FROM MY BOOK IN PROGRESS
Chapter 18 of "Cold Pizza For Breakfast" with music
Sunday, November 29, 2009
I've written a book entitled COLD PIZZA FOR BREAKFAST: A MEM-WHA?? about my 25 years so far as a touring musician, and I read a chapter here.
The working title of this chapter is "Folk Music Mischief Makers," about my time involved with The Fast Folk Musical Magazine and the Speakeasy Cooperative – starting in the early 1980s. I add music throughout by some of the singer/songwriters I write about. The book will be published by Tell Me Press in New Haven, CT Tell Me Press in New Haven, CT in the Spring of 2010.
The recording is on three disks, wav files that I burn on my Mac (though I can also make aiff files).
Disk One is 1:03:31. Disk Two is 1:06:42, Disk Three is 43:44 -- for a total of approximately 2:55
If you are a folk dj, let me know if you would like me to make you a copy, and where to send it. Below is the script as I read it, the sets of music are set apart (so you can quickly scan through and see what's there). The files don't have ID points -- each disk is one complete file. Although I will be doing an audio book, it won't have music throughout like this chapter does. I've made this as an experiment, and thought that during the holiday time you might find use for something to fill a three-hour slot so you can get some Christmas shopping done!
FAST FOLK MUSIC MISCHIEF MAKERS
Years from now, if someone writes a book about the American contemporary folk-music scene of the late twentieth century, they will no doubt write at length about Jack Hardy.
Since the late 1970s, almost every Monday night (unless he is traveling) singer/songwriter Jack Hardy hosts a songwriters dinner in Greenwich Village. You can attend if you are a songwriter, you put two dollars in the pot (to cover pasta and wine), and you have a new song to sing. Those simple rules set so much in motion.
In February 1982, Jack—with a bunch of other musicians, but he was the driving force—organized not only a cooperative nightclub called the Speakeasy on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, but a monthly music publication that contained an album of songs along with it. He called it The Fast Folk Musical Magazine.
I was so impressed to see that first issue, because it was completely created by songwriters. It was packaged in a plain white cardboard album cover, and inside was a homemade magazine that contained the song lyrics and songwriter bios. The whole thing cost two dollars. Jack wanted to keep the price as low as possible so that anyone interested in folk music could afford it, but he had to raise the price to four dollars after the first few months. No one thought a two-dollar vinyl album could have anything worthwhile on it. (Boy, were they wrong. That first issue contained, among others, the debut recording by brand new singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega.)
'CRACKING' © 1981 SUZANNE VEGA 3:12
'KING OF HEARTS' © 1982 PAUL KAPLAN 4:08
'GARDEN STATE STOMP' © 1982 DAVE VAN RONK, Folklore Music ASCAP 3:00
Those three songs were from the very first issue of the Fast Folk Musical Magazine published in February 1982. It was very kind and generous of Dave Van Ronk to appear on that first issue. He was well known around the world and certainly didn't need the exposure. In fact, Dave used to say, "Exposure?? You die of exposure!" But he thought these folksingers doing it on their own was a great thing and he wanted to be part of it.
Dave Van Ronk introduced to me to Jack Hardy, and soon I was involved in both Fast Folk and the Speakeasy.
The owner of the Speakeasy was Josef, a short, grouchy, balding man with a thick Slavic accent. The club, down a few stairs below street level, was a small, cramped room with mirror-lined walls and jammed with chairs and tables. Lining the back of the tiny stage was Josef's pride and joy—tanks filled with colorful, exotic fish. Once, Andy Breckman stopped in the middle of a song and slammed down a five-dollar bill.
"Five bucks says one of those fish won't live ten minutes outside of the tank!"
He encouraged the crowd to up the ante—it went as high as twenty-five dollars—'til Josef came screaming down the stairs. I don't think Andy was really going to torture a fish, but it was fun to watch Josef lose his temper.
Andy Breckman went on to create the TV show Monk. He was just one of the musicians who passed through the Speakeasy during the 1980s.
"PASSING TRAINS" © ANDY BRECKMAN Music BMI 2:40
'IQ RADIO TEST' ANDY BRECKMAN 12:00
'HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER' © ANDY BRECKMAN Music BMI 3:04
[I back-announce set of music, read an email from Andy]
BACK TO THE BOOK -- THE SPEAKEASY IN THE 1980S:
Most of the musicians played guitars, including John Gorka, who used to joke that thanks to the mirrored walls, a performer could flirt with five different people at the same time. Piano players weren't as lucky—they had their backs to the audience, and the small upright was never quite in tune. One night Julie Gold, a future Grammy winner, gently asked Josef if he could do something about the piano.
"What are you talking about?" he screamed at her. "I just had it painted!"
Despite that, it was a wonderfully percolating scene, and it was where I saw many great musicians for the first time: Shawn Colvin, Nanci Griffith, David Roth and Josh Joffen (who were a duo at the time), Tom Intondi, Cliff Eberhardt, Lucy Kaplansky, David Mallett, Bill Morrissey, Greg Brown, Uncle Bonsai (Andrew Ratshin, Arni Adler, Ashley O'Keeffe), Lillie Palmer, Aztec Two-Step (Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman), Rod MacDonald, Nikki Matheson, Peter Spencer, David Massengill, and Mark Dann.
JOHN GORKA 'GEZA'S WAILING WAYS' © 1983 John Gorka, Blues Palace Music BMI 3:53
UNCLE BONSAI – FAT BOYS ©1984 Liu-tunes ASCAP 3:44
SIGHTSEER DAVID MASSENGILL & LISI TRIBBLE © David Massengill/WB Music Corp. obo David Massengill Music 4:23
[I back announce the set of music]
At the Speakeasy, we did everything except wait on tables—we booked, promoted, and emceed the shows; sold tickets at the door; seated the audience; ran the sound; and sold albums. There were concerts every night, and Monday was open mike. Many of the people who volunteered at the Speakeasy also helped out with Fast Folk.
For a couple years it was my job to bring the master tapes to Tom Coyne at the Frankford Wayne Mastering Labs. Tom Coyne was (and is) one of the most respected album-mastering artists in the business. I'm sure Fast Folk was paying him a fraction of what his standard fee was even back then, but he is one of those fantastic mastering engineers (like Phil Klum) who loves good music. Tom Coyne, God bless him, liked what we were up to—a bunch of renegade folk musicians creating our own scene—and took as much care mastering us every month as he did his major-label clients. (Many years later, when Fast Folk had ceased operations, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., bought up all the recordings, which are now in their archives.)
MORE HERE ABOUT SMITHSONIAN, FROM THE SMITHSONIAN:
"Much of the work in the past couple of years with the Fast Folk label has dealt with cataloging, fact checking, error correcting, and the like. This was necessary to get the correct data ingested through all of the major digital download sites... I'm happy to report that most all sites (iTunes, eMusic, Rhapsody, etc) are now carrying a majority of the Fast Folk label. Through our own website, we're seeing mostly physical CD sales of full albums, but digital sales for individual tracks (in addition to full album downloads) for the FF catalog are slowly gaining. Overall, the Fast Folk label comprises only about 100 of the nearly 3000 full albums we have on hand, so percentage wise the FF sales is a very small portion of our total sales, but we are seeing signs of small growth as a label. As for which artists are more popular . . . Shawn Colvin definitely leads the pack."
Visit Smithsonian Fast Folk (I don't spell this out; way too complicated)
Easiest is to GOOGLE "SMITHSONIAN FAST FOLK." BACK TO THE BOOK:
As subscriptions to the magazine grew, Jack Hardy threw "album-mailing parties" at his tiny walk-up apartment, where he also hosted the weekly songwriters dinners. One of the people who came to the mailing parties was a strange woman who shaved half her head; the other half was in dreadlocks. She told us she lived for free in a building on the Lower East Side with other squatters. She was very low-key and sweet, and was eager to help, but since she never came to the Speakeasy, we assumed she wasn't a musician. Her name? Michelle Shocked.
Even with the magazine priced at four dollars, as time went on it was clear that the price needed to go up again. Local graphic artists wanted to design covers for the albums, and printing costs went up, so the subscription charge was raised. Then raised again. I think at its height it was ten dollars an issue—still a bargain when you consider what you got. A hundred years from now, someone is going to do very well on Antiques Roadshow.
For the first year or so, almost all the recorded musicians were New Yorkers or were passing through, but then Fast Folk went on the road. I traveled to Boston with Jay Rosen, who worked during the day at J&R Music (and still does) but tirelessly engineered many of the Fast Folk issues in his spare time. The Boston area has always been very supportive of folk music. They've always had great radio—WUMB at UMass plays folk music every day, and they started playing the Fast Folk records as soon as they received them. Because of this, Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin became stars in the Boston area even before their hometown New York area.
When Jay was recording the Boston artists, it was my job to collect their song lyrics, bios, and any publishing information on the songs. One of the songwriters on that first Boston session was Tracy Chapman, who had never recorded before, but something went wrong with her recording: there was a loud hiss on her track from start to finish. It was extremely annoying and couldn't be eliminated, even by Tom Coyne. Jack Hardy didn't care. All he cared about was documenting songs, preserving them as they were being written. For that, her recording was fine. But I felt differently. I told him that no radio station would be able to play it with that hiss on it, and he scoffed.
"We aren't making these records for radio airplay," he said. "It's not what we're about."
Jack was always a purist, but I am more pragmatic, so I fought him. We went back and forth, and finally he said that the only way he would take that song off would be if I personally took responsibility: I would have to write to Tracy myself and explain. So that's what I did. I tried to put a positive spin on it—I told her I thought she was too good to have a bad recording be her debut. I hope she realizes that I was trying to do the right thing by her. From that Boston Fast Folk issue:
'DOLLMAKER'S SECRET' BY © 1985 CHUCK HALL 3:35
'FOR REAL' © 1983 BY BOB FRANKE, Telephone Pole Music, BMI 4:33
'I DO FOR YOU YOU DO FOR ME'– JEANIE STAHL & GUY VAN DUSER © 1985 Jeanie Stahl, lyrics by Harriet Reisen 3:49
DISK ONE ENDS HERE
DISK TWO STARTS HERE
[I back-announce that last set of music from the Boston FF issue, explain how Jack Hardy and I clashed over the Tracy Chapman song.]
I clashed with Jack over other creative differences—there are no piano songs in the early Fast Folk recordings because Jack didn't consider it a folk instrument—but I was such a fan of Julie Gold, who only plays piano, and Raun MacKinnon (who also played guitar, but what a pianist she is) that I finally wore him down.
Many of the studio recordings for Fast Folk were done in Mark Dann's attic studio—he lived on the fourth floor of his parents' home in Brooklyn, a big rambling Victorian. But his parents were not fans of what we were doing, and we were not allowed to ring the doorbell. When we got off the subway, we would call from a pay phone, and Mark would run down to the front door just as we were walking up. If his parents were home and happened to see us, we were not to look at them—just keep moving.
I produced a few issues of Fast Folk—one of them was all humorous songs, and one of them was all women songwriters. Julie Gold and Raun MacKinnon, were on that one—and the piano at Mark's parents' house was on the third floor. We had to wait to get the all-clear that it was okay to go to Mark's, and the night we did, we raced there as fast as we could. Mark lowered microphones from a fourth-floor window down to the third floor, where I positioned them. Julie and Raun had just one take to get it right. Julie sang her whimsical song "The Bus," and Raun sang David Buskin's classic "All in All." As soon as we were done, Mark pulled the microphones up through the window again, and we scrammed before Mark's parents returned. It seems almost comical now that Grammy winner Julie Gold had to record her early songs in such a clandestine manner.
JULIE GOLD "THE BUS" © Julie Gold Music, BMI.3:03
RAUN "ALL IN ALL" © David Buskin, Poso Music/ASCAP 6:30
[I back announce the songs, talk about Julie's new song "I Miss Being Young" that I heard on my way to the studio]
Shawn Colvin is also on that issue, doing her song "Knowing what I Know Now." She went to Mark's to record it on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon. She called Mark when she got off the subway, but he wasn't home yet, so she called me, asking what to do. She'd already waited fifteen minutes, huddling in a phone booth to stay dry. I begged her to wait for thirty minutes more before giving up and to keep calling him. She did, and eventually Mark answered the phone—he had been stuck in traffic. She went to his house, and he got that song on tape. It's hard to imagine Shawn Colvin going to such lengths to record her songs.
PLAY "KNOWING WHAT I KNOW NOW" BY SHAWN COLVIN © Shawn Colvin 3:11
[Back-announce Shawn's song; talk about how she stood shivering in a phone booth for 30 minutes before recording.]
But that's how we did it back then, and we all gained invaluable experience along the way. We also learned how much more power we had when we joined forces and created our own "scene." (As more of us made our own albums and got radio airplay, we started traveling way beyond Greenwich Village. It's ironic that the Fast Folk Musical Magazine created the scene, then helped dismantle it as the songwriters who found success moved onto solo career tracks.) I will be eternally grateful to Jack Hardy for starting it.
Everyone in New York wanted to play The Bottom Line on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village. For thirty years it was THE club in New York for live music of all types, not just folk, but rock and jazz, and even comedy. It was owned by Allan Pepper and Stanley Snadowsky, and after about two years of success with the Fast Folk recordings and all the Speakeasy shows, we approached them about doing a big Fast Folk show at their club.
I had met with Allan Pepper a year or so earlier, proposing the idea of doing a four-artist show at his club. At the time, none of us could fill the 350-seat club on our own, but together we knew that we could. But that first meeting didn't go the way I had hoped. Allan pointed to one of the names and asked what I thought of that particular performer's music. I told him it wasn't anything I really liked, but I knew that the artist had a following and could probably fill a hundred seats.
"I'm glad you are honest with me concerning your opinion," he said, "but learn a lesson from this: never promote something you have to make excuses for. I don't care for this person's music, either, and the philosophy of this club is that we only promote shows we believe in.
"When I saw that name on your list, I questioned your ears," he said. "I'm saying no to this idea, but try me again when you have a better handle on what you're doing."
I have repeated Allan Pepper's advice to countless musicians: never promote something you have to make excuses for. And that also goes for recordings. It's extremely bad form to say something like, "It's not really finished yet" or "The guitar is too loud on this" or "My vocal is a bit ragged"—wait until your recording is finished so that you can proudly hand it to someone, knowing it's the best it can be.
Later, Allan agreed to meet with Jack Hardy and me to discuss a Fast Folk show. I felt more confident with this idea—there were so many artists who had appeared on Fast Folk by then that I knew there were more than enough to put on a good, solid show. The highlights of that first Bottom Line Fast Folk Show were preserved as the April 1984 issue—I'm on that disk, along with Jack, Suzanne Vega, Frank Christian, Rod MacDonald, Erik Frandsen, and others, closing with all of us backing up David Massengill on his groundbreaking song, "The Great American Dream."
That song became a sort of a local anthem for its time, but when David made his very first solo album, that song—perhaps the best thing he has ever written—was not included. He had a manager who thought the song was so good and so powerful that they should hold it back, putting it on his second album once he was fully established. That first album didn't do what they had hoped it would, though I am convinced it would have had that song been included. That's another lesson learned.
It's never a good idea to save your A-plus material for the next album or your possible encore. When many musicians initially start to record, they have a first-rate collection of songs (cause let's face it—you have your whole entire life to build up to your first album). There's this fear that if you put all the best songs on the first disk, you won't have great stuff for the next album. But don't think like that. You will keep writing, and you'll have great new songs for albums down the line. Always go with your best work right out of the gate.
'THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM' by DAVID MASSENGILL AND FRIENDS © David Massengill/WB Music Corp. obo David Massengill Music9:19
"OPEN ALL NIGHT" © Brian Rose, PERFOMED BY LUCY KAPLANSKY 4:21
"AMERICAN JERUSALEM" © ROD MACDONALD 6:04
[I back-announce that last set of music, list the singers on the songs.]
Just a sidebar here about the musicians you just heard playing with all of us at The Bottom Line that night back in 1984. Mark Dann was on 2nd guitar. Although he played bass on many of the Fast Folk recordings he engineered at his studio in Brooklyn, it was Jack Hardy's brother Jeff who played bass at the Fast Folk Bottom Line shows.
Jeff Hardy had toured many years with his brother Jack, but gave up being a full-time musician to become a chef, coming out of 'retirement' for the Fast Folk Bottom Line concerts every year. He was a very tasteful bass player, a wonderful harmony singer, and a great guy.
Howie Wyeth played drums that night.
I had met Howie in 1975 when I was baking bread and waitressing at the Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. Lena was invited to be part of the entourage of Bob Dylan's "Rolling Thunder Revue," I got to tag along and first met Howie Wyeth then, who was the drummer on that tour, though I was too shy to talk to him back then.
He was terrific, a bit older than us Fast Folkers, and since most of us were solo performers, it was always a thrill whenever we had Howie putting a steady solid beat behind our music.
Mark Dann, Jeff Hardy, and Howie Wyeth added so much to the songs in those live concerts we did at The Bottom Line – you can especially hear it on that last song by Rod MacDonald, "American Jerusalem" – it's a very long song that only grows more powerful as the music builds beneath his voice and guitar.
They also added subtle touches to Lucy Kaplansky's performance of the stark Brian Rose song "Open All Night" and deepened the emotional impact of "The Great American Dream." David Massengill wrote it and that song has brought to the attention of many important people. Here's a story from David about one of them.
"A BOHEMIAN DISCOVERS HIS EGO" from DAVID MASSENGILL STORIES AND SONGS 4:28
"THE GREAT AMERICAN DREAM" FROM FOLK CITY 25TH ANNIVERSARY CONCERT by DAVID MASSENGILL, JOAN BAEZ & FRIENDS © David Massengill/WB Music Corp. obo David Massengill Music
[I back announce that set, then]:
It was great that David Massengill became friends with Joan Baez, and what a sweet story about her washing dishes with him.
One of the voices you just heard was Lili Anel singing the Indian verse. She is one of the people I was convinced was going to become a big star. She's six feet tall, a very exotic beauty – I had no idea what happened to her – haven't seen her in a couple of decades. So I tracked her down, found out she's living in Philadelphia, but tours Europe, has a brand new record called Every Second In Between and one of the songs is "George Bailey's Lament." Lili sent me this email about the song:
"I wrote this song last Christmas; I'd felt overwhelmed, had that one day that EVERYBODY feels at some point during the holiday, "spent". I'd just watched "Its a Wonderful Life" which is my favorite movie of all time. I have always wondered what if George Bailey had done something different, what if he had left . . ."
GEORGE BAILEY'S LAMENT BY LILI ANEL ©2009 Lili Añel, TwinTwo Music (Publishing) B.M.I., Wall-I Records.3:09
VOYAGER BY LILI ANEL ©2009 Lili Añel, TwinTwo Music (Publishing) B.M.I., Wall-I Records. 4:50
END DISK TWO HERE
This is Christine Lavin, we just took a brief detour from my book to catch up with the work of Lil Anel – two songs from her latest album Every Second In Between. (I said I was going to play one song, but I snuck in two.) They were "Voyager" and before that "George Bailey's Lament." Lili is one of the talented singer/songwriters I met at The Speakeasy back in the 1980s. I thought she was bound for big things, I know it's going to happen – just not as fast as I thought it would, but she's the real deal and, like Melody Gardot, Europeans have recognized her genius before many Americans have. And she spells her name L-I-L-I A-N-E-L. Getting back to bit more from my book Cold Pizza For Breakfast:
One of the many important things about being involved in the Speakeasy cooperative and the Fast Folk Musical Magazine was being surrounded by so many other songwriters who were serious about what they were doing. There was a sense of competitiveness—that's bound to happen—but consciously or not, we were helping each other write better songs. (One of Dave Van Ronk's mantras was, "When music of quality sells, it's good for all of us. Never root against your competitor if what they are doing is good work, because ultimately you will benefit from it.") And we were learning about the music business.
When it was my job to choose and produce the music for a particular issue, I wanted every song to be great. I wanted each album to be a collection that could be played as a whole from start to finish, so "theme" collections struck me as a good idea. And I wanted the songs to only be written by songwriters who were pursuing careers, not dabbling. Jack Hardy didn't care who wrote the songs as long as they were good; he had a more magnanimous view of songwriting than I did. And stylistically I was drawn to lots of music that didn't fall strictly into the "folk" category. It was just a matter of time before I would break away from the organization. It was Jack's project and vision, and it wasn't my job to clash with him.
All this time I had been working temp during the day, though faced with a dwindling bank account, I took a full-time job at Bellevue Hospital as the administrative secretary for The Bellevue Association. It was an organization of volunteers dedicated to helping the hsopital chaired by New York Senator Jacob Javits, run by Connie Solomon, the wife of the former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Anthony Solomon. Connie and Tony were very wealthy, but kind and down to earth. Tony was a sculptor and when Connie found out I was a songwriter she organized a party of some of her fancy New York friends and asked me to entertain. I don't think her friends quite "got" me, but they were polite enough. After the party I shared the elevator down to the street with John and Susan Gutfreund and Punch Sulzberger – three of New York's movers and shakers at the time. The Gutfreunds are widely believed to have been the models for the Bavardages, the Wall Street Society couple in Tom Wolfe's book The Bonfire Of The Vanities, published five years later in 1987, and Punch Sulzberger was the publisher of The New York Times. I remember the party ended early, around 9:00 PM, because they all had to be at 5:00 AM for their jobs the next day.
Another time the Solomons' hired me to be a wandering minstrel at Tony's mother's 80th birthday party at the "21" Club. It brought back memories of my days at Anita's Chili Parlor, though a much more upscale crowd. I was supposed to play until the Solomons' daughter arrived and dinner could begin, but there was a raging storm outside and their daughter was in a plane circling LaGuardia, so I kept wandering and playing and wandering and playing til finally Connie took me aside and told me gently, "You can stop now."
It was kind of embarrassing – I never fit in with her crowd, but when I went upstairs at the "21" Club to find my guitar, one of the waiters finishing up a party up there asked me if I would sing him a song. At the time I was working up an arrangement of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"
IT WAS KIND OF EMBARRASSING – I NEVER FIT IN WITH HER CROWD, BUT WHEN I WENT UPSTAIRS AT THE 21 CLUB TO FIND MY GUITAR CASE, ONE OF THE WAITERS FINISHING UP A PARTY UP THERE ASKED ME IF I WOULD SING HIM A SONG. AT THE TIME I WAS WORKING UP AN ARRANGEMENT OF THE STANDARD "SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES" SO I STOOD IN THE HALLWAY AND SOFTLY PLAYED AND SANG THE SONG AS PRIVATE DINING ROOM DOORS OPENED AND OTHER WAITERS STEPPED OUT INTO THE HALLWAY TO LISTEN. I MAY HAVE FELT LIKE AN INTERLOPER DOWNSTAIRS AT THE 21 CLUB, BUT UPSTAIRS I HAD FOUND AN APPRECIATIVE AUDIENCE.
I was excited about meeting Senator Javits -- I had heard stories about him from my grandfather, so at our first meeting I introduced myself to Senator Javits as the granddaughter of Judge Thomas Crawford. He smiled, shook my hand and said, "Oh, I knew him long before he was a judge!"
Senator Javits became involved with Bellevue Hospital because he was stricken with ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as "Lou Gehrigh's Disease." He came for physical therapy there three times a week, and got to really like the hospital and its staff. He was a cantankerous man, and as the disease progressed, life got more difficult for him, though he did live at least a year longer than doctors predicted. He would dictate letters to me, I would dial the phone for him since his motor skills were deteriorating – at this stage he had a full-time nurse next to him since was in a wheelchair equipped with a respirator. His breathing was quite labored, and everyone at the hospital marveled at how determined he was to keep active.
ONE DAY HE WAS IN THE OFFICE WHEN WE WERE SENDING OUT INVITATIONS TO A PARTY HE WAS HOSTING. AT THIS POINT SIGNING HIS NAME WAS QUITE DIFFICULT, SO HE ASKED ME TO DO IT FOR HIM. I WONDERED IF ANY OF THE PEOPLE RECEIVING THE INVITATIONS WERE GOING TO SAVE IT AS A KEEPSAKE SINCE THEY THOUGHT THEY HAD SOMETHING AUTOGRAPHED BY HIM, WHEN IN TRUTH, I FORGED HIS SIGNATURE.
Senator Javits came to the office less frequently as his health declined. Sometimes I would bring work papers to him at his apartment on East 57th Street – THE FIRST TIME I MADE THAT TRIP WAS QUITE MEMORABLE. WHEN THE ELEVATOR OPENED ON HIS FLOOR, IT OPENED RIGHT INTO HIS APARTMENT. FRANK SINATRA MUSIC WAS PLAYING VERY LOUD FROM SPEAKERS THAT SEEMED TO BE EVERYWHERE AT ONCE, AND I STEPPED FROM THE ELEVATOR INTO A LARGE POSH APARTMENT WITH BLACK LACQUERED FURNITURE AND DEEP RED LACQUERED WALLS. I FELT A BIT LIKE DOROTHY STEPPING FROM HER DRAB WORLD INTO A WORLD OR COLOR AND WONDER.
I ALWAYS LOOKED FORWARD TO MAKING TRIPS TO SENATOR JAVITS' APARTMENT, but more and more often I had many hours with nothing to do in the office at Bellevue Hospital. I started bringing my guitar to work, and I'd close the door and practice for hours. The job was easy, I was well paid, had health insurance and a four-week paid vacation . . . but I was miserable. I gave Connie Solomon two months' notice that I was leaving, I felt bad bailing on Senator Javits, but I was really just a very-replacable secretary. I had never had a job with paid vacation or health benefits before, but I knew if I didn't make an honest effort to make a living as a musician now, it would never happen.
All during this time I was continually inspired by so much of the music I was hearing at The Speakeasy and on Fast Folk records.
'DANCE TO YOUR DADDY' BY SUZY BOGGUS (Trad) 2:25
'KILKELLY' BY BURNS AND ROSEN, © 1981 Peter Jones 5:56
'DOWN IN BARBADOS' BY NEW ENGLAND EXPRESS © 1983 Robert Strachan 4:14
- [I back-anounce the music]
In the summer of 1984 I finally quit that job at Bellevue Hospital for good – I went from making $25,000 a year to making $6,000 a year. I recorded my first solo studio album, Future Fossils, in Mark Dann's attic in Brooklyn. If you listen closely with headphones, you can hear the occasional car noise, chair squeak, and bird chirp in the background, because the room wasn't soundproofed. I spent so much time preparing for it that when it came time to do the actual recording, I had the sequencing set so I could record the songs in the order they'd appear on the album. This way I wouldn't have to pay additional hourly time to edit it all together. This is how the album ended.
'SPACE BETWEEN RINGS' AND 'THE DAKOTA'
from FUTURE FOSSILS © 1984 CL2 ASCAP 6:09
[I back-announce the music]
Mark Dann worked fast and was very inexpensive. It wasn't 'til years later when I worked in other studios—studios that were slow and expensive—that I realized what a bargain it was working with Mark. In folk music, we are so used to squeezing as much as we can out of a dollar that we assume that when we can spend more money, we'll make much more expensive-sounding albums. But it doesn't always work that way. A lot of musicians return to their early producers after they've blown thousands with bigger names in the business.
I had raised money to press the first two thousand copies of Future Fossils. I had had it mastered by Tom Coyne, had it pressed by the same company Fast Folk used on Long Island City, had the album cover designed by my cousin Maureen Bennett O'Connor, and had sold approximately four hundred copies off the stage. I had my record release party at the Speakeasy in November 1984, and a month later I visited my family in Geneva, in upstate New York.
Two days before Christmas, I started getting odd phone calls, which at first I thought were a joke. People who had bought the album before I left town (we're talking a vinyl album here) had put it on their turntable to play, but they couldn't get it off. It was stuck! They couldn't play the other side.
After the fifth call came in, I put one on my parents' turntable. Sure enough, I couldn't get it off. It was wedged down so tight that it snapped in two when I attempted to pry it off. I was frantic. I called the pressing plant, where another thousand were stored. On Christmas Eve they called me back and estimated that approximately eight hundred out of the initial two thousand had holes that were slightly too small. They were big enough to get wedged onto the turntable, but breaking the vinyl disk was the only way to get them off.
I was apoplectic. Even though the pressing plant promised to redo them, I had to deal with all the defective albums that were already sold. When I told Tom Coyne about it, he laughed and told me about a major label that pressed 100,000 albums with holes that were way off center. That made me feel a little better. But it was Christmas, I wasn't in New York City, and there was nothing I could do. My father saw how perturbed I was, and he sat me down. At that point, the album had received good reviews, so my father said to me, "What would you rather have, two thousand records with perfectly sized holes and bad music, or two thousand records with the wrong size hole and good music?"
He was right. The problem could be fixed. I immediately calmed down. But I learned an important lesson about the nuts-and-bolts side of manufacturing.
All those early lessons learned with Fast Folk and my own early albums have come in very handy now that many musicians are again self-producing and self-manufacturing their own CDs. The music business is in a state of flux, and we now know the more business we take care of ourselves, the better off we will be.
Here's another interesting lesson I learned with Future Fossils.
Rounder Records was the folk music label of the 1980s, so I sent them a cassette copy of the album. No response. I sent them a vinyl test pressing. No response. I sent them a shrinkwrapped commercial copy. No response.
So I called them and asked if they had listened to it. No. If they would listen, I said, I would call back in a week to see if they would like to distribute it to stores. They said okay to that. A week later I called, and they said, no, not interested.
Meanwhile, I had gotten a list of all the radio stations in New England that played folk music, and I sent my album to them. The radio stations started to play it. Rounder Records had reps who would visit local record stores every week or so, and some of these record stores asked the reps if they knew anything about an album called Future Fossils some customers had heard on the radio. Of course they didn't.
Rounder had weekly meetings with their reps, and at one of those meetings a rep mentioned my album. Another rep said he was asked about it, too, as did a third rep. The person who had told me, "no, not interested," was sitting there, and after the meeting he phoned me.
Rounder ended up selling a thousand of the first two thousand albums pressed. When I went out of stock, it was an easy decision to put this album on their label, but it's good to know that at first I got "no—no—no—no" from them before I got a "yes." I would not have asked them again after their last "no," but momentum was with me.
Jack Hardy kept at it with Fast Folk, even as many of the original songwriters who worked on it started to drift in other directions. Jack produced many more New York–based issues, but also albums that showcased other cities. Besides Boston, there's an issue recorded at the Caffé Lena in Saratoga Springs, and others recorded in Toronto, Los Angeles, and Rhode Island. Plus, the yearly Bottom Line shows went on 'til 1994. VISIT THE SMITHSONIAN WEBSITE TO FIND THEM.
Jack Hardy continues in his low-key way, still hosting his Monday-night songwriters dinners all these years later. The same rule applies: you can come to dinner if you have a new song to sing. You'd be amazed at how many songs have been created because of that one simple rule. (I remember how I frantically worked to finish my song "Ballad of a Ballgame" so that I could go to one of his dinners.)
If you don't live in a big city like New York, you can start your own writing workshop wherever it is you live. The important thing is to pick a time and place and never vary from it, so that all local songwriters (or poets or painters, or weavers, or knitters, or whatever kind of art or craft it is you create) know that "every Monday" or "the second Tuesday of the month" there's a place to go to network/create with like-minded souls. Then, like at Jack's, many collaborations, friendships, and perhaps even occasional romances will blossom.
I'm not going to go into any of those here. That's what songs are for.
''DAMAGED GOODS" 4:42 © 1984 CL2 (ASCAP) FROM FUTURE FOSSILS
That was my song "Damaged Goods" from my first studio recording FUTURE FOSSILS made way back in 1984, an album very much influenced by the time I put in with The Fast Folk Musical Magazine, and the many, many hours spent at the Speakeasy in Greenwich Village. I write about lots more musical adventures, and the musicians I've met, in my book COLD PIZZA FOR BREAKFAST: A Mem-wha?? You can check out my website for more information, and for information about many of the songs I played during this program, songs from "The Fast Folk Musical Magazine," there are now more than 100 back issues of the magazine available on CD and downloads from Smithsonian Folkways – the best way to find them on the internet is to google "Smithsonian Fast Folk." Or go to iTunes and search for "Fast Folk."
We started this program almost three hours ago with music from the very first Fast Folk recording made in 1982, and we'll end it with the last song from that same debut issue, Ed McCurdy singing his anti-war classic "Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream," a song that by now has been recorded in at least 76 different languages.
On this Fast Folk recording you are about to hear, although their voices are very soft behind Ed McCurdy I thought you'd like to know the singers who called themselves "The Speakeasy Chorus" were Susan Brewster, Ansel Williams, Doug Waterman, Ilene Weiss, Suzanne Vega, and Jack Hardy.
So here's to the memory of Ed McCurdy, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Intondi, Howie Wyeth, and Jeff Hardy, musician who all helped make the Speakeasy/Fast Folk scene what it was. And here's to all the living folk music mischief makers still out there on the road.
"LAST NIGHT I HAD THE STRANGEST DREAM" © 1950, Ed McCurdy, The Richmond Organization, performed by ED McCURDY AND THE SPEAKEASY CHORUS: 1:59
END OF PROGRAM