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Erik Jacobsen Interview
By Lewis Shiner
The following interview was recorded on 23 Apr 2012 as part of the research for my novel in progress, Outside the Gates of Eden, which deals, in part, with the music industry in the 1960s. Erik Jacobsen is best known for producing Tim Hardin, the Lovin' Spoonful, Chris Isaac, and many other significant recording artists.
Can we start with a capsule biography?
I was born on May 19, 1940, and I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. All four of my grandparents were from a small area in Norway. I'm probably related to everybody in that town. My dad spoke with a heavy Norwegian accent. He was an escapee from the Lutheran church, and my mom was the daughter of a Norwegian woman that had come over as an indentured person, and her father was one of the first Friends of Bill W., the AA guys.
Growing up I took piano lessons but couldn't really do it very well. Then I started playing tuba, and then I played Sousaphone in a concert orchestra. So I was very bass line oriented when I heard McCartney, I mean, I listened to the bass very carefully on every record, and still do. I was clean--I was an Eagle Scout at an early age. Never really rebelled. Didn't drink or anything until I was out of college.
Where'd you go to college?
Oberlin College in Ohio. That's where I started playing banjo.
That's where you met the other guys in Knob Lick Upper 10,000?
Yeah, they were from Oberlin. I picked up the banjo, and by junior year [I joined] an ongoing bluegrass group named the Plum Creek Boys, named after a creek that ran through Oberlin campus. They had been together since the late 50s and they started that bluegrass band right after the Foggy Mountain Boys, Flatt and Scruggs, when they were with Bill Monroe. They invented it in the early 50s, Bill Monroe and Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Flatt and Scruggs. I took over as the lead banjo player for the Plum Creek Boys, and we went to some folk festivals. I first met Bob Dylan on one of his first trips to the University of Michigan, long before he moved to New York and got a record contract. And then of course, I had the same manager as Bob, Albert Grossman.
You had a great guitarist in Pete Childs.
Yes, he was. And the lead singer had a great voice, Dwain Story. He was [bluegrass legend] Carl Story's nephew and he played rhythm and sang, and he was really the main lead singer of the group. He's in the Folk Music Hall of Fame. Albert got us some money from Mercury Records, which was like a $5000 advance or something, and he pocketed 3500 of it. So we had about three takes of each song, all at one time, no overdubbing, and had a bass player that just went over the tunes one time and then played with us. And we really had no studio experience either, so to go in for two days and make an album...[laughs] I wouldn't vouch for it.
When I worked with [Spoonful manager] Bob Cavallo, and John [Sebastian] was writing, I'd hear the song and then I'd try to sing it for Bob. After I sang him "Summer in the City" and "Daydream" and a few others, he said, "Do me a favor. Do not sing me these songs, let me hear John sing 'em, because you're really setting me against them in a big way." I only bring that up in as much as I was singing harmonies--using the term loosely--on those [Knob Lick] records. And, I don't know. Between our nervousness and the very short period of time and our inexperience--I listened to it the other day, I had it digitized from my old vinyl record, and I wasn't too impressed, I'll tell you that.
Was that a factor in your becoming a producer rather than musician?
Yeah, I didn't see really a big future for bluegrass music, and bluegrass banjo especially. And I think even though bluegrass is still going, is still a good type of music, and banjo players and mandolin players are more on the beat and glibber than the old stalwarts of a Scruggs or Stanley Brothers --I think because they play with drum machines, their rhythm is sharper than it used to be. But nobody's played any new notes, that I've ever heard--more or less the same old same old.
At any rate, it was a combination of me thinking that there was no real big future in the form musically, and then I was really not a country guy. After a gig one night in Washington DC, we smoked a little bit of reefer and we went into a White Castle and the Beatles were on the jukebox. We were in the process of putting out a single release on Mercury, and we went to radio stations and the promo guy took us around, and he goes, "We're not adding too many new records because of the Beatles. Everybody wants to hear them, and they are holding the top six places in our top ten, and they've got more, and everybody just wants to hear the Beatles. So we don't know whether we're going to be able to include your new record in our playlist." And then I listened when I was high in the White Castle and I heard Paul McCartney playing the bass. Compared to a one and a three type thing that all the bluegrass guys played, and all the blues guys played almost the same standard shit on every record--with the exception of Motown, where they had some really fabulous bass playing stuff going on. And so hearing McCartney with such a beautiful melodic approach to bass playing, I just thought, "Oh, wow." You know, folk music, if we could use some kind of a more melodic bass playing in folk music, using acoustic instruments and stuff like that, we could make a whole new kind of thing.
Was that the genesis of the Spoonful, right there?
Yeah. That was the genesis of my conception of what could happen. Because I was trying to arrange these songs we were doing, and I could see the bass sounding good, but it had to be electric. I had not really thought about drums too much. But I decided to just quit the band and stay in New York and try to become a song publisher and a record producer.
This was in early 1964?
This was probably early 64. It didn't take me long to make up my mind once I heard that, and I had this vision of a rocking folk thing. Looking back, how I had the audacity to think I could pull it off, I don't know.
But you did pull it off.
There was a feeling, since we were getting high, that we were hipper than everybody else.
And you probably were.
Well, in some way, I guess. At least we were more able to communicate with musicians who were high. They were fellow people that got high, [like] the Modern Folk Quartet, who we had done a tour with called the Hootenany Hoot. We had been all around the country in a bus, 43 nights or something in a bus. Two motels on the whole trip, the rest was sleeping on the bus. These guys from the Modern Folk Quartet turned me on to pot for the first time, which I was very taken with, and then they went to hear Alpert and Leary when they first came to New York City and gave a speech on the 7 bardos of existence [actually 6] and "peeling away of the defenses like an onion, get down to the essential you." [They] bought a bunch of acid-soaked blotters in the lobby along with the book [The Psychedelic Experience]. I was dying to have a hallucination. That was my major aim. I wasn't so sure about the bardos of existence. I did go on a macrobiotic diet for two days. I don't know if you ever tried brown rice alone for two days, but...let me tell you, by the second day the funniest joke in the world will not tickle you in the least. Not really a good thing. But I had my hallucination and then I took acid a few more times, and I had kind of stripped down to a few bardos of existence, I guess, and I saw things very clearly and knew what I liked. There were very few people in New York City at that time--or San Francisco or anywhere--that were musicians and smoked pot and took acid. We were a pretty small cell of post-beatnik, emerging hippie-type psychology.
The acid was around the same period, early 64?
It was right after Alpert and Leary came down from Boston on their first speaking tour.
You really were an early adopter.
I was an early adopter, that's more to the reality of the point.
You've been around some self destructive characters--Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Gene Clark, Tim Buckley...
I knew all those guys.
Did you ever feel you were not crazy enough, self-destructive enough to be a musician?
No, I never had that [feeling]. Tim Hardin was not a very nice guy. Freddie Neal was a beautiful guy. He was a very warm, wonderful guy and I was pretty good friends with him. He used to come by and say hi and everything. He was one of the only guys who said, "I like the way you play guitar," at which I was pretty lame, and I think he was going way out of his way to be nice, because he wasn't trying to get anything from me. I never worked with him, but he was a friend of mine.
There was not too much coke around at that time. It was not till [laughs] six or eight months later! Cass was the first one, when Cass had a hit record, and I had previously helped manage Cass, I had recorded Cass, and [Denny] Dougherty, both on some of my first productions. And so, the Spoonful had a hit and then Cass got going. When I was playing she was in the Big Three and they were playing in the clubs right next to us, The Bitter End and whatnot. Once the Spoonful got going, at the same time Bob Cavallo was still managing her, my partner. And I got involved in managing Cass and when they had a hit we were hanging out in the limo and Cass was the first person that ever said, "Do you want to sniff some coke?" Which I tried, but really, was high-strung enough without it. I was just grinding my teeth--it didn't sit that well with me.
But anyway, they were taking drugs, and heroin was around. Timmy, when I met him, the first thing he asked me was, "Where can we score some?" I naively thought he was talking about pot. But I was totally taken by the sound of his voice, and the writing once he got going. I suffered though the fact of his being a junkie, and it made everything a lot harder than it would have been, but it was part and parcel of who he was, how he was.
Tim seems to have taken terrible advantage of you.
No. No, he didn't take advantage of me. I could not say that. I mean, it was important to me to keep him functioning the best I could, it wasn't easy, but I would never view the overall relationship as him having taken advantage of me. I took as much advantage of him as he took of me, I think. I can still listen to the earlier records, especially.
Sure. Tim Hardin 1 and 2 are the unquestioned masterpieces.
And the blues stuff that we did even before that, that came out later as Tim Hardin 4. "Green Rocky Road," and "Tired of Running Around"--I don't know. There were some good ones in there, that really hold up today. Anyway, no, I don't think he took advantage of me.
There are stories about him walking out of a session to go to the bathroom and calling you a day or two later from LA needing a plane ticket...
It wasn't quite that dramatic, but those are all part of a story. He was tough. He was tough. One time I kind of ran out of money and he needed junk and he got hooked up with some black guys that wanted to make records with him, and they basically put him in a motel or a hotel somewhere and they sent him over with this emissary, Archie Green. He was an enforcer for these black music entrepreneurs, who dealt with junkies. He came over and he had a release, a full release of everything, of production, of publishing, and Archie Green in his big raccoon skin coat--he was as wide and tall as the door when he came in--an extremely menacing type of guy. I managed to worm around and avoid signing, saying, "Well, you know, Tim, if you do make it, I don't want to hold you back, but if you do make it and you get money, then, could you please at least pay me back, and I can pay my mom back the money she lent you," and they said okay, they would see if they could add that paragraph. Tim felt sorry enough for me, or felt enough allegiance to me, or loyalty, that he agreed that it didn't seem that crazy, and Archie Green kind of liked me, we smoked pot together, so I got away, and they never came back. Then Koppelman and Rubin got involved.
Who were in some ways worse.
[Laughs] I didn't want to say that! Zally called them Koppelthief and Robberman.
Can you talk about Tim Hardin 2? How much of that was your work?
It was mostly the songs that I worked up with him, and demos. They put some strings on some stuff, "If I Were a Carpenter" most specifically. But I think about 75 percent of the songs on there were songs that we had worked up together, Tim and I.
Where you were paying him 50 bucks a song, 75 with a bridge.
Yeah, exactly, I guess you could call that a writing for hire type of thing. He responded very well to that, and that was really great, hearing him come in with those songs, boy, talk about a thrill.
You got him to finish those songs at the stage where he was doing his best work. The world owes you gratitude for that. If you hadn't come up with that trick, who knows what would have happened?
No, there's a good chance that he never would have written those songs. But I'm very into songs. I grew up loving songs. I listened to calypso songs early on that my grandmother brought me back from Bermuda--Blind Blake, a couple of those guys, then I got into the Appalachian writing stuff, you know, the old Irish, and Scottish, English ballads. "She Moves Through the Fair," and those things that had continued to exist as standards in Appalachia. And I loved the Kingston Trio. So I had a real interest. I tried to write songs and in doing so I realized, although my songs had okay melodies and they were heartfelt about common themes, they were shallow and stupid sounding. I realized what type of poetry, what a poetic touch [is needed], and how necessary it is to write a song that sounds different from a song that somebody else wrote. I think I goaded Timmy, and Chris [Isaac], and John, those guys most particularly, who came up with a lot of good work as writers.
They all did their best work for you.
Yeah, and I think a lot of that had to do with me being kind of a cheerleading squad, but also being critical and hip enough to songsmanship that I could say, you know, this could go here. This could go there. Or that's not clear. And kind of work on a co-creative level where they did it, but I would be the cheerleader and the critic.
More than that. John was very clear about giving you credit as a full collaborator.
Well, that was nice of him.
John's a great guy.
He's a great guy. And he played harmonica on the blues stuff that Timmy did, long before we got with Zally.
You and Zally bumped heads in the studio a little bit, right?
Not really. I never felt that. I thought he was terrific. Came up with great shit. Zally was an explosive character, [but] I never bumped heads like he did later with John.
I thought he and Joe were the ones going at it.
Zally was very much his own player, man, he was brighter than all of us. And very funny, and very sarcastic. Very quick, and he'd go to the greatest depths you could possibly imagine just in guerilla interchange communication and putdowns. He called Bob Cavallo BFB--Big Fat Bob. Actually I think I was as close to Zally as anybody in that organization. Especially when he had had this girlfriend that John got with later. The one they called the Orange Lady or Lorey. Once John fell in love with her, and she had been with Zal, Zal was just brutal.
Did Zally want more control in the studio?
Nah. John, they were his songs. He played rhythm guitar, he knew about drumming, he helped, he knew about the backbeat and all of that stuff which I was a little bit naïve on. Zal was just buying new equipment and he'd come in and start playing crazy stuff. We'd say, "that's good, that's no good, we like this," but generally speaking, I'm not aware of him trying to have any undue control in the studio. I never remember a single incident where he said, "This is wrong, I don't like this," or "this should be like this." I mean, he was a good Charlie and a great, great player, great sounds, great ideas, worked hard, I never had any problem with him whatsoever.
I must say in terms of the sounds we used in the studio, Zally--you listen to the guitar sounds and stuff he came up with there, he was an extremely inventive, cool guy for that age, for that time. He came up with more stuff than you can shake a stick at. And of course John, between his love for guitars, and his autoharp playing and his harmonica playing, and he could play the steel guitar a little bit.
And piano--on "Summer in the City." He said it was a three way collaboration between you, him, and Zally. Wanting instruments to sound like something other than themselves.
Right. We used a lot of overdubbing, but that was nothing we particularly came up with. Mixed on small speakers--I was one of the first guys who had multiple speaker systems to listen on. And I thought actually almost every record sounds worse after they digitally remastered it, including The Best of the Spoondul. Colder--there's something about the old analog stuff that has a kind of warmth and cohesion. Like you had to lock the whole rhythm section, and then the band, and you had to go tape to tape to tape to add anything. And then splice the second generation and then you could overdub some more stuff and then splice that together.
You were aware of what Spector was doing with doubling instruments and all.
Oh yeah, sure.
And Brian Wilson was already doing some stuff, which he stole from Spector.
Right. With great effect.
How many tracks did you have to play with on the Spoonful records?
I know that we started on two track, but we mixed down to mono.
I can't believe it!
Well, the Beatles didn't have more than four tracks until the very end.
The Beatles weren't doing anything as complex as you were in 1965. Sgt. Pepper was still a long ways off. There is nothing--even now--that sounds like "Do You Believe in Magic."
No. No. Well, the electric autoharp was a big part of it too. We were overdubbing, but we did have those acoustic instruments and it was kind of a conglomeration of stuff that wasn't regularly used. But hopefully not overused, you know? We were certainly not like Spector, no wall of sound. And I'm sure you've heard the story about how Spector wanted to sign the Lovin' Spoonful when he heard about them.
Oh yeah, he came down to hear them at the Night Owl Café, I guess Koppelman and Rubin had called him or somebody called him about it, and he came down and liked it very much and came on to John about , "I want to produce you guys." And of course we had done nothing, really, at that point, we were trying to make records, and he pulled John [aside] and made a strong pitch. And John came to me, he says, "What are we gonna do about this? I mean, this guy's huge, he could be the breakthrough thing." I said, "As far as I know, what he does is kind of an antithesis to what we're trying to do, which is to make a small band, with nice parts, well played, but it's not the wall of sound thing." And I said, "What does he know about it? What band record has he ever made where you heard the three or four people playing with each other?"
He was Brill Building tradition, not folk tradition at all.
No, not at all. And his approach was much more orchestral than it was band. So John, thank heavens, decided to tell him no.
The band would have lost its personality with Spector.
It would have been ridiculous. They wouldn't have been the Lovin' Spoonful.
Whereas you were able to use some of Spector's tricks to make them completely unique.
In a few circumstances, yeah.
Even the individual records sounded different from each other. If you listen to "Daydream" compared to "Do You Believe In Magic," it's got a whole different sound.
A whole different sound, right. I can remember those sessions as plain as day, because we did those with the great engineer Roy Halee [Simon and Garfunkel etc.] at Columbia. The arrangement that we worked up was just going to be the guitars, we were trying to get two guitars going. And we started doing tracks, because John, good singer that he was, we never did try to record live, I mean, we did overdubs. The vocals were always overdubbed, and a lot of times Zally was overdubbed. On "Daydream," Zally played I guess a straight-four guitar, that was just chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck, whereas all the finger-picking styles are oohm-chick, oohm-chick, a shuffle type stuff. That was very, very hard. We went into the studio, and I guess maybe Steve was trying to play along at first, but it just could not lock up at all, and we took a break, and then we came back, it couldn't lock up. I mean, we tried that so many different ways, and I finally said, "Let's just try a whole 'nother approach," because we just couldn't make it with the drums with the big backbeat. It came down to just trying to get it coordinated between Zal and Johnny. And they played a couple of takes, three, four, five, six takes, and we just could not get it to maintain a rhythmic cohesion. And I said, "Roy, will you help me work on this thing? I want to find little pieces that sound right, and I'm going to make the whole tune up by splices."
Which I was good at because Tim, he'd nod out between verses. People complained, when they went to hear Tim play, "How come he doesn't do it like he did on the record?" I mean, a lot of times Tim was gone, he didn't even come to some of those sessions. I'd have to go in and splice a song together. We'd have parts and I'd splice them together, so I became very adept at splicing, and I still am.
I don't know if you've ever heard the Sopwith Camel's second record [from 1973]. It's absolutely terrific. I mean, so far ahead of its time. It sounds as fresh today as it did then. One of the best records I ever made by far. But the band broke up just as people were starting to get into it. It didn't have a single and they had troubles on the road. Some people, they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going, but [singer/saxophonist Peter Kraemer] was not one of the tough. Very sensitive. But by far it's the coolest, hippest lyrics of anybody I ever published or produced. It's called The Miraculous Hump Returns from the Moon. And listen to that splicing. I made [Peter] sound like one of the greatest, far-out-est horn players in the world. I was with Bob Cavallo and them and they played it for Wayne Shorter and he went, "Jesus Christ, this guy is a monster!" He played it, but I helped organize it. You know, which is kind of what I did with the songs, too. Kind of the organizational, proportional architecture of stuff. Inasmuch as that's a talent.
So you rescued "Daydream" with splicing?
I made one little loop where it just went around and around and around. I made copies of the one part that did pull together and we overdubbed the bass on it. I think Joe plays spoons on it. And John whistled during the break. So it was just kind of a hothouse flower that we did with Roy Halee. He was the greatest.
Any other studio stories?
Well, for example, when "Summer in the City" starts, and that big bang goes off, that was the stairwell, 17-story stairwell at Columbia Records in New York City. They had a big sign on there, you could only use it [for recording] after 7 o'clock at night. It says "Warning, do not use marble staircase," 17 or 18 stories or something. And they had the huge speaker up at the top floor and they would send sound into the stairwell. That's where that whoom, boom came from. And then Johhny had this idea that at the end of the last chorus he wanted...I don't know if you've ever heard it when you kick an amplifier with the reverb on, makes that big kaboom sound. He said, "That's what we're going to end it with." We tried to make it, and I said, "Johnny, this is just fucking ridiculous, I mean, we've got a great song here, and this is just so cheesy." And he says, "How are we going to end it?" and I said, "Let's splice on the middle instrumental, and then we'll add a few more drums on it, and Zally can play over it, and so we'll just use that same piece." So the fade is actually exactly the same as the break in the middle, when the band comes back in, when it has the solo piano, dit dit dedit dit.
A Motown guy came over, they sent a guy in with a briefcase and a pipe and spectacles. And they asked if they could see what we were doing. It was with Roy Halee, and he came in at a break and took notes, how far away the microphones were from the speakers, how isolated they were, and what microphones they were, what amplifiers they were. Motown wanted me to come to work for Motown. I actually had lunch with some guys. They asked me, did I like any type [of R&B]. I said, "Sure, I love Motown, I love blues, Muddy Waters, he's in town, I'm going across the street to see him," and they go, "Jeez, but that's so...so old fashioned." [Laughs] I said, "Well, it may be old fashioned, but it still..."
My band did a two week gig in Chicago with Muddy Waters. We opened for Muddy Waters for two weeks. I watched those girls fuss over him before he went on stage, smoothing his pompadour, adjusting his shirt with the frills down the front. It was really something. We talked. He was a very nice guy, and of course to me, his early records, with just the electric guitar and a bass, those are to me the best, most seminal electric blues stuff, by far. And he had a kind of an authority. Of course there's been a lot of great old blues guys, like Robert Johnson, but Muddy, to me, is still the main guy. I still listen to him.
Great songs, too. It's when you hear other people cover a songwriter that you can really hear the spine and structure of a song, when you can really see how great the songs themselves are. Like with Muddy or, say, Bob Marley.
I of course loved him, I saw him live over here at the Paramount at the peak of his career and God, he was just fabulous. I think probably the most dynamic, hippest, most soulful guy that I ever saw. Shaking those big dreadlocks around. I still love the beat. I still dance to the beat. It's got so much to hang on to. The counter rhythms are so incredibly hip. For me, the 70s, that was by far the major musical innovation. I guess you might claim that disco was too, and I like that, still going on.
Yeah, with Tito [Puente] and all those guys. It was good. I don't know, when it comes to dancing, salsa, of course it's danceable, but salsa dancing is a lot more regimented. I like reggaeton. I'm a huge reggaeton fan. I love banda. But for dancing, of course, the Brazilian samba stuff is so much more motivating. African highlife, terrific. Those are the things I like to dance to.
Back to the Spoonful for just a second...Was it your decision to replace Jan Carl?
I think both John and I [made the decision].I've always been very image conscious. I remember one time, when I first moved to San Francisco, some person interviewed me and I said that I would think twice before I would want to record with somebody who was just unattractive, who was like way overweight or something like that, because as a manager and a producer, you obviously want somebody that people like to look at. It was about videos becoming more important, is what it was about, many years ago. And I said, "Look, this is show business, people like people that look good. The visual aspect of it is very important." And I remember reading a very negative take on my comment, like what a shallow thing to say, because music is music, and all that. But the guy Jan, he didn't act too hip, he didn't really have any type of showbiz flair, he couldn't sing anywhere near as well as Joe, and [laughs] he probably held better time, but when you considered everything, Joe can hold a beat.
Joe's a fine drummer, at least he sounds that way on record.
No, he was. And you know how he got the job, when we tried him out?
Steve knew him from the Sellouts, right?
Steve's brother was in the Sellouts. They didn't actually play together, but they knew each other from Long Island. Joe was auditioning, and they were playing the song, and we were over at the Albert Hotel. It was a sizzle cymbal, and we were doing the outro or something and he broke a stick or lost a stick and rather than stop, right at the end he was bashing the cymbal with his fingers and you know those sizzles, they're little rivets. So, we were very impressed with his gung-ho attitude and you know, he did look very good, and he conformed to the image of the group. Whereas Jan just wasn't right image-wise.
It was like...the first three or four years with [Chris] Isaac, Jimmy Wilsey, the guitar player, was starting to go bald.
God, he was a good guitar player, though. Still is.
He sure is. The guy Isaac's got now is a wonderful guitar player and he can play anything, but creatively speaking, he did not have the kind of a little bit of a scary, ominous type of harmonic approach that suited Chris's more spooky side.
Wilsey gave Chris his sound.
Yeah, it was very important to him. It was too bad that they had the falling out. But we made Jimmy wear a wig. It was the same thing.
Now Kenny was not a super attractive guy as far as that went.
No. But Jimmy was out in front. Drummer's in back. Jimmy was out in front, and having a bald guitar player is...echh, you don't see it that often. Not with a group of young guys.
Anyway, Jan was not right image-wise, from several different points of view.
Makes me think of the Beatles and Pete Best. I'm not sure the Beatles could have made it with him. Of course he was a lousy drummer.
Well, then they had every reason to do that move. And we never got far enough with Jan for me to really be able to say what he could have done. But it worked well with Joe, and he was beautiful for the image, and sang very well. Great harmonies. Course, Zally piped up on harmonies too. [Sighs] Yeah, it was a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun. They just never got over the [business with Lorey]. I love that Spinal Tap [movie] because it represented the involvement with girlfriends with musicians, with others that come in and cause havoc, and certainly Lorey was that. And I heard that John did not want to ever talk about the old days just because thinking about her was so painful for him.
She had brought this guy in, Jack whatever his name was, and instead of us putting out a fabulous third record, he made this deal where we got with Woody Allen to do the Tiger Lilly soundtrack.
So that was because of Lorey.
Yeah. That was indirectly because of Lorey. They sent out 300 thousand [copies of the album] initially and 250 [thousand] came back. It was a nice group of songs, but had we come with HUMS instead of that piece of shit...Well, I like it, I like it, but I said, "Look, this is going to torpedo us." And then Zally was fired, and then I was fired.
So you didn't quit on your own.
Yeah, I was fired. I don't exactly know from John's point of view what it was, but--I know Bob Cavallo told me honestly some years later that he suspected that I had a thing with his wife. We stayed out at Long Island together, we all had a big house out there, and there was nothing to that, but it weakened our partnership, and I never knew about it and I couldn't understand what happened. But they fired Zally--
That was over the drug bust?
That was only a part of it. The friction between John and Zally over Lorey was a very big part of the estrangement. And then I told Johnny, "Jesus man, I mean firing Zally? You must be out of your fucking mind." And then, because I had that crazy situation where Bob was jealous of me with his wife, which I didn't know about, I guess between John and Bob, they decided, boy, we might as well, and they fired me. And I wanted to move to California. I'd kind of had it. So anyway, that's what went down.
Was part of your motivation in moving to California wanting to produce the Charlatans?
The Charlatans, you know that's the first band of San Francisco rock history, and one of the very first concerts, if not the first concert where everybody smoked pot, was the Spoonful and the Charlatans at the [Longshoremen's] Hall. That was at the start of the whole San Francisco concert thing. They were both very reefer and acid oriented. I had found the Charlatans on my own. The gal Luria Castell [of the Family Dog] had given me a tape and a picture, and because I had been doing that old-timey fashion thing in New York with watch fobs and suits and everything, went on a whole, old-timey bent. And the Charlatans were totally 100% like that. I mean, they didn't own anything that was from the 20th century, practically. They wore guns and had long hair and purple velvet pants and old-timey Western shit. So I just loved that. And then I heard a cassette tape. I remember when the Stones wanted to record on cassettes because they loved the sound of the compression and the distortion and everything. You could hear excitement through a cassette tape that if you actually miked the instruments and heard them clearly, it just wasn't the same thing.
But I went out to California. I loved California ever since I went out with the Boy Scout Jamboree. When we first went out to San Francisco with the Spoonful and we opened for a stripper on Broadway, and everybody came that would be anybody--The Family Dog, Chet [Helms] came, and a lot of people from the Committee. That was the whole start of the scene, in San Francisco. Everybody that would ultimately be anybody in the Family Dog all came to see us at [Mother's]. But anyway, I went out there just to move to San Francisco.
Was this in 1967?
Did you have a sense that the Greenwich Village scene had burned out by that point?
Yes, I did. And when Zally was fired...I had a gigantic appreciation for the part he had played in the whole thing, and John got more sappy--Lorey just had a terrible influence on him. They ultimately got married and then she ran off with some English rock guy.
Were you part of the Haight Ashbury scene?
No. Not at all. I had done all that shit two or three years earlier. And there was a very unsavory element to that San Francisco thing. I went and saw the groups at the various ballroom concerts, but...
Can you elaborate on the "unsavory" part?
Well, like the Diggers, you know, the Digger thing where they came around and extorted money from anybody, threatening people. I remember going over with George [Hunter] and another Charlatan to a confab where Owsley was there, and some of the people from the Grateful Dead, the management, or the assistants, and somebody from the Airplane. Maybe 16 people sitting around in a circle, and Owsley had this pot laced [with] PCP. And everybody sitting there cross-legged, everybody with long hair, and everybody was hipper than thou, and they're so beautiful and all this shit. You know, having come from New York, it was really a featherweight, flighty group of people. They were passing the PCP around and I took one hit, and boy, was I, bleughh. God, I mean, who wants to do this? And I said to George, "George, what do you say, you think we better get going?" and people looked at me and one guy said, "Give him some more, tell him to shut up." Nobody was saying anything. They were all just so high, they were closing their eyes and kind of just worshipping the PCP high, were too fucking loaded to talk. And I'm going, "This is a group of deadbeats if I've ever seen it." And Owsley, what a jackoff. You know, the whole thing was just too much for me. Too, too, too pose-ing, and hipper than thou. There was a kind of a trying-too-hard aspect to the whole big Summer of Love.
In a way, hippies were the ultimate conformists.
Yeah. Exactly. That's what I'm saying. Really, you listen to the music from those groups now...the Grateful Dead never had a fucking hit. I mean, they were boring as hell to go and see them play. And I don't know. The Starship, they made some good records, they had a sound. Janis, of course, always an interesting thing to see her on stage. Blue Cheer.
I drank punch and got dosed and went one time or several times, but I never really was a part of that scene. I mean, for guys that had taken acid in 64, it was yesterday's news, and trying too hard. Anyway, that is about as much as I can say. They were all born after me. I'm a war baby, I'm not a baby boomer. There's a big difference. Big difference.
When was the last time you saw Tim Hardin? Did you see him after you moved to California?
Yes I did. The last time I saw Tim Hardin was...one of the guys from the Modern Folk Quartet, Jerry Yester, who later worked with the Spoonful-- I made some records with Jerry. I had nothing going on and so we went in the studio, we made a few records for Dunhill. Pretty, but not really very commercial. I dropped by a studio where he was working on something, and there was a guy sitting there, a fat bald guy. I didn't look at him closely, and later Jerry goes, "Jeez, you didn't even say hi to Timmy." I said, "That was Timmy?" And I said, "Oh my god."
When was that?
That was late. That was sometime before he died.
78, 79, somewhere in there?
Somewhere in there. And he had metamorphosed totally and completely. The last time I went to try to see Tim he was playing at the Whiskey. This was after Koppelman and Rubin had taken over the production. Cavallo had [talked] me into selling all my songs. I had owned all of those songs by myself. All of Tim's and all of John's. And all of Dan Hicks's! And Cavallo talked me into selling the whole thing to Don [Rubin] and Charlie [Koppelman] and I mean, just one of the worst business moves ever done by anybody. Those are worth tens of millions today, those catalogs, which we sold for nothing.
I went over to the Whiskey to see him. I was going to go backstage. And this was after I'd worked with him for a year and half, two years. And he had just been signed to Columbia. The person, whoever it was, came out and told me, "Tim doesn't want to see you." And I said, "Oh really? What is the problem?" And the guy says, "Tim says you told people he was a junkie." [Laughs]
How could you say that?
How could I say a thing like that? Yeah, right. But that was the last direct communication I ever had from him, that I told people he was a junkie.
Tim seems to match the pattern of the classic pathological liar.
He didn't really lie, as far as the Tim I knew. He was more the pathological junkie, who doesn't give a shit about anybody. Really, just totally self-absorbed, and in some kind of a deep pain inside.
Definitely in pain. That's where those songs came from.
Yeah. Pain, and actually not honest. He would get with a girl for two days and go to her house and steal money from her, I mean, he was just a no-good fuckin' guy. But all junkies, they need junk so bad that there's no morality. So, pathological liar, I don't think so, inasmuch as that really I don't think that was one of the main character [flaws].
His notions of reality were constantly shifting.
I think that's true.
So many contradictory interviews--in one, he taught Darin to sing "Carpenter," in another he had no idea Darin was going to do it till he heard it on the radio, like he was just inventing this stuff as he went along.
I see what you mean. Right. It also could be that he just [lost] his whole grip on reality. I helped get him on a methadone treatment and then of course he got hooked on methadone, taking junk and methadone, and that didn't work at all. And I think he became more delusional after that first couple, two and a half years.
The expanded Woodstock movie shows him backstage on Friday afternoon, stoned out of his gourd, stumbling around, eyelids drooping...
I saw that ad nauseum. I mean, you can imagine. He used to shoot up in my apartment. And I see those pictures of those eyes where there's no pupil. I can read a drug addict a mile away. [Laughs] Because some of the guys in the Charlatans, Mike Wilhelm, they were uptown. And I can take a look and tell if somebody's downtown or uptown in a split second. My hopes, and vision, and everything rode on somebody, how are they going to show up today? Or are they going to show up?
I sense a disappointment or even bitterness in you about these incredibly talented guys who have just...fucked up.
It was what it was. I hadn't had really any previous personal experience with drug or alcohol misuse or addiction. Junkies are really very, very tough to deal with. I understand why, because I later smoked quite a bit myself--never to the extent that I ever shot it or anything, but I certainly smoked it back in the days when the Iranian stuff was out. To the extent that I know just what a terrible grip it gets on you physiologically. And I can very well understand the desperation involved in needing to get the shit off your back. Because when you start to dissolve, it is a horrible feeling.
I'm lucky I don't have the tolerance. You know how they say certain things run in families? It's actually a genetic component. It's not that you crave the thing, it's that you can tolerate it. Kids that can drink like a six-pack in high school, while the other kids throw up? People that throw up never really become total alcoholics. The people that can tolerate it are the ones that drink enough of it that they become alcoholics. If you genetically are blessed with a weak constitution, you're lucky, when it comes to that.
I understand you're working on a new project?
You know, I don't really know what to make of the thing. [Laughs] I've had a lot of fun doing it, I've had a positive response, and some not so positive. It's not some fabulous breakthrough singer, a Tim Hardin or an Isaac. I can see certain people would say he's no great singer. He's a writer that I've worked with for years. He wrote "Papa, Don't Preach," and he wrote one song with Isaac, "Can't Do a Thing to Stop Me." It's more of a publishing demo, and we have some songs that we really worked on for a long time. It's now kind of piano trio music, like Dana Kroll and stuff like that. One guy said, "It kind of sounds like Heavy Lounge." You've heard some of this stuff before, but the songs are, I think, very catchy, very cute, and humorous. [The album will be called Full Mental Nudity.]
His name is Brian Elliot. I'm happy about it. I'm anxious to see what some people think. The songs I think are very good in a classic values type way, of songs, songwriting. But one old friend listens to it and she goes, "You had so many great things you did in your career, to end it with this--[Laughs] It'll put a taint on your whole thing." I'm not worried about that, frankly. I coaxed him into doing it because I just said, "I can't leave all that hanging." I'm glad I did it.
© 2014 by Lewis Shiner. First published in Fiction Liberation Front, July 2014. Some rights reserved.