wouldn’t it be great to locate the girl in the red sequined dress? Or track down one of the judges? Wouldn’t it be great if we could prove justice is real?)

Dale Rapp whisked his family out of the flatlands for Minnesota, then Pennsylvania, then Eau Gallie, Florida, where his son graduated high school. In 1963, after hearing Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Tom became intrigued with the song’s author, Bob Dylan. He had no idea they’d earlier performed on the same stage.

He began writing songs himself. On a lark, he and three friends made some rough demos, then sent them to New York-based ESP-Disk Records, an experimental underground label that had helped pioneer free jazz.  They’d also recorded the infamous Fugs, rock’s first leftist revolutionary band, which featured Beat poet and political agitator Ed Sanders. ESP-Disk invited Rapp and the boys to come up and make a record. In those days, things like that happened.

So, Rapp had to find a name for his band. Cocky, erudite, and only 19, Rapp chose “Pearls Before Swine,” taken from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It may be the most honest band name in history, and it actually has meaning – albeit ambiguous:

“Give not that which is holy unto the dogs; neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

The name was also prophetic.

The first Pearls Before Swine album was titled One Nation Underground and recorded in only four days in the cheapest NYC studio available. Visitors to the studio included Sanders, Peter Stampfel (Holy Modal Rounders), and a standup comic and clown named Hugh Romney (later “Wavy Gravy”), who tried to ply Rapp with LSD tabs, to no success. Like Melville’s Ishmael, Rapp chose to wander through the weird happenings and times as an omniscient narrator only.

One Nation Underground was released in 1967 at practically the same moment as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. Both albums broke ground in popular music. But whereas the Beatles effort was polished to perfection and had a world audience waiting, the Pearls debut was jagged, challenging, defiant, and burst like a green shoot through pavement cracks.

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(Family Photo)

It included one of the first anti-Vietnam War songs, “Uncle John,” directed toward Lyndon Johnson, where Rapp ended up on the studio floor screaming into the mic. “Another Time” is a haunting song, the first Rapp ever wrote, about a horrific car crash where he survived with only minor cuts. While in the cop car on the way to the hospital, he overheard, on the police radio, reports of people drowning and being burned to death. He surmised that “the universe doesn’t care at all.” But…

“Did you find, that if you don’t care… this whole wrong world will fall?”

“(Oh Dear) Miss Morse” is the humorous flip side to Rapp’s “constructive melancholy.” In this song, he adopts a Victorian persona and attempts to seduce a very proper and very sexy lady, using Morse code, and sounding out the letters F-U-C-K. “Dit-dit… dah… dit” etcetera. Over the years, Rapp loved to recount the story of how deejay Murray the K played this song and was bombarded by angry calls from Boy Scout leaders, the only listeners who understood the code.

One Nation Underground sold about 200,000 copies, surprisingly good for a debut album of psychedelic baroque-folk on a shoestring underground label. Some of its success may have had to do with the eye-catching sleeve art: Rapp chose the apocalyptic “Hell Panel” from Hieronymous Bosch’s 15th century painting “Garden of Earthly Delights” (the hard rock band Deep Purple later used this for its third album, and longitudes also borrowed it for its series on Nazism).pearls

Encouraged by this modest success, Rapp made a follow-up album with ESP-Disk. I’d review Balaklava here, but I’m straining my space limit, and I plan to cover it later this year on its 50th anniversary. So, I’ll merely say it’s arguably the best record by the Pearls/Rapp, an existential concept album about war (Vietnam, again) with moments of astonishing beauty. For Balaklava’s sleeve art, Rapp chose “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

ESP-Disk seemed like the perfect vehicle for Tom Rapp’s music. It was a label that allowed the artist total creativity, no restrictions, whose studio floor was littered with exotic instruments like celesta, marimba, vibraphone, clavinette, Nepalese sarangi, and “swinehorn,” and whose owner, Bernard Stollman, was an energetic advocate of the universal language Esperanto. Problem was, Rapp didn’t make a dime (things like that happened in the ‘60s, too). He would later humorously claim that Stollman was abducted by aliens, who washed Stollman’s memory of where all the record profits went.

Rapp soon disbanded the original Pearls and jumped to the mainstream label Reprise. By this time, all sorts of rumors had arisen about the band, since there were never any photographs or interviews. Some fans thought all the members were geriatrics. Others believed the drummer was a dwarf. While on Reprise, Rapp’s songs became less strange, but tighter. He wrote beautiful songs, such as  “Rocket Man,” “The Jeweler,” “Island Lady,” and “Look into Her Eyes,” the instrumentation and presentation cleaner, the songs no less transcendent.

Eventually, after several lineup changes and paltry earnings, Rapp dropped the Pearls Before Swine name and used his own, jumping to Blue Thumb Records for two albums.  He opened for many of the top names in the 1970s: Pink Floyd, Gordon Lightfoot, Patti Smith, and much earlier was invited to the original Woodstock festival, but declined because he was living in The Netherlands and couldn’t afford to make the trip.

A typical show was like the one in Philadelphia in 1974, during Watergate, when he appeared with Genesis and Wishbone Ash. He was told backstage that he only had a few minutes to perform, but that he could back out while still being paid. Rapp insisted on going on. And he made a bet with someone that he’d get a standing ovation. After walking out on stage, Rapp asked the crowd “If you believe he’s guilty, please stand up and cheer,” without even saying who “he” was. Rapp easily won the bet.Bill O'Leary

It’s not difficult to see where this is headed. It was a matter of time before Rapp was serving popcorn in a Boston movie theatre, his young family surviving on oatmeal. Surprisingly, he was happy. “I knew at the end of the week, every single week, I would get $85. I was insane with joy!”

With an indomitable will, he put himself through college, attending classes by day and working nights. He earned a law degree at University of Pennsylvania. He joined a law practice in Philadelphia, continuing his ‘60s work by fighting for social justice, this time in court on behalf of people who’d been discriminated against. His briefs often deviated from standard judicial dryness. One of them, filed for a man who was fired after contracting AIDS, reads partly: “In a civilized community, it is an intolerable wrong to abandon the sick and put them out to die.” Classic Rapp.

In the late 1990s, Rapp made a mild comeback. He was lauded by various British journalists and musicians, including The Bevis Frond and This Mortal Coil, and appeared at several small music festivals (why do the Brits always have to show us Yanks what we’ve ignored in our own backyard?). He also made a remarkable album, his first in 26 years, entitled A Journal of the Plague Year, with the wrenching “The Swimmer (for Kurt Cobain).” Rapp borrowed the evocative album title, characteristically, from a book by 18th-century novelist Daniel Defoe. Assisting him with the music were members of the American group Galaxie 500, Bevis Frond, and his son, David.

He also lost his job. Now living in Florida, Rapp and another lawyer became litigants, charging age discrimination, just like some of the people he’d once fought for.

***

Rapp appreciated history and the old things. He understood that old things have value. He sang about people who were flawed, physically or psychically: lepers, old Jews with lisps, lonely jewelers with cracked and bleeding hands, strangers with scars on their heads from wearing crowns. He chronicled and championed insignificant people who were lost in the ashes of time.

He undoubtedly saw himself as one of them.

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(Photo Bill O’Leary/Getty)

(Special thanks to the Washington Post and Gene Weingarten, who wrote the best article on Rapp I’ve yet read)

A Conclusion: Tom Rapp’s Lesson of the ‘60s:
(shared by longitudes)

Love is real.
Justice is real.
Everything is not for sale.
Honesty is possible, and necessary.
Governments have no morals, and you’ve got to kick their ass.
And, most importantly: never buy drugs from a policeman.

Dusky Songbird: A Tribute to Maggie Roche

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Maggie Roche died last year. I only recently learned this sad news.  (Blame our relentless media avalanche, or my own hibernation inclinations). She and the music of The Roches have been continually rolling across my mind lately. If any artist deserves a profile on longitudes, Maggie Roche does.

For those who don’t know them, the Roches were an Irish-American trio of sisters, most popular in the late 1970s and ‘80s, famous for their intricate folk harmonies and quirky lyrics (and clothes). The Roches are treasured by a small cult of passionate, and distinctly older, fans. In other words, their music was far too clever and sophisticated to ever get past the left end of the FM dial.

I love all three sisters, who each contributed something special. But Maggie… the eldest and linchpin of the trio… was my favorite. Her songs were intriguing, with one foot in sunlight and the other in partial shadow. She had a touch of dusky Irish mystery, and I loved her strange alto/contralto vocals, aptly described by one writer as a young girl trying to imitate the voice of her father.

Here’s my paltry, belated tribute to this amazingly talented and very introverted artist.

♫ ♫ ♫

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Suzzy, Terre, Maggie Roche

Margaret A. Roche was born October 26, 1951 in Detroit, Michigan, and raised in the leafy, conservative burg of Park Ridge, New Jersey to artistically inclined parents John (Jack) and Jude Roche. She first sang in Roman Catholic church choirs, sometimes with her two younger sisters, Terre (pronounced “Terry”) and Suzzy (rhymes with “fuzzy”). She started writing songs in 1964, after receiving a guitar for her birthday.

As they got older, the Roches supplemented their choir singing with annual Christmas caroling, sometimes venturing across the Hudson River to Greenwich Village. At their father’s prompting, they crisscrossed New Jersey to sing from the backs of trucks in support of Democratic candidates (their first large public appearance may have been in 1978, at a rally for Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, where they were introduced by comedian Chevy Chase).

Maggie briefly attended tiny Bard College in the Hudson Valley (I think it was just after Chase and Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen), but she dropped out to form a duo with Terre. In 1972, after a songwriting class at NYU with Paul Simon, they assisted on one song on Simon’s album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973). This led to an album with Columbia, Seductive Reasoning (1975). Few people know about this album, and even less bought it when released. But it contains early stirrings of genius by Maggie. Her closing song, “Jill of All Trades,” fits snugly alongside the best, then-in-vogue confessionals of singers like Laura Nyro, Carly Simon, and Judee Sill.

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“All of you will buy a ticket, just to see my face again” (photo Irene Young)

Supposedly, Columbia hoped the duo would provide some sex appeal for its label. Instead, reflecting Maggie’s inclination toward modesty, Maggie and Terre deliberately dressed plain for the sleeve photo, with no makeup or jewelry.

Youngest sister Suzzy made it a trio in 1976. The threesome soon developed a following at Gerde’s Folk City in the Village, where, fifteen years earlier, Bob Dylan had made a splash.

Like the Everly Brothers, Bee Gees, and countless bluegrass bands, the Roches exploited their genes to create intuitive vocal harmonies, with Maggie anchoring the low end. They were also cheeky lyricists, penning ironic songs about adultery (“The Married Men,” written by Maggie), crowd anonymity (“The Train,” by Suzzy), and inter-generational tension (“Hammond Song,” by Maggie), among others.

All three stellar songs are featured on the Roches’ 1979 eponymous album on Warner Brothers, tastefully produced by, of all people, prog-rock god Robert Fripp (King Crimson), in “audio vérité” style.

( I still remember, as a record reviewer for my college newspaper, looking at the cover of The Roches album and thinking Why would three attractive women deliberately try to look nerdy and unsexy? And why is Fripp producing them? )

The Roches thrust the sisters into the spotlight. Critic Jay Cocks of Time magazine called their music “startling, lacerating, and amusing.” Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow performed “The Married Men” together on Saturday Night Live, and soon after, Paul Simon chose them as his musical guests on the show. Punk rock was peaking in the late 1970s, and the Roches combined the directness of punk with literate and sardonic lyrics, precise pronunciation, avant-folk harmonies, and a goofy, insouciant attitude, to create something musically unique.keep on doing

The follow-up album was punningly titled Nurds (1980), and was slightly disappointing compared to the debut… although Maggie’s “This Feminine Position” is one of their breeziest songs, with its soothing synthesizer and acoustic guitar. Also, she interprets an Irish folk ballad, “Factory Girl,” with Gaelic aplomb.

The group came roaring back with Keep on Doing (1982), again produced by Fripp. This might be their high point, with Suzzy and Terre’s “Keep on Doing What You Do/Jerks on the Loose” and Maggie’s songs “Losing True” and “The Scorpion Lament.” “Losing True” is the song that permanently hooked me on the Roches. It’s rich with irony, rhyme, and alliteration, and the cathedral harmonizing, with syllables stretched to breaking point, rivals anything the Mamas and Papas ever did.

There were many TV appearances through the ‘80s, characterized by innocuous interview questions usually unrelated to the music. My favorite is Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow, from 1982, where poor, shy Maggie was dazzled by the cameras, and gripped the armchair like she wanted to bolt from the studio! In 1983, the Roches had an hour-long special on the PBS show Soundstage. In 1985, they appeared on both The Dick Cavett Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Their music was then featured in the film Crossing Delancey (1988), starring Steven Spielberg’s then-wife, Amy Irving. Suzzy even had a small role in this film.

In 1990, Carson brought them back in the wake of their comeback album Speak. Here, they bopped to their beautifully sarcastic “Big Nuthin’,” written about their hyped but hollow TV spots (Carson naïvely thought the song was strictly about the Saturday Night Live appearance). By this point, Maggie was playing keyboards onstage.speak

While “Big Nuthin’” is the eye-opening track on Speak – a great album, song-wise, but hindered by then-fashionable high-tech production gloss – it’s the ghostly minimalism of Maggie’s title song that knocks me out.

After Speak, they continued to release records, including an enormously popular collection of Christmas songs, We Three Kings (1990), which is sometimes reverent, sometimes whimsical, and always Roche-ey.  But their visibility dimmed as Maggie wrote fewer songs. Suzzy released solo records, wrote two books, and raised her daughter (Lucy Roche, who currently records and tours with Suzzy; Lucy’s father is singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III). Terre, a talented guitarist, established a guitar workshop and also began a solo career.

Maggie, characteristically, kept a lower profile. She joined her sisters for music voice-overs (as roaches!) on a segment of Spielberg’s cartoon series Tiny Toon Adventures (her bug character was the brassiest of the three… a private joke for fans, since Maggie was so soft-spoken); a children’s record, Will You Be My Friend, which won a parents’ award; and made several records with Suzzy, including a 2001 collection of diverse prayers set to music, called Zero Church (for an inspiring, non-denominational, non-traditional song for Christmas, you can’t beat “Anyway” from that album). The Roches also covered songs for various artist tribute albums, notably a lush rendition of the Band’s “Acadian Driftwood.”

The last album with all three Roches was Moonswept in 2007. For me, the standout song is “Family of Bones.” Suzzy handed her sister the words, and Maggie waved her wand to conjure, in less than a day, the haunting, hymn-like music.

♫ ♫ ♫

Mountain Stage archives

L to R: Maggie, Suzzy, Terre (photo Mountain Stage Archives)

Maggie had breast cancer for ten years, but evidently didn’t tell her sisters until just before she died. Suzzy wrote on the Roches’ Facebook page that her sister was “a private person, too sensitive and shy for this world, but brimming with life, love, and talent.” She also called her a “brilliant songwriter” and “authentic.” Maggie left behind her partner, Michael McCarthy, and a son, country songwriter-producer-musician Felix McTeigue. In 1989, she wrote a song called “Broken Places” about a mother being reunited with her son, after giving him up for adoption. Most artists would attempt just a first-person narration of a risky song like this. Maggie, however, interpreted it (like “Hammond Song”) from two different viewpoints.

While I don’t usually provide links to songs, I can’t help but do it here. In addition to a self-effacing sense of fashion, Maggie had a wicked sense of humor. The song below is from the seriously underrated album Can We Go Home Now (1995): thirty-three couplets of Maggie’s hilarious rhyming bliss, sung from the protective shell of her allegorical black winter coat.

Fly with the angels, dusky songbird.

(Thanks to John Lingan, The New York Times Magazine, for some information)

 

The Songs of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

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Most of these longitudes essays relate to whatever’s on my mind at a given moment (“Thoughts in Woods…”). Right now, I’m into the Vietnam War. I’m reading “Vietnam: A History” by Stanley Karnow, and I just finished watching the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick multi-part documentary “The Vietnam War.”

I’ve seen eight of the ten episodes of the series. After a second run-through, I’ll probably offer my usual two cents. Other people’s critiques on the documentary appear to be as polarized as the actual war, and I’m learning as much about the war (or, at least, how it affects people) by reading their reviews as by the documentary itself. Folks seem to either love “The Vietnam War,” or hate it.

As with so many things these days, there’s no demilitarized zone.

But, although I’m not ready to comment on the merits of the Burns-Novick documentary, I’m always ready to squeeze the trigger on music, and music plays a major role in “The Vietnam War.” So I’ll offer my assessments now. Having been born in 1958, I grew up listening to a lot of the film’s 120 songs, and I still listen to them regularly, so now’s a good opportunity to share my enthusiasm, or lack thereof.

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The Vietnam War was the first (and perhaps only) conflict to have a soundtrack. For maybe the first time, song lyrics were being written directly about a war. Other songs weren’t necessarily about the war, but they elicit such a strong emotional response amongst veterans of both the war and peace movement, they’re forever linked with Vietnam in people’s minds.

I’ve divided the music of “The Vietnam War” into four categories: the original score; songs that directly deal with war (lyrics related to Vietnam, or war in general); songs indirectly about war (songs with universal themes that could be associated with war); and songs of the time period that have little or nothing to do with war.

The original score: Good background music should bolster and reflect the mood of the film. Though I’m not a fan, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and his collaborator Atticus Ross created a brooding mix of industrial noise, eerie sound effects, and minimalist piano that convey the weirdness and horror of what happened over there. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble borrowed themes inspired by Vietnamese music for the scenes in Asia. I applaud the producers for their good sense in choosing these artists.

Songs about war: We’re talking 1960s and ‘70s, so “songs about war” means protest songs, but I was somewhat disappointed in these choices. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier” was one of the first such written, and it’s perfect. Also great is Country Joe McDonald’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” (“Well it’s one, two, three, what are we fightin’ for?”), and Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” effectively sets the tone for what’s to come, and his “With God on Our Side” is more than appropriate, a savage statement about promoting war through a lens of false piety (sing it, Zimmy).

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Country Joe McDonald, at Woodstock Festival (photographer unknown)

In fact, there are no less than nine Dylan songs here, and “With God on Our Side” is featured twice. Dylan’s a dazzling songwriter, the poet of the counter-culture, and he wrote some searing anti-war songs. But nine songs are overkill. Joan Baez and Phil Ochs, contemporaries of Dylan, only got one song apiece (Baez’s cover of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and Ochs’ classic “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”). I can think of at least a half-dozen Ochs songs directly about ‘Nam, such as “We Seek No Wider War,” “Cops of the World,” and “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land.”

Dylan eventually cloaked his songs in obliqueness, whereas Ochs and Baez never wavered from blunt social protest. They deserve more than one song apiece.

Songs indirectly about war: A big thumbs up for the Byrds’ version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which Seeger adapted from a Bible verse. Also, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which he wrote partially about the Vietnam War, but also about inner-city militancy and police brutality, and a song where Gaye courageously broke from traditional Motown song formulas.

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Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, England, 1965

Songs of the time period: This is, by far, the largest category of songs in the documentary. For a lot of these songs, I was scratching my head. “It’s My Life” by the Animals was blasted on top of an interview with the mother of a fallen soldier, and is jarringly out of place. The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” is a Lou Reed short story set to music, about a lovesick sap who mails himself to his girlfriend. “The Vietnam War” uses the music only, since the lyrics have nothing to do with war. But even the music is obscure, since it was never played on the radio, and the album from which it was taken (WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT) sold only a few copies when it was released in December, 1967.

Jimi Hendrix, a former army paratrooper, has three songs featured: “Are You Experienced?,” “Voodoo Chile,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” the last-named written by guess who. Hendrix’s muscular, metallic guitar is a good choice for a war documentary, but more pertinent would have been the live version of “Machine Gun,” one of his most intense songs, propelled by combat sound effects, or his searing interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the Woodstock Festival.

And since it’s the Sixties, and drugs were everywhere, including the killing fields of ‘Nam, we have to have a drug song, correct? But “White Rabbit” must be the dumbest song ever written about drugs. Weren’t any of the producers aware of Sainte-Marie’s “Codine,” or Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death,” or the Velvets’ “Heroin,” or Joni Mitchell’s “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire”? I guess not.

(If they’d have contacted me, I’d have gladly advised them about drug songs).

Another blunder: Barry McGuire’s overcooked “Eve of Destruction” (written by P.F. Sloan) is just as embarrassing now as when it was released. Big mistake.

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Jimi Hendrix (photo Rolling Stone magazine)

There are lots of good R&B songs, though. A couple Booker T. and the M.G.’s songs, a couple Otis Redding numbers, including “Respect” (and I’m glad they chose Redding’s version instead of Aretha Franklin’s). The Temptations are represented with “Psychedelic Shack,” although “Ball of Confusion” might have been more appropriate.

My big revelation was the Staple Singers covering Dylan’s “Masters of War” (the arrangement of which Dylan borrowed from the traditional English folk song “Nottamun Town”). Dylan’s version is stark and unmerciful, a knife into the gut of those who play with the lives of young people like “it’s (their) little toy.” The Staples version is as spooky as it is angry. “Pops” Staples sings like Delta bluesman Bukka White, his ghostly guitar notes ringing like tolling bells, and the moaning background voices sound like they’re conjuring the grim reaper. I’d never heard this version before, but for me it’s a highlight of the film score.

Neil Young’s “Ohio,” which he wrote the day after the Kent State murders: he never allows this song to be licensed for use, but he made an exception here. Choosing this song to close Episode 8 was a no-brainer.

(Note: in an interview with Esquire, Burns revealed that one of his editors had no idea that “Ohio” is about the Kent State killings. This is mind-boggling. But it’s proof that popular music has become so cheesy and mass-marketed, people today are numb to even the most overt lyrical statement. Either that, or they’re dumb to American history. Numb or dumb, it’s profoundly disturbing).

Appropriately, there are several Beatles songs. But John Lennon’s “Revolution” is the only one that makes sense. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is excellent for LSD tripping, but not for a Vietnam War discussion. And the producers evidently are patting themselves on the back for choosing “Let it Be” as their closer.

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Musically, yes, this song is grandiose, and a heart-tugger. There were undoubtedly tears shed by some viewers. By choosing “Let it Be,” I think Burns is suggesting it’s time for Americans to heal by making peace with each other.

Maybe this documentary will be a partial healing. But the topic will always be contentious, and relevant to the future, and the various op-eds I’ve read on “The Vietnam War” bear this out. Burns is smart and talented (and sports a nifty Beatle haircut), but reminding the audience of his “whispered words of wisdom,” and hoping his documentary will be a “vaccine” seems a bit arrogant to me, and as pointless as the post-war cacklings of Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford. He shouldn’t be allowed the last word.

Here’s my suggestion for a musical closeout: the acoustic demo of Phil Ochs’ “Cross My Heart.” Ochs was an American street soldier for peace who – until his suicide in 1976 – never gave up the fight:

I don’t know

But I see that everything is free

When you’re young the treasures you can take

But the bridge is bound to break

And you reach the end

Screaming it’s all been a mistake

 

But I’m gonna give all that I’ve got to give

Cross my heart

And I hope to live.

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The State of Donald Trump

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The other night a voice came to me, and it turned out it was the late, great, ‘60s protest singer, Phil Ochs. He said “Pete, wake up, this is Ochs here. Over.”

I said “You’re putting me on, of course, God.”

He then sang a few verses about the Vietnam War, and I realized it actually was Phil Ochs.

“I need you to do me a big favor,” he said.

I told him I was a huge admirer, have heard all his music, and that I’d do anything he asked. He told me he was concerned about the upcoming presidential election, and he wanted me to update his 1965 anthem “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” (which he himself later revised during the Nixon years).

Of course, I was flattered. But I explained that I was a terrible singer, and not much better as a guitarist.

“I know, I know. But you’re a boy in Ohio who likes old movies, like me, and you have a blog. I want you to use the framework of my song, but instead of Mississippi or Nixon, I want you to substitute Donald Trump. I’m really worried he might get elected.”

I told him it was impossible someone like Trump could be elected in America. I told him that, ever since I was a kid, the news media and politicians had assured me “The American people are smarter than that.” (Whatever “that” might be).

He laughed. “You don’t believe that line, do you? Ha ha, Pete, you’re so funny. Listen, Americans may know the maximum characters in a Tweet. But do they know the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court?”

“Uh, nine, right?” I asked.

“Well, normally. Only eight right now,” he said with a tone of disgust. “Which proves my point. Where’s the outrage??”

I remembered that, despite a treasure chest of brilliant songs, Ochs was denied even one hit.

“Yeah, I think you’re right, Phil.”

“I want you to do this thing for me, Pete. And after this new lyric has been seen by your readers – all six of them – I’m hoping one of them will sing it, put it on YouTube, and it will then go viral and prevent a national catastrophe.”

I told him I’d do my best, then asked him if he thought my puny efforts would make a difference. But he said he had to go, and muttered something about “Bobby Dylan” and “squandering his talent.”

So here it is. Please, if anyone can sing, and can put this thing on YouTube so it will go viral and prevent a national catastrophe, Phil and I will be very grateful.

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Here’s to the State of Mr. Trump (sung to the tune of “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” by Phil Ochs)

Here’s to the state of Mr. Trump
For behind the flashy suit there’s a tyrant with no heart
An egotist, a con man bent on tearing us apart
A bully spreading poison in a country that he’s bought
And the GOP supports him ‘cause he’s really all they’ve got
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the party of Mr. Trump
Republican officials have discovered it’s too late
So now he’s not that bad, and he’ll be their party’s face
Though he’s a sexist and a bigot, he’ll make their country great
The party of wealth and power has endorsed a man of hate
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
GOP, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the rallies of Mr. Trump
If you dare to criticize him you’ll be shown the door real fast
And everything is “beautiful,” at least as long as winning lasts
And he’s fawned on by reporters ‘cause he brings them lots of cash
His supporters stretch their arms like the Germans from our past
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the foes of Mr. Trump
The ones who disagree will get labeled with a name
And anyone unlike him is where he’ll lay the blame
The politics of slander are used for his own gain
Derogatory insults are how he plays his game
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the victims of Mr. Trump
It’s the many he’s offended, it could be you or me
Immigrants and disabled who are seeking dignity
P.O.W.s and women, our purple mountains majesty
Forget about our green fields, he’ll strip and drill us clean
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the money of Mr. Trump
His tax return’s a mystery, it’s locked behind closed doors
His accountants smile and plot on how to move his cash offshore
Four billion that he’s bankrolled and you’re a “moron” if you’re poor
Now he’s bought the next election and the voters must endure
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the priorities of Mr. Trump
Corporations with his name are weighted down with lies
He claims he’s for the people but he’s wearing a disguise
Instead of tackling issues he talks about hand size
When he starts discussing women you’d better shield your ears and eyes
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the legacy of Mr. Trump
A country now a punch line, an embarrassment to the globe
Hypocrisy and ugliness, each day a newer low
He’s used our flag to wipe his rear, the Constitution to blow his nose
If Pete and Woody and Phil were here they’d tell Trump where to go
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

***

A free society without a free press is like a table with no legs. Yet Mr. Trump has already banned, from his events, a number of major media outlets that he perceives as being critical of him. This is unprecedented for a presidential candidate, and it’s not a good sign.

He may never visit this humble corner of the blogosphere. But I’d like Mr. Trump to know one thing:

“When I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m gonna say it now.”

(Many thanks to Sonny Ochs).

source of our liberty

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Leaving): Touring Bob Dylan’s Hometown

highway 61_3

I cross the Fond Du Lac Reservation on Highway 2 and approach the little town of Floodwood. The road’s empty save for one car about a football field behind me.

I wonder if the driver sees my out-of-state plates. It’s a long way from southern Ohio to northern Minnesota. The driver’s probably rolling his eyes right now. Another tourist wanting a piece of the local celebrity.

I’m in Minnesota to do the popular Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, located north of Minneapolis on the western rim of Lake Superior. Only a short distance northwest is Hibbing, a small mining town tucked away in the piney woods. Hibbing is also the hometown of one Robert Zimmerman, who later became Bob Dylan. It’s ironic such a musical giant emerged from this tiny, isolated place. And also a bit surreal, like the man’s songs. Dylan was a reluctant pied piper for a generation. Much of his appeal stems from the fact that the man and his music can be difficult to grasp. That, and because he was writing song-poems in his twenties with the wisdom of one who’d lived a hundred years.

When did Robert Zimmerman become “Bob Dylan”? At one time he was just a pudgy Jewish kid whose dad worked in an appliance store. There must’ve been some kind of epiphany here in Hibbing. Maybe I can conduct my own mining expedition and unearth it. But I feel more than a little self-conscious about invading this town, half-asleep with ghostly memories. Hibbing was, at one time, a major exporter of iron ore. But the mines dried up long ago.

Interviewer at 1965 press conference: Do you consider yourself a musician or a poet?

Dylan: I think of myself more as a song and dance man.

I make a right onto route 73. “Hibbing: 38 miles” reads the road sign. Now I have the road to myself. I only see two cars the rest of the journey to Hibbing.

The first thing I notice when I enter Hibbing is the usual nauseating commercialism: a Home Depot, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, an Apple computer store, etc. Then I see a sign pointing to “Downtown.” Yeah, this is what I want. The town as it was in the 1950s, when Bob Zimmerman was chewing bubble gum underneath a streetlamp.

The buildings grow closer together, and I start seeing people on the sidewalks. I’m looking for a restaurant I read about in my old Rand McNally road atlas. It’s a tourist trap with Dylan memorabilia plastered on the walls. But it supposedly has good food. Maybe I can locate someone who knew Dylan as a kid. Not sure what I would ask him, though.

I drive slowly down First Avenue, but no signs about the “Z Man.” Then I make a right on Howard Street. Lots of old, dirty buildings with large, painted letters stenciled on the brick and which have faded over time. A few restaurants, but nothing related to Dylan. Half of me anticipates a huge billboard announcing Hibbing as “Hometown of Bob Dylan.” I’m surprised I haven’t seen this yet, but also a little pleased at the town’s restraint.

At the end of Howard Street, on the corner, I finally see something. A large sign, “Zimmy’s,” with a huge photo of early ‘60s era Dylan. I quickly swing into the side street and find a parking spot.

But it turns out that, although lunchtime on a weekday, Zimmy’s is closed.

Bob Dylan's Boyhood Home

Bob Dylan’s Boyhood Home

I need to talk to a local. Someone who might know where the Dylan sites are. I duck into a Goodwill store. Too crowded. I don’t want the customers to hear me ask the clerk “Excuse me, where can I find…?”

I find a sporting goods store with one employee. She’s a teenage girl. An easy target. When I ask her, she says there’s a street named after him, but that’s all she knows. I pretend to be interested in the Hibbing Bluejackets t-shirts that are on sale. Then I thank her and saunter out the door.

Feeling hungry, I decide to find a restaurant for a burger and beer. Walking down Howard Street, though, I glance down a side street and see an odd sight: a white camper trailer sandwiched between buildings, with a patio table and blue-and-white striped umbrella in front. A sign on the trailer advertises “GYROS.” This gyro trolley seems so out of place, I just have to give them some business. I approach an elderly man and a young girl who are chatting underneath the umbrella. When the girl sees me coming, she jumps up excitedly and asks if she can help me. I order a gyro. Then I start a conversation with the man.

Hibbing Gyros Trolley

Hibbing Gyro Trolley

“Nice little restaurant you have here. I didn’t know there was a Greek restaurant in Hibbing!”

“Yep, yep. We got ‘em all. Yessir, anything you want.”

He has a thick Minnesota accent, reminiscent of one of the extras in the movie Fargo.

“I’m up here from Ohio to run the marathon in Duluth” I tell him. “But I had to stop by Hibbing to see Bob Dylan’s hometown.”

“Oh, that’s a big race, yeah, real popular. You gonna win it?” he asks with a chuckle.

“Well, I doubt it, but I’ll try!” I laugh. Then I get back to the subject at hand.

“Are there any Bob Dylan sites in town?”

“Oh, I think there might be something in the Memorial Building. I was never a big fan. Not my type of music. I was more, uh, sort of…”

“Country?” I venture a guess.

“Yep, yep. Country. Dylan just wasn’t my cup of tea. I was in the Air Force, then on the police force. Can’t say I’ve heard much of his music.”

The girl hands me my gyro, which is gigantic. She’s been smiling the whole time. Despite making very little progress regarding Zimmy, I like the people in Hibbing.

“Does he ever return to Hibbing to visit?” I ask.

“No, I don’t think he ever has, at least that I know of. He sort of turned his back on us.”

“He’s pretty private, from what I hear,” I offer. “Maybe he’s tired of being a spectacle.”

“Yep, yep. That’s probably it.”

“Well, guess I’ll check out the auditorium. Nice talking to you!”

“Yep, nice talkin’ to you too! If you win that race, bring back some of that prize money to Hibbing!”

I tell him if I do, I’ll buy a dozen gyros, which gets him laughing.

I soon find myself on another side street, where a cop is getting out of a car. He looks like he’s in his late ‘30s or so. I walk up to him.

“Excuse me, sir, do you know where I can find Hibbing Memorial Building?”

He gives me a quizzical look. “Straight down this street, then left at the third intersection. What exactly you want there?”

Typical suspicious cop. “I was told there might be something there about Bob Dylan.”

“Oh. Well, the historical society’s in the basement. They might have something.”

“Are there any other sites in town associated with Dylan?”

“Well, there’s 7th Avenue – or Bob Dylan Drive, the street he lived on. There’s also Zimmy’s, a restaurant. But they closed down for some reason. I don’t think the owner was paying taxes. Other than that, I don’t know of anything. I was never a fan.”

“Ok, thanks.” I can’t understand the indifference of these people. Even if you don’t like his music, HE’S BOB DYLAN FER CHRISSAKES!!

(People) walk up, they think they know me because I’ve written some song that seems to bother them.  So they walk up as if we’re long lost brothers or sisters or something.  Well, that’s got nothing to do with me.  And I think I can prove that in any court.

On the way to the Memorial Building, I see the town library. I make a beeline for it. If they don’t have anything on Dylan, it’s a lost cause.

The library is small, just one floor. There are scattered posters in the glass lobby, including one advertising Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, scheduled to appear at Memorial Building in July. A smaller poster advertises a Bob Dylan Exhibit in the library basement. Hmm.

I wind my way through the glass in the lobby and find a staircase. Down I go. In the basement, there’s a long hallway with a wooden door at the end. I follow the hallway, past a room with three or four people seated in front of computers. They glance up at me as if I shouldn’t be here. They must be either hunting for jobs, or wasting time on Facebook.

I reach the door. In the center at eye level is a shabby photo of Dylan with the words “Bob Dylan Exhibit” taped underneath. I turn the door handle. Locked.

I climb back to the main floor and shyly approach the woman behind the main desk. She’s 30-ish, gangly, long black hair, thick black glasses. Very librarian-ish.

“Yes, I’d like to see the Bob Dylan exhibit, but the door is locked.”

“Oh. Ok, just a second.”

She picks up a phone. “Chrissy, could you please unlock the exhibit room?”

She looks at me and says “Chrissy will let you in.”

I go back downstairs, past the Facebook people, down the long hallway, and stand in front of the door. Soon, the door opens, and I see an attractive blonde girl.

“You must be Chrissy!” I say.

“Yes!” she responds with a smile.

Chrissy lets me in, then disappears into another room. I wander around the exhibit room. On the walls are about 50 or so photos of Dylan during various phases of his life, from the time he was in kindergarten on up to his being presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. There’s also a life-size dummy, a giant Dylan-and-guitar scarecrow. A large rectangular conference table occupies the middle of the room, but nothing’s on it except a small binder with identifiers that describe the photos.

Zimmy and Me

Zimmy and Me

I spend about 45 minutes here, concentrating mainly on the pictures of Dylan while he was in Hibbing. It turns out he led two rock bands as a teenager, the Cashmeres and the Golden Chords. He was also a big Little Richard fan, judging by the remarks in his high school yearbook. Also a member of the Latin and Social Sciences clubs.

There’s also a photo here of a beautiful, Nordic-looking woman with creamy blonde hair. She looks a little like the French actress Brigitte Bardot. I soon learn this is Echo Hellstrom, whom Dylan dated. They spent a lot of time watching movies together at the Lybba Theatre, which was named after Dylan’s grandmother. In fact, his mother’s side of the family lived in Hibbing as far back as his great-grandmother.

I wonder what this icy beauty saw in young Robert Zimmerman, who wasn’t exactly the handsomest teenager. She must have seen a few kernels of genius beyond those chubby cheeks.

I spend about 45 minutes reading the “exhibits,” then sign my name in the visitors’ register. “Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parking meters.” I peek in the back room to ask Chrissy a few questions, but she’s nowhere to be seen. No other visitors have joined me.

I leave the library clutching a pamphlet, the “Hibbing Historical Walking Tour.” I learn that Boston Celtics center Kevin McHale, Yankees great Roger Maris, Manson Family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, the guy who started Greyhound Bus Lines, and various distinguished politicians and hockey players are also from Hibbing. Most importantly, the pamphlet has a mapped walking tour of Bob Dylan sites: the aforementioned Zimmy’s and Lybba Theatre; his boyhood home; the synagogue where he worshipped with his parents; the Androy Hotel where he had his Bar Mitzvah party; even the bowling alley where his bowling team, The Gutter Boys, won a local competition.

The walking tour makes my Hibbing visit worthwhile. The townsfolk may be short on information, but the pamphlet guides me through Dylan’s past. “Positively 4th Street” wafts through my head as I gaze at the odd-looking blue house where Dylan lived as a kid. I stand on the street corner and stare at a second-floor window. Here, 60 years ago, the budding poet/singer was tuning a cheap radio to a distant Southern station, picking up the alien sounds of Blind Willie McTell and Dock Boggs.

***

The volunteer at the historical society is a rugged-looking ex-miner wearing a red and white plaid shirt.  He has little to say about Hibbing’s most famous citizen, but he gives me an informative lecture on the importance of the mineral taconite to the area. Although I greatly respect people like him, who worked so hard for so long at a dangerous trade, I’m not all that eager to honor his request that I visit the large open pit at the edge of town.

Similarly, the elderly tour guide at historic Hibbing High School is extremely knowledgeable. He’s anxious to explain the architectural history of the building, called the “Richest Gem in Minnesota’s Educational Crown” when it was built in 1924.

The volunteer peppers me with information about the school’s architectural opulence, as we watch a video about the building in the principal’s office. This is all very impressive. But isn’t the main goal to educate young people?

The only time he mentions Dylan is when we enter the ornate school auditorium.

“This is where Bob Dylan was booed offstage” he wryly notes.

The tour guide looks to be about Dylan’s age. And he definitely knows a lot about this school, almost as if he has firsthand familiarity.  Hmm.  It’s certainly possible. I take the plunge.

“Did you attend school here?” I begin my query.

But he shoots me down midstream.

“No. I’m from Minneapolis.”

Hibbing High School

Hibbing High School

The Origins of BEATLEMANIA

50 yearsbeatles pan am

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr… collectively, The Beatles.

I wasn’t sure how to begin this essay about the Beatles’ debut appearance in America, on The Ed Sullivan Show, on February 9, 1964.  There are so many clichés.  The two biggest are probably “You just had to be there,” and “A watershed moment.”  Both are true, of course.  Even the children and grandchildren of Baby Boomers can agree with the latter statement.  I know I’ve said it before, but I can’t think of another artist more important to 20th century music.  That includes Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, George Gershwin, Elvis Presley, and Haircut One Hundred.

But I don’t think today’s youth can begin to understand the “You just had to be there” sentiment.  In 1964 there were no i-Tunes, MP3s, or YouTube.  No PCs with internet.  No texting or tweeting.  No cable television flashing repetitive images of the latest industry-groomed pop sensation.

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Elvis, during rehearsal with Steve Allen in 1956

Instant global communication was decades away.  All we had were some still images, a couple pinup-style fan publications like “16 Magazine,” AM radio, and word of mouth.  If you were lucky, you’d catch a glimpse of a musical act on variety television, like the shows hosted by early TV legends such as Sullivan, Steve Allen and Milton Berle.

***

When rock & roll took off in the mid-50s, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and others made limited TV appearances.  But these earliest rock performers were typically treated like baubles whose popularity would soon fade.  And there was often friction between the hosts and performers.  For example, Steve Allen was a jazz snob who took a dim view of rock music.  So when Presley performed “Hound Dog,” Allen poked fun at the song by dressing The King in a tuxedo and having him serenade a basset hound.

Sullivan, famously, had issues with Diddley and Buddy Holly.  He confronted Holly backstage over the choice of his performing “Oh Boy!,” which he thought was too wild.  Holly stood his ground and insisted on performing it, however.  Sullivan’s response – believe it or not – was to mispronounce Holly’s name as “Hollered,” and to deliberately turn off the mike to his electric guitar.

holly

Buddy Holly, looking away from Ed Sullivan in 1958

Sullivan’s confrontation with Bo Diddley was even worse.  He wanted Diddley to perform Tennessee Ernie Ford‘s “Sixteen Tons,” but Diddley instead did his own R&B hit, “Bo Diddley.”  According to Diddley, Sullivan afterwards told him “You are the first black boy that ever double-crossed me.”  Diddley came close to physically attacking Sullivan, but his manager held him back.  Diddley never again appeared on Sullivan’s show.

After the first wave of ‘50s rock & rollers, there was a lull in rock music.  Elvis had joined the army, Holly had died in a plane crash, and the hits were drying up for Lewis,  Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others.  So for a few years, the charts were dominated by crooners and girl groups like the Shangri-Las, Shirelles, Ronettes, and Crystals, who didn’t play instruments nor write their own material.  Many of the singles were written by “Brill Building” partnerships like Goffin-King, Lieber-Stoller, Mann-Weil, Barry-Greenwich – and the greatest of all, Bacharach-David. (and, weirdest of all, infamous “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector).

goffin-king

Brill Building songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin

The male singers were mainly vanilla pretty boys like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Vinton.

Folk music was bubbling out of Greenwich Village, but it had yet to shed its collegiate, coffeehouse veneer and hybridize with rock.

Surf music had a little excitement, but other than the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and a few others, it was primarily instrumental and had difficulty catching fire nationally.

So the stage was set for something new.  A band that looked and sounded different.  Whose members played their own instruments, wrote their own songs, who were also physically attractive and had personality.  Who combined the vigor and danger of early, electric rock & roll with catchy melody and clever harmony.

But absolutely nobody could’ve predicted the cultural explosion that occurred soon after Pan Am Yankee Clipper Flight 101 landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport on February 7, 1964.  Two days later, on Sunday evening, 73 million Americans tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show to hear these words:

Now, yesterday and today our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles.

Don’t touch that dial!

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